Can’t write? Failing your exams? You, too, can be a great philosopher! Derrida did it!



A colleague in Southern California alerted me to the current exhibit at the University of California at Irvine: Through Discerning Eyes: Origins and Impact of Critical Theory at UCI. The new exhibit, which runs through mid-September, spotlights the personal papers of many famous thinkers, such as Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Edward Said, and J. Hillis Miller, housed in UCI Libraries Special Collections and Archives’ Critical Theory Archive. But the showstopper seems to be the paper above from Derrida, which is appearing in the social media. The essay on Shakespeare, written in English, received a 10 out of 20.

In case you can’t read the diagonal handwriting in red across the top by the anonymous grader, it says this: “In this essay you seem to be constantly on the verge of something interesting, but, somewhat, you always fail to explain it clearly. A few paragraphs are indeed totally incomprehensible – Probably this essay would have been good with just a little more work in it. As regards language, your English is not idiomatic enough (if generally correct). My advice is: read a lot of English, pen in hand.” I have my questions about the writing of the grader, frankly. “but, somewhat, you always fail…” Huh? And his English is not idiomatic enough? And what good does it do to read a lot of English with a pen in your hand?



On the facing page, “quite unintelligible” is scribbled over an entire paragraph. I don’t know about Derrida being “unintelligible,” but it is barely legible, at least in this tiny image. The exam is dated 1950 – Derrida would have been 19 or 20 years old, and he was in the “khâgne” – educational preparation for one of France’s grandes écoles.

During these years, according to the exhibit, “Derrida met many individuals who have played an important role in his life, including Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Deguy, Louis Marin, and his future wife, Marguerite Aucouturier.” “By the end of 1952,” the description continues, “he had gained admittance to the Ecole normale supérieure.” That’s a big deal.

According to the Critical Theory website, on one occasion when Derrida failed his entrance exam, a juror remarked: “Look, this text is quite simple… You’ve simply made it more complicated and laden with meaning by adding ideas of your own.” He later failed his initial license exam for philosophy. “An exercise in virtuosity, with undeniable intelligence,” one juror wrote, “but with no particular relation to the history of philosophy…Can come back when he is prepared to accept the rules and not invent where he needs to be better informed.” Failing is commonplace on these rigorous exams. Derrida failed several times before passing – but the comments were brutal.

The New York Review of Books writes that during one exam, Derrida “choked and turned in a blank sheet of paper. The same month, he was awarded a dismal 5 out of 20 on his qualifying exam for a license in philosophy.”

The moral of the story? According to Jack Cade in the comments section: “How many Jaques Derridas get rejected and discouraged by, essentially, the hegemonic systems of thought that are in every discipline? Read, judge, and grade more generously. Not easier, just wiser.”


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