Derrida: Ethics

What are we doing this week?

  • We are going to think about what ethics can look like after the death of God.
  • We will see that Derrida does have an ethics (despite what some people say), and we will see what it means for his understanding of rule-following and the difference between law and justice.
  • This week we introduce the fundamental biblical principle of "absolute personality theism" and explain how it contests the ethical options that Derrida offers us.
  • We also look at how Colossians 1 compares to Derrida's famous phrase "every other is wholly other".

The videos

Like last week there are five videos, three on Derrida and two on bringing his thought into conversation with the Bible.

Like last week, if you are super-busy then go for videos 2 and 4 first: that will give you one of the two important principles of Derrida's ethics, and one of the two key elements of the Bible to bring into contact with it.

1) An introduction to Derridean ethics

In this video you'll learn:

  • Why calling Derrida a "relativist" is almost exactly the opposite of what he really says.
  • Why it's always a bad idea to exchange your grandmother for money.


2) "Every other is wholly other"

In this video you'll learn:

  • What Derrida means by the famous phrase "tout autre est tout autre" ("every other is wholly other").
  • What Derrida and the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard think about Genesis 22.
  • Why ethics puts two demands on you that you have to choose betwen.


3) Law and justice

In this video you'll learn:

  • What the difference is between law and justice for Derrida.
  • Why following the rules isn't the same as being ethical.
  • Why it might be OK after all to think of your grandmother in terms of money.


4) Is "every other is wholly other" for the Bible?

In this video you'll learn:

  • How the Bible offers a way to respect uniqueness while also providing a common measure between people.
  • How Christ is at the centre of a biblical understanding of unity and diversity.


5) Absolute personality theism, law and justice

In this video you'll learn:

  • How the biblical truth that theologians call "absolute personality theism" challenges the Derridean distinction between law and justice at its root.
  • Why one of the most important parts of the ten commandments isn't actually in the ten commandments themselves.

Supplied readings

If you want to take things further, here are some extracts to help you.

1) Derrida on law and justice

Sadly, there's not much freely available on the web for me to post here. Try to track down a copy of Derrida's "Force of Law", which gives (in my opinion) the best treatment of the difference between law and justice. I have reproduced a short extract below, dealing with the difference between law and justice. The best secondary source is Richard Beardsworth's Derrida and the Political.

Among the free stuff, here are some pages that should help you understand Derrida's ethics better:

2) John Frame on absolute personality theism and Cornelius Van Til on God and man in Christian ethics

Further reading

For more detail on the topics raised in the videos above, you might want to listen to the episode on Derrida's ethics that I made for the Reformed Forum "Philosophy for Theologians" podcast. Here is the episode URL, and a direct link to the Mp3.

Richard Beardsworth, Derrida and the Political (London: Routledge, 1996).

  • A sinuous, concise and very helpful introduction to Derrida’s political thought. Not the easiest read, but very insightful.

Simon Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014).

  • Seminal book in making the argument that deconstruction has an ethics and a politics. Still one of the finest and most sensitive readings of Derrida’s ethics, particularly in relation to the influential thought of Emmanuel Levinas.

Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th. edn., ed. by K. Stott Oliphant, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Press) chapter 1: the Doctrine of God.

  • Ask yourself: what are the biblical principles of a Christian view of the world that shape distinctive answers to common philosophical questions?

Bible passages

For your further study and meditation, Bible passages particularly relevant to the concerns of this week's material are:

  • Colossians 1:15-23 (in relation to the "common measure" of every person and object in the universe)
  • John 17 (in relation to the Trinity)