Bengali translation of the Communist manifesto. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
Beyond Eurocentrism and Anti-Eurocentrism
My two-volume book, Europe: A Philosophical History (Routledge, 2021), explores the vicissitudes of the modern European idea of Europe’s exemplary modernity – the representation of the centrality of Europe’s history to world history – as it makes its way through the philosophical histories elaborated by Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Valéry, Husserl, Berlin, Fukuyama, and Derrida.
That’s a lot of men, and (mostly) a lot of Dead White European Men. It says a great deal about the almost complete unravelling of the idea of Europe’s centrality in world history that this kind of focus and interest is not only increasingly rare, but feels fundamentally at odds with the contemporary intellectual climate. For example, it was as long ago as 1989 that Stanford University, one of the world’s most prestigious universities, abandoned its previously compulsory first-year course in ‘Western Culture’ and replaced it with a course called ‘Culture, Ideas and Values’ which had a far more diverse selection of texts (in terms of gender and ethnicity) for students to study. The times they are a-changin’ – and not only in America.
On the other hand, this desire for change has a history. Indeed, I think it belongs to and is a particularly powerful expression of the coming to the end of the line of Europe’s dominant old modern self-understanding; it is symptomatic of that ending. In this essay I want further to explore this trend of abandoning what were often called ‘Western Civ’ courses in America, and the culture wars still rumbling on (everywhere) over the place (if any) of Europe’s heritage and history in universities, and in the world.
Writing in the mid-1990s with a cautious even-handedness about the change to Stanford’s undergraduate program, and the growing trend at American universities to make similar changes, the British historian of Europe Norman Davies noted that the ‘Western Civ’ courses were being abandoned ‘for their alleged Eurocentrism’ (EAH, p. 29).
While the qualification ‘alleged’ shows something of Davies’s anxieties about the complaint against the old courses, and I’ll come back to that, he is not at all uncritical of the ‘limited vision of Europe’ they tended to offer (EAH, p. 29). He has two main objections to them, the second of which clearly acknowledges the merits of the accusation that these courses were indeed Eurocentric. The first objection, which reflects Davies’s passion for and knowledge of what had been, during the Cold War, typically framed as ‘East’ Europe, is the tendency of historians of Europe to focus almost exclusively on a supposedly more significant ‘West’ Europe. Scholars today are still learning to say ‘Central’ where for so long they said ‘East’. His second objection is more directly related to the trend of abandoning (allegedly) Eurocentric courses. While he wants historians of Europe to overcome their ‘West’/’East’ obsession, his most trenchant criticism is reserved for their pervasive tendency to present ‘idealized’ representations of Europe’s ‘past reality’ more generally:
The really vicious quality shared by almost all accounts of ‘Western Civilization’ lies in the fact that they present idealized, and hence essentially false, pictures of past reality. They extract everything that might be judged genial and impressive; and they filter out anything that might appear mundane or repulsive. It is bad enough that they attribute all the positive things to the ‘West’, and denigrate the ‘East’. But they do not even give an honest account of the ‘West’… Such hagiography is no longer credible. (EAH, pp. 28-29, emphasis mine)
It is significant that the prejudices and exclusions running through the old ‘Western Civ’ courses were once thought credible. And I will come back to that too. But given Davies’s clear-eyed appreciation of a subject in denial, one might be even more puzzled why he regards the charge of Eurocentrism as only ‘alleged’. Is there really room for thinking that, actually, this whole subject was not guilty of that?
Perhaps. One reason might be that a number of the authors studied in the old courses were writing well before ideas of ‘Europe’ as a place began to dominate the cultural life of the inhabitants of the ‘little promontory on the continent of Asia’ which found itself with that name (HP, p. 31). Although the name is ancient and its origins unknown, Davies notes that the ‘community of nations’ that had previously conceived their cultural identity in Christian terms began to think of themselves more ‘neutrally’ as European ‘in a complex historical process lasting from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries’, with ‘the decisive period…reached in the decades either side of 1700 after generations of religious conflict’; a period in which the earlier concept of ‘Christendom’ had become ‘an embarrassment’ (EAH, p. 7). So writers from an earlier period could hardly be accused of (in Davies’s helpfully brief definition of Eurocentrism) ‘regarding European civilisation as superior and self-contained’ (EAH, p. 16). Davies might want also to add that if the courses really are on the development of that civilization, and not some other one, then sticking to the authors who have been most continuously influential in the formation of its culture is not Eurocentric anyway: it is nothing more than ‘keeping to the subject’ (EAH, p. 16).
‘Keeping to the subject.’ It’s a nicely ambiguous phrase, and one which, without prejudice to Davies’s point, I will want to exploit here. For, rather unambiguously, if there is one ‘subject’ that such courses, in fact, keep to, it is, precisely, a White European Male subject. It is his little promontory they are most concerned with. And keeping only to that, with the prejudices it sustains and the exclusions it practices, is, for those looking to change the curriculum, central to the problem.
Eurocentrism as Davies defines it may not be everywhere – or even anywhere – affirmed in the selected texts studied. But the anti-Eurocentric recoil is against the selection, the canon, and against the very idea of keeping to just this subject, and of wanting us to regard it (him) as the subject worth keeping to, to the exclusion of every other subject identity. And this is why the challenge is so tremblingly painful and fraught. Those texts never were simply selected as representative samples of Western or European culture. No, they were selected as ones whose reading was thought most deeply appropriate to the formation of the kind of refined subjectivity that should be striven for through a higher education. These are not mere samples but examples: exemplary contributions to the development of (and even to the idea of) the very institution in which they were being preserved, and to the wider culture to which this kind of institution belongs. Universities have wanted to teach courses covering the likes of (and this is Stanford’s old list) ‘Virgil, Cicero, Tacitus, Dante, Luther, Aquinas, More, Galileo, Locke, and Mill’ because the culture of this culture is the one that has been regarded (by those who want to keep to the subject) as normative for us: it ought to be handed down as ours, and to become yours. Keeping to this subject, for those who have wanted to keep to it, its ‘devotees’, is not only what we would have to do if, as Davies rather weakly affirms, we want to ‘illustrate the roots’ of our own culture and values (EAH, p. 29): it is the subject we should keep to if we want that culture and those values to have a future. For anyone who finds themselves in keeping to this subject there is a terrible loss in its abandoning.
Davies is keenly aware of the ‘really vicious quality’ of the denial internal to so many ‘Western Civ’ courses: such subjects keep only to what is thought impressive and filter out everything that might be felt repellent. However, Davies is not unequivocally supportive of the anti-Eurocentric recoil either, and has some sympathy for defenders of the old subject. According to Davies, the ‘great paradox’ of the recoil is that the European values so relentlessly celebrated by ‘the devotees’ of the old subject – ‘tolerance, freedom of thought, cultural pluralism’ – are now ‘under attack’ from those who have, he declares, ‘benefitted most’ from them (EAH, p. 31).
In the next section of this essay I will outline why I think we should be alert to denial on both sides of this scene. But I don’t think Davies’s ‘great paradox’ really captures what is at stake here. For a start, is there really anything so very paradoxical to this situation? Isn’t it understandable if people who have been drawn into a culture where tolerance, freedom of thought and cultural pluralism have been celebrated might want, in the name of those virtues, to overcome its still existing prejudices and exclusions? Indeed, if, despite its prejudices, those who have benefited from its virtues find a way to open the old space to people who are not White, not European and not Male, and who have typically not so benefited, then, good, that’s good.
I have referred to ‘prejudices and exclusions’ that are fostered by courses that are, in their normative selection if not always in their actual content, Eurocentric. These are not academically abstract matters, and the prejudices match the exclusions. At the time of the challenge to them there really were no texts by people of colour, no texts by non-Europeans, and no texts by women on the Stanford ‘Western Civ’ course. And those who mounted the challenge were saying: this is not good enough, this is not who we want to be, neither inside nor outside the university, keeping to this subject is the wrong choice, the worse choice. The subject of these courses could no longer be affirmed as the subject to which we want to keep. What Davies calls a ‘great paradox’ might be better (and I think more fairly) expressed as some kind of democratic progress.
The subject one keeps to if one keeps only to the hegemonic canon is a certain White European Male. The real irony here is that the committed desire to keep to that subject has itself opened the space to its opposite, to an anti-Eurocentric recoil that is run through by an equally committed desire: the desire to overcome discrimination on the basis of anyone’s skin colour (not-White), ethnicity (not-European), or sexual characteristics (not-Male) – and, beyond that eponymous trio, other cases of discrimination too – on the basis of sexuality, gender, class, religion, and species, for example – and hence a desire to make a radical break with that old subject. Today, we can no longer make sense of the culture that would privilege the writings of the DWEMs as normatively ours: we want to challenge the prejudices and exclusions that are preserved, and preserved so transparently, when we keep to the old subject of ‘Western Civ’. And so at Stanford out went ‘Virgil, Cicero, Tacitus, Dante, Luther, Aquinas, More, Galileo, Locke, and Mill’ and in came ‘Rigoberta Manchu, Frantz Fanon, Joan Rulfo, Sandra Cisneros, and Zora Neale Hurston’ (EAH, p. 29).
We may want to speak of ‘keeping to the subject’ in the new courses too, but that is misleading insofar as the new course is characterised precisely by its project of diversification. It is not devotion to another singular subject identity but to a diversity of subject identities (each of which has, no doubt, its own security gates and guards). In this respect the scene is not symmetrical. But we should remember that the charge of Eurocentrism is more strongly and coherently aimed at ‘the devotees’ of the old subject than it is to the DWEMs whose work was selected and kept to. And at this level there is not only symmetry but an uncanny likeness between the devotees on each side. It’s not a singular subject over against a subjectal diversity but: two lovers of responsible diversity. The one feels his or her love for tolerance, freedom of thought, and cultural pluralism under attack, the other feels his or her love for the same thing finally expressed.
These devotees, are they finally even two? There are certainly two programmes in view, but one is the anti-Eurocentric mirror of the other; and as such they belong together as two basic expressions of the same ‘subject’: the one more self-congratulatory and backslapping, the other more self-hating and self-accusing.
The idea that there is an internal relationship between these two programmes comes from the work of Jacques Derrida. Although he is often positioned firmly on one side of this culture war (the anti-Eurocentric side), his work seems to me to be crucial to understanding its general logic. Derrida is well and widely known for identifying an ‘ethnocentrism’ within the tradition of Western thought. Indeed, in the opening lines of one of his earliest books, Of Grammatology, he is explicit about this, stating as a main aim to focus on the ‘powerful ethnocentrism’ that is ‘in the process of imposing itself on the world’ (OG, p. 3). Much less well known or well recognised, however, is his identification within the same history of Western thought of an ‘anti-ethnocentricism’ too. Discussing the anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss, for example, Derrida states that
one already suspects…that the critique of ethnocentrism, a theme so dear to [Lévi-Strauss], has most often the sole function of constituting the other as a model of original and natural goodness, of accusing and humiliating oneself, of exhibiting its being-unacceptable in an anti-ethnocentric mirror. Rousseau would have taught the modern anthropologist this humility of one who knows he is ‘unacceptable’, this remorse that produces anthropology. (OG, p. 114)
In later writings Derrida would more often speak of Eurocentrism and anti-Eurocentrism, but it is the same basic idea. Eurocentrism and its anti-Eurocentric recoil constitute, in their opposition, what he calls one of the ‘fundamental schemas’ of the philosophical heritage that he sought in his work of deconstruction to go ‘beyond’ (OTH, p. 8), going beyond the ‘exhausted and exhausting…programs of Eurocentrism and anti-Eurocentrism’ (OH, p. 13).
In relation to the case of the American culture war over ‘Western Civ’, Derrida’s approach invites us to see the two programmes as two sides of the same ‘spirit’, the same modern European spiritual production of spirit. And it is a modern European spirit that is, on both sides, in denial: on the one (historically dominant) side, a spirit-in-denial that defines Europe only by its achievements; and an (until recently far less forceful but always present) ‘opposing denial’ (OTH, p. 13) which defines Europe only by ‘its crimes’ (LLF, p. 45).
The laborious work of reading this near-exhausted modern European spirit/subject that I undertake in my book on European philosophical history does not set out to destroy, reject, or abandon it. On the contrary, the effort is made there to uncover another European spirit, at once more realistic and more promising, at work within the work of that modern European spirit-in-denial. Within it and going beyond it. This other spirit is, as Derrida emphasised, indissociable from a certain ‘motif’ of democracy and democratic perfectionism that comes increasingly to the fore in the history of European philosophical history (OTH, p. 11).
One might argue that the premises of this way of seeing things immediately overlooks that it took the intervention of something at least partly non-European – the non-DWEM writers that figured in Stanford’s new course, for example – to make the case against the old subject. But insofar as that is true, that case still had to be received, entertained, and at least to some extent welcomed, from the inside. And I think the old subject was, in a fundamental and distinctive way, already hospitable to that. What I have in mind here is a central characteristic of the modern European spirit that Derrida highlighted in his engagement with the spirit(s) of Marx and Marxism in his book Specters of Marx. Speaking of ‘a certain spirit’ (we might say ‘subject’) of Marxism that he says he still wants to ‘keep’ to (despite the ‘totalitarian monstrosity’ marking its ‘whole history’), Derrida emphasises that spirit’s essential readiness for self-critique:
To [continue to] take inspiration from a certain spirit of Marxism would be to keep faith with what has always made of Marxism in principle and first of all a radical critique, namely a procedure ready to undertake its self-critique. This critique wants itself to be in principle and explicitly open to its own transformation, re-evaluation, self-reinterpretation. Such a critical ‘wanting itself’ is necessarily rooted, it is engaged in a soil that is not yet critical, even if it is not, not yet, pre-critical. This spirit is more than a style, even though it is also a style. It is the heir to a spirit of the Enlightenment which it cannot renounce. (SM, p. 88, translation modified)
Derrida is especially concerned with roots in this passage. The word ‘radical’ relating to the roots of something, just as much as it refers to a thought which radically breaks with something. The anti-Eurocentric recoil might well be called and call itself ‘radical’ in relation to the old subject. But the radical spirit that Derrida says he is inspired [s’inspirer, enspirited] by is not the one that wants to break with something else and to go beyond that, but which ‘wants itself’ to be able to break with itself, beyond itself – and to remain faithful to itself in so doing, indeed to keep more and more faithful to itself in so doing. This radical critique is rooted in a tradition which that critique’s own historical sense can (must) never renounce even as it breaks from it. Remaining faithful to itself by calling for ‘self-critique’ is to keep to a spirit (or ‘subject’) of critique which preceded it, in the soil of which it is rooted, and which it wants to radicalise, that is to say realise for the first time explicitly as it were, as properly what it is: as critique. ‘To critique, to call for interminable self-critique’, that’s critique (SM, p. 89), that’s what had ‘not yet’ been attained by a spirit of critique – ‘a spirit of the Enlightenment’ – hitherto, though the perfectionist and progressive spirit of the Enlightenment had in a certain way already promised that, and was not simply opposed to it.
This ‘wanting itself’ to be open to a break with itself beyond itself – and thereby keeping faithful to itself – a culture that can put itself in question (philosophically, politically, aesthetically, etc.) is, I believe, a distinctively modern European (and hence not simply European, never simply European-in-origin) spiritual engine, and has belonged – or does ‘not yet’ not belong (this engine can become, as J.S. Mill anticipated, ‘stationary’) – to the modern European ‘subject’ well before Marx came on the scene, and is the soil in which a Marxist spirit of radical critique as interminable self-critique is rooted. And I think that it is this modern subject’s own spirit that the devotees of anti-Eurocentrism put into play with such righteous zeal against the conservative devotees’ desire to keep to it – the former thereby forgetting, or wanting to forget, the roots of its own ‘radicalism’ in a European world. In short, this kind of opposition to Eurocentrism is, as Derrida says, an anti-Eurocentric mirror of the idealizing Eurocentrism that is as inaccurate about Europe as the one it mirrors; both sides contenting themselves with what is, undeniably, a very selective ‘memory’ of Europe’s origins and of Western history (OTH, p. 8).
Davies’s ‘great paradox’ may not be so great or so paradoxical, but I think he is right to see something paradoxical in the American culture war over ‘Western civ’. In my view, however, it is a much deeper paradox than the one about ‘contemporary American intellectual life’ that he wants to identify (EAH, p. 30): something paradoxical about the modern European ‘subject’ itself. Ventriloquizing this European subject in the context of an analysis of its paradigmatically national self-affirmation, Derrida voices the ‘the logical schema’ of this paradox as follows:
‘I am (we are) all the more national for being European, all the more European for being trans-European and international; no one is more cosmopolitan and authentically universal than the one, than this ‘we,’ who is speaking to you.’ Nationalism and cosmopolitanism have always gotten along well together, as paradoxical as this may seem. (OH, p. 48)
I think one can fill out this paradoxical schema of the modern European subject all the way down: no one has been more viciously racist, nationalist, and sexist than this subject; no one more internationalist, cosmopolitan, universalist, and egalitarian. With Europeans understanding themselves as both European-nation rooted and for just that reason cosmopolitan in outlook (‘men of universality’ as Paul Valéry put it, specifically about the French (HP: p. 436)), this paradoxical European cosmo-nationalism is a constant and stubborn wrinkle in the formation of the European subject.
Within the basic lexicon of this modern European subject there is a key word for distributively sorting out the co-habiting of vices and virtues that an effort to unpick this paradox might hope to achieve, a word I have already had recourse to: progress. Indeed, the contrast between what Mill called a ‘stationary’ civilisation and a ‘progressive’ one has been fundamental to the modern European self-understanding. The idea is that Europe’s culture (its spirit) has a distinctive heading: it is moving away from a cultural condition of mere repetition of local customs by constructing for itself a cultural condition that welcomes and is striving for its own development, improvement, transformation, perfection. Progressive perfectionist thought is, that is to say, internal to the heritage of the Dead White European Males. And wanting to make room for something other than the DWEMs – wanting to make a political and intellectual space that can peacefully accommodate linguistic, religious and other human differences – comes down to us through their thought. The political ‘progressive’ today belongs to the progressive heritage of the DWEMs too, in wanting to overcome still prevailing moral faults.
But what if this classical interest in progress is itself in some way paradoxically problematic? What if it too belongs to the Eurocentric/anti-Eurocentric programme? What if, to use an expression from Derrida, what we have called progress hitherto is not progress ‘worthy of the name’? Can there be progress in thinking about progress? Can we, in the name of progress, distributively sort out the vices and virtues of the classical interest in progress, and construct something better, something worthy of the name? What if the idea of distributively sorting out virtues and vices, good and evil, is itself something we need to overcome or get beyond? This does not mean we have to lose interest in the classical perfectionist interest in progress or emancipation. Indeed, I believe Derrida would not be alone in feeling that ‘nothing seems to me less outdated’ than this classical interest (AR, p. 258). Why, after all, did Nietzsche write a book called ‘Beyond Good and Evil’, and want to affirm nevertheless, in a chapter called, precisely, ‘Our Virtues’, that, regarding his learning to ‘despise’ the ‘solemn words and the formulas of virtue’, the ‘moral preaching’ of ‘modern’ progressives: ‘this too is progress’ (BGE, p. 129)? We may be more resistant to the classical understanding of that classical interest in progress than Europeans of yesteryear knew how to be. But this means: if we have, notwithstanding that resistance, not lost interest in it, we will have to re-learn what retaining and cultivating that perfectionist interest can mean in our time.
In Europe: A Philosophical History I do what I can to keep to a certain spirit of the subject of this classic interest, and to tell the story of the Dead White European Male in deconstruction: of the rise of his little promontory – and of his crisis, decline and, in our time, his near exhaustion. I do not do so to resurrect him – nor to bury him. But want rather to make a contribution to the progress of ‘a long historical labour’ that is already underway: a ‘long and slow’ development of a democratic promise that promises to take him beyond himself, ‘beyond the old, tiresome, worn-out and wearisome opposition between Eurocentrism and anti-Eurocentrism’ (OTH, p. 8) – and beyond the anthropocentrism, ethnocentrism, and androcentrism which marks that heritage so stubbornly, sometimes through denial. This, for me, remains Europe’s promise too: the cultivation of the spirit of critique as self-critique that never ends.
Derrida’s work sets a direction for thinking on this theme that I have found increasingly powerful and thought-provoking. While it is not limited to an academic context at all, his work does belong there, and makes its way from there. It is not surprising, therefore, that he was very critical of conservative conceptions of ‘the Humanities and their ancient canons’ (UWC, p. 208). Indeed, when it came to the academic subject that he kept to most closely and continuously, philosophy, he called for its transformation. In relation to the ambitions for diversification in contemporary anti-Eurocentric challenges, it is notable that, with respect to that transformation, he was particularly insistent that ‘what we are more and more aiming for are modes of appropriation and transformation of the philosophical in non-European languages and cultures’ (OTH, p. 8). On the other hand, he was equally insistent that this should not be understood as a motivation for an anti-Eurocentric recoil which would affirm only ‘something that would no longer have any relation to what one believes one recognizes under the name philosophy’ (OTH, p. 8). For Derrida, there was no question either of simply abandoning the ‘ancient canons’, or of altogether replacing them with those who, as Davies put it, do not ‘suffer the stigma of being Dead White European Males’ (EAH, p. 29). On the contrary, Derrida affirmed, as clearly and frankly as he could, that these are ‘canons which I believe ought to be protected at any price’ (UWC, p. 208).
It will strike some as strange to see Derrida associate himself so personally (‘I believe’) with the protection of the classical European intellectual heritage ‘at any price’. Perhaps for good reason. The foregrounding of the Eurocentrism of Western thought was, as I have indicated, visibly central to his work from the start. As he put it in his final interview, given to Le Monde in August 2004,
Since the very beginning of my work – and this would be ‘deconstruction’ itself – I have remained extremely critical with regard to European-ism or Eurocentrism, especially in certain modern formulations of it, for example, in Valéry, Husserl, or Heidegger. I have written a great deal on this subject and in this direction (especially in The Other Heading). Deconstruction in general is an undertaking that many have considered, and rightly so, to be a gesture of suspicion with regard to all Eurocentrism. (LLF, p. 40).
And yet his robust defence of the ancient canons made this defiance compatible with something else too: with wanting the European heritage to have a future, to speak in the name of ‘we, the Europeans’ in a still internally future-producing way, in relation to ‘a Europe to come’, and in the hope that the deconstruction of the Eurocentric heritage might forge an opening for ‘an other Europe but with the same memory’ (LLF, p. 41). Commitment to this other Europe – including in that a ‘geopolitical’ Europe which could and should ‘unite’, he said, against both ‘the politics of American global dominance’ and ‘Arab-Muslim theocratism’ – this commitment was, he confessed, ‘my faith, my belief’ (LLF, p. 41).
‘With the same memory’, but unfiltered: recalling everything that has happened in Europe – ‘because of the Enlightenment, because of the shrinking of this little continent and the enormous guilt that pervades its culture (totalitarianism, Nazism, fascism, genocides, Shoah, colonization and decolonization, etc..)’ (LLF, p. 40). This ‘other Europe’ is thought, as Derrida put it, in terms of Europe’s openness to ‘perpetual self-critique’ (LLF, p. 45). With this capacity for faithful self-development beyond itself, there is, Derrida suggests ‘a chance for a future’ – for a Europe that would be other to one that is content either with ‘reaffirming a certain history, a certain memory of origins’, and, equally other to the one that, as in a mirror, ‘contents itself with being opposed to, or opposing denial to, this memory’ (OTH, p. 8); other to the one that gives itself over to the viciously idealized self-congratulatory backslapping of traditional Eurocentrism – and other too to the self-righteous, self-accusing, root-forgetting-radicalism of contemporary anti-Eurocentrism.
Derrida’s faith or belief holds fast to a Europe that is both always to come, but which, in virtue of its own ‘perfectible heritage’ (LLF, p. 45), is, and has always been, in a certain way already with us – from the very starting point that Europeans assign to themselves as their Greek-philosophical commanding commencement. It is with philosophy above all, ‘under its Greek name and in its European memory’, that there is a ‘chance’, Derrida says, a chance ‘which more than ever remains a chance’, for this ‘other way’ for Europe beyond its old and worn out Eurocentrism and anti-Eurocentrism (OTH, p. 8).
Why is philosophy this ‘other way’? In part at least because the project of philosophy has always conceived itself as inseparable from the will to make a contribution to the universal community. From the beginning philosophy was never simply Greek and its European history, which is inseparable from Europe’s history, has never been simply European either. Not merely because it is, in reality, informed and indebted to non-Greeks and non-Europeans, which it certainly is and we should never forget it. Indeed, the culture of the ‘Greek origin’ already was, in fact, ‘bastard, hybrid, grafted, multilinear and polyglot’ (OTH, p. 8)). Nor because it is or could ever be ‘spontaneously or abstractly cosmopolitical or universal’ (OTH, p. 8). But because, forever tied to some milieu (there is always some localized idiomaticity), it is, in its project, never tied to any definite milieu: not Greek, not European, not anywhere. And for this reason ‘Europe’ too, which has always wanted to root itself in this radically philosophical ‘soil’ (a soil which is itself always a matrix of roots), is always more than and other than merely one region or regional culture among others on the surface of the global totality: its geopolitical significance and identity is irreducibly (if consistently unevenly) caught up with a geophilosophical, cosmopolitan, universal trajectory.
In principle, Dead White European Male philosophy exceeds the Dead White European Male philosophical heritage that it has also cultivated and defended. It surpasses that subject even as its devotees have (on both sides) jealously kept to it. And now, today, we should (must) say too: that surpassing should be practiced and, indeed, should be available to be practiced by people of colour, by the non-Europeans, by women – by all.
I mentioned a moment ago that it might come as a surprise to find Derrida so keen to defend and protect the ancient canons (‘at any price’). His sense of deconstruction as entailing a ‘gesture of suspicion with regard to all Eurocentrism’ perhaps explains that. But he also (and perhaps for that reason) got hopelessly caught up in the culture war between those who wanted to defend and those who wanted to reject the Western heritage. For example, in America his work seemed to mark the final disastrous chapter in ‘the closing of the American mind’, as Allan Bloom called it. ‘Deconstructionism’ (as it somehow always got called when it was denounced) was denounced by Bloom as ‘the last, predictable, stage in the suppression of reason and the denial of the possibility of truth’ (CAM, p. 379). In response to this kind of reception, Derrida began to insist more expressly that deconstruction did not reject the Western heritage:
I love very much everything that I deconstruct in my own manner; the texts I want to read from the deconstructive point of view are texts I love, with that impulse of identification which is indispensable for reading. They are texts whose future, I think, will not be exhausted for a long time… Plato’s signature is not yet finished… – nor is Nietzsche’s, nor is St Augustine’s. (EO, p. 87)
It was a slow burn, but over the years readers have begun to learn that Derrida did not write in a critical fury against the European philosophical heritage, but for the sake of what, in that heritage, promises its endless perfectibility. Loving this, Derrida was concerned above all to forge a future for that promise, and a future for it of just the sort he thought most faithful to it, most (in) keeping with it: a future beyond its own anticipated future. For this is the thing about the texts of the Dead White European Male philosophers – these texts also promise a future that is not White through and through, not European though and through, and not Male through and through. And more: these Dead White European Male philosophers – they’re not even dead through and through; their signatures are ‘not yet finished’. They are not simply exhausted but remain to be read – they too belong to Europe as something always still to come.
List of Abbreviations
AR – Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion, London: Routledge (2002)
BGE – Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books (1973)
CAM – Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, London: Simon & Schuster (1988)
EAH – Norman Davies, Europe: A History, London: Bodley Head (2014)
EO – Jacques Derrida, The Ear of the Other, ed. Christie McDonald, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press (1988)
HP – Paul Valéry, The Collected Works of Paul Valéry Vol 10: History and Politics, New York: Pantheon Books (1962)
LLF – Jacques Derrida, Learning to Live Finally, Derrida’s last interview, with Jean Birnbaum, New Jersey: Melville House Publishing (2007)
OG – Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (1976)
OH – Jacques Derrida, The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe, Bloomington: Indiana University Press (1992)
OTH – Jacques Derrida, ‘Of the Humanities and the Philosophical Discipline: The Right to Philosophy from the Cosmopolitical Point of View (the Example of an International Institution)’, Studies in Practical Philosophy, Volume 2, Issue 1, (2000). This text is also available online, with free access, in Surfaces 4: 310:
SM – Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, Abingdon: Routledge (1993)
UWC – Jacques Derrida, ‘The University Without Condition’, in Without Alibi, ed. Peggy Kamuf, Stanford: Stanford University Press (2002)
Simon Glendinning is Head of the European Institute and Professor of European Philosophy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His two-volume investigation of the modern European self-understanding, Europe: A Philosophical History, was published by Routledge in 2021.