Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Moment of Responsibility (Derrida and Kierkegaard)

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Moment of Responsibility (Derrida and Kierkegaard)

Article excerpt

Derrida is at home in the world of Kierkegaard. Already in his early Levinas article which appears in Writing and Difference, Derrida defended Kierkegaard from the criticism of Levinas.1 In The Force of Law his thinking about the leap over the abyss of indecidability is compared to Kierkegaard's.2 The Gift of Death reworks many Kierkegaardian themes: the secret, the leap, the sacrifice, the other, the moment, death, guilt, madness and freedom.3 But even though Derrida does not "deconstruct" Kierkegaard, it seems that he does not yet attend to certain Kierkegaardian distinctions that the logic of the gift requires. To begin considering the differences between Derrida and Kierkegaard perhaps six points should first be clarified: ( 1 ) the leap (2) the leap of faith (3) the leap of sin (4) the leap and God (5) the leap and madness and (6) the leap and the moment.

The Leap

To clarify the differences between their two concepts of the leap, attending to an image of responsibility for each will help. In "Che cos' e la Poesia?" Derrida imagines a hedgehog crossing a busy highway.4 The hedgehog has been called to cross by and for another. When she is in the middle of the highway a speeding car comes roaring down upon her. She halts, curling into a ball, exposing her quills in the defensive position to ward off predators. Her defense is hardly adequate. So it is with persons. Whenever we write or give or promise or decide or do anything responsible, we come face to face with the abyss of indecidability. The three aporias of not enough time, not enough knowledge, and not enough precedents halt us just as the hedgehog is halted. But it is in this moment of being halted that the poematic decision can take place. The halting/being halted is the decision. The hedgehog could try running either back or forward, but she might be more apt to become road kill than if she just stays put and lets the driver miss her. In not being able to calculate with certitude how the decision should be made, we are enabled to respond to urgency by making the mad leap of the decision. Whatever we write, whatever we give, whatever we promise, whatever we decide, whatever is created within us will receive unlimited interpretations and responses. The abyss of indecidability is before us because of the disconcerting principle of dissemination. Whatever we give, decide, etc., has incalculable meanings and incalculable forces. The hedgehog is halted by not knowing how best to respond to the oncoming car.

This indecidability that derives from dissemination could be taken as relativism and nihilism. The halting hedgehog could be regarded as impotent in its paralysis before the abyss of nihilism. And yet if we could calculate every return then there could never be pure giving.5 Gifts always get returns, whether it be in the form of an exchange of gifts, a "thank you," or the good feeling or thought that comes from giving being its own reward. But if we only gave to get returns, giving would not be pure and generous giving. It is the abyss of indecidability that lets the impossible, pure giving be. It is impossible that giving giving without indecidability would not get returns. But because we cannot calculate them they enable the giving to be pure. The right hand can give without the left hand knowing. Dissemination lets there be the ignorance or oblivion that can enable us to give with trust.6 It is the responsibility of the special secret of right handed giving that the left hand does not know that Derrida elaborates in The Gift of Death and that the hedgehog images.7 Her halting before the abyss of indecidability is a leap. The urgency of the oncoming car occasions her halt which is the leap of the decision. The dissemination of ethics lets there be an ethics of dissemination. Because signs always signify other signs, there cannot be a transcendental signified outside the context of signs. Writing, gifts, decisions are all contaminated with unending dissemination, but that is exactly what allows there to be the free leap into the new. …

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