Jacques Derrida’s death today at age 74 marks the end of an era. He’s the last of that generation of French thinkers who revolutionized thought in the 1960s.
Derrida doesn’t mean as much to me as Foucault does, or Deleuze (or Deleuze and Guattari), or even Lacan (despite my very serious reservations about the latter). (I wrote about my sense of Derrida’s achievements and limitations when I blogged the documentary about him). But he was a philosopher very much worth reading, and who had a certain (mostly good) influence on the world of ideas. I largely concur with Nightspore’s estimation of his significance.
To speak in more personal terms: Derrida was important to me because, when I first read his early writings, my understanding of the world changed. I was never able to see things the same way again. There are not too many writers, philosophical or literary, about whom I can really say something like that. Later on, I came to feel that Derrida was not as profound, or as deeply relevant, as many of the thinkers who influenced him (Nietzsche, Bataille, Blanchot), or as certain of his contemporaries and peers (the aforementioned Foucault and Deleuze especially). But Derrida provided me with a way in, which at the very least enabled my reception of those other thinkers. For one thing, he helped me to understand the radical contingency of meanings, and of all the constructions we erect upon the basis of those meanings. For another, his ideas about decentering, and the infinite process of relationality or reference, and the logic of difference, remain crucial elements in all the criticism I write (even if they are rarely at the forefront of my interests and intentions). I’d even say that there’s an odd synergy between what I learned from Derrida, and what I learned from LSD (which I first experienced around the same time that I first encountered and studied Derrida): they both gave me the same sense of how whatever is (intellectually or emotionally) significant also tends to be extremely fragile and fleeting (by which I mean both transient, and continually, mercurially moving from point to point).
Well, I don’t take psychedelic drugs any more, and I don’t often find myself impelled to read Derrida. But they’ve both left their traces in my psyche. I was never as interested in the later writings of Derrida as in his earlier ones: though their meditations on death and mortality, and on friendship and obligation, are undeniably moving, they didn’t have the same sort of revelatory effect on me as Of Grammatology or Writing and Difference did. (This is probably because, by the time I came to Derrida’s later books, I was already familiar with the writings on these themes by Blanchot and Levinas, and by their brilliant interpreter Joseph Libertson).
Finally, I think that Derrida’s philosophical importance is that he upheld the spirit of Kantian critique for the late 20th century. For Kant, one of the most important tasks of philosophy is to criticize and undo what he calls “transcendental illusions.” These are, Kant says, “sophistries not of human beings but of pure reason itself. Even the wisest among all human beings cannot detach himself from them; perhaps he can after much effort forestall the error, but he can never fully rid himself of the illusion that incessantly teases and mocks him.” Derrida followed Kant’s program, in that he ceaselessly interrogated these illusions that are built in to the very nature of rationality itself, and endeavored, patiently and carefully, to undo them, while remaining aware that such an undoing will never be definitive or final. I’m inclined to think that philosophers in general make too much of reason, and give it a more prominent place than it actually occupies in human life. Be that as it may, it’s clear to me that Derrida was a far better philosopher, and far more committed to rationality and truth, than those (and there were many) who ignorantly accused him of being an irrationalist, a nihilist, and an obscurantist.