Jacques Derrida knew a thing or two about being an outsider. He was born of Jewish parents in 1930 in Algeria, at that time a French colony. Hence he was from birth a French citizen, although he did not set foot in France until he was nineteen. In 1942, by a decree of the wartime Vichy government, his citizenship was revoked because he was Jewish – without him being made a citizen of any other country. The major effect of this was his expulsion from the school he had previously been attending. So he was an Algerian who couldn’t speak Arabic; a Jew who was not a religious practitioner (nor could he read Hebrew); and an eventual immigrant to France as a pied-noir (the derogatory phrase used for the French from Algeria). These circumstances provided him with no solid sense of national identity. His subsequent academic career was pursued largely in unconventional institutions, and, in his later years, involved a great deal of travelling abroad. As a result, he was often the appreciative recipient of hospitality. American universities, in particular, frequently provided him with opportunities to teach and conduct research. He often spoke warmly of their welcoming environment. His books were read more widely in their English translations than they were in France.
Hard thought is always necessary to distinguish, from within a particular situation, factors of universal relevance. But the state of being an outsider, far from being a deterrent to philosophy, can be the very place from which philosophical questions are most readily raised. Furthermore, perhaps all of us today are immigrants of one kind or another. I have lived in Britain all my life and yet, with the substantial changes in society over that period, it is no longer the same country I was born into. I have thus, even by staying in one place, become a kind of immigrant – a bemused entrant into a new country just as surely as those who have physically moved from their own land. All of us need to make the best we can of such changing circumstances. The countries we have lost had numerous faults, along with their admirable qualities. Only those with very selective memories could deny this.
In this week’s Sunday Reading, Peter Benson utilizes the writings of Jacques Derrida to take on the rising Xenophobia in our daily lives.
You can read the full article on Philosophy Now’s website here.