Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74

Jacques Derrida, the Algerian-born, French intellectual who became one of the most celebrated and notoriously difficult philosophers of the late 20th century, died Friday at a Paris hospital, the French president's office announced. He was 74.

The cause of death was pancreatic cancer, according to French television, The Associated Press reported.

Mr. Derrida was known as the father of deconstruction, the method of inquiry that asserted that all writing was full of confusion and contradiction, and that the author's intent could not overcome the inherent contradictions of language itself, robbing texts - whether literature, history or philosophy - of truthfulness, absolute meaning and permanence. The concept was eventually applied to the whole gamut of arts and social sciences, including linguistics, anthropology, political science, even architecture.

While he had a huge following - larger in the United States than in Europe - he was the target of as much anger as admiration. For many Americans, in particular, he was the personification of a French school of thinking they felt was undermining many of the traditional standards of classical education, and one they often associated with divisive political causes.

Literary critics broke texts into isolated passages and phrases to find hidden meanings. Advocates of feminism, gay rights, and third-world causes embraced the method as an instrument to reveal the prejudices and inconsistencies of Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Freud and other "dead white male" icons of Western culture. Architects and designers could claim to take a "deconstructionist" approach to buildings by abandoning traditional symmetry and creating zigzaggy, sometimes disquieting spaces. The filmmaker Woody Allen titled one of his movies "Deconstructing Harry," to suggest that his protagonist could best be understood by breaking down and analyzing his neurotic contradictions.

A Code Word for Discourse

Toward the end of the 20th century, deconstruction became a code word of intellectual discourse, much as existentialism and structuralism - two other fashionable, slippery philosophies that also emerged from France after World War II - had been before it. Mr. Derrida and his followers were unwilling - some say unable - to define deconstruction with any precision, so it has remained misunderstood, or interpreted in endlessly contradictory ways.

Typical of Mr. Derrida's murky explanations of his philosophy was a 1993 paper he presented at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, in New York, which began: "Needless to say, one more time, deconstruction, if there is such a thing, takes place as the experience of the impossible."

Mr. Derrida was a prolific writer, but his 40-plus books on various aspects of deconstruction were no more easily accessible. Even some of their titles - "Of Grammatology," "The Postcard: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond," and "Ulysses Gramophone: Hear Say Yes in Joyce" - could be off-putting to the uninitiated.

"Many otherwise unmalicious people have in fact been guilty of wishing for deconstruction's demise - if only to relieve themselves of the burden of trying to understand it," Mitchell Stephens, a journalism professor at New York University, wrote in a 1994 article in The New York Times Magazine.

Mr. Derrida's credibility was also damaged by a 1987 scandal involving Paul de Man, a Yale University professor who was the most acclaimed exponent of deconstruction in the United States. Four years after Mr. de Man's death, it was revealed that he had contributed numerous pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic articles to a newspaper in Belgium, where he was born, while it was under German occupation during World War II. In defending his dead colleague, Mr. Derrida, a Jew, was understood by some people to be condoning Mr. de Man's anti-Semitism.

A Devoted Following

Nonetheless, during the 1970's and 1980's, Mr. Derrida's writings and lectures gained him a huge following in major American universities - in the end, he proved far more influential in the United States than in France. For young, ambitious professors, his teachings became a springboard to tenure in faculties dominated by senior colleagues and older, shopworn philosophies. For many students, deconstruction was a right of passage into the world of rebellious intellect.