The Dangers Of Dealing With Derrida – Revisiting the Caputo-Hägglund Debate On The “Religious” Reading Of Deconstruction, Part 1 (Neal DeRoo)

The following is the first of a three-part series.

On the surface, the debate between John D. Caputo and Martin Hägglund in the Spring 2011 edition of The Journal of Cultural and Religious Theory seems to be a straightforward discussion between mutually opposing views on religion—on the one hand, Caputo, who claims an essentially “religious” reading of Derrida; and on the other hand, Hägglund, who finds instead a “radical atheism” at the heart of Derrida’s thought.

The force (and, at times, the rhetoric) with which the two disagree with each other further confirms the mutually-opposing-views theory of the debate. Unfortunately, I see nothing in the debate itself that suggests that the two actually disagree with each other when it comes to understanding the logic of Derrida’s work—so from whence comes the debate?

The debate comes, I maintain, not from differing interpretations of the logic of deconstruction, but from following Derrida in the first place. The debate therefore illustrates well the dangers—but also the benefits—of meaningfully engaging with Derrida. I would here like to use this debate as a way of exploring those dangers, and also the benefits. The question I will seek to answer is not “Who is right in this debate,” but rather “How did this debate happen in the first place?”.

In answering the latter question, I hope to move beyond merely exploring which of them has Derrida ‘right,’ to the underlying tension animating anyone who wants to interact meaningfully with Derrida’s work. To get caught up in the theism-atheism issue is to miss precisely what is at stake in this debate: the use (and perhaps necessary abuse) of deconstruction.

Theism vs. Atheism

Before we can get at those stakes, though, we must highlight what seems to be the key issue of the debate, the issue that gets it underway in the first place: the question of the viability of the ‘religious’ understanding of Derrida.

Hägglund is to be commended for the clarity (and, for the most part, the charity) of his response to Caputo, and for the close attention he pays to the texts under discussion (his own, in Radical Atheism, Caputo’s, and Derrida’s). As we shall see, this is not merely accidental, but is tied to the very essence of his argument, of his analysis of deconstruction.

By paying close attention to the context of the debate, Hägglund is able to clearly delineate the bounds in which he will use deconstruction: he is analyzing Caputo’s use of Derrida to show that the former seriously misunderstands the logic of the latter. This not only provides the context in which deconstructive analysis is to be used or employed here, but implicitly suggests the context and purposes for which deconstruction is to be used or employed in general.

As such, we cannot pass over in silence the methodological assumption at work in the use of the term “atheism” to frame the debate. Hägglund begins his response by highlighting Caputo’s (and Richard Kearney’s) condemnation of “metaphysical” religion (126-127),[1] conceding that there is a certain “atheism” at work in their work as well. That Hägglund focuses his response on Caputo clearly illustrates that this debate is about the use and abuse of deconstruction, and not about the religious claims at work, since it is Kearney’s writings that more closely mirrors Hägglund’s own position on that topic (namely, that a certain atheistic moment is necessary at the heart of every action that claims to be ‘religious’).[2]

After briefly outlining Kearney and Caputo’s responses to (i.e., agreements with) the “new atheism” of Dawkins and Hitchens, Hägglund quickly clarifies the object of his concern: the “opposition between two ways of relating to the future (one that generates ‘war’ by seeking to master or calculate time, the other that brings ‘peace’ by renouncing the attempt to program what will happen) [that] is central to Caputo’s reading of Jacques Derrida” (127).

While this seems to abandon the question of atheism, we will see that it does not. Hägglund defines his use of the term atheism as the denial of the existence of absolute immunity (140). This is radicalized by him to include the denial also of the very desire for such immunity.  As he puts it, “the radical atheism of deconstruction seeks to elucidate that what we desire and dream of is itself inhabited by autoimmunity” (140). Atheism, then, is the denial of purity, the denial that anything wholly good, wholly “immune from evil” (131), that is, from contamination by what is not it, exists. Hägglund’s ‘atheistic’ claim is that everything is autoimmune, “that the good in its actuality is already violated by evil, already involved in its own destruction,” and that this latter claim is necessitated by Derrida’s understanding of time (131).

Before we move on to evaluate the relation between atheism and time, we must consider this definition of atheism. Clearly, if atheism is the necessity that nothing can be “purely” separated from its opposite, that the good is always already, in itself and not from without, violated by evil, then its opposite must be the claim that such purity does exist, that contamination is extrinsic, not intrinsic, and therefore that we can speak—at least theoretically or abstractly, if not in actuality—of pure dichotomies, pure distinctions in which each term in the distinction is unsullied by its opposite (129).

To speak of such purity in regards to traditional theism—with its predilection for ‘omni-’attributes (omniscience, omnibenevolence, omnipotence, etc.)—makes some sense. But this is, of course, precisely why Caputo et. al. deny such theism in their attempt to revive the religious.

This debate is not really about atheism and theism, however, nor is it primarily about atheism and the “religious”. Rather, it is about purity, and the use of pure distinctions in deconstruction (hence, Hägglund’s objection to Caputo’s two types of relating to the future). Hägglund does an admirable job of tracing his condemnation of such ‘pure’ distinctions back to Derrida, and of showing Derrida’s insistence on the presence of ‘autoimmunity’ (one could also use language of necessary contamination, intertwining, etc.).

One could quibble with the precise nature of Hägglund’s reading of Derrida on some issues,[3] but his overall point on this score seems undoubtedly true: the logic of deconstruction at work in Derrida is one that undermines sharp distinctions and dichotomies in favor of intertwining and autoimmunity. His “atheistic” reading of the logic of deconstruction seems incontestable—so incontestable, in fact, that I do not think Caputo could disagree with it.

The Logic of Deconstruction

But the debate is not over; it has not yet really begun. There is another methodological assumption at work in Hägglund’s response – the (seeming) reduction of deconstruction primarily to a “logic.” To see this at work, let us return to the connection between radical atheism and Derrida’s understanding of time, as this connection is explained by Hägglund. Radical atheism is the notion that the good is autoimmune, that is, self-destroying – the good immunizes itself against itself when it tries to immunize itself against evil, because good and evil are necessarily intertwined.

One cannot separate a ‘pure’ good from a ‘pure evil,’ because the good is always already conditioned by evil: “Even if all external threats are evaded, the good is therefore compromised from within, since the attack on its integrity is already operative within the good that is defended” (132).

To explain this matter, Hägglund appeals to Derrida’s notion of time, specifically that the present is auto-immune because it effaces itself in its very coming-to-be: “Given that the present ceases to be as soon as it comes to be, it attacks its own integrity from the beginning and makes it impossible for anything to be unscathed” (131). Everything is scathed by the scission between present and non-present, and specifically, it seems, between the present and the future, because what is now will cease to be, the future radically cuts off the present.

Hence, our desire to maintain something in the present is, in fact, a desire to project the present into the future; as such, it is necessarily opened up to a future that inevitably risks that it will not bring more of the same, but will bring instead rupture and destruction: “one cannot protect anything without committing it to a future that allows it to live on and by the same token exposes it to corruption” (132).

This opening is constitutive of experience in general.  “In order to do anything, we must have faith in the future and in those on whom we depend, since we cannot know what will happen or what others will do to us. Consequently, the faith that sustains us, the trust that allows us to act, is necessarily open to being deceived and the credit granted to the other open to being ruinous” (132).

But the rupture described so far is only a potential rupture: the future may be other than the present. There is a risk of being separated from the past, but not a necessity. It is precisely this risk and potential, according to Hägglund, that opens the possibility of meaningful life in the present. This leads to Hägglund’s key notion of survival: taking the time to live by postponing death (133). Survival requires retaining the past, “to keep it in resistance to loss,” while simultaneously living on into a future that necessarily risks being separated from its past (133).

Hence, every present is characterized by a rupture—but this rupture opens up the possibility of meaningful life in the present: “If life were fully present in itself—if it were not haunted by past and future, by what has been and what may be—there would be no reason to care about life, since nothing could happen to it” (133).

While this understanding of survival offers a unique (and somewhat compelling) argument against certain religious readings of immortality—living forever would eliminate the risk of the future, and therefore would eliminate the meaningfulness of life itself in the present, and therefore would in fact be death rather than life (133)—we have already said that the point of this debate is not about the atheism-theism (and perhaps not even the atheism-religion) question, but rather about deconstruction itself.

And on this score, Hägglund’s argument requires a sharp distinction between logical structure, on the one hand, and content or context, on the other. As we have already discussed, the fact that the good can be challenged from without is not enough to threaten the purity of the good itself. Challenging purity by the appeal to autoimmunity requires an intrinsic contamination, not merely the possibility of an extrinsic one (130-131, 132). As such, the possibility that the future might be bad is itself not enough to convince us of the autoimmunity of the good—it might be enough to make belief in the notion of immortality self-referentially incoherent, but this hardly makes the very possibility of experience a necessary conflation of good and evil (or any pair of binary opposites).

The reason Hägglund is able to make the latter move is not because of the fact that the future might be bad, but rather because of the structural condition that underlies this fact: “the threat that is intrinsic to the structure of the promise does not only consist in that the promise may be broken, but can also consist in that the promise may be kept… This does not mean just that the promise is always already threatened [i.e., from without]; it also means that the promise is [intrinsically] threatening” (129-130n.13).  It is only by appeal to this structural condition that Hägglund is able to make his claim regarding radical atheism and autoimmunity.[4]

But this structure can only be understood in opposition to the context in which, or the content by which, it operates. And this very opposition—central to Derrida’s distinction between messianicity (as a structure of experience) and messianisms (as historically situated phenomenon)—is problematized by Derrida himself, throughout his oeuvre (most notably in the notion of the messianic, as the intertwining of messianicity and messianisms).[5]

While I’m sure Hägglund would agree that this distinction cannot remain simple, I fear that it does so too often in his response to Caputo—and not necessarily as a fault of Hägglund. There is something in talking about Derrida—perhaps in reflecting on anyone’s work, but more explicitly in Derrida—that makes the use of such distinctions perhaps necessary, even as one problematizes them.

But we must not get ahead of ourselves. Let us remain with Hägglund’s account of the structure of openness, the “logic of survival,” as it applies to Derrida’s account of time. It is on this notion of time that Hägglund makes his first strong stand against Caputo’s “religious” reading of Derrida. Building on the Derridean distinction between faith (as a structure) and the religious (as the desire for the unscathed) that is at work in Faith and Knowledge, Hägglund challenges Caputo’s claim that Radical Atheism tries to suppress Derrida’s analysis of faith and that Hägglund attacks the very notion of religion itself (cf. 33 and 134), instead arguing that the notion of faith itself requires the “unconditional affirmation of survival” (134).

But this “unconditional” is not something that happens, or will happen, but is rather the “exposure to what happens” that is constitutive of survival, and a necessary condition, as we have already seen, for any experience, for “all responses to life” (135), since only this “exposure to what happens” can enable us to say “‘yes’ to the coming of the future” (134).

“But for the same reason, every affirmation is essentially compromised and threatened by negation, since the coming of the future also entails all the threats to which one may want to say “‘no’” (134-135). While this is true, it cannot be so only because of the “threat” of what might come in the future, in the next instant. It is not (only) that the future to come might not be pleasant that threatens us in the present, but rather that the (structural) to-come-ness of the future already problematizes, opens up, and conditions the present. This conditioning of the present entails that one’s “commitment to the survival of someone or something” that alone opens the possibility of responsibility (135) is not a commitment I make, but is a commitment that I am, a commitment made on my behalf by another.[6]

Hägglund is not unaware of this argument —though he does not here draw out the full implications of its logic for its logic. Indeed, he says it is “Derrida’s notion of ‘the trace’ [that] provides the logical infrastructure” for the constitutive nature of survival for experience in general (135). Hägglund is clear here that the temporality of the trace “should here not be conflated with the chronology of linear time” but is instead a “constitutive deferral and delay that is inherent in any temporal event” (135).

It is precisely this constitutive nature (of the trace, but also of autoimmunity and survival) that explains Derrida’s notion of the unconditional:  “The autoimmunity that follows from this tracing of time is what Derrida calls the structure of the event and he emphasizes that it is unconditional, in the sense that it is the condition for anything to happen” (136). The unconditional is unconditional precisely because it is the necessary condition for anything to happen.

While Hägglund emphasizes this (I think correct) understanding of the unconditional in order to challenge Caputo’s use of the same term, doing so undercuts the very logic of autoimmunity that he explains so well. Where he takes Caputo to task for discussing the unconditional as “a ‘promise’ or a ‘dream’” (136), Hägglund is quick to point out that his critique of Caputo centers on the fact that, on his reading of Caputo, the “unconditional and the conditional would thus belong to two different “‘orders’” (136).

The problem that Hägglund suggests here is that Caputo establishes a distinction between what actually happens (the conditional), on the one hand, and an unconditional promise that does not happen, but rather calls to us from somewhere beyond what happens, beyond the conditional. Such a distinction violates the radical atheism that undercuts the very possibility of such “pure” distinctions, the possibility of a “pure” beyond experience.

In Hägglund’s words “Derrida is not claiming that something unconditional is promised; he is arguing that any promise is unconditionally exposed to being broken or betrayed” (137). Hägglund’s emphasis here again on the possibility of being broken or betrayed I fear is unhelpful—it is not just that I might be wrong, that the promise might be broken, or that the promised might be terrible that underlies Derrida’s notion of the unconditioned. Hägglund’s position here seem too caught up in the possibility of external contamination—it is not just that the promise might be broken or terrible that structures the unconditional, but also the fact that the unconditional is itself conditioned.

I am not sure whether or not Hägglund would agree with this last point. While the logic of deconstruction that he so admirably (and clearly) lays out suggests that he would agree, or must agree, he seems to rely in this article on the notion of (logical) structure as what distinguishes the unconditioned from the conditioned/  “For the same reason, the unconditional does not belong to a different ‘order’ than the here and now. The unconditional is the spacing of time that is the structure of the here and now, the structure of what happens, of the event” (137).

This reliance, while perhaps contextual (i.e., operative primarily in this engagement with Caputo in response to Caputo’s perceived under-emphasis of this understanding of the term), is nonetheless problematic, and for a two-fold reason: first, it undercuts the very logic that Hägglund has so clearly embraced; and second, it misconstrues Caputo’s use of the term.

First things first, however.  Emphasizing the structure of experience vis-à-vis the experience (of experience) is not unwarranted—Derrida himself repeatedly makes such a move, as Hägglund so helpfully points out—but it is unfinished. For while Derrida will distinguish between the structure and the content of the experience, he is also careful to point out that the structure can never be wholly separated from the content. This points lies at the center of The Problem of Genesis in Husserl’s Philosophy, and has “has not stopped imposing itself on [Derrida] from thence forward”[7] – hence his use of “quasi-transcendentals” instead of mere “transcendentals”. To refer to another early work of Derrida: il n’y a pas de hors-texte—not even logical structures.

The conditioned nature of the unconditional is important here, not as a critique of Hägglund’s reading of Derrida, but of his reading of Caputo. That is not to say that he is not right in some of what he says about Caputo, but I fear that he misses the larger point of Caputo’s “religious” reading of Derrida, and so perhaps also the nature of their disagreement. The disagreement is not about the nature of the logic of deconstruction, but about what we can learn from the extra-logical conditions that have shaped that logic. The question that is at stake in the debate between Caputo and Hägglund, then, is not “What is the logic of deconstruction?”, but rather “Is deconstruction only a logic?”.

Answering the former question correctly—and we have already stipulated that we have no objection to Hägglund’s description of that logic—seems to indicate that one must answer the second question negatively. And it is in response to this latter question, I think, that one can most fruitfully read the difference between Caputo and Hägglund.

Neal DeRoo is the Canada Research Chair in Phenomenology and Philosophy of Religion at The King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Before coming to King’s in 2016, he taught at Brock University and Dordt College and served as the Director of the Andreas Center for Reformed Scholarship and Service.  He publishes and lectures worldwide on topics related to phenomenology, oppression theory, and philosophy of religion. He is currently working on a project that uses the concept of expression in phenomenology to show how everything we do in our lives is expressive of a deeper spirituality that shapes us and our society to the core.


[1] All in text citations in this paper will be to Caputo and Hägglund’s papers in Volume 11 no. 2 of JCRT, unless otherwise noted.

[2] While there are obvious differences in what this means for Kearney and for Hägglund, that these differences are not the object of Hägglund’s argument clearly shows that the main concern is not with the atheism question, but with the use of Derrida, for which Caputo is a more logical debate partner.

[3] More precisely, I might disagree with what seems to be Hägglund’s univocal use of time, instead of accounting for the dual aspects of time (not only as moving from the present to the future but also the present’s being conditioned and made “out of joint” by the future) that Derrida discusses at length in Specters of Marx. I explore this duality, though not explicitly in relation to Hägglund, in much more detail in Futurity in Phenomenology: Promise and Method in Husserl, Levinas and Derrida (Fordham University Press, 2012).

[4] Hence Hägglund’s repeated use of the term “the logic of,” applied to: “radical atheism” (129, 134), radical evil (131 ff.), “survival” (133), “the trace” (135), etc.

[5] One could also look to Derrida’s early interactions with Husserl, where he repeatedly makes this point: cf. The Problem of Genesis in Husserl’s Philosophy as well as Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An Introduction.

[6] Cf. Derrida’s analysis of Hamlet in Specters of Marx.

[7] Cf. “Preface to the 1990 Edition” of The Problem of Genesis in Husserl’s Philosophy (trans. Marian Hobson [Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003]), xv.

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