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conditioning of the unconditioned Arrow vol 3 no 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 Number 1, 2004


The Conditioning of the Unconditioned: Derrida and Kant

Paula Keating
University of New South Wales


Introduction: Kant welcomes Derrida to Practical Reason

1. In a number of his essays on hospitality, Derrida extracts Kant’s reference to hospitality from Towards Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch and quotes the Third Definitive Article of this political treatise: ‘Cosmopolitan Right Shall be Limited to Conditions of Universal Hospitality’. He effectively displaces Kant’s use of hospitality to condition the world for peace by presenting it as the counterpart to his idea of absolute hospitality. Derrida believes that the greater hospitality is the unconditioned variety; hyperbolic and impossible, this is hospitality as an absolute ethic. What I hope to encourage here is a more hospitable encounter between Derrida and Kant. I want to take Derrida’s thoughts on pure hospitality as ethics and displace them, welcome them, into a Kantian setting for the positioning of absolute ethics. This means that instead of comparing the uses of the word "hospitality", I will compare the systems in which they operate.

2. Derrida’s idea of hospitality is an unconditional ethic, so I will introduce it to Kant’s idea of the unconditioned good as the condition of practical reason. In effect I want to compare Derrida’s structuring of impossible hospitality with Kant’s moral law. This comes down to asking Kant to explain his idea of practical reason and practice of the moral law and asking Derrida what takes place at the aporia of ethical responsibility: what is so impossible about impossible hospitality? The exposition of these questions takes place in the spirit of a comparison between Kant and Derrida on the question of moral responsibility.

3. It may seem like I am attempting to test these thinkers for a rationally accountable proof of their respective ideas on morality, indeed I do hope to show that they both share (and enjoy) a theoretical dizziness when they seek the origins for human moral enthusiasm, but what I really desire to demonstrate in examining their positing of an absolute is the very need to assume this (unknowable/impossible) "highest point". Morality in humanity is something incomprehensible, we all get caught in a whirl when we try to fathom it, but "it" exists, we attempt to act for the good because we must do something. There is an unknown stranger on the horizon who will need our amnesty, there are the problems of peace and there is this sense in me that I am involved. We can’t locate a pure origin for our moral impulses, but nevertheless we do respond, so we must decide how we should. Moral action is about determination: it is not already determined. And this is something both Kant and Derrida agree upon; they agree that responsiveness belongs to morals.

4. I also hope to show that morality and the moral self are created in the lived response. And here I would like to quote from Max Weber in his essay "Academia as Vocation", which he wrote in 1919 and followed with the essay "Politics as Vocation":

Überall freilich geht diese Annahme, die ich Ihnen hier vortrage, aus von dem einen Grundsachverhalt: dass das Leben, solange es in sich selbst beruht und aus sich selbst verstanden wird, nur den ewigen Kampf jener Götter mit einander kennt, - unbildlich gesprochen: die Unvereinbarkeit und also die Unaustragbarkeit des Kampfes der letzten überhaupt möglichen Standpunkte zum Leben, die Notwendigkeit also zwischen ihnen zu entscheiden. (Weber, 2002: 506)

The proposition that I present here, always takes its point of departure from the one fundamental fact, that life, as long as it remains immanent and is understood on its own terms, knows only the eternal battles between these gods with one another. To speak directly, life knows only the irreconcilability and that the struggle between the ultimately possible attitudes toward life in general can never be brought to a final conclusion, hence the necessity to decide between them. (My translation)

5. Weber is not talking about mere moral dilemma; he is talking about ultimate positions toward life. We take an ultimate standpoint on life when we decide for morality: this is not a point of view, rather the foundation from which we live.

6. That we can decide for a moral life means we are capable of deciding, determining and responding morally. Although we cannot understand the origin of our response we can understand that we are responsive. We take an interest in acting responsibly. So I begin this paper with the interesting confession that forms the last sentence of Kant’s attempt to ground the moral imperative, his Groundwork to the Metaphysic of Morals (Grundlegung der Metaphysik der Sitten); "And thus we do not comprehend the practical unconditional necessity of the moral imperative, but we nevertheless comprehend its incomprehensibility; and this is all that can be fairly required of a philosophy that strives in its principles to the very boundary of human reason." (G: 463)

7. Kant is adamant that there is no consistent theoretical account of the moral response because it takes place in the practical sphere. This is the use of reason for action and not epistemology. The non-comprehension of the practical unconditional necessity of the moral law is all about our lived response to the world. We cannot ground the way morality enters our lives, it exists in our response and in our response we exceed the grounds for our own existence. Certainly Derrida would agree with the excess of our response but the best way I can legitimate this claim is through an examination of Kant’s practical reason, where the guiding question is "what should I do?" Essentially in the above quote from the Groundwork Kant is saying that the moral imperative remains a practical question, this question of how to assume my response. Practical reason is a response to a problem and in our response we orient ourselves towards what we cannot know or prove or do (what I will associate with the impossible) and we condition ourselves with the unconditioned. In morality there is – and can be - no original determination, rather it is the determination now that is the practical impulse of metaphysics that orients us towards moral purity, which is for Kant the highest moral good (a pure will), and for Derrida impossible hospitality.

What should I do? Or the practical use of reason

8. In the Transcendental Dialectic of the Critique of Pure Reason we witness the "humiliation" of pure reason. Here, Kant shows the necessary boundaries of human knowing through the destruction of its most prestigious themes: Soul, World, and God. Kant reveals these formerly "absolute" concepts as objects of deluding syllogisms. But they are not totally invalid, for this would mean the complete failure of metaphysics, rather they are called "ideas of reason". For Kant, Soul, World and God do not represent any objects but refer to something that is of necessity meaningful to humans. They are the unanswerables of speculative reason that inspire the inauguration of the practical use of reason. This is not practical reason solving theoretical problems, rather what Kant shows is that the significance of these ideas (as revealing the boundaries of knowledge) lies in moral activity. That these ideas are problematic is important because the moral response has no transcendental guarantees. The ideas of reason are part of the imperative to respond.

9. It is important to understand the practical implication of Kant’s use of the word "idea". The first section of the first book of the Dialectic is entirely devoted to praise of Plato’s definition of "idea". Kant finds Plato’s term "idea" appealing because it demonstrates the practical power of ideas: "Plato found his ideas primarily in everything that is practical, i.e, in what is based on freedom, which for its part stands under cognitions that are a proper product of reason." (B 371) Kant insists, following Plato, that ideas represent a maximum, an archetype in order to bring humans closer to a "possible greatest perfection." (B 374) This is the practical: everything that we are capable of through freedom.

10. In the Groundwork Kant explains what it means for practical reason to be led by ideas and create principles. Moral worth, Kant states in the second section, is about the "inner principles of actions that one does not see". (G: 407) The method by which we create our principles for action is through practical reason. Reason commands not based on experience, but through the use of ideas: "for example, pure sincerity in friendship can be no less required of everyone even if up to now there may never have been a sincere friend, because this duty – as duty in general – lies, prior to all experience, in the idea of a reason determining the will by means of a priori grounds." (G: 408)

11. Let me make the significance of this sentence clear, since it is clearer in the grammar of the original German: the idea that guides morality for Kant is that of "a reason determining the will by means of a priori grounds". In other words, this idea of determining the will via reason is the unconditioned absolute of morality. So, our duty consists in acting with pure sincerity, which means pure sincerity exists as a guide for duty. Kant is not positing what morality is, but is rather showing how we can practice morality itself, how we can condition our behaviour based on this highest unconditioned condition. Kant may appear to be being normative, but he is rather rendering explicit what he sees as the implicit nature of morality. "A reason determining the will by means of a priori grounds" may never have existed and may never exist, but this is irrelevant for morality, what matters is the practice of the idea itself. Try it on for size, exercise it, strive for its possibility, condition your behaviour with it, set it as your task, implement it into your daily decisions. This is what such an idea means for morality. We do not guide our moral action with empiricism, and hence we need a metaphysics of morals.

12. The next example for the practical import of metaphysics, that is for morality, is God as an idea. The concept of God is a model of the highest good because it is an idea of moral perfection that reason frames a priori and connects with the concept of a free will. (G: 409) The idea, in effect, sets us the task of aspiring towards the highest good, the idea of God inspires us to moral purity of the will, the idea of a sincerity in friendship causes us to work on our own honesty. We condition our actions with these ideas, a use of reason that Kant began to explain in the first Critique. Reason, as the faculty of principles, gives us guidance as to how to strive for the ideas of reason. That we are endowed with reason means we are able to act in accordance with principles, which is the same as having a will. "Since reason is required for the derivation of actions from laws, the will is nothing other than practical reason." (G: 412) Furthermore, "the will is the capacity to choose only that which reason … cognises as practically necessary, that is, as good. " (G: 412) Practical reason for Kant is the practice of being guided by reason.

13. Morality presents us with problems that we must respond to, and the response that practical reason provides us with is an activity: problematic ideas impel us to act. The content of practical reason is our responsiveness. Our response is to seek the unconditioned and condition our behaviour accordingly. The highest good, Kant states in the Canon of Pure Reason, has relevance only for the discipline of practical reason. In the Groundwork Kant posits morality itself as the highest good, absolute and unconditioned. In this sense, morality cannot serve action but action must serve and is conditioned by morality, if it intends to be good. The absolute good is objectively good. However, we find an exception to the absolute because this absolute good becomes a condition itself, a condition that is a measure of the conditioned good. We thus understand why the unconditioned needs the conditioned: because the conditioned is constitutive of the unconditioned. Kant also accounts for why the conditioned needs the unconditioned: we need the idea of an unconditioned good in order to condition action towards the good. So, if the conditions are good - in particular, the intentions - then the conditioned good is good; and if not, then it is bad. The absolute good is, therefore, the prerequisite for the possibility that the conditioned be good at all. This reciprocal relationship between the conditioned and the unconditioned will be of relevance later when discussing Derrida and impossible hospitality. For Derrida too the unconditioned constitutively requires the conditioned, but he is unclear as to exactly why the conditioned needs the unconditioned.

The problem of responsiveness. Or, There is no deduction.

14. What I referred to in my introduction as "this feeling that I am involved" could also be called moral consciousness, which Kant makes foundational use of through examples in The Critique of Practical Reason (see especially the gallows example at 5:30). The movement of the Groundwork goes from "common moral cognition" to philosophic moral cognition. For Kant, morality exists without philosophy, his concern is to expose it, to understand what justifies our response to the claims the moral law makes, what Korsgaard calls "the normative question". (Korsgaard, 1996: 9) Although Kant wants to uncover the blueprint for moral action, he is motivated by the mystery or problem of our desire to act for the good. This is the problem of responsiveness: I experience an awareness of a highest good or what should be done, and simultaneously an injunction to act on this principle. (Compare Henrich on the concept of moral insight, 1994: 55 – 89)

15. According to Kant, the good is a structure of reason, and a good will is the only unconditional good that can be thought of in the world, or beyond it. That humans are endowed with reason and that humans are beings that are "constituted purposively for life" (zweckmäßig zum Leben eingerichtet) (G: 395) means the destiny of reason is to regulate moral behaviour, that is, to create a purely good will. Freedom is the presupposition of rational willing. Rational willing attempts to enact the moral law, the unconditioned. Kant is able, for the most part, to demonstrate what is needed for such an unconditional moral law to exist, but he cannot account for the fact that we respond to it, that it is absolute, that we freely follow it. There is no proof: we assume freedom and need the moral law. It is the doctrine of the idea that allows freedom to be connected to the concept of a pure will. In pure volition we already understand ourselves as rational beings, and in this axiom freedom is already presumed.

16. Kant’s first mention of the practical with Plato’s use of idea, also connects it immediately with freedom. The practical is everything based on freedom, the "keystone" concept to Kant’s moral philosophy. The Preface to the Groundwork clearly defines the laws of freedom as ethics and throughout reference is made to a free will. Yet, it is not until the third section that Kant attempts to explicate freedom as logically founding to practical reason. But again, despite the concept of freedom being the "key to the explanation of the autonomy of the will" there is no adequate theoretical proof that freedom is possible.

17. To explain this non-deduction we must focus on Section III of the Groundwork. Freedom is defined as "autonomy, that is, the will’s property of being a law to itself" (G: 447). And Kant aims to prove that the moral law follows analytically from the concept of freedom and "hence a free will and a will under moral laws are one and the same." (G: 447). He hopes to "deduce" the concept of freedom from pure practical reason, which is also crucial to the possibility of the categorical imperative. (G: 447) Freedom is explained as practically necessary for the actions of rational beings, which means in order to exercise our reason we require freedom from inclination. Kant thereby believes to have demonstrated the origin of the concept of morality in the idea of freedom. But he still cannot account for our motivation to act according to morality, that is, how "we can regard ourselves as free in acting and so to hold ourselves yet subject to certain laws in order to find merely in our own person a worth that can compensate us for the loss of everything that provides a worth to our conditions; and we cannot yet see how this is possible, and hence on what grounds the moral law is binding." (G: 450)

18. Kant attempts to clarify this logic of our moral responsiveness and justify its reality and objective necessity by returning to theoretical reason and cognition of objects. That there is a distinction between cognition of appearances and things in themselves, although we can never cognise the later, means that there is a crude division between a world of sense and an intelligible world (G: 451). These are two standpoints that one can adopt when observing the self and the relation to the reality of the world. The world of sense is subordinate to the intelligible world. Things in themselves, reason, the a priori, freedom, autonomy, the moral law and activity all belong to the unity that the intelligible world creates. The world of sense, on the other hand, is a more passive sphere where representations affect us, only appearances are grasped, the senses, empiricism and inclinations and the laws of nature guide us, heteronomy is prevalent and endurance (as opposed to activity) determines our behaviour. Freedom, therefore, and the possibility of the categorical imperative, require independence from the sphere of sense and a conception of the self as a rational being; this entails a cognition of the self as a member not only of the world of the sense but also simultaneously as a member of the intelligible world.

19. It is reason that makes this recognition. "Now, a human being really finds in himself a capacity by which he distinguishes himself from all other things, even from himself insofar as he is affected by objects, and this is reason." (G: 452) Reason, furthermore, is "pure self-activity," and in "ideas" reason displays a pure spontaneity that exceeds any activity of sensibility (G: 452). Thus, use of reason is freedom because we cannot think the causality of our own will otherwise than under the idea of freedom, for this causality occurs apart from the determining causes of the world of sense. The assumption of freedom is, therefore, logical, in that when you take a position on freedom, that is, acting under the idea of freedom, you act as if you are free. Action is definite and hence we must actively take an interest in the ideas that attach to morality, they do not merely drive us like our inclinations. We must determine our response to them. The categorical imperative is part of the world of understanding, it is not a sensible imperative, we must, therefore, take an interest in compliance with it even when we are not impelled by any interest to comply. (G: 449)

20. Therefore, there is no pre-determination of my will, there is no natural deduction of the moral law from freedom, or of freedom itself, Kant fails to prove the theoretical objective necessity of the moral law and can only state that a free will and a will under the moral law are one and the same. Both freedom and the moral law are wholly dependent on the doctrine of the idea because the extreme boundary of all practical philosophy is that the world of understanding must be thought, but it is not understandable as such. Freedom belongs to praxis: it is not explainable and how it is possible cannot be known, and furthermore, why the categorical imperative is valid can also not be given a theoretically consistent account.

21. This is why three years later in the Critique of Practical Reason Kant creates the doctrine of Faktum der Vernunft, the fact of reason. In 1785 in the Groundwork Kant emphasised a synthetic a priori connection between autonomy and freedom, one that is beyond the concepts themselves, he says that they form a "kind of circle". (G: 450) As soon as we assume ourselves to be free, we experience ourselves in this freedom as autonomous, and at that moment we are conscious that we are the subject of our own laws. But this self-legislation only makes sense when the subject of these laws conceives itself as free, and this is the non-deduction of the relationship between rationality and agency. We step into the intelligible standpoint in order to assimilate freedom in our actions. In this way Kant believes that there is a synthetic relationship between freedom and the laws of morality because we assume another "standpoint" from which we observe ourselves to be a determining being. (G: 450) According to this explanation the action of freedom precedes the consciousness of autonomy.

22. This order is reversed in the second Critique, where Kant takes the starting point to be autonomy and draws freedom from there. But he specifically denies the possibility of a deduction. Instead we are told of the a priori consciousness of the moral law. "[T]he moral law is given … as a fact of pure reason of which we are a priori conscious and which is apodictically certain, though it be granted that no example of exact observance of it can be found in experience. Hence the objective reality of the moral law cannot be proven by any deduction, by any efforts of theoretical reason, speculative or empirically supported, so that, even if one were willing to renounce its apodictic certainty, it could not be confirmed by experience and thus proved a posteriori; and it is nevertheless firmly established of itself." (CpracR, 5:47)

23. This fact, which can be nothing other than the fact of moral consciousness, Kant takes to be the ground of the possibility of morality: it is from this fact we can know what it means to be moral. At the same time this fact also indicates the ground for the existence of moral action. This is the freedom of each being that makes valid the unconditional claims that morality makes on the determination of the will. The fact of moral response breaks the "circle" and represents the synthesis of freedom and autonomy as an always already adduced achievement because to respond morally is to act as if we were a free agent. It is an achievement in that we actively produce for ourselves the connection between freedom and autonomy, it is a synthesis that leaves behind a "reciprocal" rather than automatic logical relation between freedom and unconditional practical law. (CpracR, 5:29) Practical reason is an activity, not a theoretical presupposition. It is up to us to live up to the moral law.

24. So, there is no theoretical deduction of moral responsiveness, there is no original answer to the question of what should be done. It remains a question. I must ask always what I should do. The moral law exists only as an impossibility, in the sense that it is an impossible object of experience. We cannot prove its objective necessity, we have no empirical guide, we only have its idea and the ability of reason to react spontaneously to transcendental ideas. The only way we can engage with the moral law is by acting as if we possess freedom, this is as a sensible-rational being, and as a rational being and therefore also as an actual self. This is the way we determine our will, with reason as self-activity and with an attempt for moral purity. Determining our will by acting on the ideas of morality is how we cope with the lack of deduction for moral consciousness. We must determine. The ideas of reason are essential compass points for morality; they represent a maximum in which the impossibility of objective morality is possible. We respond according to these maximums. From the conditioned knowledge of moral duty we seek to effect the unknowable unconditioned, this is the task that practical reason sets us. The task of response.

25. Otfried Höffe remarks that the formulae of the categorical imperative all begin with the conditionless call to "act …!" and only in second place does it designate under what conditions moral action occurs, namely in a universalisable maxim. Kant’s first challenge to us is to act morally, hence the shortest form of the imperative could be "Act morally!" (Höffe, 1983: 182) We are not here concerned with the foundations of morality, these must be assumed, but from this assumption future determination depends. Morality is based merely on ideas requiring fulfilment, not received metaphysical truths. Morality is a practice. In this way moral response remains an infinite problem that we must always engage with and determine.

Impossibility and doing it: the need to determine

26: Impossible hospitality as ethics is a central theme of Derrida’s thought in recent years. Derrida draws on Levinas to proclaim ethics as a welcome to the other, as an unconditional invitation to come that is open infinitely to anyone. I have already stated how this unconditional hospitality is contrasted with Kant’s conditional model of hospitality. In Kant’s plan for world peace he limits cosmopolitan law to the condition of a universal hospitality, this means that all foreigners within the juridical cosmopolitan community have a right of resort when they enter a foreign territory. The conditions on this hospitality are obvious: one needs a legal and political identity and legally defined territories with identifiable governments in order to claim this right. For Derrida, however, absolute hospitality means such requirements void the ethical response. Derrida calls Kant’s instituting of hospitality as the universal condition for cosmopolitan law "cosmopolitics", and believes it not to be the advent of hospitality, but merely its circumscription. (Derrida, 2000b: 10) Absolute hospitality, on the other hand, is where the stranger becomes the host’s host, displacing ownership and identity and inverting the economy of the threshold. There are no conditions of identity, no "papers", no interrogation for political and legal origin, no demand to translate.

27. Unconditional hospitality asks no question of the stranger, there is no legal, political or moral obligation, it is "rendered", "given" prior to all knowledge of the subject. (Derrida, 2000a: 29) This hospitality, which is also called "hyperbolic" is an eternal wait without expectation, an open promise, an unlocked door, a welcome as reception, an invitation to the unknown, which occurs at an unknowable time, where you relinquish your place, you receive beyond measure and beyond the capacity of the "I". (Derrida, 1999: 28) Impossible hospitality is infinite responsibility to the other.

28. So, what is impossible about impossible hospitality? Is absolute hospitality, what must be given prior to identification, impossible because of the impossibility of not posing questions to the foreigner, not translating their language and subsuming their identity into something that is not "strange" any more? No question to the stranger is pure because we already assimilate their being into terms that we can arrange into our own conceptions of being. This seems to be a factual impossibility, which is the empirical impossibility of experiencing or giving unconditional hospitality. The sense in which unconditional hospitality is impossible seems to be existential, bound up in the nature of the self.

29. Or is hospitality impossible because of the law of identity? - Which seems at once both a factual and conceptual impossibility. Is it the factual impossibility of a host offering everything – their name, their territory, their life and happiness? That is, the master of the house cannot make good the promise of impossible hospitality because its very act annihilates him and his offer, for without his territorial identity he cannot call to the unknown stranger on the unseen horizon and with his territorial identity (and it’s reciprocal demand of one from the stranger), he cannot offer infinite hospitality. Is this also the conceptual impossibility of hospitality? Derrida points to the shared etymology of host and hospitality in hostis. It is the identity required by hospitality – that of a host – that constitutes the aporia. To enact hospitality is self-destruction. This is where the impossibility is both conceptual and factual: the concept and experience of absolute hospitality is self-contradictory. Why does this self-contradiction not leave the ethic itself destitute?

30. Unconditional hospitality "produces itself as impossible" and can "only be possible on the condition of its impossibility" (Derrida, 2000b: 5). This cannot help but suggest a reciprocal relationship between the conditional and unconditional practice of hospitality. Derrida, in his identification of ethics as impossible hospitality, establishes an aporia between what he calls the law of hospitality on the one hand and the laws of hospitality associated with law and politics on the other. This reflects the relationship between unconditional and conditional hospitality, which he explains as a necessary asymmetrical antinomy. For: "even while keeping itself above the laws of hospitality, the unconditional law of hospitality needs the laws, it requires them. This demand is constitutive. It wouldn’t be effectively unconditional, the law, if it didn’t have to become effective, concrete, determined, if that were not its being as having-to-be. It would risk being abstract, utopian, illusory, and so turning over into its opposite. In order to be what it is, the law thus needs the laws, which, however, deny it, or at any rate threaten it, sometimes corrupt or pervert it. And it must always be able to do this." (Derrida, 2000a: 79) This suggests that it is a subject that needs to base their possibility on a conceptual and practical idea of impossible hospitality. Derrida says that hospitality deconstructs itself precisely "in being put into practice". (2000b: 5) So the practicing (and self-contradicting) subject is foundational to the impossibility of unconditional hospitality.

31. The conceptual and practical impossibility of unconditional hospitality could then be its original singular existence. It exists dependently in an aporia. The relationship between impossible and conditional hospitality is one of mutual fecundity and corruption. And yet, the demand for the laws is constitutive for the law of unconditional hospitality. So while the conditional offer of amnesty to refugees by a government may in fact sully a true ethic of unconditional hospitality, the latter requires such examples of conditions on hospitality for its existence. The existence of unconditional hospitality seems to be the requirement for critique of the legal and political laws of conditioned hospitality.

32. This movement or orientation at play in the relationship between conditional and unconditional hospitality is similar to the paradoxical reciprocity of Kant’s idea of the highest unconditioned good and the conditioned good. As explained above, the unconditioned good in fact needs the conditioned good because it becomes a condition itself for the measurement of the goodness or not of the conditions. If impossible hospitality were taken to be a Kantian highest good then it would indeed be a pre-requisite for the possibility of a degree of goodness of legal and political hospitality. Derrida actually states that the "pervertibility" born of the relationship between unconditional and conditional hospitality is essential for the "perfectibility" and "historicity" of the legal and political laws of hospitality.

33. In the aforementioned quote Derrida states that "it wouldn’t be effectively unconditional, the law, if it didn’t have to become effective, concrete, determined." The very impossibility of hospitality depends on the possible model of hospitality. He follows this quote with "conditional laws of hospitality would cease to be laws of hospitality if they were not guided, given inspiration, given aspiration, required, even by the law of unconditional hospitality." (2000a: 79) This is the exact movement of practical reason: guiding behaviour by conditioning it with the idea of the unconditioned. Derrida has presented us with a reciprocal relationship, and again the reason why he does this must be connected to a notion of the subject who practices hospitality. Why does the ethical person require the unconditioned? Is it not to guide, to condition their response as a moral host?

34. Here I am broaching what many would cite as a main difference between Kant and Derrida: the being of a moral subject. Derrida radically questions this notion and the ability of such a subject to make a "decision". Kant is explicit in the need to assume we are capable of rationality for morality; indeed the "I", according to the Paralogisms of the first Critique, is the first idea of reason that we must create for ourselves. So the "madness" that Derrida believes belongs to moral responsibility and moral decision seems absolutely incompatible with Kant’s attribution of a rational subject to morality. However, for both thinkers "impossibility" must be conceptual and not contingent. So, for Kant, the moral law is conceptually impossible for the subject to cognise but practically necessary to act on. Whereas for Derrida the conceptual impossibility of unconditional hospitality is that the aporetic structure of moral offering is self-destruction, which leads one to assume an annihilation of the offering. Implicit in Derrida’s ethic, then, is an existence to guarantee the impossibility of morality and, importantly, to anchor its possibility. The references Derrida makes to Kierkegaard in this context are important indeed, for if we follow the idea of the madness of decision in Kierkegaard, we observe that he makes clear that, yes this madness is antithetic to rationality, but it is in this instant I also construct myself (Kierkegaard, 1962, 64). Thus, I think that Kant and Derrida share this existential moment of the subject in their philosophies of moral response.

35. For Kant I have shown that this movement is not about deducing and importing the highest good into our lives. It is rather the activity of creating it ourselves. Moral response is the requirement to act on an immediate problem. In the above analysis of the relationship between Derrida’s unconditional and conditional hospitality the notion of a deduction does arise, in the form of locating the origin of the possible in the impossible, of politics in ethics. And yet in Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas Derrida is insistent on the "hiatus" between ethics and politics, between an ethics of hospitality ("an ethics as hospitality") and a law or a politics of hospitality. (1999: 19–20) He states that he will leave unanswered the classical analysis of this relationship as a founding of a foundation. He wants to assume that such a deduction is not possible and believes that the impossibility of a foundation is exactly what allows us to "think law and politics otherwise". It is the non-deduction of law and politics from ethics that generates the openness to the possibility of a decision, of a hospitality without the assurance of an ontological foundation. (Derrida, 1999: 20-21) Thus, there is no moral subjective paralysis from the lack of a deduction from ethics to politics.

36. But what is the activity of or at the hiatus? In Derrida’s essay on justice, Force of Law: the Mystical Foundation of Authority, justice is held to require experience of the aporia. This presents a problem because experience is a passage and an aporia is a non-road. But there is no justice without this experience of the aporia. (1992: 16) Derrida proposes that the result of the non-deduction from ethics to politics is a positive and productive one for therein lies the possibility of thinking and deciding and acting otherwise. Ethics remains the infinite responsibility of unconditional hospitality and politics is the realm where decisions and responsibility must be "taken". Here the homology with Kant is apparent when we recall his non-deduction of the moral law but necessity of a free will to act under practical reason. The homology is even more striking when we hear Derrida call the hiatus between ethics and politics a "Faktum". (Derrida, 1999: 116) "This relation is necessary," Derrida emphasises in Adieu, "it must exist, it is necessary to deduce a politics and a law from ethics." (Derrida, 1999: 115) The necessity of a deduction, he writes, is to determine the "better" or the "less bad." The necessity of a deduction for Kant is to ground the possibility of the moral law to condition human conduct according to the good.

37. What Derrida is revealing is perhaps something similar to the way I have presented Kant’s idea of practical reason: that ethics sets us a task, we must determine how we should act. In one of his more recent essays called "Hostipitality" Derrida states this approach quite clearly: "It is necessary to do the impossible. If there is hospitality, the impossible must be done." (2000b: 14) In this essay he also stresses the importance of not "knowing" what hospitality is, a state that is entirely compatible with Kant’s approach to the ideas of reason as something beyond knowledge but required for meaningful existence, that is, necessary in a practical sense. Impossibility must be conceptual for Kant. Hence, we have Derrida’s injunction to "do" the empirically, epistemologically, conceptually and ontologically impossible: offer infinite hospitality to any one. To reiterate this in the terminology I used to describe Kant’s practical reason: impossible hospitality sets us a task to perform as a morally responsive subject.

38. Derrida’s "it is necessary to do the impossible" recalls, in addition to the common mantra of Kant’s moral philosophy "ought implies can", the opening statement in the first appendix of Towards Perpetual Peace called "On the Disagreement between Morals and Politics in Relation to Perpetual Peace." Kant writes, "Morality, as a collection of absolutely binding laws by which our actions ought to be governed, belongs essentially, in an objective sense, to the practical sphere. And if we have acknowledged the authority of this concept of duty, it is patently absurd to say that we cannot act as the moral laws require." (TPP: 116)

39. The question then becomes, is impossible hospitality something that we can acknowledge as a duty? Yes, because responsibility for the other is for Derrida, following Levinas, part of our own meaning of being. The relation to alterity is a pre-condition for ontology. Without pure hospitality we could not have the idea of the other. I owe hospitality to the other for I do not exist without the other. So we must commit impossible hospitality. And in order to commit this act, we must determine. But for Derrida, we cannot decide in an Aristotelian deliberative sense. We must determine and act "beyond knowledge". "If there are responsibilities to be taken and decisions to be made, responsibilities and decisions worthy of these names, they belong to the time of risk and an act of faith. Beyond knowledge. For if I decide because I know within the limits of what I know and know I must do, then I am simply deploying a foreseeable program and there is no decision, no responsibility, no event." (Derrida, 2003: 118)

40. Derrida does give us a style in which we should act, a way of determining this impossible moral response. He believes we must determine our moral response based on impossible hospitality. I now quote from one of Derrida’s most recent discussions of hospitality, where he speaks of determination in his dialogue after September 11 with Giovanna Borradori, called "Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides":

Unconditional hospitality is transcendent with regard to the political, the juridical, perhaps even to the ethical. But – and here is the indissociability – I cannot open the door, I cannot expose myself to the coming of the other and offer him or her anything whatsoever without making this hospitality effective, without, in some concrete way, giving something determinate. This determination will have us re-inscribe the unconditional into certain conditions. Otherwise, it gives nothing. What remains unconditional or absolute (unbedingt, if you will) risks being nothing at all if conditions (Bedingungen) do not make of it some thing (Ding). Political, juridical, and ethical responsibilities have their place, if they take place, only in this transaction – which is each time unique, like an event – between these two hospitalities, the unconditional and the conditional. (2003: 129-130)

41. Even in absolute morality, for Derrida, we determine our response, in the act of impossible hospitality we must give something determinate. We must ask the question: What should I do? (Was soll ich tun? Interestingly, in the above quote Derrida makes deliberate use of the language of Kant’s moral philosophy – German). The determination remains essential for the effectivity of morality, impossible hospitality does entail an activity, it is not merely a passive waiting for the eternally deferred event. This proves practical reason to be, not a mere calculation but an actual response to a moral problem. We act on impossible ideas because they require construction themselves, the highest good is something we fathom, something we condition. In this interview, after more such claims by Derrida, Borradori finally states the obvious: "This sounds like a regulative idea …" To which Derrida replies that he has "reservations" concerning this name and that "the regulative idea remains for him, perhaps, an ultimate reservation. Though such a last recourse risks becoming an alibi, it retains a certain dignity; I cannot swear that I will not one day give in to it." (2003: 134)

42. Derrida has three reservations. Firstly, the way the regulative idea is currently used, though not in a Kantian way, as an ideal of the possible. His impossible, he says is nonvirtualizable, the law comes to me from a greater and older other and it never lets me rest. He says it is not an ideal for it is undeniably real, like the other. His second reservation is that responsibility for what should be done is not realised by following a norm or rule. Ethical response is not automatism. The third reservation to the regulative idea is that in order to employ such a term one would have to subscribe to the whole architectonic, including taking the world, "ich selbst" (myself) as soul or as thinking nature, and God as regulative ideas.

43. What I have shown here is that "real" participation in the impossible is the exact task of moral response. Responding to the impossible is a moral task. The positive effect of soul as a guiding idea means that it is something that one enacts and this is the general form of a person, the basis of all our action. The world as an idea means that it exists as our problem and when we are talking about hospitality it is with the world as a whole that we are concerned. God exists in much the same way as impossible hospitality, not as a possible knowledge or experience but rather as moral perfection. Kant’s metaphysics of morals is immanent. In the Critique of Practical Reason Kant wonders what human activity would be like if we did not experience the questioning of how we should act and the need to determine for ourselves our moral response, and writes that "human conduct would be thus changed into mere mechanism in which, as in a puppet show, everything would gesticulate well but there would be no life in the figures." (CpracR, 5:147). Kant too is opposed to automatism. Morality is not only a part of our natural responses but also an expression of our own vitality. Derrida believes that it is faith in the possibility of the impossible that must guide our decisions. (2003: 115) Kant in the Preface to the second edition of Critique of Pure Reason laments the failure of pure reason and celebrates the necessity of practical reason when he exclaims: "Thus I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith". (CpR: Bxxx) Moral response is a faithful one, we attempt to live up to the impossible universal moral law of hospitality.


Paula Keating is a Doctoral Candidate in the School of Philosophy at the University of New South Wales. The working title of her thesis is 'Kantian Practical Philosophy: Ethics, Politics and Hope'. Email:


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