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Derridas Concept of Experience and its Ethical Implications


Ryan Gustafson; Prospectus Seminar (Fall 2014)
aporetic experiences are the experiences, as improbable as they are
necessary, of justice, that is to say of moments in which the decision
between just and unjust is never insured by a rule.1
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, a particular strain of scholarship on the philosophy of
Jacques Derrida compellingly argued that deconstruction rather than entailing the kind of slide
into skeptical relativism and amoral nihilism that its critics frequently alleged is in fact governed by
an ethical imperative, inherited by Derrida from the writings of Emmanuel Levinas.2 Through a
series of influential articles, Robert Bernasconi definitively laid the groundwork for this liaison
between Derrida and Levinas.3 Specifically, according to Bernasconi, Derridas practice of reading
philosophical texts could be thought of as both analogous and supplementary to Levinas project of
accounting for the experience of the Other; namely, just as for Levinas the trace of such an
experience constitutes a call to responsibility that is both radically heterogeneous to and yet also the
foundation of objective experience as such, so too for Derrida, every philosophical text is marked by
some conceptual remainder that it has attempted to repress and yet also retained as a necessary
condition of its articulation qua philosophical. Thought of by way of this analogy, what came to be
called the ethics of deconstruction was primarily construed as an ethics of reading: an attempt to
recuperate, at the level of its language and concepts, philosophys Other.4

Jacques Derrida, The Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority, in Acts of Religion, ed. Gil Andajar
(Routledge: New York, 2010), 245.
2
Robert Bernasconi, Simon Crichley, and Drucilla Cornell developed perhaps the three most prominent interpretations
of the influence of Levinas on the development of Derridas thought.
3
For my purposes, the most significant among these articles is The Trace of Levinas in Derrida, in Derrida and
Diffrance , ed. D. Wood and R. Bernasconi (Parousia Press, Coventry, 1985); hereafter (TL).
4 What takes place in deconstruction is reading; and, I shall argue, what distinguishes deconstruction as a textual
practice is double reading [] a reading that interlaces [] what Derrida calls the dominant interpretation of a text in the
guise of a commentary and second, within and through this repetition, leaving the order of commentary and opening a
text up to the blind spots or ellipses within the dominant interpretation. Simon Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction:
Derrida and Levinas (Edinburgh UP: Edinburgh, 2014), 23.
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While it seems to me that there is much to recommend in this line of scholarship, I want to
suggest that it has also limited scope of Derridas relevance to ethical thought.5 Specifically, by
construing the ethics of deconstruction primarily as an ethically motivated practice of reading, we
have lost sight of the fact that Derrida, throughout his works, but also particularly during his
analyses of ethical concepts like justice, responsibility, hospitality, etc., consistently had recourse to a
certain vocabulary of experience.

My dissertation thus aims to enrich our sense of the ethical relevance of deconstruction by
recovering what I want to

For one, it has caused us to overlook the fact that the problematic of experience that
Derrida first identifies in Levinas writings is in fact reproduced in Derridas own thinking of
experience. and the fact that Derrida has recourse to a certain concept of experience, first articulated
through his initial engagement with Levinas in Violence and Metaphysics, throughout his works.
Moreover, this tendency to construe the ethics of deconstruction principally as an ethics of reading
has led us to overlook the fact that Derrida has recourse to the vocabulary of experience most often
in his discussions of ethical concepts such as justice, responsibility, and hospitality. In other words,
by viewing Derridas project as the textual analogue or supplement to Levinass, we have been
inclined to occlude his own attempts to formulate a novel concept of experience.
My dissertation aims to resist this trend by recovering, reconstructing, and further
developing Derridas concept of experience. In particular, I will argue that Derridas attempts in his
Bernasconi himself argues for the limitations of Derridas project in approaching the question of ethics relative to
Levinas: For Derrida the trace is of a text and not of the Other [] although Levinas applies the notion of a trace to a
discussion of texts, that it is ultimately the trace of the Other, the infinite, the Good beyond being which is at issue for
him remains a measure of the difference between the two thinkers [] Certainly the reading that Derrida offers of
Levinas attends to questions about the nature of his discourse, but it does nothing to sustain the specifically ethical
discourse operative there (TL 24-5).
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later work to re-articulate ethical concepts like justice, responsibility, and hospitality what he
describes as the experience of justice (Force of Law), the experience of responsibility (The Gift of
Death), and the experience of hospitality (Philosophy in a Time of Terror) necessarily
presuppose a re-articulation of the concept of experience as such. That is, my claim is that one
cannot think ethical concepts like justice, responsibility, and hospitality as Derrida understands these
terms without also rethinking the meaning of experience per se; this re-articulation of the concept of
experience, this wholly other way of experiencing experience and not only a practice of reading
philosophical texts is what deconstruction is all about.6
What then is this experience of experience? Here it will be necessary in the dissertation to
give an account of the concept of experience of which Derrida is critical, as well as the aspect of
Levinass concept of experience that he seems to find appealing.7 For Derrida, as it has been
determined by post-Kantian, transcendental philosophy, the concept of experience has always
implied undergoing something in the present that is, the designation of a relation between a
conscious subject and its phenomena. Experience so construed is the product of intuition and
organized by schemas and categories. Experience, when properly delimited, is thus also ultimately
rational, normative, and calculable.
As Derrida points out, when judged from the standpoint of this transcendental tradition, it is
impossible to speak in good sense about what Levinas calls the experience of the Other. Specifically,
if the Other by definition refers to that which exceeds my concepts, and if experience is defined as
conceptually laden all the way down, something like an experience of the Other is a priori
contradictory; an Other that could be the object of a possible experience would, by definition, no
In making this claim I thus also differ with readings of Derrida that construe deconstruction as merely another instance
of a movement that sought to exorcise talk of experience from philosophical discourse entirely, i.e. the linguistic turn.
My dissertation will thus need address prominent proponents of this reading of Derridas work in both Anglo-American
(Rorty) and Continental (Laclau) traditions.
7
My characterization of this tradition is necessarily truncated here. Tracking it will involve developing a genealogy of the
concept of experience from Kant through Husserl, Hegel, and Heidegger.
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longer be properly speaking Other. However, rather than merely critiquing this impossible thought
of experience that he finds in Levinass work, Derrida in fact comes to define the experience of
deconstruction as precisely this experience. Thus Derrida will write of deconstruction: For a
deconstructive operation possibility would rather be the danger, the danger of becoming an available
set of rule-governed procedures, methods, accessible approaches. The interest of deconstruction, of
such force and desire as it may have, is a certain experience of the impossible: that is, of the other
the experience of the other as the invention of the impossible, in other words, as the only possible
invention.8
What I want to suggest is that Derrida finds the transcendental concept of experience to be
insufficient and a thought of experience like Levinas attractive insofar as the former rules out the
possibility of thinking about experiences, such as the experience of responsibility, which, by
definition, require a response that cannot be decided by available norms, rules, methods, and
procedures. According to Derrida, a decision, if it merely consists of subsuming a particular case
under the guidance of a decidable norm, cannot be properly speaking a responsible a decision. A
genuinely responsible decision must undergo what he refers to as the ordeal of the undecidable, or
an experience of the fact that no axiom can guarantee the justness of the norm that it authorizes.
Justice, in this sense, is an experience of what one cannot experience: an attempt to calculate with
the calculable. The trouble with this classical concept of experience for Derrida is that it rules out
the possibility of speaking in a meaningful way about certain limit experiences which, though not
calculable according to any order of knowledge, are nevertheless given to human thought as a source
of meaning.
What Derridas thought of experience gives us, I want to suggest, is an attempt to indicate a
kind of structural non-knowledge, a kernel of what he calls the mystical, inherent in our knowledge
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and rational calculations as ethical agents. It is only insofar as we are attuned to this structure that we
can be genuinely responsible that we can avoid what he calls good conscience although an
attunement to this structure in way guarantees that we will have done right or wrong. Under this
view, responsibility doesnt slip into mere skepticism, but instead demands a radical vigilance. One
question that I would like to explore is what it would mean to fill out this picture of responsibility
further. If it can be said that Derrida provides us with a quasi-grammar of the experience of
responsibility, what might a discourse like psychoanalysis offer in the way of a description of the
different vicissitudes that such an experience places upon us as ethical agents? How might
psychoanalytic descriptions of responsible subjectivity benefit by being situated in terms of this
quasi-grammar of ethical experience? Here I see myself developing the thought of mourning and
responsibility found in the works of writers like Klein and others a connection that Derrida
intimates in his work on mourning, the gift, etc. but never consistently elaborates.