Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Deconstructing the Rational Respondent: Derrida, Kant, and the Duty of Response

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Deconstructing the Rational Respondent: Derrida, Kant, and the Duty of Response

Article excerpt

Tout autre est tout autre.1

It is fair to say that one of the primary concerns of continental philosophy has been to set out a phenomenology and ethics of alterity. In other words, it has aimed to understand and respond to the experience of otherness in such a way that the response is not itself indicative of a collapse of that otherness into sameness-a response that is thus to be markedly different from that typical of what Levinas calls a philosophy of the same or traditional metaphysics.2 This new response (which Levinas, for instance, has described as a constitutively ethical witnessing and welcome) is thus to be a response that respects and sustains alterity, that accepts a responsibility to this alterity as alterity, but a responsibility that is far from that of following such strict injunctions as to leave well enough alone or to ghetto-ize. It is a responsibility that is always already a response and a responding.

Interestingly, in trying to clarify just what the response to alterity should entail, one emblematic respondent has been the focus of intense discussion within continental philosophy: Abraham and his response to the call of God.3 Whilst I will not explicate this story in detail here (suffice it to say that this is the story of Abraham and his response to God of offering up his son Isaac in sacrifice),4 what does need mentioning is Abraham's response to this call. Now, this has been extensively glossed by John Caputo, so it is to one of his narratives that I will turn:

"Abraham," the voice called out, in Hebrew (I assume).

"Me voici" [here I am], Abraham responded.5

What Caputo stresses here (and is further stressed by Abraham's French) is that Abraham is on "the receiving end of a command, a call, an obligation." It might be a "message from who knows where,"6 but it is a message that he feels obligated to respond to, that he feels he has a duty to respond to. At the same time though it is a message-or, better, a trial-that asks him (and us) to proceed, as Jacques Derrida puts it, "sans savoir, sans avoir, sans voir."7 Now whether Abraham himself proceeded rightly under these circumstances is not my concern here (although I have suggested elsewhere that he did in fact fail the trial).8 What, however, I do see as pertinent is the point that Abraham was simply not able to make a decision as to the best way to proceed via any mode of rational calculation, insofar as rational calculation requires knowledge and that which called Abraham was not able itself to be known or assessed by him. Abraham's response, then, is a response made under the condition of undecidability, a condition that Derrida argues is inextricably linked to that of the responsibility of the respondent toward alterity. That is, Derrida argues that far from our response to alterity being best achieved through a mode of rational calculation, we as respondents to alterity have a responsibility-indeed a duty-to not respond simply in this manner.9 Now this of course would seem to fly in the face of the arguments left to us by that paradigmatic thinker of ethico-political duty, Immanuel Kant. In apparent contrast to Derrida, Kant argues for ethical response to be based in rational calculation, where the duty of response is to act in line with moral law.10

This, then, is the scene for my argument. More specifically, this essay will examine these issues of the respondent and his/her duty to respond under ethico-political law through contrasting the work of Immanuel Kant and Jacques Derrida. In addition, through my clarification of both the Kantian and Derridean respondents, their respective duties to respond, and the frameworks underlying their respective responses, I will draw on Abraham as the emblematic respondent towards alterity. Overall, then, this essay will elucidate the question of the ethico-political respondent and his/her duty of and in response, Derrida's critique of the Kantian argument, and, finally, some possible outcomes of this critique with regards to our thinking of the respondent and his or her duties toward the other, and other others. …

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