Spot the Difference

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I was surprised by the very positive nature of Alex Callinicos's piece on Derrida ('The Infinite Search', November SR).

Callinicos misses the grave ambivalence in much of Derrida's philosophical allegiances.

Derrida's powerful debt to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger is not mentioned once by Callinicos, though Derrida always admitted the primacy of this influence. Heidegger's legacy is tainted due to links with the Nazi Party in the 1930s and his commitment to what he called the 'inner truth and greatness of National Socialism'.

Derrida's notion of 'differance' was inspired in part at least by themes from Heidegger's work. Derrida wrote a book called Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question, in which he tries to explain, but essentially obscures, Heidegger's links to Nazism via his usual playful or ambivalent 'exposition' of Heidegger's ideas.

Derrida's attack upon 'the philosophical tradition' can be both interesting and challenging, but he tends to overly homogenise that tradition. At his best, as Callinicos stresses, he opens up a space for the excluded and marginalised. But in general, Derrida runs together good and bad traditions. He was very critical of Hegelian dialectics, which was misunderstood as embodying an authoritarian style called totality thinking. Derrida seemed unable to grasp Trotsky's point (as well as Hegel's) that there could be a differentiated totality. This profound philosophical weakness resulted in Derrida effectively blocking access to a serious engagement with the Marxist tradition for over a quarter of a century.

So Derrida the man certainly tended towards radicalism in practice, but when we look at him as a theorist he often fell prey to reactionary ideas, strategies or defences that he had great difficulty overcoming.

Nik Howard