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The Surprising Conservatism of Jacques Derrida by Mark Dooley

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The Surprising Conservatism of Jacques Derrida

There is one element of my existence which often perplexes many people. How is it that I—Sir Roger Scruton’s intellectual biographer and literary executor—should have written extensively on his arch-nemesis Jacques Derrida? Derrida was, after all, one of those upon whom Scruton regularly poured abundant scorn. He was a high priest of ‘Nothingness’ whose soulless alchemy had corrupted the foundations of intellectual life. Generations of students had fallen under his spell, their minds having disintegrated in the process. This wizard of gobbledygook had earned himself a global reputation, but he was nothing more than a purveyor of ‘nonsense.’ That, at least, was Roger’s interpretation of Derrida until, later in life, he softened his stance in response to my view of the so-called ‘father of deconstruction.’

I sought to impress upon Scruton that he and Derrida had at least one thing in common: they were both heirs of Hegel. Both were thinkers in mourning for the ghosts of a forgotten past, and both longed to domesticate what was displaced from the collective memory of generations. This longing took the form of love for what was lost. When I speak like that of Derrida people usually respond in bewilderment. How could I make such noble claims about a man whose ‘toxic writings’ sought to poison the Western inheritance? How could I seriously contend that such a wanton iconoclast was in the same league as Scruton?

First, on a personal level, Derrida was a man of extraordinary kindness. Like Scruton, he was funny, modest, and had a herculean work ethic. He once told me: “I have two breakfasts: one, when I get up at around 4am, and the second when my wife gets up much later.” He could never understand the levels of vitriol which his work provoked and was deeply wounded by some of the more outrageous attacks. As I see it, most of those attacks were misguided, but they did stem from the fact that Derrida made life difficult for his reader. He did so by assuming that they had absorbed the finer intricacies of Hegel, Heidegger, and Edmund Husserl, around which many of his texts were based. That is why his language was often impenetrable and opaque to those unfamiliar with German idealism and phenomenology. Add to that his avant garde idiom and the result is so nebulous that even his greatest admirers could barely penetrate beyond the surface. That is something I acknowledge in my book The Philosophy of Derrida, which I co-wrote with one of my former students in 2007. 

The fact remains, however, that Derrida was not one of the “fashionable frauds” with whom he is often associated. Scruton believed he was a genius, something he confessed in my home in 2010. Both men, as it happens, were arrested, beaten, imprisoned, and expelled from Prague at the height of the communist era. Their crime was daring to address underground seminars for those brave democrats who would eventually emerge from the catacombs to lead their country to liberty. For all their endless talk of the ‘other,’ you can be sure that neither Jacques Lacan nor Slavoj Žižek would not have done likewise. That is because, unlike most of the French Left, Derrida was neither a Marxist radical nor someone who sought to repudiate his own society while simultaneously enjoying its benefits. Indeed, he recounted to me how, after publishing a critical article, Michel Foucault refused to speak to him again. He was, however, appreciated by the great ethicists of the era: Paul Ricoeur and Emmanuel Levinas. In fact, Ricoeur loudly lamented how badly Derrida was treated within and beyond the French academy. Put simply, Derrida should not be considered an ideologue or a revolutionary, but a deeply complex thinker in the tradition of Hegel. And, like Hegel and Scruton, he too was a philosopher of home.

The economy (oikos nomos) is, he tells us, the “law of the home.” It is the common household which domesticates, settles, and regulates how we live. It is the source of our identity and the milieu beyond which life can become meaningless. However, identity, home, and belonging, are all predicated on memory. The culture of amnesia which now dominates the West, demands that we forget so that our identity can be ideologically reconfigured. By contrast, Derrida wrote: “My first desire is not to produce a philosophical work or a work of art: it is to preserve memory.” Isn’t that the primary impulse of all conservatives from Burke to Hegel to Scruton? And might it not also explain why, to the bemusement of his detractors, Derrida described himself as “a very conservative person”?

If the radical Left desires and celebrates the loss of memory— and thus of our common home— Derrida deeply laments what he called the “catastrophe of memory.” He declares that “what pains me, over and above all other possible kinds of suffering, is the fact that things get lost.” They get lost because memory simply cannot contain them. Hence, even if Derrida’s desire was to repeat the past, “the repetition I love is not possible.” By “repetition” he does not mean “repetition in the mechanical sense of the term, but of resurrection, resuscitation, regeneration.” We can and we must retain, conserve, and preserve as much of the past as we can, but something will always resist our best efforts. The answer to this should not be despair, but to press against the loss to resurrect forgotten ghosts.

Contrary to his popular caricature, Derrida regularly insisted “I write in order to keep.” If writing is a source of loss—in that it detaches from the original context of its composition—it is also that through which the spirit (Geist) of the past can be retained. For Derrida, writing permits us to reconnect with the past and to push against the boundaries of loss and forgetfulness. It is central to what he calls “the work of mourning,” the work of dealing with the dead. To genuinely mourn is not merely to accept or grieve loss, but to use every trace of the past to uncover its secrets and to make it more alive. As such, the work of mourning, without which no home can endure, is a work of love for the ghosts of a past that cannot be made fully present. As he put it in an interview with me: “I have a passion for the impossible”—meaning that he was passionate about recovering as much of the past as possible, even while knowing that full resurrection was an impossibility.

Mourning makes way for ghosts, for the unexpected and unforeseen. That is why Derrida was obsessed with archives, for what people sought to retain and for what they could not preserve or domesticate. All archiving is plagued with blind spots—what Derrida called “ash” or “cinders.” Ash symbolises an “absolutely radical forgetting” that mourning endeavours to penetrate, either through rigorous historical scrutiny, historical fiction, or the work of love that inspires us all to delve deep into our personal stories. Indeed, if the past is to be retained, and is not to become the dead archive that so many progressives wish to wash away, such work of mourning is imperative. 

Conservatism is both a work of mourning and of love. It is a work set among the cinders—which is also, as Derrida insists, “the possibility of the relation to the other, of the gift, of affirmation, of benediction, of prayer.” In mourning, we extend the law of the household to afford “hospitality” to the “anonymous forces of history.” This is what Derrida meant when he said that “the future belongs to ghosts”: we mourn so that the forgotten will have a future among us. Hence, we “accord hospitality to that which is absolutely foreign or strange, but also, one must add, to try to domesticate it, that is, to make it part of the household and to have to assume the habits, to make us assume new habits. This is the movement of culture.”

These are hardly the wild incantations of a radical in the mould of Althusser. If anything, they are the sensitive musings of a man who valued home and who sought to save it from “the effacement of traces.” The revolutionary longs for the effacement of traces, but Derrida never engaged in such oikophobia. As he wrote: “I rarely speak of loss, just as I rarely speak of lack, because these are words that belong to the code of negativity, which is not mine.” For him, “mourning itself is affirmation”—affirmation of what belongs to us even if we have forgotten that it does so. Mourning is hospitality, love, and forgiveness. Mourning is to reconcile with the past, to domesticate it by welcoming those without whom we are rendered alien to ourselves. Mourning is an affirmation of the dead, even of those who have left without a trace.

This is not to say that Derrida belongs to the great conservative tradition, but it does suggest that he was not joking when he claimed to be a “very conservative person.” It is certainly true that he must bear some responsibility for the tomes of gibberish that have emerged from the postmodern academy. In the hands of his disciples, deconstruction became an absurdity which resulted in students losing their capacity to speak and argue with clarity. I am not seeking to exonerate Derrida from the patently negative consequences of deconstruction. I follow Kierkegaard, however, in believing that distinctions matter, and that when it comes to Derrida, we must distinguish him from those contemporaries for whom home was a byword for hell. 

When I started writing on Roger Scruton nearly twenty years ago, he was similarly misunderstood and loathed by many. The reality is, however, that it has been an honour to know both Scruton and Derrida, and to have defended them against criticisms that were rooted more in ignorance than truth. It is also worth noting that if people consider my defence of Derrida unusual, the fact is that the intellectual whom Scruton most admired was Jean Paul Sartre. And yet, unlike Derrida, Sartre was the great thinker of the negative, a Stalinist sympathiser, and a man whose dislike of home and the other rendered him a first-rate repudiator. As Derrida rightly asserted: “That code of negativity is not mine.”What Scruton saw in Sartre was, however, a stylistically brilliant man of letters—a genius who shaped the world in his own dark image. What I saw in Derrida was a man of equal genius whose affirmative understanding of home redeemed French thought from its obsessive oikophobia. Neither man was a true conservative but surely if a great conservative like Roger Scruton could admire Sartre, perhaps we should think twice before dismissing Derrida. At the end of his life, Scruton no longer dismissed him as someone who did the ‘Devil’s work.’ My earnest hope is that many more will follow suit and come to view him as one of the few French thinkers who always let love triumph over hate.

Mark Dooley is an Irish philosopher, author and journalist. He is the former John Henry Newman Scholar in theology at University College Dublin, and is a Contributing Editor to The European Conservative magazine. His books include The Politics of Exodus: Kierkegaard’s Ethics of ResponsibilityThe Philosophy of DerridaRoger Scruton: The Philosopher on Dover BeachWhy Be a Catholic?Moral Matters: A Philosophy of Homecoming, and Conversations with Roger Scruton.  In 2022, he published Against the Tide: The Best of Roger Scruton’s Columns, Commentaries and Criticism.  He is Sir Roger Scuton’s Literary Executor. 


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