117. Derrida’s Aporia of Responsibility: A False Dilemma
Jacques Derrida, in his book The Gift of Death (Chicago: 1995) presents what he calls the “aporia of responsibility”. An aporia is an impasse, a state of paralysis where we are lost for how to move through some place, set of ideas, etc. The aporia Derrida presents seems to paralyze us with regard to responsibility. On the one hand, if we are responsible then we must make an informed decision based on knowledge. After all, we can’t be responsible if we don’t know what we are doing. But, on the other hand, if our decision is fully determined by this knowledge then we seem to be thoughtless or mechanical in our decision and thus not responsible after all. Thus, to put it in a common deconstructionist formula, the condition for the possibility of acting responsibly, knowledge, is also the condition for the impossibility of acting responsibly. Derrida writes:
“Saying that a responsible decision must be taken on the basis of knowledge seems to define the condition of possibility of responsibility (one cannot make a responsible decision without science or conscience, without knowing what one is doing, for what reasons, in view of what and under what conditions), at the same time that it defines the condition of impossibility of this same responsibility (if decision making is relegated to a knowledge that it is content to follow or to develop, then it is no more a responsible decision, it is the technical deployment of a cognitive apparatus, the simple mechanistic deployment of a theorem).” (24).
This interesting deconstructive analysis, like many of his other analyses on other topics, is helpful in setting up a problem for productive inquiry. But I think we can move through the aporia since both horns of the dilemma are false. Let’s take the second horn first.
Derrida claims that knowledge, the “basis” of responsible decision, will mechanically determine one’s actions thereby making them thoughtless. This suggests that knowledge will make responsible action impossible. But the key word is “basis”: a basis can necessitate that which rests upon it or it can influence it. The decisions for which we are responsible may only be influenced by our knowledge. Such decisions are typically the outcome of judgments which entail considering alternatives, weighing probabilities, seeing from the point of view of others, incorporating intuitions, and focusing on particular circumstances: not exactly a “deployment of a theorem” or a “technical deployment of a cognitive apparatus”. If this is the case then Derrida’s aporia is a false dilemma: we can also have decisions based on judgments which are influenced by, rather than necessitated by, knowledge.
What about the first horn of the dilemma, namely, that “one cannot make a responsible decision…without knowing what one is doing, for what reasons, in view of what and under what conditions”? This suggests that knowledge, rather than making responsible action impossible, makes it possible. Well, clearly someone can be held responsible for an action if their actions flow from their beliefs in conjunction with their voluntary action. I can believe someone is my enemy and then choose, based on a mere opinion without evidence, to go harm them without provocation. This is an action for which I can presumably be held accountable. But this action wouldn’t be based on knowledge since mere belief is not knowledge. Thus I can know what I am doing as Derrida says – I can be aware of my actions, in full possession of my faculties, and so on – without having knowledge in terms of, say, justified true belief or warranted true belief. Derrida’s equivocation on the term ‘knowledge’ makes his claim misleading. So here, too, we have grounds for claiming the aporia is a false dilemma that overlooks another option, namely, responsible action based on belief not knowledge.
So since we can have, on the one hand, responsible action that that is not determined by knowledge and, on the other hand, responsible action that doesn’t require knowledge we can see that there is a way through Derrida’s so-called aporia of responsibility.
Thank you for this explanation of aporia and the role of personal belief and judgement. It was helpful to read it today. Do you apply some of Hannah Arendts ideas about action, agency and the polity as a corrective to the crisis of aporia as well?
I suppose I have been in a state of aporia myself this past year in part because of the crisis of trust in our society’s ability to address some of the most critical issues facing us. Crises of trust can fracture our structure of belief and then we are back in the state of aporia again. Action based on positive human emotions such as love, affection, solidarity, hope, etc. rather than resentment, anger, fear, guilt, etc, despite it all, also seems to be critical now to rebuild political agency at the personal and collective level. I am in a course exploring nonviolence, feminism and political agency. I am seeking foundational resources from political philosophy to help support political organizing and community work to rebuild the “We” in a different way. If you have any thoughts on the matter, please share them with me.
Thanks for reading and reaching out. Arendt’s ideas about judgment influenced me a lot and her notion of the actor’s (rather than spectator’s) judgment, or judging in order to act within a political context, is certainly relevant to the aporias we are currently facing. Her Kant-inspired notion of judgment as “enlarged mentality”, or thinking from the point of view of others, is something which, as in Kant’s conception of taste, presupposes certain shared faculties despite our many differences. And exploring these shared aspects of the human condition seems all the more important as we seek out constructive dialogue despite all the polarization, demonization, and communication breakdown around us. Here is my two part series on overcoming this polarization which might give you some helpful ideas:
You might also find my three part series on philosophy in the wake of George Floyd useful:
Enjoy and feel free to let me know if you have any comments.
This is actually very interesting, and I thank you for helping me explaining it (even as I still struggle to understand it). I was wondering, could this definition of aporia is what’s happening in Derrida’s view on hospitality (as in the unconditional vs the conditional?)
I am glad you found the post helpful. I haven’t looked at Derrida’s work on hospitality in a long time – since I took a seminar class on forgiveness with him at the New School in the late nineties! But I think a similar strategy can be employed to see if the terms of an aporia, say relating to visitors in an unconditional or conditional way, are setting up a false dilemma of some kind. I appreciate how Derrida’s formulations of various aporias help us analyze all kinds of things in new ways. But sometimes I feel that, with a careful analysis of the terms he uses to set up the aporia, we can see how he is creating more problems than he solves. Does anyone actually have NO conditions when dealing with foreigners or visitors to one’s home, land, etc.? Should we even allow the notion of unconditionality in here? If not, then maybe we have gradations of conditions which, when analyzed, will help us develop a less paradoxical account of hospitality or whatever we are investigating. Just a thought.
I have a thought for you:
Let us treat a “responsible action” as an action that is intended to fulfill some responsibility or obligation. Maximally fulfilling an obligation requires a full extent of knowledge about how it can be fulfilled. We are fallible, so our knowledge, far more often than not, does not allow us to maximally fulfill our obligations, or fulfill obligations in the best possible way. But, doesn’t our moral sense not fully sated unless we do this? We might recognize the desire to take the best moral actions is irrational or not obtainable, so we might instead say, “we should just do the best we can.” That is, to fulfill some responsibility “based” on our knowledge, let’s say. This as a principle does not work either, since to say what is right is that which is within the scope of our limitations is implausible and irrational. This is the aporia for Derrida. Derrida is not himself paralyzed, nor is his aim to spread paralysis. It is to recognize the ideal, at face value, is incompatible with the practical. I see it more as an underhanded political statement: Derrida rejects the raw moral sense and idealisms of the left, but also rejects the pragmatic conservatism of the right (what works works). I think he would rather have liked to see such a polarity to be deconstructed itself as an effort to “resolve”
Thanks for your interesting comments. I am not so sure I would define responsible action that way as far as this aporia is concerned. But assuming your interpretation, I think I have two concerns. First, I am not sure what you mean by moral sense. But I do understand the desire to do the right thing and so on. But I would avoid a perfectionist fallacy here which would have us say: “either we do something perfectly and be fully satiated or we completely fail.” Once we drop this fallacy then there is a way open that both recognizes our fallibility and our ability to identify plenty of obligations, succeed in our efforts to live up to many of them, and do our best to gain more knowledge about how to improve still others. As you say, we should do the best we can. I can live with this. This leads me to my second concern since you say that this approach is unacceptable “since to say what is right is that which is within the scope of our limitations is implausible and irrational.” But why would it be irrational? I can repay my debts, follow laws, live up to institutional guidelines at work, treat people fairly and with dignity, and so on. I can, like everyone, struggle to know what I should do with regard to many moral dilemmas. But I can do my best to think them through and make decisions based on reasons. I can sometimes succeed, sometimes fail to act morally. And I can ultimately admit, with Socrates, that I know I know nothing. But I can still be rational if I take arguments seriously, critically think, listen to others, and seek to self-correct. Of course, many people do not have the intellectual and moral virtues that allow them to do the best they can! But assuming these virtues can be developed, then we wouldn’t be driven into the aporia either because we need complete knowledge or because the “do the best we can” approach is implausible. Anyway, just a quick reaction. Feel free to let me know what you think.