Deconstruction both by its friends and enemies has come to be associated with a set of cliches that completely misunderstands its ethical aspiration. It is particularly within the field of law that we can see the ethical force of deconstruction, and also illuminate its concrete and practical importance.
In "The Philosophy of the Limit" Drucilla Cornell examines the relationship of deconstruction to questions of ethics, justice and legal interpretation. She argues that renaming deconstruction "the philosophy of the limit" will allow us to be more precise about what deconstruction actually is philosophically and hence to articulate more clearly its significance for law.
Cornell explores the ethical and juridical significance of the so-called postmodern rebellion against metaphysics. A shared ethical rebellion links philosophers as different as Theodor Adorno, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Emmanuel Levinas. Together they present a new ethical configuration, new in its difference from both the critical social theory of J$u$urgen Habermas and the analytic jurisprudence of Nagel and Rawls.
A key aspect of this newness is the centrality given to the relationship between questions of ethics and sexual difference. Cornell argues that the appeal of Lacan's analysis to feminists is that it helps to explain the profound hold the gender hierarchy has over Western culture, including its theories of political transformation. Under a Lacanian analysis the law of gender identity will be replicated in the laws of an existing legal system. This means that we cannot hope to sustain legal reforms unless the gender hierarchy is challenged.
Cornell examines Derrida's position on the significance of the gender hierarchy in philosophy and explores its ethical and political importance. Derrida's intervention against legal positivism has important implications for the legal reforms necessary to protect marginalized groups. His emphasis on the limit, she argues, is crucial to those whose well-being and very lives may depend on legal transformation, women and homosexuals, for example.
In an important contribution to legal philosophy, Cornell explores the affinities of Derrida's writings with recent liberal analytic jurisprudence. She also explores the differences. Comparing Rawls's and Derrida's accounts of justice, she argues that Derrida gives greater attention to the necessary utopian moment in his insistence on maintaining the divide between law, established norms, and justice.
Cornell's focus on the importance of the limit and the centrality of the gender hierarchy allows her to offer a view of jurisprudence different from both critical social theory and analytic jurisprudence. As we watch the long-fought-for civil rights of women systematically overturned, we have reason to think about how the connections she makes shed light on an underlying truth of our social, political, and legal reality.
"This book is a major intellectual event. Nothing is more necessary and timely today than thinking through the possibility of a nonviolent relationship to the Other. "The Philosophy of the Limit does just that. Learned, eloquent, passionate, rigorous, this book is not just a brilliantly original appropriation of Levinas, Lacan, and Derrida for legal studies, feminism, and frontier work in ethics. It also turns back from the perspective of legal theory to make a signal intervention in the domains of philosophy, literary theory, and cultural studies."
-J. Hillis Miller, University of California, Irvine
"The book constitutes an important intervention in contemporary intellectual debates by showing the ethical and juridical relevance of trends which are often dismissed as amoral or destructive. By rephrasing Derridian deconstruction as "philosophy of the limit," Cornell draws attention to what eludes our grasp: to alterity and the "Other" who is not at our disposal but demands our recognition and respect. Forging an innovative vista, Cornell integrates insights of Derrida, Adorno, Lacan, and Levinas (as well as recent jurisprudence), underscoring their significance for a transformative moral and legal practice. Splendidly argued and lucidly written, the book helps to refocus and reorient ongoing discussions about modernity and postmodernity."
-Fred Dallmayr, University of Notre Dame
""The Philosophy of the Limit is a brilliant exercise in thinking through major themes of deconstruction. In her encounter with the representative critical thinkers of today, Drucilla Cornell challenges us to follow her complex arguments and powerful rhetoric up to the limits of thinkingfinitude."
-Agnes Heller, Hannah Arendt Professor of Philosophy, New School for Social Research