Several weeks after the terrible events of 9/11, Giovanna Borradori, professor of Philosophy at Vassar College and a specialist in Continental philosophy, Aesthetics, and the philosophy of terrorism, conducted a series of separate lengthy interviews with Jacques Derrida and Jurgen Habermas. After the interviews, she gives us essays in which she recapitulates the main arguments and relates them to the writings and the philosophy of the interviewees. The skeletal structure around which the conversations revolve is the idea of the Enlightenment and what we can gain from its lessons with regard to the terror attacks of 9/11.
It is a very dense book, and I had to restrain myself from highlighting every single line. Yeah, it was that good.
Jurgen Habermas is considered to be the most important German philosopher of the second half of the 20th century. A highly influential social and political thinker, Habermas was generally identified with the critical social theory developed from the 1920s by the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, also known as the Frankfurt School. In his treatises and essays he has created a comprehensive vision of modern society and the possibility of freedom within it.
Jacques Derrida was [he died in 2004]a French philosopher best known for developing a form of semiotic analysis known as deconstruction. He is one of the major figures associated with post-structuralism and postmodern philosophy. He had a significant influence upon the humanities and social sciences, including—in addition to philosophy and literature—law, anthropology, historiography, applied linguistics, ]sociolinguistics, psychoanalysis, political theory, religious studies, feminism, and gay and lesbian studies. In his later writings, Derrida addressed ethical and political themes in his work.
I am having a difficult time — not in condensing this book into something digestible for you,– but in selecting only one or two themes of these two interesting philosophers. Especially since I have highlighted almost every line, I can’t just go grab a quote. I would be quoting the entire book. Let’s see what I can do.
The book tackles the questions: What exactly is terrorism, and has it a political content? What has 9/11 to do with globalization? Are we facing a clash of civilizations? Are there chances of stimulating or even institutionalizing intercultural communication?
I found the discussion on what is terrorism to be instructive, as it made it clear that terrorism is not a state activity, but an individual one, and that it would seem that terrorism always has to do with religion — fundamentalism or extremism — in some form. Both philosophers contend that terrorism is an elusive, ambiguous, reversible concept, a social construction – Derrida reminds the reader that the French “resistants” were labeled “terrorists” by the Germans during World War Two – but analyze it from a different perspective : Habermas “reconstructs” terrorism as manifested on September 11, in order to show that this terrorism, in opposition to national liberation movements, is deprived from any political content. Consequently, Habermas fervently denounces the current American “war against terrorism” designation, because it gives political legitimation to terrorism and, at the same time, reflects an “overreaction” against an unknown enemy. Derrida, on the other hand, claims that the deconstruction of the “concept” terrorism is the only politically responsible approach to terrorism, since the media, the officials and public use of the concept as a self-evident notion, manifests the democracies’ vulnerability and perversely serves the terrorist cause, by giving it “visibility”.
Derrida agrees with Habermas in defense of the Enlightenment principles and even sides with cosmopolitanism as theorized by Kant himself. Both Habermas and Derrida refer to Kant’s Perpetual Peace, which anticipated the possibility of transforming classical international law into a new cosmopolitan order. But, in order to achieve the full transition to cosmopolitanism, both thinkers agree that international law and the decisions taken by the international community should be respected. In this respect, Habermas and Derrida strongly denounced the American serious failings with regard to these commitments and especially during the deliberations prior their decision to wage a war against Iraq.
There was some really intriguing discussion of the concepts of tolerance, hospitality and forgiveness, with the idea being that tolerance is bestowed by someone or some institution which considers itself superior to those people or situations to which it grants tolerance, while hospitality can be considered in two forms: invited guests and unexpected guests. I found this particularly apt in today’s current political climate of non-welcoming of immigrants and refugees.
I found it necessary to read this in small readings. It was too much to absorb in big chunks. I highly recommend it if you like contemplating the larger, meta ideas.