I have been influenced significantly in my thinking and writing by philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Because that influence is quite visible, it is not unusual for people to ask me, if they wish to explore Derrida’s thought, where they should begin in reading his work. This post is an effort to provide an answer to this question.
Most people who know at least a little about Derrida know that his work is notoriously difficult to read. There are a number of reasons for this, and there has been heated controversy regarding all of those reasons. I will mostly ignore all such controversies here, and assume that anyone reading this sympathetically has decided (as I believe) that Derrida is worth taking seriously, and in fact will be an enduringly important figure in philosophy. The shortest version of my response to complaints about Derrida’s deliberately difficult way(s) of writing is this: There are other major figures in the history of philosophy whose work is just as difficult for various reasons. Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger come to mind first. If you’re not convinced that they are worth taking seriously, I can’t help you; feel free to go elsewhere.
I will also assume here that the reader has given at least some attention to some short, attempted summaries of Derrida’s thinking, online and/or in print (for example, the Wikipedia article). These can be helpful as long as you treat them as suspect, and watch for ways in which Derrida himself does not simply state, finalize, or “pin down” as much as the summaries do. His “play” in this regard is meant very seriously. (See my two posts on “Derrida’s Seriousness” at The Imaginative Conservative, here and here.)
I recommend first trying to get a sense of Derrida’s style of thinking more than the substance of what he is saying. It’s not that the substance is not important! But one is more likely to get something of the substance by giving privilege at first to how Derrida is writing. With that in mind, I suggest beginning with Derrida’s essay, “On Forgiveness,” in the book On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (Routledge). Once you’ve read the Forgiveness essay, you can try sampling other essay-length writings. Don’t be afraid to give up on one and try another if you’re just not connecting at all.
For accessible material, while you are dipping into his writing, also sample interviews with Derrida, of which many have been published. See the book, Points (Stanford U. Press), for example. Especially worthy of note, I believe, are two “interviews” (actually panel discussions) with Derrida. One of them, which helps to clarify how Derrida thinks about philosophy, is the centerpiece in John D. Caputo’s Deconstruction in a Nutshell (Fordham U. Press). (The rest of the book is a very helpful discussion by Caputo of how the panel discussion relates to the rest of Derrida’s work.) The other, entitled “Epoché and Faith,” is preserved in Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments (Routledge).
Of Grammatology is often referred to as Derrida’s “magnum opus,” or as his most “systematic” work. Don’t be fooled; approaching it in that light is misleading, and will probably be very disappointing. I don’t even recommend trying to read the whole thing, at least not early on (a number of other readers of Derrida told me this when I started). But there are parts of it that contain extremely important statements of how Derrida approaches reading texts. To begin getting a feel for this, I recommend reading the section entitled “The Exhorbitant. Question of Method” (p. 157 ff. Make sure you have the “corrected edition” of the English translation). It’s in that section that we find the famous sound byte, “there is no outside-text.” If some of the substance doesn’t make sense, just keep watching for Derrida’s way of thinking about how he is approaching the reading of texts, and how this relates to received, or more traditional ways of reading them. Sample the rest of the book if you find it helpful, but don’t rush.
The essay, “Différance,” is essential reading, though very tough. It mainly presupposes knowledge of Husserl’s phenomenology and of the “structuralist” linguistics of Saussure, but reading it slowly can pay off even if one is not intimately familiar with them. It is found in Margins of Philosophy (U. of Chicago Press), but has also been reprinted in a number of anthologies.
Another absolute must, at some point, is the first part (Section I) of the essay “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority'” in Acts of Religion (Routledge). That is the key text relevant for my discussion of the “existence” of justice in the second of the TIC pieces linked above.
One of the longer texts by Derrida that I’ve found particularly rewarding is The Politics of Friendship (Verso).
Derrida’s famous engagement with American philosopher John Searle is enshrined in the book Limited Inc (Northwestern U. Press). It is considered by many to be a fairly accessible route into deeper Derridean territory.
I’ll leave it at that for “beginner’s” recommendations. I hope they are helpful.
Oh, one more thing: The documentary film, Derrida, is worth viewing (more than once, in fact). I think it subtly conveys Derrida the person, and his style of thought, as both being significantly different from what his reputation would lead us to expect.