The Dangers Of Dealing With Derrida – Revisiting the Caputo-Hägglund Debate On The “Religious” Reading Of Deconstruction, Part 3 (Neal DeRoo)

The following is the third installment of a three-part series.  The first one can be found here, the second here

Revisiting Another Debate

But one could embrace another prevalence for deconstruction, what we have here been calling the ‘extra-logical’ factors of deconstruction, its contextualizations, its context. It is precisely this claim that Caputo puts forward—not that the unconditional is a call, but that the unconditional (structure or opening) is itself (quasi-)conditioned by a call; that the logical structure of openness—the logic of survival, the logic of deconstruction—is not a pure structure, but is a structured structure, is a structure that not only structures experience but is structured by experience.

Some might argue that this is a conflation of categories, a category mistake as Aristotle already warns us against. Rather, given the logic of autoimmunity and intercontamination—the logic of deconstruction—we can see that this need not be a conflation of categories, but rather a recognition of the autoimmunity of the notion of ‘pure’ logical structures, ‘pure’ experiential content, ‘pure’ transcendentals, ‘pure’ experiences—purity itself.

The ‘religious’ reading of Derrida is not only a reading of Derrida according to certain theological tropes or themes, but is also a contextualized reading of Derrida that deconstructs those tropes and themes, moving beyond the notion of religion as “premised on the idea of ‘the unscathed’ (l’indemne), which [Derrida] glosses as the pure and the untouched, the sacred and the holy, the safe and sound” (129) toward another reading, not just of Derrida, but of religion.

Caputo’s “religion without religion” is not (just) a religion without violence (such a thing would, indeed, be impossible for us finite creatures, as Hägglund repeatedly points out), but a religion that moves beyond the ‘religious’ yearning for the pure and the untouched to an acceptance that such purity is not possible for finite creatures—and perhaps, as Hägglund rather convincingly argues, not even desirable to be achieved by finite creatures.

But remaining in this acceptance, while perhaps adequate for the logic of deconstruction, is not sufficient for the context of deconstruction—neither for the philosophical and biographical context of its construction, as Caputo tries to argue, nor for the employment of deconstruction in religious contexts that Caputo (among others) seeks to enact. In this regard, it is not entirely accurate to say that “[a]ll of Caputo’s work on a supposedly deconstructive religion is structured around this opposition between a ‘good’ religion that welcomes others and a ‘bad’ religion that excludes others” (127)—but it is not entirely inaccurate, either.

Logically speaking, Caputo is aware that the logical structures of deconstruction neither welcome nor shun: khôra doesn’t care. The question is whether khôra’s not caring can be squared with the “‘the desire for the impossible’ that according to Caputo is ‘the common passion’ (111) of deconstruction and religion” (128).[1] Can Caputo say both that the logical structures of deconstruction do not care and yet still claim that deconstruction has a passionate desire for the impossible?

This question is one that Caputo has had to answer long before Martin Hägglund appeared on the philosophical scene. Over 20 years ago—long before the publication of Radical Atheism or The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida—someone else was taking Caputo to task for his use of deconstruction. However, on that occasion, James H. Olthuis played the role that Caputo now occupies in the debate with Hägglund, and Caputo played the role of Martin Hägglund.

In an exchange begun in 1990,[2] Olthuis posed two possibilities to Caputo: “A Cold and Comfortless Hermeneutic or a Warm and Trembling Hermeneutic,” and wondered why Caputo felt the need to opt for the former over the latter. To move much too quickly through this debate (surely one debate per article is enough!), one could say that Olthuis wants to claim that, given the necessity of interpretation opened up by the analysis of undecidability at the heart of deconstruction, it is the case that every interpretation of that undecidability—every interpretation, that is to say, of the logical structure of openness, deferral, spacing, etc. at the heart of deconstruction—is precisely an interpretation, that is, a particular ‘take’ on that structure, taken up within a stream or line of life and interpretation that conditions the reader in one direction or the other.

If this is so, then construing this structure as neutral and uncaring is no more nor less ‘purely true’ than is construing the structure as already ‘primed’ for love. This latter point is very different than equating the logical structure with love—rather, it suggests that something in our tradition causes us to understand that structure as predisposing (though not programming) us toward love, toward openness toward others, etc.

In response, Caputo carefully and consistently insists upon the neutrality of the logical structures of deconstruction. In his last exchange on the matter, he points out the difference that context makes: “I have more than once observed to myself that while my religious friends ask me why I am so dark, my secular friends ask me why I am so upbeat.”[3]

In that context, given that he is responding to a ‘religious’ friend, Caputo ceaselessly emphasizes the ‘coldness’ or ‘darkness,’ the fundamental neutrality, of the logic of deconstruction. In fact, even love—repeatedly cited by Hägglund as an example of Caputo’s missing the boat on deconstruction (cf. 129, 136-7, 140, etc.)—“is what it is because of its differential spacing from the odious, or amorphous, or amortizing,”[4] which is to say, that it “is in virtue of differance that ‘God,’ ‘no God,’ ‘love,’ etc. get into play and we can discuss them, or live our lives with them uppermost in our minds, or whatever we are going to do with them.”[5]

In summarizing his response to Olthuis’ initial query about the two interpretations of hermeneutics, Caputo states: “the notion that things are deeply guided by God, as a loving force that steers all things mightily to the good, or as an amorous womb that keeps us safe against the cold [roughly Olthuis’ position], stands alongside the competing view that the cosmos is a vast cosmic stupidity that does not know we are here and could care less.”[6]

After emphasizing this (religious) neutrality that could, I think, have been taken from the pages of Hägglund himself, Caputo then asks: “then why not say that deconstruction is absolutely neutral instead of insisting that deconstruction is affirmation, oui, oui, indeed that deconstruction is a work of love…How can we square this neutrality with the affirmative character of deconstruction an affirmation of the undeconstructible?”[7] Caputo’s answer to this question is telling for our discussion here, in that he beings by reminding us that “this affirmation transpires in and as deconstruction, not precisely in or as khôra/differance, which is only part, however irreducible a part, of deconstruction’s story.”[8]

The logical structures of deconstruction, Caputo here states, are only a part of deconstruction. The other part consists of “an archi-faith, a more indeterminate faith [foi], beyond any determinate belief [croyance], in something that has been promised” (ibid.). This promise, however, is not to be found in the logic of deconstruction, but in something external to that logic, namely “in words like ‘democracy,’ ‘justice,’ [elsewhere he would say ‘God’],[9] promises that stir within those words and solicit us like events waiting to happen.”[10]

It is not the logic of deconstruction that commits deconstruction to affirmation, justice, openness to the other, etc., but rather the promise inherent in the words that are employed—indeed, that shape—the context in which deconstruction was constructed, and in which it is employed (at least by Caputo). Nothing guarantees that these promises will be kept, or will not emerge as threats or nightmares—this is a “structural matter” attributable to the logic laid out by deconstruction[11]— but this does not eliminate the power they have, they ought to have, as promises of something better that can spur in us the passion to act today.

Caputo wraps up this response to Olthuis by agreeing that “after or in light of faith, we give khôra/differance a new meaning, in virtue of which it is redeemed by faith,” but this “faith always presupposes an older, more unredeemed khôra/differance.[12] Hence, the ‘religious’ faith “in an amorous divine matrix is a construal, a religious hermeneutic that presupposes the undecidability that in turn elicits a decision—even as the Derridean decision in favor of an aleatory event or laicized grace is also a construal of khôra/differance.[13]

Without this logical structure as a precondition, Caputo claims (in move that is reminiscent of Hägglund’s argument against religious immortality) that the notion of differance as love would, in fact, render love impossible: “Unless there is an elemental chanciness in life, love loses its chance and we lose the chance of love.”[14]

Returning to the current debate, in response to Hägglund (who must, we then infer, count as a ‘secular friend’), Caputo must be understood as emphasizing the upbeat, more positive side of deconstruction—but always only of the contextualization of deconstruction, not of its logic. On the point of logic, Caputo and Hägglund are in deep agreement. The disagreement arises in where and how that logic is to be employed. Caputo is arguing, then, not that the logic of deconstruction supports the unconditional over the conditional, but that the context of deconstruction (and/or the life of Derrida) supports certain tropes or promises over others.

To say that deconstruction favors, say, Justice, Democracy and the Impossible, is not to say that the logic of deconstruction favours those things, but rather that the context in which deconstruction was constructed—and, further, the (religious) context in which Caputo is employing the deconstructive logic—is ‘primed’ to favor certain things over others . Even as the logic causes us to question all our assumptions, the context has certain assumptions (e.g., violence against other people ought to be minimized, wherever possible) that necessarily shape the use of deconstruction.

Beyond this, though—and here I move beyond the explicit words of Caputo—the logic of deconstruction tells us that all contexts have to have certain assumptions AND that the logic has to have a context itself. This relation between logic and the extra-logical factors would, according to that very logic, mirror the relationship of every ‘inside’ to its ‘outside,’ a relationship that Derrida examines most explicitly in “The Ends of Man.”

There, he states that we always find ourselves inside particular contexts, and the wish to transcend, get beyond, or even shake up those contexts requires us to make a “strategic bet” between two styles of deconstruction, the first broadly Heideggerian, the second broadly ‘French’: either to “attempt an exit and a deconstruction without changing terrain…by using against the edifice the instruments or stones available in the house, that is, equally, in language” or “to decide to change terrain, in a discontinuous and irruptive fashion, by brutally placing oneself outside, and by affirming an absolute break and difference.”[15] This latter strategy, however, is doomed to fail, since “the simple practice of language ceaselessly reinstates the new terrain on the oldest ground,” though this does “not suffice to annul the necessity for a ‘change of terrain.’”[16]

Both strategies, then, attempt to transcend one’s context—to change it but, arguably, even to understand and analyze it—by remaining rooted firmly within that context: the first begins from within that context, and can then only transcend it by getting to something ‘new,’ while the second starts with something ‘new,’ but can only conceive of this as transcending the context by noticing how the ‘new’ is always already caught up in that context. As such, one cannot choose one strategy or the other; instead, “a new writing must weave and interlace these two motifs of deconstruction,”[17] and therefore must attempt multiple styles, multiple languages, levels, or ‘contexts’, at one time.

 The Danger of Dancing with Derrida

And here we see the danger of reading Derrida. On his own logic, one must always be employing several deconstructive ‘styles,’ not merely logic. One cannot leave logical distinctions ‘pure’; yet, one can also not abandon logical distinctions. As such, we must constantly use distinctions that are simultaneously being problematized or undercut. Further, this problematization itself occurs both logically and extra-logically, that is, according to several different styles at once.

One can only serious examine this (which philosophical rigor demands we do) by first questioning and deconstructing the very distinction between the logical and the extra-logical, even as we, simultaneously, deconstruct the distinctions within the logical (and the extra-logical?). This second-level deconstruction must abide by the logic of deconstruction—but must it also abide by the extra-logical factors of deconstruction? Is the logic of deconstruction any more “rigorously” deconstruction than are the extra-logical factors of deconstruction?

Hägglund seems to want to answer in the affirmative to the latter question, but is hesitant to do so for the former question. Caputo, on the contrary, happily affirms the former question—oui oui we can imagine him saying—while uncomfortably denying the latter. This is the real issue at the heart of the debate: whether deconstruction is primarily a logic, or a part of life, a way of living, thinking, or acting in the world.

This issue is not accidental and avoidable, but is, in fact, necessary to the heart of deconstruction itself. One can never get ‘purely’ to a ‘pure’ analysis of deconstruction. We always start in the middle, as Derrida was wont to say (or illustrate, as in the left-hand column of Glas), situated in a context not of our own making.

To return to our earlier terminology of temporality, the good and the promise, autoimmunity entails, not only that the structure of temporality that displaces and defers the present from the past and future entails that “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” (129-230n.13), but also that, because of that same temporality, we are not only the kind of being that can make promises, but rather we are the kind of being that is promised. “For a promise to be assumed, someone must be there who is sensitive to the promise, who is able to say ‘I am the promise…’”.[18] Not only do I have assumptions and a context, but I am assumed and contextualized.

In order to be rigorous, then, we must examine all of our contextual assumptions; yet, in order to examine those assumptions, we must employ assumptions (more than likely those same ones to be examined), which must then be examined on a meta-level, again via (likely those same) assumptions, which must then be examined on a higher meta-level by assumptions, ad infinitum. Assumptions, context, promising—however one wants to attempt to refer to this problematic—goes all the way down through the “bottomless chessboard,”[19] and we never find the solid ground on which to take a firm stand. Not even the solid ground of logical structures.

Yet stand firm we must. For Derrida also does an admirable job of pointing out the need for such contextual analysis. Just because we cannot get back to a final, a-contextual truth, does not mean that we should not analyze concepts and rigorously pursue philosophical thought. Nor can we use the impossibility of “getting to the bottom” of an issue as an excuse for lazily staying on the surface, employing poorly defined (rather than clearly defined, even if obviously complex) terms.

Studying Derrida ought to only ramp up this rigor, given both the logic that his deconstructive thought bequeaths to us, and the biographical facts of his own personal desire for rigor. Ramping up this rigor, however, requires us, also, to pay attention, logically and philosophically, to what would otherwise seem extra-logical or extra-philosophical concerns. Yet, conversely, logical analysis of extra-logical factors can yield only so much insight into those factors themselves. As philosophers, then, we seem undeniably limited in what we can pursue philosophically. Such a move is only exacerbated when one studies someone like Derrida, who purposefully multiplies styles, beyond just the logical and philosophical. As such, purely philosophical readings of Derrida are doomed to miss (at least some of) the point.

At the same time, non-philosophical readings, too, are doomed to miss (at least some of) the point, given the philosophical context and underpinnings of Derrida’s work. Perhaps the best we can do, then, is to attempt for agreement on the logic of deconstruction, and then pay explicit attention to the contextualizations (both in its construction and its employment) of deconstruction, turning the logic of deconstruction loose on its contexts.

But are we also required to turn that context loose on the logic? And is philosophy the best method of attempting to do so? Everything in the Caputo-Hägglund debate turns on the answer to these two questions, and only when these are answered can we properly examine the viability of a ‘religious’ reading of Derrida, atheistic or otherwise.

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] The citation in the quote refers to Caputo’s article in the debate in JCRT.

[2] Cf. Olthuis, “A Cold and Comfortless Hermeneutic or a Warm and Trembling Hermeneutic: A Conversation with John D. Caputo,” Christian Scholars Review XIX:4 (1990), 345-362; the debate continued in Caputo, “Hermeneutics and Faith: A Response to Professor Olthuis,” and Olthuis, “Undecidability and the Impossibility of Faith: Continuing the Conversation with Professor Caputo,” in Christian Scholars Review XX (1991), 164-170 and 171-73, respectively; Olthuis, “The Test of Khôra: grâce à Dieu” and Caputo, “Hoping in hope, hoping against hope: a Response,” in Olthuis (ed.), Religion With/out Religion: The Prayers and Tears of John D. Caputo (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), 110-119 and 120-149 (esp. 144-148), respectively; Caputo, “Olthuis’ Risk: A Heretical Tribute,” in Smith and Venema (eds.), The Hermeneutics of Charity: Interpretation, Selfhood and Postmodern Faith (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2004), 41-51; and Olthuis, “Testing the Heart of Khôra: Anonymous or Amorous?” and Caputo, “The Chance of Love: A response to Olthuis” in Zlomislic and DeRoo, (eds.), Cross and Khôra: Deconstruction and Christianity in the Work of John D. Caputo  (Eugene: Pickwick, 2010), 174-186 and 187-196, respectively.

[3] Caputo, “The Chance of Love,” 187.

[4] Ibid., 190.

[5] Ibid., 191.

[6] Ibid., 192.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cf. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), especially chapter 6, “Hyper-Realism and the Hermeneutics of the Call.”

[10] Caputo, “The Chance of Love,” 192.

[11] Ibid., 193.

[12] Ibid., 195.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 196.

[15] Derrida, “The Ends of Man,” Derrida, in Margins of Philosophy trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 109-136; 135.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Jacques Derrida and Richard Beardsworth, “Nietzsche and the Machine,” Journal of Nietzsche Studies 7 (1994): 7-66; 30.

[19] Cf. “Differance,” in Margins of Philosophy, 1-28; 22.

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