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THE YO UN G D E R R I D A AN D FRE N C H

PHILOSOPHY, 1 9 4 5– 1 9 6 8

In this powerful new study Edward Baring sheds fresh light on Jacques
Derrida, one of the most influential yet controversial intellectuals of
the twentieth century. Reading Derrida from a historical perspective
and drawing on new archival sources, The Young Derrida and French
Philosophy shows how Derrida’s thought arose in the closely contested
space of postwar French intellectual life, developing in response to
Sartrean existentialism, religious philosophy, and the structuralism
that found its base at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. In a history of
the philosophical movements and academic institutions of postwar
France, Baring paints a portrait of a community caught between
humanism and antihumanism, providing a radically new interpreta-
tion of the genesis of deconstruction and of one of the most vibrant
intellectual moments of modern times.

e d w a r d b a r i n g is Assistant Professor of Modern European Intel-


lectual and Cultural History at Drew University. Educated at the Uni-
versity of Cambridge and Harvard University, his work was awarded
the Harold K. Gross Prize by Harvard University in 2010. He has won
fellowships from the DAAD, ACLS, and Mellon Foundation.
id ea s i n con tex t 9 8

The Young Derrida and French Philosophy, 1945–1968


id ea s i n con t ex t

Edited by David Armitage, Jennifer Pitts, Quentin Skinner and James Tully

The books in this series will discuss the emergence of intellectual traditions and of
related new disciplines. The procedures, aims and vocabularies that were generated
will be set in the context of the alternatives available within the contemporary
frameworks of ideas and institutions. Through detailed studies of the evolution of
such traditions, and their modification by different audiences, it is hoped that a
new picture will form of the development of ideas in their concrete contexts. By
this means, artificial distinctions between the history of philosophy, of the various
sciences, of society and politics, and of literature may be seen to dissolve.
The series is published with the support of the Exxon Foundation.
A list of books in the series will be found at the end of the volume.
THE YOUNG DERRIDA AND
FRENCH PHILOSOPHY,
1945–1968

EDWARD BARING
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Baring, Edward, 1980–
The young Derrida and French philosophy, 1945–1968 / Edward Baring.
p. cm. – (Ideas in context)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
isbn 978-1-107-00967-7 (hardback)
1. Derrida, Jacques. 2. Philosophy, French – 20th century. I. Title.
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Contents

Acknowledgments page viii


Note on translations and reproductions xi

Introduction 1

part i: derrida post-existentialist 15


1 Humanist pretensions: Catholics, communists, and
Sartre’s struggle for existentialism in postwar France 21
2 Derrida’s “Christian” existentialism 48
3 Normalization: the Ecole Normale Supérieure and
Derrida’s turn to Husserl 82
4 Genesis as a problem: Derrida reading Husserl 113
5 The God of mathematics: Derrida and the Origin of
Geometry 146

part ii: between phenomenology and structuralism 183


6 A history of différance 190
7 L’ambiguité du concours: the deconstruction of
commentary and interpretation in Speech and Phenomena 221
8 The ends of Man: reading and writing at the ENS 259

Epilogue 295
Bibliography 306
Index 319

vii
Acknowledgments

I have been very fortunate in the research and composition of this book.
Archives opened up as if on cue during my research, including the Derrida
letters held at the IMEC archives. The team at IMEC, especially José
Ruiz-Funes, Yves Chevrefils-Desbiolles, and Catherine Josset, made me feel
enormously welcome. One could not imagine a more pleasant introduction
to archival research: pétanque on their lawns, cycling around the beautiful
grounds, and convivial conversation over what must be the best food served
at an archive in the world. My sole criterion for future research projects
is that they must take me back to the Abbaye d’Ardenne. When I was
not so lucky with timing, I benefited from the generosity of archivists:
Catherine Goldenstein allowed me access to letters at the Paul Ricoeur
archives before they were ready, and Françoise Dauphragne permitted me
to rummage through the unsorted boxes that will become the Hyppolite
archives at the ENS. For perhaps my greatest archival find, a picture of
Derrida sporting a cravat and Converse trainers which graces the cover
of this book, I would like to thank Marianne Cayette, who guided me
through the archival holdings at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, and Mikaël
Schinazi, who rushed around Paris to obtain a high resolution scan of the
photograph. Where written archives needed to be explained, and queries
answered, Marguerite Derrida, Maurice Caveing, Richard Macksey, and
Pierre Nora were both generous with their time and knowledge and patient
with a British historian who had much to learn.
I did not, however, do the bulk of my research in France, but in
California, where I sweated out two summers. This book would not have
been possible without the support of the Special Collections Staff at the
University of California at Irvine, who look after the Derrida archives
there. Both Jackie Dooley and her successor, Michelle Light, very kindly
extended opening hours so that I could make the most of my time, and I
am grateful to their team for making it happen in practice. The extensive
research and writing this book required was generously supported by grants
viii
Acknowledgments ix
from the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard, a
Frank Sheldon Traveling Fellowship, the ACLS, the Mellon foundation,
and a research grant from Drew University.
My writing has been aided by the unwavering support of my adviser,
Peter Gordon, who is always a source of sage counsel, a perfectly turned
phrase, and words of encouragement. His faith in my work made me feel
that I could tackle such a large project and his engagement kept me excited
when the road seemed long and difficult. Advisers can make or break the
graduate school experience, and I was truly fortunate to be able to work
with Peter. Judith Surkis too has been of immeasurable value to my project
and development as a scholar. Her close reading drew ideas and subtleties
out from my chapters that always made me feel smarter than I deserved; this
book owes much to her insight and dedication. I would also like to thank
both David Blackbourn and Sean Kelly for keeping me honest – though
in different ways – as I worked through some of the most treacherous texts
of modern intellectual history.
I have been very lucky in the help provided by academics in other
universities. Sam Moyn provided some valuable advice at the beginning of
my research and useful comments as it got going, while Alan Schrift showed
me that academic good neighborliness is not dead, sending details of the
agrégation concours that was the product of many days of original research
to a graduate student he had never met. I have benefited from meeting
and talking with Martin Ruehl and Martin Crowley at the University of
Cambridge, Marc Crépon at the ENS, Stefanos Geroulanos at NYU, and
Hent de Vries from Johns Hopkins. Though I have never met them in
person, Len Lawlor, Ian Hunter, Alan Schrift, and Todd Shepard have
been immensely generous with their time and criticisms in the later stages
of my work. I would also like to thank the two anonymous readers at
Cambridge University Press for their invaluable insight and suggestions,
and the editorial team, including Richard Fisher, Lucy Rhymer, Jo Breeze,
and David Watson, for helping turn my manuscript into a book.
One of the great advantages of an institution like Harvard is the vibrant
graduate community. This book was conceived, planned, and thought
through in discussion groups dedicated to this purpose but also in the
myriad conversations over dinner, a beer, or coffee. In particular, I would
like to recognize the friendships of Angus Burgin and Daniel Shore, who
were able to look beyond my anarchic approach to commas, to help me
see what was good in my work and what was not. In other forums too, I
have been overwhelmed with good advice and comment from Phil Fileri,
Sam Goldman, Martin Hägglund, Macabe Keilher, Kris Manjapra, Yascha
x Acknowledgments
Mounk, Nick O’Donovan, Knox Peden, Ward Penfold, Kristin Poling,
Sarah Shortall, and Juliet Wagner, amongst others. Later, the support and
friendship of my colleagues at the Writing Program at Princeton and the
history department at Drew University were important for the final stage
of writing. I feel very lucky to have found my place in the academic world
amidst such interesting and intelligent people.
Finally I would like to thank those close to me, who have been a great
help even though I didn’t let them know sufficiently at the time. First
and foremost, my wife Katja Guenther, whose comments and support,
a healthy skepticism, and good humor were invaluable during the long
process of writing a first book. She knows my frustrations and my joy and I
feel privileged to be able to share them with her. I must thank my family in
England, especially my mother, Anstice, who read some of my work, even
though she was sure that she would not understand a word. And finally,
my father Michael, who I hope would have liked the idea of a son who
wrote history, which was for him an enduring passion.
A note on translations and reproductions

Throughout the book and where possible, I use and modify standard trans-
lations for the major texts I discuss. In doing so, I hope that a broader group
of scholars will be able to engage substantively with my argument. All other
translations are my own. I would also like to thank the editors of Modern
Intellectual History for permission to reproduce “Humanist Pretensions:
Catholics, Communists, and Sartre’s Struggle for Existentialism in Postwar
France,” which appears here in revised form.

xi
Introduction

The intellectual history of postwar France often resembles village life.


Most of the important academic institutions – the Sorbonne, the Ecole
Normale Supérieure, the Collège de France, the Ecole Pratique des Hautes
Etudes, even the cafés where Sartre debated with Camus – sit within
the same square mile on the left bank of the Seine. This “village” was
not only geographically limited. Names recur with surprising regularity:
Bachelard, father and daughter, two Merleau-Pontys, as well as numerous
Jolys, Lautmans, Pons and Michauds filling up the promotions at the elite
centers for higher learning. The founder of Tel Quel, Philippe Sollers,
married the philosopher Julia Kristeva; Jacques Lacan married Georges
Bataille’s widow; his daughter married the Lacanian Jacques-Alain Miller.
Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Serres, and Jacques Derrida were schoolfriends
before they were philosophical interlocutors and then rivals. Everyone knew
everyone else. Throughout their careers French intellectuals socialized with
each other, went on holiday together, attended parties at each other’s homes,
corresponded, read the same books, and published in the same journals.
Before being a republic of letters, the French intellectual community was
a social set.
It has been common to castigate the proponents of a unified field called
“French Theory” for being philosophically naı̈ve. “French Theory,” it is
argued, is a peculiarly American construct that can only be understood as
the product of the blinkered enthusiasm of Anglo-Saxon academics for a
range of thought they have not properly understood.1 The manifold theo-
retical differences between, say, Foucault, Bourdieu, Deleuze, and Derrida
are sufficient to scotch any idea that they shared a common program or
had similar ideas. But what seems philosophically unsophisticated can be
historically plausible. The search for philosophical ties is warranted by the

1 See for instance François Cusset, French Theory, trans. Jeff Fort (Minneapolis: University of Min-
nesota Press, 2008).

1
2 Introduction
thick and dense historical connections that recast the manifold debates
not as fundamental differences but as the passionate confrontations of the
philosophically and socially proximate.
Not only were “French theorists” part of the same community, they
also formed what might be called a single generation. The majority of
thinkers who have had a significant effect on English-speaking academia
were born at approximately the same time. As the final shots of the Second
World War rang out, Michel Foucault was eighteen, Jean Baudrillard was
sixteen, Pierre Bourdieu and Jacques Derrida were fifteen, while Gilles
Deleuze was twenty. They all emerged into philosophical consciousness
at the height of the existentialist explosion in French philosophy and
culture, a philosophical movement unrivalled in its ability to appeal to
young students and which initiated a “golden era” in French intellectual
history as philosophers wrestled over its legacy. Though often classed as
“postmodern,” their work a reflection of the social and cultural currents
of 1968 and beyond, these intellectuals were formed in the philosophical
crucible of the preceding quarter century.
Jacques Derrida is a case in point, participating in virtually every impor-
tant philosophical movement in postwar France. When existentialism was
the order of the day at the close of the Second World War, Derrida aligned
himself – though as we shall see, not without some reserve – with Sartre.
Then, beginning his philosophical education in the early 1950s, when
existentialism had run its course, he embraced the “scholasticism” of the
period, the careful rereading of Husserl and Heidegger that marked a col-
lective exorcizing of Sartre from the French academic scene. His readings
of Husserl, in particular, brought him into close contact with the French
tradition of epistemology, best represented by Jean Cavaillès and Gaston
Bachelard. Later, as Derrida began to publish his first essays and books,
a new trend emerged that, while challenging the primacy of philosophy,
made it relevant to a new and broader audience. Structuralism, one of the
first major interdisciplinary movements in postwar French thought, made
philosophical readings valuable to scholars across the humanities and social
sciences. It was a vehicle that carried Derrida’s ideas to the broadest possible
audience and allowed him to contribute to debates about Marxism, psycho-
analysis, and ethnology. Finally, when he was a young teacher in the mid
1960s, the baby-boomers were intent on reshaping contemporary society
and looked to a new generation of scholars for theoretical resources.2 From
2 In this way this book covers similar ground to Michele Lamont’s article “How to become a Dominant
French Philosopher: The Case of Jacques Derrida,” in The American Journal of Sociology, vol. 93,
no. 3 (November 1987), though it adopts a different methodology.
Introduction 3
existentialism to post-structuralism, Derrida’s career tracked the devel-
opment of French philosophy and can stand in metonymically for the
intellectual history of the period.
Not only can Derrida’s itinerary give us a new perspective on the history
of French philosophy, it also brings attention to the academic institutions,
practices, and social organizations that were central to French intellectual
life. Derrida went to the best schools, passed the right exams, and found
jobs in the most prestigious research and teaching institutions. His closely
documented life gives us the means to understand what it meant to be a
philosopher in postwar France, how intellectual communities were formed,
and how institutions and pedagogical structures impacted life and thought.
In particular, it reminds us of the central position occupied by the Ecole
Normale Supérieure (ENS), and the small community of philosophers
there whose work was disproportionately influential.
At the Ecole, philosophy was not only studied but lived; students and
teachers attributed philosophical significance to broader social and polit-
ical trends, while political disputes seeped into academic exchange. In
particular, the communist and Christian affiliations of many Normaliens,
which structured their social and political lives, demanded the adoption
of specific theoretical positions in academic work: communists read Marx
and adhered to theories of social and economic determinism, while Chris-
tians looked to Kierkegaard and Gabriel Marcel and emphasized Man’s
spirituality. Even those students and teachers who, like Derrida, had no
direct affiliation to the Catholic circle or the communist cellule were not
oblivious to the political and cultural valences attributed to philosophi-
cal ideas. Their work too could be classed as ideological or nihilist with
all the attendant social consequences. Ideas, which today seem abstract
and socially irrelevant, were invested then with great political and cultural
meaning. At the ENS it was hard to draw a line between the social and the
philosophical.
Derrida’s education and philosophical development up until his major
publications of 1967 (Of Grammatology, Speech and Phenomena, Writing
and Difference) show that he was the product of the wider French intellec-
tual community. Like many of his generation, Derrida was not the protégé
of a particular school or movement, but was nourished by several: he was
engaged by existentialism, drew on the strengths of phenomenology, and
learned from the rigor of structuralism. Though recent studies have tended
to regard him as an outsider, based upon his later fractious relationship with
mainstream philosophy, until the end of the 1960s at least, institutionally
and intellectually he occupied a central position in French intellectual life.
4 Introduction

communists and catholics debating man


An analysis of Derrida’s work in the years preceding 1968 reveals the struc-
tural importance of two axes in French intellectual life, which provide the
structure for a wide-ranging contextualization of postwar French thought.
These axes show why seemingly abstract philosophical work could have
value for the most pressing of political questions and provide a framework
for analyzing how philosophical quarrels could take on the forms of a
political contest or negotiation.
First, throughout this period, and for Derrida in particular, philosophy
was interwoven by the dual strands of communist and Christian thought.
From Jean-Paul Sartre’s response to communist and Christian critics in
the 1945 paper “Existentialism Is a Humanism,” through the social divide
between the Catholic “Talas” and the communist cellule at the ENS in
the 1950s, to Louis Althusser’s criticism of the religious-leaning Marxist
humanism of Roger Garaudy in his 1965 For Marx, the “double messianism”
of Christian thought and Marxism defined much French philosophy and
granted often abstract reasoning political and social value.3 Marxist thought
gained from the prestige of the Communist Party in France, while ironically
Christian philosophy benefited from the French secular school system. As
we shall see, whatever the laws on the teaching of religion, lycée professeurs
could still discuss the ontological proof in class, or bring their students’
attention to the latest book by Christian philosophers such as Simone Weil
or Jacques Maritain. Philosophy classes acted as a haven for religious ideas
refused their own disciplinary home.
The second major axis in postwar French philosophy is that which led
from humanism to antihumanism. The significance of these terms, as I
will argue, was not their philosophical sophistication. Indeed their value
arose partly from the fact that nobody really knew exactly what they meant.
This vagueness allowed them to reach across political and philosophical
divides, including, for short periods, that between the communists and
the Christians. In 1945, “humanism” was a label claimed by Marxists like
Henri Lefebvre, Catholic personnalists like Emmanuel Mounier, and athe-
istic existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre. In the 1960s, and in part as a
reaction to the success of Sartrean humanism, antihumanism allowed the
rapprochement between structuralist Marxism, Christian Heideggerian-
ism, and Lacanian psychoanalysis. There was no explicit agreement as to
3 The phrase “double messianism” comes from the historian Renée Béderida, cited in Jean-Philippe
Mochon, “L’Ecole Normale et la politique,” unpublished Maı̂trise d’Histoire, Université Charles de
Gaulle, Lille III (1993), p. 74.
Introduction 5
what humanism and antihumanism entailed, and it was for this very reason
that they could be clarion calls to political and philosophical alliances.
Derrida too followed broader intellectual trends, shifting away from an
early – if critical – humanism to become one of the most vocal proponents
of the “end of Man.” But, as I will show, Derrida was never so unambigu-
ously antihumanist as has often been suggested, and traces of his earlier
humanism show up even in texts from the mid 1960s. Unlike the com-
munists, for whom the antagonism between humanists and antihumanists
caused an insuperable rift in Marxist theory, Derrida cleaved closer to the
Christians, for whom the humanist assertion of Man’s need for God and
the antihumanist rejection of the autonomous self were never so dramat-
ically opposed. While Althusser and his students urged the disavowal of
humanist ideology to open up the possibility of a Marxist science, Derrida
demanded a type of philosophical humility that Christian scholars thought
appropriate to our human limitations.

derrida and christian thought


One of the central claims of my study, which I discuss at length in the
first part of this book, is that Derrida’s thought can be understood within
the context of French Christian philosophy. The emphasis on religious
thought may not be entirely unexpected. Scholars have recognized for
over a decade that Derrida’s philosophy provides powerful resources for
considering religious questions.4 Responding to his later texts after the
so-called “religious turn” in the 1980s, John Caputo has described Derrida’s
“messianicity without messianism,” Richard Kearney has proposed an eth-
ical poetics of religion, while Hent de Vries has looked to the reciprocal
implications of philosophy and religion to develop a sophisticated decon-
structive theology.5 Through a close study of Derrida’s early unpublished
essays and courses, however, I show that these religious themes can be
traced back to Derrida’s first philosophical writings. Religious thought was
not a new interest for the middle-aged Derrida, but rather the milieu in
which deconstruction first developed.
4 Jacques Derrida, “Circumfession,” in Geoffrey Bennington, Jacques Derrida (Chicago: Chicago
University Press, 1993), p. 155.
5 John Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
1997); Richard Kearney, The God Who May Be (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001); Hent
de Vries, Philosophy and the Turn to Religion (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999) and
his Religion and Violence (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). Caputo’s phrase comes
from Derrida’s “Faith and Knowledge,” in Gil Anidjar, ed., Acts of Religion (New York: Routledge,
2002) p. 56.
6 Introduction
What is more surprising is that deconstruction drew on Christian
sources. Traditional presentations of Derrida’s philosophy cast him as
a “Jewish” philosopher. The claim has been picked up in much of
the secondary literature, and developed often with great finesse and
sophistication.6 But, the desire to understand deconstruction through ref-
erence to a lost or effaced Jewish consciousness, whatever validity it may
have, ignores another better-documented genealogy. Derrida, by his own
admission, only read the Talmud late in life, but he did read Christian
philosophical texts while at school.7 Several of the themes and questions
in Derrida’s philosophy that have been attributed to a latent Judaism can
equally be found in the type of Catholic thought to which the young
Derrida turned, especially the works of Simone Weil, Gabriel Marcel, and
René le Senne. It is without a doubt significant that Weil converted from
Judaism and Marcel embraced the Catholic faith late in life. But the confu-
sion of labels should make us wary of claiming certain philosophical theses
as the exclusive property of particular religious groups. Though one can
distinguish “Christian” and “Jewish” philosophy, such modifiers do not
restrict the scope or influence of ideas to particular individuals or groups,
especially, as we shall see, for a tradition of theistic existentialism that
displayed a marked skepticism to all forms of determined and institution-
alized dogma; a Jewish Derrida would not necessarily consider all Christian
thought beyond the pale.
In highlighting Derrida’s engagement with Christian thought, there-
fore, I do not intend to substitute one religious identity for another. The
fact that Derrida drew on Christian philosophy does not make his phi-
losophy doctrinally “Christian,” and it in no way implies that Derrida

6 See for an analysis of Derrida’s relationship to Judaism and Jewishness, Jürgen Habermas, Philo-
sophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick Lauwrence (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990);
Gideon Ofrat, The Jewish Derrida, trans. Peretz Kidron (Syracuse University Press, 2001); Martin
Srajek, In the Margins of Deconstruction: Jewish Conceptions of Ethics in Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques
Derrida (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1998); or Andrew König, Splitterflüsse (Stuttgart:
Merz & Solitude, 2006); and with greater sophistication Joseph Cohen, ed., Judéités: Questions pour
Jacques Derrida (Paris: Galilée, 2003); Hélène Cixous, Un Portrait de Jacques Derrida en jeune saint
juif (Paris: Galilée, 2001); Dana Hollander, Exemplarity and Chosenness (Stanford University Press,
2008). For a compact statement of Derrida’s own use of the terms “Jewish,” “Judaism,” and “the last
of the Jews,” see his interview in Elisabeth Weber, Questioning Judaism, trans. R. Bowlby (Stanford
University Press, 2004), pp. 40–58. Derrida’s use of this Jewish identity to destabilize traditional
identity politics has been a major theme in much of the secondary literature.
7 Jacques Derrida, Points: Interviews 1974–1994 trans. Peggy Kamus (Stanford University Press, 1995)
p. 80. Further, as Derrida has asserted on other occasions while adding important caveats that
are equally valid here, “deconstruction’s link with Christianity is more apparent, more literal than
with other religions.” Yvonne Sherwood, ed., Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments (New York:
Routledge, 2005), p. 33.
Introduction 7
accepted Christian doctrines personally; we should beware of mistaking
philosophical genealogy for religious identity. Rather, I want to show how
Derrida’s thought developed lines of argument that emerged at a particular
moment in French intellectual history, ones proffered predominantly by
self-confessed Christian thinkers, but which cannot be restricted to them.
Derrida turned to Christian thought, not because it was Christian, but
because, in France, it offered the most valuable resources for criticizing
Sartre’s atheistic existentialism.
Nevertheless, this Christian background provides new means for under-
standing the stakes of deconstruction. I show that what has been interpreted
as a “skeptical” element in Derrida’s philosophy was closely allied with a
Pascalian philosophical tradition that challenged the pretensions of human
thought. Just as Derrida would later confront texts with marginal moments
that conflicted with their most basic presuppositions, Christian existential-
ists confronted the categories of our understanding with existence in all
its complexity to show that no human philosophical system could fully
grasp the richness of experience. Both looked for “scandals” that discred-
ited human claims to philosophical authority.8 For these thinkers, we could
never have but the most obscure idea of God, who was only an aspiration or
a promise, accessed through the blindness of an uncertain and dangerous
faith rather than revealed through the light of knowledge. Consequently,
any dogmatic assertion of divine immediacy (or absence) was ultimately
hubristic and had to be refused.
Given the importance of religious themes in Derrida’s early thought,
the question is no longer what incited the emergence of these questions in
the “religious turn” of the 1980s, but rather what kept them out of sight
until then. The time period is suggestive. For the twenty years following
1964, when Derrida taught at the Ecole Normale Supérieure under the
watchful eye of Louis Althusser, explicitly religious themes were almost
entirely absent from his work.
In the second part of this book, I relate how Derrida, returning as a
teacher to the ENS, had to engage with Althusser and his newly politi-
cized students and make his work relevant for them. First and foremost,
this entailed an adoption of the terms and categories of structuralism.
The reformulation of Derrida’s ideas in structuralist language was ulti-
mately resistant to his earlier religious thought. Derrida no longer hoped
to disrupt idolatrous ontotheologies by asserting the “difference” between

8 See Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. A. Bass (University of Chicago Press, 1978)
p. 283; and Etienne Borne, Le Problème du mal (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1958), p. 10.
8 Introduction
the divine idea and its earthly manifestations. Instead this difference was
equated with the Saussurean difference between signifiers that produced
linguistic meaning. Recast as the play of signifiers, Derrida’s “différance”
in the late 1960s presented the “theological,” not as the cause, but as “a
determined moment in the total movement of the trace.”9 It is for this rea-
son that contemporary philosophers interested in the connection between
deconstruction and religion have tended to avoid Derrida’s work from this
period and have criticized the first reception of deconstruction in America
that it informed.10
The “turn” in Derrida’s thought makes sense of recent conflicting voices,
like that of Martin Hagglund, who has argued that not only was Derrida
an atheist in refusing God, but he was radically atheist – a term ironically
also used by Caputo11 – in his rejection of the desire for the infinite and
the “absolutely immune.”12 The desire for immortality, shared according
to Hägglund by believers and vulgar atheists alike, was the true target of
Derrida’s deconstruction. Hägglund argues that Derrida’s thought implies
a positive affirmation of our finitude and mortality, which is the condition
of any desire or affirmation at all.13
A history of Derrida’s thought, sensitive to both the traditions in which
he participated and the change of his thought over time, suggests that
Hägglund cannot be right about Derrida’s radical atheism. But in recog-
nizing the essential role of spacing and différance in the key texts from 1967,
Hägglund does draw attention to the reformulation of Derrida’s thought
that complicated his appeal to religion and makes the misreading of his
atheism understandable. Further, Hägglund’s work encourages us to be
careful in our analysis of Derrida’s use of religious thought. Though his
work was nourished by religious philosophy, the religious resources that
Derrida relied upon were used to destabilize the thought of Man, not to
construct a thought of the divine. For this reason, the religious geneal-
ogy of Derrida’s thought can never be the ground for a simple rejection –
or indeed embrace – of deconstruction. Even at his most religious, Der-
rida’s appeal to the resources of a Christian tradition always arose from an

9 Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. G. Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
1976), p. 47. Of course, the theological is not God, and, like the Christian Heideggerians, Derrida
was always resistant to their identification.
10 See de Vries, Philosophy and the Turn to Religion, pp. 23–8 and Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of
Jacques Derrida, p. 233.
11 Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, p. 62 citing Jacques Derrida, Sauf le Nom (Paris:
Galilée, 1993), p. 103.
12 Martin Hägglund, Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life (Stanford University Press, 2008).
13 Ibid., p. 34.
Introduction 9
internal critique of secular thought. Derrida probed first Sartre’s existen-
tialism, then a phenomenology of science, and finally Althusser’s Spinozist
Marxism, and for internal reasons found them all wanting. God was an
axiom Derrida could do without; his anti-foundationalism was consonant
with a religious tradition criticizing human arrogance, but he never pro-
posed substituting a final religious ground.

derrida and history


This book is the first detailed archival and contextual study of Derrida’s
philosophy, and many commentators might regard its very approach as a
betrayal of his ideas.14 For them, in its assumptions and methodology his-
tory is intrinsically biased against deconstruction. In the words of one critic,
“Derrida refused . . . to become part of history.”15 Further, put off by Der-
rida’s critical writings on archives, scholars have shied away from his own
carefully preserved papers.16 Indeed this assumed hostility between history
and deconstruction explains why, over a third of a century after the first
books appeared on Derrida’s work, there has been no sustained treatment of
Derrida’s archives, nor a rigorous attempt at historical contextualization.17
This opposition to history has expressed itself in two forms: the resis-
tance to the idea of historical change, and a reticence in reading Derrida’s
philosophy within the broader context of French intellectual history. Sev-
eral scholars have asserted that Derrida’s thought has been remarkably
constant over his career, and they refuse to subject his work to historicizing
narratives. Geoffrey Bennington suggests that there was no change between
the supposedly “philosophical” works of the 1960s and the “literary” work
14 Benoı̂t Peeters’s magisterial biography, Derrida (Paris: Flammarion, 2010), appeared as I was putting
the final touches to this book. His work draws on similar sources to mine but he reads them for
different purposes, emphasizing the personal and the private, and their impact on Derrida’s work.
As such my book and his provide different but, I hope, complementary accounts of Derrida’s
early years. This book also builds on the ground-breaking work of Allan Megill in his Prophets of
Extremity: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).
15 David Bates, “Crisis between the Wars: Derrida and the Origins of Undecidability,” Representations
(Spring 2005). See also Mark Bevir, Jill Hargis, and Sara Rushing, eds., Histories of Postmodernism
(New York: Routledge, 2007), Introduction, pp. 1–24; and more recently Warren Breckman, “Times
of Theory: On Writing the History of French Theory,” Journal of the History of Ideas (July 2010),
pp. 339–61.
16 See Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1996).
17 See also the antipathy from historians, amongst others, Carolyn Steedman, “Something She Called
a Fever: Derrida, Michelet and Dust,” The American Historical Review (October, 2001); or Richard
Evans, In Defence of History (London: Granta Books, 1997), pp. 81–2. For a sophisticated account
of the attempts to sideline deconstructively informed histories see Judith Surkis, “When Was the
Linguistic Turn? A Genealogy,” forthcoming in the American Historical Review.
10 Introduction
later on, that Derrida’s work cannot be divided into “styles or periods.”18
Where some attempt at periodization and a sensitivity to change has arisen
in the scholarship, it has often been confined by the limited and ironically
(as we shall see) Althusserian attempt to read a divide between the “late”
and the “early” Derrida, demarcated by “religious,” “ethical,” or “political”
turns.19 We have a Hobson’s choice between two stable forms, marked by a
break, or a consistency over forty years of writing and publishing. Neither
provides a useful account of historical change.
Similar hesitations can be seen with respect to contextualization.
Derrida often attested to his status as an outsider, rejected by the philo-
sophical establishment, a claim that many scholars have taken at face value.
The limited contextual accounts of Derrida’s thought have often concen-
trated on his Algerian or Jewish background, reiterating his own narrative
of exclusion from the French mainstream.20 In this way, the attempts to
contextualize Derrida have strangely served to decontextualize him. But, as
I will elaborate more fully later, with limited sources to appraise the impact
of Derrida’s Algerian past or Jewish heritage, such forms of contextual-
ization rely predominantly on a one-sided conceptualization of Sephardic
Jewish identity. Where they do appeal to Derrida’s own work, it is only to
his pronouncements in the 1980s and beyond, and we should treat such
autobiographical writings with caution, especially when they serve to bol-
ster the myth Derrida carefully constructed of his own relationship to the
French mainstream.
The resistance to contextualization also seeks legitimation in Derrida’s
deconstructive philosophy. As several commentators have noted, Derrida’s
concept of writing describes the process of decontextualization: unlike
speech, writing can do without the presence of the author and be readable
in another time and place. Since it is the defining property of writing that it
can forgo this presence, the desire to return to its “point of origin” smacks of
unhealthy nostalgia. To yearn for the lost fullness of a contextual moment
as the guarantor of sense is to remain beholden to the “metaphysics of
presence.”21

18 Bennington, Jacques Derrida, p. 13.


19 See Simon Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992); Peng Cheah
ed. Derrida and the Time of the Political (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2009). Though I
write on the “young Derrida,” I emphasize neither a profound opposition to the “old Derrida,” nor
an essential unity to his early writings.
20 See Robert Young, White Mythologies (New York: Routledge, 1990) and the two recent biographies
by Jason Powell and David Mikics.
21 See Peter Gordon’s remarks about Heidegger and Derrida at the end of his “Hammer without a
Master,” in Bevir, ed., Histories of Postmodernism, p. 125.
Introduction 11
But as I will argue, in sketch here, and more thoroughly throughout
this book, the strong tendency to deny historical change and to distance
Derrida’s thought from its context resides in what he would have considered
a metaphysical understanding of philosophy. Further, in rejecting such an
understanding, Derrida’s thought provides the intellectual historian with
valuable resources for thinking through the complex relationships between
philosophy, which aspires to transhistorical validity, and the particular
historical moment in which it arose.
In a traditional metaphysical schema, history is opposed to philosophy,
as the ephemeral to the eternal, the myopic blindness of particularity
to the clear-sightedness of universal truth.22 In this way the relationship
between philosophy and history mirrors that between speech and writing,
which furnished the occasion for Derrida’s most famous deconstruction.
According to Derrida, in the history of philosophy, speech was always the
locus of truth, whether for Aristotle, where the voice expressed the truth
of the soul, or in the Christian idea of the word of God. In comparison,
writing like history was considered as a fall from this immediate access to
logos; it was parasitically dependent upon the voice of which it was only
the inadequate sign.
But such a characterization relied on a utopian idea of philosophy and
the voice; utopian in a double sense, for utopias are always ripped from
history (they never change), but also by being ripped from history, by
being removed from the world in which we live, they are “no-where,”
inexistent. They are a myth or chimera. As I will discuss in chapter 8,
Derrida perceived a more fundamental writing at the heart of speech
(arché-writing) that simultaneously underwrote and undermined its claim
to absolute certainty. He argued that the properties traditionally attributed
to writing (a process of the deferral of meaning) provided the philosophical
resources for explaining those qualities traditionally attributed to speech
(the immediate presence of meaning). By a parallel logic, one could say that
subtending the opposition between history and philosophy we can pick
out a more foundational history that allows us to explain their relation
and shows that the ways through which philosophy has tried to achieve a
transcendent universality are themselves historically contingent.
The opposition to absolute notions of philosophy does not however
imply a banal relativism. It rather underscores the fact that history can

22 I take my lead here from Derrida’s 1964 course “Histoire et vérité,” given at the Sorbonne. MS-
C001, box 8, folders 9–10, Jacques Derrida Papers, Special Collections and Archives, University of
California, Irvine (hereafter: Irvine, box.folder).
12 Introduction
produce ideas and truths that stand the test of time. Though many his-
torians feel threatened by the supposed skepticism of deconstruction, by
deconstructing the metaphysical opposition between truth and history, we
can begin to understand how it is possible to have something resembling
historical truth at all. Rejecting the idea of Truth with a capital “T” rein-
vigorates our concept of history, which has often been defined negatively
in opposition to it.
For this reason, though deconstructive critics are perhaps misguided in
their broad attacks on “history,” they are justified in attacking a mode of
history that reduces philosophical texts to their contextual moment. One
should not see biographical, political, or cultural background as an “origin”
for philosophical ideas. Much of Derrida’s early work was a criticism of such
an appeal to origins, of the argument that understanding where something
comes from tells us what it is, and in my writing I have tried to avoid this
error. The historical background that I describe was itself intertwined with
a set of causes, consequences, relations, and so cannot be regarded as an
ultimate ground. If this book does in a loose sense look for origins, they
are neither simple nor totalizing. History challenges any claims to absolute
originarity, because it shows that all origins themselves have a past. As
Derrida himself has argued, the appeal to an origin is rather an attempt
to tame history, tying it to one moment in face of which all subsequent
development would be inessential.23
In this sense, an historical account should not assume that the rela-
tionship between Derrida’s thought and the broader intellectual history
of which it was a part was harmonious; between an “origin” and what it
produces, there is always change and difference. As we shall see in numer-
ous examples, even when Derrida’s work responded to the demands of a
particular context, that context did not exhaust his text’s meaning. Often
in his treatment of the problems posed by one particular tradition he was
compelled to escape its self-defined limits – bringing to light its tensions
and difficulties – and produce new ideas, what might be called the “work-
like” character of his texts.24 Contexts just like texts throw up scandals that
cannot be reconciled fully with them. But it is only by reading Derrida
within the context of twentieth-century French philosophy to see how his
work grew out of it that we can understand why at times they were so
mutually allergic.
23 See for example Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 291.
24 See, on this question, the debate between Dominick LaCapra and Martin Jay, especially LaCapra,
“Rethinking Intellectual History and Reading Texts,” in his Rethinking Intellectual History (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1983); and Jay, “Confessions of a Synoptic Intellectual Historian,” in his
Fin de Siècle Socialism and Other Essays (New York: Routledge, 1988).
Introduction 13
I recognize that, as a dual history of Jacques Derrida’s early thought and
the intellectual history of postwar France, this book will be comprehen-
sive in neither. The benefit of following the developments of philosophy
through the prism of one thinker is that it avoids abstract analysis and
detached meta-narrative. A disadvantage is that it privileges one route over
others. It thus will not provide a schema that can be simply and unprob-
lematically applied to other philosophers of the same generation, even if it
hopes to provide a model. Major intellectuals from Simone de Beauvoir,
Gilles Deleuze, and Roland Barthes to Kostas Axelos, Henri Lefebvre, and
the Arguments group play no or only a limited role in my story, despite
their contemporary significance. Similarly, the constraints of a book mean
that it could never hope to be more than a restricted analysis of Derrida’s
own work, missing key elements of his development, and in particular
his private life. The sources I use are concerned almost exclusively with
philosophy, and, as I suggest in the Introduction to the first part, I lack
the evidence and inclination to write either a psychoanalytic account or an
intellectual biography, commonly understood. For the same reason, I have
also virtually ignored Derrida’s engagements with avant-garde literature,
which were crucial for his thought and after all have been treated so well
elsewhere.
This book is not and could not be a full account of Derrida’s philosophy.
As a first sustained reading of his archives and an exploratory attempt at
contextualization, my analysis remains provisional, hoping to be revised
and improved. For just as Derrida later suggested that no archive could
fully contain Hélène Cixous’s genius, no book on Derrida could ever
encapsulate his thought.25 If this book will encourage some to read or
reread Derrida, and to return with fresh eyes to a period of intellectual
history that continues to offer so much to scholars today, then I hope its
own flaws may be forgiven.

25 See Jacques Derrida, Geneses, Genealogies, Genres and Genius: The Secrets of the Archive, trans. B.
Brahic (Edinburgh University Press, 2006).
part i
Derrida post-existentialist

My intention to read Derrida’s thought within the French philosophical


tradition, indeed to use him as a privileged guiding thread for tracing the
twists and turns of postwar intellectual history in France, very quickly
confronts the question of Derrida’s personal history and in particular his
family roots in Algeria: How can a Sephardic Jew from North Africa be
an exemplary French philosopher? The question is rendered more pressing
because Derrida’s Algerian heritage has played a far more prominent role
in standard interpretations of his work than colonial history has for other
French philosophers born in North Africa such as Louis Althusser and Alain
Badiou. The biographical impulse can be explained in part by the attractive
parallels between Derrida’s early life and his philosophy of deconstruction;
scholars have been tempted to present the two as different facets of the same
story, even to the point of suggesting a causal relation. A recent biography
begins thus: “Derrida’s thought cannot be understood apart from his life.
From the beginning, he was an intellectual outsider, a rebel.”1 Derrida was
born in Algeria, supposedly at the edge of the French Empire (though in
Algiers, perhaps the least marginal part of France’s imperial holdings), and
he was a Jew, heir to memories of exclusion and marginalization. Derrida’s
personal history thus seems to reflect the very themes that would come
to preoccupy him in his philosophical writings; the philosopher of the
margins was himself located at the margins of French society and culture.
This reading of deconstruction as the philosophical expression of per-
sonal outsidership has gained authority through its appeal to Derrida’s own
“autobiographical” works from the 1990s. In texts like Monolingualism of
the Other and Circumfession, Derrida came to foreground his abiding sense
of alienation from French culture, declaring that he was “a sort of child
on the margins of Europe, a child of the Mediterranean, who was neither

1 David Mikics, Who Was Jacques Derrida? An Intellectual Biography (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 2009), p. 11.

15
16 Derrida post-existentialist
simply French, nor simply African.”2 As a “Franco-Maghrebian,”3 caught
between two heritages, Derrida asserted that he never felt fully at home in
the French language because it remained governed and disciplined by the
correct usage in Paris; it was a colonial imposition. The desire to empha-
size his distance from the colons explains the force of Derrida’s famous
self-description as a child: a “black and very Arab Jew.”4
Nevertheless, Derrida remained suspicious of the biographical approach
to philosophical exegesis. In a 1983 interview, when Derrida was pressed on
his childhood in Algeria, he immediately questioned his interlocutor: “Ah
you want me to say things like ‘I-was-born-in-El Biar-on-the-outskirts-of-
Algiers-in-a-petit-bourgeois-family-of-assimilated-Jews-but . . . ’ Is it really
necessary? I can’t do it. You will have to help me.”5 Derrida wanted to
avoid the biographical turn in the interview because it threatened to render
his philosophical project a function of his heritage, to relate too closely
a man and his thought. This error, which mirrors historicism’s tendency
to reduce thought to its historical moment, neglected the autonomy of
philosophy and its ability to speak to others in other places and other
times, while ideologically posing biography as a stable ground, free from
the complexities and interpretative tensions of texts.6
Thus while Derrida’s writings on his childhood have been a particularly
rich resource for his biographers, one must be wary of taking these “auto-
biographical” writings at face value. Aside from the problems normally
associated with autobiography, Derrida’s meditations on his childhood
experience can be particularly treacherous for those hoping to find an “ori-
gin” for deconstruction in his personal history. None of these texts can be
read simply as an account of his past, because Derrida drew on childhood
memories in order to elaborate many of the themes that had become cen-
tral to his philosophical project, including the ambivalence of identity, our
relationship to language, and the aporias of autonomy. The deconstructive
coloring of his childhood memories is in part an artefact of Derrida’s self-
conscious and deliberate mobilization of his past; the teleological fallacy is
as understandable as it remains misleading.
Derrida’s childhood was available for deconstructive appropriation
because the Sephardic Jews of North Africa were liminal figures, sitting
uncomfortably between the colonizers and the colonized. Many could

2 Quoted in Mustapha Chérif, L’Islam et l’Occident (Paris, 2006), p. 56.


3 See Jacques Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other, trans. P. Mensah (Stanford University Press, 1998)
pp. 10–4.
4 Derrida, “Circumfession,” p. 58. 5 Derrida, Points, p. 119.
6 See Derrida, Of Grammatology, pp. 157–60.
Derrida post-existentialist 17
trace their family histories in North Africa to well before the French con-
quest of 1830, and the Jewish population was only belatedly integrated
into colonist society in the second half of the nineteenth century, when
the famous Crémieux decree of 1870 granted all Jews in Algeria French
citizenship. Even afterwards this citizenship remained insecure, a fact tes-
tified to by the Vichy government’s revocation of the Crémieux decree in
1940, which left Derrida, along with all the other Algerian Jews, stateless.
Derrida then was French, but according to many other Français d’Algérie
not French enough, marginalized by a group who were themselves at the
edge of French society and suffered under the condescending gaze of their
metropolitan concitoyens.
But the liminal position of Sephardic Jews within Algerian society could
manifest itself in two conflicting, though not mutually exclusive, ways;
either it could promote in the Jewish population an abiding feeling of
alienation from the dominant French culture, or it could encourage them
to embrace that culture more fervently. Indeed, historically, a sizable major-
ity of especially urban and middle-class Sephardic Jews in Algeria took the
second option. The Crémieux decree marked the beginning of a period that
saw great linguistic, cultural, and economic assimilation with the dominant
French Algerian population. And, ironically, the withdrawal of citizenship
in 1940 by the Vichy régime, though attesting to the fragility of their posi-
tion, made many Jews more protective of their status as French. As the
historian Benjamin Stora has said, “the Vichy regime and the abrogation
of the Crémieux decree led the Jews of Algeria to consider the assimilation
promised by that famous decree as their most precious possession.”7 Der-
rida himself concurred, arguing that the revocation and the withdrawal of
his French citizenship created “a desire for integration in the non-Jewish
community.”8
The Algerian War made the difference between the two options even
starker. A small minority of French Algerian Jews, like the communist
Henri Alleg, supported the Algerian revolutionaries of the FLN (Front
de Libération Nationale), who fought against French colonial rule. Many
embraced the Algerian nationalist claims of the FLN and sought to redis-
cover and revitalize an ethnic heritage that would highlight historic com-
monalties with Arab and Berber populations. A sizable proportion of the
Jewish population and the majority of their leaders, however, were “liberal,”
7 Benjamin Stora, Trois Exiles (Paris: Editions Stock, 2006), p. 106.
8 Derrida, Points, p. 121. See also Jacques Derrida, “L’Ecole a été un enfer pour moi,” Cahiers
pédagogiques 270 (January 1989), and Jacques Derrida and Elisabeth Roudinesco, For What Tomor-
row, trans. Jeff Fort (Stanford University Press, 2004), “Of the Anti-Semitism to Come,” pp. 109–12.
18 Derrida post-existentialist
in that they supported the French state, even as they remained critical of
what they saw as its “abuses,” especially the widespread use of torture during
the Algerian War. Indeed, as I have shown elsewhere, Derrida understood
himself as a French Algerian liberal during this period, and only slowly
came to recognize the need for Algerian independence.9
This tendency to efface and downplay differences with the Europeans
of Algeria, a group that the young Derrida tellingly labeled “Catholic,”
can be seen elsewhere in Derrida’s biography and work. The Jewish culture
in which he was immersed was, in his own words, “contaminated” with
Christianity; in Derrida’s family circumcision was called “baptism,” and
bar mitzvah, “communion.” Furthermore, Derrida rebelled against what he
called his “ossified” Jewish heritage, which had become merely a “ritualized
comportment.”10 He refused to go to the Jewish Lycée Maimonides when
he was excluded from the aryanized Lycée Ben Aknoun in 1942,11 and in
the late 1940s, after his Baccalaureate, he studied in the Lycée Bugeaud
d’Alger, the most prestigious school in French North Africa, named for the
General who had led the French conquest in 1830.
Thus, though Derrida only set foot in mainland France for the first time
when he had just turned nineteen, educationally he was already installed
within the French system. What we have left of his archive from his school
days in Algeria is not too different to what one might expect from a lycéen
in Marseille or Lyon. His essays treat French themes, deal with up-to-the-
minute French topics, and show a familiarity with, especially philosophical,
texts from the Metropole. Derrida’s teachers, such as Jan Czarnecki, were
trained in Paris and brought the ideas of the imperial capital to Algeria
with them. When the time came for Derrida too to apply to study in
France, he simply submitted his file to the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris;
administratively his case was no different to that of any other student from
France. French Algeria may have been a colonial fiction, but it was a fiction
with considerable power and left its imprint upon Derrida as it did upon
many others.

9 See Edward Baring, “Liberalism and the Algerian War: The Case of Jacques Derrida,” Critical
Inquiry (Winter 2010).
10 See Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other, p. 54. Derrida traced his resistance to a Judaism of
“external signs” back to the “insidious Christian contamination,” which fostered in him “the
respectful belief in inwardness, the preference for intention, the heart, the mind, mistrust with
respect to literalness or to an objective action given to the mechanicity of the body, in short, a
denunciation, so conventional, of Pharisaism.”
11 Jacques Derrida, Points de suspension (Paris: Editions Galilée, 1992), p. 129. Derrida and Roudinescu,
For What Tomorrow, pp. 110–11.
Derrida post-existentialist 19
Before leaving the realm of biography, however, it is worth noting that,
if Derrida’s personal history helps explain why in this period – as opposed
to in his later writings – he foregrounded his belonging to the French com-
munity and embraced French literature and philosophy, the back history
was not without its effects. Derrida’s embrace of France might plausibly
be called a repression of his “Jewish identity,” as long as we are careful
not to assume that this Jewish identity is in some way more authentic and
originary than Derrida’s French one, or that they were necessarily mutually
exclusive.12 And we might be able to locate the traces of this “repression” –
or perhaps better “effacing” – in Derrida’s work. After all, it is because
this repression was never total that Derrida could later re-narrativize his
biography, and highlight themes of marginalization and exclusion rather
than integration.
This helps us understand why, in later discussions of his relationship to
Judaism, Derrida appealed to the figure of the Marrano.13 The Marranos
were Spanish Jews who converted to Christianity in the fifteenth century,
and yet were suspected by the Inquisition of practicing their Jewish faith
in secret. The Marranos therefore disavowed their Jewishness, and yet were
never fully accepted into the Christian fold.14 Derrida wrote: “I am a sort
of marrane of French Catholic Culture, and I also have my Christian Body,
inherited from SA [Saint Augustine] in a more or less twisted line.” But,
he continued, “I am one of those marranes who no longer say they are Jews
even in the secret of their own hearts.”15 Thus, if one of the main claims of
this book is that we cannot simply use Derrida’s Sephardic Jewish heritage
to explain what philosophical movements he engaged with – that heritage,
to a large extent, remained an inaccessible secret even to Derrida himself –
we can perhaps suggest, speculatively, that it had an impact upon how he
engaged with them. As Derrida wrote, “I am European, I am without doubt
a European intellectual, I like to remember that, like to remind myself of
that . . . But I am not, nor do I feel, completely European.”16

12 The question of Jewish authenticity is, of course, a particularly fraught one. For a subtle analysis,
which treats debates in this period, see Peter E. Gordon, “Out of ‘Huis Clos’: Sartre, Levinas, and
the Debate over Jewish Authenticity,” The Journal of Romance Studies 6 (2006), pp. 155–68.
13 For a sophisticated discussion of this aspect of Derrida’s work, and an analysis of how the figure of
the Jew with which it engaged emerged from within the French tradition, see Sarah Hammerschlag,
The Figural Jew: Politics and Identity in Postwar French Thought (Chicago University Press, 2010).
14 This is also the sense of Derrida’s title Monolingualism of the Other. As he put it in the book,“I only
have one language, yet it is not mine,” p. 2.
15 Bennington, Jacques Derrida, pp. 170–1. For a slightly different use of the term “Marrano” see
Jacques Derrida, Aporias, trans T. Dutoit (Stanford University Press, 1993), pp. 74–8, 81.
16 Jacques Derrida, L’Autre Cap (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1991), p. 81.
20 Derrida post-existentialist
This “not completely” is an important caveat, and we should bear it in
mind throughout this book. But to think about this “not completely,” I
do not intend to dwell on the history of Sephardic Jews in North Africa,
a history that is both complex and, in Derrida’s case, as yet poorly doc-
umented and understood. Rather the “not completely” will show itself in
my analyses of Derrida’s engagement with the French mainstream. For, as I
will suggest, though Derrida was not an outsider to French philosophy, he
resided in those curious margins at its heart, straddling divides between the
religious and the secular, Catholics and communists, phenomenologists
and structuralists. This mainstream with all its fractures and divisions will
dominate my account, because, if Derrida wasn’t born into the Parisian
culture in which he would make his career, this was his elective community,
and his thought should be understood first and foremost as a response to
the pressures of academic life in the French capital.
For these reasons, my story does not start in Algiers on July 15, 1930, the
place and date of Derrida’s birth. Rather, I begin in a Parisian lecture hall
fifteen years later and almost a thousand miles away from Derrida’s home.
The debates of the Metropole set the terms of Derrida’s first engagement
with philosophy, and no event was more significant for the future devel-
opment of postwar French intellectual life, or more influential for a young
generation of aspiring philosophers, than the lecture Jean-Paul Sartre gave
at the Salle des Centreaux on 29 October, 1945.
c h a p t er 1

Humanist pretensions
Catholics, communists, and Sartre’s struggle for
existentialism in postwar France

Nowadays, everybody is a humanist . . . If Marxists can claim [se


prétendre] to be humanists, then followers of the various religions
– Christians, Hindus, and many others – can also claim to be human-
ists, as do the existentialists in turn.
Pierre Naville, discussion in Existentialism Is a Humanism.1

When Sartre declared that existentialism was a humanism in front of the


tightly packed crowd at the Salle des Centraux, it was a brilliant tactical
move. In the year leading up to his lecture, Sartre’s writings had been
subject to numerous and sometimes conflicting criticisms from right and
left. Derided as a decadent bourgeois philosophy or vilified as the modish
immorality of secular youth, “existentialism” had become a pawn in a chess
game whose stakes were national and political. But in the talk he gave that
night, Sartre regained the initiative and emerged in the political sphere as
an active and determined participant.2
It was a new direction for Sartre, whose philosophical work from the
1930s had focused on rather technical points of phenomenology – even
the social analyses of Being and Nothingness (1943) had outlined no explicit
political agenda. Existentialism Is a Humanism broke new ground by bring-
ing Sartre’s thought into direct communication with broader themes and
questions of postwar political discourse. Venturing into new territory, Sartre
did not have the luxury of importing his own terms or recreating the debate;
he inscribed existentialism into a field with its own vocabulary, set-piece
arguments, and rhetorical moves. His intervention was strategic, exploit-
ing the hasty alliances and barely hidden antagonisms already at work in
liberation politics.

1 Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism, trans. Carol Macomber (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 2007), pp. 62–3 (translation modified).
2 See for example Thomas Flynn, Sartre and Marxist Existentialism (University of Chicago Press, 1984),
p. 46.

21
22 Derrida post-existentialist
Historians have been slow to consider the immediate political context,
but for Sartre’s audience its relevance would have been clear, because the
structure of his talk directly mirrored the contemporary machinations
of high politics in France. While Sartre was addressing the Club Main-
tenant, defending existentialism against the criticisms of “communists”
and “Catholics” by labeling it “humanist,” the three main political parties
were picking over the result of the election held eight days previously. Talk
of a coalition had abounded, and the Socialist Party (SFIO) was trying
to draw together the Catholic Social Democrats (MRP) and the Commu-
nist Party (PCF) to form a government, an alliance that would be called
tripartisme.3 It was in this context that one of the by-words of the socialists
came to be particularly useful. The SFIO had decided that it could help
unify the parties and discipline the most extreme wings of the MRP and
the PCF by declaring itself to be “humanist.” The structure and thesis of
Sartre’s paper was then over-determined. When Sartre, in his talk, stated
that the contemporary moral choice was that between the MRP and the
communists, he was only making explicit the underlying framework of his
text; Existentialism Is a Humanism was a political document drawing on
the resources and pushing the limits of tripartisme.4
Such an immediate and conscious appeal to a particular political
moment, however, carries risks. Proclaiming existentialism a humanism
and thus consonant with a particular moment in French history, Sartre
allowed both his immediate success and his philosophy’s later decline.
As politics moved on, Sartre’s gesture quickly dated. By 1947, the tripar-
tite alliance was falling apart, buffeted by the winds of an ever-harsher
international climate. Because Sartre had exploited a political situation
where all major parties were willing to ignore their differences to achieve
a humanist consensus, the decline of tripartisme was an ill omen for exis-
tentialism; the French philosophical community began to outgrow a phi-
losophy tailored to the fashions of 1945. Freed of the need to profess
humanism, communist phenomenologists turned to a new interpretation
of Husserl to counter Sartre’s subjectivist reading, and, casting off the
uneasy discipline of humanism, Christian philosophers appealed to Hei-
degger’s famous letter to Jean Beaufret for resources in the battle against
Sartre’s atheism. Existentialism was successful in part because Sartre was
able to present it as the one true humanist philosophy, aligning it with the
rising star of liberation politics. But when that star began to fade in the late
3 Tripartisme refers to the period from 1945 to 1947 when the three main parties, PCF (Parti Com-
muniste Français), MRP (Mouvement Républicain Populaire) and SFIO (Section Française de
l’Internationale Ouvrière) shared power.
4 Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism, 47.
Humanist pretensions 23
1940s and early 1950s, existentialism too lost much of its luster. As French
philosophy entered the antihumanist age, existentialism would be the first
casualty.

the rise of humanism


The political context for the humanism debate is crucial for understanding
Sartre’s 1945 paper. It shows the political stakes of the turn to “humanism”
as well as the indeterminacy of the word that allowed it to be successfully
deployed in the creation of an alliance, whether political or philosophical.
Previous commentators have assumed that when Sartre claimed existential-
ism as a humanism, he was responding to direct assertions to the contrary.
But the central question in 1945 was not whether existentialism was a
humanism, but rather what type of humanism it was, and why that mat-
tered. Catholic and communist philosophers did not want to argue that
Sartre was an antihumanist, but rather that his form of humanism was
corrupt. And if they could show that his humanism was inadequate, even
dangerous, then they could also apply that argument to the political stage
where it really mattered. Sartre’s existentialism became, in 1945, the per-
fect opportunity for Catholics to discredit an atheistic humanism, and for
communists to attack a bourgeois humanism that they felt to be harmful
to their position within the tripartite alliance. If existentialism was not
already accepted as a humanism, if the debate was not a debate within and
about humanism, it would not have so exercised communist or Catholic
intellectuals.5
The ultimate stakes of the debate had been set eight days earlier on the
national stage. The election on 21 October 1945 had seen the vote relatively
evenly divided between the Communist Party, the Catholic MRP, and
the socialists, and the intervening week had been filled with questions
of possible alliances, rumors of the eventual form of the government.6
In this uneasy ménage à trois, it was the socialists who were the brokers,
attempting to form a coalition government with the implacably opposed
PCF and MRP.
It was a shrewd move by the SFIO to use “humanism” as a precipitation
point for the alliance. Sufficiently broad and positive that few of the parties
5 Stefanos Geroulanos’s recent book, An Atheism That Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought
(Stanford University Press, 2010) gives the fullest and best account of philosophical debates within
humanism and the development of early forms of antihumanism in France. His sensitive analysis of
the humanist quarrels before the War provides a valuable frame for understanding the reemergence
of conflicting humanisms in the immediate postwar period.
6 These three parties had gained approximately a quarter of the vote each, but with the PCF just
leading in terms of votes cast.
24 Derrida post-existentialist
would disown it, it also provided a strong rhetorical ground to criticize
what the SFIO saw as the more problematic elements of Catholic and
communist agendas. The idea of “humanism” did not merely help form
an alliance, it was particularly adept at disciplining it. Drawing its power
from a common opposition to Nazi barbarity, “humanism” by 1945 was
deployed against resistance allies; it was the return to politics as usual in
Paris.
Primarily, the term humanist was directed against the communists, as its
main proponents made clear. They saw “humanist socialism” as offering a
middle way between American capitalism and Soviet communism. Because
it was “socialism” it avoided the excessive individualism of the United States,
but because it was “humanist” it avoided the subsumption of the individual
into the collective that commentators identified in Russia. André Hauriou
popularized the term in his 1944 book, Socialisme humaniste: Vers une
théorie de la Résistance. He wanted to open a “new path . . . between cap-
italist liberalism and total collectivism . . . between class warfare and the
dictatorship of the proletariat.”7 The term was seconded by another social-
ist, Philippe Viannay, writing under his Resistance pseudonym Indomitus;
though he was “socialist,” he belonged “to a family of those who state
principally that Man, the human person, is greater than the collectivity,
taken as such.”8 Humanism’s place in Socialist Party rhetoric was assured
when the grand old man of the SFIO, Léon Blum, returning in early 1945
from German captivity, adopted it – with its anti-communist resonances
intact – in his speech to the Socialist National Congress in August 1945
and his book A l’échelle humaine of the same year.9 When the Socialists
used the term “humanism” they did so to distinguish themselves from
the PCF.

marxist humanism and the man of tomorrow


Willing to be part of the “humanist” alliance, the communists were not
prepared to accept the socialists’ interpretation of the word. In a debate
played out in the pages of the Catholic personnalist journal Esprit in the
early months of 1945, journalists and politicians – including the socialist

7 André Hauriou, Le Socialisme humaniste: vers une doctrine de la Résistance (Algiers: Fontaine, 1944),
pp. 113–14.
8 Indomitus, Nous sommes les rebelles (Paris: Entreprise de presse, 1945), p. 106.
9 Blum speech, August 13, 1945 at the Congrès Nationale Ordinaire, cited in Roger Quilliot, Le SFIO
et l’exercice du pouvoir: 1944–1958 (Paris: Fayard, 1972), 41. Léon Blum, A l’échelle humaine (Lausanne:
Mermod, 1945).
Humanist pretensions 25
Catholic Jean Lacroix and Viannay (Indomitus) himself – discussed the
new watchword of the SFIO. On the communist side, Pierre Hervé, the
editor of the communist journal Action, showed a clear distrust of the term
“humanist socialism,” even as he was aware of its uses:
You speak to us of humanist socialism. OK, if it is understood that Marxism is a
humanism and that the communist movement is in all respects a social and political
manifestation of that great current that one calls humanism. But whenever you
speak of humanist, French, liberal etc. socialism, one has the distinct impression
that there is an unstated polemic. In reality, you have it in for communism. When
that humanism becomes the badge of a political bloc, we are in our rights to
wonder if its promoters, weary of the communist presence in the resistance, don’t
want to constitute an anti-communist coalition.10
While unwilling to reject “humanism” in toto, Hervé recognized all too well
its anti-communist connotations. In a book-length treatment of the same
subject, Hervé proclaimed that “the new socialism calls itself humanist,
to imply that the other is not.” But for Hervé the SFIO project would
reveal itself to be only a “pseudo-humanism,” when compared to the great
humanism at work in the USSR.11
That Hervé was prepared to ally communism with humanism shows how
seriously the PCF took national unity in the months following the libera-
tion. Coming out of the cooperation in the National Council of the Resis-
tance, the PCF wanted to present itself as a willing partner in the anti-fascist
front, just like the Soviet Union on the international level. The PCF’s slo-
gan from August 1944 was “unite – struggle – work,” changing to the even
more moderate “Renaissance! Democracy! Unity!” in 1945.12 The change
was not skin-deep, and on several occasions the party went against its own
interests to support the national cause, disbanding the various liberation
committees in late 1944 so as not to challenge the authority of Charles
de Gaulle. The PCF’s turn to patriotic respectability paid off and helped
double its membership over 1945 to 750,000.
If the desire to play a major role in reconstruction made the communists
unwilling to emphasize differences with other parties, the real possibility
of power gave party officials yet another reason to be open to humanism.
A substantial alliance with the SFIO seemed possible, even to the extent of
L’Humanité publishing a draft charter of a unified party on 12 June 1945.13

10 Pierre Hervé, “Un Socialisme humaniste,” Esprit (February 1945), pp. 408–11.
11 Pierre Hervé, La Libération trahie (Paris: B. Grasset, 1945), pp. 57 and 63.
12 Cited in Maxwell Adereth, The French Communist Party: A Critical History (1928–1984) (Manchester
University Press, 1984), p. 126.
13 See L’Humanité, June 12, 1945.
26 Derrida post-existentialist
The plan came to nothing, but it is important to recognize that it was not
completely implausible for the two resistance allies to come together in
the postwar political field, and the hope was enough to have a discernible
effect on both parties’ policies. When unity with the “humanist” socialists
was realistic, it is not surprising that the PCF should toy with the term
themselves. The task, then, was to reappropriate the word and rid it of its
anti-communist overtones.
Part of the strategy was to deploy the term against the third party, the
Catholic MRP. In an address given by party intellectuals Roger Garaudy and
Georges Cogniot to the 10th Party Congress in June 1945, they asserted that,
with the end of the War, the “renaissance of French culture” had become
a central task for the PCF. This renaissance was intimately connected to
academic freedom. As Garaudy described communist historians, “Marxism
commands their actions, but not their thoughts” because they do not want
to do “partisan, but scientific history.”14 It was a subtle attack on the
Catholics. Opposing “dogmatic education,” the communists presented
themselves as defenders of academic freedom and implicitly invoked the
MRP’s attempt to reinstitute religious education in schools. By calling
upon humanist ideas, the Communist Party adopted a popular and very
French stance, upholding the école laı̈que.15 Similarly, Hervé asserted that
the true patron of humanism was Prometheus: religious humanism seemed
to him “to be as contradictory as atheistic Catholicism.”16
The party knew which elements of “humanism” it liked and which it
didn’t, and hoped to make a bid for its own version. The debate over the
term “humanism,” then, made the party more receptive to its homegrown
movement. Marxist humanism had played an important role for the PCF
during the Popular Front in the 1930s. But this momentary recognition
had come to an abrupt end in 1939 only weeks after the publication of
its standard-bearing text, Henri Lefebvre’s Le Matérialisme dialectique. The
French translation of the official Histoire du parti communiste Bolchévik
de l’U.R.S.S., which reasserted a narrow materialism, and the news of the
Nazi–Soviet pact shredded the PCF’s reputation with communist sym-
pathizers. In response, many Marxists such as Georges Politzer dropped
their commitment to humanism in favor of their allegiance to political
communism, while others such as Georges Guterman and Henri Lefebvre
remained more faithful to their ideas and consequently were pushed to the
14 Roger Garaudy and Georges Cogniot, Les Intellectuels et la renaissance française (Paris: Editions du
Parti communiste français, 1945), p. 5.
15 See especially L’Humanité, 27 September 1945, “L’Ecole de la liberté.”
16 Hervé, La Libération trahie, 62.
Humanist pretensions 27
edges of the communist movement, rejected by the mainstream party.17
In early 1945, then, advocates of Marxist humanism were either marginal
figures in the PCF, such as Henri Lefebvre, Auguste Cornu, and Dionys
Mascolo, or writing from outside, such as Luc Sommerhausen, Emile Baas,
or Pierre Bigo, who were Catholics: only Roger Garaudy occupied a central
position in the party.18 But the new political situation after the liberation
gave the movement a new lease on life.19 Where before they had been polit-
ically dangerous, opposing the Stalinist orthodoxy, now Marxist humanists
were a useful resource for a party trying to appropriate the word of the
minute.
The need to engage in the debate over the meaning of humanism explains
the communist reaction to Sartre. In December 1944, Sartre had pub-
lished a defence of existentialism in the communist paper Action, and
had, in passing, aligned his philosophy with the new fad of humanism:
existentialism, Sartre asserted, was “a humanist philosophy of action, of
effort, of combat, of solidarity.”20 We have already seen how the edi-
tor, Pierre Hervé, was particularly sensitive to the valence of “human-
ism,” and the confrontation with Sartre offered him a perfect opportunity
for debating the term in a field that was not so politically charged. It
was a proxy for the broader political debate. To respond to Sartre, and
reclaim humanism, Hervé chose none other than the recently rehabilitated
Lefebvre.
Lefebvre’s attack drew on the humanist Marxism that he had been
proposing since his 1939 book, which relied heavily on Marx’s 1844
manuscripts and their theory of alienation. This theoretical background
was clear from the start of Lefebvre’s article; he accused Sartre of ignoring
the alienation that reduced Man to his product. The modern division of
labor did not allow the extreme freedom for which Sartre argued. Rather,
the current existing relations of production were the preeminent modern
force for dehumanization. Sartre, from his class position in the educated
elite, projected freedom of the most abstract kind; he could not get beyond
the “narcissism of the pure intellectual,” and so gave no hope for a real and
concrete liberation.21 For Lefebvre, Sartre had outlined a quietist philoso-
phy, just the sort of thing one would expect from a bourgeois, whom the
17 See William Lewis, Louis Althusser and the Traditions of French Marxism (Lanham, MD: Lexington
Books, 2005), ch. 4.
18 See the list of Marxist humanist texts in Mark Poster, Existential Marxism from Sartre to Althusser
(Princeton University Press, 1975), p. 50.
19 See Lewis, Louis Althusser, ch. 5 and especially pp. 127–35.
20 Jean-Paul Sartre, “A propos de l’existentialisme: mise au point,” Action, December 29, 1944.
21 Henri Lefebvre, “‘Existentialisme’ et Marxisme: Réponse à une mise au point,” Action 8 (June 1945).
28 Derrida post-existentialist
division of labour required only to think and not to act. Only real practical
transformation could free Man.
But if Lefebvre posed his humanism as more authentic, he did not
refuse Sartre the label. He merely stated: “it is impossible to accept that
Sartre should present his metaphysics as the only current humanism.”
For Lefebvre, Sartre’s was the empty humanism of the intellectual classes
who ignored the dehumanization of capitalism; true humanism was the
humanism of tomorrow, the result of the revolution, not its cause. It was a
complaint that could just as easily have been leveled against the socialists,
who hoped to instantiate “humanist” ideals in the present, at the expense
of the greater humanism after the revolution.
The conflict between Marxist and socialist “humanism” played an impor-
tant role for the Communist Party. It challenged the SFIO’s authority on
precisely the concept with which they were attacking the PCF, and made
it easier for communists to take part in a “humanist” alliance. The PCF
courted the idea of “humanism” because the term was still in play; half
turned against Marxism, it could also be aligned with a communist political
project.

man turned towards god: catholic humanism


A very similar set of concerns animated the Catholic response to Sartre.
Humanism exerted a strong attraction on the Christian left. Indeed, when
Blum used humanist language at the SFIO August conference in 1945, it was
felt by many to be a concession to the personnalist journal Esprit.22 Esprit
had been at the heart of the Catholic turn to humanism in the 1930s, when
its founder, Emmanuel Mounier, declared the need to “redo the Renais-
sance,” referring to the need to redirect humanism away from the secular
and individualistic path that, historically, it had taken.23 Humanism was
also central to the work of the Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain, who
both before and during the War had advocated an “integral humanism.”24
Just as “humanism” provided important resources for the communists
to attack the Catholics, especially on the question of secular education, it
appealed to the Catholics for the critical edge it could provide against the
communists. Catholic critics such as Jean Daniélou could see humanist
Marxism as ill fitting with “a communism, which is often nothing more
22 See Quilliot, Le SFIO, p. 41. For a contemporary example, see Georges Jarlot, “A l’échelle humaine,”
Etudes (November 1945), pp. 229–33.
23 Esprit, October 1, 1932, pp. 5–51.
24 Jacques Maritain, Principes d’une politique humaniste (Paris: P. Hartmann, 1944).
Humanist pretensions 29
than political Machiavellianism,” and could suspect the communist review
La Pensée of rejecting humanism.25
But the Christians too had an ambivalent relationship with the term,
for it was difficult to ignore the possible atheistic reading of “humanism”
that the communists promoted. The newly founded MRP, led by Georges
Bidault, had as one of its major goals an overturning of the secular edu-
cation policies from the Third Republic, which had chased religion out of
the classroom. For the Catholics, humanism had too often been tied to
“laı̈cisation,” a debate that had begun to rumble again even before the war
was over, given the support provided to Catholic schools under the Vichy
regime and the expected reversal under the new government.26 Indeed a
book entitled Humanisme by Léon Emery, published during the War, had
pursued precisely this policy of secular education. A. de la Croix-Laval’s
review for the Catholic journal Etudes started, “what a shame that such
a seductive little book should be not only an incontestable pedagogical
and literary accomplishment, but also an undeniable danger to the souls
of our children,” and ended “what a shame, we can conclude, that the
humanism to which so much pedagogical science and so much literary
value introduces us should be, at the end of the day, just the old secular
humanism.”27
The Catholics, then, just like the communists, had an ambivalent rela-
tionship to the term. It was a powerful tool for opposing other parties, but
it also, if interpreted a certain way, had the potential to backfire on some of
their most cherished political projects. It is not surprising that there were
several attempts amongst Catholics to redefine “humanism,” just as there
had been with the communists. In 1945, Père Henri de Lubac published
the highly successful, Drame de l’humanisme athée, which discussed the
dangers of a humanism detached from God, a humanism that in Comte,
Marx, and Nietzsche could often turn into its opposite.28 As he suggested

25 Jean Daniélou, “La Vie intellectuelle en France: Communisme, Existentialisme, Christianisme,”


Etudes (September 1945), pp. 241–54. See also J. Lieven, “Le Communisme a-t-il changé?”
pp. 179–92, in the same edition.
26 See the abundant articles in Catholic journals such as Etudes, or Les Temps nouveaux, and La Vie
intellectuelle all through 1945. See also the attempt to reclaim “humanist teaching” for Christianity,
in Louis Meylan, Les Humanités et la personne (Neuchâtel: Delachaux & Niestlé, 1944).
27 Armand de la Croix-Laval, review, “Chefs d’œuvre. Introduction à l’Humanisme,” Etudes (March
1945), pp. 422–4. For a Christian humanist response to the education question, see Pierre Teilhard
de Chardin, “Hérédité sociale et éducation,” Etudes (April 1945), pp. 84–94, especially 92.
28 Henri de Lubac, Le Drame de l’humanisme athée (Paris: Editions Spes, 1945). Lubac compared Marx,
Feuerbach, Comte, and Nietzsche to Dostoyevsky, who, by showing the absurdity of life, quashed
any attempts to “found eternal life down here,” p. 411. Against the deifying efforts of the humanists,
Lubac left his readers with a sense of our limitation and the hope of eventual liberation. As Michael
30 Derrida post-existentialist
in his Avant-propos, “without God, Man can in the end only organize him-
self against Man. Exclusive humanism is inhumane humanism.”29 When
the book was reviewed by Gabriel Marcel in the Catholic review La Vie
Intellectuelle, a couple of months after Sartre’s talk, he tied this concern
directly to Sartrean existentialism. Closed atheistic Nietzschean humanism
exhibited “a certain disposition of the soul, where ressentiment plays a cen-
tral role.” This was, Marcel asserted, the type of humanism that could “be
found amongst many of our contemporaries: existentialism, not in itself,
but in the negative form in which it is presented by Sartre, undeniably
assumes it.”30 For the Catholics, atheistic humanism led to its own corrup-
tion: one could be truly humanistic only if one recognized Man’s need for
and openness to God.
Just as the communists saw the debate with Sartre as an ideal and
low-stakes forum for asserting their own definition of humanism, for the
Catholics it provided an opportunity for challenging humanism’s atheistic
undertones. Therefore, as with Lefebvre, the goal was not to refuse Sartre
the label, but rather to show that his version of humanism was limited
and unattractive. In Jeanne Mercier’s important 1945 critique of Sartre, she
stated that for him, “fundamentally, Man is vice,” and in the end, a “Man
minus humanity.”31 Mercier continued, “how can one be surprised . . . if the
need for the true God could have been replaced by others, if his very name
was obscured? We have first extinguished our spirit . . . Where better than
[Sartre] to survey the degeneration of a humanity without God?”32 It was
the same analysis that de Lubac had deployed against atheistic humanism,
and Marcel had tied to Sartre. Sartre’s existentialism provided a particularly
powerful example of the failure of secular humanism, of the type being
advocated by the socialists and communists.
Sartre’s Catholic and communist critics were not bandying around the
charge of antihumanism. Rather they were engaged in a subtler and polit-
ically more crucial debate over the meaning of “humanism,” for which
Sartrean existentialism offered a suitably uncontroversial occasion. The
Christians decried a humanism turned atheistic in Sartre’s work, the com-
munists, a humanism of the bourgeois. The point wasn’t to deny him the
title, but rather to show the failings of his particular version. In both cases
Kelly notes, though de Lubac did not want to promote Christian humanism himself, his work
was appropriated by Christian humanists in 1945; see Michael Kelly, The Cultural and Intellectual
Rebuilding of France after the Second World War (New York: Palgrave, 2004), p. 149.
29 De Lubac, Le drame de l’humanisme athée, 10.
30 Gabriel Marcel, “Le Drame de l’humanisme athée,” La Vie intellectuelle (December 1945), pp. 141–8.
31 Jeanne Mercier, “Le Ver dans le fruit,” Etudes (February 1945), pp. 238–40.
32 Ibid., pp. 240, 249.
Humanist pretensions 31
it was a testing ground for a larger debate being played out at the political
level, a debate the result of which would have profound consequences for
the causes they held closest, whether in education or in the transformation
of the social system.

agency today: sartre’s humanism


It is only by understanding the controversy and stakes involved in the
invocation of humanism that we can begin to read Sartre’s 1945 lecture.
Sartre understood the cleavages in the debate and saw the fraught political
and semantic situation as a perfect opportunity for furthering his own
ends. Like the socialists and the Catholics, he asserted a humanism that
affirmed individual autonomy today, against what he saw as the totalizing
and enveloping whole offered by the communists. Like the socialists and
the communists, his was a secular humanism.
Sartre’s use of “humanism” to argue against conventional Marxism mir-
rored the arguments used by the socialists; it was the Trojan horse in
which Sartre tried to smuggle subjectivism into Marxism.33 The Marxists
asserted that only a bourgeois humanist could imagine the existence of
absolute freedom in the modern capitalist world. Before the revolution,
this freedom could only be abstract, unable to change anything. But Sartre
turned the criticism back against them. He attacked materialism for treat-
ing “all men – including oneself – as objects – which is to say as a set of
pre-determined reactions indistinguishable from the properties and phe-
nomena that constitute, say, a table, a chair, or a stone.”34 Sartre argued
that if we believed in ironclad laws of history we would never act, because
history would accomplish itself, by itself:
“Will collectivization ever be a reality?” I have no idea. All I know is that I will
do everything in my power to make it happen. Beyond that, I cannot count on
anything. Quietism is the attitude of people who say: “Others can do what I
cannot do.” The doctrine that I am presenting to you is precisely the opposite of
quietism, since it declares that reality exists only in action. It ventures even further
than that, since it adds, “Man is nothing other than his own project. He exists
only to the extent that he realizes himself, therefore he is nothing more than the
sum of his actions, nothing else more than his life.35
Only by allowing individual freedom was the revolution possible. Sartre
took communist political engagement and made it dependent upon a break
with vulgar Marxist theory. For Sartre, as for the socialists, humanism meant
33 Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism, pp. 35–8. 34 Ibid., p. 41. 35 Ibid., pp. 36–7.
32 Derrida post-existentialist
that communism had to relax its laws of history and accept individual
human action and choice in the present.
But, of course, a direct reiteration of the socialist account would not
make Sartre any friends in the communist camp. Socialist humanism, for
them, impeded the revolution, undermined the unity of the social whole,
and strayed dangerously close to the individualism that they so despised in
capitalism. If Sartre was willing to use the semantic possibilities of socialist
humanism, he did not want to embrace it fully. Sartre went to considerable
lengths to show that his version was not the one the communists rejected.
It is for this reason that Sartre was so concerned to rebuff the charge that
existentialist freedom was purely individual:
The word “subjectivism” has two possible interpretations and our opponents play
with both of them, at our expense. Subjectivism means, on the one hand, the
freedom of the individual subject to choose what he will be, and, on the other,
man’s inability to transcend human subjectivity. The fundamental meaning of
existentialism resides in the latter. When we say that man chooses himself, not
only do we mean that each of us must choose himself, but also that in choosing
himself, he is choosing for all men. In fact, in creating the man each of us wills
ourselves to be, there is not a single one of our actions that does not at the same
time create an image of man as we think he ought to be . . . Our responsibility
is thus much greater than we might have supposed, because it concerns all of
mankind.36
Existentialist choice was not the selfish and bourgeois freedom of an iso-
lated individual, restricted to the private sphere. Rather than an individu-
alistic softening of the socialist ideal, for Sartre, the liberation promised by
humanism was consonant with communism.
Sartre argued that a common human project was possible because of a
shared “condition.” This “condition” was not a human essence, but the
“limitations, which a priori define Man’s fundamental situation in the
universe . . . the necessity for him to be in the world, to work in it, to live
out his life in it amongst others, and, eventually, to die in it.” Even if
the specifics were always different, we could nonetheless understand how
people attempted to “surpass such limitations, to postpone, deny, or to
come to terms with them”: good or bad faith.37 It was this common desire
to change the world in which we live, or in failure, to submit to it, that was
universal across the great variety of human existence. Despite the lack of
a human essence, the mainstay of existentialism, Sartre still could appeal
to the universal form of all human projects, and assert that the goal of

36 Ibid., p. 24. 37 Ibid., p. 42.


Humanist pretensions 33
subjective freedom was to facilitate this surpassing, both for the self and
for others.
This was, Sartre insisted, the communists’ goal too. One could choose
to support freedom or not, choose to oppose slavery or not, choose good
faith and the truth of existentialist freedom, or bad faith and the error of
its dissimulation, the PCF or the MRP: “A man who joins a communist
or revolutionary group wills certain concrete ends that imply the abstract
will to freedom, yet that freedom must always be exercised in a concrete
manner . . . as soon as there is commitment, I am obliged to will the freedom
of others at the same time as I will my own.”38 The desire to realize freedom
concretely, to ensure the conditions for its occurrence in the world, was
also the desire to will it for all, to help the workers, one might say, lose
their chains.
This return to Kantianism, a universal form for morality, even if Sartre
was wary about defining any specific content, has been much attacked in
the secondary literature. Sartre’s attempt to render the more individualist
freedom of Being and Nothingness social seems to renege on his previous
refusal of a priori moral principles.39 But the apparent weakness of Sartre’s
argument highlights the political necessity to reach beyond the isolated
subject and promote a universal project for human liberation. Sartre had
to distance himself from the socialist humanism claimed by the SFIO that
was otherwise so central to his argument against Marxist materialism. The
strategic demands of Sartre’s first foray into politics posed the problem
of how one could socialize existentialist freedom, which would remain a
focus for his ongoing thought up through his Critique of Dialectical Reason
fifteen years later.

christian existentialism
With respect to the Christians the rhetorical situation was more compli-
cated. The complexity can be seen in a peculiarity of Sartre’s 1945 paper:
Christian thinkers were invoked at two separate and apparently conflict-
ing stages. Firstly, exemplified by Mlle Mercier, they were presented as
critics of existentialism. And then later, Christian existentialism, predomi-
nantly Catholic in Sartre’s eyes, was named as the second major category of
existentialism. The Catholics were both inside and outside the movement.

38 Ibid., pp. 48–9.


39 See T. Storm Heter, Sartre’s Ethics of Engagement: Authenticity and Civic Virtue (New York:
Continuum, 2006), pp. 148–50, or Flynn, Sartre and Marxist Existentialism, p. 33.
34 Derrida post-existentialist
But it would be wrong to assume that Sartre was simply referring to two
separate groups. In fact, Jeanne Mercier’s critique, “Le Ver dans le fruit,”
sketched the classic Christian existentialist critique of atheistic existential-
ism: it was not an attack on existentialism tout court, as Sartre had implied.
Mercier suggested that Sartre’s atheism was the worm in the apple; the
fruit of existentialism, however, could be saved.40 Sartre’s presentation of
Mercier and other Christian thinkers as outside of existentialism was part
of a larger project of claiming existentialism for himself. He wanted to
make existentialism atheist, and to do that, his first step was to show that
it was humanist.
The need to confront a Christian strand of existentialism must be under-
stood through the history of existentialism. Before the War, existentialism
had been dominated by Catholics, especially René le Senne, Gabriel Mar-
cel, and Louis Lavelle. In le Senne’s second edition of the Introduction à
la philosophie from 1939, his discussion of modern philosophy was divided
into two sections entitled “German” and “French Existentialism,” and it
was in this second grouping that he placed his own philosophy.41 In 1939
all his French examples were Christian.
The Christian existentialists were also institutionally established in
France, publishing in the series Philosophie de l’Esprit, run by Lavelle and le
Senne, which counted amongst its titles most of Gabriel Marcel’s oeuvre,
key works by Lavelle, Jean Wahl’s Etudes Kierkegaardiennes,42 le Senne’s
Obstacle et Valeur, and Gaston Berger’s book on Husserl. After all, it was
widely affirmed that the father of existentialism was the Danish Christian
philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, and the Protestant Karl Jaspers was hailed
alongside the “atheist” Heidegger as a major influence. When looking back
to the fathers of existentialism, it was to Pascal and St Augustine that one
turned as well as to modern phenomenology. Thus when the editor of
Esprit, Emmanuel Mounier, wrote an article on “existentialisms” in April
1946, he drew a family tree to show both its predominantly Christian roots,
and the thick boughs of its modern religious exponents, including his own
personnalism.43 Sartre’s Heideggerianism was part of a sparse and isolated
branch, deformed by a Nietzschean outgrowth.

40 Mercier, “Le Ver dans le fruit.” The title draws on Sartre’s own description of Nothingness as a
worm in the heart of being.
41 René Le Senne, Introduction à la philosophie, 2nd edn (Paris: F. Alcan, 1939), pp. 229–35.
42 Jean Wahl’s relationship to the Christian existentialists is more problematic, and he preferred a
secular Heidegger to a religious Kierkegaard. But his importance in introducing the thought of
Kierkegaard and Jaspers into France places him in direct conversation with all the people we are
talking about here.
43 Emmanuel Mounier, “Introduction aux existentialismes,” Esprit (April 1946).
Humanist pretensions 35

Figure 1: The Existentialist Tree, Emmanuel Mounier, Introduction aux existentialismes


(Paris: Editions Denoël, 1947), p. 159. 
C Editions Denoël, 1960.

Even after the War, Christian existentialism maintained its position. In


his Que sais-je book on existentialism published in 1946, the Jesuit Paul
Foulquié moved through atheistic existentialism, to Christian existential-
ism, before concluding with the Christian “essentialist existentialism” of
Lavelle.44
44 Paul Foulquié, L’Existentialisme (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1947).
36 Derrida post-existentialist
Given this strong Christian tradition of existentialism it is not surprising
that the most significant Christian response to Sartre was not to contest
existentialism in toto, but rather to argue for the validity of a Christian
approach. As Mounier put it, “historically, existentialism is more often
synonymous with Christian philosophy, transcendence, and humanism,
than atheism and despair.” If the two movements showed great divergence
on metaphysical issues, these would be debated as “comrades in the same
battle.”45
A number of books would appear in the postwar period to show that
there was space within existentialism for the Christians, or at least for
religious thought. Among others were Roger Troisfontaines’s Le Choix de
Sartre (1946) and Existentialisme et pensée chrétienne (1948), Jean Paumen’s
Existentialisme spirituel (1949), Jean Wahl’s Petite histoire de l’existentialisme
(1947) and his Les Philosophies de l’existence (1954), as well as the essay
collection Existentialisme chrétien from 1948.
Just as Jeanne Mercier did in her 1945 critique, Christian existential-
ists attempted to show that the rejection of God in Sartre’s system was
not philosophically necessary; it was based upon Sartre’s own individual
choice.46 Existentialism was supposed to confront the categories of our
understanding with existence and show them to be wanting. If we could
not even understand the world that was given to us, argued the Christian
existentialists, how could we make dogmatic claims about the existence,
or not, of God. God, in Marcel’s words, was a mystery, to be approached
through faith, not knowledge. Sartre’s assertion of atheism ran against the
very tenor of existentialism.
But the Christian existentialists were not content simply to leave a space
open for a belief in God. If God could not be proved, they argued, then
a powerful moral argument for his existence could be derived from our
experience of the world. The Christian existentialists were particularly
concerned about Sartre’s “one-sided” description of existence, which led to
his supposed moral nihilism. As Mercier argued:
It is true that Man carries the stigmata of the nothing, and that sin ravages his
life; an overwhelming burden of misery weighs on the world, an inexpressible
anxiety embraces it. But it is also true that human experience is not completely
limited to this desolate landscape. M. Sartre has deliberately effaced, to the point
of rendering it unrecognizable, nobility and joy . . . all the values of intelligence,
of fidelity, of tenderness and of courage . . . the pure smiles of children. Optimism

45 Emmanuel Mounier, note, Esprit (December 1945), pp. 960–3.


46 Hence Troisfontaine’s title “Le Choix de Sartre.” See also Mercier, “Le Ver dans le fruit,” p. 238.
Humanist pretensions 37
or pessimism? . . . One must enlarge the search to the scale of all the dimensions
of existence. And it is a fact, an incontestable fact indeed, that Revelation has shone
on the world, that a message of hope and of salvation has been given to us, and
the hearts of men are witnesses to grace.47

It was a point reiterated by many others. Gabriel Marcel raised the question
in a lecture early in 1946 whether Sartre would have been able to write Huis
clos if the characters had been a “glorious general,” a “mother of an honest
family,” and a “carmelite nun.”48 “Hell is other people,” it seems, only
when they are an infanticide, an adulterer, and a murderous postal worker.
If attention was turned to the positive experiences in life, a more optimistic
and moral philosophy could be built, one that would point towards God.
It was this debate about and for existentialism that was most pressing in
1945, when the new atheistic existentialism had not yet succeeded in fully
excluding religious belief. Sartre’s 1945 talk was the most audacious attempt
yet to appropriate existentialism for the atheists.

existentialism is an atheism
We can now understand why the Christians should occupy such an ambiva-
lent place in Sartre’s talk. It would have been impossible to ignore the
Christian existentialists, but Sartre showed great hostility towards them;
his presentation of Christian politics and choice of examples (the man
whose failure in life led him to the priesthood, or the mad woman who
thought she was talking to God) show that for him Christianity was always
on the side of bad faith and resignation.49 The acknowledgment of Chris-
tian existentialism was grudging at best; Sartre suggested that existentialism
was simple to define, but “what complicates the matter is that there are two
kinds of existentialists: on the one hand, the Christians, among whom I
would include Karl Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel, a professed Catholic; and,
on the other, the atheistic existentialists, among whom we should place
Heidegger, as well as the French existentialists and myself.”50 Whereas le
Senne’s “French existentialists” from 1939 were all Christian, Sartre, in a
declaration that was more wishful than descriptive, asserted in 1945 that

47 Ibid., p. 248. See also I. Lepp’s review of L’Etre et le néant in Les Etudes philosophiques (January
1946), or René le Senne, “La Mission permanente et contemporaine du philosophe,” Les Etudes
philosophiques (January 1948), pp. 1–16.
48 Gabriel Marcel, “L’Existence et la liberté humaine,” in Les Grands Appels de l’homme contemporain
(Paris: Editions du temps présent, 1946), p. 148.
49 See Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism, pp. 26, 34, 47. 50 Ibid., p. 20 (translation modified).
38 Derrida post-existentialist
they were atheists; Sartre wanted French existentialism to undergo a crisis
of faith.
But how did Sartre hope to incite this conversion? The text gives very
few philosophical reasons for atheism. True, Sartre used the example of
God to explain the thesis that “essence precedes existence,” because a God
who created Man would already have an idea of that Man before he existed.
Existentialism, on the other hand, drew the philosophical consequences of
the death of God. But when, later in the talk, Sartre declared that “atheistic
existentialism” was more coherent, it was not with the Christian variety
that he made the unfortunate comparison, but rather with an atheism that
persisted in believing in stable essences.51 Atheism in Sartre’s text was always
an axiom, never a conclusion.
While Sartre did not prove the nonexistence of God, he did argue for the
primacy of existential freedom that was its consequence. As he elaborated
in his example of the woman hearing the voice of God, there is never any
pure injunction from on high:
If I hear voices, what proof is there that they come from heaven and not from hell,
or from my own subconscious, or some pathological condition? . . . I will never
find any proof at all, nor any convincing sign of it. If a voice speaks to me, it is
always I who must decide whether or not this is the voice of an angel; if I regard
a certain course of action as good, it is I who will choose to say that it is good,
rather than bad.52
Divine commands required human consent, required us to choose them as
divine. Existentialist freedom was always lurking at one degree removed.
The Christian existentialists might not have disagreed. Human freedom
was just as important to them as a necessary condition of faith. If humans
weren’t free then faith would not be meaningful: for Sartre’s absurdity,
the Christians substituted their own, credo quia absurdum est. God wasn’t
present in the world, obvious to all, rather he was a “hidden God,” and false
idols had to be chased away by a “purifying atheism.”53 As Jean Beaufret
suggested in a 1946 article, “isn’t it legitimate . . . to see in atheism itself,
however little it confesses to a malaise, a cryptogram of the act of faith?”54
Sartre’s argument that atheism and existentialism were co-extensive would
thus have had no purchase on the Christian existentialists; his atheistic
premise could just as easily be replaced by their particular type of theology.
51 Ibid., p. 22. 52 Ibid., p. 26.
53 For “Athéisme Purificateur” see Simone Weil, La Pesanteur et la grâce (Paris: Plon, 1948), and Borne,
Le Problème du mal.
54 Jean Beaufret, “Vers une critique marxiste de l’existentialisme,” Revue socialiste 2 (1946), reprinted
in Jean Beaufret, De l’Existentialisme à Heidegger (Paris: J. Vrin, 1986), pp. 149–54.
Humanist pretensions 39
“Humanism” then was the key. It was only by using this concept that
Sartre was able to argue in favor of atheistic existentialism as opposed
to its theistic alternative. As we have seen, one of the dominant tropes
in the Christian existentialist critique of Sartre’s philosophy was that of
choice. Sartre had chosen to be atheist, both in his choice of existential
descriptions and in his pessimistic conclusions. By invoking humanism,
Sartre suggested that it was the right choice.
At the end of his lecture, Sartre stated that for him “the only universe
that exists is the human one – the universe of human subjectivity.” Man
was his own legislator and it was by “seeking a goal outside of himself
in the form of liberation, or of some special achievement, that Man will
realize himself as truly human.” The closing lines were a direct attack on
the Christian theistic model:
What man needs is to rediscover himself and to comprehend that nothing can
save him from himself, not even a valid proof of the existence of God. In this sense
existentialism is optimistic, it is a doctrine of action, and it is only in bad faith –
in confusing their own despair with ours – that Christians are able to assert that
we are “without hope.”55
Sartre denied that yearning for the divine could be humanist. The Chris-
tians’ submission to an almighty God was just an expression of their fear
of human agency. For Sartre, this refuge was worse than the anguish they
fled. True humanism, rather, accepted the dangers of human freedom,
assumed the mantle of responsibility, and turned to Men, not Gods, for
salvation. If the Christians turned anguish into despair, and thereby denied
their responsibility, the existentialist, Sartre suggested, saw anguish as the
ground for optimism and for the adoption of a truly humanist philosophy.
When in 1945 Sartre declared his philosophy humanist, it was not a bland
and undifferentiated adoption of a fashionable term. Rather, in his inter-
vention, Sartre played certain meanings of humanism off others. Recalling
his own mockery of the humanist auto-didacte in Nausea, Sartre declared,
“the word ‘humanism’ has two very different meanings.” For some, human-
ism was “a theory that takes Man as an end and as the supreme value.”
But an existentialist could “never consider Man as an end, because Man
is constantly in the making.” Instead, existentialist humanism proclaimed
that “man is always outside of himself, and it is in projecting and losing
himself beyond himself that man is realized.”56 Man was not the ultimate
value, but, in the absence of the divine, value’s very source: he possessed a
freedom to create value that only a communist society could let flourish.
55 Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism, pp. 53–4. 56 Ibid., pp. 51–2.
40 Derrida post-existentialist
At a time when existentialism could just as easily be religious as not,
and his philosophy was decried as bourgeois and decadent, Sartre reset
the table by exploiting the fissures of a local and very political postwar
debate. Existentialism was both philosophically atheistic and politically
communist, because, as Sartre declared, it was a humanism.

the end of the humanist age i: husserl and the science


of historical materialism
If Sartre constructed his philosophy on the sure ground of “humanism,”
that foundation would become ever more shaky as the tectonic plates of the
French political scene began to shift. What had previously raised his profile,
and provided him with the resources to make his work acceptable to com-
munists and wrench existentialism away from the Christians, now became
a liability. The debate would no longer concern what type of humanist
Sartre was, but whether humanism tout court should be supported, with
Sartre now right in the firing line.
With the rising anti-communism of the MRP and a cooling inter-
national climate, tripartisme started to fragment in early 1947, the final
communists being ejected by a Ramadier government careful to appease
the Americans with their vital Marshall Plan Aid. For the Catholics, the
final split would have to wait until the failure in 1951 of the “troisième force”
government, which followed tripartisme. Without the political pressure to
assert humanism, the uneasy label was often discarded and new approaches
taken on board. At the limit some even started to question humanism
directly. Perhaps Sartre’s existentialism was a humanism, and therein lay the
problem.
Communist attacks on Sartre that valorized humanism petered out by
late 1947, with the PCF kicked out of the government and the burgeoning
Cold War dividing East from West.57 After this period the key political bat-
tle was not within France but rather between capitalism and communism
on a global scale, and Andrei Zhdanov, head of the newly formed COM-
INFORM, which was instituted to coordinate the Communist Parties in
Western Europe, made clear that intellectual life would be no exception.
At first, the end of political cohabitation freed several intellectuals to make
criticisms of the status quo through the humanist paradigm. The rational-
ist Marxist journal La Pensée began to invoke the humanist label for the
first time at the end of 1947, not in an attempt to mark a belonging to the

57 See also Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Humanisme et terreur (Paris: Gallimard, 1947).


Humanist pretensions 41
national community, but rather as a means to criticize its bourgeois form.58
In the long term, however, the humanist tag became unconvincing to the
communists. The new tactic became the assertion of objective science vs.
bourgeois ideology.
The new approach became institutionalized with the founding of the
journal La Nouvelle Critique in 1948, which fervently advocated the doctrine
of the two sciences (proletariat and bourgeois) and, notoriously, Lysenko
biology. In a regular section, at least in the first years of the journal, it
allowed prominent intellectuals to perform autocritique. Two of the first
three were those who had been at the forefront of the humanist attack
on Sartre, Roger Garaudy and Henri Lefebvre; the PCF was retreating
from its previous tolerance of the humanist stance.59 Lefebvre’s autocri-
tique strongly attacked socialist humanism: to confer upon humanism,
he asserted, “a sort of philosophical actuality – precisely in detaching it
from its current conditions, from the present historical context – involves
a serious danger.”60 Garaudy was more direct in his appropriately entitled
autocritique: “Zhdanov was here.”61
No longer having to appear humanist, communist philosophers tried
new approaches to attack Sartre. The possibility of refiguring Husserl, of
re-thinking his place in the contemporary philosophical world, was in large
part due to the influence of a group of communist phenomenologists that
would become enormously important in the late 1950s. Unlike the “subjec-
tivist” phenomenologists, under which label they placed Sartre, Raymond
Aron, and surprisingly Georges Canguilhem, this new group would con-
centrate on Husserl’s more “scientific writings.”62 Althusser noted this
movement in 1954, describing “the increasingly clear abandon of existen-
tialism and the ‘return to Husserl,’ to his rationalist theses and to his theory
of science.”63 Following in the tradition of Jean Cavaillès, this movement
was spearheaded by Jean-François Lyotard, Jean-Toussaint Desanti and,
58 See H. Denis, “Humanisme et matérialisme dans la pensée de Karl Marx,” La Pensée (September
1947), A. Cornu, H. Muhlestein, “Y’a-t-il encore un humanisme bourgeois?” La Pensée (March
1948), or A. Bonnard, “Vers un humanisme nouveau,” La Pensée (May 1948).
59 See Lewis, Louis Althusser, ch. 5.
60 Henri Lefebvre, “Contribution à l’effort d’éclaircissement idéologique,” La Nouvelle Critique (1949),
p. 52.
61 Roger Garaudy, “Jdanov est passé par là,” La Nouvelle Critique (1949).
62 For this appraisal of Canguilhem, see Louis Althusser, “Textes sur la lutte idéologique,” Institut
Mémoires de l’Edition Contemporaine, Caen (hereafter IMEC), Fonds Althusser, ALT2, A42–02.11.
The place of Merleau-Ponty is more equivocal. Many looking back suggest that he was acceptable
to party communists in the 1950s. But see Jean Desanti, “Merleau-Ponty et la decomposition de
l’idéalisme,” La Nouvelle Critique (June 1952), or François Châtelet, “M. Merleau-Ponty lance la
dernière mode de l’anti-communisme,” La Nouvelle Critique (July 1955).
63 Louis Althusser, “L’Enseignement de la philosophie,” Esprit (June 1954).
42 Derrida post-existentialist
most importantly, the Vietnamese philosopher writing in France, Tran
Duc Thao.64 In figuring Husserl as a philosopher of science, these phe-
nomenologists attempted to distance him from the existentialist reading.
As Lyotard put it:
We see, then, the two faces of phenomenology: a strong faith in the sciences
drives its program of solidly establishing their underpinnings, and of ultimately
stabilizing their whole edifice and heading off a future crisis. But to accomplish
this, it must leave even science behind, and plunge into matters “innocently.” A
rationalist bent leads Husserl to engage himself in the prerational [anté-rationnel];
yet an imperceptible inflection can turn this prerationality into an irrationality
[anti-rationnel], and phenomenology into a stronghold of irrationalism. From
Husserl to Heidegger there is certainly an inheritance, but equally treason.65
The existentialist emphasis on freedom and escape from positive science
was figured as an unjustified misreading of the Husserlian project. For
the communist phenomenologists, Husserlian phenomenology provided
the ground for an understanding of the sciences, human and natural; it
explained the rise of the objective – exemplified by Marxism – not a return
to free subjectivity, as manifested in bourgeois (often “fascist”) ideology.
Only by understanding the true meaning of phenomenology could one
return to objective science, one informed by dialectical materialism. Back
in the more comfortable territory of Marxist science and freed from the
straitjacket of humanism, the communists had opened up an important
new direction in postwar French phenomenology, cut loose from its exis-
tentialist interpretation.

the end of the humanist age ii: christians and


the turn to heidegger
While the shift away from the humanist paradigm allowed the commu-
nists to reassess their relationship to Husserl, a parallel movement by the
Catholics allowed a new appreciation of Heidegger. Though scholars have
paid attention to the new readings of Heidegger by the Arguments group,
Blanchot, Levinas, Hyppolite, and the circle around Jean Beaufret, the anti-
humanist and Catholic reading of Heidegger is an important and much
understudied context for the reception of the German phenomenologist

64 See Tran Duc Thao “Existentialisme et Matérialisme Dialectique,” Revue de métaphysique et de


morale (July 1949), and Tran Duc Thao, Phenomenology and Dialectical Materialism, trans. D.
Herman and D. Morano (Boston: D. Reidel, 1986).
65 Jean-François Lyotard, Phenomenology, trans. B. Beakley (Albany: State University of New York
Press, 1991) p. 33 (translation modified).
Humanist pretensions 43
into France. In the 1960 edition of the Revue internationale de philoso-
phie dedicated to Heidegger, all the French writers were Christian, and
religiously minded writers produced a large proportion of all the Heideg-
gerian literature in French in the 1950s and early 1960s.66
Heidegger was not always popular amongst Catholics. In the 1940s, some
proclaimed his thought the atheistic source of Sartre’s existentialism.67 Oth-
ers had a more nuanced view, for several, including Jeanne Mercier, saw
promise in the German’s philosophy. Mercier suggested that in Being and
Time “Heidegger arrived at a philosophy of despair that he has not yet
overcome,” and she anxiously awaited the expected second volume, which
would go beyond this.68 It was a common reading. The most influential
book in French on Heidegger during this period was Alphonse de Wael-
hens’s La Philosophie de Martin Heidegger (1942). De Waelhens argued that
though Heidegger had intended to write an “existential” philosophy, it had
ended up being merely “existentiel.” Though he had wanted to uncover
the structures of Being, in the end he had merely presented an analytic of
Dasein, or in the French translation “réalité-humaine.”69 From de Wael-
hens’s perspective, Sartre was right that existentialism was a humanism, it
focused on Man and not Being, even though Heidegger had intended the
opposite.
So when Beaufret invited Heidegger to respond to Sartrean existentialism
in 1945, eliciting the famous Letter on Humanism, it did not have an imme-
diate impact on the debate. Heidegger, by reasserting that his project was to
understand “Being,” which an emphasis on humanism would only obscure,
merely repeated his old unsubstantiated claims. Heidegger’s restatement of
his case did not change the fact that his existentialism had not moved
beyond the human.
There was another reason why the absorption of Heidegger’s ideas would
be slow in France. As Anson Rabinbach has shown, Heidegger’s rejection
of humanism must be understood within a broader field of ideas that
connected it to technological thought, nihilism, and ultimately Nazism: it
was the meaning of humanism in the German context that led Heidegger to
refuse it.70 But Heidegger’s understanding of the term “humanism” did not
match that of the French philosophers to whom he wrote, who explicitly

66 See Dominique Janicaud, Heidegger en France, 2 vols. (Paris: Albin Michel, 2001–2), vol. I,
pp. 140–7.
67 See Lepp, review of L’Etre et le néant, p. 75. 68 Mercier, “Le Ver dans le fruit,” 232.
69 See Alphonse de Waelhens, La Philosophie de Martin Heidegger (Louvain: Editions de l’Institut
supérieur de philosophie, 1942), p. 302.
70 Anson Rabinbach, “The Letter on Humanism as Text and Event,” New German Critique, 62 (1994).
44 Derrida post-existentialist
opposed humanism to Nazism. Heidegger’s letter may have been addressed
to Jean Beaufret, but it was a response to the situation in Germany and
could not expect a smooth reception on the other side of the Rhine. For all
the caveats, an ex-Nazi rejecting the term “humanist” for his philosophy
in 1946 showed insensitivity to French political norms.
Only when the political system undergirding the humanist moment
broke down did Heidegger make inroads into French philosophy. Rabin-
bach makes much of the inexplicable Marxism in Heidegger’s letter, but
the elements in the letter that were open to a Christian interpretation
played a more important role in its reception across the Rhine.71 When
domestic developments allowed an antihumanist philosophy, Heidegger’s
Letter found traction in the French Catholic philosophical community.
It would not take long. Though the Catholics were involved in govern-
ment for much of the Fourth Republic, they had lost considerable support
by the early 1950s, sliding in the polls due to the return to the political
scene of the Gaullists.72 The MRP’s intellectual credentials were also weak-
ened, as the always-fractious relationship with left-Christian journals such
as Esprit and Témoignage Chrétienne became increasingly hostile. It was
only then that Heidegger’s letter attracted a wider readership. The publi-
cation history of the letter reflects this timeline. An abridged version of
the letter was published in Fontaine in November 1947. It was then pub-
lished in its expanded and definitive form in 1953, a translation that was
only widely available from 1957, published in the Christian existentialist
Philosophie de l’Esprit collection over ten years after the letter was writ-
ten. Only when political Catholicism was breaking down did some writers
look for new means to attack existentialism, and Heidegger’s criticism of
humanism became an attractive model. In both 1947 and 1953, the letter
was translated by Catholics, Joseph Rovan and the Jesuit Roger Munier,
and it became central to the Christian reading of Heidegger.73
The development can be seen most clearly in Gabriel Marcel. In 1952
he wrote a play, the Florestan Dimension, which mocked Heidegger’s phi-
losophy mercilessly. In one scene the main character is seen questioning
the possibility that an “apple apples” or a “pear pears” to the profound
admiration of his audience. But when Marcel came to publish the play in
book form in 1958 he regretted his mocking tone. After meeting Heidegger

71 Ibid., p. 30.
72 Between 1951 and 1958 the MRP got no more than 12 per cent of the vote, as opposed to a high of
28 per cent in 1948.
73 See especially Roger Jolivet, “Foi chrétienne et pensée contemporaine,” Revue Thomiste (1953),
pp. 404–14, as well as the book it reviewed, Albert Dondeyne, Foi chrétienne et pensée contemporaine
(Louvain: Publications universitaires de Louvain, 1951), p. 49.
Humanist pretensions 45
at Cérisy in 1955, a conference chaired by Marcel and attended by a pre-
dominantly Christian audience, Marcel suggested that he was “struck, like
all those present, by a certain simplicity, even a modesty, almost a naivety
which made a great impression on all of us.”74
Heidegger’s letter was attractive to Catholics because it attempted to
shed the atheistic reading that had predominated in France. Heidegger
had written, after all: “it is not only rash but also an error in procedure to
maintain that the interpretation of the essence of Man from the relation
of his essence to the truth of Being is atheism.”75 In addition, Heidegger’s
letter introduced the concept of the “sacred” (das Heilige), a realm of
Being that would only become apparent once metaphysical and humanistic
suppositions were put aside. The analysis resonated with many Catholics,
who thought Sartre’s pessimistic analyses of the réalité-humaine closed off
the possibility of a connection to God. For them, the Letter served to replace
the second volume of Being and Time that never came, a way to challenge
Sartre’s humanist existentialism and move to a richer understanding of
Being that would be open to religious thought.
From the mid 1950s, Catholic philosophers became more open in their
criticisms of humanism. Abel Jeannière’s 1954 article for Etudes in 1954 even
criticized Heidegger’s early work for its humanistic resonances: “From his
doctrine developed a new humanism exalting heroism before death, which
must have known great success in Hitler’s Germany.”76 Rejecting “human-
ism, even its Christian form,” Jeannière asserted that “the true path to
Salvation is that which leads to the clearing of Being.”77 Corvez followed
a similar line in a long study for the Revue Thomiste, which sketched
out Heidegger’s philosophy before turning to the Letter on Humanism
and asking about the place of God in his ontology.78 Corvez argued that
Heidegger’s ontology was not incompatible with faith, quoting Heideg-
ger’s definition of his work in the Letter on Humanism as a “waiting for
God.”79
The most influential of this new generation of Christian Heidegger
scholars was Henri Birault. To achieve an understanding of Being we had
to move beyond “humanism,” “the least ‘humane’ doctrine there is, that
which, by the destruction of the Sacred, must deprive our existence of its
horizon and all warmth and drive us towards that nihilism, which finds

74 Gabriel Marcel, La Dimension Florestan (Paris: Plon, 1958), p. 161.


75 Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1993), p. 253.
76 Albert Jeannière, “L’Itinéraire de Martin Heidegger,” Etudes (January 1954), p. 65.
77 Ibid., p. 83.
78 Olivier Corvez, “La Place de dieu dans l’ontologie de Martin Heidegger,” Revue Thomiste (1953).
79 Ibid., pp. 385–8.
46 Derrida post-existentialist
its most pathetic expression in Nietzsche’s cry ‘God is dead.’”80 The most
valuable tool for achieving this task, according to Birault, was Heidegger’s
ontological difference, the difference between Being and beings.81 Human-
ism like other ontotheologies structured its understanding of Being by
asserting the pre-eminence of one particular being, in this case, Man. The
ontological difference implied, however, that no being could dominate the
meaning of Being in general. Though God and Being were rigorously dis-
tinguished, according to Birault, it was only by approaching Being through
an understanding of Heidegger’s difference that we could be open to the
Being of the divine, and thus to God.
The first major article on the “ontological difference” in French was
written by le Chanoine Albert Dondeyne, Professor at the University of
Louvain, in 1958. Moving through the arguments against ontotheology,
like the other Christian thinkers, Dondeyne was particularly careful to
separate the idolatrous God of metaphysics from that of religious faith.82 It
was the very thought of the ontological difference that brought philosophy
beyond the dead-end of such metaphysics towards the “dimensions of the
Sacred,” and it was “only this sentiment of the Sacred” which could “open
the essential space (Wesensraum) for a possible encounter with God.”83
The concern for the ontological difference became somewhat of a leitmotif
for the Christian thinkers. If God was to be understood analogically with
Being, then the ontological difference was the only way to avoid idolatry.
It was negative theology for a new age.
From the mid 1950s, for many Christians in France, Heidegger became
a philosopher of the sacred, a guide for thinking about the relationship of
men to the divine. Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism was a central document
in the overcoming of Sartre’s existentialism, drawn on by a generation of
Catholic philosophers who rejected humanism and existentialism in the
same philosophical gesture. Seeking to recover God, they rejected the
pretensions of Man.

conclusion
The turn against existentialism in the 1950s should not perhaps be over-
rated. Sartre continued to be influential, especially after his condemnation
80 Henri Birault, “Existence et vérité d’après Heidegger,” in De l’être, du divin, et des dieux (Paris: Cerf,
2005), p. 189.
81 Ibid., pp. 162 and 181.
82 Albert Dondeyne, “La Différence ontologique chez M. Heidegger,” Revue philosophique de Louvain
(1958), pp. 35–62 and 251–93.
83 Ibid., p. 290.
Humanist pretensions 47
of the Soviet Union in 1956 and due to his principled critique of colo-
nialism, while his political philosophy became ever more sophisticated as
he revised his claims from 1945, often back-tracking from the humanist
label itself. But Sartre’s continued appeal should not blind us to develop-
ments in academic philosophy in France. The 1950s have too often been
lost in intellectual histories between the golden age of existentialism and
the structuralist invasion. And yet it is the post-humanist and scientistic
developments in French phenomenology during that decade that provided
the necessary precondition for the reception of structuralism and post-
structuralism in the 1960s.
If Naville was right to say in 1945 that everyone, including Sartre, was
pretending to be humanist, then Sartre’s lecture was too successful; the
pretense became reality. His attempt to dictate his own reception only
placed it further outside his control; Sartre had bound his philosophy to a
moment that was quickly slipping into the past. While the humanist age
provided the conditions for the rise of existentialism, allowing it to mold
phenomenology to its subjectivist and atheistic purposes, its passing freed
up Husserl and Heidegger’s philosophies to be re-thought in new contexts.
French philosophy in the 1950s can be read as a careful sifting through the
phenomenological debris of existentialism. But instead of Sartre’s “death
of God,” a new consensus would declare the end of Man.
ch a p ter 2

Derrida’s “Christian” existentialism

It was in this broader history of postwar French intellectual life that


Derrida was first introduced to philosophy and developed his ideas. From
his 1952 admission to the ENS as a student, until he reentered it as a teacher
in 1964, Derrida was what could be described as a “post-existentialist,” nav-
igating the phenomenological wilderness after the decline of the dominant
Sartrean interpretation. As I will show later in this book, Derrida was no
structuralist, much less a post-structuralist, before 1964. Structuralism, in
the 1950s, developed outside the tightly limited philosophical world to
which Derrida aspired, and only had a minimal impact there. Rather it
was to the inheritors of the phenomenological legacy, in their communist
and Christian guises, that Derrida was drawn, caught up in both the new
communist reading of Husserl, and much later the Christian reading of
Heidegger. Although Derrida very rarely mentioned Sartre in the 1950s,
the existentialist’s philosophy still exerted a strong, if negative, influence,
commanding Derrida’s thoughts at one degree removed.
Derrida’s break with Sartre and his slow liberation from Sartrean readings
of Husserl and Heidegger, however, were built upon an initial fascination.
For, as a schoolboy before 1952, Derrida saw himself as an existentialist,
attracted to philosophy by the charms of the quintessential intellectual. The
existentialist Derrida was, to be sure, a very young man, and his early essays
lack the nuance and sophistication of his later writings. His schoolwork
remains, however, instructive. First, as we shall see, it provides a frame
for thinking about the development of Derrida’s thought: the traces of his
earliest interests can be picked out in his more mature philosophy and they
inform my reading of it. Second, corresponding to the broader ambitions
of this book, these early essays shed light on an aspect of existentialism that,
historically, set it apart from other philosophical movements. In the late
1940s, the teenage Derrida was not alone in waiting for key existentialist
texts to arrive on the shelves of a local librairie. Existentialism found
devotees amongst the young all over France. To explain the reception of
48
Derrida’s “Christian” existentialism 49
existentialism and to understand the stakes of debates over it, we must
first grapple with its extraordinary influence over a generation that entered
adulthood in a newly liberated France.

derrida’s youthful existentialism


The speed with which existentialism pervaded the cultural milieu in post-
war France is truly remarkable. This was certainly the case in Paris. When
in 1949 Derrida left Algeria for the first time to head for the prestigious
Ecole Préparatoire the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, his professor there, Etienne
Borne, even conflated “existentialism” with “modern philosophy,” and this
in a course on Hellenism.1 The course opened with the question as to
whether there were moderns and classics in philosophy, and answered it in
the affirmative, but with only existentialism overcoming the centuries-old
prejudice for essence over existence.
Even in Algeria, at the Lycée Ben Aknoun or later the Lycée Bugeaud
d’Alger, where Derrida studied seemingly far away from Paris, the intel-
lectual presence of existentialism was palpable; let us not forget that this
was Camus’s Algeria, and by Derrida’s own admission it was a broadcast
about Camus that set him on his path towards philosophy.2 The reach of
contemporary philosophy into high schools was not out of the ordinary in
France. As I will discuss later, the French academic system and especially
the agrégation meant that there was always a vital connection between the
secondary and higher education systems, even if the highly qualified agrégés
complained about what they saw as menial teaching duties in the lycées.3
But with existentialism, the reach and influence was of a different magni-
tude, considerably greater than that of any intellectual movement, either
before or since. Alexandre Koyré, the philosopher of science, noted in a 1946
paper presented to the New School for Social Research that “in present-day
France, everybody everywhere is speaking about existentialism. Not only
professional philosophers – I mean professors and students of philosophy –
but also the infinitely larger (and socially infinitely more important) literary
circles . . . This is, for France, a quite unusual situation.”4
Of course, existentialism had its enemies at all levels, but in the first few
years after the War, it set the terms of philosophical discussion. Whether for

1 See Derrida’s notes from Borne’s course “Recherche sur l’hellénisme” at his archive, Irvine, 1.6.
2 See Bennington, Jacques Derrida, p. 328, and Derrida, Points de suspension, p. 131.
3 See chapter 7.
4 Alexandre Koyré, “Present Trends of French Philosophical Thought,” in The Journal of the History
of Ideas (July 1998), pp. 531–48, p. 534.
50 Derrida post-existentialist
or against existentialism, nobody could ignore it.5 In the late 1940s, exis-
tentialism was not a detached, academic philosophy that students might
encounter in the upper echelons of further education; it was a living pres-
ence, permeating down to all levels of philosophical study. Even those who
later came to reject it often approached philosophy through the writings of
Jean-Paul Sartre while teenagers, a crucial experience in their intellectual
development.
Existentialism was in the air in the late 1940s, and Derrida breathed
it in. From his earliest extant essays, those written when he was only
sixteen, Derrida showed an allegiance to existentialist philosophy, with an
almost total reliance on Sartre’s vocabulary. Looking at Derrida’s work from
the period before 1952 and his entry into the Ecole Normale Supérieure,
the stamp of existentialism is clear. Derrida constantly availed himself
of the Sartrean language of the “pour-soi” and “en-soi,” “angoisse,” and the
difference between existence and essence, even the term “existentialism”
itself. Such was his enthusiasm for the technical vocabulary that in an essay
written during his first year at the Parisian Lycée Louis-le-Grand, his teacher
urged him “not to imitate existentialist language too slavishly.”6 It was not
a lone reaction, and throughout his school days, teachers would often repri-
mand him for use of jargon, specialist existentialist and phenomenological
vocabulary. Although, as we shall see, Derrida did not spare Sartre himself
from criticism, the use of Sartre’s language was the most prominent feature
in Derrida’s writing during this early period. Sartre’s existentialist project
set the terms and the questions of Derrida’s philosophy, and even when
he used other thinkers against Sartre, whether René le Senne, Georges
Gurvitch, or Gabriel Marcel, he read them from a Sartrean perspective.
Existentialism was attractive to Derrida because it announced the pos-
sibility of a moral philosophy. Derrida’s emphasis on morality was not a
lone response to Sartre’s corpus. It was the focal point for numerous sup-
porters and opponents, whether Francis Jeanson or Simone de Beauvoir’s
attempts at the construction of an atheistic existentialist morality or the
Christian criticism of that very possibility.7 At a time when many in France

5 For a discussion of “Existentialism” as a cultural phenomenon, which often had little to do with
Sartre’s philosophy but was labeled as such by the press, see Susan Weiner, Enfants Terribles
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), pp. 122–8.
6 Jacques Derrida, “Fonction philosophique de l’humeur,” Irvine, 1.7, sheet 1.
7 See Francis Jeanson, Le Problème morale et la pensée de Sartre (Paris: Editions du Myrte, 1947); and
Simone de Beauvoir, Pour une morale de l’ambiguı̈té (Paris: Gallimard, 1947). For the Christian
criticism of this morality see Roger Troisfontaines, Existentialisme et pensée chrétienne (Louvain: E.
Nauwelaerts, 1948). For Sartre’s own unpublished considerations on the question, see Jean-Paul
Sartre, Notebooks for an Ethics (Chicago University Press, 1992).
Derrida’s “Christian” existentialism 51
looked for new theories to cope with recent memories of war, collaboration,
and resistance, existentialism seemed to provide valuable tools for under-
standing the contemporary predicament. Successful in reaching beyond
the traditional limitations of academia because of its concentration on the
real issues of everyday life, morality included, it was precisely with respect
to those questions that existentialism inspired the greatest interest, debate,
and controversy.
Derrida’s earliest surviving school essay, on “Moral Experience,” was
written in 1946 and drew on three books. Explicitly it was an analysis of
André Darbon’s Une philosophie de l’expérience.8 Derrida’s understanding of
Darbon was supplemented by René le Senne’s book on moral philosophy,
but all were read through the optic of Sartre’s thought, especially his
Existentialism Is a Humanism.9 The first thing to recognize is how recently
these books were published. Sartre’s and Darbon’s books had appeared that
year, whereas le Senne’s was a mere four years old. At a very young age,
Derrida focused his attention on what appeared to be the cutting edge of
philosophy. Even more so, because the current dominant trend (Sartrean
existentialism) determined Derrida’s reading of all the others (le Senne,
Darbon).
Le Senne and Darbon did not mention Sartre and yet Derrida formulated
the essay in his language. Derrida began by trying to separate science from
morality. The problem with morality was that, unlike sciences such as
biology, psychology, or physics, its object of study was ill defined.10 Rather
than studying what exists in the world, Derrida, quoting le Senne, suggested
that morality “studies what must be, isn’t yet, and maybe will never be.”11
But Derrida was not content to remain with le Senne’s definition, for he
continued, “and this thought inevitably reminds us of the existentialist
slogan: ‘Man’s existence precedes his essence.’”12
Sartre’s mantra was of great value to Derrida, for it opened up a
path beyond moral nihilism. Moral nihilism arose primarily, according to
Derrida, with the denial of freedom: morality required the ability to make
free choices, and so a will constrained to act in a particular way could not
be regarded as moral. In Existentialism Is a Humanism, Sartre had given the
notion of human freedom a philosophical basis. He contrasted the deter-
mined behavior of those beings whose “essence preceded their existence”
(être-en-soi) with the freedom of Man (être-pour-soi). Unlike those things
8 André Darbon, Une Philosophie de l’expérience (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1946).
9 René le Senne, Traité de morale générale (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1942).
10 Jacques Derrida, “L’Expérience morale,” Irvine, 1.1, sheet 2.
11 Le Senne, Traité de morale générale, p. 687. 12 Derrida, “L’Expérience morale,” sheet 2.
52 Derrida post-existentialist
studied by science, Man’s behavior was not governed by a priori laws. The
existentialist distinction between the en-soi and the pour-soi thus allowed
Derrida to conceptualize the opposition between the realm of fact and
that of value, and thus to build up morality as an autonomous field of
study. Derrida stated that whether the existentialists realized it or not, only
existentialism provided the necessary tools for the research into morality.13
It was for this reason that Derrida rejected a “Kantian” approach to the
question of morality. He argued that if a firm metaphysical principle could
be found for the pour-soi, either based in nature or in philosophy, it would
destroy human liberty. As Derrida asserted, metaphysics “studies existing
reality,” and so cannot expound a morality, which describes what “isn’t
yet.”14 Referring explicitly to Spinoza’s ethics, Derrida argued,
To look for ethics [morale] in metaphysics is to deny Man’s liberty. Because, to say
that man is an integral part of nature is to take his originality away from him. What
is his originality, what distinguishes him from nature, if not the ability he has to
choose between two possible actions, that is to say his ethics [morale]? His existence
precedes his essence, that is his originality. To look for ethics in metaphysics, then,
is paradoxically to deny that man can have an ethics, that through that ethics
man can determine his essence, that is, determine who he will be. That is again
to affirm that he is not just a part of a universal nature which is invariable and of
which the essence precedes the existence.15
Because freedom was so central to morality, a moral code modeled on the
laws of nature was a contradiction in terms.
But if a Kantian approach failed, if no absolute principle of morality
could be elaborated once and for all, that did not mean that one should
give up hope of outlining a moral system, as Derrida thought Sartre had
done. Indeed though he was attracted to existentialism because it promised
new answers to moral questions, Derrida, like many others at the time,
found Sartre’s solutions deeply unsatisfying. According to the sixteen-year-
old, Sartre had unjustifiably moved from the impossibility of laying out
definitive metaphysical principles for morality to the denial of transcendent
value.
In Existentialism Is a Humanism Sartre had suggested that the freedom
of the pour-soi was so absolute that there was no reason to choose one
moral system over another. For Derrida, this radicalization of the pour-soi’s
freedom, just as much as its denial, prevented the production of a moral
philosophy.16 Morality demands that some actions are to be favored above

13 Ibid. 14 Ibid., sheet 4.


15 Ibid., sheet 5. See also le Senne, Traité de morale générale, pp. 685–734. 16 See also ibid., p. 20.
Derrida’s “Christian” existentialism 53
others, that some choices are better, more worthy. If the pour-soi expressed
its freedom by releasing itself from all exteriorly imposed moral codes,
then there could be no way to privilege one way of life over another. The
difficulty of morality was that it had to find some mid-way between total
determinism and total freedom, both of which stymied the moral choice.
To overcome the limitations of Sartre’s approach, Derrida turned to
Darbon. Darbon had elaborated such a third way between Kantianism
and a renunciation of all moral codes. If Kantian morality conceived the
pour-soi as mathematics did the en-soi, submitting it to certain rules and
axioms to found a determined science, Darbon proposed a moral the-
ory parallel to physics. Physics never has the apodicity of mathematics,
given its empirical basis, but nevertheless maintains what Derrida called
“an undeniable consistency.”17 Physics, then, provided a model for moral-
ity in navigating between metaphysical determination and unconnected
experience. As it was described by the editors of Darbon’s book, the result
was a “third way between Kant and Rauh. The Master from Königsberg
constructs a priori, as a mathematician. The syndicalist thinker tries to
paint faithfully . . . André Darbon works as a physicist: confronted with
experience, he looks to draw out the ideas that clarify and explain it. His
powerful and comprehensive thought applies to reality without subsuming
it under the category of necessity.”18
By describing actual moral acts we could slowly develop a science that
could determine what was moral. In le Senne’s terms, we would be able to
uncover a determined ethics (morale), an empirical set of laws for moral
behavior, which – based on real experience – would have the additional
benefit of being inherently practical. It was by remaining in the realm of
existentiel analyses, the direct description of moral phenomena, that we
could slowly outline a model for our actions. And, just as in physics, it was
an approach that offered the possibility of real progress.
The physics approach did not breach the existentialist code, because
it refused to set up insuperable absolutes; each ethics (morale) would be
provisional. Just as a new experimental result could cause a reevaluation of
the laws of physics, so too the analysis of a new moral experience could
undermine our faith in the validity of any determined morale. In the face
of what le Senne called a general and indeterminable “morality” (moralité),

17 Derrida, “L’Expérience morale,” sheet 6.


18 Darbon, Une Philosophie de l’expérience, p. 147. Frédéric Rauh was a French moralist at the beginning
of the twentieth century who focused on an analysis of the moral experience, rather than trying
to determine any a priori laws of morality. He was also le Senne’s teacher, and is figured by some,
including le Senne, as the father of French existentialism.
54 Derrida post-existentialist
each individual morale would reveal its insufficiency.19 No particular or
determined ethics, then, had absolute authority; in particular we would
have no right to impose any such system on others.20 The physics approach
preserved the existentialist concern for human autonomy, but in contradis-
tinction to Sartre, it maintained a belief in some transcendent value. As
humans, we are caught between the insufficiency of any determined moral
system (morale), its changeability and its historicity, all the while desiring
a higher Good, the Absolute, whose existence was hinted at by the analysis
of experience. As Derrida suggested, “there is yet another example, a proof
of what Pascal called the ‘disproportion of man.’”21
Darbon’s approach better suited existentialism than Sartre’s moral pes-
simism. According to Derrida, in a 1948 essay, Sartre’s failure to ground a
moral philosophy derived not from his phenomenological descriptions of
existence, Sartre’s existentiel analyses, but rather from his attempt to outline
an ontology, the existential elements of his theory.22 The existentiel side
of Sartre’s theory, best exemplified in his early works of phenomenologi-
cal psychology (L’Imagination (1936), the Esquisse d’une théorie des emotions
(1939), and L’Imaginaire (1940)) was, according to Derrida, “unattackable,”
because it was based on immediate psychological givens that were “very
fresh, very original . . . It is only when, in Being and Nothingness, Sartre
wants to shift to the ontological and announce a metaphysics that his
theses risk insolidity.”23
For Derrida, Sartre erred when he went beyond the sure ground of
phenomenological description and started to infer a deductive conceptual
system, positing the ontological opposition between Being and Nothing-
ness. By deducing that the pour-soi was constituted by its relationship to
Nothingness, and that the en-soi participated in brute Being, Sartre had
unjustifiably and metaphysically systematized his existentiel analyses. Exis-
tentialism, for Derrida, arose from the recognition that human knowledge
was limited; existentiel description was intended to challenge any given
ontology, not inform one.
19 Morale for le Senne was the set of determined moral laws that exist at any particular point and time.
Moralité was the attitude by which that morale was adjusted in light of a higher undetermined good
in changing situations.
20 Derrida, “L’Expérience morale,” sheet 8.
21 Ibid., sheet 9. See also a similar remark by le Senne, Traité de morale générale, pp. 28–9.
22 In this chapter we will continue to use the distinction, described in the last chapter, between
existentiel and existential. The first refers to the study of existence, the second to the study of Being.
Derrida himself, however, was not consistent in his use of these terms, and where the distinction
was not at issue often used existential to describe ontic analysis. For clarity, I have continued to use
the distinction throughout this chapter.
23 Jacques Derrida, “Sartre: Psychologie – Phénoménologie,” Irvine, 1.3, sheet 1.
Derrida’s “Christian” existentialism 55
The criticism was directly pertinent to the possibility of instituting an
existentialist morality, for when Sartre claimed that the pour-soi could
not authentically appeal to any transcendent value because it resisted all
positivity, he did so on the basis of his false phenomenological ontology,
which tied the pour-soi to Nothingness, and not on the basis of his existentiel
descriptions. The denial of absolute moral principles – just as much as their
assertion – was a metaphysical gesture.
The appeal to René le Senne, the focus on questions of morality, and the
concern that Sartre had broken existentialism’s own rules by developing
an ontology all place Derrida in line with a tradition of French thought,
one defining and reconstituting itself in opposition to Sartre’s thought. It
would have to wait for Derrida’s move to France in 1949, to the Lycée
Louis-le-Grand, for this connection to become explicit, but already his
future direction was clear: Derrida, the marrano, was becoming a Christian
existentialist.24

the lycée louis-le-grand


The Lycée Louis-le-Grand was one of the elite Parisian Ecoles Préparatoires.
Normally, upon completing the Baccalaureate, a high school student would
either leave school or go straight to a local university. However, for the most
academically successful students there was the hope of entering one of
several elite institutions called Grandes Ecoles. These colleges, specializing
in science and engineering like the Ecole Polytechnique, public policy like
the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or on the purely academic as in
the Ecole Normale Supérieure had their own special concours for entry. A
normal lycée education would not be sufficient to prepare for these exams,
so there existed a special set of state-supported schools especially dedicated
to that end. Of these so-called Ecoles Préparatoires, the Lycée Louis-le-
Grand, just across the street from the main campus of the Sorbonne and
next door to the Collège de France, was the most successful. In the late 1940s
and early 1950s, it dominated the entrance exams to many of the Grandes
Ecoles, especially the ENS, and typically sent twice as many students there
as its nearest rival, the Lycée Henri IV, which in the highly centralized
French academic world was but a few minutes’ walk away.
The standard two years of preparation were called Hypokhâgne and
Khâgne, though the high level of competition at the ENS concours meant

24 I would like to reiterate that this should be understood as an historical contextual claim, and not a
doctrinal one.
56 Derrida post-existentialist
that many repeated the final year.25 Derrida had already done one year of
Hypokhâgne in the Lycée Bugeaud d’Alger in Algiers, but at the time, 1949,
not one member of that school had ever made it to the ENS. So, in 1949,
after his file had been accepted by the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, Derrida left
Algeria for the first time.26 It was the first and perhaps the most important
move in his life. French academia was Paris, and it was only there that he
could realistically expect to fulfill his hope to be a writer.27
On arriving in Paris, Derrida went straight into the Khâgne year. He
was reasonably successful there, in all but physical education where he was
ranked bottom of the class, but in the early summer he failed the ENS
concours for the first time.28 In the second year, due to personal problems
including depression, he had to drop out temporarily, moving out of the
school dormitories into a bedsit in the 18th Arrondissement. The move
clearly was not as beneficial as was hoped, and Derrida missed all his
school exams and failed the entrance concours for the ENS a second time.
He was absent for all papers apart from history, and there he gained 0 out
of 20. The third year, however, was far more successful, with very positive
comments from the teachers, and Derrida finally gained entrance to the
ENS, placed 16th out of 30.
Derrida spent three years at the “Baz Grand,” as it was known to students,
all in the Khâgne year, effectively repeating it twice. His philosophy teacher
for the first and third years – the only two where Derrida was present for
any length of time – was Etienne Borne.29 Borne had a very high opinion
of Derrida, describing him as “excellent in all regards.” In his final term,
Derrida was ranked first in Borne’s class, with an impressive grade of 16
out of 20.30 Borne was one of the founding members of the MRP and
a constant defender of Christianity against atheism, and given Derrida’s
burgeoning interests he was a good match for the young philosopher. If
implicit references to a certain form of Christian existentialism are visible
in Derrida’s earliest work, this became more and more obvious during his
time at the Parisian Ecole Préparatoire.
25 Khâgneux: a student in Khâgne was a pseudo-Greek transliteration of câgneux, meaning “knock-
kneed.” Hypokhâgne came to mean “the year below Khâgne.” The course was highly stressful and
despite the success of the Lycée Louis-le-Grand only about one in six would be successful in gaining
entrance to the ENS.
26 There were no formal exams and certainly no interview. Entry was based purely on a report sent
from the student’s school and previous results.
27 See Derrida, Points de Suspension, p. 253.
28 Archives Louis-le-Grand, Derrida report card 1949–50.
29 For an idea of life in the Louis-le-Grand Khâgne see “Khâgne 1950,” Le Débat 3 (1980), written
anonymously by the editor and Derrida’s classmate Pierre Nora.
30 Archives Louis-le-Grand, report cards 1951–2.
Derrida’s “Christian” existentialism 57
Like Derrida, while Borne was critical of atheistic existentialism, he
did not find fault with existentialism as a whole. In addition to privileging
existentialism in his courses at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, Borne’s own work
can be read as existentialist.31 His most successful book, Le Problème du mal,
published in 1957, also used the practice of existentiel analyses and appealed
to the experience of anguish, which he presented as the confrontation with
evil. Borne thought that it lay in the very nature of evil that it resisted
intellectual understanding; if evil made sense and could be integrated into
a higher, perhaps redemptive logic (e.g. that evil tests our faith) it would no
longer be evil. Because of the existence of evil, then, the world would never
be fully comprehensible: Borne gave existentialist absurdity a distinctly
religious flavor. It was for this reason that, like Derrida and most other
Christian existentialists, Borne refused to follow Sartre in his movement
from these existentiel analyses to ontological assertions. Borne argued that
existentiel analyses should lead us not to the “secondary abstractions” of
“Being” and “Nothingness,” but rather to an analysis of sense and non-
sense, the true domain of philosophy.32 By adopting Sartre’s existentiel
method while rejecting his ontological conclusions, Borne occupied a very
similar philosophical position to his new student.
Borne’s criticisms reflected those of many Christian existentialists, who
felt that Sartre had been unfaithful to his original project.33 The study of
existence was not the foundation for, but utterly opposed to, any attempt to
conceptualize and define the world as we experience it, even in the contra-
dictory categories of “Being” and “Nothingness.” Rather than founding a
new phenomenological ontology, existentiel analyses revealed the limits of
our conceptual understanding. They marked a confrontation with human
finitude.
The key representative of this “Christian existentialist” tradition was
Gabriel Marcel.34 Marcel, credited with coining the term “existentialism”

31 It was Borne who assimilated modern philosophy and existentialism in his course on hellenic
philosophy.
32 Borne, Le Problème du mal, p. 10.
33 I use the term “Christian existentialist” for convenience. As we shall see, the term had considerable
currency in the first few years after the War, during which time the division between atheistic and
Christian existentialism was standard in all presentations of the movement. The success of Sartre’s
particular brand of existentialism, however, led several philosophers to distance themselves from it,
often preferring related terms like philosophie existentielle, spiritualisme existentiel, or philosophy of
existence. I will elaborate the difficulties for Weil, le Senne, and Marcel.
34 The problems with naming Marcel as a Christian existentialist should be noted. Marcel adopted the
term himself, and a 1947 analysis of his work edited by Jean Delhomme chose the title Existentialisme
chrétien. The term was applied to him freely by Foulquié, le Senne, Wahl, Hyppolite, and Borne.
However, by 1948 Marcel tried to distance himself from the moniker, feeling that it related him too
58 Derrida post-existentialist
itself in his Journal Métaphysique, had converted to Christianity in the late
1920s. The conversion was the end result of a long struggle with ideal-
ist metaphysics in the French university, especially its hubristic faith in
human reason. In both its style and content Marcel’s journal hoped to
counter this systematizing tendency, writing in the short and personalized
diary format, without any attempt to unify his thinking. Rather than to
speculative questions and to sophistic reasoning, Marcel applied himself to
real and concrete confrontations with existence, confrontations that chal-
lenged rather than reinforced our faith in reason to explain and dissect. In
particular, existentiel analysis would reveal what Marcel called the mystery,
that which exceeded our limited faculties. Where Sartre saw the absurdity
of the world, Marcel saw an experience that questioned our very ability to
make such definitive judgments.35
Sartre’s ontology, moving away from his enlightening existentiel analy-
ses, was an attempt to define what was beyond our ability to grasp; and in
his treatment of Sartre it was precisely this ontology that Marcel attempted
to disrupt.36 According to Marcel, Sartre’s ontology was justified more by
his pessimistic worldview than his existentiel descriptions, and it prema-
turely excluded more optimistic conclusions. For this reason Marcel labeled
Sartre’s thought a “philosophy of failure.”37 Of particular concern was
Sartre’s perceived rejection of meaningful intersubjective relationships, and
Marcel strongly criticized Sartre’s description of love in Being and Nothing-
ness, which, he thought could not “but finish with a statement of failure.”38
According to Marcel, Sartre deliberately and ideologically denied the “we-
subject,” regardless of any evidence that existentiel analyses might provide.
Existentialism did not, according to Marcel, have to lead to such a dreary
end.39 Sartre had chosen pessimism, a choice rooted in his atheistic world-
view and expressed in his selection of existentiel descriptions.40 Marcel
concluded that

closely to Sartre, and preferred the term “Christian Socratic” instead. See Herbert Spiegelberg, The
Phenomenological Movement: A Historical Introduction, 4th edn (Boston: Kluwer, 1982), p. 458. The
first major repudiation came in the 1951 French publication of Gabriel Marcel, Le Mystère de l’Etre
(Paris: Aubier, 1951).
35 We will further elaborate Marcel’s understanding of the mystery in chapter 4.
36 See Gabriel Marcel, L’Existence et la liberté humaine chez Sartre (Paris: J. Vrin, 1981) (text from 1946),
p. 53.
37 See also Foulquié, L’Existentialisme, p. 97.
38 Marcel, L’Existence et la liberté humaine chez Sartre, p. 70.
39 See also Marcel’s 1943 reaction to Sartre published in Homo Viator (Paris: Aubier, Editions Mon-
taigne, 1945), pp. 233–56.
40 See also Ignace Lepp’s review of Being and Nothingness for Les Etudes Philosophiques (January–
March 1946), p. 78.
Derrida’s “Christian” existentialism 59
existentialism appears to me today to be at a crossroads: it is, in the final analysis,
constrained to deny or to transcend itself; it denies itself purely and simply when
it runs into a non-dialectical materialism; it transcends itself, on the other hand,
or rather it tends to a self-transcendence, where it opens, not perhaps upon, but
towards a supra-human experience that probably cannot become ours, authenti-
cally and durably, this side of death, but of which the reality is attested to by the
mystics, and the possibility is guaranteed by a reflection that refuses to be prisoner
of the postulate of absolute immanence.41
Remaining aware of our human limitations, this hope could never be
proven, it could only be asserted by the “we [nous]”; it was a knowledge
“but a knowledge which excludes all presumptions, a knowledge granted,
authorized, a knowledge that is a gift of grace, and in no way a conquest.” It
was the truth of a community rather than the egotistical and imperialistic
certainty of deductive reasoning. Christian existentialism, then, did not
attempt to justify the existence of God against atheism. For the Christian
existentialists the ontological proof, just as much as the denial of God,
profaned the divine.42
Simone Weil echoed Marcel’s description of human rational limitation
in the face of theological questions.43 Weil was the daughter of a secularized
French Jewish family. The sister of the mathematician André Weil, she was
among the first women to study philosophy at the ENS Sèvres pour jeunes
filles, beating Simone de Beauvoir to first place in the entrance examination
of 1929. But by the early 1930s she turned away from her previous beliefs and
came to embrace a strong and sometimes anti-Jewish mystical Christianity.
Her religious beliefs motivated her involvement in the labor movement in
France and, at the outbreak of war, her entrance into the Resistance. But
the hardships of factory life and resistance operations were too much for
the weak and sickly Weil, and she succumbed to tuberculosis in 1943, aged
just thirty-four.
After her death, her papers were collected together by friends and pub-
lished in the late 1940s and early 1950s, finding immediate popular success.
Writing on social issues and politics (L’Enracinement) and a spiritual biog-
raphy (L’Attente de Dieu), it was her meditations on philosophical and
mystical questions (La Pesanteur et la grâce) that particularly entranced
the teenage Derrida.44 Like Marcel, Weil described a confrontation with
41 Marcel, L’Existence et la liberté humaine chez Sartre, p. 87.
42 See also le Senne, Introduction à la philosophie, pp. 391–400.
43 Simone Weil died in 1943 and so could not respond to Sartre’s work, or indeed choose for herself
the suitability of the title “Christian existentialist.”
44 Simone Weil, L’Enracinement (Paris: Gallimard, 1949), Attente de Dieu (Paris: La Colombe, 1950),
and La Pesanteur et la grâce. All of Derrida’s citations from Weil come from this last book.
60 Derrida post-existentialist
an experience exceeding our understanding, which marked the first stage
of our spiritual development. In life, she asserted, we are constantly con-
fronted by contradictions, experiences that do not fit neatly into our con-
ceptual categories. Due to our human limitations, our inability to move
beyond the “gravity [pesanteur]” that marks normal human life, it was only
through the gift of grace from God that we could be rescued. For Weil, we
were powerless to save ourselves. All we could do was to empty our lives
of human needs and desires, including the desire for salvation, and give
ourselves entirely to God.
Like Marcel and Weil, Derrida dedicated much of his early work to
challenging the pretensions of philosophy. Writing on “nihilism” in 1949,
Derrida defined it as the “act or affirmation of total immanence.”45 For
Derrida it was clear that the traditional idealist and materialist philosophies
were nihilist when they sought to reduce either the physical or the mental
world to the other. Materialism was nihilistic because, according to Derrida,
it denied the existence of value:
The essence of materialism consists in this: there is nothing essential or valuable
“in-itself” outside of matter. Matter moves itself according to necessity, mechanical
or dialectical determinism. The transcendence of value, if it appears, is inessential.

In a materialist world system, because Man was determined fully, he was


just a “stone.” Ethical values, if they existed, had no effect on human action,
which was governed solely by biological or chemical processes. It was not
possible to affirm or deny anything freely.
Idealism, on the other hand, was insufficient, because although every-
thing was a mental act, value was entirely immanent to the Mind (Esprit),
the “supreme end.” Choice was so absolute that nothing outside of it could
have any intrinsic value. As the adolescent Derrida concluded, there was
just as much “negative power in the total determination of only matter,
as in the total indetermination of mind by itself.”46 Whereas materialism
was a “nihilism of fullness,” refusing humans free space to act, idealism was
a “nihilism of emptiness,” where that freedom was so total and without
direction to be meaningless.
Existentialism seemed to offer an escape. By asserting both the fac-
tual world and its transcendence by the réalité-humaine, matter and spirit,
it accounted both for human freedom and an object upon which that
freedom could be exercised. But, as we have seen, according to Derrida,

45 Jacques Derrida, “Nihilisme et volonté de néant,” Irvine, 1.9, sheet 1. 46 Ibid., sheet 2.
Derrida’s “Christian” existentialism 61
Sartre’s philosophy too was mired in nihilism. For the atheistic existen-
tialist, “human liberty was the only source of value.” Either the atheistic
existentialist determined the subject’s liberty negatively – what Sartre called
“authenticity,” allowing only arbitrary freedom – and he succumbed to the
same problems as the idealist. Or, despairing of finding any positive value,
Man would inauthentically alienate his faculties “either in a materialism,
or a vitalism, or an exaggerated and atheistic individualism, which is itself,
like materialism and vitalism, a type of determination, of total negation,
thus of nihilism.”47 Essentially, without any possible guide for the use of
his transcendent freedom, Man was condemned either to revel in endless
and empty freedom, or to submit himself to one particular moral code. It
was, in 1949, a repetition of Derrida’s earlier argument about the aporias
of moral experience.
But in this early essay, Derrida had moved a step further. By assimilating
atheistic existentialism to the critique of idealism and materialism, Der-
rida tied all philosophy together. Sartre’s failure to found a non-nihilistic
philosophy brought to light the failure of philosophy tout court. Either phi-
losophy over-determined value, reducing freedom, or it under-determined
it, allowing freedom but giving it no direction, making it into a parody of
itself: decisionistic and essentially random choice. Human philosophy, by
itself, could never escape nihilism.
But there was hope. When condemning atheistic existentialism, Derrida
was careful to distinguish it from the “impure” Christian variety. Christian
existentialism was “impure” because it recognized the need to look beyond
its own solipsistic calculations in order to avoid the pitfalls of nihilism.48
It demonstrated the necessary and positive contamination of an insuffi-
cient and nihilistic philosophy with something else. As Derrida suggested
“at the moment when the existentialist recognizes the existence of God,
through, for example, the sentiment of value that he feels in himself,” he
would be able to suppress the sense of his own primacy. Philosophy, rather
than producing a closed system, should instead act as a “propadeutic.”49
According to Derrida, reflective thought by showing the necessary limi-
tations of human knowledge should lead us to recognize what exceeds it:
belief.
Invoking the Christian existentialists and following the arguments of
writers like Marcel and Weil, Derrida suggested that a way was needed
beyond philosophy, which would not be a rejection “but a surpassing that
47 Ibid., sheet 2.
48 See Jacques Derrida, “Phénoménologie et métaphysique du Secret,” Irvine, 1.8, sheet 1.
49 Derrida, “Nihilisme,” sheet 3.
62 Derrida post-existentialist
would also be a return to an existence enriched and purified by reflection.”50
Faith did not have to stand alone, but was bolstered and justified by a careful
study of the world. This supplement was crucial, because one possible con-
clusion to be drawn from the failure of philosophy to escape nihilism was
that such nihilism was simply inescapable. Derrida rather hoped to show
that even if nihilism was philosophically unavoidable, practically it was
impossible. Nihilism, though constantly asserted by human philosophy,
would show itself to be existentially false.
Derrida turned his attention to what might appear the most nihilistic
of all acts: suicide. If this ultimate act of despair could be shown to avoid
nihilism, then it no longer mattered whether all philosophies asserted its
inevitability. As Derrida understood it, in the act of suicide, I assume abso-
lute value for my self, giving myself the divine power to choose over life and
death. Precisely when in suicide a person seemed to assert the valuelessness
of human life, he awarded himself ultimate power and jurisdiction. Suicide
could not be nihilistic.51
The discussion of suicide was only one nihilistic example that unrav-
eled itself. Derrida felt that even a cursory look at existence would reveal
numerous instances that would be placed in the balance on the side of hope,
rather than despair. Derrida’s two favorite examples were love and artis-
tic creation. Indeed the reference to love and artistic creation as pointing
towards the possibility of authentic communion with the other, and at the
limit God, was constant during this period of Derrida’s life. We will return
to these particular examples later in the chapter. For now it is sufficient to
note that, for Derrida, existentiel analyses, in exceeding philosophy, rather
than guiding it to Sartre’s “pessimistic” conclusions, led towards a hopeful
understanding of the world and intersubjectivity. In particular it opened
up the possibility of the divine, that, though philosophically unreachable,
forever guided human actions. Existentialism should, for Derrida, lead us
towards God.
In two essays, Derrida discussed God directly. The first, in December
1949, was written under the title “God and the Gods: Do Gods Exist?
Is the existence of God a problem?”52 Derrida’s approach was to take an
idealized history of religion, what he saw as a “dialectic” between our
essential “insufficiency” – an “existentiel need” that led us to posit God –
and an “arrogance” that motivated us to reject the idea of an all-powerful
being, to kill God. Derrida traced theology from pagan beliefs, through

50 Ibid., sheet 3. 51 Ibid., sheet 3.


52 Jacques Derrida, “Les Dieux et Dieu: les Dieux existent-ils?” Irvine, 1.12.
Derrida’s “Christian” existentialism 63
Judaism, Christianity, and eventually to modern atheism, when arrogant
philosophers, wanting to systematize and rationalize God, ended by deny-
ing his existence. The death of God was a delayed result of the ontological
proof.
The dialectic may have ended with a denial of his existence, but Derrida
asserted that it was nonetheless “necessary to believe in God, because that
is the only solution that respects the authenticity of my own existence.”53
The move from atheism to a renewed faith was driven by a tension at
the heart of non-belief. Just as philosophy was unable to maintain its
absolute nihilism, it was equally unable to sustain atheism. Rather than
killing God outright, Comte, Marx, Nietzsche, and Sartre, according to
Derrida, merely displaced his divinity into society, history, or the human
subject.54 As Derrida suggested in his other essay on God, “Atheism is aris-
tocratic,” the divine was existentially impossible to escape.55 Aristocracies
like atheism asserted autarchy, an autarchy modeled on the infinity of the
divine.56
The internal failings of atheism did not, however, render it useless. As
Derrida suggested, “to find God and religion again, Simone Weil talks of
a purifying atheism [athéisme purificateur]; one must lose God . . . to find
him again.”57 As he suggested in his essay on the existence of God, this
new belief arising out of atheism would no longer be naı̈ve, it would rather
be a free choice.58 One did not prove [prouver] the existence of God, but
rather felt [éprouver] it. Paraphrasing Marcel, Derrida wrote, “God is the
mysterious, the meta-problematic par excellence. He is the object of love,
and thus uncharacterizable” by human rational powers. And because he
could not be grasped rationally, Derrida asserted that “I believe because it
is absurd . . . which is to say that my belief is not naı̈ve and spontaneous;
neither is it detached from reason; it is a voluntary and courageous act.”59
Derrida had absorbed Sartre’s language of authentic choice and turned it
against him. There could be no certainty about God, one had to make
a resolute decision to believe. But because that belief responded to the
existentiel structure of human life, our constant awareness of insufficiency,
the choice was the only authentic one. Derrida, parodying Sartre, asserted
that Man was “condemned to be an optimist.”60

53 Ibid., sheet 1. 54 Ibid., sheet 3. 55 The title comes from a 1793 speech by Robespierre.
56 Jacques Derrida, “L’Athéisme est aristocratique,” Irvine, 1.19. sheet 1.
57 Derrida, “L’Athéisme est aristocratique,” sheet 5. 58 Derrida, “Les Dieux et Dieu,” sheet 4.
59 Ibid., sheet 4. 60 Derrida, “Nihilisme,” sheet 3.
64 Derrida post-existentialist

problematizing the mystery


From the outside to the inside – every precious movement of the
human spirit consists in a conversion by which something which
at first appeared to it to be extrinsic, which presented itself to it as
other, is assimilated to the point at which the human spirit becomes
capable, from its own intimacy and by its operation, not only to
engender this something, but to transform it at will, in transcending
it. At the beginning of this conversion the spirit felt estranged and
inferior to what it apprehended; that thing excluded it; when the
spiritual appropriation has been accomplished, the spirit becomes
familiar with it and understands it; it has become its own.61
René le Senne
In Derrida’s essays from the period 1949–52, he followed the Christian
existentialists in their rejection of human reason’s absolute validity, in
the necessary return to experience, and – through an analysis of this experi-
ence – the opening up of the possibility or even a moral necessity of faith in
God. At one point in his discussion, at least, he explicitly aligned himself
with a particular form of Christian existentialism. This form, however,
would draw Derrida away from Gabriel Marcel and Simone Weil, and
closer to René le Senne and his own teacher, Etienne Borne.
Etienne Borne had little time for Marcel’s passive acceptance of the
mystery. He attacked Marcel’s analysis for not being sufficiently philo-
sophic: “the problem of evil is perhaps insoluble and it is this possibility
that engenders anguish, but it cannot be taken to task in its capacity as
a problem.” The problem of evil, God, or Being may never allow a full
and definitive answer, but that does not liberate us from the imperative
to continue questioning it: “it would remain to dig further, to deepen, to
exasperate our anguish, to trust in the thought that it carries and the light
which it is not incapable of casting on Man, the world, and God.”62
In Derrida’s essays he too was unwilling to leave the mystery alone. Like
Borne, while accepting that Being would always escape thought, Derrida
felt that this should not stop us striving to understand it. Derrida elaborated
this in a 1949 essay on the “secret.” He argued that in addition to a secret
that we might have (secret because we decided not to reveal it) there was
also a secret of who we were (what we could not communicate) that he
came to equate with the Sartrean pour-soi.63 This secret, falling to the side
of mystery, should, in the Marcellian model, resist human thought. But
Derrida refused to accept its absolute indetermination.
61 René le Senne, opening lines of his Traité de morale générale.
62 See Borne, Le Problème du mal, pp. 39–41.
63 Derrida, “Phénoménologie et métaphysique du Secret,” sheet 1. Marcel in his discussions of the
secret had restricted it to the side of Avoir.
Derrida’s “Christian” existentialism 65
Quite how he hoped to achieve this was not very clear. In his essay
he appealed to two positive experiences that could “conserve the rela-
tionship without suppressing interiority,” that is they could establish a
connection to the secret without unveiling and so denaturing it. First,
Derrida appealed to an experience of communion, which he distinguished
from communication.64 As the immediate unity of two beings, commu-
nion in love allowed the relationship between two pour-sois, without, as
Sartre had argued, one alienating the other. Second, in artistic creation,
we were able to grant value to our work without destroying its essential
mystery: “in art . . . I lose and recover myself simultaneously in the created
object – the work of art expresses the secret of things without alienating
them.”65
The argument is hard to follow, and Etienne Borne, too, upon reading it
was unhappy, labeling Derrida’s claims “assertions” and writing a skeptical
“how?” prominently in the margin. But the language Derrida used provides
two clues as to his line of thinking. First, in describing artistic creation,
Derrida suggested that it “restitutes the secret in attributing it a sense.
It spiritualizes it.”66 Second, at one crucial moment Derrida referred to
his philosophy as a “spiritualisme existentiel.”67 For Derrida, existentiel
spiritualism marked a third way between an idealism and materialism
that aimed to determine the secret or the pour-soi fully, and Sartrean
existentialism, which merely accepted its indeterminacy.
“Existentiel spiritualism” was the title used by the Christian philosopher
Jean Paumen for a 1949 book dedicated to the work of René le Senne, whose
work on morality had provided one of the cornerstones of Derrida’s first
essay. Paumen argued that le Senne’s work represented the culmination of
“existentiel philosophy.” In particular, it marked a significant improvement
on Marcel’s faith in an absolute and unknowable God, which was “only
intelligible as a mystery.”68 For Marcel, the gap separating us from God
could only be crossed with a leap of faith, not the forward movement of
thought. Instead, le Senne’s experimental spiritualism provided the pos-
sibility of respecting God or the mystery while not completely excluding
them from human understanding. What was beyond philosophy could
with work be assimilated to it.
According to le Senne the history of philosophy had shown constant
movement towards idealism.69 As history progressed humanity became
64 See the same distinction in Troisfontaines, Existentialisme et pensée chrétienne.
65 Derrida, “Phénoménologie et métaphysique du Secret,” sheet 4.
66 Ibid., sheet 3–4. See Gabriel Marcel, Etre et Avoir (Paris: Editions Universitaire, 1991), p. 107.
67 Derrida, “Phénoménologie et métaphysique du Secret,” sheet 3.
68 Marcel, Etre et avoir, p. 22. 69 See le Senne, Introduction à la philosophie, première partie.
66 Derrida post-existentialist
more and more aware of the fact that the exterior world was not composed
of brute matter, but rather conformed to the laws of the mind as expressed
in mathematics and physics. As an ordered world, it could only be the
expression of spirit. But this did not mean that each individual human spirit
was infinite and could comprehend the world in its totality. Rather the finite
manifestation of spirit in the individual placed a limit on its understanding,
when faced with the world its mental faculties would constantly show
themselves to be inadequate: “The Spirit is elastic, possibly eristic, it can
subdivide itself, without tearing itself in two, into finite consciousness,
between which antagonisms must appear.”70 Human finitude entailed that
our mental faculties alone were incapable of understanding the world and
we were condemned to disagreement and conflict. The only way out lay in
a humble return to the school of experience, from which, according to le
Senne, all philosophy had to begin.
Because of our human limitations, experience would sooner or later
throw up something that would not fit into the inadequate categories
of our understanding, something that would appear as a scandal for us.
This “scandal” or “obstacle” was not, however, an insuperable Marcelian
mystery. True, we could figure the obstacle as a permanent barrier, give
up our hopes of overcoming it, and either fall into mysticism or submit
to the idea of the absurdity of a world without meaning. But we could
also, asserting the insufficiency of all our thought, choose to place our faith
in a supreme and ungraspable “Value,” to see beyond the heterogeneous
multiplicity of experience the possibility of higher unity. This desire for an
ultimate “Value” would motivate us to “spiritualize” the obstacle. It would
be an impetus not just to recognize our own limitations but to seek to go
beyond them, to educate ourselves further about the world and experience,
and in the end, to forge a new understanding, a new philosophy: Spirit
would expand to understand itself further.
This new philosophy could never be complete, it too would show its
limits, its insufficiency: for if a definitive method or philosophy were pos-
sible, it would place all finite spirits within a determined whole, where
“necessity reigns without contest” and “pantheism takes the place of spir-
itualism.” The finitude of each individual spirit was necessary for human
freedom.71 But at the same time, it was practically impossible to deny
the ultimate unity of spirit or assert the absurdity of the world, because
that would reduce us to solipsism without “conversation, nor society, nor
science, nor love.” Philosophy should rather operate by transgressing the

70 Ibid., p. 247. 71 René le Senne, Obstacle et valeur (Paris: F. Aubier, 1934), p. 259.
Derrida’s “Christian” existentialism 67
border between determined theories and the real affective existence that
seemed to escape it, what Derrida would call the relation and the secret’s
interiority. As Jean Paumen put it:
The relationship that M. Le Senne recognized thus in the principle of experience,
is not the unity of abstract terms, but the unity of the intellectual relation with
infinite existence, the unity of impurely ideal and imperfectly existential terms,
the unity of continuity and discontinuity. This is what authorizes the simultaneous
usage of intellectual dialectics and affective moments. Emotional existence and
abstract argumentation then reunite [s’épousent], to convince.72
This ideal unity of Value would allow, in Marcelian terms, some continuity
between être and avoir, even if it were never total. It would legitimate the
“spiritualization” of the secret without ever fully betraying its indetermi-
nacy, without asserting that one had grasped it once and for all. Le Senne
allowed Derrida, as he would put it as late as 1955, to envisage a dialectic
of the “problematic and the mysterious,” to move beyond the negative
theology that he saw in Marcel or Weil.73
To escape nihilism and to allow the possibility of Value, there must be
a difference between the world and us. But such an assertion of difference
should not leave the pour-soi to the pitfalls of decisionism, detached from
any guiding star. The spiritualist philosopher had to decide freely to search
for a transcendent Value, which would motivate the overcoming of all
finite determinations. It was the desire for a Value that was always out of
reach, which would encourage him to overcome contradictions, and not
halt, disheartened before the very first obstacle. Philosophy required, as
Derrida remarked, a “courageous choice” to seek out a hidden God.

humanist phenomenology
These broader philosophical and religious commitments were manifested
in Derrida’s reading of Husserl and Heidegger. Derrida had turned to
Husserl and Heidegger because of their importance in Sartre’s work. In
brief, we can say that Derrida was a phenomenologist because Sartre was
a phenomenologist, and it is no coincidence that both built their thought
on the same two German philosophers.74 Not only was Derrida’s choice

72 Jean Paumen, Le Spiritualisme existentiel de René le Senne (Paris: Presses universitaires de France),
pp. 23–4. The formulation recalls Derrida’s mémoire, The Problem of Genesis in Husserl’s Philosophy,
trans. M. Hobson (University of Chicago Press, 2003).
73 Jacques Derrida, “La Notion du problème,” Irvine, 1.48. sheet 3.
74 In an interview with Dominique Janicaud, Derrida admits the importance of Sartre in his first
readings of Heidegger, Janicaud, Heidegger en France vol. II, p. 89.
68 Derrida post-existentialist
of reading material strongly influenced by his reading of Sartre, it was also
interpreted through Sartre’s writings. In particular, Derrida argued that
both Husserl and Heidegger’s thought should be recast as humanist. By
moving beyond an overly restrictive theoretical phenomenology, Husserl’s
method should be used to describe the structures of human-reality and
not a transcendental consciousness, and in recognizing the limitations of
Heidegger’s ontology, the value of his work would be revealed to be his
existentiel analytic of Dasein. But as we shall see in the development of
this humanistic reading of phenomenology, Derrida would find occasion
to reiterate his religious critique of Sartrean existentialism.
Derrida’s reading of Husserl and Heidegger is clearest in two essays
prepared for an after-school philosophy group called the Cogito Club
at the Lycée Bugeaud d’Alger run by Derrida’s teacher Jan Czarnecki in
1948.75 The club came together to discuss major contemporary philoso-
phers, with an emphasis on presenting their work, rather than any serious
critical engagement. In Derrida’s case the essays are almost entirely made
up of summaries and at times only barely modified citations from pri-
mary and secondary works. The essays are informative nonetheless. Firstly,
they represent Derrida’s particular interests. That Derrida’s two surviving
essays are presentations of Sartre and Heidegger confirms their importance
in his other surviving student work. But in addition, the presentations
were never wholesale endorsements. The admitted enthusiasm for both
Sartre and Heidegger was tempered by moments of criticism and inter-
pretation, which, while marking the limits of Derrida’s espousal of their
ideas, also reaffirmed his commitment to them within those limits. In this
sense they allow us an important perspective on one particular moment in
Derrida’s development, and his Sartrean reading of the two German phe-
nomenologists.
In 1932 Sartre discovered Husserl through his friend Raymond Aron,
who had just returned from a year studying in Germany. Like many of
his generation, moving away from the dominant Brunschvicgian Neo-
Kantianism, Sartre wanted to reject the abstract, and in the words of
Jean Wahl’s contemporaneous essay, move towards the concrete.76 With
75 Jan Czarnecki passed the agrégation in 1933 and gained the same rank as Jean Beaufret: both were
placed sixth. Interestingly he was also one of the signatories of Sartre’s “Manifeste des 121” in 1961.
For his involvement in the Algerian War, see Guy Pervillé, “Remarques sur la Revue Christianisme
Social face à la guerre d’Algérie,” Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire du Protestantisme Français 150
(October–December 2004), pp. 683–701.
76 Wahl’s book, Vers le concrète (Paris: Librarie philosophique J. Vrin, 1932), was mainly a discussion
of William James, Whitehead, and Gabriel Marcel, but it framed these analyses with a discussion
of Heidegger.
Derrida’s “Christian” existentialism 69
phenomenology, according to Aron, one could philosophize about any-
thing, including, so the story goes, the beer that Sartre and he were drinking
during the conversation.77
But the flight from the abstract and the speculative should not, according
to Sartre, entail an uncritical embrace of empiricism that naı̈vely accepted
the existence of objects in the world. It was its avoidance of these twin
perils – a priori rationalism and empiricism – that made phenomenology
so attractive for Sartre and his contemporaries. Husserl’s phenomenology
concerned itself with the rich base of human experience, but it did not,
like traditional psychology, treat that experience as purely contingent.
The need to reach beyond a purely empirical account could be shown
by a close analysis of traditional psychology. As Sartre stated in the Esquisse
d’une théorie des émotions, psychology as a positive science dealt with facts,
which meant it preferred “the accidental to the essential, the contingent
to the necessary, disorder to order.”78 But in order to delimit its field, to
set a framework for its researches, psychology must already have some idea
of what it is looking for. In the case of the imagination or the emotion,
it must already know what the imagination or emotion is, to be able to
enter into an empirical study of them. This starting point prejudiced any
research from the beginning. After correlating the various facets of an
emotion, its “bodily reactions,” “behaviors,” and “states of consciousness,”
the scientist had to resort to his initial understanding of what emotion was
to develop an over-arching theory. Sartre continued, “if I am the partisan
of an intellectualist theory, for example, I would establish a constant and
irreversible relay between the interior state, considered as antecedent, and
psychological troubles considered as its consequences. If, on the contrary,
I think, with the partisans of the theories of the periphery: ‘A mother is
sad because she is crying,’ I would confine myself, essentially, to invert the
order of factors.”79 With respect to these most pressing questions, positive
psychology could only resort to speculation.
The phenomenologist, according to Sartre, was able to escape this con-
fusion because he realized that experience could also give us immediate
access to essences.80 The key was the phenomenological reduction.81 By
placing the world in brackets, refusing to infer the external existence of
77 There is no great consensus on this incident. For all their discussion of exact phenomenological
description, there is discord as to whether the drink was an apricot cocktail, as suggested by Simone
de Beauvoir, or a beer, as the two men in the party concur. See Simone de Beauvoir, La Force de
l’âge (Paris: Gallimard, 1960), pp. 141–2.
78 Jean-Paul Sartre, Esquisse d’une théorie des émotions (Paris: Hermann, 1939), p. 5.
79 Ibid., pp. 6–7. 80 See Jean-Paul Sartre, L’Imagination (Paris: F. Alcan, 1936), p. 140.
81 See ibid., p. 8.
70 Derrida post-existentialist
objects from the content of our immediate intuition, the phenomenologist
was also able to bracket the contingency and singularity that were char-
acteristics of the world. I may doubt the existence of an object that I see,
but I cannot deny the appearance of that object in consciousness, and a
careful analysis of that object would reveal its constitutive laws. Intuition
was a Wesensschau that provided us with certain knowledge of essences, of
what the imagination or emotion really was, something unheard of in the
positive sciences.
The irony of the reduction for Sartre, however, was that, far from clos-
ing us off from the world, it showed us to be completely and irrevocably
embedded in it. The investigation of the immediate givens of consciousness
revealed that they were all consciousness of something. Fear is not merely a
state of mind, but it is lived immediately as fear of heights, enclosed spaces,
of something in the world.82 Even an illusion refers to or, in the French,
“aims at” (viser) an object that is presented as beyond the illusion, outside
of the mind. The different acts of consciousness can “aim at” the object
in different ways. They can imagine, perceive, love, hate, etc. and yet all
of these “noetic” acts refer to a transcendent object, that which is imag-
ined, perceived, loved, or hated: this was, for Sartre, Husserl’s fundamental
concept of intentionality.83
For Derrida in his essay, these analyses would reach their apogee in
Sartre’s discussion of the image, whether in the mind or in the world: a
photograph or painting. The phenomenological description of the image
expressed “the most essential structure of consciousness, its relations with
the real, its intentionality, its irrealizing function, the nothingness of which
it is constitutive.”84 If all consciousness was intentional, then even the image
that had previously been regarded as an internal impression, a residue
of a perceptive act, should be considered as an image of something, its
intentional aspect being constitutive of it as image. The intentionality of
the image showed that it was not mere appearances.
What then was the difference between the perceived object and the
image? For Sartre it lay in the particular type of intentionality involved,
for one posited the object as existing whereas the other did not. When
looking at a photograph of a friend, we are not fooled into thinking that
she is there, and yet the image is still clearly of her. Derrida, himself,
took a step further, translating Sartre’s work on the imagination into the
82 See ibid., p. 29.
83 See Jean-Paul Sartre, Situations I (Paris: Gallimard, 1947): “Une Idée fondamentale de la
phénoménologie de Husserl: Intentionalité,” pp. 31–5.
84 Derrida, “Sartre,” sheet 3.
Derrida’s “Christian” existentialism 71
language of his later philosophy in Being and Nothingness: “What is the
guiding idea of this critique? Well! It’s the distinction between the pour-soi
and the en-soi.”85 The image is the object “for-itself,” and the perceived
object was “in-itself,” brute existence and positivity. The irreality of the
imagined object, the non-presence of the intended object in the image,
demonstrated the negating power of consciousness, its ability to transcend
what was there.
Derrida’s discussion shows that he had followed Sartre in his appro-
priation of Husserl. But, he was just as attentive to Sartre’s criticism. In
the development of his argument Sartre had criticized Husserl in two con-
nected ways. For Husserl the world of the natural attitude before the reduc-
tion was subordinated to the transcendental after the reduction. Once the
reduction had been achieved, it became clear that the theses of the natural
attitude were constructed out of the transcendental sphere. The transcen-
dental sphere was, using Eugen Fink’s famous phrase, really the “origin of
the world.” Husserl, especially in Ideas I, seemed to make intentionality a
purely subjective construction of transcendent objects. After the reduction
to the transcendental sphere, intentionality could no longer be conscious-
ness of transcendent objects, for they were precisely what had been reduced.
As Sartre said, the “moment [Husserl] makes of the noema [the object as
intended] an unreal, a correlate of the noesis [the subjective intending act],
a noema whose esse is percipi, he is totally unfaithful to his principle.”86 For
Sartre this understanding seemed to mutilate the concept of intentionality
that was so central to him. The whole point of intentionality was that
it broke down the limits of solipsism; consciousness was consciousness of
something, actively intending objects that really exist. It was this that freed
the subject from idealism or skepticism.
In Sartre’s reformulation, the “natural attitude” and the “transcendental
sphere” were refigured as “perception” and “imagination.” Like the “natural
attitude,” perception posits its objects as existent. They are also thereby
dubitable. In contrast, the image is certain, relying on the immediate givens
of consciousness. But as we have seen, rather than seeing the reduction to
the transcendental sphere as the placing of intentional references out of play,

85 Derrida, “Sartre,” sheet 3. The terms pour-soi and en-soi appear briefly in L’Imagination, but it
is only by Being and Nothingness that they achieve a central place in Sartre’s system. It is at least
questionable whether the distinction between imagination and perception corresponds completely
with that between the pour-soi and the en-soi.
86 Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. H. Barnes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956),
p. 23.
72 Derrida post-existentialist
Sartre now saw it as a transformation of them.87 The difference between the
image and perception was that between two types of intentionality: “We can
now grasp the essential condition for a consciousness to be able to imagine:
it must have the ability to pose a thesis of irreality.”88 The movement to
the “transcendental sphere” was not Husserl’s reduction; it was a different
positing of the object, this time as absent. For Sartre, rather than one
being rooted in the other, the real world being a construction out of
the transcendental sphere, the pour-soi and en-soi were parallel ontological
regions.89 And though Derrida was clearly uneasy with the rooting of the
distinction in the categories of Being and Nothingness, he agreed that it
was the opposition between pour-soi and en-soi that constituted “the radical
ontological difference separating image and thing.”90
Sartre’s second criticism was related. If intentionality really got con-
sciousness out into the world, then it was no longer possible to consider
phenomenology as an entirely theoretical philosophy. Following Levinas’s
influential critique in La Théorie de l’intuition dans la philosophie de Husserl
(1931), Sartre suggested that Husserl’s conception of phenomenology was
too limited.91 In Derrida’s presentation, Husserl already had the status of a
surpassed philosopher. He wrote, “for Husserl, to exist for consciousness is
to appear. For Heidegger, to exist for the réalité-humaine is to assume one’s
own Being in the existential mode of comprehension. Thus the descrip-
tion of every human phenomenon will put in place not only the essential
structures of consciousness, as Husserl would have it, but all of the réalité-
humaine, as Heidegger has shown.”92 A full phenomenological analysis
would not just read the givens of theoretical consciousness, but describe
affect and emotion, especially the crucial existentialist state of anguish. As
Sartre suggested in the Esquisse, so too it was for Derrida in much of his
early work; the broadening of phenomenology through Heidegger allowed
87 Husserl’s use of “transcendent” and “transcendental” can lead to confusion. Real objects in the world
are transcendent, because they exist beyond the immanent sphere of direct intuition. Images in
this sense are immanent, because they are in consciousness. But after the transcendental reduction
to what is given immediately such a distinction between inside and outside – itself a worldly
distinction – no longer makes sense. Rather this sphere is transcendental because it is no longer
worldly and, analogically to Kant’s transcendental, comprises the ground of perception and the
world.
88 Jean-Paul Sartre, L’Imaginaire (Paris: Gallimard, 1940), p. 232.
89 Cf. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, pp. 59–60. 90 Derrida, “Sartre,” sheet 3.
91 See the last section of the Esquisse d’une théorie des émotions, pp. 51–2. Or L’Imaginaire, conclusions,
especially pp. 234–6.
92 Derrida, “Sartre,” sheet 3. cf. Sartre, Esquisse d’une théorie des émotions, p. 10. The line is almost a
direct citation from Sartre, but Derrida reverses the order of the presentation and edits much of the
citation to mark a development from Husserl to Heidegger that was still ambiguous for Sartre in
1939.
Derrida’s “Christian” existentialism 73
the inception of a philosophical anthropology and existentialism.93 Derrida
wanted to humanize Husserl’s phenomenology.
Because Husserl had been surpassed by Heidegger in Sartre’s eyes, the
older phenomenologist was relatively absent from Derrida’s work before
1952. As Derrida suggested in an interview with Dominique Janicaud, the
philosophy of Martin Heidegger better fit his youthful temperament than
the “cold Husserlian discipline.”94 Before he arrived at the ENS, Heidegger
was a constant presence, and his work even merited an individual treatment:
the second 1948 essay from the Cogito Club.
Derrida began his 1948 essay with a complaint of Heidegger’s “noisy,
pretentious and heavy dialectic,” which was “disappointing and even some-
times grating.” Overburdened with a “crowd of neologisms of which a good
part are superfluous, this reverse preciosity, consists in leadening and com-
plicating his language, as if for fun, and in giving the most everyday, the
simplest thoughts an appearance of profundity.”95 Such criticisms, ironi-
cally the same as those that would one day be aimed at Derrida himself,
meant that Heidegger was particularly difficult to approach in the original,
and that Derrida was sent into the arms of his French interpreters.96
Most of the time, one begins to make individual contact with Heidegger, as with
all the German philosophers, across the French authors who have presented the
substance of his philosophy in a very clear, very French, manner.97

Derrida read Heidegger through French eyes. Indeed much of this early
essay comprises of unattributed citations from Gurvitch, Wahl, and
Corbin.
Derrida consulted a considerable quantity of secondary literature for
his Cogito Club presentation on Heidegger. A majority of his remaining
early notes held at his archives at Irvine are from translations of, and essays
on, Heidegger, apparently from his reading for this essay.98 Firstly, there
exists a set of notes from Henry Corbin’s Heidegger anthology of 1938,
centered on his translation of “What is Metaphysics?” The book also con-
tained a few short passages from Heidegger’s key work, Being and Time,

93 Cf. Sartre, Esquisse d’une théorie des émotions, p. 12. and Derrida, “Sartre,” sheet 3.
94 Janicaud, Heidegger en France, vol. II, p. 90.
95 Jacques Derrida, “Martin Heidegger,” Irvine, 2.40, sheet 1.
96 It is perhaps significant to note that Derrida was aware at the time of Heidegger’s Nazi past, and
yet accords this fact very little weight.
97 Derrida, “Martin Heidegger,” sheet 1.
98 The notes from Algeria are distinguished from later ones by the fact that they are written on blank
menus sent out from Mumm Champagne to restaurants.
74 Derrida post-existentialist
“Being-for-Death” and “temporality and historicity,” from division II.99 It
was the only widely available translation of Heidegger into French at the
time,100 and was enormously successful, going through many new editions
and selling in total 12,980 copies.101 But the success was not just financial.
The collection of essays was particularly influential in the French recep-
tion of Heidegger. As Dominique Janicaud notes, the Heidegger scholars
Jean-Pierre Faye and Edgar Morin discovered Heidegger through it. Sartre
himself stated, “certainly, if Corbin hadn’t published his translation of
‘What is Metaphysics?’ I would never have read it. And if I hadn’t read
it, I would not have undertaken a reading of Being and Time, last Easter
[1939].”102 Both in the choice of texts and in the translation used, Corbin’s
collection reflected and projected a very particular and peculiarly French
reading of Heidegger’s philosophy.103
Given the influence of Corbin’s book on Sartre, it is not perhaps surpris-
ing that Derrida’s interpretation of Heidegger did not deviate far from the
standard Sartrean version.104 But Derrida also drew on two other Heideg-
ger scholars, who had a powerful effect on his introduction into France:
Derrida read the last chapter of Georges Gurvitch’s book on Les Tendances
actuelles dans la philosophie allemande, Jean Wahl’s seminal essay “Heideg-
ger and Kierkegaard” as well as his small but influential A Short History of
Existentialism. Following these authors, Derrida was at pains to assert, as
he would twenty years later in his essay “The Ends of Man,” that, despite
Heidegger’s protestations, his philosophy was still anthropological. In the
debate over whether existentialism was a humanism, Derrida took Sartre’s
side against Heidegger.
An index of the debate, and one that would come to be important for
Derrida himself later, was the translation of Dasein. Corbin had notoriously
translated Dasein as “réalité-humaine.” In 1968, Derrida referred to it as a
“monstrous translation.”105 Heidegger, it is argued, used the word “Dasein”
in order to divest the concept of any of the connotations and philosophical
baggage tied to anthropology; Corbin, by using the term réalité-humaine
99 In the English translation, Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. J. Macquarrie (London: SCM
Press, 1962) the chapters in question are II.1 and II.5, pp. 279–312 and 424–456 respectively.
100 It was published in 1938. It would have to wait till the 1980s for Heidegger’s masterwork to be
translated in full.
101 Janicaud, Heidegger en France, vol. I, p. 47.
102 Sartre, Carnets de Guerre, p. 225, cited in Janicaud, Heidegger en France.
103 For an analysis of this first reception of Heidegger into France, see Ethan Kleinberg, Generation
Existential (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), pp. 49–154.
104 This does not mean that Henry Corbin himself agreed with Sartre on his interpretation. See
Janicaud, Heidegger en France, vol. I, p. 41.
105 Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. A. Bass (University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 115.
Derrida’s “Christian” existentialism 75
had ignored the deep philosophical motive of Heidegger’s project, and had
subordinated the understanding of Being to the empirical science of the
study of Man.
In his reminiscences on the period, Derrida was at pains to note that he
recognized the problems of the Sartrean exposition of Heidegger: “réalité-
humaine – I already knew that it was a disastrous translation for Dasein.”106
Nevertheless, the evidence in his 1948 essay suggests otherwise. The dis-
cussion of the translation of Dasein constitutes one of the main sections of
Derrida’s essay. He suggested three possible options: “être-là” [Being-there],
“existance (avec a)” and “réalité-humaine.”107 The first was rejected as insuf-
ficiently active. Derrida wrote, “there the verb ‘to be’ is transitive. Dasein
is not an immobile, passive, and stunned Being-there; it is the dynamic
project of a world, it is a surpassing towards a world.” It is in this sense
that “existance” marked an improvement, “because it clearly brings the idea
of surpassing, of a surging.”108 But “réalité-humaine” was superior, because
in addition to this sense of activity, “it is very vague, vague enough to
ask for precisions.” Derrida denied that “réalité-humaine” had burdensome
connotations, ones that in later interpretations would render the term so
unsuitable.109 That Derrida at eighteen and thirty-eight should offer such
apparently contradictory readings of the value of “réalité-humaine” as a
translation of Dasein can only be understood if we realize that, at this
stage, Derrida had not even considered that the anthropological reading of
Dasein could be controversial. He unquestioningly adopted Corbin’s, and
by implication Sartre’s, interpretation.
Though Derrida read Dasein as the réalité-humaine, he was aware that
Heidegger was resistant to humanist interpretations of his philosophy as a
whole. He recognized that the goal of Heidegger’s work was to understand
Being and not the structures of the réalité-humaine. The réalité-humaine,
the “être de l’humanité,” nonetheless, had a central position in Heidegger’s
philosophy, because of a crucial principle in his thought: the ontological

106 Janicaud, Heidegger en France, vol. II, p. 91.


107 Derrida, “Martin Heidegger,” p. 6. The options come from Corbin’s Introduction, except for
être-là, which is never discussed, but is simply a direct translation of Dasein. Existance is suggested,
but not to translate Dasein; rather it is Corbin’s translation for Existenz. Derrida departed from
Corbin’s translation for Seiende, which Corbin translated as Existant, and which Derrida preferred
to translate as Etant. In doing so he follows the translation of Alphonse de Waelhens and Walter
Biemel in their version of De l’essence de la vérité (Paris 1948).
108 It is intriguing that Derrida considers the possibility of “existance (avec a).” As we shall later see,
the transcendence of Dasein was at first the ground of différance (with a). See chapter 6.
109 In the “Ends of Man,” Derrida does admit that it was supposed to be a neutral and indeterminate
term, but challenges this reading. Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, p. 115.
76 Derrida post-existentialist
difference. As Derrida wrote, “in effect, Heidegger distinguishes, the being
(Seiendes) . . . and the Being of the being (Sein).”110
To ask the question of Being (Sein) by an analysis of one particular type of
being (Seiendes) would be to prejudice the investigation, to infer falsely the
properties of Being from that of a particular being. But the réalité-humaine
was different. Because Man “ek-sists,” that is, he is able to transcend his
determination, this affords a privileged access to Being. We already have
an implicit understanding of Being, which is manifest in our relationship
to the world, we are “open to the apérité of Being.” We demonstrate
this openness to Being every time we use a hammer, or sit on a chair,
something we would never be able to do if we didn’t have some primordial
understanding of what a hammer or a chair is. An existentiel anthropology,
therefore, a description of the existence of the réalité-humaine, of how it
interacts with beings in the world, would reveal their modes of Being, it
would thus be the first step towards an ontology. It was réalité-humaine’s
openness to Being that made it a privileged starting-point for philosophy.
So what, according to Derrida, do we learn from an existentiel analytic of
the réalité-humaine? The picture again follows the existentialist template.111
The most important aspect, as attested by the debate over the translation,
was that of action. The réalité-humaine was “dynamic,” “a movement,” “an
irruption.” This movement was first and foremost reflected in the primor-
dial temporality of the réalité-humaine: “time which temporalizes itself in
its exstases: exstases of the past, the present, and the future.”112 Man was
thrown into a history, and was open to the future, the constant possibility
of surpassing his determined state. This openness to the future was charac-
terized by souci or care, the possibility of a project or morality. This could
be manifested either by a fear of the world in inauthentic existence, or
authentically in anguish, in the existentialist interpretation, confronting
“the abyss of indetermination which surrounds thrown [délaissée] human-
ity on all sides.”113 The analytic of Dasein in Heidegger was for Derrida
a mere reiteration of existentialist themes: “Well! Very generally we can
say that the existentiel stage, in all that concerns his phenomenology of
existence, brings us nothing very new except an existentiel synthesis that
he made of the diverse experiences that one finds in Pascal, Kierkegaard,
and Nietzsche.”114

110 Derrida, “Martin Heidegger,” p. 4. See also Jean Wahl, A Short History of Existentialism, trans. F.
Williams (New York: Philosophical Library, 1949), p. 11.
111 Cf. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. 51. 112 Derrida, “Martin Heidegger,” p. 8.
113 Ibid. 114 Ibid., p. 25.
Derrida’s “Christian” existentialism 77
Like many others in France, Derrida emphasized that Being and Time
was incomplete. Its existentiel analytic of Dasein was only meant to be
a precursor to the elaboration of Heidegger’s ontology. For Derrida this
movement was far more original; in his opinion, neither Kierkegaard nor
Nietzsche had considered the question of Being itself. As Derrida noted,
it was because Heidegger’s project ultimately concerned Being and not
the réalité-humaine, that he rejected the label “humanist.” But if Der-
rida endorsed Heidegger’s existentiel analyses, he doubted Heidegger’s
success in moving beyond them. Because the “phenomenological inter-
pretation of existence” (viz. Man) was a necessary first step in elaborating
his ontology, Derrida argued that Heidegger would never be able to fully
divest his philosophy of its humanistic tendencies: he would only be able
to describe what a chair or a hammer is for us. Whatever the advan-
tages of the study of the réalité-humaine for the understanding of Being,
Derrida thought that Heidegger’s “philosophy is, despite itself, strongly
anthropocentric.”115
This second stage of Heidegger’s thought was only developed in “What
Is Metaphysics?” As we have seen, “What Is Metaphysics?” was crucial to
Sartre’s understanding of Heidegger, with its focus on the “Nothing.”116 It
was, after all, in meditating on the Heideggerian Nichts that Sartre came
to develop his own opposition between Being and Nothingness. But just
as Derrida was suspicious of this part of Sartre’s thought, so too it was the
“completion” of Heidegger’s project in this 1929 essay that endured the
bulk of Derrida’s criticism.
In his 1929 essay, Heidegger argued that the Nichts was what resisted
being transformed into a being, it could never become the object of
thought, such would be a “counter-sense, a contradiction in terms.”117
Rather it was only in the pre-rational and affective experience of “anguish”
(Angst/Angoisse) that one could attest to the Nothing. This Nothing was
central to Heidegger’s thought for it was the ground of the exstases described
in primordial temporality, and thus for the movement and liberty of
the réalité-humaine. Dasein was temporal because it is thrown out into
the Nothing, and it could exceed its ontic ground only by negating it. The
Nothing was the condition for Dasein’s ek-sistence and transcendence; it
was what allowed Dasein to come into contact with Being, the necessary
condition for ontology.

115 Ibid., p. 3. 116 See Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. 50.


117 Derrida, “Martin Heidegger,” p. 4.
78 Derrida post-existentialist
Derrida doubted Heidegger’s success in developing an ontology:
One can address Heidegger with the same reproach with which we addressed
Sartre, who wanted to found a phenomenological ontology . . . How can one
found an ontology, when one thinks, as do Kierkegaard and Heidegger, that
existence is alienated in objectivity? For a universal and objective ontology depends
on the domain of curiosity and not of anxiety [inquiétude], the problem rather
than the mystery. Heidegger himself says that curiosity is an inauthentic form of
existence.118
Heidegger’s very analyses of the réalité-humaine and its movement of
transcendence upset the project of a definitive ontology. The valuable part
of Heidegger’s philosophy was his existentiel anthropology; his attempt to
move beyond this was a failure. It was, as we saw in the first chapter, a
common interpretation of Heidegger in France.
Derrida’s criticisms of Heidegger, then, mirrored his concerns with
Sartre’s philosophy. For both it was the attempt to expound an ontology
based on existentiel analyses that marked the greatest failing. The parallel
failures reiterated Derrida’s argument about morality. Sartre’s ontologiza-
tion of the pour-soi’s free activity, just as much as Heidegger’s submission
of that freedom to a passivity in the face of Being, blocked the rise of a
moral philosophy.119 Instead of these flawed ontologies, what was valuable
in both Sartre’s and Heidegger’s work was the existentiel analysis on which
they were based.
So Derrida placed himself between two types of humanism. He appealed
to a certain form of humanism to criticize Heidegger’s move to a defini-
tive ontology. It was Heidegger’s analysis of the réalité-humaine that was
most valuable and not his misguided attempt to go beyond human limi-
tations and found a theory of Being: the lycéen Derrida was an existentiel
and not an existential philosopher. But for the same reasons, Derrida
criticized the ontological foundations of Sartre’s humanism, especially his
assertion of Man’s constitutive relationship with Nothingness. Heidegger
erred in effacing the essential movement of the réalité-humaine, render-
ing it passive before Being, Sartre erred by making it absolute. Just as in
his contemporary essays, Derrida hoped to use phenomenology to leave
open the possibility of transcendent values, without ever defining them
fully.

118 Ibid., p. 7.
119 See also Wahl, A Short History of Existentialism, for a similar comparison between Sartre and
Heidegger.
Derrida’s “Christian” existentialism 79
This curious tension can be seen in Derrida’s first direct treatment of
the subject as a lycée pupil in 1951. Asked to write an essay with the title,
“Man, is he the measure of all things?,” Derrida argued for a version of
humanism that twinned freedom with an openness to a transcendent Value.
Derrida presented the two familiar errors: insufficiency and arrogance. A
critical analysis of the human situation would, Derrida believed, assert
the former: we are always governed by base needs, love is always just an
illusion masking sexual desire, aesthetic tastes are mere epiphenomena of
biology. As Derrida argued, “a supremely acute and lucid consciousness
cannot but be conscious of its determinations, that is, of its servility.”120
This recognition debased all values; Man mired in heteronomy could not
be the measure of all things.
Opposed to insufficiency was the “arrogance” of Man, the arrogance
that suggested Man had “an absolute and infinite right to be the measure
of everything.” The arrogant Man, recognizing his ability to transcend
all particular determinations declared his own will to be infinite and the
source of the Good. But Derrida rejected this source of value too: “it is a
humiliated humanism, which, from the beginning, made Protagoras say
that Man is the measure of everything.”121 Rooting value in subjective
human choice would lead, according to Derrida, to the most inane form of
relativism, undercutting human judgment, which it purported to respect.
To move beyond this opposition, Derrida suggested:
We will try to see how neither insufficiency nor arrogance should and can be
alienated to the profit of the other in a philosophy of measure, that however
contradictory they should be, they appear in a quasi-indissoluble experience . . . If
man were not this contradiction, he would never have had the idea to measure
Being and non-Being.122
The very acknowledgement of our insufficiency, our finitude, according to
Derrida, marked the possibility of our surpassing it: “the impossibility of
the measure when it appears is only the sketch and the dream of the power
to measure.” Without the possibility of transcendence we could never
recognize any particular measure as insufficient. Arrogance drew hope from
this transcendence that Man could freely set his own values, insufficiency
understood that this transcendence was never total. We are left caught
between the dual immanence and transcendence of the measure; we are
never certain of the legitimacy of any particular value, but in our constant
120 Jacques Derrida, “L’Homme est-il la mésure de toute chose?” Irvine, 1.14, p. 19.
121 Ibid., p. 2. 122 Ibid., p. 19.
80 Derrida post-existentialist
desire to overcome our limitations, we continually reach for something
better.
Derrida’s argument made no claim as to what the ultimate Value would
be; indeed his point was that we could never directly assert an absolute.
The movement to Value was always one of “risk and of faith.”123 But
Derrida also distanced his ideas from those of a certain type of theism that
posited the “definitive and irreducible transcendence” of value, placing it
forever out of reach, such as in the absurd faith of Kierkegaard.124 The
transcendence of all earthly values, rather, gave a sign of the Absolute: “it
is not possible that this vertigo should be absurd and without an opening
towards the Good.”125 It was the ultimate Value that shed light and cast
away shadows, even if we could never make out the source.
In declaring a new form of humanism, which depended upon human
freedom to choose freely to seek a transcendent Value that it could
never fully grasp, Derrida hoped to move beyond simple atheism and
simple theology. God may be beyond human understanding, but that
should not lead us to deny, or, in a parallel move, despair of ever under-
standing him. The movement and progress of philosophy required both
the recognition of our own limitations and the faint glimmer of an
Absolute that would constantly incite us to cast off our earthly shack-
les and seek a deeper relationship with the divine. It was this tension
between an immanence that could never fully entrap us and transcendence
that we could never fully achieve that constituted Derrida’s “existentiel
spiritualism.”

conclusion
Derrida’s thought in the years leading up to his acceptance into the Ecole
Normale Supérieure was heavily indebted to Existentialism. Both Heideg-
ger and Husserl were read through Sartre, and – in the teleology imposed
by that reading – up to him: both were presented or recast as humanist exis-
tentialists. But Derrida never simply assumed the Sartrean system. From
the beginning, Derrida sought to counter Sartre by appealing to a vibrant
Christian existentialist tradition. His critique tried to temper the idealism
and complete freedom of the pour-soi by submitting it to its own existen-
tiel analyses, ones that pointed to a transcendent Value, and ultimately to
God.

123 Ibid., p. 12. 124 Ibid., p. 7. 125 Ibid., p. 25.


Derrida’s “Christian” existentialism 81
The explicit predominance of existentialism and Christian thought in
Derrida’s work would not, however, last. Already powerful currents within
the French philosophical community, and especially in that holy of holies
the Ecole Normale Supérieure, were moving against the Sartrean phe-
nomenon and against existentialism more generally. And this would have
a profound effect on Derrida when in 1952, on the third attempt, he finally
gained entry to that prestigious institution.
c h a p ter 3

Normalization
The Ecole Normale Supérieure and
Derrida’s turn to Husserl

All of this should be resituated in the strange history of this strange


institution and the no less strange “community” that it housed – or,
even more precisely, in the genealogy of the Rue d’Ulm philosophers.
A work yet to be undertaken: it would clarify a certain number of
things about life and about intellectual fashions in this country over
several decades.
Jacques Derrida1

In 1952, when Derrida entered the ENS, the names of the modern exis-
tentialists disappeared almost entirely from his work: le Senne, Weil, and
Marcel, who had been mainstays of his thought, dropped out completely,
while references to Sartre and Heidegger greatly declined.2 In their place,
Derrida turned to the more technical language of phenomenology and
especially to a philosopher who before he had only discussed in passing.
Husserl became so central in Derrida’s work that already by 1954 Louis
Althusser, then his teacher, complained that Derrida was too dominated
by his “master.”3 Over the next decade, the discussion of Husserlian phe-
nomenology would be Derrida’s major philosophical preoccupation.
Derrida’s adoption of Husserl’s phenomenology as an object of study
was not simply a philosophical decision. Rather it was encouraged by con-
siderations that only make sense in the context of the ENS, with its peculiar
combination of political dogmatism enforced through social pressure. Der-
rida’s discussion of the reduction, intentionality, and the life-world, though
seemingly abstract and detached from the messy questions that dominate
political life, were invested at the Ecole with political meaning.
Intellectual history, for obvious disciplinary reasons, makes the move
to politics very readily. The attempt to link a philosophical doctrine to

1 Derrida interview in Michael Sprinker, ed., The Althusserian Legacy (New York: Verso, 1993), p. 185.
2 Heidegger would return after Derrida’s Mémoire, as I will show in the next chapter. Sartre was still
mentioned in passing in essays from Derrida’s first year at the ENS.
3 Jacques Derrida, “L’Inconscient,” Irvine, 1.49.

82
Normalization 83
a political one, while making an intellectual historian’s work relevant to
his or her colleagues, also grants the work present value. The study of the
relationship between past academic work and politics can, by proxy, assert
the significance of modern scholarship, of the role of the university or of the
intellectual in the wider world. But the move from philosophy to politics is
often a fraught one, and the translation complex. The political situation of
academic work often presents two heterogeneous elements that resist easy
identification. It is a heterogeneity that historical actors are often at pains
to assert, and we, as historians, should not disregard them; some academics
do live in ivory towers.
But though, as we shall see, the ENS was not the home of pragmatic
politicians interested in the minutiae of policy detail – far from it –
ideological politics seeped into all parts of everyday life. In the early 1950s,
the small elite institute for higher education provided a space where social
pressure took on political form, and political loyalty, more often than not,
demanded intellectual loyalty. It demonstrates in an extreme form the
translation of the academic into the everyday; the social conditions for the
political contextualization of philosophy.

the ecole normale superieure


In analyzing the Ecole Normale Supérieure in the 1950s one immediately
faces a major problem. The accounts and memories of the period are often
strikingly divergent. To many Old Normaliens, claims that the Ecole pro-
vided anything but a free space for academic endeavor would seem absurd.
Intellectual freedom formed one of the principal pillars of the school’s
self-identity, and the majority of the students remember it as such. After
all, the Normaliens were the elite, and thus supposedly not susceptible to
the pitfalls of “group-think.” Pierre Greco, a philosophy student, wrote
in 1947, “I don’t think anyone will be surprised to hear that at the Ecole
there is no set philosophical line.”4 Nevertheless a significant minority of
students had a very different experience. Michel Serres, Derrida’s exact
contemporary, recalled his constant fear of being accosted and accused of
some “intellectual crime,” calling the ENS “one of the most terroristic
societies ever created by the French intelligentsia.”5 To explain these con-
flicting accounts, we will have to understand how in the absence of official
4 Pierre Greco, “La Vie philosophique a l’Ecole Normale Supérieure,” Les Etudes philosophiques
(January-March 1947), pp. 21–6.
5 Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, trans. R. Lapidus (Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), p. 5.
84 Derrida post-existentialist
authority figures the largest social groups gained disproportionate power
in the formation of political and intellectual norms.
Like most of France’s important intellectual institutions, especially in
the period before 1968, the ENS was situated in the Quartier Latin on
the Rive Gauche of the Seine. Within a five-minute walk from each other
lay the most successful Ecole Préparatoires (the Lycée Louis-le-Grand,
and the Lycée Henri IV), the Ecole Polytechnique for the sciences and
engineering,6 the Ecole Normale Supérieure Rue d’Ulm, the Collège de
France, and the Sorbonne, all clustered around the Pantheon, that Temple
of Reason dedicated to the great men of the Republic. It was an area of
Paris that Derrida hardly left during his academic career, studying at the
Lycée Louis-le-Grand and the ENS, to which he returned to teach after
serving as an assistant at the Sorbonne.7
But though geographically part of this larger conglomeration of edu-
cational institutions, the Ecole Normale Supérieure was different. The
sense of being special pervades discussions of the ENS. Old Normaliens, or
“archicubes” as they called themselves, reported of stoic parents crying with
pride at the news of admission. As Claude Nicolet, who entered the letters
stream in 1950, said, “the school was still one of the great things of this
world,” and his parents, though sad to be losing him (“to Babylon, of all
places”), swelled with pride: “You’re going to be a Normalien, my child.”8
For many, entry into the Ecole was a sign of having made it, an impor-
tant step in guaranteeing a place in the French establishment, whether in
academia or politics.9 The ENS constituted the elite, both by choosing its
members and by guiding their intellectual formation.10
The first thing that one would notice on entering the Ecole was its
size, not only physically, focused as it was around a single courtyard,
but in the number of students. In the early 1950s enrollment stood at
around 200 men.11 Though the school continued to grow throughout the

6 Until it moved from the center of Paris in 1976.


7 It would thus be his principal workplace from 1949 until 1984, leaving aside his time in Harvard,
Algeria, and Le Mans from 1956 to 1959, and visiting professorships during the later years.
8 Claude Nicolet, “L’Ecole existe-t-elle encore?” in Alain Peyrefitte, ed., Rue d’Ulm (Paris: Fayard,
1994), p. 309. Though we should note the irony in Nicolet’s account.
9 The periodical for the alumni of the Ecole, the Bulletin de la Société des Amis de l’Ecole Normale
Supérieure (hereafter, Bulletin), would, during this period, regularly cite lists of Normaliens in the
Assemblée Nationale, in the Diplomatic Service, in the administration, as well as in academic fields.
10 Its impact was predominantly in the world of academia, but before the creation of the ENA in 1945,
it also had a notable effect on political life. It was the alma Mater of Jean Jaurès, Léon Blum, and
Georges Pompidou amongst others. A small but not insignificant number of Normaliens went on
to study at the ENA in the Fourth and Fifth Republics.
11 Until 1985 the sexes were divided in the ENS system, with ENS Sèvres and Jourdan training women.
Normalization 85
1950s and 1960s, yearly admission was limited by the space available to
house the students and hovered around forty in sciences and thirty-five
in letters.12 There were around thirty students studying philosophy at any
one time, but with an intake ranging from two, in 1953, to nine, in 1950.13
The ENS was so small that a mere statistical analysis often makes little
sense, and we can follow, in outline at least, the career of each philosophy
student. When Derrida matriculated in 1952, one classmate was Michel
Serres, a philosopher of science and later an “Immortal” at the Académie
Française. Together, they accounted for a third of all the philosophers
accepted that year. Looking more broadly, current or recently graduated
philosophers included Pierre Bourdieu (1951), his collaborator Jean-Claude
Passeron (1950), and Michel Foucault (1946). The success of the students is
remarkable, especially given the young age at which they had been selected,
set apart from their peers when they were barely out of their teenage years.
It is not surprising that many felt upon entry that they had already arrived.
After all, this was the alma mater of Jean-Paul Sartre, Raymond Aron, and
Henri Bergson.
The sense of elitism was particularly strong amongst the philosophers.
In part a result of the success of existentialism, philosophy in the 1950s was
the queen of all disciplines, attracting the best and the brightest students.
According to Pierre Bandet, Derrida’s contemporary at the Ecole, “the
non-philosopher always has an obscure inferiority complex with respect to
his philosopher friends, who affect a clear sentiment of superiority.”14 This
dominance was secured when Jean Hyppolite, the dean of French Hegel
studies, became the school Directeur in 1954. Then with Louis Althusser
as school secretary and the logician Roger Martin as librarian, philosophy
both officially and in spirit ruled the ENS.
The elitism of the school did not, however, seek to reflect already existing
social hierarchies in French society. After all, this was a school first founded
in 1794 by the Convention and supposedly embodying the principles of
the French Revolution. It may, as Pierre Bourdieu is keen to suggest, have
in fact reproduced the existing system of privilege, but its self-image was
determined more by its relationship to democracy than by class division.
12 “Réunion Petit Conseil de l’ENS,” March 24, 1955, IMEC, ALT2, E1–01.01. By the later 1960s,
yearly intake in the Lettres section rose to the lower forties. Nevertheless during this period, when
other educational institutions were undergoing a large rise in student numbers, the ENS remained
small and intimate.
13 See Louis Althusser, “Liste des philosophes sortis de l’ENS depuis la guerre,” IMEC, ALT2, E3–
02.07.
14 Revue de Paris (March 1953), pp. 102–3. See also Jean d’Ormesson, Au revoir et merci (Paris:
Gallimard, 1976), p. 76.
86 Derrida post-existentialist
Indeed Bourdieu’s sociological project was made possible in part by the vast
swathes of statistics and surveys collected by the French state to keep a check
on, and control, the social origins of its students.15 These statistics show
that the Ecole did predominantly favor the children of the middle classes.
On average, in the twentieth century, only about 3–4 percent of all students
came from agricultural backgrounds, with a similar number coming from
workers’ families. In the 1950s about 10 percent were children of artisans.
Only about 30 percent, however, were the sons of upper management and
liberal professions such as lawyers or doctors. In addition, as Eris Mension-
Rigau has shown, the old aristocracy generally kept their distance from
the Revolutionary institution, with its reputation for left-wing politics.16
The majority of its alumni became schoolteachers, and it recruited heavily
from the families of this social grouping. The figures show that, although
hardly representative, the Ecole did not draw predominantly from the
social elite. Indeed its social breakdown was virtually identical to that of the
Sorbonne, compared with whose students the Normaliens felt themselves
vastly superior.17
Further, in its self-presentation, the Rue d’Ulm acted as a conduit for
social mobility: Laurent Fabius, a Lettres (Humanities) student from the
1960s, suggested “the Ecole was like the laboratory of an idea: that of a
socially fluid society, where the equality of opportunity was real; that of
a social mobility built upon knowledge and work and not on money.”18
Education, which since 1927 had been free for all, was according to the
French ideal the best possibility of social advancement. Anyone, so the
ideology went, if they were bright enough, could get into the Ecole, and
the son of a postmaster from the Pyrenees could eventually become a
professor at the Collège de France.
In fact, for many the intellectual elitism of the Ecole was the necessary
correlate of French democracy. As the President of the Société des amis
de l’Ecole, M. Francois-Poncet, suggested in a speech from 1946, “as a
democracy becomes more democratic, it needs to pay more attention to
the recruitment of its elites. True equality does not consist in fitting all
men to the same mold, but in offering all the same chances to distinguish
themselves according to their own merits.”19
15 See Pierre Bourdieu, Les Héritiers (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1964), and Homo Academicus (Paris:
editions de Minuit, 1984).
16 See Jean François Sirinelli, ed., L’Ecole Normale Supérieure: Le livre du bicentennaire (Paris: Presses
universitaires de France, 1994), pp. 170–9.
17 For the Sorbonne, in 1965, see La Premiere Année de Faculté de Lettres; Enquête sur les Etudiants de
1962–3 inscrits au Certificat d’Etudes Litteraires Generales (Paris, 1965).
18 Peyrefitte, Rue d’Ulm, p. 327. 19 Bulletin (1946), p. 21.
Normalization 87
Rather than attempting to reproduce the social hierarchies of society at
large, then, the ENS shut them out. The elitism of the school was marked
less by a reproduction of outside class divisions than by the sharp line
drawn between it and the rest of the world. As even the ENS communists
of the 1960s admitted, the Ecole represented “caste rather than class.”20 The
Ecole was not a haven for the already privileged, it created its own privilege:
producing, not reproducing, social distinction. As far as the Normaliens
were concerned, at least, the main social division was that between inside
and outside.
Indeed this was the distinction that was reasserted most strongly by
Normaliens in their contact with the rest of the world. The school argot
was used continually, even outside of the Ecole, where diligent editors
added footnotes to the work of Normaliens to explain to the average
reader the meanings of the words cacique, bassins des ernests, thurne, pot,
caı̈man, archicube.21 The discussion of the slang used at the Ecole was also
one of the favorite topics of the Bulletin de la Société des Amis de l’Ecole
Normale Supérieure. It served as the cement that brought Normaliens
together while excluding all others. The idiosyncrasy of the Ecole extended
to people’s names. Derrida was “Jackie” in internal school documents
until 1967, and Michel Foucault was called by his first given name, Paul,
or referred to as “Fouks.” Pierre Bourdieu was simply known as Félix.
Similarly, Normaliens, who settled on “Tao” even later in published works,
ignored the transliteration that the Vietnamese Normalien Tran Duc Thao
preferred for his own publications.
One of the few explicit school rules, in article 5 of the Réglement
Intérieure, was that it was “formally forbidden to invite any outsider [toute
personne étrangère] into the canteen or to lodge them in school buildings.”22
This same sense of exclusivity was extended to political rights. The ENS
granted complete freedom of assembly, except when non-Normaliens were
involved. Such rules were not just silent and little-used regulations. Article 5
was the single most enforced rule within the Conseil de discipline in the
period 1950–60. On several occasions Normaliens were called to the Conseil
to explain the presence of an extra mattress in their room, the fact that
a friend had dined at the refectory, or that non-Normaliens had attended
20 “Conditions et perspectives d’une action à l’Ecole,” IMEC, ALT2, A43–02.02 sheet 1.
21 The cacique was the student who came top of an exam, in particular the entrance exam to the
ENS; the ernests were the fish in the pond at the center of the Ecole; the thurne was the study; the
pot was the dining hall, but also the name given to special dinners; the caiman was the director
of studies; an archicube was an alumnus. The word canular was successful outside of the narrow
confines of the Ecole. It meant a practical joke. For a full list see Peyrefitte, Rue d’Ulm.
22 “Réunion Petit Conseil de l’ENS,” October 7, 1954, IMEC, ALT2, E1–01.01.
88 Derrida post-existentialist
political events at the Ecole. The only regulation that took up more of
the Conseil’s time was that concerning the maintenance of a minimum
academic standard. In the case where a student was not deemed to have
satisfied these requirements, he could be asked to take a year off, or even
leave. The boundaries between Normaliens and the rest of the world were
constantly being marked out and reinforced.23

the freedom of the elite


Though strict about imposing the division between the inside and outside,
for truly “internal” matters, the Conseil de discipline played a very limited
role. Only slightly exaggerating, one French review suggested in October
1957 that “the ENS is probably the only academic institution in the world
without internal rules.”24 The lack of internal discipline meant that the
students had a great level of freedom in their everyday routine. Life was
also significantly easier because of the salaries earned by the students as
stagiaires fonctionnaires. Officially employees of the state since 1948, they
earned a considerable wage above the free accommodation with which they
were provided. In addition their status allowed them paid holidays, sick
leave, and union representation.
Existence at the Ecole seemed carefree. The Normaliens were particularly
famous for their practical jokes or the canular, as they called it. Old students
would often reminisce about their own, and the Bulletin de la Société des
Amis de l’Ecole Normale Supérieure would regularly dedicate articles to
famous canulars of the past, whether transporting a car into the bassins des
ernests (the central pond), impersonating a telephone technician to get the
school director to sing the “Marseillaise” to test the line, or pretending to
be an ignorant Swiss preparing for the baccalaureate, in order to mock the
earnest tutoring efforts of a student in the nearby ENS Sèvres pour jeunes
filles.25
This lack of institutionalized control extended to academic work: stu-
dents had no set program of study, nor any determined canon set by their
teachers. This intellectual freedom was a product of the School’s history.
The Ecole Normale Supérieure was founded in 1794 for the apparently

23 See papers of the Disciplinary Council, IMEC, ALT2, E2–01.02–12, especially the réunions of
July 8, 1952 and March 11, 1953.
24 Quoted in Bulletin (November 1957), p. 7. Only two of the cases between 1950 and 1957, for which
records exist, that appeared before the Conseil de discipline did not involve non-Normaliens: two
cases involving damage to Ecole property by its students.
25 Cf. Bulletin (November 1957), p. 9. Also Peyrefitte, Rue d’Ulm, p. 500.
Normalization 89
mundane task of training lycée professeurs.26 Nevertheless, its centrality
meant that during the nineteenth century the ENS Rue d’Ulm became
an important and powerful institution, earning a prestige far beyond that
originally imagined.
Its power and influence was felt particularly strongly during the
Dreyfus affair in the closing years of the nineteenth century, when the
Ecole aligned itself with the Dreyfusards. First in a small group around the
school librarian Lucien Herr, and then more generally when the head of
the ENS, Gabriel Monod, made a public declaration in favor of Dreyfus,
the Ecole adopted a hitherto unknown politicization. The embarrassment
caused to the government at the time led to a reformation of the ENS in
the decree of November 10, 1903 where it was “reunited” with the Univer-
sity of Paris. Following article 10 of this decree, all ENS teaching positions
were abolished, and faculty members were given posts at the Sorbonne and
at the Collège de France.27 It was a change that continued to elicit bitter
responses a century later. Even in 1994 there remained ill feeling, with the
Livre de Bicentennaire explaining the decree by the jealousy and prejudices
of the Sorbonne faculties.28
The reform meant that the only permanent teaching staff was a small
group of agrégé-répétiteurs, ex-students normally recruited just after leaving
the Ecole. Althusser, for instance, was hired in 1948 immediately after
passing the agrégation.29 The figures of authority, then, were few and
mostly only a little older than the students they taught. Even they had
little contact with the majority of the student body. Althusser would bring
together all new students at the beginning of each academic year and ask
those that wanted to take philosophy to send him a piece of work by which
he would judge their suitability for the subject.30 It is probably this meeting
to which Derrida refers when he suggests that he met Althusser on his first
day at the Ecole.31 Students would not, however, take a course with him
until the year of preparation for the agrégation, two or three years later.
In his memoirs, Althusser was clear that he did not aim to impress his
way of thinking on his students at the ENS. He was very careful not to affect
their own development and would avoid writing comments in the margins
26 Indeed this is what distinguished the Rue d’Ulm from its brother school, the ENS at St. Cloud,
which, at least traditionally, trained teachers for the collèges (schools that did not prepare students
for the Baccalaureate).
27 Kleinberg, Generation Existential, pp. 53–4.
28 Sirinelli, Livre du bicentenaire, preface by René Rémond, p. viii.
29 See “Dossier Althusser,” Centre des Archives Contemporaines (hereafter CAC), 930595/31.
30 Yann Moulier Boutang, Louis Althusser: une biographie (Paris: B. Grasset, 1992), p. 461.
31 Sprinker, The Althusserian Legacy, p. 183.
90 Derrida post-existentialist
of essays. French schoolchildren were trained to leave most of the first page
blank in any composition. This was to allow the professeur to write his or
her comments on the front of the work. Althusser, however, feeling such
a process unnecessarily invasive, opted instead to write his comments on a
separate sheet that could be discarded at will.32 Even this aimed mostly at
the presentation of the argument rather than the content. Indeed Althusser
took pride in the fact that he “never told anyone to adopt a line of thought
which was not his own and to have done otherwise would have been
folly.”33 We have evidence of him giving good marks to and approving a
wide variety of philosophical styles, from the existentialist to the Christian
and Marxist. On first glance the structure of philosophical education at
the ENS seemed to work against the formation of philosophical schools or
orthodoxies.
And though socially the Ecole was relatively closed, it was intellectu-
ally open. As no real teaching was undertaken at the Ecole, beyond the
agrégation seminars run by invited professeurs délégués, the students were
forced to seek classes elsewhere. The need to search for training, teach-
ers, and advisors outside of the Rue d’Ulm opened up students to all
the resources of academic Paris, a fact that helps explain the enormous
diversity of philosophical and extra-philosophical interests of its students.
Given no particular preference for the Sorbonne, Normaliens also looked
to other philosophical centers for instruction. Both the Collège de France
and the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, traditionally peripheral to ter-
tiary education in France, became important sources of new ideas for
Normaliens forced to look outside their narrow cloisters for their educa-
tion. The reform thus unintentionally opened to the students a far greater
diversity of educational possibilities than had previously been the case.
Numerous Normalien philosophers became important in other fields –
with Ducrot, Pariente, Bourdieu, Passeron, and Foucault being only the
most famous examples. In a letter of 1975 to the minister of Education
the Director of the Ecole noted that “unlike the other Grandes Ecoles, the
ENS has no final rankings, because each student personally orients himself
towards one of the agrégations, or his own research.”34 Institutionally, the
Ecole was an open book, free for students to choose their own educational
path. Indeed far from imposing the homogeneity of an elite, the Ecole

32 Derrida’s later practice mimicked Althusser’s. See Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, “Agrégatifs,”
IMEC, ALT2, E6–02.03.
33 Louis Althusser, The Future Lasts a Long Time and the Facts, trans. R. Veasey (London: Chatto &
Windus, 1993), p. 163.
34 “Guide sur l’ENS,” IMEC, ALT2, E4–03.02.
Normalization 91
merely provided a secure and comfortable base from which myriad educa-
tional opportunities were accessible. In this sense it is just to consider the
ENS itself as an ideological “vacuum.”35
In the early 1950s, it was plausible to regard the ENS as merely a dor-
mitory with a library.36 Especially with an agrégé-répétiteur in philosophy
who was often sick and away, it seemed as if the Ecole was the ideal seat
of learning, a free space where the best and the brightest of France had the
freedom to develop their thinking; individual ideas and personal interests
could be given free reign.

social constraints
This picture of a space where students of many different social and meta-
physical stripes coexisted in a spirit of intellectual camaraderie was shared
by many. It fits both the officially sanctioned presentation of the Ecole
as well as the memories of the majority of its students. There were, how-
ever, a few for whom the ENS did not resemble such an idyll. As we saw,
Michel Serres complained about the “terrorism” of the communist cellule,
and Derrida himself later recalled that “Stalinism dominated . . . in a very
tyrannical manner.”37 This view was shared by many of those entering the
ENS at this time. Some like Philippe Moret,38 Alain Peyrefitte,39 and Jean
Charbonnel,40 who were on the right, but others like Derrida, and Bour-
dieu who were on the non-conformist left, felt the over-bearing pressure
of a dominant communism.41 Indeed, on looking back at his time at the
Ecole in the early 1950s, the historian Le Roy Ladurie described it as a
“spiritual Gulag,” for which, as secretary of the cellule, he felt personally
responsible.42
The communists could impose themselves on a certain portion of the
student population, because in the absence of explicit regulation social
35 Interview Maurice Caveing, November 21, 2006. Cf. also Moulier-Boutang, Louis Althusser: Une
biographie, p. 450.
36 See Jean-Francois Revel, “Une pension de famille autour d’une bibliothèque,” in Peyrefitte, Rue
d’Ulm, pp. 320–2. Revel’s title comes from a saying of Albert Thibaudet.
37 Sprinker, The Althusserian Legacy, p. 187.
38 See Philippe Moret (Lettres 1956), “Une cellule royaliste,” in Peyrefitte, Rue d’Ulm, pp. 364–5. Moret
complained of being called a collabo or a fasciste, because of his monarchist views. He concluded:
“the following year, I learnt in Oxford, under a Monarchy, the pleasure of regulated controversies,
of civilized political passions, of tolerated eccentricities – well, democracy.”
39 See Alan Peyrefitte, “L’Ecole des Forts en anathées,” in Peyrefitte, Rue d’Ulm, pp. 373–8.
40 See Jean Charbonnel, “La Tentation stalinienne,” in Peyrefitte, Rue d’Ulm, pp. 341–5.
41 See Pierre Bourdieu, Choses dites (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1987), p. 13.
42 Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Paris-Montpellier: P.C.-P.S.U 1945–1963 (Paris: Gallimard, 1982), p. 77.
Le Roy Ladurie was the head of the communist cellule at the Ecole at the beginning of the 1950s.
92 Derrida post-existentialist
groupings assumed an unavoidable importance. What is surprising about
many of the accounts of the ENS is that relations with other students seem
to have been very limited. This was despite the size of the school and the
closeness of the living conditions, where the first-years’ beds were separated
in the dormitory by curtains, and the studies were shared. Very few of Der-
rida’s contemporaries at the Ecole referred to him in their reminiscences,
and, if they did, it was only on the basis of his later philosophy (often
negatively). As Macey, in his biography of Foucault, describes, “meals were
taken communally at tables of eight in the dining room and it was the cus-
tom to remain at the same table for the full three years.”43 It was possible to
spend three or four years without knowing all others in your own class: this
in an institution where the annual Lettres intake was barely larger than the
standard secondary-school class. Social groups were strongly delineated, an
ordering both distinguishing them from other groupings and imposing a
certain level of uniformity within.
The greatest categorical line fell between those who came from Paris and
the “provincials.”44 This division carried through from the lycées, where
the “provincials” were boarders, while the Parisians went home every night.
Bourdieu, recalling his time at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, referred espe-
cially to his embarrassment over his accent, which he attempted to dis-
guise, mimicking his peers despite his marked antipathy to Parisian social
dominance.45 Beyond this fissure, there existed others that cut through
the ENS: such as that between the years and between the Lettres and the
Science communities. Life at the ENS was a constant confrontation of
social barriers.
Michel Serres has described the loneliness that resulted from falling
between two large groupings, in his case the scientific and the humanities
communities.46 For Derrida, who never fitted neatly into a pre-made fac-
tion, the social pressure could be felt even more strongly. Even into the
1990s he still feared entering the ENS and encountered “physical symptoms
(I’m talking about my chest and stomach)” at the doorway, but that he also
experienced a “school sickness” akin to homesickness when away.47

43 David Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault (London: Hutchinson, 1993), p. 26.
44 During this period only 20 percent of students came from Paris proper, but 70 percent had
undertaken Ecole Préparatoire there. See Sirinelli, Livre du bicentenaire.
45 Michael Grenfell, Pierre Bourdieu, Agent Provocateur (New York: Continuum, 2004), pp. 11–13.
For Derrida’s own worries about his non-metropolitan accent see Derrida, Monolingualism of the
Other.
46 Serres and Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, p. 5.
47 Jacques Derrida and François Ewald, “A Certain ‘Madness’ Must Watch over Thinking,” Educational
Theory (Summer 1995), pp. 273–91, p. 276.
Normalization 93
In an institution where social networks were small and divisions con-
stantly confronted, the experience of social pressure was very uneven. Louis
Althusser described the school as a “womblike” place “where [he] felt warm
and at home and was protected from the outside world.”48 As Moulier-
Boutang stated in his biography, “in short Althusser was crazy about the
school [fou de l’Ecole], a true love.”49 But then Althusser had a ready-made
social community in the communist cellule. Those who did not belong to
such groups often felt threatened and miserable. The two most important
types of groupings, which both provided community and a larger purpose
to the otherwise inward-looking life of the Normalien, revolved around
politics and religion.

catholics and communists


In a school that presented itself as a free space, but in reality offered a
fractured and divided social scene, the largest groupings gained dispropor-
tionate influence. It was the communist cellule and the Catholic “Talas”
who made their presence felt most keenly during the 1950s, a division and
opposition that shows up constantly in all the literature on the school
during this period and most of the autobiographies that deal with it.50
There was no a priori reason why these groups should have been mutually
exclusive. Indeed, immediately after the war, there was no absolute dividing
line between them at the ENS. In a talk by Guyard to mark the 150th
anniversary of the Ecole in 1946, two years delayed because of the war, he
described “that fraternity where Catholics, existentialists, and communists
are but the labels that one wears, often simultaneously.”51 In the late 1940s
the Christians and communists were not exclusive groupings, and several
students belonged to both camps. In many ways they fed off each other and
fought with each other for political predominance and members.52 At the
beginning of this period, around 1947, the students’ union, which was part
of the larger French syndicalist movement, was dominated by the Christian
left and according to Le Roy Ladurie this dominance was overturned by
the communists only by 1950.53 Aside from this site where the two groups
48 Althusser, The Future Lasts a Long Time, p. 163.
49 Moulier-Boutang, Louis Althusser: Une biographie, p. 446.
50 See d’Ormesson, Au revoir et merci, p. 78; and Mochon, “L’Ecole Normale et la politique.” Though
the etymology is disputed, the name Tala, to describe Catholic students, is said to derive from a
shortening of “ils von[t à la] messe.”
51 Bulletin (November 1946), p. 9. 52 See also d’Ormesson, Au Revoir et merci, p. 78.
53 Le Roy Ladurie, Paris-Montpellier: P.C.-P.S.U. 1945–1963, p. 44. It is important to realize that this
was written after the event once Le Roy Ladurie had left the party and was increasingly skeptical of
his earlier communist commitments.
94 Derrida post-existentialist
interacted and competed, there was also a significant number of crossovers
between the two. Le Roy Ladurie himself was originally part of Catholic
groups around 1945 when he was at the Lycée Henri IV.54 His “conversion”
to communism only came at the beginning of 1949, and he described it as a
religious experience, his “road to Damascus.”55 Indeed this comparison of
communism to Christianity is constant in his autobiography, a comparison
which at the time was mainly deployed by critics of communism.56
Althusser also made the transition from devout “Tala,” to engaged
“Stal.”57 As Moulier Boutang’s biography has shown, despite Althusser’s
later account of the period in his autobiographical writings, he was both
a Tala and a member of the Communist Party in the period from 1948
until 1952, around when he finally cut ties with the Jeunesse de l’Eglise.58
In what must have been a joke, while writing notes for a presentation on
“Religion and Philosophy” in 1948, Althusser wrote on the back of two
pieces of paper, one being a circular letter from the Jeunesse de l’Eglise, the
other being the current cellule news sheet.59 Throughout this period most
Talas were socialist, and many preferred at least a political alliance with the
communists.60
Towards the end of the 1940s, however, the comfortable cohabitation
of the Christians and the communists became troubled: the Cold War
had come to the Ecole. As we have seen, relations between the Church
and Party were always tense, perhaps in part due to their competition
over the allegiances of the young. But soon the national split came to
manifest itself at the local level. In 1949 by Papal decree all members of
the Communist Party were excommunicated, and the Church authorities
looked mistrustfully on the radical political programs of several of its young

54 Ibid., p. 26. 55 Ibid., p. 35.


56 See IMEC, ALT2, E4–02.01, where the students of the Mouvement de la Paix are described as
“Jesuits of communism.” Or the complaint by the editor of the communist journal Action of “those
sensitive souls that complain that communism is a Church,” in a letter to Esprit, February 1945,
p. 409.
57 Le Roy Ladurie and Althusser were not alone, and a significant number of their year professed
allegiance to both groups in the early years after World War II. Other notable Catholics-become-
communists were Sève, Verley, Verret, Ricci, Caveing. See Mochon, “L’Ecole Normale et la poli-
tique,” p. 71. For problems concerning metaphysical questions and burgeoning points of dissonance,
see the survey by Esprit: “Le Communisme et les étudiants,” Esprit (February, March and April
1946).
58 Moulier Boutang, Louis Althusser: une biographie, p. 237.
59 See “Agrégation exposés,” IMEC, ALT2, E5–02. The notes come as part of exposés on the same
theme from 1954, but it appears that Althusser often brought his own earlier student work to such
sessions and inserted them there in his files.
60 See Mochon, “L’Ecole Normale et la politique,” p. 71. And Peyrefitte, Rue d’Ulm, p. 374. The MRP
had only brief support at the ENS at the end of the War.
Normalization 95
adherents. The left-leaning Jeunesse de l’Eglise – “faithful to the Church
while resisting” – which acted as a significant cross-over journal in this
period for young French Catholics, was censored by the Church and forced
to close in 1953.61 The crisis caused by the split led to a decline in the Talas,
where members had to choose between the political and the spiritual, a
crisis that was not fully overcome until the mid 1950s.62
The resistance to the previous peaceful coexistence did not only come
from the Catholics. It also grew out of the strengthening position of the
cellule that was becoming more unwilling to accept the religious idiosyn-
crasies of some of its members. This was the time of the Tito rebellion and
the Lysenko affair, when the communists aimed to promote ideological
purity and no longer turned a blind eye to doctrinal deviance.63 Much of
the antipathy was directed specifically towards the Catholics, and the rising
voice of the Stalinist left, La Nouvelle Critique, accused the personnalist
journal Esprit in 1949 and 1950 of Titoism.64
Politically, the communists were for most of this period unrivalled,
and it was they who made the deepest impression on the generation of
Normaliens who entered the school in the decade between 1946 and 1956.
The party of “75,000 fusillés,” fallen comrades of the French Resistance,
enjoyed a considerable allure and mystique during the “années d’épuration”
in a country coming to terms with its Vichy and collaborationist past. This
prestige and unimpeachable moral standing was essential to the party as the
Cold War came to dominate the political horizons. On a more local level
many of the Ecole’s own resistance heroes had strong links to communism.
It was natural that the cellule was the first organization in the ENS to have
explicit links to a national political party.65
The popularity of the communists was not only limited to intellectuals.
Around this time about 5 million or about 25 percent of the electorate
regularly voted for the Communist Party. It also occupied a central place in
the political imagination of the time, from the start of the Cold War around
1947, through China’s revolution in 1949, to the wars in Indo-China and
Korea, and the McCarthy witchhunts in the United States. In this general
context, its level of support in the student body was hardly exceptional.
61 “Communiqué: Supplement au Bulletin de Liaison,” La Jeunesse de l’Eglise 24 (October 1953). See
also La Jeunesse d’Eglise (November 1953). This was the last issue.
62 See Mochon, “L’Ecole Normale et la politique,” p. 74.
63 See Moulier Boutang, Louis Althusser: une biographie, p. 312. And Mochon, “L’Ecole Normale et la
politique,” chapter 1.
64 See Jean Kanapa: “Gendarmes et sirènes,” La Nouvelle Critique (January 1950), pp. 33–4, with the
gloves coming off in “‘Esprit’ jette le masque,” La Nouvelle Critique (April 15, 1950).
65 See Sirinelli, Livre du bicentenaire, p. 202.
96 Derrida post-existentialist
On the other side, despite being the largest group at the ENS and
the apparent organization under the “Prince Tala,” by the early 1950s the
Catholics had been severely weakened by the clashes with the communists.
They settled back into political neutrality that allowed old wounds to
heal, and maintained an uneasy unity of students from across a political
spectrum ranging from monarchists to communist fellow travelers. Never
presenting a unified front, the influence of the Catholics was never felt so
forcefully outside their circle as that of the communist cellule.66
But if the Catholics were not doctrinally evangelical like the communists,
they did at least provide an intellectual safe haven. Both due to its support
amongst the students, its political neutrality, and the peculiar religious his-
tory of many of the communist cellule members, Christianity was accepted
as a legitimate doctrinal choice. The Catholics provided respite and space
free from the dominant communists. Roger Faroux, who entered the Ecole
in 1947, suggested that, when faced with harassment from the “Vychinsky en
herbe,” one always had the possibility to “proclaim oneself a Tala, and thus
untouchable.”67 For this reason, even at the peak of the cellule’s impor-
tance and success, it was never hegemonic. It is clear from the panoply of
religious and political groupings at the ENS that even in the early 1950s
the communist cellule did not enforce its belief on the majority of the stu-
dent population. It was possible to be a Catholic (many were), and indeed
there were even a few Gaullists in the ENS. When the changing situation
dictated that one could no longer be both a communist and a Christian,
several chose to drop their political, rather than religious, affiliation.
Nevertheless, while in the late 1940s communists and Catholics grudg-
ingly attempted to work together, and in the ENS ideas swapped easily
and quickly, as students changed their alignment, with the cooling of rela-
tions at the beginning of the Cold War, positions hardened, and opposing
orthodoxies became unavoidable. Those who found themselves outside of
any of the standard social and political groups would become the targets
of a newly intensified communist evangelism.

philosophical politics and politicized philosophy


When Derrida entered the Ecole, the two main social groupings mapped
directly onto the twin poles of French philosophy, indicated by Sartre’s
66 Jean-François Sirinelli, “Les Normaliens de la Rue d’Ulm après 1945: une génération communiste?”
Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine (October–December 1986), p. 573.
67 Peyrefitte, Rue d’Ulm, p. 326. Andrei Vyshinsky was the public prosecutor in the Stalinist show
trials.
Normalization 97
Existentialism Is a Humanism. It was no coincidence. As we have seen,
Christian and communist parties benefited the most in the elections after
the War. When Normaliens too turned to the two great ideologies of the
age in 1945, they followed broader trends in French society. But the impact
of Catholicism and communism was felt more strongly at the Ecole, whose
curious social situation provided a mechanism whereby these social groups
amassed considerable influence, not only over their own members, but
also – in the case of the communist cellule – over other students.
Understanding the influence they wielded is important for our study
of Derrida, because the Catholic Talas and the communist cellule had a
profound impact on the type of philosophy studied at the Ecole. Indeed, the
success of communism and Catholicism after the War can be attributed
in part to an inherent intellectual element, what Bédarida has called a
double messianism.68 Both offered an explanation of the sufferings of
the War and the trials of the occupation, and both inscribed them into
a larger picture that gave them meaning. Further, they both adhered to
metaphysical systems that claimed authority in all areas of academic study,
not just religion or politics. With Marxism as much an intellectual stance
as a political outlook, philosophers dominated not just the membership
but also the leadership of the cellule.69
So the social divisions served to reinforce a philosophical divide. This
was exacerbated by the peculiarities of the political moment. For the com-
munists, after 1947 and the beginning of the Cold War, politics played
out at the international level. The defining issues were external, distant,
and focused on foreign affairs. It was a time of world-historical struggle
but not immediate local political action. Le Roy Ladurie referred to it
as a “sterile time,” lacking the passion of the Resistance, or the strength
of feeling surrounding the Algerian War or the events of May 1968.70
The era was characterized predominantly by a strong but generalized anti-
Americanism – the communists demonstrating against visits of American
generals and presidents – coupled with marked anti-German feeling.71
The journal of the ENS cellule at this period almost never discussed
issues pertaining to the institution itself, except for an article on strikes at

68 See Mochon, “L’Ecole Normale et la politique,” p. 74. 69 Ibid., p. 59.


70 See also Derrida’s judgment in “The Time of a Thesis,” in Alan Montefiore, ed., Philosophy in
France Today (Cambridge University Press, 1983).
71 One of the favourite slogans was “Ridgeway-le-Peste,” referring to Matthew Bunker Ridgeway, a
leading American general in the Korean War, come to Europe as the Commander of the Allied
Forces. The slogan referred to allegations that he was responsible for the use of biological warfare
in Korea.
98 Derrida post-existentialist
the school in December 1953.72 It rather focused on international questions,
such as German rearmament, the war in Indo-China, the CED (Commu-
nauté Européenne de Défense), and the death of Stalin: “Stalin has gone,
his work remains.”73 In comparison to the 1960s, when the majority of
strikes at the Ecole militated for improved living conditions, wages, and
safety, in the early 1950s it was nuclear armament and the school’s role in
weapons development that sold communist pamphlets and got students
onto the streets.
With the attention focused at the international level, politics seemed a
battle of ideas, and the struggle more abstract than real and concrete. As
Gabriel Robin (Lettres 1949) declared,
the sounds of a world in tumult (Korea, Indo-China) broke through the walls
of our cloister all the more as we were persuaded to recognize there the echo of
another battle, the true one, our own, that which tore in two the Republic of
Letters, and had at stake, not the derisory movement of some frontier, but the
meaning of history and the future of the Spirit . . . That was what gave to the
séances at the Salle des Actes the allure of a revolutionary tribunal, before which,
from Tito’s rebellion to the trial of Mindszenty, the events of the day were cited
to be compared and to justify themselves.74
The obverse side of this intellectualization of politics was a politiciza-
tion of intellectual life. Perspectives on science in the very early 1950s
provide a case study for this phenomenon.75 With Pavlov in psychology
and Lysenko in biology, the Soviet Union hoped to promote a “prole-
tarian science” that would challenge Western “bourgeois” dominance.76
This challenge was particularly fraught over the question of biology, where
Lysenko’s adaptation-based “neo-Lamarckianism” fit communist ideology
better than the competition-driven Darwinian explanation, which seemed
to naturalize capitalist ideology.77 Thus before 1952, in numerous student
presentations on biology, a Lysenko approach was taken as a necessary

72 Up until the school year 1948–9, the majority of the newssheet touched on issues directly pertaining
to the school. From mid 1948, however, and later as the Cold War developed, the journal turned its
sights on national and international projects that only concerned the ENS indirectly, if at all.
73 March 1953 edition of ENS, the cellule journal, p. 6, in IMEC, ALT2, A43–03.02.
74 Peyrefitte, Rue d’Ulm, p. 302. Mindszenty was a Hungarian cardinal, arrested in December 1948
and tried in 1949. In February he was found guilty of conspiring against the Hungarian government
and was sentenced to life imprisonment. The main charge was his resistance to the secularization
of Hungary’s schools.
75 Science was a particularly important part of the Zhdanov project, and the journal Le Nouvelle
Critique in the period 1948–52 published articles supporting Lysenko in virtually every edition.
76 For a more detailed account of the affair see Dominique Lecourt, Lysenko (Paris: F. Maspero, 1976).
77 In fact Lysenko’s major opponent was Mendel, and his work is not incompatible with a Darwinian
model.
Normalization 99
critique of simplistic Darwinism. As a student (François Ricci) stated in
1949, setting up an opposition between Darwin’s purely efficient causes
and Kant’s finalism, “causality [Darwin] doesn’t explain enough, final-
ism [Kant] explains too much.”78 It was only the adaptive approach that
Lysenko supported, which offered a happy balance. Further, taking into
account the work and praxis of the individual, Lysenko’s biology sat bet-
ter with Marxist epistemology. Even such moderate Marxists as Foucault
subscribed to the view.79
In philosophy, adherence to Soviet Marxist orthodoxy and Lysenkoism
was perhaps easier than in the hard sciences, where such movement away
from Western scientific norms caused severe professional difficulties. For
Claude Engelmann, a biologist who entered the ENS in 1945 and like
many of his generation joined the Communist Party, the tension between
his political views and scientific practice proved too much. According to
Moulier Boutang, his suicide in 1949 is in part attributable to the conflict.80
The Lysenko affair had a powerful effect on the communists at the
Ecole, and from this perspective the portrayal of the cellule in the 1950s as
a tame Soviet lapdog is perhaps excessive. For it was precisely in reaction to
the affair that the Ecole cellule asserted itself against the French party. At
the conference of the PCF section de la Vème Arrondissement in May 1954,
Althusser addressed his comrades.81 The move followed hot on the heels
on the exclusion of Auguste Lecoeur in March of that year. Lecoeur, one
of the rising stars of the PCF, had enforced the commitment to Lysenko’s
biology in France, but had fallen out of favor with the death of Stalin and
a changed political landscape.
Althusser, representing the ENS cellule, expressed dismay that Lecoeur’s
“heterodoxy” had taken so long to be unearthed and, in what must have
been a bold intervention, blamed it on the excessive centralization of the
party in France, which quashed any criticism. Althusser offered the ENS
cellule as an appropriate site of critique, the intellectual elite of France who
should also be the intellectual elite of the Party. Even as Althusser presented
the ENS as the critical heart of the PCF, he declared it responsible for the
intellectual health of the nation as well. The goal was
78 François Ricci, “Explication en biologie,” 1949, in IMEC, ALT2, E5–01.
79 Fiszer, “Biologie, évolution,” February 6, 1951; Jean Laplanche “Finalité,” March 27, 1950; Michel
Foucault, “Que-ce que un fait σ ?” February 23, 1951; all in IMEC, ALT2, E5–01.
80 See Moulier Boutang, Louis Althusser: une biographie, p. 415.
81 The report was from Althusser and written for the ENS Langevin cellule for personnel, but
given the fonctionnaire stagiaire status of the students and the fact that this name was often used
interchangeably with that of the Elèves Communistes de l’ENS on the Communist newsletter, it
can be assumed that they were one and the same thing.
100 Derrida post-existentialist
to defend and further our ideological principles, those of Marxism-Leninism,
amongst the intellectuals, to make known the works of Soviet science and culture,
to develop our own scientific and artistic works inspired by the principles of
dialectical materialism and socialist realism: as many examples as will provide the
concrete demonstration of the justice and the richness of our principles, and will
lead more and more honest intellectuals to adopt our own ideological positions,
upon which French culture will tomorrow be built.82
The reaction to the Lecoeur exclusion was not to weaken the link between
the political and the academic, to reject the inter-mixing of politics and
science. On the contrary, Althusser wanted to strengthen it. If the ENS
cellule had an aspiration to be the guardian of orthodoxy in the PCF, this
boded even less well for those on the fringes of the cellule at the Ecole. The
effort towards a pure Marxism began at home.
The cellule saw its role in the promotion of Marxist-Leninism in the
party and beyond, at the most abstract and philosophical level. When
Althusser sought signs of bourgeois decadence, he found them not in
general culture, but in the university:
I think that in all fairness we must go much further and say that the ideological
concept of science represents at the current hour the most advanced form, a
characteristic form, of Imperialist bourgeois ideology. In an entire current of
bourgeois ideology, in effect, whether it is in the philosophy of history, from
Dilthey, Weber, up until Raymond Aron; or in social psychology and cultural
anthropology with the current American school, or whether in the history of
science with, to take but one example, the work of Canguilhem, or whether in
philosophy properly speaking with Heidegger and his epigones, we are witnesses
of the radical reduction of science to ideology, of which Heidegger’s philosophy
(and it is no coincidence) in an abstract form, provides the final philosophical
justification.83
The political oppositions of the time were translated for the students at the
Ecole into the academic realm. Indeed, the cellule saw intellectual work
and especially philosophy as the most pressing area of concern. It is for
this reason that they founded the Politzer Circle in 1948. Named after the
Marxist psychologist and resistance hero Georges Politzer, it intended to
inform both communists and non-communists alike of “the possibilities of
Marxist criticism.” Diagnosing the intellectual state of many students, the
group suggested that “Normaliens, whatever their intellectual orientation,
on the one hand prove each day, in their work and their activity, that the
universe of traditional culture is breaking up and is becoming more and
82 “Report of ENS cellule 1954,” IMEC, ALT2, A42–02.07.
83 Louis Althusser, “Sur la lutte idéologique,” IMEC, ALT2 A42–02.11, sheets 11–12.
Normalization 101
more distant from the real world, and on the other hand, imperiously feel
the need to bring back their disciplines and their activities to the world in
which they live.”84 The Politzer Circle organized seminars in all academic
subjects, from history and philosophy to mathematics and biology, to
remedy intellectual ills with the salve of Marxist-Leninist ideas. The focus
was thus predominantly on theoretical questions, where philosophy was
seen as the cornerstone discipline. For the Marxists at the Ecole the primary
struggle was academic, and the battleground was the classroom.
At its peak, this un- or hyper-critical Stalinism – to the other students
it amounted to much the same thing – firmly imprinted itself on life at
the ENS. Its influence was felt within the party; wobbly comrades were
sent to the caı̈man of philosophy to have their faith affirmed, or in the
terminology of the school, “se faire Althusser [to Althusser oneself].”85 But
more importantly it made itself felt outside of the party. By seeing its
mission in the grandest of historical terms, the cellule may have blinded
itself to immediate political demands, but it did remain acutely aware of
the political valence of intellectual life. As Mochon described, “the zealous
militantism which was demanded of the Normaliens, doubled up as a strict
intellectual discipline.”86
The Christians too presented a certain orthodoxy. After all, philosophical
study gave the opportunity to question materialist perspectives and open
up the possibility – through judicious references to Pascal, Kierkegaard, or
Marcel – of religious belief; religious commitments also manifested them-
selves in philosophical work.87 But, at a time when it was the communists
84 Marxist theory at the Ecole placed emphasis both on the students’ intellectual formation and on
the more material aspect of their lives, which was supposed to inform it. Jacques Juillard perhaps
best sums up this atmosphere governed by grand political dreams which had no immediate outlet
save in the academic sphere or the laughably banal: “[the communists] inundated us with petitions
in favor of political prisoners from around the entire world, except of course from the communist
world, and they assured us that the rearmament of Germany would certainly provoke a Third
World War. And, good materialists, they looked, in the struggle for the amelioration of our living
condition, for the spark that would make us ‘understand’; thus they were particularly active in the
Pot commission which regularly discussed with the Intendent the quality of the Friday fish.” Jacques
Julliard, “Rentrée dans les basses couches de l’atmosphère,” in Peyrefitte, Rue d’Ulm, pp. 120–2.
Derrida at the time was on the pot commission with Jacques Juillard. See “ENS: Vie associative et
sportive,” CAC, 930595/108. According to Marguerite Derrida, his culinary activism arose from his
food allergies.
85 François Dufay, Les Normaliens (Paris: JC Lattès, 1993), p. 200. According to Peeters, Derrida, “se
faire Althusser” referred also to academic support.
86 Mochon, “L’Ecole Normale et la politique,” p. 126.
87 The Marxist students included Lucien Sève, Arthur Krebs, and André Vergez. Among the Christians
were Jean Reynaud, Jacques Fauve, Olivier Bloch, Jean Beaulieu, and Hubert Grenier. In an
interesting move the communist Verret demonstrated a reverse development from traditionally
Marxist solutions to increasing mystical ones in the early 1950s. See “Agrégation exposés,” ALT2,
E5–01, 02, and 03.
102 Derrida post-existentialist
who were the most vibrant social grouping and the most evangelical, it was
they and not the Christians who were able to project their political and
philosophical influence outside the bounds of the party.

saving husserl and heidegger from sartre


The Ecole Normale Supérieure provided a space where the largest social
and political groups could exercise considerable philosophical influence
over the students. Philosophical positions were not isolated from general
social life, but had direct and powerful meanings there. Non-communists
felt considerable pressure to conform to party ideology, and, unable to
appeal to the relative sanctuary of the “Cave Tala,” non-aligned students
such as Michel Serres and Jacques Derrida were especially vulnerable. It
is consequently of vital import to understand the precise political valence
of certain philosophical positions, in order to understand how they might
have impacted upon Derrida’s development. For our purpose here, the
philosophical manifestations of social and political differences is most
important with respect to Sartre, Heidegger, and Husserl.
In an article that Althusser wrote under the pseudonym Pierre Découd
in 1949 discussing the agrégation exam in philosophy, he declared that
idealism as a philosophy was dead:88
After Munich, World War II, treason, resistance, in the face of the great strikes,
the threat of war, and the struggle for peace, you don’t need to be a psychologist
or a sociologist, it is enough to be a man to believe in history and in man, in the
science of human facts and Marxist rationalism, and to throw over the roofs the
carcass of the Kantian subject or the envelope of the Hegelian Spirit.89

Althusser interpreted the number of questions about history on the


agrégation exam as the self-recognition of a crisis within petit-bourgeois
philosophy. His criticism was aimed against the new interpretations of
Hegel, especially those of Kojève and Hyppolite, which focused too much
on the anthropological and subjective side of Hegel. This “revisionnisme
sorbonnard” was, according to Althusser, “fascist.”90 He, on the other hand,
emphasized the objective elements of Hegel’s thought, something that he
had promoted since his Mémoire thesis on the concept of content in

88 Louis Althusser, “Sujets d’agrégation,” IMEC, ALT2, A1–01.08. 89 Ibid.


90 “Le Retour à Hegel, dernier mot du revisionnisme universitaire,” IMEC, ALT2, A34–04, published
in La Nouvelle Critique 20 (1950), pp. 42–53, signed “La Commission de critique du cercle des
philosophes communistes.”
Normalization 103
Hegel. The battle lines were drawn between objective science and individ-
ual experience.91
But if the new Hegel interpretation was bad, far worse was “existentialo-
fascist” philosophy.92 Indeed it was idealist phenomenology, Heidegger
and his “existentialist epigones,” that was presented as the greatest danger
to historical materialism.93 The indiscriminate raising of individual expe-
rience to the realm of philosophical validity through the process of phe-
nomenological description privileged subjective experience above objective
science.
At the ENS, the move against Sartre can be seen in the DESs (Diplôme
d’Etudes Supérieures or Mémoire, comparable to a Master’s thesis) and
the practice agrégation exposés (oral presentations) of the period, which
Althusser collected and preserved. Sartre, for all the stated Normalien dis-
regard for the populist philosopher, was a standard reference for much
of this period. From the beginning of this period up until 1953 or 1954
there were even a few figures who one might even call “existentialist” in
a broad sense: students such as Jean-Jacques Rinieri (1944 promotion),
Pierre Aubenque (1947), Claude Papin (1948), Michel Gourinat (1949), or
Gérard Granel (1949). It was a group that is surprising for its heterogeneity:
Aubenque, a Protestant with communist leanings; Gourinat and Granel,
who were central figures in the Tala community; and Claude Papin, a
card-carrying communist. But apart from this noteworthy but small group
of students, what is most apparent about the first part of this period, up
to the first two years of the 1950s, is that Sartre was a constant reference
for a large number of Normaliens on a wide range of subjects, including
“Others” (autrui), “time,” “nothingness,” “emotion,” “sentiment,” “sig-
nification,” and “psychoanalysis.” Sartre’s philosophy could be employed
for almost any theme. The students, at this time, took Sartre seriously,
even if he was no master thinker. For some Sartre acted as a mediating
figure, leading Jacques Fauve, Michel Foucault, and François Jodelet to
phenomenology,94 or Gérard Granel towards Bergson.95 For many others,
he was the last moment of their dissertation before a final critical but

91 Though Hegel had been an important interlocuteur in the first years after the War, the names of
Kojève and other important Hegel commentators are not found in the ENS exposés, and references
to Hegel were predominantly negative.
92 Louis Althusser, “Notes,” IMEC, ALT2, A34–02.05.
93 “L’enseignement de la philosophie,” Esprit (June 1954), in IMEC, ALT2, A49–01.02.
94 Scheler and Husserl respectively see Jacques Fauve, “Sentiment,” April 7, 1950; Pierre Aubenque,
“Présent,” July 7, 1950; or Michel Foucault, “Connaissance d’autrui,” February 13, 1950; all in
IMEC, ALT2, E5–01.
95 Gérard Granel, “Néant,” November 20, 1952, IMEC, ALT2, E5–01.
104 Derrida post-existentialist
personal conclusion. For instance Jean-Paul Milou, in a discussion of the
néant (nothingness), followed Sartre through his attempt to suppress tradi-
tional dualities but then criticized the reestablishment of such dualities in
the system pour-soi/en-soi, which Milou hoped to overcome in a Hegelian
dialectic.96 Though rarely more than just a reference, his consistent pres-
ence in so many of these papers shows that, while he was not always
endorsed, Sartre was unavoidable and respected.97
But as the 1950s progressed, first the communists and then later the
Christians stopped referring to Sartre. By the time Derrida arrived at the
Ecole, Sartre had lost his centrality.98 After 1954 it is only on exposés about
“autrui” that he was mentioned, and then in passing along with a large
number of other philosophers, an example of a pessimistic approach to
intersubjectivity. From being a thinker of reference, he had become a
useful example on a single subject. The existentialist age at the Ecole had
come to an end.
Heidegger too suffered a decline in fortunes. He had, to be sure, never
enjoyed the same popularity and certainly not the same breadth of appeal.
Rather he was just another existentialist approached through Sartre. When
mentioned, it was the Heidegger of What Is Metaphysics?, giving a modern
twist to Kierkegaardian themes, who was most often invoked. Indeed in the
DESs that we have from the time, Heidegger was read almost exclusively
through the Corbin translation and discussed only in relation to Sartre,
and the existential analysis of Dasein.99
But in the ENS, just as outside of the Ecole, the Catholics were beginning
to take seriously a new analysis of Heidegger, a change precipitating around
the presence at the Ecole of Jean Beaufret himself. Between 1953 and
1957, mapping Derrida’s time at the ENS, the only people who refer to
Heidegger were those interested in mystical thought, using Heidegger to
justify openness to the divine, and the place of the sacred.100 And this was an
interpretation that had cut its ties with Sartre. Very few of those referring
to Heidegger after 1952 referred to Sartre at the same time; Heidegger
had been disaggregated from the existentialist mélange. Now philosophers
96 Jean-Paul Milou, “Néant,” 1950, IMEC, ALT2, E5–01.
97 See Claude Papin, “ et Metaϕ,” [undated, probably 1950–1], IMEC, ALT2, E5–01.
98 The communists really stopped referring to Sartre at the end of 1952, and it was only Christians
like Granel, Faucon-Lamboi, Gourinat, and Arnaud who continued doing so up until 1954.
99 See ENS Archives, Jean-Jacques Rinieri, Mémoire 1946/3; or Pierre Greco, Mémoire 1948/8.
Also Michel Foucault, “Temps,” [undated, probably 1949–50]; Claude Papin, “Néant,” [undated,
probably 1951–2]; René Faucon-Lamboi, “Néant,” [undated, probably 1951–2]; in IMEC, ALT2,
E5–01.
100 See Michel Gourinat, “Le phénomène,” [undated, probably 1952–3]; [unnamed], “L’Homme
mesure,” 1954; Philippe d’Harcourt, “Problème,” 1955; all in IMEC, ALT2, E5–03.
Normalization 105
such as Gourinat, Faucon-Lamboi, Dussort, and Jodelet focused on Being,
translated into Christian language.101 In his reminiscences, Derrida himself
remarked upon the religious and spiritualist interpretation of Heidegger at
the Ecole, describing the “occult atmosphere” in which Gourinat, Granel,
Grenier and Faucon-Lamboi studied Heidegger.102 On the other side of
the aisle, after the existentialist age, “Hitler’s philosopher” (as Althusser
named him in 1949) had no support among communists.103
But if the communists were resistant to Sartre and Heidegger during
Derrida’s stay at the ENS, this was not true of Sartre’s other German source:
Husserl. True, in the first part of this period, Husserl and Heidegger’s work
was intimately connected with Sartre’s. Husserl was presented almost always
through the existentialists, drawing on existential themes, particularly the
return to the concrete. Many in the late 1940s cited his perspectivism, or the
immanence of sense, while Aubenque emphasized negative intentionality
in an exposé on existence, privileging the Sartrean reading.104 However,
at this stage Husserl remained but a passing reference, except for a few
students like Pierre Aubenque or Michel Foucault, who had approached
Husserl through Sartre, and at least at this stage maintained a Sartrean
interpretation.105 As Sartre began to lose his status in the early 1950s, so did
Husserl. Of those joining the Ecole in 1948, not one invoked Husserl in
their exposés.
As we have seen, by the beginning of the 1950s a new Husserl inter-
pretation was gaining currency outside of the ENS and it would soon
find adherents within it. Althusser, who in his 1949 article had attacked
Sartre and Heidegger, did not blanketly condemn Husserl too. As Althusser
suggested, Husserl’s project was like Kant’s, a transcendental philosophy,
one that would found a science. The existentialists, on borrowing ideas
from Husserl and Kant’s philosophy, “betray the still valid inspiration of
those masters to whom they expressly adhere.”106 The argument is clearly
reminiscent of Thao’s and Lyotard’s, which I discussed briefly in chapter 1.

101 Cf. Alain Pons, exposé, [undated, probably 1955–6], IMEC, ALT2, E5–03.
102 Janicaud, Heidegger en France, vol. II, p. 93. Faucon-Lamboi is later mentioned in the Annuaire
of the Ecole as working at the Ecole Chrétienne à distance. Pons and André Tubeuf wrote for
the Catholic journal Cahiers Tala. Morin’s exposés often have a religious theme: see especially
“Autrui,” which demands a mystical aspect for all interhuman relations.
103 See Althusser, “Sujets d’agrégation.”
104 See Foucault, “Négation chez Husserl et Hegel,” [undated, probably 1949–50], IMEC, ALT2,
E5–01, and early Mémoires such as that by Jean-Jacques Rinieri, “Esquisse d’une esthètique
phénoménologique,” which draws on the Corbin Heidegger and the existentialist Husserl. ENS
Archive Mémoire 1946–3.
105 Aubenque also wrote his DES on intentionality in Husserl.
106 Louis Althusser, “Notes,” IMEC, ALT2, A58–04.04.
106 Derrida post-existentialist
From 1950 this non-Sartrean interpretation of Husserl was beginning to
show through in the Normalien exposés. Starting with Jacques Fauve (pro-
motion 1947), it spread to others, such as Foucault, who by 1951 had left his
Sartrean reading of phenomenology behind.107 For these students, Husserl
was a philosopher of science, writer of the Crisis of the European Sciences
and the Formal and Transcendental Logic. But the real impetus to the new
reading was the publication of Tran Duc Thao’s book in 1951.108 Thao
had argued that Husserl’s thought had been tending ever further towards
materialism, where an openness to the pre-predicative sphere could explain
the rise of science. The process of genesis from this sphere, moreover, sug-
gested that the material substratum must be understood dialectically. Read
carefully, according to Thao, Husserl’s work provided a phenomenological
justification for Marxist dialectical materialism.
In the academic year 1952–3 Husserl came back with a vengeance,
and Thao’s interpretation dominated. Now, rather than the author who
returned to “the things themselves,” the students focused on Husserl’s anal-
ysis of the genesis of knowledge from the antepredicative sphere. Existence
was no longer “absurd”; it provided the foundation for science. Around
half of the exposés that mention Husserl in that year make a direct reference
to Thao, something otherwise unheard of for the author of a secondary
work.109
At first, Thao’s influence was felt almost entirely by the communists.
Other older Christian Husserlians like Gourinat writing at the same time
do not seem to have absorbed the new interpretation, nor do Catholic
students like Oswald Ducrot, Arnaud, or Dussort, readers who were still
considering Husserl through the lens of Sartre.110 But, unlike Catholic
ideas, which never found a receptive audience outside the group of Tala
philosophers, by 1954 we see non-aligned students starting to absorb the
Thao line – students like Pontevia, analyzing passive synthesis and genesis –
that started to influence everyone by 1955.
Reading student work, we can see considerable development in the
understanding of phenomenology in the ENS from 1950 to 1955. At the

107 Fauve was a communist whose work shows considerable mystical and religious leanings, writing
at the time when such a combination was possible. See Jacques Fauve, “Méthode,” March 13,
1950, IMEC, ALT2, E5–01. Foucault “ϕ et σ ,” [undated, probably 1949–50], IMEC, ALT2,
E5–01. Indeed it was Foucault who recommended Tran Duc Thao’s book to Derrida.
108 Tran Duc Thao, Phenomenology and Dialectical Materialism, trans. D. Herman and D. Morano
(Boston: D. Reidel, 1986).
109 See two unnamed exposés: “Objectivity,” 1953; and Bloch, “L’Association des idées”; IMEC, ALT2,
E5–01 and 03.
110 See Michel Gourinat, “Le Problème de la peine,” January 23, 1953, IMEC, ALT2, E5–02.
Normalization 107
beginning, existentialism found a broad base of support, with many stu-
dents regarding Sartre as a serious philosophical interlocutor, even if for
the majority he was an opponent. If Heidegger or Husserl was invoked,
it was always and only through the existentialist interpretation. But as the
communist distrust of Sartre peaked in the 1950s, first the communists,
then those in between, and finally the Christians dropped Sartre, and along
with him, Husserl and Heidegger. It was only later, with the rise of new
interpretations of Husserl and Heidegger, supported by the communists
and the Christians respectively, that these thinkers returned to the Nor-
malien canon, now disaggregated from each other. The ENS had entered
into the post-existentialist world, where Sartre’s critics hoped to salvage the
existentialists’ main philosophical resources.
Looking at the period when Derrida was at the Ecole, the greatest
intellectual divide was that between the Christians and the communists,
who had only recently closed their mutual border. In a survey of the reading
habits of Normaliens in 1953 written by Pierre Bandet, this division took
on a structural dimension:
Above all, let us not forget the influence exerted by political and religious prefer-
ences. One person will spend the year reading Aragon’s The Communists or the new
Soviet novelists; the other will prefer Bernanos or Léon Bloy;111 one will meditate
on the work of Lenin, the other the Bible or the Church Fathers . . . a knock on
the door; it’s a student selling l’Humanité, or Témoignage Chrétien.112
In addition to their different reading habits, the two groups also adopted
opposing stances on Husserl and Heidegger. Both looked to one or other
of Sartre’s German influences for grounds to criticize existentialism. By the
mid 1950s and reflecting broader trends in French philosophy, Normaliens
had come to regard Husserl as a resource for Marxist scientific thought and
Heidegger as a quasi-Christian thinker.

derrida’s place
Where, in this highly fraught and politically charged institution, can one
locate Derrida? He cannot be placed unproblematically in either the com-
munist or the Christian camp. From his philosophical history, one would
be inclined to group him with the Catholics. At the Lycée Louis-le-Grand,
between the Catholic Etienne Borne, his philosophy teacher, and the

111 Georges Bernanos and Léon Bloy were mid-twentieth-century French Catholic writers.
112 La Revue de Paris (March 1953), pp. 95 and 103.
108 Derrida post-existentialist
Marxist Emile Tersen, who taught him history, Derrida leaned towards
Borne. The feeling was mutual, and in a report card sent to the ENS for
entry in 1952, Borne praised his student as “a candidate of the absolutely
first order,” whereas Tersen remarked simply that he had “a very solid and
serious year.”113
Further, we can plausibly trace Derrida’s suspicion of the Communist
Party to his Algerian background. In a 1998 interview, Derrida stated, “when
I was in Hypokhâgne in Algiers, I began to belong to leftist Algerian groups.
Mandouze114 was around at that time, in ’47, ’8 and ’9 and I was 17 years old.
I belonged to groups that took a stance, I was politically aware. Without
being for Algerian independence, we were against the harsh politics of
France. We fought for a decolonization by the transformation of the special
statutes for Algerians.”115 Combining support for the political and social
development of the non-European Algerian population, with a resistance to
calls for Algerian independence, Derrida’s political stance resembled that of
liberals like Albert Camus.116 Comparing French colonialism unfavorably
to the standards of French republicanism, this “liberal” position, which
would attract the ire of Algerian nationalists and French communists in
the later 1950s and early 1960s, may have made Derrida sympathetic to
many of the communists’ social aims, but suggests a significant divergence
on matters of ideology.
Thus, though by the time Derrida arrived at the Ecole Le Roy Ladurie
might have been convinced, as Marguerite Derrida has recalled, that one
day Derrida would join the cellule, we can understand why he never
did.117 According to Derrida’s own account it was to dissident left-wing
groups that he belonged, along with his friends Lucien Bianco and Pierre
Bourdieu:118 “when I was a student at the Ecole Normale (we have to speak

113 “ENS: Concours d’entrée,” Archives nationals (hereafter AN), AJ 61, 173, 1952.
114 André Mandouze, a Catholic anti-colonial activist.
115 Aziz Chouaki, L’Etoile d’Alger (Alger: Marsa, 1998), p. 130.
116 Indeed it was only in the late 1950s that Derrida’s perspective on colonialism came to change, and
his identification with the French of Algeria would last far longer. See my “Liberalism and the
Algerian War: the case of Jacques Derrida.”
117 Interview Marguerite Derrida, May 26, 2007.
118 According to Bourdieu, he with Derrida, Jean Pariente and Louis Bianco formed the anti-Stalinist
Committee for the Defence of Freedom. (Pierre Bourdieu, Axel Honneth, Hermann Kocyba and
Bernd Schwibs, “The Struggle for Symbolic Order: An Interview with Pierre Bourdieu,” Theory,
Culture, and Society 3.3 (1986), p. 35.) But we must remember that Bourdieu made his claim after
Pierre Juquin had identified him as a member of the cellule in Le Monde, and there seems precious
little other evidence for its existence. See Jean-Pierre Bernard, Paris Rouge 1944–1964 (Seyssel:
Champ Vallon, 1991), pp. 76–7.
Normalization 109
about this they aren’t anecdotes), the school’s communist group was truly
hegemonic – Stalinist and hegemonic. And it was extremely difficult for
someone on the Left (need I remind people that I’ve always been on the
Left?) to be thought of only as a crypto-communist or a fellow traveler. It
was very difficult not to join the Party.”119
If the complexities of Derrida’s Jewish Algerian background were obsta-
cles to his wholehearted acceptance of communism, they must have made
his relationship to the Talas even more difficult. Derrida’s friends at this
time included many Catholics, including Robert Abirached and Michel
Aucouturier, whose sister, Marguerite, Derrida would marry in Boston
during his year at Harvard from 1956 to 1957.120 But for all this personal
closeness, it is clear that Derrida was never a Tala. The Talas were pre-
dominantly a social group. They were comprised of people who went to
Mass and joined together for prayer and religious service. If Derrida was
close to the Talas philosophically and even personally, he was never one
of them.
The particular conjuncture of social, ideological, and political forces at
the Ecole would have placed considerable pressure on Derrida’s philosoph-
ical ideas. Though he was close philosophically with the Talas, he could
never join them. Rather Derrida found himself on the outskirts of the
cellule, attracted perhaps to their political project, but resistant to their
philosophical ideas. He was thus particularly susceptible to the social influ-
ence of the communists, who were at the peak of their power, and able to
impose their ideas with an unrivalled ease on a certain section of the student
body. In this position, it was no longer possible for him to make explicit
reference to Christian existentialism. Derrida turned to the only one of
his early sources regarded by the communists as ideologically acceptable:
Husserl.

a marxist husserl?
The realignment of Derrida’s philosophical position was never total. As
Derrida conformed to the philosophical norms of ENS Marxism, he main-
tained earlier interests. In his first two essays written at the Ecole, one
on the “idea of simplicity” and the other on the “unconscious,” Derrida
presented his work as a meditation on the phenomenological reductions.

119 Sprinker, The Althusserian Legacy, p. 199.


120 Aucouturier and Abirached both wrote for Vin Nouveau, the Tala journal.
110 Derrida post-existentialist
But his were not the familiar épochè, eidetic and transcendental reduc-
tions of the German phenomenologist. Rather Derrida organized his work
around three reductions that he labeled the “aesthetic,” the “ethical,” and
the “transcendental.” The first two, as reductions, appear to my knowledge
nowhere else in the phenomenological canon.
The “aesthetic reduction” was, for Derrida, the reduction down to the
pure immediacy of a moment without relation: absolute discontinuity.121
In the unconscious it was the realm of immediate emotion, as Derrida
saw in Freud’s sexual reductionism. The “aesthetic reduction” was the
appeal to the pre-reflexive, “the simplicity of the immediate, which does
not have to justify itself with respect to any general value or category”: it
was the simplicity of the pour-soi, free from any determination, without an
integrated place in a larger whole.122
The second reduction attempted to provide an ethic, to integrate all
elements into a totality. It was related to Jung’s collective unconscious
that supplied moral imperatives. Rather than the privileged moment of
immediacy, it was the conquered whole that had precedence. While in the
aesthetic reduction, one had to clear away complexity to find the simple
elements out of which it was composed, in the ethical reduction, one had to
struggle through complication to find the simple elements that controlled
it, a hidden order governing the mass of conscious acts.
As these descriptions make clear, Derrida reductions were a rewriting
in Husserl’s language of the first two stages described in Kierkegaard’s
Either/Or; Derrida had translated Christian existentialism into phe-
nomenology. The aesthetic moment for Kierkegaard was the moment
of pure indeterminacy. In the “The Seducer’s Diary” from Either/Or the
seducer immerses himself in the sensuous and explicitly avoids taking
responsibility for his acts, hoping to remain forever at the moment of
the choice. As Derrida elaborated, “with Kierkegaard, one can define the
aesthetic attitude as the cult of the pure individual, of the singularity
irreducible to the concept and the relation, to the instant as an absolute
beginning.”123 Recognizing the absence of any compelling reasons for com-
mitting to one particular path, both Derrida’s and Kierkegaard’s aesthetic
responds to a denial of the concept.
On the other hand, the ethical was described by Derrida as “the moment
when the philosopher attempts to give a concept, a category, or a system
121 It corresponds to what Derrida had, at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, called the “secret.”
122 Jacques Derrida, “L’Idée de simplicité,” Irvine, 1.29, sheet 3.
123 Ibid. See also Derrida, “L’Inconscient,” sheet 5.
Normalization 111
to the unconscious substance, when the aesthetic attitude, reflecting upon
itself, immobilizes itself in the sphere defined by Kierkegaard as that of
the general, of repetition, of formalism, of duty, etc.”124 In Either/Or,
Kierkegaard contrasted the aesthetic to the ethical stage, best represented
by marriage. The ethical consists in an absolute commitment, come what
may. From the indeterminacy of the aesthetic, the ethical recognized the
necessity of making a binding life-choice that would determine action in
all situations, and subsume human freedom.
But like Kierkegaard’s aesthetic and ethical realms, Derrida’s reduc-
tions were ultimately inadequate. The aesthetic remained too detached
from reality, unwilling to make a choice or to engage, whereas the ethi-
cal made that choice on unfirm ground. Though not presented as such,
Derrida’s third option, a “transcendental reduction,” might compare with
the religious stage in Either/Or. As Derrida described it, the transcendental
encompassed both reductions. It comprised spirit and matter, conscious-
ness and the unconscious, uncovering the intentionality of human reality
that could never be contained within one determined system.125 It com-
bined the variability of the aesthetic and the moral striving of the ethical.
As such, one might suggest that this transcendental was not open to human
knowledge, but could only be grasped through faith. It subordinated
phenomenology to the religious questions that had motivated Derrida’s
earlier thought.

conclusion
The mapping of philosophical positions onto social groupings at the ENS
was not a simple one-to-one translation. Derrida’s social position drew him
away from his previous philosophical stance, moving (if never completely)
from one to the other side of the opposition that marked the post-Sartrean
philosophical world. And though Derrida’s work at the Lycée Louis-le-
Grand would seem to place him philosophically close to the Christians, in
the ENS socially, and for political reasons, he was closer to the communists.
This precarious position manifested itself in his work. He was under enor-
mous pressure to tone down any references to mystical thinking, and to
reframe his ideas in a manner that would be acceptable to the communists
at the Ecole.

124 Ibid. 125 Derrida, “L’Idée de simplicité,” sheet 12.


112 Derrida post-existentialist
When Derrida dressed Kierkegaard up as Husserl, he did it in response
to a very particular social and philosophical situation. The translation
allowed him to render old ideas acceptable, restyling them for a changed
environment. It was his response to a disparity between his social and
philosophical positions, a compromise that marked his distance at once
from both the communists and the Catholics. Given the situation at the
Ecole, we can imagine that Derrida felt both a communist and a Christian
temptation. That he succumbed fully to neither would leave its mark on
his future philosophy.
c h a p t er 4

Genesis as a problem
Derrida reading Husserl

Derrida’s 1954 dissertation is often presented as proof of his mastery of


Husserl. After the controversy caused by his most famous text on the
German phenomenologist, Speech and Phenomena from 1967,1 the 1990
publication of his student thesis (his Mémoire), The Problem of Genesis
in Husserl’s Philosophy, seemed to demonstrate a much more conventional
reading of Husserl, one that was more readily assimilated by the phe-
nomenological community. Derrida’s credentials in this earlier study were
impeccable. He dealt with Husserl’s entire oeuvre from his earliest publica-
tions to his last essays, both the translated and untranslated works. Derrida
studied not only published books and articles but, with the support of Père
Van Breda, had been allowed to visit and consult the Husserl archives at
Louvain. The visit to the archives at Louvain was perhaps more significant
for what it indicated about Derrida’s interest in Husserl than for what he
learnt there. His visit was short, about two weeks according to his wife,
and his notes from the visit are relatively slim, playing only a small role
in his analysis for the Mémoire.2 Rather than providing any actual mate-
rial that he may have gleaned from the thousands of pages of Husserl’s
stenographed notes, the visit was significant in that it legitimized Derrida
as a phenomenologist. Following the example of Maurice Merleau-Ponty,
a visit to the Husserl archives at Louvain became an important qualifica-
tion for up-coming students of Husserl’s works. It showed Derrida to be a
serious student of Husserl and not an existentialist hoping for a validation
of his or her own theories.
The drive to completeness and the comprehensive scope of Derrida’s
Mémoire perhaps seems at odds with Derrida’s later concern for the
marginal over the totalizing, for the close reading of a paragraph over
the all-encompassing theory of a life’s work. We might then be tempted

1 See J. Claude Evans, Strategies of Deconstruction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).
2 Interview with Marguerite Derrida, May 26, 2007.

113
114 Derrida post-existentialist
to draw a line between this early student work and the later “mature”
philosophy. Such a move would, however, be overly hasty. Firstly, Der-
rida did not try to close off phenomenology, indeed the last paragraph of
Derrida’s dissertation cited Husserl on his deathbed, declaring to his sister
that phenomenology must begin again.3 In his thesis, Derrida wanted to
understand this constant necessity to restart. His guiding thesis was the
impossibility of a rigorous and stable definition of phenomenology.
Secondly, the Problem of Genesis does play with the marginal, but in a
different way. For as we shall see, though the question of the Mémoire
was clearly Normalien and the language phenomenological, these acted
as a pretext for other, older, themes. Despite much important work that
has been done in recent years proving the centrality of Husserl for the
early Derrida, I would like to suggest that the true significance of the
Mémoire thesis lies outside of phenomenology narrowly defined, even
if we cannot discount its role.4 As I have explained, within the Ecole,
Derrida’s preoccupation with existentialist and mystical philosophy was
sidelined in favor of a sustained study of the conditions and possibility of
science and objectivity, often with a reference to Husserl. This downplaying
of the mystical was, however, merely superficial, and Derrida continued to
discuss earlier themes in phenomenological garb.
In the 1954 Problem of Genesis in Husserl’s Philosophy, not only do the
old themes remain, but they are right at the heart of Derrida’s project. He
had registered his Mémoire at the beginning of the year as “Studies on the
Notion of Genesis in Husserl,”5 but when he came to write it the title had
changed to “The Problem of Genesis in Husserl’s Philosophy.” The change
may seem insignificant, but by introducing the term “problem” into the
title of his Mémoire, Derrida signaled the importance of a thinker he had
ceased to invoke explicitly since his arrival at the ENS. For “problem” was
one pole of Gabriel Marcel’s central opposition, the mundane counterpoint
to the incalculable “mystery.” As I will go on to argue, the instability and
movement of Husserl’s philosophy as it was described in Derrida’s book
arose from Husserl’s continued attempt to pose “genesis” as a problem, that
is a question susceptible to a definitive answer. At each stage of Husserl’s
philosophy, Derrida noted a “mysterious” element that disrupted Husserl’s
attempt at a solution. Only a recognition and acceptance of the mystery

3 See Derrida, The Problem of Genesis, p. 178.


4 See the very important and valuable work by Leonard Lawlor, Derrida and Husserl (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 2003); Paola Marrati, Genesis and Trace (Stanford University Press, 2005);
and Joshua Kates, Essential History (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2005) amongst others.
5 See “ENS Rapport d’activité 1953–4,” CAC, 930595/62.
Genesis as a problem 115
that escaped all rational thought could allow one to comprehend the aporias
of objectivity. In his later language, one can say that the mysterious was
both the condition of the possibility and the condition of the impossibility
of science. The mystical Marcel was invoked to remedy the scientistic Tran
Duc Thao’s ills. As Derrida suggested in his 1990 Introduction, he was
“upping the ante” on Thao, but also profoundly rejecting him. Derrida,
in his Mémoire, undertook a deconstruction of the thought of objectivity,
for which the study of Husserl was merely the occasion.

genesis at the ens


Derrida described the circumstances surrounding his Mémoire in an inter-
view with Dominique Janicaud. Having read Tran Duc Thao and a little
Husserl, Derrida said that he “had been able to pre-identify, in some way,
the question of the history of science, of the genesis of objectivity. And
thus, the choice of subject could be explained by the simultaneously his-
torical and normalien conjuncture.”6 It was these twin contexts, both that
of the ENS and that of the wider philosophical community, that set the
initial terms for Derrida’s Mémoire.
What did the question of objectivity mean at the ENS in the early 1950s?
In the various exposés on the problem two names occur more than any
others, and for both the question of objectivity was intimately connected
to that of “genesis”: Husserl and Piaget.7 The rapprochement of the two
authors strikes us today as odd: on the one hand the phenomenologist
who had rejected psychologism, and on the other a scientist who hoped
to make sense of the empirical developmental stages of the categories of a
child’s understanding. One seemed to study the transcendental conditions
of science in general, while the other applied the methods of a particular
science to understand human development.
But the difference between the two as it is considered today is misleading.
As we shall see, the development of phenomenology in France made it
progressively more open to the contributions of the positive sciences, and
in his concept of “genetic epistemology” Piaget saw his work as being more
than just a description of empirical development; he hoped to explain the
validity of the categories whose genesis he studied.8 In the 1950s in France,

6 Janicaud, Heidegger in France, vol. II, p. 94.


7 See especially the bundle on “Objectivité,” 1952–3, Jean Beaulieu, “Objectivité,” January 16, 1953,
and the section of Psychology and the Object, January 16, 1953, IMEC, ALT2, E5–02.
8 See the debate between Derrida and Piaget in the 1959 conference, in Jean Piaget and Maurice de
Gandillac, eds., Entretiens sur les notions de genèse et de structure (Paris: Mouton, 1965).
116 Derrida post-existentialist
Piaget and Husserl looked more compatible than at any time before or
since. While Tran Duc Thao resorted to a Piaget-inspired analysis of human
development to resolve problems he encountered at the heart of Husserl’s
project, other phenomenologists would see in the German master the only
way to secure the objective validity of Piaget’s system. Piaget and Husserl
were figured as philosophical opponents arguing over the same questions.9
Jean Piaget was a child psychologist based in Geneva. Opposing innate
ideas of intelligence, observations and experiments on his own children
suggested to Piaget a developmental model of human intelligence. He
traced the movement from the child’s first reaction to the world to the
mature concepts of number, object, and even ethics. The result was a
set of stages, correlated to the age of the child, which defined normal
development.
One of Piaget’s most famous experiments tracked the genesis of our idea
of objectivity. A newborn child at first only pays attention to objects in its
field of vision; a toy placed behind a screen will cease to be of interest. But
as experience of the world leads the child to recognize that objects persist
even when they can no longer be seen, the child will start to look behind
the screen to retrieve the lost toy. According to Piaget’s interpretation, the
category of permanence had arisen genetically from the child’s interaction
with the world.10
The word “genesis,” the central preoccupation of Derrida’s Mémoire,
found its greatest resource and support in Piaget’s writings at the time.
It was Piaget who brought the term “genesis” to the center of French
philosophical vocabulary, and it is not surprising that Tran Duc Thao,
who explained Husserl’s turn to genetic philosophy, should follow his
analysis with a discussion of Piaget’s own genetic epistemology. Outside of
Derrida’s own work and those referring to Thao, in the ENS exposés, the
term genesis was only used in discussions of Piaget. Piaget even had exposés
devoted solely to his thought throughout the time Derrida was at the ENS,
a rare privilege.11 He was an unavoidable philosophical presence.12
This did not mean that Piaget was accepted uncritically, for often the
empirical nature of his work and its psychologism – the rooting of rational
9 See also ibid., p. 49.
10 See Jean Piaget, La Psychologie de l’intelligence, 3rd edn (Paris: A. Colin, 1952), pp. 130–3. This is the
example that Derrida used in his exposé “Psychologie et objet,” [undated, probably 1953–4], IMEC,
ALT2, E5–02.
11 IMEC, ALT2, E5–01, 02, 03. Individual treatments in 1950–1, 1956–7.
12 See Michel Verret, “Notion de réalité,” February 29, 1952; Arthur Krebs, “L’Idéalisme,” February
21, 1952; Beaulieu, “Objectivité”; Pierre Artemko, “Psychologie et notion de l’objet,” January 16,
1953; Derrida “Psychologie et objet”; all IMEC, ALT2, E5–02.
Genesis as a problem 117
structures in empirical psychology – sat badly with the philosophers at
the Ecole. Piaget’s work was distinguished from philosophy due to its
methodology, and the genesis he described was often regarded as false
because the development of the child always followed the same fixed path.
Rather than the upsurge of the truly new, it appeared to be the unveiling
of a pre-existent teleology.
Derrida too cited Piaget extensively, if critically.13 In an exposé on psychol-
ogy and the notion of the object, probably from the year 1954–5, Derrida
dedicated one of three sections to a presentation of Piaget’s theories. Der-
rida, like most of the others at the Ecole, opposed Piaget’s “psychologism.”
He felt that empirical psychological facts were insufficient to ground the
category of the object; they could not explain the “abrupt jump [saut
brusque]” from the empirical to the logical. No quantity of empirical and
messy data of the actual functioning of the brain could ever provide us
with the accuracy and clarity of logical laws. Piaget’s theories gained their
legitimacy, according to Derrida, by appealing to a pre-existing and unac-
knowledged logic. For instance, the genesis of the idea of the object through
the action of the child merely revealed an unacknowledged prior synthesis
of the object existing in the world.14
The insufficiencies of Piaget’s psychologism led Derrida, like at least
one of his ENS contemporaries, to find surer ground in transcendental
phenomenology.15 His arguments drew on the analyses in his Mémoire,
and I will discuss them later in this chapter. But it is significant that the
section on Husserl did not represent the final section of the exposé. In the
final section, Derrida concluded by reasserting, it seems, the rights of psy-
chology. Insofar as Husserl’s transcendental constitution was temporal, it
had a tripartite structure: retention, presence, and protention, correspond-
ing essentially to the past, present, and future. The retention of a previous
and already constituted moment was crucial because it suggested that the
transcendental was not a simple origin but was already contaminated with
the world: “philosophy of discovery [découvrement] and recovery [recouvre-
ment]. The recovery essential to discovery.”16 Temporality united the con-
stituting (philosophy/discovery) and the constituted (psychology/recovery)
and so the psychological and empirical analysis of the rise of the categories

13 We also have notes taken by Derrida on Piaget, especially the Psychologie de l’intelligence and Le
Jugement morale chez l’enfant (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1956).
14 As we shall see, this is the same analysis that Derrida will give of Husserl’s own early psychologistic
work, The Philosophy of Arithmetic, trans. D. Willard (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003).
15 See Beaulieu, “Objectivité.” 16 Derrida, “Psychologie et objet.”
118 Derrida post-existentialist
of experience in Piaget was pertinent to understanding the purely tran-
scendental genesis described by Husserl.
The appeal to Husserl to answer questions of objectivity and the validity
of science was, as I suggested in the last chapter, symptomatic of a new
approach to the phenomenologist. Trying to move away from Sartre’s
supposed “idealist” reading of Husserl, the students at the Ecole saw him
rather as trying to ground science, and for textual support they turned to his
later “genetic” writings. If a passive genesis (recovery) played an important
role in the production of scientific knowledge, then existence could no
longer simply be regarded as “absurd.” Rather, a careful phenomenological
analysis would explain the existence of scientific meaning latent in the
world of experience, not its impossibility.
By 1952, when Derrida entered the Ecole, references by other students
to Husserl had come to focus almost entirely on his logical work. In an
exposé from 1952–3, which drew heavily on Tran Duc Thao’s account, one
student concentrated exclusively on the attempts of both static and genetic
phenomenology to deal with the problem of objectivity.17 Following Thao,
the student drew attention to aporias at the heart of phenomenology,
ones that, he asserted, could only be understood through the appeal to a
materialist dialectic. Husserl was also referenced in exposés on “evidence,”
with his concentration on the ante-predicative sphere from which objects
can be constituted.18 At the Ecole the study of Husserl meant the possibility
of founding objective truth on immediate experience. Sense was not the free
act of the subject but was based on an intentional connection to the object.
The concern for scientificity at the Ecole linked Husserl’s transcendental
and Piaget’s empirical account of the genesis of objectivity. When Derrida
chose to study the problem of genesis in Husserl’s philosophy the project
fit perfectly into the philosophical and political mores of his context.

towards a materialist phenomenology


The changing approach to Husserl in the ENS reflected broader trends in
French philosophy, where a renewed interest in Husserl’s works served as
a means to delegitimize Sartre’s existentialism. The shift is most visible in
the difference between two books entitled Phénoménologie that appeared
in 1951 and 1954.
In his 1951 introduction to phenomenology, Francis Jeanson, Sartre’s stu-
dent and advocate, saw his mentor’s work as the ultimate expression of the

17 IMEC, ALT 2, E5–02. 18 Exposés from 1952–3, IMEC, ALT 2, E5–02.


Genesis as a problem 119
movement. Phenomenology, according to Jeanson, emphasized the respon-
sibility of the subject for the “sense” of the world, highlighting the role of “a
more radical zone of subjectivity.”19 Concentrating on a phenomenological
description of emotions, Jeanson asserted that phenomenology concerned
itself with those acts of which “consciousness is the author.”20 Once this
authorship was recognized, then one could take responsibility for the free
acts of consciousness.
But if Jeanson asserted the freedom of consciousness in the attribution of
“sense,” this did not, he thought, lead to idealism. For, like Sartre, Jeanson
acknowledged the existence of the inert en-soi that was independent of
the acts of consciousness. When Husserl seemed to suggest that this too
was the result of the constituting power of consciousness – and hence
verged on idealism – Jeanson explicitly rejected the idea.21 In addition
to the phenomenology of human subjectivity, there was another realm of
phenomenology, which investigated the phenomena that were independent
of the subject; the subject’s role was limited only to their understanding.
For this strand of phenomenology Jeanson pointed to the work of Maurice
Merleau-Ponty.
Three years later, Jean-François Lyotard published another overview of
phenomenology. In the first part of his book, he undertook of history of
Husserl’s thought. He traced the movement from the eidetic analyses of
the Logical Investigations (1900–1) that privileged stable essences, through
the constitution of those essences by a transcendental ego in Ideas (1913),
to a grounding of that constitution in a passive synthesis in the life-world
(Lebenswelt) (1930s). In this final stage the essence was “given” in intuition.22
Sartre, in Lyotard’s analysis, drew entirely from the second stage, which
saw the subject as author of the world.23 Instead of Sartre’s existentialism,
Lyotard gave pride of place to Merleau-Ponty and Tran Duc Thao. Both, he
suggested, understood the importance of passive synthesis, the discovery of
the final stage of Husserl’s thought, and thus reasserted the existing world
as the ground of that synthesis.

19 Francis Jeanson, La Phénoménologie, 2nd edn (Paris: Téqui, 1951), p. 8.


20 Jeanson, La phénoménologie, p. 70. 21 Ibid., p. 122; see also pp. 68–70.
22 Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations, trans. J. Findlay (New York: Humanities Press, 1970), and
Ideas: General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology, trans. W. Boyce Gibson (New York: Macmillan,
1952). For a representative work from the 1930s see Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of the European
Sciences, trans. D. Carr (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970).
23 See Jean-François Lyotard, La Phénoménologie (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1954), pp.
66 and 71. See also Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Les Sciences de l’homme et la phénoménologie,” in
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Parcours deux 1951–1961 (Lagrasse: Verdier, 2000), pp. 74–81 and 95–6.
120 Derrida post-existentialist
So Lyotard argued that Sartrean existentialism and indeed Jeanson’s
book offered the very type of idealism, a “simplistic subjectivism,” that
Jeanson had tried to reject.24 He tied Sartre to Husserl, the philosopher
of eidetic analyses, of the Wesensschau that gave us a privileged access
to “essences,” which governed all existence. Such an access to essences
was achieved not by privileging existence, but rather by bracketing it in
the phenomenological reduction. Sartre’s philosophy turned out to be
the opposite of existentialism.25 The criticism then seems to be in bad
faith, or at least ironic. How was the identification of Sartre’s system with
Husserlian idealism effected? The answer will take us through the history
of phenomenology and its fraught relationship to existentialism.
The ability to relate Sartre and Husserl arose from a rising interest
in Husserl’s development. Before 1950 most French phenomenologists had
ignored any change in Husserl’s thought, or had relegated it to a footnote.26
For the first half of the 1950s, however, it became the central preoccupa-
tion in French phenomenology. Virtually every article or book written on
Husserl presented itself first and foremost as a history of his thought. In
part the change can be read as the transference of interest, and the assim-
ilation of Husserl into the canon: a move from live theory to the history
of philosophy. But such an explanation misses the intellectual stakes of a
historical reading of Husserl’s thought.
The majority of philosophers in the 1950s strongly criticized what they
saw as the excesses of Sartre’s conception of freedom. This view was drawn
more from the broad analyses of Existentialism Is a Humanism than the
sophisticated phenomenological analyses of Being and Nothingness or, say,
The Imagination. Simultaneously, a similar charge of idealism was leveled
at the Husserl of Ideas, repeating the claims of Husserl’s first students such
as Edith Stein. Even better, Ideas was the main Husserlian text that Sartre
had used for his own philosophy. Thus while Beaufret’s seminal “A propos
de l’existentialisme” from 1945 hardly mentioned the founder of phe-
nomenology, by the early 1950s it became increasingly common to trace
Sartre’s philosophical genealogy back to Husserl. Pierre Thévenaz’s 1952
overview of the phenomenological movement, though drawing parallels
between Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, suggested that Sartre really took

24 Lyotard, La Phénoménologie, p. 5.
25 Even Jeanson saw Sartre as at the “essentialist” end of existentialism: La Phénoménologie, p. 123.
26 An exception would be Gaston Berger’s Le Cogito dans la philosophie de Husserl (Paris: Aubier,
Editions Montaigne, 1941). But this too hopes to understand the connection with existential
philosophy.
Genesis as a problem 121
his lead from Husserl.27 Sartre was a phenomenologist in the Husserlian
tradition because his definition of the pour-soi resulted from a radicaliza-
tion of the phenomenological reduction. While Husserl had reduced the
empirical world and factual claims of existence to arrive at the transcen-
dental sphere of the phenomenological subject, with Sartre everything was
effaced, equating the transcendental subject with the nothingness of the
pour-soi.28
If Sartre’s thought could be equated with a radicalization of Husserl’s
project as expressed in his Ideas, then an analysis of Husserl’s develop-
ment after Ideas – how he had moved beyond idealism – would work as a
surrogate critique of Sartrean existentialism. This was the motive behind
most historical studies of Husserl’s thought in the early 1950s. It did not,
necessarily, mean a criticism of existentialism in general. After all, with his
emphasis on the pre-predicative life-world as the ground for the constitu-
tion of science and reason, the later Husserl seemed to privilege existence
over essence: he might turn out to be more existentialist than Sartre. But
the concentration on the later Husserl did provide resources for a criticism
of Sartre’s version. It was for these reasons that Maurice Merleau-Ponty,
Tran Duc Thao, and Jean Wahl should place so much value on Husserl’s
final “genetic” phenomenology.29
The difference between the early and later Husserl was cast as his chang-
ing understanding of the relationship between the constituting ego and
intuition, moving from idealism to empiricism. Was the constituting ego
primary in that it could freely attribute sense to the content of intuition, as
some passages from Ideas seemed to suggest? Or rather did what was given

27 See, for attempts to follow the path from “phenomenology to existentialism,” Alphonse de Wael-
hens, “De la Phénoménologie à l’existentialisme,” in Jean Wahl, ed., Le Choix–le monde–l’existence
(Grenoble: B. Arthaud, 1947), and Emmanuel Levinas’s “avant-propos” to En découvrant l’existence
avec Husserl et Heidegger (Paris: Librairie philosophique J. Vrin, 1949). Pierre Thévenaz, “Qu’est-ce
que la phénoménologie?” Revue de théologie et de philosophie (1952), saw Husserl as surpassed, and
only of interest to those trying to understand Heidegger, Sartre, or Merleau-Ponty.
28 See Thévenaz, “Qu’est-ce que la phénoménologie?”, p. 296.
29 I draw my references predominantly from Derrida’s bibliography and have concentrated purely on
post-1950 French phenomenology. An analysis of Derrida’s other sources provides some interesting
insights into his work. For instance, the term “logocentric,” often seen as Derrida’s neologism, is
actually found in the work of an American phenomenologist, Marvin Farber: see his “The Idea of
a Presuppositionless Philosophy,” in Marvin Farber, ed., Philosophical Essays in Memory of Edmund
Husserl (Cambridge, Mass.: published for the University of Buffalo by the Harvard University Press,
1940), p. 53. Farber used “logocentric” to refer to the forgetting of origins diagnosed by Husserl in
the Crisis of the European Sciences. This term was borrowed from a 1926 review of the second edition
of Russell’s Principia Mathematica in the journal Isis to refer to the problems of the self-foundation
of logic. Logocentrism is a fault twinned with egocentrism, both assuming that rational thought
can ground itself.
122 Derrida post-existentialist
in intuition determine the way in which it was constituted, prefiguring and
guiding the action of the ego?
Traditionally in phenomenology the line had been blurred, and the
problem had not been formulated in this way. Gaston Berger in 1940
had tried to avoid the language of activity and passivity in constitution, to
preserve it “in its character of being at once intuitive and creative,”30 and yet
he did not really explain how this could be possible. In America, for many
like Marvin Farber the suspension involved in the reduction allowed what
was bracketed to be used as a fil conducteur, the constituted guiding the
process of constitution, even if the transcendental subject still constituted
alone. Many of these analyses relied on an immediate appeal to the concept
of intentionality that aimed to tie the constituting subject to the constituted
world, and to square the circle of an immediate givenness to consciousness
and the constitution of intentional objects. As Eugen Fink suggested, the
constituting and constituted are brought together by intentionality, but
Husserl never really developed this theme: “with Husserl the sense of
‘transcendental constitution,’ oscillates between the instauration of sense
and creation.”31
But with the Cold War, the question of the role of the ego and its
relationship to the world became of pressing importance. Communists
saw the subjectivist “idealist” reading as yet another form of bourgeois
ideology, because it emphasized the freedom of the subject, its ability to
constitute the world as it saw fit. Those emphasizing a prior constitution
that the subject passively received were easier to accept into the Marxist
fold, for they posed thought and philosophy as superstructures to more
originary, often material, processes.
On a more technical level, the discussion concentrated on Husserl’s con-
cept of intentionality. In the phenomenological model, it was intentionality
that allowed the subject to grasp the unity of an object. Our sensory input
is in constant flux. For instance, we may come across different perspec-
tives of what later we come to call a chair. We see it from above, below,
from different angles. From each of these perspectives the sensory input
is different. The question arises how we experience these changing aspects
or Abschattungen as those of a unified object. For Husserl, the answer was
intentionality, the perception of the object, which unifies the differing sense
impressions. Considered intentionally, each Abschattung is one particular
perspective on a unified object – perspective of . . . – and because of this
30 Berger, Le Cogito dans la philosophie de Husserl, p. 94.
31 Herman van Breda, ed., Problèmes actuels de phénoménologie (Brussels: Desclée de Brouwer, 1952),
p. 79.
Genesis as a problem 123
intentional relation, the ego is able to “constitute” its object through the
various Abschattungen. As it was understood in the 1950s in France, this
intentional object “constituted” by consciousness was called the “noema.”32
It is clear that the “noema” could not be “real” and existing in the world,
and the idealist viewpoint drawing on Ideas emphasized this. In addition,
since consciousness constituted the object in an original intuition that
it gave itself, consciousness could not itself be constituted (what would
constitute it?) and thus was radically free. It was this view that was imputed
to Sartre and espoused by a few others such as Père Van Breda, who tied the
acceptance of the “ego actif” to Heideggerian authenticity: it is authentic
to recognize the role of the transcendental ego in the constitution of the
world.33 Inauthenticity is the false belief that we are determined from the
outside.34 The move was repeated in Levinas’s reading of Husserl. For
Levinas, in the phenomenological reduction the “mind [esprit] becomes
conscious of itself (Selbstbesinnung), assumes self-responsibility and, at the
end of the day, its liberty.”35 Though Levinas resisted the idea of the free
construction of objects, the nature of Husserlian intentionality meant that
we could never be surprised: “Sinngebung, the fact of thinking and of
giving a sense, intellection – is not an engagement like any other. It is
liberty. Every engagement is, conversely, reducible in principle to a sense,
and thus – before even being a subjugation of mind [Esprit] to beings – it
is liberty and origin.”36 Levinas admitted that we returned to the “things
themselves,” but these found their ground in a transcendental sphere,
which was itself part of consciousness. In the terms of an earlier French
interpreter of Husserl, intuition was not receptive, but “creative.”37 This
group of scholars placed particular emphasis on the famous Fink essay
“Phänomenologie und die gegenwärtige Kritik,” which contested the neo-
Kantians’ assertion that phenomenology was a failed critical philosophy:
setting out to discover the conditions for appearance, and thus establish
a certain science, according to the neo-Kantians, phenomenology finally

32 See Aron Gurwitsch, “On the Intentionality of Consciousness,” in Farber, Philosophical Essays in
Memory of Edmund Husserl, pp. 74–7. In modern phenomenology the noema is no longer considered
to be the intentional object but rather those conditions that the object must fulfill to be recognized
as such.
33 See Tran Duc Thao, “Existentialisme et materialisme dialectique,” Revue de métaphysique et de
morale (1949), for the implications of Sartre’s espousal of this idea.
34 Henri Birault, ed., Phénoménologie-existence (Paris: A. Colin, 1953), p. 7.
35 Levinas, En découvrant l’existence, p. 8. It is in this sense that Levinas saw Husserl’s work as distinct
from Heidegger’s, where “man is already submerged in existence” (p. 25).
36 Ibid., p. 39. This was, however, Levinas’s central point of criticism. If we can never be surprised in
consciousness, it is because Husserl’s conception of phenomenology was too theoretical.
37 Berger, Le Cogito dans la philosophie de Husserl, p. 100.
124 Derrida post-existentialist
devolved into irrationalist intuitionism. But such a critique, Fink suggested,
relied on a false interpretation of phenomenology’s goals. Rather than
seeking the conditions that had to be fulfilled for anything to appear to
us, Husserl’s project was far more radical: examining the transcendental
sphere, he sought the very “origin of the world.”38
It was in response to this radical subject centeredness that, in the early
1950s, the advocates of Husserl’s later philosophy countered the idealist
interpretation. Moving beyond the absolute idealism of Ideas, they argued,
Husserl had restricted the constituting power of the transcendental subject.
The power of constitution found its mirror or parallel in initial sense
impressions and the “flux vécu.” These realists reemphasized the intuitive
element of phenomenology: the passive synthesis that they argued was the
ground for all constitution. But rather than seeing this intuition as part
of transcendental consciousness, they argued that the later Husserl had
come ever closer to identifying it with the exterior world. That is, it is not
surprising that the perceiver of the chair should objectify and detach it from
its surrounding context, because the limits of the object are already, as it
were, inscribed in the flux, a synthesis we absorb passively. We constitute a
noema of the chair not because we arbitrarily decide to divide up reality in
that way to give it sense, but because it is already given to us as unified, our
constituting consciousness merely repeats in our mind an already existing
reality: a synthesis in the world precedes the mind’s own.
This was the approach taken by Jean Wahl in his analysis of Husserl’s
later work Experience and Judgment. Wahl noted in Husserl’s later work an
“underlying passivity [passivité sous-jacente]” that preceded and determined
predicative judgments.39 According to Wahl, Husserl had moved from a
constructive idealism to an “ante-predicative realism.”40 It was the same
position that had been proposed by Tran Duc Thao, whose work Wahl
cited approvingly.41
The question of active vs. passive syntheses had particular importance
for the study of the transcendental ego. If the ego was fully transcendent
38 Ricoeur’s analysis in the Introduction to his translation of Husserl’s Idées directrices pour une
phenomenology, trans. P. Ricoeur (Paris: Gallimard, 1950) suggests that this emphasis on intuition
moderates, even in Ideas, the idealist element of Husserl’s thought. See Thao’s critique of Fink: Tran
Duc Thao, Phénoménologie et matérialisme dialectique (Paris: Editions Minh-Tân, 1951), pp. 85–7.
Thao thinks that this idealist version of Husserl’s thought breaks down with the question of others
who cannot be simply intentional objects.
39 Van Breda, Problèmes actuels, p. 85. See also Thévenaz, “Qu’est ce que la phénoménologie?”, p. 30.
40 Van Breda, Problèmes actuels, p. 105.
41 See also Pos in ibid. Pos put emphasis on the descriptive side of phenomenology, which, he thought,
leads to a realist position, at least with respect to the natural sciences (see especially p. 48). For the
human sciences, however, Pos felt that the constitutive ideal of phenomenology had a greater value.
Genesis as a problem 125
and the “origin of the world” then it could not be studied empirically. But
if, in the later Husserl, the reduction had broken down, if the ego was no
longer absolutely and de jure prior to the world, then mundane science
could be marshaled to understand it. Sociology, psychology, linguistics,
even dialectical materialism could be deployed to study the constituting
power of consciousness. Against the “existentialists,” who Thao thought
betrayed this return to the real by “refusing to stain their notions with any
mundane predicate,” he asserted that Husserl’s later development opened
up a place for the positive sciences.42
It was for this reason that Merleau-Ponty had such an important place in
the analyses of so many of these thinkers. Merleau-Ponty seemed to have
legitimated the marrying of phenomenological and empirical analyses,
arguing that “all forms of thought show, in a certain sense, solidarity with
each other.”43 While Husserl still maintained a sharp distinction between
the two, Merleau-Ponty had upset the hierarchy of the transcendental over
the mundane, positing instead a “reciprocal envelopment.”44
But how, according to Merleau-Ponty, did this relationship work? With
the increased emphasis on the Lebenswelt, our understanding of the world
and essences arose from direct contact with experience; he described a “phe-
nomenology of genesis.” Existence and experience were prior to essences
that arose from them. Because essences were generated from pre-predicative
experience, we could never fully transcend our time and place, as Husserl
had originally thought. The human subject already finds himself in a world
with a pre-existing language and society.
But this enrooting in a particular moment did not imply historical
relativism. What seemed contingent and random to the eye of the historian,
linguist, or sociologist would show itself to have a coherent meaning from
the position of the “talking subject”:
It is no longer a question, as it was in the old text the Logical Investigations . . . of
making us leap out of language and attain a universe of thought under which
language would be understood as a particular sector. The reflection on language
consists now in rediscovering the speaking subject, not a transcendental subject

42 Thao, “Existentialisme et matérialisme dialectique,” p. 320.


43 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Le Philosophe et la sociologie,” Cahiers internationales de sociologie (1951),
p. 50. See also “Sur la phénoménologie du langage,” in van Breda, Problèmes actuels, pp. 94–6, and
his “Sciences de l’homme et la phénoménologie.”
44 Merleau-Ponty, “Le Philosophe et la sociologie,” p. 55. See also “Sur la phénoménologie du langage,”
p. 94, where he talks about the “dialectic” between the two. According to Merleau-Ponty, however,
Husserl never fully acknowledged the homogeneity between psychology and phenomenology, and
so settled rather for the notion of “parallelism”: “Sciences de l’homme et la phénoménologie,”
p. 94.
126 Derrida post-existentialist
disengaged of all linguistic situations in which he can find himself, but a speaking
subject who aims at truth and reaches a presumptively universal thought only by
way of a certain linguistic situation and by the exercise of language.45

By taking the view of the speaking subject we could give sense to what
the historian/linguist/sociologist saw as merely contingent. But it would
give us the sense of that experience, not of experience in general. The goal
was no longer to find a universal logos behind all reality, but rather to find
a logos in reality.46 Science and philosophy studied the same thing from
different perspectives, one as positive fact, the other as sense; each could
contribute to the other. And our constant confrontation with the diverse
findings of the human sciences would test and reevaluate our sense of what
is universal; the philosopher, according to Merleau-Ponty, had to “place
himself at the school of facts.”47
This constant confrontation of phenomenological analysis with the
results of history, sociology, and ethnology was possible, according to
Merleau-Ponty, because of the essential intersubjective nature of phe-
nomenology. Because the philosopher “is always situated, he is always
individualized, and this is why he needs dialogue; the surest way for him to
breach his own limits is to enter into communication with other situations.”
Citing Husserl, Merleau-Ponty affirmed that “transcendental subjectivity
is intersubjectivity.”48
The vast majority of phenomenologists in 1950s France rejected the
“idealist” model, and followed Merleau-Ponty in the revalorization of exis-
tence. But there existed too a grave problem with the “realist” route. For
the “materialist” complication of the idealist picture referred back to a pre-
existing and independent reality, which was already constituted: a world of
objects, societies, cultures, minds. But if constitution was the act of a tran-
scendental subject, then it begged the question as to who had constituted
this reality. If all constitution referred back to a ready-constituted substra-
tum, we appear to have placed the cart before the horse, or entered into an
eternal regress. Similarly, if the transcendental subject itself is constituted,
who is doing the constituting? These are questions that Derrida would face
in the composition of his thesis.

45 Merleau-Ponty, “Sciences de l’homme et la phénoménologie,” p. 108.


46 And the sociologist, or linguist, can only understand other societies or languages based on the model
of his own. Merleau-Ponty, “Le Philosophe et la sociologie,” p. 59.
47 Merleau-Ponty, “Sciences de l’homme et la phénoménologie,” p. 122.
48 Ibid., p. 62. See also “Sur la phénoménologie du langage,” pp. 104–9.
Genesis as a problem 127

derrida’s problem of genesis


Derrida’s 1954 Mémoire thesis was a product of its times. First, Derrida
analyzed Husserl on his own terms, and not those of the existentialists,
who bundled him together with Heidegger.49 Second, Derrida’s treatment
of Husserl took the form of a history of his thought. Third, mirroring the
central debate in French phenomenology, Derrida’s analyses focused on the
differend between activity and passivity implicit in the notion of genesis.
He adopted the terms that a predominantly communist phenomenological
school had developed to criticize Sartrean existentialism.
Derrida’s Problem of Genesis began with an Avant-propos and an Intro-
duction, before the main part of the work, which was an extended chrono-
logical analysis of Husserl’s philosophy. Significantly it had no conclusion.
Within the body of the work, a certain guiding structure becomes clear. The
historical part was divided into four sections: 1. The pre-phenomenological
period of Husserl’s work, including the Philosophy of Arithmetic (1896) and
the first volume of the Logical Investigations (the Prolegomena to a Pure
Logic) (1900); 2. static phenomenology, which spanned Husserl’s work
from the second volume of the Logical Investigations (1901) up until Ideas
(1913); 3. genetic phenomenology, in Experience and Judgment (1927) and
the Cartesian Meditations (1930); 4. The final “historical” phenomenology
of Husserl’s Crisis (1936).
The four sections may have outlined a developmental history of Husserl’s
thought, but a close look shows that each was structured around a single
aporia. Because at each stage the same difficulties arose, when, as was the
norm, Derrida came to present his Mémoire to the third and fourth year
Normaliens preparing for the agrégation, he only discussed the first section.
All the essential elements of his argument could be found there, and there
was no need to present the whole work.50 Appropriately, as we shall see, this
first section dealt with what Derrida felt to be the pre-phenomenological
stage of Husserl’s work. The analysis of the problem of genesis did not have
to pass through phenomenology.
Derrida started earlier in Husserl’s work than almost any other scholar,
studying the Philosophy of Arithmetic, which was written in 1896.51 The

49 Although, as we shall see, Heidegger was not quite as absent as it would at first appear.
50 Jacques Derrida, “Problèmes de la genèse chez Husserl,” [undated, probably 1954], IMEC, ALT2,
E5–03. See also Derrida, “Objectivité.”
51 Derrida’s analysis of the Philosophy of Arithmetic follows closely that of Marvin Farber, The Foun-
dation of Phenomenology (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1943).
128 Derrida post-existentialist
choice seems perverse. Traditional accounts of Husserl’s development,
including his own self-analysis, discount the Philosophy of Arithmetic as
psychologistic, and many histories, including Thao’s, simply ignored it.
Derrida paired it with the first volume of the Logical Investigations. The
pairing makes sense, because, for Derrida, the first volume of the Logi-
cal Investigations was pre-phenomenological too, preceding the discovery
of the phenomenological reduction.52 Both operated at the level of the
mundane and constituted.
But apart from this particular unity between the two texts, there was
another line of continuity that ran through Derrida’s analysis. For Der-
rida was unwilling to regard one or the other as simply psychologistic
or simply logicist, as many commentators had argued. The Philosophy
of Arithmetic attempted to understand the psychological processes that
undergirded mathematics. But if logic were purely the result of psycho-
logical laws, there would be no way to ascertain its validity; there is no
reason why our minds could not be incorrectly wired. As Derrida said,
“the discontinuity between logic or objective knowledge and psychology is
thus one of essence.”53 In order to assure the objectivity of such operations,
Husserl appealed to Brentano’s concept of intentionality, which he thought
could give him immediate consciousness of a logical object.54
Husserl set out to ground the concept of number, or rather that of
plurality on which it was based. Following Weierstrass, Husserl asserted
that this was the only presupposition needed for arithmetic, which would
follow if the concept of plurality could be successfully grounded. According
to Husserl, plurality arose from the process of abstraction. We can abstract
from several objects in order to find the category of an “object in general”
and so eventually “number.” Derrida, however, thought that, to be able to
abstract from a situation, that situation must already be given in a synthetic
unity. There must be a synthesis that exists from the first – an a priori

52 It is not entirely clear what Derrida meant by the first volume. Husserl’s logical investigations
were divided up into three parts: a first volume, the Prolegomena to a Pure Logic, and then a
second volume divided into two which contained the actual investigations. Derrida only cites the
Prolegomena in his chapter on the first volume. He asserted that the second volume achieved the
“properly phenomenological level,” but it is not cited. Rather, his argument that phenomenology
was only breached after the first volume, follows that by Thao, which draws the reader only to
the second part of the second volume, especially the fifth and sixth investigation, as the beginning
of phenomenology. See Thao, Phénoménologie et materialisme dialectique, pp. 43–51. Later, Derrida
would make a distinction between the first four investigations and the later ones, which marked
a turn to subjectivity, see his 1966 article “La Phénoménologie et la clôture de la métaphysique,”
first published in the Greek journal Epokhe and in French in Alter: Revue de Phénoménologie (2000),
pp. 69–84, p. 76.
53 Derrida, The Problem of Genesis, p. 10. 54 Ibid., p. 15.
Genesis as a problem 129
synthesis – from which to abstract. If not, it would be impossible to cleave
experience along the lines of the essential and inessential, to subtract just
the right elements of experience to arrive at the purity of objecthood. The
process of abstraction must then be secondary to an originary synthesis that
made it possible; the psychological act had to be founded upon a unity that
was already given.55 Derrida’s analysis suggested that even as Husserl tried
to found logic on the concrete acts of the subject he was forced to recognize
the importance of a prior synthesis for which it was not responsible. His
psychology of arithmetic was saved from solipsistic relativism by the covert
assumption of a non-subjective and passively accepted logical principle.
So the “contre-pied” of the Logical Investigations, an outline of the pre-
given structures of logic, was not a change in direction at all, but rather
the thematization of the pre-given logical synthesis that the Philosophy
of Arithmetic had shown to be essential. What Husserl had implied but
never fully elaborated in the Philosophy of Arithmetic became the center of
discussion in the Logical Investigations: a logical synthesis. But if the direct
apperception of a theoretical logic had to be entirely purified of empirical
content, then it was hard to understand how it could be related to reality;
it seemed to offer a type of platonic idealism with all the concomitant
problems. How could the theory or logic thus accessed be a theory or logic
of something? The trick was to find a logical synthesis that was not simply
formalism: it had to be concrete.
Husserl only sketched a solution. To avoid the charge of a hypostatized
formalism, Husserl refused any absolute determination of logic, calling it
rather an infinite possibility. But the infinite possibility, which suggested an
eternal becoming of logic, sat uncomfortably with the static and essentialist
claims of the Logical Investigations. As Derrida said: “if in a scholastic or
Kantian perspective, invoking a closed, rigorous formal system, constituted
for eternity, the putting in brackets of every historical genesis is authorized,
this remains contestable in principle, but coherent. If, on the contrary, logic
is a pure possibility, open to the infinite, then a concrete becoming of logic
has, it seems, to be granted existence and credit. Because this becoming
is not empirical, what is its status?”56 To shore up his logicism, Derrida
thought that Husserl had surreptitiously relied on a return to genesis that
could only be empirical.

55 This was Frege’s point in his famous criticism of Husserl: “the number is no whit more an object of
psychology or of mental processes, than, let us say, the North Sea is.” Gottlob Frege, The Foundations
of Arithmetic, trans. J. Austin (New York: Philosophical Library, 1950), p. 34.
56 Derrida, The Problem of Genesis, pp. 46–7.
130 Derrida post-existentialist
Husserl, according to Derrida, oscillated between two contradictory and
yet mutually implicating stances. Either his philosophy was a psychologism,
a stance explicit in the Philosophy of Arithmetic and implicit in the Logical
Investigations, where “pure concepts were created by a real genesis.” Or,
implicitly in the Philosophy of Arithmetic and explicitly in the first volume
of the Logical Investigations, Husserl appealed to a logicism where “the real
genesis presupposed pure a priori logical forms, in order to be understood
and to be organized in objective experience.” Derrida summed up the
difficulty: “It is not possible to choose between a genesis of sense or a sense
of genesis.”57 That is, insofar as logical laws are the result of an empirical
genesis, created by the acts of concrete subjectivity, there are no laws to
determine their rise, we cannot give them universal validity; the genesis
has no guiding sense. But insofar as genesis has a sense, and is governed by
a prior logical synthesis, then it becomes difficult to understand how that
prior synthesis is valid and active in the world – the sense has no genesis.
Working on the level of the constituted sciences of logic and psychology
denied Husserl any middle way. The opposition between the two must be
overcome: enter phenomenology.
The flip in the first section of the book mirrored the central debate
in French philosophy, and both sides had been found wanting. Neither
a purely active constituting subject nor a passively receptive ego could
comprehend the emergence and validity of logic. The “idealists” and the
“realists” both provided inadequate understandings. Of course, one may
object that the French phenomenologists in the 1950s were discussing
Husserl’s phenomenological works and predominantly those of the final
period. But, as we shall see, the structure and organization of Derrida’s
essay suggested that the problem would not go away even in the final stages
of Husserl’s work.
In Derrida’s account, Husserl’s turn to phenomenology in the second
volume of the Logical Investigations ushered in a new stage of his thought,
but the same chiasmic aporia would reappear at the next level. Even though
Husserl deepened his analyses throughout his life, according to Derrida,
he could never move beyond the essential ambivalence at the heart of
“genesis.” Like in the Philosophy of Arithmetic, the texts of the first half
of each stage tried to emphasize genesis, but Derrida saw in each a more
fundamental synthesis preceding it. Thus though in the Lessons on Internal
Time Consciousness Husserl discussed “noematic” temporality, the process
57 Ibid., p. 48.
Genesis as a problem 131
of change was referred to a pre-given synthesis: “it is the meaning of
time that is static and that authorizes the whole of Husserl’s analysis.”58
At the next stage, genetic phenomenology, “it is because the unities of
the substrates are already constituted that it is going to be possible to
retrace a ‘second’ genesis of categoric judgment.”59 Again, in the final
stage of Husserl’s life, his turn to a historical philosophy was tamed by a
preconstituted teleology. At each stage genesis, to guarantee its objectivity,
had to appeal to a founding synthesis, a “sense of genesis.”
On the other side of the zig-zag, Ideas repeated the move of the first
volume of the Logical Investigations, the necessity of appealing to a real
genesis to explain the contact between the formal and the real. In order to
understand the provenance of the static synthesis, Husserl was forced to
reinject temporality through the role of the constituting subject. Shunning
a ready-constituted goal, Husserl expressed this temporality as a movement
guided by an “infinite idea,” and the development would be experienced
as “indefinite,” open to the future.60 The Cartesian Meditations, like the
Crisis after it, relied on an infinite idea too.61
But the appeal to the infinite by the finite human, according to Der-
rida, was contradictory.62 As Derrida suggested, “instead of unveiling the
absolute consciousness of an essential finitude, out of idealism, he gives
a concrete content to an indefinite . . . The inauthenticity of a supposed
intuition of the indefinite in the face of the noncompletion of the present,
and the indetermination of the future is exceeded in ‘anguish’ faced with
the absolutely indeterminate.”63
Derrida’s thought did not then resolve onto any one of the two poles
that structured French phenomenology in the 1950s. In particular, though
dealing with the questions and themes of communist and scientistic phe-
nomenologists like Tran Duc Thao, he did not adopt their reading of
Husserl. Rather than settling on one side, Derrida suggested that at each
stage one had to choose between a genesis that, to be guaranteed, had to
be undergirded by logic, and a logical foundation that itself required a
genesis. As Derrida suggested, “we always run up against one and the same
irreducible paradox.”64 This is why, even at the end of his life, Husserl had
insisted to his sister that “we must start again from the beginning.”65 Even
his last attempt was unable to solve the paradox at the heart of the problem
of genesis.
58 Ibid., p. 60. 59 Ibid., p. 121. 60 See especially ibid., pp. 97–8.
61 Ibid., pp. 148–9, and pp. 172–6. 62 Ibid., pp. 148–9 and pp. 177–8.
63 Ibid., p. 203, note. See also p. 5. 64 Ibid., p. 108. 65 Cited in ibid., p. 178.
132 Derrida post-existentialist
the many uses of the dialectic
Derrida’s unwillingness to privilege either side of the duality – the consti-
tuted vs. the constituting – led him to assert a dialectic across it. In his 1990
preface to the student Mémoire, Derrida suggested that his use of the word
“dialectic” was “a kind of road sign about the philosophical and political
map according to which a student of philosophy tried to find his bearings in
1950s France.”66 But if the word “dialectic” was a signpost, it is not entirely
clear where it was pointing. The interpretation of phenomenology as a
dialectical philosophy had a long history. We must remember the Hegelian
atmosphere in which Husserl’s philosophy was first read in France. The
oft-cited parallelism between Hegel’s and Husserl’s phenomenology, and
the analyses of time found with Alexandre Kojève and Alexandre Koyré in
the 1930s, primed later readers of Husserl to see his thought as compatible
with dialectic.67
Thao had used the dialectic to guide his own version of phenomenology.
Like Merleau-Ponty and Wahl, he hoped to show that Husserl had in the
later part of his life moved to privilege the empirical and the historical.
According to Thao, the internal exigencies of Husserl’s work pushed him
ever further away from his early idealism. Thus the return to the life-world
in the final period was really a return to the concrete and the mundane, a
tendency towards materialism that was only limited by the blinkers imposed
by Husserl’s socio-economic position. The second part of Thao’s book took
the step that Husserl refused; it was a reworking of phenomenology based
upon dialectical materialism, suggesting that a Marxist understanding of
matter would explain and justify Husserl’s phenomenological analyses. For
Thao, it was the dialectic that prevented his materialism from becoming
mere historicism and relativism; matter was dialectic, and this explained the
genesis of consciousness, which was merely a superstructure. On the other
hand the mathematical philosopher Jean Cavaillès, though writing almost
a decade before, had seen a formal dialectic as the necessary solution to the
problems of phenomenology, a dialectic of the concept, rather than of the
world, which allowed his theory to escape from the pitfalls of formalism
or psychologism.68
But in appealing to a dialectic between the constituting and the consti-
tuted, Derrida rejected both one-sided versions. Though his language at the
66 Ibid., pp. xv–xvi.
67 See Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, trans. J. Nichols (New York: Basic Books
1969), and Alexandre Koyré, “Hegel à Jena,” in his Etudes d’histoire de la pensée philosophique (Paris:
A. Colin, 1961).
68 We will discuss Cavaillès’s analysis of Husserl in the next chapter.
Genesis as a problem 133
time might seem to have allied him with the communists – the necessity of
turning to a dialectic to understand the aporias in Husserl’s philosophy –
a closer look at his analysis shows this not to be the case. Rather than
being restricted to matter that was passively grasped by consciousness, as
in Thao’s case, Derrida’s dialectic was the meeting and mutual implication
of activity and passivity, the transcendental subject and reality, subjectivity
and objectivity, philosophy and history. Indeed, one of the key sites of the
dialectic for Derrida was time, which united the constituted (the retention
of a previous present) with the constituting (the present). Derrida felt the
need to reassert the role of a constituting subjectivity, which would be more
than just the superstructure to dialectical materialism that it had become
in Thao’s system.
It was those phenomenologists who used the dialectic to bridge the sup-
posed rupture at the heart of phenomenology – of the originary givenness of
intuition and the power of the constituting ego – whose work most closely
resembles Derrida’s, and the examples are predominantly Christian. One
important figure was the Protestant philosopher Pierre Thévenaz in his 1951
contribution to the Actes de colloque international de phénoménologie. There
was a tension in Husserl’s work, he thought, between its logical ground and
temporal starting point. The world may be constructed from a constituting
ego that has logical precedence, but we find ourselves first in the natural
attitude. If we have to start from what is really only secondary, it is difficult
to see how we can rely on our results; they are built on unsure ground.
The first movement, the reduction, must be a jump out of the empirical
and mundane, but we can never arrive at the transcendental, because each
time we perform the reduction it is a “reprise that must give meaning to
what we have lived and thought.”69 Thévenaz saw Husserl’s method as a
circle rather than a straight line, the process ever further elucidating what
is given and thus providing firmer ground for another épochè. There was
never a pure transcendental sphere, never a complete beginning.
But the most developed attempt to move beyond the privileging of
either the constituting ego or the givenness of intuition was the early
work of Paul Ricoeur. Ricoeur’s understanding of Husserl drew in part
from his own philosophical project: a philosophy of the will. Following
Levinas’s criticism of Husserl, Ricoeur suggested that the essential problems
of Husserl’s thought derived from his confinement to the theoretical sphere.
Ricoeur, in contrast, wanted to develop a phenomenology of the voluntary

69 Pierre Thévenaz, “La Question du point de depart radical chez Descartes et Husserl,” in van Breda,
Problèmes actuels, p. 22.
134 Derrida post-existentialist
and involuntary that would tackle the question of the passivity or activity of
consciousness head on.70 By extending a noetico-noematic analysis to the
“affective and practical sector of consciousness,” describing the correlation
between intentions and intentional objects – how something is approached
and what it is, with respect to action rather than thought – phenomenology
could, Ricoeur thought, make singular progress.71 This move would, in
particular, serve to complicate the idea of the “‘constituting’ power of
consciousness” and thus move beyond Husserl’s transcendental idealism.
Ricoeur’s phenomenology of the will was thus a direct attempt to confront
the central issue of French phenomenology in the period. For by studying
the involuntary intentionally, one could limit the pretentions of the subject
to set itself up as primitive reality.72
The difficulty about the involuntary, the unconscious, was that it could
not be understood as such. Insofar as it remained unconscious it was
not susceptible to phenomenological description, and the very process
of that description denatured it by rendering it conscious. Thus Ricoeur
limited himself to understanding not the involuntary itself, but rather “the
living relationship between the voluntary and the involuntary.”73 The “will
[vouloir]” was able to give the involuntary a meaning, to place it into a larger
context, to give, say, emotion and desire sense. In this way, the voluntary
was constitutive of and qualified the involuntary. The idea of the will gave
a privileged access to questions of constitution. But because the will gave
meaning to the preexisting involuntary it was no longer creative. Rather
there existed a “dialectic of the voluntary and the involuntary.”74 Neither
side could be reduced, neither the freedom of the constituting will nor
the resistance of the involuntary, “the bipolarity of its condition appears
irreducible.”75
Ricoeur’s own project was reflected in his analyses of Husserl’s philosophy
and his interventions in the debates occurring at the time. For instance,
in his reading of the second volume of Ideas, Ricoeur was very keen to
separate intentional analyses from idealism: “[intentional analyses] consist
in departing from an already elaborated ‘sense’ in an object, which has
a unity and permanence before the mind [esprit], and in undoing the

70 See especially his doctoral thesis, Paul Ricoeur, Philosophie de la volonté, 2 vols. (Paris: Aubier, 1949).
71 Paul Ricoeur, “Méthodes et tâches d’une phénoménologie de la volonté,” in van Breda, Problèmes
actuels, p. 113.
72 By posing the question at this level, Ricoeur also hoped to counter any premature attempt to move
to the Husserl of the Crisis, and to conduct his analyses in the terms set by Husserl’s Ideas.
73 Ricoeur, “Méthodes et tâches d’une phénoménologie de la volonté,” p. 119.
74 Ibid., p. 126. 75 Ibid., p. 133.
Genesis as a problem 135
multiple intentions which interlace in that ‘sense.’”76 It was certainly not
a question of creation, even though Husserl himself made this mistake.
Rather, according to Ricoeur, Husserl’s analysis set up two poles, akin to
Kant’s transcendental idealism and empirical realism. When concentrating
on the noema, engaged in description, phenomenology seemed to veer
towards empirical realism. Consciousness aimed at stability even across
different sense impressions: red was still red even in different circumstances,
under a green light, at night, etc. Ricoeur explicitly contrasted this aspect
of Husserl’s work to that of the “existentialist” phenomenologists, who, he
suggested, attempted to dissociate existence and objectivity.77
On the other hand the ego for Husserl was also a free subject: “I am at
two extremities: as a man at the extreme of objectification, as a transcenden-
tal Ego at the extreme of subjectivity.”78 Ricoeur tied this understanding
directly to his work on the voluntary and the involuntary. We can still
approach the concrete pole through the empirical sciences, by understand-
ing the person in his influences and motivation, even if we must preserve
the possibility of a transcendental freedom.79
It was the same problematic that Ricoeur faced in the most famous of
his early essays, “Husserl et le sens de l’histoire.” Here, Ricoeur tried to
understand the relationship between the constituted and the constituting,
between the ego and the history, in which – according to the later Husserl –
it was embroiled. As Ricoeur asked, “how are we to understand that on
the one hand historical Man is constituted in an absolute consciousness
and that, on the other, the meaning that history develops engulfs the
phenomenological Man who operates that consciousness? It appears that
here a difficult dialectic of engulfing-engulfed [englobant-englobé] between
the transcendental ego and the meaning that unified history announces
itself.”80 The relationship between history and the ego, related in Ricoeur’s
eyes to a similar paradoxical relationship between an ego and the other
egos it constituted as described in the fifth Cartesian Meditation, presented
an aporia that for Ricoeur could not be surpassed, but only approached
through a dialectical understanding.81
For Ricoeur the dialectic was not a solution to the tensions at the heart
of phenomenology, as it had been for Thao. Rather the dialectic was merely
76 Ricoeur, “Analyses dans Ideen II,” in Birault, Phénoménologie-existence, p. 24.
77 Ibid., p. 32. 78 Ibid., p. 60.
79 See François Dosse, Paul Ricoeur: les sens d’une vie (Paris: La Découverte, 1997). Ricoeur was very
much influenced by Merleau-Ponty but felt he erred on the side of immanence: p. 130.
80 Paul Ricoeur, A l’école de la phénoménologie (Paris: J. Vrin, 1986), p. 26.
81 Ibid., pp. 56–7. Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, trans. D. Cairns (The Hague: M. Nijhoff,
1960).
136 Derrida post-existentialist
the recognition of their incomprehensibility. The same is true for Derrida.
Despite his constant avowal of the dialectic, at other places he was clear that
“the word ‘dialectic’ has only an analogical sense.”82 It was a dialectic only
at the formal level, oscillating from one to another constituted pole.83 What
was driving the dialectic was to be found at the transcendental level, where
the opposition between the ideal and the material as yet made no sense.
For this reason, the dialectic was not a solution to the aporias of genesis.
Dialectic, he wrote, does not “efface the dilemma,”84 in fact “to say that
the meaning of genesis is dialectic . . . is not to propose a ‘solution’ to the
problem; it is simply to affirm that in a dialectic known as such, the aporia
‘understands itself’ as a ‘real’ aporia. So perhaps we shall meet up with
philosophy.”85 The last line of the original draft of Derrida’s Mémoire was:
“the absolute ‘motif’ of every history of philosophy and every philosophy
of history is a dialectical motif.”86 But, when Derrida came to submit his
thesis, and indeed to publish it forty years later, he erased that line, an
effacing of the dialectic that is fitting given its place in the thesis.

christian existentialism?
The analogical nature of the dialectic and the closeness to Ricoeur suggests
another subterranean influence in Derrida’s Mémoire.87 As I suggested
in the last chapter, in his first few semesters at the ENS, Derrida had
translated Christian existentialism into phenomenology by a reworking
of Kierkegaard’s aesthetic and ethical stages into different reductions. In
reading the more sophisticated phenomenology from the latter part of
Derrida’s career at the Ecole, many of the arguments seem similar. In fact
the very structure of Derrida’s Mémoire draws heavily on his earlier work.
One can read each section of his Mémoire as showing by turns the limits of
an aesthetic and an ethical reduction of genesis. The similarities between
Derrida’s early Kierkegaardian essays and his Mémoire suggest that the
Christian existentialism that had informed his earlier work could well be
at work in the Mémoire itself: the problem of genesis may reveal itself
formally to be a dialectic, but at a more fundamental level it could well be
a mystery.

82 Derrida, The Problem of Genesis, p. xxii.


83 Derrida is very keen to point out that the dialectic cannot be regional and therefore cannot be
determined “in a metaphysical sense, be it materialist or idealist.” Ibid., p. xx.
84 Ibid., p. 132. 85 Ibid., p. xlii. Cf. also pp. xxvii–xxviii.
86 See Althusser’s copy, IMEC, ALT2, F3–03.01.
87 For Ricoeur’s debt to Marcel, see Dosse, Paul Ricoeur: les sens d’une vie, p. 133.
Genesis as a problem 137
A presentation of Marcel’s notion of mystery makes clear its pertinence
to the issues discussed in the Mémoire. Marcel’s most developed discussion
of the mystery can be found in his book Etre et Avoir, a continuation of
his Journal Métaphysique from the 1920s. The mystery was opposed to the
problem. In Marcel’s understanding of the “problem,” the framework in
which a problem was posed was not called into question by the process
of attempting to answer it. The solution of a problem followed paths that
were already laid out. With a “problem” we are endowed with the resources
necessary to solve it.
On the other hand, as the name suggests, the mystery was impenetrable
to rational thought. It could not be further explicated; rather, like Derrida’s
aporia, it had simply to be “recognized.” But the notion of mystery was not
merely theological dogma, an assertion of the limits of human thought.
There were specific and important reasons for its irreducibility. As Marcel
described it, it is in the nature of a mystery “not to be completely before
me. It is as if in that zone, the distinction between the in me and the
outside loses its meaning.”88 The thinking subject was itself embroiled in
the mystery, its own faculties brought into question.
The locus classicus of Marcel’s mystery is theodicy, the problem of evil in
the world. One attempt to understand the existence of evil is to consider
the universe as a defective machine. But the very assumption that one has
a sufficiently clear view of the universe to make such an assertion excludes
oneself from the very defect that was posited as universal. If the universe is
defective and we are part of it, how can we be sure that our faculties telling
us so are not faulty too? For this reason, according to Marcel, the problem
of Evil was unthinkable, it revealed itself to be a mystery, an aporia that
we had to accept and recognize, but not understand. The use of mystery
clearly extended to ontology, for knowledge lies within Being, “enveloped
by it.”89 We cannot make claims about Being without these immediately
coming to revise the very basis for our assertions.
The genesis of objectivity too seems to qualify as a mystery, for intellec-
tual categories were both the subject and the object of its study. Husserl’s
constant appeal to a more fundamental level to give sense to each genesis,
then, was an attempt to turn genesis into a problem, to find some under-
lying and stable ground for its examination. But we saw that the appeal to
a primordial synthesis did not satisfy Husserl; it too had to be explained.
Problems required an acceptance of the laws that governed the particu-
lar region, which it was precisely the aim of “genesis” to comprehend.

88 Marcel, Etre et Avoir, p. 71. 89 Ibid., p. 81.


138 Derrida post-existentialist
Because we wanted to understand and justify the concepts of our under-
standing, rather than simply use them, genesis could never simply be a
problem.
To all intents and purposes, in his Mémoire, Derrida attacked Thao
for making a problem out of a mystery. In the dialectical materialism for
which Thao opted, consciousness became a super-structural supplement to
matter. It was materiality that brought itself, by itself, into consciousness.
According to Thao, we can study this material without bringing the validity
of our own concepts into question. But by completely exteriorizing the
dialectic, by reducing the role of subjectivity and active genesis, Thao
situated the dialectic on what Marcel would call the realm of “avoir” (what
we have before us) and forgot its necessary intertwining with “être” (what we
are). Derrida’s criticism of Thao, following Marcel, was then a reassertion
of the rights of subjectivity against a materialist dialectic. Thao, according
to Derrida, “falls back into the difficulties posed by a ‘worldly’ genesis and
a materialist dialectic.”90 He did not realize that the movement from thing
to thought was, as Derrida asserted, “mysterious.”91
The word “mysterious” occurs almost entirely in the second part of each
of Husserl’s stages in Derrida’s account. If in the first half of each section,
by reducing it to the effect of a predetermined schema, Husserl treated
genesis as a problem, in the second half he rediscovered its mysterious
elements. As we saw, it was always by the appeal to an “infinite” that
Husserl hoped, according to Derrida, to justify the applicability of his a
priori synthesis. In the Logical Investigations, the assertion of the infinite
task of philosophy arrives “mysteriously,” to “put off and to get over an
aporia.”92 In the Cartesian Meditations, it is the “possession” of the infinite
idea, or in the Crisis it is the appearance of the infinite idea into history,
that is called “mysterious.” It was always the invocation of the infinite
that was mysterious for Derrida.93 And it was always after confronting the
mysterious that Husserl would elaborate a new stage of phenomenology.
The mystery was always the appeal to the indeterminate, that which
escaped constitution, to govern it; it was what entered into history to make
apodictic knowledge possible. Both Husserl and Marcel’s theologian, in
hoping respectively to understand genesis or Evil, overstepped the bounds

90 Derrida, The Problem of Genesis, pp. xli–xlii. Thao was not unaware of these problems and tried to
develop a theory of materiality that did not fall into them. Compare ibid., p. 160, to Thao’s analysis
of the dialectic.
91 Ibid., p. 211 note. Cf. a similar mystery p. xxxvii. 92 Ibid., p. 46. Cf. also p. 31.
93 Ibid., pp. 97, 136, 154, 155, 159, pp. 208 and 211 notes.
Genesis as a problem 139
of their human finitude in appealing to an infinite idea to which they did
not have complete access. The solution to what they saw as a “problem”
required them to be more than they really were. As Derrida suggested in
his lycée essays, human thought is limited, and the answers to the great
questions of philosophy always lie just beyond our grasp.
Marcel may have been missing in name from the Mémoire, but his
ideas were clearly still active in Derrida’s thought at that time. In the notes
for an essay on “La Notion du Problème,” from 1954–5, the year after the
Mémoire, Derrida discussed the Marcelian distinction. Using mathematics
as his main example of the problem, Derrida suggested, “mathematics is
the ‘already known’ and the problems that develop in its region are only
the explications of already constituted truths.”94 Mathematics was then
reliant on Kantian ideal temporality, which did not allow real or noumenal
change. Mathematics was not creative activity; it did not constitute the
truth, but rather “reconstituted” it following a set pattern. We might, in
translating this into the terms of the Mémoire, suggest that the problem,
always being pure verification (recovery), can never be genesis (discovery):
“to say that man only poses problems that he can resolve is not to start
from a positive definition of man, finitude, historic naturality, mundane
conditioning and enrooting; it is to hold oneself to the strict definition of
the concept of the problem.”95
Problems were only found within well-defined eidetic regions, whose
laws preset the answers to given questions. Their solutions existed before
they were uncovered. Philosophy, for which there was no determined
region and, at least in Husserl’s case, needed to work without presupposi-
tions, could not rely on such a preconstituted eidetic. To accept these laws
without question would be to abdicate the very task of philosophy. And yet,
Derrida interpreted the history of philosophy as a constant transformation
of mysteries into problems, whether in Plato, Descartes, Kant, or even in
Husserl when he reduced genesis.96
The question then arose as to how we could approach the mystery. For
Derrida, we could not completely reject the guidance of the constituted, of
the preset laws of a determined region. Derrida argued that because both
the problem and the mystery were mutually implicating, the former could
act as a guiding thread for understanding the latter. As examples, Derrida
took the following dualities:

94 Derrida, “La Notion du problème,” sheet 1. 95 Ibid., sheet 1. 96 Ibid., sheet 2.


140 Derrida post-existentialist
Anguish and Fear. Anxiety [inquiétude] and curiosity. Being and Having [être et
avoir]. The first suppose the mysterious indetermination of Being, the originary
nothing from which the second take their meaning. Thus the problem has its
foundation of possibility in the mystery.97
Derrida argued that problems could only exist on the foundation of the
mystery, for as we have seen the foundational synthesis that constituted the
realm of the problem must itself be accounted for; we must understand how
eidetic regions arise. But at the same time, our only access to the mysterious
was through those constituted realms that were founded upon it. We can
only get to the ontological through the ontic, to the transcendental through
the natural attitude:
The foundation [that is, anguish, anxiety, Being] only appears to us (originary
finitude of the Heideggerian “anthropos”) in what is founded. Logical negation,
curiosity, and fear = the transcendental guides . . . in the text of which one can
read analogically the truth of the foundation (originary Nothing, anxiety, and
anguish). Analogical and dialectical unity of the problematic and the mysterious,
of the meta-problematic.98
The dialectic of the mysterious and the problematic was thus also the
dialectic of the constituting and the constituted. When Derrida appealed
to the dialectic, he was orienting himself with respect to the communists
in name only. The dialectic really expressed the constant movement of the
mystery working beneath it.
Derrida’s appeal to a dialectic of the mysterious and the problematic
makes sense of his choice of thesis adviser. Derrida wrote his Mémoire
under the supervision of Maurice Patronnier de Gandillac. De Gandillac
was remarkably eclectic in his interests. Indeed he was an early translator
of Nietzsche and was also interested in contemporary German philosophy.
But his main work focused on medieval mystics like Nicholas de Cusa and
ancient mystics like Plotinus, studying their strange mixture of irrational-
ism and rationalism, which de Gandillac too hoped to understand through
a dialectic.99

philosophy and the rise of history


A corollary of the repetition of Derrida’s argument in each successive section
of his Mémoire was the constant openness of Husserl’s phenomenology

97 Cf. Derrida, The Problem of Genesis, p. 136. 98 Derrida, “La Notion du problème,” sheet 2.
99 See Maurice de Gandillac, La Philosophie de Nicholas de Cues (Paris: Philosophie de l’Esprit, 1941),
pp. 231 sq. and 274 sq. and his La Sagesse de Plotin (Paris: Hachette, 1952).
Genesis as a problem 141
to the dialectic. Whereas for Thao, the dialectic was the never-reached
telos of Husserl’s philosophical itinerary, for Derrida it was always lurking
behind the scene, instantiated in the very chiasmus that made up each
stage of Husserl’s philosophical development. For this reason, a dialectical
understanding could not only inform the content of Derrida’s Mémoire but
also its structure. The historical development of Husserl’s philosophy was
dialectic, so the progress of his thought provided a model for understanding
its essential aporia and solution.100
This concentration on the movement of Husserl’s thought can be
clearly seen in comments Derrida made on Quentin Lauer’s contem-
poraneous doctoral dissertation, the Genesis of Intentionality in Husserl’s
Phenomenology.101 Lauer, an American Jesuit priest, had studied under Jean
Hyppolite, who, in 1954 on taking over the reins of the ENS, had asked
Derrida for his opinion on the recently completed work. It seemed a natural
move given the similarities between the two philosophers’ projects. Derrida,
however, was not at all generous in his responses. His written response was
a general critique followed by a page-by-page analysis. The central problem
was, however, all too obvious: “the essential inadequacy of the work: it did
not try to bring out the unity of a problematic motivating the very becom-
ing, the ‘genesis’ of the theme of intentionality.”102 As Derrida defined the
unity of this problematic: “it is always by a reduction of effective tem-
porality that Husserl assures the unity of the theme of intentionality and
of ideal objectivity. While tending ever more to confuse the movement
of originary intentionality with the movement of time . . . Husserl always
finished by disassociating them.”103 The crucial problem for Husserl was
then, according to Derrida, precisely what drove the future development
of his work.
With Derrida’s dialectic driving the history and development of Husserl’s
philosophy, one can see another crucial element of his thought. For all the
similarity between the four stages of the Mémoire, there does seem to be
a progression. Though each stage repeated the aporia of the last, these
aporias did not occur at the same level. Right from the start Derrida
always alerted the reader to the importance of the next stage: how, after
the aporias of psychologism and logicism, Husserl was impelled to move
towards phenomenology, and later to genetic phenomenology, and then to
history. Finishing his first section, Derrida suggested that:
100 Derrida, The Problem of Genesis, pp. xxxix, 35. Cf. Derrida, “La Notion du problème,” sheet 2.
101 Quentin Lauer, Phénoménologie de Husserl: essai sur la genèse de l’intentionnalité (Paris: Presses
universitaires de France, 1955).
102 Jacques Derrida, “Reading notes on Husserl,” Irvine, 2.31, sheet 1. 103 Ibid., sheet 11.
142 Derrida post-existentialist
By assimilating and assuming the most legitimate, the most well-founded discourse
of psychologism and logicism, [Husserl] plans to bring to light a domain of
constitution that is neutral and absolutely originary, where logic and psychology,
both engendered and founded, resolve their opposition.104
At the end of the second:
The empirical and the transcendental seem to resist any rigorous dissociation. A
new phenomenological effort must try to find this again, far away and in depth.
This is the price to be paid for philosophy.105
At the end of the third section:
If passive genesis, forcing us into an infinite regression, seems unable to be assim-
ilated to an egological activity, must there not be an attempt to re-conquer it by
enlarging the transcendental to the dimensions of history in general, and through
a teleological idea, give back to passive genesis itself an intentional sense that the
ego alone could not confer on it?106
Though never arriving at a solution, Husserl did move beyond the par-
ticular paradoxes of each individual stage. Each one uncovered a new and
larger sense of the transcendental.
This progressive aspect of the dialectic recalls Derrida’s complication of
Marcel’s existentialism that we discussed in chapter 2. Then, Derrida drew
on le Senne to suggest that an ever-expanding idealism could comprehend
the Marcelian mystery, if never fully grasp it. Now that insight was recast
in dialectical terms. The movement from the pre-phenomenological to
the phenomenological, and then from its static to its genetic and finally
historical versions could all be understood as a “spiritualization” of the
previous aporia. Le Senne validated the forward-moving zig-zag between
the passive and the active and stopped it from being merely an oscillation.
It is thus appropriate that Derrida’s framing of his Mémoire in the Avant-
propos should have drawn most heavily on the final stage of Husserl’s
thought, that he should have privileged Husserl’s later meditations on
history over his early discussions of psychology. And, looking ahead, we
can understand why he chose, as his first major project, the translation
and commentary of Husserl’s final essay, The Origin of Geometry (1936).
Though the mystery of genesis could never fully be understood, Husserl
up until his last works had made great strides in that direction.
The first section of Derrida’s avant-propos was entitled “History of phi-
losophy and philosophy of history.” Rather than hoping to undertake a
historical analysis of philosophy, here Derrida proposed a philosophical
104 Derrida, The Problem of Genesis, p. 49. 105 Ibid., p. 100. 106 Ibid., p. 148.
Genesis as a problem 143
analysis of history. As Derrida said, “it is not a question here for us of
obeying a fatality, of applying the laws of a history of philosophy consti-
tuted as a science, of following through to its conclusions a problem that
will have been discussed elsewhere: this problem will be our problem.”107
The aim was to show how philosophy both was anchored to its time
and transcended it, was both constituted and constituting. If it were fully
anchored it would not have universal validity, but if it fully transcended
it, it would be impossible to know how it arose and how it could have
been recognized in a particular time and place. The central aporia at the
heart of Derrida’s analysis of Husserl was presented in the avant-propos as
a question of methodology in the history of philosophy.

heidegger returns
Heidegger played little explicit role in Derrida’s Mémoire. He is only cited
once positively, in Derrida’s discussion of Husserl’s notion of time. Because
Husserl’s time was purely noematic it could not provide an ontological
grounding for his transcendental idealism. Heidegger, then, seemed to be
an improvement, because for him Being was fundamentally temporal.108
But from all the other explicit references, it is clear that Heidegger betrayed
his great development. By assuming the possibility of “a definitively authen-
tic existence, assuming ‘being for death’ in a ‘resolute decision,’ the possi-
bility of an absolute purity of ‘anguish’ suspends the dialectic of originary
temporality.”109 Like Derrida’s earlier existentialist reading, it was the freez-
ing of the dialectic or the “ek-sistence” of Dasein in a definitive ontology
that marked Heidegger’s great error.
And yet, despite this relatively negative presentation of Heidegger’s ideas,
there are signs that his work was more important to Derrida than he cared
to admit. In the Janicaud interview that we have cited during this chap-
ter Derrida declared that the Mémoire was “widely marked by references,
sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, to Heidegger and to a certain
questioning of Husserl by him,” and that the project “would not have
been possible without reference to Heidegger.”110 Indeed at the end of his
Introduction, Derrida suggests that his dialectic is “Being and time,” an
unmistakable reference to Heidegger’s magnum opus.111 We can also see
107 Ibid., p. xx. 108 Ibid., pp. 198–9 note.
109 Ibid., p. 211 note. This repeats Yvonne Picard’s criticism of Heidegger; see Picard, “Le Temps chez
Husserl et Chez Heidegger,” Deucalion 1 (1946), pp. 94–122, pp. 111–13.
110 Janicaud, Heidegger en France, vol. II, p. 92.
111 Derrida, The Problem of Genesis, p. 4. See also p. 156 on the necessity of an “existentiel analytic” of
the “réalité humaine” in the “Heideggerian sense” (translation modified).
144 Derrida post-existentialist
a turn to Heidegger, from the Finkian perspective, a move that parallels
Sartre and Derrida’s reading of him from his earlier essays. Reasserting the
existentiel, Derrida moved focus from Fink’s “origin of the world” to Hei-
degger’s “being-in-the-world” – where Dasein transcends each particular
constituted moment – as a necessary correlate to the Husserlian tran-
scendental. By an emphasis on the constituted, expressed predominantly
through the necessary retention in time, Derrida too broke down Husserl’s
reduction.112 It was a reassertion of the traditional existentialist reading of
Heidegger that Derrida had first undertaken six years previously.
But given the great antipathy towards Heidegger and the existentialists
in the ENS, Heidegger was rarely mentioned in Derrida’s work. Heidegger
would again become a recognized and major source for Derrida’s work
only after he left the Ecole in 1956, and then the existentialist interpreta-
tion would be left behind. One of the most important developments in
Derrida’s thought over the next eight years occurred in his understanding
of Heidegger. Over time, he would come to reevaluate his existentialist
interpretation, and, just as his Sartrean Husserl had been recast in the
communist mold, so his Sartrean Heidegger would find itself reappraised
in light of the developing Christian reading.

conclusion
Derrida’s Mémoire began as a classic Normalien (and communist) project,
a study of the conditions of possibility for scientific objectivity. But in
elaborating this project, Derrida returned to his earlier fascination with the
mystical, a fascination which can only be deduced from certain clues: the
phenomenological context, the structure of Derrida’s Mémoire, and his
use of the dialectic. In the Ecole, Husserl became the vehicle for discussing
older themes and questions, when their traditional setting and language
were no longer accepted.
We should not thereby discount Husserl. By framing the discussion
in Husserlian language, Derrida presented himself with a new object of
enquiry. Derrida’s Christian existentialist heritage provided him with the
112 It is also significant that Derrida’s whole essay mirrored a work by Heidegger that, when Derrida
wrote his essay, had only recently been translated into French: Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics.
In that book, Heidegger tried to reinterpret Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason by revealing the common
root of intuition and the understanding, passive and active synthesis, in the transcendental faculty
of the imagination. And crucially this imagination was temporal. The valid application of the
categories of the understanding to the objects of empirical intuition was grounded in their common
root, one necessitated by man’s essential finitude. More work needs to be done on this particular
connection.
Genesis as a problem 145
tools to read Husserl, but it also taught him to take Husserl seriously.
With each successive “spiritualization” of the central dilemma of genesis,
Husserl deepened his understanding. If Derrida started out investigating
the links between scientific objectivity and psychology, it was through his
continued contact with Husserl that he decided to recast that question in
historical terms. That, after all, was the path Husserl had taken. Derrida’s
central problematic was now the articulation of truth and time, science
and history. Or, in French: épistémologie.
ch a p ter 5

The God of mathematics


Derrida and the Origin of Geometry

On May 29, 1964, in the Salle des Actes at the ENS, Jacques Derrida
received the “Prix Cavaillès for Modern Epistemology” in recognition of his
translation of, and commentary on, Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry.
In his address to the assembled members of the Société des Amis de
Jean Cavaillès, Raymond Aron proudly asserted that with the work of
Derrida and Roger Martin (the other laureate) “Jean Cavaillès’s work will
continue [aura les continuateurs].”1 The Prix Cavaillès is often listed in
short summaries of Derrida’s work, brief biographical paragraphs and the
like, but it is never remarked how incongruous the award seems. After all,
Cavaillès was a philosopher of logic, trained in mathematics, whose work
seems almost totally at odds with conventional presentations of Derrida’s
thought. It was not just the name of the award, given by the Société two
or three times a decade, but also its recipients who seem so out of place.
Jacques Bouveresse, Jean-Toussaint Desanti, and Suzanne Bachelard all
grace the lists of laureates for works on rationality in physics, symbolic
logic, or mathematical idealities. This was no Adorno prize, another, later,
addition to Derrida’s CV.2
If the conferral of the Prix Cavaillès seems strange to us today, it was
not necessarily so at the time. Derrida’s engagement with a more scien-
tific branch of French phenomenology in The Problem of Genesis gives a
clue why his first publication might have been welcomed by the epistemo-
logical community. Admittedly things had changed in the ten years since
Derrida had written his Mémoire: the early enthusiasm for Husserl amongst
Marxist philosophers had mostly waned. As we shall see in the following
chapters, communist thinkers instead looked outside of phenomenology
for resources to ground scientific and objective thought. But the initial
1 Bulletin de la Société des Amis de l’ENS (December 1964), p. 20.
2 Awarded in 2001. The current society also expresses disbelief at their most famous laureate. Jacques
Lautman suggested in email correspondence that he did not know how Derrida could ever have been
awarded the prize.

146
The God of mathematics 147
Marxist reading had left its mark, and the interpretation of phenomenol-
ogy as a philosophy of science had become mainstream; the late 1950s saw
an attempt to integrate Husserl’s work into the broader French epistemo-
logical tradition. As I will show in the first part of this chapter, Derrida’s
Introduction to Husserl’s Origin of Geometry participated in this form of
scientific or logical phenomenology. As surprising as this may sound to
today’s readers, Derrida’s first book was a project in the philosophy of
mathematics. In 1962, at least, Derrida was good company for the likes of
Suzanne Bachelard, Jacques Bouveresse, and Jean-Toussaint Desanti.

epistemology in france
In his famous Introduction to the English translation of Canguilhem’s The
Normal and the Pathological, Foucault identified what he saw as the central
cleavage in postwar French philosophy. Jean Cavaillès, Gaston Bachelard,
and Georges Canguilhem were the key representatives of the “philoso-
phy of the concept,” a movement essentially heterogeneous to Sartre’s and
Merleau-Ponty’s “philosophy of the subject.”3 For Foucault the “philosophy
of the concept” and the “philosophy of the subject” were both interpreta-
tions of Husserl’s phenomenology. But until the late 1950s, phenomenology
had only a fractious relationship with mainstream epistemology in France.
Most of its main proponents, including Jean Cavaillès, Gaston Bachelard,
and Jean Piaget, treated phenomenology with distrust.
Cavaillès, the great philosophe-résistant shot by the Nazis after he had
finished his magnum opus in a prison camp, held for many reasons enormous
prestige in the postwar French academic world. Reburied in the Sorbonne
with rooms named after him at the ENS and at the University of Paris, he
was their most celebrated son, whose political and philosophical work each
added glory to the other. Derrida had already read Cavaillès’s Logic while
at the ENS, but it is worth running through its claims here to understand
its significance during this period.
Cavaillès’s Logic is divided up into three parts. The first is an analy-
sis and critique of the Kantian idea of the understanding. The essential
problem with the Kantian understanding is that while it claimed a priori
status, according to Cavaillès it was drawn from Kant’s own descriptions
of the understanding; logic was grounded in the structure of empirical
consciousness, and so succumbed to psychologism.4
3 Michel Foucault, Introduction to the English translation of Georges Canguilhem, On the Normal
and the Pathological, trans. C. Fawcett (Boston: D. Reidel, 1978), p. 8.
4 This is the same critique that Derrida leveled against formalism in his Mémoire.
148 Derrida post-existentialist
In the second section, Cavaillès investigated an opposed danger. He
turned his attention to the logical positivists, who prioritized the demon-
strable aspect of science. In this view, each system was governed by formal
rules. This constituted its syntax, the laws that organized the interaction
of elements. But, in Cavaillès’s view, Carnap’s syntactical construction of
the world neglected a full analysis of semantics. We needed to know how
to connect a formal system to the reality it purported to explain in order
to move from the rules that exist between elements in a system to the
rules that tie that system to the world. Because semantics was essentially
descriptive, it could not be contained within a syntactical system, and
yet it was the very characteristics of “protocol statements” that grounded
syntax: “what [syntax] takes for an absolute beginning is only the surrepti-
tious evocation of anterior acts and sequences.”5 “Protocol statements” in
Carnap’s language, those positive descriptions of the world, presupposed
a possible translation into the formal sphere. Mathematics could only be
applied as a syntactical system to physics, if nature could already be trans-
lated into mathematics.6 The formal relations of syntax had to have a
“necessary affinity” with the described characteristics of the existing object.
As Cavaillès suggested, formalism was just one small step away from being
itself a descriptive ontology.7
It was in this situation that Cavaillès turned to Husserl. Husserl seemed
to offer the opportunity of mediating between a philosophy of conscious-
ness like Kant’s that was not necessary, and a formalism that surreptitiously
appealed to an empirical foundation, à la Carnap. And it was to Husserl’s
Formal and Transcendental Logic that he appealed, the book whose later
translation and commentary would mark a turning in the French under-
standing of Husserl, as Gaston Bachelard’s 1960 preface to Cavaillès’s book
suggested.8 If Kant had failed in his attempt to establish a secure science
by basing it on empirical descriptions of the mind, and Carnap had failed
by stealthily grounding his system on empirical descriptions of the world,
Husserl’s sense of intentionality, which showed a way to unite mind and
world, offered the possibility of moving beyond the impasse.
All knowledge, even mathematics, was knowledge of something; the
formal could not be abstract because of its intentional relation to the world;
Husserl showed that the formal logic of judgments, or apophansis, was
rooted in general ontology.9 In Cavaillès’s reading of Husserl, this ontology
was in turn founded on the certainty of transcendental consciousness,
5 Jean Cavaillès, Sur la logique et théorie de la science (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1947),
pp. 52–4.
6 Ibid., p. 54. 7 Ibid., p. 56. 8 Ibid., p. 9. 9 Ibid., p. 62.
The God of mathematics 149
which “is the totality of Being: what [transcendental consciousness] affirms,
if it is truly what [consciousness] affirms in full certainty of itself, is only
because [consciousness] affirms it.”10
For Cavaillès, however, this appeal to a transcendental consciousness
raised the same problems that Kant encountered. Though the transcen-
dental sphere was more expansive than Kant’s, it too relapsed into psy-
chologism. Insofar as the ontological foundation of logic was constituted
by a transcendental subject, it could not be certain, for the very role of
logic was to govern the thought processes of that transcendental subject.
Logic cannot govern the conditions of its own constitution: “it is perhaps
to abuse the singularity of the absolute to reserve for it the coincidence
between the constituting moment and the constituted moment.”11 Undo-
ing this unjustified elision, Cavaillès was left with an exclusive choice: either
trace the genesis of logic back into the transcendental sphere or assert its
absolute authority. One could not do both: “if transcendental logic truly
founds logic, then there is no absolute logic (that is to say one that governs
absolute subjective activity). If there is an absolute logic, it can only draw
its authority from itself, it is not transcendental.”12
A second problem with Husserl’s transcendental logic suggested itself.
After Kurt Gödel, it was no longer possible to declare a formal system that
contained arithmetic to be saturated, i.e. all its possible propositions able
to be declared true or false. Godel’s 1931 theory had provided a method
by which undecidable propositions could be generated for any particu-
lar mathematical system of a certain “power.” Because such propositions
exceeded the powers of a given system, they could only be “decided” as true
or false by placing the system “within a more powerful theory.” Gödel’s
theory could generate undecidable propositions for this theory too. No
system in itself could ever be complete.
Gödel’s theory, for Cavaillès, was a body blow to Husserl’s approach. It
directly undermined the central principle of the “excluded third” – that
is the assumption that propositions could only be true or false – that was
essential to Husserl’s formal logic.13 Further, from Cavaillès’s perspective,
Godel’s theory showed that the problems of formal logic could not be
solved by an appeal to the transcendental sphere. Formal logic generated
higher instances from within itself, forever demanding to be surpassed.
The “necessity” was “internal,” occurring as it were downstream from the
transcendental, which in Husserl’s theory was supposed to constitute and

10 Ibid., p. 69. 11 Ibid., pp. 77–8. 12 Ibid., p. 78. 13 Ibid., p. 85.


150 Derrida post-existentialist
inform formal logic.14 If the drive for change and development was internal
to formal logic, then it could no longer be said that it was dependent
upon the transcendental. While Husserl’s phenomenology only allowed
a “consciousness of progress,” the ability to evaluate the development of
formal logic from the sure and unchanging ground of the transcendental,
Cavaillès wanted to understand, both in reaction to Gödel and through
an appreciation of the history of science, a “progress of consciousness.” It
is thus that Cavaillès was led to suggest what he called a philosophy of
the concept, where logic drew its authority from itself, and developed over
time. Cavaillès ended by describing the “generating” necessity, which was
“not that of an activity, but a dialectic.”15
Cavaillès had a powerful influence on many in the next generation.
But, in part because he survived the war, it was Gaston Bachelard who
dominated the field in the 1950s. Bachelard now is best remembered for his
work on Le Nouvel esprit scientifique (1934). Indeed it was this work that
had made him famous and was crucial for Althusser in the 1960s with its
concept of the coupure épistémologique that explained the genesis of science
from ideology.16 In the 1950s, however, the earlier works were less central.
It was what Gaston Bachelard had been writing since the war that captured
the imagination of young philosophers, especially his book Le Rationalisme
appliqué (1949).
Along with Bachelard’s other texts from the period, such as Le
Matérialisme rationnel and L’Activité rationaliste dans la physique contempo-
raine, Le Rationalisme appliqué attempted to understand the relationship
between matter and the precise mathematical equations that seemed to
govern it. Bachelard, like many of his generation, explicitly rejected the
Kantian solution, where the transcendental aesthetic that presented the
world to us in Euclidean form was a necessary condition of experience.
Bachelard refused the clean separation of the formal and the material that
the Kantian model suggested. For Kant, scientific categories were stable,
orthogonal to the experiences that they ordered, and thus incapable of
being changed by them. For Bachelard, however, “physics has two philo-
sophical poles. It is a field of thought that specifies itself into mathematics
and into experiments and which animates itself maximally in the conjunc-
ture of mathematics and experiments. Physics determines, as an eminent

14 Ibid., p. 86.
15 Ibid., p. 90. The meaning of the last pages of Cavaillès’s book is particularly cryptic. Quite what a
“philosophy of the concept” is is left ambiguous. Lawlor gives a convincing reconstruction in his
Derrida and Husserl, pp. 64–7.
16 See chapter 8.
The God of mathematics 151
synthesis, an abstract-concrete mentality.”17 New facts from experiments
would come to change theories, and theories themselves would guide
experiments towards new phenomena. Indeed by determining how new
phenomena might be tested, providing the conditions in which they arose,
science was a “phenomeno-technique,” producing, not merely recording,
experience.
So against Kant, Bachelard described a symbiotic relation between ratio-
nality and reality, between the experimenter and the theoretician, both an
“applied rationalism” and an “educated materialism.”18 Because of this con-
ception of science, Bachelard was resistant to what he saw as the claims
of phenomenology. For him, phenomenology threatened to descend into
blind formalism through the reduction, which detached it from experience;
it was preoccupied with only one of the poles of science. A priori essences,
guaranteed by a transcendental subject, were universally valid and atempo-
ral, regardless of what a scientific experiment might uncover. In Bachelard’s
conception of science, in contrast, each new experience brought into ques-
tion and tested previous rationalizations: “one must renew the mind in
contact with a new experiment.”19
While downplaying the role of experience on theory, phenomenology
also neglected the role of theory in shaping experience. According to
Bachelard, there was no pure experiential given; rather, matter was already
engaged in and instructed by reason.20 Thinking that it merely “received”
the givens of consciousness, phenomenology forgot the active role of tech-
nique in making phenomena appear.21 For Bachelard, rather than being a
mere description, formal rules also shaped the world in which we live. New
theory crafted new experiences, which in turn demanded a shifting of the
claims of rationality.
In addition to Cavaillès and Bachelard, a third key figure of the older
generation was Jean Piaget. We encountered Piaget in the discussion of
Derrida’s Mémoire, and just as he served as an unavoidable reference for
the Normaliens in the first half of the 1950s, he was a major figure in
the epistemology of the second half. His notion of a “genetic epistemol-
ogy,” which described the unstable development of the formal structures

17 Gaston Bachelard, Le Rationalisme appliqué (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1949), p. 1.


18 Ibid., p. 4. 19 Ibid., p. 43.
20 See also Gaston Bachelard, L’Activité rationaliste de la physique contemporaine (Paris: Presses univer-
sitaires de France, 1951), pp. 2–3.
21 For an account of the relationship between the two men that asserts a strong continuity underneath
apparent critique, see Bernard Barsotti, Bachelard critique de Husserl (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2002).
152 Derrida post-existentialist
of our understanding, moving from one equilibrium to the next, mir-
rored the mobile rationalisms of Bachelard and Cavaillès.22 Because of his
dynamic notion of reason, Piaget too opposed his “genetic epistemology”
to phenomenology, which in his eyes operated through introspection, and
provided static, and psychologistic, accounts of mental structures.23
Bachelard, Cavaillès, and Piaget were all concerned that phenomenol-
ogy would immobilize the fluid rational and formal structures that they
described. Insofar as they appealed beyond these structures it was in a
dialectical relationship between theory and reality that refused the sup-
posed priority of Husserl’s detached transcendental sphere. Phenomenol-
ogy’s model for the genesis of scientific laws seemed too static to explain
the tortuous history of modern science.

the next generation


For many this mistrust of phenomenology was maintained into the late
1950s and early 1960s. At the end of his 1962 La Philosophie de l’algèbre, the
newly elected Professor at the Collège de France, Jules Vuillemin, turned
to Husserl’s analysis in the Formal and Transcendental Logic. According
to Vuillemin, phenomenology best fit the type of formalized mathematics
that arose in the nineteenth century. It made a valuable contribution by
outlining a new role for intuition that previously had been reduced to an
expository appendix, a symbolic manifestation of formal mathematics.24
But though phenomenology declared intuition the absolute ground
of formal systems, according to Vuillemin, it was an external one. Phe-
nomenology was purely descriptive – in this sense Vuillemin followed
Cavaillès’s critique of Husserl – and so it could not explain the movement
of mathematics, especially that made necessary by Gödel’s theorem.25 If for-
mal systems were dependent on their rooting in the transcendental sphere,
the purely internal limitations of the former could not affect the latter, and
the fixed transcendental would thus be a constant brake on the necessary
development of the formal. In Vuillemin’s eyes, this made phenomenology
dogmatic. The philosopher of mathematics and Derrida’s fellow laureate,
22 For a good summary of Piaget’s genetic epistemology, see his paper on “Genèse et structure en
psychologie,” in Piaget and de Gandillac, Entretiens.
23 See Piaget, La Psychologie de l’intelligence, p. 21. Piaget and de Gandillac, Entretiens, pp. 39, 61,
and the debate with Derrida, pp. 49–50. See also Jean Piaget, ed., Etudes d’épistémologie génétique
XVI (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1962), Conclusion, where Piaget explicitly takes on the
criticisms from phenomenologists, especially Suzanne Bachelard and Gilles Gaston Granger.
24 Jules Vuillemin, La Philosophie de l’algèbre (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1962), p. 478.
25 Ibid., p. 499.
The God of mathematics 153
Roger Martin, made a similar criticism two years later.26 Phenomenology
returned to an absolute origin, and so was not flexible enough to account
for the history of mathematics.
Vuillemin and Martin, however, did not think that formal systems on
their own sufficed. Both recognized the need to understand why such
systems would be applicable to the real world. Thus like many in their
generation, the question of formalization was one of their central preoc-
cupations. Formalization is the process by which aspects of consciousness
and experience are expressed in a well-defined language that allows the
manipulation of those objects, though now detached from their original
ground. Mathematics provides one of the most successful examples of for-
malization. Rather than considering individual objects as concrete realities,
we can classify a set of symbols and a set of axiomatized rules to represent
them, which we can manipulate at will. In algebra it makes no difference
if the symbols refer to physical objects, groups, or chemical compounds,
as long as the laws of combination fit. It was this formalization that had
permitted such astonishing progress in the exact sciences.
If formalization explained the success of modern mathematical science,
the philosophical interest lay in the process, the move from the concrete
to the formal. When systems were sufficiently formalized they could run
automatically following their internal rules – the scientists could then take
over – but the problem was to understand how one arrived at this stage,
and if this stage was final. Even if certain epistemologists refused the turn
to phenomenology’s transcendental sphere, they still recognized the need
to embed formal systems in a broader field of human thought. As Roger
Martin in his 1964 book Logique contemporaine et formalisation described,
they aimed to understand the movement from the naı̈ve to the formal and
the formal to the naı̈ve, paying attention to the semantic aspects of formal
theories as well as to their syntactical laws.27 This was also Gilles Gaston
Granger’s goal, criticizing the rarified and syntactical systems of both Lud-
wig Wittgenstein and Rudolf Carnap and emphasizing the need to return
to real languages. He suggested, “all knowledge is knowledge of some-
thing; a strictly formal description of knowledge can only be an artifice.”28
Though formalized systems had an autonomy of their own, contact with

26 Roger Martin, Logique contemporaine et formalisation (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1964),
p. 190.
27 Ibid., p. 8. Cf. also p. 188.
28 See Gilles Gaston Granger, “Logique, langage, communication,” in Georges Bouligand, ed., Hom-
mage à Gaston Bachelard (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1957), p. 56. See also the Introduction
to Gilles Gaston Granger, Pensée formelle et sciences de l’homme (Paris: Aubier, 1960), p. 24.
154 Derrida post-existentialist
experience was, as the Belgian philosopher of science Jean Ladrière asserted,
“the starting point, a beginning . . . a necessary support [appui].”29 So too
for Jean-Toussaint Desanti, to understand modern mathematics we had
to return to a “domain of apprenticeship” in which mathematical theories
were worked over, or “remis en chantier” to use his favorite expression.30
As Suzanne Bachelard suggested, “we think that the ‘objective’ examina-
tion of mathematics can redouble itself in a ‘subjective’ examination, and
that the latter can be a starting point for a study of the consciousness of
rationality.”31
The broader concern for formalization opened the possibility of reeval-
uating the place of Husserl. Indeed both Vuillemin and Martin had rec-
ognized the value of phenomenology for grounding of formal systems,
even if at the final stage they disagreed with him. If a new generation of
phenomenologists could show that Husserl’s thought did not lead to static
systems, if they could describe a historical phenomenology, they would be
able to make room for Husserl at the epistemological table.
Take the example of Gilles Gaston Granger. He too agreed that a cer-
tain form of phenomenology froze the development of mathematics; the
objects of a formal ontology in the transcendental sphere were “hyposta-
tized as the focus of evidence [foyers d’evidence]” and Granger thought it
dangerous to “objectivize in this simple manner all the acts of demon-
strative reason.”32 But nonetheless, he saw the benefits of phenomenology
and hoped to readjust it to prevent this hypostatization. Granger argued
for what he called a “dehiscence of phenomenologies,” where concepts
detached from their original productive ground would be integrated into
a new phenomenological system.33 It was a system that in Cavaillès’s terms
allowed both a “consciousness of progress” as formal systems adapted better
to a transcendental origin, and a “progress of consciousness” where that
origin would be mobilized too. In the words of Suzanne Bachelard, in her
study of the Conscience de rationalité, “it is not void of meaning, we believe,
still to speak of phenomenology when however it is no longer a question of

29 Jean Ladrière, “Mathematiques et formalisme,” Revue des Questions Scientifiques (October 1955),
p. 554.
30 Jean-Toussaint Desanti, in Piaget and de Gandillac, Entretiens, p. 150.
31 Suzanne Bachelard, La Conscience de rationalité (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1958), p. 6.
The term “conscience de rationalité” comes from Gaston Bachelard in Le Rationalisme appliqué,
p. 14.
32 Granger, “Logique, langage, communication,” p. 55.
33 Gilles Gaston Granger, Méthologie économique (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1955), p. 133.
See also his Pensée formelle, p. 10.
The God of mathematics 155
researches that climb back to an absolute origin . . . all progress of thought
is, in reality, a collection of origins.”34
Indeed, ironically taking the lead from Jules Vuillemin, Bachelard saw
this development in Husserl’s thought itself, remarking that Husserl was
tending towards a “dialectical” understanding of phenomenology that saved
it from Cavaillès’s criticisms.35 In this new understanding, there would
be a reciprocal relationship between “reason and its structural form.”36
This is what Jean-Toussaint Desanti meant in his book Phénoménologie et
praxis, which outlined the “auto-destruction” of phenomenology “as a first
philosophy.”37 Analyzing the fifth Cartesian Meditation, Desanti hoped to
show that phenomenology in its considerations of time and the other was
forced to recognize its own limitations and move beyond an “egology.”38
Because they foregrounded a reciprocal relationship between the for-
mal and the transcendental, these phenomenologists no longer under-
stood the transcendental as an absolute origin. For them, it could change
over time, and respond to new theoretical situations. They understood the
transcendental as essentially historical, and thus sidestepped the criticisms
that had previously led epistemologists to reject phenomenology.39
The history of mathematics could not, however, be an ordinary history.
It was not dependent on the chaotic chain of events often described by
historians: “the history of science is in the end a history where contin-
gency is eliminated . . . it must reveal itself following the lines of rationality,
and taking note of the necessity of well ordered thoughts [pensées bien
enchainées].”40 This was a transcendental history, which had a motive drive
of its own, an “internal life.”41 Though they appealed beyond the formal
systems of mathematics to explain them, it was never contingent human
elements that piqued their interest.

34 Bachelard, La Conscience de rationalité, p. 2. see also Granger, Pensée formelle, pp. 9–10.
35 Suzanne Bachelard, A Study of Husserl’s Formal and Transcendental Logic, trans L. Embree (Evanston:
Northwestern University Press, 1968), pp. 220–3. Bachelard was referring to a footnote in Jules
Vuillemin L’Héritage kantien (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1954) when, after having
criticized Husserl’s static phenomenology, Vuillemin suggested that the internal “order of reasons”
in Husserl’s work had led him to a temporal foundation. Ibid., p. 228 note 3.
36 Bachelard, A Study of Husserl’s Formal and Transcendental Logic, p. 222.
37 Jean-Toussaint Desanti, Phénoménologie et praxis (Paris: Editions Sociales, 1963), p. 16. See Jean-
Toussaint Desanti’s reflections on his own turn to Husserl in “Sartre et Husserl, ou les trois
culs-de-sac de la phénoménologie transcendantale,” Les Temps modernes 531–3 (1990), pp. 350–64.
38 Desanti, Phénoménologie et praxis, pp. 119–20. We can see a similar argument in Desanti’s later Les
Idéalités mathematiques (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1968), pp. V–VIII, 290, and 233ff.
39 See also Antoinette Virieux-Reymond, La Logique formelle (Paris: Presses universitaires de France,
1962).
40 Bachelard, La Conscience de rationalité, p. 8.
41 Jean Ladrière, Les Limitations internes des formalismes (Louvain: E. Nauwelaerts, 1957), p. 407.
156 Derrida post-existentialist
The idea of multiple origins and transcendental historicity may have
allowed the mathematical phenomenologists to overcome certain objec-
tions, but Gödel’s shadow loomed large. Both Cavaillès and Vuillemin had
discounted the primacy of the transcendental sphere because the motor
of change as analyzed by Gödel seemed to be inherent to the formal. An
exterior grounding would not be able to take into account the dynamism
that Gödel’s theory required.
In response, the mathematical phenomenologists gave a different inter-
pretation of Gödel’s thesis. A formal system did not produce a new system
of a higher power out of itself. Rather, Gödel’s theory, by generating unde-
cidable propositions, merely showed the insufficiency of each particular
system. It was this insufficiency that demanded a reference to the tran-
scendental sphere: the transcendental supplemented a formal that Gödel
had shown to be incomplete. This view was in fact close to that of Gödel
himself, who had great confidence in the power of the human mind to
resolve questions left open by any delimited mathematical system.
Jean Ladrière devoted his 1957 thesis to an extended treatment of Gödel’s
theorem, commentating on its philosophical significance in the last chapter.
He argued that the formal could never attain the richness of the intuitive;
there would always remain an irreducible gap between the two. It was this
gap that demanded the constant reevaluation of the formal in the intuitive
and initiated what Ladrière called a dialectic.42 Suzanne Bachelard, too, as
we will note later, drew the lesson from Gödel that the mathematician had
to return to the transcendental sphere.43 Husserl’s transcendental provided
a ground that survived any particular revolution in mathematics. This
was the sense of Bachelard’s “consciousness of rationality.” For Ladrière,
Bachelard, and, as we shall see, Derrida, Gödel’s theorem, rather than
undermining Husserl, had made the turn to the German phenomenologist
even more necessary.
Because of Gödel, the completely formal could only exist as a telos
or goal. It acted for all as an ideal not a reality: an idea in the Kantian
sense. Teleologies were, therefore, a necessary part of formalization. As
Bachelard suggested, the very nature of its deductive power meant that “all
rational science has an evident teleological power,” and the intentionality of
consciousness meant that an origin was always an “origin of . . . ”: “origin
and teleology are the terms of a duality that has a phenomenological
unity.”44 In science, “total knowledge has a meaning for the activity of
42 Ibid., p. 403. It is also an inadequation that would be asserted by Martin, Logique contemporaine et
formalisation, p. 183, and later Derrida in his courses.
43 Bachelard, A Study of Husserl’s Formal and Transcendental Logic, pp. 53–5.
44 Bachelard, La Conscience de rationalité, p. 3.
The God of mathematics 157
mathematical physics, insofar as it is an asymptotic ideal, insofar as it is
a limit-concept in the Husserlian sense of the term.”45 This concurred
perfectly with Ladrière’s language.46
The teleology could not be substantive. It did not provide an explicit
and fleshed-out end. Indeed the value of an open telos was that, given
the limitations expressed by Gödel, it allowed the functional norm of a
closed system without itself succumbing to undecidability. It was thus that
in discussing the teleology, the other key term used was “horizon,” that is
an implicit sphere of possibilities not yet actualized. As Granger said “total
formalization appears only ever as a horizon of scientific thought.”47 The
concept of the horizon explained the unpredictability of the future, the
unpredictability in a formal system that undermined its “linear” nature.48
Bachelard explained that in science knowing the premises did not neces-
sarily give an immediate knowledge of the conclusions of an argument:
“even within the rational, because its development comprises something
unforeseeable for a lucid consciousness, one can, we believe, legitimately
speak of an ‘experience’ of the rational that always brings something ‘new’
that was not implied in the elementary.”49
For Ladrière and Bachelard, moreover, this horizon was linked to a
tripartite understanding of time, which explained the interaction of the
formalized elements of mathematics and the intuition on which they were
based. For both, it was the process of retention that allowed formalized
mathematics to impact on the process of formalization and constitution in
the present, a process that opened up the future in anticipation. Ladrière
saw that it was only in a tripartite temporality that the precise relation-
ship of constituting and constituted could be maintained:50 “there is thus
here, in the uninterrupted doubling of self with self that characterizes the
movement of temporalization (and that characterizes at the same time
the movement of reflection), the source of that always open possibility
of an after which characterizes constructive operations.”51 This was a pro-
cess that ensured that “it is not given to us to have access to a pure
presence . . . presence is always mixed with absence and positivity with
negativity.”52

45 Ibid., p. 190. 46 Ladrière, Les Limitations internes des formalismes, p. 410; see also pp. 440–4.
47 Granger, Pensée formelle, p. 44.
48 Cf. Roger Martin, “Epistémologie et philosophie,” in Bouligand, Hommage à Gaston Bachelard;
and Nicholas Bourbaki, Eléments de pure mathematique (Paris: Hermann et compagnie Editeurs,
1954), p. 7.
49 Bachelard, La Conscience de rationalité, p. 4.
50 Ladrière, Les Limitations internes des formalismes, p. 437. 51 Ibid., p. 438. 52 Ibid., p. 443.
158 Derrida post-existentialist
There is one other aspect of the work of the mathematical phenomenolo-
gists that deserves our attention, given the future development of Derrida’s
philosophy. For in their concern to reassert the autonomy of formal systems
(in order to allow a truly reciprocal relationship with the intuitive or tran-
scendental), many epistemologists in the late 1950s paid great attention
to the symbol, either implicitly or explicitly written. The most obvious
example is Gilles Gaston Granger, who, both in his article for the Gas-
ton Bachelard collection, and in Pensée formelle, elaborated the concept of
writing at length. Writing was valuable for two reasons. Firstly, it allowed
calculations to rise above the particular subject matter involved: Writing
marked the key stage of formalization.53 As Granger noted, language was
important to detach science from perception: “the form of the scientific
object does not directly concern sensible content, but language.”54 The
movement was so crucial that Granger suggested that without language
the concept of structure would lose its meaning.55 But along with this role
came another that was equally important. The transfer into language also
allowed the reduction of the individual constituting subject. Language was
necessarily intersubjective.56 As Ladrière suggested,
In the objective language that constitutes the formal system . . . the movement of
speech retires, leaving the elements of the discourse to themselves, in a dispersion
which permits us to consider them on their own account and to submit them to
the operations of counting [dénombrement]. Once a linguistic object has retired
from the living current that ties the parts of language to the sources of meaning, it
can no longer be considered but as the trace of an act which has been thematized,
like the reference point for an operation that no longer belongs to the actuality
of consciousness, but which has been projected outside of itself into the world of
things.57
Preempting Derrida’s similar formulation by almost a decade, Granger
wrote that to understand the role of writing in the construction of formal
systems and thus of science, it would be necessary to “[reverse] the relations
between oral language and writing.”58 Rigorous truth drew more from the
desubjectifying and formalizing process of writing than the bound intuitive
sense of speech.

53 See also Martin, Logique contemporaine et formalisation, p. 6; and Bachelard, La Conscience de


rationalité, pp. 16–18.
54 Granger, Pensée formelle, p. 12. 55 Ibid., p. 38. 56 Ibid., p. 36.
57 Ladrière, Les Limitations internes des formalismes, pp. 434–6; see also pp. 439, 416–17; and Jean
Ladrière, “Les Limitations des formalismes et leur signification philosophique,” Dialectica (1960),
pp. 279–320, p. 308; and Granger, “Logique, langage, communication,” pp. 31–2.
58 Derrida too refers to Granger in Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 323 note.
The God of mathematics 159
Suzanne Bachelard also drew on the peculiar nature of the symbol at
key moments in her texts. Again it was a form of writing that could
no longer be considered as purely secondary to thought: “the sign, by
its type of sensible existence, realizes an economy of memory that thus
liberates thought . . . but to see in the sign only a means to relieve thought
of an unnecessary effort would be to depreciate its value: the sign had
an inductive role for the development of thought.”59 This inductive role
of the sign, one that detached calculations from the specific example and
gave them universal applicability, meant that they were not just tools or
sedimentations of live thought, but allowed a crucial step in that thought
itself.
Gary Gutting in his book on twentieth-century French philosophy
mourns the death of Cavaillès, shot during the war for his resistance
activity. But for this quirk of fate, Gutting suggests, a logical phenomenol-
ogy might have arisen to challenge the subjective existentialist variety.60
In prematurely lamenting its demise, Gutting ignores the importance of
this movement in French philosophy, which acted as a conduit from the
phenomenology and existentialism of the 1950s to the structuralism of the
next decade. Emphasizing the role of transcendental subjectivity like exis-
tentialism, yet aiming for the sureness of logical validity like structuralism,
this form of “mathematical phenomenology” – and not the famous debates
conducted by Lévi-Strauss or Althusser with Sartre – marks the hinge and
crossover between the two movements.61
Mathematical phenomenology in the 1950s and early 1960s showed a
strong interest in formalized mathematical structures. But unlike those of
the later structuralists, their structures were not static, synchronic descrip-
tions, but active, constitutive participants in the understanding and percep-
tion of the world. They were structures on the move, constantly changing
and developing, working on internal tensions and difficulties that required
the genesis of new structures. And these geneses, these movements and
interactions between the formal and the intuitive were mediated through
language and, more specifically, the written sign.
Derrida’s Introduction to the Origin of Geometry should be read in this
context.62 He too hoped to tie a supposedly independent mathematical
59 Bachelard, La Conscience de rationalité, p. 207.
60 Gary Gutting, French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2001),
p. 228.
61 For this group of epistemologists and a brief discussion of their relationship to Husserl see Bernard
Waldenfels, Phänomenologie in Frankreich (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1983), pp. 380–96.
62 We should not, as does Lawlor, regard Derrida’s concern with geometry as merely an effort to show
the error of Husserl’s preferred example: Lawlor, Derrida and Husserl, p. 105.
160 Derrida post-existentialist
discipline to a richer immediate experience. Like the epistemologists, he
attributed its ability to transcend immediate subjectivity and its historical
moment through an appeal to language, and following their lead, he sought
to understand it as historical. Beyond works by Husserl, Derrida cited
Suzanne Bachelard more than any other author.
That Derrida’s Introduction drew on the texts and problematics of the
epistemological tradition is suggested by the presentation of the book itself.
In the English translation, the book is described as Derrida’s Introduction
to the Origin of Geometry and includes Husserl’s text as an appendix, for
comparison. In French, however, Derrida’s name is not so prominent,
the book as published is a translation of Edmund Husserl’s Origine de la
Géométrie. It is Husserl’s text that is supplemented by Derrida’s Introduc-
tion and not vice-versa. In the English-speaking world, Derrida’s reading
has been seen as a proto-deconstruction, a first over-turning of Husserl’s
logocentric project. In French, rather, it is a support to the text itself,
aimed at deepening a reading rather than leaving it surpassed. Indeed in
the Etudes philosophiques review of the translation the Introduction mer-
ited just one line. Contemporaries read the book for Husserl’s treatment
of geometry, a work of epistemology appearing on the bibliographies of
Desanti’s 1968 Les Idéalités mathématiques and the 1969 agrégation theme,
“science and technology.” Scholars who would have bought the Origin of
Geometry were philosophers of mathematics and phenomenologists, not
skeptical postmodernists. Much lies in a title.
If this is the case, then Derrida’s first discussion of writing cannot be
interpreted unproblematically to be in continuity with his later work. As
I will show over the next few chapters, the writing Derrida discussed in
1962 was not what it was in 1967. Further, it is only in Derrida’s later works
that it came to assume centrality. After all, the discussion of writing is
entirely contained within section seven of the Introduction, a chapter that
seems to occupy an important but not pivotal point in the argument.63 In
Derrida’s contemporaneous courses, writing was also conspicuously absent,
an absence that would be overcome only after 1965 and the publication of
63 Most commentators, such as Paola Marrati, focus predominantly on the first sections, and especially
section VII, without recognizing the wide use of such concepts in French epistemology at the time.
Very few consequently spend any time on the invocation of God at the end of the Introduction,
Marrati not even mentioning it. One exception is Len Lawlor, whose comparison with Hyppolite
bridges both elements. The comparison with Hyppolite is, I think, a productive one, for Hyppolite
found himself midway between the two main groupings that I am analyzing here. Interestingly
enough, however, though the Hyppolite archive contains many of the drafts of the translation of
the “Origin of Geometry,” it does not contain a copy of the Introduction. And despite Hyppolite
being Derrida’s directeur de thèse, there is surprisingly little communication between them except
to discuss Derrida’s continual failure to progress.
The God of mathematics 161
his “Of Grammatology” articles in Critique. Rather than 1962 representing
the genesis of a theme that would come to dominate much of Derrida’s
career, as many commentators have impatiently tried to imply, I suggest
that Derrida’s appeal to writing in his Introduction arose in conversation
with a specific French tradition of epistemology.

the origin of geometry


In the chapter on the Problem of Genesis, I showed how the original concen-
tration on questions of objectivity and psychology came to be translated
into questions of the relationship between philosophy and history. This
movement was to a large extent carried by the trajectory of Husserl’s own
texts, whose later interest in history made up the subject matter of the last
part of Derrida’s student work. It is from this last section that the Origin of
Geometry was chosen. The Origin of Geometry thus combines the discussion
of objectivity with an analysis of history, and it does this by inscribing a
supposedly atemporal science (geometry) in a historical development. The
content of the essay is also significant. The Problem of Genesis described
Husserl’s constant and unsuccessful attempts to square the circle between
a logicism (later a philosophy without history) and a psychologism (or a
history without philosophy). It is these same concerns that animated the
Origin of Geometry, but this time with a difference. In the Mémoire, like
Derrida’s presentations of the rest of Husserl’s work, the Origin of Geometry
was seen as intending one side of the duality, but failing in this enterprise
and thus falling back to the other side. In this case, Derrida had suggested
that the Origin of Geometry relied on an empirical approach, taking as
its starting point existing science: it succumbed to the same aporias as
empiricism and psychologism, it could not found certain truth. And the
inadequacies of the approach lead Husserl to posit a “hidden reason” in
history to tame empirical genesis and give it sense.
This interpretation of the Origin of Geometry would not last. One of the
rare notes that Derrida added to his Mémoire when it came to be published
in 1990 refers to this description of the Origin.64 The note was appended
to a sentence that asserted that “traditionality,” that is the process by which
geometrical forms could be handed down through the generations for the
possibility of reactivation, was purely empirical.65 In 1990 Derrida wrote,
“sometime afterward, I noted: ‘No, look at again!’ opposite these lines.”

64 Derrida, The Problem of Genesis, p. 212 note.


65 See Kates, Essential History, p. 57, who ties this to a change in stance towards Jean Cavaillès.
162 Derrida post-existentialist
If traditionality were not an entirely empirical process, then perhaps this
might change the status of the text. Whereas before the different stages
of Husserl’s thought had merely transcribed the same mysterious aporia
from one to another phenomenological level, here, for the first time, there
might be something that transcended the difference. That would be the
interest in translating the Origin of Geometry: it was Husserl’s last, and best,
chance to overcome the paradoxes that had dogged him his entire career,
and thus it was the perfect text to which Derrida could apply himself. This
reasoning is clear right from the first pages of the Introduction:
Initially, The Origin of Geometry is not distinguishable by its double cluster of
critiques that are directed, on the one hand, against a certain technicist and
objectivist irresponsibility in the practice of science and philosophy, and on the
other hand, against a historicism blinded by the empiricist cult of fact . . . But
never had the two denunciations of historicism and objectivism been so organically
united as in The Origin of Geometry.66
This did not mean that the problems were resolved here. As Derrida
suggested “these pages of Husserl, first written for himself, have the rhythm
of a thought feeling its way rather than setting itself forth.”67 Rather it was
an attempt to bring to light a new “profundity of historicity” that no longer
saw the origin and tradition of “ideal objectivities,” such as geometrical
objects, as grounded in “the factual interconnections of empirical history,
nor [in] an ideal and ahistoric enrichment.”68 Here lay the development
from the Problem of Genesis: the Origin of Geometry was the first and only
text to approach the aporia directly. And in posing the question in this
way, Derrida aligned his analysis with the contemporary epistemological
debate.
If the likes of Gaston Bachelard, Jean Piaget, Gilles Gaston Granger,
and Jules Vuillemin had criticized Husserl for denying the history of ideal
objectivities, Derrida suggested a close examination of the Origin of Geom-
etry would show that that was not the case, for there the question of history
was investigated directly. Derrida thus followed Suzanne Bachelard in pro-
tecting Husserl from their criticisms, by showing that, in the end, he agreed
with them.
In aligning himself and Husserl with the French epistemologists, Derrida
drew attention to three crucial elements of their project: the grounding of
formal systems in a more expansive domain, the centrality of language, and

66 Jacques Derrida, Introduction to Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An Introduction, trans. John
Leavey (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978), p. 26.
67 Ibid., p. 26 note 2. 68 Ibid., p. 26 (translation modified).
The God of mathematics 163
especially writing, in the constitution of those formal systems, and finally
the possibility of a “history of mathematics” that would not merely be
contingent and empirical, but transcendental. But, as we shall see, in each of
these three elements, like Bachelard and Ladrière before him, Derrida noted
the appeal to a Kantian idea, whose validity in the Husserlian system was,
at the very least, problematic. After following the French epistemologists
closely in the first sections of his Introduction, it was in the final analysis
of the Kantian idea that he would break with them.

up from the lebenswelt 69


What was the origin of geometry? For Husserl, the answer was clear:
geometry arose out of what Husserl called the Lebenswelt, the immediate
world of our experiences. As Derrida described, the Lebenswelt was not the
pre-predicative sphere, it was not an absolute beginning independent of
all human thought, but was the most proximate ground for geometrical
idealizations.70 Prior to geometry, the Lebenswelt could not rely on geo-
metrical categories. The checkered grid imposed by a Euclidean (or any
other) understanding of space was a product of geometry, and so in the
Lebenswelt space and time could not be determined by its standards. But
this did not mean that space and time were not there already.71 Moreover,
the “anexactitude” of the pre-geometrical sphere did not impede the rigor
of the description of the world. Anexactitude, the absence of exactness, was
not inexactitude, the failure to achieve exactness.
It was a characteristic of this pre-geometrical field that forms could be
progressively perfected, lines made straighter, and surfaces more smooth
in the imagination. In the Lebenswelt there were no geometrical lines and
surfaces, but rather “inexact but pure morphological types: ‘roundness’
for example, under which is constructed the geometrical ideality of the
‘circle.’”72
Though a description of the Lebenswelt and a purifying of its forms were
possible, this was not in itself sufficient for the move to intelligible ideality.
The morphological forms created by the imagination remained sensible,
but geometrical shapes had to transcend these and be detached from all
69 In my presentation I have reversed the order of Derrida’s and Husserl’s text, in order to show the
parallels with the other French epistemologists. The reversal is, as we shall see, an artefact of the
Husserlian Rückfrage.
70 See ibid., p. 125 and note on “Sartre’s breakthrough [trouée Sartrienne].”
71 According to Husserl, this was Kant’s error in the Critique of Pure Reason.
72 Derrida, Introduction, pp. 123–4. Here Derrida refers to Gaston Bachelard’s work on pre-scientific
phenomenology.
164 Derrida post-existentialist
sensible ground, whether in the imagination or in perception. However
much we perfect the forms of actual experience, we can never arrive at the
purity of, say, the circle. As Derrida suggested, “the institution of geometry
could only be a philosophical act,” it had to break with the finite.73 This
was the first infinitization that withdrew geometry from the finite sensible
world and made it universally applicable. The first infinitization raised
geometry up to philosophy, universalized its axioms. But this was at first a
closed totality, and a second infinitization was required to free this science
for an unlimited development: Galileo’s revolution.
In both cases,
the philosopher is a man who inaugurates the theoretical attitude: the latter is only
the mind’s [esprit] radical freedom, which authorizes the surpassing of the finite and
opens the horizon of knowledge as that of a pre-having, i.e. of an infinite project
or task (Vorhaben). Thereby, the theoretical attitude makes idealization’s decisive
“passage to the limit” possible, as well as the constitution of the mathematical
field in general. Naturally, this passage to the limit is only the surpassing of every
sensible and factual limit.74
As Derrida explained it, it was an infinite idea that allowed the institution
of geometry.

language and the rise of non-subjective truth


Once mathematics had been formed and detached from its experiential
ground in the Lebenswelt the question arose as to what allowed it to
be readable across time and space. What was it that made mathemat-
ics omnitemporal, valid at all times, “how can the subjective egological
evidence of sense become objective and intersubjective?”75 For Derrida,
the answer was language. Language represented objective ideality, because
across a diversity of different instances it aimed at the same object. No
matter how often one says Löwe (lion), in whatever accent, in whatever
voice, whoever is speaking, and indeed, in whatever language, it would still
mean the same thing. Like the epistemologists Derrida wanted to show
that language was the basis of the formal.
But in this example, there was still a necessary relationship to the content.
To understand the word Löwe, one must first have had some experience
of a lion. Mathematics had moved beyond even this level of ideality; it

73 Ibid., p. 127. Cf. Gaston Granger in Pensée formelle, pp. 62–6, when he suggests that we need to
move beyond a phenomenology of perception.
74 Derrida, Introduction, p. 127 (translation modified). 75 Ibid., p. 63.
The God of mathematics 165
was detached from any empirical grounding. A final detachment must
also occur. Following the epistemologists, Derrida argued that language
must also detach the formal from its subjective ground. To achieve this,
Derrida, like them, appealed to writing, which constituted a “subjectless
transcendental field.”76 “From then on, writing is no longer only the
worldly and mnemotechnical aid to a truth of which the sense of being
can dispense with all consignation. Not only is the possibility or necessity
of being incarnated in a graphic sign [graphie] no longer extrinsic and
factual with regard to ideal objectivity: it is the condition sine qua non of
Objectivity’s internal accomplishment.”77
But the discussion of language, like that of the genesis from the
Lebenswelt, also required an infinite idea. The infinite idea was necessary,
firstly, because it was impossible to exclude all empirical elements from lan-
guage. Language implicitly instituted the eidetic reduction; the meaning
of a given word is detached from all its possible real instantiations. But,
according to Derrida, the ease of the eidetic reduction compromised the
phenomenological reduction, because this required the reduction of already-
constituted eidetics, in order to understand their genesis in the transcen-
dental sphere.78 And since the phenomenological reduction required the
use of language, it could never fully reduce the eidetics at work there.
By, of necessity, using language, a tear was opened in the phenomeno-
logical reduction itself. It was this difficulty that led Husserl to “defer”
the discussion of language in all of his works.79 It is why Derrida cited
Suzanne Bachelard’s suggestion of a return to psychologism in Husserl’s
Formal and Transcendental Logic.80 If language could not be fully reduced
in phenomenology, it maintained phenomenology in a worldly attitude.81
This was particularly pressing with questions of “history” and “origins,”
words which, as Derrida had shown, Husserl was at pains to distinguish
from their mundane meanings. Even as Husserl tried to recast these words,
the impetus that had led him to use them in the first place showed that
they could not be detached entirely from conventional understandings. It
was a criticism that, according to Derrida, Husserl never answered and
one which remained valid, even if Derrida put it aside now. Language
is always contaminated with the real, and so by implication is the his-
tory that language founds.82 An infinitely translatable language detached

76 Ibid., p. 88. The final expression was taken from Jean Hyppolite.
77 Ibid., pp. 88–9 (translation modified). Cf. Bachelard’s description of writing earlier.
78 Ibid., p. 69. 79 Ibid., p. 68 note 65.
80 Bachelard, A Study of Husserl’s Formal and Transcendental Logic, p. xxxi.
81 Derrida, Introduction, p. 69 note 66. 82 Ibid., p. 69.
166 Derrida post-existentialist
from all connection to the real could only be given as an unachievable
telos.
The same problem arose with writing. As we saw, writing detached for-
mal structures from their roots in human subjectivity. But, by the very
fact that it liberated meaning from its “present existence for a real sub-
ject,” writing opened up the possibility of “passivity, forgetfulness, and all
the phenomena of the crisis.”83 Detached from its subjective ground, it
inaugurated the possibility of a transcendental “disappearance of truth.”84
Husserl put aside the most obvious examples. This wasn’t the type of loss
of truth suggested by a bonfire of all existent books, a “world-wide burning
of libraries.”85 Of course, this might entail a loss of knowledge and truth
in fact, but this was not the disappearance that concerned Husserl here.
Because we had already moved through the reduction away from all mate-
rial instantiations, the ideality of the geometrical object, its truth, would
be resistant to such a burning.86 The angles of a triangle would still add up
to 180 degrees even if every document saying so were lost.87
The only real danger was that which threatened the intentional meaning
of writing. In becoming ideal, geometrical meaning was detached from its
subjective ground, and hence the meaning of the symbols could become
lost. According to this argument, we could never forget an idea as we
thought it, but with the passage of time a note we jotted down on a piece
of paper could become indecipherable. Writing instigated a blindness and
an automatism that the other epistemologists distrusted. This was, after all,
what happened in Husserl’s Crisis of the Sciences, when a formalized science
became detached from the Lebenswelt, and made significant advances by
forgetting the very roots that had initially legitimated it, like a machine
working over millions of computations but without knowing what they

83 Ibid., p. 87. 84 Ibid., p. 93 (translation modified). 85 Ibid., p. 94.


86 Though this would not be true for “enchaı̂nées” cultural idealities like literature. The destruction of
every copy of War and Peace would have a significant effect on its existence.
87 Derrida, however, is unsure: “We would be completely convinced if here – as in his static analyses –
Husserl had considered writing to be a sensible phenomenon. But did we not just find out
that writing, inasmuch as it was grounding (or contributing to the ground of ) truth’s absolute
objectivity, was not merely a constituted sensible body (Körper), but was also a properly constituting
body (Leib)?” (Derrida, Introduction, p. 97). It is clear that, if it were just a Körper, non-constitutive,
then its physical disappearance would not matter. But writing, actual existent writing, is, according
to Derrida, not just a Körper, but also Leib, it plays a central role in constitution. Being at the
same time both constituted and constituting, it is difficult to see how the one can be separated
from the other, how the end of factical writing existing in the world would not also be the end of
its sense-giving role. In order to move beyond this problem, Husserl has to undertake yet another
reduction of writing, away from its Körper, to its Leiblichkeit. Of the possible ways in which writing
can impede geometry compare p. 36 note.
The God of mathematics 167
meant. But because this disappearance and forgetting were purely inten-
tional, they were moral rather than physical failings. The preservation of
meaning was a question of responsibility, and hence allowed a reactivation;
the sedimentation of truth, the forgetting of its living ground, provided
the basis for its later enlivening.
The very possibility of a loss or a mutation in meaning posed a major
problem to Derrida. It set up a possible equivocity of meaning that threat-
ened the very phenomenological project. Detached from their original
sense there was no guarantee that writing would be reactivated in the same
way, that a note we wrote to ourselves yesterday would still mean the same
thing to us today. Confronted with this we are left with a choice. Either
following James Joyce we could attempt to gather up all the equivocity and
make “visible [affleurer] the greatest possible synchrony with the greatest
potential for buried intentions.”88 We could revel in the world of possible
meanings. Or, like Husserl, we could reduce all equivocity to arrive at a
unique and pure meaning. But, according to Derrida, we were left with a
situation where the choice was not really possible; Joyce’s project demanded
a mastering of history “in a total and present resumption,” while complete
univocity would similarly stall the historical process for Husserl.89 For this
reason, Husserl had to appeal to a complete reactivation, grounded in the
univocal meaning of geometry, only as an ideal or telos.90 Derrida con-
tinued by placing great emphasis on the concept of the “horizon,” which
was always already there in experience as a precondition of any knowledge,
but never fully grasped. The horizon was the condition for all thought,
which at the same time preserved “the indetermination of its infinite open-
ing.” The concept of horizon thus “converts critical philosophy’s state of
abstract possibility into the concrete infinite potentiality secretly presup-
posed therein. The notion of horizon thus makes the a priori and the
teleological coincide.”91

the possibility of a historical phenomenology


of mathematics
The analysis of language had shown how, after its genesis, geometry could
be transmitted across time and space. But it did not in itself account for its
history. As we saw, the question of history and the connected issues posed
by Gödel’s incompleteness theory were what had made phenomenology so

88 Ibid., p. 102 (translation modified). 89 Ibid., p. 103.


90 Ibid., p. 105. 91 Ibid., p. 117 (translation modified).
168 Derrida post-existentialist
unattractive in the first place to many French epistemologists in the early
postwar period. Derrida too recognized serious obstacles in the develop-
ment of a historical phenomenology. Phenomenology was meant to found
the regional sciences, such as physics, mathematics, and history. If phe-
nomenology were itself to be historical that would invert the hierarchies,
and cause the same type of problems that had been at the root of the
crisis of the sciences, when a constituted science (history) was deployed to
understand constitution (phenomenology).
But, as Derrida was keen to point out, for all the originarity of the
transcendental, methodologically it could only come second: “the reduction
needs as its starting point the constituted result it neutralizes.”92 The return
to origins must be a regression from constituted science, like Kant moving
back to the conditions of possibility of all appearances. Otherwise how
would we know where to start? But like all of the epistemologists, Derrida
rejected the Kantian approach. Kant’s forms were too static. According to
Derrida, even Kant had to assume that these ideal objects had a history,
which nonetheless “remains hidden” for him.93 Derrida asserted that, if
we were searching for the origins of mathematics, we would have to look
back to a history that was no longer empirical, as Kant had shown, but
transcendental.
What would this transcendental history look like? Derrida sketched
out the necessary forms of this new historical phenomenological sphere,
centered on what he called “reactivation.” The conditions of this new
reduced sphere were the following: it had to involve an “essence-of-the-
first-time.”94 The specific factual moment was no longer important, and
reduced, but the fact that one existed was central. The more mundane
and empirical notion of “origin” was then injected with a transcendental
and phenomenological meaning. Secondly, it was essential that before this
“first time” there was a “non-geometry.” And thirdly, the sense of that first
geometry also had to be the sense now, because the reactivation required
that we already know what the phenomenon “geometry” is, in order to
locate and delimit it. These three conditions provided the means to start
from already constituted geometry and search back for its meaning: “From
a received and already legible document, the possibility is offered to me
of interrogating anew and in return the originary and final intention of
that which was delivered by the tradition”: Husserl’s Rückfrage Derrida
translated as the “question en retour.”95 The “question en retour” was the key
moment in the new historical phenomenology of geometry.

92 Ibid., p. 38. 93 Ibid., p. 42. 94 Ibid., p. 48. 95 Ibid., p. 50.


The God of mathematics 169
Derrida was particularly concerned about the third condition. For the
question en retour, there needed to be some constancy in the sense of
geometry. Insofar as it changes we would be unable to draw on it to
reactivate its origin, it would be as if the letter had been intercepted and
edited on its journey. But what was this unity, and how could it be assured?
One could no longer define it as “a system of axioms which ‘governs’ a
multiplicity,” where “every proposition is determinable either as analytic
consequence, or as analytic contradiction.”96 After Gödel had shown the
incompleteness of all formal systems of a certain power, this definition of
the unity of mathematics was no longer valid. Geometry and mathematics
more generally would have to find their ground outside of formal systems.
But Derrida suggested that the very question of decidability, upon
which Gödel’s theorem depended, only made sense within a “geometric-
mathematical horizon in general, as the open unity of a science.” The
question of decidability only makes sense in the broader field of a sci-
ence that cares about such things. Derrida’s argument mirrored that of the
mathematical phenomenologists, and Derrida turned explicitly to Suzanne
Bachelard to counter the criticism leveled against Husserl by critics like
Cavaillès.97 Rather than the instability of the formal as expressed by Gödel
undermining the idea that it was rooted in a transcendental sphere, it was
only because of this transcendental logic that it could maintain its unity
across the reformulations of higher formal systems. Husserl’s theory did
not succumb to Gödel’s criticism, because it reached back to a more basic
mathematical drive that was continuous across different axiomatizations.98
It was a particular geometry that failed due to the incompleteness the-
orem, not geometry in general. For Husserl, geometry was grounded in
originary evidences, which were “prior to those axioms and served as their
ground.”99 It was what Suzanne Bachelard had called the “consciousness
of rationality.”
Derrida doubted that Gödel’s theory could simply be pushed aside. If
the unity of geometry lay beyond decidability, as Ladrière and Bachelard
thought, it could no longer be fitted into the decidable distinction between
“true” and “false.” Consequently, geometry could never expect a deter-
mined definition, i.e. one that could be affirmed or denied. One would
never be able to say, “Geometry is such and such,” because such a phrase
declared itself to be true and thus part of the set of decidable proposi-
tions; a set we now know was posterior to the essential unity of geometry.
96 Ibid., p. 53. 97 Ibid., p. 53 (translation modified).
98 Bachelard, A Study of Husserl’s Formal and Transcendental Logic, pp. 52–5.
99 Derrida, Introduction, p. 55.
170 Derrida post-existentialist
Not able to have a determined form, geometry could “only indicate the
pure openness and unity of an infinite horizon.”100 Furthermore, because
geometry had the pretension to universality, it had to be separated from
the mere cultural traditions that were limited to one particular historical
moment. Derrida stated that geometry’s status as a “science,” its refusal to
be “enclosed in any determined historical culture as such,” could only exist
as an infinite idea.101

the infinite idea of god


So at each stage of Husserl’s work, Derrida noted the necessary appeal to
an infinite idea. The discussion of the horizon and the Kantian idea, so
central for the epistemologists, would become the keystone of Derrida’s
analysis, the subject of the final section. On this idea, Husserl’s project
stood or fell: it was the condition of possibility for geometry and phe-
nomenology more generally. Derrida, quoting a phrase from Ricoeur that
in contemporary courses was one of his favourites, suggested that Husserl
did phenomenology, but it was Kant who “limited and founded it.”102
As Ricoeur’s catchphrase suggested, the Kantian idea, which saved phe-
nomenology from being mere phenomenalism, was particularly difficult for
phenomenology to understand. It was an infinite idea whose evidence was
“mysterious,” not fitting into phenomenology’s “principle of principles.”103
Because it was infinite, it could never be given “in person” to finite intu-
ition. The keystone of phenomenology, and one that was necessary both
for Husserl and for Derrida’s contemporary epistemologists, escaped its
grasp.
It was here that Derrida’s analysis took a very strange turn, a change
in direction that, I think, is the most important in the book. Derrida
compared the indeterminacy of the idea, as an ideal pole that is not in
itself transcendent to history, to God.104 The appeal to God is particularly
surprising, for in the Origin of Geometry Husserl never mentioned him.105

100 Ibid., p. 56. 101 Ibid., p. 58 (translation modified).


102 Ibid., p. 140 note 167, quoting Ricoeur in Kant-Studien, reprinted in Ricoeur, A l’école de la
phénoménologie.
103 Derrida, Introduction, p. 106. The declaration of the Idea as mysterious should recall the Problem
of Genesis.
104 See ibid., p. 148, and p. 45 note.
105 Ibid., p. 163. Lawlor makes a note of this appeal to God, but sees it as the continued critique of
Husserl, whose philosophy is “a sort of Christianity.” See also his references to the cross: Lawlor,
Derrida and Husserl, p. 129. But his discussion is quite brief. Hent de Vries gives a lengthier
treatment of this moment: see de Vries, Philosophy and the turn to Religion, p. 148, and Derrida’s
tying of the religious to the historical, most clearly in chapter 3, “Formal Indications.”
The God of mathematics 171
To understand the move we need to turn to Derrida’s contemporary
courses.106 In one prepared in early 1963, Derrida explicitly discussed the
ambivalent role of God in Husserl’s phenomenology. First, Husserl tried
to separate himself from what he thought were the “theological” presup-
positions of previous philosophies, especially that of Kant. In particular he
opposed Kant’s distinction between the thing for-us and thing in-itself,
which derived from the distinction between limited human intuition
(intuitus derivativa) and an infinite divine intuition (intuitus originaria)
that created the object, and thus could access it independently of human
capacities. But for Husserl, God too was constrained to see an object in
Abschattungen, one side at a time, because spatiality was part of the eidos
of the object, not just the product of our perception. Spatiality was an
“essential and irreducible eidetic component of the body itself.” If the
principle of principles – the certainty of the eidetic laws drawn from a
phenomenology – held, it had to hold for all possible subjects, including
God.107 In Husserl’s first works, especially Ideas, then, God was “a limit
concept, a phantom destined to make the absolutely unconditioned uni-
versality of certain eidetic laws appear.” Second, under the transcendental
reduction, the totality of the world, including God, was reduced; in return-
ing to the transcendental sphere “the God of religions” had to be put in
brackets.108
But despite this rigorous and “cold atheology,” as Husserl’s philosophy
developed the name of God became increasingly present. The seeds of
such a reemergence could be seen in the debate with Kant. To Husserl’s
objections, Derrida, ventriloquizing Kant, riposted that the idea of an
infinite consciousness was implicit in the idea of the Abschattung, of the
inadequation of the intuition to the object:
It is on the foundation of the infinite that I perceive the indefiniteness of the
finite. It is from the horizon of a total adequation of my perception to the thing
that I can become conscious of the inadequation. And Kant would reproach
Husserl for not starting sufficiently explicitly from this relationship between the
finite, the indefinite, and the infinite, and from this difference between an infinite
consciousness and a finite consciousness. Neglecting this difference, while making
the finite consciousness the originary absolute, he forgets precisely finitude itself,
both its condition and its derivation.

106 See Jacques Derrida, “Phénoménologie, téléologie, théologie: le dieu de Husserl,” Irvine, 7.8, sheets
31–3 and 41–2, and Jacques Derrida, “Le Sens du transcendental,” Irvine, 6.9, sheet 71.
107 If the opposite were true, and God had access to a nonspatial object, then the intuition would
become mere appearances, and we could no longer rely on “immediate clear and distinct intu-
ition of the thing present in person” to provide truth; philosophy would lose all value. Derrida,
“Phénoménologie, téléologie, théologie,” sheet 7.
108 Ibid., sheet 22.
172 Derrida post-existentialist
Indeed, Husserl found himself continuously required to appeal to an
infinite idea in order to maintain his system, fittingly calling it a Kan-
tian idea. This infinite idea was necessarily indeterminate. As Derrida
asserted, “the Kantian idea, for Husserl, is an opening to the indefinite
horizon and not to an actual infinity. It is time itself and not an immobile
eternity.”109
So, even after the phenomenological reduction, a close analysis revealed
a persistent form of transcendence. One such transcendence in imma-
nence was the unity of the transcendental subject that accompanies all my
representations. But in Ideas, Husserl talked of another immanent tran-
scendence, which was not immediate to experience like the subject but
mediate: what Husserl named God.110 This God manifested itself medi-
ately in thought, firstly through teleology, “the recognition of a certain final
order,” secondly through the idea of a moral order, and thirdly in religious
consciousness. Husserl thought that he could fully reduce this idea of God,
because it was present only mediately, through signs. Nevertheless, because
God still “announces himself ” in the immanence of the transcendental
experience, Derrida declared that this reduction could never be definitive,
that God was “deferred [differé]” rather than reduced. As Husserl’s thought
developed, this mediate transcendence in immanence would return, not as
the factual God of religions – the human fleshing out of this sign could be
definitively placed to one side – but “a God who, in the methodological
operation of the reduction has lost all his classical ontological attributes.”111
For this reason, this new God, appearing in the transcendental sphere, “can
no longer be an absolutely transcendent God, determining the world and
consciousness from the outside,” he no longer accorded with the “classical
concept of God, which is mundane and anthropological.”112
According to Derrida, it was by drawing out these implications, that,
in the later works, God became more central for Husserl, especially in his
analyses of the mathematical object, whose omnitemporality required the
idea of an infinite mind.
The consciousness that projects such objects, who in consequence seeks the truth,
demands the truth, the consciousness that renders itself responsible in history for
that infinity and that universality, the consciousness which feels itself called to such
a project, which infinitely overflows the totality of what in fact is, this consciousness
that thinks the universal truth across [par-delà] its factical determinations, this

109 Ibid., sheet 14. 110 See Husserl, Ideas I, § 58.


111 Derrida, “Phénoménologie, téléologie, théologie,” sheets 29–30. It is for this reason that Husserl
claimed that his philosophy could be a “non-confessional path to God.”
112 Derrida, “Phénoménologie, téléologie, théologie,” sheets 30–2.
The God of mathematics 173
consciousness that poses and thinks the value of infinite and universal truth, this
consciousness makes the divine rise up [affleurer] within it.113
The divine arose within finite consciousness, because it had responsibility
for the infinite mathematical object:
There is then no infinite or universal or eternal independent of a completely
historical and temporal consciousness . . . The Telos of truth, such as it manifests
itself in the sciences and philosophy . . . is thus the manifestation of divinity, the
emergence of the divine in history, the irruption of divine logos.114
Indeed this form of divinity that is intimately related to the Kantian idea
showed itself to be essential at several levels, broadly corresponding to the
three elaborated in Derrida’s Introduction to the Origin of Geometry, all
opening up the possibility of history.115 In all these cases God was not a
transcendent thing, but the pole of historicity: “he is the opening . . . of
history, in the sense of an infinite Telos . . . always deferred [differé], situated
at the infinite as a horizon . . . ‘Selbstrealisierungsprozessus der Gottheit’ [the
divine’s process of self-realization].”116
Because the infinite idea for Husserl was God, Derrida’s engagement
with questions of epistemology was a propadeutic to the more critical dis-
cussion of the divine. According to Derrida, the very claims of French
philosophy of science, especially as concerned the crucial question of for-
malization, were dependent on an appeal to the infinite idea, and hence
to theology.117 This was why Derrida referred to God in the final section
of his Introduction. Derrida’s contemporary courses deal only briefly with
questions of mathematics and science. It was religious questions that most
exercised him, whether of God, Evil, or Theology. Geometry in Derrida’s
Introduction merely served as another occasion for discussing the divine.
The theoretical tenor of Derrida’s contemporary courses chimes with
a tradition of French Heideggerianism that had arisen in opposition to
Sartre’s humanism, a tradition I discussed briefly in the first chapter.
Though this was a broad movement, incorporating a variety of theoreti-
cal views, one scholar in particular should catch our interest here. Henri
Birault was the most important and successful Christian Heideggerian in

113 Ibid., sheet 34. 114 Ibid., sheet 35.


115 See also his analysis of Husserl’s Kantian idea in the course “L’Idée” from 1961–2, Irvine, 6.6,
especially sheets 80–5, where he describes the idea as a mystery and identifies it with the idea of
God.
116 Derrida, “Phénoménologie, téléologie, théologie,” sheets 38 and 42.
117 The other phenomenologist for whom this is the case is Jean Ladrière. See especially his article
“Histoire et destinée,” Revue philosophique de Louvain (February 1960), pp. 103–34.
174 Derrida post-existentialist
France, a scholar who was one of the rare contemporary commentators on
Heidegger that Derrida cited.118
Birault’s most important article, the 1960 “Heidegger et la pensée de
la finitude,” was a rejection of the “Judaeo-Christian idea of finitude”
that had been read into Heidegger’s concept of Endlichkeit. To explain
this, Birault entered into a long analysis of the history of the finite. For
the Greeks, Birault asserted, it was the infinite that was the fallen form,
presented as the non-complete. A thing only became what it was once
it was finished, finite: the perfect as opposed to the imperfect. Even in
the Jewish theological tradition the finite was not demeaned. It lacked
infinity but wasn’t bereft of it, “the limitation that is no longer good as
with the Greek, but which is not yet bad as with the moderns.”119 It
was only in its Christian theological formulation that the finite gained
its negative meaning, compared unfavorably to a perfect and infinite God.
This unfavorable reading of the finite, as the inability to achieve the infinite,
was experienced by the finite subject as “evil/pain [mal].”120
The pained sense of its own limitations motivated the finite subject to
exceed them. This was the origin of atheism that reversed the meaning of
previous theological discourse: “To think the finite as finitude is to trans-
form this privation into a stance [position] to make the finite no longer the
negation of the infinite but rather to make the infinite the negation of the
finite.”121 Finitude was the condition for freedom, a yearning to overcome
finite limitations, an opening to the indefinite and the unlimited: “What
then is this infinity of free finitude if not an irreligious and Promethean
infinite of Man who, in making himself God, makes himself man by the
transgression of sin?”122 And yet despite its atheistic claims, this reversal
maintained the old structure of the theological opposition: even though
they had rejected the idea of a positive infinite, philosophies of finitude
still felt finite existence as a “mal.” As Birault remarked “the problem is
to know if the unhappy and properly finite dimension of finitude can be
maintained when the inanity of the infinite finds itself denounced.”123
Birault presented Heidegger’s theme of Endlichkeit as a direct rejection
of this old metaphysical and theological (even when atheist) framework.
For Birault, with his concept of Endlichkeit Heidegger had attempted to

118 See Jacques Derrida, “Penser, c’est dire non,” Irvine, 4.16. p. 57, referring to Birault’s “Heidegger
et la pensée de la finitude,” Revue internationale de philosophie (1960), p. 140. as “a beautiful
article . . . difficult and subtle but of great richness.” See also Derrida, Writing and Difference,
p. 317 note 70, and Jacques Derrida, “Peut-on dire oui à la finitude?” Irvine, 7.9, sheet 65.
119 Birault, “Heidegger et la pensée de la finitude,” p. 141. 120 Ibid., p. 147.
121 Ibid., p. 149. 122 Ibid., p. 148. 123 Ibid., p. 154.
The God of mathematics 175
dispense with all onto-theologies, the assertion of any particular being as
supreme. Refusing the stifling idea of a positive infinite as a structuring
principle, whether accessible to humanity or not, Heidegger turned to his
analysis of the “veiling,” the hiding of Being in its very presentation: the
“veil of Being absolutely essential to its unveiling.”124 Thought had to recall
this veiling, “without it, Being would always threaten to collapse into one
privileged form of being and the thought of Being would remain a latent
[larvée] theology, so that it would still be the thought of some Absolute.”125
In short, to avoid onto-theology, we had to respect the ontological
difference.
Birault’s article may seem to be a rejection of religion and theology, but
a cursory glance at his broader project suggests that in fact the opposite
was the case.126 In the article on “La foi et la pensée d’après Heidegger,”
Birault argued that, though Heidegger had placed an absolute distinction
between Faith and the interrogation of the ontological question – between
theology and philosophy – there existed a certain community between
them, a community that explained their fractious relationship in history.127
Philosophy, in Heidegger’s sense, dealt with the Being of beings. Tradi-
tionally this had meant the recourse to a summum ens, a supreme being,
creating what Heidegger called an “onto-theology.” Being had been seen as
God, the Good, the Other, or, in Descartes’s case extension, all of which
according to Heidegger were rather determined beings with their own way
of Being, not Being itself. Since Being was the possibility of any determi-
nation whatsoever – a being is good/beautiful/small/spiritual etc. – Being
itself could not be determined. The history of philosophy for Heidegger
was the perpetual dissimulation of Being under beings, thought under one
metaphor or another.
Since this dissimulation was necessary and unavoidable, there was no
right determination to which it could refer, no perfect being, God, or
infinite, existing outside of the various metaphors. Bad metaphysics then
was not a bad metaphor, but rather “onto-theology,” refusing to think this
metaphor as metaphor. Onto-theology thought that Being actually “is”
(though the sense of this “is” was left undecided) the Good, God, the
Other, or res extensa. As Birault asserted, “Being unveiling itself in being
124 Ibid., p. 160. Compare with Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 144.
125 Birault, “Heidegger et la pensée de la finitude,” p. 161.
126 We might say, using the words of Martin Hägglund, that Birault was not just an atheist (rejection
of a positive absolute), but a radical atheist in his rejection of the theological remainders in the
concept of finitude. But if Hägglund’s description of radical atheism works just as well for Birault
as for Derrida, it raises questions about the polemic intention of his book.
127 Ibid.
176 Derrida post-existentialist
dissimulates itself in dissimulating this very dissimulation.” In other words,
onto-theology arose, because when Being revealed itself in beings it forgot
that that revelation was also a veiling.
Philosophy had to resist onto-theology and sweep away human idols:
“only a thought turned resolutely from all theology will be able to make
itself capable to spell out the names of disappeared gods [dieux disparus].
It recognizes first the Abyss in which Metaphysics works and to which
Christianity [christianisme] has not a little helped to precipitate us.” In so
doing this thought would “drive us to the living sources of Being and the
Sacred [Sacré].” Though never a substitute for faith, this philosophy was
the only one that could better help understand “the very word of ‘God.’”128
Such a view distanced Heidegger’s work from what Birault saw as the
crass atheism of a Nietzsche or a Sartre and the naı̈ve religion that appealed
to an accessible infinite. Birault’s analysis of Heidegger’s Endlichkeit, then,
was a rejection of both bad theology and bad atheism, because both worked
within the same onto-theological structure. For Birault, as for the other
Christian Heideggerians, the combined veiling and unveiling of Being
in beings, or the ontological difference allowed them to think the divine
without positing a theological absolute. It limited knowledge to make room
for faith. This difference then was the Heideggerian equivalent of Marcel’s
mysterious “absent God,” and the overturning of onto-theology was the
updated variant of Weil’s and Borne’s “purifying atheism.”129
It is on this basis that we can make sense of Derrida’s other courses that
treated theological questions. Take, for example, the 1963 course “peut-on
dire oui à la finitude? [can one say yes to finitude?].” Following Birault,
Derrida defined finitude as a combination of a finite being and infinite
freedom, a freedom that, in a particular modern tradition, stemmed from
the recognition of limitations and the possibility of transcending them.
Finitude thus described a finite being structured by a recognition, a “yes”
to its limits, which allowed a practical, and ethical “no” to them.130
As Derrida showed, finitude made a surreptitious appeal to the divine.
The imperfection of the finite being, its unflattering comparison with the
infinite, was necessary for Descartes to doubt and thus the ground of his
freedom to say yes or no to any particular piece of knowledge. Thus, the
very possibility of doubt, of saying no, was dependent on a primordial,

128 Ibid., pp. 131–2.


129 Birault does not actually use the word “difference” in this article, but it is a major presence in his
other work. See especially Birault “De l’être, du divin et des dieux chez Heidegger,” in De l’être,
du divin et des dieux, pp. 513–50.
130 Derrida, “Peut-on dire oui à la finitude?”, sheet 21.
The God of mathematics 177
though dissimulated, “yes to god.” “It seems that the consciousness of
finitude as a lack [comme manque] cannot be originary. It always creates
itself on the foundation of an infinite” to which the no would always be
derivative and secondary.131 And this “yes to God” must also be a “yes of
God,” “a self-affirmation [auto-affirmation] of God,” because as the ground
of all philosophical interrogation, it could never be the simple affirmation
of the finite philosopher.132
Philosophy is only the recognition of this originary divine speech [parole]. It is a yes
to the yes of God, it is a response and a recognition. Philosophy is the recognition
(in both the cognitive and ethical sense of this word) I recognize God, the yes of
God . . . My yes, in the strong sense of the word, replies to the yes of God.133
But if this “yes” was truly primary, and the “no” purely secondary, this would
undermine human freedom. If the “yes” to God was the unadulterated
ground of philosophy, if it weren’t somehow contaminated with a “no,”
then we would have no choice, we would have to affirm the divine; the
“yes” of faith would be, in Derrida’s words, an “obligated recognition.”134
Classical philosophy, however, for all its assertion of human freedom,
was incapable of thinking the inherence of a “no” in its ontotheologi-
cal presentation of the infinite; negativity had to be purely human and
the original affirmation could only be divine.135 According to Derrida, to
make room for human freedom our “yes” had to be radical, a free choice,
dependent on a co-primordial possibility of the “no.” Our freedom – and
negativity – had to be an integral part of God. Citing Kafka, a phrase of
which he was particularly fond in this period, Derrida said “we are the
nihilistic thoughts that arise in God’s brain.”136
To understand the essential negativity within the divine, Derrida turned
to Heidegger. The Heideggerian concept of Endlichkeit implied that a

131 Ibid., sheet 40. In an earlier course, “Penser, c’est dire non,” Derrida argued that Husserl’s phe-
nomenology was similarly structured, the “no” of the reduction was dependent on a “yes” to
immediate intuition. Derrida, “Penser, c’est dire non,” pp. 40–1.
132 Derrida, “Peut-on dire oui à la finitude?”, sheet 47. 133 Ibid., sheet 48.
134 Ibid., sheet 49; see also sheet 65.
135 Derrida continued to describe the Nietzschean “Dionysiac yes,” which was the “affirmation of the
finite by the finite.” But in being beyond Man, the “yes” of the Overman was a self-overcoming not
essentially different from the classical sense of finitude. Derrida, “Peut-on dire oui à la finitude?”,
sheet 52. Compare with Birault in “Heidegger et la pensée de la finitude,” p. 489: “One has seen
that only negativity’s [Négatif] power of discrimination can found the discursivity of discourse.
Then, to save discourse and to save God, one only has to carry discourse into God himself, that
is to say to interpret God as the word or as Mediation to build on that collapse [effondrement] of
substance a new figure of the Absolute.”
136 Derrida, “Peut-on dire oui à la finitude?”, sheet 49. See also Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 68,
which develops a similar argument.
178 Derrida post-existentialist
thing only became what it was through its limit. Limitation was the “def-
inition and condition of Being and of Being such.”137 Though Being was
dissimulated in beings, it was only as a being that it could reveal itself. It
was the veiling essential to its unveiling. Thus Heidegger’s thought allowed
Derrida, like Birault before him, to imagine finitude and freedom without
first positing an infinite absolute that was, in a sense, a priori.138 There
was no Being outside beings, just as there was no being without Being,
no infinity preceding finitude, nor a perfect finite. If neither were possible
alone, if neither could pre-exist nor precede the other, then it must be the
ontological difference, the difference between Being and beings that was
primary.139
The turn to Heidegger to understand God, while repeating the moves
of the Christian Heideggerians, still leaves many questions unanswered.
For the relationship between God and Being, whose identity was denied
by Heidegger and his French followers, was always a fraught one. To bring
out the tensions I would like to discuss one more lecture from the period,
significantly – as we shall see later – one of Derrida’s last lectures at the
Sorbonne, entitled “ontology and theology.”
The relationship between the ontology and theology was fraught because
each declared its own priority. From the perspective of ontology, theology
was a particular science dealing with that particular being called God
and thus was dependent on an understanding of what Being in general
was: “Theology would be submitted to ontology as a particular science
to a universal science.”140 But, theology could not be seen simply as a
“discourse on God,” because “God cannot be designated as . . . the object
of speech [parole], of a discourse.” Theology might rather be the discourse
“of God.” Further, an omnipotent God could not be subsumed to one
particular ontological category and thus be subservient to ontology itself.
God escaped any essence and was absolutely singular: “because God is
unique and because there is no concept for something unique.”141
These particularities of theology could just as easily be asserted for
ontology. Ontology was not the science about Being, just as theology could

137 Derrida, “Peut-on dire oui à la finitude?”, sheet 57.


138 In a later course it was a similar analysis that Derrida undertook for the problem of evil. Insofar
as evil is grounded on a greater good, it is no longer evil. A true understanding of evil requires
a philosophy of originary finitude, detached from any prior relationship to an infinity. Jacques
Derrida, “Le Mal est dans le monde comme une esclave qui fait monter l’eau,” Irvine, 7.13,
especially sheet 46.
139 Derrida, “Peut-on dire oui à la finitude?”, sheet 67.
140 Jacques Derrida, “Ontologie et théologie,” Irvine, 8.12, sheet 3.
141 Ibid., sheet 4. Derrida noted that this necessarily privileged monotheism.
The God of mathematics 179
not be the science about God. To be the object of a science, Being had to be
a being, but this identification was, as Heidegger asserted, the central error
of onto-theology. If theology was a model for ontology, then there was an
alternation, and perhaps a mutual implication in both, each one seemingly
dependent and drawing upon the other. The question arose whether “the
thought of Being precedes . . . the thought of God, as the opening in which
God announces himself? or rather if God is the very name of that opening
in which Being shows itself as Being, Being as such?”142 The question,
Derrida asserted, could be answered neither by a finitist philosophy nor by
one pinning its hopes to an infinite. Rather, it was Heidegger’s difference
that offered the clues to understanding the relationship between God and
Being. Concluding, Derrida posed the unanswered question “But God =
difference, or that in which difference appears?”143
The understanding of the concept of God, and so of the infinite idea,
through an appeal to Heidegger’s difference is the central movement in the
last section on Derrida’s Introduction to Husserl’s Origin of Geometry. God
was both what was read through history and yet was transcendent to all the
constituted moments of that history, it was an infinite that could not be
immediately opposed to finite beings: transcendence in immanence. So too
“the Idea is not an Absolute that first exists in the plenitude of its essence
and then descends into history or becomes disclosed in a subjectivity, whose
acts would not be intrinsically indispensable to it.”144
Because the Kantian idea was both immanent and transcendent in
Husserl’s work, Derrida was able to challenge Cavaillès’s criticism of
Husserl. The idea was both an active part of the constitution of the world
(transcendent) and something that was read from it (immanent): we did
not need to choose, pace Cavaillès, between an “absolute logic” and a “tran-
scendental logic.”145 Thought is activity at one and the same time following
and preceding passivity. It is both guided by formal systems and is their
ground, dialecticially.
Thus, as Derrida argued, both God and the Infinite idea, immanent
transcendences, were the movement of history:
If there is any history, then historicity can only be the passage of a Speech [parole],
the pure tradition of a primordial logos towards a polar Telos. But since there can
be nothing outside the pure historicity of that passage, since there is no Being
which has sense outside of this historicity or escapes its infinite horizon, since the

142 Ibid., sheet 7. 143 Ibid., sheet 8. 144 Derrida, Introduction, p. 142.
145 Ibid., p. 143. Cf. Bachelard, A Study of Husserl’s Formal and Transcendental Logic, pp. 99, 163,
220–2.
180 Derrida post-existentialist
Logos and the Telos are nothing outside of the interplay [Wechselspiel] of their
reciprocal inspiration, this signifies then that the Absolute is Passage.146

Phenomenology was a response to the originary Logos, it always came late


to Being, a “delay [retard] or lateness of Discourse after the showing [mon-
stration] of Being.” It is this lateness that was the “philosophical absolute.”147
It was another way of asserting the priority of the ontological difference:
the originary Logos, God’s voice, “is present only in being deferred-delayed
[se différant] without respite[.] This impotence and this impossibility are
given in a primordial and pure consciousness of Difference.”148 God, like
the Kantian idea, could never be given completely, it always exceeded phi-
losophy, always concealed itself in phenomena. But this concealment was
just its mode of givenness. There was no infinite lying outside of history: the
ontico-ontological difference was this recognition, a difference powering a
transcendental historicity.

conclusion
Derrida’s Introduction to Husserl’s Origin of Geometry elaborated the very
questions and problems discussed by contemporary epistemologists. That
Derrida should have won the Prix Cavaillès was not a mistake, nor an odd-
ity of history; the first ten sections of his Introduction engaged with some
of the most pressing questions of this tradition at the time, by tying the
history of mathematics to its phenomenological ground. But while ana-
lyzing the possibility of mathematical idealities and their history, Derrida
kept running up against one condition that escaped phenomenological
analysis. The Kantian idea – necessarily both the pole of historicity that
governed it and immanent within history – turned out to have the same
characteristics as a certain understanding of the Divine. Derrida’s last sec-
tion thus fit better with the works of Christian Heideggerians who drew
upon the German’s later writings to understand the human relationship
to God. It was Heidegger’s difference, a difference that was also a passage,
the revealing/veiling of Being in beings, God in the world, that offered
the greatest hope for explaining the possibility of mathematics. The book’s
reception and reading public do not contain all the answers to its philos-
ophy. Derrida wrote for the epistemologists, but not as an epistemologist.

146 Derrida, Introduction, p. 149. 147 Ibid., p. 152.


148 Ibid., p. 153. See also Derrida’s discussion of God and Being in the closing section of “Violence
and Metaphysics,” in Derrida, Writing and Difference, esp. pp. 148–50.
The God of mathematics 181
As in his Mémoire, Derrida again contaminated his epistemology with
religious themes.
We saw in the first chapter that the intellectual history of the 1950s can be
figured as the twin attempts of communist and Christian thinkers to pick
over the bones of Sartrean existentialism, which in the halls of academia
was no longer taken seriously. The communists, in reinterpreting Husserl
through his more scientific writings, set the tone for the study of his phe-
nomenology throughout the 1950s. The Catholics, on the other hand,
reappropriated Heidegger to show that his philosophy was not atheistic, as
Sartre had asserted, but provided valuable resources for a revitalized reli-
gion. The two traditions disaggregated the phenomenologists to develop
non-humanist readings. Derrida’s Introduction is thus particularly signifi-
cant. For the first time since Sartre (perhaps prematurely) had synthesized
Husserl and Heidegger around Man, Derrida’s “Introduction” reunited
them around God, and in doing so brought together in one work the
two key strands of post-existentialist post-humanist philosophy. In this
sense Derrida’s Introduction to the Origin of Geometry can be read as the
culmination of 1950s phenomenology in France.
part ii
Between phenomenology and
structuralism

In the fall of 1964, Derrida left the Sorbonne, where he had been teaching as
an assistant, to take up his new role as agrégé-répétiteur at the Ecole Normale
Supérieure. From the bustling anonymity of the Cour d’Honneur, working
alongside the phenomenologists Jean Wahl, Paul Ricoeur, and Suzanne
Bachelard, Derrida once again entered the intimate, even claustrophobic,
institution where Louis Althusser held court and antihumanist Marxism
was the order of the day. Though only a few hundred meters’ walk from
the lecture halls in which he had been teaching for the past four years,
socially and philosophically the ENS was a world apart. In passing through
the main gates, Derrida was not only embarking on a new stage of his
career, he was entering into a structuralist lions’ den: it was to be a rude
introduction to 1960s philosophy.
The move would have a profound effect on Derrida’s philosophy, and
leave its mark on the three books he published in 1967: Writing and
Difference, Speech and Phenomena, and Of Grammatology, three texts that
present what could be called the canonical Derrida. Analyzing each text
in turn, the next three chapters will present three different perspectives on
Derrida’s developing thought. In chapter 6, I provide an overview of the
shift, by following the mutations in Derrida’s use of différence/différance.
This analysis lays the foundation for a discussion of Derrida’s engagement
with a form of structural psychoanalysis that had made a base at the ENS.
In chapter 7, I argue how Derrida’s new teaching responsibilities shaped his
thought, transforming it from a specialized phenomenological theory into
a mode of reading applicable to a large range of texts and discourses: what
Derrida called deconstruction. Finally, in chapter 8, I examine Derrida’s
confrontation with structuralism and consider the political valence of these
changes, explaining how antihumanism and writing served to ease his
negotiation of the fraught political, social, and philosophical space at the
Ecole.

183
184 Between phenomenology and structuralism
The traces of this development are made clearest by the internal tensions
of Derrida’s 1967 book Writing and Difference, which collected together
all his article-length essays written since 1959. Indeed, appropriately, the
most important line of continuity spanning all the essays in Writing and
Difference is a resistance to the very concept of a unified totality, what
Derrida called the “book.” In the early 1960s, Derrida had presented the
“book,” especially as understood by Leibniz and Hegel, as the antithesis of
his own project.1 The book represented totalizing philosophy, the text that
purported to be complete with the certainty of absolute knowledge and
the synchronicity of a mathematical system. Like Hegel’s Encyclopedia, it
had the task of understanding everything and let nothing escape its ambit;
the book was in this sense doubly “comprehensive.” But for Derrida, this
comprehensiveness was illusory. Due to the limits of the human mind, the
book was a mere dream, and one that could only impose itself by denying
this finitude. The “book,” as seen by Derrida, was Man trying to be
God.
The disruption of human thought and its dreams to be encyclopedic also
take pride of place in Derrida’s writing from the late 1960s. In “Ellipsis,” the
final essay, written specifically for the 1967 publication, Derrida wrote:
“here or there, we have discerned writing: a nonsymmetrical division des-
ignated on the one hand the closure of the book, and on the other the
opening of the text. On the one hand the theological encyclopedia and,
modeled on it, the book of Man. On the other, a fabric of traces marking
the disappearance of the exceeded God or of an effaced Man.”2 But because
a book is itself composed of text, its own claims to comprehensiveness and
totality are constantly challenged. Writing breaks the “self-identity of the
origin,” which is only the trace of something else. Text is the very possi-
bility of repetition, of a “re-presentation” authorized by the absence of the
singular signified; where there are no originals, all copies are equal. It fol-
lows that, because a book was written, whatever its pretensions to absolute
identity and synchronicity, it can never be self-contained. The “return to
the book is then the abandoning of the book.”3
It was perhaps this possibility of self-overcoming that justified Derrida’s
enterprise when, in December 1966, he set about compiling his own book,
Writing and Difference. Clearly, there can be no easy identification of the
concept “book” as it occurs in Derrida’s writing and the concrete product
that was the result of his labor that winter. But, neither is it possible simply
to disassociate the two. For Derrida, in Writing and Difference, did make

1 See Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 10. 2 Ibid., p. 294. 3 Ibid., pp. 295–6.
Between phenomenology and structuralism 185
great efforts to detach his own work from the traditional book form, a
form that he would regard as exemplary of the metaphysical concept.
Writing and Difference is a collection of essays. It is fragmentary, and
eschews from the first any totalizing interpretation. Further, the book,
unusually for the time, contains no prefatory material.4 The reader is taken
straight to the first essay, and there is no explicit attempt to guide the
readings of the individual articles with a unifying introduction. It is only
at the end that Derrida provided some type of overview, a short passage
after the bibliography. Here, rather than trying to summarize or unify the
book under one common theme, Derrida brought attention once again
to the heterogeneous nature of his work, which effected a pointillism, the
essays only loosely sewn together: “If text means tissue, all these essays have
stubbornly defined it as loose stitching [faufilure].”5 Of course the book was
unified by the title, but on the whole it attempted to undo any pretension
to tightly knit homogeneity.6
The only over-arching structure for the book was a historical one. Even
as late as March 1967, when Derrida was finishing his corrections, he did
not consider the chronological presentation itself as necessarily “bookish.”
When every determined system was considered as synchronic, and the
overcoming of these finite systems took place in and because of time,
history was one of the only ways of escaping the “book.” In fact, for
Derrida historicity was the constant overcoming of “books,” the refusal to
submit historical change to historically transcendent schemas.
The chronological structure of the book, and consequently the narrative
that it tells, has often been lost on those reading Writing and Difference.
First, it is not immediately obvious that the essays are, in fact, in chrono-
logical order. The most obvious deviation from this schema is the placing
of “Genesis and Structure” at the center of the book, when, as a paper for
the 1959 Cérisy conference, it should have come first. But when the paper
was finally published, in a 1965 collection, it had been substantially revised,
mostly to absorb the themes from Derrida’s introduction to the Origin of
Geometry, which he had not started before the conference.7
In a letter questioning another deviation from sequential ordering, Der-
rida did not even consider the placement of “Genesis and Structure” as

4 The innocence of the preface is placed under scrutiny in Derrida’s later work; see especially “Hors
livre,” in Jacques Derrida, La Dissémination (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1972).
5 Jacques Derrida, L’Écriture et la différence (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1967), p. 437.
6 However the title is not as unambiguous as it might first appear. See the conclusion to chapter 6.
7 See in comparison the transcript of the 1959 talk sent to Derrida for corrections for the 1965 volume:
Irvine, 57.8.
186 Between phenomenology and structuralism
a problem. Derrida had written to his publishers on March 25, 1967 to
query the location of the 1966 “Structure, Sign and Play” after the essay
“Restricted Economy” of 1967. He asked, “Will you do me the favor of
verifying if that was my intention? I tried to understand why I did it. The
reason escapes me.”8 The momentary forgetfulness lasted but three days,
when he wrote again, assuring the editor, “I think I have understood why
I inverted the chronological order of the articles on Bataille, and structure,
sign, and play. Everything is fine.”9 The incident demonstrates globally
what it contests locally: Derrida did indeed propose to present his essays in
the order they were written.10 This desire also explains the lack of a preface.
A preface written after the book it introduces would have disrupted the
chronological presentation of the essays.
Encompassing the changes in Derrida’s thought, Writing and Differ-
ence itself tells a story: the first five essays up to and including “Struc-
ture and Genesis” were originally written before Derrida returned to the
Ecole, while the final six were written while he was teaching there. If the
Derrida that I have presented over the past four chapters sits uncomfort-
ably with traditional presentations of his work, Writing and Difference lays
out the path from the “post-existentialist” of the Origin of Geometry to
the canonical deconstructive philosophy of Of Grammatology. The text
has one foot in his phenomenological past and another in the structuralist
present.

the double seance


While the placement of his essays and the care with respect to prefatory
material suggest that Derrida was conscientious in maintaining the histor-
ical ordering of his earlier articles, he was not so scrupulous with respect to
their content. The essays were amended and revised without remark. From
small changes, such as the introduction of italics at certain points or the
habitual decapitalization of key words, to large revisions, such as the addi-
tion of important later terms (différance, économie, and métaphysique de la
présence), Derrida attempted to homogenize in content the chronological
development he wanted to respect in form.
This process of homogenization, however, was never complete. In 1972,
Derrida described the double séance:
8 “Letter March 25, 1967,” IMEC, Seuil, SEL252, B640, D7.
9 “Letter March 28, 1967,” IMEC, Seuil, SEL252, B640, D7.
10 Derrida gives no suggestion why he did decide to have the “Structure, Sign, and Play” essay out
of order, but it might be an attempt to secure a symmetry between the first and the penultimate
essays, which deal with similar themes, and mirror each other in style and content.
Between phenomenology and structuralism 187
This structure of the double mark (caught – borrowed and enclosed – in an
oppositional couple, a term retains its old name to destroy the opposition to
which it no longer completely belongs, to which it will have moreover never
ceded, the history of that opposition being that of an incessant and hierarchical
struggle) works the entire field in which these texts displace themselves. It is
thus also worked over: the rule, according to which each concept necessarily
receives two comparable marks – repetition without identity – one inside, the other
outside of the desconstructed system, must provide a double reading and a double
writing . . . a double science.11
But before he conceptualized this “paleonymy,” Derrida practiced it. For,
often when Derrida attempted to integrate his later vocabulary into ear-
lier texts, the additions clashed with the conceptual structures already
at work there. Within the 1967 revisions of Derrida’s essay on Lev-
inas, “Violence and Metaphysics,” the newly minted concepts of jeu and
économie were inserted into a context where those words already had a
meaning.
For Levinas, and within the 1964 version of the Levinas essay, “play” was
never serious. It was the trick of the totality, the inauthentic disruption
of a system, never truly endangering the dominance of the same.12 But
the concept of “play” would become central for Derrida himself, especially
after his 1966 talk “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences,” and
in 1967 he reinserted this new concept into the earlier essay. In the revisions
to the early essays, play became the internal movement of a structure that
escaped all control and ultimately disrupted the structure itself. Further,
play preceded the opposition between finitude and infinity. The movement
of a structural totality allowed the possibility of the thought of the infinite,
by disrupting any pretentions to a determined finite, and so static, system:
“a system is neither finite nor infinite. A structural totality escapes this
alternative in its play.”13 If Levinas’s notion of play represented the illusion
of alterity tolerated by the totality, Derrida’s new concept emphasized that
that totality was an illusion too.
The same is true for the term économie, which has a similar history;
thought by Levinas as a ruse of the totality to master alterity and reduce its
effects, it became, for Derrida, when he inserted it into the article in 1967,
a way to confront that totality from the inside, by using the system’s terms

11 Derrida, La Dissemination, p. 10. See also Jacques Derrida, Positions (Paris: Editions de Minuit,
1972), p. 96.
12 See Derrida, Writing and Difference, pp. 102, 126–7. See also Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and
Infinity, trans. A. Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), pp. 37, 148, or 270.
13 Added to Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 123 (translation modified); see also addition p. 107.
188 Between phenomenology and structuralism
against itself.14 Here the tension within the word was already apparent
in 1964. In one key passage in the original version, Derrida noted that
a broad economy “cannot reduce itself to what Levinas aims under that
word,” even though Levinas’s restricted sense already required it.15 Levinas’s
economy was described as the process by which alterity was neutralized
and converted into something that could be compared and subordinated
to the “same.” But Derrida insisted that this process already required the
contamination of alterity described by his own concept of economy. If
alterity had to be domesticated, it must have once been dangerous and
foreign. Even as the term “economy” was a linchpin of Levinas’s system, it
never fully belonged. Levinas’s concept of economy was dependent upon
Derrida’s.
Neither Levinas nor Derrida, then, was able fully to master his own text.
Levinas’s vocabulary clamored for the revision of his system, to which, in
the words of Derrida’s double séance, “it will have never ceded.” And, as
Derrida’s hesitation between the old and the new senses of jeu and économie
shows, that revision could never be total; with paleonymy a word could
never fully free itself from its old meaning. The double séance was a double
mark, between two books, at home in neither. It was for this reason that
Derrida could state that “the time of writing no longer follows the line of
modified presences. The future is not a future present, yesterday is not a
past present.”16 The past heralded the future, to the extent that the future
could be inscribed there, and the future could never fully expunge the trace
of its past. There were no clean breaks, nor a succession of two Derridas,
before and after 1965, the grammatological moment, but rather only the
movement between them, the turning of the page.
Thus, though Derrida’s revisions may seem to efface the heterogeneity of
his book, they are also a symptom of its historicity. The author’s inability
to master his or her texts completely – the persisting trace of the past
and an uncontrollable openness to a future – was essential to the process
of deconstruction, but it equally permits the writing of its history. It is
the traces of old texts, their resistance to change, that best marks any
development: the maintenance of the past in the present. History, for all
its inclination towards linear narratives, relies on the fact that no moment
is absolutely contemporaneous with itself.

14 On its occurrences in the first version see Derrida, Writing and Difference, pp. 93–4, 126 (bottom),
and 147, amongst others. In 1967 Derrida added the concept of a general economy, pp. 102, 126
(top), 129, 141, 148. For Levinas, see Totality and Infinity, especially Section II, “Interiority and
Economy.”
15 Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 117. 16 Ibid., p. 300 (translation modified).
Between phenomenology and structuralism 189
This non-effaceable heterogeneity is characteristic of all texts, but due to
Derrida’s revision practices, it is peculiarly visible in Writing and Difference.
When Derrida came to rework his essays, he began with offprints of the
original articles. The additions, deletions, and changes were clear to see,
whether in the blue marker, which “corrected” those parts that required only
small emendations, to the extra passages, which were literally cut and pasted
into the original copy.17 Derrida’s itinerary can be read in his additions
and crossings-out, which simultaneously conflict with the original text
(otherwise why revise?) and resonate with it. To best understand Derrida’s
development in the period between 1962 and 1967, we must first turn to
his attempts to hide it.

17 See Jacques Derrida, “L’Ecriture et la difference: offprints,” Irvine, 50, 8–11.


c h a p ter 6

A history of différance

The model of the double séance works above all for Derrida’s central con-
cept of différance, a term that, as much as “deconstruction,” has come
to represent his philosophy. Derrida introduced différance to the French
intellectual public in his 1966 paper “Freud and the Scene of Writing.” But
if this paper marked in a sense an origin, it was not a simple one. Already,
in the opening pages of the text, Derrida gave a waypoint for a history
of the term, referring to a passage in his recently published article “Of
Grammatology.”1 But, significantly, the word différance did not appear in
the passage cited, nor indeed in the whole of that article. The passage read:
Coming to recognize . . . that the meaning of Being is not a transcendental or
trans-epochal signified . . . but already in an unprecedented sense, a determined
trace, is to affirm that in the decisive concept of the ontico-ontological difference,
everything should not be thought in one go: being and Being, ontic and onto-
logical, ontico-ontological would be, in an original way, derived from difference.
The ontico-ontological difference would not be the “foundation” (Vom Wesen des
Grundes). Difference tout court would be more “originary,” but one could no longer
call it “origin” or “foundation,” (these notions belong essentially to the history of
onto-theology).2
Drawing out those parts in Heidegger’s text where he complicated any
understanding of the “truth of Being” as a “transcendental signified” and

1 Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 198.


2 Jacques Derrida, “De la grammatologie I,” Critique (December 1965), p. 1029. This quote is the
second half of the footnote as it appeared in the article. In the book, the note was promoted into the
main text and substantially revised. The revised part reads: “being and Being, ontic and ontological,
ontico-ontological would be, in an original way derived from difference; and in relation to that which
we will later call différance, an economical concept designating the production of differing/deferring
[différer], in both senses of the word. The ontico-ontological difference and its foundation (Grund)
in the ‘transcendence of Dasein’ (Vom Wesen des Grundes, p. 16) would not be absolutely originary.
Différance tout court would be more ‘originary,’ but one could no longer call it ‘origin’ or ‘foundation,’
because these notions belong essentially to the history of onto-theology, that is to say, a system
functioning as the effacement of difference.” Derrida, De la grammatologie (Paris: Editions de Minuit,
1967), p. 38, changes italicized. See also Derrida, Positions, p. 19.

190
A history of différance 191
suggesting that it too was a sign, Derrida argued that the ontico-ontological
difference could no longer be primary; the difference between Being and
beings appealed to a Being that was itself riven with difference. Because
Being and its ontic determinations were both signs, the (structuralist)
difference at the heart of signification preceded that between Being and
beings.
If the passage asserted a rupture, it was contained within the word “dif-
ference,” between the “ontico-ontological difference” and “difference tout
court” – repetition without identity – which came into tension with itself
over the course of the footnote. The tension was only formally recognized
later, in the book form of De la grammatologie, which grew out of the
two original articles, when this more “originary” difference was rewritten
as “différance.” No longer the temporalization and differing of the ontico-
ontological difference, the deferral of Being that could only show itself in
hiding itself, Derrida’s différance, spacing and temporalization, preceded
and constituted Heidegger’s.
Derrida completed his footnote (which by 1967 was no longer just a note)
with some advice about how to think this new difference: “One cannot
nevertheless today think it in itself without determining it as the ontico-
ontological difference and without erasing [biffer] this determination.” This
suggestion, though a classic gesture of deconstruction, can also be taken as
descriptive of Derrida’s own process and development. He constructed the
concept of différance by first determining it following Heidegger and then
erasing that determination. Though différance was the “pre-opening of the
ontico-ontological difference,” chronologically it came second.

difference
We have already seen how crucial Heidegger’s concept of the ontico-
ontological difference was for Derrida in his introduction to Husserl’s
Origin of Geometry. There, whilst giving an account of the Kantian idea,
whose infinitude sat uncomfortably with the finite capabilities of Man and
yet was necessary for the rise of science, Derrida used the word différant,
which showed how the consciousness of the “difference” between God’s
voice and its appearance in the finite world expressed itself in a constant
deferral. In this way, the regulatory powers of an infinite idea (of absolute
transmissibility, of absolute straightness/smoothness, of absolute univoc-
ity) could be preserved even if the telos itself could never be given fully.
Concealment constituted the mode of givenness of the infinite, to which
no finite appearance could be adequate.
192 Between phenomenology and structuralism
This understanding of the ontico-ontological difference was central to
all of Derrida’s early essays. In their original versions, they emphasized
the inability of all formal systems to explain themselves in their genesis
and change.3 It is not insignificant that Derrida opened his first published
essay, “Force and Signification,” and thus later Writing and Difference, with
a quotation from Flaubert complaining that “we have too many things and
not enough forms.” No determined formal system could ever be sufficient
to explain the richness of the world, just as no ontic understanding of
Being could fully comprehend it.4 The essays that constituted the first half
of Writing and Difference fit well with Derrida’s early post-existentialism
and Heideggerianism.
The essay “Force and Signification” was originally a review article for
Critique of Jean Rousset’s Forme et Signification, a collection of essays of
structural literary criticism, detecting in the works of Corneille, Flaubert,
Proust, Marivaux, and Claudel hidden structures and mathematical forms
that constituted their literary merit. But if Derrida approved of the method
in general, he suggested that it lacked something: “in the future it will be
interpreted, perhaps, as a relaxation, if not a lapse, of the attention given to
force.”5 It was not that Rousset ignored the genesis of the structures. Indeed,
as Derrida suggested, he wanted to turn the productive imagination from a
naı̈vely used “operative [opératoire]” concept into a considered “thematic”
concept.6 But Rousset’s understanding of the imagination, for various
reasons, ended up reducing all meaningful change.
For Rousset, literary works were detached from the world. As he wrote
in the preface of his book, “to enter into a work is to change universe,
it is to open a horizon.”7 Mirroring Derrida’s analysis in the Origin of
Geometry, writing detached sense from its subjective ground.8 Rousset’s
understanding of writing, the movement of separation from any mundane
causality, allowed him to consider the work as autonomous, without an
origin. It was independent, especially from its author.9
While these literary structures were autonomous, they did not descend
from another world, a topos ouranious, to be clothed in earthly form later;
Rousset like Derrida rejected conventional Platonism.10 Human writing,
then, differs from that of Leibniz’s God, who is constrained to construct the
best of possible worlds. In Leibniz’s model, there is a parallelism between
the theological encyclopedia and the book written by Man, with which
3 See, for example, Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 160. 4 Ibid., p. 3. 5 Ibid., p. 4.
6 Ibid., p. 7. 7 Jean Rousset, Forme et signification (Paris: J. Corti, 1962), p. ii.
8 See especially the discussion of writing in Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 13.
9 Cf. Rousset, Forme et signification, p. xv. 10 Ibid., p. vii.
A history of différance 193
it can be compared. Such a system presupposes that sense exists before it
is inscribed, and that our earthly writings are merely attempts to copy, as
faithfully as possible, the divine writing of truth.11 But, for Derrida and
Rousset, there was no theological book that governed all earthly ones. As
Derrida put it, “writing, as only Man writes” is to know that sense never
precedes the written, but is constituted by it, that “what is not yet produced
in the letter had no other abode.”12
Determined neither by the heat of passion and earthly demands, nor by
a celestial realm analogous to our own that prescribed all forms, literary
structures found their genesis in the free voice, the creative moment in
imagination. But if writing was not constrained from above or from below,
neither was it the random creation of a “hypocritical humanism.”13 Rousset
was clear that writing was an inscription, a revelation, “to make the already-
there arise in its sign”; it was a response to Being.14 Even if there were no
set aesthetic rules, we were not free to create the beautiful as we pleased.
So far, Rousset’s structuralism seems to align with Derrida’s own thought
as we have elaborated it over the past few chapters. But according to
Derrida it still had one major problem. Rousset presented the aesthetic
forms he analyzed as stable entities that could be definitively described.
Because Rousset’s analysis separated written forms from mundane causal-
ity, he thought that they achieved the beautiful directly and without loss.
Rousset’s structuralism threatened to become static, rejecting with empir-
ical historicity a deeper history that would be more than just a simple
correlation of life and work.15 In Derrida’s eyes, this forgetting manifested
itself in the limited concept of development provided by Rousset’s schema,
which was often reduced to the fulfillment of a determined teleology or the
working out of a pre-formation; change was neutralized, disciplined by a
preset pole. For Rousset, then, development was predetermined, Corneille’s
work leading inexorably to the formal perfection he achieved in Polyeucte
(1643).16
For Derrida, on the other hand, because we are human and limited, the
aesthetic structures unveiled by creative writing could never achieve the
beautiful once and for all. Rousset had forgotten the “impossibility [for
a work] to ever be present, of it ever being summarized in some absolute
simultaneity or instantaneity.”17 The temporality of a work, its necessary
unfolding, could not be separated from it, or determined by static schemas.
11 Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 10. 12 Ibid., pp. 10–11 (version from original article).
13 This criticism is consonant with Derrida’s earlier response to Sartre’s existentialism.
14 Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 12. 15 Ibid., p. 14. 16 Ibid., pp. 17 and 26.
17 Ibid., p. 14 (translation modified).
194 Between phenomenology and structuralism
As Derrida asserted, for Rousset “to write would be still to play ruses with
finitude, and to want to arrive at Being outside of beings, at Being that
could neither affect me, nor be by itself. To write would be to forget
difference.”18
The last line is instructive, because, as we saw in the Origin of Geometry,
transcendental historicity was powered by the ontological difference, show-
ing that we could never achieve Being outside of beings. In the Rousset
essay, Derrida used similar language to describe artistic creation. Just as
Being, the ground of all determination, was “nothing [rien]” outside of
beings (no Being without beings), so too, for Derrida, the freedom of
the voice was a “nothing [rien]” that allowed the construction of aesthetic
forms. Like the history of Being, then, the movement and development
of aesthetic structures was governed by something akin to the ontological
difference: the difference between Being and beings, between the free voice
and its determinate condensed written form, generating a transcendental
history.
Derrida then hoped to balance signification with force, structure with
genesis; in the Nietzschean language that Derrida used, Apollo and
Dionysus. It was the difference between the two, a difference that pre-
ceded both – the Apollonian unveiling that was also a violent Dionysiac
dissimulation and veiling – that disrupted all structures as it gave free
speech an earthly manifestation. This difference was “the opening of his-
tory, historicity itself.”19 And, as in Derrida’s 1962 Introduction, this history
allowed the regulative idea of a telos, not the determined end of Rousset’s
pre-formation, but the telos of an open horizon, “in its most indeterminate
form.”20
One can find a similar schema in the second essay, Derrida’s famous anal-
ysis of Foucault’s History of Madness. The paper centered on the very pos-
sibility of Foucault’s project, a history of madness, describing that which,
at least since the seventeenth century, had been excluded from totalitarian
reason. It was an exclusion that Foucault himself tried to escape, wanting
to write the history of madness itself, not the rational discourse on madness
that he condemned. But if the language of reason that suppressed madness
was itself excluded, Derrida asked, in which language could Foucault him-
self write? What was the vocabulary of a history of madness, when “all our
European languages, the language of everything that has participated, from
near or far, in the adventure of Western reason – all this is the immense
18 Ibid., p. 13. In the 1967 version a new line was added: “to forget writing in the so-called living and
pure present speech” (translation modified), which significantly changes the sense. See later.
19 Ibid., p. 28. 20 Ibid., p. 26; see also p. 13.
A history of différance 195
delegation of the project that Foucault defines under the rubric of the
capture or objectification of madness?”21
For Derrida the answer was clear, one only found the resources to fight
against reason in reason itself. This meant that it had to be possible to
represent madness in language indirectly, “metaphorically” – as Being is
in beings, Derrida might have added.22 Madness had to be concealed in
reason for it to show itself. Whatever Foucault’s explicit methodology, this
possibility of metaphor, the contamination of reason with madness, was
the necessary condition of his book.
Foucault at least made gestures in this direction. For while recounting
the history of a madness excluded by reason, in his first chapter he also
made reference to a prior age when the absolute division between the
sane and insane had not yet been asserted and the mad circulated freely
within the city. The primordial unity of reason and madness opened up
the possibility of a communion of reason and madness, which, according
to Derrida, a history of that madness would itself have to practice.
Derrida, however, was not happy with this Foucauldian narrative, mov-
ing from unmediated unity to insuperable division, from onto- to negative
theology. Rather, both in the classical age and before, Derrida asserted a
complication to the story. According to Derrida, the ancient Greek concept
of hubris was at least in tension with Socratic reason – to call it free circu-
lation was overstatement – while, at the same time, even modern reason
allowed some openness to the hyperbolic, “mad” moment that exceeded it.
Derrida’s attention was thus drawn to the turning point in Foucault’s
book, the opening of the chapter on the classical age that described the
great confinement. Here, over four pages, Foucault discussed Descartes’s
Meditations.23 For Foucault, these Meditations reflected the wider and vio-
lent expulsion of madness from the city. Mirroring the rounding-up of
the insane and their confinement in large institutions, Descartes excluded
madness from his hyperbolic doubt. Unlike error and dreaming, which
sharpened this doubt and showed us of what we can be certain even if we
err in our sensory perception or if we dream, madness was beyond the pale,
irrecoverable. And if a consideration of madness could not aid Descartes on
his path to ultimate infallible truth, then, according to Foucault, he could
only reject it: “dreams or illusions are surmounted in the very structure of
truth; but madness is excluded by the subject who doubts.”24 The cogito,

21 Ibid., p. 35. 22 Ibid., pp. 36–7.


23 Michel Foucault, Histoire de la folie (Paris: Librairie Plon, 1961), pp. 54–7.
24 Foucault, Histoire de la Folie, p. 55.
196 Between phenomenology and structuralism
the ground of all certainty in philosophy, in Foucault’s eyes was predicated
on a violent exclusion of madness.
But Derrida presented another reading of the passage, a reading that,
as he noted, was far more traditional. In this reading madness was not
treated differently from the other sources of doubt; it added to them. It
was not cogito, ergo sum as long as I am not mad, as Foucault would have
had it, rather cogito, ergo sum “even if I am mad, even if my thoughts are
completely mad.”25 The cogito was absolutely indubitable. Madness was
just another ratchet in the ever-increasing scale of doubt, just like sensible
error, dreams, and the evil demon.
The cogito, then, was not the final sanctuary of the sane, but rather a
hyperbolic moment exceeding any opposition between madness and sanity.
It allowed us to think the totality of rational thought because it exceeded
it, a transcendence towards a “nothing [rien].”26 Just as the reach towards
a nothing allowed the genesis of Rousset’s structures, detaching them from
the normal causal chain of history, so too it was the hyperbolic moment
that at first defined any possibility of a determined sanity or rational system.
It was an inaugural moment, as was the hubris of the Greeks.
The same could not be said of the discourse on the cogito, for in order to
have sense, according to Derrida, philosophical discourse had to exclude
madness. It was not the cogito but rather its inscription in language that
marked “the break with madness.”27 Here lay the totalitarian moment
that reduced the hyperbole down to a determined rational or historical
structure, a totalitarian moment that Foucault threatened to repeat, when
he saw the cogito as a representative of the Classical age.
The onto-theological invocation of God in Descartes’s Meditations thus
did not confirm the cogito, but rather secured its transference into language,
the maintenance of its truth after the hyperbolic moment. God guaranteed
the validity of the ergo sum after the certainty of the hyperbolic cogito had
passed. It was this moment that reduced the “passage” or the “différence”
between the hyperbolic moment and its determined recorded form, just
as writing reduced difference in “Force and Signification.” This was why
madness would always be silent.
The relationship between the hyperbolic moment and the finite deter-
mined structure in which it was understood was also, as in the previous
essay, the very possibility of history, of meaningful change within struc-
tures: “The historicity proper to philosophy is located and constituted
25 Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 55.
26 Ibid., p. 57 (translation modified); see also pp. 73 and 164.
27 Ibid., p. 55; for the sense of inscription see pp. 58–9.
A history of différance 197
in this passage, this dialogue between hyperbole and the finite structure,
between that which exceeds the totality and the closed totality, in the dif-
ference between history and historicity.”28 Reason was both the expression
and the forgetting of the mad hyperbolic moment, just as the metaphors
for Being both revealed and hid it. This movement of constitution and
forgetting defined history and reached beyond any break that Foucault was
supposed to have discovered, for it was the very process that drove change.
Both the Rousset and the Foucault essays presented an opposition
between finite structures and something that constantly disrupted and
exceeded them, even if this excess had no independent existence. And in
both cases the difference between the determined and the origin of all
determination – between criticism and the creative voice, reason and the
mad cogito, beings and Being – allowed the transcendence of each finite
structure.29 In Derrida’s early articles, then, he maintained his commitment
to Heidegger’s ontological difference, which powered a more profound his-
tory and was manifested in the transcendence of limited structures, both in
the freedom of literary creation and the hyperbolic moment of the cogito.30

the rehabilitation of writing


As the 1960s progressed, however, Derrida complicated the duality and
changed many of the central terms of the work. Firstly the number of
references to infinity and finitude drastically declines, along with the dis-
cussion of the Kantian idea and an infinite God, two themes that had been
linked since the Introduction to the Origin of Geometry.31 What previously
seemed to be the effect of Man’s finitude, the constant replacement of
one metaphor by another, by 1966 and “Structure, Sign, and Play” was
considered as the product of excess, the play of the system.32 It was not the
inadequacy but rather the excess of the sign – the “overabundance” of con-
flicting meanings – that caused movement.33 Moreover, the resistance of
God to any mundane manifestation, instead of causing this movement, was
now its effect.34 No longer was the ontico-ontological difference expressed
28 Ibid., p. 60 (translation modified). 29 See also ibid., p. 74.
30 See also Jacques Derrida, “Méthode et métaphysique,” Irvine, 7.6, sheet 28.
31 The notion of the Kantian idea is mostly discussed in “Genèse et structure” and “Violence et
métaphysique,” having no place in Derrida’s work afterwards. Similarly references to the infinite are
disproportionately grouped in the first five essays.
32 For the discussion of inadequation, see Derrida, Writing and Difference, pp. 120–1 and 167.
33 Ibid., p. 290. Compare with the “too many things” of “Force and Signification.” For the excess of
the signifier, see also p. 267. and the passages added on pp. 36 and 62.
34 See the additions, especially in “Violence and Metaphysics,” Derrida, Writing and Difference,
pp. 107 and 108.
198 Between phenomenology and structuralism
in the free voice that grounded the movement of formal systems, now the
play of différance in writing preceded it.
The changing status of the concept of writing provides a perspective that
allows us to understand the change in Derrida’s difference. In the period
before 1965, as we saw, it was language in general which corresponded to
the totalitarian reduction to the finite, which had to be enlivened by free
thought, and when a distinction was made between speech and writing,
speech took the place of the indeterminate free moment, with writing its
condensation into a stable formal system.35 Writing was the finite rendering
of the ineffable. Whatever its future role, here writing was a fall; it forgot
difference.36 In the earlier texts writing was related to human finitude. In
the revisions it was not uncommon for “writing” to replace “man,”37 or
phrases such as “to write, as only man writes,” to lose their qualification.38
In Derrida’s pre-1965 courses, too, writing, in the rare occasions it was
discussed, still represented the formal, which was dependent on a tran-
scendental field. It was writing that needed to be put into motion by the
free voice, its meaning destabilized. Thus in a course on “Irony, Doubt,
and the Question,” from early 1964, Derrida could assert that “claiming
to transmit to us the speech of Socrates, claiming to fix the live speech of
irony by writing, Plato paralyzed or killed it, he arrested it . . . writing and
the system . . . served up the death of irony.”39
This view of writing lasted right up until 1965 and was still active in “La
Parole Soufflée,” where Derrida discussed the playwright Antonin Artaud.
Artaud’s “theater of cruelty” attempted to remove mediation from the arts,
to undermine the idea of acting, of re-presenting something not there,
for the benefit of a new authentic theater. But if Artaud wanted to free
theater from the forced repetition of a text, he did not want to desert it in
absolute and arbitrary freedom, the caprice of the actor.40 Turning from
phonetic writing, which referred to a voice that could always be spirited
away, Artaud appealed to mathematical language. The text did not refer
to a spoken language of which it was merely the representation – the sign
of a sign, opening up the structure of the renvoie – but rather provided a
35 See also Jacques Derrida, “Force et signification 1,” Critique (June 1963), p. 491, where Derrida related
artistic creation to the “freedom of speech [parole],” cut in Derrida, L’Ecriture et la différence, p. 17;
“Edmond Jabès and the Question of the Book,” where writing is referred to as a “vicar of speech
[vicaire de la parole]” in the absence of the voice of God, p. 73. In this essay the relationship of the
infinite to God, as in the Introduction to the Origin of Geometry, is clear.
36 See also Derrida, Writing and Difference, pp. 9 and 13. 37 Ibid., pp. 71 and 74.
38 Ibid., p. 10. Cf. “Force et signification,” pp. 493–4.
39 Jacques Derrida, “L’Ironie, le doute, et la question,” Irvine, 8.4. sheet, 17, lecture from April 21, 1964.
Derrida did not make substantive claims about writing in his courses until 1966.
40 Derrida, Writing and Difference, pp. 190–1.
A history of différance 199
language of the body. The reading of such a text would no longer refer to a
world of linguistic meaning, but create something concrete. Artaud’s script
would determine the sounds, the facial expressions, the bodily movements,
directed with such minute attention that they could not be robbed by a
relay to a non-present meaning. Telling no story, theatre would just be, the
shapes and sounds appealing directly to the subconscious and involving no
interpretation.41 Artaud hoped that this writing would stem the constant
slipping-away of meaning: différance.
Such formulations of writing would not fit Derrida’s developing
philosophy.42 If in 1963 Derrida could state:
Literary criticism, which must explain itself to and exchange with creative speech,
need not expect that resistance to be organized first in a “philosophy” commanding
some aesthetic methodology from which it would receive its principles.43
By 1967, the primacy of the voice could no longer be tolerated. The line
was changed to:
Criticism, if it must one day explain itself to and exchange with literary writing,
need not expect that resistance to be organized first in a “philosophy” commanding
some aesthetic methodology from which it would receive its principles.44
Asserting the injunction to resist metaphysical oppositions and language,
Derrida declared in 1963 that this resistance would allow criticism to take
account of the movement and force of an ever-elusive creative voice, which
could never be subordinated to a philosophy. By 1967 that elusiveness was
found rather in writing itself, which previously was the stable ground of
determination.45 The change is similar to another radical substitution. At
earlier stages it was speech that protected the “liberty of the question,” rep-
resenting the nothing that exceeded all determined structures, and writing
that wanted to forget difference. The first claim was erased in 1967; the
second was supplemented by another phrase that substantially changed its
meaning.46 If to write was to want to forget difference, now that forgetting
was recast as the forgetting of “writing in the presence of so-called living

41 Ibid., p. 192; see also pp. 175 and 179.


42 On this question see Robert Bernasconi’s discussion of the trace in “Violence and Metaphysics” in
“The Trace of Levinas in Derrida,” in David Wood, ed., Derrida & Différance (Coventry: Parousia
Press, 1985).
43 Derrida, “Force et signification,” p. 323.
44 Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 28 (translation modified, my emphases).
45 See also passages added throughout the first essays including Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 62.
46 “The freedom of the question (double genetive) must be said and protected, as it is in speech,” in
Jacques Derrida, “Violence et métaphysique,” Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale (December 1964),
p. 323, final clause deleted in Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 80.
200 Between phenomenology and structuralism
and pure speech.”47 It is for the very same reasons that Derrida would
have to replace the word “text” with “book” at the end of his essay “Jabès
and the Question of the Book,” when “text” came to represent that which
unsettled any totality, rather than that which constituted it.48
Rather than “writing, as only man writes” being the necessary dissimu-
lation of indeterminate Being under an ontic metaphor, now writing itself
was the movement that undermined any static structures. Movement was
not caused by the ontico-ontological difference that recognized every finite
determined metaphor for Being as both an unveiling and a veiling; now
it was an internal movement within signification that was responsible for
the instability of structures, caused by the excess of the sign, its process of
supplementing and not its inadequacy. When in the earlier essays “differ-
ence” was rewritten “différance,” it substantially changed the meaning of the
essays. This is the significance of the introduction of the word “différée” or
“différant” into the early essays, despite their attractive resemblance to the
word used in the Origin of Geometry.49 The revisions privileged the internal
movement of a structure, rather than the constant attempt to escape it.
The centrality of this change in Derrida’s conception of writing explains
why in his 1966 paper on Freud he should have looked back to the Gram-
matology articles to explain the genesis of différance. As we shall see in
chapter 8, within Grammatology, Derrida attempted to undermine the
privilege of the voice, which he had begun to see as symptomatic of meta-
physics. Rather than a voice in full presence to itself, it was writing with its
rejection of the absolutely self-present that seemed to be the best metaphor
for (structuralist) philosophy. If writing was to achieve a privileged place in
Derrida’s philosophy, it could no longer be thought of as derivative of the
voice: writing as its inscription. Writing was the absence of the signified,
and this liberation could only be consummated if a transcendental signi-
fied was not considered to be lurking in the background, at one degree
removed. Writing had to be the trace of the trace, and not the trace of a
pure if impossible (spoken) presence. In this new philosophical framework,
Heidegger’s difference seemed to come dangerously close to representing

47 Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 13.


48 Ibid.,pp. 76–7. Also on p. 76, “signs” in the 1964 version was replaced by “books” in the 1967 book
for the same reasons.
49 The word différer and its cognates do occur, though rarely, in the early essays, but their meanings
correspond only with difficulty to the later work; see Derrida, L’Ecriture et la différence, pp. 21 and 80.
It would be difficult to give these rare occurrences the weight that Derrida would appear to require.
All others instances before “Freud et la scène de l’écriture” are to my knowledge, later additions, see
pp. 22, 23, 42, 133, and 138, or indeed the additions in the 1965 version of “Structure et genèse.”
A history of différance 201
this type of impossible presence, a Being that could not be contained in
any ontic metaphor. Derrida felt able to assert late in 1967:
The ultimate determination of difference as the ontico-ontological difference –
however decisive and necessary that this phase might be – seems to me, in a strange
way, still caught in metaphysics.
The inscription of the ontico-ontological difference onto the field of writ-
ing, and the consequent denial of the transcendental signified, came to
trouble the precedence of the ontico-ontological difference: “there is, with-
out doubt,” Derrida argued “a certain Heideggerian phonologism,” and
one could add a “Derridian phonologism” of the early 1960s.50

différance : neither a word nor a concept


I will discuss the move to grammatology and its effect on Derrida’s reading
of Heidegger in the final chapter. For the moment we will hold the questions
related to this move in suspension, and take a step forward beyond the
grammatology articles to follow the fate of Derrida’s différance. If we can
see a relationship between Derrida’s turn to grammatology and his move
away from Heidegger’s ontological difference, what one might call the
genesis of the “concept” of différance, this did not fit easily with the history
of what loosely one can call the “word.” Whatever the role of the “Of
Grammatology” articles, indicated by Derrida himself when he divided his
work into before and after the “grammatological opening,” it is significant
that the word “différance” was not used in the first article. The absence of
the word “différance” is rendered more enigmatic, for Derrida was already
using it elsewhere. The word played a small role in Derrida’s work before
its co-option to patrol the boundaries dividing Heidegger’s and Derrida’s
philosophies.
It was in “La Parole Soufflée,” published early in 1965, that the word
made its first printed appearance.51 Artaud, as we saw, hoped to avoid
what Derrida at that time called the “différance” which destroys all claims
to absolute immediacy, the system of relays between written script and
performed play, actor and public. This différance, a deferral of responsi-
bility for one’s own voice, speaking for another (an author or character),
allowed accumulation and capitalization, the creation and use of a reserve
of words, ideas, or thoughts: a script or a text.52 But the word “différance”
50 Derrida, Positions, p. 19.
51 Derrida, L’Ecriture et la différence, p. 284. Ironically, Alan Bass in his English translation misses this
“différance” and renders it with an e. Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 189.
52 Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 189.
202 Between phenomenology and structuralism
was not flagged or introduced in any way whatsoever; its appearance like
the concept it described was furtive. It was hardly a fitting introduction
for a seminal term. And further, at this stage, rather than drawing the
line between his and Heidegger’s philosophies, Derrida asserted that this
“différance” could only be thought as such “beyond metaphysics, towards
the Difference – or the Duplicity – of which Heidegger speaks.”53 The
word “différance,” as it was deployed before 1966, shared key characteris-
tics with its later use (movement, resistance to full presence), but cannot
be assimilated to it. When Derrida came to revise “La Parole Soufflée,”
the word was reinserted many more times into the text, at points where
previously Derrida considered “différence” would suffice.54
The concept of a différence that preceded Heidegger’s appeared just
after the word “différance” was coined, but it was only later that the two
were identified. The question then presents itself as to why they should
have been associated, why a word that Derrida had been using elsewhere,
albeit in a related sense, should come to stand in for this key concept, and
what effect that might have had. So in our analyses we have been taken
back to where we started: Derrida’s presentation before André Green’s
seminar at the Société Psychanalytique de Paris (SPP) in March 1966,
“Freud and the Scene of Writing.” It was only here that the word différance
and the “différence tout court” of Grammatology that preceded the ontico-
ontological différence were identified, and that Derrida embarked on his
first detailed discussion of the term.
The imprint of the talk, and psychoanalysis more generally, is clear in the
later formulations of “différance.” Freud took pride of place with Heidegger
and Nietzsche in Derrida’s 1968 essay on his neologism. Freud’s reality
principle, after all, caused the “deferral” of pleasure economically, and it
should not be surprising then that Derrida should proffer his “différance”
as a translation for Aufschub at the beginning of “Freud and the Scene of
Writing.”55
The reception of Derrida’s ideas into the psychoanalytic community
thus provides a first clue as to the identification of the word and concept
of “différance” in 1966. It is possible that the use of the word in “La Parole
Soufflée” had already piqued the imagination of the Freudians. In that
essay, Derrida had appealed to them, making references both to Freud’s
Wunderblock, which would be the main text for his later talk, and to Lacan.
It could well be that the change in the centrality of the term “différance”
53 Ibid., p. 194.
54 See ibid., pp. 176, 191, 192, where it is either converted from “différence” or added.
55 Ibid., p. 198.
A history of différance 203
grew up because of the response of many psychoanalysts to this earlier
text, and its rise in Derrida’s philosophy might have a very particular
psychoanalytic stamp. Could it be that Derrida in “Freud and the Scene
of Writing” was responding to the eager interests of his host, or saw an
opportunity to attune his thought to a particular audience? Could the
development that we have been tracing over the past twenty pages be,
not the internal development of one thinker, but a reciprocal relationship
of reading and writing that would render the new structuralist Derrida,
fittingly, as the product of a community? To understand the stakes of this
talk, and Derrida’s first sustained use of “différance,” we have to turn to a
set of debates that ricocheted through French psychoanalysis, and whose
traces are apparent in Derrida’s 1966 lecture.

freud’s scene
The history of psychoanalysis in France is often told as the story of one man,
Jacques Lacan. But for our purposes here, it is necessary to understand his
position with respect to the other major institutions and individuals in the
French movement. Lacan had broken from the Société Psychanalytique
de Paris (SPP) in 1953, along with other analysts under the direction of
the Sorbonne psychologist Daniel Lagache, to form the Société Française
de Psychanalyse (SFP). But, if Lagache had played the significant role in
the split – indeed if Lacan had at first resisted it – it was Lacan who came
to dominate the new society, using it as an institutional base to disseminate
his linguistic interpretation of Freud. The split between the SFP and the
SPP came to be seen as a rupture between Lacanians and those who rejected
his particular reading of psychoanalysis.56 Whereas the SPP maintained its
strong links with the medical sciences – its leader, Sacha Nacht, demanding
that analysts earn medical degrees – the SFP emphasized linguistics and
asserted the autonomy of psychoanalysis from medicine.
The most forceful presentation of Lacan’s new form of psychoanalysis
was his 1953 Rome Report, which consummated the break from the SPP.
And, although Lacan’s thought was constantly evolving, the ideas presented
here and in other crucial texts from the 1950s, such as “The Instance
of the Letter,” had the most immediate impact on French philosophy
and Derrida.57 Avoiding the hydraulic model of the unconscious, Lacan
56 For a comprehensive discussion of the intricacies of the 1953 split see Elisabeth Roudinesco, Histoire
de la psychanalyse en France, 2 vols. (Paris: Editions Ramsay, 1982–6), vol. II, pp. 236–65.
57 In a later interview Derrida admitted to having only read these two early texts when he wrote “Freud
and the Scene of Writing.” See Derrida, Positions, p. 113.
204 Between phenomenology and structuralism
suggested that linguistic processes lay at its heart. In his tripartite division of
the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic, it was the Symbolic that achieved
precedence. The Real was the realm of the id, biological needs, and the
unattainable object of desire. It existed outside language, inaccessible to it,
and its effects were only felt by its punctuation of a discourse, both in the
grammatical sense, and as a breaking through, the knock of a door during
a dream, or the ending of a psychoanalytic session.58
The Imaginary, on the other hand, was the realm of false identifica-
tions, first and foremost the ego, which was formed by a baby’s imaginary
identification with its reflection in Lacan’s “mirror stage.” It was only by
the identification with its image that a child could form an idea of a uni-
fied self. But given the process involved, it was clear that this unified self
was purely imaginary, the wholeness of the specular image deceiving the
child into thinking that it was psychologically unified. A similar process
occurred when encountering another person, such that conversation (and
psychoanalytic practice) would be structured by two imaginary objects, the
imaginary self and the imaginary other, the latter, through the process of
transference, often just an ideal doubling of the first.
The Symbolic was the real ground of psychoanalysis, the realm of signi-
fiers, whether in dreams, the symbolic nature of somatic pathology, or in
the very discourse of the patient. This was the import of Lacan’s dictum
“the unconscious is structured like a language”: Freud may not have been
faithful to this fundamental discovery, but Lacan was more rigorous and
was determined to follow through on its implications. As he put it “my task
shall be to demonstrate that [psychoanalytic] concepts take on their full
meaning only when oriented in a field of language and ordered in relation
to the function of speech.”59
In part the reliance on language and especially speech derived from its
centrality in analysis. Freud after all had founded psychoanalysis as “talk
therapy,” and his colleague Josef Breuer’s patient Anna O. had famously
classed it as the “talking cure.” With the unconscious structured like a
language, other therapeutic methods such as hypnosis or medication would
not be effective. Drawing on the linguistic model, Lacan asserted that the
traditional psychoanalytic concepts of condensation and displacement as
discussed in Freud’s Interpreting Dreams should be seen as metonymy
and metaphor respectively, substitutions in the chain of signifiers.60 This
58 See Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. A. Sheridan (London:
Hogarth Press, 1977), pp. 56–7.
59 Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, trans. B. Fink (New York: W.
W. Norton & Co., 2006), p. 205.
60 See especially “The Instance of the Letter,” in ibid.
A history of différance 205
process of exchange, of metaphor and of metonymy, found its condition
of possibility in Lacan’s asserted priority of syntactical relations, and the
slipping of the signifier over the signified, its detachment from the hic et
nunc.61 In a word, a symbol, the absent is presented. It recapitulates the
Fort-Da game, played by Freud’s grandson, who tried to master the absence
of his mother by the symbolic repetition of her coming and going with a
reel of thread.62
Lacan’s ideas had a profound significance for the actual practice of
psychoanalysis.63 In a Lacanian session, the analysand presents his imagi-
nary ego, with its imaginary – and in a sense, false – desires. But by talking
about the ego and its desires, presenting it in speech, the ego already begins
to loosen its grip on the patient. Because the symbolic is the realm of the
absent signified, it disrupts the immediate identification with the specular
self and allows the disturbance of the ego’s self-presentation in slips of
the tongue. This disruption of the ego was crucial in therapy, because by
sweeping away his imaginary desires, the patient could uncover the “lan-
guage of his desire, that is the primary language in which – beyond what
he tells us of himself – he is already speaking to us unbeknown to himself,
first and foremost, in the symbols of his symptom.”64 By breaking the
stranglehold of the imaginary ego, the patient would come to recognize his
true desires, those of the unconscious. These desires were not true because
they revealed an otherwise hidden self, the slips of the tongue indicating a
subtending desire.65 Rather the unconscious, as structured like a language,
was its enunciation, its own truth.66
This was how Lacan reworked Freud’s famous declaration “wo Es war,
soll Ich werden.” It was understood previously in France and elsewhere as
the imperative for conscious thought and the “ego” to displace the id –
“le moi doit déplacer le ça”; Lacan’s reading of the mirror stage made
this interpretation impossible. The Ich in Freud’s phrase was no longer
translated as the moi or ego, for it was precisely the imaginary ego that had
to be worked around to get at true desire. In Lacan’s translation, the Ich
stood for the je of the enunciation, the subject of the unconscious, which

61 If anything, signifiers structured the Real. Lacan’s classic example is that of the two words men/women
on lavatories, the signifier here distinguishing between two otherwise identical doors. See ibid.,
p. 416.
62 See ibid., p. 228. 63 See Roudinesco, Histoire de la psychanalyse en France, vol. II, pp. 265–71.
64 Lacan, Ecrits, p. 243.
65 For an analysis of the history of this idea in Lacan’s own work and how it changed in the period before
the Rome Report, see Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, Lacan: The Absolute Master (Stanford University Press,
1991), ch. 3.
66 See Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 140.
206 Between phenomenology and structuralism
Lacan distinguished from the imaginary ego in his Ichspaltung, the division
of the subject.67 The goal was to escape the distortions of the imaginary
ego expressed in “empty speech,” to bring the speech of the patient to the
true desires expressed by the unconscious: “full speech.”
It was the analyst’s mastery of the symbolic, of the patient’s unconscious,
that would lead the patient to the recognition of his own desires. To do this,
the analyst had to “punctuate” the patient’s speech, intervening at crucial
moments when the ego had dissolved and the unconscious signification
became clear. As Lacan stated, “when the subject’s question assumes the
form of true speech, we sanction it with our response.”68 In psychoanalytic
practice, then, “punctuation . . . establishes the meaning; changing the
punctuation renews or upsets it; and incorrect punctuation distorts it.”69
This was the theoretical reasoning behind Lacan’s infamous sessions de
durée variée. A fixed session time would be like the injunction to place a
full stop after every sixtieth word without concern for the meaning. Worse,
it would allow the patient to bide his time, play games until the end of
the hour to preserve his cherished identifications. Since the creation of the
ego was an understandable defense mechanism employed by the patient,
the attempt to break its hold elicited great resistance. It would only be in
sessions of variable length, where the patient could not while away a set
amount of time to avoid coming to terms with his desires, that true progress
could be made. The session would end as dictated by the dissolution of
the ego and the emergence of the patient’s speech into truth, and not as
ordained by the clock in the analyst’s office.
The rejection of set session times had caused Lacan trouble with other
psychoanalysts in the early 1950s, and it was the SPP’s resistance to it
that had eventually pushed Lacan to join Lagache and the rebels in the
newly formed SFP. To the cynical, variable-length sessions invariably meant
short sessions, a practice that allowed Lacan both more patients – and as
a consequence, more money – and crucially more students, up to three
times more than other analysts.70 The SPP had no room for such blatant
self-aggrandizement and empire building.
The 1953 split and the formation of the SFP briefly gave Lacan the
school he wanted, but the trauma of the earlier break returned to haunt
him. The International Society for Psychoanalysis had never recognized

67 Lacan, Ecrits, p. 251. The distinction derived from that made by the French grammarian Edouard
Pichon in 1926. See Roudinesco, Histoire de la psychanalyse en France, vol. II, p. 311. See also Bruce
Fink, The Lacanian Subject (Princeton University Press, 1995), pp. 46–8.
68 Lacan, Ecrits, p. 255. 69 Ibid., p. 258.
70 See Elisabeth Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan (Paris: Fayard, 1993), p. 271.
A history of différance 207
the new society, and it became increasingly clear that Lacan with his short
sessions was the key obstacle to its return to the psychoanalytic fold. Several
of Lacan’s students and colleagues were willing to sacrifice him, and in 1963
they edged him out of the society; Lacan was left homeless.71
What must at first have seemed an unforgivable betrayal turned out
to be a great opportunity.72 On Louis Althusser’s recommendation, the
ENS director, Robert Flacelière, offered Lacan the Salle Dussane for his
seminar, and effectively a ready supply of enthusiastic Normaliens to follow
his instruction. The invitation was probably one of the most significant
single events in postwar French intellectual history, crucial as it was in the
absorption of structuralist ideas into the French philosophical mainstream.
For the first time Lacan had an audience of philosophers, detached from
the corporatist squabblings of the psychoanalysts, students receptive to his
new reading of Freud and willing to grant him the status of maı̂tre à penser.
The students at the ENS editing and writing for the new journal Les Cahiers
pour l’analyse inherited the linguistic mantle from the SFP, adopting one
side of an opposition that had wrenched French psychoanalysis apart for
most of the postwar period.
The role of the Normaliens in the psychoanalytic movement fits into a
broader history of structuralism at the ENS that we will discuss in the final
chapter, a history that is crucial for understanding Derrida’s development.
Between 1964 and 1969, Derrida, Althusser, and Lacan were teaching the
same active and engaged students. It was through these shared students
that the philosophical norms and political meaning of both Lacan’s and
Althusser’s work were impressed upon Derrida. Lacan’s students made psy-
choanalysis relevant to Derrida; their interest piqued his. The precise form
of Derrida’s first intervention into psychoanalysis, however, was provided
by a debate that preceded the arrival of psychoanalysis at the Ecole, and
whose opposing positions went beyond the interpretation of the philoso-
phers there.

the unconscious
The debate began with Dr. Henri Ey’s now famous conference on the
unconscious at Bonneval in 1960, which brought psychoanalysts and
philosophers together, just as Lacan would do a few years later at the

71 See ibid., pp. 323–9; and her Histoire de la psychanalyse en France, vol. II, pp. 328–77. The SFP was
formally dissolved in January 1965.
72 See Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, pp. 1–6.
208 Between phenomenology and structuralism
ENS. But, unlike Lacan, Ey, though open to structuralism, was a psychia-
trist promoting an “organo-dynamic” understanding of the mind, refusing
any absolute autonomy of the psychic from the organic. For Ey, psychoses
should be understood as an “energetic deficit” that prevented the sub-
ject from controlling its instinctual tendencies, the contamination of the
organic in the psychological.73
At the conference, two of Lacan’s students, Serge Leclaire and Jean
Laplanche, opposed Ey’s energetic and organic account.74 Focusing on
Freud’s The Unconscious from 1913, they identified two different ways in
which he attempted to understand the difference between consciousness
and the unconscious. At times Freud asserted a “qualitative difference”:
conscious and unconscious contents were a “double inscription” divided
by a physical line; what one might call a topographical understanding.75
Elsewhere Freud asserted a “quantitative difference”: the unconscious and
the conscious were distinguished by the pulsional energy invested in each
one, an economic model.76 Rather than an unconscious content being
reinscribed in a new location when it became conscious, it merely changed
its state.77
Leclaire and Laplanche resisted the second idea. In particular, they
faulted the economic model for its identification of “cathected” with “pul-
sional energy.” According to Freud, because the drive was organic and not
originally conscious or unconscious, it could only manifest itself in psychic
life by linking itself to a Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz, a representative of the
drive in the realm of representations. For Leclaire and Laplanche, because
that representative was a signifier, it must itself already be conscious or
unconscious, and so the division between the conscious and the uncon-
scious could not be determined by the drive: “in contrast, the topographical
position of this representation decides the topographical position of the

73 For Ey, see Roudinesco, Histoire de la psychanalyse en France, vol. II, pp. 144–7. And Henri Ey, La
Conscience (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1963).
74 Their paper was published in Les Temps modernes in 1961 and thus had a significant role in public
perceptions of Lacanian psychoanalysis. The conference proceedings were published, if markedly
revised, in 1966. See Henri Ey, ed., L’Inconscient (Paris: Desclée, De Brouwer, 1966).
75 Leclaire and Laplanche regarded both qualitative and quantitative differences as central to the topical
distinction between consciousness and the unconscious, but in his response Green assimilated the
idea of qualitative difference to a topical understanding and that of a quantitative difference to an
economic understanding. See Ey, L’Inconscient, p. 144.
76 Ibid., pp. 103–6. Leclaire and Laplanche even went as far as to declare the second version “phe-
nomenological,” because the same object was given “a different lighting,” a different noesis for the
same noema, p. 104.
77 See especially Sigmund Freud, Interpreting Dreams, trans. J. Underwood (London: Penguin Books,
2006), last part.
A history of différance 209
libido that has just fixed itself there.”78 The syntactical laws of the uncon-
scious were independent of any investment with pulsional energy. It was
these laws that decided the movement from the conscious to the uncon-
scious through the application of metaphor (repressing the initial signifier)
and not the quantity of pulsional energy cathected into a representation.79
Psychic content, to all intents and purposes, was cut off cleanly from the
drives and the organic.
By asserting the topographical model of the unconscious, Laplanche
and Leclaire could reiterate the key battle-cry of the Lacanian system:
“the unconscious is structured like a language.” Once translated into a
Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz, the drives were detached from their original
organic meaning and placed under the iron rule of syntactic laws, of
metaphor and of metonymy.80 Leclaire and Laplanche wanted to assert
the absolute rupture of the signifier from the signified, the “cutting out
of the signifier [découpage du signifiant]” crucial for Lacan’s theory. The
economic model, they felt, could too easily assert the continuity between
the biological and the psychological, giving the organic drive a role in the
movement of the psyche, and so complicate the absolute difference crucial
to the rise of a linguistic understanding of the unconscious.
It was precisely by reasserting the economic model that the SPP psy-
choanalyst and student of Henri Ey André Green responded to Leclaire
and Laplanche.81 Broadly, he hoped to balance out the privilege of the
linguistic elements in Freud’s thought, granted by Lacan and his student
Leclaire, with a reassertion of the somatic side, especially pulsional energy
and affect.82 As the title of Green’s later book Le Discours vivant sug-
gested, a dry linguistic model would not be enough.83 According to Green,
78 Ey, L’Inconscient, p. 106. 79 See ibid., p. 118.
80 Ibid., p. 114. Laplanche went on to complicate the Lacanian orthodoxy by suggesting that the
unconscious was the condition of language, not that it was structured by it. Laplanche suggested that
for Freud only the pre-conscious and conscious had access to language as it is commonly understood,
while in the unconscious words were not treated as words, but rather as things. Thus in the
unconscious one has representations of things, whereas in the conscious one also has representations
of words. The different status of unconscious language rendered more understandable the points
de capiton, the eventual concordance of conscious language and the unconscious. Ibid., pp. 120–1.
Despite the differences, which provoked a varied response from Lacan over the coming decade,
for Green as for several others, the Leclaire/Laplanche paper represented the Lacanian orthodoxy.
Crucially, despite the difference between representations of words and representations of things in
Leclaire’s and Laplanche’s theory, they were still first and foremost signifiers. See André Green, Le
Discours vivant (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1973), pp. 5–6.
81 André Green “L’Inconscient Freudien et la psychanalyse française contemporaine,” Les Temps mod-
ernes (August 1962), pp. 365–79. See also in Ey, L’Inconscient, pp. 143–53.
82 On the connection between these two concepts see Green, Le Discours vivant, p. 18.
83 See also André Green, “La Psychanalyse devant l’oppositions de l’histoire et de la structure,” Critique
194 (July 1963), p. 654.
210 Between phenomenology and structuralism
interpreters of Freud’s work had tried either to “eliminate the role of hypo-
thetical construction to integrate [the unconscious’s] mechanisms into the
knowledge of the biological or psychological sciences” or, “in a diametri-
cally opposed fashion, [strip] the concept of every scientistic resonance, to
raise it to the level of an authentic phenomenology of mind [esprit].” If
Lacan and his friends at the SFP had concentrated on linguistics to the
detriment of affect, it was not so on the other side of the French psychoana-
lytic aisle, around figures such as Maurice Bouvet and Jean Mallet.84 Taken
individually, both cases, Green asserted “will not go without some impov-
erishment of the Freudian text.” It was for this reason that he doubted
whether Freud would find in Laplanche and Leclaire’s model “an account
of his theory – I mean a full account [son compte – je veux dire tout son
compte].”85 Green, then, hoped to provide a comprehensive model. Fin-
ishing his response to the 1961 article, Green stated, “whatever reproach of
eclecticism that one could address us . . . we delight when across the dis-
sonances between Freud’s sons, we seem to be able to perceive agreement
where the protagonists harmonize without realizing.”86
Again the argument revolved around the question of the Vorstellungs-
Repräsentanz, the representative of the drive in the psyche. As we saw,
for Leclaire and Laplanche, because the drive only figured in the psyche
through its representative, it played no role itself in psychic function. But
as Green would later suggest, this Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz had to be sup-
plemented by an Affekt-Repräsentanz. In the terms of the 1960 debate,
Green charged Leclaire with ignoring the Repräsentanz’s economic con-
notations. The Repräsentanz was not merely defined topographically, but
also with respect to the quantity of “affective charge” with which it was
invested: “force” as well as “sense.”87 This “affective charge” was partic-
ularly crucial in the consideration of the movement from one part of
the mind to another, say in repression. While Leclaire and Laplanche
had denied the role of the drive in the move from conscious to uncon-
scious states, Green saw it as an essential and irreducible motor of psychic
activity.
Green asserted that quantitative differences of energy could manifest
themselves in qualitative differences, moving up the scale from somatic
need, through instinctual drive, psychological desire, to a conscious
demand: “Qualitative differences maintain solidarity with quantitative
84 SeeGreen, Le Discours vivant, p. 132. For Bouvet, see Roudinesco, Histoire de la psychanalyse, vol. II,
especially pp. 285–7.
85 Ey,
L’Inconscient, p. 144. See especially Green’s discussion of Lacan in Le Discours vivant, pp. 136–41.
86 Ey,
L’Inconscient, p. 153. 87 Ibid., p. 145. See also Green, Le Discours vivant, pp. 306–9.
A history of différance 211
changes that govern the passage from one level to another.”88 The drives
themselves were not a language, but must already be in a sense symbolic –
indeed the dualism between the libido and the death drive implied a prior
symbolic structure. Further, to be able to be translated into the Vorstellungs-
Repräsentanz, the drives had to be already differentiated.89 The unconscious
was not a language, but was structured like a language, and at each level
became further demotivated and detached from its biological ground, mov-
ing from drives to representations of things to representations of words in
consciousness. The psyche was not governed by a single homogeneous
linguistic system, but by a differential structure; the different levels of the
mind following their own specific laws. Green concluded that it was only
correct to call the elements of the psyche “signifiers” “at the condition of
adjoining to the Freudian signifier, different in this from Saussure’s, its
economic connotation.”90
The economic understanding of the unconscious refused any absolute
rupture between consciousness and the unconscious and it allowed a con-
tamination of the psyche by the somatic, in the form of affect. By inference,
one could say that Green refused the absolute separation of the Lacanian
Real and Symbolic. The organic drives were already symbolic, there was
no absolute cut that delimited an entirely independent realm of signifiers.
There was a sliding scale from “need, drive, desire, and demand,” and
differences arose between the representation of a thing and the representa-
tion of a word, between the crude symbolism of the drives and the more
nuanced play of signifiers in the psyche, for the symbolic was no longer
a homogeneous field but dissolved into the Real and the biological.91 In
conceiving language, according to Green, Freud “explains simultaneously
the origin from which it emanated and the path traveled to its arrival.”92

psychoanalytical difference
Where did Derrida fit into these questions? His crucial intervention came
at the seminar organized by Leclaire’s opponent André Green at the SPP,
with his talk “Freud and the Scene of Writing” from March 1966. It was
thus at the crossroads of French psychoanalysis that Derrida gave his talk,
on the non-Lacanian side of the divide, but at the seminar of a doctor
who was peculiarly receptive to Lacan’s innovations, and whose work had
attempted a synthesis. Indeed the series of seminars to which Derrida had

88 Ey, L’Inconscient, p. 130. 89 Ibid., p. 147. 90 Ibid., p. 151. 91 Ibid., p. 150.


92 Ibid., p. 151.
212 Between phenomenology and structuralism
been invited was an attempt to introduce the training analysts of the SPP
to linguistic philosophy; Green wanted to bridge the divide.93
The very terms of Derrida’s paper mirrored those of the debate between
Leclaire and Green, both of whom were in his audience that day. Dis-
cussing the unconscious, like them, Derrida weighed the topographical
and economic understandings of the psyche, following the question of the
relationship between conscious and unconscious contents, even discussing
the fraught question of the relationship between representations of words
and representations of things.94 Indeed Derrida introduced the central sec-
tion of his talk, an analysis of Freud’s Note on the Magic Writing Block
(1925), by highlighting the difficulties in Freud’s text The Unconscious, the
paper that was at the center of the Leclaire/Green debate.95
Derrida agreed with Green that a phonocentric model, like Leclaire’s,
neglected pulsional energy, when it called for an absolute difference between
the real drives and the symbolic psyche.96 But, unlike Green, Derrida
suggested that one could not include the biological elements of the drives
by supplementing a linguistic understanding with an analysis of affect.
Rather, one had to change linguistic models, rejecting phonocentrism by
recognizing that everything – including the drives and the somatic – was
already structured like writing.
Derrida picked up upon the arguments he had put forward in Of Gram-
matology, especially that Western metaphysics had repressed writing, which
was its condition of possibility.97 In particular he saw the same repres-
sion of writing, and consequently the return of the repressed, in Freud’s
own work.98 Derrida argued his case by charting the rise of the scriptural
metaphor in Freud’s psychoanalysis in the analysis of both psychic content
(breaching/photography/writing) and the non-psychic apparatus (biologi-
cal neurons/optical machines/writing pad) of the mind: the psychological
and the somatic.99 Writing, Derrida suggested, allowed Freud to overcome
the distinction between the topographical and economic models of the
psyche. Writing explained “forces but also locations,” because it preceded
and constituted both.100 As Derrida said, “psychoanalysis sees itself called
to collaborate with a graphematics to come [à venir], rather than with a
linguistics dominated by an old phonologism.”101
93 Other participants included Michel Serres, René Girard, and Jean-Pierre Vernant. See Roudinesco,
Histoire de la psychanalyse, vol. II, p. 394.
94 See Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 331 note 22. 95 Ibid., p. 221.
96 See Derrida, Positions, pp. 117–21. 97 See chapter 8.
98 See references to phonologism in Derrida, Writing and Difference, pp. 198–9 and 220.
99 Ibid., p. 199. 100 Ibid., p. 204. See pp. 201–2, 215, and 221.
101 Ibid., p. 220 (translation modified).
A history of différance 213
Derrida argued that the distinction between signifier [signifiant] and
signified [signifié] suggested by the phonological model could not be “rad-
ical,” for if it were, the idiosyncracy of oneiric (dream) language would
render any dream interpretation impossible. Without a uniform dream
language, interpretation could only take place by a reasoned explanation of
the links between dream symbols and what they represented.102 But iron-
ically this residual connection between signifier and signified meant that
complete translation too was unattainable. The signifier did not float so
completely above the signified that it could be replaced by another without
loss. The “body” of the signifier, its materiality, was central in dreams,
hence Freud’s ability to use plays on words and puns in his interpretation.
Translation, however, focusing entirely on ultimate signification, had to
forget the body of the signifier, and allow it to be replaced by another. The
emphasis on the materiality of the signifier, then, made it impossible to
describe the movement from the unconscious to the conscious as a simple
transcription.
Further, the model of transcription or translation suggested the existence
of “a text, which would be already there, immobile: the serene presence
of a statue, of a written stone or archive, whose signified content might
be harmlessly transported into the milieu of a different language, that of
the pre-consciousness or the conscious.” But to explain the movement
from the unconscious to consciousness, Derrida argued, the topographical
model was insufficient. Echoing Green, Derrida asserted that “an entirely
and conventionally topographical metaphor of the psychical apparatus is to
be completed by an appeal to force.” Force entered into Derrida’s analyses
through his appeal to writing, which, taken seriously, should undo any
pretensions of immobile primary texts: “the text is not conceivable in
an originary or modified form of presence.” The unconscious text that
had been “translated” was “already a weave of pure traces, differences
in which meaning [sens] and force are united . . . everything begins with
reproduction.”103
The scriptural metaphor suggested that the unconscious text was not
fully present. Because of this inadequacy it had to be supplemented by the
conscious one: “we must . . . understand the possibility of writing advanced
as conscious . . . in terms of the labor of the writing which circulated like
psychical energy between the unconscious and the conscious.”104 With
the scriptural metaphor the topographical and economic models of the
psyche were combined: inscription and drive for reinscription. As Derrida

102 Ibid., p. 209. 103 Ibid., p. 211 (translation modified). 104 Ibid., p. 212.
214 Between phenomenology and structuralism
concluded, “the distinction between force and meaning is derivative in
relation to an archi-trace.”105 Writing acted as the condition of possibility
for both a linguistic understanding of the psyche and force or energy,
which effected the translation into consciousness. The generative effects of
différance produced the conscious text out of the unconscious inscription,
supplementing it. The trace was a signifier, but also was more or less effaced,
demanding to be repeated or supplemented, to be reinscribed elsewhere.
It was in his short essay on the Note on the Magic Writing Block (1925)
that Freud managed to find an analogy for the psychical apparatus that
would complement the scriptural quality of psychical content. As Derrida
described it: “From a system of traces functioning according to a model that
Freud wanted to be natural and from which writing was perfectly absent,
one orients oneself towards a configuration of traces that one can no longer
represent but by the structure and functioning of writing.” The magic
writing block comprised two elements: An upper sheet, representing the
pre-conscious/conscious system, and a wax or resin base: the unconscious.
The upper sheet was itself constructed out of two parts: on top clear
celluloid, covering and protecting a thin layer of wax. Normally the upper
sheet would sit lightly on the resin base, and the surface of the writing
pad would appear blank. But if pressure was applied to the upper celluloid
sheet, say with a stylus, it would force together the two waxy surfaces, the
underside of the upper sheet and the resin base. This would render the mark
visible. The trace on the upper sheet (the conscious) disappeared, however,
when the machine was reset, because the contact between the waxy lower
surface of the upper sheet and the bottom resin layer was broken.
In Freud’s model the proximity of the two elements, which made the
block ready to receive writing, constituted a Besetzungsinnervation, a pul-
sional investment of the unconscious. As we saw, such an investment could
be just as easily withdrawn, the two elements separated such that the marks
disappeared: repression. Then, only the resin base retained a lasting record.
The condition of the model was that “there be neither a permanent contact,
nor an absolute break between the strata.”106 The writing block combined
a topographical (two sheets) model of the mind with an economic system
(investment) that controlled the effacing of the sign. In the magic writing
block the two could not be separated.
Like Green, for Derrida the movement of content from one part of the
psyche could not be understood without the resources of an economic
model, but for him this economic aspect was integral to writing itself,

105 Ibid., p. 213. 106 Ibid., p. 226.


A history of différance 215
which was already a trace and effacement. The unconscious was structured
like a language, but it was a written language, and for this reason one didn’t
need to choose between the topographical and the economic. The internal
movement of différance preceded both; it brought together Green and
Leclaire.107 Différance as a concept became Derrida’s mediating solution to
the major debate in French psychoanalysis.

the letter a
The Green/Leclaire debate also suggests why Derrida might have chosen
the word “différance.” In the months preceding Derrida’s talk, Leclaire and
Green had reopened their debate on the pages of the Normalien journal,
Les Cahiers pour l’analyse, and at the heart of their discussion was the new
centerpiece of Lacan’s theory: the objet (a) (read “objet petit a”). The debate
was set off by a text written by the editor of the journal, Jacques-Alain
Miller, in the first edition from late 1965. In “La Suture,” Miller argued
that “the logician’s logic [la logique logicienne]” depended upon a logic of
the signifier that allowed the “suturing” or the closing-up of non-identity.
The question of the “suture” tied into the very project of the Cahiers.
In his avertissement to the new journal, Miller suggested that the suture
was the psychoanalytic condition of scientific discourse, that is a discourse
constrained by the requirement of truth.108
To show how the suture undergirded scientific discourse, Miller turned
to Frege’s discussion of the construction of numbers. Frege started with
zero, which was defined as the “number assigned to the concept ‘non-
identical to itself.’”109 Since in Frege’s system all objects were identical to
themselves, no object conformed to this concept. The extension of the
zero set, then, was zero. This declaration of the zero set’s extension was, for
Miller, the suture. The zero, a “0” circling an absence, made that absence
visible: “from the zero-lack to the zero-number, the non-conceptualizable
conceptualizes itself.” This number zero, unlike the zero it represented was
107 The last part of Derrida’s essay deals with the question of the representation. The Magic Writing
Pad “represents” the living mind, but according to Freud it is a poor imitation because it does
not work by itself, it is “dead.” Another hand is required periodically to separate the upper sheet
from the wax base. For Derrida, however, this was just another example of the supplementarity
of writing: a supposedly “dead” representation coming to make up for the insufficiencies of the
live model, just as the writing pad is both an inadequate model for memory, and, in practice, an
aid to it. The question of representation, referred to in Freud’s text on the unconscious (Derrida,
Writing and Difference, p. 221), links this question to that of the Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz. This
“representational relation [rapport représentatif]” is one of supplementarity (p. 228).
108 Jacques-Alain Miller, “Avertissement,” Les Cahiers pour l’analyse 1, p. 1. See chapter 8.
109 Jacques-Alain Miller, “La Suture,” Les Cahiers pour l’analyse 1, p. 44.
216 Between phenomenology and structuralism
an object, identical to itself; thus the number assigned to the concept of
the “number zero” was one. By representing the unrepresentable, Frege
had turned 0 into 1; he had sutured the non-self-identical to produce a
self-identical object.
The process continued. The number assigned to the concept “member
of the sequence of numbers ending by n” is n + 1. It subsumes all the
numbers up until n, as well as the zero number; n + [0] (the sutured 0) is
n + 1. The suture, then, allowed the indefinite construction of the integers.
But, since the suture transformed the non-identical into an object that was
identical with itself, it could not be understood within the confines of logic,
traditionally understood. Rather, the construction of numbers in Frege’s
plan depended upon the logic of signifiers, the possibility of signifying
0 for it to count as 1. In this logic, the non-identical was transformed
into the identical; difference was stitched up in the suture. The “logic of
the signifier” and the suture that it made possible thus allowed the rise of
mathematical logic and undergirded it. In the latter part of his paper, Miller
tied the suture to Lacan’s subject of the unconscious. The subject too was
that non-identical thing that allowed the possibility of “one extra signifier,”
the concatenation of the signifying chain. But it was only represented in,
and thus itself excluded from, the unconscious.
Miller’s analysis hoped to mediate between his two teachers, Lacan and
Althusser, by maintaining Lacan’s reference to the subject of the uncon-
scious, while preserving Althusser’s ideal of a non-subjective science. Both
sides, however, rejected Miller’s compromise. Criticized later by Althusseri-
ans such as Alain Badiou, Miller’s article was not well received by orthodox
Lacanians.110 Lacan himself appreciated the attempt at mediation, but dis-
tanced himself from Miller’s analysis in his later conference “Science and
Truth,” suggesting that science always failed to suture the subject.111 For
Lacan, the impossibility of the suture was related to the objet (a). As initially
presented, the objet (a) was the residual lack caused by a lost unity with the
mother. As such, in Lacan’s system, it was the cause of desire, a desire that
could never be fully satiated because the lack was real, and unity with the
mother was irretrievable. The objet (a) could never be fully sutured; desire
persisted to power the movement of the signifying chain.

110 See Alain Badiou, “Marque et manque,” Les Cahiers pour l’analyse 9. For an analysis of the debate,
see my “Reading Lévi-Strauss with Derrida and the Cercle d’Epistémologie; or, How to be a
Good Structuralist,” in Knox Peden and Peter Hallward, eds., Concept and Form: The Cahiers pour
l’Analyse and Contemporary French Thought, vol. II (London: Verso, 2011).
111 See Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan, p. 427, and Lacan, Ecrits, p. 731. See also in Cahiers pour l’Analyse
3, where Lacan shows that the attempt to save the truth leads to the suturing of the subject, p. 6.
A history of différance 217
Leclaire opposed Miller’s understanding in the same way. As we have
seen, for Leclaire, the cutting-out of the signifier (découpage du signifiant)
required the difference between the organic and the psychic to be absolute
and irreducible. Because difference was primary, Miller’s analysis of the
suture dissimulated the prime focus of psychoanalysis. Responding in the
same edition as Miller’s piece, Leclaire asserted that “the analyst does not
suture,” because he is not interested in preserving truth or remolding the
non-identical into the self-sameness of the number. Leclaire continued “if
one renounces, for a moment, the saving of the Truth, what appears? I
would say, for me, it is radical difference, that is, sexual difference.”112 The
suture had to be resisted because it concealed the foundational difference
that structured psychoanalysis.
Further, Leclaire argued that this difference appeared in Freud’s work
around the “unconscious concept” – a concept intimately related to Lacan’s
“objet (a)” – which, as a concept, was unified, but comprised non-identical
objects, represented by parts of the body like the nose, penis, or finger
that, as Borch Jacobsen has written, drifted “between imaginary continuity
and real separation.”113 As the non-identical object, for Miller it would
have been a perfect candidate for the suture, brought into the chain of
signifiers to produce a stable formal system. But according to Leclaire the
analyst must resist the operation, resist the temptation to cover over the
“the truth of a radical difference, of a self-difference that imposes itself
in the last analysis before the irreducibility of sexual reality.”114 Because
this difference was irreducible, it would always resist the suture, the zero
number would never fully represent the zero lack, there would remain what
Leclaire would later call the “irreducible difference between the sought after
and the obtained satisfaction.”115
Green was quick to respond, again hoping to temper the absoluteness
of Leclaire’s difference. Writing in the third edition of Les Cahiers pour
l’analyse, Green drew on many of the themes with which we have become
familiar such as the role of affect in the Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz, but,
like Leclaire, recast the debate around the objet (a), the theme of Lacan’s
seminar that year.116 The objet (a) allowed Green to refine his criticism of
Saussurean linguistics. For him, the analysis of the objet (a) would “mark

112 Serge Leclaire, “L’Analyste à sa place,” in Les Cahiers pour l’analyse 1, p. 51.
113 Borch-Jacobsen, Lacan: The Absolute Master, p. 231.
114 Leclaire, “L’Analyste à sa place,” p. 52.
115 Ibid., p. 70. See also his “Objet de la psychanalyse,” Les Cahiers pour l’analyse 3, p. 133.
116 Green first discussed the objet (a) in the 1963 Critique article. See pp. 661–2.
218 Between phenomenology and structuralism
the limits of the agreement of Lacan’s thought – and without doubt all
psychoanalytic thought – with modern structuralism.”117
Green revisited Miller’s paper, arguing for the equal importance of
both the cutting out (coupure) and the suture to understand the con-
catenation of the signifying chain.118 This concatenation showed that the
psyche was not a homogeneous field of signifiers, but was rather made
up of different levels – a “differential distribution” – that were continu-
ous with each other and permitted an economic understanding of their
interrelations.
Arguing against Leclaire, Green claimed that the objet (a) had to be
sutured into the signifying chain, producing a set of partial objects.119
And yet, he agreed with Leclaire on the internal exigencies of the “uncon-
scious concept,” i.e. the necessity of the cutting-out and difference. Mov-
ing beyond this simple duality of the assertion of difference or its effacing,
Green suggested that “to this binary opposition, that which linguistics
offers us, that of phonology where relations are always posed in terms
of antagonistic couples . . . one substitutes here a process with three terms
(n, + , n ) with the blacking out of a term as soon as it has manifested
itself.”120
For Green the structure of the suture described an operation that would
move beyond the opposition of signifier and signified. This, according to
Green, was the significance of the Mobius strip metaphor in Lacan’s work.
Signifier and signified were separated, two sides of the same band, but the
curious topology of the strip meant that they were also continuous with
one another. Circumnavigating the strip would bring one to the other
side: the crossing of the bar between Real and Symbolic that the suture
described. For this to work, the Real too must be able to enter into the
chain of signification: a “cutting-out” at the level of the signified, which
founded that on the level of the signifier. It was only because the Real objet
(a) could be separated from the body that it could then be sutured into
the signifying chain, as a partial object of desire, making one tour of the
Möbius strip: “it is the cut [coupure] that permits representation.”121 The
suture allowed the possibility of a new signifier in the chain, by suturing the
non-identical objet (a), a process that at one and the same time symbolized
and effaced it.
If there was a general economy and interchange between the signifier
and signified, Green suggested this also implied the presence of affect in
117 André Green, “L’Objet (a),” in Les Cahiers pour l’analyse 3, p. 16.
118 It was a reproduction of a talk he had given at Lacan’s seminar on December 21, 1965.
119 Green, “L’Objet (a),” p. 24. 120 Ibid., p. 25. 121 Ibid., p. 27.
A history of différance 219
the psyche: the representative of the objet (a) in the signifying chain could
not be reduced to a simple representation. According to Green, by the end
of his life, Freud was particularly concerned to give affect the status of a
signifier, participating in the psyche like other signifiers, even if it followed
different rules. It was an element that Green regarded as lacking in Lacan.122
The division between the affect and representation of the objet (a) mirrored
and repeated that of Lacan’s split subject between the ego and the subject
of the unconscious, also continuous with each other like the two sides of
the Möbius strip.123 The suture then explained the rise of partial objects of
desire of the objet (a) and the inscriptions of affect into the psyche. The
differential distribution of signifiers, the different levels of the mind rising
out of the organic could be understood through an economic model. The
movement of the signifying chain, the replacement of one partial object
for another, was the result of an integral understanding of the objet (a),
combining both a concern for its representative and its affective elements.
The objet (a) produced and effaced the trace, putting the signifying chain
in motion.124
Lacan and Leclaire’s description of the “objet (a)” mirrored Derrida’s
own reading of Heidegger’s difference in the essays from the early 1960s.
The Real always exceeded the Symbolic – too many things, not enough
forms – and it was the inadequacy of any Symbolic system that drove
structural change, and to which the psychoanalyst must always be open.
But, as we have seen, by the mid 1960s Derrida had refigured his under-
standing of difference. Structural instability no longer arose from the inad-
equacy of written forms, the difference between reason and the hyperbolic
moment, but rather by the excess and movement of the Symbolic itself.
Différance was not what demanded the partial object as an inadequate
stopgap, but rather what produced and effaced it: Derrida’s neologism
became an alternative to Lacan’s objet (a), supplementing and preceding
the analysis of the Symbolic, which for Derrida remained phonological.125
In doing so Derrida never strayed too far from Green’s own analysis. Pre-
empting Derrida’s own treatment of writing, Green introduced his paper
by asserting that it would “allow us to consider the objet (a) less as the
support of the partial object than as the path of a tracing hand, inscription,
letter, a.”126

122 Ibid., pp. 28–30. 123 Ibid., p. 29. 124 See Fink, The Lacanian Subject, pp. 90–5.
125 Though Leclaire clearly saw in Derrida a theoretical ally. See Serge Leclaire, “Les Elements en jeu
dans un psychanalyse,” Les Cahiers pour l’analyse 5, pp. 20–1, citing Derrida, “De la grammatologie
II,” pp. 29 and 33–5, republished in Derrida, De la grammatologie, pp. 77 and 95–6.
126 Green, “L’Objet (a),” p. 21.
220 Between phenomenology and structuralism

conclusion
I suggested at the beginning of part II that only one element of Derrida’s
book L’Ecriture et la différence seemed to escape its historical structure; the
title summarizing the book was devised after it, but presented first. But
a closer look challenges this initial judgment. Like all of Derrida’s titles,
L’Ecriture et la différence hides several meanings, which arise in dialogue
between its spoken and written form, playing on the homophones in
French between et and est, différence and différance. To someone who had
never read Derrida, the title reads as it is written, writing and difference,
the confrontation of two heterogeneous terms, a writing that would forget
Heidegger’s ontico-ontological difference as in the first five chapters. But,
after a reading of the book, with an ear attuned to Derrida’s terminology,
the sense of writing being différance is inescapable. L’écriture et la différence
or L’écriture est la différance: Derrida’s book is caught in the polyvalence of
its title. The title is an implicit double séance, the never full repression of an
old word in the production of new meaning. And, as in Derrida’s “Freud
and the Scene of Writing,” the movement between the two meanings,
between the latent and the explicit, was an effect of writing itself. It was the
very différance of writing that allowed the movement between Derrida the
post-existentialist and Derrida the non-conformist structuralist. Derrida’s
Writing and Difference thus allows a transformative reading, a passage
between two covers. It cannot be the totalitarian book in the Leibnizian or
Hegelian sense.
c h a p t er 7

L’ambiguité du concours
The deconstruction of commentary and interpretation in
Speech and Phenomena

In the last chapter we tracked the changes in Derrida’s thought during the
middle years of the 1960s, showing how it mutated from a post-existentialist
reading of phenomenology into a quasi-structuralist theory. But the causes
and stakes of this transformation remain unexplained. Over the next two
chapters, I intend to examine this change from two perspectives: the move
away from phenomenology, and the confrontation with structuralism.
The latter will shed light on the political meaning of Derrida’s project
and provide new ways to understand the role played by antihumanism in
French theory. The former is worthy of consideration, because it concerns
the rise of deconstruction as a methodology, the genesis of an aspect of
Derrida’s work that has been central to its reception into the English-
speaking world.1 For, while before 1964 Derrida focused his attention
almost exclusively on Husserl’s texts and participated in the technical realm
of French phenomenological discourse, after 1964 the vast majority of his
books and articles examined texts from outside of the phenomenological
canon. The key to this unprecedented expansion in Derrida’s professional
interests lies, as I will argue, in his new teaching responsibilities. While
Merleau-Ponty opened phenomenology up to the human sciences, by
urging the philosopher to place himself at “school of facts,”2 Derrida
widened his intellectual horizons by returning to the ENS, Rue d’Ulm.
Scholars have been resistant to placing Derrida’s thought within its insti-
tutional context, because his autobiographical statements seem to refuse
such an analysis: the philosopher of the marginal, Derrida enjoyed his
contested position on the fringes of academic philosophy. In a 1976 article,
Derrida asserted that,

1 Derrida resisted the idea that deconstruction is simply a method, and, as the following chapter makes
clear, I do not want to imply that there exists an autonomous methodology called deconstruction
that is merely applied to texts. Indeed, in chapter 8, we will see how what could be classed as the first
object of deconstruction played a considerable role in the construction of the theory.
2 Merleau-Ponty, “Sciences de l’homme et la phénoménologie,” p. 122.

221
222 Between phenomenology and structuralism
it had been obvious that the work in which I was involved . . . – the (affirmative)
deconstruction of phallogocentrism as philosophy – did not belong simply to
the forms of the philosophical institution . . . It did not proceed according to the
established norms of theoretical activity. In more than one of its traits and in
strategically defined moments, it had to have recourse to a “style” unacceptable to
a university reading body (the “allergic” reactions to it were not long in coming).3
Further, Derrida was careful to assert the “dissociation” between his pub-
lished and teaching work, separating his philosophical project, which left
no structure unquestioned, from his teaching role where he had to follow
the norms of a jury and a canon “that in his eyes [had] been discredited.”4
To understand these claims as drawing a clear line between deconstruc-
tion and the academic institutions in which it first emerged would, however,
be an unjust reading of a philosophy that refused absolute exteriority. Mar-
gins for Derrida were never on the outside of a text, and if Derrida felt that
his work was a “scandal” for the mainstream, it must be remembered that,
according to his philosophy, “scandals” were as much a product of, as an
outrage to, a system.5 For all his discussion of the “dissociation” between
his philosophical project and teaching duties, Derrida also made clear that
this dissociation was a “fiction,” and when he declared that deconstruction
did not “belong simply” to the forms of the philosophical institution, he
wanted to highlight the complexity of the relationship, not its nonexis-
tence. The educational system in France, by the mid 1970s, had become
an object of deconstruction, but Derrida was insistent that deconstruction
was also its “effect.”6
This chapter aims to understand the crucial and unexplored connection
between Derrida’s philosophy and one of the most important institutions
in French academic life: the agrégation. I will argue that the practice of
deconstruction was a response to the conflicting demands of the exam, and
that Derrida’s later criticism and resistance to the agrégation concours grew
out of an early and intimate involvement with it. Rebels often depend on
the institutions that they assault and can never wholly stand beyond them.
In Derrida’s case, it was only from within the French philosophical system
that he found the resources and the authority to attack it.
The agrégation de philosophie was the gatekeeper of French academic phi-
losophy. Taken by students in their mid-twenties between the completion

3 Jacques Derrida, Who’s Afraid of Philosophy? trans J. Plug (Stanford University Press, 2002), pp. 71–2.
4 Ibid., p. 77.
5 For a discussion of scandals see Derrida, Of Grammatology, pp. 104–5, or Derrida, Writing and
Difference, pp. 283–4.
6 See Derrida, Who’s Afraid of Philosophy? p. 74.
L’ambiguité du concours 223
of a Mémoire thesis and the beginning of doctoral work, the agrégation
effectively granted a small elite of young philosophers access to university
positions. It was not an institution that Derrida particularly liked. Both
while taking the exam – when he described it to Althusser as “concentration
camp idiocy [une connerie concentrationnaire]” – and later when teaching it,
Derrida found the exam a constant burden. According to his wife, he saw
it as “ghastly”; “very codified, very constraining, he had trouble submitting
himself to its demands.”7
In spite of all his opposition to the agrégation concours, there were few
other twentieth-century philosophers who had such an intimate relation-
ship with it: Derrida taught for twenty years at the ENS, training students
to take the exam. He was the agrégé-répétiteur, a teacher who, as Derrida
described, was “destined to repeat and make others repeat, to reproduce
and make others reproduce: forms, norms, and a content. He [had to] assist
students in the reading and comprehension of texts, help them interpret
and understand what is expected of them, what they must respond to at
the different stages of testing and selection.”8 Derrida’s day-to-day role
at the ENS was to reassert and enforce the rules imposed by the test. In
1982 he considered that he had done a good job, “the results have been
excellent (if I appreciated such honors, I would say they were amongst
the best in the Ecole, of all the Ecoles) both in the percentage and the
placing of those who passed.”9 When in the early 1960s two Normaliens,
including Robert Linhart, decided that they did not want to take the
exam and asked to be released from the obligation, Derrida opposed their
petition.10
The majority of the pages that Derrida wrote during the 1960s and
70s were lecture courses preparing students for the concours. To discard
this enormous intellectual production as incidental would be a mistake.
While intellectual historians have often looked to biographical, social, and
political contexts in which to place an author’s thought, the day-to-day
academic work of professional philosophers and intellectuals remains a
relatively untapped and yet immediate context.11 For while biographical,
social, and political themes often require some form of translation to
7 Derrida Letters at IMEC to Althusser, April 25, 1956, cited in Peeters, Derrida, p. 103. Interview
with Marguerite Derrida, May 2007.
8 Derrida, Who’s Afraid of Philosophy? p. 75. Derrida was promoted to maı̂tre-répétiteur later, but
continued to teach with the agrégation in mind.
9 Letter July 23, 1982 to ENS directeur. Derrida personnel file at the ENS, CAC, 19930595/31.
10 “Commission des Etudes de l’ENS,” CAC, 930595/8.
11 For an important study of the pedagogical context of Cambridge Mathematicians in the nineteenth
century see Andrew Warwick, Masters of Theory (University of Chicago Press, 2003).
224 Between phenomenology and structuralism
explain their impact on often abstract theory, the norms and demands of
academic institutions directly affected the form and content of written
work. Students crafted their essays in ways that they thought would ensure
success, while in courses, their teachers were directly influenced by the
syllabus and the exams to be taken.
In the majority of cases, it is not possible to separate teaching from
research. Indeed, as we shall see, within the context of the agrégation, the
two were seen as mutually dependent. First, academic courses are often, and
rightly, considered alongside publications; they are text more than context.
From Aristotle’s Ethics to Kant’s Logic, lecture courses have been assimilated
into the canon. In Derrida’s case, many of his own lectures acted as the first
draft of a book. Second, even where publications and books emerged from
independent research, the courses that academics taught often dealt with
parallel subjects and helped shape arguments and approaches; we cannot
draw an absolute line between the two. For many intellectuals, academic
demands and institutional constraints – which mobilized the interest of
their students and the expectations of their employers – had a profound
influence on all their theoretical work.
In particular, the agrégation plays an important part in my story of
Derrida’s development. The agrégation only became critical for Derrida’s
continued work when he became the agrégé-répétiteur in the History of
Philosophy at the ENS in the autumn of 1964. We can understand the
transformation of Derrida’s theory from a predominantly technical study
of phenomenology into a mode of reading applicable to a wide variety
of texts from a number of diverse traditions, by showing how his new
philosophy could provide valuable resources for his students entering the
concours. Derrida expanded the scope of his philosophical reflections and
learnt how to approach textual fragments from the history of philoso-
phy at the very moment he was teaching his students to do the same
thing.

the agregation de philosophie


Taking the agrégation was a daunting affair. In the 1950s, of three hundred
or so candidates, only about fifteen passed each year. By 1965, despite the
massive growth in the higher education system, this number had risen to
only thirty. Because of the importance and intensity of the course and
program, students would start serious preparations a year beforehand. In
the summer before the student intended to take the exam, he or she
would refer to a copy of the Revue universitaire, or the Bulletin officiel de
L’ambiguité du concours 225
l’éducation nationale, to find the program for that year.12 With philosophy
considered the queen of university disciplines, the philosophy agrégation
graced the first page of the special supplement. The program consisted
of two sections: one listing the authors to be discussed in the written
exam, the other listing the texts set for the oral. In the period 1945–65 the
written program named a number of authors for study (approximately five
or six through the 1950s and settling down to two in the early 1960s).13
These were taken from the slowly developing philosophical canon. In
this period the only twentieth-century author to appear on the written
program was Henri Bergson.14 Each author remained on the program for
two years, with approximately half the program changing every session,
probably in an effort to reduce the instructors’ workload. Based on this
corpus, students would face a set of three compositions in June.15 The first
two questions were based on far-reaching philosophical topics, such as the
“conflict of duties,” “determinism,” “certitude,” or the relationship between
science and philosophy. The students would then face a composition in
the history of philosophy. Though not explicitly formulated as such, the
question generally consisted in a citation from one author of the program,
commenting on another, or a comparison between the two. For example,
when Derrida first sat the exam in 1955 he had to answer the question:
“What does Plotinus’s system owe and what does it not owe to Platonism?”
Of the three hundred or so students each year who sat the written part
of the exam, only a small portion – around a sixth during this period –
were classed as “admissibles.” These were allowed through to the next stage,
an exam that would normally take place a couple of weeks later after the
examiners had marked the 900 or so essays.16 The organization of the oral
exam was less stable during this period. Essentially, however, it consisted
of two types of test: a leçon on a topic chosen by lot, and a number of
explications de textes.17
In an explication de texte a student was required to give a detailed oral
presentation of a philosophical passage. The selection of authors and texts
for these explications made up the bulk of each program. From 1919 until the
12 The Revue Universitaire ran until 1957, after which the only source appears to be the Bulletin Officiel,
or the BO as it is referred to.
13 After 1960 the number of authors dropped, before being replaced by a list of themes for discussion.
14 In 1951–2 and 1956–7.
15 Each composition took place between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., falling on a Monday, Wednesday, and
Friday.
16 Two examiners would mark each question.
17 In the early 1950s, there were two leçons, a grande and a petite. However, in the second half of the
decade the latter were considered to be too specialized, and were replaced by the explication of an
unknown text. This too did not survive long.
226 Between phenomenology and structuralism
mid 1960s, when other languages were introduced, the candidates had to
give one French and one Latin explication, and then could choose between
a Greek, a German, or an English one.18 The language qualifier referred
not to the origin of the author, but rather to the language in which the
text would be given in the exam.19 So Nietzsche, Hegel, and Husserl at
times appeared in the French Section, while in 1957 the candidates faced
a Latinate Descartes. Unlike the written section, which would demand
knowledge spanning the corpus of the authors cited, in the oral exam
only a single text, or perhaps only a small part of it, was listed on the
agrégation syllabus: the fifty-sixth lesson of Comte’s Positive Philosophy, or
book Lambda of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. The students were asked to analyze
a philosophical fragment. For the leçon, a different topic was given to each
candidate, and after five hours’ access to the library at the Sorbonne, they
were supposed to present a lecture to the jury of about fifty minutes.
In recent years, philosophers and historians have begun to appreciate
the centrality of the agrégation in French philosophy, and the work of Alan
Schrift has done much to focus attention and interest.20 The importance
of the agrégation can be shown in three central areas: the constitution of
major themes and trends in French thought, the production of a French
philosophical community, and finally the style of philosophy undertaken
in France.
In the secondary literature most emphasis has been placed on the first
area: the connection between the authors listed on the program and those
that came to interest philosophy more broadly at the time. The program
for the agrégation, it is argued, played a major role in canon formation. If
an author was placed on the agrégation syllabus, it immediately created a
market for critical literature on his philosophy. Thus, as Schrift notes, when
the sociologist Georges Davy became president of the jury soon after the
end the War the number of empiricist philosophers on the program greatly
increased, and this played an important role in the rise of the social sciences
in French philosophy.21 Schrift has also remarked on the coincidence of

18 Alan Schrift has pointed out to me that, before the First World War, certain students were able to
provide an explication of either Kant’s Critique de jugement, or Mill’s Examen de la philosophie de
Hamilton instead of the Greek text.
19 The exam, however, would always be in French.
20 See Julian Bourg, ed. After the Déluge (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2004), pp. 23–5. Alan
Schrift, Twentieth-Century French Philosophy (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2006), pp. 201–4, and
most recently, “The Effects of the Agrégation on Twentieth-Century French Philosophy,” Journal
of the History of Philosophy (July 2008), pp. 449–73.
21 Schrift, “The Effects of the Agrégation,” p. 462.
L’ambiguité du concours 227
the appearance of Nietzsche on the exam in 1958 and a whole slew of
books written on him.22 He suggests that the institutional pressures and
opportunities provided by the agrégation were fundamental for the rise of
French Nietzscheanism, especially that of Deleuze, Foucault and, of course,
Derrida.
Using the agrégation to understand the processes of canon formation in
French philosophy provides an important corrective to traditional explana-
tions, but we cannot see it as absolutely determinative. Firstly, the program
of the agrégation was as much a response to trends as generative of them. In
most cases, a new addition to the program had to be available in French,
something that was certainly the case for Nietzsche by the late 1950s: the
Henri Albert translation indicated on the program of the Genealogy of
Morality was over half a century old.23 In terms of secondary literature too,
Nietzsche was hardly ignored before 1958. As we saw in the first two chap-
ters, in the period after 1940 scholars had become increasingly interested
in Nietzsche’s work, for he had been seen as a critical influence for the
existentialists and Heidegger. Nietzsche even appeared regularly in ENS
student exposés from the early 1950s. There was a society dedicated to his
philosophy formed in 1946 by Armand Quinot, and Nietzsche’s work had
elicited many critical responses in French, albeit not always by mainstream
philosophers, while several German analyses had been translated.24 We
cannot therefore conclude that there existed a simple causal relationship
between the appearance of his name on the agrégation program and the
rise of French Nietzscheanism; without a tradition of Nietzsche studies in
France he would never have been included. The appearance of authors on
the agrégation program did, however, serve to magnify their importance,
mobilize publishing machines, and incite several philosophy professors to
write and publish on them. The agrégation may not have created the canon
out of nothing, but it did affirm that canon and secure it.
Secondly, the program did not exhaustively determine the philosophies
that could be used and referred to in the exam. Though Hegel’s texts only
appeared on the compulsory section of the agrégation in 1951, Georges
Davy complained in 1947 that “several candidates have sacrificed so much

22 See ibid., pp. 464–9.


23 Friedrich Nietzsche, La Généalogie de la morale, trans. Henri Albert (Paris: Société du Mercure de
France, 1900).
24 Schrift notes books by Bataille and Lefebvre and the interest given by Wahl amongst others, and
shows how Nietzsche’s relatively regular appearance on the agrégation d’allemand program from
before the War informed the Germanist literature on Nietzsche.
228 Between phenomenology and structuralism
to Hegel, to the point of scorning almost anyone else.”25 Husserl was not
placed on the program until 1959, and yet he was a standard reference in
the exam from the late 1940s, while devotees of Bachelard, Sartre, Mar-
cel, and Merleau-Ponty were noted by the jury throughout the 1950s.26
Though the explications des textes presented a rigid reading list, the the-
matic questions on the written part and the leçons allowed a certain freedom
of choice. Even in the explications, Marx, Hegel, or Sartre could be used to
elucidate the chosen texts, though their own books might not have been
on the syllabus. The explicit program of agrégation authors represented
a relatively stable and slow moving canon, but no candidate felt lim-
ited to it. Open to philosophical fashions, the official agrégation program
would only confirm a new movement once it was already underway and
established.
The fact that the set program could act as a pretext for discussing other
themes and authors and bringing to bear different theoretical apparatuses
on set texts suggests another key role of the agrégation: maintaining the
unity of the French philosophical community. This unity can be attributed
more to the stability than to the movement of the canon. One thing that is
perhaps most remarkable about this period in France is the enormous vari-
ety of different movements in philosophy: Existentialism, phenomenology
in all its heretical forms, structuralism, post-structuralism, Christian spiri-
tualism, French analytic philosophy, epistemology, amongst many others.
This heterogeneity is even more remarkable given the size of the university
philosophical population. Even with the two philosophers at the Collège
de France and the grouping in the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, the
community was very small. There were around fifteen professors of philos-
ophy at the Sorbonne in the 1950s, and around fifty others spread around
the fourteen or so other philosophy faculties in France. Taking 1953 as
an example, the university community in Paris aside from the historians
of philosophy comprised the existentialist Merleau-Ponty at the Collège
de France; Mikel Dufrenne, a phenomenologist, at the Sorbonne; Hyp-
polite, concentrating on Hegel; Jankélevitch, the moral philosopher; Jean
Wahl, an expert on contemporary German thought; Gaston Bachelard,

25 For the rapports, a good if not complete selection of this period have been grouped together at the
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, under the title “Agrégation: Philosophie” (Paris, 1950–). Several
of the other rapports can be found in the national archives. See “Rapport du President,” 1947, in
CAC, 19880121, art. 2. Hegel had been on the German section of the agrégation in 1938. See similar
complaints concerning Husserl and Heidegger in 1951 and 1952.
26 Rapport 1951, pp. 1 and 4; 1952, p. 8. Cf. 1955, p. 6; and 1958, p. 5. In the 1960s a number of
candidates started using “structuralism” as a guiding theory; see Rapport 1965, p. 6.
L’ambiguité du concours 229
the historian of science; and Poirier, a logician.27 At the university level
there were no large communities following any particular methodology,
and for philosophical conversations to be possible they had to reach across
doctrinal lines.
The agrégation, a shared reference for all university philosophers, served
as common ground. Phenomenologists, structuralists, and logicians could
all engage in debates over the same philosophical canon, which was, to a
large extent, reflected in the agrégation program. The centrality of Descartes
is a clear example of this. A major factor in the absorption of phenomenol-
ogy into French philosophy was the parallel made between Husserl and
Descartes. Gaston Berger’s Le Cogito dans la philosophie de Husserl (1941)
and Husserl’s own Cartesian Meditations (developed from lectures given
in Paris in 1929) helped nativize the German phenomenologist. Once he
had been assimilated to a certain form of Cartesianism, Husserl was far
more acceptable to the French intellectual community. It is not surprising
that the key clash between Derrida and Foucault should revolve around
Descartes, or that he should have been the focus of a protracted debate
in the early 1950s between Henri Gouhier, Martial Guéroult, and Fernand
Alquié, a debate that brought together existentialist, proto-structuralist,
and surrealist interpretations.28
The agrégation played a central role in the constitution of a French
philosophical community, while mirroring and reinforcing philosophical
movements. But for certain individuals, it went beyond the determination
of authors read and themes discussed. Appropriate tactics for answering
agrégation questions were repeatedly impressed upon students in their
yearlong preparation, and for those teaching them these demands were felt
no less insistently. For Derrida too, the exam exerted a powerful normative
role, determining what good philosophy was. The constant demand to
train his students in the most effective way possible for an exam that
would determine their future careers imprinted the peculiar and often
conflicting demands of the concours on Derrida’s own work. To understand
the agrégation’s role in the development of deconstruction, we must first
analyze these demands and investigate the various strategies employed to
address them.

27 See the list in Etudes philosophiques 3 (1953), p. 339. Of course, philosophy instructors at the Ecoles
Normales and the agrégés teaching at Parisian lycées could be added to this roster.
28 See on this issue the excellent article by Knox Peden, “Descartes, Spinoza, and the Impasse of French
Philosophy: Ferdinand Alquié versus Martial Guéroult,” Modern Intellectual History 8.2 (August
2011).
230 Between phenomenology and structuralism

pedagogy and research: the conflicting


demands of the agregation
As we have seen, the agrégation played a significant role at the highest
level of French academic philosophy. As the most important filter for the
next generation of scholars, the jury showed disproportionate interest every
year in the very best candidates. In the rapport they compiled after each
year’s concours, the jury would often bemoan the lack of any great stars
who might have wowed them, or remark on the brilliance of the cacique:
the jury was on the lookout for the next Bergson or Sartre.29 Such was
importance of the rankings that on at least one occasion in the female
concours it was decided not to grant a first place to preserve the prestige of
the top agrégée.30
In selecting the next generation of French philosophers, the jury tried
to remain up to date, and remarked on the “necessary rejuvenation of
the competition with the evolution of the world.”31 In the leçons, though
some topics reiterated traditional themes such as “is there a science of the
individual?” or “rationalism,” many showed an awareness of contemporary
ideas. In 1969, just after Derrida’s triple publication in 1967, “writing and
speech” was included as one of the leçons. Similar occurrences can be seen
following other important events in philosophical life in France, such as the
leçon “Myth and History” in 1958, the year of Lévi-Strauss’s Anthropologie
structurale and two years after his Tristes tropiques, or one on “anguish”
in 1950, tracking its importance for the existentialists. The agrégation jury
hoped to keep abreast of current philosophical trends and they expected
the candidates to demonstrate an awareness of the most modern themes. In
1949, Mikel Dufrenne, while serving on the jury, complained that too many
candidates were unwilling to engage with contemporary philosophy.32
Though the present could not be ignored, students also had to avoid
parroting fashionable authors. In 1962, the jury warned the candidates that
“tens of their competitors can utilize the same conventional plans and recall
the same clichés just as well as them.”33 In the 1950s in particular the jury
regularly complained of students using “phenomenology” or “dialectics”
uncritically and without fully engaging with either these ideas or the texts

29 See for instance the disappointment in Rapport 1950, when Pierre Aubenque came first, or Rapport
1957, which notes the small number of the very best, or Rapport 1959.
30 In 1948, when the first and third places were left unfilled, the highest-ranking women were given
second and fourth places.
31 Rapport 1949, p. 6. 32 Rapport 1949, p. 3. See also Rapport 1950, p. 2.
33 Rapport 1962, p. 3.
L’ambiguité du concours 231
they were supposed to elucidate. Two of the most highly praised qualities
were “personality” and “originality.”34 Similarly, in the explications de textes,
the candidates were urged to go beyond superficial or schematic readings.
In 1959, the jury objected that “too many candidates . . . seem to believe
that to explicate is to paraphrase . . . to explicate a text, does not mean to
say it otherwise (and generally poorly). It is to analyze it, and to show
the development of its thought, its structure, its general intention; it is to
disengage the main ideas, to show the dialectical or hierarchical relationship
between these primary ideas with its secondary ideas, etc.”35
Given this emphasis on the very highest quality work, the most able
candidate, and the most up-to-date philosophy, it is perhaps surprising
that the official purpose of the agrégation was so mundane. For though it
was one of the key filters into the philosophical elite in France, its explicit
and traditional purpose was to select high-school philosophy teachers.
Indeed for most of its history, the majority of agrégés would enter life-long
careers teaching in lycées.
Because of the agrégation’s role in educating and qualifying high-school
teachers, it was a powerful political and social tool. One of the agrégation’s
champions in the mid nineteenth century, Victor Cousin, used it to pro-
mote his own philosophy in French society, which he hoped would foster
social peace. As Jan Goldstein has shown, Cousin opposed the fragmented
subject of the Condillac sensationalists. The introspective discovery of the
“moi,” Cousin hoped, would reunite the heterogeneous and physicalist self
of prior philosophy and thus help to form responsible citizens. As president
of the agrégation jury from 1840, Cousin hoped to disseminate this program
more generally in France, by training reliable and conformist educators,
not maverick and radical philosophers.36
As time had progressed, in practice, this had changed. In 1950, a new
exam, the CAPES (Certificat d’Aptitude au Professorat de l’Enseignement
du Second degré) was instituted to recruit teachers alongside the agrégation.
It was a less prestigious concours, and recipients of the CAPES worked
harder and earned less than their agrégé colleagues.37 The new exam was
created in recognition of the changing structure of the French educational
system. With the vast growth of university education after the War, more
34 See Rapports, 1949, p. 6; 1950, p. 6; 1951, pp. 2 and 4; 1952, p. 8; 1957, p. 2; 1959, p. 5; 1961, p. 8. Both
Althusser and Derrida in their comments on practice agrégation dissertations rewarded those that
were “personal”; see Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, “Agrégatifs,” IMEC, ALT 2, E6–02.01–03.03.
35 Rapport 1959, pp. 11–12.
36 See Jan Goldstein, The Post-Revolutionary Self (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005),
ch. 5.
37 An agrégé had to teach twelve hours a week. A holder of the CAPES would teach eighteen hours.
232 Between phenomenology and structuralism
agrégés were moving to university teaching posts, and fewer were content
to remain in the secondary system.
But the history and original intentions of the agrégation system still
marked the structure and demands of the concours. Following success at the
exam, philosophers were contractually obliged to spend five years teaching
in lycées before they could pursue a university career: Bergson taught at
schools in Angers and Clermont-Ferrand, Sartre in Le Havre, Deleuze
in Amiens and Orléans. By sending the best and brightest philosophers
to teach in schools around the country, the agrégation brought current
philosophical ideas to a broad intellectual community. Derrida, for one,
teaching at the lycée in Le Mans from 1959 to 1960 introduced his students
to Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Freud, and Lévi-Strauss.38
The interchange between tertiary and secondary education in France was
exemplified and facilitated by a set of television programs made in the mid
to late 1960s, aimed at philosophy students in terminale (the final year of
lycée). Organized by Dina Dreyfus, and produced by the Centre National
de Documentation Pédagogique de France, the Enseignement de Philosophie
programs were hosted by the young Alain Badiou and brought together
some of the most important thinkers of the age: Hyppolite discussed the
relationship of philosophy and its history, Ricoeur spoke on philosophy
and language, and Foucault presented the relationship between philosophy
and psychology.39 Dreyfus and Badiou led a roundtable discussion of phi-
losophy and truth with Hyppolite, Ricoeur, Foucault, and Canguilhem,
while Bourdieu, Serres, Eric Weil, and Guillermit amongst others were
brought in to discuss their own specialties. That such a range of philoso-
phers would have deigned to address teenagers, or that it should have
been considered worthwhile to confront schoolchildren with this material,
only makes sense in a system where academic philosophy had such a rich
connection to secondary education, a connection that found its concrete
expression in the agrégation.
It is perhaps no surprise that the tradition of the public intellectual should
have had such an important place in French cultural life, that thinkers
could become household names, and that the themes and interests of the
philosophical elite should have had a resonance and importance for a wider

38 See Lycée Montesquieu teaching material at Irvine, 4, 10–15. Derrida spent only one year at Le Mans,
because his position as assistant at the Sorbonne was treated as a lycée post for official purposes. It
was only after four years there that he had fulfilled his five-year contract and could look for other
positions.
39 A total of twenty-nine films can be seen in the Audio Visual room at the BNF, filed under Dina
Dreyfus as the producer.
L’ambiguité du concours 233
public.40 The agrégation did not only mark philosophers; by bolstering the
links between university philosophy and the far larger field of secondary
education, it left its imprint upon France.41
The role of the agrégation in France’s broader educational system man-
ifested itself in the organization and form of the concours. The number of
admis, those who would eventually pass the exam, was set earlier in the
year by the Ministry for Education to fit the number of posts available
in the lycées. It is for this reason that many candidates from the French
Empire were classed as “hors-rang [non-classed]”: it was assumed that they
would return to their home country and teach there. As they would not
take French jobs it was not considered necessary to include them in the
official statistics, even as they were accorded the rank that they had earned
with respect to the other candidates. The relationship to the lycées also
explains why the men’s and the women’s concours were separated: in the
secondary education system in France at the time, the majority of schools
were single-sex and thus the vacancies were similarly divided on gender
lines. Before the War, with a very limited number of women taking the
exam, men and women were assessed together; hence Jean-Paul Sartre’s
and Simone de Beauvoir’s impressive first and second place in the 1929
concours. But with the expansion of education after the War, the male and
the female concours were split, even if they responded to the same program
and were judged by the same jury.
When the jury members were assessing each candidate, the requirements
of a lycée philosophy class were always on their minds. Even as they sought
originality and brilliance, they required evidence of pedagogical skills above
all. The leçon was meant to simulate a lycée class, so clarity, concrete
examples, and a broad, interesting theme were required. Candidates were
encouraged to avoid the small and technical and instead to debate issues
that would attract the attention of their future charges. Leçons on freedom,
determinism, politics, and social policy as well as vast over-arching theories
about the history of philosophy were favored over limited and specialized
technical questions. The candidates were trained to set their philosophical
sights on the large themes, without getting bogged down in the details or
being too abstract.42

40 One should not perhaps romanticize this too much. The introductory sequence of Michel Serres‘s
program showed several people unable to identify Descartes.
41 See Tamara Chaplin, Turning on the Mind: French Philosophers on Television (University of Chicago
Press, 2007), ch. 3.
42 See Rapport 1949, p. 6; or Rapport 1957, p. 13.
234 Between phenomenology and structuralism
The pedagogical emphasis also manifested itself in the demand for mod-
erate and responsible analyses. Because the leçon was meant to mimic a
philosophy class, it was imperative that in the discussion of topics stu-
dents should not move too quickly to the finer and controversial issues.
The teacher’s first duty was to provide a comprehensive and rounded
understanding of the topic, and not embroil him- or herself in particular
interests before having outlined the fundamentals. Indeed in Foucault’s
first attempt at the agrégation he failed because of his inability to fulfill
the basic requirements in his discussion of “hypothesis,” the designated
subject. In this leçon, the agrégation examiners expected students to refer
to a canonical experiment undertaken by Claude Bernard in the 1860s and
described in his book, Introduction à l’Etude de la médecine expérimentale
(1865). Bernard noticed that a starved rabbit had acidic urine, normally
only found in carnivores. Hypothesizing that the rabbit had begun to con-
sume its own blood, he constructed a set of experiments to test this claim.
This scientific method demonstrated the now standard model of Observa-
tion, Hypothesis, Experiment, Result, Interpretation, and Conclusion. By
ignoring this canonical figure in the discussion of “hypothesis,” Foucault
failed to demonstrate the basic pedagogical skills that the agrégation tested.
“I forgot to mention rabbit pee,” he remarked afterwards.43 Cleverness by
itself was not enough to succeed; a firm grasp of conventional ideas was
also a clear requisite.44
It was in this vein that the jury continually complained about the presen-
tation of the leçon. If the candidate spoke too fast, too slowly, did not fill up
the time, badly organized his or her work, or simply read the lecture, he or
she would be severely penalized: “many candidates have a badly posed voice;
several speak a little too softly or confusedly; but a certain number speak
with brilliance of voice, a forceful flow that would be intolerable in a class.”45

teaching to the test


The possible tension between these two elements – verbal brilliance and
clear, dutiful exposition – was never far from sight. In a presentation to the
43 Quoted in Didier Eribon, Michel Foucault (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), p.
37. Eribon goes on, “the report by the president of the jury, written in Davy’s hand, spoke volumes:
‘A candidate who is certainly cultivated and distinguished and whose failure can be considered as an
accident. But, having already placed badly on the written, he made the mistake on the oral, and on
a standard subject, of being more concerned with demonstrating his erudition than with treating
the subject proposed.’”
44 Cf. also Rapport 1961 p. 21.
45 See Rapport 1959, p. 13; and Rapport 1949, p. 2; Rapport 1958, p. 13; Rapport 1960, p. 14.
L’ambiguité du concours 235
Société Française de la Philosophie in 1938, the philosopher Georges Fried-
man suggested that too much emphasis had been given to the pedagogical
elements in the agrégation and that this unfairly disadvantaged the bright-
est students, especially Normaliens: the “scientific” and the “pedagogical”
elements were seen as conflicting, what was described as the “ambiguité
du concours.”46 Merleau-Ponty complained that a student could pass the
agrégation and still have no understanding of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche,
Husserl, or Heidegger.47 Emphasis was placed on the difference between
the ENS entry concours and the agrégation. The first was alleged to spot
brilliance, the other to pass mediocrity.
An analysis of the two exams does not at first show any major difference.
At this period the ENS concours was modeled on the agrégation, with similar
questions in the written paper and a comparable list of leçons to be given
in the oral.48 The resemblance is not surprising given that the ENS too
was originally designed to train schoolteachers and from the middle of the
nineteenth century had a privileged relationship to the agrégation. At the
Ecole classes were specifically geared towards the exam. The ENS convened
seminars with the express purpose of preparation for the agrégation, while
the répétiteur-agrégés, Althusser and then Derrida, saw their prime task as
preparing students for the test, giving them advice and technical tricks
that would work to their advantage in the highly ritualized concours.49
In these seminars, students were encouraged to present exposés, mocks of
the leçon, and were expected to hand in written work in the style of an
agrégation dissertation. As Althusser described in a rapport at the end of the
academic year 1950–1: “every week, a two-hour class, under the direction of
the agrégé-sécretaire [Althusser], is dedicated to scholarly exercises destined
to improve candidates’ ‘technique’ at the agrégation.”50
In the 1950s, between the written and the oral part of the agrégation
exam, Louis Althusser took those of his students who had passed the
first stage of that exam to an Abbey 35 kilometers north of Paris. The
Abbaye de Royaumont had been recently converted into a cultural center
by its “propriétaires-mécènes,” Henri and Isabelle Gouı̈n.51 In the quiet
of the medieval abbey, far away from other disturbances, Althusser put
the students through an arduous training schedule in preparation for the
second and potentially most difficult part of the exam: the oral. Each

46 “L’agrégation de philosophie,” Bulletin de la Société Française de la Philosophie (1938), pp. 117–58.


47 Ibid., pp. 148–9.
48 See “Rapports du Jury du Concours ENS,” in CAC, 930595/62
49 Eribon, Michel Foucault, p. 33. 50 “ENS: Enseignement, Examens,” CAC, 930595/89.
51 Jean-Paul Aron, Les modernes (Paris: Gallimard, 1984), p. 64.
236 Between phenomenology and structuralism
evening he handed out subjects for the next day’s presentations and after
a night of frantic preparations they would present to their classmates.52
Althusser would then comment on the morning’s work, judging whether
each effort was worthy of admission at the final exam.
It was an almost sacred retreat, and Normaliens often used religious
language to describe the agrégation. As one successful candidate put it,
writing to Althusser after the exam, “if the agrégation wasn’t, like baptism
and confirmation, one of those sacraments so solemn that one can only
receive it once, you would have passed the agrégation today for the 2nd
(10th or 11th . . . ) time . . . this agrégation is as much yours as mine.”53 This
attribution was justified by the enormous effort shown by Althusser in the
preparation for the exam: the student continued, “it only remains for me
to thank you once more for the constancy, the precision, and the fecundity
of your guidance.” When the result was not so positive it was with personal
regret that they wrote to Althusser. One student, upon being placed lower
then he had expected, declared, “I would have loved to have given you a
more impressive result, but deep down I don’t think that I am an agrégation
animal!”54
The sheer time and effort invested by the Ecole did not ensure the
success of its students. Indeed, during the 1950s, a considerable number,
including Derrida and Foucault, had to reenter the concours at least once
before passing. In the five-year period before Derrida took the exam, the
Ecole had been doing extraordinarily badly, and a third of the philosophers
had left the ENS without passing.55 But the problem was perennial: one
contributor to the 1938 debate suggested that it could “have as its subtitle:
How to explain the failures of Normaliens at the agrégation?” The speaker
was none other than the director of the Ecole, embarrassed by what seemed
to be demanded of him.56
The efforts, then, to reconcile the two conflicting demands of the
agrégation were of crucial importance to the Ecole. With a considerable
number of failures every year, no one could take the agrégation for granted;
the norms of the exam became law for young Normaliens. Understandably
advice abounded. The rapports by the agrégation jury, published every year,
52 Moulier Boutang, Louis Althusser: une biographie, pp. 465–6.
53 This telling phrase highlights continuities between the intellectual practices demanded by the
agrégation and the “spiritual exercises,” which according to Ian Hunter mark the history of theory.
See Ian Hunter, “The History of Theory,” Critical Inquiry (Autumn 2006).
54 IMEC, ALT2, E3.03.02, notes from after the 1960 and 1961 agrégation.
55 See Althusser, “Liste des philosophes sortis de l’ENS depuis la guerre.”
56 “L’Agrégation de philosophie,” p. 138.
L’ambiguité du concours 237
emphasized that teaching and research were opposite sides of the same
coin. In 1948, the president stated that:
in our opinion, the divorce between teaching and research is a grave error. Rather
if it is true that expression is not only an instrument of communication, but just
as much a deepening of thought, they should sustain and mutually provoke each
other. It is in this spirit that the agrégation works to distinguish a double aptitude
in demanding the proofs of significant learning, the solid foundation on which
will be built both the professeur and the savant, and at the same time the proof
of a gift of presentation, which is no less useful perhaps for the latter as for the
former.57
According to the jury, one could not be original without a clear confronta-
tion with the philosophies of the past: “it is therefore impossible to do
philosophy without a long familiarity with the philosophers, but it is also
impossible to understand what they are saying to us, except by starting to
philosophize ourselves, humbly but courageously.”58
In 1961, the jury went further. One could not separate the two elements
of the agrégation, because a “personal” reading had to emerge organically
from a thorough and solid commentary of the text: “one must first earn
[conquérir] the right to criticize a text; and earn it through a preliminary
and effective effort to interpret it, to show its veritable meaning, and
that which is worthy of our interest.” They continued, “the art of the
philosophical dissertation resides primarily in that ability to rebound from
a first spontaneous analysis to the critical mode.”59
In Denis Huisman’s Guide de l’étudiant en philosophie from 1956 he
suggested five different models for writing the dissertation.60 The specific
model for the commentary of texts was to move from simple explication,
to discussion and appreciation. Most of the options could be described
as “dialectical”: “every dissertation draws on this simple schema, however
Hegelian it might be, of a thesis (that appeals to common sense, to the opin-
ion of the man on the street), surpassed in the second part by a generally
rationalist antithesis, where one takes common sense as a primary target
[tête de Turc], before finishing with a synthesis which would transcend the
antinomy of the first two parts.”61 This approach would allow one to fulfill

57 Rapport 1948, CAC, 19880121, art 2, p. 2. 58 Rapport 1952, CAC, 19880121, art 2, p. 8.
59 Rapport, 1961, pp. 13 and 5.
60 Denis Huisman, Guide de l’étudiant en philosophie (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1956).
Huisman gave advice for all levels of philosophical education after the Baccalaureate. But the
demands of the agrégation filtered down to the lower levels.
61 Ibid., pp. 14–16.
238 Between phenomenology and structuralism
the pedagogical requirement in the thesis and antithesis, before complicat-
ing it in the latter parts of the essay. In a section dedicated to the dissertation
in the History of Philosophy, Huisman offered advice and stark warnings:
“above all, what is required is an internal analysis of the thought of the
author.”62 Or later, “too many papers present all or part of a philosophical
system as flowing, without jolts, obstacles, from a ‘central intuition’ or
‘principles’ come from who knows where.”63 The recognition of a text’s
complications and difficulties was an essential part of any dissertation, but
they had to be encountered through the first-order understanding of the
work: immanent critique, not detached and abstract musings from first
principles. In all these cases, the strategy involved presenting a clear and
standard exposition of a text that would act as the foundation for any
further analysis, and provide the means to draw out contradictory and, at
first glance, hidden implications.
If we look at the work of other philosophers intimately involved in the
training for the concours we can see similar approaches. Take, for example,
Jean-Toussaint Desanti’s book Phénoménologie et praxis, from 1963, which
derives from work done during his first year at the ENS Saint-Cloud in 1960
preparing students to present Husserl’s fifth Cartesian Meditation at the
agrégation. Desanti’s task was to show the unraveling of phenomenology,
as a philosophy privileging consciousness (a “unilateral philosophy”), by
following its “fundamental development” whereby it aimed to arrive at
the knowledge of the object. Analyzing phenomenology as it unfolded
would permit the philosopher to see it “affirm and undo itself.”64 In a
process that Desanti called “destruction,” the moment of critique would
emerge organically from within an exposition of the text itself, charting
the tortured path of its construction.
By following the process of the phenomenological reduction in the
first three Cartesian Meditations, Desanti showed how Husserl confronted
the twin obstacles of time and the other in the fourth and fifth. These
obstacles could not be reduced, even though they were incompatible with
the guiding primacy of the ego. This fundamental tension required that
Husserl would constantly have to “rework [remettre en chantier]” his key
concepts. Desanti’s “destruction” of phenomenology would take seriously
these reduced moments of time, the other, and their union in “History,” to
provide a reevaluation that would overturn the privilege of consciousness.
Though we will discuss Derrida’s treatment of Husserl later, when he

62 Ibid., p. 108. 63 Ibid., p. 110. 64 Desanti, Phénoménologie et praxis, pp. 13–14.


L’ambiguité du concours 239
studied a different text, the similarities between Desanti’s “destruction”
and Derrida’s “deconstruction” are notable.

derrida and the agregation


We can see Derrida’s response to the peculiar demands of the agrégation by
looking at a mock agrégation essay (dissertation) he wrote for the Centre
Nationale pour télé-enseignement in 1965–6, and the comments he gave to
papers written at the ENS. Again the same concern with responsible expo-
sition and brilliant flair that reflected the dual demands of the agrégation
exam played a crucial structuring role. Derrida trained his students to
reconstruct the arguments of a text carefully in order to be able to perform
a critical reading that called into question the starting premises.
With Husserl’s Formal and Transcendental Logic (Logic) on the agrégation
program in 1965 and 1966, Derrida had been employed to write a study
guide to the text, and later in the year he provided a model agrégation
dissertation for his students.65 Derrida set himself the question: “In the
first section of the Formal and Transcendental Logic, the concepts of sense
and truth are not co-extensive. In your opinion, what were the intention,
the stakes, and the value of this distinction?”66
Derrida emphasized the pedagogical demands of the agrégation. In his
notes, Derrida urged his students to “begin with as few presuppositions as
possible,” to “appeal to only the minimum of complicity in the historical
knowledge of Husserl’s themes and terminology,” to be “very ‘pedagogical’
in the articulation of the problem of the difficulty to which one has to
respond.” Derrida reiterated this imperative in his general remarks on his
students’ essays, citing the importance of “the moment of comprehensive
and accessible commentary.”67
But Derrida, like other philosophers who taught to the exam, knew that
a simple commentary on the text was insufficient. He criticized one of his
ENS students because he “took each philosophy in its synthetic moment
and in its conclusion, never in the work of a discourse creating itself.”
Derrida’s essay was not just going to be a simple résumé of the themes of
Husserl’s Logic. The first section was entitled “the path towards the distinc-
tion,” tracing the split between sense and truth back to Husserl’s Logical

65 Jacques Derrida, “Agrégation preparation,” Irvine, 2.45–6.


66 Derrida noted at the end that he was confusing the text on the oral section of the agrégation and
the form of the written part, but he considered it nonetheless an important exercise.
67 Derrida, “Agrégation preparation,” p. 8.
240 Between phenomenology and structuralism
Investigations from 1900–1. Derrida turned to the history of Husserl’s phi-
losophy to understand its inner workings, and bring to light the obstacles
and tensions that would allow the second and critical moment.
In the fourth Logical Investigation, Husserl had developed a logic of sense,
described as a “pure grammar,” an a priori science of significations, inde-
pendent of any factual existence. The advance over previous formulations
of logic was that it would be entirely formal, detached from any objects in
the world; formal apophantics was distinct from the logic of “existents.”
This “grammar” of significations determined whether a proposition had
any sense, distinguishing between non-sensical (unsinnig) utterances such
as “a man is and” from well-formulated propositions that fulfilled all syn-
tactical requirements. It did not in itself verify these propositions: sense
was a necessary but not sufficient condition for truth.
In the second section of his essay, Derrida explained how this division
was developed in Husserl’s Logic. There were two key changes. First, by the
time Husserl wrote the Logic he had replaced the term “signification” with
that of “judgment”; it was no longer a question of sense in general, but of
“statements of judgment [énoncés judicatifs].”68 The terminological change
highlighted a new emphasis on the intentionality of these judgments – their
constitutive nature as judgments of . . . – even if it was only in their form
and not their content that they were assessed. This reflected another major
change. Unlike the double division between the a priori grammar and the
logic of the object in the Logical Investigations, by the Logic there were
three different layers. In addition to that separating out the non-sensical
(unsinnig), a new layer within the logic of sense excluded the contradictory
(widersinnig) such as “a square circle.”
This middle level comprised all propositions that obeyed syntactical
laws and thus passed the first syntactical test, but it excluded all those that
were self-contradictory. In contrast to the Logical Investigations, the “region
of sense” was supposed to decide whether the object of a proposition was
possible. Such requirements would have to be met before the consideration
of the truth-value of the propositions, unlike before, where the possibility
(non-contradiction) and actuality of the object were not distinguished.
In Husserl’s Logic, truth only appeared at the final level of formal logic,
after the logic of non-contradiction. It was only at the final level that a
statement such as “there is a gold mountain,” which is both grammatically
correct and non-contradictory, could be questioned. It is false because it
conforms to no existing mountain. Truth, unlike sense, is based on the

68 Ibid., p. 3.
L’ambiguité du concours 241
possibility of adequation outside of formal logic, the fulfillment of its
Bedeutungsintention with an intuition.
The two changes, elaborated by a careful historical analysis of the texts,
elicited several questions. For despite the initial concentration on formality,
both highlighted the porous border between the formal and the concrete.
The logic of non-contradiction, which had previously been seen as the
realm of ontology, was now regarded as an element of formal logic, and
the entire class of formal propositions was now declared to be structured
by the possibility of judicative assertions. Though still formal, they were
disciplined by their ultimate function of making concrete claims about the
world.
This blurring of the boundaries manifested itself most clearly in the
final level of formal logic, confusingly labeled “the logic of truth.” Husserl
insisted that truth required “clarity [Klarheit]”; logic had to be given content
by intuition. Yet one had to understand the necessity of intuitive fulfillment
within the realm of the purely formal and a priori – i.e. before intuition.
As Derrida asked “will it be possible, as Husserl suggests, to transgress the
sphere of the a priori of sense, while still remaining inside the domain of
the a priori, and of an a priori that is still formal?”69
Husserl’s answer was that the logic of truth required that the statements
of the previous layer be “fulfilled.” But since this fulfillment rested on
an appeal beyond formal logic, it could only be demanded, not enacted.
This meant that the formal logic of truth, the third layer of formal logic,
added nothing in content to the previous two layers: there would be no
actual proposition that could be discounted by moving from the logic of
non-contradiction to the formal logic of truth. Alone, purely formal, and
without intuitive consciousness, it could never actually determine whether
something was true or not, whether a gold mountain actually did exist.
Rather it just “changes the orientation, makes a new theme arise, and
reminds us, in opening formal ontology, what is the final intention of all
logic: the intention of a clear, originary, and adequate knowledge.” The
logic of truth then clearly showed the goal underlying all formal logic that
had been suggested in the previous analyses: it was a mere propadeutic,
headed from the beginning towards a necessary confirmation in intuition.
It required the transcendental field.
In answer to the original question, then, Derrida had shown that the
distinction between sense and truth found its place within formal logic,
but only as a preparation for a more radical grounding in transcendental

69 Ibid., p. 5.
242 Between phenomenology and structuralism
logic. It thus showed the way between the first and the second section of
Husserl’s Logic, demonstrating their indissoluble unity, the final section
guiding the first teleologically. Derrida continued:
If a critique of the Husserlian intention has some chance of reaching its goal and
touching the “thing itself,” it is in remaining aware of the rigorous necessity of the
stratification proposed by Husserl’s Logic. It is only thus that one can ask oneself
about the metaphysical origin of the values of truth, intuitive adequation, inten-
tional fulfillment and clear and distinct evidence, which, though only appearing
at the summit of the stratification, guided nonetheless the construction of the
objective formal logic from the beginning, like its telos.70
The question of “truth” had guided Husserl’s analyses of “sense” from the
start; the teleological standard of a full and complete presence in intuition
was active, even in the empty form. The recognition of this teleology was
the key critical moment that had emerged from the careful commentary
of the text, one that allowed a more “active” reading.
Derrida’s mock essay followed the carefully laid-out structure of a good
agrégation answer. He demanded that his students move through pedagog-
ical commentary, explaining the text in its process of construction in order
finally to reveal its hidden presuppositions. Derrida required an organic
union between the profound close readings and a sense of the general, what
he called “the apparently contradictory twin demands” of the concours.71
The driving principle was the tension between a critical analysis that uncov-
ered the aporias in a text, and a constant awareness of how these aporias
fit into and possibly conflicted with the broader system: Derrida asserted
that it was the reconciliation between these two that “defined the entelechy
of the dissertation.”72 In more concrete terms, he suggested to one stu-
dent writing on Rousseau that the goal was to “mark better the body of
theoretical presuppositions that is in fact present behind and in Rousseau’s
explicit theses . . . this suggestion holds moreover in general for the philo-
sophical treatment of any ‘subject’: seek behind the visible characters the
one that is absent, or the hidden concepts which stage the visible concepts.
By this means, while respecting the letter of your subject, you give it a new
theoretical profundity.”73
In Derrida’s mock essay from 1965, the theoretical presupposition uncov-
ered through a careful reading was a residual metaphysics teleologically
guiding all of Husserl’s phenomenology, the structural priority of intu-
ition even over the purely formal – what Derrida would later call the
70 Ibid., pp. 6–7.
71 See amongst others Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, “Agrégatifs,” IMEC, ALT2, E6–02.02, Com-
ments 1963–4.
72 Ibid., 1965. 73 Ibid., 1966.
L’ambiguité du concours 243
metaphysics of presence. Described as such, it recalls some of the major
themes in Derrida’s published work. Indeed, at times, despite the avowed
distance between his own work and teaching, it seems that in the mid 1960s
Derrida considered many of his own ideas amenable to the demands of
the agrégation. We have evidence of students using Derrida’s “différance” in
agrégation essays as early as 1966, and by that period Derrida had come to
describe his students’ successful analyses of philosophers as “repetitions,”
just as in his own work.74 He praised one of his students for “the quiet,
autonomous and critical power . . . by a thought at once clear and difficult,
which de-constitutes with the calmest mastery the very concept of subjec-
tivity as mastery.”75 Or in another, less successful case, he complained that
the essay on subjectivity did not “attempt an opening of that which, from a
certain outside, worries a certain inside of the philosophy of the subject[.] I
am thinking of Nietzsche, or psychoanalysis, of certain intellectual gestures
that one loosely collects under the heading ‘human sciences.’”76 Similarly
Derrida rued the inadequacy of the “personal” part of one student’s dis-
sertation, “which wanted to produce ‘a new concept of the subject’ even
though [he] had previously recognized that the very concept of the subject
belongs in general to the closure of onto-theology. This last part, then, is
the shortest, the most allusive, and the most dogmatic.”77 When Derrida
urged his students to avoid a “classical” construction in their essays, he
implicitly proffered his own deconstruction as an alternative.
This analysis suggests that it might be possible to read Derrida’s pub-
lished work with an eye to the demands of the agrégation. As we have seen,
much of the content and subject matter of his books often followed the
agrégation program and began as courses for the concours. The form too of
his philosophy might have reflected its peculiar criteria. For this enterprise
there can be no example as good as Speech and Phenomena, one of the three
books Derrida published in 1967.78

speech and phenomena


A reading that can be neither simple commentary nor simple interpretation.
Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena79

74 Ibid., 1966. 75 Ibid., 1966. My emphasis. 76 Ibid., 1967. 77 Ibid., 1967.


78 It is perhaps fittingly deconstructive that we can best understand Derrida’s movement away from
phenomenology by studying his last major work on Husserl.
79 Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University
Press, 1973), p. 88. Like other scholars, I recognize the weakness of the translation of Derrida’s title
by Speech and Phenomena, when Voice and Phenomenon better fits Derrida’s program and meaning.
In the interests of my readers, however, I have stuck with the standard English translation, only
244 Between phenomenology and structuralism
At several key points in Derrida’s book Speech and Phenomena, he refers to
the distinction between commentary and interpretation.80 Commentary,
as we have seen, was the foundation of the agrégation essay, the clear and
responsible pedagogical reading that aimed to make ideas accessible to a
teenage audience. Derrida’s choice to pair commentary with “intepretation”
in Speech and Phenomena is more specific to the book. As we shall see, in
large part, Speech and Phenomena confronts the vexed question of “mean-
ing” in Husserl’s phenomenology: vouloir-dire, or in the German Bedeu-
tung. At the heart of the German word Bedeutung is the verb deuten, to inter-
pret. As Derrida asserted, to interpret was to bring out the implicit, what
was not immediately obvious. It described the process that he had taught
his students: drawing out the “theoretical presuppositions” hiding behind
the first layer of the text.81 In bringing together commentary and inter-
pretation, Speech and Phenomena mapped onto the opposing demands –
the pedagogical and research-oriented elements – of the agrégation.82
To regard any part of one of Derrida’s most notorious texts as pedagogical
might appear laughable. Speech and Phenomena is a very dense and difficult
book, and, at the same time, an apparently idiosyncratic interpretation of
Husserl’s work. An analysis of Husserl’s first Logical Investigation, it focuses
on a text that was in no way as central to Husserl scholarship in France
as Ideas, the Cartesian Meditations, the Formal and Transcendental Logic,
or the Crisis of the European Sciences. It presents an unfamiliar Husserl,
seemingly detached from standard interpretations. But, as we shall see,
the strangeness of the text is in part a function of the agrégation. Before
tackling the claims in Derrida’s book, we must first see how and why it
took the form it did and explain Derrida’s decision to study the first Logical
Investigation for his first book-length treatment of Husserl.
As we have seen, in 1965 and 1966 Husserl’s Formal and Transcenden-
tal Logic, a text published over a quarter of a century after the Logical
modifying it when necessary. A new translation by Leonard Lawlor under the title Voice and
Phenomenon will be published in 2011.
80 See also the analysis of commentary and the need to move beyond it in Derrida, Of Grammatology,
pp. 157–64.
81 Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, pp. 33–7.
82 See ibid., pp. 31, 53 and 88. Lawlor notes the importance of the distinction too, see Lawlor, Derrida
and Husserl, pp. 175–6. See also René Schérer’s review in La Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale
(1968), where he stated: “Derrida’s reading, which offers an admirable model of interpretative
criticism, operates by successive delimitations and sketches, up until the point where it makes
visible, as the ultimate horizon, from the very interior of the text, the present condition of its own
over-coming. Here commentary no longer opposes the work with another conception; it is the depth
of the reading which, following the progressive and necessary unfolding of a thought, discovers in
it the motifs which refute its essential project, in this instance, with respect to phenomenology, the
access to ‘the things themselves’” (p. 350).
L’ambiguité du concours 245
Investigations, was on the program for the agrégation. In addition to his
notes for the Centre Nationale pour télé-enseignement, Derrida taught a
course at the ENS in 1964–5, preparing his students for the exam. Though
explicitly treating the Logical Investigations and the Ideas, Derrida asserted
its relevance to Husserl’s Logic at the first meeting:
The work that we are beginning today . . . should bring us to the threshold of
Husserl’s Logic and more precisely the first section set by the agrégation pro-
gram . . . It is evident that, beyond the general and intrinsic interest that the
problems we are dealing with may present, the considerations that we will have
for Husserl’s Logic would not only be an ulterior motive or a promise. Often we
will have to refer to it explicitly.
But why not approach the text directly? The answer was relatively banal:
We will not concern ourselves with that first section of Husserl’s Logic for itself dur-
ing these classes, because . . . S. Bachelard will be explicating it at the Sorbonne.83
With the author of the standard commentary on the text – a commen-
tary that Derrida, moreover, advertised with great enthusiasm to his télé-
enseignement students – teaching but five minutes away, Derrida’s course
hoped to complement and not repeat what was being provided elsewhere.84
Whatever its overt subject matter, the course from which Derrida’s 1967
text Speech and Phenomena first developed was concerned with the Formal
and Transcendental Logic.85
Derrida also made the argument in Speech and Phenomena itself. From
the very beginning, Derrida was clear that the Logical Investigations set the
terms of Husserl’s later works: “Ideas I and Formal and Transcendental Logic
develop without break the concepts of intentional or noematic sense, the
difference between the two strata of analytics in the strong sense (the pure
forms of judgments and consequence-logic), and suppress the deductivist
or nomological form which had hitherto limited his concept of science
in general.”86 Further, Derrida asserted that his reading was valid for the
whole of phenomenology: “each time that we go beyond the text of the First
Logical Investigation, it is to indicate the principle of a general interpretation
of Husserl’s thought.”87
83 Jacques Derrida, “La Théorie de la signification dans les Recherches Philosophiques et dans Ideen I,”
Irvine, 9.4, sheet 18.
84 See Jacques Derrida, “Agrégation preparation,” Irvine, 2.45, p. 2.
85 The obscured centrality of the Formal and Transcendental Logic for Speech and Phenomena goes
a long way to explain the very varied response to the book. For a sense of the controversy over
Derrida’s first book-length project on Husserl see Evans, Strategies of Deconstruction, “Introduction.”
86 Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, p. 3; see also p. 91.
87 Ibid., p. 4 note. See also Kates, Essential History, p. 116.
246 Between phenomenology and structuralism
What was the contribution of the earlier work? We have already seen
the importance of the Logical Investigations in Derrida’s mock essay. As the
second chapter of Husserl’s Logic testified, the Logical Investigations was
the first text in the history of philosophy to discuss a “pure formal logic”
and a “formal ontology,” even if the latter had not been named as such in
the earlier text. With the emphasis on formality, detached from the real, the
Logical Investigations had made an important stride beyond previous logics
that had remained beholden to some material determination. The Logical
Investigations then marked a key waypoint on the path to Husserl’s logic. As
Derrida said in his course, “in explicating the Logical Investigations . . . we
will have already taken a step into the Logic.”88
The first Logical Investigation had made the key distinction between
“expression” and “indication.” Propositions were “expressions” if they were
sufficient unto themselves, they were “indications” if they made direct
reference to things existing in the world. The reduction of “indication”
then cut expressions off from any dependence on the world; they remained
entirely formal. As propositions, it was of no immediate consequence if
expressions were fulfilled or verified in intuition. It was only elsewhere in
the Logical Investigations that Husserl would explicitly breach the ques-
tion of the transcendental ground of such a logic, especially in the last
two investigations. In Husserl’s later language, one could say that the realm
of expression offered a midway point between the natural attitude and the
transcendental sphere: it was the eidetic foundation of formal logic.
But as would become increasingly clear, the formal studied in the first
investigation (the investigation that would be the central object of study in
Speech and Phenomena) was not entirely uncontaminated by the intuitive.
According to Derrida, the very idea of “expression” marked the “paral-
lelism” between “the signifying intention and the fulfilling intuition,” the
formal and the transcendental.89 Moving beyond commentary to inter-
pretation, Derrida wanted to argue that direct intuition governed formal
sense teleologically, and that this would have profound consequences for
phenomenology as a whole. It was the very point with which he had ended
his mock dissertation.
Derrida’s turn to the first Logical Investigation allowed him to bring up
some of the key themes in phenomenology. Though Husserl’s Logic was
probably the most important text for Husserl scholarship in France in the

88 Derrida, “La Théorie de la signification I,” sheet 19.


89 Jacques Derrida, “La Théorie de la signification II,” Irvine, 9.5, sheet 1. See also Derrida, Speech and
Phenomena, pp. 11–12.
L’ambiguité du concours 247
late 1950s and early 1960s, it did not deal at length with the key phenomeno-
logical questions of the reduction, intersubjectivity, and time, which had
been central since Merleau-Ponty and Sartre. The distinction between Aus-
druck and Hinzeichen, expression and indication, at the beginning of the
Logical Investigations, however, afforded Derrida the opportunity to deal
with the big questions of phenomenology without leaving the confines of
the text in question. Ironically, the turn to this obscure part of Husserl’s
work allowed Derrida to treat French phenomenology’s central themes and
fulfill the pedagogical requirement of any agrégation dissertation far better
than if he had been bound by the terms of the first section of the Formal
and Transcendental Logic.
First, the distinction between expression and indication allowed Derrida
to discuss the phenomenological reduction, a theme not fully addressed
in Husserl’s Logic. Though expression and indication were distinguished
in the first pages, it was not a simple separation. Practically, expression
always indicated something, especially when it was involved in communi-
cation. But despite this factual contamination of expression and indication,
Husserl thought that one could have a “rigorous distinction of essence.”90
To prove this, Husserl had to show one particular moment, be it only
ideal, where expression was free of indication. His choice was “the solitary
life of the soul,” reducing the sign down to its Bedeutungsintention, the
pure relationship to an object, without directly implicating any particular
object directly.91 The attempt to purify the expression, thus, brought the
first Logical Investigation into line with the phenomenological principle of
intentionality:
Transcendental phenomenological idealism answers to the necessity of describing
the objectivity of the object (Gegenstand) and the presence of the present (Gegen-
wart) – and objectivity in presence – from the standpoint of an “interiority,” or
rather a self-proximity, an ownness (Eigenheit), which is not a simple inside but
rather the intimate possibility of a relation to a beyond and to an outside in
general.92
Not attempting to understand the object itself, phenomenology contented
itself to analyze the intention that aimed at it.

90 Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, p. 20.


91 The English translation, “solitary mental life,” in Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, p. 22, mirrors
Derrida’s 1964–5 courses and the French translation in the Logical Investigations of “im einsamen
Seelenleben,” as “vie psychique solitaire.” Derrida’s retranslation of the phrase as “vie solitaire de
l’âme” in the book is of singular importance. See J. Derrida, La Voix et le phénomène (Paris, 1967),
p. 22.
92 Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, p. 22.
248 Between phenomenology and structuralism
The move to study pure expression was thus equivalent to the phe-
nomenological épochè, or the eidetic reduction: it reduced all reference to
existence (indication) to arrive at the realm of pure intentional objects.
This link to the épochè was further revealed by the title of the second
chapter of Derrida’s book: “The Reduction of Indication.”93 Indication
always pointed beyond the sign, it “always links an actual consciousness
to a nonactual consciousness.”94 As such it did not carry meaning fully in
itself: the chalk mark on the door indicates to the thief that the owners
are away, the brand name on a packet indicates its contents, it was not the
absence or the cereal itself, and so, with indication, one could always be
mistaken. Conversely, by reducing all references to existence, reality, and
the empirical and returning to what was immediately given, expression was
indubitable.95
Second, the emphasis on expression allowed Derrida to describe the
reduced sphere. The next chapter began, “let us suppose that indication is
excluded.”96 Although in terms of Husserl’s own development, the reduc-
tion of indication preceded the development of the real reduction and the
turn to the reduced sphere, Derrida was clear that they were compara-
ble, “later, after the discovery of the transcendental reduction, [Husserl]
will describe this solitary life of the soul as the noetic-noematic sphere
of consciousness.”97 To demonstrate this, Derrida had to show that the
reduction to expression was not simply a return to psychologism.
The linguistic components of expression could not exist in the world,
as the vibrations of air particles, or as marks on paper. They existed rather
as ideal forms that were animated by a meaning and were uncontaminated
by the empirical differences that occurred every time the same word was
spoken or written. For if not, the physical instances of each word would
“indicate” the meaning, referring to an ideal form beyond themselves. The
word then had to be apprehended as “imagined” and not as “perceived.”98
In this sense Derrida wanted to suggest that, for Husserl, an expression
was no longer a sign. With meaning “immediately present to itself,” the
expression “signified” nothing.99
Words did not exist out in the world, but Husserl denied that they could
exist in the empirical mind either. Derrida elaborated,

93 Ibid., p. 27. 94 Ibid., p. 28. 95 Ibid., p. 30. 96 Ibid., p. 32. 97 Ibid., p. 33.
98 As Derrida suggested in a footnote, without this distinction between the imagination and perception,
the whole structure of phenomenology would come crashing down. Ibid., pp. 45–6 note.
99 Ibid., pp. 42–3. It is for this reason that Derrida opposed Schérer’s translation of Bedeutung as
signification. For Derrida the expression had meaning, but had no signification because the meaning
was immediately present, it signified nothing. See p. 17.
L’ambiguité du concours 249
if in the Investigations Husserl conducts his description within the realm of the
mental rather than the transcendental, he nonetheless distinguishes the essential
components of a structure that will be delineated in Ideas I: phenomenal experience
does not belong to reality (Realität). In it, certain elements really (reell) belong to
consciousness (hyle, morphe and noesis), but the noematic content, the sense, is a
nonreal (reell) component of the experience.100

If the noema were not real or existing in consciousness, then they could
not be tied to a psychologistic understanding of phenomenology. This set
the reduced sphere apart as transcendental. Even though the first Logical
Investigation preceded the discovery of the transcendental reduction, Der-
rida’s careful analysis allowed him to present, by proxy, the transcendental
sphere.
Derrida’s redescription of the expression/indication opposition in the
later language of phenomenology allowed him to address two issues that
had troubled French thinkers: time and the other. A commentary on
Husserl’s phenomenology that ignored these questions would have been
inadequate and we have already seen that they were right at the heart of
Desanti’s parallel discussion. The discussion of the “other” was motivated
by Husserl’s discussion of expression in the first Logical Investigation. Refus-
ing all indication, the realm of expression also had to exclude that which
was involved in communication. Insofar as communication transmitted
the lived experiences of one ego to another, it was fatally contaminated
with indication. When another person says “I am happy,” I do not have
immediate access to the sentiment, it is only indicated by the words used:
“the subjective side of his experience, his consciousness, in particular the
acts by which he gives sense to his signs, are not immediately and primor-
dially present to me as they are for him and mine are for me.”101 To preserve
the purity of the expression, then, one must reduce the other with whom
one might communicate.
If the relationship to another ego had to be reduced, so too did time. For
the same reasons that another person’s indication of his or her interior state
was excluded, Husserl eliminated the possibility of reminding yourself
of a thought from the past, or an idea that had been forgotten. The
expression had to reveal its meaning to the same ego that had originally
expressed it. Speaking and understanding all had to occur in the “blink
of an eye,” otherwise one ego would “indicate” a meaning to another ego
that was not absolutely identical. To develop this theme, Derrida moved

100 Ibid., p. 47. 101 Ibid., pp. 38–9.


250 Between phenomenology and structuralism
on to the explicit discussion of time in Husserl’s Lessons on Internal Time
Consciousness.
Derrida’s turn to the Logical Investigations and his broad sweep over
the totality of Husserl’s philosophy allowed him to provide a relatively
standard and clear account of phenomenology, presenting the épochè, the
transcendental sphere, and the twin questions of time and the other that
exercised French phenomenology in the period. It thus fulfilled the ped-
agogical section of the agrégation, giving a clear introductory analysis of
Husserl’s phenomenology as a whole. Indeed, where Derrida’s text did seem
to move away from a standard presentation, especially the framing of his
discussion of the natural attitude and the reduction in the language of the
sign, it was only to align his analyses with themes at the heart of the Formal
and Transcendental Logic, the agrégation text that guided his analysis of the
Logical Investigations. Speech and Phenomena was a dual attempt to present
the key issues of the first part of Husserl’s Logic, especially expression (the
matter of logical propositions) and formality, with an analysis of Husserl’s
thought as a whole. If anything, its complexity demonstrates the lengths
that Derrida took to fulfill the first pedagogical “commentary” that was
required in any agrégation answer, his willingness to transform a reading of
Husserl’s Logic into an explication of the major themes of phenomenology.
In his presentation, Derrida’s commentary was already bordering on
interpretation, drawing out implicit presuppositions. As the handbooks for
students had explained and as Derrida had reiterated, the critical moment
had to arise organically out of the commentary. Indeed, at several key
points in his analysis, Derrida broke out of his commentary voice to make
gestures towards broader arguments, but in the earlier stages these remarks
were provisional or anticipatory. For instance, from the beginning he made
suggestions that Husserl’s analysis could be interpreted to privilege language
over phenomenology; the linguistic distinction between expression and
indication founding, rather than being predicated on, the reduction.102
But in the first few chapters he prefaced such remarks with phrases such
as “we would be tempted to say” before suggesting, “let us return to the
text.”103 Later he used the conditional when he asserted that a thesis “would
make us pass from commentary to interpretation.”104 Similarly in making
claims about the centrality of the voice, which arose in his discussion of
the reduced sphere, Derrida insisted that “we only wanted to note here
what ‘expression’ means for Husserl,” and “we shall have to return to

102 Ibid., pp. 21, 25, and 30–1. 103 Ibid., p. 21. “Poursuivons notre lecture.”
104 Ibid., p. 31. Translation adjusted. The English translation does not preserve the conditional.
L’ambiguité du concours 251
this.”105 As was required in an agrégation answer, Derrida’s broader critical
argument arose during the commentary section of his text; it was in fact
derivative of it. But, it was only later in Speech and Phenomena that such
arguments gained traction and the remarks moved from the conditional to
the indicative.
The first developed move away from commentary occurred in Der-
rida’s reading of Husserl’s conception of time. Husserl recognized that time
could not be cut up into single moments: “no now can be isolated as a pure
instant, a pure punctuality.”106 In the Lessons, it was impossible, accord-
ing to Derrida, to maintain the absolute distinction between presentation
and re-presentation. Firstly, as Husserl himself stated, the triple structure
of time composed retention and protention with presence. For Husserl,
retention was still perception; the key distinction rather lay between pri-
mary and secondary memory, retention and re-presentation. But retention
was perception only in the loosest sense, and this was the only text where
Husserl allowed the “perception” of what was not present. Derrida referred
to other conflicting instances, where Husserl had classed it rather as “non-
perception.” If retention and protention were really non-perceptions and
it was impossible to disentangle them from the living present, it invited
absence right into its heart: “One then sees quickly that the presence of
the perceived present can appear as such only inasmuch as it is continuously
compounded with a nonpresence and a nonperception.”107 In the retention
of the past moment, non-presence was already at work, suggesting that this
trace and what Derrida would later call différance was already at work at
the most fundamental level of phenomenology.
But according to Derrida, it was a suggestion that Husserl strongly
resisted. Despite the necessary contamination of the present with the past,
Husserl still insisted on thinking this irreducible complexity and “spread”
of time “on the basis of the self-identity of the now as point.”108 To reduce
indication fully, Husserl asserted the “dominance of the now” that his
analysis seemed to undo.109 In his discussion of time, then, Derrida started
to unpick the very gestures that he had so painstakingly elaborated in the
first few chapters, and which Husserl, metaphysically, hoped to guard from
criticism.
The move from commentary to interpretation gained pace in chapter
IV. Here, Derrida developed his claims about the primacy of language,
which had been tantalizingly intimated earlier. He drew on his claims
105 Ibid., p. 33.
106 Ibid., p. 61, emphasis in the French version, Derrida, La Voix et le phénomène, p. 68.
107 Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, p. 64. 108 Ibid., p. 61. 109 Ibid., p. 63.
252 Between phenomenology and structuralism
about imagination and fiction: the imaginative status of expression, and
the fiction of talking to yourself. Both elements seemed to privilege “re-
presentation”: the “re-presentation” (Vergegenwärtigung) of the imagina-
tion as opposed to the presentation of perception, and the “representation”
(Vorstellung) of oneself as talking to oneself, even though nothing was
actually communicated.
The commentary that had presented the reduced sphere, then, high-
lighted the possibility of re-presentation as that sphere’s central characteris-
tic. For Derrida, this tied the reduced sphere to the sign, which was already
worked over by a structure of repetition. The sign was a re-presentation –
Vergegenwärtigung – of both the signified and the ideal form of the signi-
fier. No matter how we say or write a word, its meaning does not change:
“it must remain the same, and be able to be repeated as such, despite
and across the deformations which the empirical event necessarily makes
it undergo.”110 Even if Husserl had tried to detach expression from this
empirical ground in his analysis – in the expression the word was merely
“represented/Vorgestellt” in the mind – this very process was parasitic of
the general structure of the sign, which was to be always and everywhere
the same.111
With the repetition of the sign as primary, preceding any distinction
between expression and indication because it was at work in both, the purity
of the expressive sphere was troubled. Expression was already repetition,
so it could no longer be considered as absolutely originary. The analysis
unsettled the clean distinction between the real and representation, for
the process involved in the latter was irreducible in the former. Just as the
understanding of time came to complicate Husserl’s idea of presence, so too
the careful analysis of expression invited the non-self-presence of the sign
into the reduced sphere. In both cases the immediate presence of intuition
could not be pure. In Derrida’s secondary moment of interpretation, he
drew out implications that were in tension with the original commentary.
But despite the exigencies of his own project, Husserl adamantly pre-
served the originarity of immediate presence. Just as in his analysis of time,
in which Husserl still gave theoretical precedence to the idea of pure pres-
ence in spite of the irreducibility of the past moment, the non-effaceable
movement of the sign was presented as dependent on an originary sta-
bility. The sign was always “the reproduction of a presence.” It “retains
a primary reference to a primordial presentation, that is, to a perception
and positing of existence, to a belief in general.”112 Derrida argued that,

110 Ibid., p. 50. 111 Ibid., p. 51. 112 Ibid., p. 55.


L’ambiguité du concours 253
because the realm of expression was constantly worked over by repetition,
to preserve the purity of phenomenology Husserl would have to resort to
a “pre-expressive” sphere, of which expression was just the re-presentation.
Forced to move beyond language, Husserl referred to a “phenomenological
‘silence.’”113
In the Formal and Transcendental Logic, this “pre-expressive sphere” was
the transcendental ground for formal logic. All of the levels of language, dis-
tinguishing between Unsinnigkeit and Widersinnigkeit, were structured by
the possibility of a Bedeutung, or a final grounding in intuition: “Speech that
is false is not speech, and contradictory (widersinnig) speech avoids non-
sense (Unsinnigkeit), only its grammaticalness does not prohibit a mean-
ing or meaning-intention [intention-de-Bedeutung], which in turn can be
determined only as the aiming at an object.”114 Whatever its pretensions
to formality, “the telos of perfect (intégrale) expression is the restitution,
in the form of presence, of a sense actually given to intuition.”115 Husserl’s
turn to a telos, the discipline of expression by a non-present ideal, further
troubled his distinction between expression and indication. A telos, by
its nature, could only be indicated, and so even after the reduction of all
empirical indication, expression was still structured by a “theoretical core of
indication.”116
To preserve the phenomenological principle of principles and refuse
priority to repetition and absence, Husserl was forced again to resort to a
more fundamental level. The noema as an ideal object could find its home
neither in the world nor in a detached realm of ideas. “The ideal object is
the most objective of objects; independent of the here-and-now acts and
events of the empirical subjectivity which intends it,” but at the same time,
to avoid a conventional Platonism, “being nothing outside of the world,
this ideal being must be constituted, repeated, and expressed in a medium
which both preserves the presence and self-presence of the acts that aim at
it.”117 The appropriate medium then was one “whose phenomenality does
not have worldly form.”118
For Husserl the answer to the conundrum was clear; only the voice
seemed to fulfill these criteria. The voice, speaking to itself, didn’t seem
to leave that self or enter into the world. It was perfectly one’s own, the
central object of expression confined to the solitary life of the soul. With the
internal voice the expressed Bedeutung or meaning was always immediately
there. Manifesting pure auto-affection, absolute immediacy of the signifier

113 Ibid., p. 70. 114 Ibid., p. 71. 115 Ibid., pp. 74–5.
116 Ibid., p. 72. 117 Ibid., pp. 75–6. 118 Ibid., p. 76.
254 Between phenomenology and structuralism
to the signified, source and recipient, it denied any indication.119 It was
the voice, then, that was the teleology of all expression, its structural
disciplining by the idea of pure presence.
Husserl’s strategy for turning to the voice was his last-ditch attempt to
preserve his principle of principles. But as a stopgap measure, the final resort
after the Husserl’s recognition of the irreducible contamination with indi-
cation, the voice was not completely effective. Though the voice forewent
the need for any incarnation, Husserl could not deny the importance
of the incarnated sign. Husserl was insistent on the impossibility of scien-
tific truth without writing, as we saw in the Origin of Geometry. As always in
Husserl’s schema, this writing was secondary to the voice that it inscribed.
Drawing out implications which did not seem significant in his 1962 intro-
duction, Derrida asserted that writing in the Origin of Geometry “proceeds
to fix, inscribe, record, and incarnate an already prepared utterance. To
reactivate writing is always to reawaken an expression in an indication.”120
Even though writing was secondary to the voice, it did reassert the necessity
of the incarnated and the indicative right at the heart of ideality.
The auto-affection that marked the voice required the self to divide,
splitting in two to be able to affect itself. It was this self-division at the
heart of the self, the moving of absence into the heart of presence, this
“différance” that now seemed absolutely primary:
If indication is not added to expression, which is not added to sense, we can
nonetheless speak in regard to them, of a primordial “supplement”; their addition
comes to make up for a deficiency, it comes to compensate for a primordial non-
self-presence. And if indication – for example, writing in the everyday sense – must
necessarily be “added” to speech to complete the constitution of the ideal object,
if speech must be “added” to the thought identity of the object, it is because the
“presence” of sense and speech had already from the start fallen short of itself.121
This unavoidable complication of presence and the necessary supplement-
ing of the transcendental also explained the other aporias enumerated
throughout the book: the movement of time or the presence of the other
in the transcendental sphere.
According to Derrida, in order to preserve the purity of absolute pres-
ence, Husserl had been led first to exclude indication from expression, and
then teleologically to ground an expression worked over by the structure
of repetition in the eternal self-sameness of the pre-expressive, a “voice that
preserved silence.” But at each stage he was unable to reduce the constant

119 Ibid., p. 78. 120 Ibid., p. 81. 121 Ibid., p. 87.


L’ambiguité du concours 255
contamination of presence by absence, the absence in the sign allowing rep-
etition, the absence of the past moment in retention. The ideal moment
of pure presence, never achievable, was always deferred.
But if one took this deferral as primary, the movement of the sign that
always seemed to encroach on the stability of pure intuition, it could
account for the structure of consciousness, the various levels that required
the transcendental to be supplemented by the formal, and the formal
to be supplemented by the natural attitude. To take this moment and
movement seriously was Derrida’s goal in the final chapter.122 Différance
was at work in the auto-affecting self, it drove temporality, and at the same
time opened up the differences that existed between the subject and the
world, and the subject and the other. That Husserl resisted this implication,
that he privileged presence through the invocation of the voice against
many of the implications of his own text, relinquished phenomenology to
metaphysics.
With the process of différance and supplementarity at the heart of the
transcendental sphere, it might appear that all certainty was lost. After all, it
was in order to reduce doubt that Husserl had asserted the voice in the first
place, and now that voice seemed threatened. But Derrida was adamant
that this was not the case. The fact that the expression was not fulfilled
by an intuition did not impair its “meaning [vouloir-dire]”; presence was
not absolutely necessary for meaning. The Formal and Transcendental
Logic was filled with examples of Bedeutungs without the possibility of
an object or an intuition: “A square circle,” according to Husserl, still
had a meaning. In fact, for the process of signification, a non-intuition
was required; we only need to signify what escapes our intuitive grasp.123
In a sideswipe at the Cartesian cogito, Derrida noted that Descartes’s “I
think therefore I am,” still had sense even though Descartes was no more,
and the intuitive certainty of his cogito had passed.124 It was what Derrida
called the autonomy of the “vouloir-dire,” the liberty of language, “franc-
parler”: the possibility of meaning without full presence.
The relationship between formal apophansis and formal ontology thus
lay at the heart of Speech and Phenomena just as it did in Derrida’s interpre-
tation of Husserl’s Logic. The question was whether the formal structure
of language needed to be governed teleologically by the possibility of pure
presence, by the hope at least of a fulfilling intuition. Derrida wanted to
show that the very goal of preserving this pure presence was metaphysical
122 It is here that the structure of Derrida’s deconstruction seems especially to mirror Desanti’s
“destruction.”
123 Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, p. 93. 124 Ibid., p. 95.
256 Between phenomenology and structuralism
and that Husserl constantly had to defer the key questions of language
in his attempt to reduce absence. By uncovering a deeper movement of
différance, the common ground of both absence and presence, which under-
girded phenomenology and disrupted it, Derrida suggested that Husserl’s
teleology was no longer necessary.

conclusion
The agrégation’s twin demands informed the very process of deconstruc-
tion. They helped mold it into a new reading method, pairing an initial
commentary that presented a standard reading of a text with a second dis-
ruptive reading, organically growing out of the first: reliable pedagogical
presentation and “personal” brilliance. Whatever future conflicts Derrida
might have with the university establishment, to which I shall return
shortly, it is clear that deconstruction, a way of reading a variety of texts
that he developed and honed while teaching his students for the agrégation,
was suited to the tasks and exigencies of the exam.
It would be a mistake, however, to reduce Derrida’s thought to this
particular context for two different reasons. First, it is clear that Derrida’s
strategy was not the only possible response to the framework instituted
by the agrégation, which set up a series of constraints without providing
an explicit solution. Traditionally, the agrégation had favored the synthetic
over the fragmentary, and the majority of approaches urged stabilizing
readings: Cousin’s recuperative moi, the Hegelian synthesis, or, for all its
attractive similarities to Derrida’s method, Desanti’s recourse to a founda-
tional historical materialism.
Since his early essays on the Christian existentialists, Derrida had argued
against totalizing systems, either due to the elusive nature of the mystery,
or the emphasis on the ontological difference to oppose the pretentions
of “onto-theological” thought. While the form of the disruption – not
the insufficiency but rather the excess of the sign, as texts overcame their
own limits – might be related to the agrégation context, in privileging the
disruptive, Derrida maintained old interests. The agrégation is only one of
several contexts in which we can read Derrida’s thought.
We should also be wary of reductive readings for a second reason, one
closely connected to the practice of deconstruction. Even though a text
is the product of a certain environment, we cannot draw a one-to-one
connection between textual claims and the milieu in which it arose. From
a deconstructive perspective, no system is sufficiently stable that its products
must necessarily be harmonious with it. In the words of the citation with
L’ambiguité du concours 257
which this chapter began, Derrida’s work did not “simply belong” to the
forms of the educational institution, because for Derrida there is no such
thing as simple belonging. We can even cast Derrida’s later opposition to
the agrégation in the light of his adherence to its norms.
In January 1975, Derrida played a leading role in the formation of
GREPH (the Research Group on Philosophical Education), which aimed
to examine modes of production and reproduction in the education sys-
tem and militated for fundamental reform. That Derrida’s first explicit
political intervention concerned the university system was a sign not of
the exteriority of his philosophy to the forms of philosophical education
in France, but of his intense engagement with them. In an article mark-
ing the foundation of the new organization, Derrida referred to what he
called a “sort of contraband between the agrégation and the GREPH.”125
We can interpret that contraband as the disruptive reading or “play” that
the agrégation promoted, coming to unsettle the concours itself.
The agrégation background remains instructive nonetheless. In decon-
struction, interpretation is dependent on commentary. As we saw, it was
only by the rigorous and careful construction of phenomenology as a phi-
losophy of presence that Derrida was able to draw attention to the themes
of representation, time, and the other that unsettled it, and ultimately to
uncover the primordial movement of différance at work at even the most
fundamental level of phenomenology. The pedagogical commentary pro-
vided a grid whose confrontation with the text would make incongruous
elements visible.
Further, the dependence on the moment of commentary was more than
just a starting point that would be revised and developed over the course of
the analysis. In deconstruction, unlike in other structurally similar reading
techniques, the moment of interpretation did not attempt to refute the
commentary, or replace one poor reading by a second better one. What
interested Derrida was the necessity of texts to overstep themselves, exceed
their own limits, and break their own laws. But the second moment only
transgressed the limits set by a text if the commentary that had elaborated
them was assumed to be correct. Deconstruction requires that the text
should both definitively set its own limits and overcome them. The moment
of interpretation should not call into question the value of the initial
commentary; both must be valid.
Speech and Phenomena presents an important example where this pre-
supposition could be called into question. As we have seen, one of the

125 Jacques Derrida, Du droit à la philosophie (Paris: Galilée, 1990), p. 141.


258 Between phenomenology and structuralism
most striking aspects of Derrida’s book was its attempt to give an over-
arching presentation of Husserl’s thought, using a text that preceded the
emergence of phenomenology. To develop his commentary Derrida had
to read Husserl’s later theses into one of his earliest books. Given the dif-
ficulty of constructing the initial reading, we should consider whether the
contestatory moment staged by this commentary was a set-up.
The heterogeneity of texts, their complex and contradictory structure,
raises the question as to the best starting point. How could one choose
between Husserl the philosopher of intuition and presence or Husserl the
thinker of time and the other, if both were manifested in the same text?126
The limits that différance hoped to overcome cannot be unproblematically
read from the very text that calls them into question. In practice, it appears
that Derrida’s commentary arose not only from his contact with the text,
but also from standard readings of the author, emphasizing Rousseau’s sharp
distinction between nature and culture, Marx the materialist, and Hegel
the philosopher of Absolute Knowledge. In the context of the agrégation
de philosophie, the reason for starting with and assuming the validity of a
traditional reading is clear; a disruptive reading was always secondary to
the communally accepted “pedagogical” reading upon which it was based.
But if one strays from the immediate context of the agrégation concours,
it is perhaps worth asking whether this privilege of a traditional reading,
which was as much an interpretation as the reading that aimed to disrupt it,
was a metaphysical prejudice. One might then wonder whether Derrida’s
presuppositions lay not in his willfully perverse reinterpretations of texts,
but rather in the standard readings from which they emerged.

126 What Lawlor has called the first and second Husserl. Lawlor, Derrida and Husserl, p. 167.
c h a p t er 8

The ends of Man


Reading and writing at the ENS

However paradoxical it may seem, I venture to suggest that our age


threatens one day to appear in the history of human culture as marked
by the most dramatic and difficult trial of all, the discovery of and
training in the meaning of the “simplest” acts of existence: seeing,
listening, speaking, reading.
Louis Althusser1

In its formative years, deconstruction would find a privileged object in


structuralism. Indeed it is the intensity of Derrida’s first confrontation
with structuralism and the lasting traces that this confrontation left on his
thought that has legitimated the “post-structuralist” label in so many sec-
ondary accounts. Derrida’s turn to structuralism was not merely a response
to the latest intellectual fashion. Rather, it was occasioned by both local
and global factors. After 1964, Derrida found himself right at the heart of
an engaged student body. It was these students who constituted Derrida’s
primary intellectual audience and who were his most constant interlocu-
tors in the three years before the publication of Of Grammatology in 1967.
And, it was their political aspirations that rendered the philosophy taught
at the school pertinent to the larger debates of the Cold War. In order to be
relevant to these students, Derrida would have to translate his work into
their language, emphasizing the antihumanist elements of his thought and
adopting their structuralist terminology. The new language did not toler-
ate his earlier explicitly theological considerations or the simple evocation
of phenomenological themes. As Derrida would be the first to assert, no
translation is ever innocent or without loss.
But one should not read the translation of Derrida’s earlier phenomenol-
ogy into structuralist language as a capitulation or the dissimulation of his
earlier ideas beneath the forms a new philosophical fashion. After all, it is

1 Louis Althusser, Reading Capital, trans. B. Brewster (New York: Pantheon Books, 1971), p. 15.

259
260 Between phenomenology and structuralism
not clear what such a dissimulation would be in philosophy, for it is the very
language and argumentative structures in which ideas are expressed that
give them philosophical value. Alone, theses are merely dogmatic claims,
and one cannot separate the ideas expressed in Of Grammatology from the
way in which they were formulated. Even as certain themes were effaced or
deemphasized, the structuralist translation of his thought provided Derrida
with new and powerful philosophical resources.
The change in Derrida’s thought should not be read as a capitulation for
a second reason: Derrida drew on the powerful resources of structuralism
to promote philosophical ideas that were directly inimical to the students’
own. In the essay “Violence and Metaphysics,” published almost contem-
poraneously with his move to the Ecole, Derrida suggested that to kill the
Greek king, one must first learn to speak Greek.2 Adopting the language
of his Althusserian students was not a submission to their philosophical
project, but rather allowed Derrida the opportunity to engage with it fully.
If one wants to develop the conspiratorial trope – a trope that, as we shall
see, is appropriate to ENS philosophical politics – one might say that Der-
rida mastered the ways and forms of Normalien structuralism to agitate
against and ultimately dethrone a fetishized science.
Derrida’s continued resistance to science and the pretensions of human
knowledge indicates a line of continuity across the apparent rupture in
his philosophical development. By challenging the Normalien faith in a
coupure épistémologique that would guarantee the separation of science from
ideology, Derrida demonstrated that there was no radical break in his own
work. For all the differences and changes after 20 years of work and study,
Grammatology can be read as a repetition of Derrida’s earlier religiously
inspired criticism of epistemological hubris.

marxism and the rise of the althusserians


The Ecole to which Derrida returned in 1964 was not the same that
he had left eight years earlier. In particular, as a result of the tortuous
history of communism over the period, Normalien Marxists had shifted
allegiance from the Soviet Union and European parties and looked to the
East for political inspiration. Soviet communism had lost much support in
1956 after the brutal suppression of dissent in Hungary and Khrushchev’s
denunciation of Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress. But it was the
Party’s attitude towards decolonization that was most important for its

2 Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 89.


The ends of Man 261
delegitimization at the Ecole. In 1956 the Communist Party delegates voted
to give special powers to the French authorities in Algeria, condoning the
increasingly violent repression there. The Algerian War and the question
of decolonization more generally had become defining political issues in
France in the latter part of the 1950s, but they were particularly important
for Normaliens, who were required to spend two years in military service
after their studies, most often in Algeria. When the PCF endorsed the
French “police action” in North Africa, it severely damaged its reputation
among those who would become the unwilling tools of an oppressive
French state.3
Of the two main groupings discussed in chapter 3, it was the Catholics
who gained most from the new political climate. Esprit, the journal edited
by Emmanuel Mounier, became the leading voice of intellectual opposition
to the War, and Catholics at the Ecole profited from its enhanced repu-
tation. Several Normaliens who would later become intimately involved
with Althusserian Marxism, like Alain Badiou and Emmanuel Terray, were
engaged in Christian socialist politics in the late 1950s.4 These political
changes were mirrored in the philosophical norms current at the ENS.
Gone were the strident Marxists espousing philosophical materialism.
When Jacques Rancière arrived in the Ecole in 1960, he claimed that
the majority of students were Heideggerians, under the influence of Jean
Beaufret.5
But things began to change in the early 1960s. The communist cellule,
renamed the Union des Etudiants Communistes (UEC), was again on
the rise, and the new intake, including Jacques Rancière, Régis Debray,
and Etienne Balibar, regrouped around Althusser. The policy reversal of
the French Communist Party with respect to Algeria – by 1960 it had
come to support Algerian independence – helped raise its profile again at
the Ecole. At the same time the fortunes of the previously popular Radical
Party took a turn for the worse after the failure of the Mollet government in
Algeria and its embarrassment at the collapse of the Fourth Republic. With
de Gaulle’s presidential style written into the Fifth Republic’s constitution,
conventional parliamentary parties lost their appeal, and politically minded

3 Though all students went through compulsory military training, most Normaliens took positions
in the administration or taught in military schools.
4 Badiou was a regular contributor to the Christian Normalien journal Vin Nouveau.
5 See François Dosse, History of Structuralism, 2 vols. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
1997), vol. I, p. 290. Rancière was probably referring to philosophers like Jacques English, a future
historian of phenomenology, Dominique Janicaud, a Heideggerian, and Michel Haar.
262 Between phenomenology and structuralism
students turned to forces outside of the mainstream. Revolutionary politics
were back in style.6
The failings of other parties on the pressing question of decolonization
helped precipitate the students’ return to the PCF. But, the circumstances
of the French party’s rehabilitation in student politics proved a double-
edged sword. Communism may have become politically important again,
but the Soviet Union was no longer the unchallenged standard-bearer
of the movement. Because of its interventions in Eastern Europe, it was
all too easy to recast the USSR itself as an imperialist power that had
forgotten its revolutionary origins in an attempt to hold onto power. Many
Normaliens, like other young communists, looked for guidance rather
from the fresher revolutionary struggles of Vietnam, Latin America, and,
increasingly, China: Castro, Che, and Mao replaced Stalin, Khrushchev,
and Thorez in the youthful communist imagination.7
The development can be seen in the steady drift of the Normalien com-
munist journal, Les Cahiers Marxistes-Léninistes, which hoped to provide
a secure theoretical footing for an analysis of political events.8 The first
edition, published in late 1964, played down the idea of a split in the Party:
the communists were, “if one believes the bourgeois press, of two orders: an
incidence of the Moscow-Peking ‘ideological conflict,’ a generational strug-
gle between the elders of the Party and the youth of the UEC. The Ulm
Circle has applied itself to demonstrate the inanity of these questions.”9
The bourgeois press was, however, right. The second edition of the Cahiers
turned its attention away from the old imperial powers to the developing
world. It focused on India and Algeria, applying Marxist concepts to the
process of decolonization. The fifth number treated Latin America. By late
1966 the Cahiers opened a discussion of the Chinese Cultural Revolution,
and its allegiances became obvious to all.
The editorial policy of the Cahiers followed political changes at the
Ecole. In April 1966 the Ulmien UEC was dissolved to create the Maoist-
leaning Union des Jeunes Communistes marxistes-léninistes (UJC-ml).10
6 Indeed part of the reason students moved away from the Communist Party in the mid 1960s was its
support of the socialist candidate, François Mitterrand, in the December 1965 presidential election.
See Julian Bourg, “The Red Guards of Paris,” History of European Ideas 31 (2005), p. 477.
7 See also Philippe Robrieux, Notre generation communiste (Paris: R. Laffont, 1977), pp. 304–5.
8 For an evocative account of this period, see Hervé Hamon and Patrick Rotman, Génération (Paris:
Seuil, 1987), pp. 255–88.
9 The Ulm Circle was the communist cellule at the ENS. Les Cahiers Marxistes Léninistes 1 (1966),
“Présentation.”
10 See the document prepared by Benny Lévy, “Faut-il réviser la théorie marxiste-léniniste?” published
in Patrick Kessel, ed., Le Mouvement “maoiste” en France (Paris: Union générale d’éditions, 1972),
pp. 149–61.
The ends of Man 263
For its part, the French Communist Party became increasingly distrustful
of the wayward Normaliens, who in November 1966 had rejected the reso-
lution prepared at Romainville for the upcoming Eighteenth French Party
Congress. Several high-powered members of the Party wrote to Althusser
late in 1966, urging him to discipline his students. He politely demurred,
citing illness.11
Althusser himself did not break with the Communist Party – and in
his autobiography he suggested that he was willing to give the renegade
students “a rocket.”12 He nonetheless refused to disown them as they openly
declared their support of Mao. In part his recalcitrance stemmed from a
shared philosophical platform. Althusser’s philosophy was a crucial element
in the radicalization of the Normalien Maoists. In his reminiscences of the
period, one student, Clément Rosset, confirmed Althusser’s claim that he
had never tried to “inculcate” his students with his philosophy. But Rosset
continued, if a little polemically, that many students still slavishly followed
his work: “the subjugated ear of the faithful to a master.”13
That it was Althusser’s work that gave philosophical form to the students’
political grievances stems in part from a major institutional change at the
ENS. Since the mid 1950s, the Ecole had aspired to become a research
institution. In practice, the drive to fill the ranks of the secondaire had
long stopped being its central purpose, and the importance of the Ecole
for higher education meant that research rather than teaching was the
ultimate career goal of a significant proportion of its students. Already in
1951, a survey by Jean Duché showed that many Normaliens resented their
five-year obligation to teach in secondary schools and held as their eventual
goal the escape to higher education.14
In light of these aspirations, the ENS compared less and less favorably
with the other Grandes Ecoles. From the mid 1950s, it began to lose some
of the best science students to the Ecole Polytechnique, which, without the
official duty to train schoolteachers, could introduce its students to research
far earlier in their careers. Things came to a head when, in the early 1960s,
twenty-one scientifiques at the ENS refused to take the agrégation. A debate
ensued, hotly followed by the national press, and eventually the Ecole
secured the right to allow students to dispense with the exam. In the
11 IMEC, ALT2, A43–02.09, letters from Daniel Monteux and Paul Laurent. See also Le Monde
(January 27, 1967).
12 That is, Althusser scolded his students for their political excesses. Althusser, The Future Lasts a Long
Time and the Facts, p. 354.
13 Clément Rosset, En ce temps-là (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1992), p. 13. Rosset set himself the task
of distinguishing what he saw as the liberal and thoughtful Althusser from his radical disciples.
14 Bulletin de la Société des Amis de l’Ecole Normale Supérieure (June 1951).
264 Between phenomenology and structuralism
Decree of October 3, 1962, the ENS was redefined as “an establishment of
higher education . . . destined to prepare for teaching and for research.”15 It
was considered a revolutionary move; in the next edition of the Bulletin de
la Société des Amis de l’Ecole Normale Supérieure, archicubes wrote angrily
protesting the changes.16 But if the modification in the school’s status
upset many alumni, it provided important new possibilities for research.
The decree ensured support for new research groups and seminars, and
vastly increased the number and scope of learning opportunities for the
students.
In a document prepared in June 1963, Althusser outlined possible expan-
sions of philosophy teaching at the Ecole. Having been the lone agrégé-
répétiteur for sixteen years, Althusser felt that the increased responsibilities
meant that one full-time instructor was no longer sufficient.17 So, in Octo-
ber, on returning to the Ecole, he petitioned for the creation of another
post, citing as cause the expanded mission of the school. The new position
was agrégé-répétiteur in the History of Philosophy, and he put forward
Derrida’s name.18 Althusser and Derrida were joined by a third, the newly
agregated Bernard Pautrat, in 1968.
But it was not just the quantity of teaching that was affected. The goal
and focus changed as well. In addition to traditional courses in philosophy,
Althusser added new seminars, either led by a specialist or conceived as
a research group.19 From being merely a base from which Normaliens
directed their own line of studies as it had been in the 1950s, the ENS
found itself on the frontline of philosophical research. If you were clever
and lucky enough to gain a place at the ENS to study philosophy in the
1960s, the choice and level of the courses and seminars on offer was quite
astounding. Philosophers could study Marxism with Althusser, deconstruct
metaphysics with Derrida, and investigate the unconscious with Lacan,
while taking further courses with Canguilhem, Bourdieu, Badiou, Serres,
and Bouveresse. The ENS became one of the most important centers for
the new French philosophy: structuralism.
15 See “Reflexions sur le statut de l’école,” CAC, 930595/1 (1), my emphasis.
16 Bulletin de la Société des Amis de l’Ecole Normale Supérieure (March 1963). Archicube was the name
given to an alumnus of the Ecole. Especially incensed were those lycée professeurs whose doctoral
theses were being advised by the then directeur of the Ecole, Jean Hyppolite. One wrote, “I can’t
believe that you are truly interested in my work, when you publicly affirm that the possession of
the agrégation and secondary teaching are incompatible with the advancement of research.” In his
letter, the student noted the danger of mental collapse caused by solitary academic study, citing both
Jean Beaufret and Michel Foucault as telling examples. Letter Michel Gourinat to Jean Hyppolite,
3 January 1963. See Fonds Hyppolite, at the Ecole Normale Supérieure.
17 “Commission des Etudes de l’ENS.” 18 “Dossier Althusser.”
19 See “Commission des Etudes de l’ENS.”
The ends of Man 265
I have already examined the influence of Lacan, whose arrival at the
Ecole was facilitated by the decree, but it was Althusser’s courses that
would be determinative for a large number of the students. Developing
research seminars, Althusser engaged his students as partners in a new
philosophical project. In the mid 1960s, a large Althusserian school formed
at the ENS, responsible for a range of ventures and publications: running
Les Cahiers Marxistes-Léninistes, playing a major role in the Cahiers pour
l’analyse, and of course collaborating with Althusser himself on Reading
Capital.20 Althusser’s biographer Moulier Boutang noted a change in his
approach to teaching after 1960, showing how his work became more
engaged, more political. It was only as the school remodeled itself as a
research institution and Althusser merged his teaching and research duties
that his philosophical program gained currency.
The combined effect of these political and institutional changes meant
that the ENS of the 1960s housed a politically radical generation of students
who were particularly receptive to Althusser’s philosophical project. It
was through these students that Althusser’s and Derrida’s ideas came into
contact. Derrida avoided theoretical confrontations with Althusser, but he
could not avoid interaction with the students they shared. The reforms
at the ENS provided a space where Althusser’s ideas were absorbed and
sharpened by a generation of committed Marxists who were on the lookout
for ideology and intent on combatting it. To remain relevant and to make
his ideas attractive to the new generation, Derrida had to address their
project and translate his work into a language they understood and valued.

althusserian antihumanism
Althusser’s work suited his students because it provided them with a
language in which to frame their rejection of Soviet communism.21 For
Althusser, the theoretical failings of Party-endorsed Marxism could be
summed up in one word: humanism. In its process of destalinization after
1956, the Soviet Union announced that it had moved beyond class warfare
and instigated a new stage in history: a “humanism” under the slogan,

20 Althusser suggested that his first foray into Marx was a result of the request by Pierre Macherey,
Etienne Balibar, and François Regnault. See Louis Althusser, L’Avenir dure longtemps (Paris:
Stock/IMEC, 1992), p. 200.
21 This did not mean that they were uncritical of the Chinese Communist Party, but that for strategic
reasons they did not want to make these criticisms public. See notes of the Groupe Spinoza, IMEC,
ALT2, All-03.02.
266 Between phenomenology and structuralism
“All for Man.”22 Humanist Marxism, which as we saw in the first chapter
had had only limited and periodic success in the 1930s and 40s, was now
graced with the imprimatur of the Soviet state and flourished in France and
abroad. Roger Garaudy again took up the crusade, emphasizing the work
of the “young Marx” and concentrating on his denunciation of capitalist
alienation.23
Althusser believed that this was a theoretical error that muddied the
water of Cold War politics and weakened the communist movement.
By signaling its adherence to humanism, the Party had joined a broad
reactionary front that stretched across the political spectrum and placed
them in dialogue with Christian democrats, socialists, and liberals. The
blurring of theoretical lines was accompanied by a general thaw in Cold War
relations, with the Soviet Union expressing a desire for peaceful coexistence
with the West. In Althusser’s eyes, this “revisionism” indicated that the
Soviets had abdicated their world historical mission. To set communism
back on track, humanism had to be combated at all costs.
This was the central political purpose guiding a set of articles and courses
that would culminate in Althusser’s dual publication of 1965: For Marx and
Reading Capital. In Althusser’s opinion, Marx’s early humanist writings,
such as the 1844 manuscripts, did not hold the key to his philosophical sys-
tem, but rather remained stuck in an old metaphysical tradition, best repre-
sented by Ludwig Feuerbach. It was only when Marx came to renounce his
earlier humanism in the “epistemological break [coupure épistémologique]”
of 1845 that he was able to found a scientific theory of history. Responding
to the Soviet Union’s “for Man,” Althusser set out to establish a theory “for
Marx.”
When Althusser attacked the new orthodoxy, however, he did not pro-
pose a return to Stalinist dogmatism.24 Rather, he contended that humanist
Marxism and the Stalinist emphasis on the forces of production were linked
by a common metaphysical attempt to understand history as the develop-
ment of one particular narrative, whether about the economy or Man.
Marx’s key discovery from 1845 was not the inversion of Hegel’s dialectic,
as party theorists asserted, moving from an idealist to a materialist core,
but rather a rejection of any single unified dialectic at all. Monocausal
economic explanations (as in the Stalinist model) or the simplistic story of
human alienation in capitalism (as in humanist Marxism) were no longer
22 See Preface “To my English Readers,” in Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. B. Brewster (New York:
Random House, 1969), pp. 9–15.
23 See Roger Garaudy, Humanisme Marxiste (Paris: Editions sociales, 1957).
24 See Althusser, For Marx, p. 30.
The ends of Man 267
sufficient; Althusser regarded both as overly reductive and urged the con-
sideration of a more complex, or “over-determined,” dialectic, the result of
the interaction of many layers of ideology and society, as well as economic
forces. Rather than the movement of the base simply determining history,
as many traditional Marxists wanted, its effects could be mediated through
the various levels of superstructure. A change in the base might be held up
by the resistance of politics and ideology, out of step with the forces that
would only determine them “in the long run.”25 In Althusser’s view, only
by rejecting the ideological and distorting idea that there was one dominant
motor of historical change, whether Man or the forces of production, could
Marx formulate the object of his science: history in all its complexity.26
Antihumanism then was a necessary precondition for science, providing
the theoretical rigor that was essential to the success of the communist
movement.
Althusser made no secret of his theoretical disagreements with the
Party and openly rejected the March 1966 Argenteuil resolution, in which
the PCF sided with the humanists.27 Whether from within or without,
Althusser and his students adopted a critical stance with respect to the
humanist doctrine expounded by the Party, and for both this manifested
itself in an overt preference for the Marx of Capital and a resistance to
his presentation as a philosopher of alienation.28 In their 1966 break with
the party, Althusser’s students had translated his philosophical dispute into
political terms.29

derrida’s antihumanism
On the face of it, it is difficult to see how Derrida could fit into a school
whose structuralist Marxism was so opposed to the religiously minded
phenomenology he had taught at the Sorbonne. The philosophical norms
at the Ecole – communist, reveling in the sureness of science, and reso-
lutely atheistic – were overtly hostile to the themes that had characterized
25 Ibid., p. 112.
26 Althusser was very clear to separate his conception of history from traditional understandings. See
Althusser, Lire le capital, vol. II, pp. 35–54.
27 For an analysis of the debate over the Argenteuil Resolution see Louis Althusser and Louis Aragon,
Aragon et le Comité central d’Argenteuil (Rambouillet: Société des amis de Louis Aragon et Elsa
Triolet, 2000), especially pp. 176–80 and 289–98.
28 See Cahiers Marxistes-Léninistes: 1. “Sciences et ideologies.”
29 We should also be wary of placing too much weight on the fact that Althusser stayed in the Party, as
some commentators have done. In the notes of the Groupe Spinoza that we will discuss shortly, it
was stated that to achieve their political goal, the Althusserians would have to place members both
inside and outside the party.
268 Between phenomenology and structuralism
Derrida’s early work. In his reminiscences of the period, Derrida said that
he felt enormous pressure from his students, remarking that during the
1960s he was marginalized at the ENS.30 He felt “a sort of theoretical
intimidation: to formulate questions in a style that appeared, shall we say,
phenomenological, transcendental, or ontological was immediately con-
sidered suspicious, backward, idealistic, even reactionary. And since I was
already formulating things in these manners, this appearance was rendered
complicated to the extreme, that is, to the point of making them unreadable
for those at whom they were directed.”31
Antihumanism, however, provided a vital point of contact, and a com-
mon resistance to philosophical humanism became a crucial element in
Derrida’s negotiation with the philosophical tradition at the Ecole. In a
letter he wrote to Althusser in September 1964, just before he was to take
up his new position, Derrida made much of the commonality: “I feel as
close as possible to the ‘theoretical antihumanism’ which you propose with
as much force as rigor.” But for Derrida the true sources of antihumanism
were not to be found in the classic texts of communism. After his state-
ment of broad agreement, Derrida continued: “I was less convinced by
everything that tied these propositions to Karl Marx himself . . . What you
presented . . . clearly demonstrated Marx’s rupture with a certain human-
ism, a certain conjuncture of empiricism and idealism, etc. But the radi-
calization [of this position] appeared to me often, in its strongest and most
seductive moments, very Althusserian.” Instead of looking towards Marx,
Derrida suggested “that other – non-Marxist – premises could govern this
antihumanism.”32
It is not entirely clear what Derrida meant by these non-Marxist antihu-
manist premises, whether they were Althusser’s own, or whether Derrida
was suggesting a different theoretical foundation. A look at Derrida’s own
intellectual itinerary, however, suggests that he was referring to Martin
Heidegger.33 As I suggested in chapter 5, Derrida’s thought in the period
preceding 1964 culminated in an antihumanistic reading of Heidegger,
drawing on a French Christian tradition that opposed atheistic thought.
Following Christian Heideggerians like Henri Birault, Derrida marshaled
Heidegger’s ontological difference to challenge idolatrous ontotheologies,
including Sartre’s humanism.

30 Anne E. Kaplan, The Althusserian Legacy (New York: Verso, 1993), p. 186.
31 Ibid., p. 188.
32 IMEC, Derrida Letters, September 1, 1964. Cited in Peeters, Derrida, p. 187.
33 Cf. Althusser, The Future Lasts a Long Time, p. 176.
The ends of Man 269
Derrida’s tracing of an antihumanist genealogy back to Heidegger is
not merely of passing academic interest; it entailed significantly different
positions on defining issues. In the letter, Derrida was explicitly critical of
Althusser’s notion of “ideology.” He asserted that the very notion of ideol-
ogy “troubles me, for philosophical reasons . . . it appears to me to be still
the prisoner of a metaphysics and a certain ‘reverse idealism’ that you know
better than anyone else.” Just as Althusser diagnosed Feuerbach’s humanism
as an inversion of the Hegelian problematic, leaving its essential structure
in place, Derrida implied that Althusser’s division between subjective ide-
ology and objective science did not radically challenge the foundations of
philosophical subjectivism that it hoped to reject. A more rigorous analysis,
Derrida implied, would also challenge this duality. Derrida’s resistance to
Althusser’s concept of ideology thus was code for his opposition to the
older man’s concept of science, which was always defined in opposition
to it. Where Althusser saw antihumanism as marking an epistemologi-
cal breakthrough that allowed a more scientific understanding of society
and history, Derrida’s antihumanism cleaved to the Christians, demanding
recognition of the limitations of human knowledge.34
It is worth dwelling on one of the very few occasions in his early work
where Derrida discussed humanism directly: his 1964 article on Levinas.
Derrida had been introduced to Levinas’s book Totality and Infinity by
Paul Ricoeur one summer afternoon in 1961.35 His response to the book,
“Violence and Metaphysics,” was written over the summer and autumn of
1963, and – following a relatively long correspondence over the conditions
of its publication – accepted by Jean Wahl for the Revue de métaphysique
et de morale in early 1964. It was published in the final two editions of the
journal that year. The essay, then, marks one of the last pieces published
by Derrida before his return to the ENS. Written at the Sorbonne under
the auspices of Paul Ricoeur, the general tenor of the essay fits into this

34 For a parallel discussion of the split in antihumanism, see Julian Bourg on Clavel and Foucault in
From Revolution to Ethics: May 1968 and Contemporary French Thought (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s
University Press, 2007), pp. 261–75.
35 Fonds Ricoeur. Derrida admitted to only having read Levinas’s “classic” texts on Husserl and
Heidegger before then. Derrida dates the meeting with Ricoeur as 1961 or 1962. But, as he qualifies
it as before Levinas’s soutenance de thèse, we must assume that it occurred in 1961. Derrida then
suggests that it was in the following summer that he himself read the book. Given that his first
remarks on his essay come from the autumn of 1963, we can perhaps suggest that he meant the
summer of 1962. Derrida first cited Levinas in the article on Jabès – published January 1964. There
is, however, a note found in his course “Je, Moi, Personne,” in late 1961, Irvine, 6.2, sheet 15, which
makes passing reference to Totality and Infinity, asking why Levinas had to resort to the metaphor
of the face. After that there is no mention before 1964. Derrida’s own correspondence with Levinas
only seems to start in 1964.
270 Between phenomenology and structuralism
period of Derrida’s work, with its concentration on human finitude and
the divine.
Derrida argued that Levinas in Totality and Infinity was engaged in
a project that was structurally similar to that of Husserl and Heidegger,
despite his powerful criticisms of both. Levinas asserted that Husserl’s
phenomenology and Heidegger’s thought of Being obscured the absolute
alterity of the Other, which was the necessary source of all philosophy.
Husserl always reduced the Other to the categories of the transcendental
ego as the fifth Cartesian Meditation showed, and Heidegger subsumed
the Being of the Other under Being in general, preventing any absolute
alterity. But Derrida remarked that all three men looked back beyond the
Greeks and hoped to reinvigorate something that they had left out. For
though Levinas would attack Husserl and Heidegger for remaining within
the “philosophy of the same,” his desire to exceed Being and theoretical
consciousness towards the thought of the Other mirrored their own desires
to surpass the mundane and the ontic towards the openness of the tran-
scendental (Husserl) or the indeterminacy of Being (Heidegger). If Levinas
thought the philosophy of the same had obscured the Other, it was, Der-
rida argued, not structurally different to Husserl’s charge that science had
forgotten its very origins, or Heidegger’s charge that ontotheology ignored
the ontological difference.
In order to argue that Husserl and Heidegger were both implicated in
the Greek tradition despite their own protests, Levinas had to suggest that
their movements beyond the “Greek” philosophy of the same were mere
feints. The differences they described inside the self were “false” differences.
In contrast, Levinas pointed to the immediate encounter with the Other in
what he called the “Face.” The “Face,” always resisting attempts to reduce
it to our categories, was for Levinas the very condition of thought, for
it broke our primordial solipsism. It was the “infinity” that exceeded any
“totality.” Because Levinas wanted to avoid the reduction of alterity, with
which he charged Husserl and Heidegger, the Face had to present the Other
directly, without a familiarizing metaphor. It was not a sign, but “expresses
itself, giving itself in person.”36
For Derrida, however, the Other could not give itself “in person.” It
was impossible to grasp it without resorting to the language of the same,
the necessity to explain the Other in terms we understand. As we saw
in earlier chapters, for Derrida there was no unadulterated infinity that
preceded finitude. This stance led Derrida to refuse Levinas’s all-or-nothing

36 Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 100.


The ends of Man 271
approach to metaphor, where any contamination of the Other with the
same was interpreted as its total subsumption. He argued instead that we
must accept that alterity reveals itself in language, while recognizing the
insufficiency of all discourse to grasp the Other fully.37 Further, language
can be used to denounce its own inadequacies; this is what Derrida meant
by the “economy of violence.” This violence, the use of metaphors against
other metaphors, an inadequate language turned on itself, defined history.
As language proclaimed its own failings, it could never be described as the
closed totality that Levinas wanted to condemn, nor was it receptive to the
pure presence of the infinite that Levinas saw in the “Face.” History was
not a finite totality, as Levinas wanted, but “the history of movements out
of the totality, history as the movement of transcendence, of the excess over
the totality without which no totality would appear.”38
This recognition saved Husserl and Heidegger from Levinas’s attacks.
One could not reduce their thoughts to the dominance of the same, an
inauthentic alienation of the Other in the language of the self, because
their philosophy was never as totalizing as Levinas suggested. Husserl’s
was open to the infinite horizon of thought, his concept of intentionality
demonstrating the impossibility of the full adequation of an intuition to its
object. In Derrida’s reading, Husserl acknowledged the object’s irreducible
alterity.39 Indeed in the relationship to other egos described in the fifth
Cartesian Meditation, Husserl’s analogical representation respected rather
than eclipsed otherness: it described an alter ego, rather than an alter ego;
it did not mistake what was given for the unmediated Other.40 Husserl’s
philosophy was in fact preferable to Levinas’s because it permitted the
possibility of representing the Other, even if it always involved some dis-
simulation of its alterity. If Levinas wanted to end all violence, all forcing
of the Other into the categories of the self, Husserl recognized that this was
not possible. Absolute peace was an unreachable goal, and so the search for
the unadulterated Other could only lead to failure or more violence.
For Heidegger too the thought of Being did not reduce all difference to
the thought of the same, one unique category under which everything was
subsumed; Being was not a supreme being, a God governing everything else.
It made no sense to give Being precedence or authority, Derrida argued, for
precedence and authority were ontic characteristics.41 By submitting Being
to such an analysis, Levinas had forgotten the ontological difference whose
main purpose was to inhibit the identification of Being with a being.

37 Note the use of the word “insufficiency,” in ibid., p. 116. 38 Ibid., p. 117.
39 Ibid., p. 121. 40 Ibid., p. 123. 41 Ibid., p. 136.
272 Between phenomenology and structuralism
Rather, Derrida argued, it was Levinas’s thought that verged on onto-
theology. Levinas’s Other, by transcending all totalities, itself resembled a
supreme being.42 And because this privileged Other was human, Levinas’s
philosophy was what Heidegger in the Letter on Humanism had called a
“humanist metaphysics.”43 For Derrida, Levinas’s humanism was parallel
to Sartre’s, only that, for Levinas, it was the Other rather than the pour-
soi that was supposed to transcend metaphysics and escape all totalities.
Both theories retained a privileged place for “Men,” modeled on and
usurping the place of God. It is not surprising that Derrida should later
qualify Levinas’s humanism as “atheistic.”44
In contrast, for Derrida, Husserl’s teleological idea and Heidegger’s dif-
ference were both recognitions of the limitations of human thought. In
particular, Derrida appealed to Heidegger’s ontological difference, a differ-
ence that had to be primary because there was no Being outside of beings,
nor beings without Being.45 It was this difference that drove History, or
rather ensured that Being was History, the constant movement from one
ontic metaphor to another. It is a reading that directly recalls Birault’s work
and the themes we discussed in chapter 5. And like Birault and the other
Christian Heideggerians, Derrida in “Violence and Metaphysics” moved
directly from his discussion of the ontological difference to a discussion
of the Holy that it made possible. Criticizing Levinas’s claim that Hei-
degger instituted a pagan philosophy, Derrida asserted that Heidegger’s
concept of the Holy, as “the essential experience of divinity,” preceded any
determined relation to God, a non-denominational space before any par-
ticular religion, before even the distinction between atheism and faith.46
In Derrida’s presentation, then, Humanism was to be replaced not by the
certainty of science, as Althusser had wanted, but rather by the humility
and patience of an openness to God.47 Derrida’s antihumanism, which
followed from his destruction of onto-theology through an appeal to the
ontological difference, was not an attack on religious faith, but rather was
its necessary condition.
The emphasis on the ontological difference, as Derrida would later
suggest, made his antihumanism, at the very least, ambiguous.48 As he

42 It was at this point that Derrida made a favorable reference to Birault, who had recognized this
problem. Ibid., p. 317 note.
43 Ibid., p. 142. 44 Ibid., p. 143. 45 Ibid., pp. 148–9. 46 Ibid., p. 145.
47 Compare with Henri Birault, “Existence et vérité d’après Heidegger,” in De l’être, du divin et des
dieux, especially pp. 351–6. It is for this reason that Derrida is concerned that this would not be a
negative theology. See Derrida, Writing and Difference, pp. 106 and 146.
48 See Derrida, “The Ends of Man,” in Margins of Philosophy, and Of Grammatology, p. 24.
The ends of Man 273
admitted in 1967, the motor of the ontological difference was the transcen-
dence of Dasein, and it was only a small step from Dasein, which Derrida
had in 1948 suggested translating with “existance (with an a),” to the move-
ment of “différance (with an a).”49 As late as the early 1960s Derrida still
translated Dasein as réalité-humaine, and in courses during this period he
was clear that only Man is historical, only “Man is Ek-sistence, ‘nature’
does not have a history.”50 The ability to transcend any particular determi-
nation was what distinguished Man from other beings.51 We also saw the
centrality of the concept “Man” in Derrida’s early articles, hastily written
out for the 1967 collection. In its preservation of the possibility of human
transcendence towards the divine this form of religious antihumanism was
as close as possible to the Christian humanism from which it emerged.
When Derrida turned away from humanism, he rejected not the idea of
“Man” as the author of philosophy, but rather his arrogance and sense of
self-sufficiency. The end of Humanism, for Derrida, did not at first entail
the death of Man.

the groupe spinoza


Althusser and his students were well aware that Derrida’s antihumanism
did not fit easily with their own. But this did not disqualify Derrida’s
version for them. Their toleration for Derrida’s ideas derived from their
understanding of the role of philosophy, best expressed in the writings
of a secret organization called the Groupe Spinoza. Formed by Althusser
in 1966, the Groupe Spinoza comprised around fifteen present and past
students, including Alain Badiou, Michel Tort, Etienne Balibar, and Pierre
Macherey.
The Groupe Spinoza reiterated Althusser’s claims about the political
role of philosophy, asserting the link between “theoretical research and
political intervention.”52 Ideology was the misrecognition of the political
dimension, and “only Marxist philosophy openly confronts and assumes
this task: not only is it political, like all philosophy, but it recognizes, thinks,
and knows this organic relationship to politics that makes it a philosophy.”53
It is because they understood their work as inherently political – hoping to

49 Derrida used “existance” as late as 1960. See Irvine, 4.11, p. 50.


50 For use of the translation “réalité-humaine,” see Derrida’s course on the “Transcendental,” 1961–2,
Irvine, 6.9, sheet 74, seminar dated March 1962.
51 Jacques Derrida, “Erreur et errance: Heidegger,” Irvine, 8.1, sheet 3. Though Derrida asserted that
this freedom was not a characteristic of Man, but rather Man was possessed by “l’ek-sistence.”
52 “Groupe Spinoza,” IMEC, ALT2, A10–03.03, sheet 1. 53 Ibid., sheet 2.
274 Between phenomenology and structuralism
influence the policy of the PCF and Communist Parties more widely – that
the groupe’s meeting notes seem conspiratorial. Convening in secret every
two weeks, the group began to use pseudonyms after May 1968, fearing
that their deliberations might be discovered and their work compromised.
Inexplicably, many of the pages are covered in muddy boot prints, as if
indicating a late-night raid by the forces of order.
The corollary of the Groupe Spinoza’s attempt to “intervene in pol-
itics as a philosopher” was a desire to intervene in “philosophy as a
politician.”54 Though philosophical in content, their project resembled
political intrigue, where theoretical interventions were judged on their
strategic importance and possibility of success.55 The notes depict a
world of opposing alliances, locked in a fundamental combat, in what
Michel Tort called “a theoretical war.” The clear enemy was human-
ism, which they argued was the “cement, the ideological connection
which alone reunites conjuncturally disparate elements” on a “front”
comprising spiritualists-personnalists, idealists-rationalists-critical philoso-
phers, existentialists-phenomenologists, and humanist Marxists.56
To resist this diverse group of humanists, the Groupe Spinoza set about
forming their own alliance, which, making an oblique reference to the Alge-
rian revolutionaries, they named the “Front de Libération Philosophique.”
Like the humanist front, theirs was a broad church, recruiting antihuman-
ist philosophers of many different theoretical stripes. The obvious partners
in such a front were the “neo-structuralists,” Lacan, Barthes, Foucault,
and Derrida, whose philosophy provided valuable intellectual resources
for the criticism of humanism.57 If sufficient intellectual strength could
be mustered, the Groupe Spinoza believed that they could overturn the
PCF’s support of humanism, and so strengthen the communist movement
in France and beyond. For all the fundamental differences between their
philosophical projects, then, Derrida was a valuable ally.
The Groupe Spinoza’s support for this motley bunch of antihumanists
was not, however, unqualified. Referring to the two fronts, Tort stated, “it is
not possible to make use of them in the same way, to distinguish ourselves
in the same way from the ‘allied’ elements (Foucault, Lacan) and the
54 Althusser, The Future Lasts a Long Time, p. 197.
55 The Groupe Spinoza criticized the Cahiers pour l’Analyse for their attack on psychology in the
second number, considering it ill-judged and ineffective. On the other hand they regarded it of
critical importance to protect Foucault from attacks. See “Groupe Spinoza,” ALT2, A11–03.10.
56 “Groupe Spinoza,” ALT2 A11–03.09, sheets 5–6. Cf. “Conjoncture philosophique et recherche
théorique marxiste” (26 June 1966), in Louis Althusser, Ecrits philosophiques et politiques (Paris:
Stock/ IMEC, 1994), pp. 393–415.
57 “Groupe Spinoza,” ALT2, A11–03.09, sheet 5.
The ends of Man 275
humanist bloc. Here, it is necessary to determine the procedures of effective
and precise critique-contestation-investment, different to those that it is
appropriate to use with respect to the humanist front.” With philosophy
governed by political demands and ideology a weapon to be wielded,
parallel antihumanistic philosophies were allies to be used and disciplined.
The clear problem with antihumanists like Lacan, Foucault, and Der-
rida was that they placed a theoretical revolution above the political one.
As Michel Tort suggested in a note from late 1967 that refers explicitly
to Derrida, certain “theoretical enterprises repress the political scope of
their work.”58 This work, then, while helpful for the general project, was
ultimately reactionary. Lacan was depicted as a cynic intent on preserving
the legitimacy of psychoanalysis by shoring up its intellectual credentials
at the Ecole and advocating a mere “revolutionism de bon ton on the polit-
ical level.”59 Derrida was regarded as particularly dangerous, at least from
the perspective of the Groupe Spinoza. They worried that his philoso-
phy, might easily “in the near future, serve as the ideological cement to
humanism.”60 The reasons given for this expectation were:
1. He is incontestably the only traditional philosopher of any stature.
2. His conjunctural position is such that he is at the same time obliged (and
intelligent enough) to integrate the results obtained on the antihumanist front.
3. The very content of his philosophy is appropriate to serve a future compromise
between the humanist front and the other.
4. He already has a considerable hold on an important element of the conjuncture
(the discourse on literature where the contradiction humanism/non-humanism
is lived acutely).61
In other words, the members of the Groupe Spinoza recognized the ambiva-
lence of Derrida’s antihumanism. He was one of the most dangerous figures
on the field, placed at a crucial strategic position. Though currently aligned
with them in his antihumanism, he was capable of reshifting the alliances
and forming a new front. Derrida was a friend, but an unreliable one. His
antihumanism could not be trusted.
The Groupe Spinoza distrusted Derrida and his turn to antihumanism,
just as much as they distrusted the other members of the “antihumanist
front.” Though they saw the benefits of Derrida’s reading of the history
of philosophy and its understanding of metaphysics, they had no place
for what we will see was his equal indictment of (especially Althusserian)

58 Ibid., sheet 3. 59 Ibid., sheet 10.


60 See also “Groupe Spinoza,” ALT2, A11–03.12, sheet 4.
61 “Groupe Spinoza,” ALT2, A11–03.09, sheets 10–11.
276 Between phenomenology and structuralism
science.62 The Groupe Spinoza was also wary of the religious tone of
Derrida’s work. Describing his rapprochement with the human sciences,
they remarked that “the metaphysico-religious enterprise is taking the forms
of an aggiornamento,” a reference to the modernization efforts of the Second
Vatican Council.63 Maintaining the antihumanist front – and in particular
preventing Derrida’s drift to the other side – became a central task for the
Groupe Spinoza.
With Foucault the greatest danger was his “political adventurism.” This
was to be reined in by Althusser, who was to make him “intervene strongly
against spiritualist phenomenology (cut all ties with Ricoeur) and with
Sartre.” With Lacan, a discreet critical support was recommended. Derrida
presented a more problematic case. The Groupe Spinoza decided to take
preventative action:
1. Through criticism, force Derrida to maximize his critique of phenomenology
and his pseudo-rupture.
2. Short-circuit him at the level of the status and nature of philosophical dis-
course . . .
3. Make metaphysics as such an object of analysis.
4. Strike at the level of literary theory to denounce the non-humanist obscurantism
of the same group.64
Tort referred to Althusser’s “Humanist Controversy” article, as a prelimi-
nary step towards the disciplining and coopting of Derrida’s thought.65
Antihumanism acted in the Ecole as a unifying doctrine that brought
together approaches as diverse as Foucauldian genealogy, Lacanian psy-
choanalysis, structuralist Marxism, and Heideggerianism. It provided a
point of confluence that allowed otherwise opposing doctrines to interact
and coexist. But this did not mean that these differences were without
import. Throughout this period Derrida remained as suspicious of the
group around Althusser as they were of him. The tensions were particu-
larly difficult due to the close friendship between Althusser and Derrida.
Just as in 1945, when humanism was both a rallying point and a highly
contested term, twenty years later antihumanism was the buzzword of a
fraught alliance. Derrida was useful to the Groupe Spinoza, but he was
also dangerous, threatening at any moment to adopt a humanist line and
reintegrate cast-off religious themes. Derrida would have to be watched,
and pressured to conform ever more closely to Ecole orthodoxy.
62 Ibid., sheet 14. See also “Groupe Spinoza,” ALT2 A11.03.12, notes by Althusser.
63 “Groupe Spinoza,” ALT2 A11–03.09, sheet 13. 64 Ibid., sheet 11.
65 “La Querelle de l’humanisme,” in Althusser, Ecrits Philosophiques et Politiques, pp. 433–529. See
especially the reference to Derrida’s refusal of origins and the “trace,” p. 456.
The ends of Man 277

the turn to structuralism


Antihumanism was a crucial plank in the Normalien program, but the
language of their thought was structuralist. Not that this meant an uncriti-
cal adoption of Lévi-Strauss’s philosophy. Rather, structuralism provided a
common set of conceptual tools that could be used to read other philoso-
phies and judge them. According to his student Yves Duroux, Althusser, by
appealing to a common language of structuralism, was able to organize the
“liaison between psychoanalysis, linguistics, history of science, and epis-
temology that constituted this singular moment in philosophy.”66 This
function of structuralist language can be seen in Althusser’s 1962–3 seminar
on that topic, the first research seminar after the change in the status of the
Ecole.
The structuralism seminar from 1962 to 1963 was run for and by
the agrégatifs, including Etienne Balibar, Jacques Rancière, and Pierre
Macherey. Althusser and his students gave presentations on such diverse
subjects as linguistics, Dumézil, Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, mathematical for-
malism, and Foucault. The driving force of the course was the question of
origins, whether the origins of history, language, or of structuralism itself.67
But in all cases the question was ironic. The search for origins for Althusser
and his students was the classical gesture of ideology. He presented Husserl
as a key culprit. Husserl posited a “gap” between signifier and signified,
but in his reference to an original unity between the two, he allowed the
subject to reactivate the latent sense (signified) in discourse (signifier) tele-
ologically. The idea of the origin led Husserl to believe that one could
reach beyond an explicit discourse to discover its hidden meaning, just as
the humanists thought they could read into the complexity of history the
signs of an alienated human essence.68
Opposed to this, Althusser presented Foucault’s work on the History
of Madness, which suggested that discourse was founded upon what it
excluded and refused: the foundation of reason rested on the suppression
of madness.69 No longer could there be a sense that a hidden truth could
be discovered behind the explicit, for what was repressed was not a dis-
course but precisely the “non-work [non-oeuvre]” of madness, “the unsaid
[non-dire] is not a statement [dire] . . . but the condition of possibility for

66 Yves Duroux, “Elèves d’Althusser,” Magazine littéraire 304 (November 1992), p. 47.
67 Louis Althusser, “Seminaire 1962–3” ALT2, A40–02.01.
68 Althusser, “Seminaire 1962–3,” ALT2, A40–02.02, folder 1, sheets 1–2.
69 Althusser, “Seminaire 1962–3,” ALT2, A40–02.01, sheet 2, and ALT2 A40–02.02, sheet 3.
278 Between phenomenology and structuralism
the discourse.”70 There was no original moment where the unsaid was
immediately given, to be reactivated later. Not looking for a “horizontal”
analysis, following the unfolding of history, Althusser suggested that Fou-
cault provided a “vertical” one, studying synchronic structures of which
texts and institutions were just manifestations. As we shall see, this analy-
sis of Foucault’s work closely paralleled Althusser’s own understanding of
structural analysis as expressed in Reading Capital.
But according to Althusser, Foucault did not remain true to his struc-
turalist premises, and at times seemed to veer close to the Husserlian
perspective. Foucault was not content merely to analyze particular struc-
tures of reason, but rather hoped to uncover the foundational suppression
that had formed a discourse, but which had since been forgotten. For
Althusser, this development in Foucault’s project was a betrayal of his most
important claims. The attempt to return to the great exclusion in the his-
tory of madness was structurally similar to Husserl’s ideological attempt
to find the original meaning of the formal. Both reactivated something
lost: “curious reversal of metaphors, that which was hidden in the vertical
[structural conditions] becomes the sense of the horizontal [meaning of
history].”71 When Foucault turned to the history of these structures and
hoped to uncover their originary conditions, he implied that it was pos-
sible to reach beyond discourse to its ultimate ground, “that it is possible
to discover the structures of the signified and the relationship between sig-
nifier and signified.” But this was what structuralism, which “looks for
the structures of the signifier,” expressly prohibited, and thus, in trying to
write a “history” of madness, Foucault undermined the scientificity of his
project.72
The turn to the structures of signification entailed a refusal of all ques-
tions of origins. In the same seminar Pierre Macherey presented an analysis
of this theme looking at the ideas of Condillac and Rousseau, especially
the latter’s essay On the Origin of Language.73 While Condillac had traced
the origin of language to the natural, for Rousseau the absolute difference
between nature and culture made the idea of a natural origin of lan-
guage contradictory. As Macherey put it, “there are no absolute premises,
no immediate givens of the understanding, no ‘savage mind.’”74 In lan-
guage that recalls Althusser’s opposition between over-determination and

70 Althusser, “Seminaire 1962–3,” ALT2 A40–02.02, sheet 3.


71 Ibid., sheet 5. 72 Ibid., sheets 21–3.
73 Derrida would write on the same theme for the second half of Of Grammatology, and it would
figure prominently in Jean Mosconi’s account. See Cahiers pour l’Analyse 4, p. 74.
74 Althusser, “Seminaire 1962–3,” ALT2, A40–02.02, sheet 9.
The ends of Man 279
humanism, Macherey stated that Rousseau figured language as the dialec-
tical relationship between several types of explanation, not a simple origin
that could be located in history.
The twin analyses of Condillac and Rousseau allowed Macherey to
intervene on the contemporary theoretical scene. Lévi-Strauss, according
to Macherey, conformed to Condillac’s model despite a declared debt to
Rousseau. He sought an origin in the animal and natural, where struc-
tures ultimately reflected the biology of the brain.75 Lévi-Strauss, like Fou-
cault, betrayed the promise of his theory by breaching its asserted division
between signifier and signified in an attempt to find some ultimate ground
for the structures of signification.
The criticism that Lévi-Strauss hoped to privilege and naturalize prim-
itive structures was one that Althusser himself would repeat in an August
1966 paper.76 Lévi-Strauss overstepped the crucial line dividing signifiers
from the signified, culture from nature, that marked the boundary between
science and ideology. In this sense he had betrayed his formalist inten-
tions. Althusser argued: “all thought which is knowledge is the thought
of forms that is of the relations that unite determined elements . . . I don’t
address the reproach of formalism in general to Lévi-Strauss, but of bad
formalism.”77
Lévi-Strauss’s work manifested a “bad formalism” because it thought that
some forms were more universal and essential than others. In particular
Lévi-Strauss thought that he could uncover universal archetypes in prim-
itive societies. These societies were posited as an “origin” for culture, for
they “contain, under a real and visible form the truth that is obscured and
alienated today in our non-primitive, complex, civilized, etc. societies.”
It was the reverse racism of ethnologists, “children of colonization, who
comfort their bad conscience by finding, in primitive peoples, ‘men’ at the
dawn of human culture.”78 The error repeated that of humanist Marx-
ism. Both theories unjustifiably privileged one ideological and subjective
idea of the human, rather than concentrating on the system itself; both
“missed [manque] their object.” As Althusser suggested, Lévi-Strauss and

75 Althusser, “Seminaire 1962–3,” ALT2, A40–02.01, folder 3, sheet 10. See Claude Lévi-Strauss, Le
Totémisme aujourd’hui (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1962), p. 130; and The Savage Mind
(University of Chicago Press, 1966), pp. 263–4. See also a similar criticism by Althusser, ALT2,
A40–02.03, sheet 2. Lévi-Strauss hoped to find invariant and basic structures in primitive societies
and dissolve culture back into nature. See my “Reading Lévi-Strauss with Derrida and the Cercle
d’Epistémologie; or, How to be a Good Structuralist.”
76 Althusser, Ecrits Politiques et Philosophiques.
77 Ibid., p. 419, makes especial reference to Balibar’s contribution to Reading Capital.
78 Ibid., p. 420
280 Between phenomenology and structuralism
his epigones “claim to be representatives of Marx, while misrecognizing
him.”79
This error came at a price, for, by declaring primitive social structures
to be direct manifestations of human nature or brain biology, Lévi-Strauss
refused himself the analytical tools required to investigate them further. In
particular he could not give an account of the cultural variety found in
ethnological research. For Althusser, in contrast, the reasons for variation
were clear; the structures of kinship were not simple expressions of the
human spirit or the brain, but rather relations of production intimately
connected to different modes of production. In prematurely asserting the
“object” of his science, talking about the human brain and not the rela-
tions of production that were really fundamental, Lévi-Strauss had falsely
appealed to an ideological and thus empty universalism, seeing a universal
“essence” in what was really a complex and over-determined structure.
In their readings of the other structuralist thinkers, Althusser and his
students asserted the importance of restricting oneself to the scientific
study of the signifier and decried any attempt to root structures elsewhere,
especially in the ideological and subjective ground of immediate experience.
In this they directly opposed the central gesture of phenomenology, which
hoped to ground formal structures in the transcendental field. According
to Althusser, it was not possible to reach the signified independently of the
signifier, and so any claim to do so was ideological.
We can see how Derrida came to cleave to the Althusserian orthodoxy
in the Ecole by his own reading of Lévi-Strauss. Derrida’s treatment of the
father of French structuralism was perhaps his text that was most immersed
in Normalien culture. Although it would achieve its definitive form as a
chapter in Of Grammatology, the paper began as a course for the agrégation
in early 1966 at the ENS. Unlike previous courses, Derrida made space in
his discussion of “writing and civilization” in Lévi-Strauss for his students to
respond. Usually his lecture would fill the ninety minutes allocated, but in
this course Derrida deliberately confined himself to the first hour, reserving
the final thirty minutes for questions and answers.80 His meditations on
Lévi-Strauss were then published as an article in the Normalien Cahiers
pour l’analyse, in late 1966. At several stages of its presentation and revision
then, Derrida opened his text to the critical eye of his students. The text
is a privileged example for gauging the rapprochement that had occurred
between Derrida and the norms of the ENS over his first two years there.
79 Ibid., p. 418. Althusser referred in particular to the passage in Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologie
structurale (Paris: Plon, 1958), pp. 364–75.
80 Jacques Derrida, “Nature, culture, ecriture,” Irvine, 9.14, sheet 20.
The ends of Man 281
Derrida’s analysis centered on a chapter from Tristes tropiques, where
Lévi-Strauss recounted how he had taught a Nambikwara chief to write. As
Derrida noted, Lévi-Strauss had always associated the civilized/primitive
distinction (in Lévi-Strauss’s language, hot and cold societies) with the
presence or not of writing; he had even changed the name of his chair at
the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes from “Religions of Primitive Peoples”
to “Religions of Peoples without Writing Systems.”81 For Lévi-Strauss, it
was writing that allowed the institution of social hierarchies and violence
that were typical of “civilized” societies.
In Lévi-Strauss’s presentation, the Nambikwara was a “cold” society
without writing, and when he taught the chief to write, the insidious
effects of social “warming” were soon visible. According to Lévi-Strauss,
the chief “immediately understood its role as sign, and the social superiority
that it confers.”82 Lévi-Strauss considered writing to be wholly damaging
for a society, emphasizing the violence and social hierarchy that it allowed,
rather than its role in the constitution of science: writing was “more a
‘sociological’ than an ‘intellectual’ necessity.”83
Like Althusser and his students, Derrida questioned Lévi-Strauss’s nos-
talgia for primitive societies, which supposedly contravened basic struc-
turalist imperatives. Following this description, primitive society became
an “anti-ethnocentric mirror,” the “index to a hidden good Nature, as
a recovered native soil, or a ‘zero degree’ with reference to which one
could outline the structure, the growth, and above all the degradation of
our society and our culture.”84 Just as Althusser criticized Lévi-Strauss’s
moral privileging of primitive societies, so too Derrida suggested that his
declaration of Nambikwara purity demonstrated a reverse ethnocentrism,
keeping the same categories and distinctions (society without writing),
but just reversing the value judgment. For Derrida, as for Althusser, this
primitivism made a nonsense of Lévi-Strauss’s declared Marxism.85 Derrida
reprimanded Lévi-Strauss for taking primitive societies out of the Marx-
ist paradigm, declaring them free from any form of exploitation. Where
Althusser challenged the priority that Lévi-Strauss gave to “savage thought
[la pensée sauvage]” by asserting that primitive societies were just as overde-
termined and complex as those that were more advanced, Derrida appealed
to a concept of writing that troubled the distinction between the primitive
and the civilized.
81 Dosse, A History of Structuralism, vol. I, p. 13. See Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes tropiques (Paris: Plon,
1955), pp. 317–18.
82 Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, pp. 314–18, Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 183.
83 Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 130. 84 Ibid., p. 114. 85 Ibid., pp. 118–20.
282 Between phenomenology and structuralism
Firstly, for Derrida the reaction of the chief of the Nambikwara showed
that writing was not as alien a concept to the Nambikwara as Lévi-Strauss
thought, that though they might not have had writing “au sens courant,”
they already had the means to understand it; it could not have been entirely
foreign to them.86 Lévi-Strauss’s distinction between societies with and
without writing could not be as absolute as he wanted to suggest. Secondly
and most importantly, Derrida refused Lévi-Strauss’s attempt to separate
the social and scientific aspects of writing. Ever since his introduction to
the Origin of Geometry, Derrida was adamant that writing was a necessary
condition for science. And because writing was so clearly a condition for
social hierarchies and economic oppression, the very science that Lévi-
Strauss wanted to institute could not be detached from the ideologies he
hoped science would overcome. To the question “is there a knowledge,
and, above all, a language, scientific or not, that one can call alien at
once to writing and to violence?” Derrida responded with an unequivocal
no.87 It was a remarkable turnaround. What had begun as a reiteration of
Althusser’s criticism of Lévi-Strauss turned out to be a direct rebuttal of
one of Althusser’s most cherished claims. Writing and différance were the
common ground for both science and the processes of capitalization and
class hierarchy – the realm of ideology.88
Derrida’s engagement with Lévi-Strauss shows that, while adopting a
language and many philosophical strategies from the Althusserians, he was
able to marshal this language to challenge their idea of science. He followed
them in their engagement with structuralism, adopted their criticism of
attempts to leave the realm of the signifier, and questioned any search for
origins. And yet he used these ideas to criticize their claims to pure scien-
tificity. The key to this curious combination was writing, which, crossing
the boundary between science and ideology, allowed Derrida to criticize
structuralist scientificity in structuralist language. As we shall see, writ-
ing played an even more important role in Derrida’s thought. For though
Althusser excluded the work of Husserl and Heidegger as ideological, the
turn to a study of writing would allow Derrida to smuggle his earlier
phenomenology into the structuralist paradigm.

86 Ibid., p. 123. 87 Ibid., p. 127.


88 Ibid., pp. 130–1. In Althusser’s reading notes on Derrida’s essay, he remarked that Derrida wasn’t
sufficiently attentive to the differences of violence. Lévi-Strauss was only talking about class violence,
not violence in general. The corollary of this would be that the violence of writing and class violence
could be distinguished, which would save science from an intimate connection to ideology. See
Louis Althusser, “Notes sur Derrida,” ALT2, A58–02.03, sheet 4.
The ends of Man 283

grammatology: a science of writing


If today the problem of reading occupies the forefront of science, it is because of
this suspense between two ages of writing. Because we are beginning to write, to
write differently, we must reread differently.
Jacques Derrida89
Derrida’s science of writing was a direct response to the new style of reading
proposed by Althusser and his students in the collaborative work Reading
Capital. Over two volumes Althusser, Macherey, and Balibar among others
sketched and then elaborated two different models of reading: an old
theological model that aimed to read an essence in appearance, and a new
scientific reading that concerned the conditions of discourse.90 The two
forms of reading mapped onto Althusser’s earlier distinction between the
early and the late Marx, separated by the epistemological break. If it was
only since Freud, Althusser asserted, acknowledging the Lacanian roots of
many of his concepts, that we have begun to listen and speak, it is only since
Marx’s later writings that we have known what it is to read and write.91
The young Marx, Althusser insisted, followed the old way of reading, for
which “to know the essence of things, the essence of the historical human
world, of its economic, political, aesthetic, and religious production, was
simply to read (lesen, herauslesen) in black and white the presence of the
‘abstract’ essence in the transparency of its ‘concrete’ existence.”92 Thus
in the 1844 manuscripts Marx was able to “read” Man’s alienated essence
in the capitalist economy, just as Feuerbach had been able to read it in
God. Humanism too – reading all of history as one simple dialectic –
participated in this mode of reading that cut through all complexity to get
to the supposed heart of the matter. In contrast, Althusser asserted that “the
history of men . . . is not . . . a text written on the pages of a Book . . . The
truth of history cannot be read in its manifest discourse, because the text of
history is not a text in which a voice (the Logos) speaks, but the inaudible
and illegible notation of the effects of a structure of structures.”93
Instead of trying to read something that was already there, to get to
the signified hidden behind the signifier, or the “real” object hidden in
its appearances, Althusser suggested that reading itself was governed by
structures in society that determined what was visible or invisible, that

89 Derrida, Of Grammatology, pp. 86–7. 90 Althusser, Lire le Capital, vol. I, p. 42.


91 Althusser, Reading Capital, p. 16. 92 Ibid., p. 16.
93 Ibid., p 17. The first sentence is not found in the English translation. See Louis Althusser, Lire le
Capital, vol. I, pp. 16, and 41, and its critique of an “expressive reading.” Cf. also Derrida’s criticism
of expression, in Derrida, Speech and Phenomena.
284 Between phenomenology and structuralism
caused the errors [bévue] and lacunae of a reading, just as much as what
it was able to see. Reading did not reach through the mess of existence to
gain a glimpse of the real object in its essence, but produced its own object
of knowledge, like in Foucault’s epistemes:94
The sighting is thus no longer the act of an individual subject, endowed with the
faculty of “vision” which he exercises either attentively or distractedly; the sighting
is the act of its structural conditions, it is the relation of immanent reflection
between the field of the problematic and its objects and its problems. Vision then
loses the religious privileges of divine reading: it is no more than a reflection of the
immanent necessity that ties an object or problem to its conditions of existence,
which lie in the conditions of its production.95
Detaching the object of knowledge from a mythical real object that
expressed itself in knowledge, and refusing the teleologies that he had
suggested allowed the convergence of the two in phenomenologies such as
Husserl’s, Althusser argued that history was not linear, but rather marked by
“radical discontinuities,” as new epistemological regimes arose that created
new objects of knowledge.96
Of particular interest was Marx’s epistemological break, which instituted
the science of historical materialism. Althusser analyzed Marx’s reading of
the classical political economists, and their discussions of the value of labor,
in particular Ricardo’s claim that “the value of labor is equal to the value of
the subsistence goods necessary for the maintenance and reproduction of
labor.” As it stood the sentence seemed to be nonsense. After all, Althusser
asked, what was the “maintenance” or “reproduction of labor”?97 But when
Marx read the passage, he was able to see something to which the classical
political economists were blind. He saw that Ricardo had unintention-
ally produced the idea of “labor-power,” i.e. the undifferentiated energy
required for work that had to be fueled by the nourishment of the worker.
No longer concerned with the value of the work itself, the classical polit-
ical economists had surreptitiously moved to discuss the means necessary
to keep the worker functioning.98 In making this shift, classical political
economists like Smith and Ricardo had answered a different question than
the one they had originally set themselves (what is the value of “labor”?)
and they had “produced” a new object.99 As Althusser rewrote the phrase:
“The value of labor (power) is equal to the value of the subsistence goods
necessary for the maintenance and reproduction of labor (power).” It was
94 See also Althusser, Lire le Capital, vol. I, pp. 41–53 and 70–81.
95 Althusser, Reading Capital, p. 25. See also Althusser, Lire le Capital, vol. I, pp. 42 and 48–9.
96 Althusser, Reading Capital, p. 52. 97 Ibid., p. 22.
98 Ibid., p. 23. 99 Althusser, Lire le Capital, vol. I, p. 25.
The ends of Man 285
only after Marx’s epistemological break of 1845 that he was able to move past
prior ideological formulations and construct a new object of discourse.100
In defining grammatology, Derrida made the same move, reading into
the texts of the – in his case – classical linguists a new object that they
had been unable to see themselves.101 Where Althusser analyzed the rise
of the “labor power” and its corollary “surplus value” – what the capi-
talist could take for himself after having paid the worker for his labor –
Derrida discussed arche-writing, to be studied in a new science of gramma-
tology. Mirroring Althusser’s own presentation, Derrida rewrote Saussure,
replacing the word “semiology”:
I shall call it (grammatology) . . . Since the science does not yet exist, no one
can say what it would be; but it has a right to existence, a place staked out in
advance. Linguistics is only a part of that general science . . . ; the laws discovered
by (grammatology) will be applicable to linguistics.102
Adopting its forms and mode of expression, Of Grammatology began as a
recognizably Althusserian project.
The formulation of arche-writing and its emergence out of the work of
the classical linguists comprised the majority of the first part of Derrida’s
book. As the Normaliens stressed, both in their readings of Marx and
appropriation of Lacan, the determination of the scientific object was the
most important task for philosophy.103 And, as in Althusser’s presentation
of Marx, the new object was produced through the recognition of the
internal conceptual inadequacies of the previous object of linguistics.
Modern linguistics, according to Derrida, was governed by the meta-
physical priority of speech over writing: phonologism. Indeed Ferdinand
de Saussure, the father of structural linguistics, had considered the his-
tory of writing to be separate and unimportant compared to the history
of speech. Writing was the signifier of the signifier, whereas the spoken
word was “a unity of sense and sound, of concept and voice, or, to speak a

100 Althusser would then go and perform a similar “symptomatic reading” for Marx, showing that he
had produced the “concept of the efficacy of a structure on its elements,” without being able to see
it as such (p. 29). Althusser and his students hoped to uncover this structure in their own reading
of Capital, this structure being the object of their science.
101 See the similar use of the word “classical” in his discussion of the linguists: Derrida, Of Gramma-
tology, pp. 21, 31, and 39.
102 Amended citations from Ferdinand de Saussure, Cours de linguistique générale (Paris: Payot, 1916),
p. 16, in Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 51.
103 See all the articles on the “Object of psychoanalysis,” in the Cahiers pour l’analyse 3, or Althusser’s
second contribution to Reading Capital, “The Object of Capital.” As it became clear over Reading
Capital, this object was defined more generally as the “concept of the capitalist mode of production”
(p. 208).
286 Between phenomenology and structuralism
more rigorously Saussurean language, of the signified and the signifier.”104
Given the exteriority of writing to pure speech, any impact it might have
on, say, pronunciation represented an unhappy contagion. Writing was a
dangerous “outside” come to disturb the proper functioning of language.105
Further, writing’s malicious tinkering with speech was considered by
Saussure to be an unhappy forgetting of the “origin” of language.106 Speech,
in this model, came first and writing was secondary and derivative of
it, an inessential “clothing [vêtement]” thrown over the true purveyor of
meaning.107 Following Althusser’s outline of ideology, Derrida argued that
this prejudice (the metaphysics of presence) privileged immediate intuition,
and regarded science, logic, and writing as fallen and unimportant, to be
shown their rightful place at the bottom of the metaphysical hierarchy.
Writing was dependent upon and secondary to speech, according to a
purportedly “natural” relationship, and so its attempts to change speech
demonstrated an unjust revolution of the proper order.
Derrida considered that modern linguistics after Saussure participated
in the very metaphysical assumptions that had always debased writing –
assumptions that Althusser too would have called ideological because they
were structured by the teleological unity of signifier and signified. And yet,
the exclusion of writing in modern linguistics was particularly problematic.
Writing was a system of signifiers like any other, and it was difficult to see
on what grounds it could be so passionately excluded. If the watchword of
Saussure’s linguistics was the arbitrariness of the sign, how could one type
of sign be distinguished from another and placed in a hierarchy? Further, if
writing were really exterior to speech, how could one explain the possibility
of its usurpation? How could one account for the fact of what was de jure
prohibited: the unnatural contamination of speech by its written form,
especially in pronunciation changes?108
Derrida’s answer was that the best model for the functioning of the sign
was not – as had previously been thought – speech, but rather writing.
Speech was no longer the prototype for all language, but should itself be
seen as just another “kind of writing.”109 Because speech was already a type
of writing, there was no absolute dividing line that could permanently
104 Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 31. 105 Ibid., p. 34. 106 Ibid., p. 37.
107 The image of “clothing [vêtement]” was a direct reference to Husserl in the Krisis.
108 Derrida, Of Grammatology, pp. 39–41 and 43–4. Derrida argued that the sign was instituted
following the structure of the trace, “in which the other is announced as such.” The sign was
then not unmotivated but rather “becoming-unmotivated,” effacing its relationship to absolute
presence, pp. 45–7. The difficulties Derrida confronted in this passage can be attributed to those
of his attempt to unite Heideggerian and Saussurean difference.
109 Ibid., p. 75.
The ends of Man 287
exclude writing narrowly defined from speech, explaining the possibility
of the contamination that Saussure decried.
Derrida found resources for his claim in Saussure’s text itself. It was one of
Saussure’s major theses that difference was fundamental to the production
of linguistic value. In Saussurean linguistics, meaning is produced not
by an immediate referential relationship of the signifier to its signified,
but rather by the differences that exist between signs themselves. If a
language teacher pronounced the word bleu on presenting a blue vase,
it would not be clear whether she were referring to the color, the shape,
or the object. If, however, she presented many different vases of different
colors, along with the words rouge, bleu, and vert, then by a correlation
of the differences between signifiers (the color words) and the differences
between the signifieds (the vases), it would be possible to develop a sense
of the “value” of the words, what they meant.
As Derrida argued, the emphasis on differences placed the materiality
of the sign to one side. Whatever the state of the signifiers themselves, the
differences between them could not be classed as phonic or graphic – they
were inaudible and invisible.110 At this level, writing and speech could not
be distinguished. But at a more fundamental level, writing or the trace
seemed a better model for the priority of difference. At several moments
of the Cours Saussure was compelled to use the model of writing in order
to illustrate certain essential characteristics of language, including its arbi-
trariness (the purely conventional relationship of a letter to its sound), its
negative and differential nature (the letter t is defined by its difference from
all other letters), and hence the inconsequence of variations in form and
material (it does not matter how and where t is written, as long as it is
still distinguishable from the rest of the alphabet).111 Even though writing
was excluded from Saussure’s analyses, he had to call on it to elucidate his
arguments.
Saussure’s appeal to writing was not a mere slip or an expendable illustra-
tion of his ideas. It resulted, according to Derrida, from the philosophical
proximity of a traditional understanding of writing to the major claim
of Saussure’s linguistics. As understood within the metaphysical tradition,
speech was the immediate unity of signifier and signified; it seemed to
privilege a referential understanding of language by making that relation-
ship primary. But writing was prevented from making a direct appeal to
the signified from which it was buffered by another level of signification:
110 Derrida continued with a lengthy analysis of the disputes of Jakobson and Martinet with Hjelmslev
over the necessary phonic quality of the signifier, which was added for the book, ibid., pp. 78–90.
111 Ibid., p. 326 note.
288 Between phenomenology and structuralism
speech. Writing, as the signifier of a signifier (the written word signifying
the spoken), better modeled the horizontal relationship between signifiers
that Saussure’s linguistics prioritized. For Derrida, writing was a privileged
metaphor in the structuralist account of all language, including speech:112
I would wish . . . to suggest that the alleged derivativeness of writing, however real
and massive, was possible only on one condition: that the “original,” “natural,”
etc. language had never existed, never been intact and untouched by writing, that
it had itself always been a writing. An arche-writing whose necessity and new
concept I wish to indicate and outline here; and which I continue to call writing
only because it essentially communicates with the vulgar concept of writing.113
The emphasis on arche-writing and différance allowed Derrida to criti-
cize the search for origins, as had Althusser before him. If arche-writing
(or the trace as it was also called) was the “origin of sense,” Derrida asserted
that this “amounts to saying once again that there is no absolute origin of
sense in general.”114 Origins, as we saw for Althusser, required the origi-
nal unity of heterogeneous elements, signifier and signified. In Derrida’s
words, it demanded the “reference to a signified able to ‘take place’ in its
intelligibility, before its ‘fall,’ before any expulsion into the exteriority of
the sensible here below.”115 If, on the other hand, Derrida’s trace was “orig-
inary,” preceding any distinction between signifier and signified, sensible
and intelligible, there could be no absolute origin, for the trace was always
the trace of something else, refusing the absolute immediacy of the signifier
and signified, in a process of constant deferral.
Though Derrida’s approach to origins seemed to mirror many of
Althusser’s claims, there was one major difference. While Althusser refused
the search for origins, Derrida absorbed the origin itself into the play of
signifiers. Rather than restricting the realm of signifiers, excluding any
claims about origins and the signified, Derrida argued that the origin and
the signified were already worked over by différance and the trace. His was
an expansive rather than restrictive version of structuralism. It was writing
that provided the model for this expansive version. In writing, because the
signified (speech) was itself a signifier, the signified did not need to be
excluded, for it too was part of the general system of signification.
112 This curious linking between the intentionality of the signifier, i.e. its intended relationship to
a signified, and the differential relationship between signifiers is problematic, as Joshua Kates
has shown, and constitutes perhaps the greatest difficulty in Derrida’s attempt to translate his
phenomenological investigations into structuralist language. That is, the identification of the
movement of deferral from a signifier to the signified (which is itself a signifier) with the diacritical
relationship between signifiers is more complex and fraught than Derrida allowed. See Kates,
Essential History, p. 181.
113 Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 56. 114 Ibid., p. 95. 115 Ibid., p. 13.
The ends of Man 289
Thus, whereas Althusser condemned the appeal beyond structure – in
Husserl’s case, to the transcendental – as ideological, Derrida was able to
rehabilitate phenomenology within the structuralist framework. Derrida
suggested that just as the origin was already a trace, Husserl’s transcendental
was already a sign.116 The differences between Derrida and Althusser are
clearest in Derrida’s discussion of Louis Hjelmslev, the Danish theorist
of glossematics. Unlike Jakobson and Martinet, Hjelmslev had recognized
that the differential nature of the sign prohibited a privilege of the voice,
but Derrida suggested that he remained nonetheless metaphysical. The
discussion of Hjelmslev could well have been a substitute for Althusser
himself, for Hjelmslev rigorously adhered to a formal linguistics, detached
from any material or immaterial substance, such as phonics or logic. In
particular, by concentrating on formal systems, like Althusser, Hjelmslev
refused any appeal to “experience.”
But for Derrida “experience” was absolutely central. From a phenomeno-
logical standpoint formal systems had no validity if they were not grounded
in the “experience” of the transcendental sphere. Derrida considered that
the presentation of formal systems was itself an “experience.” Without
a reference to this more fundamental experience (which put what was
traditionally understood as experience “in parentheses”), Derrida claimed
that “the decisive progress accomplished by a formalism respectful of the
originality of its object, of ‘the immanent system of its objects,’ [would
be] plagued by a scientificist objectivism, that is to say by another unper-
ceived or unconfessed metaphysics.”117 Hjelmslev’s and Althusser’s claims,
by rejecting lived experience, were threatened by what Husserl had called
the crisis of the sciences.
Althusser’s and Hjelmslev’s retort would have been that this appeal to
experience was necessarily ideological, because by reaching beyond the
formal system of signifiers, it sought to ground science in the vagaries
of undisciplined and prejudicial subjectivity.118 But because in Derrida’s
schema, this transcendental was already structured by arche-writing, it did
not conform to traditional presentations. Rather than a move outside of the
formal system to find a transcendental origin, that transcendental ground
revealed itself to be another manifestation of the formal system of writing:
“the value of the transcendental arche [archie] must make its necessity felt
before letting itself be erased . . . the origin did not even disappear . . . it was
never constituted except reciprocally by a nonorigin, the trace, which thus

116 Here Derrida referred to his analyses in Speech and Phenomena.


117 Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 61 118 Ibid., p. 60.
290 Between phenomenology and structuralism
becomes the origin of the origin.”119 Arche-writing and différance preceded
the difference between the formal and transcendental, the world and the
“lived,” appearance and that which appeared, because it structured both.
By appealing to writing Derrida was able to absorb his previous work on
phenomenology into the general movement of the sign, reframing it in
structuralist language. As in Speech and Phenomena, where the movement
of différance structured the experience of time and created the spatial
categories of inside and outside, arche-writing allowed the articulation of
speech and writing, temporalization and spacing, the transcendental and
the formal, phenomenology and structuralism.
While the turn to writing allowed Derrida to bring Althusser and
Husserl together, the formal and the transcendental, it also allowed a
rapprochement between Saussure and Heidegger. Derrida argued that in
certain parts of Heidegger’s work, and especially in his criticism of Niet-
zsche, the thought of Being threatened to become a transcendental signi-
fied, a “primum signatum . . . implied by all categories or all determined
significations.”120 It was a claim that was corroborated, according to Der-
rida’s schema, by Heidegger’s constant reference to the “voice of Being.” At
these moments, for all his precautions, Heidegger too seemed metaphysi-
cal, because he appeared to posit Being beyond the beings in which it was
“signified.” But in grammatology, as we have seen, the difference between
a signifier and a signified (the ontological difference), could be subsumed
under the general difference between signifiers (Saussure’s difference). In
Heidegger’s case, this would mean that Being too was structured like a
signifier, another element in the play of signification.
As Derrida was careful to make clear, Heidegger only implied that Being
was a transcendental signified in certain parts of his work. The move
to the primacy of différance followed gestures elsewhere in Heidegger’s
thought, and functioned in its “horizons.” As Derrida had often asserted
since his introduction to the Origin of Geometry, for Heidegger the sense of
Being was nothing (rien) outside of its ontic manifestations; there was no
Being detached from a particular determined form, and so the difference
between signified and signifier was nothing (rien) too.121 It is for this reason
that Heidegger, in his later writings, was increasingly concerned to cross
“Being” out – what Derrida called the “last writing of an era.”122 Just as the
signified was the trace of the trace, a creation of the fundamental movement
119 Ibid., p. 61. 120 Ibid., p. 20.
121 Ibid., p. 22. For this reason we should also be wary of Derrida’s criticism of Heidegger here, which
seems to concede a little too much to his Normalien students.
122 Ibid., p. 23.
The ends of Man 291
of signification, so too the “sense of Being” was produced by the movement
between its determined forms. The difference between Being and beings
was not the difference between two “things,” but rather was made apparent
by the instability of any particular ontic determination of Being. Différance
then preceded and conditioned the “ontico-ontological difference and its
ground (Grund) in the ‘transcendence of Dasein,’” which had first to be
thought before being “struck out.”123 The ontological difference may have
been struck out, but its function of destabilizing any determined system was
preserved. It was because Saussure’s difference had been contaminated with
Heidegger’s that Derrida was able to unsettle structuralism’s synchronic
systems.
The reinscription of the ontological difference in the language of struc-
turalism had a profound effect that is worth noting here. It shifted the
emphasis in Derrida’s work from the transcendence of Dasein to the move-
ment of signification. Rather than the transcendence of any determined
structure being an essential attribute of human finitude, now it was the
internal differing and deferring of the signifier that powered systematic
change. For this reason, on outlining the characteristics of a new gram-
matology, Derrida made clear that it must release itself from the con-
cept of “Man.” Drawing on the work of the anthropologist André Leroi-
Gourhan, Derrida suggested that “the unity of man and of the human
adventure . . . [is] a stage or an articulation in the history of life – of which
we will here call différance – as history of the gramme.”124 Différance
preceded and constituted Man, and a genetic “pro-gramme” was more
fundamental than any distinction between Man or beast, uniting all forms
of “life” from the amoeba to the new electronic programs of a cybernetic
world. In his adoption of the structuralist language that was common
currency at the Ecole, Derrida had shifted closer to Althusser’s version of
antihumanism where “Man” was the product of a given historical moment
rather than that which denied the very possibility of such a determined
totality.
The strengthening of his antihumanist position was not, however, suffi-
cient to ingratiate Derrida with the Althusserians. The signifier in Derrida’s
work, by encompassing the seemingly recalcitrant domain of experience –

123 This was the passage that played a central role in my argument in chapter 6. Kates makes this
section a “topic sentence for the entire discussion of Grammatology.” Kates, Essential History,
p. 162. In his reading notes, Althusser gave this sense of “striking out” considerable prominence,
and we can perhaps see his hand in Derrida’s decision to promote the footnote into the text and
vastly expand the Heidegger section in his 1967 book.
124 Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 84.
292 Between phenomenology and structuralism
Husserl’s transcendental and Heidegger’s Being – was markedly different
from Althusser’s. We can see why the Groupe Spinoza thought Derrida’s
break with phenomenology was only a pseudo-rupture. By turning to
writing, the “signifier of the signifier” as the primary model of linguistics,
Derrida made everything a type of discourse; he effaced the difference
between the real and the discursive, signified and signifier, phenomenology
and structuralism, ideology and science. Though Derrida had presented
grammatology as a science of writing, the very trajectory of his discussion
showed that writing both preceded and threatened the distinction between
the real object and the object of discourse, and thus, in Althusser’s view,
science itself. Derrida’s turn to writing, despite all its attractive similarities
to Althusser’s new mode of reading, was in fact a radical critique of the
Althusserian project.
It was for this reason that Derrida eventually declared that grammatology
could not simply be a science. Science in Althusser’s model relied on a
secure and rigorous opposition between signifier and signified, the object of
knowledge and the real object, and so it was dependent on “a certain kind of
structurally and axiologically determined relationship between speech and
writing,” more specifically the idea of phonetic writing. Since arche-writing
preceded and constituted this division between writing and speech, it was
a condition for the rise of science itself. Arche-writing was the “condition
of possibility of ideal objects and therefore of scientific objectivity. Before
being its object, writing is the condition of the episteme.”125 Simultaneously
condition and object,
the science of writing should . . . look for its object at the roots of scientificity . . . A
science of the possibility of science? A science of science that would no longer have
the form of logic but that of grammatics?126
Exceeding the bounds of science, arche-writing could not simply be its
object. As the common condition of the real and the discursive object,
the sensible and the intelligible, the transcendental and the formal, arche-
writing would always resist the attempt to reduce it down to one side.
In particular, preceding and conditioning the oppositions of presence
and absence, arche-writing “is that very thing which cannot let itself be
reduced to the form of presence. The latter orders all objectivity of the
object and all relation of knowledge.”127 Science could only study the “work
and the fact of différance, the determined differences and the determined
125 Ibid., p. 27. See also Althusser, Lire le Capital, vol. I, p. 89.
126 Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 27. Final sentence added in the 1967 book.
127 Ibid., p. 57. See also the French version, in Derrida, De la grammatologie, p. 124.
The ends of Man 293
presences that they make possible. There cannot be a science of différance
itself in its operation, as it is impossible to have a science of the origin of
presence itself, that is to say of a certain nonorigin.”128 The foundation of
the concepts in which science worked, the very ground of the distinction
between intelligible and sensible, and so the possibility of their articulation,
could not be subordinated to that science.
The science of writing, then, far from further supporting the idea of
science, or indeed writing, shook “logocentrism” itself.129 Science, presup-
posing the very oppositions between sensible and intelligible that différance
and the trace preceded, was caught up in a metaphysics that Derrida criti-
cized. In an attack that must have been particularly bruising for Althusser,
Derrida suggested that even Spinoza, one of Althusser’s most important
influences, had not escaped onto-theology.130 For all the progress they had
made, “structuralism” and “Marxism” and implicitly Althusser’s structural-
ist Marxism, by maintaining the sharp distinction between signified and
signifier, the real object and the object of knowledge, and thus ideology
and science, were beholden to metaphysics.131

conclusion
The history of Derrida’s thought from 1964 till 1967 has a great appeal
for the intellectual historian. As his context changed so too did Derrida’s
philosophy: when he moved from the traditionalist Sorbonne, where phe-
nomenology still held sway, to the Ecole Normale Supérieure, perhaps the
most important center of the structuralist revolution, Saussure replaced
Husserl and Heidegger as his most visible influence. In his effort to engage
with the Normaliens and make his work relevant, Derrida adopted his stu-
dents’ language, emphasized his adherence to their theoretical antihuman-
ism, and like them criticized the search for origins and an extra-scientific
ground for objective knowledge. Moreover, in the Normalien negotiation
between two antihumanisms – “Man” presented as a dangerous illusion,
or his humbling in the face of the divine – it was the constructivist claims
of Derrida’s mentor Althusser that won out. Derrida moved away from an
earlier reliance on the transcendence of Dasein as the motor of historical
change, replacing it with the internal movement of signification that for-
ever deferred the moment of pure presence. Given all these changes, one

128 Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 63. 129 See ibid., p. 33.


130 Ibid., p. 71. 131 Ibid., p. 46.
294 Between phenomenology and structuralism
might be tempted to see an epistemological break, separating the old and
the young Derrida.
But Derrida was always suspicious of the idea of such a break, a con-
cept, which, he remarked later, “is much used or abused today.”132 The
very problematic of writing and différance, which allowed Derrida to rein-
scribe his earlier phenomenological investigations into the new philosophy,
showed that the trace of the past was irreducible. Discontinuity is never
total, and context is never entirely determinative. Rigorously adhering to
structuralist language, a privilege of signification over subjectivity, Derrida
showed that structuralism could not claim the stability and certainty to
which it aspired; that ideology could never be entirely reduced, and science
was never pure. Just as in his early work, in which Derrida had hoped to
show the limitations of human thought to make room for faith, now his
form of post- or neo-structuralism challenged the pretensions of a hubristic
humanity.
The still readable traces of Derrida’s early phenomenological and reli-
gious leanings in Of Grammatology made his students wary of him. In the
1960s at least, Derrida never developed the type of following enjoyed by
Lacan or Althusser. For though Derrida was always reticent in making his
political positions explicit – a reticence that has led to charges of apoliti-
cism – his ambivalence towards his students’ political project was clear to
them in his careful criticism of their philosophical ideas. In the Ecole Nor-
male Supérieure all philosophy was inherently political, given meaning by
the students who saw it as a powerful tool in the pursuit of tangible ends,
and even the abstract analyses of linguistics had, for them, an immediate
political relevance. For these young French men who looked for redemp-
tion in the sureness of science and in distant revolutions, it was Derrida
who constantly reminded them that no science is free from ideology, and
no upheaval of the social order, however foreign, can be entirely just.

132 Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, p. 24.


Epilogue

A challenge to the Normalien political program was not long in coming. In


the early spring of 1968, there were rumblings of student discontent at the
Nanterre University campus, just to the west of Paris. Predominantly, the
students complained of living and study conditions at the university, which
had suffered most from the poorly planned and rushed higher-education
expansion in the early 1960s. But the sense of unrest was bolstered by
widespread opposition to the Vietnam War, seen as exemplary of the Third
World and communist resistance to