Intellectual Courage: An Interview by Thomas Assheuer – Jacques Derrida

Q: Monsieur Derrida, you have always been politically engaged in current affairs as a philosopher, for instance in the debate around the New Right or in the International Writers Parliament. Is it possible to say that the political climate has changed after the elections in Great Britain and in France? Can intellectuals take courage again after those years when they seemed paralysed by a posthistorical or cynical attitude?

JD: Had the intellectuals lost their courage? There is nothing to confirm this. In the course of the last decades and at an unprecedented tempo, they were forced to take profound transformations in the public space into account. The conditions of taking a stand in the media, of intervening in the tele-technological field, have been exposed to many transformations and re-appropriations, politically and economically. On the other hand, all responsible citizens needed courage to analyse these evolutions, acting instead so as to avoid these traps. All the more since some intellectuals have sought to exploit these new media powers to the end of personal promotion; when they did so in the fight for a good cause, solidarity was at times as difficult to give as to withhold. Intellectuals have been more present and active than your question suggests, in all fields of public life, in Europe and elsewhere, where the political or governmental agencies have often been paralysed by the habits of the past. Moreover, if courage is a virtue, and also an intellectual virtue, it is not the most specific quality which one rightfully demands from an intellectual as such. An incompetent and irresponsible intellectual can have courage for the worse. I do not believe that all ‘intellectuals’ have been, as you suggest, ‘paralysed by an attitude of posthistoire or cynicism’. It is difficult for me to answer this question in a few words. One needs to understand what you mean by ‘posthistoire‘ or ‘cynicism’, but also put into question, as I would do if I had the time and the place, the hateful assimilations that often circulate on this topic. For reasons of economy I prefer to confess my discomfort at the beginning of this interview, once and for all, without returning to it. It has to do with the conditions created by the media and by the public space for intellectuals to take a stand. If I said, for instance, that I refuse to engage in a debate about this point (‘cynicism’, ‘posthistoire‘, the ‘status of the intellectual’, etc.) in four or five phrases, as they are suggested to me, will one accuse me of escaping into silence or into elitism? Would it be indulgent, condescending or a bit journalistic to refer to the published texts where I treat all these questions? I believe on the contrary that this would be the most ‘responsible’ response. It could illustrate the historical difficulty to which I allude. It is these conditions for speaking out publicly that change and that one has to change. And with them the figure of the public intellectual.

Now to proceed in a more direct and simple manner to what is at the centre of your question: yes, the elections in Great Britain and in France are a ‘good sign’, or less of a bad sign. I say this with a lot of prudence and moderation. By the way, despite certain superficial analogies some have an interest in drawing, the last English ‘turn’ has a completely different historical significance, a totally different ‘function’, than the regular French succession. And the declared intentions of the two new majorities (Labour and Socialist) are more different and perhaps incompatible than one often says. As are the unrest and the hope they can inspire. Certainly they can permit us to hope for a more vigilant political and social resistance to the economism and monetarism which tends to dominate the new European spirit. But the ‘pragmatic realism’ claimed by these two governments risks reproducing exactly what they pretend to interrupt. In terms of a certain concept that one confusingly calls ‘globalisation’, of an adaptation to the ‘market’, of a politics of frontiers and immigration, and in terms of other sensitive questions, I perceive at most nuances of adjustment, rhetorical changes (that is not nothing), but no rupture with the immediate past. I confess that it is very difficult for me, even today, to pass judgement on the setting to work of electoral promises of the French government, on the strategy of supposedly ‘realistic’ choices (the partial and mostly nominal maintenance of the ‘Pasqua-Debré’ laws on immigration, the symbolic preservation of the names ‘Pasqua-Debré’ that is calculated to reassure the voters on the right, not to say the extreme right, where one pretends to change the content of the law, and so forth). But it is true that the space is now a little more open for another political discussion and for its public expression. The ‘style’ changes a little, that is accurate, and the politics in power doubtless show themselves more open to questions of culture, research and education, they call themselves more conscious of these stakes. We shall see …

Q: Must one criticise the left, as Richard Rorty does, of being too occupied with questions of cultural identity and of having forgotten questions of social justice? How do you situate your own reflections on justice among these two currents whose relation of lack of relation right now dominates some discussions of political philosophy?

JD: Here again one must differentiate with precision. I do not believe that the whole ‘left’ in general is more occupied with cultural identity than with social justice. But if some who call themselves leftists had done so they would deserve Rorty’s critique. On this point and to a certain extent I would agree with him, for then two grave risks would have been neglected: first, though legitimate in certain situations and within certain limits, the demands of cultural identity (and this word comprises all ‘communitarisms’, of which there are many) can often feed into ‘ideologies’ of the right – nationalist, fundamentalist, even racist. Secondly, the left may relegate to the background and gravely neglect other struggles, social and civic solidarities and universal causes (transnational and not merely cosmopolitical, because the cosmopolitical supposes again the agency of the state and of the citizen, be it the citizen of the world – we will return to this). But why must one choose between the care for cultural identity and the worry about social justice? They are both questions of justice, two responses to anti-egalitarian oppression or violence. No doubt it is very hard to lead both of these debates in the same rhythm, but one can fight both fronts, cultural and social, at the same time, as it were, and one must do so. The task of the intellectual is to say this, to mediate the discourses and to elaborate strategies that resist any simplistic choice between the two. In both cases, the effective responsibility for engagement consists in doing everything to transform the status quo in the two areas, between them, from one to another, the cultural and the social, to establish a new law, even if they remain forever inadequate for what I call justice (which is not the law, even if it determines its history and progress).

Q: In your bookThe Other Heading you conceive Europe as a political project. Can one continue to do so after the long and tough discussions about the European currency, the Euro? Or should one not say that Europe is on the way to becoming an enterprise which is defined by monetary criteria, a kind of enterprise that co-ordinates the trade of merchandise?

JD: This is an effect to whose risks I have alluded (economism, monetarism, ‘performative’ adaptation so as to be competitive in a global market, often after brief and supposedly scientific analyses). It seems to me that one must indeed oppose to it a resolutely political project. That is the stake of many of the tensions between the different European governments, and within each of them, but also among the social forces that dominate Europe. I should add some qualifications, since you wish to talk about ‘intellectuals’: the necessary resistance to economism or monetarism need not take the form of demonising incantations, of magical protestations based on incompetence, against an entity called the ‘Euro’ or evil, manipulative bankers. Even if one need not believe just anyone or anything about this topic, one should not ignore the constraints of the laws of the market; they exist, they are complex, they require analyses which even the institutional ‘experts’ themselves have not completed. Perhaps one must oppose another political logic, but also another socio-economic logic (informed, demonstrative), to the current dogmas of ‘liberalism’. Perhaps the Euro is not in itself an evil. There could be another social and economic framework for the ‘transition to the Euro’. Each nation state of Europe has its own calculations and its own historical responsibilities in this respect. Those of Germany and France are particularly grave, as you know. Finally, even if my sympathies, as you well know, go towards a political resistance (of a certain political Europe) to a Europe which would be a mere administrator of its economy, the concept of the political which saturates that discourse does not satisfy me completely yet. It transfers upon Europe, and the boundaries of Europe, a tradition of the political, of the nation state, that begs many questions, and I have reserves about it. There again, one would require a long discussion; I refer to my publications.

Q: You yourself have shown so well in Specters of Marx that Fukuyama’s thesis of an end of history was refuted since and even before its propagation. The liberal societies it praises cannot resolve their social problems. Moreover, ‘globalisation’ creates severe social problems throughout the world. Once again, the most important question is that of justice. Above all with regard to the global situation, what should the contribution of philosophy be? In Specters of Marx you speak of a ‘New International’. Can you specify the ideas and political projects linked to that ‘New International’?

JD: I believe in an often silent, but more and more effective global solidarity. It is no longer defined as an organisation of International Socialists (but I keep the old name of an ‘International’ to recall something of the spirit of revolution and of justice which ought to reunite the workers and the oppressed beyond national frontiers). It does not recognise itself in the states or the international agencies that are dominated by certain stately powers. It is closer to non-governmental organisations, certain humanitarian projects, but it transgresses them as well and appeals to a profound change in international law and its setting to work. This International has today the figure of suffering and of compassion for the ten plagues of global order I enumerate in Specters of Marx. It decries that of which one speaks so little in the official political rhetoric and in the discourse of ‘engaged intellectuals’, even among the declared champions of human rights. To give some examples of easily distracting macro-statistics, I think of the millions of children who drown every year, of the nearly 50 per cent of women who are beaten or fall victim to sometimes murderous abuse (the 60 million disappeared women, the 30 million mutilated women), of the 23 million infected with AIDS (of which 90 per cent are in Africa and to whom the budget of AIDS research dedicates only 5 per cent of its resources, while therapy remains unavailable outside small occidental milieus), I think of the selective infanticide of girls in India and of the monstrous conditions of child labour in many countries, and of the fact that there are, I believe, a billion illiterate people and 140 million uneducated children, I think of the maintenance of the death penalty and of the circumstances of its administration in the United States (the only Western democracy to do so and a country that no longer recognises the convention concerning children’s rights and continues to execute punishment against minors even after they have reached adult age, etc.). I quote these numbers, published in official reports, from memory in order to convey an idea of the scale of the problems that call for an ‘international’ solidarity of which no state, no party, no syndicate, no civic organisation really takes charge. All who suffer and all those who are not insensitive to the dimension of these urgent issues belong to this International, everybody who – civic or national background notwithstanding – is determined to draw the attention of politics, law and ethics towards them.

Q: All these reflections pose the question whether the categories of the right and the left still have validity. What do you think?

JD: I consider this opposition more necessary and more effective than ever, even if indeed the criteria and the differentiations have accrued enormous complexity. For instance: it is true that a certain left and a certain right are objectively allied against Europe and against the Euro and what they seem to announce, at times in the name of ‘national’ values, at times in the name of social politics, or both at the same time. Another left and another right are allies in their support for Europe and for the Euro, sharing the same rhetoric and a discourse that considers itself as respectful of the ‘national’ and the ‘social’. On both sides, the logic and the rhetoric resemble each other a great deal, even if their application, practice and interests diverge. So to respond briefly and elliptically to a question that demands a long development, I would say that the left, for me, that in which I resolutely wish to recognise myself, situates itself on the side where one analyses the troubling and new logic of these equivocations today and tries to effectively change their structure; and along with them the very structure of politics, the reproduction of discursive political tradition. I propose a minimal axiom: on the left there is the desire to affirm what is to come, to change, and to do so in the sense of the greatest possible justice. I would not say that everyone on the right is insensitive to change and to justice (that would be unjust), but it never makes justice the first resort or axiom of its action. To take up distinctions that are not outdated, despite a fundamental transformation of the very concept of labour: the left will always privilege the profit from ‘labour’ over that from ‘capital’. The right always alleges that the latter is the condition of the former. To be ‘on the right’ consists in being conservative, but of what? Over and above certain interests, powers, riches, capitals, social norms and ‘ideologies’ and so forth, over and above politics, the right always tends to preserve a certain traditional structure of the political itself, of the relations between civil society, nation and state. If one upholds the opposition of left and right, it is surely not easy to be on the left with some consequence, to be always on the left – a difficult strategy.

Q: Two essential problems of globalisation are the dissolution of the state and the impotence of politics. In your recently published text ‘Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore un effort!‘, you develop certain ideas concerning a new right to asylum and a new balance of power between the different places of the political in view of a possible new role of the city. How do you think philosophy could and should react to the problems mentioned with a kind of institutional fantasy?

JD: I am not sure I understand what you call ‘institutional fantasy’. All political experimentation like the initiative of the ‘refugee city’, despite its limits and its inevitably preliminary character, has in it a philosophical dimension. It requires us to interrogate the essence and the history of the state. All political innovation touches on philosophy. The ‘true’ political action always engages with a philosophy. All action, all political decision making, must invent its norm or rule. Such a gesture traverses or implies philosophy. Meanwhile, at the risk of appearing self-contradictory, I believe that one must fight against that which you call the ‘dissolution of the state’ (for the state can in turn limit the private forces of appropriation, the concentrations of economic power, it can retard a violent depoliticisation that acts in the name of the ‘market’), and above all resist the state where it gives in too easily to the nationalism of the nation state or to the representation of socio-economic hegemony. Each time one must analyse, invent a new rule: here to contest the state, there to consolidate it. The realm of politics is not co-extensive with the state, contrary to what one believes nowadays. The necessary repoliticisation does not need to serve a new cult of the state. One ought to operate with new dissociations and accept complex and differentiated practices.

Q: You often underline that your philosophy proceeds by means of paradoxes. You show precisely how established philosophies of justice or of friendship yield to aporia, but at the same time the claim to an unconditional justice or the idea of a friendship that is ‘totally other’ always returns in your argumentation. Do you not fear that your philosophy discourages from the start any political project as it always draws the risk of an aporia or a paradox? And concerning your own political engagement: would you say that it is an engagement against or despite your philosophy, or does one rather have to see here a proper way for deconstruction to go into politics?

JD: Yes, I try everything I can above all to attempt to adjust my ‘engagements’ to the unconditional affirmation that traverses ‘deconstruction’. This is not easy, one can never be sure of succeeding. It can never be the object of a knowledge or a certitude. Like others, I often feel the discouragement of which you speak, but in my eyes that is also a necessary test. If the whole political project would be the reassuring object or the logical or theoretical consequence of assured knowledge (euphoric, without paradox, without aporia, free of contradiction, without undecidabilities to decide), that would be a machine that runs without us, without responsibility, without decision, at bottom without ethics, nor law, nor politics. There is no decision nor responsibility without the test of aporia or undecidability.

Q: The notion of ‘decision’ occupies a pivotal place in your reflections: what is the place of the decision in your concept of the political? Does it somehow replace justice?

JD: It does not replace it, on the contrary it is indissociable from it. There is no ‘politics’, no law, no ethics without the responsibility of a decision which, to be just, cannot content itself with applying existing norms or rules but must take the absolute risk, in every singular instant, or justifying itself again, alone, as if for the first time, even if it is inscribed in a tradition. For lack of space, I cannot explain here the discourse on decision that I try to elaborate elsewhere. A decision, though mine, active and free in its phenomenon, cannot be the simple deployment of my potentialities or aptitudes, of what is ‘possible for me’. In order to be a decision, it must interrupt that ‘possible’, tear off my history and thus be above all, in a certain strange way, the decision of the other in me: come from the other in view of the other in me. It must in a paradoxical way permit and comprise a certain passivity that in no way allays my responsibility. These are the paradoxes that are difficult to integrate in a classical philosophical discourse, but I do not believe that a decision, if it exists, would be possible otherwise.

Q: If all political engagement runs the risk of falling into aporia, would it not be more consequential to say: let us forget the aporias and get pragmatic? Let us do what needs to be done, everything else is a kind of political metaphysics?

JD: In my eyes what you call ‘a kind of political metaphysics’ would be exactly the forgetting of aporia itself, which we often try to do. But the aporia cannot be forgotten. What would a ‘pragmatics’ be that consisted in avoiding contradictions, problems apparently without solution, etc.? Do you not think that this supposedly realistic or empirical ‘pragmatics’ would be a kind of metaphysical reverie, in the most unrealistic and imaginary sense one gives these words?

Q: Should one say, then, that the aporias you refer to are tragic? And if so, must we not recognise that all discourse of an always tragic history implies connotations that are politically very problematic? Is this not a kind of metaphysics of history?

JD: It is true, I often feel these aporias as tragic suffering, in the slightly vague current sense of that term (terrifying debates, the feeling that, whatever one does, it will not be enough, not when measured up against an infinite exigency, a contradiction that beleaguers us, and in any case one pays a heavy price). But under that ‘tragic sentiment’ there is the opposite of a ‘metaphysics of history’ and of a ‘tragedy’ (in the sense of fatalism and submission to destiny). Rather I feel here the condition of the question, of action and decision, of resistance against the fatal, against providence and teleology.

Q: Your philosophy seems ambiguous regarding the aspirations of the Enlightenment: on the one hand, you have contributed to a strong critique of the notion of the subject, of spirit and so forth which you propound in a problematisation of axiomatics bound up with those notions. On the other hand you insist more and more often on the importance of a certain idea of emancipation that you do not hesitate to attribute to the ‘Aufklärung‘. Do you see such an ambiguity in your thought? What are the political consequences of such an ambiguity, if it exists? Is the idea of democracy also subject to this ambiguity?

JD: Yes. More precisely, the irreducible distance, the always irrecusable inadequation between the ‘idea of democracy’ and that which presents itself in its name remains forever ambiguous. That idea is not altogether a ‘Kantian idea’, at the same time regulating and infinitely expanded. It commands the most concrete urgency, here and now. If I keep its old name of ‘democracy’ nevertheless, and often speak of a ‘democracy to come’, it is because that is the only name for a political regime which declares its historicity and its perfectibility, in that it carries in its concept the dimension of inadequation and of that which is to come. Democracy allows us in all liberty to invoke these two openings publicly in order to criticise the current state of all so-called democracy.

Q: You have written an impressive book about the specters of Marx around the central argument that the specters not only return, but that they are always with us. If we recognise that at least a part of Marxism consisted in a totalitarian enterprise, what can the specters teach us? Must one not fear that those totalitarian specters return with the other which we perhaps desire?

JD: Of course one must fear that, it is one of the lessons to take away from the totalitarian experience and from the terrifying failures of Soviet Marxism. But this vigilance should not become a pretext or an alibi to reject all that which Marx has offered to us and can again teach us, if one does not give in to facile and archaic repetition. Allow me to again refer to Specters of Marx and other books (not only mine). It really is too difficult to answer briefly.

Q: Since the self-criticism of the left, there is no utopian thought anymore. Conservative cultural criticism has finished it off. Your philosophy, it seems to us, is not willing to renounce utopia entirely, yet without naming it. Should one see in the event or in the ‘tout autre‘ a new name for utopia?

JD: Although there is a critical potential in utopia which one should no doubt never completely renounce, above all when one can turn it into a motif of resistance against all alibis and all ‘realist’ and ‘pragmatist’ resignations, I still mistrust the word. In certain contexts, utopia, the word in any case, is all too easily associated with the dream, with demobilisation, with an impossibility that urges renouncement instead of action. The ‘impossible’ of which I often speak is not the utopian, on the contrary it lends its own motion to desire, to action and to decision, it is the very figure of the real. It has duration, proximity, urgency.

Q: Among the global problems of capitalism which you have analysed in Specters of Marx, the question of the refugees and the expatriates seems to be most urgent to you. In your recent texts, one can discover a topic which has also been central to the thought of Hannah Arendt (who appears among other places in ‘The Monolingualism of the Other’): the absolute esteem for unconditional hospitality. How can such a hospitality offer responses to the problems of the refugees of the global society?

JD: Inseparable from the thinking of justice itself, unconditional hospitality nevertheless remains impracticable as such. One cannot inscribe it in rules or in legislation. If one wants to translate it immediately into a politics, it always risks having perverse effects. But fully aware of those risks, we cannot and must not dispense with the reference to an unreserved hospitality. It is an absolute pole, without which the desire, the concept and experience, and the very thought of hospitality would not make any sense. Again, this ‘pole’ is not a ‘Kantian idea’, but the place from which immediate and concrete urgencies are dictated. Thus the political task remains to find the best ‘legislative’ transaction, the best ‘juridical’ conditions to ensure that, in any given situation, the ethics of hospitality is not violated in its principle – and that it is respected as much as possible. To that end, one has to change laws, habits, phantasms, a whole ‘culture’. That is what is needed at this moment. The violence of xenophobic or nationalistic reactions is also a symptom. The task is as urgent today as it is difficult: everywhere, particularly in a Europe that tends to close itself off to the outside to the extent that it claims to open itself within (the conventions of Schengen). The international legislative demands a re-casting. The concept and the experience of the ‘refugees’ in this century have undergone a mutation which makes politics and the legal system seem radically archaic. The words ‘refugee’, ‘exile’, ‘deported’, ‘displaced person’ and even ‘foreigner’ have changed their meaning; they call up another discourse, another practical response and change the entire horizon of ‘the political’, of citizenship, of belonging to a nation, and of the state.

Q: What should one do if the ‘laws of hospitality’ (if they exist) do not attain the status of positive law? Would this not be a situation where but for an act of grace, citizens would be without civic rights?

JD: One has to do everything to see the laws of hospitality inscribed in positive law. If this is impossible, everyone must judge, in their soul and conscience, sometimes in a ‘private’ manner, what (when, where, how, to what extent) has to be done without the laws or against the laws. To be precise: when some of us have appealed to civil disobedience in France on behalf of those without identifying papers (and for a small number among us – for example in my seminar, but publicly – more than a year before the press began to discuss this and before the number of protesters grew to be spectacular), it was not an appeal to transgress the law in general, but to disobey those laws which to us seemed themselves to be in contradiction with the principles inscribed in our constitution, to international conventions and to human rights, thus in reference to a law we considered higher if not unconditional. It was in the name of this higher law that we called for ‘civil disobedience’, within certain limited conditions. But I will not reject the word ‘grace’ (of the unconditional gift and without return) that you offered to me, provided that one does not associate it with obscure religious connotations which, though they can sometimes be interesting, would call for quite different discussions.

Q: What is the advantage of a thought of hospitality compared with other universal moral concepts? Can one say that it is less abstract and perhaps more apt for thinking a justice which always has to address itself to a singular other?

JD: Yes, I would agree with that formulation. Given what I suggested a moment ago (the new problems of borders, of the nation-state, of the displacement of people, etc.), the topic of hospitality focuses on what is today most concretely urgent and the most proper for the articulation of a political ethics.

Q: If for reasons of legal security one does not simply want to have confidence in hospitality as moral exigency, how is the thought of unconditional hospitality linked to a juridical world order? Do you conceive of any sort of global civil rights (Kant’s cosmopolitan rights) for all people? But how can one imagine such a right without taking recourse to a global state which would pose the question of legitimation right away?

JD: These are problems I have been dealing with in some depth in my teaching for many years. The reference to Kant is at once indispensable and insufficient. A cosmopolitical right (Weltbuergerrecht) that would regulate what Kant called ‘universal hospitality’ would already today constitute the perspective of an immense progress if our international agencies wanted to put it into effect, which is far from being the case. And yet Kant has well circumscribed the limits and conditions for the execution of such a law (accorded only to citizens as such, from state to state, and merely as a right of visit (Besuchsrecht), not as the right of residence (Gastrecht), without any special contract between states (such as the European agreements drawn up in Schengen)). One would have to invent a law (but also a justice beyond the law) which lifts these limitations. One should invent the law-making agency which would not simply be of the state or bilateral contracts between states which fight against the hegemony of certain states. But certainly not a global state, a single global state! I refer back to what we just said about the state. Neither Kant nor Arendt, by the way, who you cite at times, believe in the possibility of a single global state. I know very well that this riddle seems insoluble. But a task whose solution is by the same token the object of a knowledge, a task which a simple recognition would render accessible, would this still be a task?

Q: In your book The Other Heading, you made a clear confession about European democracy and yet you sometimes show a reticence about the institution of this democracy. What are the reasons for your reticence? Are they more of a structural order or of a false setting to work of ‘good ideas’?

JD: To answer too fast and summarily once more, I am ‘against’ all those who are ‘against’ Europe. You have already heard in principle about my misgivings and my reticence (against the hasty adoption of a concept as confused and dogmatic as what is called ‘globalisation’, against economism or monetarism which trust too much in the knowledge of experts who are themselves not so sure, against the reconstitution of a state-nationalism on a grand scale, under the hegemonial forces which sometimes declare themselves Christian-democratic, sometimes deny it, but are profoundly inscribed in a European axiomatics, against a Eurocentrism which is no longer contemplated very often, but in favour of the taking into account of that inadequation between actual democracy and a democracy to come, of which I have talked earlier). But I do not believe that one ought to interrupt the process of European unification in the name of these misgivings, one ought to fight, as in a democracy, in moving along, from the inside, in order to inflect its course otherwise.

Q: The ethical background of your thought was always recognisable, even if it was perhaps sometimes well hidden. But why has justice been occupying the foreground of your texts recently like a protagonist? Should one say that the necessity for a thinking of justice and its setting to work has been aggravated?

JD: What you call a ‘background’ has always already been readable. But in order to know what was readable, one must read. It is true that, in these words and in this form, those topics can only appear in the foreground after a certain ‘theoretical-critical’ trajectory that is calculated to limit the misunderstandings. I do not believe that the misunderstandings have disappeared, but perhaps they happen less easily. In any case, once again, for those who read. No, I do not believe that the situation has deteriorated in the world, alas. For thirty-five years, the same evils have been there, perhaps less mediatised…

Q: Can you say a few words about the very curious separation that opposes you to the thought of the second generation of the Frankfurt School as it has been developed by Jürgen Habermas. As becomes more and more evident, at least in your answers, there are surprising parallels, and one wonders whether it is not rather a matter of philosophical or political misunderstanding.

JD: Once again, too short a response for a question that would demand, and will demand I hope, long discussions, not only on my part. It is true, happily, that Habermas and I often find ourselves on the same side in respect to urgent political questions. We collaborate, for instance, in international associations like the International Writers’ Parliament or the Cisia (which deals with intellectuals, journalists, etc. who are persecuted in Algeria). I think I have always understood and approved of the political interventions of Habermas in Germany. As regards the well-known, grave ‘philosophical’ differences to which you allude, and which I addressed a few years ago (whether they are direct or indirect, whether they take place or are ‘represented’ in Europe or elsewhere), does our immediate political solidarity relegate them to the rank of mere misunderstandings? I am not sure. I wonder if a well-founded, detailed, rigorous discussion would not produce profound political differences and contrasts regarding the very essence of ‘the political’, of the ‘social bond’ and of ‘language’, discords from which new efforts, new tasks would have to be determined. I hope that these talks will take place, tomorrow or after tomorrow, directly or through others, and that they will be as cordial as they will be demanding.

Q: Emmanuel Levinas was one of the most important philosophers for you, it seems. Recently, one sees a kind of appropriation of his thought by catholic thinkers in France. How do you explain their interest and how do you situate your own recent reflections on Levinas in relation to this tentative appropriation? Is this a properly philosophical stake or can one see implications here which tell us something about the political situation at French universities or at least within the realms of philosophy?

JD: You are right, this ‘stake’, and this ‘situation’ call for vigilant analyses. You know my admiration and gratitude for Levinas. I consider his thinking an immense event of this century. But the troubling ‘appropriation’ of which you speak is not merely catholic and conservative, it can also be that of a naive moralism or of a faddish and simplifying mediatisation. In order to try and resist, in my way in the texts which I devoted to him, I always insist discretely yet clearly on certain reserves, above all on political misgivings (for instance on the topic of the nation of Israel, in Adieu) or on the paradoxes of his concept of ‘the third’ and of ‘justice’, on the always possible perversions of his ethics, on an inevitable ‘perjury’ at the heart of ‘droiture’. But here again, so as not to be too vague or unjust, would you allow me to refer you to my publications?

(Translated by Peter Krapp)


1. This interview was conducted by Thomas Assheuer of the German weekly Die Zeit. At Jacques Derrida’s request the full text was published in French on the Derrida website in March 1998. Assheuer’s questions were translated into French by Andreas Niederberger; after a long correspondence, an abbreviated form of the interview was printed in German as ‘Ein Gespräch mit dem Philosophen Jacques Derrida über die Intellektuellen, den Kapitalismus und die Gesetze der Gastfreundschaft‘ [a conversation with the philosopher Jacques Derrida about intellectuals, capitalism and the laws of hospitality] in Die Zeit on March 5, 1998 (Die Zeit 11, 1998).

In his introductory remarks to the German version, Assheuer alludes to difficulties, to scepticism, and to the scrupulous scanning of each word. Indeed, Derrida was unhappy with the printed version and thus requested a caveat to the reader to the effect that this ‘painful experiment’ had brought about a number of concessions and reductions to ‘the simplest expression’. The translation offered here makes no claim to avoid those pains entirely; I have tried to bridge some gaps where Die Zeit diverges in their translation of the full French text, to allow for editorial changes from both sides that occurred after the French version appeared on the web. Also, readers of the German version will note that the sequence has been changed slightly (at times, cuts were made to accommodate portraits of Derrida on the pages of the newspaper). I refer you to the original French version, online at:

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