In Memoriam: Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

Article excerpt

Philosophy and Anthropology

Late in 1998, replying to a question from Catherine Paoletti, the philosopher, Jacques Derrida reflected on aspects of his own early life. He remarked on his own decision to write in the first place, that it was for him

A form of resistance, of retreat. In this journal I kept (as a youth), there were things that were at once autobiographical and personal, but also, already sketches of little works on Rousseau and Nietzsche. In this regard, I very well remember this debate within myself; I sought to reconcile them; I admired both of them equally. I knew that Nietzsche was a merciless critic of Rousseau, and I asked myself how one could be Nietzschean and Rousseauist at the same time, as I was to become, finally (Derrida 2000; 18)

The claim appears strange. In the usual philosophical terms, Derrida's debt to Nietzsche and Rousseau is very slight. His work stands in the phenomenological-methodological tradition of Edmund Husserl. This is especially true of innovations like deconstruction. In a stylistic sense, Derrida had little of Nietzsche's confrontational literary verve and perhaps even less of Rousseau's astonishing admixture of forms and genres.

But there is a join. It is a deep and important link-one that all philosophers of the human condition from Hegel onwards have discovered, namely the common ground of anthropology and philosophy (and the conceptual traffic that extends between them). It occasionally emerges sharply, as when Friedrich Engels not only acknowledged the work of Lewis Morgan the great anthropologist, but also made it central to his speculation on the nature, structure, and history of the family (Engels 1970: esp. 334). The join is not obvious because philosophy-at least as ontology-appears to confine its inquiry to questions of what it means to be human while anthropology asks questions of where, when, and how humans make meaning. When questions that seem proper to the terrains of the latter are framed philosophically, these are sometimes seen as "armchair" issues, extraneous to the realities of empirical research and practical write-up.

The obituaries for Jacques Derrida are being written now. For us, it is especially important to remember this philosopher of the human condition in an anthropological context. With retrospect, the work that triggered response in the field of anthropology (we think of the work of Clifford and Marcus in the late 1980s), was the same one that established Derrida's reputation generally: Of Grammatology (1967). However, where attention in humanities departments was drawn to the new buzz-word, deconstruction, and the treatment of semiotics and Saussure, anthropologists were rightly interested in the real achievement of that book, the interlinked essays on (the proto-anthropology of) Rousseau and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

At the time, despite Derrida's insistence that his was not judgemental commentary in the old sense (Derrida 1997: 9), these readings were read as exactly that: a commentary that condemned and displaced utterly what it read. But Derrida never "deconstructed" works he did not at once admire and respect. Understanding what it is he held in high regard is the true task of any initial reading. Grasping Rousseau and Lévi-Strauss in this light means seeing them as powerful intellects making new kinds of sense of history and conceptuality. Only once this is understood can we then move to show how Derrida sees fault lines running not only through their work, but through the very culture that produces them.

Rousseau as Anthropologist

In order to understand why Derrida took up the work of Rousseau, we need, at the outset, to see him as one of the seminal philosophers of modernity. This is not merely an academic issue. We need to try to see what it was about this philosopher that made him able to diagnose, and to influence, the profound changes that were happening to his society and culture in the late eighteenth century. …


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