Presentation on Derrida’s The Gift of Death

Rembrandt engraving

In class this semester I volunteered to give a presentation summarizing some key points from Derrida’s The Gift of Death for a group that had not read the book. It was fun to engage in a careful reading of this text after looking at interpretations of Derrida’s work on religion by both Gil Anidjar and Michael Naas.



After beginning the first two chapters of The Gift of Death with a discussion of Jan Patočka and Heidegger, Derrida pivots to Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. ‘Fear and trembling’ is, of course, a reference to St. Paul, and it comes from his letter to the Philippians, 2:12: “Wherefore my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Fear and trembling is thus the comportment of the the one who stands in the absence of the master. We do not know God, where God is, where God comes from, or where God awaits us. “God” signifies that which is wholly inaccessible to us, yet at the same time, that to which or before whom we are responsible. Derrida asserts that this request/demand for obedience on Paul’s part, in Paul’s absence, is a repetition a repetition of the absence of God. God’s secrets, deliberations, presence, reasons, intentions (if God has any) are never shared, and neither are God’s decisions. If they were, then God would no longer be that wholly other [tout auture] (58). 

Derrida argues that it is this conundrum in the Pauline text that led Kierkegaard to choose this title for his text, and that therefore also led Derrida to use Kierkegaard’s text as the foil for his reflections on the gift, the secret, and responsibility, but also the meaning of religion and Christianity. Derrida, in the essay Faith and Knowledge returns to this problematic “and” conjoining religion to Christianity. For now we simply note that the latter is not simply a species of the former, but in the conclusion we will return to the way that Derrida questions a certain logic of debt and transcendence that is tied up with Christianity.

Introducing another theme that will be important later in the text, Derrida links the unsubstitutability of one’s death (Heidegger), to the concept of sacrifice. “The trembling of Fear and Trembling,” Derrida states

is, or so it seems, the very experience of sacrifice. Not, first of all, in the Hebraic sense of the term, korban, which refers more to an approach or a “coming close to,” and which has been wrongly translated as “sacrifice,” but inasmuch as sacrifice presumes the putting to death of the unique in terms of its being unique, irreplaceable, and most precious. It also therefore refers to the impossibility of substitution, the unsubstitutable; and then also to the substitution of an animal for man; and finally, especially this, by means of this impossible substitution itself, it refers to what links the sacred to sacrifice and sacrifice to secrecy. (59)

There is, in Derrida’s Kierkegaard, a double secret: the one already mentioned between a person, in this case Abraham, and God, but there is another secret between Abraham and his family. Abraham’s duty before God means that he does not speak to his family. The secret between Abraham and his family is also a secret between Abraham and himself. He does not understand God, (we might rightly ask along with Abraham: why would God ask him to commit this act of religious terrorism?) therefore, responsibility requires that Abraham cannot speak. But, (Derrida’s) Kierkegaard reminds us that the ethical order requires us to communicate and “By keeping the secret, Abraham betrays ethics” (60).

Derrida is noting another homology between Kierkegaard and the interpretation of Heidegger that he developed in the previous chapters: “Just as no one can die in my place, no one can make a decision, what we call “a decision,” in my place. But, [and here is the key] as soon as one speaks, as soon as one enters the medium of language, one loses that very singularity” (60).

Speaking ends our absolute singularity because it “translates into the general” (61). Yet, responsibility, as philosophy has always argued, requires the translation of our action into the general to allow for public accountability. “Such is the aporia of responsibility: one always risks not managing to accede to the concept of responsibility in the process of forming it” (62). This is deconstruction: responsibility requires, at the same time, the secret and the betrayal of the secret. Derrida calls it “both a scandal and a paradox” (61).

More than problematizing philosophical concepts, Derrida/Kierkegaard is pushing us to think how “the ethical is a temptation” (62), to think about the ways that our very attempts to be ethical, to be responsible, to make the right decision, can themselves directly lead us to be unethicalirresponsible, to avoid a decision.


Responsibility, if by that we mean calculating, presenting oneself before one’s fellows, to humans, to society, to those who have an interest in affirming your self-justification because they are in some way similar to you, Derrida calls this responsibility an égodicée, an ego theodicy, an auto-justification.

Derrida plays Kierkegaard against Hegel on this point of the gap between the demand for the Hegelian demand for manifestation and the Kierkegaardian double secret of the ethical. Hegel’s ethical requires that there be no “final secrets for philosophy” (63) but the knight of faith “can neither communicate to nor be understood by anyone, she can’t help the other at all” (64). Hegel is not the only target, Kant also comes in for critique:

Kant explains that to act morally is to act “out of duty” and not only “by conforming to duty.” Kierkegaard sees acting “out of duty,” in the universalizable sense of the law, as a dereliction of one’s absolute duty. It is in this sense that absolute duty (toward God and in the singularity of faith) implies a sort of gift or sacrifice that reaches toward a faith beyond both debt and duty, beyond duty as a form of debt. This is the dimension that provides for a “gift of death” which, beyond human responsibility, beyond the universal concept of duty, is a response to absolute duty. (64)

However, Kierkegaard’s knight of faith is not pursuing a passion-less resignation to duty. Referencing Jesus’ saying in Luke that following him requires hate of one’s family, Kierkegaard’s Abraham “must love his son absolutely in order to come to the point where he will grant him death, to commit what ethics would call hate and murder” (65). The secret of faith troubles our clean categories of love and hate.

We are coming to a crucial point. This exegesis of an exegesis of the story of Abraham and Isaac allows Derrida to interrogate the concept of absolute responsibility, a concept that puts us into a relation, but a relation without relation or double secret, with the absolute other. In the Biblical text, absolute singularity goes by the name of God.

As an aside, in reading/writing this way, Derrida is performing a relation to the tradition of Christianity/religion/sacred texts that I find appealing. We are not being asked to “believe” the text, or to ascribe to a Judeo-Christian-Islamic doctrine of God. Derrida reminds us again and again of the shared heritage amongst all three “religions of the book,” “the religions of the races of Abraham” (65) of this particular story. The biblical texts are a material, a collection of traditions along with the other traditions, philosophical and literary, that can be thought with and through. The biblical texts are, in one sense, texts like any other, yet, at the same time, by taking them seriously and not as a “mere” fable, we can find in them an openness to the absolute secret, or absolute responsibility, or the wholly Other, that Derrida wants to interrogate. Read in this way, these texts, and the history and theologies of the various religions, bear witness to that which is wholly Other.

Nevertheless, Derrida’s critique of religion demonstrates how, through its techno-/tele- extension, especially the media-ization that is distinctly and inextricably Christian, religion (and not just the fundamentalist variety!) often covers over the secret, stamps it out, represses the radical call of the Other. Instead of openness to the wholly other, a repressed economy is enacted that, through its displacement into the heights of the sacred, is all the more destructive.

Returning to this text, it hardly needs to be said, but it is becoming clear that Derrida is not trying to help us refine a Christian ethics centered on divine command or insistence. What he finds in Kierkegaard’s text is a logic that resonates with the logic of deconstruction that Derrida has been developing since his very first published works. Fear and Trembling allows him to elucidate more clearly how deconstruction addresses itself to questions of ethics and responsibility. Derrida is responding his critics who have written off deconstruction as inapplicable to ‘real world’ questions. Deconstruction has always been about ethics, he contends, and I’m inclined to agree. Always the provocateur, Derrida uses this monstrous story of infanticide and religious terrorism to manifest deconstruction’s ethical demand, attacking the “knights of good conscience.”

This exceptional story, what Kierkegaard calls a paradox, becomes Derrida’s paradigm. He asks, is not Abraham’s exceptional decision structurally the same as the decisions that we make every moment of every day? If responsibility ties us to the other, we, in our binding to the singularity of the other, are perpetually caught up in “the space or risk of absolute sacrifice” (68). “There are also others,” Derrida reminds us,

an infinite number of them, the innumerable generality of others to whom I should be bound by the same responsibility, a general and universal responsibility … I cannot respond to the call, the request, the obligation, or even the love of another without sacrificing the other other, the other others. Every other (one) is every (bit) other [tout autre est tout autre]; everyone else is completely or wholly other…. The concepts of responsibility, of decision, or of duty, are condemned a priori to paradox, scandal, and aporia. Paradox, scandal, and aporia are themselves nothing other than sacrifice, the exposure of conceptual thinking to its limit, to its death and finitude. As soon as I enter into a relation with the other, with the gaze, look, request, love, command, or call of the other, I know that I can respond only by sacrificing ethics, that is to say by sacrificing whatever obliges me to also respond, in the same way, in the same instant, to all others. I put to death, I betray and lie, I don’t need to raise my knife over my son on Mount Moriah for that. Day and night, at every instant, on all the Mount Moriahs of the this world, I am doing that, raising my knife over what I love and must love, over the other, to this or that other to whom I owe absolute fidelity, incommensurably. Abraham is faithful to God only in his treachery, in the betrayal of his own, and in the betrayal of the uniqueness of each one of them, exemplified here in his only beloved son. He would not be able to opt for fidelity to his own, or to his son, unless he were to betray the absolute other: God, if you wish. (69)

We, too, here in this very room, me, and each of you listening to me, is caught up in this same sacrifice. Presumably, we are here because we are responding to the call of justice. It is our desire and decision to seek out the Future Community. But in our response to justice, we are betraying all the millions of others to whom we owe our duty, our obligation. And Derrida reminds us, not just the human others, the animals that are “even more other than my fellows.” We are obliged to every starving being, every one that suffers. This room is our Mount Moriah, where we have made an ethical decision of sacrifice, or to sacrifice. By responding to this call to think an other community, we are neglecting our urgent responsibilities to all the other others. Speaking, in this place, in this language, sacrificing on this particular altar, we have no language in which we can justify, manifest, make ethical our sacrifice to the absolutely Other.

Derrida insists that we must not forget that in the ethical point of view, which must remain valid, Abraham is a murderer. What initially sounds like a purely individualistic critique is now extended. Every other is wholly other [tout autre est tout autre], but our entire system of laws and rights, is

in no way perturbed by the fact that, because of the structure of the laws of the market that society has instituted and controls, because of the mechanisms of external debt and other comparable inequities, that same “society” puts to death or (but failing to help someone in distress accounts only for a minor difference) allows to die of hunger and disease tens of millions of children…without any moral or legal tribunal ever being considered competent to judge such a sacrifice, the sacrifice of the other to avoid being sacrificed oneself. Not only does such a society participate in this incalculable sacrifice, it actually organizes it. (86)

Beyond the individual, society, through the organizing mechanisms of markets, debts, and other structural apparatuses, sacrifices countless numbers of others. The religious, the moral, the ethical, the political, all of these are caught up in the sacrificial logic that works on our behalf.


To close, we briefly turn to the debt that is distinctly Christianity. Kierkegaard Christianizes the sacrifice of Isaac through the introduction of a text from the Gospel of Matthew: “For he (God the Father) sees in secret and recognizes distress and counts the tears and forgets nothing” (quoted on 94-95). God’s secret vision introduces an economy of sacrifice. In the instant that Abraham moves to act, giving death to his son, God “gives back.” We know from Derrida’s Given Time that the gift, in order to be a gift, cannot be caught up in any economy. However, in re-turning to Abraham that which he had given beyond any possibility of exchange, the Father brings economy back in through the back door. Or, in following the Matthean text, we might say that God reinscribes economy by heart. The Christian God is one whose secrecy transports the terrestrial economy to the celestial. The kingdom of heaven is a place of secret reward for secret deeds of justice, a stark comparison from the Jewish leaders whose justice pertains to the letter, that is, the body. Even the Matthean commandment to “love your enemies,” which Schmitt disregards on philological grounds as irrelevant friend/enemy distinction that undergirds The Concept of the Political, is followed up with a promise of reward. Of course, Derrida deconstructs Schmitt’s neat delineation between the private and the public sphere. However, he notes the gospel text’s promise that the “salary” of revenge is superseded by the remuneration of the Father’s reward.

If God the Father gives birth to a secret economy, the apotheosis of this logic was already discovered by Nietzsche. Citing Nietzsche’s comment in the Genealogy of Morals on “Christianity’s stroke of genius,” Derrida states that “Christianity’s relation to itself, its self-affirmation or self-presentation, its being-self, is constituted in the hyperbole of this [secret, divine] market, in the visibility of the invisible heart” (109). Christianity, especially when it comes under critique, by its own internal logic radically reaffirms itself. “Every demystification of Christianity submits again and again to justifying a proto-Christianity to come” (109). It is not hard to see to whom this logic has been lent: self-reproducing capital. In Christianity, God sacrifices himself for his own debtors. Nietzsche asks “would you believe [literally: credit] it?”

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5 Responses to “Presentation on Derrida’s The Gift of Death

  1. Keith Witty Says:

    This is excellent stuff.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    (I like the one-word implicit critique of Caputo.)

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    (Also, this is kind of off-topic, but my favorite artistic representation of the sacrifice of Isaac is Caravaggio‘s.)

  4. Stephen Keating Says:

    I’ve always wondered about the semi-public setting of Caravaggio’s version. There’s also the way that Abraham looks annoyed that he’s being interrupted.

  5. Stephen Keating Says:

    As to the other thing, I haven’t read Caputo’s Insistence, but after this reading of Gift of Death, my impression was more less that Derrida is arguing that you can call the tout autre “God” if you want, but certainly not God the Father.

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