“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]