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Sartre and Derrida: The Promises of the Subject, by Christina Howells

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Sartre and Derrida: The Promises of the Subject

Chaque fois unique, la fin du monde

by Christina Howells

Christina Howells is Professor of French at Wadham College, Oxford University. She has published books on Sartre, on Derrida, and on French women philosophers. She teaches literary theory, French literature, and recent French thought.

Professor Howell’s new book will be coming out with Polity Press in October 2011. It is called “Mortal Subjects: Passions of the soul in late twentieth-century French thought”. This is the Amazon link.

This essay was originally published in the book Derrida: Negotiating the Legacy (edited by Madeleine Fagan, Ludovic Glorieux, Indira Hašimbegović, and Marie Suetsugu) (Edinburgh University Press, 2007).

One should not develop a taste for mourning, and yet mourn we must. We must, but we must not like it, mourning that is, mourning itself, if such a thing exists.1

Derrida’s death has necessarily brought us face to face with mortal questions, questions which preoccupied him increasingly in his own writings and reflections, especially, but not exclusively, since 1990. This volume, devoted to Derrida’s legacy, gives us an opportunity to think afresh about these questions within the context of the Janus-face of all such memorials: looking back at the work which always feels cut short by death, and simultaneously looking forward to discover where we can go from here, mindful once more of our own vulnerability and mortality. This chapter deals with the relations between Derrida and Sartre, whose death in 1980 gave rise to a similarly memorable occasion of mourning amongst those interested in the French philosophical tradition, and the centenary of whose birth in 2005 has been marked by an extraordinary world-wide plethora of conferences and memorial events.

The subject of Derrida’s relations with Sartre has preoccupied me for around twenty-five years, since I first discovered Derrida’s work in fact, in 1980, the year of Sartre’s death, and felt certain he owed an enormous amount to the patterns of thinking, if not necessarily the conclusions, of his philosophical predecessor. Derrida himself, though initially sceptical, came increasingly round to this view, and was always immensely generous when discussing the question with me. I remember one of my first real conversations with him, in Cerisy-la-Salle in the 1980s, when I had given him a copy of an article I had written on his unacknowledged debt to Sartre. ‘Sartre and Derrida: loser wins’. He made an appointment to discuss it with me. The appointed time arrived and I approached him, as he sat waiting on one ofthe many benches in the beautiful Normandy gardens. ‘C’est très beau’, he said. ‘It’s very beautiful’. ‘And very true?’, I asked nervously, holding my breath. ‘And very true’, he replied, with a kind, if ironic, smile. Since then my work on Derrida and Sartre has continued to read them in conjunction with each other, even, and perhaps especially, in areas which might seem at first sight least promising, such as those of subjectivity and freedom, where many critics have been content simply to oppose them. The present chapter will continue this kind of double reading, in connection in particular with the questions of promises, subjectivity, responsibility and decision-making.

Derrida’s first published references to Sartre date, I think, from 1962, in The Origin of Geometry, where Derrida explores Husserl’s phenomenological conception of the imagination. Husserl, he claims, never interrogated the imagination with sufficient rigour, and it retains in his work an ambiguous status, being ‘a derived and founded reproductive power on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the manifestation of a radical, theoretical freedom’. Sartre, Derrida claims, went much further in his analyses:

It is because he starts by thematising imagination directly as an original, situated vécu, with the help of the imagination as the operative instrument of any eidetics, it is because he freely describes the phenomenological conditions of fiction, that the Sartrean [philosophical] breach has so profoundly unsettled, indeed disrupted the whole landscape of Husserlian phenomenology and abandoned its horizons.2

In 1962, then, Derrida described Sartre as a destabilising force, a breach in the phenomenological landscape, shattering Husserlian certainties, just as Derrida himself was to do soon afterwards. But only a few years later, in ‘The ends of man’, a conference paper that Derrida delivered in New York in 1968, Sartre has become, it seems, a metaphysical humanist, author of a ‘phenomenological ontology’ which is described by Derrida as a form of ‘philosophical anthropology’.3 Sartre’s ironic demolition of humanism in La  Nausée has been relegated to a footnote:

It’s in the discussion with the Autodidact that Roquentin takes humanism most severely to task, dismissing all the different styles of humanist, and, at the very moment when nausea is rising up slowly in his throat he says to himself: ‘I don’t wish to be assimilated, nor for my good, red blood to fatten up that lymphatic beast: I shan’t be so stupid as to call myself an ‘‘anti-humanist’’. I am not a humanist, that’s all there is to say.4

What then may we conclude from this about Sartre’s philosophy? If Derrida acknowledges that Roquentin dismisses humanism, this does not stop him accusing Sartre of being profoundly marked by it, and of never questioning ‘the history of the concept of man’. This is quite simply false. Not in the sense that Sartre questions the history of the concept – he rarely examines conceptual history – but rather in the sense that, precisely, it is man who is in question for Sartre: his unity which does not exist, his essence which IS not, and his contradictions which make of him a ‘useless passion’. If it is true, as Derrida argued in his own defence in 1989, that questioning concepts such as ‘man’, ‘democracy’, and ‘responsibility’ does not make one either anti-humanist, anti-democratic, or irresponsible;5 similarly, and a fortiori, this questioning certainly does not make its author a defender of the old concepts he is attempting to interrogate. As Derrida is certainly aware. It is, of course, in Derrida’s own texts that I learnt to make these judgements that I am now using to try to demonstrate that Sartre’s philosophy is not metaphysical in the humanistic sense of the word. For it is, of course, in the same article, ‘The ends of man’, that Derrida contends that metaphysical discourse is unavoidable, even for those such as Heidegger who attempt to deconstruct it. And Derrida recognises that Sartre’s intention was certainly to oppose ‘the substantialist temptation’, and to ‘think afresh . . . the meaning of man’. However, in his view, Sartre did not manage to escape from classical anthropology: ‘despite this claimed neutralisation of metaphysical presuppositions’, he writes, ‘we must still recognise that the unity of man is never itself put in question’.6

Let us examine the question a little more closely. One of Derrida’s most precise claims is that, for Sartre, ‘being in itself and being for itself were both being’. This is certainly correct in a narrow sense, but Derrida is not taking seriously the fact that if the for itself is being, it is in the mode of not being. ‘The for itself has no being because its being is always at a distance’.7 It is true that another footnote to Derrida’s article alludes to the non-selfidentity of the Sartrean subject, but no consequences are drawn from the observation. This will no doubt astonish lovers of Sartre’s paradoxes. In his first published writings, such as The Transcendence of the Ego in 1936, consciousness is described as impersonal, or at least pre-personal. The ‘I’, in Sartre’s account, is not a unifying force; on the contrary it is the act of reflection that confers existence on the ‘I’. ‘There is no ‘‘I’’ on the unreflective level.’ And the subject itself is entirely absent from Sartre’s text, except for a brief moment when it appears as a negated trace, only to be immediately denied: ‘This absolute consciousness, when it is purified of the ‘‘I’’, has nothing more of a subject about it.’8

My title promises to speak of promises, the promises of the subject. Perhaps I will keep my word. For the moment I hand over to Derrida who is an expert in how not to speak (‘Comment ne pas parler’):

Discourse about promises itself anticipates the promise: in the promise . . . As soon as I open my mouth I have already promised, or rather, in the first place, the promise has captured the ‘I’ who promises to speak . . . This promise is older than I am.9

To keep my commitments, if not my promises, I come back to the subject. First of all to the Sartrean subject. In Being and Nothingness Sartre defines for the first time what he understands by subjectivity: it is ‘consciousness (of) consciousness’,10 and ‘the instantaneous cogito’.11 That is to say, subjectivity arises from the reflexivity of consciousness, and is non- positional and non-thetic. It is the reflexivity of consciousness that constitutes the for itself and prevents consciousness from remaining ‘a transcendental field without a subject’.12 In one sense Derrida is right when he maintains that ‘as consciousness, the subject has never been able to manifest itself except as self-presence’.13 But this self-presence is itself paradoxical, for it is precisely what prevents self-identity. The term ‘self’ (soi), from the for itself, is grammatically a reflexive, it indicates a relationship between the subject and itself, but the subject can never ‘be’ itself, because if it were there would be no more reflexivity, and the self itself would disappear in identity and self-coincidence.14 The self can never inhabit consciousness, it is rather an ideal and a limit. So the for itself is only a self in an unrealisable sense, ‘over there’, ‘out of reach’.15 We will return to this ‘over there’ when we come back to look again at Derrida’s texts. That’s a promise. Will I be able to keep it? I do not know.

Let us stay for a moment longer with Sartre. We are close now to the heart of the question, to its navel (ombilic)”16 Will it resist our analysis? We have just seen that it is the self-presence of the for itself that founds its negation of its own identity:

Self-presence . . . is a way of not being self-coincidence, of escaping identity.17

If it is present to itself, that is because it is not entirely itself.18

As I have argued elsewhere, Sartre’s analysis of the self-presence of the for itself, and in particular the way he uses Husserl to demonstrate the impossibility of escaping from reflexive division, prefigures Derrida’s deconstruction of Husserl’s Logical Investigations in Voice and Phenomenon.19

Derrida shows how Husserl’s analyses undermine his own insistence on the very notion of self-identity, especially in his discussions about temporality and interior monologue. This is precisely Sartre’s argument in the first chapter of the second part of Being and Nothingness. Derrida was doubtless well aware of this since he was very familiar with Sartre’s text. But did he have it in mind when he wrote his own critique of Husserl? I doubt it, and he suggested as much himself in ‘Il courait mort’, a rich and moving essay in which Derrida discusses Sartre for the fiftieth anniversary issue of Les Temps Modernes in 1996. Referring to Sartre’s critique of the ideology of fraternity, described by Sartre as the ‘defensive arm of bourgeois democracy’ in so far as it invokes a merely passive link between distinct molecules, Derrida admits:

Recently, in the Politics of Friendship, when I repeatedly questioned the authority of the fraternalist schema and all it implies in our culture, I had forgotten . . . that Sartre had already challenged the rhetoric of fraternity. This forgetting, which must happen to me more often than I realise afterwards, constitutes the fundamental theme of this letter: a strange transaction between amnesia and anamnesia [forgetting and remembering] in the heritage which makes us what we are and which has already invited us to think what we have not yet thought, as if our heritage was always a spectre still to come, a ghost running ahead of us, after whom we race, running in our turn towards death and till we are out of breath.20

And Derrida revisits La Nausée in a renewed attempt to decide the vexed question of Sartre’s humanism: at times the most ferocious anti- humanist, at others its most infamous firing target; at times the exponent of commitment, deliverance and salvation, at others the philosopher who reminds us that commitment may be unavoidable, but we can only ever make our choices against a backdrop of undecidability. There is no evidence here of an heroic decisionism based on free will. No wonder Derrida’s feelings about Sartre were, to say the least, ambivalent, writing at one moment: ‘Nothing is more unstable, divided, uncertain, antinomic than my friendship for Sartre and Les Temps Modernes’, but immediately afterwards speaking of a ‘passion for Sartre that, to tell the truth, I still sometimes feel’.21 It is, of course, the Sartre of non-coincidence who attracts Derrida, as he attracts me too: ‘It is with the Sartre who is in disagreement with himself’, he says, ‘that I feel myself most in agreement’.22 And he quotes one of several extraordinary moments when Sartre seems to anticipate the deconstruction of presence:

The epoch . . . always goes beyond itself, in it we find a rigorous coincidence between the concrete present and the living future of all men who constitute it . . . even if it is true that this future has never become a present.23

And Derrida comments as follows:

Here is a contradiction or a non-coincidence (for when Sartre says ‘rigorous coincidence’ he is designating in a strange way the rigour of a non- coincidence of the present and the future, and of self-presence in so far as it must ‘return to itself from the starting point of that future’). Here is a dehiscence or a discordance with which I feel myself even more in accord today, precisely because it is a question of a disjunction in the self-identity of the epoch or of the present.24

And this ‘future which has never become a present’ of which Sartre speaks has, as we shall see, the structure of a promise: it is marked by the dehiscence which, for Derrida, could perhaps constitute a ‘subject which would not be pre-deconstructive’. For Derrida is deeply interested in a subject of this sort. If in 1968 Derrida defined the subject in terms of a negation of sovereignty, and as a ‘system of relations between the layers’,25 in 1980 he was more interested in the ethical importance of rethinking the notion of man, not so much ontologically (What is man?) as in the terms of the Heideggerian reformulation of the question ‘Who is man?’. And ten years later, in 1989, he is explicit in his defence of current studies of the subject as forming part of the deconstructive enterprise:

We were speaking of dehiscence, of intrinsic dislocation, of difference… Some people might say, but precisely, what we call the ‘subject’ is not absolute origin, pure will, self-identity or the self-presence of consciousness, but rather this non-self-coincidence . . . I am thinking of those who wish to reconstruct today a discourse which is not pre-deconstructive about the subject, about a subject which no longer has the form of self- mastery, of self adequation, centre and origin of the world etc., and who would define the subject as the finite experience of non-self-identity, of the underivable call which comes from the other.26

I don’t know who Derrida was thinking of when he spoke of these attempts to re/deconstruct a subject today – of Levinas, perhaps, or of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, or of Jean-Luc Nancy himself, who was interviewing him at the time – but I know that he was not thinking of Sartre. None the less, everything he says about the non-self-identical subject applies precisely to the Sartrean subject. In a sense, one might say that Derrida was well aware of this. In the interview with Nancy he insists on the non-homogeneity of the ‘classical subject’, and on the fact that at the heart of Husserl’s transcendental idealism, for example, there is ‘a horizon of questioning which is not overseen by the egological form of subjectivity or intersubjectivity’.27 But although he recognises the complexities and contradictions at the heart of the classical subject, be it Cartesian or Husserlian; and although he recognises that the precursors of the deconstruction of the subject, such as Nietzsche or Heidegger in their mistrust of substantialist or subjectivist metaphysics, never went through to the logical conclusion of their own thinking and remained firmly attached to the question ‘Who? that they managed to protect from deconstruction; and although he examines seriously the possibility of reconstituting or reconstructing the subject today, Derrida never makes a single reference to Sartre. However, the Sartrean subject is so far removed from self-adequation that Sartre can speak of it as a monster. In his reflections on Jean Genet, for example, Sartre writes: ‘Today it is a matter of revealing the subject, the guilty one, the monstrous, miserable beast whom we risk at every moment becoming’.28

The absence in Derrida’s work of any serious discussion of the Sartrean subject, so far removed from the self-mastery of the mythical classical subject, can doubtless be explained by what he said in the article for the anniversary issue of Les Temps Modernes concerning his mixed feelings about Sartre and his divided and antinomic friendship for him. But this explanation must not stop us from pursuing our analysis, and it is time now to turn more directly to Derrida, and to his promises and responsibilities.Already back in 1964, Derrida took it on himself to emphasise the limitless importance of philosophical questioning, and of the community of the question, and the decision: it is in the community of the question, he maintains, ‘that take refuge and are resumed today a dignity and an untouchable duty of decision. An untouchable responsibility’.29 It is to this community, and its responsibilities and decisions, that Derrida returns twenty-five years later in 1990, when he argues that without being ‘intersubjective’ it nevertheless has ‘a memory, a genealogy and a project: a ‘‘project’’ before the ‘‘subject’’ ’.30 A project before the subject: what can this mean? It is at this point that we must return to the promise, for it is precisely the structure of the promise which serves to explain these apparent paradoxes. This is what Derrida has to say on the matter:

The self (soi), the autos of the legitimate auto foundation (self-grounding) is still to come, not as a future reality but as that which will always retain the essential structure of a promise and can only come about in this way, as to come.31

The self, then, is still to come. That is to say, it will never arrive. But this is not a matter of failure: on the contrary, it is precisely this structure which renders decision-making and responsibility possible:

The relation to the self can only be . . . one of différance . . . Not only is obligation not thereby attenuated but it is there, on the contrary, that it finds its unique possibility.32

We were asking ourselves the question: what is a decision, and who decides? And whether a decision is, as we are told, active, free, conscious, voluntary and sovereign. What would happen if we kept the word and the concept but changed these latter determinants?33

What Derrida wants to demonstrate is that the classical concept of the subject is strictly incompatible with responsibility and decision-making; for the self-identity of the subject would make the change required for any decision impossible: decision-making becomes:

impossible and accessory as soon as a subject is what it is, indivisible and self-identical, subject to everything except to the possibility that something should ever really happen to it and affect it.34

Doubtless the subjectivity of a subject never really decides anything: its self-identity and its calculable permanence render every decision an accident which leaves the subject intact. A theory of the subject is incapable of accounting for the slightest decision.35

These paradoxes should not surprise us. We have been prepared for them fifty years earlier by Sartre. He is no more of a voluntarist than Derrida:

Voluntary deliberation is always rigged. How, in effect, can I weigh up motives and reasons on which I have already conferred a value before any deliberation, and by my very choice of my self? When I deliberate, the die is already cast.36

When . . . we showed . . . that my possibilities aroused anguish because it depended on me alone to maintain their existence, this did not mean that they derived from a me who, at least, would have a prior existence and who would pass, in the temporal flow, from one state of consciousness to another state of consciousness.37

And again:

It is not because I am free that my act escapes from the determination of motives, but, on the contrary, the structure of motives as inefficient is the condition of my freedom.38

As Derrida argues:

At a certain point, the promise and the decision, that is to say responsibility, owe their possibility to the test of undecidability which will always be the condition of their existence.39

The paradoxes of the Derridean promise have also been, to a certain extent, preceded and foretold by Sartre’s own paradoxes of temporality:

The future is what I have to be in so far as I cannot be it.40

The future is the ideal point.”41

It is the very nature of the For itself to have to be ‘an always future hollow’. For this reason it will never have become, in the Present, what it had to be, in the Future. The whole of the future of the present For itself falls into the past as future along with the For itself itself. It will be the past future of a certain For itself, or a future anterior. This future is never realised . . . the future cannot be reached . . . hence the ontological disappointment which awaits the For itself at every outlet into the future: ‘How beautiful the Republic was under the Empire’.42

What Derrida encountered when he reread What is Literature? in preparation for his essay in Les Temps Modernes about a future which never became a present was neither unique nor untypical. On the contrary, the whole philosophy of Being and Nothingness rests on the double impossibility of self-coincidence and self-identity in the present as in the future. The paradoxes of a future which will always be to come, and of a subject which never coincides with itself in the present, nor, a fortiori, in the future, these paradoxes have antinomic ethical implications: they have the structure of the promise, as Derrida has described it. ‘The time is out of joint’, and ‘inadequate to itself’; ‘it is the non-contemporaneity to itself of the living present’ which makes the question possible.43 ‘There is a need for disjunction, interruption, heterogeneity.’44 ‘The necessary disjunction . . . is here that of the present.’45

So evil saves us from the worst (le pire).46

This is what Sartre argues too:

‘In the case of impossibility, the choice of Good leads to a reinforcement of the impossible; we must choose Evil in order to find Good’.47 Or again: ‘Good without Evil is Parmenidean being, that is to say Death’.48 The subject may have the structure of a promise, we can agree on that, but what we have been hiding from ourselves until now is that the promise was a promise of Evil. Evil, inadequation, disjunction, are all necessary for us. Necessary evils, if freedom is to be preserved and promoted.


All translations from the French are my own unless otherwise indicated.

1. Jacques Derrida, Chaque fois unique, la fin du monde, Paris: Galilée, 2003, p. 141.

2. Edmund Husserl, L’Origine de la géometrie, trans. and introduced by Jacques Derrida, Paris: PUF, 1962, p. 135, note 1.

3. Jacques Derrida, Marges de la philosophie, Paris: Minuit, 1972, p. 137.

4. Ibid. p. 137.

5. Jacques Derrida, Memoires pour Paul de Man, Paris: Galilée, 1988, p. 224.

6. Jacques Derrida, Marges, pp. 136–7.

7. Jean-Paul Sartre, L’Etre et le néant, Paris: Gallimard, 1943, p. 167.

8. Jean-Paul Sartre, La Transcendance de l’ego, Paris: Vrin, 1972, p. 78.

9. Jacques Derrida, Psyché: inventions de l’autre, Paris: Galilée, 1987, p. 547.

10. Jean-Paul Sartre, L’Etre et le néant, p. 29.

11. Ibid. p. 83.

12. Ibid. p. 291.

13. Derrida, Marges, p. 17.

14. Sartre, L’Etre et le néant, p. 119.

15. Ibid. p. 148.

16. Jacques Derrida, Resistances de la psychanalyse, Paris: Galilée, 1996, p. 14.

17. Sartre, L’Etre et le néant, p. 119.

18. Ibid. p. 120.

19. See ‘Conclusion: Sartre and the deconstruction of the subject’, in The Cambridge Companion to Sartre, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, and Derrida: Deconstruction from Phenomenology to Ethics, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1998.

20. J. Derrida, ‘Il courait mort’, Les Temps modernes, no. 584, Sept.–Oct. 1995, p. 11. (This text was reprinted in No. 629 of Les Temps modernes, March 2005, in hommage to Derrida.)

21. Ibid. p. 14.

22. Ibid. p. 32.

23. Ibid. p. 32.

24. Ibid. p. 32.

25. Jacques Derrida, L’Écriture et la différence, Paris: Seuil, 1967, p. 335.

26. Jacques Derrida, ‘Il faut bien manger, ou le calcul du sujet’, interview with Jean Luc Nancy, in Confrontations, no. 20, 1989, p. 98.

27. Ibid. p. 97.

28. Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint Genet comédien et martyr, Paris: Gallimard, 1952, p. 662.

29. Derrida, L’Écriture et la différence, p. 118.

30. Jacques Derrida, Du Droit à la philosophie, Paris: Galilée, 1990, p. 28.

31. Ibid. p. 41.

32. Derrida, ‘Il faut bien manger’, p. 95.

33. Jacques Derrida, Politiques de l’amitié, Paris: Galilée, 1994, pp. 15–16.

34. Ibid. p. 268.

35. Ibid. p. 87.

36. Sartre, L’Etre et le néant, p. 527.

37. Ibid. p. 72.

38. Ibid. p. 71.

39. Jacques Derrida, Spectres de Marx (Paris: Galilée, 1993), p. 126.

40. Sartre, L’Etre et le néant, p. 170.

41. Ibid. p. 172.

42. Ibid. pp. 172–3.

43. Derrida, Spectres, p. 16.

44. Ibid. p. 65.

45. Ibid. p. 56.

46. Ibid. p. 57.

47. Jean-Paul Sartre, Cahiers pour une morale, Paris: Gallimard, 1983, p. 420.

48. Sartre, Saint Genet, p. 211.

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