Rowman and Littlefield International

There are Contexts: Derrida and the Challenge of History

Published on Thursday 31 Jan 2019 by Sean Gaston

How did Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) respond to the historical events that took place in Europe from 1989 to 1991?  And how can this help us to understand Derrida’s engagement with the problem of history and the relation between philosophy and historiography?

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in the last months of 1989 had significance for Derrida, not least because his wife Marguerite had been born in Prague in 1932.  The death of the Czechoslovakian philosopher Jan Patocka in 1977, after a long interrogation for signing the Charter 77 petition, led to a group of philosophers at Oxford University founding the Jan Hus Educational Foundation in 1980.  In the summer of 1981, Jean-Pierre Vernant was appointed the president of the French branch of the Foundation and Derrida the vice-president.  In the last days of December 1981 Derrida had travelled to Prague to give a “clandestine seminar” on Descartes.  On 30 December 1981 Derrida was arrested at the airport. [i]

Having spent hours pounding on the doors of his cell demanding that someone contact the French ambassador, Derrida was informed that he was facing a two-year prison sentence.  As the news spread of his arrest, the French government protested and Derrida was released from prison on 1st January 1982.  One could date the question of Derrida and the “challenge” of history to this event in Prague.  However, it was almost impossible for Derrida not to be involved in politics when he was a student at the École normale supérieure in the 1950s, not least because at the time it was dominated by the French Communist Party.  On 5th March 1953, a minute of silence was enforced at the ENS to mourn the death of Stalin. [ii]

As Derrida observed, his time at the ENS was very difficult because while he was “anti-Stalinist” and had a view of “the democratic left” that was “incompatible” with the French Communist Party and the Soviet Union, he did not want his objections to be “confused with conservative reticence.” [iii]  A complex political analysis and a difficult negotiation with prevailing political orthodoxies were already demanded of Derrida in the 1950s.  However, Derrida was already “challenged” by history in 1942 when, as a Jew living in Vichy Algeria, he was expelled from school and lost his French citizenship. [iv]  The events of 1989 were only one more challenge by history in the life of Jacques Derrida.

The first notable response to the events of late 1989 was Derrida’s decision to accept, after many years of refusal, an invitation to go to Moscow in February 1990.  He followed his visit to the Soviet Union from 26 February to 6 March with a paper given later in March in California entitled “Back from Moscow, in the USSR,” the title being in part inspired by the Beatles’ 1968 song “Back in USSR.” 

In this paper he focuses on a number of travel narratives, including works by Andre Gide and Walter Benjamin, written after returning from Soviet Russia.  Derrida argues that in these narratives “a certain thematic generality” is “linked to a finished sequence of history.” [v]  He suggests that this type of narrative is marked by implicit philosophical positions about the historical nature of a political event when it is taken as evidence of “a decisive moment in the history of humanity.” [vi]

In the name of the unique revolutionary political circumstances of Communist Russia, these travel narratives evoke “the quest for the universal.” [vii]  The sense of visiting a particular country, with its particular problems (not least during the Stalinist era), is transcended by the need to affirm a universal revolutionary imperative for humanity as a whole.  Derrida is giving us a critique here of an unacknowledged philosophy of history in these travel narratives to the USSR.  This was not a “new” aspect of his thought.  As early as 1964, Derrida had criticised a “historicity” that is shaped by its relation to the “paradigms” of Marxism. [viii]

He would return to these issues three years later in 1993 in one of his best known works, the Specters of Marx.  Examining Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992), Derrida argues that there is a profound lack of “thinking of the event” in Fukuyama’s popular work. [ix]  Echoing a Hegelian tradition, Fukuyama suggests that the collapse of the Soviet Union signals the “end of history,” as the liberal democracy and free-market capitalism of the United States is becoming the global norm for political-economic organization.

Derrida points out that Fukuyama both wants to account for the actual history of the late twentieth century and to make the case for a “regulating ideal” that announces the proclaimed “end” of this history. [x]  In the name of a thoroughly historical account of the actual “end of history,” Fukuyama has relied on “a regulating and trans-historical ideal” to organize his historical narrative.  This “trans-historic and natural ideal” can only “discredit” and “suspend” the very authority of the “so-called empirical event.” [xi]  In proclaiming “an ideal good news,” Fukuyama leaves us with an unconvincing idealization of history and an inadequate philosophical account of the historical event. [xii]

To understand Derrida’s treatment of history in the early 1990s, we need to go back to 1967.  The phrase “linguistic turn” was coined in the 1950s and first brought to prominence by Richard Rorty in 1967 as the title for a collection of essays by logical positivists and ordinary language philosophers. [xiii]  It was only later that the “linguistic turn” was used to describe and define Derrida’s best-known work, Of Grammatology (1967).  As Derrida himself explained in an interview in 1994, his work was not advocating or celebrating the “linguistic turn,” but rather criticizing the dual claims of structural linguistics to a general authority over literary criticism, anthropology and philosophy.  The question of language was being taken as a radical break with the past. [xiv]

In part because of the animosity of Michel Foucault, one phrase from Of Grammatology––“there is nothing outside the text”––was taken up in the 1970s as proof that Derrida was an ardent philosopher of language. [xv]  And yet, as we now better understand thanks to the recent publication of Derrida’s 1964–1965 lectures Heidegger: The Question of Being and History, terms like “text” were part of Derrida’s wider interest in the necessary repetitions and retentions that allow us to register the traces of the past as something more than a presence found only in the present. [xvi]

From his earliest writings in the 1950s and 1960s Derrida had focused on the problem of history.  In his first works he rejected Hegel’s characterization of history as the history of philosophy and the overarching idealization of history in Hegel’s philosophy of history.  He also followed in close detail Husserl’s argument for a history of trans-historical ideal objectivities, such as the truths of geometry, which remained the same across the ages.  At the same time, Derrida’s early writings on Husserl show the influence of Paul Ricoeur’s extensive reflections in the 1950s on the relation between philosophy and “the history of the historians.”

In the mid 1960s he explored Heidegger’s claims in Being and Time (1927) for a historicity of Dasein that both broke away from the self-evident assumption in the history of philosophy of the self or subject (and its consciousness and experiences) as the central axis of philosophy and insisted on an absolute distinction between mere historical events (including the science of history or historiography) and the unique events of Being. [xvii]  In the early 1970s Derrida returned to the problem of history and, I believe, found a framework to the open the possibility of a different kind of philosophy of history and even a deconstructive historiography.  This framework is apparent in his writings on history in the aftermath of the events in Europe in 1989–1990.

In an appreciative but very critical reading of Heidegger’s “Time and Being” (1962), Derrida attempts to counter the Hegelian heritage of the triadic narrative of an initial and limited appropriation followed by the negation or absolute difference of expropriation that only leads to a final reappropriation. [xviii]  This sequence––which Hegel uses as the basis of his philosophy of history and is found to varying degrees in Heidegger and Ricoeur––can be challenged through an ex-approriation.

Ex-appropriation dislodges the initial and final assumption of propriety and treats the phase of antithesis, of negation or alterity, not as an absolute difference, but as history of differences that are just short of or beyond the fixed points that reinforce the philosophical idealizations of history and historiography.  From the mid 1970s to the mid 1990s Derrida explored the relation between ex-appropriation and the problem of history primarily through the question of context, memory and narrative.

Derrida’s criticisms in 1990 of the accounts of Soviet Russia and in 1993 of Fukuyama’s idealization of historical events reiterate his early recognition of the impasse between an assured historicism and an emphatic a-historicism.  From his first works on Husserl, Derrida had developed a long-standing critique of historicism in relation to philosophy.  Husserl argued that an empirically and culturally determined relativism or historicism––as found in the work of Wilhelm Dilthey––could not account for the trans-historical aspects of science, mathematics and philosophy.  Derrida was also critical of Husserl’s a-historical phenomenological analysis of trans-historical ideal objectivities but this also argument informs Derrida’s criticisms of the claims for determining a closed historical context.

In 1963 Derrida had notably criticized the historicism in Foucault’s treatment of philosophy––the source of Foucault’s later hostility––and evoked in its place the relation between an apparently “closed” totality, which is described as a historically determined, finite structure, and a historicity that goes beyond or exceeds this totality. This “excess” is not some positive infinity but rather the registering of the difference between a historically determined structure and its possibility. [xix]  This implies that a structure that is historically determined––encompassed, defined––cannot give rise to itself.  Its possibility is already in excess of its “closed” determination.

As Derrida explained in a number of interviews in the 1970s and 1980s, when confronted with the assertion of the essence of ‘X’, he turns to the attendant problem of the history of this essence of ‘X’ to establish that ‘X’ is not simply natural but already marks a dynamic structural relation between nature and culture. [xx]  Because it is not natural, this ‘X’ is a construction with a history that can be deconstructed without lending itself to a determined historicism.  Deconstruction works with history, not simply in or outside of history.

For example, already in the 1980s Derrida was especially interested in what he calls the “historical configuration” of the 1920s and 1930s that shaped the thought of such disparate figures as Heidegger and Benjamin and he treats this not as a self-evident historical context but as a historical milieu. [xxi]  This is not a simple affirmation of being in the midst or a being in the middle as much as a mi-lieu, a half-placing.  With such a mi-lieu, one cannot merely say that something is “in a milieu.”  This raises the question of context both in Derrida’s thought and in any attempt to construct an “intellectual history” of Derrida himself.

Edward Baring’s book The Young Derrida and French Philosophy 1945-1968, published in 2011 in the CUP series “Ideas in Context” is a remarkable work of archival scholarship and the first to make extensive use of Derrida’s earliest writings as a student in the 1940s and 1950s. [xxii]  It is also distinguished by its exclusion of all of Derrida’s autobiographical writings and interviews. 

This exclusion is compounded by the absence of any reflection on Derrida’s own treatment of the work-as-memoir, the problem of historical memory and the question of “ideas in context” in relation to Derrida’s own writings on history and context.  How can one write a history of Derrida’s thought or intellectual development without raising the question of memory and, not least, of his own memories?  Barings answer is quite simple: he is only concerned with the years 1945–1968 and almost all of this material in Derrida’s work appeared well after this period.  To use it would be to distort the historical context as it was at the time and to risk a blatant anachronism.

However, this “objective” context is itself in danger of creating a generalized and rather weak historical account of Derrida, in part because Baring believes that Derrida had a pronounced interest in Christian thought in his earliest writings and believes this accounts for “the milieu in which deconstruction developed.” [xxiii]  The problem on historical grounds with this claim is that Baring is not able to establish whether Derrida’s earliest essays were a response to set questions or whether other students also wrote very similar or markedly different essays.  At times, Baring seems merely to affirm that there were Christian thinkers in Catholic France.

The Ideas in Context series is indebted to the distinguished work of the British historian Quentin Skinner and describes its general aims in the following terms:

The procedures, aims and vocabularies that were generated will be set in the context of the alternatives available within the contemporary framework of ideas and institutions.  Through detailed studies of the evolution of such traditions, and their modifications by different audiences, it is hoped that a new picture will form of the development of ideas in their concrete contexts. [xxiv]

“Context” is registered here by the “alternatives available” at the time, hence Derrida’s apparent sustained interest in Christianity in the 1950s when Christian Existentialism was a prevailing “contemporary framework.”  The “different audiences” in this case are the actual enthusiasts for Christian existentialism that can provide the “context” for the young “Christian” Derrida.  These two contextual gestures certainly give us a “new picture” but perhaps not a “concrete” context.

In his influential 1969 essay “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” Skinner had argued that “the history of ideas” as understood by Arthur Lovejoy must be determined far more rigorously in a comprehensive historical field: an idea must always be taken “in context.” [xxv]  The whiff of the “after” or “later” must not distort or pollute the clarity of the “before”: the “before” can only be contemporary with itself or with what has preceded it and can be properly documented as contemporary.  To support his argument, Skinner relies on J. L. Austin’s speech act theory.  We should be asking not only what thinkers of the past were “saying,” confronting their intended “meaning,” but also what they were actually “doing,” and “understanding” the possible contexts and viable reception of their written works at the time of writing. [xxvi] Taken in context, these ideas demonstrate the limits of what could be done or performed in their “the contemporary framework.”

Would we be transgressing the accurate contextual and historical assessment of what was said and done in 1969 if we allowed a statement published some thirty-three years later to alter the context of Skinner’s 1969 essay?  In some remarks from 2002, Skinner spoke again of his criticism of Lovejoy by placing more emphasis on an unavoidable “radical contingency in the history of thought.” [xxvii]  One could see Skinner’s own very understandable act of retrospection as the affirmation of an unavoidable anachronism.  In retrospect, the “after” alters the context for the “before.”  As Martin Jay has argued, historical events can also be understood as much by their aftermath and legacy as their immediate or pre-existing contexts. [xxviii]

Skinner’s use of speech act theory in the name of a more rigorous “ideas in context” also touches on the assumption of the so-called ordinary language philosophers that ordinary, everyday, “natural” language can bring a new veracity to philosophy through a compliant and seemingly transparent context of usage and meaning.  Derrida turned to this question two years after Skinner’s essay in his 1971 paper “Signature Event Context,” written at the time that he first formulated the concept of ex-appropriation. [xxix]

Derrida is concerned in this paper with the implications of the traditional notion of writing as a viable form of communication that exceeds its initial context.  Writing, he observes, “can give rise to an iteration [a repetition] both in the absence of and beyond the presence of the empirically determined subject who, in a given context, has emitted or produced it.” [xxx]  As a communication, writing can be taken as “a force of rupture” in relation to its context: something is still readable even when it is no longer clear to whom the writing was originally addressed or what was the meaning, intentions, experience and circumstances of the writer. [xxxi]

Derrida’s point is that this dislocation of context registers the very possibility of a writing that can be not only repeatable but also readable in another context, in many other contexts and, I would add, describes the customary status of the documents and archives––the memories of others––that are used in historiography.  In his work in the 1990s, Derrida would turn explicitly to the problem of the relation between testimony, historical memory and evidence. [xxxii]

In “Signature Event Context” Derrida’s target is the implicit assumption that a concept of context always registers “a set of presences which organize the moment of its inscription.” [xxxiii]  This challenges the idealized and commonplace notion of an “external” surrounding and an “internal” unity.  There are contexts, Derrida reiterates, but one must still question the “theoretical determination” of an idealized context and the unspoken assumption that context can function as an entirely sufficient “empirical saturation.” [xxxiv]  How often has a work of historiography relied on the great sponge of context to soak up a host of complexities and incompatibilities?

What happens, Derrida asks in “Signature Event Context,” to the context of a speech act when it is quoted or cited in another context or in a series of different contexts?  The possibility of the speech act is then always tied to its repetition.  For Derrida, repetition accounts for the possibility of a relation to the past and to history as a tradition, a heritage, a legacy and an inheritance.  When something is repeated, when it is transmitted, when it is passed on, it does not only repeat what is the one and the same, so it can simply register itself as itself ad infinitum.  Repetition also marks an alteration––a historical difference even––in which the same is still the same but no longer identical with itself: it registers a relation to the other, to another context. [xxxv]

Specters of Marx opens with an explicit engagement with “a politics of memory, of inheritance, and of generations.” [xxxvi]  But this is also a work about Derrida’s own inheritance and memory.  These issues as questions of history––of the weight of history––long precede Derrida’s 1993 work and the events of 1989–1991.  The ethical relation to the phantoms or specters of the past, declared in the name of justice, the relation to those who are no longer living, no longer registered in the present and yet who communicate without rest and call for a response, a response to the past, to the past that is already looking ahead to the future, to the future of the past, to the past that is not behind but relentlessly in front of us, is not “new” to Derrida’s work in 1993. [xxxvii]  As Derrida observes, the response to the events of 1989–1991 already seems anachronistic, as debates about Marx and “the end of history” had dominated French philosophy in the 1950s. [xxxviii]  One cannot avoid this anachronism.

Deconstruction is concerned with the problem of  “the reconstitution of a context,” of the memories of the other, the difficult status of historical memory, the relation between the historical event and the event of its narration and with the historian as “a witness of a witness.” [xxxix]  It recognizes the need to take account of “the mobility of contexts that are constantly being reframed.” [xl]  These “mobile contexts” are apparent in any attempted “intellectual history,” not least that of Derrida himself.

At the start of Specters of Marx, Derrida observes: “a context, always, remains open, [and] thus fallible and insufficient.” [xli]  Any attempt to situate Derrida’s works in a historical context that is seen as a direct response to the political events of 1989-1991 must therefore recognize both spreading contexts (long after these events) and receding contexts (long before these events) and the persistent critique of a context that is taken as sufficient unto itself.  These contexts generate the very problem of an “intellectual history” governed by the ideal of a “contemporary framework.”  When it comes to thinking about Derrida and the revolutions of 1989, there is always another revolution, the rolling back, before and after the revolution.


[i] Benoît Peeters, Derrida: A Biography, trans. Andrew Brown (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), 332–341. 

[ii] Derrida: A Biography, 62.

[iii] Jacques Derrida and Michael Skinner, “Politics and Friendship,” in Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews 1971–2001, ed. and intro. Elizabeth Rottenberg, trans. Robert Harvey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 147–98: 163.  

[iv] Derrida: A Biography, 19–34.  See also Jacques Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other or the Prosthesis of the Origin, trans. Patrick Mensah (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).

[v] Jacques Derrida, “Back from Moscow, in the USSR,” in Politics, Theory, and Contemporary Culture, ed. Mark Poster, trans. Mary Quaintaire (New York: Columbia University Press 1993), 197–235: 198.

[vi] “Back from Moscow, in the USSR,” 198.

[vii] “Back from Moscow, in the USSR,” 212.

[viii] Jacques Derrida, Heidegger: The Question of Being and History, ed. Thomas Dutoit with the assistance of Marguerite Derrida, trans. Geoffrey Bennington (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 23.

[ix] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London: Routledge, 1994), 63. 

[x] Specters of Marx, 62.

[xi] Specters of Marx, 69.

[xii] Specters of Marx, 64.

[xiii] Judith Surkis “When Was the Linguistic Turn? A Genealogy,” American Historical Review 117.3 (2012): 700–722.  See also The Linguistic Turn: Recent Essays in Philosophical Method, ed. Richard Rorty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967). 

[xiv] Jacques Derrida and Maurizio Ferraris, A Taste For the Secret, ed. Giacomo Donis and David Webb, trans. Giacomo Donis (Cambridge: Polity, 2001), 76.

[xv] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 158.  On Foucault and Said, see Sean Gaston, “Punctuations,” in Reading Derrida’s Of Grammatology, ed. Sean Gaston and Ian Maclachlan (London: Continuum, 2011), xiii–xxvii.

[xvi] Heidegger: The Question of Being and History, 83.

[xvii] See Heidegger: The Question of Being and History.

[xviii] This begins with the footnotes in the publication of Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 26 n. 26, 129–130 n. 25, 132 n. 35, 132 n. 36.  See also 7, 19–20.

[xix] Jacques Derrida, “Cogito and the History of Madness,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 31–63.

[xx] Jacques Derrida, Positions, ed. and trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 59.  Jacques Derrida and Derek Attridge, “ ‘This Strange Institution Called Literature’: An Interview with Jacques Derrida,” in Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (London: Routledge, 1992), 33–75: 54.

[xxi] Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’,” in Acts of Religion ed. and intro. Gil Anidjar, trans. Mary Quaintance (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), 228–98: 283, 294

[xxii] Edward Baring, The Young Derrida and French Philosophy, 1945–1968 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)

[xxiii] The Young Derrida and French Philosophy, 5.

[xxiv] Quoted at the front of The Young Derrida and French Philosophy.

[xxv] Quentin Skinner, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” in Visions of Politics: Volume I Regarding Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 57–89:

[xxvi] “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” 83.

[xxvii] Quentin Skinner, “Retrospect: Studying Rhetoric and Conceptual Change,” in Visions of Politics: Volume I Regarding Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 175–87: 176.

[xxviii] Martin Jay, “Historical Explanation and the Event: Reflections on the Limits of Contextualization,” New Literary History 42.4 (2011): 557–71. 

[xxix] Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 309–30.

[xxx] “Signature Event Context,” 317.

[xxxi] “Signature Event Context,” 315–17.  Translation modified.

[xxxii] See for example, Jacques Derrida, “History of the Lie: Prolegomena,” in Without Alibi, ed. trans. and intro. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 28–70.

[xxxiii]  “Signature Event Context,” 317

[xxxiv] “Signature Event Context,” 316. 

[xxxv] Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc, ed. Gerald Graff, trans. Samuel Weber (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 71, 118–19.

[xxxvi] Specters of Marx, xix, 54.

[xxxvii] Specters of Marx, xix–xx.  See also Derrida’s own comments on the twenty-year antecedents to this work, 178, n. 3.

[xxxviii] Specters of Marx, 14–16.  See also 56–75.

[xxxix] Limited Inc, 131; Jacques Derrida, “Poetics and Politics of Witnessing,” in Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan, ed. Thomas Dutoit and Outi Pasanen, trans. Outi Pasanen (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), 65–96: 90.

[xl] Limited Inc, 131.

[xli] Specters of Marx, xvii.