French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who founded the school of thought known as deconstructionism and was a frequent visiting professor at Yale in the late 1970s and 1980s, died of cancer Friday evening in a Paris hospital. He was 74 years old.
Derrida strongly influenced fellow University professors, most notably the late humanities professor Paul de Man and English professor J. Hillis Miller, who taught at Yale in the 1970s and 1980s.
Although Derrida himself was not a long-term presence at Yale, his colleagues, such as de Man and Miller, themselves became influential in Derrida’s deconstructionist school, Yale College Associate Dean Penelope Laurans said.
“He wasn’t here for sustained periods, though his influence was a part of the Yale air in certain quarters for some time, principally because he was so close to de Man, who was such a towering figure here,” Laurans said Sunday in an e-mail.
Derrida, born on July 15, 1930 to a Jewish family in El Biar, Algeria, studied in Paris and received a degree in philosophy from Ecole Normale Superieure, an elite Parisian university. He later taught in France at the Sorbonne University and the Ecole des Hautes Etude en Sciences Sociales. He also taught in the United States, at Yale, Johns Hopkins and the University of California at Irvine.
His work, beginning with early texts such as his 1967 publication “On Grammatology”, introduced his theory of deconstructionism, through which Derrida would analyze texts to reveal incompatibilities among their multiple layers of meaning.
Derrida’s theories have influenced literature as well as philosophy, law, architecture and other disciplines. His intellectual legacy, however, is beset by controversy, as debates about the true impact and significance of his theories have raged for years.
“Those kinds of minds are extremely rare and always misunderstood and underappreciated,” said Amy Ziering Kofman, who studied comparative literature with Derrida at the Graduate School in the 1980s.
Kofman, who in 2002 made a documentary film about Derrida’s life and scholarship, said Derrida’s death is a “tremendous loss for the world.” But she said she thinks many people have mistakenly read his writings as advocating a nihilistic or relativistic approach.
“He was a very committed and rigorous champion of human rights and the rights of the oppressed,” Kofman said. “It’s sad the degree to which his work has been misunderstood, and I just hope that he’s more appreciated than he has been.”
His impact and legacy while at Yale was significant, comparative literature professor Michael Holquist said.
“[Derrida] was a charismatic teacher who changed the lives of many students,” Holquist said. “It’s fair to say that the time he was associated with Yale is generally regarded as one of the important moments in the history of the study of literature at Yale.”
Holquist said that Derrida’s work at Yale left a division among students and professors between those who felt that Derrida eroded the tradition of close reading and textual analysis, which was a hallmark of the University, and those who felt that Derrida had in fact strengthened that tradition.
But even academics who dismiss Derrida’s work realize that his writings cannot be marginalized, Laurans said.
“Even its sharpest critics — and there are many — who dismissed it were aware that it brought something that could not be entirely ignored to the literary critical table,” Laurans said. “Literary criticism has moved on, but it has moved on with the impulse deconstruction brought to it.”