Leo Strauss and Contemporary Thought: Reading Strauss Outside the Lines edited by Jeffrey A. Bernstein and Jade Larissa Schiff is a timely volume that contains nuanced, scholarly, and illuminating reflections on Leo Strauss and various figures in the history of contemporary thought. In this review, my goal is to offer summaries of the fourteen essays. I hope that this will be a clear guide for the reader interested in a deeper study of the Schiff and Bernstein volume.
1. “Liberalism and the Question: Strauss and Derrida on Politics and Philosophy” by Jade Larissa Schiff
Schiff’s essay opens the first section entitled the “Arts of Reading and Seeing.” Schiff observes that Strauss and Derrida diverge not only in terms of their political affinities, but also as far as their “conceptual vocabularies” (12) are concerned. Schiff writes that their differences notwithstanding, “the lack of conversation [between the two] is surprising” (12) not only because “Derrida was clearly aware of Strauss” (12), but also because both were developing hermeneutic methodologies, which are respectively, deconstruction for Derrida, and esotericism for Strauss. The critical difference, which Schiff articulates between these two methods is that for Strauss, the thinker’s genuine thoughts are “concealed,” but nonetheless, they can be gleaned from the esoteric reading of the text. For Derrida, the deconstructive movement of the text makes even the thinker subject to an unwilful repression. Thus, for Derrida, the text only beckons with an illusion of holistic comprehensibility, but in fact, the truth remains an ever-receding horizon (14-15). On the basis of the differences in their philosophical methodology, Schiff establishes a more philosophically grounded understanding of Strauss’s and Derrida’s attitude toward political philosophy, which she summarizes at the outset of “Convergences: The Activity of Philosophy and the Trace of the Author” section (18-19). Schiff concludes with an invocation of Socratic self-knowledge, which she connects, on the one hand, to the Derridean insight that the world is also a text, and on the other, to Straussian view about the significance of the historical, cultural, and social context of the text. Thus, to read thoughtfully, means to seek out the knowledge not only of the author’s, but also of our own historical situatedness and “political commitments” (22). Thereby, we allow the text to call “into question what we think we know” (22).
2. “Purloined Letters—Lacan avec Strauss” by Matthew J. Sharpe.
Sharpe finds it perplexing that given both Lacan’s and Strauss’s interest in surreptitious writing, there are no sustained attempts to put these thinkers into a dialogue. Sharpe establishes an indirect affinity between Lacan’s psychoanalytic method and Strauss’s esotericism by drawing on Freud’s model of the unconscious. For Freud, the general work of the “unconscious consists of wishes and beliefs that have been repressed as by a political ‘censor,’ since they oppose the ego’s conscious self-image” (31). Likewise, for Strauss, “esoteric techniques” allow “great writers … to avoid [political] … censorship, and to indicate their true beliefs to careful readers able to read between the lines” (31). Thus, as in mental life we experience repression, so also the esoteric writer suppresses and hides the messages between the lines in order not to fall prey to political persecution. Another affinity that Sharpe finds between Freud, Lacan, and Strauss is their interest in espying causal and intentional order even in those things that appear to be governed by chance (32). Yet another point of confluence between Lacan and Strauss is their “concern for the law, and its relationship with human desire” (33). In terms of discontinuities, Strauss, as Sharpe sees it, prefers classical political thought and “contemplative or philosophical bios” (38) to the modern, post-Machiavellian politics and post-Nitzschean “metaphysical nihilism, ethical or political relativism, epistemological historicism, and proclamations of ‘the end of philosophy’” (38). On this presentation, human beings lack not only purpose but also autonomy, and the latter point is at least partially supported by Freudian insight into the commanding power of the unconscious. And yet, Sharpe’s final pronouncement on the differences between Lacan and Strauss ameliorates this claim. Quoting Lacan, Sharpe observes that the goal of psychoanalysis has to do with the “recreation of human meaning in an arid era of scientism” (43). This aim follows closely Strauss’s interest in a return to classical humanistic values.
3. “Seeing through Law: Phenomenological Thought in Soloveitchik and Strauss” by Jeffrey A. Bernstein
Bernstein is interested in seeing how both Soloveitchik, who “became one of the foremost philosopher-theologians of American Modern Orthodox Judaism” (52), and Leo Strauss rejuvenate the readers’ attitude to law. Soloveitchik was engaged with “‘halakhah’—the body of Jewish law as expressed in the Talmud” (53). Strauss’s “investigation, in Philosophy and Law, involves bracketing the prejudices of modern thought in order to recover a specifically premodern understanding of philosophy in its relation to religion and political life” (58-59). As Bernstein sees it, “both Soloveitchik and Strauss understand law as an optic through which certain fundamental phenomena come to light. In Soloveitchik’s case, these phenomena are the figures of homo religious and (eventually) Halakhic man; in Strauss’s case, these phenomena are religion and politics (as they come to constitute the theological political problem), and the relation between the philosopher and the city” (53). Halakhah, as the body of Jewish law, gives focus to Soloveitchik’s interest in finding an “objectifying structure for accessing subjective religious experience” (62). Strauss’s path indicates a possibility of an “actualized natural situation in which philosophers find themselves.” The latter is connected to religious concerns because it makes up the “perceptual horizon of revelation” (62). Soloveitchik’s and Strauss’s positions on the place and scope of religion constitute a difference between them. Whereas, for Soloveitchik the religious world encompasses the world of law; “for Strauss,” religion “would be (at best) a partial rendition of lived experience” (65). In other words, “[w]hereas Soloveitchik construes law ultimately as religious, Strauss articulates a conception in which the political and religious constitute the primal scene in which philosophy uneasily finds itself” (68). In the final analysis, Bernstein concludes that both Soloveitchik and Strauss see the power of law to structure and guide the lives of “nonphilosophers,” and to serve as a guide in the search for truth – for the understanding of “the world and their place in it” – for the philosophically-minded.
4. “Claude Lefort and Leo Strauss: On a Philosophical Discourse” by Isabel Rollandi
Rollandi constructs the conversation between Lefort and Strauss “around the figure and the work of Machiavelli” (75). Rollandi explains that Lefort thinks that for Strauss, “the proper perspective is achieved by the reader only when we discover the permanence of the problems confronted by human thought as well as Machiavelli’s concern for addressing them” (76). Rollandi shows that Lefort’s hermeneutic approach to Strauss applies to Strauss’s writings the kinds of tools that Strauss himself applies to Machiavelli (78). In a highly illuminating interpretive turn, Rollandi shows that for Lefort, Strauss discovers the fact that Machiavelli falls prey to the same denaturalizing influence of Chrisitan religion that he sought to subvert by his philosophizing (80). The reason why Strauss arrives at this view, according to Lefort, is because Strauss, who sees himself as a perspicacious philosophical reader to whom Machiavelli’s hidden teachings become revealed, erases the “the difference between reading and writing” (84). In other words, Rollandi continues, “Strauss conceives of the author as a sovereign ruler of his discourse. And in the same vein, he conceives of the interpreter as one who can master that discourse. By doing so, according to Lefort, Strauss cannot conceive of the reach of Machiavelli’s interrogation of the political.” (84) The reason why this is the case, as Rollandi shows, is because there is genuine novelty in Machiavelli’s political thought and in the political itself. The illusion of complete mastery on the part of the reader and the author prohibits Strauss from an encounter with the truly new.
5. “A Civil Encounter: Leo Strauss and Charles Taylor on Religious Pluralism” by Jessica L. Radin
At the beginning of her essay entitled, “A Civil Encounter: Leo Strauss and Charles Taylor on Religious Pluralism,” Radin focuses on Strauss’s and Taylor’s views of religion. Taylor, according to Radin, questions the possibility of the construction of the common moral core in the world where all belief in the transcendent is absent (112). Strauss sees in religious belief a salve from “social and communal homogeneity (descent into mass culture),” but Strauss is also apprehensive of the fact that religious communities “end up rendering all other groups outliers or outsiders” (112). Moreover, on Strauss’s view, there is an inherent tension between a political and a religious community. This view, as Radin presents it, leads Strauss to posit that “genuine political equality among religions might be impossible” (114). Taylor, on the other hand, is interested in “figuring out how actual political and social institutions can balance a commitment to freedom of religion with the need for adherents of all religions to interact nonviolently and on equal footing before the state” (114). Strauss and Taylor agree about the importance of cultivating virtue (118). However, for Strauss, it is highly questionable whether there is such a thing as a genuine education en masse. For Taylor one irreplaceable virtue is “tolerance … without which it is impossible to live peacefully in a pluralistic society” (124). Likewise, “Strauss is a defender of pluralism and of difference not only because of the positive effect such a culture has for both Jews and philosophers, but because he held that homogeneity and conformity lead to the creation of a ‘mass culture,’ which is then particularly vulnerable to the linked illnesses of mass culture, political indifference, and messianic expectations” (122). The danger of mass culture, as Radin explains, is not only in its susceptibility to gruesome political injustice and violence (122), but also in the vulnerability of a homogenized population to being swindled manipulated (122-23).
6. “Care of the Self and the Invention of Legitimate Government: Foucault and Strauss on Platonic Political Philosophy” by Miguel Vatter
The focal point of Vater’s examination is the “opposition between Platonic political philosophy and democratic political life” (135). As Vatter claims, the way in which both Strauss and Foucault understand the position of the philosopher in the polis is paradoxical; because for both the philosophical person is – at once – antipolitical, but also is engaged in politics by virtue of leading a philosophical life. For Vatter, “philosophical politics is “anti-political” in two senses: … for … the many who are subject to it, philosophical politics is experienced as “government” and not as a political life that engages the best part of their lives” (136). Furthermore, Vatter posits that “[f]or those … few … who subject others to their government, philosophical politics is ‘anti-political’ either because it gives rise to a doctrine of being that is no longer ‘relative’ to humanity (Strauss) or because it gives rise to a doctrine of self or psychology that is radically unencumbered by the social relation to others (Foucault)” (136). Both for Strauss and Foucault, there is a certain understanding of the self that allow a thoughtful individual to extricate herself from a thoroughgoing immersion in the communal life with the many. Vatter’s “general thesis is that both Strauss and Foucault see in Platonic political philosophy the birth of a governmental (as opposed to political) discourse” (136). “Governmentality,” Vatter goes on to explain, “refers to the “technology of self” that produces a certain ethos or self-conduct, such that this self is then enabled to conduct or govern others, in the sense of leading them. But whereas for Foucault the Platonic conception of governmentality is centered on ethical autonomy, for Strauss it is centered on ontology” (137). In conclusion, Vatter sees a slight, but important divergence between Strauss and Foucault on the meaning of philosophical anti-political politics. For Strauss, “philosophers could not desire to rule in first [sic.] person because their main activity was that of questioning, or illuminating the (unanswerable) basic problems” (149). However, for Foucault, the self-searches of the philosopher grant her a privileged position of becoming a leader of others by first being genuinely a seeker of self-knowledge (149). This moment of philosophical self-articulation is also something that Vatter identifies with self-rule, which he sees as a prerequisite for an informed and good rule of others (148).
7. “A Fruitful Disagreement: The Philosophical Encounter between George P. Grant and Leo Strauss” by Waller R. Newell
Newell largely uses Straussian influences on Grant to interpret Grant’s philosophical program. Newell opens his piece by indicating that Grant’s study of Strauss tempered his faith in historical progress and informed his return to the ancient roots of political thinking. However, whereas “Strauss always maintained a sharp divergence between classical philosophy and revelation, Grant was a Christian Platonist who believed the two were not irreconcilable” (161). Newell develops this difference by juxtaposing Kojève’s engagement with Hegel to Grant’s engagement with Strauss. Importantly, “Kojève interprets Hegel as an ‘atheistic’ thinker” (163) because the latter further develops the project of secularized social equality; the project that was spearheaded by Hobbes and Spinoza. Thus, Kojève is calling for a “Universal Homogeneous State [UHS]” (161). However, and “paradoxically,” as Newell points out, “the satisfaction we achieve at the end of history” in UHS “is tantamount to the withering away of our most admirable or at least our most distinctive human traits” (165). “For Strauss,” as Newell continues, “and Grant appears to agree with him [i.e., with Strauss]—according to the classics, universal happiness is not possible” (165). Newell underscores that “[i]n Grant’s view, however, any argument for the superiority of classical political philosophy must come to terms with the challenge of revelation, a deeper source of the claim that compassion is more important than thought’” (167). Although universal happiness may not be possible for all, the goal is to ameliorate suffering of the greatest number. However, according to Newell, Grant holds that the equalizing power of the Christian faith that was promulgated as “secular liberalism” (181) is a double-edged sword. This is so because “the will to autonomy breaks loose from [its] … old content [and] … wants to entirely remake nature and the world in pursuit of the abstract, empty, endless pursuit of freedom” (181). Thus, for Grant, unlike for Strauss, it is necessary, but insufficient to look back to ancient origins of justice and divinity, because the modern project along with its secularizing and technologizing influence has reshaped human nature (184). In order to capture the meaning of this reshaping, for Grant, we must carry out a deep reflection not only on modernity and the classical world, but also on the meaning of religion (185).
8. “Strauss and Blumenberg: On the Caves of the Moderns” by Danilo Manca
Manca weaves together Strauss’s and Blumenberg’s accounts of the image of the cave from Plato’s Republic. Manco admits that “there is no proof of a direct influence of Strauss on Blumenberg” (187). There is also an apparent divergence between Strauss and Blumenberg on the question of the cave image. As Manca writes, Strauss identifies the Cave with a certain state of nature (187). Unlike Strauss, Blumenberg does not think that we can discern an “original horizon out of which history would have dangerously brought mankind” (187). Strauss sees modernity as being a cave within a cave. Our perspective is displaced, and we first have to find a way out of this historically, politically, and socially constructed displacement. Strauss’s ultimate position, according to Manca, is that we must find the truth by ascending from the cave. However, this is not Blumenberg’s view. The latter “is more interested in exploring the way in which the caves contribute to the acquisition of knowledge. Alluding to the prehistoric cave paintings, Blumenberg states that it was by passing through the cave that the human being became a ‘dreaming animal’” (190). In this connection, Manca introduces Blumenberg’s work on metaphor and the power of myth, which already in Plato, was constitutive of philosophical thought (190). This power continues to inform our thinking and our lives with newfound and often re-figured meanings. In conclusion, Manca states that “Strauss’s main goal is the return to the investigation of the essence of things. Therefore, historiographical investigation can be taken to be only an auxiliary, albeit integral, part of philosophical inquiry. On the contrary, for Blumenberg, historiographical research embraces the entire field of philosophical investigation insofar as it is focused on the study of absolute metaphors” (198-99). For Strauss, historical situatedness of philosophical ideas is one of the tools of investigation into the truth of the matter; for Blumenberg it lays out the entirety of the field of truth.
9. “Writing the Querelle des Anciens et Modernes: Leo Strauss and Ferdinand Tönnies on Hobbes and the Sociology of Philosophy” by Peter Gostmann
Gostmann notes that Tönnies influenced Strauss’s development and that, specifically, Strauss sought support from Tönnies when trying to publish “his essay on Hobbes’s Criticism of religion.” Gostmann concludes that “[u]nlike Strauss, Tönnies is convinced that there has never been a quarrel of the ancients and the moderns. There was, much earlier, a conflict between Old Rome and the new peoples of Europe: established groups versus wanderers, not aristocrats versus plebeians. The measure of the best possible regime Tönnies is concerned with, that is, the aim of his sociology of philosophy, is therefore a ‘natural’ synthesis between institutions suitable for continuity and the mobile elements of society” (230). Whereas, Strauss seeks to recover the ancient mode of philosophizing, on Tönnies’s reading, Hobbes – the quintessential modern thinker (217) – seeks to depart from the “contemplative” model of philosophy (213). Reflecting on this departure, Gostmann writes, “Hobbes’ pioneering act is the translation of Galilean mathematico-mechanical philosophy into a ‘moral and political’ science, based on the theory of a ‘dynamic’ mechanism of optic perception” (213). In his reading of Hobbes, Strauss concludes that despite Hobbes’ ostensible atheism, it is impossible to have a serious grasp of Hobbes’ thinking, unless one espies a certain theological bent in Hobbes. Gostmann discusses a highly interesting set of conclusions that Strauss draws from his study of Hobbes in Natural Right and History (223). For Strauss, Hobbesian thought eventuates in several substitutions of classical for modern priorities. 1) The value and virtue of contemplative life is substituted with industrious life and the rewards it allegedly brings. 2) Based on the first substitution, the governmental authority has little interest in wisdom or contemplation, and instead seeks efficiency in government. This results in doctrinal and partisan politics. Strauss concludes that these changes in social and political values necessitate a particular class of individuals responsible for “shaping public opinion” (223). The latter process, for it to be effective, must find support in the government of state. Thus, the said opinion-shapers, in turn, must see to it that in their work they uphold the interests of their government (223). As Gostmann sees it, for Strauss, Hobbes “has no profound idea of political philosophy,” which is why Hobbes produces a “doctrine that does not defend the freedom of philosophizing, but enables either anti-liberal doctrinism or liberalism without liberality” (229).
10. “Leo Strauss and Jürgen Habermas: The Question for Reason in Twentieth-Century Lifeworlds,” by Rodrigo Chacón
Chacón observes that despite the various divergences in Strauss’s and Habermas’s work there is still one definitive point of contact, i.e., the thinkers’ focus on reason (230). As far as the critique of reason is concerned, “critical thought is meant to be anti-dogmatic, yet it seems to discredit, once and for all, the traditionally philosophic use of reason” (240). This is where Strauss’s interest in “[s]ubverting the law of critique” comes in (241). Chacón writes that “Strauss argues against the view that freedom of speech and thought presupposes the public use of reason” (241). In fact, public opinion is not freely shaped by the individuals who make up that public, but rather, by a few convincing individuals who offer several pre-formulated views on any given matter (242). Nevertheless, because Strauss does not tie the critique of modes of thought to modes of production or social relations, he does not think that there is a “need to revolutionize the way we interact in order to change the way we think” (244). The one, perhaps unresolvable, “problem Strauss discovered … is the ‘theological-political problem.’ … Strauss provides no final answer to the question of whether we can acquire knowledge of the good or must rely on divine revelation to guide our lives. The result is a kind of impasse, or a productive tension, where each side in the conflict between reason and revelation challenges its opponent to articulate its position with ever greater clarity” (246). However, for Strauss, the task of philosophy is, emphatically, the quest for liberation from “religious authority” (246). In comparison to Strauss, “Habermas’s late work critique becomes post-secular. It is now aware that modernity cannot, after all, generate normativity solely on its own” (247). Thus, Strauss’s and Habermas’s thinking finds affinity in articulating this tension between religious or revealed law and discoveries about values and norms that non-religious thought may yield.
11. “Heidegger’s Challenge to the Renaissance of Socratic Political Rationalism” by Alexander S. Duff
Duff examines Strauss’s thought as “[o]ne inviting approach to the difference between Heidegger
and the Socratism,” which Strauss carries out “by looking at the following question: How does human openness relate to the fact of the articulation of the world or the whole” (261)? The reason why it is fruitful to pursue the encounter between Socrates and Heidegger from this point of view is because “Heidegger rejects or, more properly speaking, attempts to overcome the Socratic way of being. In this sense, his thought—from its earliest mature expressions to its fullest adumbration—is counter-Socratic” (260). Not only does Heidegger, according to Duff’s reading of Strauss, misconstrues the meaning of Socratic questioning, but also Heidegger misses the comic dimension of Socratic thought; thus cauterizing access to holistic Socratic philosophizing. On Duff’s presentation, Heidegger offers the following objection: “[w]e cannot understand ourselves when we take our bearings from the what is it question because, while the beings about which we are asking come into existence and pass out of existence as we do, we are aware of and concerned with our own perishing from, as it were, a ‘first-person’ perspective” (262). The orientation that attempts to align the things out there with the individuality of the inquirer has to be refigured such that the horizon of beings in their Being becomes accessible to the questioner. In turn, this questioner is placed within or along the horizon of Being. The latter, i.e., the existential horizon, is atelic, but only emerges “from deeper currents of temporality and care” (268). Duff then engages with Heidegger’s interest in the withdrawal or concealment of Being and the fruitfulness of thinking about nihilism in the context of reckoning with this withdrawal. In the face of nihilism, Duff says that “Strauss praises comedy for its attention to and preservation of the surface, opinion and convention. … Comedy punctures convention by lampooning it, but also shows the need for its preservation. Comedy forswears tragic depths not out of ignorance, but for the sake of presenting a more complete picture of the whole. Comedy is thus superior to tragedy; it transcends and presupposes tragedy” (272-73). Thus, by omitting Socratic humor, ridicule, irony, and comedy – both in Socrates’ utterances and in his deeds – Heidegger misses a critically important dimension of Socratic questioning and philosophizing.
12. “The Wheel of History: Nihilism as Moral Protest and Deconstruction of the Present in Leo Strauss and Albert Camus” by Ingrid L. Anderson
Anderson writes that Strauss’s “1941 lecture on German nihilism” shows a set of concerns that are similar to Camus’s. Both appeared to be discontented with the spread of liberal democracy, and both called for a “rediscovery of and renewed adherence to some semblance of absolute universal values, that are not created by the forces of history but identified in history as enduring and therefore fundamental” (282). Whereas Camus was a staunch critic of communism (284), “Strauss’s work on German nihilism indicates that his greatest worry was the advent of National Socialism. But he also wanted to expose what he felt were the ‘shaky foundations’ of the goals of liberalism, including its steadfast belief in the inevitability of linear progress” (286). Strauss saw German nihilism as particularly “dangerous because it is unable to succinctly identify what it wants to build in place of the present world that it aims to destroy” (288). However, on the point of Nietzschean nihilism, Strauss agrees with Camus who does not take nihilism to be a sign of a will to nothingness, but rather a will to destroy the sham values of the day (289). Anderson concludes that “[b]oth Strauss and Camus reject teleological understandings of history that posit a final cause or destination for human societies” (291). This position, if it is not nihilistic, is at least atelic, and it supports a Nietzschean revaluation of values.
13. “Who’s Laughing? Leo Strauss on Comedy and Mockery” by Menachem Feuer
Feuer gives himself a task to re-examine the place of comedy in Strauss’s work, and its significance for Strauss’s philosophical ideas. To that end, Feuer identifies “three important moments in Strauss’s reflections on comedy and humor: (1) his discussion of Aristophanes and Socrates; (2) his investigation of Enlightenment mockery and the arguments of the ancients; (3) his analysis of Nietzsche’s notion of greatness (and its relationship to mockery) and the Jewish tradition of extreme humility (and its relationship to comedy)” (297). On Feuer’s assessment, Strauss’s view of comedy allows him to think about it as both that which constitutes a relational bonding within a community and that which allows to disrupt the social and cultural horizons (296). The novelty of the worldview that comedy reveals when contrasted with tragedy has to do with the position of the comedian toward the law (political, religious, etc.). More specifically, as Feuer claims, Strauss’s key insight into the power of comedic boasting and ridicule has to do with the fact that, whereas in tragedy a hubristic transgression is punished (thus preserving divine justice), in comedy hubristic boasting is subject to comedic ridicule and to audience’s laughter. More importantly, and “here is Strauss’s esoteric twist: The real ‘boaster par excellence’ … is the comic poet himself, who after all is responsible especially for those successful transgressions of sacred laws that he celebrates in his plays” (305). On the subject of Enlightenment philosophy and the Athens/Jerusalem question, Feuer concludes that, as far as Strauss is concerned, the spirit of self-mockery, self-undermining, and of life-affirming humility is waning, but must be restored to Jewish thought. Feuer concludes his analysis by stating that, for Strauss, the “key question for Athens and Jerusalem is that of the right way of life.” (318) The answer to the question: “What kind of life is [this]?” is “that comedy and philosophy go hand in hand and that humility can, in fact, pass over from the religious sphere into the philosophical sphere. Taking this to heart, one can read Socrates as a humble comic figure who—between Aristophanes and Plato—can figure the tension between the city (community)/ poet and the philosopher. This tension,” Feuer argues, “can also be generalized and applied to the Jewish community, but in terms of prophecy and comedy” (318).
14. “Leo Strauss and Walter Benjamin: Thinking ‘in a Moment of Danger’” by Philipp von Wussow
Wussow puts Strauss and Benjamin in conversation by examining their common interest in Carl Schmitt. Looking at the three authors together allows Wussow to clarify the way in which modern religion and culture relate to the “concept of the political” (324). Wussow delineates “a number of theoretical similarities and differences. We may distinguish a few common themes: (1) the stance toward tradition and modernity and the critique of history as progress; (2) the reading of Carl Schmitt; the relationship between aesthetics and politics, and the notion of the political; (3) the stance toward theological and political concepts; namely, the concepts of messianism and redemption (to which Strauss was, unlike virtually all other German-Jewish thinkers, wholly indifferent), law (which was important for both), and revelation (which is central for Strauss, while it gradually vanishes in Benjamin’s writings); (4) a rare methodological emphasis on reading, and a strong sense for esoteric meanings hidden beneath the surface of a text that was fueled by a deep suspicion of the grand schemes of “theory”; and (5) their relationships to the two major schools of German academic philosophy. Both had a complicated relationship to neo-Kantianism and phenomenology: whereas Benjamin’s thought is closer to neo-Kantianism, Strauss is closer to phenomenology” (327-28). In so far as the relationship between politics and aesthetics is concerned, for Benjamin, an unmistakable “anesthetization of politics under fascism” takes place, on the one hand; and on the other, under communism, art becomes politicized (329). However, both ideologies are “murderous and indefensible” in the final analysis (329). Strauss’s solution to this merging of art and politics is based on his reading of Schmitt, and it proposes a return to the pre-cultural domain of law. Furthermore, both Strauss and Benjamin see great value in engaging with classical thought for the sake of gaining a deeper understanding of our times. However, this study of the tradition itself had to be repositioned. On this point, Wussow writes that “[t]radition could no longer be understood in a traditional way; in this respect Strauss and Benjamin were in perfect agreement” (335). Wussow concludes his investigation by saying that “[t]he two figures of interwar German-Jewish thought represent two different ways of conceptualizing the dialectics of modernity and premodernity; two models of viewing society and culture from outside; and two different foundations for the understanding of the political in its relation to culture” (338).
Jan Patočka is not an obvious place to go looking for Christian theology. While his writings have a clear emphasis on Europe and its Greek-Christian heritage, his explicit remarks on Christianity appear most often as a matter of intellectual history, part of the attempt to understand the intellectual and spiritual framework of modernity. The philosopher is of course best known for inspiring a generation of Czech intellectuals and dissidents in his role as spokesperson for the human rights appeal Charter 77, a role which ultimately cost him his life. Drawn to this dissident legacy and to Patočka’s vision of a post-European Europe, there has been a renewed interest in Patočka among contemporary political philosophers.[i] His work as a scholar of Husserl continues to be read and appreciated in Husserlian circles. But there have been few attempts to read him as a religious or Christian thinker.
One might expect otherwise, given Patočka’s closeness to Heidegger on a number of issues, and given Heidegger’s importance to the so-called ‘theological turn’ in phenomenology in the latter part of the twentieth century. Judith Wolfe, author of Heidegger and Theology characterises this turn as ‚an attempt to responding to the call of the divine without turning God into an idol by metaphysical speculations’ (Wolfe 2014, 193-194). Beyond what Patočka has to say about Christianity explicitly, many themes in his work—sacrifice, conversion, the nothing, care for the soul—are ripe for a theological reading in the above sense. Jean-Luc Marion and Jacques Derrida’s efforts in this direction are perhaps the best known and most thought-provoking; both read Patočka’s conception of sacrifice in a religious light, as a phenomenology of the gift. Yet a religious approach to Patočka’s work has yet to be taken up in any sustained way in contemporary scholarship.
In English-language scholarship, the special issue of The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy 14 (2015), on ‘Religion, War, and the Crisis of Modernity’ in Patočka’s work, edited by Ludger Hagedorn and James Dodd, is the most substantial offering on Patočka’s religious import and his thinking about Christianity. Hagedorn, Martin Ritter, Eddo Evink, Nicolas De Warren, and Riccardo Paparusso have given important readings in this vein though none in a book-length study. Martin Koci’s book is therefore a welcome and important contribution to an underdeveloped field. It reflects an extensive knowledge of continental theology and offers an admirably clear view of the terrain at the present moment, as well as suggesting how Patočka may help to shape this terrain.
Patočka as Post-Christian Christian Thinker
Koci sees Patočka as anticipating the theological turn in phenomenology that began with Marion’s Dieu sans l’etre (1982). Although, in Koci’s view, Patočka’s social and political environment did not permit him to fully explore the religious resonances in his own thought, he can credibly be read as a post-secular thinker avant la lettre. Koci’s aim to establish Patočka as a serious thinker of Christianity contrasts with the standard line taken by Czech scholarship that Patočka is ‘a pure-blooded phenomenologist with no interest in theology’ (216). Those who are sceptical of a theological approach have plenty of support from Patočka’s texts, where he insists on a definite boundary between philosophical activity and religion. However, this need not prevent a reading of Patočka as a phenomenological thinker of theological import. Furthermore, there are reasons to think such an approach is not against the grain of Patočka’s own thinking. Patočka was raised by a Catholic mother and was a believer as a young man, though he grew dissatisfied with a religious framework as he began to study philosophy. He engaged seriously with numerous theological thinkers, in particular his fellow Bohemian John Amos Comenius (1592-1670), and he maintained a long friendship with the (Barthian) Protestant theologian Josef Bohumil Souček, with whom he discussed matters of faith and the meaning of Christianity. In his later years, Patočka gave lectures on theological topics to his students. Patočka’s engagement with Christianity increases in his writings from the prolific period of the 1960s and 70s, which present his mature thought.
Following Ludger Hagedorn, Koci’s study is an exercise in what he calls ‘after’ thinking, in this case, as the title suggests, thinking what Christianity might continue to mean after the death of God, and in the face of the various (related) crises of modernity. Yet, he explains, the project is not to develop a Christianity that ‘works’ in a postmodern context. It is rather to develop a Christian theology that challenges and questions the status quo and offers the possibility for transformation. ‘Christianity after Christianity does not therefore refer to the current state of religion in a post-Christian age. The “after” is not a relation to the past but an opening to the future’ (171-172). Christianity, as Koci understands it, always involves this dimension of ‘after’, since it a way of thinking that is oriented toward the not yet, harbouring the seeds of its own undoing and remaking. Within this framework, it becomes clearer how Patočka can be of value. Patočka’s own conception of history or historical life (a life in truth) involves an awareness of ‘problematicity’, a radical openness to possibility that calls for a repeated dismantling of what one takes to be solid truths.
A single sentence from Patočka’s late work Heretical Essays provides the refrain throughout Koci’s study:
By virtue of this foundation in the abysmal deepening of the soul, Christianity remains thus far the greatest, unsurpassed but also un-thought-through human outreach (vzmach, upsurge, élan) that enabled humans to struggle against decadence. (Patočka 1999, 108).
Koci attempts to make sense of this suggestive and somewhat obscure remark by exploring a number of interrelated issues in Patočka’s thought: from the crisis of modernity, issuing in nihilism or ‘decadence’ (Ch 2) to his critique of metaphysics (Ch 3), to ‘negative Platonism’ (Ch 4), to the three movements of existence (Ch 5) to ‘care for the soul’ and sacrifice (Ch 6-7). The emphasis of Koci’s analysis of the above remark falls heavily on the notion of the ‘unthought’ dimension of Christianity to which Patočka alludes, and he interprets this along the lines that Hagedorn develops in his article ‘“Christianity Unthought”—A Reconsideration of Myth, Faith, and Historicity’ (2015). Quoting Hagedorn,
Christianity unthought would then indicate the maintenance of some core of Christianity even after its suspension, and through its suspension […] in the sense of metaphorically reclaiming some resurrection after the Cross. […] It is the signal for an investigation into what is left of the Christian spirit without being confessional or credulous (Hagedorn 2015, 43).
The Anselmian understanding of theology of fides quaerens intellectum—faith seeking understanding—in Koci’s hands becomes both 1) an affirmation that faith is ‘a way of thinking’ and 2) an explanation for why Christian theology must involve the continual questioning of itself, must relate to its own unthought. Christianity is, in this sense, a thinking of the unthought. Yet this could easily be misconstrued. Thinking the unthought does not mean ‘neutralizing’ (59) the unthought by bringing it in into the totalising framework of closed reason (the framework of modernity). Put in Heideggerian terms, the unthought signifies an openness and responsiveness to being, beyond the metaphysics of beings. Koci reads Patočka’s account of Christianity in the context of his account of the crisis of modernity and modern rationality, which has become closed in on itself (Patočka contrasts the ‘closed’ and the ‘open’ soul). In Koci’s words, ‘religion breaks with the modern enclosure precisely because it allows the others, the otherwise, and, last but not least, the Other to enter the discussion’ (60).
Regarding Christianity’s ‘abysmal deepening of the soul’ Patočka places special emphasis on the soul’s ‘incommensurability with all eternal being’ (Patočka 1999, 108) because of the soul’s placement in history and its call to responsibility by virtue of being in the world (See the fifth heretical essay for this discussion). Quoting Koci, the soul becomes:
the locus of our engagement with problematicity; it is where we experience the upheaval of being-in-the-world. The soul is the organ of reflection upon the concrete historical situation into which we are thrown; it is the flexibility to think, to question, to challenge given meaning in order to search for a deeper meaning, time and again. The soul is what leads us into thinking (194).
The final word of this exposition is key. Christianity is the ‘greatest, unsurpassed’ struggle against decadence, against any account that would seek to settle things once and for all and close off further thinking. This is important for the overall project here, which is, in part, to use the un-thought of Christianity to challenge both philosophical and theological thinking. The proposal is that we take Christianity seriously as a way of thinking and continual questioning that can help to awaken us from our dogmatic slumber, whether the content of this dogmatism is instrumental rationality, nihilism, secularism, or traditional metaphysics.
It might be wise to pause and return again to Patočka’s claim that Christianity is the ‘greatest, unsurpassed’ movement in the fight for meaning. At first glance, this remark looks like an example of what Koci calls ‘Christian triumphalism’, proclaiming the supremacy of Christianity. Indeed, Christianity does occupy a privileged philosophical position in Patočka’s thought, for reasons that have been explained in part above. But I agree with Koci’s assessment that reading Patočka as a Christian triumphalist, as John D. Caputo does in The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida (1997), mistakes his aim altogether; he is not calling for the triumphal return of Christendom as a political power (Koci surmises that the only way Caputo could make such an error is by not having read any Patočka). On the other hand, Koci’s insistence that ‘for Patočka, Christianity is not “better” than other religions’ (193) is less convincing. He claims that:
Patočka does not understand Christianity in Hegelian terms and is far from situating Christianity on top of the religious tree. Neither does Patočka understand Christianity in Kantian terms as the highest moral call […] I see the “unsurpassed” nature of Christianity [in Patočka’s remark quoted above] as referring to a recontextualization of the soul advanced by Christianity.’ (194).
It is true that Patočka does not understand Christianity in either a Hegelian or a Kantian light; these would be grave misreadings (Caputo appears to be the main target here, since he is guilty of mistaking Patočka for a Hegelian). But it is nevertheless apparent across Patočka’s texts that Christianity is the only religion Patočka takes seriously as properly historical-philosophical; others are relegated to mythical thinking. So by Patočka’s own philosophical standards Christianity is ‘better’ than other religions, better not by virtue of its confessional content but by its contribution to being in the world. In Christianity, the soul is understood in all its problematicity and openness. This is a controversial claim, to be sure, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Patočka does in fact situate Christianity ‘on top’.
Koci argues that there are three features of Christianity that Patočka allows us to see which have serious bearing on contemporary philosophical and theological thinking. First, Patočka:
reintroduces the centrality of Christianity as a new “religiosity” of thinking. In thinking, Christianity overcomes both mythos [a mythical thinking is characterised by the maintenance of life and by adherence to the past] and logos [closed rationality]. (172)
This religiosity of thinking goes in the opposite direction of a demythologization of Christianity. In Patočka’s picture, the world is reenchanted, in contrast to the disenchantment of the scientific-rationalist picture. We open ourselves to the world anew. Koci reads this shift as proposing ‘more Christianity rather than less of it […] Of course, this is not a return to anything from the past. Nonetheless, something is coming, and this something is related to Christianity’ (172).
Second, Christianity ‘becomes an existential category whose basic expression is faith as openness to the future’, ‘faith that is a radicalized, philosophical notion—the care for the soul’ (172). This rather dramatically removes the specific confessional content of Christianity, a move to which I will return below. Third, Christianity is an ‘existential thinking’ that realises itself in ‘acting and living’, living as a person who cares for the soul (173). The authenticity of such an attitude is found in the willingness to take responsibility for life through self-surrender or sacrifice, ‘in the name of a truth beyond positive contents’ (173). Patočka’s emphasis on the ‘experience’ [or activity] of sacrifice, in Koci’s reading, contrasts with the language of ‘participation’ in the absolute gift in both Derrida and Marion, which he reads as more of a conceptual schema than an existential one (see Ch 6 and 7 for an extended discussion).
Does Koci make a convincing case for the value of reading Patočka theologically? I had not been inclined to interpret Patočka along these lines prior to reading Koci’s book, but I see enormous value for Patočka scholarship in opening up this line of thought. Koci’s reading of Patočka as a post-Christian Christian thinker is creative and thought-provoking for those familiar with Patočka and for anyone interested in how to think about faith meaningfully in a contemporary postmodern context.
I have two criticisms, centred around the style of exposition in the book and the unresolved tension between the philosophical and the specifically Christian.
One feels that there is a good deal of stage setting in this work: offering context for Patočka’s thought by way of an exploration of the death of God, the crises of modernity, twentieth-century phenomenological thought, and contemporary continental theology. This is all relevant and helpful to the project of thinking about what Patočka has to offer, but the sustained engagement in the details of Patočka’s own account, especially sustained reflection on the writings that are meant to be of theological interest, is less developed. Koci is well-versed in both continental philosophy-theology (see his recent edited volume on the French philosopher Emmanuel Falque) and in Patočka’s writings, yet the former threatens to swallow up the latter in this book; it is only toward the end of Chapter 5 that Koci asks the question: ‘what is Patočka’s Christianity?’ (p 165), and only in Chapters 6 and 7, in comparisons with Derrida and Marion, that one sees a sustained attention to the details of this Christianity. What I miss in the breadth of the author’s treatment is the depth that comes from close textual analysis, especially when dealing with texts as condensed as Patočka’s.
There are perhaps unavoidable reasons for the thinness of detail in the present account of Patočka’s post-Christian Christianity. It may be the result of Patočka’s own writing, which does not lend itself well to systematic treatment, especially in the case of his writings that might be deemed of theological value, which are naturally scattered across various works. Furthermore, Patočka’s writings often have a provisional quality, not lacking in depth but with a tendency toward ellipses, presenting many rich ideas but often leaving the reader wanting further explication. Whether the root of this elliptical quality is to be found in Patočka’s philosophical commitments, in his own idiosyncrasies as a writer, or in the extremely straitened historical circumstances in which he was forced to work is a question with no definitive answer. However, this quality of Patočka’s writing is especially pronounced when he speaks about quasi-Christian themes such as sacrifice and mystery (see 233-234 for an example). Koci intelligently reads these silences—pace Kierkegaard and Derrida—as pregnant with significance. One of Koci’s examples of this is Patočka’s failure to explicitly name Christ in his writings, though he makes significant allusions to him, as in the discussion of sacrifice in the end of the 1973 Varna lecture and the reference to the Passion narrative in the ‘Four Lectures on Europe’. Koci also speculates that Patočka might well have developed his post-Christian ideas more explicitly given a different intellectual and political climate. Both assessments seem plausible to me.
That said, other than the excellent description of kenotic sacrifice in Chapter 7, the present book is rather thin on the details of what Patočka’s Christianity might look like. One example is the very truncated discussion of Christian community that ends the book. These considerations were, to me, very ripe for development, and I would have liked to hear more of Koci’s own vision of what forms a Patočkian Christian community could take, what forms of worship, what shared rituals. Koci is inspired by Patočka’s key idea of the ‘solidarity of the shaken’ from the Heretical Essays, and other scholars could certainly build on Koci’s groundwork. Naturally questions of post-Christian ritual and worship go beyond the scope of Patočka’s own writings, but Koci’s reading of Patočka raises these questions and invites imaginative responses. Such exercises in filling out Patočka’s own account may risk heresy to the master, yet without them, one is left with a portrait of Christianity that does not differ very much from a purely philosophical account: each person strives to ‘care for the soul’, living in a full awareness of the problematicity of finitude, dedicating themselves to a truth that is not embodied in anything present or actual.
Beyond Patočka’s writing style, there may be another reason for the sense of thinness I noted earlier, and this is one that Koci addresses directly, namely that Patočka’s understanding of Christianity is not a positive theology. There is no content, per se, no dogma in Patočka’s understanding of the divine or in the way of relating to the world that is taken up in an attitude of faith. While this kind of theological approach has an impressive pedigree, reading Patočka in this tradition raises the question anew of how and to what extent Patočka’s Christianity differs from a wholly philosophical account. Christianity in Patočka can easily be seen as having philosophical value, value for the question of how to orient oneself in the world, but I remain unconvinced that the lessons that Patočka draws from it are fundamentally different from the lessons he draws from Socrates. A distance from true being and a recognition of the limits of knowledge are, to Patočka’s mind, the distinctly Christian intellectual contributions. This is distinct from Platonism, to be sure, but Hannah Arendt, for one, draws the same lessons from Socrates.
Koci to his credit directly tackles the question of whether the features that he identifies as Christian in Patočka’s work may just as well be called Socratic. Patočka’s ‘care for the soul’ and ‘sacrifice’ can—and have—been read either way. On the topic of sacrifice, Koci offers a comparison of the deaths of Socrates and Christ to see which best accords with Patočka’s understanding of a sacrifice for nothing, elaborated in his 1973 lecture ‘The Dangers of Technicization in the Sciences According to E. Husserl and the Essence of Technology as Danger in M. Heidegger’ and in the Heretical Essays. In Patočka, sacrifice for nothing, as opposed to a transactional sacrifice for some specific end, is a central concept; sacrifice in the radical, non-transactional sense discloses the ontological difference, elaborated by Heidegger, between specific beings or things—taken individually or as a set—and being proper, which is no-thing and is not of the order of beings (see the postscript of Heidegger’s ‘What is Metaphysics?’ for the origin of this discussion). In an act of sacrifice, an individual brings this ontological difference, otherwise hidden and supressed, into view. A new understanding of truth is thus affirmed.
Construed in this way, Socrates and Christ both seem equally apt examples of a sacrifice for nothing—both die for a truth that is not obvious or present (and certainly not recognised by those around them) but which they nonetheless affirm by being willing to give their lives. Neither of these deaths could be thought of as transactional. Koci’s reading of these deaths focusses on a different feature, however. Socrates is serene, even happy in the face of death, requesting that his friends remember to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius—for ridding him of the malady of life. Koci points to this attitude and to passages in the Phaedo as evidence that Socrates thought of death as a welcome release from life, that his serenity came from the certainty that he would finally be in direct contact with higher being and would be able to know what he only glimpsed in part. Christ, by contrast, utters the anguished cry ‘eli eli lama sabachthani’. While Christ accepts that he must sacrifice himself, he does not understand it. Rather than embracing death in the certain knowledge that immortality was preferable, he holds onto finitude and it remains problematic for him. Patočka quotes Christ’s final words in his ‘Four Seminars on Europe’ (Patočka, ‘Čtyři semináře k problému Evropy’, 403–404 and 412–413), suggesting his attention to this aspect of the passion narrative. Christ’s kenosis or self-emptying is, for Koci:
a scandalous provocation to shift from a simple life and its preservation to thinking about human being. It seems that herein lies the motivation behind Patočka’s plea for fighting for the Christian legacy, albeit in a deconstructed and demythologized manner, for the post-Christian world (215).
Ultimately Koci admits that one cannot decide on a purely Greek or Christian reading of sacrifice since Patočka himself tends to read Socrates through the lens of Christ and Christ through the lens of Socrates. For Koci, this ambiguity reflects a deeper one in Patočka’s work: Christian theology is a response to (Greek) philosophy, but philosophy must learn lessons from Christianity if it to break free from its own dogma. It is only in the relationship between the two that an authentic orientation to the world emerges.
I am sympathetic to the project of this book, and I am greatly attracted to ‘Patočka’s Christianity’, as Koci presents it. However, I remain unsure of the legitimacy and value of putting this account under the heading of ‘Christianity’, or even ‘post-Christian Christianity’, I freely admit that this may have more to do with my own understanding of Christianity, and it is certainly rooted in my understanding of philosophy. Koci writes in Ch 4, ‘I am convinced that Patočka invites us to think about a certain vision of philosophical faith (147).’ I agree much more readily with this formulation. I am convinced that the texts themselves authorise a ‘post-secular’ reading; it seems to me the natural result of good philosophical thinking, that, like Patočka’s, it remain open to transcendence.
Hagedorn, Ludger and Dodd, James, eds. 2015. The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy XIV. Religion, War and the Crisis of Modernity: A Special Issue Dedicated to the Philosophy of Jan Patočka. London: Routledge.
Hagedorn, Ludger. 2015. ‘“Christianity Unthought”—A Reconsideration of Myth, Faith, and Historicity’. The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy 14: 31–46.
Patočka, Jan. 1999. Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History. Translated by Erazim Kohák and edited by James Dodd. Chicago: Open Court.
Patočka, Jan. 2002. In Sebranné spisy Jana Patočky, vol. 3. Péče o duši, III: Kacířské eseje o filosofii dějin; Varianty a přípravné práce z let 1973–1977; Dodatky k Péči o duši I a II. Edited by Ivan Chvatík and Pavel Kouba. Prague: Oikoymenh.
Wolfe, Judith. 2014. Heidegger and Theology. London: Bloomsbury.
[i] See e.g. Meacham, Darian and Tava, Francesco, eds. 2016. Thinking after Europe: Jan Patočka and Politics. London: Rowman and Littlefield.
*For those interested in reading more of Patočka, the forthcoming Care for the Soul: Jan Patočka Selected Writings (Bloomsbury, 2022) will offer a number of his texts available in English for the first time.
Rodolphe Gasché’s latest book Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea? is a collection of interrelated philosophical essays which employ the phenomenological and post-phenomenological traditions in order to answer the question of what it means to live in Europe or, to put it more precisely, what Europe means in itself. The fundamental premise of the text is that many today have taken for granted the ongoing layering process of meaning within Europe since Greek antiquity. Europe, as Gasché sees it, requires an intellectual recalibration in which it can come to terms with its prior heritage, overcome its past mistakes, and enable its hopes for the future. In today’s climate that is keen on pursuing either reparations for past mistakes or protections for previous agendas, it is altogether fitting to approach these judgments on theoretical grounds thus laying bare the inner motivations for guilt or defensiveness. In so far as Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea? answers the question in its own title it also helps us better understand political and cultural turmoil today. Importantly, what makes this text unique is that it is sophisticated enough to confront present problems in a manner that avoids hyperbole and remains rooted in philosophical insights. In other words, Locating Europe is a much-needed investigation of Europe’s role in not only strengthening appeals for progress and reform but also emboldening calls for self-criticism and reevaluation.
The book’s elevens chapters challenge older attempts at a phenomenology of Europe and reposition more recent ones. Indeed, as the title suggests, there are three basic sections to the text: Europe as a figurative meaning, Europe as a conceptual meaning, and Europe as an idea. Gasché constructs each sphere (i.e., figure, concept, or idea) and shows their implications in relationship to the past, present, and future. The overall argument is that Europe is more than a political or economic entity; it is a highly dynamic expanse in which all forms of life are embraced in thought and deed. According to Gasché, Europe is a mode of living and thinking which opens itself up to new beginnings and harnesses the discoverability of new paths despite threats of decay or degeneration. In the twenty-first century, some critics assert that Europe no longer has a legitimate place in the world due to its imperial projects since the onset of Western colonialism. Others, paradoxically, argue that Europe’s trajectory as a political project is too self-consumed in utopian ideals such as the European Union. Gasché rejects the false choice between dismissal and idealization by teasing out deep continuities in European culture that have remained since ancient Greece: “rationality, self-accounting, self-criticism, responsibility toward the other, freedom, equality (including for the different sexes), justice, human rights, democracy, and the list goes on” (ix). To question these values would be to question Europe itself.
Following Maria Zambrano’s line of thought, Locating Europe begins by showing that Europe’s origins come from the periphery, namely, Classical Greece and ancient North Africa. This preliminary point is integral. If it is true to say that Europe’s way of thinking and living is conducive to the ‘new’ or the ‘different’, then one must be able to locate these standards within the structures and narratives of Western thought. The point is to say neither that Europe is privileged in nature nor that it is monolithic in scope (xi). Rather, what is imperative is showing that the plane on which this issue is discussed and debated is itself a demonstration of what Europe’s inherent purpose is all about. In other words, the make-up of Europe as debatable, as contestable, as a forum of reflection serves as the self-evidence for its redemptive qualities for the purpose of “constant renewal” (xi). It is, thus, the perennial goal of Europe to maintain an unrelenting reflection of itself without which it could not achieve a conscious understanding of its traditional inspirations, creative aspirations, and lived ambitions.
So, what does it mean for Europe to be a figure, a concept, or an idea? Which rubric offers the best representational status? Gasché asserts that a figurative Europe revolves around notions of intuited spaces or interactive intelligible schemas such as “the archipelago, the horizon, or indistinguishable from light” (xiv). Or, perhaps Europe is more aptly understood as a concept linked to language development, idiomatic gestation, or universal communicative capacities. Lastly, Europe as an idea—which Gasché primarily focuses on as most feasible—manifests the highest form of representation in the sense that it provides a regulative function for understanding which “does not exhaust itself” and perpetually leaves open opportunity as a metaphysical possibility. As Gasché puts it: “It is, in particular, this identification of Europe as an idea that undergirds all the distinct essays collected in this volume, which also feature studies such as the intrinsic interweaving of the notion of Europe with the question of responsibility to the other, primarily Europe’s responsibility toward its twofold (and aporetic) heritage of Greek and Christian and Judaic thought” (xiv). In effect, by lending legitimacy to this last approach of Europe as an idea, Gasché allows for conceiving Europe in a more dynamic cognizable space.
Europe as a Figure
The first major section of the text involves three chapters: “Archipelago,” “Without a Horizon,” and “In Light of Light.” Though distinct in their own rights, each chapter coheres with the first proposition of Europe as a figure. “Archipelago” centers on the notion of plurality and diversity of figures as intrinsic to Europe’s trajectory and growth through history since its inception in the ancient Mediterranean world. For instance, drawing from the philosophy of Massimo Cacciari, the Archipelago stands as the perennial figure by which the dialogue of home and abroad, far and near, different and same all synchronize with one another to formulate an origin story of variance and similarity that can still account for progress. In other words, the ancient traditions which speak of an archipelago of nations, ports, and tribes co-existing with one another despite their differences and distances seems to suggest that it may very well still be possible today, especially in view of the fact that Us versus Them mentalities remain. The essential issue at hand is how Europe can account for basic individuality while at the same time foster interconnectivity. Can the figurative meaning of the Archipelago still be operative to answer urgent cultural questions of divisiveness today? Or, to put it in metaphysical terms: how can the part cohere with the whole, how can the One bond with the Many? For Gasché this possibility is rooted in a conversion, a movement to self-transcendence (6). Although this movement may come with the dangers of loss of identity, of conquest of the Other, or even inter-subjective friction, the very acceptance of this kind of fractious reality may be the key to unlocking a bright future. By accepting difference as fundamental to the origin of Europe—as seen in the Archipelago—then perhaps the notion of self-transcendence will appear all the more intelligible as a purposive task rather than an accidental fate.
“Without a Horizon” further expands the notion of spatial perception as it relates to Europe’s figurative meaning. Here, Gasché employs the philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy to explain the components and impediments latent in a ‘universal vision’ (15). If the gaze of the twenty-first century European is cast forward as a conscious aim, then it is also possible to redirect it as a lived reappropriation. ‘The look’ as construed by Nancy is that which can go beyond as well as move within. In short, the look has the deepest proximity with itself. “It is a seeing that before having the power of sight, ‘sees’ seeing nothing. It is seeing affected by itself in advance of all ‘itself’, and, hence, before all seeing that sees something particular” (16). Accordingly, the goal of self-identity is made further dynamic once realized as a perceptive consciousness endowed with the capacity to both look from itself as well as look at itself. In this way, the viewer can touch the vision and maintain intimacy with the act (17-18). More than this, the viewer stretches the outer limits of the horizon, thus, going beyond what was previously held to be a self-contained universal scope. In this way, the infinite becomes intelligible and the beyond appears possible. “At the extreme border of the horizon, the world appears in its horizonless infinity, a finite world, and hence an infinite one” (24). If there is a blind spot of the European gaze, then Europe need only to recast its look beyond the status quo horizon into darker untested spaces.
“In Light of Light” marks the final portion of the book’s first section. Though it moves in the direction of Europe as a concept, it nonetheless maintains the character of Europe a figure. Gasché starts by framing the chapter in terms of Husserl’s work “The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology.” If Husserl is correct to assert that Europe is the idea of progress par excellence he inherently upgrades Europe to a conceptual level in which case the entity (i.e., Europe) represents the task of knowledge acquisition itself (i.e., philosophy or science properly construed). On the flip-side, however, perhaps Europe as an idea is nothing more than a spiritual figure with a mythical pregnancy and legendary birth. This philosophical dilemma, according to Gasché, is an intrinsic tension to Europe as figure, concept, and idea. Either Europe is a conceptual standard on universal grounds, or it is particular only to itself and its own figurative germinations. Gasché, therefore, employs Jan Patočka’s seminal work Plato and Europe in order to reorient Husserl’s conception of Europe from theoretical grounds toward more pragmatic attitudes. Patočka marks a departure from Husserl’s ‘things in themselves’ to a form of how things ‘present themselves’, most especially the human being (35). What was previously held to be non-real or non-phenomenological in the Husserlian sense now functions in a deeply human way that, as Patočka suggests, centers on the Greek conception of the soul. “The soul is what properly distinguishes the human being; that precise instance in us to which the totality of being shows itself, hence becoming phenomenon” (36). In so far as the soul is the ‘becoming’ of the human it is also that which summons a response and realization from the non-real to the real. In other words, the importance of the Greek conception of the soul was not so much its theoretical insights but rather the intimacy and transparency by which the human being manifests itself in the world through actualization. Furthermore, this manifestation process is the guiding light that the Greeks sparked first and through which hidden appearances become truly tangible. Just as the care of the soul persists, so, too, does the light continue to beam forth.
Europe as a Concept
The second set of texts deals with Europe as a concept. In “The Form of the Concept,” Gasché employs Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophy as a way to frame a conceptually robust representation of Europe by utilizing the phenomenon of ‘world-shaping’. For Gadamer, Europe’s role as an arbiter on the world-stage is more than simply a political or economic intervention; it is one that holds together the fabric of higher questions in which disagreement, synthesis, and transformative change can cohere with one another in a dynamic unity. Understood conceptually, Europe is the “differentiation that calls for science” as well as the “unifying power of science that allows differentiation to take place from within” (51). In short, a conceptual Europe is one that can account for the Other in a way that also enables a revivifying encounter with Oneself. Additionally, European philosophy and science have allowed for such progression since the birth of Greek theoria so that ‘higher questions’ maintain within themselves an inertia of enlightening proportions. Moreover, Indo-Germanic languages have facilitated a form of knowledge-seeking that relies fundamentally on the Western grammatical form. To the extent that meaning is extracted from its deep, hidden deposits by virtue of transmittable grammar, it also allows for its recognition as a continuous human affair. Literature, religion, and history testify to this reality in the sense that they all rely on a communicability which allows for the unfolding of the meaning in an intelligible manner—whether it be in the mold of storytelling, theological mystery, or accounts of human events. Europe as a civilization would not be what it is if it could not muster a unity between the diversity of disciplines. The form of Western disciplines is the center of gravity—the glue of togetherness—by which Europe can determine itself conceptually. “The discovery of the form of the concept is Europe’s most distinguishing trait” (57).
“Axial Time” relies on Karl Jaspers interpretation of the Axial Period, an era or event that goes to the historical root of itself. “The Axial Period is an empirically evident formation of meaning that can be intuited by everyone and can be understood as a measure against which to judge history” (67). Its purpose, or, rather its parameters, involves that of renewal or the process by which renewal can be an empirically possible reality. For Jaspers, the Axial Period is a Greek phenomenon in which for the first time Western man reached beyond itself into the realm of Being and participated in issues larger than natural life; moreover, it was mirrored by break-through ideas in the Middle East and Asia. It is “the emergence of the individual person in the shape of the philosopher, the traveling thinker, the prophet, and so forth” (69). However, Jaspers laments that twentieth century humankind has lost touch with this prior Axial Period. According to Gasché, this has occurred because modern man has forgotten that the conceptual project of Europe is as much tied to others (e.g., the East) in as much as it is linked to Europe (e.g., the West). What was so incredible about the Greek breakthrough is that it was carried forth and intimated in ways that resembled the Middle East and Asia. In so far as the Greeks vied to go beyond practical and mythical attitudes, so, too, did the great minds of the Eastern world. Though two distinct worlds, each sphere constitutes each other on a more profound level in which cohesions succeeds not because of isolation but by an appreciation of uniqueness. “In fact, it is a difference that is constitutive of Europe and implies the recognition that every spiritual phenomenon is divided, and comes to life only when the spiritual heeds the difference that divides it from within, thus establishing it in relation to another recognized as capable of truth” (83). The question is to what extent Europe can live up to its end of the bargain.
“Eastward Trajectories” encompasses nicely what the previous two chapters laid forth. In short, Gasché traces how major thinkers in the twentieth century shifted their philosophical lens to the East in order to improve what was most prized in the West. The principal example is Karl Löwith’s travels to Japan during Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s and 1940s. Fundamentally, Löwith asserts that to grasp Europe conceptually in the modern moment requires that it be approached from the outside looking in. What is perhaps most surprising about his account is that the more he explored Japan the more that he realized the similarities between it and Europe. The spiritual affinities at the level of the natural world, the preoccupation with the cosmos, and mythical attitudes toward the divine each resembled structures which he found to be true also in Greek antiquity. Moreover, Löwith blames the ‘new Europe’ of the contemporary situation for forgetting these essential qualities of Europe’s origin story. In so far as hyper-nationalism parallels the grave travesties of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so, too, does a naïve self-love incur loss of identity on a metaphysical level. Simply put, what Europe lacks is an awareness of being wrong—of being conceptually mistaken. In dialectical terms, Europe is impoverished by its inability to accept that which is other and outside of itself—another consciousness without which its own consciousness could not realize itself (102). A renewed philosophical attitude “is predicated on a critical self-distancing of the human being that allows for a contemplation of this order in all its otherness, as other than the passing concerns of humans within the historical world, but that also makes it possible for human beings to be, as Hegel put it, with themselves precisely in being-other” (106).
Europe as an Idea
The third and final section of Locating Europe is that of Europe as an idea; it is the largest and most intellectually striking part of the book. Each chapter is preoccupied with the challenge of Europe as an idea which, for Gasché, is either a doubtful illusion or an empowering authenticity.
In “Feeling Anew for the Idea of Europe,” Gasché sets the stage for what an idea of Europe might possibly look like and if it can hold as the identity of Europe. Following Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive focus on difference, Gasché asserts that Europe as ‘a heading’ (i.e., trajectory) cannot ignore the possibility of there being another ‘heading’ that proliferates all around us in everyday terms (114). If the goal is to achieve an idea of Europe that can account for all modes of living and thinking, then perhaps it is worthwhile to destabilize the previous concept of Europe and bring about new ideas of it. In so far as Europe differs from its own Europe-ness as well as from Eastern cultures, it discovers what kind of identity it could be tomorrow rather than remain with its conceptual stagnation of yesterday. As Gasché writes: “It is about the always possible change of that identity” (116). In short, feeling for a new Europe amounts to what it is as much as what it is not. “Differently put, this feeling that registers an essential debt to the other heading, and the other of the heading, a debt so essential that the possibility of change is intrinsically tied into the positivity of identity, hence, that an element of unpredictability is inevitably part of identity, is the ‘new’ felt identity of what it means to be European” (117). Although Europeans may feel their identity, they feel it in differences and not in sameness. Alas, they have lost sight of what is unique about all perspectives available in the landscape of the everyday.
Gasché also permits the reader to consider Kant’s definition of the idea or, as the title of the next chapter suggests, ““An Idea in the Kantian Sense?.” The premise is that if Europe is a task to be fulfilled, then it follows that one must have ‘an idea’ of what needs to be done. In this way, Kant’s notion of the idea as regulative might shed some light; the idea is not self-contained slice of information but rather the ground for further reflection. Or, as Gasché defines it: “an idea in the Kantian sense is not only a representation to which no congruent sensory or empirical object corresponds but which, nonetheless, is necessary to the function of reason” (135). Kantian ideas supposedly maximize psychological space and push the boundaries by which reason can operate, irrespective of empirical reality. However, Gasché argues that to accept an idea of Europe in the Kantian sense presupposes that all regulation of reason succeeds in its aims towards systematic unity. In other words, Kant misunderstands that purposive unity cannot account for all thoughts and deeds; what it forgets is the everyday. And, to Derrida’s point, it is the everyday that Europe has forgotten.
“Responsibility, a Strange Concept” appears to be Gasché’s own way of answering the call to the everyday, suggested in the previous chapter. In short, this chapter demonstrates the inner complexity of an appeal to responsibility—meant absolutely as well as inter-personally. In this way, Europe might be better positioned to balance its heritage of moral philosophy, on the one hand, and current demands for decentering arcane laws of morality, on the other. The modern subject is indebted to previous notions, but it does not de facto obey them. “Our relationship to heritage is a critical relationship” (153). To render an ethics proper to the contemporary situation requires that it be put in doubt, that is, experimented and tested for its cultural endurance. If Europe is to have a future, it must be responsible. At the same, however, responsibility is not synonymous with obedience. Rather, it is more germane to the notion of response. By stepping outside of rules and duties and into the domain of intuitive contact, one opens up what a response could and ought to be. The goal is to meet the Other as the Other rather than to create or define them. Therein, lies the truth of responsibility.
Importantly, if the previous conception of responsibility is compelling, then it follows that Derrida’s phenomenological approach deserves more investigating. Or, to put it differently, what actually remains of Derrida’s deconstruction of Europe? Such is the subject-matter of “An Immemorial Remainder: The Legacy of Europe.” According to Gasché, there is something that remains with us from Derrida: “It is a legacy that concerns the formal possibility of legacy itself, or, more precisely, since without such remaining no such thing as a heritage would exist, it concerns the very (‘performative’) imparting of legacy itself” (169). What is crucial to the legacy of Derrida is the way in which he pushes abstraction into contestation with itself in order to render lived experience more conducive to the inter-subjective world. His goal is to open up a khora (i.e., a place of middle-ground) so indefinable yet indispensable that it resists appropriation and therefore remains a place of sacredness. Indeed, this place’s unconditional purpose is that of tolerance which respects singularity and allows for distance. Moreover, it is: “a place where each discrete singularity would be able to have a place, or rather, to take place” (188). For Gasché, the khora allows for the idea.
Having considered Gasché’s three options of Europe as figure, concept, and idea, it is necessary to point out a significant tension within the text. This tension is not an adverse feature of Gasché’s phenomenology, rather its appearance serves more as a reminder of the deep complexity within his question. Gasché admits that he is partial to the notion of Europe as an idea (xiv). However, he also confesses that if Europe is taken as an idea in the Derridean sense and not in the Kantian sense, then the stance leaves itself vulnerable to vague representation or naïve abstraction, even if the idea of Europe is grounded in responsibility to the Other as Other. “It reveals itself as incapable of sufficiently and adequately thematizing what responsibility is and must be,” he writes (165). In this case, the Derridean idea of Europe as responsible cannot provide logical cohesion for its future operations; it becomes mere accident. A proper idea of Europe would have to meet the richness of what Europe actually means. It would need to go beyond itself in this regard.
According to Gasché, it is precisely phenomenology itself that not only tolerates this dilemma but also is equipped to respond to it. In other words, to be able to identify the problem (e.g.., the idea of European decay) necessitates a discourse that can support this endeavor for all its intricacies, rather than subsuming the problem into traditional philosophical positions (e.g., Kant’s definition of the idea of reason). “This is the very reason why [phenomenology], more than any other one, has the necessary resources to think responsibility otherwise. Paradoxically, it is the motifs of giving and appearing that are so dominant in phenomenology that permit us to bring our attention to what it is in responsibility that necessarily escapes thematization and phenomenology itself” (166). Moreover, it is due to phenomenology that responsibility has attained such a championed status in the history of Western thought. “Given all that we have seen, it now seems obvious that if responsibility has been able to become a thematic priority in phenomenological reflection, then it is because the character of its response to a prior demand—one that emanates from the other— corresponds to a structure of phenomenal being insofar as the latter offers itself to an intuitive look and issues the demand to understanding as such that which then manifests itself” (164). The issue is not that Europe is an idea, the issue is what we have turned the idea of Europe into (216). “The end of Europe and the beginning of a post-European world makes it incumbent on Europe, which has understood itself so far from the idea of reason and universality, to revisit the concept of the idea with which it represented itself” (217). This is fundamentally the essential character of phenomenology in the twentieth and twenty-first century—to open up the totality of lived experience and enter into the various essences that comprise it for the betterment of each.
Overall, Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea? is a superb addition to the European phenomenological tradition. The collected essays demonstrate the multiple attitudes one might take in responding to the European question as well as defend the privileged role of phenomenology in reflecting on that question. In so far as the reader encounters divergent positions, they also become familiar with major streams of Western thought in a new and improved lens. Gasché further emboldens continental philosophy to assert its ability to ask profoundly urgent questions in the hopes of arriving at sound conclusions. Indeed, this text is a testament to the effort necessary to unveil the inner brilliance of such an approach.
Derrida and the Legacy of Psychoanalysis is an ambitious book written by Paul Earlie that aims at measuring Derrida’s contribution to contemporary critical thought by exploring his encounter with Freud. Earlie does not only offer a systematic, in-depth account of Derrida’s understanding of Freud’s legacy by a close reading of often overlooked or marginal texts. He also attempts to confront Derrida with contemporary philosophical problems through his writings on psychoanalysis. The book is a welcome addition to Derrida studies. It challenges a still prevailing “textualist” reading of Derrida’s works and examines in fine details Derrida’s relationship with Freud. Earlie offers a quite comprehensive exploration of several psychoanalytic concepts found in Derrida’s oeuvre.
The relationship between psychoanalysis and deconstruction is described according to an aporetic sense of inheritance that will be at the centre of Paul Earlie’s analyses until the very conclusions of his book. By reactivating the critical message of Derrida’s philosophical style through his confrontation with psychoanalysis, Earlie reconstructs many classical arguments that characterize Derrida’s thinking. As he shows, investigating Derrida’s encounter with psychoanalysis essentially means responding to a whole series of general questions like: What does it mean to interpret Freud’s psychoanalytic theory? How does psychoanalysis survive to its founder? Who is behind the “proper name” “Freud”? In what sense can we affirm the existence of a Freudian legacy? Or, more importantly, can there be a legacy at all?
Already in the title, it is possible to appreciate the fil rouge that connects all the chapters. The etymological meaning of the word “legacy” finds its place in the polysemic variety of the Greek-Roman culture. At a closer examination, a complex historico-cultural background constitutes its horizon of interpretation. Legō, from Latin, has many senses: gathering together, to collect, but also, to extract, to choose, to entrust, to read. These are some of its main usages. The expression “legacy of psychoanalysis” could be translated by replacing some of the Latin meanings of legō. However, arguably, gathering together several items to form a set is the very opposite of extracting from a set. Apparently, it seems that legō hides a contradictory logic of inclusion-exclusion. It potentially means both collecting and extracting. Could it be possible to think about a collection of thinkers gathered together around the proper name “Freud” and, at the very same time, through a selective enumeration, restricting the set to very few trustworthy authors? It should be possible only at cost of a decisive criterion grounded on Freud’s textual truth or, better, on the original source of his thought. However, as it is widely known, since the beginning of his confrontation with phenomenological themes, Derrida has always been critical to the notion of simple, pure, transparent origin favoUring and developing the consequences of his logic of contamination — as he writes in the preface to his Le problème de la genèse dans la philosophie de Husserl. Derrida often shows his resistance to any interpretative closure, as is witnessed by the studies on Mallarmé, Artaud, Nietzsche, just to name a few. Freud is no exception and Earlie shows us why.
Rightly at the beginning of his book, Earlie claims that Derrida reinterprets the problem of Freud’s legacy into the general question of inheritance. This strategy mirrors Derrida’s classical myse en abyme. Indeed, in the same vein, Earlie’s book follows a similar strategy. As he defines it, the book tackles the “double bind of inheriting Derrida inheriting Freud”. Although comprehensible to a broad philosophical audience, to be fully appreciated an understanding of Derridean philosophical path and his main notions is warmly recommended. Without claiming to exhaust the rich variety of analyses presented in the text, I will limit myself to pointing out a few key passages.
The first chapter is dedicated to the problematic reception of Freud in France. The central thesis of this chapter is that Derrida has never attempted to appropriate Freud’s legacy as much as he has tried to “show how this legacy survives by means of its structural inappropriability”. In order to justify his claim, Earlie discusses the meaning of Freud’s legacy through specific conceptual tropes found in Derrida’s many essays and conferences. These introductory analyses run through the concepts of “aporia”, “myth”, and “proper name” that, de facto, constitute the essential margins of this book.
Earlie exemplifies the problem of Freud’s legacy by referring to the ambiguous judgment of Lévi-Strauss on psychoanalysis. While Lévi-Strauss sometimes praises Freud’s psychoanalytic discoveries recognizing a “formative influence” on his speculation, as in Tristes tropiques, sometimes he does not, as in La Potière jalouse. As Earlie shows, in this text Lévi-Strauss does not only denounce the absence of Freud’s influence on his structural anthropology, he even calls into question its originality. However, instead of discussing what is the debt of anthropology to psychoanalysis, Earlie aims at demonstrating that, actually, Lévi-Strauss’s relationship to Freud remains caught into the aporetic logic of debt, best expressed through the Freudian figure of “kettle logic”. The “kettle logic” is a Freudian trope that essentially refers to the internal logic of dreams and it describes a rhetorical expedient consisting of the use of contradictory arguments to defende a unique thesis. Earlie claims that, for Derrida, the logic of debt actually reminds us of the Freudian notion of kettle logic, since repudiating or assuming a debt always results in opposing statements. One of the clearest examples is found by Earlie in Derrida’s reading of Plato’s indebtedness with the concept of writing as pharmakon.
Earlie illustrates what he calls the argumentative strategy of the “fort-da” also with Lacan’s relationship to Freud. Instead of denouncing the absence of Freud, like Lévi-Strauss, Lacan leads a firm and allegedly transparent appropriation of Freud’s textual truth. For Earlie, this logic of fort-da consists of renouncing and assuming, including and excluding. This general strategy is for Earlie “an insistent feature in the inheritance of Freud’s legacy”. The first chapter is essentially a demonstration of this thesis. Other seminal figures populating the French freudisme, like Laplanche and Pontatis, Abraham and Torkok are passed in review, including important critics and detractors of Freud’s psychoanalysis, like Onfray and Sulloway. A special attention is dedicated to other influential authors like Foucault and Sartre.
Through these authors, Earlie explores the idiomatic appropriation of Freud’s psychoanalytic themes. The aporetic logic behind any kind of inheritance or legacy results in depicting, each time, a different, contradictory image of “Freud”. For him, Derrida’s method of reading Freud’s legacy leads to reaffirm and relaunch the impossible appropriation of his textual truth. Derrida “resist[s] the temptation to mythologize” by limiting the negative, sclerotic effect of a hermeneutic dispositive of appropriation, or interpretative closure. In this sense, Earlie aims at showing the difference, for Derrida, between “Freud’s open-ended textual legacy” and freudisme. Broadly, he shows that no “intellectual lineage” can oppose the resistance of Freud’s textual corpus to BY being reduced to a single interpretation, since any appropriation is only the result of a hermeneutic decision. In this regard, for Earlie, Derrida preserves an important ethical responsibility, even if only in critically restating the difference between Freud and freudisme.
In the second chapter, Earlie focuses on Derrida’s understanding of “psychical spacings”, investigating the relationship between space and psyche in some of his most important works. By turning towards his writings on phenomenology, in particular to La voix et le phenomene and Le toucher, Jean Luc Nancy, Earlie sets the stage for discussing the role of Derrida’s encounter with some of Freud’s main psychoanalytic concepts, reflecting on the importance of the issues of spatiality, surface, and touch in his philosophy. In a sense, Earlie attempts to show that Derrida uses the category of space for deconstructing the classical metaphysical notion of subjectivity. In particular, I am referring here to the idea of pure, immediate self-identity and the idea of psyche as a kind of internal space as opposed to an external world. In other words, this chapter is dedicated to deciphering Derrida’s classical thesis concerning the characterization of classical metaphysics as phono-logo-centrism.
In the chapter, Earlie confronts Derrida’s notion of spacing as it is presented in La Voix with that found in Le Toucher. He notes that while in the first book spacing describes the condition of possibility of temporalization as spatial inscription of a trace, in the latter, Derrida is more interested in spacing in relation to spatiality and self-touching. The theme of spatiality is introduced by a close reading of the fifth chapter of La Voix. Earlie discusses Derrida’s strategic interpretation of the Husserlian analyses on the temporal flow of the Living Present. In this chapter, Derrida is steadfast to show the relationship between time and auto-affection in Husserlian phenomenology. In Le Toucher, instead, Derrida directly tackles the problem of auto-affection in relation to self-touching, no longer focusing on the temporalization of the flow of the Living Present. Earlie illustrates how, for Derrida, self-touching or the chiasmatic, double apprehension of the touching-touched, describes the phenomenon of auto-hetero-affection, the contamination of sameness and otherness.
In both cases, spacing represents the condition of (im)possibility of the subject, since it describes, on one side, the subject as an “effect” of temporal deferral and spatial inscription, and, on the other side, the impossibility of a pure, immediate auto-affection. Through these analyses, Earlie finally discusses the role of the Freudian concept of Nachtraglichkeit (afterwardness) and his interpretation of the psyche as topographical space, as it is expressed by the famous sentence Psyche ist ausgedehnt, weiss nichts davon (Psyche is extended, knows nothing about it). In this sense, Earlie shows how Freud’s conception of the psyche has been reworked by Derrida for deconstructing the classical metaphysical idea of subjectivity attributed to Plato and Descartes.
Freud et la scene de l’écriture constitutes the other fundamental text explored by Earlie in the second chapter. For him, this text is an exemplary work for discussing Derrida’s analyses on the “space of unconscious”. Earlie finds this text quite interesting since it presents a critic of any interpretation of memory as “localizable anatomical space”. According to him, by speculating on Freud’s histology of the psyche and his critiques to the empirical account of memory and perception, Derrida challenges any materialist account of memory since, as he writes, memory finds its space only “in the difference between one inscription and another.” By comparing Freud’s persistence in representing the psyche through physical writing – for instance, in The Interpretation of Dreams – in relation to Husserl’s characterization of psyche as “spoken word, e.g., interior monologue, Earlie signals the “sympathy between psychoanalytic regression and écriture”. He shows again that Derrida reworks the Freudian notion of unconsciousness as a process of spacing that challenges the idea of self-identity accompanied by a “linear structure of verbal discourse”.
This chapter also constitutes a defence of the recent materialistic interpretation of Derrida’s deconstruction. In particular, Earlie is critical of Catherine Malabou’s interpretation of the relationship between psychoanalysis and deconstruction, and between deconstruction and neuroscience. He criticizes the opposition between “material space of neuroscience and intangible spacing” claiming that for Derrida “it is never simply a question of choosing one over the other”. Earlie’s reconstruction demonstrates that Derrida has never considered spacing in a materialistic or idealistic sense and his approach cannot be a positive one and cannot be confused with the contemporary neuroscientific approaches to psychoanalysis.
Science and Fiction
The third chapter is dedicated to showing the relevance of Derrida’s writings on psychoanalysis to understand for understanding his position in relation to science and the scientific method. In this respect, Earlie complements Derrida’s reflections on epistemology in his famous introduction to Husserl’s supplement to Crisis, The Origin of Geometry. Earlie’s objective is to defend Derrida from recent readings of deconstruction such as poststructuralism. Instead of reducing Derrida to just a figure of the philosophy of language, Earlie wants to demonstrate the significance of his reflections for any scientific discourse, even defending Freud from some current neuropsychoanalitic trends of research that aim at freeing psychoanalysis from fictive or speculative elements.
Spéculer–sur ‘Freud’, Mes Chance, Télepathie, and Foi et savoir constitute the main texts of this chapter in which Earlie reconstructs Derrida’s discussion upon the scientific “credentials” of Freud’s psychoanalysis. As he shows, it is the very definition of psychoanalysis as A “border-discipline” that allows Derrida to characterize Freud’s recourse to the scientific method as always contaminated by irreducible elements of fiction. By discussing the influence of Comte’s notion of positive science on Freud’s scientific method, Earlie already presents a general Derridean thesis. Positive science cannot eliminate its ties to theoretical conjecture, speculation, or fiction, otherwise, it would be mere positivism. The scientific discourse remains irreducibly permeable to other fields of knowledge that, de facto, participate in the definition of its margins. Science can only proceed by trial and error and it is always exposed to the risk of failure. In a long passage, he summarizes as follows:
“While it is always possible to speculate on what new evidence may become available, it is structurally impossible for future data to be entirely foreseen or predicted. Every context, and thus every description of context, is always already punctured by an unconditional exposure towards the to-come, the alterity, or difference of an à-venir which may come to displace all previous hypotheses.”
As Earlie shows in Grammatologie, an account of science solely grounded on immediate empirical observation is impossible for Derrida. This is exemplified in Derrida’s account of structuralist linguistics. How can writing can be the object of science if writing, as already shown already in the Introduction to The Origin of Geometry, is the very condition of ““all scientific inquiry and of the épistémè more generally” ? Is not this a vicious theoretical diallele? By passing in review Spéculer–sur ‘Freud’, Glas, and La Carte Postale, Earlie presents interesting elements for reconstructing Derrida’s understanding of scientific method. He reconstructs the tensions between psychoanalysis and phenomenology and exposes Derrida’s reading of Freud’s “speculation” in relation to that of Hegel. Earlie shows how Derrida opposes Freud to Husserl and Freud to Hegel. While Husserl intends the telos of scientific progress as an infinite task grounded on the Living Present, Freud conceives science as “limping” on risky unknown paths that can be completely replaced. Whereas Hegel’s speculation absorbs for his own profit and consists of “a positive reappropriation of the negative” (Aufhebung), Freud’s speculation is always at risk of failing and the Freudian concept par exellence, the unconscious, is all but the name of a positive principle.
However, for Earlie, Derrida’s interest in Freud’s “speculative procedure” derives from the recourse of the latter to fictive arguments not supported by positive evidence but still, defended against any accusation of metaphysics, paradigmatically in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. At the core of Freud’s speculative procedure, Earlie exposes Derrida’s interpretation of a classical Freudian scene, “the child’s game of fort-da”. This scene is of paramount importance in the economy of Freud’s psychoanalysis since it is used to describe the child’s initial mastery of identity. In relation to Spéculer, Earlie mainly intends to show two things: a) that Derrida reads this scene, again, to critique the idea of classical subjectivity; b) that Derrida uses this scene to show a type of incompleteness affecting any scientific discourse.
a) Earlie reflects upon what seems to be Derrida’s main interest for this game: the child’s “double movement of distancing and return” from the object. For him, Derrida interprets the game as an example of spacing. In his reading, Earlie remarks that for Derrida this figure of spacing cannot be accomplished without” either the boy’s playthings or – and this is another version of the game – his verbal discourse. Distancing and return describe the prosthetic condition of the subject to the “external world”, the “self affecting itself through technical re-presentation”. In other words, Earlie claims that, for Derrida, the child’s fort-da is possible only by means of an “originary technicity” represented, in this case, by an object or by the child’s voice. This “originary technicity” has many names in Derrida’s vocabulary, for instance, it is all called “archi-writing” in La Voix and Grammatologie.
b) Another important point signaled by Earlie is that, for Derrida, the problem with this game does not only concern the variety of its possible interpretations but the very description depicting a number of different versions. As Derrida shows in Spéculer, on a closer examination, the game’s description depends on either fictive elements or Freud’s autobiographical details. Derrida is interested in the fact that Freud diverges from the frames of scientific positivism by exploiting the resources of fictive speculation. For these reasons, the value of fiction is, according to Earlie, the very reason for Derrida’s interest in Freud’s work: “Freud’s more speculative writings emphasize the fragility of psychoanalysis’s scientific foundations, a fragility he paradoxically concludes only strengthens psychoanalysis’s scientific credentials.”
In the fourth chapter, Earlie takes the occasion to introduce Derrida’s Mal d’Archive (1995) by reflecting on the recent digitized version of the Library of Congress’s “Sigmund Freud Collection”. In this chapter, Earlie’s deflationist reading of Mal d’Archive is intended to show the structural limitations of the archive’s technicity implied in Derrida’s aporetic speculation. In particular, Earlie aims at showing the archive’s double bind, namely “the possibility both of preserving the trace and the simultaneous exposure of this trace to forgetfulness, finitude, or destruction.” In his exposure, Earlie shows the role of Freud’s notion of repression and his topographical image of memory in Derrida’s text.
According to Earlie, Mal d’Archive continues to offer a twofold lesson to archive studies. First, it shows a way to think about the role of the archive that is at odds with, on one side, the proponents of a “neoliberalization of the university”, and on the other side, those who critique a supposed “dishumanization of the liberal studies”. In other words, Earlie intends to show that Derrida does not take the part of one of these two sides, since he for him any techné can be read through the aporetic logic of Plato’s pharmakon. It is both enabling and threatening, and it is erroneous to stigmatize or praise any archive fever. Second, it enlightens the hidden relationship between the archive and affectivity. Earlie focuses on Derrida’s reflections on our desire for archiving and archive, and on the general problem of any calculable science of the archive.
In Mal d’Archive, Derrida ironically observes that the Greek origin of the term “archive” is forgotten by most who use this word nowadays. In this sense, Earlie starts reflecting on the word archive as the very “archive of a structural forgetting”. Yet, the archive stands as an external, often distributed space of memory. Indeed, the most interesting aspect Earlie signals of Derrida’s reflections on the archive is its relevance to the understanding of “psyche’s relationship to more recent techno-scientific developments.” More than ever, our contemporary interaction with technology is characterized by an increasing dependency. The archive stands as an example of the outside on which memory depends. Just think about the role that search engines have today. For Earlie, Derrida uses the archive to discuss the prosthetic account of psychical memory connected to his general thesis of the originary technicity as condition of (im)possibility of subjectivity.
Earlie’s reading of Genèse, généalogies, genres et le génie: Les secrets de l’archive (2003) and Papier machine is centered instead on the paradox of consignation. In these texts, he explores Derrida’s analysis on the possibility of archiving. The argument goes as follows: archiving practices are hampered by the undecidability of the cataloging process and by the work of indexing. The limitations of consignations consist in the impossibility for the archivist to frame once and forever the complexity of a text. The aporia of archiving rests on the resistance to the categorization of the secret of the text. In this context, Earlie shows that the secret, for Derrida, is a non-synonymous substitution for dissemination. Dissemination describes the generative possibilities resulting from semic drifting constituting any semantic corpus, that exceeds any calculable economy of the text.
The final part of this chapter is related to the relationship between the archive and affectivity. Earlie turns again to “Freud et la scène de l’écriture”. In this text, he indicates the general relationship between the thinking of the trace and passions, the relationship between the subject and death. Expressions like “mal d’archive” and “pulsion d’archive” witness the affective side of Derrida’s thought of the archive. The chapter ends with a discussion on the meaning of our desire for the archive as “anxiety in the face of its destruction.”
Affectivity and Politics
The last chapter is dedicated to measuring the influence of Freud on Derrida’s reflections on affectivity and its relation to political themes. Derrida’s initial hesitation for political speculation is explained by the fact that, for him, political philosophemes are often obscure and heavily loaded with metaphysical conceptuality. In this chapter, Earlie attempts to show that Derrida’s reflections on the political are grounded on the aporia of affectivity. Against the prejudicial judgment of a dismissive treatment of emotions and affective experience, Earlie argues that a text like Passions depicts the image of Derrida fully interested in affectivity. For Earlie, Derrida deconstructs the classical concept according to which passions indicate external forces that drive passive subjects. He shows that Derrida’s reading of Freudian narcissism is an example of his aporetic account of passion. For Derrida, narcissistic auto-affection is countered by an irreducible inappropriability, the “non-self-belonging of technicity”, namely, the fact that writing exceeds subjectivity by constituting it, and trace is not the name of a circular movement of appropriation. In this sense, narcissism is (im)possible, caught in a mutual relation between sameness and otherness. The example of narcissism shows the double bind of affectivity in general. Broadly, for Earlie, if Derrida’s conception of affectivity is “always interwoven with […] possible-impossible auto-affection” then the political is (im)possible for it is grounded on the (non)coincidence of the auto-(hetero)-affection.
In this sense, for Earlie, Derrida articulates the political from the impossibility of pure auto-affection. The aporia of affectivity results in the consequent aporia of the political as “the anxiety-inducing exposure of […] bonds to incalculable otherness (à venir)”. Through a comment of La Carte postale, Earlie presents a convincing account of Derrida’s theory of anxiety that is the result of his reading of Freud’s Beyond the pleasure principle. According to this reading, anxiety is generated by the doubleness of binding, the “process in which a calculating desire for the object is accompanied by anxiety faced with is incalculable loss”. Anxiety is a condition that belongs to auto-hetero-affection since the self is constituted by what threatens him. This double bind of affectivity also explains the (im)possibility of bonds of friendship.
For Earlie, affectivity described in Derrida’s philosophy as the “structural non-coincidence which both constitutes and impedes, […] any stable bond between ‘self’ and ‘other’”. In this sense, it is easy to see why Derrida contrasts any account of the political grounded on supposedly natural or immediate bonds ultimately affective. In this chapter, Earlie demonstrates that Derrida’s writings on psychoanalysis are fundamental for understanding the role of auto-hetero-affection as the condition of (im)possibility of any politics. In a sense, for Earlie, Derrida develops the extremes consequences of Freudian thought by showing both the aporetic relation between the self and the other and the contradictions hidden in affectivity. Earlie notes that Derrida reworks the Freudian concepts of binding (Bindung) to describe the irreducible affective tensions underneath the social bonds that unmask the fictive illusion of a peaceful civilization.
In the final part of the chapter, Earlie focuses on the later Derrida works centred around autoimmunity (auto-immunité). He illustrates how this concept has been developed by Derrida in La Carte postale through a reading of Freud’s vesicle allegory, the fictive image describing the sensory reception: “Freud’s fictive vesicle protects itself against external dangers by deadening its outer layer (or ‘shield’) and allowing small, immunizing ‘doses’ of dangerous excitation to filter through its semi-porous membrane”. This allegory does not only show the autoimmunitarian logic at work in the fictive vesicle. For Earlie, this also describes the continuity between auto-affection and auto-immunity. The auto-affection is ultimately auto-hetero-affection, since the subject experiences what is other than itself by affecting itself, as it is shown in the self-touching. Auto-immunity follows from the constitution of the self in the spacing of the self from its other. The danger of the other that it is already hidden in the experience of the self, is then a consequence of auto-hetero-affection. The subject and the vesicle are constituted only by means of a technicity that it is their condition of (im)possibility. In the first case, it is the trace or writing or supplementarity, in the second case, it is the deadening of the vesicle’s outer layer.
Earlie finally addresses the presence of Freudian themes in the Auto-immunités, suicides réels et symboliques and in Voyous, especially in relation to Derrida’s understanding of trauma and technology. By focusing on Derrida’s analysis concerning “September 11th”, Earlie comments on the originality of Derrida’s account of trauma. Derrida does not understand trauma according to the classical mechanical concept, a state of anxiety that is grounded on the recurring reappearance of calculable intensity of a past event. Rather, he shows that “September 11th” essentially exemplifies for Derrida a trauma that rests on the incalculable danger of an event-to-come that fuels the state of anxiety. The chapter ends with a discussion on the role of the technologies of communication in determining the affective impact of terrorism. Earlie focuses on Derrida’s reflections on television in Échographies de la télévision. The repetition of live footage of the towers’ collapse is compared with the “compulsive repetition” aimed more to guarding against the unpredictable future of potential violence rather than to mastering the traumatic, past experience.
Derrida, Jacques & Bernard Stiegler. 1996. Echographies de la télévision. Paris: Galilée, lnstitut national de l’audiovisuel.
Derrida, Jacques. 1967. De la grammatologie. Paris: Seuil.
Derrida, Jacques. 1967. La Voix et le phénomène, introduction au problème du signe dans la phénoménologie de Husserl. Paris: Presses universitaires de France.
Derrida, Jacques. 1980. La Carte postale. De Socrates à Freud et au-delà. Paris: Flammarion.
Derrida, Jacques. 1990. La probleme de la genese dans la philosophie de Husserl. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Derrida, Jacques. 1995. Mat d’archive: une impression freudienne. Paris: Galilée.
Derrida, Jacques. 2000. Le Toucher, Jean-Luc Nancy. Paris: Galilée.
Derrida, Jacques. 2003. „Autoimmunités, suicides réels et symboliques.“ In Giovanna Borradori, ed., Le „concept“ du 11 septembre, Dialogues à New York, 133-96. Paris: Galilée.
Earlie, Paul. 2021. Derrida and the Legacy of Psychoanalysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Freud, Sigmund. 1964. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Edited by J. Strachey. Macmillan.
Malabou, Catherine. 2007. Les nouveaux blessés. De Freud à ta neurologie, penser les traumatismes contemporains. Paris: Bayard.
Michael Naas’ 2019 book, Derrida à Montréal: Une pièce en trois actes, is an interesting reconstruction of the three lectures Jacques Derrida gave in Montreal between 1970 and 1997. We also learn of a fourth ‘unofficial’ lecture which is presented as an appendix to the ‘official’ narrative of the three main events. Naas reconstructs the three episodes by placing them within a consistent line inside Derrida’s philosophy. According to him, even though the three lectures do not fit a purposely announced continuum, they form a common thread within Derrida’s philosophical project. This project is already evident in the first of those episodes in 1971: his presentation of “Signature Event Context” for the French Language Philosophy Association Annual Conference. It is fundamental to understand that Naas is not pointing at this instance as an original or originary source of Derrida’s philosophy. This is not an unambiguously demarcated origin but rather the first of several instances within a chronological fragment presented by Naas.
Derrida’s most significant contribution in that text is assessing John Austin’s theory of performance and its relevance to a theory of communication by arguing that it is not just an addition to the established understanding of language as a descriptive force but a challenge to the idea of description itself. Naas is clearly aware that this was perhaps Derrida’s most polemic text sparking controversy not only within the ‘opposing’ philosophical field, analytic philosophers represented by John Searle, but also within Derrida’s ‘home base’ as Naas recounts that Paul Ricœur, the keynote at the event where Derrida read his article, was uncomfortable with Derrida’s reconstruction of Austin’s theory. Even though Derrida’s occupation with an analytic philosopher such as Austin might be surprising, Naas points to Derrida’s exchange at Harvard, where the lectures that later became How to Do Things with Words took place, to argue that this was not an unconventional choice of subject. In that sense it was not an empty provocation.
Rather, Naas presents Derrida’s account of communication and language as covering most of his philosophical enterprise. Not in a manner that summarizes or contains all of the subjects Derrida will occupy himself with throughout his work nor in a sense that Derrida continually returns to that text as if it was somehow a foundational moment in his career (50). Instead, Naas’ adoption of that text as a central piece in his reconstruction of Derrida’s theory serves to demonstrate that Derrida’s arguments there could be translated into two fundamental methodological points that Naas adopts as his guidelines for assessing Derrida: performativity and iterability.
The performative aspect is evident in how Naas structures the book. He chooses to present Derrida’s interventions as acts in parallel to a theatrical play. In that way, he is not only describing Derrida’s work but also performing it to a great extent. As Georges Leroux and Ginette Michaud argue in their introductory note, he thinks towards Derrida in an act of reaching out to him. Instead of the perhaps ordinary descriptive movement of dissecting something stable, Naas offers an act of Derrida’s act: an attempt of ‘mimicking’ without copying or of tracing the movements of Derrida as its partner in a dance. The fact that, similar to Derrida’s texts analyzed by Naas, the texts in the book were originally performed in a conference have great significance in this context. Naas is very literally performing the piece Derrida à Montréal: Une pièce en trois actes.
According to Naas, Derrida’s interventions form a three act play chronologically ordered with two additional interludes and an encore where he discusses the fourth unofficial intervention. Naas argues that each of the three main interventions could be portrayed as examining one of the three concepts in Derrida’s initial talk. Despite presenting the interventions in chronological order, Naas argues that the first one (“Signature Event Context”) is centered on context, the second one (“Otobiographie de Nietzsche”) on signature and the final one (“Une certaine possibilité impossible de dire l’événement”) is associated to the event.
The iterability factor comes about in the fact that Naas is not arguing that Derrida is repeating himself in the three supposedly unrelated lectures; he is arguing that when considering Derrida’s argument about iterability, one must carefully reflect on what is being iterated in the three themes that at first sight show no communality. Naas argues that what is being iterated is Derrida’s original deconstructive impetus and, in that sense, a proper understanding of the larger piece in its three acts should provide the reader with an account of what is the deconstructive project.
The first act of Naas’s play comments on Derrida’s “Signature Event Context” (hereby SEC, as Derrida refers to it) focusing on the last concept of the title. The central argument being that Derrida’s text aims directly at challenging any possible contextualization of the performative iteration. According to Naas, context is, from a Derridean perspective, not a ground that solidifies the iteration into a clear and precise address where communication takes place. It is precisely the indeterminacy that permeates any attempt of certitude. This is not merely a contingent element of the specific contexts or an empirical barrier encountered by the transition between the theory of communication and its real occurrences. According to Derrida, this is a structural condition of communication per se. In other words, in the context of communication there is neither a departure address nor an arrival point that could solidify the communicative event. The context is marked by absence rather than by presence: it is characterized more by the lack of determining factors than by their presence.
Naas argues that Derrida’s point about context passes through his assessment of the relation between speech and writing in Austin’s How to Do Things with Words since it is by first problematizing and then offering an inverse logic that Derrida deconstructs the notion of context. Naas describes this movement as a transition from placing Austin within the philosophical tradition that privileges speech over writing by thinking of writing as merely the supplement of speech, towards finding in Austin’s performative theory a breaking point to that logic. The first step is Derrida’s reference to Étienne Bonnot de Condillac and the idea that writing is marked by absence: the writer or the receiver are absent. In imitating/representing speech, writing allows for a non-synchronous timeframe opening the space for absence in communication. This absence, however, is portrayed as a temporary lack that must be supplemented. In that sense, the ‘natural’ communicative order of speech is preserved.
Derrida challenges this perspective by arguing that the absence in writing is not a contingent element but rather its very condition. Naas explains that the fact that writing must be ‘readable’ makes absence a constitutive factor of writing. Writing is for some absent other but, moreover, it is also the limit of my intentionality. Using a concept that he explores elsewhere (“Miracle and machine: Jacques Derrida and the two sources of religion, science, and the media”), Naas argues that writing is like a machine for Derrida since it keeps working in the absence of the original impetus. Besides the obvious absence of the reader in a written communication, Derrida argues that the writer is also absent in the act of making their writing readable: their presence and intentionality are relevant but not conditions of its communicative force.
Derrida then reverts this logic back to what is allegedly the ‘original’ logic of speech (43). According to him, this logic of absence is not exclusive to writing but permeates communication as a whole since even the spoken word needs to remain ‘readable’ without the presence of both the speaker and the listener. In order for language to work, it must have some ‘durability’ as Naas points with his emphasis on the concept of restance. Language is only understandable if it could be understandable in all possible contexts. Naas reconstructs this fundamental step by referring to Plato’s Pharmacy in order to demonstrate how this deconstructive movement is consistent in Derrida’s work. It fundamentally amounts to Derrida’s suspicion of a metaphysics of presence.
Naas goes great lengths to explain Derrida’s argument by emphasizing that he is not arguing that absence is a necessary condition of communication, as if to argue that it is exclusively in the context of the absence of determining factors that communication is possible. That is, Derrida is not making a normative argument in defense of emptying out the communicative act towards anonymity and transparency. Instead, as Naas clearly illustrates, Derrida’s argument is that such anonymity and transparency is impossible precisely because despite any possible content one might be able to associate to context, it will remain invariably permeated by an absence. Derrida is opposing the possibility of a fully charged context where in the absence of any ambiguity, one would reach a transparent communicative act (71). Derrida demonstrates that such interference-free communication is supposedly achieved not by the clearing of the context but rather by overcharging it.
Naas notices he does this by referencing McLuhan, which, as Naas argues, is a clear reference to the context of Derrida’s speech in Canada. Still, it is Toronto and not the same French speaking Canada of his speech. By pointing to this perhaps anecdotal fact, Naas is performing a deconstructive act: remarking a context that is not the exact context, staging the marginalia of the act to show its importance.
Moreover, Naas demonstrates the power of Derrida’s argument by translating it into its fundamental principles: in order for something to be communicable, it must work beyond its context. A communication that is absolutely grounded on its contexts would not communicate anything, so in every instance of communication the context must be invariably extrapolated (42). The presence of contextual elements is always permeated by some elements of absence. In that way, Naas successfully demonstrates how Derrida challenges the metaphysics of presence.
Here lies the strength of Naas reconstruction: with this argument, Derrida, unlike many of his critics argue, is not dismissing intention—he is merely arguing that it is not the governing force in language. In the same way that Derrida’s arguments about absence do not entail the disappearance of presence, intention does not provide us with a fundamental and defining context. But this does not mean that it is irrelevant. To large extent, this is the power of the deconstructive movement that Naas captures with precision. Naas explains this to be the meaning of Derrida’s argument: that language must be iterable, it must make reference to the already known while being the singular event of communication, i.e., communicating a new sense (61). In order for a performative to work, it must make reference to codes already established beyond its context and, in that sense, it is a citation of a previous iteration that is taken out of context. Both in the theatre or in ‘real life’, when a couple gets married, they must use (or at least reference) the appropriate code. The possibility of extrapolating the context, inherent to any citation, is not marginal to the force of language but its very ground.
This is the point of connection that Naas finds between Derrida and Austin. Despite the fact that Derrida finds problematic arguments in Austin and, if we consider Austin’s ‘heirs’ to legitimately represent his philosophical project, the reverse is also true: Derrida and Austin are both committed to opposing the ‘descriptive illusion’ that language exists as a manner of referencing things rather than doing things (52). In other words, they are both concerned with the power/force or language not with its truth values.
Still, Naas argues that Derrida tries to overcome Austin’s reliance on the context via his assessment of the role that intentions play in Austin’s theory. More specifically, Austin’s dismissal of infelicities (Naas uses the French word for failures, which is also the word for chess, ‘échecs’) which is to a great extent evident in his attempt to secure the source of every speech act. Derrida, on the other hand, adopts failure and indeterminacy as his model. For Naas, more important than who is right or how they disagree, this difference is crucial for understanding Derrida’s philosophy. The possibility of failure is not a marginal possibility of the successful instance, it is what grounds the possibility of success. In the same manner that writing is not the shadow of speech, failure is not the negative of success but its structural condition.
Naas wants to show that the structural condition of absence (failure, parasitology…) are the central marks of Derrida’s deconstructive project. In doing that, he is able to point at a fundamental principle in Derrida’s philosophy. Naas is not reducing it to one fundamental principle that is reproduced in different instances. Instead, he is showing the invariable iterability of the deconstructive project: precisely the impossibility of ever reducing it to one individual context that securely grounds it beyond any other movements. Naas’ piece is not an ‘pure’ enactment of Derrida’s theory. In a more daring argument, but perhaps consistent with Derrida’s project, he is showing that even Derrida himself is unable to purely perform his project considering that the three acts are not one consistent exposure of a systematic theory. It is only their iteration in Naas, in their removal from their original context, that they become a unified piece. In themselves, the three acts somewhat ‘fail’ to connect to each other, they are only parasitic of each other.
Naas dedicates the intermission to the controversy between Derrida and Searle. He reconstructs some of the general argument and fundamentally blames Searle for the aggressiveness that marked the debate. This is somewhat ironic considering that it seems to resort to the same problematic quest for the source as Derrida opposes in Austin. Regardless of ‘who started it’, there is reverbing dispute over Austin’s heritage. This dispute fundamentally boils down less to the proper interpretation and application of Austin’s theory but, more importantly, to the power to speak on his behalf: who is entitled to sign in Austin’s name or whose is the proper citation/iteration of Austin’s performance. In other words, it is a dispute over the force of speech not its descriptive power. In that sense, Naas demonstrates the relevancy of performative speech theory to understand this dispute. He is clearly picking a side here but the final verdict on whose theory is more loyal to Austin is only established later. As in any proper theater piece, he is only showing the gun that is going to be fired in the third act.
This is perhaps the most political section of the play. It follows an interlude where Naas clearly establishes that the dispute between Derrida and Searle is much more political than philosophical. He ends the intermission with a provocation of his own by requesting that people stop passing notes because the second act is about to start. This is a clear and very direct reference to what is presented as a very weak objection by Searle to Derrida. And he begins the second act with an epigraph by Derrida on the importance of lies, false reality and illusion as part of real life as much as everything that might be ordinarily considered more ‘real’. Again, this movement has several layers. As mentioned, it is another poke that Naas is throwing while he is on the roll, but it is also a change in tone since in this chapter Naas will discuss Derrida’s ‘possibly’ and its political power. More specifically, the power to declare something real via Derrida’s assessment of the Declaration of Independence. In other words, the reality of all the ‘fictitious’ elements within that declaration and their performative power of establishing reality.
The chapter is dedicated to “Otobiographie de Nietzsche” from 1979 where Derrida discusses the notion of autonomy via the notion of autobiography. Naas highlights Derrida’s performance here by elaborating on the purposeful ‘glitch’ in his title. The prefix oto- references the Greek word for ear and is the homonym of auto-. This is something that remains unnoticeable unless one is either very attentive (considering that the speaker also pronounces it in a way that allows such perception) or if one is reading rather the hearing (using one’s ears) the text. Naas highlights that with this small detail Derrida conveys two main messages. Firstly, the importance of the text in the assessment of language. And secondly, but in direct line with the first point, that the notion of selfhood (auto-) as presented in any account of oneself, such as an autobiography, must invariably pass through textualization, to the possibility of presenting selfhood in a manner that is ‘readable’ by some other. In that sense, the other’s ear (oto-) is a crucial element of any account of selfhood.
The notion of signature plays a fundamental role here because it is the mark of such autonomous act of self-recognition and awareness. Naas argues that his political reading is not a stretch from Derrida’s text on personal autonomy since the version of the text presented in Montreal is ‘missing’ a fundamental section dedicated precisely to independence declarations. Before properly assessing the content of the chapter and the important role the missing section plays in it, it is fundamental to draw attention to Naas’ use of deconstruction as a methodological tool in his assessment of Derrida’s deconstructive project. Taking into account the structure he established in the previous act, one should not ignore the fact that Naas employs a text that was not given in Montreal. In fact, the absent text plays a fundamental role in the account of the context he is trying to establish in the chapter. Naas is clearly performing Derrida’s theory in his engagement with it. The play of Derrida in Montreal is not confined to the context of Montreal, it invariably entangled with its other iterations, with the possibility of the absent, with everything that occurs beyond the three acts. In the same way that Derrida’s theory is not bound by his acts, Naas acts out of his title to provide us with performance of a Derridean moment.
Naas demonstrate the importance of the performative in Derrida’s assessment by highlighting the point in Derrida’s account of the Declaration of Independence where he points to the fact that god merely serves to establish that which is already the case. In the Declaration, the text argues that the rights established there are natural god-given rights, so god serves as the ultimate ‘signature’ of the new status; but if they were in fact natural, they would not need god to declare them in the first place (98). The declaration is precisely the performative act of establishing that which is already the case: of securing it with an ultimate signature.
Naas points to the fact that what appears as a descriptive act, is in fact a performative. This relation between the constative and the prescriptive refers back to the epigraph: America does not exist in an autonomous manner; it is not absolutely real since it must be declared in a manner that naturalizes it. In very simple terms, does the Declaration of Independence merely state the ‘facts on the ground’ or does it make a claim: does it come after or before the independence? Naas points to the fact that for Derrida it is both. The declaration invents that which is already the case. It performs as if it was real, therefore making it real.
Once again Naas begins his intermission with a provocation to Searle. This time it is even more explicit by referencing Derrida’s comment in Limited Inc that if Searle was present in Montreal during his reading of SEC he would pass him a note asking him to pay attention to the most important part. Naas’ choice must be assessed from within his arguments in the previous section. What could be the motivation for Naas’ constant provocation? One would be surprised if Searle took the time to read Derrida’s comment in its original iteration, so it would be all the more surprising if he reads Naas’. Perhaps to a lesser extent it is still valid to assume that Naas’ book will not be widely read within the analytical field, (i.e., Searle’s scholarship) so what is the gain in constantly provoking him? If one ignores the balance of power and the hegemony of analytic philosophy, one could even present it as cruel mocking or beating him after he is already down, but this is evidently not the case. This is precisely the point: in behaving as if there was a fight, Naas is declaring war on an enemy that deems him irrelevant. The simple fact that analytic philosophy is able to erase its counterpart merely by ignoring it demonstrates the force of speech. Moreover, Naas demonstrates it by employing the absence of speech which further reinforces Derrida’s argument. By engaging with Searle, who is alive and capable of responding, Naas is inventing a reality where his philosophy has as much claim as Searle’s.
This is exactly the topic explored in the intermission: the dispute between Derrida and Searle via the angle of the latter’s refusal to even be considered within the context of the dispute. Searle pretends as if it did not happen. Naas demonstrates this by highlighting that, when the texts were collected in 1990, Searle did not allow his reply to be part of it. This refusal by Sarl (the way Derrida, in another beautiful provocation, refers to Searle and his colleagues using the French word for company) is most evident in the copyright mark signed by Searle. Naas does not occupy himself with refuting Searle’s arguments. Instead, he shows that speech act theory should not be concerned with refuting arguments. In other words, the discussion should not surround the precision or imprecision of the arguments but rather their force: whether what they are doing is consistent with Austin’s opposition to the descriptive illusion. In that sense, in refusing to debate, to operate with language and engage in the game, Searle proves to be disloyal to Austin even if he adheres to some notion of precision. Derrida does the exact opposite.
This chapter is dedicated to “Une certaine possibilité impossible de dire l’événement” from 1997. Once again, one must pay attention to the epigraph to find the connections Naas is trying to draw. This chapter uses two quotations by Derrida as epigraphs. The first arguing that the question whether something happens or not was the main issue in SEC and the second arguing that the question of the event is the main question of the performative. The chapter is mostly dedicated to connecting the two statements but, before diving in, it is important to emphasize the connection to the intermission here: how to determine whether the dispute really took place? If there was ever such a thing as a conflict over a philosophical claim or if it was just two parallel lines that never met? Or, in more direct terms, did Derrida do something with his text or did he not: did he manage to perform/invent an event or not? Moreover, even if it is possible to do something with words, is it possible to comment on that which one does, using words to state that which one does with them? This is the tension present in a possible distinction between the two readings in Derrida’s title. What does it mean to say the event? Does it mean saying something about the event or does it mean making the event by saying it?
Going into the chapter, Naas begins by stating that this was an improvised intervention by Derrida. And without directly connecting it, since no connection is needed for such obvious parallel, he summarizes Derrida’s definition of event as: that which is unpredictable, which cannot be ordered or expected (117). At the same time, Naas highlights that in Derrida’s treatment of the event, or more specifically, in his question about the possibility of the event, there is a certain acceptance that is always already presupposed: a preliminary ‘yes’ before any actual engagement. In other words, one finds oneself already within the event by the sheer existence of its possibility. Naas highlights that this ‘yes’ makes the event (122). It is not an engagement that provides any information, it is the adventure into the possibility of something happening. So, in that sense, it is neither of the realm of the performative nor of the constative since it has neither inventive force nor descriptive information. It escapes the declarative act previously explored.
Naas assesses how this ‘possible impossibility’ is consistent with Derrida’s deconstructive project as a whole. On the one hand, the event must be unpredictable and therefore escape language, on the other hand, it fits a certain code. According to Naas this is an expansion of the logics in SEC into the overall field of linguistics interactions. This implicit acceptance of the occurrence of a communicative act invites both the unpredictable and the code (124). Each event is one instance of an iterable act, it is both unique, and therefore unrepeatable, and, in being readable, dependent both on possibilities of referring to previous codes and serving as reference for future iterations.
Naas refers back to Derrida’s biographer, Benoît Peeters, to tie this logic back to Derrida’s loyalty to Austin. As mentioned before, this lecture was not a prepared text, it is Derrida’s attempt to perform his philosophy: to turn his speech into an event. He is coherently philosophizing by performing his claims. An improvised speech by Derrida on philosophy is unpredictable at the same time that it operates within a certain code. It is not as if he was asked to comment on nanotechnology or microbiology, on which he might have had something to say, but it would certainly be more surprising (especially that he would be invited to comment on them at an official event). Derrida is a philosopher and as such comments on notions such as the event or language at events dedicated to philosophy. At the same time that his talk is certainly unique and unrepeatable it refers to previous interactions (as is the point of Naas’ book). It becomes a textual reference not only as a published text but, more importantly, as a textual corpus whose logic can be reproduced as Naas evidently demonstrates by actually reproducing/reconstructing it in his texts both in terms of actual arguments but also in its performative methodology.
With this Naas demonstrates that the notion of ‘possibly’ (my translation of the French ‘peut-etre’) is the fundamental category for understanding the event. Derrida’s investigation of the event is concerned with the possibility of something occurring. Again, not with the ‘descriptive illusion’ of determining the truth value of the event, whether it occurs or not, but with the performative force of making it happen. The way the event is acted out: this threshold between its possibility and impossibility.
Naas calls the encore “the cocoon (a signature of the self)”. In this section he will comment on the ‘bonus’ act given by Derrida in Montreal. An unofficial talk given the day after the text explored in the previous chapter. This, Naas tells the reader, was not an event he witnessed nor an event that is registered. It was a reading of “Un ver à soie” in its draft form. With these final words, the curtains fall and reveal everything; it reveals that there is nothing to reveal, nothing hidden from the eyesight. Derrida’s performance is not a magic trick where at the end he pulls the cloth and shows the rabbit, there are no surprises or last-minute revelations, all there is this cocoon of the performative to wrap oneself around.
In his postface, Leroux contextualizes Derrida’s lectures in the Quebecois philosophical scene. Along with Michaud’s and his introduction and preliminary remarks, they create the scenario for Naas’ intervention. Naas’ performance, his piece in three acts, has a deeper meaning than merely reconstructing Derrida’s philosophy where the enactment serves merely as a pedagogical tool. The enacting gains importance under the circumstances that it is being presented. In the most direct and blatant manner, it is a book written in French in Canada by an USA American (as a South American, I feel the need for more precision than using merely American or North American). The choice of French is not trivial in this context. There is the obvious nationalistic Quebecois dispute but on a deeper level, as presented in the surrounding texts, there is a dispute over the philosophical legacy of Quebec. As the field becomes more hegemonically analytic and Anglo-Saxon, the choice of doing French philosophy in French must be understood as laying a claim over a disputed territory. Maybe not a declaration of independence like the one assessed in the second act but perhaps a declaration of war. Hence making the possible radio-silence response of the other side even more significant.
This possibly failed declaration of war reverberates Derrida’s argument about the importance of failure in success. One could even say that in not responding, SARL is doing Derrida a favor: proving his point. It is showing exactly the importance of impotence in understanding the performative force of language. Naas’ text places us exactly at the verge of the unpredictability of the event: it can either be ignored as his tradition has continuously been hence showing the importance of the performative force of speech acts or it can successfully stoke a debate and actually accomplish that which it aims at first glance. Either way, one finds oneself at the preliminary ‘yes’ described in his last act since something has already happened: in both cases Naas has undoubtedly done something with his words.