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  • Derrida and Durkheim on Suffering
  • Melanie White (bio)

To credit animals with any kind of capacity (even the capacity to suffer) or to be concerned with their fate at the hands of men would be automatically to deny the majesty of human suffering, to offend man by not affording sufficient status to the gap created by his escape from nature, his interiority, liberty and powers of self-constitution.

— Élisabeth de Fontenay, Le silence des bêtes (1998)

In the Cerisy lectures, Derrida famously argues that the animal question is at the heart of all the great questions, such as those concerned with the origins and nature of law, rights, justice, freedom and morality. For Émile Durkheim, founder of the French sociological tradition, the question of society is one such great question.1 Indeed, it was the question for Durkheim, as it has been for subsequent generations of sociologists. Among Derrida’s many contributions in these lectures, published as L’animal que donc je suis (2008), is a perspective that enables us to appreciate how, for Durkheim, the question of society is bound up with the question of the animal. Derrida’s seminars on The Beast and the Sovereign (2001-2003) develop this perspective insofar as they help us to see Durkheim’s theory of society as a logical extension of a Cartesian tradition that accords non-human animals the ability to react, but not respond. And yet, a closer inspection of Durkheim’s theory of society complicates any straightforward application of Derrida’s deconstruction of the human-animal opposition. This is because the critical thrust of Durkheim’s response to the society question employs a concern for suffering that is also central to Derrida’s framing of the animal question. This paper uses this insight to place Derrida and Durkheim in dialogue with one another in order to explore the decisive role that suffering plays for both thinkers when considering the animal question for society. I will argue here that for both Derrida and Durkheim, suffering serves as a limit concept, both ontologically and ethically, that shapes the relation of human and non-human animals to one another. But where Durkheim uses suffering to construct the opposition between human and animal, Derrida uses suffering to deconstruct it.

Let us begin by outlining the contours of the animal question as Derrida configures them. His basic claim consists in the observation that [End Page 100] modern philosophy since Descartes has been guided by a positive anthropology that depends on a fundamental, yet simplistic, opposition between “human” and “animal” (“Violence Against Animals” 63; The Animal 29). This category error presumes a singular and homogeneous conception of the animal that is equivalent to the equally singular category of the human, as if there was only one animal species, “one” Animal in general that could oppose “the” Human in all its specificity; whereas in fact there is a great multiplicity of heterogeneous species—amoeba, snake, baboon, octopus—that are fundamentally irreducible to one another. Indeed, in the months before his first seminars on The Beast and the Sovereign, Derrida remarked to Élisabeth Roudinesco that “If I am unsatisfied with the notion of a border between two homogeneous species, man on the one side and the animal on the other, it is not in order to claim, stupidly, that there is no limit between ‘animals’ and ‘man’; it is because I maintain that there is more than one limit, that there are many limits. There is not one opposition between man and non—man; there are, between different organizational structures of the living being, many fractures, heterogeneities, differential structures” (“Violence” 66; The Animal 29-30, 48). This then is the context in which Derrida defines the philosophical task before us—to raise the category of the animal to a question. And it is in The Beast and the Sovereign that we find a clear expression of his method: “Every time one puts an oppositional limit in question, far from concluding that there is identity, we must on the contrary multiply attention to differences, refine the analysis in a restructured field” (15). For Derrida, this interest in deconstructing the category of “the” Animal is a leitmotif that...


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