on January 30, 2003
Begin with "Tympan", it's designed to serve as an introduction to the ten essays which follow and, despite a lot of word play, Derrida does mention most of the themes informing this collection (philosophy's attempt to master its domain, Hegel as the philosopher of limits, the threat metaphor poses to philosophical discourse, etc).
Read "Differance" next (it's probably the single most famous thing Derrida has ever written). After declaring the thought of difference to be crucial to our intellectual epoch (he mentions Saussure, Nietzsche, and Freud before taking up Heidegger's notion of ontological difference) Derrida proposes the nonword/nonconcept of "differance" to go them all one better. This is a dazzling essay, but if it leaves you more exhausted than exhilarated, then Derrida just isn't for you.
Essay #2 is a dense and convoluted discussion of the metaphysics of presence in Aristotle and Hegel. Skip this.
Essay #3 is a surprisingly interesting investigation of Hegel's semiology (of all things). Derrida demonstrates that Hegel's disdain for non-phonetic scripts (say, hieroglyphics) is not just a quirk, but is crucial to Hegel's entire philosophical project.
"The Ends Of Man" is a classic example of 1960's French anti-humanism. It's essentially an attempt to rescue Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger from their existentialist interpreters. Another very famous piece (and rightfully so).
Essay #5 is a sort of Cliffs Notes version of OF GRAMMATOLOGY; it deals with the denigration of writing in the thought of Saussure and Rousseau. Very readable.
Essay #6 is all about Husserl's theory of signs and I found it incomprehensible.
Essay #7 concerns itself with to what extent the grammar and syntax of a particular language influences what can be thought in that language. Recommended, despite the opacity of Derrida's criticisms of Benveniste.
"White Mythology" is the longest and most demanding essay in this collection, so leave it for last. I'm not even going to venture a comment on this one.
Essay #9 meanders quite a while before it gets around to illustrating Valery's low opinion of philosophy, so be patient.
The book wraps up with Derrida's notorious reading/misreading of that wonderful little book, HOW TO DO THINGS WITH WORDS. This modest essay launched a feud between Derrida and the American philosopher John Searle. Much ado about nothing, I say.
on January 15, 2002
One could open up this review by pointing out that the book being reviewed is not a "coherent" work in the conventional sense of the term but this would be playing into the hands of the deconstructionist. Perhaps it is best to phrase one's comments in such a fashion as to avoid the need for anything more-than-average coherence in a review. "The Margins of Philosophy" is an interesting work by this academically controversial author. Generally speaking--and what more can one do in a review--Derrida's readings are heavily influenced by Heidegger's statement that what an author keeps silent is as important as what he states. This is asserted almost immediately in the introduction as Derrida lets us know that what philosophy (and philosophers) have pushed to the margin in their work is very important to explore since its unveiling will de-center the work. Put differently, every writing undercuts itself in the end. In a series of separate, but linked essays, Derrida goes on to demonstrate how this sort of thing happens in Hegel, Saussure, Benveniste, Heidegger, and others.
I am not the first to point out that Derrida is a perceptive, subtle reader with a very keen eye for the hidden details. "White Mythology" is an interesting discussion of the role of metaphor in philosophy and its consequences for philosophy. I am also not the first to complain that Derrida's taste for exegesis runs towards the extravagant and excessive. The aforementioned essay spans 65 pages for reasons that otherwise escape me. There is also the more serious problem in Derrida that his keen eye is not keen enough and he is too clever by half in his explication. At one point in the work he connects the greek word for intuiting (ie. seeing with the soul) "theorein" with the desire for death. Strictly speaking this is a conflation of the desire to be a god with the desire to be unconscious (a leftover from the decay of romanticism?). An elementary reading of Plato's Phaedrus makes this clear. His obsession with the "metaphysics of presence" is also a problem for the work, as he hitches his interpretations to this dubious construction and the interpretations ultimately suffer for it. This is not to say that there isn't much of philosophical interest in the work for Derrida gives the reader much to chew on. He reminds us that any serious reading of a text must devote itself scrupulously to the whole of the text and not just to those parts which we think are interesting. Though, perhaps, not the best place to start one's study of Derrida it is certainly worth a serious read if only to understand what some of the shouting is all about.
on November 3, 2000
Derrida, Foucalt and Lyotard have come to be some of the best-known examples of post-modern thought. Of the three, I find Derrida to have the most "logical depth" to borrow a term from information theory; that could be due to some of his ideas in conjunction with the way in which he presents them.
In Margins the reader is treated immediately to an intersting idea of Derrida's - that the most important part of philosophy occurs in the "margins" of work. That is, it is the contextualization of ideas that is fundamentally important, not necessarily what is in them. This echoes what Bateson wrote quite a while ago in "Steps to an Ecology of the Mind", a much more accessible work; Lyotard also develops the idea of contextualization within "Postmodern Fables" through much more literary methods. Derrida's development of the differance and his views on Hegel are visionary and I enjoyed reading those sections in Margins; the rest I very difficult to digest even after several readings.
Derrida's ideas of context within infinite regress of contexts put him in an interesting philosophical position since the paradox cannot be resolved. That is, by demonstrating the subjectivity of any literary (and what is the limit of the term literary - isn't everything literary?) work he basically undermines most of Western philosophy. Hegel was close but not quite willing to go far enough as Derrida demonstrates.
In my opinion the more casual reader will be better off with the readily-available "Derrida for Beginners" type of books rather than trying to tackle this one. If this is part of a course then I suggest reading it while armed with some other overviews for reference.
on April 27, 1997
Derrida is not always an easy read, and it's sometimes difficult to suggest a beginning point. This collection of essays from 1972 is as good a starting point as any. Derrida espresses distrust of concepts such as authorial intention and metaphors. Contains the essays "Differance", Signature Event Context", "White Mythology", and others
on September 18, 2003
In the 1980s, White Mythology was required reading for Yale lit-crit majors. It is an incredible tour de force so rich that its overwhelming in the initial read. How was it possible to write this (and how was it possible to translate?) The inescapability of metaphor, metaphor not just in, but constituting the text of philosophy, the false privileging of metaphysics over rhetoric are made stunningly evident -- if not plain -- here.