Arendt, Derrida, and the Inheritance of Forgiveness

Article excerpt

In his published writings, Jacques Derrida rarely concerned himself with the work of Hannah Arendt. He discusses Arendt's essays "Truth and Politics" and "Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers" in "History of the Lie," and interrogates her famous statements on her relationship to the German language are interrogated alongside comments made by Rosenzweig and Levinas in a long footnote in Monolingualism of the Other.' In addition to these readings, Derrida briefly evokes Arendt's remarks on the decline of the nation-state and the rights of refugees in several analyses of hospitality and cosmopolitanism, and he speaks of her in discussions of Jankélévitch and forgiveness, as well as in remarks on the name of "democracy."2 On none of these occasions is Arendt's work submitted to the kind of scrutiny and analysis that Derrida performs on so many other philosophers and writers. The citations, when they occur, are extremely limited in their scope, and Derrida makes no attempt to draw out any implications his claims might have for Arendt's oeuvre as a whole. Arendt just is not an important figure in Derrida's thinking.

One can only speculate about the reason for this lack of interest. What Derrida does say, brief as it is, suggests that he did not perceive Arendt's writings to be a rich enough resource to warrant further attention. It is only in "History of a lie" that any positive possibilities arising out of Arendt's work are proposed, and even there it reads a little half-hearted. In the other discussions Derrida quickly passes from Arendt's claims to those of others, or to broader tendencies in traditional thinking. Another explanation might be found in Derrida's avoidance of reading women, and in particular of reading women as philosophers.3 Or it could just be that constraints of time, which work against all philosophers prevented any deeper engagement.

I do not want to overplay the significance of this absence of reading, claiming that it demonstrates some deep or decisive point concerning Derrida's writings as a whole, or that Derrida committed some grave error in this omission. However, I would like to suggest that even if Derrida himself did not engage extensively with Arendt's writings, there are good reasons for thinking that such an engagement would have proved more fruitful than his work might lead us to believe. At the very least, Arendt and Derrida share much in their personal and intellectual biographies. Both were Jewish with a distant relationship to their religion. Both emigrated, for different reasons, from the countries of their upbringing. Both were educated in philosophy, but had a greater influence outside of this discipline. Both enjoyed greater success and acceptance in America than in the Europe that trained them. Both addressed political questions-Arendt at every moment, Derrida more in his later writings-and in these investigations many of the same issues are discussed, including sovereignty, human rights, violence, promising, and forgiveness. And both constantly worked through an intense engagement with the philosophical tradition-their writings always refer back to traditional texts, with a view to challenging and transforming received interpretations.

It is this last point that provides the impetus for this essay. That the work of both Arendt and Derrida are marked by a continuous struggle with traditional texts is no doubt due to the thinker who influenced them the strongest (another point in common), Martin Heidegger. Heidegger's "destruction" of the history of being instituted a new way of reading the history of philosophy. Both Arendt and Derrida took this seriously, and took it up, uniquely, in their inheritance of the Heideggerian legacy. In this essay I will investigate the relationship between Heidegger's thinking on the one hand, and the writings of Arendt and Derrida together on the other. Such a study would be fascinating, but it would need much more space than is permitted in an essay. …