Jacques Derrida passed away yesterday (see Google France; Libération and Le Monde have made his death a front-page story).
This will no doubt be the occasion for cheap shots. Derrida had his weak moments (like the extemporaneous reply to Hyppolite that Sokal jumped on), his foibles (his controversy with Richard Wolin concerning the publication of translations over which Derrida had, in fact, no legal control), his stylistic tics (riffing on the title or the occasion of a lecture). But he is one of the few philosophers who, when I read him, always gives me something to think.
There is a vulgar Derrida just as there is a vulgar Freud and a vulgar Marx. The vulgar Derrida says that in interpretation, anything goes. The vulgar Derrida promotes something called “Deconstruction” which is both too hard to explain and too silly to worry about. The vulgar Derrida is a pretentious charlatan (see “Derrida” at WordIQ; scroll down to “Derrida and his critics”). None of those claims stands up to even a moderately attentive reading of works like L'écriture et la différence, De la grammatologie, Marges, or Psyché. It is easy to extract a sentence or two and exhibit it to those who haven’t read the work as nonsense. You can do that with many philosophers. For example:
We saw how a theory might attest to its own nameless objects, namely, by showing that some open sentence became true under all constant substitutions but false under universal quantification. […] Perhaps, when the nameless objects happen to be inseparable from the named, the quantification used in a theory cannot meaningfully be declared referential except through the medium of a background theory.
This is Quine (Ontological relativity, 66). In context it is perfectly clear. But try reading the passage to someone not versed in the philosophy of language, and see what they make of it. Derrida, of course, has helped himself at times to literary devices that analytic philosophers tend to avoid. But even the tricks have a point, and where they fail (as for me they sometimes do) the failure is rather one of taste than of incompetence, willful obscurantism, or absence of purpose.
I saw Derrida give lectures several times at Hopkins. I never spoke with him. Others who did found him congenial. To place wagers on the posterity of an author is a mug’s game, especially at the moment of their passing. But I do think that Derrida, once he has passed into history, will survive.