Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

Gregory Desilet Gregory Desilet is author of various writings on language and culture, such as Cult of the Kill: Traditional Metaphysics of Rhetoric, Truth, and Violence in a Postmodern World and Our Faith in Evil: Melodrama and the Effects of Entertainment Violence. See also:, which hosts an eulogy for Derrida. In his Misunderstanding Derrida Desilet questions Ken Wilber's understanding of postmodernism.


Derrida and

On the Possible Shortcomings
of Nondual Spirituality

Gregory Desilet

Ken Wilber's interest in postmodern theory derives in part from his thoroughness in attending to all the philosophical and spiritual threads historically influential in cultures around the world but also in good part from the fact that postmodernism presents a penetrating and relentless critique of metaphysical tradition. Since this metaphysical tradition has been mightily influenced by spiritual traditions, religion has been no less a target of postmodern critique than philosophy. And among philosophers placed in the postmodern bin, Jacques Derrida emerges as probably the most rigorous, original, prolific, and broadly influential theorist.

Therefore, Derrida and the deconstruction of all things metaphysical may figure importantly for those interested in the health and viability of spiritual life and practice. Some commentators on Derrida's work have argued for close association between deconstruction and certain strains of mysticism, including Hindu theology (Harold Coward), Buddhist theology (David Loy), neoplatonist theology (Stephen Gersh), and negative (or apophatic) theology (Coward and Gersh). Nevertheless, Derrida himself has consistently attempted to put distance between his views and varieties of mystical theology and forms of “received revelation” often associated with them.

The unique position that Derrida attempts to work out for himself between metaphysics and mysticism may therefore be of interest to readers at the Integral World web site—where, in the wake of Ken Wilber's thinking, questions of postmodernism and spirituality are very much in play. In this article I provide a brief summary of Derrida's and some of his commentators' confrontations with spiritual traditions associated with negative theology. This discussion also addresses the question of Derrida's place in the recent exchange on Open Integral (under the Integral Metatheory category) concerning forms of nonduality.

Readers should be warned that my strength (such as it is) lies more with Western philosophy than Eastern philosophy, so the account of Eastern or Asian tradition given here leans heavily on other sources and should be read more as a journalist's report than seasoned local insight. For readers unfamiliar with Derrida's work, what follows may seem an arduous trek through mounting levels of abstraction with what would appear to be little hope of grounding in lived experience. But in the concluding paragraphs the discussion turns to an explanation of the importance of this metaphysical excursion for day-to-day living.

Différence and différance

Appreciating the meaning and significance of Derrida's work in the context of theological and spiritual traditions requires understanding the role of a particular term in his philosophical lexicon: différance. This is a difficult term that Derrida uses and explains in many ways. He coined the word by substituting an “a” for an “e” in the French word différence. The difference in pronunciation between différence and différance cannot be heard and Derrida uses this fact to playfully emphasize a difference between writing and speaking. For Derrida, the difference between any oppositional pair derives from différance and he uses this new term to suggest a new way of understanding not only the relationship between opposites but also the ground of being from which oppositional tensions spring.

The most famous example Derrida uses for illustration is the oppositional tension between speech and writing. Traditionally, speech is favored over writing as preceding writing and residing closer to the essence of language and meaning. In Of Grammatology Derrida conducts a deconstruction of this oppositional pair. However, he does not do so merely for the purpose of achieving a simple reversal of the importance of speech over writing. Instead he displaces this ancient weighted opposition only to reinstall a more dynamic tension in which the essences of speech and writing contaminate each other to the core and manifest the structural advantages and limitations of what Derrida describes as the “trace.” The “trace” is that which both marks and erases itself in the same stroke.

Derrida believes the trace captures something of the complex structure of everyday language as its apparently stable meanings shift and move, trace and erase, from one context to another. The new tension between the opposites of speech and writing, reflected in the presence/absence structure of the trace, models the understanding of all oppositional tensions as arising in and through différance.

Initially différance emerges for Derrida as a name for the impetus behind the spatial/temporal, differing/deferring qualities of language where meaning derives from a system of networking differences rather than a system of core essences and full identities. But Derrida quickly sees that différance must also take on a significance similar to the role of “being” in Heidegger's philosophy where being refers broadly to “understanding” and language functions as the “house of being.” Derrida finds the trace structure as not only applicable to understanding language but also consciousness and every form of being and presence. The trace displaces the classic philosophical notion of being as pure “presence” with the notion of being as always and everywhere an interpenetration of presence/absence.

Following Heidegger to a point, Derrida nevertheless carefully distinguishes différance from being by a verbal strategy many commentators have noticed appears to closely resemble the strategy of negative theology—where “God” is defined by pointing out what He is not rather than what He is. This strategy is evident in a famous early work by Derrida where he also acknowledges the possible confusion with negative theology:

Différance is not, does not exist, is not a present being (on) in any form; and we will be led to delineate also everything that it is not, that is, everything; and consequently that it has neither existence nor essence. It derives from no category of being, whether present or absent. And yet those aspects of différance which are hereby delineated are not theological, not even in the order of the most negative of negative theologies . . . (Derrida, 1982, 6).

In the next lines Derrida singles out what he believes to be the crucial quality separating his différance from even the “most negative of negative theologies.” Such theologies

. . . are always concerned with disengaging a superessentiality beyond the finite categories of essence and existence, that is, of presence, and always hastening to recall that God is refused the predicate of existence, only in order to acknowledge his superior, inconceivable, and ineffable mode of being (Derrida, 1982, 6).
"I doubt whether anything I write has the least trace of mysticism."

Here Derrida appears to extend his critique of the metaphysics of presence to include the critique of all forms of ontology (the study of beings), theology (the study of God), and ontotheology (the study of the highest being), including especially forms of super-presence as a “superessentiality beyond the finite categories of essence and existence.” Superessentiality, far from being immune to the critique of presence, is instead an instance of the metaphysics of presence brought to excess—and, consequently, a target more broadly exposed to the substance of that critique. Again, in a German radio interview of 1986, Derrida went out of his way to distance his work and terminology from the superessentialism he identified in this case as “mysticism.”

. . . at any rate, unfortunately or fortunately, as you like it, I am not mystical and there is nothing mystical in my work. In fact my work is a deconstruction of values which found mysticism, i.e. of presence, revelation, of absence of a mark, of the unspeakable. If I say I am no mystic, particularly not a Jewish one as Habermas claims at one point, then I say that not to protect myself, but simply to state a fact. Not just that personally I am not mystical, but that I doubt whether anything I write has the least trace of mysticism.

As far as I can see, there are many misunderstandings not only between Habermas and me, but also between many German readers and me. In part this is because German philosophers do not read my texts directly but refer instead to secondary, often American interpretations. For instance, if Habermas speaks of my judaistic mysticism he uses a book by Susan Handelman which in my view is certainly interesting but very problematic regarding the claim that I am a lost son of Judaism.

At any rate, one never reads immediately. I know very well that one always reads from within certain schemes and mediations, so I do not demand that one read me as if before my texts you could put yourselves into some kind of intuitive ecstasy—but I demand that one be careful with the mediations and more critical regarding the translations and the detours through contexts that very often are quite far away from mine. (From an interview of Derrida conducted by Florian Rötzer on German radio in 1986. The full transcript of this interview can be found in Rötzer, 1995).

Given the odd status of the “nonconcept” différance as delineated by a series of negative propositions, Derrida's statement that “I doubt whether anything I write has the least trace of mysticism” may appear disingenuous in light of the seemingly parallel strategies of the mysticism of negative theology. He may want to separate his work from negative theology but how does he do so and does he in fact succeed?

Negative Theology

Derrida confronts the question of negative theology directly in an essay entitled “How to Avoid Speaking. Denials” (1992). Here he defends two different types of objections to his claim of dissociation from negative theology: 1) the objection that deconstruction simply reduces the procedures of negative theology to a rhetorical form and 2) the objection that deployment of the strategies of (what would appear to be) negative theology reduces all discourse, including Derrida's deconstructive maneuvers, to a theological discourse essentially the same as negative theology. The first objection identifies the possibility of reducing theological matters to mere rhetoric and the second the possibility that rhetorical strategies poorly reflect yet cannot escape a deeper theological truth and reality.

In the course of confronting these objections Derrida limits himself to discussion of the Greek/Christian tradition of Plato and neoplatonism. In doing so he focuses on a line of mysticism and negative theology that more easily conforms to accusations of essentialism and the metaphysics of presence than perhaps other lines originating in Asian traditions. But in the same volume other commentators take up Derrida's deconstructive approach and apply it to sophisticated versions of Hindu and Buddhist theologies. Since the first objection listed above is to some extent addressed implicitly in responses to the second objection and since the second objection relevant to Asian traditions is directly discussed by Derrida's commentators, the remainder of this article will discuss the second objection. In doing so, primary attention is given to Harold Coward's analysis of the commentary of the Hindu philosopher Sankara (founder of the doctrine of “Advaita” or the nondualism school of Vedanta).

Coward's essay in Derrida and Negative Theology entitled “A Hindu response to Derrida's View of Negative Theology” centers on two primary issues: 1) the question of a reality behind all negations (the question of hyper- or superessentiality) and 2) the question of whether language is essential to and inseparable from the process of spiritual realization or simply a tool and sometimes a block in the path toward such realization. In the course of investigating these questions Derrida's position in relation to nonduality also becomes a central question in response to which a significant answer emerges.

Coward begins his discussion by focusing on the Hindu philosopher Sankara's commentary/interpretation of the Hindu sacred texts and their descriptions of the nature of Brahman. Sankara identifies a “two-level understanding of Brahman” corresponding to two forms of Brahman: the formed and the formless. The formless Brahman aligns with the traditions of negative theology and Coward cites the following line from Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 2.3.6 as an example:

“Now therefore there is the teaching neti, neti [not this, not that] for there is nothing higher than this, that he is not this.”

All positive description applies to the formed, saguna Brahman, with qualities pertaining to the “realm of the sun” and all the overt action and movement of life. Nirguna Brahman, however, refers to the formless Brahman, lacking all qualities and manifesting a truth beyond truth. Even so, formless Brahman need not be confused with nihilistic notions of nothingness. The ultimate purpose of the via negativa of neti, neti resides in removing blocks in the path toward attainment of the “pure consciousness” of Atman-Brahman, also called the Witness. Regarding this Witness awareness Coward notes that “the closest approximation to pure consciousness in our ordinary experience comes in deep sleep . . . a state of consciousness without any objects” (205).

According to Sankara the attainment of pure consciousness gains assistance from the linguistic negation strategy of neti, neti but ultimately arrives only by direct intuition. In short, the strategy of neti, neti involves not only a negation of objects of consciousness but ultimately also a negation of language. The pure consciousness of the Witness emerges free from all connections to language. Language and the world of signs and representations belong to the realm of the “formed” and all the objects of consciousness.

Derrida and Sankara

Turning to Derrida, Coward finds some similarities between Derrida and Sankara regarding the strategy of negation. For both the use of the negative does not result in a variety of “no-thing” or nothingness but rather serves the purpose of corralling, in a backhanded way, an identity, a mysterious kind of agency (Brahman for Sankara, différance for Derrida). But this agency or identity is not exactly an identity but functions in the more limited capacity of a hint or clue toward the nature of “the real.” Beginning with a sentence summarizing a basic agreement between Derrida and Sankara, Coward then provides an account of the primary difference between them.

Both Sankara and Derrida agree that the conceptual oppositions that make up language are the obstacles that get in the way of the experience of the real. Identifying oneself with either of the terms that make up those oppositions . . . is the trap of language that must be overcome. [But] for Sankara the only way out is to transcend language altogether, so that all the opposites, and indeed all conceptualizing, are canceled by the direct intuition (anubhava) of the real.

By contrast, Derrida thinks this trap may be escaped by staying within language but on the middle path between the pairs of opposites. When the opposites of language are maintained in dynamic tension, through a continual deconstruction of first one opposite and then the other, the real is experienced. For the moment the real is spoken, it is tending to swing the pendulum of language toward either one or the other of the opposites. Only by a continual deconstructing and reversing of each pendulum swing may we experience the real.

For Derrida, the constant change and challenge that this deconstruction requires is not a cause for lament—it is rather the recognition that such a process, with its ongoing need for deconstruction, is itself the real . . . . Thus the impossibility of the everpresent desire to experience the real as pure presence (210).

Sankara imagines a qualityless nirguna that completely transcends the plateau of experience consisting of the limitations and potential hindrances of difference that constitute the maya of this world. Here, even with the aid of language, the limitations of language and related obstructions are ultimately left behind in attaining the pure intuition of Brahman. For Derrida the “reality” behind all the negations takes the form of a rupture, a trace structure that emerges as always simultaneously both present and absent—a mark that erases itself as it marks. Différance always generates an identity split by difference, repeating a tension between presence and absence that extends all the way to the core of the real.

Both language and consciousness share the structure of the trace as the effect of différance. The two are always and everywhere woven together such that one never occurs without the other and both open upon and reflect the structure of the real. Language and ordinary consciousness cannot be essentially separated from the real.

Spiritual Realization

Since the possibilities for nirguna and the necessities of différance diverge significantly concerning what each implies with regard to the nature of the real, the corresponding potential for what may be called spiritual realization also presents very different possibilities. Coward provides the following account of what can be anticipated as most analogous in a deconstructive approach to the heightened spiritual awakening associated with the Hindu tradition described by Sankara:

. . . différance is the inherent teleological force within us that leads to self-manifestation. And this self-manifestation is structured according to the diverse possibilities of the trace. The general characteristic of the manifested trace is that of temporal becoming. Within this becoming, the teleological is but one moment of the total movement of the trace. It is the direct experience of this dynamic process of becoming, not as a process of static reflection or metaphysical opposition, that would for Derrida be the functional parallel of spiritual realization. The sensitive deconstruction of the illusions of permanence, of stasis, or presence (which our ordinary experience and many of our philosophies have superimposed on the becoming of a language) is Derrida's prescription as the means for spiritual realization. We cannot name this realization “spiritual,” for that is already to engage the vocabulary of metaphysical opposition. But to understand it as manifestation of the inherent différance of the trace is for Derrida the goal (215).

This reference to spiritual realization transitions into a discussion of themes relevant to the question of nonduality where Coward goes on to say that for Derrida “the dynamic tension in the becoming of language is itself the whole. . . . The language we are deconstructing is our own thinking and speaking—our own consciousness. We ourselves are the text we are deconstructing. This is why, for Derrida, there is nothing outside of texts. Deconstruction is the process of becoming self-aware, of self-realization” (216).

While it is true that deconstruction may be seen as an activity manifestly realizing the deconstruction of self and consciousness, it must also be kept in mind that this activity consists of an affirmation and active engagement of the deconstruction of the self by and through the other implicit in the divided structure that is différance and the trace. Even in the silence that may be imagined as before and beyond language, there remains a trace of division and the other. Coward captures the complex if not paradoxical quality of Derrida's understanding of other and différance when he states, “The ultimate silence, after all negation and purification has occurred, remains within the unity of language. And that unity contains within itself the seeds of difference which create the possibility for the multiplicity of language to burst forth” (221).

The tension of opposites that inheres at the core of différance belongs to a simultaneity of unity and division, a one that is also two. Here one side of any oppositional pair never reduces to the other and each never occurs without the other. This simultaneity of unity and division may be referred to as holistic synagonism in which “synagonism” indicates the feature of irreducibility yet mutual dependence (as is in certain interpretations of, for example, the male/female opposition) and in which “holistic” indicates the feature of inseparability governing the interaction of opposites/differences.

"Strictly speaking, Derrida's view should not be understood as nondual."

Strictly speaking, Derrida's view should not be understood as nondual since it retains a division or duality all the way to the core. In this sense it can be cautiously associated with certain ancient interpretations of the yin/yang symbol of Taoism where yin and yang are irreducible yet contaminate each other in every instance—as is symbolized by the dots of opposing color within each side of the symbol. (For an account of the complexities of Taoist dualism see references below, chapter seven in Girardot). Coward and Loy confirm that while some similarities may exist between Derrida's approach and other Asian spiritual traditions such as the Hindu teachings of Bhartrhari, Aurobindo, and the Buddhism of Nagarjuna, the differences remain profound. These differences center primarily on the role of language, superessentiality, and the question of dualism versus monism. Here the Asian traditions, it is argued, ultimately offer versions of monism that would conflict with Derrida's view.

Metaphysical Decisions

When adding this information to the mix of recent postings on the topic of nonduality on Open Integral (under the heading “Integral Metatheory” and dated around March 20th and forward), many may want to throw up their hands in exasperation. How do such subtle theoretical discussions differ from the famous theological problem of determining how many angels fit on the head of a pin? How or why does it matter in deciding what nuances of nonduality or duality may lie at the core of “reality”? In wrapping up this brief placement of Derrida within certain mystical spiritual traditions, I offer the following defense of the value of plumbing these arcane metaphysical depths and also a reason to favor Derrida's position (and those that may resemble his).

Living requires forming some set of views about the world. These views necessarily rest on core consciously or unconsciously held metaphysical assumptions. According to Derrida, these core assumptions contain a decision about how to structure fundamental oppositions—oppositions such as good/evil, life/death, pain/pleasure, love/hate, male/female, self/other, etc. However, abstract, allegorical, and/or unconscious that decision may be, it nevertheless serves as a prime resource for the general structuring of oppositional tensions. This grounding then serves as a primary intuition and a ready template when encountering relationships and conflicts that arise in day-to-day living. And the way in which conflict is approached in day-to-day living figures crucially in determining the quality of individual and community life. As experts on conflict assessment and management have discovered, the approach to and structuring of conflict has much to do with the potential for moving it in productive (cooperative) or destructive (violent) directions.

Metaphysical positions that postulate a cosmic oneness or a fundamental unity at the heart of being accomplish a kind of violence toward the other. These positions, whether viewed as varieties of “transcendentalism” or “monism,” include the possibility for attaining forms of pure transcendence. Here every manner of otherness ceases to be other through varieties of denial ranging from appropriation, as when discovered to be error or illusion (all is really one), or cleansing (sacrifice or redemption) as when found to be a contamination, an accident in essence that must be “repaired.” In a unitary model the dynamic tension between self and other collapses and this collapse is viewed as a goal and a cause for celebration.

As a model for human conflict in the real world this metaphysical approach to opposition provides, on the one hand, momentum for varieties of colonialism (understood broadly) and, on the other hand, incentive for scapegoating. Here monism manifests itself as a polarizing monistic antagonism because it induces an identification of otherness as inessential intrusion and thereby worthy of appropriation or elimination in the endeavor to restore the whole to its pure and natural state. The transcendentalism implicit in monist metaphysical positions induces a focus on various programs of self perfection as improved self-awareness, higher consciousness, self-actualization, and ultimately self-transcendence into the ultimate oneness of pure consciousness or pure being.

By contrast the deconstructive approach advocated by Derrida moves the emphasis away from becoming a pure or highest self or consciousness toward becoming a better partner. For Derrida, the self/other relation, regarded as irreducible and inescapable, is already a divided or shared quest. Each side remains essential to the other—not as an ethical imperative but as an ontological condition. This view structures life ontologically as relation (tension) exposed to rupture and everpresent mystery or difference. In this approach to life, every state of being involves relation (to the other) and life thereby becomes relation: on the upside, as the art of love (cooperation) and, on the downside, as the art of negotiation.

The irreducible self/other tension precludes, as a strategy, the art of war as elimination of the other (with the implicit view of the other as worthy of elimination) because the “enemy” (as a version of the other) is already understood as ontologically essential. Where a state of war in fact exists, as in Iraq today, the fact of war may be understood as a “negotiation” in which the inevitable necessity for dialogue has been overwhelmed by the imposition of force—force motivated by overly charged emotions such as hatred, fear, anger, ambition, or the like. These motives and emotions, born of human responses to conflict and frustration, are exacerbated by monist cultural beliefs (evident in the prevailing local religions) that provide a polarized model of conflict and instill a dysfunctional drive for non-negotiable degrees of purification on political, social, and spiritual levels.

Negotiation of conflict is the only course of action rationally consistent with a deconstructive model of oppositional tension.

Negotiation of conflict is the only course of action rationally consistent with a deconstructive model of oppositional tension because elimination as a principle of action becomes ontologically indefensible where the other is viewed as essential. From this perspective the use of armed force is justifiable only insofar as necessary for returning circumstances to a point where negotiation and dialogue can continue. Ultimately, every conflict, even the conflict that has evolved into killing, remains conflict that cannot be solved by killing; it can only be solved through negotiation because the other, like a ghost, returns and can never be eliminated. Warfare only postpones and makes more difficult negotiations that ultimately must take place between opposing sides in a conflict.

In conclusion, the implicit metaphysical decisions for the way in which oppositional tensions are structured can be understood to play a very important practical role in individual relationships as well as community formation because those decisions significantly structure and influence the conduct of real relationships and conflicts. Among these metaphysical decisions, those that contain a model for opposition that preserves the tension between opposites and regards each side as essential to a holistic economy (or holistic synagonism) emerge as the candidates for less violent and less destructive human relations and community. Although evoking the strategy of negative theology, this approach is neither dual nor nondual or both dual and nondual, but in a way that differs importantly from the qualities and implications of the tradition of negative theology.


Coward, Harold. (1990). Derrida and Indian Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Coward, Harold. (1992). A Hindu Response to Derrida's View of Negative Theology. In Derrida and Negative Theology. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Derrida, Jacques. (1974). Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. (1982). Différance. In Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. (1992). How to Avoid Speaking: Denials. In Derrida and Negative Theology. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Gersh, Stephen. (2006). Neoplatonism After Derrida. Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV.

Girardot, N. J. (1983). Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism: The Theme of Chaos (hun-tun). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Loy, David. (1992). The Deconstruction of Buddhism. In Derrida and Negative Theology. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Rötzer, Florian. (1995). Conversations with French Philosophers. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International. (For the original German text see Florian Rötzer, Französische Philosophen im Gespräch, Munich: Klaus Boer Verlag, 1986, pp. 67-87).

Comment Form is loading comments...