Derrida’s Obscure Style of Writing: A Philosophical Critique

i) Introduction ii) Derrida Was Saying Something New iii) Derrida Forced us to Think iv) Translating Derrida into Basic Prose v) Banality? vi) There is No Outside-Text

Some of Jacques Derrida’s followers and admirers have happily acknowledged the fact that he made his style of writing “deliberately difficult”. However, they also believe that Derrida’s prose is difficult for many good reasons.

Take Professor Simon Critchley (see left) on this:

“I think it is rather his use of language, because he wants to use language to make it say things that it hasn’t previously said.”

Critchley elaborates on his theme:

“And he has got different devices for doing this. I remember an argument he had with Habermas about whether or not he conflates philosophy and literature, and he denies that he does. But that doesn’t mean that some of the features of a literary style don’t appear in his work.”

And then we have some relevant details which at least partly explain Derrida’s obscure writing style. Critchley goes on to say that Derrida used

“intertextual references that aren’t explicit; allusions that aren’t explicit; neologisms; and what he calls paleonomy, where he takes an old word, and puts a new concept in it”.

Thus, if all the above is the case, then it will explain why Derrida is only understood by a very tiny section of society — academic initiates or his followers. Of course it must now be said that Derrida’s ideas — or what are taken to be his ideas — have been interpreted and expressed in many new and simpler ways. Indeed these interpretations (or “readings”) have filtered down to lesser academics, lawyers, leaders of “radical” political groups and even — very circuitously — to those agitating on the streets.

And since many academic followers and admirers of Derrida stress the importance of “primary sources”, then the following question should now be asked:

Do all — or even any — of those above ever “get” Derrida first hand?

Let’s return to Derrida’s style of writing itself.

Did Derrida write obscure prose because his technical (or complex) philosophical ideas demanded a technical (or complex) language?

Or was it the case that Derrida believed that his philosophical ideas demanded intertextual references/allusions (which aren’t “explicit”), neologisms and paleonomy in order to make language (to use Critchley’s words) “say things that it hasn’t previously said”?

Professor Christina Howells (at Oxford University - see image) stresses the importance of “technical language” (as it were) in itself being relevant when she says that Derrida claimed that he had created

“a specific type of philosophy, and it was technical, and there was no reason why anyone reading it should immediately understand it, anymore than they would any other specialised, technical language”.

Of course people don’t “immediately understand” Derrida’s writing style because it can be argued that the French philosopher went out of his way to make sure that people didn’t immediately understand it. And, as already stated, this wasn’t entirely down to Derrida’s prose being a “specialised, technical language”. It was also down to— so the argument goes — Derrida making language “say things that it hasn’t said before”.

Derrida Was Saying Something New

Nearly all new written or spoken words say at least something that hasn’t been said before. (This can be related to — if indirectly — Noam Chomsky’s thesis about the “infinite use of finite means” when it comes to natural languages.) That said, it’s true that there’s a difference between saying something new in a given language and making that language itself attempt to say things it hasn’t said before. That seems to mean that any originality in Derrida’s work is largely down to the language he uses — not the content, claims, ideas, arguments, etc. expressed in that language.

But what does all this stuff about language saying something new actually mean?

If a language were completely new, then Derrida’s readers wouldn’t be able to make head nor tail of it. So surely Derrida must have kept at least something of the old. And, if that’s the case, then that may explain Derrida’s intertextual references, paleonomy, etc. So these “devices” may now allow Derrida’s readers to have a least one foot in the old in order to grasp the new.

Was Derrida saying anything with his new style of writing? Or was it was all about his style of writing?

Well, Derrida’s work has certainly been interpreted as saying all sorts of things. Indeed I myself have interpreted — parts of — Derrida’s work as saying certain things. (See my ‘Jacques Derrida on the Signifier and the Signifier’; which I wrote a few years ago.) So Derrida’s new way of writing must have been interpreted to express ideas that can indeed be expressed in old ways. Yet if any of his ideas can be expressed in old ways, then why didn’t Derrida himself express them in old ways? Many followers and admirers must presume — like Critchley — that Derrida didn’t do so because he was trying to make language say things that it hasn’t said before.

Derrida Forced Us to Think

How much does a reader need to know about Derrida’s writing style (as well as his philosophy) in order to recognise his (to use Critchley’s words) “wordplay”, “intertextual references”, “allusions”, “neologisms” and “paleonomy”?

Clearly — a hell of a lot.

Of course one can easily argue that one needs to be tuned in — at least to some extent - to any philosopher in order to understand what he or she says. Yet added to that fact — again — is Derrida’s use of language to make it say things it hasn’t previously said. That compounds the difficulties for the reader. And, of course, it’s very clear that Derrida was very happy with making things difficult. Indeed one could easily argue that making things difficult for the reader was at least part of Derrida’s (philosophical) point!

In addition to all that and according to Professor Critchley, another reason for Derrida’s abstruse writing style is that he was attempting to “try to force us to think”. Indeed Critchley makes the fantastic claim that Derrida believed that “we haven’t begun to think”.

What does that even mean?

Of course this is more or less the same position as Heidegger’s (see here). I don’t mean that the idea of making us think can be artfully extracted from Heidegger's work. I mean that Heidegger virtually used that very same expression; as well as various similar ones.

We may conclude that the obscurities of Derrida’s writing style was his attempt “to force us to think”. And, through reading Derrida’s prose, we can begin to think. So it’s ironic that when Derrida attempted to force us to think he used the ideas and language of a German philosopher who’d already said very similar things some decades before.

Translating Derrida into Basic Prose

If obscurity was part of the point of Derrida’s prose style, then it’s not a surprise that Professor Christina Howells (mentioned above) said that she isn’t

“very keen on the idea of transforming Derrida into terms that analytic philosophy can cope with and use”.

Why is that?

Howells believes that it’s because

“we’d loose much of the specificity that way, and you could we be left with banality”.

Howells then goes on to say that

“when you extract from a long elaborated discussion a kernel which is then acceptable to analytic philosophy, whether it is about being with others, or about what Derrida might mean by différance, if he were prepared to express it quite differently, you’ve lost too much”.

Thus Howells’ somewhat categorical and dogmatic stance must mean that — for example — my own ‘Jacques Derrida’s Others’ must be flushed straight down the toilet. So isn’t it ironic that a follower (or admirer) of Derrida should explicitly state that at least some (or even many) readings of him — i.e., those by analytic philosophers — “loose too much” or are just plain wrong? (See later section on false readings of Derrida.)

Yet this isn’t really about translating Derrida’s writings and ideas into something analytic philosophy “can cope with and use”. It’s about translating Derrida’s writings and ideas into any other kind of prose.

Professor Keith Ansell-Pearson (see image) also makes the same mistake when he too points the finger exclusively at analytic philosophers. He claims that all analytic philosophers believe that Derrida and other continental philosophers are “pretentious and portentous”. Ansell-Pearson doesn’t like this attitude of analytic philosophers. He believes that such criticisms of Derrida are “intellectually smug” and also “ethically deficient”. What’s more, this position of all analytic philosophers is an expression of “the ideology of the ruling class”. So I can only presume that Professor Ansell-Pearson said this because he also believes that all — or at least most — continental philosophy is politically radical.

Ansell-Pearson’s words are clearly aggressive and tribal. And that’s partly why I’ve use the words “all” when mentioning his references to analytic philosophers. In other words, there’s nothing in Ansell-Pearson’s words to suggest that he believes that there are any analytic philosophers who’re exceptions to his categorical pronouncements. And he doesn’t believe that any subtle positions have ever come from analytic philosophers when they’ve discussed continental philosophy.(Surely Ansell-Pearson should have said: “Some analytic philosophers believe that some — or even many — continental philosophers are pretentious and portentous.”)

Yet despite Pearson’s and Howell’s personal problems with analytic philosophy, those problems are largely irrelevant to this issue. That’s the case because hardly anyone — other than Derrida’s academic followers and admirers — understands Derrida’s style of writing. And that fact also applies to the many highly-educated people (i.e., most of whom are completely unconnected to analytic philosophy) who’ve attempted to understand Derrida.


Professor Christina Howells was quoted above using the word “banality”.

What if it’s the case that when Derrida’s prose is made simple, it then become banal? Conversely, what if Derrida made his prose obscure precisely because he knew that the philosophy “underneath” is largely banal! In other words, do Derrida’s obscurities hide his banalities? And is that part of the reason why Howells seems to (for want of a better word) fear any translations of Derrida’s prose? That is, does she fear that such translations would display at least some of the philosophical banalities underneath Derrida’s arcane prose?

In any case, Howells concludes by saying that

“there is a risk of transforming the philosophers into something they’re not, and making them say something they weren’t saying”.

Howells seems to believe that she knows exactly what Derrida was “saying”. At least that’s the clear implication of her words above.

So what has happened to Derrida’s “interpretative play” and there being “no outside-text” (il n’y a pas de hors-texte)?

There is No Outside-Text

So it seems that Derrida’s philosophical and linguistic free play was fine — but only up to the point when it resulted in readings (or interpretations) that his admirers and followers didn’t like.

Take the example of readings of Derrida which don’t help advance the political or social goals of his followers or admirers. So when (or if) Derrida is interpreted as advancing a political or ethical position that is in any way conservative, reactionary or whatever, then most of his admirers or followers would have a deep problem with such “free readings”. Indeed Derrida himself (who once said “all our readings are misreadings”) expressed his own very-strong negative reactions against the wrong readings of his work (see here)!

So what makes some readings of Derrida’s work right and other readings wrong?

I would suggest — as I’ve already done — that Derrida and his followers are happy when they agree with the readings (say, when they advance political causes they agree with). However, they become very unhappy indeed when the readings don’t do so.

Take the specific case of the many times Derrida has been classed as a “relativist”. Professor Simon Critchley tackles Derrida’s supposed relativism. He said:

“[]Derrida, who is always perceived as a relativist. []In Derrida’s later work, we see him moving more and more explicitly towards a defence of a normative universalism, and a belief in the undeconstructability of justice, as he puts it, which is an overarching value that cannot be relativised.”

This looks very much like Derrida advanced a Grand Narrative — or at the very least he advanced a universalist conception of justice. In other words, the passage above seems to work against everything that Derrida (formerly) believed — that’s unless I’ve misread Derrida and the academics I’ve read who’ve written on him.

So if justice can be removed from “deconstructive play”, then why not truth, knowledge, ethics, specific political issues (or causes), etc. too? In other words, why on earth did Derrida single out justice? (That’s if Derrida did single out justice.) And if Derrida did focus on justice, then perhaps he also believed that certain political (or social) causes (or values) “cannot be relativised” or deconstructed either. Indeed they too may be examples of a universalised normativity.

Professor Howells (again) kind of agrees with me on this. She says that Derrida

“stated that deconstruction would never stop him crying out vive la revolution at the appropriate moment!”.

Added to that is the fact that - just to give one more example — Derrida wrote his Specters of Marx in which he gave a very-positive appraisal of both Karl Marx and Marxism. For example, Derrida wrote:

“The name of New International is given here to what calls to the friendship of an alliance without institution among those who … continue to be inspired by at least one of the spirits of Marx or of Marxism. It is a call for them to ally themselves, in a new, concrete and real way… in the critique of the state of international law, the concepts of State and nation, and so forth: in order to renew this critique, and especially to radicalise it.”

Yet to many commentators Marx was an essentialist, universalist and rigid ideologue who basically rejected all philosophy and politics that didn’t abide by his strictures. Of course to Marxists, and perhaps to Derrida too, Marx was none of these things.

Finally, Derrida’s followers and admirers will probably explain all these possible (to use a word Derrida often used) “contradictions” away — perhaps by “deconstructing” my claim that Derrida was a universalist about only selective political (or ethical) causes and issues . They may also say that I’ve embraced, say, various “binary oppositions” (or whatever) when doing so. That said, it’s hard to understand what Derrida’s followers/admirers say in response to criticisms of his philosophy and style of writing because much of what they do say (or write) — as with Derrida — is designed to be understood only by a tiny number of (usually academic) political and philosophical initiates.

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