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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Philosophy in a Time of Terror

Giovanna Borradori, Philosophy In A Time Of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida
(Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2003)
xiv and 208pp
ISBN 0-226-06664-9

Liam O Ruairc • Fortnight, September 2004

Most people find philosophers abstract and difficult to understand. They would have some doubts as to whether they have anything worthwhile to say about the important events of our times, such as the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent ‘war on terror’ for example. The interest of this book is that it shows that philosophy has a valuable contribution to make to the understanding of phenomena like ‘terrorism’ and ‘war’. The editor has interviewed the two most important philosophers still alive, Jacques Derrida and Jurgen Habermas. In two interviews Habermas and Derrida expose their entire philosophical framework to interpret the 9/11 events in an accessible manner. Each interview in followed by an essay by Giovanna Borradori contextualising the arguments developed by the two thinkers.

Derrida’s interview is the longest, and probably the most interesting. His project is known as ‘deconstruction’. It pays close attention to language to expose the rhetorical strategies at work within philosophy. In the words of the editor, the dialogue presents in an accessible and concentrated manner Derrida's 'unmatched ability to combine inventiveness and rigor, circumvention and affirmation' and clearly shows his extreme sensibility to the subtilities of language.

For Derrida, an event like 9/11 calls for a philosophical response which questions at their most fundamental level, the most deep-seated conceptual presuppositions of our discourse about the likes of ‘war’ and ‘terrorism’.

"The concepts with which this 'event' has most often been described, named, categorised, are the products of a 'dogmatic slumber' from which only a new philosophical reflection can awaken us, a reflection on philosophy, most notably on political philosophy and its heritage. The prevailing discourse, that of the media and of the official rhetoric, relies too readily on received concepts like 'war' or 'terrorism' (national and international)."

It is necessary to be vigilant given the uncritical use of words like ‘terrorism’ in the discourse that dominates public space and the media in this age of 'war on terror'. This is something relevant for us here: for example, were the so-called 'Troubles' a 'war' or 'terrorism', did they involve 'gangsters' or 'guerillas'? Derrida calls for a deconstruction of all those terms and distinctions. The purpose of being attentive to rhetoric, to where concepts come against their limits, is "not in order to isolate ourselves in language", as Derrida as often been accused of, "but on the contrary, on order to try to understand what is going on precisely beyond language".

This is not an abstract question given the political and legal effects those words have.

"Semantic instability, irreductible trouble spots on the borders between concepts, indecision in the very concept of the border; all this must not only be analysed as a speculative disorder, a conceptual chaos or zone of passing turbulence in public or political language. We must also recognise here strategies and relations of force. The dominant power is the one that manages to impose and, this, to legitimate, indeed to legalize (for it is always a question of law) on a national or world stage, the terminology and thus the interpretation that best suits it in a given situation."

For Derrida, the task of the "philosopher-deconstructor" is to "reflect in a responsible fashion on those questions and demand accountability from those in charge of public discourse, those responsible for the language and institutions of international law." The deconstruction of those concepts is not simply a critical enterprise or nihilism, but one of refoundation. "Reflection (of what I would call a 'deconstructive' type) should thus, it seems to me, without diminishing or destroying these axions and principles, question and refound them, endlessly refine and universalise them, without becoming discouraged by the aporias such work must necessarily encounter."

The interview with Jurgen Habermas has less to offer in terms of insights into the significance of 9/11 and its consequences. His theory of ‘communicative action’ is about giving foundations to ethics and politics through argumentative procedures, based on the idea that commitments to truth, sincerity and rightness are normative presuppositions of human communication. Philosophy's aim is to reconstruct the conditions that make communication not only possible, but also effective and productive. This enables philosophy to become a critical tool to criticize the distortions in communication. For Habermas, international terrorism and 9/11 are ultimately a result of a communicative pathology:

"The spiral of violence begins as a spiral of distorted communication that leads through the spiral of uncontrolled reciprocal mistrust to the breakdown of communication."

Habermas calls on Western countries to build channels of communication, and to increase public participation and encourage dialogue. Mutual understanding and consensus are the key to resolve international tension. There is something very abstract in the ideas developed by Habermas in this interview. As the editor notes in her essay, the turn toward communicative action cause Habermas's focus to shift from historically and sociologically founded analyses to a formal approach in which the investigation of institutional processes and argumentative structures is given more importance than material conditions. Habermas may have discovered 'normative foundations', but those remain purely linguistic, and remain disconnected from historical realities. Historical situations like 9/11 and the ‘war on terror’ are judged in terms of an unhistorical ideal speech situation.

The actual content of Habermas and Derrida's political positions is not particularly original, both defend a banal liberalism and argue for reform of international laws and institutions. They differ however, in so far as Habermas is fairly apologetic of existing institutions such as the European Union or The Hague Tribunal, whereas Derrida defends a kind of empty transcendence and a formalistic messianism about an utopian 'democracy to come', believing "that it is faith in the possibility of this impossible" that must govern all our political decisions. Language has a central place in the reflection of both thinkers. However, their understanding of the nature of language is very different. If Habermas puts the emphasis upon the ideal of transparent communication, Derrida is more attentive to the contradictions, tensions and conflicts that make mutual understanding and dialogue difficult in practice. Such a perspective is far more suited to the reality of international relations. He reminds us of the permanent semantic instability of concepts like ‘terrorism’ or ‘war’, whose meaning will always be negotiated and renegotiated. His call for people to be vigilant about how such concepts are used is more than timely in an age where there is so much talk about ‘terrorism’.


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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

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27 September 2004

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Intimidation of a Writer
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Say it in Breac'n English
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An Open Letter to the Man Known as "Martin Ingram"
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Philosophy in a Time of Terror
Liam O Ruairc

Diary: 3 Days
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24 September 2004

Honour the Legacy
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No Essential Contradiction
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