What is philosophy? A question often asked, but usually in an abstract or speculative way. Rarely do we find a case of ‘philosophy’ being determined in the real world.
However, at Cambridge in 1992, this is exactly what happened, as a debate took place over the merits, or otherwise, of awarding an Honorary Doctorate of Letters to the philosopher Jacques Derrida. Derrida’s supporters argued that his deconstruction of Western traditions of thinking ushered in an important new manner of doing philosophy; his detractors dismissed his work as charlatanism, philistinism – and non-philosophy.
As arguments raged over the validity of introducing the canon of Continental philosophy to the Humanities in British Higher Education – the so-called ‘Theory Wars’ – Derrida’s ‘Cambridge Affair’ focalized this decisive conflict more than anything else.
This is the first study of the Cambridge Affair. Drawing upon archival and unpublished material, little-known texts pertaining to the Affair, and Derrida’s own oeuvre, this original account offers an historical and philosophical reconstruction of this crucial debate, evaluating it against the body of work it put on trial.
Preface / 1. Reprising the Cambridge Affair / 2. Some Kantian stereotypes: the (conflict of) The Conflict of the Faculties / 3. The place of philosophy / 4. ‘Préférance’ / Conclusion / Bibliography / Index
A continental philosopher called Jacques Derrida is (not) honoured by a university called Cambridge. There are, it seems, ‘aliens in Cambridge.’ Or so Niall Gildea writes in a stunning book that combines the page-turning appeal of investigative history and the intellectual force of high philosophy.
Niall Gildea has come up with the timely idea of revisiting the rumpus over Derrida's honorary Cambridge doctorate and asking what significance that episode still holds in various latter-day contexts and connections. These include the politics and ethics of deconstruction along with their cruder, less edifying counterpart in the thinly-veiled intrigues and tactics of the anti-Derrida faction. At the same time Gildea is careful to avoid an overly partisan stance and does a fine job of reconstructing the debate from a range of intellectual, cultural, and socio-political perspectives. He is acutely perceptive in showing the multiple forms of projection, displacement, and unwitting self-exposure that characterise the adversary cohort. But he also brings out, to just as striking effect, how the issues are prefigured or obliquely rehearsed in Derrida's writings on Plato, Rousseau, Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Habermas and others. All this in a lively and deeply engaged yet judicious expository style which presents its case to convincing effect. If It doesn't do much to redeem the reputation of 'Cambridge Philosophy' at its 1992 low-point Gildea's book none the less shines a clear and critically penetrating light into some dark and until now unvisited corners.
Niall Gildea's new study offers the reader a scrupulously balanced and exhaustively researched account of the serio-comic encounter between Jacques Derrida and the hierarchy of the University of Cambridge. Gildea is illuminatingly attentive both to the neo-liberal political 'moment’ and to the putative ideological and institutional implications of deconstruction, as voiced by both disciples and detractors. The controversy surrounding the award of the honorary doctorate is fruitfully framed by reference to Kantian aesthetics and 'negative theology', and this study will clearly be of interest not only to students of post-structuralist thought but to all concerned with the social and political role of the academy.
In his probing analysis of the 1992 Cambridge Affair, Niall Gildea argues convincingly that Derrida’s work, far from being simply an affront to philosophical norms, provides powerful resources for thinking about the meaning, practice, and institutions of philosophy today.