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Axiom: no to-come without inheritance and possibility of repeating.

- Jacques Derrida, ‘Faith and Knowledge.’

In the introduction to The Life of the Mind. 1: Thinking, discussing the importance of examining metaphysical systems and their fallacies even when they no longer seem plausible to us, Hannah Arendt writes:

Hence, the possible advantage of our situation following the demise of metaphysics and philosophy would be twofold. It would permit us to look on the past with new eyes, unburdened and unguided by any traditions, and thus dispose of a tremendous wealth of raw experiences without being bound by any prescriptions as to how to deal with these treasures. “Notre héritage n’est précédé d’aucun testament” (“Our inheritance comes to us by no will-and-testament”). (1978, 12).

For Arendt, the demise of metaphysics does not mean that we should forget it, leave it behind and search for something completely new. The break from tradition that she sees is not a break from the past – rather, it is a break from the prescriptions on how to read or use this past. We thus remain the inheritors of a “tremendous wealth,” but it comes to us without any instructions as to how best dispose of it – we have an inheritance, but no will-and-testament.

In other contexts, Arendt relates this sentiment to the revolutionary situation, again citing this phrase from René Char (“Notre héritage n’est précédé d’aucun testament”) (1963, 217; 1968, 3). The “treasure” in times of revolution is not a “metaphysical fallacy,” but has gone by various names – “public happiness” in the American Revolution, “public liberty” in that of France. However, in contrast to the life of the mind, in which this sentiment characterizes our present situation, Arendt argues that this revolutionary treasure is no longer with us. It was felt in the American and French Revolutions, it was felt by Char in the Resistance, but it is not something that is experienced in the day-to-day life of democracies in post-revolutionary times. It is the lost spirit of revolution, now forgotten. It may perhaps be recovered, and Arendt seeks to reawaken us to this possibility. But, as it stands, the freedom contained in the situation of receiving an inheritance, without instructions for its use, is no longer experienced.

What Arendt therefore wants is for us to be able to relate to the past in democracy, without having the nature of this relation determined in advance. She seeks a democracy that has an inheritance, but no will-and-testament. Is this possible, outside of the revolutionary situation? In this paper I argue that the work of Jacques Derrida contains an affirmative answer to this question. By examining the connection between inheritance and democracy in Derrida’s writings, I show that he presents us with a vision that places inheritance as a dimension intrinsic to the realization of democracy’s promise. Further, the nature of inheritance on Derrida’s understanding is such that it precisely lacks instructions for its use. With this reading I am proposing an interpretation that to some extent goes against the dominant emphasis that Derrida places on democracy’s future. Derrida speaks most often not of ‘democracy,’ but of ‘democracy to come.’ Such talk suggests that democracy does not yet exist, indeed it will never exist, fully present, and that democracy is an enterprise much more concerned about its future than its inherited past. What I show, by contrast, is that the ‘to come’ is not just one aspect of democracy independent of another aspect that would be inheritance. Rather, it is through inheritance that democracy relates to its future. This presents us with the challenge of rethinking our understanding of democracy, one that takes into account this dimension of inheritance.

1. Inheritance

I will begin by examining Derrida’s understanding of inheritance. This is not a straightforward task, since inheritance is a theme that permeates the entirety of Derrida’s oeuvre. Sometimes, as in his writings on Freud and in Specters of Marx, it is a key term in his reading of another’s work. More often, in the...

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