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English Department
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Jacques Derrida, "The University Without Condition," Without Alibi (Stanford University Press, 2004)

Arguably the most controversial philosopher of contemporary times, Jacques Derrida, who died in 2004, was also one of the most prolific. In the mid 1960s he developed a strategy of reading, "deconstruction," that questioned traditional assumptions about the certainty, identity, and truth of a text by means of a close reading that revealed, as the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism puts it, how its logical or rhetorical "incompatibilities are disguised and assimilated" (1994, 185). Deconstruction has had an enormous influence in many different fields, including psychology, literary theory, cultural studies, linguistics, feminism, sociology and anthropology.

In a lecture reprinted as "The University Without Condition" in one of his last published books, Without Alibi, Derrida attempted to define what he called the "new Humanities" that should have the privileged critical place in a university environment:

[E]verything that concerns the question and the history of truth, in its relation to the question of man, of what is proper to man, of human rights, of crimes against humanity, and so forth, all of this must in principle find its space of unconditional discussion and, without presupposition, its legitimate space of research and reelaboration, in the university and, within the university, above all in the Humanities. Not so that it may enclose itself there, but, on the contrary, so as to find the best access to a new public space transformed by new techniques of communication, information, archivization, and knowledge production (203).

In this provocative call for action, Derrida suggests that the "humanities are often held hostage to departments of pure or applied science in which are concentrated the supposedly profitable investments of capital foreign to the academic world" (206). "The University Without Condition" aims to provide those outside of the humanities, yet within the university environment, the basic reasoning and understanding as to why the study of liberal arts is imperatively beneficial to students after college. Indeed, Derrida concludes by suggesting that "the university without conditions is not situated necessarily or exclusively within the walls of what is today called the university. It is not necessarily, exclusively, exemplarily represented in the figure of the professor. It takes place, it seeks its place wherever this unconditionality can take shape. Everywhere that it, perhaps, gives one (itself) to think. ..." (236).

The middle child of a Jewish family, Derrida was born in El Biar, Algeria in 1930, while Algeria was still a French colony. At age 12, he was dismissed from school because of the government's anti-Semitic laws, but was later admitted to Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, where he eventually earned an advanced degree in philosophy in 1956. He taught philosophy at the University of Paris, at the Sorbonne and at the Ecole des Hautes Etude en Sciences Sociales. He also held teaching positions at Johns Hopkins University, Yale University, and the University of California at Irvine.

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MLW Symposium, Department of English
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