Jacques Derrida and the Controversy of Philosophy

Author: Ian Angus (Simon Fraser University, Prof. Emerit.)

The controversy surrounding Derrida’s death invites a late contribution such as this one to analyze the specific features of this controversy, especially since so much of Derrida’s own reflections on death, mourning and heritage could be brought to bear. While I am sure that this would be of interest, this is not the tack that I will take. I will, however, hold onto the thread of controversy itself. It is perhaps possible to suggest that Derrida’s philosophic activity –for which he finally accepted the name ‘deconstruction,’ with all the approximations and dangers that any single name for a complex activity contains– gave a new meaning and clarity to the idea of controversy itself. Deconstruction is oriented toward analyzing the prevailing frameworks within which controversies normally take place due to the temporary fixing of references that are taken to be foundations for rational thought, ethics, etc. What philosophy for centuries called ‘foundations’ determined a space for local controversies. Deconstruction is not primarily interested in such local controversies but in the conceptual fixtures by means of which certain positions could enter into such controversies and others were written out as beyond the pale. 

If Derrida has proven controversial in death, he was no less so during his lifetime. Consider the 1992 decision by Cambridge University to award him an honorary doctorate for “services to philosophy.” A number of prominent English-speaking philosophers unsuccessfully opposed the award on the grounds that Derrida’s work is not only unphilosophical but anti-philosophical insofar as it undermines philosophy itself. And this is not the only case. His writing on Nelson Mandela and apartheid, his so-called “debates” with John Searle, Michel Foucault or Hans-Georg Gadamer not only were controversial in themselves but also brought into question the nature of “debate” or “controversy” itself. 

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