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Int J Philos Relig (2010) 67:115

DOI 10.1007/s11153-009-9206-0

Returning (to) the gift of death: violence and history

in Derrida and Levinas

Jeffrey Hanson

Received: 19 October 2005 / Accepted: 5 March 2009 / Published online: 12 May 2009
Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Abstract The purpose of this paper is to establish a proper context for reading
Jacques Derridas The Gift of Death, which, I contend, can only be understood fully
against the backdrop of Violence and Metaphysics. The later work cannot be fully
understood unless the reader appreciates the fact that Derrida returns to a certain
Abraham not only in the name of Kierkegaard but also in the name of Levinas him-
self. The hypothesis of the reading that follows therefore would be that Derrida writes
The Gift of Death not as an attempt to re-present Kierkegaards Abraham either rightly
or wrongly but as an effort to do with Kierkegaards Abraham what is possible with his
thought in a broadly Levinasian/Derridean framework. That the reading he provides of
the Abraham story would not be recognizable to Kierkegaard is not the principal point
of Derridas effort; his aim is to demonstrate that Levinas should not have been so
hasty to dismiss Kierkegaard but could have recovered his interpretation of Abraham
for purposes that Derrida and Levinas both share.

Keywords Derrida Levinas Violence History Abraham God Death


The purpose of this paper is to establish a proper context for reading Jacques Derridas
The Gift of Death, which, I contend, can only be understood fully against the backdrop
of Violence and Metaphysics, as many of Derridas future themes are anticipated
here for the first time: there is sustained engagement with Levinas, a gesture toward the
figure of the Abrahamic, especially as understood by Kierkegaard as an ethical-reli-
gious paradigm, meditations on violence and the ethical imperative to turn violence

J. Hanson (B)
Boston College Philosophy Department, 21 Campanella Way 360F, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467-3806,
e-mail: hansonjg@bc.edu

2 Int J Philos Relig (2010) 67:115

against violence and the aporetic character of ethical decision-making. The Gift of
Death expands many of these ideas and maps the terrain of contested European heri-
tages of thinking on ethics and responsibility, from the Platonic to the Heideggerean
and Kierkegaardian. In short, we can interpret the later work as a revisiting by Derrida
of a promise he made in 1960, in Violence and Metaphysics when he wrote, Let us
add, in order to do him justice, that Kierkegaard had a sense of the relationship to the
irreducibility of the totally-other, not in the egoistic and esthetic here and now, but in
the religious beyond of the concept, in the direction of a certain Abraham.1
There are indications in these pages that Derrida feels Levinas has overstated the
case against Kierkegaard, and in fact, there is today considerable feeling that Levinas
criticisms of the Dane were the product of an incomplete understanding of his whole
corpus as well as perhaps a too hasty dismissal of his seeming egoism.2 Derrida
may have felt the same way even in Violence in Metaphysics, when he wrote, The
philosopher Kierkegaard does not only plead for Sren Kierkegaard, (the egoistic
cry of a subjectivity still concerned with Kierkegaards happiness or salvation), but
for subjective existence in general (a noncontradictory expression); this is why his
discourse is philosophical, and not in the realm of empirical egoism (VM, p. 110).
Perhaps Derrida believed the two had more in common then Levinas realized, since
over thirty years later he returned to Kierkegaard himself in The Gift of Death with an
aim to clarifying the meaning of something like subjective existence in general.
The later work cannot be fully understood unless the reader appreciates the fact
that Derrida returns to a certain Abraham not only in the name of Kierkegaard but
also in the name of Levinas himself. The hypothesis of the reading that follows there-
fore would be that Derrida writes The Gift of Death not as an attempt to re-present
Kierkegaards Abraham either rightly or wrongly3 but as an effort to do with Kierkeg-
aards Abraham what is possible with his thought in a broadly Levinasian/Derridean
framework. We cannot substantiate this hypothesis by undertaking a comprehensive
analysis of Levinas or Kierkegaard or Derrida, but we can isolate a few important
themes broached in Violence and Metaphysics and reverted to in The Gift of Death
and show how Derrida re-narrates the story of the sacrifice of Isaac in a manner that
is not Kierkegaardian as much as Levinasian; even then, despite working with a more
Levinasian than Kierkegaardian framework, we can observe points of contrast unique
to Derrida, where he forges his own thinking in dialogue with the other two inescap-
able voices in the history of responsibility. This dialogue plays out principally on the
themes of violence, history, and the relation between God and death.

1 Derrida (1978). Hereafter VM.

2 See for example Arroyo (2005). See also Lippitt (2003).
3 Much worthy scholarship has been devoted to parsing the differences and similarities between Kierkegaard
and Derridas readings of the Abraham story as well as their overall divergences and convergences. Given
the amount of material already available on this issue it is not my purpose here to re-open this debate. See
Wood (1997). Hereafter MO. See also Goiocoechea (1999) and Milbank (1995, 1999).

Int J Philos Relig (2010) 67:115 3


As Hent de Vries, who also has read Violence and Metaphysics together with The
Gift of Death observed, Violence and Metaphysics is arguably the most forcefully
argued chapter in Writing and Difference.4 He points out that the conjunction invoked
by the title is not trivial or simply enumerative but enforces its principal thesis, that
violence is inescapable, that even nonviolence is somehow violent (RV, p. 135). This
conclusion will be the focus of our reading of key passages from this early essay.
Violence and Metaphysics consists of Derridas lengthy commentary on Levinas,
which comes to a head when Derrida formulates the question of violence and the Face,
which seems to be both obstacle to and provocation for violence. Only the Face says
Thou shalt not kill, but only the Face can be murdered. Derridas suspicion in Vio-
lence and Metaphysics, toward which he has been slowly building, is that the dynamic
of the Face in Levinas is already caught in a net of violence that cannot be escaped,
since this violence is the condition both of the Face as a prohibition of violence and
of the Face as a provocation to violence. The dilemma then, as de Vries points out, is
that it does not matter whether one assigns violence to the finite or to its other, even if
that other is conceived positively, as Levinas argues it must be.
The upshot, in the words of de Vries, is that Derrida suggests that violence can-
not be restricted to any single metaphysical predetermination, whether as an essential
property of the self or as the prerogative of the other, as totality or as alterity, coherence
or its absence. Nor can nonviolence be said to be the privilege of the infinite or Infinite
and the peace it is believed to inspire (RV, p. 134). Peace for Derrida could only be
approached in a certain silence.
The distinction between discourse and violence always will be an inaccessible
horizon. Nonviolence would be the telos, and not the essence of a discourse.
Perhaps it will be said that something like discourse has its essence in its telos, and
the presence of its present in its future. This certainly is so, but on the condition
that its future and its telos be nondiscourse: peace as a certain silence, a certain
beyond of speech, a certain possibility, a certain silent horizon of speechAnd
telos has always the form of presence, be it a future presence. There is war only
after the opening of discourse. Peace, like silence, is the strange vocation of a
language called outside itself by itself (VM, pp. 116117).
Peace, as telos, is still implicated in the metaphysics of presence. Derridas
description here of a language called outside itself by itself finds an echo in a much
later essay, How to Avoid Speaking: Denials.5 Derridas proximate topic in this
work is negative theology, another discourse that could be described as a language
called outside itself by itself. In a passage wherein Derrida is explaining in a some-
what uncharacteristically straightforward manner why what he writes is not negative
theology, he says his project cannot be a negative theology because of the measure to
which negative theology seems to reserve, beyond all positive predication, beyond all

4 De Vries (2002, p. 293). Hereafter RV.

5 Derrida (1992). Hereafter HAS.

4 Int J Philos Relig (2010) 67:115

negation, even beyond Being, some hyperessentiality, a being beyond Being (HAS,
p. 77).
There is a structural similarity in this passage to the much earlier argument at hand
in Violence in Metaphysics. Just as negative theology (according to Derrida)6 enacts
an apophasis that serves ultimately to re-assert the quality, raised to an ineffable degree,
that had just been denied, and thereby speaks of that which cannot be spoken, cir-
cling through negativity just to arrive back at predication, so peace tries to depart from
violence into the realm of silence but returns to a violent speech. The disavowal of
speech, the attempt to enfold oneself in silence, to capture what Derrida elsewhere
calls speech without phrase, (VM, p. 147) is doomed to the speech it resigns. Thus,
at the moment when the question How to avoid speaking? arises, it is already too
late. There was no longer any question of not speaking. Language has started without
us, in us and before us (HAS, p. 99).
The analogy to Violence and Metaphysics is striking. In that essay he wrote,
But since finite silence is also the medium of violence, language can only indef-
initely tend toward justice by acknowledging and practicing the violence within it.
Violence against violence. Economy of violence (VM, p. 117).7 Language can only
tend toward justice (though not asymptotically as a Kantian regulative ideal) by
admitting its complicity with violence and turning violence against violence. If light
is the element of violence, one must combat light with a certain other light, in order
to avoid the worst violence, the violence of the light which precedes or represses dis-
course. This vigilance is a violence chosen as the least violence by a philosophy which
takes history,8 that is, finitude, seriouslyaware of itself as economy (VM, p. 117). If
one is to make peace, it will only be a making peace with violence, unapologetically, in
order to avoid the worst violence, or what he called in Faith and Knowledge simply
the worst (le pire). The invocation of light also cannot help but recall Faith and
Knowledge and the call Derrida issues there for a new Enlightenment, a new shining
of the light against light.
As de Vries observes, violence is in this respect a differential notion.9 What is
other than violent remains somehow violent, or is unable to express (Levinas) or realize
(Weil) itself without resorting to the order it seeks to escape or invoking some violence
of its own. Discourse, whether infinite or not, whether ethical or not, demands some
negotiation with its othernamely, violenceif it is to minimize the risk of allowing
the worst violence to come to pass (PTR, p. 134). For Derrida there is an imperative

6 Not all scholars of negative theology agree. See Turner (1998).

7 It is interesting to note that the terms telos and economy crop up again in How to Avoid Speaking
(HAS, p. 81), reinforcing all the more the parallel between the arguments of these two essays. Notice also the
similarity between the first sentence quoted here and the following comment on the economy of apophasis:
This economy is paradoxicalIn itself interminable, the apophatic movement cannot contain within itself
the principle of its interruption. It can only indefinitely defer the encounter with its own limit (HAS, p.
81). The opposition of economy with the peace that remains outside its closure also recalls Derridas phe-
nomenological description of the gift and the economy of debt from his Given Time I: Counterfeit Money
8 Our examination will pick up the theme of history shortly.
9 De Vries (1999, p. 134). Hereafter PTR.

Int J Philos Relig (2010) 67:115 5

not so much to oppose violence outright, which would seem an impossibility, but the
worst violence.
In the opening sentence of the final section of Violence and Metaphysics, Of
Ontological Violence, Derrida says the direction of his argument about Levinas also
governs his interpretation of Heidegger, on whose work he now focuses, though
remaining close to Levinass critique of Heidegger, as he had heretofore remained
close to his critique of Husserl (VM, p. 134). For Heidegger, the thought of Being
would come as close as possible to nonviolence. We do not say pure nonviolence.
Like pure violence, pure nonviolence is a contradictory conceptPure violence, a
relationship between beings without face, is not yet violence, is pure nonviolence
(VM, p. 146).
The aspiration to pure nonviolence can only be upheld by the dream of language
without phrase (VM, p. 147). But if Violence appears with articulation (VM,
pp. 147148), And the latter is opened only by (the at first preconceptual) circulation
of Being (VM, p. 148), then The very elocution of nonviolent metaphysics is its first
disavowal (VM, p. 148). Why, though, does the phrase, which is never indeterminate,
of which there is no example that has not passed through the violence of the concept
(VM, p. 147), impose itself on us? Again, because otherwise we risk the possibility
that the worst violence will silently cohabit the idea of peace (VM, p. 148).
Echoing his statement quoted above on peace, Derrida declares, Peace is made
only in a certain silence, which is determined and protected by the violence of speech.
Since speech says nothing other than the horizon of this silent peace by which it has
itself summoned and that it is its mission to protect and prepare, speech indefinitely
remains silent. One never escapes the economy of war (VM, p. 148). One could hardly
hope for a more definitive summation. Peace is determined and protected by violence.
Whether transcendental or ontological, violence is located as the condition of
peace, not the other way around. Derrida drives home his criticism of Levinas and
summarizes his own view of this matter in a passage worth quoting at length:

Further, every reduction of the other to a real moment of my life, its reduction to
the state of empirical alter-ego, is an empirical possibility, or rather eventuality,
which is called violence[T]o gain access to the egoity of the alter ego as if to
its alterity itself is the most peaceful gesture possible. We do not say absolutely
peaceful. We say economical. There is a transcendental and preethical violence,
a (general) dissymmetry whose archia is the same, and which eventually per-
mits the inverse dissymmetry, that is, the ethical nonviolence of which Levinas
speaks. In effect, either there is only the same, which can no longer even appear
and be said, nor even exercise violence (pure infinity or finitude); or indeed there
is the same and the other, and then the other cannot be the otherof the same
except by being the same (as itself: ego), and the same cannot be the same (as
itself: ego) except by being the others other: alter ego (VM, p. 128).

Lest we imagine that Derrida has abandoned this point of view in the intervening
years, we should look briefly at Force of Law.10 In this essay Derrida provides a

10 Derrida (2002). Hereafter FL. This essay/lecture was originally delivered in 1989.

6 Int J Philos Relig (2010) 67:115

hasty survey of the works in which he has posed the question of violence, and it is a
long list. In the opening pages of this essay, he poses a question that recalls all that
was said in Violence and Metaphysics almost thirty years prior. How to distinguish
between this force of the law, this force of law as one says in English as well as in
French, I believe, and the violence that one always judges unjust? What difference
is there between, on the one hand, the force that can be just, or in any case judged
legitimate (not only an instrument in the service of the law but the practice and even the
fulfillment, the essence of law), and, on the other hand, the violence that one always
judges unjust? What is a just force or a nonviolent force? (FL, pp. 233234).
Drawing on a distinction that he seems to see in both Pascal and more plainly in Ben-
jamin between founding violence and conserving violence, the former of which cannot
be just because it makes just what will thereafter be considered just, and the latter of
which is no less violent for now being just, Derrida makes the following claim: The
very emergence of justice and law, the instituting, founding, and justifying moment of
law implies a performative force, that is to say always an interpretive force and a call to
faith and again, the operation that amounts to founding, inaugurating, justifying
law, to making law, would consist of a coup de force, of a performative and therefore
interpretive violence that in itself is neither just nor unjust and that no justice and no
earlier and previously founding law, no preexisting foundation, could, by definition,
guarantee or contradict or invalidate (FL, p. 241).
Finally, we find in this essay a reinforcement of the Derridean notion that violence
must be brought to bear against violence and that nonviolence is not outside of nor
opposite to violence. Referring to the general strike in Benjamin, Derrida says And
so there is violence against violenceViolence is not exterior to the order of law.
It threatens law from within law (FL, p. 268). This is the case with hermeneutical
violence as well. [O]ne will say that the order of intelligibility depends in its turn
on the established order which it serves to interpret. This readability will then be as
little neutral as it is nonviolent. A successful revolution, the successful foundation
of a statewill produce after the fact what it was destined in advance to produce,
namely, proper interpretative models to read in return, to give sense, necessity and
above all legitimacy to the violence that has produced, among others, the interpretive
model in question (FL, p. 270), that is, the violence that produced the discourse of
legitimation in the first place.
De Vries remarks at one point, Critiques of violence are not without violence, of
course. They are successful only if they turn violence inside out, if they are somehow
violent in turn, turning good violence against bad or the worst violence (RV, p. 137).
If there is anything that must be kept in mind as Derridas reader examines his theory
of violence it is that wherever there is risk for Derrida there is also a chance too, the
hope of a critique of violence that would stave off the worst.


It is against this backdrop we should read The Gift of Death, where these same themes
crop up again, now in conversation with Patocka and Kierkegaard especially. The econ-
omy of violence, which cannot be forgotten I would argue, is nevertheless placed on

Int J Philos Relig (2010) 67:115 7

the back burner and supplanted by a re-emphasis upon the question of history. there
is always a risk in acknowledging a history of responsibility. It is often thought, on the
basis of an analysis of the very concepts of responsibility, freedom, or decision, that
to be responsible, free, or capable of deciding cannot be something that is acquired,
something conditioned or conditional. Even if there is undeniably a history of freedom
or responsibility, such a historicity, it is thought, must remain extrinsic.11 So part of
Derridas task in this short work is to expose the intrinsically historical dimensions
of ethical conceptuality and to disturb the traditional accounts of responsibility as
universal, rational, or the a priori.
History can neither be a decidable object nor a totality capable of being mastered,
precisely because it is tied to responsibility, to faith, and to the gift. To responsi-
bility in the experience of absolute decisions made outside of knowledge or given
norms, made therefore through the very ordeal of the undecidable; to religious
faith through a form of involvement with the other that is a venture into absolute
risk, beyond knowledge and certainty; to the gift and to the gift of death that
puts me into relation with the transcendence of the other, with God as selfless
goodness, and that gives me what it gives me through a new experience of death.
Responsibility and faith go together, however paradoxical that might seem to
some, and both should, in the same movement, exceed mastery and knowledge
(GD, pp. 56).
Thus we have the second task Derrida sets for himself in this work: to afflict what
would ordinarily seem to be the most bland and inoffensive conceptresponsibility,
with its connotations of predictability, solidity, and securitywith its seeming oppo-
sitesdefiance of given norms, risk, and uncertaintyby uncovering the constitutive
trauma, the secret, at the heart of responsibility.12 Once more though this task was
foreshadowed by Violence and Metaphysics. Here we only wish to foreshadow that
within historybut is it meaningful elsewhere?every philosophy of nonviolence can
only choose the lesser violence within an economy of violence (VM, p. 313, n. 21).
Discourse of nonviolence only has meaning within history, the necessary home of
the philosophy of vigilance. It is difficult to think the origin of history in a perfectly
finite totality (the Same), as well as, moreover, in a perfectly positive infinity. If, in
this sense, the movement of metaphysical transcendence is history, it is still violent,
forand this is the legitimate truism from which Levinas always draws inspiration
history is violence. Metaphysics is economy: violence against violence, light against
light (VM, p. 117).
Such a widespread subscription to violence as the origin of all discourse means that
just about everything is violent for Derrida, and he is reconciled to this conclusion as
a preferable state of affairs to the unleashing of the worst. Discourse, therefore,
if it is originally violent, can only do itself violence, can only negate itself in order
to affirm itself, make war upon the war which institutes it without ever being able
to reappropriate this negativity, to the extent that it is discourse. Necessarily without

11 Derrida (1996, p. 5). Hereafter GD.

12 This point has been noticed and well developed by Larrea (2007).

8 Int J Philos Relig (2010) 67:115

reappropriating it, for if it did so, the horizon of peace would disappear into the night
(worst violence as previolence) (VM, p. 130).
The first essay of The Gift of Death is thus a traversal of the economy of the con-
tested ethical frameworks, from the Platonic to the Heideggerean and its inverse, the
Patockan, and from there to the Kierkegaardian that have made up the history of Euro-
pean responsibility. As Rodolphe Gasch puts it, by inquiring into the various modal-
ities of giving (oneself) death and of taking death (upon oneself), Derrida develops an
economic model that accounts for the different positions on responsibility, their mutual
contamination and passage into one anotherin particular, as regards their overdeter-
mination by themes of Christianity, Platonism, and deliberate de-Christianization, as
well as of Judaism.13 This is an important task because according to Derrida we are
not as inheritors of these traditions merely passive recipients of them but constituted
by such inheritances, which in turn impose upon us their own sets of responsibilities,
as indeed all responsibilities for Derrida are imposed. Given where and when we live,
we cannot help but think of responsibility in the terms that Kierkegaard and Levinas
have handed down to us, themselves at the tail end of a long inheritance from philo-
sophical thought and religious insight. Part one of The Gift of Death traverses this
terrain, sticking closely to Patockas Heretical Essays on the Philosophy of History.
This traversal though was already prepared in advance in Violence in Metaphysics,
again by way of respectful departure from Levinas. In the earlier essay Derrida noted
that for Levinas history is totality (VM, p. 117). He wrote then,

The philosopher (man) must speak and write within this war of light, a war in
which he always already knows himself to be engaged; a war which he knows
is inescapable, except by denying discourse, that is, by risking the worst vio-
lencethe philosopher cannot escape, because it is not history in the sense given
to it by Levinas (totality), but is the history of the departures from totality, history
as the very movement of transcendence, of the excess over the totality without
which no totality would appear as such. History is not the totality transcended
by eschatology, metaphysics, or speech. It is transcendence itself (VM, p. 117).

Keeping in mind then all that was recounted above about the inescapable nature
of violence, then it is clear that Derrida is rigorously consistent in his departure from
Levinas14 on the notion of history as well. If violence cannot simply be opposed by
a pure appeal to peace, then neither can history merely be exited by the advent of
the Other or any such figure of pure transcendence. Instead, history itself, the con-
tested terrain of violence against violence, must be transcendence, the scene where the
war against war is waged. Just as there can be no absolute violence nor any absolute
nonviolence, so also is it the case that It is difficult to think the origin of history
in a perfectly finite totality (the Same), as well as, moreover, in a perfectly positive
infinity (VM, p. 117).

13 Gasch (2007).
14 Derrida acknowledges that he is on this score parting ways with Levinas. It will be said that Levinas
stands opposed to precisely this kind of philosophical discourse. But in this combat, he already has given
up the best weapon: disdain of discourse (VM, p. 116).

Int J Philos Relig (2010) 67:115 9

This is perhaps why Derrida must recover Kierkegaard. How else can responsibil-
ity, violence, sacrifice, and alterity be thought if not in the shadow of Kierkegaards
legacy? Unlike Levinas, who cast him aside too abruptly, Derrida recognizes that
no contemporary European can think the inheritance of his culture without Kierkeg-
aard. There is no ground for appeal in thinking through these issues other than the
battle-scarred landscape of European history, wherein both Levinas and Kierkegaard
figure prominently.

God and death

Parts two and three of The Gift of Death then could be read as Derridas attempt to
problematize what he calls Patockas essentially Christian account (and we could add
Kierkegaard here as well) while at the same time nevertheless trying to envision what
the future of liberated European responsibility might look like. For Patocka, Europe
will not be what it must be until it becomes fully Christian, until the mysterium trem-
endum is adequately thematized. On the other hand it also suggests that the Europe
to come will no longer be Greek, Greco-Roman, or even Roman. The most radical
insistence of the mysterium tremendum would be upon a Europe so new (or so old)
that it would be freed from the Greek or Roman memory that is so commonly invoked
in speaking of it; freed to the extent of breaking all ties with this memory, becoming
heterogeneous to it (GD, p. 29). It should surprise no one familiar with his work if
we observe that for Derrida there can be no question of making some kind of choice
between these possibilities. We must choose not between possibilities but amidst the
horizon that makes all possibilities possible.
That horizon of ethical themes Derrida writes, can be seen to revolve around the
gift as gift of death, the fathomless gift of a type of death: infinite love (the Good
as goodness that infinitely forgets itself), sin and salvation, repentance and sacrifice.
What engenders all these meanings and links them, internally and necessarily, is a
logic that at bottomhas no need of the event of a revelation or the revelation of
an event. It needs to think the possibility of such an event but not the event itself
(GD, p. 49). Derrida thus absents himself from speaking of institutional religion or
formalized doctrine but preserves his ability to speak of a possible basis for a reli-
gion without religion, which would at the same time be an affirmation of ethics in
repetition. How does what we might call this logical and philosophical deduction of
religious themes operate in terms of the gift of the Good as Goodness that is forgetful
of itself, infinite love, gift of death, sin, repentance, sacrifice, salvation, etc.? How does
such thinking elaborate, in the style of a genealogy, a reply to the question concerning
what conditions render responsibility possible? (GD, p. 50). Having identified what
he calls here a nondogmatic and metaphysical doublet, Derrida now relates it to the
cluster of themes that he has been circling throughout his remarks on Patocka and
the questions of responsibility, Christianity, European history, and the gift of death.
The response involves [passe] the logical necessity of a possibility for the event.
Everything comes to pass as though only the analysis of the concept of responsibility
were ultimately capable of producing Christianity, or more precisely the possibility of
Christianity (GD, p. 50).

10 Int J Philos Relig (2010) 67:115

So here he is responding to Patocka, arguing in a way for his own version of the
full realization of Christian responsibility, which would consist in a return to the
quasi-transcendental conditions for the possibility or impossibility (as he will often
say) of the religious phenomenon in question. The doublet engages the questions of
gift, death, history and so on because it is a formal means of posing the question of
the quasi-transcendental condition for the possibility of event or eventness. Every-
thing comes to pass, takes a step, as if an analysis of the conditions of the possibility
of responsibility could produce the positive religions or better yet, the possibility of
positive religion. What the doublet engages is the ambiguous chicken-and-egg ques-
tion of transcendental philosophy of religion one might say. Is it the case that the
positive religious traditions, and the phenomena revealed by them, are instituted by
a prior general phenomenality, or do religious phenomena arise independently and
irruptively, bringing with them a sort of retrospective inauguration of the conditions
that might allow us to think of them in the abstract?
Derrida entertains in various writings both possibilities, but neither is exclusively
affirmed.15 Perhaps any specific understanding of responsibility is only a crystalliza-
tion of the conditions that make responsibility possible in general. Alternately, perhaps
the positive religions inaugurate an unprecedented possibility, and we inherit from
these breakthroughs of our horizons the basis of new horizons: Christianity, Judaism,
Islam, define and then shelter all notions of responsibility that they engender. One
might as well conclude, conversely, that this concept of responsibility is Christian
through and through and is produced by the event of Christianity. For if it is as a
result of examining this concept alone that the Christian eventsin, gift of infinite
love linked to the experience of deathappears necessary, does that not mean that
Christianity alone has made possible access to an authentic responsibility throughout
history, responsibility as history and as history of Europe? (GD, p. 50). If the formal
reflection he has been constructing throughout the book so far seems to indicate that the
specifically Christian thematic is required by quasi-transcendental analysis, then that
goes to show precisely that Christianity is the sole means of access to an authentic
(general? universal?) concept of responsibility. It is possible that a general description
of responsibility itself is only enabled by the peculiarities of positive religion.
But of course there can be no question of choosing. There is no choice to be made
here between a logical deduction, or one that is not related to the event, and the refer-
ence to a revelatory event. One implies the other (GD, p. 50). In a resolution that will
surprise no one familiar with Derridas writing, he does not sublate one to the other
or attempt to harmonize these tensions.
Once again however the seeds of this late treatment were sown well before in Vio-
lence and Metaphysics. Just as violence and nonviolence are forever co-implicated
and history cannot be either mere totality or pure infinity, so too we must, Derrida
contended years before The Gift of Death, think the common horizon of both God and
death, infinitude and finitude. To quote once more from Violence and Metaphysics:
within philosophical discourse (supposing there are any others), once cannot simul-
taneously save the themes of positive infinity and of the face (the nonmetaphorical

15 I treat this question elsewhere (Hanson, forthcoming).

Int J Philos Relig (2010) 67:115 11

unity of body, glance, speech, and thought). This last unity, it seems to us, can be
thought only within the horizon of infinite (indefinite) alterity as the irreducibly com-
mon horizon of Death and the Other. The horizon of finitude or the finitude of the
horizon (VM, p. 115). So for Derrida the nondogmatic doublet is an attempt to artic-
ulate even more deeply this common horizon of Death and the Other. The war against
war can only be played out within the horizon of finitude, which cannot be merely
opposed by the infinite but must be engaged within a new discourse that thinks the
shared (im)possibility of both. But, let us repeat, all this within philosophical dis-
course, where the thought of Death itself (without metaphor) and the thought of a
positive Infinity have never been able to understand each other (VM, p. 115). If these
oppositions have never been able to understand each other within philosophical dis-
course, then perhaps we can understand the nondogmatic doublet in The Gift of Death
as precisely just such an attempted understanding, heretofore unprecedented.
It is this bivalent structure of the logic of the gift of death that has made possible a
new understanding of ethical responsibility, transforming the good from an objective
thing to the relation to the other, the response to the other that demands the irreplace-
able singularity that is only given in death or the apprehension of death, on the basis of
which the subject can be spoken of as responsible. Such a response however is always
haunted by a structural disproportion or dissymmetry between the finite and responsi-
ble mortal on the one hand and the goodness of the infinite gift on the other hand (GD,
p. 51). Through the apprehension of my own death and thus my irreplaceability I rise
to the possibility of responsibility; at the same time, I am conscious of my inability to
be responsible, to attain the goodness that renounces itself. One can conceive of this
disproportion without assigning to it a revealed cause or without tracing it back to the
event of original sin, but it inevitably transforms the experience of responsibility into
one of guilt: I have never been and never will be up to the level of this infinite goodness
nor up to the immensity of the gift...This guilt is originary, like original sin. Before
any fault is determined, I am guilty inasmuch as I am responsible (GD, p. 51). This
permanent asymmetry provokes the subjects consciousness of responsibility and her
guilt, a consciousness that Derrida calls, in homage to both Kierkegaard and Patocka,
One of the most pronounced features of Derridas reading of Fear and Trembling,
which he begins in the third essay in The Gift of Death, is how very close it is to
Kierkegaard. Typically when Derrida dwells on another thinkers work, he by turns
follows closely his subjects thoughts and uses them as an occasion for his own diver-
gent lines of thought. He has just admitted, for example, at the close of the Beyond
essay, that he has stretched Patocka a little further than he or the letter of his text
would allow (GD, pp. 5152). His reading of Kierkegaard in Whom to Give to is
remarkably faithful. It really reads more like a summary of the text than a give-and-take
interaction with it.16
That being said, it is hardly worth rehearsing Kierkegaards argument for the
paradoxical nature of Abrahams action, for the impossibility of its being mediated by

16 David Wood makes a similar observation when he remarks, Derrida explains Kierkegaards reasoning
as to the paradox involved in Abrahams willingness to sacrifice Isaac in language not too distant from
Kierkegaards own (MO, p. 135).

12 Int J Philos Relig (2010) 67:115

re-entry into the ethical universal. Derrida sticks rather closely to the letter of Fear and
Trembling, with perhaps special emphasis on the theme of singularity. His conclusion:
The account of Isaacs sacrifice can be read as a narrative development of the paradox
constituting the concept of duty and absolute responsibility. This concept puts us into
relation (but without relating to it, in a double secret) with the absolute other, with the
absolute singularity of the other, whose name here is God (GD, p. 66).
Now it is here perhaps with these words that Derrida begins to depart from
Kierkegaard, for certainly the latter would not be likely to agree that God is only
the name of the absolutely singular other. If God is nothing more than this, though,
then Derrida can make the claim that follows shortly after, and marks a decisive break
with Kierkegaard, namely, that the story of the sacrifice of Isaac is not a limit case
that uniquely destabilizes the calm universality of the Hegelian ethical but is in fact
a description of all ethical decision-making. What the knights of good conscience
dont realize, is that the sacrifice of Isaac illustratesif that is the word in the case
of such a nocturnal mysterythe most common and everyday experience of respon-
sibility (GD, p. 67). Monstrous and outrageous as the story of Abraham and Isaac is
(and Derrida asks us to imagine the same events played out in our day to underscore
how frightful they are (GD, p. 85)), it is nevertheless a genuine description of ethical
paradoxes undergone every day. But isnt this also the most common thing? what the
most cursory examination of the concept of responsibility cannot fail to affirm? (GD,
pp. 6768). The framework here is doubtless Levinasian, inasmuch as it departs from
the affirmation of the singularity of a radically transcendent God as the sole Other
before whom the subject becomes subject and affirms instead that the Other is first
human while the divine remains other than Other, accessible only through the Other.17
It is this Levinasian rather than Kierkegaardian foundation that allows Derrida to
frame the problem in terms of a site where general responsibility and absolute respon-
sibility collide, providing at once the possibility of the worst sort of irresponsibility or
the opportunity for a creative affirmation of a renewed sense of responsibility. This is
ethics as irresponsibilization, as an insoluble and paradoxical contradiction between
responsibility in general and absolute responsibility. Absolute responsibility is not
a responsibility, at least it is not general responsibility or responsibility in general.
It needs to be exceptional or extraordinary, and it needs to be that absolutely and
par excellence: it is as if absolute responsibility could not be derived from a concept
of responsibility and therefore, in order for it to be what it must be it must remain
inconceivable (GD, p. 61). As inconceivable, responsibility consists in the aporetic
structure where the absolute and the general meet. Responsibility demands on the one
hand he says faithfulness to the general with its insistence on answering for oneself,
public accounting for decision making, in a word, substitution, and at the same time

17 Merold Westphal has argued that this is in fact the most important distinction between Kierkegaard and
Levinas. They agree that the transcendence and alterity that deserve to be called divine are not to be found
in the realm of theoretical knowledge as interpreted by major strands of the western philosophical tradition;
they rather occur in the decentering of the cognitive self by a command that comes from on high. But they
disagree in that Levinas insists that the neighbor is always the middle term between me and God, while
Kierkegaard insists that it is God who is always the middle term between me and my neighbor. This is their
fundamental disagreement; perhaps, in the final analysis, their only one. (2008, p. 5).

Int J Philos Relig (2010) 67:115 13

requires silence and secrecy, in a word, singularity.18 This is why the story of Abra-
ham, particularly as it is told by Johannes de Silentio, captures his attention, for here
we find this paradox exhibited in all its terrible clarity. For Abraham the ethical is the
temptation. What shocks our sensibilities in the case of Abraham is that the bind in
which he finds himself seems to demand fidelity to the absolute and requires betrayal
of the general.

I am responsible to the other as other, I answer to him and I answer for what I do
before him. But of course, what binds me thus in my singularity to the absolute
singularity of the other, immediately propels me into the space or risk of abso-
lute sacrifice. There are also others, an infinite number of them, the innumerable
generality of others to whom I should be bound by the same responsibility, a
general and universal responsibilityI cannot respond to the call, the request,
the obligation, or even the love of another without sacrificing the other, the other
others. Every other (one) is every (bit) other [tout autre est tout autre], every one
else is completely or wholly other (GD, p. 68).

It is this motto, every other is wholly other, that means the concepts of
responsibility, of decision, or of duty, are condemned a priori to paradox, scandal,
and aporia (GD, p. 68). Responsibility is always already contaminated by sacrifice,
my necessary irresponsibility to other others. As soon as I enter into a relation with
the other, with the gaze, look, request, love, command, or call of the other, I know that
I can respond only by sacrificing ethics, that is, by sacrificing whatever obliges me to
also respond, in the same way, in the same instant, to all the others (GD, p. 68).
What, though, is the precise relation between the recognition that every other is
wholly other and the inevitable paradox or scandal of responsibility? This phrase is
meant to express the bedrock commitment underpinning Derridas meditations so far.
One need not, in keeping with the structure of the nondogmatic doublet outlined above,
be sworn to any religious tradition to appreciate this point, which is what he liberates
from the story of Abraham and uses to displace Kierkegaards own preoccupation
with the singularity and transcendence of God alone while in his view reinforcing the
most extreme ramifications of the Abraham story in Kierkegaards telling of it. There
are (perhaps unsurprisingly) two valences to Derridas phrase, two levels of meaning
on which it operates. First, Derrida uses the phrase every other is wholly other to
emphasize the inaccessibility of the other, the others resistance to totality, the retreat of
the face of the other. And since each of us, everyone else, each other is infinitely other
in its absolute singularity, inaccessible, solitary, transcendent, nonmanifest, originarily
nonpresent to my egothen what can be said about Abrahams relation to God can
be said about my relation without relation to every other (one) as every (bit) other, in
particular my relation to my neighbor or my loved ones who are as inaccessible to me,
as secret and transcendent as Jahweh (GD, p. 78). Every other is wholly other then
means in part that the otherness of others, other persons, my neighbors and friends and
families, is just as wholly other as religion and theology have traditionally understood

18 Again, the vocabulary here is Levinasian. On substitution especially see Chapter IV in Levinas (1998).

14 Int J Philos Relig (2010) 67:115

God to be. Everyone, therefore, places upon me the same obligation, the same duty,
the same absolute responsibility, as the religious believer owes to God.
Next, every other is wholly other means that God, as the wholly other, is to be
found everywhere there is something of the wholly other (GD, p. 78). This is the sec-
ond implication of the phrase that Derrida wishes to examine. God is the name of the
wholly other, the irreducibly singular, and wherever there is a wholly other there also
is God. These two aspects also give rise to two kinds of scandal that afflict all ethical
decision-making. For Derrida, the scandal of responsibility is that I am faced with
an infinite array of obligations, only some of which can be fulfilled. I can respond
only to the one (or to the One), that is, to the other, by sacrificing the other to that
one. I am responsible to any one (that is to say to any other) only by failing in my
responsibilities to all the others, to the ethical or political generality (GD, p. 70). I can
meet one obligation only by failing to meet an infinite number of other obligations.
A second element of the Derridean scandal is the inability to justify the prefer-
ence for and discharge of one duty as opposed to others. I must fail in all but one
of my obligations at any given moment, and at the same time I cannot judge which
to fulfill and which to neglect. What binds me to singularities, to this one or that
one, male or female, rather than one or this one, remains finally unjustifiable (this is
Abrahams hyper-ethical sacrifice), as unjustifiable as the infinite sacrifice I make at
each momentHow would you ever justify the fact that you sacrifice all the cats in the
world to the cat that you feed at home every morning for years, whereas other cats die
of hunger at every instant? (GD, p. 71). Needless to say these scandalous elements
of ethical choice prevent responsibility from ever falling into a matter of mere routine
or programmatic decision. Every choice must be made as if it were the first in a way,
as if navigating unexplored terrain. If every other is wholly other each encounter is
a fresh one, demanding a unique response to the unique other, and providing no sure
foundation for either guiding or defending my decision.
The only difference that is not respected by this formula is the difference between
God and all other singulars, as Derrida concedes. At the instant of every decision
and through the relation to every other (one) as every (bit) other, every one else asks
us at every moment to behave like knights of faith. Perhaps that displaces a certain
emphasis of Kierkegaards discourse: the absolute uniqueness of Jahweh doesnt tol-
erate analogy (GD, p. 79). On this view, God is the best name we might say for the
combination of infinite alterity and irreducible singularity.19 But this is a name that
may mean at the same time death, because, as Derrida contended in Violence and
Metaphsyics, Infinite alterity as death cannot be reconciled with infinite alterity as
positivity and transcendence (God). Metaphysical transcendence cannot be at once
transcendence toward the other as Death and transcendence towards the other as God.
Unless God means Death, which after all has never been excluded by the entirety of
the classical philosophical within which we understand God both as Life and as the
Truth of Infinity, of positive Presence (VM, p. 115). They cannot be reconciled, but
they can be rethought by a hitherto unenvisioned scheme, Which means that God is
or appears, is named, within the difference between All and Nothing, Life and Death.

19 I am grateful to Annette Larrea for this formulation.

Int J Philos Relig (2010) 67:115 15

Within difference, and at bottom as Difference itself. This difference is what is called
History. God is inscribed in it (VM, p. 116). The Gift of Death, therefore, and espe-
cially its signal phrase, tout autre est tout autre is neither purely Kierkegaardian nor
purely Levinasian but is nothing other than the (il)legibility of this inscription.


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