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Black Socrates?

Black Socrates?

Questioning the philosophical
tradition
Simon Critchley

Inconsiderateness in the face of tradition is reverence for
the past.

Martin Heidegger, Sophistes
Funk not only moves, it can remove.

George Clinton, P. Funk
(Wants to Get Funked Up)
Philosophy tells itself stories. l One might go further and
claim that the life of philosophy, the memory that ensures
its identity and its continued existence as something to
be inherited, lived and passed on, consists in the novel
repetition of certain basic narratives. And there is one
story in particular that philosophy likes to tell, which
allows philosophers to reanimate, theatrically and
sometimes in front of their students, the passion that
founds their profession and which, it seems, must be
retold in order for philosophy to be capable of
inheritance. It concerns, of course, Greece – or rather, as
General de Gaulle might have said, a certain idea of
Greece – and the passion of a dying Socrates.

Philosophy as de·traditionalization
Socrates, the philosopher, dies. The significance of this
story is that, with it, we can see how philosophy
constitutes itself as a tradition, affects itself with
narrative, memory and the chance of a future, by
repeating a scene of radical de-traditionalization. For
Hegel and Nietzsche, to choose two examples of
philosophers who affect themselves with a tradition although from seemingly opposed perspectives – the
historical emergence of philosophy, the emergence of
philosophy into history, that is to say, the decisive break
with mythic, religious or aesthetic world-views, occurs
with Socrates’ death. 2
Who is Socrates? So the story goes, he is an
individual who claims that the source of moral integrity
cannot be said to reside in the traditional customs,
practices and forms of life of the community, what Hegel

calls Sittlichkeit; nor, for Nietzsche, in the aestheticoreligious practices that legitimate the pre-philosophical
Greek polis, that is to say, attic tragedy. Rather, Socrates
is an individual who demands that the source of moral
legitimacy must lie in the appeal to universality. It must
have a universal form: what is justice? The philosopher
does not ask ‘what is justice for the Athenians?’ or ‘What
is justice for the Spartans?’ , but rather focuses on justice
in general, seeking its eidos. Socrates announces the
vocation of the philosopher and establishes the lines of
transmission that lead from individuality to universality,
from the intellect to the forms – a route which by-passes
the particular, the communal, the traditional, as well as
conventional views of ethical and political life.

The vocation of the philosopher is critique, that is, an
individual interrogation and questioning of the evidence
of tradition through an appeal to a universal form. For
Hegel and Nietzsche, Socrates’ life announces the death
oftragedy, and the death of the allegedly sittlich (ethical)
community legitimated through the pre-philosophical
aesthetico-religious practices. In Hegel’s words,
Socrates’ death marks the moment when tragedy comes
off the stage and enters real life, becoming the tragedy of
Greece. 3 Socrates’ tragic death announces both the
beginning of philosophy and the beginning of the
irreversible Greek decline that will, for Hegel and
Nietzsche, take us all the way from the legalism of the
Roman Republic to the eviscerated Moralitat (abstract
morality) of post-Kantian Germany. Of course, one’s
evaluation of Socrates’ death will vary, depending on
whether one is Hegel or Nietzsche. For the former (not
without some elegaic regret for the lost Sophoclean po lis )
it is the first intimation of the principle of subjectivity;
for the latter, Socrates’ death ignites the motor that drives
(Platonic-Christian) nihilism. But, despite these
differences of evaluation, the narrative structure is
common to Hegel and Nietzsche; the story remains the
same even if the moral is different: Socrates’ death marks
the end of tragic Greece and the tragic end of Greece.

Radical Philosophy 69 (JanlFeb

1995)

17

It is a beautiful story, and as I recount it I am once

again seduced by its founding passion: the historical
emergence of philosophy out of the dying Socrates is the
condition of possibility for de-traditionalization. It
announces the imperative that continues to drive
philosophy, critique, which consists in the refusal to
recognize the legitimacy of tradition without that
tradition having first submitted itself to critical
interrogation, to dialogue viva voce.

Philosophy as tradition
However, if on my view philosophy IS detraditionalization, that which calls into question the
evidence of tradition, then what is philosophy’s relation
to its own tradition? What is the relation of philosophy to
the stories it tells about itself?

With the admittedly limited examples given above,
one might say that the philosophical tradition is a
tradition of de-traditionalization, of stories where the
authority of tradition is refused. As Descartes famously
writes, ‘I will devote myself sincerely and without
reservations to the general demolition of my opinions’.4
As we will see presently with reference to Husserl and
Heidegger, the philosopher’s appeal to tradition is not
traditional, it is, in Derrida’s words, ‘an appeal to
tradition which is in no way traditional’.5 It is a call for a
novel repetition or retrieval of the past for the purposes
of a critique of the present, often – for example, in
Husserl- with a view to the construction of an alternative
ethical teleology. But, slightly getting ahead of myself,
should we believe the stories that philosophy tells to
itself? Should these stories themselves be exempt from
philosophical critique? More particularly, what about the
story of the dying Socrates? What more can I say about
this story apart from feeling its beauty and pathos despite
(or perhaps because of) its being so often recounted?

To ventriloquize a little: ‘One might point out that
the story of Socrates’ death is a Greek story, a narrative
that recounts and reinforces the Greek beginning of
philosophy. Indeed, it is a story that can be employed to
assert the exclusivity of the Greek beginning of
philosophy: Philosophy speaks Greek and only Greek,
which is to say that philosophy does not speak Egyptian
or Babylonian, Indian or Chinese and therefore is not
Asian or African. Philosophy can only have one
beginning and that beginning has to be the Greek
beginning. Why? Because we are who we are. We are
Europeans and Europe has a beginning, a birthplace, that
is both geographical and spiritual, and the name of that
birthplace is Greece. What takes place in Greece, the
event that gives birth to our theoretical-scientific culture,
is philosophy. By listening to the story that philosophy

18

tells to itself, we can retrieve our beginning, our Greek
beginning, the Greek beginning or the European Spiritual
adventure. Furthermore, by appropriating this beginning
as our own we will be able to come into our own as
authentic Europeans, to confront the crisis of Europe, its
spiritual sickness, a malaise which consists in the fact
that we have forgotten who we are, we have forgotten
our origins and immersed ourselves unquestioningly in
tradition. We must de-traditionalize the tradition that ails
us and allows us to forget the crisis – be it the crisis of
objectivism (Husserl), rationalization (Weber),
commodification (Marx), nihilism (Nietzsche) or
forgetfulness of Being (Heidegger). We must project
another tradition that is truly our own. The only therapy
is to face the crisis as a crisis, which means that we must
tell ourselves the story of philosophy’s Greek beginning,
of philosophy’s exclusively Greek beginning – again and
again. If philosophy is not exclusively Greek, we risk
losing ourselves as Europeans, since to philosophize is
to learn how to live in the memory of Socrates’ death.’

This troubling ventriloquoy is very loosely based on
Husserl’s 1935 Vienna Lecture, ‘Philosophy and the
Crisis of European Humanity’ ,6 which in many ways
perfectly exemplifies the concerns of this paper and the
position I am seeking to question. We could also quote
examples from Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, MerleauPonty, Arendt, Gadamer, and an entire German and
English romantic tradition. What such remarks testify to, .

I believe, is the importation of a certain model of ancient
history, centred on the exclusivity of Greece, into
philosophy as the foundation stone of its legitimating
discourse. I would briefly like to explore and question
the historical basis for this belief.

Philosophy as invented tradition
One of the most challenging consequences of reading
Martin Bernal’s Black Athena7 – regardless of its many
alleged scholarly infelicities, which I am simply not in a
position to judge – is the way in which he traces the
genealogy of the invented historical paradigm upon
which Husserl bases his remarks; the ‘Aryan Model’ of
ancient history, which (astonishingly) only dates from
the early decades of the nineteenth century and was
developed in England and Germany. Prior to this period,
and indeed for most of Western history, what Bernal calls
‘The Ancient Model’ of classical civilization had been
dominant. The latter model believed, amongst other
things, that the Egyptians invented philosophy, that
philosophy was essentially imported into Greece from
Egypt, and that Egypt – and remember Plato visited there
around 390 b.c.e. – was the font of all philosophical
wisdom. In addition to the Egyptian influence on Greek

civilization, it was also widely assumed that Greece was
subject to colonization and extensive cultural influence
from Phoenician traders and mariners, and that,
therefore, Greek civilization and the philosophy
expressed by that civilization was largely a consequence
of the influence of near-eastern cultures on the African
and Asian continents. That is to say, Greek culture -like
all culture – was a hybrid ensemble, a radically impure
and mongrel assemblage, that was a result of a series of
invasions, waves of immigration, cultural magpieism and
ethnic and racial mixing and crossing.

Contesting this picture of the African and Asiatic
roots of classical civilization given in the Ancient Model,
a picture that Bernal wants to revise and defend, the
Aryan Model claims that Greek civilization was purely
Indo-European and a consequence of either the
autonomous genius of the pre-Hellenes – resulting in
what is sometimes called ‘The Greek Miracle’, the
transition from mythos to logos – or of alleged invasions
from the north by shadowy Indo-European peoples.

Bernal’s polemical thesis is that the displacement of the
Ancient Model by the Aryan Model was not so much
driven by a concern for truth as by a desire for cultural
and national purity which, for chauvinistic, imperialist
and ultimately racist reasons, wanted to ·deny the
influence of African or Semitic culture upon classical
Greece, and by implication upon nineteenth century
northern Europe.

The influence of this Aryan Model in philosophy can
be seen in the way the canon of the history of philosophy
was transformed at the beginning of the nineteenth
century.8 Up until the end of the eighteenth century, the
history of philosophy was habitually traced back to
multiple so-called ‘wisdom traditions’ in Egyptian,
Hebraic, Babylonian, Mesopotamian and Sumerian
cultures. However, from the early 1800s, these traditions
were generally excluded from the canonical definition of
‘philosophy’ either because of their allegedly mythical
or pre-rational status or because they were largely
anonymous, whereas the Greeks, like Thales, had names.

The individual thinker rather than a body of thought
becomes the criterion for philosophy. The consequence
of this transformation of the canon is the belief that
philosophy begins exclusively amongst the Greeks;
which is also to say that philosophy is indigenous to the
territory of Europe and is a result of Europe’s unique
spiritual geography – setting aside the unfortunate
geographical location of certain pre-Socratics on the
Ionian coast, which is usually explained away by calling
them Greek colonies, an explanation that conceals a
slightly anachronistic projection of the modem meaning
of colonialism back into the ancient world.

The hegemony of the Aryan model can also be seen
in the development of the discipline of Classics in
England in the nineteenth century based on the German
model of Altertumswissenschaft. Both are premised upon
a vision of the Greeks as quasi-divine, pure and authentic.

What Bernal shows is the way in which this vision was
complicit with certain northern European nationalisms
and imperialisms (particularly in England and Germany),
where contemplation of the Greeks was felt to be
beneficial to the education of the future administrators of
empire. It is on this point of a possible link between
culture and imperialism that one can perhaps link
Bernal’s analysis to the wider problematic of the
invention of tradition in the nineteenth century, as
diagnosed by Eric Hobsbawm and others. 9 Hobsbawm
shows that traditions were invented with extraordinary
rapidity in this period by various states (notably Britain,
France, Germany and the USA) in order to reinforce
political authority and to ensure the smooth expansion of
electoral democracy – for males at least.

More specifically, the traditions invented in this
period, which in Britain were as grand as the fabrication
of a modem monarchy complete with its jubilees and
public processions, or as small as the invention of the
postage stamp complete with image of the monarch as
symbol of the nation; or, more widely, the proliferation
of public statuary in France and Germany, with the
ubiquitous image of Marianne in the fgrmer and
Bismarck or Kaiser Wilhelm in the latter, or the spread
of national anthems and national flags – culminate,
claims Hobsbawm, in the emergence of nationalism. It
was nationalism that became the quasi-Rousseauesque
civic religion of the nineteenth century, and which,
crucially, ensured social cohesion and patterns of
national identification for the newly hegemonic middle
classes, providing a model which could then be extended
to the working classes, as and when they were allowed to
enter the political process. The power of invented
tradition consists in its ability to inculcate certain values
and norms by sheer ritualization and imposed repetition,
and to encourage the belief that those traditions are
rooted in remotest antiquity, in the case of English
nationalism in the sentimental myth of ‘a thousand years
of unbroken history’ .

My concern, as someone who teaches philosophy, is
the extent to which the version of tradition that is
operative and goes largely unquestioned in much
philosophical pedagogy and post-prandial parley (the
belief in the exclusivity of the Greek beginning of the
philosophy and the centrality and linear continuity of the
European philosophical tradition) remains tributary to an
invented historical paradigm, barely two centuries old,

19

in which we have come to believe by sheer force of
inculcation and repetition. Is the vision of philosophy
offered by those, like myself, working on the
geographical and spiritual edges of the Continental
tradition, tributary to the Aryan model of ancient history
and thereby complicit with a Hellenomania that
buttresses an implicit European chauvinism? Indeed although this is not my direct concern here – might one
not be suspicious of the nationalist motives that lead to
the retrieval within an Anglo-American tradition
suspicious of the high metaphysics of ‘Continentalists’

of a specifically ‘British’ empiricist tradition in the 1950s
to justify either an Anglicized logical positivism or
Oxford ordinary language philosophy?IO Or the selfconscious retrieval of pragmatism or transcendentalism
as distinctively and independently American traditions
in the work of thinkers as diverse as Stanley Cavell,
Richard Rorty and Cornel West?11
All of which brings me to some critical questions:

must the Greco-European story of the philosophical
tradition – from ancient Greece to modern northern
Europe, from Platonism to its inversion in Nietzsche be accepted as a legitimating narrative by philosophers,
even by those who call themselves philosophers only in
remembrance? Must philosophy be haunted by a
compulsion to repeat its Greek origin? And if so, what
about the possibility of other traditions in philosophy,
other beginnings, other spiritual adventures? Could
philosophy, at least in its European moment, ever be in
the position to repeat another origin, announce another
beginning, invent another tradition, or tell another story?

More gravely, and with reference to Bernal and also
to David Theo Goldberg’ s Racist Culture, 12 is there
perhaps a racist logic intrinsic to European philosophy
which is founded on a central paradox, hinted at above
in the coincidence of the geographical and the spiritual
or the particular and the universal in Husserl? That is,
philosophy tells itself a story which affirms the link
between individuality and universality by embodying
that link either in the person of Socrates or by defining
the (European) philosopher as ‘the functionary of
humanity’,13 but where at the same time universality is
delimited or confined within one particular tradition,
namely the Greco-European adventure? Philosophy
demands universal validity, or is defined by this demand
for universal validity, yet it can only begin here, in
Europe. We are who we are, and our supra-national
cultural identity as Europeans is founded in the
universality of our claims and the particularity of our
tradition; a tradition that, for Husserl, includes ‘the
English dominions’ , i.e. the USA, but does not extend to
the gypsies, ‘who constantly wander across Europe’, 14

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like some living memory trace of Egypt. No other culture
could be like us, because we have exclusive rights to
philosophy, to the scientific-theoretical attitude.

In the light of Edward Said’s work, such
philosophical sentiments do not seem far from the core
belief of imperialism: namely, that it is the responsibility
or burden of the metropolitan powers to bring our
universal values to bear on native peoples, that is, to
colonize and transform other cultures according to our
own world-view and to conceal oppression under the
cloak of a mission. As Said puts it, why are most
professional humanists unable or unwilling to make the
connection between, on the one hand, the prolonged
cruelty of practices such as slavery, colonialism, imperial
subjection and racial oppression, and, on the other hand,
the poetry, fiction and philosophy of the societies that
engage in such practices?15
However, if we provisionally admit that there is a
racist or imperialist logic in philosophy – and this is as
much an accusation against myself as against Husserl then could it ever be otherwise? That is, would it be
conceivable for philosophy, or at least for ‘we European
philosophers’ , to be in a position to repeat another origin?

Wouldn’t this be precisely the fantasy of believing
oneself to speak from the standpoint of the excluded
without being excluded, of wishing to speak from the
margins whilst standing at the centre, that is to say, the
fantasy of a romantic anti-Hellenism or Rousseauesque
anti -ethnocentrism? If so, where does this leave us? How
do we proceed? As a way of sharing my perplexity, rather
than resolving it, I shall try to illuminate these questions
by taking a slightly different tack.

Sedimentation, reactivation,
deconstruction
Tradition can be said to have two senses: (1) as
something inherited or handed down without questioning
or critical interrogation; (2) as something made or
produced through a critical engagement with the first
sense of tradition, as a de-traditionalization of tradition
or an appeal to tradition that is in no way traditional. Of
course, this distinction is artificial insofar as it could be
claimed that the consciousness of tradition as such only
occurs in the process of its destruction, that is to say,
with the emergence of a modernity as that which places
in question the evidence of tradition.

However, it is this second sense of tradition, the
philosophical sense, that is shared – not without some
substantial differences – by Husserl and Heidegger. For
the Husserl of the Crisis of the European Sciences, the
two senses of tradition correspond to the distinction
between a sedimented and a reactivated sense of

tradition. Sedimentation, which in one passage of the
Crisis Husserl compares to ‘traditionalization’, 16 and
which it is helpful to think of in geological terms as a
process of settling or consolidation, would consist in the
forgetfulness of the origin of a state of affairs. If we take
Husserl’s celebrated example of geometry, a
forgetfulness of the origin of geometry leads to the
forgetfulness of the historicity of such a discipline, of the
genesis of the theoretical attitude expressed by geometry,
and the way in which the theoretical attitude belongs to a
determinate Lebenswelt. What is required to counter the
sedimentation of tradition is the reactivation of the origin
in what Husserl calls ‘a teleological-historical reflection
upon the origins of our critical scientific and
philosophical situation’ .17 Thus, philosophy in the proper
sense of the word, i.e. transcendental phenomenology,
would be the product of critical-historical reflection upon
the origin oftradition and the (re)active making of a new
sense of tradition against the pernicious naivetes of
objectivism and naturalism.

Matters are not so different with the early
Heidegger’s conception of Destruktion, the
deconstruction of the history of ontology, which is
precisely not a way of burying the past in nullity, but
rather of seeking the positive tendencies of the tradition.

Destruktion is the production of a tradition as something
made and fashioned through a process of repetition or
retrieval, what Heidegger calls Wiederholung. The latter
is the assumption of the tradition as a genuine repetition,
where the original meaning of a state of affairs (the
temporal determination of the meaning of Being, to pick

an example at random) is retrieved through a criticalhistorical reflection. In the period of Being and Time,
Heidegger articulates the difference between a received
and destroyed tradition in terms of the distinction
between
tradition
(Tradition)
and heritage
(Uberlieferung), where the possibilities of authentic
existing are delivered over and disclosed. 18
It is important to point out that the target of Husserl’ s
and Heidegger’s reflections on tradition – and this is
equally true of Hegel’ s reflection on the history of Spirit
and Nietzsche’s conception of nihilism – is not the past
as such, but the present, and precisely the crisis of the
present. The true crisis of the European sciences
(Husserl) or distress of the West (Heidegger) is felt in the
absence of distress: ‘crisis, what crisis?’ At the present
moment, when the Western techno-scientificphilosophical adventure is in the process of globalizing
itself and reducing humanity to the status of happy
consumers wearing Ronald McDonald Happy Hats, we
are called upon to reactivate the origin of the tradition
from which that adventure sprang, and to do this
precisely in order to awaken a sense of crisis and distress.

Thus, a reactivated sense of the tradition permits us a
critical, perhaps even tragic consciousness of the present.

As Gerald Bruns points out in an essay on tradition,
On this line of thinking a good example of the
encounter with tradition would be the story of
Oedipus and his discovery of the truth of what” has
been said about him by seers, drunks, and oracles,
not to mention what his own awakened memory
can tell him. I mean that from a hermeneutical
standpoint the encounter with tradition is more
likely to resemble satire than allegory, unmasking
the past rather than translation of the past. Or, as
I’ve tried to suggest, the hermeneutical experience
of what comes down to us from the past is
structurally tragic rather than comic. It is an event
that exposes us to our own blindness or the limits
of our historicality and extracts from us an
acknowledgement of our belongingness to
something different, reversing what we had
thought. It’s just the sort of event that might drive
us to put out our eyes. I9
The Husserlian-Heideggerian sense of reactivated
tradition which destroys the past in order to enable us to
confront the present achieves this by consigning us, as
Derrida puts it,20 to the security of the Greek element
with a knowledge and confidence which are not
comfortable, but which permit us to experience crisis,
distress and tragedy.

But we must proceed carefully here: on the one hand,
it seems that the Husserlian-Heideggerian demand for

21

the reactivation of a sedimented tradition is a necessary
and unavoidable move, it is the step into philosophy and
critique, that is, into the realization of tradition as
something made or fashioned (re)actively as a way of
confronting the tragedy of the present. However, on the
other hand, the problem here is that the tradition that is
retrieved is uniquely and univocally Greek; it is only a
Greek tragedy that will permit us to confront the distress
of the present. The way in which globalized technoscientific ideology is to be confronted is by learning to
speak Greek. My problem with this conception of
tradition, as pointed out above, is that it might be said to
presuppose implicitly an imperialist, chauvinist or racist
logic. One recalls the remark that Heidegger was reported
to have made to Karl Lowith in 1936, where he asserted
that his concept of historicity was at the basis of his
political engagement with National Socialism. 21
It is with this problem in mind that I want to make an
excursion into Derrida’s 1964 essay, ‘Violence and
Metaphysics’, which deals with the thought of
Emmanuel Levinas insofar as that work might be said to
offer an ethical challenge to the Heideggerian and
Husserlian conceptions of tradition. I think it is justified
to claim that Derrida’s thinking of tradition, at least in
the early work, is dominated by the problem of closure,
that play of belonging and non-belonging to the GrecoEuropean tradition, which asserts both the necessity and
impossibility of such a tradition. Broadly stated, the
problem of closure describes the duplicitous or
ambiguous historical moment – now – when our
language, institutions, conceptuality and philosophy
itself show themselves both to belong to a metaphysical
(or logocentric) tradition that is theoretically exhausted,
while at the same time searching for the breakthrough
from that tradition. 22 The problem of closure describes
the liminal situation of late modernity out of which the
deconstructive problematic arises, and which, I believe,
Derrida inherits from Heidegger. Closure is the double
refusal of both remaining within the limits of the tradition
and of transgressing that limit. Closure is the hinge that
articulates the double movement between the
philosophical tradition and its other(s).

In ‘Violence and Metaphysics’, Derrida’s general
claim is that Levinas’ s project cannot succeed except by
posing the question of closure, and that because this
problem is not posed by Levinas in Totality and Infinity,23
his dream of an ethical relation to the Other which is
linguistic but which exceeds the totalizing language of
the tradition, remains just that, a dream. Derrida calls it
the dream of pure empiricism that evaporates when
language awakens. Levinas’ s discourse – and Derrida
repeats this strategy with regard to all discourses that

22

claim to exceed the tradition, those of Foucault, Artaud,
Bataille or whoever – is caught, unbeknownst to itself, in
an economy of betrayal, insofar as it tries to speak
philosophically about that which cannot be spoken of
philosophically.

Now, one conservative way of understanding the
problem of closure is to argue that Derrida demonstrates
the irresistibility of the claims of the Greco-Roman
tradition and the impossibility of claiming any coherent
position outside of this tradition – ‘Hegel, Husserl and
Heidegger are always right!’ Although this interpretation
is to some extent justified, it is by no means the whole
story. The logic of closure works within a double bind,
that is, if there is no outside to the philosophical tradition
from which one can speak in order to criticize its inside,
then, by the same token, there is no inside to the tradition
from which one can speak without contamination by an
outside. This is why closure describes the liminal
situation of late modernity, and why it is a double refusal
of both remaining within the limits of the tradition and of
transgressing those limits. Thus, there is no pure Greek
inside to the European tradition that can be claimed as an
uncontaminated origin in confronting the crisis. This, I
believe, explains Derrida’s strategy when confronted
with a unified conception of tradition, when he works to
show how any such conception is premised upon certain
exclusions which cannot be excluded. One thinks, for
example, of his unpicking of Heidegger’s reading. of .

Nietzsche or of Foucault’ s reading of Descartes, or again
in Glas, where the focus is on that which refuses the
dialectical-historical logic of Aufhebung, and in La carte
postale, where Heideggerian unity of the Greek sending
of Being (envoi de l’etre) is undermined and multiplied
into a plurality of sendings (envois).

Tradition as a changing same
Turning from the philosophical tradition to tradition as
such, the deconstructive thinking of tradition leaves one
in the situation of the double bind discussed by Derrida
in relation to European cultural identity:

It is necessary to make ourselves the guardians of
an idea of Europe, of a difference of Europe, but of
a Europe that consists precisely in not closing off
in its own identity and in advancing itself in an
exemplary way toward what it is not, toward the
other heading or heading of the other, indeed – and
this is perhaps something else altogether – toward
the other of the heading, which would be the
beyond of this modern tradition, another border
structure, another shore. 24

Although such statements are problematic, not the least
because Derrida tends to assume too much unity to the

‘European culture’ that is being deconstructed, it is clear
that, for him, being European means obeying the
irreducibility of a double duty (and why only a double
duty? Why not a triple, quadruple or multiple duty?): to
retrieve what Europe is or was, whilst at the same time
opening Europe to the non-European, welcoming the
foreigner in their alterity.

On a deconstructive account, then, any attempt to
interpret tradition and culture in terms of a desire for
unity, univocity and purity must be rigorously
undermined in order to show how this desire is always
already contaminated by that which it attempts to resist
and exclude. If deconstruction has a sociology, then it is
a sociology of impurity, of contamination. Culture and
tradition are hybrid ensembles, they are the products of
radically impure mixing and mongrelism. For example,
being British today means recognizing the way in which
the dominant English culture has been challenged and
interpellated by previously dominated cultures, be they
Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Afro-Caribbean or Asian. As
Edward Said persuasively suggests, the consequence
(and inverted triumph) of imperialism is the radical
hybridity of culture, where histories and geographies are
intertwined and overlapping, troubling any appeal to
cultural and national exclusivity. Cultural identity (or
perhaps one should say, cultural self-differentiation) is
relationally negotiated from amongst competing claims
that make conflicting and perhaps awkward demands
upon us.

Of course, one response to this conflict is racism, or
the essentialist identification of race, culture and nation
that is shared by white supremacism, Tebbit-esque
British nationalism and oppositional Black nationalism.

Needless to say, I do not think the latter are the most
felicitous responses to the hybridity of culture and
tradition; but the cultural-political task facing the Left,
as I see it, lies in hegemonizing hybridity. As Said
intimates, this can only entail an internationalist politics,
which would try to hegemonize those oppositional
movements – Said speaks of the intifada, the women’s
movement, and various ecological and cultural
movements – that resist the global political cynicism of
‘hurrah capitalism’. The vocation of the intellectual
(whatever that much-maligned word means at this point
and whoever it includes and excludes) consists in trying
to focus and exacerbate these internationalist energies
by being the exilic consciousness of the present through
the practice of what Said calls contrapuntal criticism.

The latter would be a form of critical-historical,
genealogical or deconstructive reflection that would
bring us to the recognition of the hybridity of tradition,
culture and identity. Contrapuntal criticism, the

comparative analysis ofthe overlapping geographies and
intertwined histories of present cultural assemblages,
would reveal hybrid ensembles as hybrid ensembles and
not as unities or essences.

A recent and stunning example of such a contrapuntal
criticism is Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic. 25 The basic
polemical point of this book is to oppose any easy (and
fatal) identification of race or culture with nation, where
notions of racial purity function as legitimating
discourses for nationalistic politics, for example within
Black nationalism. In opposition to the latter, the black
Atlantic is a transnational and intercultural framework
that exceeds the borders of existing or Utopian nation
states; it is a ‘rhizomorphic, fractal structure’ that
opposes ‘the ethnic absolutism that currently dominates
black political culture’ .26 What is most impressive about
Gilroy’s book is the way in which the frequently reified
and reifying discourse on race and roots is transposed
onto a discourse of routes: a historical tableau of
traversals and criss-crossings signifying upon a vast
oceanic surface; a diaspora, that Gilroy courageously
compares to Jewish experience, but where the potentially
Mosaic discourse of roots and the promised land is
maintained as a mosaic of routes. Gilroy engages in what
we might call a spatialization of history, where the
potential essentialism of historical narrative is
problematized through a recourse to geography.

But it is Gilroy’s conception of tradition th({t, for me
at least, forms the centre of the book and which speaks
directly to the concerns of this paper. Gilroy’s basic
historical thesis is that it is not possible to view slavery
as an epiphenomenon within modernity, or as some
residue of pre-modern barbarism carried over into
modernity. Rather, using Zygmunt Bauman’s
terminology, slavery and black Atlantic experience as a
whole constitute a distinct counter-culture within
modernity that complicates and disrupts certain versions
of modernity’s emancipatory project. The question here
is whether there is room for a memory of slavery within
modernity; that is to say, for Gilroy, is there room for a
personalized, sublime and perhaps pre-discursive
moment of liberatory creativity within modern
experience? This emphasis upon creativity and aesthetic
experience takes us to Gilroy’s main contention, which
is that black expressive culture, particularly music, is the
means for articulating this counter-culture and for
activating this memory. For Gilroy, black music is ‘a
cipher for the ineffable, sublime, pre-discursive and antidiscursive elements in black expressive culture’.27 Black
music is, in Gilroy’s words, a changing same. Taking the
examples of dubbing, scratching, sampling, mixing,
borrowing and alluding that one can find in Hip Hop,

23

Rap, Reggae and more recent musical hybrids, Gilroy
argues against the notion of an authentic racial art and
the conception of black music as a fixed dialogue
between a thinking racial self and a stable racial
community. In this sense, black musical expression
exemplifies the relation between identity and difference
that is constitutive of cultural traditions and tradition as
such. Thus, cultural traditions, like music, cannot be
reduced to ‘the transmission of a fixed essence through
time’, but is rather a series of ‘breaks and interruptions’.

In this sense tradition itself ‘may be a distinct though
covert response to the destabilizing flux of the postcontemporary world’ .28
Tradition is a changing same – that is, by insisting on
the place of the memory of slavery within modernity,
Gilroy disputes the supposed opposition between
tradition and modernity, where, for example, black
nationalists might claim the purity and authenticity of an
African tradition in order to oppose the oppression of
European and American modernity. This can be seen
vividly in George G. M. James’s attempt to show how
the Greco-European tradition that culminates in
modernity and racism is, in fact, a stolen legacy from a
prior Egyptian and African civilization. 29 In
contradistinction to such attempts, Gilroy fascinatingly
proposes a black modernism, that is to say, a selfconsciously modernist relation to tradition, where the
specificity of the modern lies precisely in the
consciousness of the problematic relation between the
past and the present, between tradition and the individual
talent. For the modernist, and the resonances with
Derrida’s notion of closure here become apparent,
tradition is that to which we simultaneously belong and
do not belong, what Gilroy suggestively calls ‘ a nontraditional tradition, an irreducibly modern, ex-centric,
unstable and asymmetrical cultural ensemble that cannot
be apprehended through the manichean logic of binary
coding’ .30 Tradition is that duplicitous experience of
continuity and rupture or of belonging and nonbelonging that we have tried to discuss already in relation
to Derrida. In response to this conception of tradition,
what is required, according to Gilroy, is a Du Boisian
experience of double consciousness, or simultaneous
attraction and repUlsion, where one recognizes the
doubleness of one’s identity as being shaped by
modernity without feeling fully part of it. 31 An
experience of modernity as something which one is both
unable to believe in and unable to leave. In Toni
Morrison’s words, tradition, like the supple and evasive
rhythms of funk, ‘slaps and it embraces, it slaps and it
embraces’ .32 Tradition is the story of overlapping
geographies and intertwined histories, perhaps an

24

ultimately non-narratable narrative that thwarts the desire
for cultural, racial or philosophical purity.

Contrapuntal philosophy?

Drawing together the threads of this discussion into a
conclusion, in addition to the two senses of tradition we
introduced above, we are now in a position to add a third.

I. Sedimented tradition: where tradition is inherited as
forgetfulness of origins, as pre-critical inheritance
or pre-philosophical doxa, as the moral world-view
that is inculcated into us by family, schooling, etc.

2. Reactivated tradition: the Socratic moment of a
critical, philosophical engagement with the first
sense and the retrieval of an ‘authentic’ GrecoEuropean tradition (histories and genealogies of
Spirit, of nihilism, of Being’s oblivion, of the
forgetfulness of origin). This is the philosophical
articulation of sedimented tradition, which one
might conceive as a defining characteristic of
modernity.

3. Deconstructed tradition: where the unity, univocity
and linearity of the reactivated traditions would be
critically questioned, and where the founding
presuppositions of such traditions would be shown
to be premised upon certain exclusions that are nonexcludable, leaving us in the double bind of closure,
and encouraging us to face up to the doubleness (or
more than doubleness) or hybridity of tradition;
culture and identity. This would be the contrapuntal
or double consciousness of tradition as a changing
same.

So, deconstruction provides a third sense to the concept
of tradition, where the reactivated philosophical-critical
sense of tradition – a perpetual modernity – is not rejected
or set aside, but rather where its power for getting us to
face the crisis of the present is both incorporated and crucially – contested, where the philosophical tradition
is forced to acknowledge the limits of its jurisdiction and
the failure of its demand for exclusivity.

As I see it, the position I have argued for has three
important consequences for those concerned with
philosophy and its history: (i) The acceptance of the
necessity of the Greco-European tradition as the
linguistic and conceptual resource with which what ‘we
Europeans’ (leaving the limits of this ‘we’ deliberately
vague) call thinking takes place. (ii) The necessary
failure of any attempt to constitute an uncontaminated
Greco-European tradition, a pure inside that would
presuppose the European exclusivity of philosophy and
the privileging of the European over the non-European.

The identity of the European tradition is always impurely
traced and contaminated by the non-European other that

it tries unsuccessfully to exclude. (iii) The acceptance of
the impossibility of a pure outside to the European
tradition for ‘we Europeans’, the irretrievability of an
other origin, the fantasy of a European antiEurocentrism, of anti-ethnocentrism, of romantic antiHellenism, of all post-Rousseauesque versions of what
Derrida calls nost-Algerie.

Tradition, culture and identity are irreducibly hybrid
ensembles. The purpose of critical-historical,
genealogical or deconstructive reflection – contrapuntal
criticism – is to bring us to a recognition of these
ensembles as ensembles. On analogy with the latter, I
wonder – and this is the tentative expression of a
(Utopian) hope rather than the statement of a programme
– whether it would be possible to study and practice
philosophy contrapuntally. That is, to philosophize out
of an experience of the utter contingency of historical
being (and being as such insofar as the latter is
constituted historically) and with reference to the
intertwining and overlapping of those histories and
geographies that make up something like a philosophical
canon or tradition. As I see it, this would mean studying
the history of philosophy not as a unified, universal,
linear, narratable and geographically delimitable (i.e.

European) procession stretching from the Athens of
Socrates to Western late modernity, but rather as a series
of constructed, contingent, invented and possible nonnarratable contrapuntal ensembles that would disrupt the
authority of the hegemonic tradition. Can one conceive
of the philosophical tradition as a series of contrapuntal
ensembles? I have two closing suggestions in this regard:

firstly, might it be possible to conceive of the history of
philosophy in terms of what Derrida calls with reference
to Levinas seriature, that is, an interrupted series, or
series of interruptions that would constitute less a
teleologically destined succession of epochs or figures
of spirit and more a multiplicity of sendings in the
manner performed in La carte postale?33 Secondly, might
the history of philosophy be approached geographically
as a series of plateaux in the manner of Deleuze and
Guattari, that is, as a multiplicity of dated, stratified
assemblages ?34 Might not such a contrapuntal
consciousness of the philosophical tradition have the
potential to transform philosophy into a practice of
radical reflection rooted in the acceptance and
affirmation of hybridity as the condition of possibility
for philosophy’s historical emergence and its future
flourishing?

Notes
1.

These thoughts were first assembled for a conference on
the theme of de-traditionalization held at Lancaster
University in July 1993. They were extensively reworked

for a conference on the work of Edward Said held at
Warwick University in March 1994. But their real source
lies in conversations with Robert Bernasconi over the past
few years and, more recently, with Homi Bhaba. I am
particularly grateful for the careful comments of Jonathan
Ree and Peter Osborne, although I don’t think I have fully
responded to either of their criticisms.

2.

See Hegel, ‘Tragedy and the Impiety of Socrates’, from
Hegel on Tragedy, eds. A. and H. Paolucci (Harper and
Row, New York, 1975), pp. 345-66; and Nietzsche, The
Birth of Tragedy, tr. W. Kaufmann (Vintage, New York,
1967); and ‘The Problem of Socrates’ , in Twilight of the
Idols, tr. R. J. Hollingdale (Penguin, Harmondsworth,
1968), pp. 29-34.

3.

‘Tragedy and the Impiety of Socrates’, p. 364.

4.

‘Meditations on First Philosophy, The Philosophical
Writings of Descartes, Vol. II, trs. J. Cottingham et al.

(Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984), p. 12.

5.

‘Violence and Metaphysics’, in Writing and Difference,
tr. A. Bass (Routledge, London and New York, 1978), p.

81.

6.

In The Crisis of the European Sciences and
Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to
Phenomenological Philosophy, tr. D. Carr (Northwestern
University Press, Evanston, 1970), pp. 269-99.

7.

Martin Bernal, Black Athena. The Afroasiatic Roots of
Classical Civilization, Vo!. 1 ‘The Fabrication of Ancient
Greece 1785-1985’ (Vintage, London, 1991 [1987]).

8.

I rely here on Robert Bernasconi’s paper, ‘Heidegger and
the Invention of the Western Philosophical Tradition’,
Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology,
forthcoming.

9.

The Invention of Tradition, eds. E. Hobsbawm and T.

Ranger (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983);
see esp. pp. 1-14 and 263-307.

10. See Jonathan Ree, ‘English Philosophy in toe Fifties’,
Radical Philosophy 65, p. 15.

11. In this regard, see especially Cornel West, The American
Evasion of Philosophy (Macmillan, London, 1989).

12. David Theo Goldberg, Racist Culture, Philosophy and the
Politics of Meaning (Blackwell, Oxford, 1993), p. 6. Also
see in this regard Harry M. Bracken’s ‘Philosophy and
Racism’, Philosophia, Vol. 8 (1978), pp. 241-60. In an
innovative and provocative discussion of racism and
empiricism, it is argued that Lockean (and, to a lesser
extent, Humean) empiricism facilitate ‘the expression of
racist ideology and that Locke was actively involved in
formulating policies (compatible with those theories) and
encouraging practices (e.g. the African slave trade and
perpetual racial slavery) which were racist in character’

(p. 255). In contrast to empiricism, and by way of a covert
defence of the Cartesianism of Chomsky’s linguistic
theory, Bracken argues that Cartesianism contains ‘a
modest conceptual barrier to racism’ (p. 254).

13. Crisis of the European Sciences, p. 17.

14. Ibid., p. 273.

15. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (Chatto and
Windus, London, 1993), p. xiv.

16. Crisis of the European Sciences, p. 52.

17. Ibid., p. 3.

18. Being and Time, trs. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson
(Blackwell, Oxford, 1962); German pagination, p. 395;
English pagination, p. 447.

19. Gerald L. Bmns, Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern (Yale
University Press, New Haven and London, 1992), p. 204
(my emphasis).

20. ‘Violence and Metaphysics’, p. 82.

25

21. Karl L6with, ‘My Last Meeting with Heidegger in Rome,
1936‘, in The HeideggerControversy, ed. R. Wolin (MIT,
Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1993), p. 142.

22. For a detailed discussion of the problem of closure in
Derrida, see my The Ethics ofDeconstruction (Blackwell,
Oxford, 1992), pp. 59-106. For an illuminating discussion
of tradition in Derrida in comparison with WaIter
Benjamin, see Alexander Garcia Dtittmann’s ‘Tradition
and Destruction’ in A. Benjamin and P. Osbome, eds.,
Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy (Routledge, London and
New York, 1993), pp. 33-58.

23. I argue that matters become much more complicated in
Levinas’s later work, Otherwise than Being or Beyond
Essence; in this regard, see my ‘Eine Vertiefung der
ethischen Sprache und Methode’, Deutsche Zeitschriftfur
Philosophie, Vol. 42, no. 4 (1994), pp. 643-51.

24. Derrida, The Other Heading, trs. P.-A. Brault and M. Naas
(Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1992), p. 29.

25. Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic. Modernity and Double
Consciousness (Verso, London, 1993).

26. Ibid., pp. 4-5.

27. Ibid., p. 120.

28. Ibid., p. 101.

29. George G. M. James, Stolen Legacy. Greek Philosophy is
Stolen Egyptian Philosophy (Africa World Press, Trenton
NJ, 1992 [1954]).

30. The Black Atlantic, p. 198 (my emphasis).

31. Incidentally, this is also how Comel West defines the
situation of the prophetic critic, in Keeping Faith.

Philosophy and Race in America (Routledge, London and
New York, 1993), p. xxi.

32. Ibid., p. 78.

33. See Derrida, ‘At this very moment in this work here I am’,
tr. R. Berezdivin, in R. Bemasconi and S. Critchley, eds.,
Re-Reading Levinas (Indiana University Press,
Bloomington, 1991); and The Post Card, tr. A. Bass
(University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1987).

34. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism
and Schizophrenia, tr. B. Massumi (Athlone, London,
1988). Although, with regard to Deleuze and Guattari, it
should be noted that they also insist upon the exclusivity
of the Greek beginning to philosophy: ‘If we really want
to say that philosophy originates with the Gree,ks, it is
because the city, unlike the empire or state, invents the
agon as the rule of society of ‘friends’, of the community
of free men as rivals (citizens).’ (What is Philosophy? tr.

G. Burchell and H. Tomlinson [Verso, London, 1994], p.

9; and cf. pp. 43-4 and Chapter 3, ‘Geophilosophy’, pp.

85-113). Although Deleuze and Guattari insist upon the
contingency of the historical origin of philosophy in
Greece, and emphasize the crucial role that migrants and
foreigners played in the formation and articulation of
Greek culture, their representation of philosophy and the
ancient world is pervaded by the power of invented
tradition as presented in this paper. For example, their
representation of the space of the po lis as the prephilosophical plane of immanence and the condition of
possibility for philosophical concept creation would seem,
in a manner that is absolutely traditional, to link the
historical emergence of philosophy to the political form
of democracy in opposition to the alleged hierarchy and
transcendence of all forms of imperial or theological
space. But this is precisely to forget that the space of the
Greek po lis was, at once, powerfully imperial and
theological. In this context, I would merely like to signal
my intention here of continuing the work begun in this
paper in a critical discussion of Deleuze and Guattari’ s
notion of ‘geophilosophy’.

First International Philosophy Graduate Conference
“Continental Philosophy, Contemporary Research”
Saturday, February 25, 1995 – 10:00 a.m.

The Conference will bring together student speakers from
Europe and North America, and will focus on current
in graduate research in Continental Philosophy.

Special plenary address by Professor
Robert Pippin on “Heideggerian
and Metaphysical Politics”.

iQ.,unwaged/£lO waged (including reception).

“. .

Advance registration is recommended.

Cheques should be made payable to
The University of Essex.

For registration and programme information,
please contact: lain Macdonald
Dept. of Philosophy
OF
University of Essex
Wivenhoe Park

for European Philosophy

C04 3SQ

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