Jacques Derrida (1930–) from “To Whom To Give To,” The Gift of Death (1992, trans. 1995)

  • Lee Morrissey


Abraham doesn’t speak in figures, fables, parables, metaphors, ellipses, or enigmas. His irony is meta-rhetorical. If he knew what was going to happen, if for example God had charged him with the mission of leading Isaac onto the mountain so that He could strike him with lightning, then he would have been right to have recourse to enigmatic language. But the problem is precisely that he doesn’t know. Not that that makes him hesitate, however. His nonknowledge doesn’t in any way suspend his own decision, which remains resolute. The knight of faith must not hesitate. He accepts his responsibility by heading off towards the absolute request of the other, beyond knowledge. He decides, but his absolute decision is neither guided nor controlled by knowledge. Such, in fact, is the paradoxical condition of every decision: it cannot be deduced from a form of knowledge of which it would simply be the effect, conclusion, or explicitation. It structurally breaches knowledge and is thus destined to nonmanifestation; a decision is, in the end, always secret. It remains secret in the very instant of its performance, and how can the concept of decision be dissociated from this figure of the instant? From the stigma of its punctuality?


High Passion Literary History Ethical Generality Paradoxical Condition Jewish Religion 
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  1. 1.
    This is the logic of an objection made by Levinas to Kierkegaard: “For Kierkegaard, ethics signifies the general. For him, the singularity of the self would be lost under a rule valid for all; the generality can neither contain nor express the secret of the self. However, it is not at all certain that the ethical is to be found where he looks for it. Ethics as the conscience of a responsibility towards the other ... does not lose one in the generality, far from it, it singularizes, it posits one as a unique individual, as the Self. ... In evoking Abraham he describes the meeting with God as occurring where subjectivity is raised to the level of the religious, that is to say above ethics. But one can posit the contrary: the attention Abraham pays to the voice that brings him back to the ethical order by forbidding him to carry out the human sacrifice, is the most intense moment of the drama. ... It is there, in the ethical, that there is an appeal to the uniqueness of the subject and sense is given to life in defiance of death” (Emmanuel Levinas, Noms propres (Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1976), p. 113Google Scholar

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