Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Secrets of European Responsibility: Jacques Derrida on Responsibility in the Philosophy of Jan Patocka

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Secrets of European Responsibility: Jacques Derrida on Responsibility in the Philosophy of Jan Patocka

Article excerpt

In his 1995 collection of essays entitled The Gift of Death,1 Jacques Derrida deconstructs the concept of responsibility-a characteristically Derridean undertaking. His purpose, however, is not to discount responsibility but to reinforce it, to demarcate an "absolute" responsibility grounded in an irreducible and undeconstructable experience: a paradoxical experience of faith that is "secret" and thereby something other than the "ethical" in any universal sense. Derrida explores in this text his vision of an "infinite responsibility" that has its roots in a "messianic a priori" that is messianic without being religious, and ethical without being metaphysical.2 This is a task that runs through much of Derrida's recent work, and it represents an attempt to reestablish contact with the moral, the political, and even the religious, without reverting to the metaphysical foundationalism that the Derridean practice of deconstruction has long aimed to subvert and decenter.3 It provides Derrida a means to take up ethics, a topic inherently bound up with the metaphysical heritage of the West, while remaining essentially true to his postmodern outlook. Responsibility, in this perspective, becomes something "aporetic"; like Derrida's notion of justice, it is absolute and yet ever "undecidable."4

What makes The Gift of Death an unusual text, and somewhat difficult to approach for many Western readers, is that it takes up responsibility via an engagement with the work of a philosopher largely unknown outside of Central Europe-the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka (Pa-toch-ka). The choice of Patocka is, however, a particularly appropriate one for Derrida's purposes.5 Not only does this Czech thinker deal thematically with the notion of responsibility in a postmetaphysical world,6 he is also explicitly engaged in the same broader quest that occupies Derrida's more recent work. Both Patocka and Derrida seek a formulation of metaphysical themes-themes concerned with religious ethics and political morality, for instance-that avoids the flaws of traditional metaphysics and the intrinsic nihilism of the postmodern pragmatist who declares all ethics to be utterly relative.

Fully half of The Gift of Death is dedicated to a reading of one of Patocka's Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History; this essay, titled "Is Technological Civilization Decadent, and Why?" deals with the historical (or genealogical) roots of the irresponsibility (decadence, decline; upadek in Czech) of contemporary, technological civilization. It is in Patocka genealogy of responsibility and religion, Derrida claims, that a sense of the responsible emerges that is post-metaphysical it results in a heterodoxical and messianic form of responsibility that comes as a gift, in mystery and secrecy, from a sacred Other. Adding to this analysis a consideration of the paradox of responsible ethics in Kierkegaard's story of Isaac and Abraham in Fear and Trembling, Derrida ultimately develops a (non-grounding) groundwork for a version of responsibility he can call his own, and a portrait of God as the ultimate foundation for this absolute component of humanity. The Gift of Death is thus a significant text in what has been called the most recent "phase" in Derrida's thought-the phase which makes clearer the political, ethical, and religious dimensions of his thinking.7 Yet much in the text remains unexplored because, as even a cursory glance at the recent literature on The Gift of Death will show, while analysts are eager to take up the conclusions of Derrida himself, or his engagement with Kierkegaard, few if any are able (or willing) to effectively take up the work of Patocka, or question Derrida's characterization of him.8 This is regrettable, given that the entire edifice built up in this text is grounded in foundations that Derrida purports to find in Patocka's treatment of responsibility.

While it is clearly the case that a genuine appreciation of Derrida's intent in The Gift of Death demands greater attention to Patocka, this is not the only, indeed even the primary, reason for the present essay. …

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