Between St Augustine and Jacques Derrida

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John Caputo, a catholic continental philosopher from the USA tries to manifest strong links between Derrida and St. Augustine. It would be interesting to examine how the deconstruction of Derrida relates to St. Augustine’s thought and belief. One external link Caputo brings to the table is clear when he says that both Augustine and Derrida are sons of the tears of their mothers who cried over their waywardness. But we have to find deeper parallels beyond just being sons of the tears of their mother to truly trace the links. James K. A. Smith, thinking on the side of Caputo, points out that deconstruction rather than being characterised by a spirit of suspicion is concerned with a primordial trust and therefore it is always already committed. This means it seems to follow the Augustinian dictum: unless one believes one will not understand. Derrida also indicates that fundamental trust/ faith has to precede knowledge. It simply underlines that it is faith or trust that makes knowledge possible. “This is to take a fundamentally Augustinian, religious, and biblical position,” Caputo explains, “for on this point Augustine himself is just being a good student of the biblical and prophetic tradition rather than of Plotinus”. Thus, there is a previous commitment that is the condition of possibility of knowledge. Here we have to state that we find this form in both Derrida and Augustine while the commitment of faith that moves them to knowledge is different. Thus for instance, to St. Augustine faith, that condition of knowledge is very specific and contentful: Faith in Christ, the interior teacher. 

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In Derrida however, the commitment is divorced from its determinant content, unlike St. Augustine. We can trace commitment in Derrida but the object of content is contingent as he places it under erasure. Derrida, therefore, is doubly committed. He is committed before he ventures into critique and he is also committed to pointing out that these commitments suggest that thinking entrusts itself to something other than itself. Derrida calls it the guidance of the spirit by which thinking entrusts to language. Derrida notes that language is already present in advance and therefore he has to trust it before he ventures into thinking/ speaking/questioning. He says that language is a promise which makes speaking possible. Thus, the promise makes it possible to question without belonging to it. This is the spirit, the spectre that haunts our speaking/ thinking/ questioning that paradoxically makes thinking and speaking possible without belonging to it. Thus, for Derrida before any hermeneutics of suspicion (of which he is a master), one must trust the promises of language. The hermeneutics of trust, therefore, proceeds hermeneutics of suspicion. This is why questioning which is at the heart of suspicion does not have the last word because it lacks the first word. We question only because we are committed. Our commitment comes back to haunt our questioning. The wordless yes that we commit to by trusting the language comes to haunt all our questioning. The yes is wordless because it prioritizes and accompanies our speaking/thinking/ questioning. Since Derrida thinks beyond phonetic ideographic (alphabetic) writing. Our wordless yes that comes prior to all thinking/ speaking/ questioning is also a form of writing and in the same way, speaking/ thinking/ questioning can be wordless and we can trace it in parabolic/ prophetic actions ( writings in Derridian sense). But in all this, we cannot get out of our original alliance with language. It is a promise that cannot be broken. 

Trust being prior to questioning comes close to Augustinian as well as catholic belief that goodness is prior to evil. To Derrida, it means the state of deception and false consciousness is an accidental way of being and not the real way of being human in the world. The pharmakon ( Derrida’s term for our experience of everything as a remedy as well as poison at the same time, a double edge sword ) is not original nor constitutive but is a contingency resulting from the brokenness of a fallen world. But before this fall and in spite of this fall there is a primordial yes, a wordless word. It is this wordless word, the yes that St. Augustine and Christians name as the son of God, Jesus Christ. It seems that Derrida has come so close to the Eternal Logos/ Jesus Christ yet still remains at a distance. He is lifting the cup but not drinking it. Deconstruction being always on the way never reaching home but ever coming close may tell us why Derrida comes close but remains at a distance. In fact, breaking the distance and maintaining it simultaneously happens in Derrida’s Deconstruction. It thinks oppositional binaries together, much like Advaita. 

Our prior commitment before we reason or think can be both traced in Augustine and Derrida. This means faith and reason belong together. It is faith that triggers/ ignites reason. There is no faithless reason. What masquerades as reason alone is actually reason under the ignition of faith. But to understand Derrida, we have to put the term faith under erasure. It has links with what we Catholics accept as entrusting ourselves to God but it also distances us from it. In this context, there is entrusting but this entrusting is not fixed to a specific God as in the case of Christianity/Judaism etc. It puts faith under erasure. It is faith without any specific faith, a religion without this or that religion. This is why we have to agree that the atheism of Derrida is antitheism. It takes us to God beyond our thinking and conceptual enframing. Hence, we might have to say that Derrida comes close to Augustine and therefore may be called a hidden Augustine of Judaism. But at the same time, he is marking his distance. He is between and beyond St. Augustine. We can certainly manifest these lines that connect as well as separate St. Augustine and Derrida. We may say that St. Augustine is erased in the work of Derrida.


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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao