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12 October 2004

The University of Heidelberg Mourns the Death of Jacques Derrida

Probably the world's best-known philosopher — Rector Prof. Dr. Peter Hommelhoff: "Beyond the boundaries of philosophy as an academic discipline he was a leading intellectual figure not only for the humanities but for the cultural perception of a whole age."

The University of Heidelberg mourns the death of Jacques Derrida. "Beyond the boundaries of philosophy as an academic discipline he was a leading intellectual figure not only for the humanities but for the cultural perception of a whole age," said Rector Prof. Dr. Peter Hommelhoff in a letter of condolence to Derrida's family.

For decades, Derrida's astounding approach to language and his infallible instinct for its astonishing and unheard-of aspects, right the way down to everyday usage, cast a spell on his readers and listeners. The central message of his philosophy was its injunction to preserve our sensitivity to the unimagined potentialities and horizons aiding us to put a meaningful interpretation on reality, even beyond its tangible limits.

Jacques Derrida is probably the world's best-known present-day philosopher. Born in Algeria in 1930, his career began in Paris in the 1960s. Influences were contemporary structuralism and, more particularly, the intellectual background of the time: Marxism on the decline, its utopias confronted with political reality, and the crisis of the intellectuals as a Parisian phenomenon closely bound up with the end of the Sartre era. To free himself of all this, Derrida rigorously eschewed a contemporary stance and went in search of broader perspectives, inquiring how the signs of modernism could be interpreted and deciphered in a fundamentally new way. His first touchstone here was Husserl but in the longer term the more important influences were Heidegger, Freud and Nietzsche.

Derrida called his approach "deconstructionism". On the one hand it took up the suspicions uttered by his predecessors that modernism was keeping the essentials from us. On the other, he went beyond his precursors in his lack of illusion, affirming that there was no hope of reinstating what had been repressed and concealed, no hope of finding integral solutions for a modernism that was itself anything but integral. In the last instance it was this unremitting disillusionment that became the central feature of Derrida's understanding of postmodernism.

Though Derrida attained international fame as a visiting professor in the United States, the centre of his activities was Paris. Among his various links with Germany Heidelberg plays an outstanding role, not least due to the presence of Hans-Georg Gadamer. At an early stage Gadamer realised how pioneering Derrida's new approach was. The common grounding of the two philosophers in the heritage of Heidegger's philosophy of language was a further source of comparison and communication, not least in the pursuit of their common concern to ensure an affirmative stance on the part of the humanities. Initially, however, there were a number of misunderstandings and overhasty judgments on both sides.

This may have to do with the fact that specialists like Derrida and Gadamer in the possibility of understanding and the threat of misunderstanding are perhaps bound to have difficulty achieving a consensus. But it would be true to say that these difficulties were an initial rather than a total misapprehension. Much was written about it, the differences between the two were scrupulously recorded and held up as injunctions to the respective other. But in the course of time, and particularly from the early 1990s, the figureheads of these two schools of thought themselves became clearer in their appreciation that there was much more to be understood in each other's work than the letter of their philosophies might have led them to suppose.

Ultimately Derrida conjectured that paradoxically it was perhaps this initial misunderstanding that finally brought them closer together. At all events, Jacques Derrida put the seal on this philosophical friendship with his speech in memory of Gadamer a year ago in Heidelberg. As a further token of this friendship Derrida had agreed to come to Heidelberg next summer as holder of the Gadamer professorship. But it was not to be. Jacques Derrida died in Paris last Saturday.
Martin Gessmann

Please address any inquiries to
PD Dr. Martin Gessmann
Department of Philosophy
University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542478
c66@ix.urz.uni-heidelberg.de

(for journalists)
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317
michael.schwarz@rektorat.uni-heidelberg.de
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