Differentiality and Negativity
  • Martin C. Srajek
Part of the Contributions To Phenomenology book series (CTPH, volume 32)


We have many times alluded to that which the apocalypse circumscribes. It is that which is to be unveiled, the event from which we must perforce always perceive ourselves to be in exilic distance. Yet, although that distance is there, and although it is infinite and can never be positively overcome, it remains a stretch, i.e., a tone, produced, as we will see in this chapter, through its attachedness to an infinite origin and an infinite end. A tone is a differential phenomenon and as such it is also an apocalyptic one. The tone is another way to talk about Derrida’s most original concept, i.e., différance. This concept is tied to an understanding of God as an infinite goal and infinite origin, not unlike the concept of God as the asymptotic limit in Cohen’s philosophy. We will see that Derrida’s epistemology of the infinite task is only a stepping-stone for an ethics of the infinite task. The task is conceived within the ‘bracket’ of an end and an origin, a telos and an arche that is divine; the bracket is God. This, again, is the prevenient structure that out of a deep past announces a remote future. Prévenance is what named (he connection between the trace of ethics and redemption. It nourishes the human community so that it can progress towards this telos and come increasingly closer without, however, coinciding with this telos at any time. It remains infinitely removed, and humanity thus remains stretched out towards it infinitely.


Infinite Distance Negative Attribution Transcendental Condition Negative Theology Infinitesimal Distance 
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  1. 1.
    For Derrida’s use of negations and privations see. Edith Wyschogrod, “How to Say No in French: Derrida and Negation in Recent French Philosophy,” from forthcoming Negation and Theology, ed. Robert Scharlemann. This piece is instructive since it locates Derrida’s own position on the boundaries of yet another neo-Kantian: Henri Bergson. Wyschogrod shows how Bergson’s (and through Bergson also Deleuze) twofold understanding of the negation as 1) producing heterogeneity and as 2) privatively keeping this heterogeneity as one whole reappears in Derrida’s concept of the khora, the place of God (and, one might add here, the apocalypse). My sense of her evaluation of the relationship between Derrida and Bergson, but also between Derrida and Levinas coincides with much of what I am suggesting in this chapter, with one important difference: Wyschogrod’s reading of Derrida remains faithful to the by now established Derridean tradition that reads Derrida’s work as a philosophical commentary on textuality and everything that is included by it (semantics, semiotics, grammatology, phonology, etc.); cf. pp. 42, 46, esp. 54. I will return to this point in my last chapter. Suffice it to say here that it seems clear to me that Derrida’s work despite its textual appeal is by no means just that The text might perhaps serve as an appropriate paradigm for Derrida’s understanding of the world. It may become appropriate at some point to call his work paratextual in order to emphasize the textual characteristics of an inquiry into something that resembles a text: the world. Almut Bruckstein in her recently finished dissertation, Hermann Cohen (Characteristik der Ethik Maimons): A Reconstructive Readings. comments many times on the relationship between Maimonides’ and Cohen’s concepts of negation and privation.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Z. Diesendruck, “;Maimonides’ Theory of the Negation of Privation,” PAAJR, pp. 139–151; esp. pp. 139-141.Google Scholar
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    Louis Jacobs, “God,” A.A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, pp. 291–298.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    I am leaving out the chapters in which he classifies the different kinds of attributes as well as the one where he explains the terms “likeness” and “difference” from the Aristotelian perspective. No attribute that we can possibly choose from our realm of experience will possibly match the essence of God. Maimonides shows that extensively in 1:52 of the Guide where he lists the five groups of possible attributes, ruling out all of them but the last group. The first group is that of attributes as explanations of a thing’s essence. Such attributes inappropriately describe God’s essence because implied in them is a certain causality which assumes that there are “causes anterior” to God “ by which, in consequence, He is defined, “(p. 115) The second group of attributes is really only a subgroup of the first. It comprises those attributes which attempt to give a partial description of God’s essence. They fail for the same reason the first group failed and in addition because they suggest that God’s nature is of a composite kind which according to Maimonides is an “absurdity.” (p. 115) The third group is the group of qualifying attributes or accidentia. Maimonides rejects this type of attributive discourse about God because it turns Ood into a substratum of those attributes. In other words, it assumes a distinction between God and God’s qualities and thus creates a rupture withing God’s nature. The fourth group is the group that attempts to relate God to a certain locality or time or both. Here again the crucial contention is the partialization of God’s nature that would ensue if one agreed to such description. To say that God is in one place or at one certain time is to say that God is not at another. In consequence God’s oneness would become questionable. The only type of attribute that Maimonides allows is that one which attributes actions to the essence in question. Yet, even here, the emphasis lies on the indivisibility of God’s nature. Differing actions on God’s part do not imply that they are performed by different faculties or agencies within God. As actions, however, “this kind of attribute is remote from the essence of the thing of which it is predicated, “(p. 119) The latter group, thus, can be seen as a useful type of attribute because of its difference from God’s essence. God’s actions stand without necessarily having to specify how and from where they were initiated.Google Scholar
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    Guide, I, 58, p. 134.Google Scholar
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    Diesendruck, p. 146, points out that the negated privation is really not just that but the privation of a privation (in our case the lack of a lack of something). The effect of such an attribution is that the attribute in question can be attributed to God in its infinite meaning without effecting what is said about God’s indivisible essence.Google Scholar
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    Religion, p. 70/60.Google Scholar
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    Religion Ibid, p. 71/61.Google Scholar
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    Religion Ibid, p. 71/61.Google Scholar
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    Religion Ibid, p. 71/61.Google Scholar
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    Religion Ibid, p. 71/62.Google Scholar
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    Religion Ibid, p. 46/39; here Cohen himself refers this understanding of God back to Maimonides’ observation (which is again based on the latter’s reading of the Book of Job) that “ UP “ (that he is sufficient in himself to bring forth the world”).Google Scholar
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    Religion Ibid, p. 74/64.Google Scholar
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    Religion Ibid, p. 75/65.Google Scholar
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    Stern, p. 23f./20f.Google Scholar
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    Stern Ibid, p. 23/25.Google Scholar
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    Stern Ibid, p. 23/25.Google Scholar
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    The view that in order to attain an unadulterated, pure concept of a thing, knowledge of something is preferrable to experiencing that something as a part of the world as a whole might strike one as fairly naive. That thinking, and thus also knowing, is part of the world and cannot be separated from it, is a suggestion that, although latently present since Husserl, didn’t make its way into general philosophy until Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit and then again with renewed force through the postmoderns. I will get back to this below in my discussion of Derrida’s position. Suffice it to say here that it is a certain way of reading Kant that informs such naiveté. He asserts that it is possible to define, and then later work, within the limits of pure reason independently of the surrounding world. The catch with Rosenzweig is, of course, that Kant precisely ruled out the possibility of understanding God in that fashion. God remained noumenon and regulative idea. But it is just that kind of thinking that Rosenzweig is attacking here. To say that in the end God is nothing, a noumenon, is to neglect that this nothing is already present to knowledge as the nothing of something and thus cannot be an absolute nothing anymore. This Rosenzweigian critique of Kant can be tracked down also in the beginning chapters of Book two and three of the first part of the Stern.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Ibid, p. 23/25.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Ibid, p. 24/26.Google Scholar
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    Cohen, “Die Urteile der Denkgesetze.”Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Jacques Derrida, “Comment ne pas parler: Dénégations,” Psyche, trsl. by Ken Frieden, “How to avoid Speaking: Denials,” ed. by Sanford Budick and Wolfgang Iser, Languages of the Unsayable: The Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory, p. 595/62; (henceforth referred to as “How not to Speak, p. French/English.”)Google Scholar
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    Jacques Derrida, “Différance,” Marges De La Philosophie; Margins of Philosophy, trsl. by Alan Bass, p. 6/6; henceforth referred to as “Différance, p. French/ English.”Google Scholar
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    Différance, p. 12/11.Google Scholar
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    David Wood & Robert Bernasconi (eds.), Derrida and Différance, p. 3.Google Scholar
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    Wood, Derrida and Différance, p. 85.Google Scholar
  28. 20.
    The problem of the “origin” finds various expressions in the discussion centered around the notion of différance. For this cf. Wood and Bernasconi, Derrida and Différance; esp. Brogan, pp. 32, 34, 36; Gayle Ormiston, “The Economy of Duplicity,” pp. 44, 47; David Wood, “Différence and the Problem of Strategy,” p. 66. Most commentators realize Derrida’s reluctance to employ the concept of origin, yet fail to see, or maybe deliberately ignore, that Derrida remains purposely ambiguous about the issue. Brogan maybe comes closest when he says that, for Derrida, metaphysics originates in forgetting, “but the origin itself remains unthought. It cannot even be thought from within metaphysics, whose concepts of origin always come after and presuppose this originary origin.” (p. 34)Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Jacques Derrida, De La Grammatologie; trsl. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak Of Grammatology, pp. 38/23f, (henceforth referred to as “Of Grammatology, p. French/English”).Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Of Grammatology, p. 38/23.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    “The original Discussion of “Différance” (1968)”, Wood, Derrida and Differance, p. 85.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    So quoted from Wood, Ibid, p. 84.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Cp. previous chapter.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Différance, p. 6/6.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Différance, p. 6/6.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    In other words, it surpasses what Heidegger calls the ontological difference (“ontologischer Unterschied”). For this cp. Walter Brogan, “The Original Difference: Différence,” in Wood, Derrida and Différance, pp. 31-41.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Jacques Derrida, “;Lettre à un ami japonais,” Psyche, “Letter to a Japanese Friend,” in Wood, Derrida and Différance, p. 390/3.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    How not to Speak, pp. 535–595/3-70.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Ibid, p. 595/62.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    Ibid, p 535/3.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    This is somewhat confusing since the French translation of the essay is not “Comment ne pas dire” but “Comment ne pas parler.” Derrida explains that he was asked for a preliminary title of the essay over the phone. “In a few minutes I had to improvise which I first did in my language: ‘Comment ne pas dire…?’”Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    How not to Speak, p. 546/13.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    Ibid, p. 547/14.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Ibid, p. 547/14.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    Cp. also F. Rosenzweig’s use of the term “Verbindung” in the Stern. Rosenzweig thinks the moment of the unification (“Vereinigung”) is anticipated in the connection (“Verbindung”) of the soul with the whole world (p. 261/234; unfortunately, Hallo’s translation neglects to translate the German “Verbindung” adequately. He renders it as “universal fusion” and thereby blures the obvious connection with Cohen). Thus “Verbindung” turns into a preliminary term that describes status of the world as unredeemed, but directed towards redemption. Also p. 288/259 where Rosenzweig speculates that if humanity takes on the form of temporality in order to reach eternity then this path must be assured through an already existing “Verbindung.” Also p. 335/302 shows the same characteristic usage of “Verbindung” this time as the relationship between the old holy language and the languages which the Jews speak nowadays.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    How not to Speak, p. 552/20.Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    Ibid, p. 552/20.Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    Cf. part I, chapt 2.Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    Ibid, p. 553/21.Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    Ibid, p. 552/20.Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    Différance, p. 6/6.Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    The question how exactly one is supposed to think about différance is difficult to answer. In part those difficulties arise because of Derrida’s own reservations concerning the use of the language of being. But also, the problem is how to think about something that is not something, i.e., something that rather must be described as the difference between two things as well as the temporal delay that occurs automatically between one thing and the other. Derrida, coming from structuralism, forces us to look at exactly that relationship—the differing/deferring connection between two things—as différance. However, what is missing (yet, makes for an important part of structuralism) is the positivity with which structure is understood in it. For structuralism structure has being, it exists and hence can be evaluated scientifically, just the way any other science would investigate objects. The inherent problem of such an account of an object is that it is inevitably synchronic, i.e., it gathers into the present aspects of the object that really belong to its past or its future. The object, hence, cannot be understood as an object in time anymore, but is elevated out of the flux of time and turned into a theoretical static entity. Yet, Derrida does not want to look at differences as if they were nothing but an amalgam of static relationships. Structuralists made a good observation when they started looking at things by charting out the differences between them rather than looking at the things themselves. But the difficulty they ran into was their neglect of the temporal difference, the déferai, that is equally constitutive of a world of existents. This omission has to be cited when it comes to explaining the synchronic systematic character that structuralism left behind. Derrida seems to be suggesting that discourse on différance involves a close look at the differing/deferring space between things as something of a generative nature. In other words that space is not an absolute nothing; it rather is a productive nothing. The parallels with Rosenzweig’s thinking are evident. Both thinkers conceive of the production of things as the affirmation of a not-nothing, i.e. the affirmation of a privation.Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    Différance, p. 6/6.Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    Levinas refers to this characteristic of language as its “quiddity.”Google Scholar
  55. 55.
    The word “somehow” indicates the various attempts by different philosophers to account for what makes knowing possible. Husserl would have said that knowing happens through the ego’s intentional approach to an object. Levinas agrees that it can happen that way, yet, he simultaneously rejects such a scheme since it makes conception of the other as other impossible. In other words, by remaining critical towards the relationship between the present tense and existence and by detaching différence from precisely this mechanism, Derrida expresses his reservations about a philosophythat is centered around a knowing subject.Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    Différance, p. 6/6. Derrida opts for a visible marker in addition to his verbal prohibitions to detach différance from the connection with the present: he erases the word “is.”Google Scholar
  57. 57.
    Différance, p. 7/7.Google Scholar
  58. 58.
    On this cf. David Wood, “Différance and the Problem of Strategy,” Derrida and Différance, pp. 63-71. Wood comments on Derrida’s caution concerning the use of the word concept in reference to “différance” and points to various passages in Jacques Derrida, Positions, tr. by Alan Bass, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1972, p. 26ff. where Derrida talks about a “new concept of writing. This concept can be called gram or différance.”Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    This translation of “diagram” is analogous to that of the Greek word “” which means “to walk through to the end.” Generally, the prefix “dia-” can have two related meanings: 1. through, to the end. 2. division, separation. Both are applicable in our case. The division is that between origin and telos and the adverbial “to the end” designates the quality of the relationship between origin and telos.Google Scholar
  60. 60.
    Différance, p. 6/6.Google Scholar
  61. 61.
    Ibid p. 7/7.Google Scholar
  62. 62.
    In how far Derrida’s thinking has changed towards a more lenient, if not seeking, attitude with reference to the question of the telos, will be discussed below. Suffice it to say that at this point of his own reflective development (1968) he rejected the concept of telos as complicit with the spell of being, the system, and synchronic thinking in general.Google Scholar
  63. 63.
    Différance, p. 4/3.Google Scholar
  64. 64.
    Ibid, p. 7/7.Google Scholar
  65. 65.
    My Greek dictionary gives me fourteen different derivatives of the root-word “στPατ∈lα”. All of them are used in a military context, either to designate the army itself, the single soldier (the process of leading an army) their leader or in the sense of setting camp (“στPατOπ∈δ∈UOμαl”). The French use of the word reflects almost exactly the same sense. The most general meaning I could find in the French, in Pons: Micro Robert en Poche, Paris: Klett, 1979, is “Plan d’actions coordonnées.” Thus the Greek meaning of the word by itself indicates a meaning which Derrida refuses to accept or even inverts, viz. the coordination, the hierarchical notion that it carries along with it, in order to use the word in his context However, the root “str-” can also be traced back to the Latin “struere” which carries the meanings of to streek, and to spread. Strategy thus indicates the spreading out of a plurality of details (soldiers). Strategy itself implies the sense of telos and origin without itself supplying it. It seems crucial that Derrida conjoins it with the term “adventurous,” since that way he can undermine the above sense of coordination towards a more vagrant and aimless meaning. In “The Time of a Thesis: Punctuations,” ed. by Alan Montefiore, Philosophy in France Today, p. 50, Derrida says about the term “strategy” that it “is a word that I have perhaps abused in the past” but that what he means when he uses the term is that “strategy is strategy without any finality; for this is what I hold and what in turn holds me in its grip, the aleatory strategy of someone who admits that he does not know where he is going.” And in Derrida and Différance, p. 89, Derrida explains that when he talks about strategy he precisely does not refer to a homogenous stratefied entity, but to something that is “irreducibly heterogeneous.” And in “The Economy of Duplicity,” Ibid, p. 43, Gayle L. Ormiston refers to Derrida’s ‘”aleatory strategy’ as (1) the simultaneous institution and effacement of support and structure; and (2) the play between attachment and detachment, between closure and breach, that is, the notion of binding (bander).”Google Scholar
  66. 66.
    How not to Speak, p. 536/4.Google Scholar
  67. 67.
    Ibid, p. 542/9.Google Scholar
  68. 68.
    Derrida, How not to Speak, p. 542/9Google Scholar
  69. 69.
    Jacques Derrida, “Violence et métaphysique,” L“écriture et la différence, transl, by Alan Bass,“Violence and Metaphysics”, Writing and Difference, p. 168/114; (henceforth referred to as “Violence, p. French/English”).Google Scholar
  70. 70.
    This is, of course, also Rosenzweig’s demand when he introduces the reader to the three elements (God, man, world). In all three cases, Rosenzweig says, philosophy has failed to establish anything but negative certainty about what those things are.Google Scholar
  71. 71.
    Cp. my remarks about the logic of independence at the end of part I, chapt. 2.Google Scholar
  72. 72.
    Violence, p. 170/116.Google Scholar
  73. 73.
    Ibid, p. 170/115.Google Scholar
  74. 74.
    Jacques Derrida, “Edmond Jabès et la question du livre,” L’écriture et la difference… ” p. 116/78. This is how Derrida signs his essay on Edmond Jabès.Google Scholar
  75. 75.
    With respect to Sartre’s work Derrida remarks in “The Ends of Man”, Margins, p. 138/116 that even an atheism like that of Sartre “changes nothing in this fundamental structure” which consists in naming “the metaphysical unity between man and God, the relation of man to God, the project of becoming God as the project constituting human-reality.”Google Scholar
  76. 76.
    Cf. the respective introductions to the three elements in Franz Rosenzweig, Stern, pp. 25/23, 44/41, 66/62.Google Scholar
  77. 77.
    André Chouraqui as quoted from Derrida, Apocalyptic Tone, p. 14/4.Google Scholar
  78. 78.
    Guide, p. 113–114.Google Scholar
  79. 79.
    For this also cp. Mark C. Taylor, “The Eventuality of Texts,” Tears, p. 167. With reference to Levinas’ infinite he remarks: “This infinite is never inscribed within the text. Nor is it simply outside the text. The Other that cannot be reduced to the same is “inside” as an “outside” that renders text irreducibly event-ual by sending it into exile from itself.” Although Taylor does not explicitly read the word “without” the way I suggest in the text, it seems obvious to me that he is describing the same idea. He also connects this reading with the topic of our previous chapter when he says that from this “internal” exile there is no return. The exilic text is errant; its reader/writer is a nomad. It is another question if the use of the image of the wandering Jew is still an adequate mode of describing what Judaism is about today. Rosenzweig certainly also makes use of this image extensively (cp. Stern, p. 339/305), “in uns selbst schlugen wir Wurzel, wurzellos in der Erde, ewige Wanderer darum, doch tief verwurzelt in uns selbst in unserem eigenen Leib und Blut.” Regarding this and other passages Norbert Samuelson pointed out to me that it is difficult not to recognize the latent anti-semitism that hides behind Rosenzweig’s words. To characterize Jews as erring and as wanderers amounts to nothing but the kind of stereotyping that they have had to endure for two millennia. I find this criticism justified and worth considering. However, it seems that the Jewish community might not see eye to eye regarding this issue. Facing the problems that Israel is having because of its settlement policy on the West-Bank, it seems justified to say that the exile-problematic is not quite yet erased. Moreover, both Levinas and Derrida are after something that is larger than Judaism, their intention is to describe a certain epistemological condition, a transcendental condition of human thinking. Jewishness, and the image of the wandering Jew become metaphors that apply to any human being regardless of their ethnic and religious belonging.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1998

Authors and Affiliations

  • Martin C. Srajek
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignIllinoisUSA

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