What is an impossible mourning? What does it tell us ... about an essence of memory? And as concerns the other in us ... where is the most unjust betrayal?Jacques Derrida, 'Mnemosyne', in Memoires - for Paul de Man (New York, 1986).
The Guardian ran a very fair and largely sympathetic obituary after Jacques Derrida's death at the weekend. This obituary, and a leader which ran on the same day, attracted some rather jaundiced comment today on the Guardian Letters page. One correspondent, the philosopher Anthony Grayling, complained that the leading article had expressed "gratitude to Jacques Derrida for impugning the idea of a literary 'canon'" and, therewith, "standards of [aesthetic] judgment". That leader certainly observes that "Derrida became popular among those willing to question the sterile idea of a 'western canon'" but is careful to not to attribute any theory of canon-formation to Derrida himself. Reasonably enough, as he had nothing to say about the "canon", save the observation that his work, as befitted a philosopher raised in the historically-minded, text-based French school, habitually concentrated on that of the greats: Plato, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel etc.
The Guardian's leader writer makes another point: that much of what Derrida had to say about issues to do with meaning "is little different to some of Ludwig Wittgenstein's ideas", though, "by concentrating on epistemology" ('epistemology' isn't quite right where Wittgenstein is concerned, but let that ride, for the moment) the latter was able to avoid much of the "obloquy" heaped upon the Frenchman. I think that's right. It's possible to make the case that Derrida's was an essentially therapeutic conception of philosophy, much as the later Wittgenstein's was; that's to say, that he wasn't interested so much in substantive solutions to philosophical problems as in the question what consitutes a philosophical "problem" in the first place. I think this was what Richard Rorty meant when he described Derrida, along with Dewey, Wittgenstein and Heidegger, as an "edifying philosopher".
Addendum: I see that Butterflies & Wheels links to Grayling's letter, commending him for doing a "good job" on the stuff about the canon. Grayling rightly distinguishes the question whether we ought to "give a hearing to traditionally suppressed voices" from the question of "what constitutes the highest critical standards". It bears repeating, however, that Derrida himself never conflated those questions, though Grayling implies that he did when he refers to "the damage done by Derrida". As far as questions of aesthetic judgement and interpretation are concerned, one of the most sensible things said about Derrida in the last day or two was uttered not by a philosopher, but by the Guardian's theatre critic, Michael Billington. Asked by Stephen Moss whether he understands Derrida, Billington replied: "What strikes me is, when applied to literature, how close this is to what I was brought up to call Practical Criticism of the IA Richards school - the assumption that understanding literature is enhanced by breaking it down into its constituent parts and analysing these with scientific thoroughness".