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Critical theory is motivated by exigencies internal and external to academic disciplines. This essay discusses some of these motivations, in particular the need to address extreme divisions and polarized conflicts within the wider culture, especially in the domains of politics and religion. Theory can articulate the conditions of possibility for dialogue across radical difference. Such rhetorical theorizing is illustrated in the work of Jacques Derrida and Gaston Fessard, both concerned with political theology. In these two figures, with their different relations to religion and ontotheology, we see notable ways that critical theory emerged out of secular late modernity and its others. That emergence includes a break with earlier forms of philosophical reflection on how communication is accomplished across cultural differences and how the boundary between the secular and the religious is traversed, but the particular content of this transformation also demonstrates a political-theological continuity.


critical theory, dialogue, political theology, Jacques Derrida, Gaston Fessard

“Why theory now?” and related questions have punctuated the history of critical theory. During the so-called Theory Boom of the 1960s and 1970s in the U.S. academy, such questions were asked throughout the humanities and interpretive social sciences, and the array of answers included causes and motives both internal and external to the institutional context of the disciplines asking the questions. External accounts cited the sociopolitical upheavals of the period in the broader culture, and internal explanations noted interdisciplinary events such as the importation of [End Page 62] contemporary Continental philosophy into U.S. universities, most often by way of departments and centers outside of philosophy departments. One such event that has become canonical in the standard histories of theory is the conference on “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” in October 1966 hosted by the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University. Two decades after its occurrence, one of its most notable participants, Jacques Derrida, commented, “What is certain is that something happened there which would have the value of a theoretical event, or of an event within theory, or more likely the advent of a new theoretical-institutional sense of ‘theory.’”1

Let me pause here to clarify what I mean by theory in general as well as critical and rhetorical theory in particular. Theory is thinking about practice. As a metapractice, theory involves such rhetorical actions as generalizing, explaining, speculating, contextualizing, and questioning. Understood in this way, theory is part of every discipline and interdiscipline, as those institutionalized entities reflect on their practices. But a new “theoretical-institutional sense” of theory developed in the second half of the twentieth century, often called “critical theory.”2 Theory or critical theory was and is radically interdisciplinary, absorbing and transforming theoretical practices from multiple disciplines, especially philosophy in its Continental variety. Contemporary rhetorical theory includes applying such theoretical practices in and to rhetorical practices. Of course, there are almost as many ways to define rhetorical practice as there are rhetoricians. For pedagogical purposes, I often adopt a dualistic approach to the definition of rhetoric, an approach that presents a broad description and a narrow prescription for rhetorical studies. I do not intend the broad descriptive definition to be especially original, only optimistically inclusive; that is, it is meant to encompass as many definitions in the field as possible. The narrower prescriptive definition functions differently; it is intended to stake out a position within the more general definition, advocating critical practices in and theoretical perspectives on rhetorical studies. The general descriptive definition: rhetoric is the contextual use of language (in the broadest sense) to have effects. The specific prescriptive definition: rhetoric is the political effectivity of trope, argument, and narrative in culture.

The above paragraph is an example of rhetorical theory. It is practice about practice, the metapractice of generalizing about rhetoric in the form of theoretically defining rhetorical practice. The curious (and intellectually powerful) thing about rhetorical theory is that it is always simultaneously about something and about itself. I am making the obvious point [End Page 63] that rhetorical theory applies to rhetorical practice and thus also applies to itself as metapractice. For example, rhetorical theory that attempts to generalize about rhetorical effects by, say, defining rhetoric as persuasion also implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) admits that rhetorical theory itself is an attempt at persuasion, in this case, an attempt to get fellow rhetoricians and others to accept its definition of rhetoric. In the above paragraph, I am trying to persuade you that my general definition is broad enough to establish common ground for further discussion, hoping that you can fit your favored definition under its auspices. Similarly, I present my narrower definition as an attempt to persuade you to consider the usefulness of a specific approach to rhetorical studies. Whether you buy this rhetorical explanation of my previous paragraph or not, I offer both these paragraphs as examples of (convincing or unconvincing) theoretical work.

The twentieth-century relation of critical theory to philosophy as a discipline and to rhetoric as an interdiscipline has been almost as complicated as the historical relation between Western philosophy and rhetoric over the ages. Critical theory with its incorporation of the European-Continental tradition has always been a challenge and a supplement to the analytic tradition of Anglo-American philosophy. The analytic-Continental divide has decreased in recent years, but the privileging of different disciplinary paradigms continues with their contrasting problems, arguments, and criteria for acceptable answers.3 Rhetorical studies has been more sympathetic to critical theory over the years, appropriating and analyzing its theoretical arguments, framing figurations, and intellectual narratives. Since 2001 through three editions, the widely adopted Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism has recognized rhetoric as one of the active participants in critical theory. Discussing the meaning of theory, the editors explain that “today the term encompasses significant works not only of poetics, theory of criticism, and aesthetics as of old, but also of rhetoric, media studies, race and ethnicity theory, gender theory, and theories of popular culture as well as globalization and modernity” (Leitch et al. 2018, xxxvii). Yet, strangely, in the 2010 second edition of the collection, the most important rhetorical theorist of the previous century, Kenneth Burke, was dropped and continues to be absent in the 2018 third edition.4

Today the “return” of theory is as multimotivated as it has been in the past, with the external factors now including media revolutions, the environmental crisis, and the rise of various extremisms on national and global scales and internal factors such as the institutional rhythms of disciplinary and interdisciplinary development. By institutional rhythms I mean the rise [End Page 64] and fall, actions and reactions of intellectual movements constituting the practices, theories, and histories of institutionalized academic disciplines. Such rhythms are unpredictable in their specific patterns of emergence, circulation, revision, and decline, but their endpoints or afterlives are often marked terminologically by post, a marker whose eventual appearance is quite predictable in relation to any dominant orthodoxy. Take, for instance, its recent appearance in the theory of “post-critique,” especially within literary studies. Here those critical of what some call the hegemony of ideology critique and related negative approaches to literature are pointing out the “limits of critique” and calling for a different kind of cultural engagement characterized as “post-critique” (Felski 2015; cf. Latour 2004 and Frow 2019, 7–11). More general examples of posting are the various versions of posthumanism across many disciplines in the human sciences. Along similar lines, the new materialisms provide another recent example of an (inter) disciplinary reaction to past intellectual approaches, in this case a specific reaction to the linguistic and hermeneutic turns so influential throughout the twentieth century.5 Whether post-marked or not, such movements can be tracked by their rhetorical paths of thought, the characteristic tropes, arguments, and narratives produced in their theories, practices, and histories (see Mailloux 2017).

So why theory now? Why the prominence of critical theory and its adaptations within rhetorical theory at this particular time? What are some of the specifics illustrating the internal and external motivations I have mentioned? How does theory work in these cases, especially in relation to the fields of rhetoric and philosophy?

Theory, in particular rhetorical theory, is called on today to address the extreme divisions and polarized conflicts within our wider culture beyond the academy, for example, in the domains of religion and politics. One meta-move of theory is the rhetorical-hermeneutic strategy of framing, of establishing criteria for the interpretation and evaluation of communication practices, especially when conflict inhibits progress, when differences rigidify to preclude compromise. One tactic that rhetorical theory employs is to articulate the conditions for the possibility of dialogue across such differences. Let me give two historical examples, both in a way concerned with political theology, the theoretical interrelation of political praxis and religious doctrine.

My first example is from a transatlantic contemporary of Burke’s, the French Jesuit Gaston Fessard. From the disciplinary perspective of philosophy, Father Fessard participated in the prehistory and early days of what [End Page 65] became critical theory. He translated (but did not publish) parts of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit into French in the late twenties and attended Alexandre Kojève’s famous Hegel lectures in the thirties along with such later luminaries as Georges Bataille, Jacques Lacan, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Emmanuel Levinas. During World War II he authored the first Catholic resistance pamphlet against the Vichy government, employing a political-theological argument that ironically seemed to borrow from the theories of Carl Schmitt, the German legal scholar and Nazi ideologue, whose work has become so important to theorizing about political theology in the twenty-first century. In the early Cold War, the scene of my example here, Fessard became widely known as a scholar and critic of Hegelianism and Marxism, commented on and corresponded with Claude Lévi-Strauss about structuralism, argued amicably at sixties conferences with Paul Ricoeur over the interpretation of history, myth, and symbols, and attended such theoretical events as Derrida’s January 1968 Paris presentation, “La ‘différance.’”6

During the height of the Cold War, Fessard addressed the political problem of dialogue between Christians and communists in Europe. Though ultimately pessimistic about the success of such dialogues, he did carefully examine the rhetorical conditions of possibility for productive conversation across the radical ideological differences between, at least, progressive Christian believers and anti-Stalinist communists. The primary meta-move in Fessard’s rhetorical theorizing includes a description of conditions under which a dialogue between interlocutors could “take place in general, and how theirs in particular, besides being possible in theory, can become actual in practice, even with the risk of remaining impossible” (Fessard 1969, 98). One must avoid the obstacle to dialogue “at the very heart of words being exchanged in all sincerity,” the obstacle that “threatens always to lead our efforts at communicating toward a deplorable breakdown, unless we take care.” That obstacle is the disregard for language itself. The preliminary condition for dialogue is thus “the respect of language, whose a priori becomes doubled, not to divide” humanity into opposing sides “but rather to commend to each the search for Truth, the only thing able to overcome such division, and at the same time the desire for Liberty for the other as well as for oneself.” Fessard argues that this “double a priori immanent in language is indispensable.” This twin necessity “supposes, first of all, that each one of us remains open to the truths revealed through the words of the partner and is disposed to appropriate them for himself; then, it supposes that each one wants the liberation of the other as much [End Page 66] as, and even more than, his own” (116). In this way, Fessard establishes a theoretical framework in which participants in a dialogue mutually search for truth and value their opponent’s freedom. Without such searching and valuing, without the positing of truth and freedom, productive dialogue is impossible. Similar rhetorical theorizing and practical applications remain significant needs today in our hyperpolarized, post-truth, alternative-fact culture of domestic and international politics. This is at least one reason, somewhat external to academic disciplines, that we might give in response to the question “Why theory now?”

I take my second example of critical and rhetorical theory responding to historical exigencies from the post-9/11 background of our current period of global religious conflicts. In Islam and the West: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida, Mustapha Chérif reports on a May 2003 dialogue with the French philosopher. A professor of philosophy and Islamic studies at the University of Algiers, Chérif frames the dialogue as a rhetorical encounter of grave personal and public urgency. The conversation between the Algerian professor and the Algerian-born Derrida took place on the very day that Derrida received the news he had pancreatic cancer. “For any other meeting I wouldn’t have had the strength to participate,” he told Chérif (2008, 97). The meeting was the final session of an Algerian-French colloquium on “The Future of Civilizations,” which participants hoped would encourage new and productive exchanges between Islam and the West. “For Muslims it is urgent and imperative to undertake a deep and constructive self-criticism,” says Chérif. “For the West . . . it must rethink the theme of its relationship with the other, in particular with the Muslim” (23).

In response to Chérif ’s concern over political-theological differences between European and Islamic cultures and specifically answering a question about “the triptych ‘secularism, scientism, capitalism’” as “the emblem of the modern West,” Derrida comments, “I believe that the democracy to come . . . assumes secularism, that is, both the detachment of the political from the theocratic and the theological, thus entailing a certain secularism of the political, while at the same time, encompassing freedom of worship in a completely consistent, coherent way, and absolute religious freedom guaranteed by the State, on the condition, obviously, that the secular space of the political and the religious space are not confused.” Derrida then declares that he believes “the secular today must be more rigorous with itself, more tolerant toward religious cultures and toward the possibility for religious practices to exist freely, unequivocally, and without confusion.” The specific work of rhetorical theory in these practical realms of political theology [End Page 67] includes the two tasks that Derrida proposes for deconstruction: “to ask questions, for example, about the theological genealogy of the concepts of the political that organize Western thought, and European thought in particular, on the one hand, and, on the other, to maintain, in determined and determinable contexts, the survival of those concepts that one is in the process of questioning and deconstructing.” It is here that Derrida turns explicitly to the rhetorical topic of dialogue itself: “I believe that the condition of what you have called dialogue, of the speech addressed to the other without violence, is the common acceptance of the democracy to come that I mentioned earlier, which presupposes deconstruction, the deconstructive question raised on the subject of the sovereignty of the nation-state, the authentic secularization of the political, that is, the separation between the theocratic and the political” (Chérif 2008, 49–53).

With this rhetorical turn of their dialogue to dialogue as topic, I will leave the conversation between Derrida and Chérif and simply add another theoretical comment. A rhetorical-hermeneutic approach to this problem of dialogue across radical differences includes finding resources in each interlocutor’s communal identities, practices, and traditions that can be used to foster successful rhetorical exchanges. Such a search demands interpretive work and rhetorical appropriations: what are the rhetorical paths of thought in the other community (the rhetoric of thought and the thought about rhetoric) that can be employed to facilitate dialogue? Thus, the rhetor from one community interprets the resources for rhetoric in another community in order to foster productive rhetorical exchanges between the communities. This dialectic between interpretation and language use within a particular community and during cross-cultural exchanges is what I mean by a rhetorical hermeneutics of dialogue. This theorizing of cross-cultural conversation encourages a rhetorical universalizing of concepts found in the interacting cultures, an exploitation of contingently shared universals (such as equality, human rights, dialogue itself, and Derrida’s “democracy to come”). Contingent universals can be proposed, negotiated, used, translated, critiqued, and renegotiated in ongoing dialogues accompanied by openness to the alterity of the other.7 This constitutes some of the future hermeneutic work for rhetorical theory in our current era of radical extremisms and uncompromising ideologies, both religious and political.

Such historical exigencies for critical and rhetorical theory are accompanied by intellectual motives more internal to the traditions embodying what Derrida called “the new theoretical-institutional sense of ‘theory.’” These traditions have recently been given a Hegelian redescription in [End Page 68] Andrew Cole’s revisionist account of theory as “the move away from philosophy within philosophy itself.” In Cole’s argument, theory is the move from Kant to Hegel, from systematic philosophy to dialectics, from “philosophical foundations to theoretical constructs” (Cole 2014, xi–xii).8 In their interpretations of Hegel, the sequence of Fessard followed by Derrida illustrates a similar movement from systematic thinking in an ontotheological vein, through acknowledgment of linguistic, historical, and political contingencies in theorizing, toward a consensus that “all truths are at best momentary, situational, and marked by a history in the process of change and transformation” (Jameson 2004, 403, quoted by Cole 2014, xii).

A year prior to the 1966 Johns Hopkins conference, Fessard delivered a paper on symbol and dialogue at a Rome meeting attended by at least one of the Hopkins participants, Jean Hyppolite, the noted Hegel scholar and translator, who raised challenging questions for both Fessard’s and Derrida’s papers.9 In those papers, the two philosophers comment directly on Claude Lévi-Strauss’s notion of mana as a “floating signifier,” making very different points (Lévi-Strauss 1950).10 For Fessard, mana refers to the supernatural that gives meaning to the naturally human as it enables dialogue (Fessard 1965, 108–29); for Derrida, mana points in the opposite direction away from such ontotheological securing of presence and toward the nonconcept of freeplay, “a field of infinite substitutions in the closure of a finite ensemble,” the “movement of supplementarity” (Derrida 1972, 260). But as opposed as Fessard and Derrida are in their theoretical thinking about Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology, they converge for just a moment when Derrida points out the importance of “the thematic of historicity”—that is, the role of historical being—in understanding structuralist thought (262); while Fessard uses Lévi-Strauss’s ethnological descriptions to develop his taxonomy of three forms of historicity—natural, human, and supernatural (Fessard 1965, 126–28; and see Fessard 1962). Of course, they quickly diverge again: Fessard stands for the power of supernatural historicity to give meaning to natural and human history, whereas Derrida notes the “tension of freeplay with history” (Derrida 1972, 263). While “the thematic of historicity . . . has always been required by the determination of being as presence,” freeplay is “the disruption of presence”; or better, “freeplay is always an interplay of absence and presence, but if it is to be radically conceived, freeplay must be conceived of before the alternative of presence and absence” (Derrida 1972, 262–64).

When Fessard and Derrida both have a go at Hegel in their papers and publications, the same contrasting movements occur in their rhetoric [End Page 69] of theorizing, with philosophy moving away from itself in different ways in relation to theology. Fessard points to a lack within secular European philosophy requiring a supernatural addition that he describes in terms of Hegelian, Pauline, and Ignatian dialectics, while Derrida interprets Hegel’s philosophy more problematically within the ontotheology of Western metaphysics.11 Derrida places Hegel within this metaphysics, indeed as its culmination, as Hegel continues the logocentric privileging of presence and of speech over writing (Derrida 1976, 12, 24–26). Derrida declares,

What is difficult to think today is an end of man which would not be organized by a dialectics of truth and negativity, an end of man which would not be a teleology in the first person plural. The we, which articulates natural and philosophical consciousness with each other in the Phenomenology of Spirit, assures the proximity to itself of the fixed and central being for which this circular reappropriation is produced. The we is the unity of absolute knowledge and anthropology, of God and man, of onto-theo-teleology and humanism.

But if Derrida saw Hegel as the epitome of a certain ontotheological tradition of thinking, he also read Hegel as announcing the possibility of deconstruction in thinking radical difference (Barnett 1998, 27). Hegel is “the last philosopher of the book and the first thinker of writing” (Derrida 1976, 26), whose text “is necessarily fissured” in that “it is something more and other than the circular closure of its representation” (Derrida 1981, 77). Thus, Derrida also criticized those twentieth-century readers who ignored such Hegelian complications, who skipped over the non-anthropologistic aspects of Hegel’s texts (Derrida 1982, 117).

Certainly Fessard’s humanist interpretation of Hegel falls into this set of readings Derrida criticized, as Fessard appropriated Hegelian dialectic for his own Christian philosophical and theological purposes. Yet Fessard did not ultimately see himself as Hegelian even when he thought intensely with Hegel about spirituality and history. As an academic philosopher, Fessard disagreed with significant parts of Kojève’s influential reading of Hegel (Gillis 1991–92, 196–99). Nevertheless, he repeatedly used the master-slave dialectic as a metaphor in constructing his theoretical framework for critiquing secular religions, those “ideological myths, or conceptions of the world, such as Communism and Nazism, which still offer an attitude as religious, despite appearances, as those of our distant [End Page 70] ancestors” (Fessard 1962, 49n4). Fessard asserted that “Marxism and Nazism both use the master-slave dialectic to explain the future of human reality, but the first places itself exclusively in the point of view of the slave, the second exclusively in the point of view of the master,” and neither works for the common good of the people (Fessard 1947, 63). Fessard insisted that his engagement with “l’actualité historique” of his time emerged from his philosophical work with Hegel’s dialectics combined with his immersion in Christian spirituality, including his Hegelian interpretation of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises (Fessard 1956, 16–17). What might be most significant for contemporary theory is the example that Fessard set in turning his Hegelian-influenced dialectic into a hermeneutic for both private spiritual experience and public issues of political theology.

In their rhetoric of theorizing, both Fessard and Derrida illustrate specific motivations responsive to exigencies internal and external to the institutional context of critical theory as it has developed over the last six decades. In these two figures, with their different relations to religion and ontotheology, we see notable ways that critical theory emerged out of secular late modernity and its others. That emergence includes a break with earlier forms of philosophical reflection on how communication is accomplished across cultural difference and how the boundary between the secular and the religious is traversed, but the particular content of this transformation (illustrated by Fessard and Derrida) also demonstrates a political-theological continuity.12 I believe this historical argument suggests that we would be wise to attend closely to how contemporary critical theory, including rhetorical theory, continues to negotiate the challenges of our (post)secular culture. Such attention will energize theory as we respond to the question, “Why theory now?”

Steven Mailloux
Department of English
Loyola Marymount University


1. Derrida 1990, 80, quoted in Macksey 2007, x.

2. This usage was distinguished from that of the Frankfurt School and was early on read back into the history of Western thought, as in Hazard Adams’s 1971 anthology Critical Theory since Plato.

3. Loyal to my roots, I should note that various forms of Neo-Pragmatism have from their very beginnings attempted to overcome this divide. See, for example, Rorty 1979; cf. the account of rhetorical pragmatism in Mailloux 2006, 43–66.

4. Burke does remain in the third edition of Critical Theory since Plato (Adams and Searle 2005).

5. For a brief history of recent rhetorical theory in relation to critical theory, see Mailloux 2018.

6. For this background on Fessard, see Sales 1990; Geroulanos 2011, 543–49; Mailloux 2020. For the announcement of Derrida’s paper and Fessard’s notes, see folder 64/5, Gaston Fessard Papers, Archives Jésuites, Province d’Europe Occidentale Francophone; and Derrida 1982, 1.

7. For more on the mediating strategy of dialoguing across differences, see Mailloux 2017, 23–33; and on contingent universals, see Mailloux 2006, 101–23. I would like to note here that several of my comments on theory in this essay were formulated in response to prompts from the organizers of the University of South Carolina Rhetorical Theory Conferences. I’d especially like to thank Erik Doxtader and John Muckelbauer for their creative provocations over the years. I’d also like to thank Daniel Gross for the invitation to participate in the present forum and for his critical comments on my contribution.

8. For reviews of Cole’s argument and his response, see the PMLA forum “Theories and Methodologies” 2015.

9. For Hyppolite’s questions to Fessard and Derrida, see the discussions immediately after their papers, Fessard 1965 and Derrida 1972. Hyppolite was an important figure for both Fessard and, especially, Derrida. See Fessard 1980, xxiv; Gillis 1991–92, 195–98; Derrida 2004; and Peeters 2013, 69, 71, 187.

10. “I believe that notions of the mana type . . . represent nothing more or less than that floating signifier which is the disability of all finite thought (but also the surety of all art, all poetry, every mythic and aesthetic invention), even though scientific knowledge is capable, if not of staunching it, at least of controlling it partially. . . . In other words, accepting the inspiration of Mauss’s precept that all social phenomena can be assimilated to language, I see in mana, wakan, orenda, and other notions of the same type, the conscious expression of a semantic function, whose role is to enable symbolic thinking to operate despite the contradiction inherent in it” (Lévi-Strauss 1987, 63).

11. On ontotheology, see Heidegger 1969; Derrida 1982, 6, 16; Mailloux 2017, 35–37. Cf. Derrida 1982, xx on “Hegel’s ontotheological circle.” Also more generally on religion and spirituality, see Derrida 2002, Fessard 1962, and Pousset 1980.

works cited

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