“Quite Unintelligible,” Derrida’s Scathing Criticism from a Teacher

Making the rounds on social media today is an essay that then-student Jacques Derrida had written in English class entitled “Shakespeare’s Idea of Kingship.” While Derrida’s writing as a student may interest many, his teacher’s remarks are drawing far more attention.

derrida paper
Click to enlarge.

“In this essay you seem to be constantly on the verge of something interesting,” the unknown grader wrote, “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.” Elsewhere on the paper is scribbled “quite unintelligible” over an entire paragraph.

The essay is not from Derrida’s time in high school, as it was mislabeled on social media, but from his time in khâgne, which lacks an American equivalent. The French khâgne system is attended after high school and is intended as intensive preparation for entrance exams into one of France’s prestigious universities, the écoles normale supérieure.

The paper is from an ongoing exhibit at UC Irvine featuring Jacques Derrida’s papers. Written in 1950, Derrida was just 20 years-old (possible 19 years-old, the month isn’t specified).

It was during his three years in khâgne, as UC Irvine notes, that “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.”

Derrida’s lack of academic achievement is well documented elsewhere. He took his university entrance exams 3 time before passing. One 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.”

[H/T Reddit]

  • Matt Roberts

    The exhibit features many more interesting items for the Critical Theory Archive, including work by Balibar, Davis, de Man, Derrida, Said, and others. If readers are nearby Irvine, feel free to come down and tour the exhibit.

    • siriuslover

      Is the exhibit in the library?

      • Matt Roberts

        Yes. Other items of note from the Derrida papers include another such essay, the handwritten first page of the Exergue from De la grammatologie, a folder with notes and interesting doodles for +R, THE postcard, and the 1974 Combat article, which would set the stage for the formation of GREPH. Items from the seminars are also included. We also have displayed the letter from Hillis Miller to Derrida, in which Miller attempts to convince Derrida to come to Irvine with him.

        • Critical Theory

          Thanks so much for this amazing info Matt!

          • Matt Roberts

            You are absolutely welcome. Some of the items I can get better shots of than others. It may be worth while for us to get some good shots put together for everyone. I can certainly work on that. I’ll be in touch. And thanks to you for all the work that you do. critical-theory.com is an important resource for me.

        • Critical Theory

          Also, please feel free to email me (eugene@critical-theory.com) with any other interesting images from the UCI archive. The readers loved it.

  • Even funnier than this is how positively Derrida influenced Catholicism given how much many Catholics fear postmodernism:


    • What is so funny? Essays such as “VIolence et métaphysique” and “La double séance” should have been studied far more closely by Catholic philosophers and theologians.

    • Gregory_Sadler

      I don’t know that Derrida really did influence many Catholics, let alone “Catholicism.” A few Catholics, to be sure (including myself). Even Marion, as interesting as his work is, has not had all that much influence, I’d say. It’s nice to see Scheler, Von Hildebrand, and Stein mentioned, since, at least in my own experience they seem to get at least as much attention as Derrida or Marion (or Levinas) in Catholic circles.

      To be sure, there were a number of Catholics who became interested in what those phenomenologists were doing back in the 30s — the very first meeting of the Societe Thomiste was on Phenomenology, and Edith Stein was there to represent phenomenology (the second, incidently, was on Christian Philosophy, and featured a few short discussions from a phenomenological perspective — a bit later, Leon Noel would adapt Husserl to discuss that same topic)

  • gpm

    You make a point of offering cultural context on the khâgne, but then repeat the mistake of anglicising the French education system. Derrida didn’t fail the ‘university entrance exam’ – there isn’t one in France. It’s the entrance exam for the grandes écoles he had to resit – as most people do. Most people—2/3 in fact—also fail their licence exams at some point. I can’t remember whether that includes Derrida, or whether you are in fact referring to his agrégation, which I seem to remember he had to retake (again not uncommon). Details!

    • Matt Roberts

      The details provided in this paper were taken from the Jacques Derrida papers’ finding aid, composed as the papers were processed. The article even links to the finding aid. The information contained in the finding aid is, itself, paraphrasing the biographical timeline from _Derrida_ by Jacques Derrida and Geoffrey Bennington. However, there are some discrepancies between the findings aid’s presentation of information, and that of the book;s, particularly around the proper way to describe Derrida’s education. I mention this for a few reasons: 1) to suggest that it may have been good for those who first brought this paper to the light of social media to have consulted with me so that any information used was done so accurately; 2) to provide context for how Critical Theory.com most likely found the information that they included in this article; and 3) I have only recently joined UCI, and, even more recently, did I begin to have an active role with the Critical Theory Archive. Updating and revising information associated with it is a high priority for me, and I thank those of you have brought these details to the attention to Critical Theory.com’s readers, as it further verifies the work that I hope to do. All the best, Matt Roberts

  • cdupont2

    “L’Ecole Normale Supérieure” is a specific establishment. You should say “Grandes écoles” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grandes_%C3%A9coles

  • General Tso

    How was his teacher to know that young Mr. Derrida would eventually become the master of ‘unintelligible’ philosophy?

    • JW

      Yet at some point, people just quit calling him on the bullshit and let it all slide. Now we’re stuck with moral relativism as far as the eye can see.

  • Jack Cade

    Every one who evaluates other scholars (be they fellow professors, graduate students, or undergraduates) NEEDS to remember this.

    How many Jaques Derridas get rejected and discouraged by, essentially, the hegemonics systems of thought that are in EVERY discipline?

    Read, judge, and grade more generously. Not easier, just wiser.

    The early scholarship of one of the great philosophers of the late twentieth century was a disaster, many, many, many great minds began this way and persisted, what about the ones who just didn’t have it in them to persist? What about the ones who “smartened” up and went for easy money?
    We could fix this, but the egos of the gate keepers won’t let us.

    • Ben

      Why should we care if the weak fail?

      • Jack Cade

        Gosh, I wan’t to believe you’re kidding.
        But, sadly, I don’t think you are.

        Could you please define “weak”?
        And tell me who are you to judge what “weak” is or isn’t?

        Are you quite sure that this “weak” really exists? Or, could it be a phantom made up long ago by folks who wanted to “prove” that they deserved to have what luck had given them?

        Who is thinking in that head of yours? Is it you? Or, is it memorex, that is a recording of thoughts planted there by the hegemonic?

      • Jack Cade

        Well Ben, I want you to remember that statement when the day comes that you or someone you love is “the weak.”
        But also, what is “weak”?
        Is being “weak” the person’s fault?

        But really, we must doubt that there is truly such a thing as “the weak.”

        The modern system creates the weak from the pliable softness that is human minds and flesh, it is part of the storm we call progress.

        If you really believe their are “weak” you need to read more broadly. Read literature, and really, really question the concept of justice and the reality of fairness.

        But, I cannot continue to talk to you about this “the weak” because I find your suggestion that it exists incredibly disgusting.

  • Hate Monger

    You could apply the headline to the entire Postmodern, psychoanalyst, Freudian, movements.

  • with all due honor and admiration to Derrida, I wish he had taken the teacher’s advice.

  • Eddie Creed

    “In this essay you seem to be constantly on the verge of something interesting, but, somewhat, you always fail to explain it clearly.”

    Exactly what I had to say about Derrida when I had to read him.

  • DatBus

    It always astounded me that anyone could take “Critical Theory” seriously. It’s nothing but a lot of distracting vocabulary obfuscating its one intent: to destroy.

    • Omar Ibrahim


  • Jim Piggle

    Derrida used to eat his own poop.