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Excerpts from "Philosopher Gamely In Defense Of His Ideas"

He was a very poor student who often failed his exams. But he was eventually admitted to the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. He became associated with the Parisian journalTel Quel, which concerned itself with the way a word can have different meanings, before he embarked on his own reputation-making books.

Clearly, Mr. Derrida spends a lot of time pondering weighty philosophical questions, but does he ever do anything normal, like watch television or go to the movies or play sports?

Mr. Derrida smiled, almost shyly. "You touched a private part of me," he said. "I wanted to be a professional soccer player, but I had to give it up because I was not good enough."

"I watch TV all the time," he continued. Movies? The news? "Anything," he said. And does he deconstruct them as he is watching? "Everything!" Mr. Derrida cried. "I am critical of what I'm watching. I am trying to be vigilant. I deconstruct all the time."

So what was the last movie he went to?

" 'Deconstructing Harry,' " Mr. Derrida said. (What else?) "I was very disappointed at the use of the word 'deconstruction.' I felt it was an exploitation of the term." Mr. Derrida's voice grew heated, as if he were defending his own child from assault. "At the end a graduate student uses the word deconstruction as a stereotype, to destroy it, to undermine it, to vulgarize it. . . ."

Almost from the moment desconstruction emerged as a glittering force on the academic scene, its many detractors have been saying that it is "dead." And yet the term deconstruction has penetrated almost every aspect of culture. "Even 'civet'!" said Mr. Derrida, speaking of a wine stew of rabbit. "Deconstructed rabbit! I saw it in an article in The New York Times!

"What does it mean that for 30 years it was said something is dead?" Mr. Derrida asked. "If the eulogies continue for 30 years, does it mean that something is dead? Or does that not mean something is not dead?" Such bruising battles provide a backdrop for Mr. Derrida's ruminations about his role in society as "the world's most famous philosopher," a description he doesn't dispute.

"I have been given this image," he said in his fluid and fluent English. "And I have to face some responsibility, political and ethical. It is as if I am indebted to -- I don't know to whom -- to thinking rigorously, to thinking responsibly. I am in a situation of trying to learn to whom, finally, I am responsible." Mr. Derrida seemed to be thinking out loud "To discover . . . who is hidden, who gives me orders. It is as if I have a destiny which I have to interpret and decipher." ...

(© The New York Times)

Dinitia Smith, "Philosopher Gamely In Defense Of His Ideas," New York Times, May 30, 1998, sect. B., p. 7.

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