How does Jacques Derrida’s work relate to postmodernism? What, come to think of it, is postmodernism really? This article seeks to explore these questions. It begins by offering a brief biographical sketch of Derrida and gesturing toward some of his major intellectual influences. It then moves on to discuss postmodernism, and what we can learn from or in spite of the very slipperiness of the term. Various elements of Derrida’s philosophy are then discussed—in particular, the notion of “absence,” his repudiation of the pre-existing philosophical tradition, and his attack on the work of Edmund Husserl.
Who Was Jacques Derrida?
Jacques Derrida was born in 1930, to a Sephardic Jewish family in Algeria. Derrida’s Jewishness is relevant because an important (or at least notable) event in his life was his expulsion from school by the French governors of Algeria as part of the Antisemitic policies implemented on the orders of the Vichy (that is, Nazi-collaborationist) French government.
Derrida didn’t attend school for another year, refusing to go to the segregated Jewish school—which was the only school that the state would permit him to enter. Derrida described his initial engagement with philosophy as an attempt to escape the strictures of this time. He moved to Paris in 1949 to study, eventually holding a post at the École Normale Supérieure.
Derrida was well acquainted with many of the most important philosophers in Paris at the time, including Louis Althusser, Jean Hyppolite, and Jean Wahl, as well as the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and the literary theorist Paul de Man.
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The early stages of his career were focused on the phenomenological tradition—his first major work was a study of Edmund Husserl’s work, and he was—on his own account—a follower of Martin Heidegger, one of (if not the) most important German philosophers of the earlier half of the 20th century. Yet his interests and positions extend far more broadly than this might suggest, and the sheer applicability of his work to a variety of disciplines outside of philosophy explains some of the enduring interest and controversy over his work.
Postmodernism: What’s the Point?
Postmodernism is a term that can broadly be applied to developments in culture, politics, academia, and philosophy over the past (say) fifty years. The difficulty with it as a term is simple—nobody is confident that they can say just what it is. Why speak about postmodernism when you cannot speak about it directly? When it is impossible—or near impossible—to pin down what it means? Is there the risk that the very indefinability of postmodernism, its diffuseness, threatens to prevent us from developing beyond it?
Perhaps, but it is hard not to admire the symmetry between a term that is so often invoked along with the impossibility of saying just what we mean, or just what things are, or more generally against certainty or definability, and the very that-ness of the term itself. What we can say, even if only provisionally, is that postmodernism refers to a tendency in a variety of contexts towards irony, pastiche, a skepticism of hierarchy (including intellectual and aesthetic hierarchies), and a certain degree of skepticism towards the construction of so-called objective, so-called naturalistic, so-called commonsensical theories of meaning, truth, sense, knowledge and so on. This is where Derrida’s status, fairly or otherwise, as one of the pre-eminent theorists of postmodernity, starts to make a limited kind of sense.
Derrida and Heidegger
Derrida’s work can be understood in various different ways, and even by the standards of contemporary philosophy, the dust has not even begun to settle on his work’s place in the history of philosophy. What follows must therefore be taken with a massive pinch of salt. It is an attempt to offer an introductory account of what Derrida might be trying to do, oriented towards the provisional conception of postmodernity given thus far, in the hopes of offering a bit of context for how his work as much has been received, as well as for the work itself.
In any case, a good place to start is with Derrida’s debt to Heidegger. It is worth saying at the outset that Derrida, like many philosophers, understands his work to be a repudiation of much of the philosophical tradition—a repudiation, that is, of philosophy as it is normally done. The reason why understanding Derrida’s debt to Heidegger is so important to understanding Derrida’s work as a whole is that Derrida’s self-conceived break with the philosophical tradition is one which he shares with Heidegger.
This attempt hinges, in part, on the concept of presence. Presence, for Heidegger, is the idea in philosophy that Being (with a capital ‘b’) can be conflated with presence. Being, for Heidegger, refers to things as they are in themselves—that is, independent of any attempt to understand or know them. The conflation with things in themselves and things that are present is, evidently, the imposition of a temporal perspective on Being.
On Being and Transcendence
The big problem which Heidegger has with presence is that it contributes to what Heidegger sees as the great confusion of Western philosophy, which is between Being (again, note the capital ‘b’) and beings, which are things as we have attempted to understand them.
Derrida sees Heidegger’s work as so important in part because it offers ways of rebelling against the tendency towards “presence”—he thinks, for instance, that if we can turn away from presence and towards absence, we can start to understand what is present in terms of what is not.
Adrian Moore frames Derrida’s emphasis on absence as a repudiation of philosophy at large in terms of a misunderstanding of transcendence. That is, philosophers do generally recognize that what is present does not, taken on its own, sufficiently account for all that there is in the sense of all Being is. However, the traditional move—the move, in other words, which we find in Plato and many, many philosophers since—is to posit that there do, in fact, exist things that are present always, or are present but general or elsewhere or otherwise separate from what is ordinarily given.
Derrida’s concern to introduce a sense of what is absence, of what is not in what is, might be seen as a quintessentially postmodern perspective on human understanding.
Against Edmund Husserl
If the Platonic conception of being, that is, the denial of absence as an element of being, is one critical focus of Derrida’s, his attack on the work of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology reveals him to be concerned with a subtly different target.
Consider, for instance, one relatively influential passage in Derrida’s Speech and Phenomena:
“Does not everything that is announced already in [the] reduction to ‘solitary mental life’ … appear to be stricken in its very possibility by what we are calling time [i.e. by time conceived as transcending what is immediately present to consciousness]? . . . Is not the concept of pure solitude—of the monad in the phenomenological sense—undermined by its own origin, by the very condition of its self-presence, that is, by ‘time,’ to be conceived … on the basis … of difference within auto-affection.”
It is worth unpacking some of the implications of this. Husserl’s “phenomenological reduction,” which was instructive for Heidegger in certain ways and therefore a methodological precursor to Derrida’s own work, attempts to show that we cannot get past a transcendental ego, a kind of primordial subject-hood, and that this constitutes the first ground of understanding.
Derrida takes the strict prioritization of consciousness here as self-defeating, partly on the grounds that time itself—our experience of time—inserts itself in any monadic (unified, singular, simple) conception of the self, and forces us to reckon with difference within consciousness.
Indeed, and here we are dealing with a distinctly postmodern philosopher, Derrida stresses difference over identity at various points in his philosophy, and takes a well-trodden path in using time and change to do so. “As soon as it is admitted that auto-affection is the condition for self-presence, no pure transcendental reduction is possible.”
He also (this parallel comes from Moore) follows Heidegger in holding that the most important relation that a subject has is not the world itself, but to its future demise. This tragic dimension in subjecthood ultimately serves to undermine the Husserlian conception of the subject as the basic unit of understanding, that which cannot be analyzed further.