Between Justice and Legality: Derrida on Decision

By Sokoloff, William W. | Political Research Quarterly, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Between Justice and Legality: Derrida on Decision

Sokoloff, William W., Political Research Quarterly

Recent critiques of Jacques Derrida have misunderstood his contribution to political theory and dismiss his work as apolitical or nihilistic. In contrast to this trend, I argue that Derrida's concept of decision is the most explicitly political moment of deconstruction. Through readings of "Force of Law" and Politics of Friendship as well as some of his other writings, I argue that Derrida's re-conceptualization of decision expands the way politics is conceived and enables a robust critique of Rawls's consensus liberalism. Decision energizes citizenship through strategic interfaces between justice and law and foregrounds respect for others in order to make politics more ethical and lively. Derrida does not paralyze political action by taking the ground away at the moment of action but makes political actors more reflective and responsible by shaking up the stability of all political foundations. Not only have critics of Derrida overstated their case but liberals could learn something from his writings on politics.

In this essay I summarize and offer an interpretation of Jacques Derrida's concept of decision (Derrida 1990: 947, 961-967; 1992: 80-81; 1993a: 15, 17; 1995: 53-81; 1996: 84; 1997: 67-69). More so than any other concept, decision reveals how deconstruction engages the question of politics in ways that have been overlooked by his critics and advocates. Analyzing decision in Derrida's work also promises to shed new light on the problem of political judgment since decision and judgment imply each other. The elucidation of decision is therefore relevant for scholars explicitly engaged with Derrida's writings on politics as well as for those grappling with the question of judgment insofar as decision clarifies the conditions under which politics and judgments are possible.

In my reading, decision is Derrida's attempt to redefine the political core of politics in order to produce a reflective and vibrant liberalism based on the interaction between legality and justice conceived as respect for others. As opposed to the view that he rejects law and suspends action in an aporetic conception of justice, decision creates an interface between justice and legality in order to energize citizenship and make political action responsible. Hence, I contest the accusation made by Derrida's critics that his writings on politics are irresponsible, but I acknowledge that decision may be at odds with current modes of political practice. Even in the face of its unconventionality, liberals could learn something about politics from Derrida's decision. Specifically, the interaction between justice and law in his political writings enables a critique of Rawls's consensus liberalism and points to a new ethical-political horizon that should be taken seriously.


Critiques of Derrida's work are plentiful. Turning politics into nothing, immobilizing political action and judgment, and rendering the traditional vocabulary of politics unusable are only some of the accusations directed against his enormous oeuvre. He generates a great deal of nervousness in the academy about the impact of his writings on ethics and politics and has become a sort of post-structuralist AntiChrist, interpreted as nihilistic, relativistic, and potentially authoritarian. It becomes immediately clear while reading his texts on political themes that Derrida does not approach politics in a conventional way. In terms of his methodology, he suspends the traditional meanings of fundamental political categories and engages in an unrelenting philosophical questioning that forces them to their conceptual limit resulting in apona, impossibility, and paradox. He even suggests that questioning politics may not be political:

The question of the political, for this question is not necessary, nor in advance, political. It is perhaps not yet or no longer thoroughly political, once the political is defined with the features of a dominant tradition. …

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