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b. 1930, Algiers
The most celebrated and influential of contemporary French philosophers. Derrida studied at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris and was a teacher there for some twenty years (1964-84) before moving to the École Pratique des Hautes Études in 1984. He was the founding president of the Collège Internationale de Philosophie in 1983 and has also held a number of visiting professorships in the USA.
Like most philosophers of his generation, Derrida was thoroughly acquainted with the German phenomenological tradition (Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger) which had been the principal source of inspiration for existentialism. His first published work in 1962 was an important introduction to the translation of Edmund Husserl's Origin of Geometry. Voice and Phenomenon (La Voix et le phénomène), also on Husserl, followed in 1967. Derrida's reading of Husserl had little in common with orthodox existentialist interpretations, however, and was in certain respects closer to the preoccupations of structuralism. Two ground-breaking works were also published in 1967: Of Grammatology (De la grammatologie) and Writing and Difference (L'Écriture et la difference). Derrida's thinking in these texts crystallized around the concept of writing. His argument, best exemplified in the systematic and scholarly demonstration of De la grammatologie, was that throughout the history of Western thought writing had consistently been cast in a role subordinate to that of speech. Whereas speech was associated with reason and rationality (Greek: logos), the voice being closer to the inner 'truth' of individual consciousness, writing was viewed as an artificial extension or supplement to the voice, an auxiliary technology employed by human reason but not essential to it. Derrida's critique of this repression of writing or 'logocentrism' takes the form of close readings of thinkers representing different 'moments' of the logocentric tradition: Plato, Leibniz, Rousseau, Saussure, Lévi-Strauss. In each case he shows how arguments predicated on the exclusion of writing are in fact essentially dependent upon it. In addition to this, he proposes a more fundamental form of 'writing' that is the precondition of both speech and writing and indeed all cultural and communication systems.
Derrida's choice of Saussure, and especially of Lévi-Strauss, as examples of logocentric philosophy clearly had a polemical side, given the intellectual predominance of structuralism in France at the time. While Derrida recognized the important theoretical contribution of structuralism, he was critical of its reductionism. More generally, he questioned the claims of structuralism and the human sciences to have transcended the problems of traditional philosophy, arguing that the very discourse of the human sciences was dependent on unexamined presuppositions inherited from that tradition. Derrida's critique of the human sciences provided philosophy with a powerful alternative to the humanist-existentialist critique, whose success in checking the advance of structuralism had