"We should not neglect the fact that some biographies, written by people who have authority, in the 'academy', finally invest this authority in a book, which, for centuries sometimes, after the death of an author, represent the truth. The truth, eh... And someone, interested in biography writes a 'life and works' of (,say,) Heidigger,--well documented, apparently consistent, and...eh, it's the only one, published under the authority of the 'good press', okay. And then, Heidigger's image, Heidigger's life, is fixed and stabilized for centuries.
That's why I would say that, sometimes, the one who reads a text by a philosopher, for instance a tiny paragraph, and interprets it in a rigorous, inventive and powerfully suffering fashion, is more of a real biographer than the one who knows the whole story."
This is a quote by French philosopher Jacques Derrida, taken from a remark at a press conference shown in a 2002 documentary about him and his philosophy by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman, called Derrida. This quote has had an enormous impact on my way of thinking. It has even become a thought to which I'll often refer for comfort whenever I'm feeling inadequate (for whatever reason). Why? Well, it has had such an influence on me because it seems to take much of the air out of how we define an expert in any given field, and whatever qualifications we generally think might be associated with certain positions of expertise.
Of course it wouldn't seem logical to dismiss a person's well established research, or the general idea of having credentials. But the idea of a person, perhaps someone who isn't formally trained, or who lays outside of the established circles, or who doesn't have all the relevant dates, places and biographical details burnt into their memory, taking merely a piece of something larger and offering some great insight, or having a certain touch for the application of whatever theory or thought, and to do so at the same level of so called experts, seems a completely logical potential to have.
It also seems that this quote is implying that such 'interpretations' could also be a starting point for some and possibly a return to the basics for others, which is why the pursuit of 'other paragraphs' seems plausible and somewhat encouraged, and still in keeping with the spirit of this quote.
If anyone has tried to become as fluent as possible in a subject, then perhaps you know how daunting the task can be (even though the term 'fluency' is probably mostly subjective anyway). But this fear of lacking a certain standard of knowledge, in any field, can keep you questioning the justification of your pursuits from time to time. Do you really have it? Can you achieve it? And it can simply feel overwhelming, whatever it may be.
Thoughts of not being sufficiently grounded in x-amount of the appropriate areas and thoughts and of not having obtained a certain level of 'notoriety' can produce serious thoughts and internal debates about your failures vs. your successes. But then, for me at least, this Jacques Derrida thought comes along to put things into perspective. And at once we're reminded that it's about quality, not quantity. And a simple piece of mind clears our heads so that we're able to think like philosophers, not like people who are cramming for an exam.
The philosopher has increasingly put things into perspective for me in recent years. There seems to be something about their approach that can feel slightly more objective than that of certain minds in other fields. Perhaps sometimes those within whichever field can find themselves a bit too close to the subject at hand and can, at least subconsciously, offer up bits of advice that may look like an agenda which is trying to nudge you gently in a certain direction. Whereas with the philosopher, it seems they might be able to deliver a more objective thought, perhaps, because they can be in a more pulled back position, often looking at things from distances that are farther out than people from within those subjects are willing or unable to go.
What is also comforting, and I think the actual point, is that because of this thought by Derrida, we can no longer feel alone in thinking that the people or institutions, who may seem to have all the answers, might actually be lacking in something substantive after all.
And this thought, this tiny element of Derrida's life, seems to suggest that maybe we might be well advised to slow it down and take our time with it, so as to be more committed to that idea of 'one paragraph'. It's a reminder that perhaps everything we need to know, or want to accomplish, doesn't come to us after we've consumed absolutely everything, but, rather, after we've given thought to the idea that everything might just be contained within a little piece of whatever it is we call life.