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Jacques Derrida Dies; Deconstructionist Philosopher

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2004; Page C11

Jacques Derrida, 74, originator of the diabolically difficult school of philosophy known as deconstructionism, died Oct. 9, the office of French President Jacques Chirac announced. French media reports said that the cause was pancreatic cancer and that he died at a Paris hospital.

Mr. Derrida (pronounced "deh-ree-DAH") inspired and infuriated a generation of intellectuals and students with his argument that the meaning of a collection of words is not fixed and unchanging, an argument he most famously capsulized as "there is nothing outside the text."

Jacques Derrida, shown in 1981, contended that language was inevitably ambiguous.

An immensely influential thinker, Mr. Derrida's seminal idea permeated college campuses during the 1960s, '70s and '80s. "Deconstruction" has become one of the few terms that, like "existential" a generation or two earlier, has escaped from dense philosophical and literary papers to pepper modern culture, from movie reviews to government policy pronouncements.

"With him, France has given the world one of its greatest contemporary philosophers, one of the major figures of intellectual life of our time," Chirac said in a statement.

The lack of fixed meaning in a text did not keep Mr. Derrida from publishing hundreds of books. The fact that there is no single meaning does not mean there is no meaning, he said, and it doesn't excuse writers, thinkers and speakers from trying to be as clear as possible about what they think they mean.

For 17 years, from 1962 to 1979, he refused to be photographed for publication, in an effort to keep his face -- square, with a strong nose, thick eyebrows, dark skin and bushy white hair -- from becoming part of the investigation for meaning in his work. He also rejected the characterization of him as a dandy for his snappy dress, even as he said he liked the description.

Deconstruction, which he introduced in the 1960s, both electrified and polarized those with the intellectual muscle to unwind its implications. The language he and others used in discussing it was deliberately dense, complex and, some said, circular. He bristled when confronted with the difficulty of his work.

"Why don't you ask a physicist or mathematician about difficulty?" he told a New York Times reporter in 1998, "a little frostily," she said. He continued: "Deconstruction requires work. If deconstruction is so obscure, why are the audiences in my lectures in the thousands? They feel they understand enough to understand more."

Language, he said, is inadequate to provide a clear and unambiguous view of reality. In other words, the fixed meaning of an essay, a book, a personal letter, a scientific treatise or a recipe dissolves when hidden ambiguities and contradictions are revealed. These contradictions, inevitable in every piece of writing, he said, reveal deep fissures in the foundation of the Western world's civilizations, cultures and creations.

Supporters said this insight into the layered meanings and incompleteness of language subverts reason and rationality, stripping centuries of assumptions from words and allowing fresh ideas to emerge.

Critics called it nihilism (the denial of the meaning of existence, or denial of the existence of any basis for knowledge and truth), a charge he vehemently denied.

His work, to be sure, has attracted greater enthusiasm from literary critics and language professors than from formally trained philosophers or scientists. Some Cambridge University faculty members, objecting to their school's plan to award Mr. Derrida an honorary degree in 1992, derided his work for "denying the distinctions between fact and fiction, observation and imagination, evidence and prejudice."

He also was drawn into debates about a friend, Yale professor Paul DeMan, who wrote anti-Semitic articles in Nazi-occupied Belgium, and about an intellectual forebear, Martin Heidegger, whose amoral attitude led him to embrace Nazism.

In his own life, he was part of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, in favor of freedom of expression in pre-1989 Czechoslovakia and for the rights of Algerian immigrants in France. He told several interviewers that he really wanted to be a soccer player but didn't have the athletic talent.

Mr. Derrida was born in El Biar, Algeria, the middle child in a Jewish family whose father was a salesman. At age 12, he was dismissed from school as the Vichy government's anti-Semitic laws emerged.

He was a good enough student later to be admitted to Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, where he earned an advanced degree in philosophy in 1956. He taught philosophy at the University of Paris at the Sorbonne and at the Ecole des Hautes Etude en Sciences Sociales.

He also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Yale University and the University of California at Irvine.

Survivors include his wife, Marguerite Aucouturier, a psychoanalyst; and two sons, Pierre and Jean.

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