Ethical-political studies on Derrida

Image: Eduardo Berliner


Excerpt from the book that deals with the issue “lies and truth in politics”

 “There has never been so much lying as in our days. She has never lied to herself more blatantly, systematically and constantly.”

These words, which could apply perfectly well to today, not to mention the current political scenario in the country, begin a text published for the first time in 1943, by Alexandre Koyré[I], and which had as its target, as its date suggests, the formation of the totalitarian regimes of the time. However, not only in that phrase – which, in itself, in the strength of its words, does not fail to sound like a statement and a protest, an indignant “Enough!” to what is there, in front of us –, but throughout Koyré's text, something deviates, beyond the historical context of his time, and strikes us with the force of extreme actuality.

As is clear in the sentence, the text deals with lying, more specifically, lying in politics. Originally published under the title Reflexions sur le mensonge, and republished two years later in English as The political function of the modern lie[ii], Koyré’s article was taken up by Jacques Derrida in a text – History of Lies: prolegomena[iii] – which proposes, in general terms, a new way of facing a problem “as old as the world”, to use Koyré's words; ie, lying and, more particularly, lying in politics.

Such an undertaking, which Derrida only points out in his text, seems more urgent and necessary than ever, given the current situation of a profound crisis of representativeness and an accelerated deterioration of the legitimacy of public institutions. How to find guidance in a world increasingly (un)ruled by unbelief?; in which distrust in relation to everything that is seen, heard and read through the media ꟷ phenomenon that is capitalized on losing sight of with social networks ꟷ ceases to be a simple matter of critical interest on the part of some intellectuals, to become more and more a common fact of daily experience. The problem, for all its gravity and relevance, is that the stubborn desire for truth[iv] it does not converge to repair, but to prolong and even intensify the ongoing destructiveness – yesterday as well as today – of so-called social life.

Destructivity understood here in two very precise senses: on the one hand, destruction of everything that is different, foreign, of another order; on the other, self-destruction, self-destruction. To put it another way, the affirmation or consolidation of a single, stable truth equally applicable to everything and everyone always constitutes – it always also constitutes – a violent blow, an injustice, a force of annulment, smothering, repression, directed to diversity, to heterogeneity, to the differences in which and through which everything rises, weaves and happens. As Derrida observes[v], everything and any “One” – in the performative force of its “self”, identity, institutional, linguistic, national, etc. – is, in its very truth, intrinsically violent. It accommodates and, at the same time, protects itself against the difference to itself in which and through which it rises, stabilizes and affirms itself as “One”. It is in this sense that I speak here of the ongoing destructiveness of social life.

It would then be necessary to return to the traditional “truth/lie” binarism, and more particularly the traditional concept, dominant in our culture, of lies, but in such a way as to radically transform it, since it “needs another name, another logic, in other words (…)”[vi].

It is not a question here, as one might wrongly suppose, of turning one's back on the truth, or of embracing an “anything goes”. Koyré diagnoses, accuses, rejects with vehemence and systematic aggression that totalitarian regimes do to the truth, depriving it of its value of universality. Derrida, in turn, does not fail to emphasize his agreement: “I repeat and insist, to avoid any misunderstanding: what Koyré says here seems to me true, fair, necessary. We must first of all subscribe to it”[vii].

Let’s see what Koyré says: “Now, the official philosophies of totalitarian regimes unanimously proclaim that the conception of objective truth, one for all, makes no sense and the criterion of “Truth” is not its universal value (...), but rather its conformity with the spirit of race, nation, or class, its racial, national, or social usefulness. Prolonging and carrying to the end the theories of biologists, pragmatists, truth activists (...), the official philosophies of totalitarian regimes deny the proper value of thought, which for them is not a light, but a weapon; its goal, its function, they say, is not to reveal to us what is real, that is, what is, but to help us modify it, to transform it, guiding us towards what is not . For this, as has long been recognized, myth is often preferable to science, and rhetoric that addresses the passions, preferable to demonstration that addresses the intelligence.[viii]

Derrida not only expresses his agreement with the diagnosis – within the scope of totalitarian regimes – of a deliberate perversion both of truth in its universal value and of thought as a weapon at the service of interests, of a previously established strategy or programming. Furthermore, he recognizes the actuality of what Koyré says, since the target of his denunciation is not limited to the context of totalitarian regimes: “what he diagnoses about totalitarian practices at the time (...) could be broadly extended to certain current practices of supposed democracies, in the era of certain capitalistic-technological hegemony of the media”[ix]. It is necessary, therefore, and perhaps today more than ever, in a time strongly dictated by teletechnoscience, to maintain, as you say, a permanent vigilance regarding such dangers.

However, there is a limitation here that one must try to overcome. It's okay that Koyré rejects biologism, racism or nationalism which, as he perceives in the official philosophies of totalitarianism, intend to take the place of the universalism of truth. But, in that same gesture, by also rejecting what he understands by “pragmatism” and “activism” – in a word, the performative character – of the truth that, likewise, to the detriment of its universal value, constituted the sign or symptom of a engagement with what is not, and not with the objectification or relevance of what is, Koyré – like a long tradition of Western metaphysics, including Hannah Arendt – prevents an important, urgent and necessary shift from taking place.

[A brief parenthesis is appropriate here, in order to justify the procedure that I adopt in this present text; fully turning attention to a section in which Derrida develops a reading of Koyré, within a larger text dedicated to Hannah Arendt. There are two reasons for this, which I state here, reproducing what we read and synthesizing the argument presented by Derrida. In the first place: “I do not know if Hannah Arendt read or was aware of an article written by Alexandre Koyré, but it must be true to say that the Arendtian theses that we have just quoted are exactly in the same line of thought of that author[X]. Secondly, as we will see later, Koyré raises an important issue – “what Arendt does not do” – for the reflection proposed by Derrida, beyond the issue of truth/lies in politics. Closing parenthesis.]

Koyré's suspicion stems from an unshakable assumption regarding the configuration of the field of truth. This would exclusively concern the order of objectivity, or true statements about facts, or even the adequacy of statements or “mental states” in relation to the things to which they refer. Everything that goes beyond or does not fit into such – prior and unshakable – determination of truth is, in advance, excluded. There is also no room here for considerations and analyzes of performative utterances, that is, those that, in the domain of language, do not refer to a state of affairs, therefore not being true or false (such as orders, questions, greetings, promises, etc.) etc.).

In a word, summarizes Derrida, Koyré's suspicion “would reach any problematic that delimited, questioned or a fortiori deconstruct the authority of truth as objectivity or even revelation (alethia)”[xi]. Thus, truth essentially concerns the objectification, exposition, demonstration, presentation, appearance, revelation, or unveiling of something true; that the latter be inseparable from the light, as what comes to light, as what shines for everyone in the meeting or in the order – in the homogeneous and self-identical “One” – of the group, the collective, the community, the society. polis[xii], finally, that the field of politics is radically dictated by the logic of phenomenality, this is what must be delimited, questioned, deconstructed.

But why should one question, delimit and even deconstruct the authority of truth in the terms in which, through tradition, it has become familiar to us; precisely, as objectivity or revelation? And why should one question the phenomenalism of politics?

The answer is simple – and a great variety of thinkers would agree on this, who, despite their respective differences, were sensitized by the texts of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud: “truth, like reality, is not an object given in advance. , on which it would only be a question of reflecting adequately”[xiii]. This means two things: on the one hand, it is always through active and interpretive languages, therefore, performative, that truth and also reality are instituted; so, on the other hand, precisely because it is not something natural or immutable, because it is never “an object given in advance”, it is always necessary to question, problematize – through languages, in turn, always and necessarily performative –, what whatever one wants to pass for “something”, for a phenomenon or object already constituted, given in itself.

Otherwise, without this problematization – “of a pragmatic-deconstructive type” –, notably “in the field of public affairs, politics or rhetorical-technological media”, one inevitably falls back into one or another form of dogmatism about “the what is". A problematization of this type therefore requires breaking with the binary – traditional, oppositional – between truth (what is) and lie (the intentional passing off what is not for what it is).

And the thought here shifts. If, effectively, it is the intention “that defines the veracity or the lie in the order of saying, of the act of saying”, independently “of the truth or falsity of the content, of what is said” [xiv], then one can never, strictly speaking, prove that it is a lie when someone says “I was wrong, but I didn't mean to deceive anyone, I'm in good faith”; or again, “I said that, but it's not what I meant; in good faith, in my heart, this was not my intention, there was a misunderstanding”[xv]. It is therefore necessary to move from the “truth/lie” binarism to the scope of veracity, even when what is said is a lie. Such is the displacement – ​​from truth/lie to veracity – that is then intended.


Evidently, there is a risk here, and the question that arises is this: how to break with the truth as objectivity or revelation?; how to break with the logic of demonstration, of “making it show”, of appearance, in the political field, without falling back into what Koyré so rightly denounces?

Once again, what Koyré denounces does not concern only the totalitarian regimes of a more or less recent past, but also the current, democratic era of “mass civilization”: “The modern lie ꟷ in this lies its distinctive quality – mass-produced and mass-addressed”[xvi]. A new, modern device for the production of lies from the totalitarian regimes would then have unfolded [until today, we could say in addition to Koyré's text]: “Disguising what one is and simulating what one is not… This obviously implies: not saying – ever – what one thinks and believes and also: saying – always – the opposite”[xvii].

Although Koyré does not follow the path of moving beyond the truth/lie binarism, he anticipates in his text two significant aspects that contribute to a reflection in that direction. Derrida punctuates them as follows: “First, he suggests “that totalitarian regimes and those that resemble them in one way or another have never ventured beyond the distinction between truth and lies – oppositional and traditional distinction – because they have a vital need, because it is within it that they lie (...)”[xviii]. What happens is that they just reverse this dichotomy, basing it on the “primacy of the lie”.

As Koyré says: “the distinction between truth and lies; the imaginary and the real; remains perfectly valid even within totalitarian conceptions and regimes. Only their place and role are somehow reversed: totalitarian regimes are founded on the primacy of lies.[xx].

This, by the way, was as true yesterday as it is today. Just remember, for example, the “anger at having been deceived”, pointed out or denounced by George Grosz, who brought Hitler to power promising the eradication of lies.[xx], or the famous declaration “I hate lying”, by Marshal Pétain. In the wake of what Koyré says, Derrida observes that “the more (…) a political machine lies, the more it makes the love of truth a watchword of its rhetoric”.

Second, in view of this radical transformation of the lie, in which, no longer limited to a factual event, as the result of a certain act intentionally moved by bad faith, it becomes a process, starting to be produced for everyone; in the face of this transformation, even without developing it, Koyré raises the question – “what Arendt does not do” – about “whether one still has the right to speak here of 'lie'”[xxx]. For Koyré, certainly so, but for Derrida, this question points to the possibility of taking a step forward.

Again, a potential misunderstanding must be avoided here. By intending to carry forward a reflection beyond the “truth/lie” binarism, it is not proposing, with this, the celebration of an absolutization of the lie, or the development of a thought of the simulacrum, in the style of Baudrillard; in both cases, a logic of concealment is already presupposed. In this regard, and in closing, a brief remark follows.

In relation to the aforementioned risk: how to break with the logic of demonstration, of “making it show” or of appearing, in the political field, without falling back into what Koyré so rightly suspects and denounces? Once again, this suspicion should never be erased. However, risk always occurs, and wanting to avoid it means choosing to remain in the stability – in the “One” – of the same place where we already are; subject to the force of “what is”, to use Koyré's term. In contrast to this “place”, assuming an ethical, legal or political responsibility means, first of all, assuming such a risk; exposing yourself to threat and chance at the same time. It means, in other words, assuming the structural performativity, intrinsic to what is presented to us as “what it is”, as well as the performativity of all kinds of relationships – understanding, analysis, interpretation, reflection, remembrance, problematization, etc. – which we have with “what – 'supposed' – is”. Otherwise, by insisting on remaining in the register of “what is”, “we would only be watching the irresponsible unfolding of a programmatic machine”[xxiii]; programmed to determine and operate on what is known or knowable.

Thus, contrary to proof or demonstration[xxiii], “it is a problematic of testimony, says Derrida, which seems to me to be necessary here (…)”[xxv]. This means, to conclude very quickly, that the universal, the value par excellence of truth, is not an essence, a demonstrable or revealable structure. Certainly, in the universal, what is irreplaceably valid for me, in the unique singularity of my testimony regarding something with which I relate, is valid for everyone. This means that the substitution of the singular for the universal (first structure of welcoming or hospitality) has already taken place; the replacement is already “in progress, it has already operated, each one can say, for himself and of himself, the same thing”[xxiv]. Whenever someone speaks, whatever their “place” of speech, they are already, in the act of speaking, simultaneously surpassed (but, one could also say, and paradoxically, welcomed), in the uniqueness of their testimony, by the generality of language. ; a generality that is structural, universal, transcendental or ontological.

In this, which is endlessly repeated, in this paradox of a concomitant replacement of the irreplaceable (or, to put it in other terms, of a welcome that necessarily loses what it welcomes), the universal is constituted as an infinite process of universalization, of a veracity that spreads, that never ceases to send itself, in the effectiveness of each singular act that, since always, is also already lost by the acceptance of the universal that, nevertheless, the veracity of each act demands and mobilizes; endlessly transferring itself, in time and space, uprooting itself, extending itself, dislocating itself, breaking with itself, beyond any particular situation, linguistic, territorial, ethnic, cultural, etc.

In this other register, which is not that of demonstration or revelation, but of testimony, another ethical-political possibility is anticipated: that of resisting and facing the political-phantasmatic constructions that, “by force or by trick”, want, at all times, oblige us to believe and share. As if they were already there, given known and knowable, finally, we could definitely say “welcomed” in the universality of discourses. No nihilism, relativism or “anything goes”. Another order of belief, sharing and promise is at play here.

*Paulo Cesar Duque-Estrada Professor at the Department of Philosophy at PUC-Rio.



Paulo Cesar Duque-Estrada. Ethical-political studies on Derrida. Rio de Janeiro, Mauad X, 2020, 120 pages.



[I] Alexandre Koyré (1882-1964). Philosopher of Russian origin. He studied under Husserl in Göttingen, Germany. He was a teacher at École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris. During World War II he lived in New York, where he taught at New School for Social Research. He was a visiting professor at several other important institutions, such as Harvard, Yale, University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins. Author of several books he is known mainly in the field of philosophy of science.

[ii] The 1943 text was published in New York, in the magazine Renaissance. The text in English was published in the journal Contemporary Jewish Record. The article was republished in France, in 1993, by the Collège International de Philosophie, with the title The political function of modern mensonge. Trans. Andrea Bieri. The political function of the modern lie. Anamorphosis: Journal of Modern Studies, v.3, n.1, 2015.

[iii] Text of a presentation given in 1993 at the New School for Social Research on the occasion of a series of lectures in honor of Hannah Arendt. Brazilian publication in Advanced Studies, São Paulo, v.10, n.27, May/Aug. 1996.

[iv] We should say – instead of “desire for truth” – “truthfulness value”, since the opposite of lying is not truth, but truthfulness. “In its prevalent and universally recognized form, lying is not a fact or a state, it's an intentional act, a lie – there is no such thing as lying, there is this saying, or this meaning-to-say that is called lying: to lie would be to address someone else (...) one or more than one statement, a series of statements (constative or performative) which the liar knows, in conscience , in explicit, thematic, current awareness, that they form wholly or partially false statements (…)”. On the other hand, one can say the false, judging oneself, “in good faith”, that one is correct; this would not be lying, but rather erring. It is, therefore, the intention “which defines truthfulness or falsehood in the order of tell, of the act of saying”, regardless of “the truth or falsity of the content, of what is ditto. The lie depends on what is said and what is meant, not what is said.” Quoting Augustine, “… one does not lie when enunciating a false assertion that one believes to be true and (…) rather one lies when enunciating a true assertion that one believes false. For it is by intention (ex anime sui) that the modality of the acts must be judged”. It is from this perspective that Derrida questions, in Arendt, both the idea of ​​a history of the lie and the argument that, in this history, with the expansion of propaganda at the governmental level and the modern manipulation of facts, the lie would have suffered a mutation, becoming himself “complete and definitive”, as a systematic production of lying to others and to himself in the political field. Here we will deal tangentially with this question, and we will turn directly to the – traditional, metaphysics – of truth, since, in Derrida's assessment, it still seems to constitute the ultimate horizon of Arendt's argument: “What should probably be suspected with some uneasiness in this notion of absolute lie, it is what it still supposes of absolute knowledge nor element that remains that of consciousness in itself reflective (...). If the absolute lie has to be exercised in conscience and in its concept, it runs the risk of remaining the other face of absolute knowledge”. This is how Derrida proposes to displace and complicate the “self” of Arendt's argument, “in an ipseity more original than the ego (individual or collective), an ipseity of enclaves, a divisible or cleaved ipseity. Cf. Derrida, Jacques. History of Lies: prolegomena. Op. cit.

[v] Derrida, Jacques. File mismatch: a Freudian impression. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Relume Dumara, 2001.

[vi] Derrida, Jacques. History of Lies: prolegomena. Op. cit., 25.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Koyré, Alexandre. The political function of the modern lie. Op.cit., p. 74.

[ix] Ibid., p.16.

[X] Derrida, Jacques. History of Lies: prolegomena. Op. cit., p.15.

[xi] Ibid., p.16.

[xii] Due to its enormous and overwhelming economic, ethical-political, diplomatic, legal, military, techno-scientific implications, impossible to be dealt with here, the slogan “American First”, of Donald Trump, apart from his pathetic and caricatured character, is perhaps the most disturbing recent figure, the most potent and threatening tremor, of what is being treated here.

[xiii] Derrida, Jacques. History of Lies: prolegomena. Op. cit., p.16.

[xiv] See no. 259.

[xv] Derrida, Jacques. History of Lies: prolegomena. Op. cit., p.2.

[xvi] Koyré, Alexandre. The political function of the modern lie. Op. cit., p.73.

[xvii] Ibid., p.80.

[xviii] Derrida, Jacques. History of Lies: prolegomena. Op. cit., p.17.

[xx] Koyré, Alexandre. The political function of the modern lie. Op. cit., p.74.

[xx] Warrior, Antonio. Lying as a vocation. Public opinion, September 25, 2015.

[xxx] “It would be possible to conclude – and sometimes it is concluded – that totalitarian regimes are beyond truth and lies”. Koyré, Alexandre. The political function of the modern lie. Op. cit., p.74.

[xxiii] Derrida, Jacques. History of Lies: prolegomena. Op. cit., p.16.

[xxiii] It is not a question of rejecting the value and even the requirement of proof and demonstration, but rather of perceiving its limitation to the domain of truth as revelation or adequacy to “what is”, that is, to truth abstracted from all performative dimensions, or, in Koyré's language, what there is of “pragmatism” and “activism” as external elements, foreign to the truth itself. It is interesting to note, in this regard, what historian Federico Finchelstein says, when asked: “Do politicians inspired by fascism lie more than other politicians?” In his response, echoing Koyré's argument, Finchelstein replies: “Yes, fascist politicians tend to lie more, but it's not just about lying more. They believe their own lies. And, even if they see that these lies do not correspond to reality, they believe that these lies are at the service of a truth, which is the truth of the leader and the ideology. A truth rooted in faith and myth rather than empirical observation.” Available in: . Here too, without annulling the truth of Finchelstein's answer, a question remains dammed up: if “it is not just about lying more”, if fascist politicians “believe in their own lies”, if they believe that they are “at the service of a truth”, which is “the truth of the leader and the ideology”, then it is something more complex, not reduced to the simple diagnosis of a lie. A critical refinement is needed that, in an unavoidable way, will have to go through the problematization of the paradigm of truth itself as adequacy or revelation – and also, by extension, of the phenomenalism of the political field – in order to advance in facing the threats and challenges, each increasingly urgent, of obscurantism, fanaticism, dogmatism, authoritarianism, reactionaryism, fundamentalism, phallocentrism, racism, etc.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxiv] Derrida, Jacques. The monolingualism of the other. Porto: Campo das Letras, 2001.

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