The Derrida-Habermas Reader. Edited by Lasse Thomassen


Pp. vii, 321 . Edinburgh , Edinburgh University Press , 2006 , $29.00 .

The early polemical exchanges between Habermas and Derrida are well known. However, this text makes the reader aware that this is not where the debate ended. A concerted effort was made, by Derrida, Habermas, and their expositors, to try to reconcile these two towering figures of twentieth century philosophy. What emerges from these attempts is a clarification of the political aspects of Derrida's deconstruction, and the theoretical limits of Habermas' rational reconstruction, thereby challenging Richard Rorty's claim that Habermas is (solely) a public philosopher and Derrida a private ironist (Chapter 3).

Though the chapters contributed by expositors vary in quality and depth, the contributions by Derrida and Habermas themselves shed light on the development of their thought. This is nowhere more clear than in the most recent of Derrida's contributions. In a move that may surprise some of Derrida's followers, Derrida firmly allies himself with Habermas on some of the latter's most Enlightenment-influenced projects. For example, Derrida's co-signature appears on a piece (chapter 15) authored by Habermas calling for a common European foreign policy (p. 272), and a new understanding of European identity (though, admittedly, one that is characterized by an acknowledgment of differences – cf. pp. 274–275). These later, more overtly ‘political’ writings, reveal a Derrida who is very concerned with the everyday political happenings of the world, and especially of Europe, and not just an ironist interested in texts and personal development.

A shared relationship to modernity can be seen in Derrida's and Habermas' writings on the role of religion in the public sphere. In the co-signed piece, Habermas and Derrida assert that the ‘social privatization of faith,’ though perhaps undesirable in other aspects, at least ‘has desirable consequences for our political culture’ (p. 276). However, on this issue, as on so many others, Derrida's mistrust seems to run deeper than Habermas'. Habermas is content to claim that ‘the major religions must appropriate the normative foundations of the liberal state under conditions of their own premises’ (p. 201), describing those normative foundations of the liberal state as a necessary presupposition for democratic community (p. 200). Derrida, on the other hand, is not so certain of the solidity of the distinction that Habermas appears to posit here between religion, on the one hand, and the normative foundations of the liberal state, on the other. Where Habermas can speak of religion as a challenge to the ‘neutrality of the state’ (p. 202), Derrida prefers to speak of the ‘political theology’ that undergirds even the modern liberal state (p. 263), thereby questioning the supposed religious neutrality of the state. This difference, however, does not denote a difference in the end toward which both thinkers remain directed, namely, the question of tolerance (chapter 11) or hospitality (chapter 12).

The question of religion in the public sphere reveals a pattern that holds through most of the discussions between Derrida and Habermas: while the content of their arguments differs, sometimes quite greatly, a common goal tends to drive their respective projects. As Derrida says, ‘despite all obvious differences in [Habermas' and his] approaches and arguments, our aspirations converge regarding the future of the institutions of international law and the new challenges for Europe’ (p. 270). This shared hope for the future served as a foundation for a personal friendship between the two, and as a foundation for their respective philosophical projects. By highlighting this convergence amid all the divergences, The Derrida-Habermas Reader calls us back to the roots of deconstruction and rational reconstruction, reminding us that both Derrida and Habermas, despite their differences in method and subject matter, saw themselves as philosophers of the Enlightenment.