Volume 5, Number 2 (July 2008)
Book Review: An Aporetic, or Nominalist, or Passionate, or Existentialist Approach
Review of Marko Zlomislic. Jacques Derrida’s Aporetic Ethics. Langham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2007.
Dr. David Goicoechea
(Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy, Brock University, St. Catharine’s, Ontario, Canada).
Jacques Derrida accounts for ethics, philosophy and religion in terms of each other in such a way that many are extremely critical of him. By writing this clear, thorough and well ordered presentation of Derrida’s thinking, Zlomislic not only gives an excellent introduction to Derrida, but answers the objections of the critics and in several cases reveals their misunderstandings of Derrida’s arguments. Whereas traditional philosophers tend to explain their ethics as based upon their logic, metaphysics, psychology and epistemology, Zlomislic shows why for Derrida it must be the other way around. The first four of the book’s five chapters show how the gift and task of Biblical ethics implies: (1) a new logic of paradox concerning the question of violence; (2) a new ethics of excess concerning the question of responsibility; (3) a new psychology of the de-centered subjectile concerning the question of personhood; and (4) a new epistemology of embracing uncertainty in relation to the question of justice. So Derrida’s ethics which focuses upon questions of violence, responsibility, personhood and justice takes a Socratic aporetic, or Ockhamist Nominalist, or Humean passionate or Kierkegaardian existentialist approach to them. In this way self contradictions can be avoided and there can be the most consistency and adequacy. In working always with truth and method Derrida is constantly concerned with the 4 D’s: (demonstrations, definitions, distinctions, and dialectical testing. But when he does philosophy as history and as literature his existential dialectic brings him to: (1) deconstructing demonstrations, (2) by disseminating definitions, (3) differencing distinctions and (4) making dialectical decisions by leaping over the abyss of undecidability.
The aporia or road block on a proof line is the ironic method of Socratic paradox. The paradoxical irony began with Socrates being the wisest man in Athens because he alone knew he could know nothing. He was so wise because his sceptical aporias opened the way for ethics. By showing how each Pre-Socratic only had theories and not facts he moved from their pretending to honesty, from pride to humility, from pompous ponderosity to humility and from prejudice to a healthy flexibility. Derrida’s ethics aims to open questions with a similar aporetic honest, humble, humorous health which is the staring point for the ethical.
Zlomislic presents Derrida’s ethics in four chapters and dialectically responds to opponents in the fifth chapter. Each of the first four chapters has four parts in which Zlomislic shows how Derrida makes his case. Chapter one shows how ethical decisions, given the aporias, are made as a leap over the abyss of undecidability. Zlomislic explains this in terms of: (1) Socrates’ Aporias: beyond shaming, (2) Plato’s Pharmakon: beyond scapegoating , (3) Levi-Strauss’ Dangerous Supplement: beyond bordering and (4) Levinas’ Totality and Infinity: beyond warring. With evidence from within Socrates, Plato, Levi-Strauss and Levinas, Derrida deconstructs the violence of their systems and shows why according to them decisions can be made as leaps of faith that are informed and called forth in terms of the greatest good.
In Chapter Two on Aporia and the Responsibilities of Dissemination Zlomislic shows how there is a complexity in our thinking because of the very nature of signification that never lets us know something with clear and distinct ideas. A sign is that which represents to the mind something other than itself. A sign is always disseminated into unlimited signs. For example, the word “justice” will always involve more than we can ever know. With the aid of Husserl’s theory of signs, Heidegger’s theory of times, Hegel’s theory of prefaces and Nietzsche’s theory of perspectives Zlomislic makes clear Derrida’s theory of dissemination. Definitions which are needed for demonstrations should be made with the recognition of such a complexity that the mind can never connect all the dots. Because of the dissemination of all signs or the explosion of all signs into unlimited complexity decisions can only be made over the abyss of undecidability. This is not only a weakness but also a strength in that they are made not only in limitation but also with a leap of trust for which we can take responsibility.
Chapter three treats Derrida’s notion of differance and its implications for personal responsibility. Demonstrations depend upon distinctions as well as upon definitions and making complicated ideas completely distinct is as impossible as clearly defining them. Distinctions are made between persons, places and things in terms of time and space. Peter is now here and Paul is now there. But every now has “befores” and “afters” within it – just as every “here” has many “theres” within it. The a in differance signifies the abyss of complexity in every distinction. The more a person relates to many kinds of other the more uniquely singular he or she is. Zlomislic shows how Derrida clarifies this extremely significant philosophical notion by deconstructing (1) Heidegger’s Dasein to get at personal responsibility, (2) Nietzsche’s will to power to reveal the loving person of amor fati, (3) Freud’s unconscious to uncover hidden motives and our responsibility for them, and (4) Saussure’s arbitrary and Derrida’s messianic subject. Since all decisions are complicated by unlimited relationality it is up to us to take responsibility with creative trust.
Chapter Four makes clear Derrida’s practice of deconstructing a philosophy from within through charitable readings. Deconstruction is justice for only when we have constant deconstructions of theories and laws will they be able to apply to new unique cases. Zlomislic shows how the epistemology of embracing uncertainty lets deconstruction be (1) a mourning of never enough precedents, (2) a waiting for the never enough of time, (3) a wandering of the never enough of knowledge, and (4) a choosing to decide in the urgent instant.
Chapter Five moves toward a Derridian theology by deconstructing Caputo, Critchley, Žižek, and Searle on the way toward the haecceity and “dearest freshness deep down things” of Gerard Manly Hopkins. It is gratifying to see how Derrida at the end of his life discovered Hopkins with whom he is such a kindred spirit.
This book is simply the best secondary resource available today for professors and students working on Derrida.