Derrida dissects words to the letter Frenchman decries imprecise language

October 04, 1991|By Kim Clark

Twenty-five years after he launched a philosophical salvo that changed the way intellectuals worldwide thought about words and meanings, the philosopher Jacques Derrida returned last night to the Johns Hopkins University, the site of that revolution, and gave a lecture . . .

No, "gave" is the wrong word.

The founder of the controversial school of thought called deconstructionism, an approach to knowledge that has changed the study of English literature and other fields, spent two hours citing everybody from a mistress of Louis XIV to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger to prove that one couldn't knowingly give anything.

Like a microsurgeon operating on a herd of elephants, Mr. Derrida meticulously dissected sentences from private letters, terms from Aristotle's philosophical works and passages from literature to show how the meaning of the word "gift" is "an impossibility."

He spent more than 10 minutes on one sentence alone, explaining how an 18th century French noblewoman could not possibly have meant it when she implied she gave "all her time" to the Sun King, since time is not a thing one can give.

The 61-year-old Frenchman explained in English sprinkled liberally with French, Greek and German that a true gift could only be given without even expectation of gratitude and thus couldn't be given intentionally.

Mr. Derrida (pronounced Der-ee-DA) himself admitted his conclusion "defies common sense" since he was implying that by knowingly giving a gift, the thing one was giving was no longer a gift. But that's the problem with words, he said. There is a "gap between language and desire" or words and our intentions.

Mr. Derrida's theme seemed to go something like this: Words are like cars with loose steering wheels. We can aim them in a general direction but they swerve from lane to lane despite our best efforts.

But that doesn't mean we should give up on giving, he said. We should just recognize the difficulty of saying exactly what we mean.

"The name or noun 'gift,' or what the linguist or grammarian believes he recognizes as a name, could not be a name. At least it would not name what one thinks it names, to wit, the unity of a meaning that would be that of the gift, unless the gift were the impossible, but NOT the unnameable or the unthinkable . . ."

Some of the students and professors in the standing-room-only crowd nodded knowingly as he made his careful distinctions.

Others scribbled notes. One young man concentrated by alternatingly arching one eyebrow, then the other.

Still others seemed to be content to listen quietly. With their eyes closed.

After about an hour, many apparently felt the urge to experience thegift of fresh air and began quietly slipping out the back door.

But those who lasted until the final insight were delighted with the speech.

Though Mr. Derrida and the deconstructionists have become a symbol of arcane academics, much maligned for their at-times impenetrable jargon, "He was much more understandable than I expected," said Flo Martin, a French teacher at Goucher College. "I enjoyed it. I had fun."

"Jacques Derrida is one of the most important philosophers in the world today," exclaimed Walt Fuchs, a professor of philosophy at Towson State University.

Mr. Fuchs said he uses Mr. Derrida's teachings in and outside of his classroom, explaining that the idea of words having many more meanings than we intend "reminds us to have a sense of humor and play."

Mr. Fuchs said he was especially impressed by Mr. Derrida's ability to draw support for his theme from an incredible variety of sources and disciplines.

P. L. Popejoy, a second-year graduate student in political theory at Johns Hopkins, said the speech made him think in new ways about "gifts" in his area of study, such as the U.S. government's giveaway of free cheese.

Mr. Derrida, a professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris and at the University of California at Irvine, has taught at Johns Hopkins, Yale University and Cornell University.

It was at a Johns Hopkins seminar in 1966 that he broached the ideas that he has now developed and invented the term deconstruction, which has become part of modern life, a term now lampooned by George Will and sung by British rock stars.

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