It's not every French intellectual whose death is commemorated by an announcement from the office of Jacques Chirac, the French president. But Jacques Derrida, who died Friday at age 74, was not just any French intellectual. His work, as Mr. Chirac's office noted, was "read, discussed, and taught around the world."
Whether Mr. Derrida was also "one of the major figures in the intellectual life of our time," as Mr. Chirac's office asserted, is a point that has been fiercely contested ever since Mr. Derrida burst onto the intellectual scene in the mid-1960s.
Mr. Derrida (the name is pronounced deh-ree-DAH) was without doubt one of the most famous intellectuals of the past 40 years. His celebrity rivaled that of Jean-Paul Sartre. As the founder, honorary CEO and chief publicist for an abstruse philosophical doctrine he called "deconstruction," Mr. Derrida was celebrated and vilified in about equal measure. Academics on the lookout for a trendy intellectual and moral high-explosive tended to love Mr. Derrida. The rest of us felt . . . otherwise.
What is deconstruction? Mr. Derrida would never say. It was a question certain to spark his contempt and ire. He denied that deconstruction could be meaningfully defined. I think he was right about that, though not necessarily for the reasons he believed.
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