How Famous Researchers Work: Jacques Derrida

Throughout his career, French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was overburdened with writing projects, teaching and other work. Although he voiced his complaints, he nevertheless did what he had to do. He was one of those thinkers who dedicated much of his time – even during holidays – to his work.

Derrida woke around 6 a.m., drank a cup of coffee and worked for the next three hours. At 9 a.m. he joined his wife for breakfast. Sometimes he declared to have already done his work, meaning having prepared his seminar. However, he often worked on until lunch, even though the house wasn’t as quite as it had been in the early morning. When he was alone at home, he wore his nightdress. He lost his sense of time and didn’t take breaks to eat.

Derrida had a few peculiar writing habits: After having compiled notes, he would usually write his first drafts in longhand. If the text was important to him, he would use a quill and not an ordinary fountain pen. Only after having written several drafts, would he begin to transfer the text onto his typewriter. The text needed the right tone and perspective, in order to be typed.

Although Derrida worked for three hours in the morning, he didn’t spend them all sitting at his desk immersed in his work. He would write for fifteen to twenty minutes, after which he would get up, walk around or read a book. Derrida said that the more he was interested in something, the sooner he would interrupt his work again. Movement and changing positions influenced his thinking: he took notes after waking from a dream; he took notes while running; and he would use the notes and ideas when sitting at the desk. He knew that being on the move gave him good ideas.

Becoming increasingly famous, Derrida was asked to write texts. These writing occasions, as he liked to call them, almost always came from outside. He rarely wrote a text that he had initiated himself.

Whether due to him being a philosopher or due to his writing strategy, Derrida had a distinct writing style. He used language carefully to analyze and deconstruct an argument, thereby constructing complex and sometimes literary prose. After the publication of the book The Post Card (1980), a journalist complained that it is no longer possible to understand Derrida, even though reading his texts has been difficult all along.

Peeters, Benoît (2012): Derrida: A Biography. Cambridge: Polity.


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