The Philosophy of Derrida. By Mark Dooley and Liam Kavanagh


Pp. xii, 164 . Stocksfield, UK , Acumen , 2007 , $23.00 .

This is an excellent introduction to Derrida's thought. At the outset the authors expose their thesis: ‘implicitly at the heart of all Derrida's works’ is the ‘simple idea’ that ‘full self-understanding is impossible because we cannot roll back the layers of time and history that precede us to reveal our origins in their purity’ (p. ix). For them Derrida is primarily concerned with issues of memory and identity. Identity is not simple, however, and therefore the recollecting of it is never complete; it is rather ‘always haunted by the spectral traces of absence, loss and death’ (p. 17). This necessitates a two-fold movement of the ‘work of mourning’: the attempt to remember, in the present, what (or who) has passed, while simultaneously acknowledging that what (or who) has passed is gone for good. The work of mourning is animated by the desire ‘both to keep the other and let them go’ (p. 14).

The authors see the work of mourning is central to Derrida's thought; indeed, they present Derrida's engagements with philosophy of language (chapter 2), psychoanalysis and phenomenology (chapter 3), and ethics and politics (chapter 4) through the lens of identity, memory, and the work of mourning. This allows a strong hermeneutical integration but on occasion threatens to distort certain texts. Through this device they are able to keep Derrida firmly rooted in the tradition, tracing their provenance within the Western tradition: différance is explained out of structuralism (pp. 28–35), iterability in terms of the logic and metaphysics of Searle and Austin (pp. 35–43), and the metaphors of mourning, the postal system, and the archive in terms of Freudian repetition and melancholy (pp. 68–78), Husserlian intentionality (pp. 78–86), and the Heideggerian analysis of Dasein (pp. 86–96). Unfortunately the authors cite more from Derrida's interpretations of the tradition than from the original thinkers, though this is more acceptable in an introductory text than it would be in more specialized scholarship.

Early on it appears as if Derrida's problem is only that we are finite, and cannot thereby remember the bygone years of antiquity - rather than the stronger claim that there is something positive constituted by the absent and the forgotten, by the ‘other who is in me before me’ (p. 108). This stronger claim constitutes a more serious justification case for the work of mourning; over the course of the work the power of the authors' hermeneutical tool emerges. While the authors introduce a bit excessively their own political viewpoints into the fourth and final chapter, the early part of the chapter remains a compelling exploration of Derrida on the themes of ethics and politics. The authors connect memory to responsibility by wayof themes revealed through their analyses of Derrida on the archive and the contextualization of language (p. 107 ff.). This aligns them with much recent scholarship critiquing a reading of Derrida as having an ‘early’ and a ‘later’ period, arguing instead that the ethical and political themes that characterize Derrida's later period are already operative in his earliest writings. In a daring move, the authors argue also for a reversed claim, that the characteristics of the early Derrida affect and shape his later work. Through the concept of ‘negotiation’ which they find central to Derrida's ethical and political theory, they argue that the infinite nature of justice is always viewed through the determinate context of a singular event (p. 126). This ‘negotiation’ between an unconditional call and a conditioned, singular context enables the authors to distinguish Derrida from Levinas, Habermas and Rorty.

Distinguishing Derrida from Levinas is one of the strengths of this work: it addresses the so-called ‘Nietzschean’ aspects of Derrida (e.g., context, mourning, loss, etc.) in a way that holds them equally important to what are often referred to as his ‘Levinasian’ aspects (e.g., infinity, justice, the other, etc.). Juxtaposing these aspects allows the authors to provide a rounder and more compelling figure: not merely an iconoclast, an idealist, or a utopian, Derrida desires to work within the tradition to yield real change for the tradition. If he is critical of the tradition, this is only because he loves it (p. 147), and it is because he loves it that he seeks to help it change, to keep it alive and to help it grow. The picture of Derrida that emerges in this work is well-balanced and reflective, one that is both intelligible and worthy of consideration. The Philosophy of Derrida shows us that Derrida was from the beginning concerned with identity and forgetting, and that these two must be kept together if the work of mourning is to be possible; further, that mourning is necessary if we are to remember who we are and be faithful to who we are not.