The Markers of Deconstructive Citizenship: A Corrective to the Constructionist Approach to Justice

By Borradori, Giovanna | Philosophy Today, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

The Markers of Deconstructive Citizenship: A Corrective to the Constructionist Approach to Justice


Borradori, Giovanna, Philosophy Today


The Markers of Deconstructive Citizenship: A Corrective to the Constructionist Approach to Justice Miriam Bankovsky, Perfecting Justice in Rawls, Habermas, and Honneth: A Deconstructive Perspective (London: Continuum, 2012)

In a daredevilish kind of way, this book sets out to complete two very demanding tasks: to cruise across the Atlantic expanse, using both the Analytic and Continental trade winds, and to trace a new path over the Franco-German border, precisely in an area still sprinkled with unexploded landmines. Not only does Bankovsky succeed in both of her ambitious goals, but she does so with a depth of insight, a subtlety of lateral moves, and a clarity of expression that are truly rare to encounter, especially in the highly polarized field of political philosophy. What may cripple a project of this kind is to presume the possibility of a seamless translation, a one-to-one correspondence of meaning and horizon. To her credit, Bankovsky never falls into this trap. In a narrative that is as complex and punctual as it is gripping, Perfecting Justice takes us though a series of associations and dissociations, triangulations and perspectival multiplications that keep sharpening our view of each of its three featured thinkers rather than sanctioning a definitive assessment of any of them.

The book opens with an epigraph by Max Weber that brings Bankovsky's central thesis into focus. Playing on Otto von Bismark's pronouncement that "politics is the art of the possible, the attainable-the art of the next best," Weber remarks that "it is no less true, however, that the possible is very often achieved only by reaching out toward the impossible which lies beyond it."1 In the same way that Weber uses the appeal to the impossible to rattle the agenda of political realism, which Bismarck personifies literally, Bankovsky uses what Jacques Der- rida has called justice's "impossible demands" to critically challenge the agenda of constructivism, as embodied in the work of perhaps its three most influential theorists: John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas, and Axel Honneth. The "deconstructive perspective" featured in the subtitle thus references Bankovsky's allegiance to Derrida's position on justice, which, on her reading, is characterized by a double, contradictory injunction: on the one hand, the responsibility for the uniqueness and singularity of the individual, and on the other, the duty to impartiality, predi- cated on the equality of all individuals. Since no given determination of justice can fully reconcile these conflicting demands, Derrida claims that justice entails both a firm, and indeed urgent, commitment to possibility and an unwavering attention to impossibility.

Bankovsky very lucidly states why constructivism cannot admit to the inad- equacy between justice and its determination. "A constructivist philosopher," she writes, "would say that if the determination does not satisfy its own criteria, then it should be revised, again assuming that a satisfactory solution can be constructed" (4). But this outcome turns out to be a structural deficiency of constructivism, since none of the three constructivist theories of justice examined in this volume succeeds in reconciling justice with its determination. As Bankovsky laconically admits, "it takes a lifetime of work for Rawls, Habermas, and Honneth to come to acknowledge, with some sense of disappointment, the significance of the dif- ficulties they face" (4).

By contrast, the advantage of the deconstructive perspective is that it embraces the imperfection of justice as the condition of its own perfectibility. Bankovsky's appreciation of Derrida as a corrective to the constructionist approach lies in one simple assumption: the fact that failure is nothing less than the necessary condition of justice. Consequently, she praises an attitude of resilience to failure, of critical engagement with, rather than disappointment toward, our shortcomings in what would be required for justice to be fully served. …

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