Derrida, at home in Ris-Orangis, near Paris, in 2001. (Joel Robine/AFP/Getty Images)

In Who Was Jacques Derrida?, David Mikics provides a lucid, polemical intellectual biography of the French philosopher. He is also settling accounts. In the 1970s and 1980s, Derrida, who died six years ago at 73, was the most important and most polarizing figure in the humanities in America. His brand of thought, deconstruction, dominated classrooms, conferences, articles, and books. Derridian deconstruction was a heady brew of high philosophical discussion and counterintuitive assertion, all spiced up by Derrida’s trademark labyrinthine style, which was easy to parody but hard to surpass.

Mikics was in the thick of it. Now a professor of English at the University of Houston, he earned his doctorate at Yale when it was the mother ship of literary theory in America. In the mid-’80s he was a follower of Derrida, drawn in by the Frenchman’s bracing skepticism. In many ways, Who Was Jacques Derrida? serves as an explanation of Mikics’s own rejection of skepticism, of his disillusionment with disillusion itself.

Philosophical skepticism aims to demonstrate that our attempts to make unequivocally valid claims about the world are ultimately misguided. To put it simply, Derrida’s writings from the 1960s to the 1980s sought to show that the history of Western thought tried and failed to nail down the essences of things because things do not have essences to speak of. A subtle dialectician, he argued that there was nothing as unstable as the notion of a stable identity and nothing less knowable than what appears directly before us.

For those who hated him, Derrida was a mountebank, a sloppy thinker and even sloppier writer whose antics did nothing but muddle what should be clear. To those who loved him—and his defenders were as ferocious as his detractors—he offered a whole new way of thinking. According to Mikics, both sides were wrong.

But in his own way, Mikics stands with Derrida’s detractors. Through a series of careful analyses, he maintains that Derrida was sometimes a brilliant misreader of the philosophical tradition and often an egregious one. Always attentive to the problems and the questions that Derrida avoided, he finds Derrida most instructive in his failure to move from doubt to any feasible ethics or politics. According to Mikics, Derrida was allergic to psychology, which Mikics calls “the most palpable sign of our existence, our inner life.” As a result, the philosopher was unable to think about motives and responsibilities. This was a major failing because in the end, Derrida was unable to theorize convincingly about ethics.

Mikics does not share Derrida’s unwillingness to talk about inner lives. Although he does not speculate often about Derrida’s motives, the biographical structure of the book shows just how central to his thought Derrida’s childhood as a lower-middle class French-speaking Jew in Algeria during the 1930s and 1940s actually was. During the period of French colonization, Algerian Jews aligned themselves with the colonizers and this meant that the Derridas were triply if not quadruply marginalized. They were Jews in a Muslim country run by foreign Catholics; they were outsiders in a country of Arabs ruled by Europeans and, during World War II they were pariahs to both the surrounding population and to the government.

This alienation was key to Derrida’s development. A few years before his death, Derrida said with his typical paradoxical vigor that “nothing for me matters as much as my Jewishness, which, however, in so many ways, matters so little in my life.” Derrida was never a practicing Jew. Nevertheless, as Mikics shows, he strongly identified with Jewish thinkers like the French-Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and with Jewish writers, like the French-Egyptian poet Edmond Jabès. However, the real force of his Jewishness might be best sought elsewhere, in his inability to take either yes or no for an answer.

Derrida constantly took contrarian, if not outright rebellious, stances. He did not like assuming the protective coloring of his surroundings. When he arrived in the early 1950s at the most elite of French universities, the École Normale Supérieure, he chafed against the Marxist orthodoxy of his professors and refused to join the cult of Jean-Paul Sartre—a philosopher whose influence he called “nefarious” and “catastrophic.” Derrida did not follow the path of political engagement favored by his colleagues. Rather, by close and often inventive readings of major texts from the philosophical and literary traditions, he sought to blow up philosophical certainty.

But there were limits to his subversion. Mikics locates one of the major fault lines in Derrida’s thought in the philosopher’s prophetic tones, his “fondness for apocalyptic drama,” which works against his reluctance to imagine the apocalypse itself. According to Mikics, Derrida might have aspired to the end of Western metaphysics and he might have adopted the language and some of the practices of the avant-garde, but he could not run full-out at the future. He wrote like a radical in favor of the moderate.

Derrida’s split persona—revolutionary and ultimately conservative at the same time—goes a long way toward explaining his influence in the American academy. His insistence on close reading made him congenial for literature departments, and his pronouncements made close readings appear consequential. What is more, Derrida’s timing was perfect. His reputation in the United States grew at that point when being a hippie was not a political statement but a “lifestyle choice” and when many of the energies of the late ’60s had become merchandised or bogged down in economic stagnation. At a time of retrenchment, Derrida promised a kind of liberation that did not depend on ethnic or gender identity, a freeing of thought that was intellectually disruptive and could, if need be, serve politically progressive ends.

Then, there is also the matter of his prose. Derrida at his best was an excellent writer. His sentences are Proustian in their length and in their subtle ironies. Like Joyce, he piled pun on pun and paradox on paradox in a serious defense of the mobility of thought. Derrida was Baroque in a way that makes many English-speaking readers nervous because it is too French, too witty, and not sufficiently down-to-earth. Even so, complication has its pleasures.

As it turned out, American deconstruction had a good run, but by the early ’90s it had begun to falter. The discovery that Derrida’s friend Paul de Man had been an intellectual collaborator with Nazis caught Derrida flat-footed. And then the Berlin Wall fell and the map changed. Derrida tried to catch up and turn his thought toward politics and ethics. His thinking drew closer and closer to Levinas, who had developed a brilliant way of showing how religion (particularly Judaism) and philosophy could justify each other without doing themselves an injustice. At the heart of Levinas’s brilliant, spooky work stands the notion of an ethics beyond calculation, a fundamental responsibility for suffering that annihilates self-interest. Although Levinas was able to give flesh to his abstruser musings in the course of his famous lectures on the Talmud, the English philosopher Gillian Rose had a point when she called his theory a form of Jewish Buddhism.

Mikics will have none of it. An informed and sympathetic reader of Levinas (as he is of all the Jewish texts he discusses), he is particularly critical of this period in Derrida’s life. He dismisses Derrida for not reaching beyond an airy language of sacrifice to discuss concrete ethical choice. He will not forgive Derrida for what he sees as the philosopher’s unwillingness to engage in moral judgment, for “scanting the life we live with others in favor of textual abstraction.”

Harsh stuff. Mikics is fierce in his convictions and to be sure he could be more generous to Derrida. Nevertheless, he might be right. In the end, Who Was Jacques Derrida? will not close the account on Derrida. Through his clarity and commitments, Mikics has opened the books once again.