Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Kenneth Surin reviews Simon Critchley’s The Ethics of Deconstruction

Simon Critchley. The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas, 3rd Edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014. 352 pp. £ 19.99 paperback, £ 75.00 hardback.

Review by Kenneth Surin

8 December 2015

Interpreters of Derrida generally fall into two broad and admittedly not always clear-cut categories.  On the one hand there are ‘internalists’, Geoffrey Bennington perhaps being the paradigmatic case, who undertake a kind of scrupulous elaboration or exfoliation of the Derridean text, in Bennington’s case combining theoretical brilliance with a thoroughgoing fidelity to the raison of that text.  Then there are the ‘externalists’, whose primary concern lies with the Derridean intertext, the ‘imbrication’ of the Derridean text in its surrounding literary and philosophical plenitudes (Husserl, Hegel, Heidegger, Mallarmé, Levinas, et al.). There are of course overlaps between these two stylized groupings—no one commentator belongs absolutely and exclusively to the one or the other.  This being said, Simon Critchley is in principle more an ‘externalist’ than he is its counterpart in this rough-and- ready taxonomy.


This book, first published in 1992, is now in its third edition, the second having appeared in 1999. The changes between editions are as follows. The second edition added three appendices: “The Ethics of Deconstruction: An Attempt at Self-Criticism”; “Habermas and Derrida Get Married”; and “Emmanuel Levinas”.  The third edition added the following: the full version of Critchley’s obituary of Derrida; a chapter on Levinas’s relation to Heidegger; and a chapter dealing with what Critchley considers to be major problems in Levinas’s work, especially with regard to politics.


This book first appeared at a time when it was somewhat fashionable among the clearly less- informed, or those palpably motivated by malice, or both, to depict Derrida as an endlessly trivializing ‘nihilist’ or ‘relativist’, ultimately indifferent to concerns regarding ‘truth’, ‘justice’, ‘responsibility’, and so forth.  Critchley’s book was significantly instrumental in putting such characterizations to rest (or largely to rest) in the anglophone philosophical world. Critchley did this by bringing two emphases to his analysis of Derrida’s work: (1) he highlighted, and displayed through careful scrutiny of the appropriate texts, the centrality of Levinas as an interlocutor for Derrida, thereby showing how the irreducibly ethical dimension in Levinas’s thought also permeated the latter’s work (Derrida’s own text Adieu à Emanuel Levinas shows compellingly how vital Levinas was for him philosophically); and (2) Critchley unfurled in a rigorous and scholarly way the ethical and political underpinnings of the deconstructive project itself.  Derrida’s work in the years immediately preceding his death in 2004, dealing as they did with such themes as “democracy-to-come” and friendship, were of course more explicitly concerned with ethics and the political.   The earlier more overtly deconstructive works were somewhat more concerned with the contextual buttresses for ethical and political reflection, probing so meticulously the often unstated conditions subtending these contexts that Derrida’s own pages seemed to be suffused by uncanny echoes of the “unstated” itself.   Critchley showed however in the first and subsequent editions of this important work just how integral an ethics and politics were for this project of contextual elaboration and investigation.   Critchley confesses in his recent preface just how difficult it was for him to return to this book—his readers need have no such qualms.