JACQUES DERRIDA was quite certainly the most arresting and intellectually provocative thinker to emerge in France in the generation following that of Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan. Where they had been closely associated with the movement that never quite was one, known as Structuralism, Derrida became celebrated as the high priest of post-structuralism, thanks originally to the powerful and persuasive arguments that he brought to bear against the suppositions underlying Structuralism as a method of intellectual enquiry.
Post-structuralism itself quickly evolved into the movement bearing the label of Deconstruction, an evolution that Derrida eventually had cause to regret, so closely was his own name linked with it, even though he disowned a lot of the work published by academic literary critics and others calling themselves Deconstructionists.
Derrida was born in 1930, into a long-established, middle-class Jewish family in Algeria. During the Second World War, he had to be taken out of school when restrictions were imposed by the collaborationist authorities on the numbers of Jewish children allowed to attend. He never, to my knowledge, wrote much about his native country, about his own problems there when he was a child - two of his siblings died in childhood - or about the dreadfully divisive and bloody war of Algerian independence that later followed the Second World War.
He did suggest on at least one occasion, however, that he had always suffered from "nostalgeria". Curiously, like the other French thinker and writer whose - in his case, working-class - Algerian background proved a very dubious blessing to him, Albert Camus, Derrida had adolescent ambitions to play professional football, but then realised he wasn't good enough.
Having eventually been educated as a philosopher at the Sorbonne, he began to teach philosophy at the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure in the Rue d'Ulm in Paris, where he remained on the faculty from 1964 to 1984; he later taught at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.
He began publishing in 1962, when he translated the German philosopher Edmund Husserl's Origin of Geometry into French, with a long introduction by himself. He followed that dramatically up towards the end of the decade by managing to bring out no less than three major works in the same year, 1967: Of Grammatology, Speech and Phenomena and Writing and Difference. These are the books by which most of us will want to remember Derrida, bringing brilliantly out as they do as a group the deconstructive method that he practised with an incomparable virtuosity.
What he gave to the world in fact was not a philosophy as such, but a method of doing philosophy. What the true deconstructionist aims to do is read the arguments of earlier philosophers, all the way back to the subject's beginnings in Greece, with extreme closeness and in the foreknowledge that there will be key places in the arguments these thinkers have advanced where their authors have in fact lost control of them, to the point of lapsing into contradiction.
Derrida's prime contention is that in every philosophical text there are waiting to be found peculiarly revealing "blind spots", which are indicative of our human inability, when we use language, to contain its inbuilt facility for the generation of meanings. Whatever we say or write will mean more, and other, than we suppose.
Deconstruction may sound like an ideal way of keeping the subject of philosophy alive, by the dialectical method of calling established thought into question, but Derrida practised it with such flair and seeming ruthlessness that he ended up being written off in some quarters as no better than a nihilist, whose aim was to leave no philosophy at all standing. This was absurd; his commentaries on some of the great thinkers of the past - Plato, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger - are in effect hugely enlightening and invigorating in unpicking certain significant incoherences. …