Sunday, October 17, 2004


Controversial French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who died on 8 October 2004, has been justifiably defended against his (often proudly un-knowledgeable) critics by literary theorist Terry Eagleton, writing in The Guardian.

The Daily Telegraph, not known for its natural sympathies towards left-leaning wordsmiths, also provided a reasonably accurate and balanced assessment - albeit confusing some of its structuralists and post-structuralists!

It commented: 'Derrida was the embodiment of the philosopher-rebel, admired for his explosive critique of the authoritarian values latent in orthodox approaches to literature and philosophy.

'The most popular misconception about him, Derrida said, was that he was "a sceptical nihilist who doesn't believe in anything, who thinks nothing has meaning, and text has no meaning. That's stupid," he protested, "and utterly wrong." '

In recent years Derrida turned increasingly towards God-talk and religion as sources of corrigibility pointing towards 'the impossible', and towards the lesions of thought and language which illustrate the failure of all human attempts at 'closure'. For him this was a profoundly ethical task. Desconstruction, the critical movement most strongly identified with him, is not about destruction - it is, rather, the antidote to totalitarianism.

Derrida's works on identity, death and forgiveness are among his most profound and persuasive. Particularly towards what turned out to be the end of his life (a script which, he would be the first to say, cannot finalised, let alone by his own account), he developed a creative dialogue with Christian and Jewish philosophers and theologians.

This from The Chronicle of Higher Education:

' "He acquired a whole new life in the academy in the last 15 years or so," said John D. Caputo, a professor of religion and humanities at Syracuse University, and the author of The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion (Indiana University Press, 1997). "He began to talk about what he called 'the undeconstructible.'

'When Derrida was in vogue among literary theorists, you would not have heard that expression. The idea that deconstruction could be carried out in the name of something undeconstructible -- you just didn't hear from literary folks. But in his later work, he began to talk about the undeconstructibility of justice, of democracy, of friendship, of hospitality."

'Some scholars have referred to "the ethico-political turn" in Derrida's work during the 1990s. Interest in his writings increased among philosophers, and also among those in religious studies.
In earlier years, some commentators on Derrida's work had wondered whether his exacting attention to texts might not make him, in effect, a secular practitioner of the reading skills cultivated by centuries of Talmudic scholars. (Indeed, Derrida had hinted as much himself: His book Writing and Difference closes with a quotation attributed to a rabbi named Derrisa.)

'In interviews and autobiographical texts from his final decade, he began to speak about growing up as a Jew in Algeria during the Vichy period. More and more of his writing began to take the form of an overt dialogue with the work of Emmanuel Levinas, a French Jewish thinker who worked at the intersection of Heideggerian philosophy, ethical reflection, and biblical commentary.

' "The idea of something of unconditional value begins to emerge in Derrida's work -- something that makes an unconditional claim on us," said Mr. Caputo. "So the deconstruction of this or that begins to look a little bit like the critique of idols in Jewish theology."

'In 2002 Derrida gave the keynote address at the convention of the American Academy of Religion, held in Toronto. Speaking to a crowded auditorium, the philosopher said, "I rightly pass for an atheist" -- a puzzling formulation, by any measure.

' Mr Caputo recalled that other scholars asked Derrida, "Why don't you just say, 'Je suis. I am an atheist'?" Derrida replied, "Because I don't know. Maybe I'm not an atheist."

' "He meant that, I think, the name of God was important for him," said Mr Caputo, "even if, by the standards of the local pastor or rabbi, he was an atheist. The name of God was tremendously important because it was one of the ways that we could name the unconditional, the undeconstructible." '

Jacques Derrida's work was a major boost for those who believe that linguistic and phenomenological philosophy takes us much further in our understanding of the ecstasy and rationality of faith than traditional metaphysics and epistemology.

He was undoubtedly one of the great public intellectuals of the twentieth century. I believe his legacy to theology, even to biblical theology, will turn out to be immense. See, for example, Caputo's extraordinary piece of the experience of God and the axiology of the impossible.

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