Mikics, Who Was Jacques Derrida?: An Intellectual Biography

By Winfield, Sarah | Vitae Scholasticae, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Mikics, Who Was Jacques Derrida?: An Intellectual Biography


Winfield, Sarah, Vitae Scholasticae


David Miciks. Who Was Jacques Derrida? An Intellectual Biography. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-300-11542-0. 273 pages.

Seldom has any name in the history of intellectual endeavour polarised and provoked to the degree that Jacques Derrida has. Since bursting onto the world stage in the latter part of the twentieth century, Derrida has probably generated more controversy than any other philosopher in living memory. As large in death, as in life, Derrida's name alone continues to send tidal waves across almost every area of humanistic scholarship and artistic activity, challenging norms and changing scripts. He is at once the subject of adulation and vituperation. Rarely is there a middle ground.

Yet still we might ask, Who Was Jacques Derrida? We know the name, but what of the man, and, moreover, the mind? David Mikics' 'intellectual biography' seeks to answer this very question by diachronically charting the evolution of Derrida's thought through a 250 page foray into selected published texts from the unfolding canon. The texts used are chosen for a purpose: to fit within an intellectual narrative, in which Derrida's own philosophy emerges in opposition to that of the theorists he addresses through the pages of his books.

From the outset, Mikics' objective is plain: to cut Derrida down to size by writing a "measured" appraisal of his work and intellectual legacy (1). The strategy is simple, but effective. Starting with Husserl, Mikics provides a series of brief accounts of the key thinkers featured in Derrida's writings, comparing the original text with that of Derrida's own explication. On each occasion, and without exception, Mikics reports Derrida's deliberate misrepresentation of authorial intent in order that his own doctrines might take root and grow.

It is Mikics' contention that the seedling principle from which the Derridian lexicon would emerge can be traced back to his early preference for the work of Edmund Husserl over Jean-Paul Sartre. Husserl's dismissal of psychology appealed to Derrida in his pursuit of a truly impersonal theory, though in the course of time he too loses favour due to his perceived metaphysical blindness. Mikics thus asserts that Husserl's writings serve as the original stimulus for Derrida's doctrine that the world is fundamentally written, meaning is founded on differance and all absolutes are illusory. Derrida accuses Husserl, Rousseau, Freud and so many other intellectual forebears, of logocentricism, the chief symptom of which is an attachment to the ideal of certain truth which can never be realised in a world of constant ambiguity in which language reigns supreme.

In Writing and Difference, Derrida champions deconstructionism: the free play of the written word, detached from the centre, the logos. In this, he is said to set himself up in opposition to the structuralist paradigms of the previous generation and their perceived fetish for speech. Jabes and Levinas alone receive Derrida's unadulterated adulation, which, according to Mikics, reveals a growing conflict between Derrida's religious and philosophical proclivities, pointing an implicit ethical demand connected to Judaism in the deconstructionist project.

Having decoded the work of so many of history's greatest thinkers to expose their logocentric bias, Mikics discerns a shift in the 70s as Derrida becomes preoccupied with his second core theme: resistance to psychology. In order to invalidate the psychological emphasis of philosophy, Derrida analyses a series of key texts from Plato to Austin. …

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