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  • Derrida and Disinterest
  • Colin Davis
Derrida and Disinterest. By Sean Gaston . ( Continuum Studies in Continental Philosophy). London, Continuum, 2005. viii + 176 pp. Hb £60.00.

The back cover of the book gives a succinct account of its argument: it traces the history of disinterest in Western thought, identifies the work of Levinas and Derrida as part of a tradition that opposes disinterest and self-interest, shows how this plays an important part in the philosophy of the two thinkers and the dialogue between their work, and sheds new light on their contributions to moral and political philosophy. If the book fulfilled this programme, it would be more conventional, perhaps more useful, and certainly less bold than it actually is. It is in fact not easy to summarize the book because it is both more and less than its title implies. It is not quite a thorough genealogy of the concept of disinterest and its perhaps surprising pertinence to Derrida's work, though its earlier chapters canter interestingly through Locke, Hume, Shaftesbury, Kant and Romanticism in order to contextualize Levinas's reconfiguration of disinterest and Derrida's telling critique of it. In the later chapters, disinterest is only occasionally present as an explicit issue, as the book explores themes such as anticipation, speed, life and death in Derrida's work. Quite how or whether these themes are related to disinterest is not fully demonstrated. Often the book reads like a patchwork of quotations and references linked by what sometimes seem to be gnomic claims rather than clarification or explanation. Throughout, Levinas is almost as important a figure as Derrida. The ten short chapters (one is less than three pages long) slide allusively between themes. Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger and Freud play significant roles, mainly for the ways in which they inform and are read by Levinas and Derrida. What, ultimately, is the difference between Levinas and Derrida? At one moment we are told that it is perhaps a matter of love (p. 70), whereas a page later we are told that it is perhaps a matter of prophecy (p. 71). Whichever may be the case, the author's own use of words would require the careful probing to which he submits the language of Levinas and Derrida for its full significance to emerge. The book deals in part with the question of haunting, and it is itself haunted by the work it seems unwilling to be: a careful, systematic study of its chosen topic. In its final form it is not quite either a sustained analysis of Derrida or an original piece of thinking in its own right, though it is consistently suggestive and often provocative.

Colin Davis
Royal Holloway, University of London


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