Pierre Bouretz’s story begins in 1977, when the first volume of the journal Glyph published a translation of “Signature événement contexte” by Jacques Derrida, to which John Searle replied in the second volume. The apple of discord was J. L. Austin, whose work Derrida had addressed à la Derrida, contesting the metaphysical character of the exclusion by Austin of utterances judged as “parasites” on the normal use of language. Searle affirmed that Derrida misunderstood Austin to the point that the confrontation with Austin “never quite takes place” and claimed that the generalized theory developed by Austin’s successors included what Austin’s strategy of research had provisionally neglected. The philosopher was thus rather contemptuously expelled from what was now a perfectly well-defined rational field of inquiry or, in Bouretz’s terms, a family business.
Searle now disappears from Bouretz’s narrative landscape, while new protagonists enter it, mostly American ones, such as Gilbert Harman, Richard Rorty, and Stanley Cavell, but also—back to the continent—Jürgen Habermas, who reconstructed Searle’s position, linking it with his own theory of communicative rationality. Derrida is no longer an object of contempt but of denunciation; he is a destroyer of the Aufklärung, which it was Habermas’s self-assigned mission to save.
Bouretz’s book is an interesting, sometimes absorbing, cross between an inquiry that uses the thread of Derrida’s reception, to explore milieus that usually ignore each other, and a sometimes overlong but always enlightening commentary on Derrida’s and Habermas’s texts. Habermas does not change, but Derrida’s growing distance from “irresponsible” deconstructionism, along with the messianic (without a messiah) ethics that he developed in the 1990s, progressively blurred the figure of the nihilist destroyer of Reason whom Habermas had feared and attacked. On September 22, 2001, upon receiving the Adorno Prize, Derrida played a master card, relating in his acceptance speech the ethic of discussion, which Habermas had accused him of betraying, to a reworked concept of “misunderstanding,” under the aegis of the negative dialectics of Adorno, the founder [End Page 551] of the Frankfurt school. The war was over. Upon Derrida’s death, Habermas declared that “his oeuvre can also have an enlightening impact in Germany, because Derrida appropriated the themes of the later Heidegger without committing any neopagan betrayal of his own Mosaic roots.”
Is this, as Bouretz claims, a story of war and peace in philosophy? Opinions may diverge, since peace with Habermas can also be seen as a nonevent, the logical outcome of Derrida’s becoming, as barbarity threatened, the defender of (a resolutely nonpagan) civilization to come.
Isabelle Stengers received the grand prize for philosophy from the French Academy in 1993. Professor of the philosophy of science at the Free University of Brussels, her books in English translation include Cosmopolitics (in two volumes); Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts; Power and Invention: Situating Science; The Invention of Modern Science; and (with Ilya Prigogine) Order Out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature and Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell.