The volume on Jacques Derrida in the Continental European Philosophy series starts unpromisingly. On the first page, the authors, Mark Dooley and Liam Kavanagh, assure us that Derrida's "point is simple".
His main concern, it seems, is the uncertainty of historical memory, the reason for which, again, is "simple": "Memory does not correspond to the reality of the past." And therefore Derrida finds the process of self-recollection impossible, "simply" (once more!) "because memory can never make the past fully present". Two pages later, after this "simple idea" at the heart of all his work is again explained, we are told: "It is a pity that Derrida's unnecessarily difficult and nebulous style obscured that basic point."
Anyone who has grappled with Derrida's writing will know that "simple" is about as inappropriate an adjective for it as could be imagined; and anyone who has succeeded in tracing at least some of the complexities of his thought will know that historical memory is only one of many issues he engaged with, and that he does far more than point out the obvious fact of its incompleteness. The desire to put the reader at ease is commendable, but to suggest that the formidable difficulty of Derrida's work is a complicated husk concealing an undemanding kernel, and that the authors, with their superior powers of philosophical articulation, will succeed where Derrida failed, is preposterous and patronising.
Reading on, however, one's worst fears are not realised. The book is arranged as four chapters covering four areas to which Derrida made significant contributions: identity and mourning, philosophy and language, psychoanalysis and phenomenology, and ethics and politics. Sensibly divided into subsections, the chapters contain many cogent summaries of aspects of Derrida's work, including his relation to structuralism, his spat with John Searle, the importance of Edmund Husserl, and some of the terms that take on particular resonance in his writing, such as the post, hospitality and the archive.
The condescending tone all but disappears (though it returns in their disparagement of Derrida's strong political convictions and in the short afterword, where the word "simple" is again much in evidence), and readers who are not ready to take up the challenge of Derrida's most inventive thinking will find sober versions of several of his most important arguments. For the large areas of Derrida's work not touched upon - his massive engagement with literature, for example, or his interest in religion - they will need to look elsewhere.
Such readers need to know, however, that there is a distorting lens at work throughout the book that limits its usefulness as a general introduction.
The claim that Derrida's thought is fundamentally concerned with questions of memory and identity may provide a species of security blanket for those who want to relate their philosophy to homely, easily graspable issues, but it produces misreadings and simplifications. We do not need Derrida to tell us that memory is unreliable and our sense of identity built on shifting sand, or that the past is unrecoverable.
The authors sometimes introduce quotations from Derrida as if he were talking about one of their favoured topics, when in fact the subject is much broader; they even insert the word "historical" into a quotation at one point to alter its meaning. The discussion of Derrida's debt to Sigmund Freud, Husserl and Martin Heidegger is marred by the oversimple insistence that what interests him most is the fact that they all challenge our concept of identity.
Identity and memory are not the keys to Derrida's thought, though he certainly subjected these concepts to rigorous examination. Dooley and Kavanagh, too ready to assume that their own rather straightforward understanding of these matters is also Derrida's, fail to push their analysis to the more philosophically searching aspects of their subject's work. What they take to be mere interruptions to our cherished notions of the self and the past are, for Derrida - and this is harder to grasp - also what make a self and a past possible. Derrida's aim was always to take us to the limits of what our minds can encompass; Dooley and Kavanagh, however, remain within the comfort zone.
Derek Attridge is head of the department of English, York University.
The Philosophy of Derrida
Author - Mark Dooley and Liam Kavanagh
Publisher - Acumen
Pages - 164
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 1 84465 022 4 and 023 1