Review: ‘Derrida: A biography’ by Benoit Peteers


When I received this book in the post, it startled me. It’s huge. Six hundred thirty pages, including around sixty pages of end notes. This though, is just a testament to the meticulousness with which Peteers has approached the task of chronicling the life of Jacques Derrida.

The book impresses with the depth of its detail. Peteers dug deep into the materials left behind by the late French philosopher, he has spoken to a number of individuals who have known him, and he gets, to what might well be, the centre of Derrida’s life and thought. These details are so crucial to reading the philosophers work. The process is so much part of the work itself in this case.

The image of the philosopher that arises from the text, is one of constant rebellion and estrangement. From his early life, when a young Derrida was excluded from school for being Jewish, to later, when he fought over philosophy with the likes of Foucault, Habermas or Searle, Derrida saw himself as an outsider.

Derrida’s perception of himself as an outsider certainly shaped his thought. But at a younger age, he also longed for acceptance. In early letters to his friends in Algiers, the philosopher expresses the sorrow at missing them. At the same time, he struggled at the boarding school where he studied. Struggled with the lack of privacy the most, the desire for which can be found in his later work.

Despite the size of the book, it reads easily. Peteers does a great job of explicating the details of Derrida’s life without obstructing the story itself. To me, the details of his youth were particularly interesting. His letters to his friends and family, the stories about the young philosopher, before he was a philosopher. The student, struggling to get into the school he wants to go to. Derrida the legend, becomes Derrida the man. Peteers’ biography humanizes the philosopher in a way that opens up his work in a new way, and most importantly, makes it accessible.

If you’re in Australia or New Zealand, why not check out the publishers page for the book?
Otherwise, here it is on Amazon