'A luminous critical and synthetic intelligence'

November 12, 2004

Three philosophers kick off a five-page look at Derrida's legacy with thoughts on how he transformed the customs and practices of a discipline

A vital measure of the influence of a thinker on a discipline is the extent to which they transform its customs and practices in a way that makes it difficult to conceive how things were done before they appeared on the scene. Such transformations are usually presupposed by those who come after. This is why we often have a thankless relation to the most influential thinkers. Definitionally then, great thinkers are often those who change the way we do things in a peculiarly thankless way. Derrida was a great thinker. He exerted a massive influence over a whole generation of people working in philosophy. His death is an unfathomable loss. And I would like to thank him for what he enabled people like me to presuppose thanklessly in our practice.

Let me begin with a confession. I was never a structuralist and therefore Derrida's early arguments in this area, particularly the critique of the priority of speech over writing in Of Grammatology , left me rather cold. Talk of "post-structuralism" left me even colder, almost as cold as rhetorical throat-clearing about "postmodernism". So, I would want to set aside a series of notions associated with him - such as différance , trace and archi-writing - to get a clearer view of what Derrida was about in his work.

Derrida was a supreme reader of texts, particularly philosophical texts.

Although, contrary to some Derridophiles, I do not think that he read everything with the same rigour and persuasive power, there is no doubt that the way in which he read a crucial series of authorships in the philosophical tradition, from Hegel to Foucault and Freud, transformed our understanding of their work and, by implication, of our own work.

In my view, what confusedly got named "deconstruction", a title Derrida viewed with suspicion, is better approached as double reading, a reading that does two things: (1) On the one hand, a double reading gives a patient, rigorous and scholarly reconstruction of a text. This means reading the text in its original language and knowing its context and the history of its reception.

(2) On the other hand, the second moment of reading is closer to what we normally think of as an interpretation, where the text is levered open through the location of what Derrida sometimes called "blind spots". Here, an authorship is brought into contradiction with its intended meaning, what Derrida liked to call the text's vouloir-dire .

Derrida often located these blind spots in ambiguous concepts in the texts he was reading, terms that possess a double or multiple range of meaning that cannot be contained by the text's intended meaning. Many of his double readings turn around such blind spots to explode from within our understanding of that author. The explosion has to come from within and not be imposed from without. Derrida often described his practice as parasitism, where the reader must both draw their sustenance from the host text and lay their critical eggs within its flesh. In an important sense, the text deconstructs itself rather than being deconstructed.

Derrida's philosophical exemplarity consists in the lesson of reading: reading that is able, at its best, to unsettle its readers' expectations and completely transform our understanding of the philosopher in question.

Because Derrida was such a brilliant reader, he is a difficult example to follow, but the pedagogical imperative deriving from Derrida's work is that one must try. What one is trying to cultivate with students is a scrupulous practice of reading, being attentive to the text's language, arguments, transitions and movements of thought, but also alive to its hesitations, paradoxes, quotation marks, footnotes, inconsistencies and conceptual confusions. Thanks to Derrida, we can see that every major text in the history of philosophy possesses these self-deconstructive features.

It is difficult to think of a philosopher, apart from Foucault, who has exerted more influence over the whole spread of humanistic study and the social sciences. Derrida has transformed our approach to the texts in our disciplinary canons. He cultivated a habitus of uncompromising philosophical vigilance at war with the governing intellectual common sense and against the narcissistic self-image of the age.

Derrida's work is possessed of a curious restlessness, anxiety even. A famous American philosopher once told me: "He never knows when to stop or how to come to an end." He was always on the move intellectually, always hungry for new objects of analysis, accepting new invitations, confronting new contexts, addressing new audiences. His ability in discussion simply to listen and to synthesise new theories, hypotheses and phenomena and produce long, detailed and fascinating analyses in response was breathtaking. I saw him do it on many occasions and always with patience, politeness, modesty and civility. Derrida had such a luminous critical and synthetic intelligence, a brilliance, as Levinas was fond of saying. I remember sitting next to Derrida on a panel in Paris and thinking that it felt like being close to an intellectual light bulb. The whole ethos of his work was at the very antipodes of the inert and stale professional complacency that defines so much philosophy and so many philosophers. He found the Ciceronian wisdom that to philosophise is to learn how to die repellent for its narcissism and insisted that "I remain uneducatable ( inéducable ) with respect to the wisdom of learning to die".

Simon Critchley is professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research, New York, and Essex University.

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