Jacques Derrida’s book The Gift of Death contains a particularly playful and complex chapter entitled “Tout autre est tout autre” or “Every Other is Entirely Other.” The underlying theme of the chapter is the relationship between humans and other humans (what I will call ethical) and humans and God (what I will call religious). Derrida uses the phrase tout autre est tout autre to deconstruct the relationship humans have with God according to the Bible (specifically in the Gospel of Matthew). He demonstrates that the phrase “tout autre est tout autre,” which is foundational to ethics, also undercuts and obscures the biblical characterization of the relationship between God and humans. What Derrida is doing in this argument is showing the incommensurability of Christian doctrine with a more contemporary articulation of ethical theory.
To begin with we need to address the dual meaning of the phrase tout autre est tout autre. Derrida frequently says that this phrase trembles. It cannot be said to mean one thing or another but must mean two things simultaneously. Derrida says that we can understand it either tautologically or heterologically which means that either this phrase is just saying that every other is every other, or it is saying that every other is all, completely, or entirely other (different). The translator David Willis construes the phrase as: “Every other (one) is every (bit) other”. Willis is trying to allow for the double meaning while maintaining a sensible translation. He includes the words “one” and “bit” in parentheses to suggest that they need not be read as an explicit part of the sentence. In this way Willis preserves the tautology of the phrase: every other is every other, but he also includes the secondary meaning: every other one is every bit other. The only problem with this translation is that it seems to prioritize the tautological reading over the heterological. This is, of course, the way the phrase appears at first glance, but we need to be careful not to say that one version is more true than the other.
The double-meaning of this phrase is not the problem for Derrida. The problem arises out of the implications of one of the possible versions. Derrida says: “One of the [versions] keeps in reserve the possibility of reserving the quality of the wholly other, in other words the infinitely other, for God alone, or in any case for the single other. The other attributes this infinite alterity of the wholly other to every other, in other words, recognizes it in each, each one, for example each man and woman, indeed each living thing, human or not.” So, on the one hand, the phrase suggests the distance between humans and God; God is wholly other and a singular other. This version is in line with the biblical characterization of God. While, on the other hand, this phrase seems to imply that anything which is other to me is wholly other, therefore, nothing is more other than anything else. The phrase implies that the alterity of God is indistinguishable from the alterity between one human and another. Furthermore, as Derrida says, “if every human is wholly other, if everyone else, or every other one, is every bit other, then one can no longer distinguish between a claimed generality of ethics that would need to be sacrificed in sacrifice, and the faith that turns toward God alone, as wholly other, turning away from human duties.” Derrida is saying that if God is just as other as every other other, then there is no way to distinguish between religion and ethics.
Now it might be too strong to say that Derrida has a problem with this conflation of the ethical and religious spheres, but, religiously speaking, it is problematic to posit that God and humans have a relationship that is indistinguishable from the relationships humans have with one another. God is no longer God (i.e. as he is characterized in the Bible) if He could also, just as easily, be a human. In a sense “tout autre est tout autre equivocates between humans and God.
Derrida brilliantly continues his deconstruction of God-man and man-man relations with a discussion of the Gospel of Mathew. Mathew contains two famous stories which deal in the relationships between humans and God and humans and other humans, namely, the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’s temptation in the desert. Taken together, these two stories separate the inherited nature of ethical rules from the textually authoritative imperatives of religion. But Derrida doesn’t focus on these stories as a whole; his discussion concentrates on one specific line from the end of the Sermon on the Mount, “The Father who sees in secret.”
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches his disciples proper relations between humans, relations that will ensure a ticket to heaven, e.g. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” But he is quick to add: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.” The word for law in this quotation is νόμον which may also be translated as traditional custom or inherited habit. Jesus is referring to ethical life among humans here and not religious law. In part, the ethical life of a person dictates admission to heaven, but this is separate and distinct from the religious life described in the Temptation of Jesus.
In the story of the temptation, God leads Jesus into the desert “to be tempted by the devil.” The devil asks Jesus to turn stones into bread, jump from the top of a temple, and offers him the chance to rule over the entire world. Jesus answers each of these temptations with a rule of action for how humans are to relate to God, beginning each rule with the prefix: “It is written.” There are three such rules: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” “You shall not tempt the Lord your God,” and “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.” According to Jesus and his undisclosed written source, God’s words are as necessary as physical sustenance. Moreover, God’s authority is beyond dispute. And, finally, God is the only divinity humans will serve or worship. Essentially, Matthew here articulates the radical power and authority God has over humans which does not come from an inherited tradition but from a mysterious source.
As I said, Derrida’s discussion of the Gospel of Matthew focuses mostly on the line, “The Father who sees in secret,” which Kierkegaard quotes in Fear and Trembling. And I think it is important to note that the line “the Father who sees in secret,” when taken in context, contains a synthetic quality; the meaning of this line coagulates the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount and the religion of the Temptation of Jesus. Derrida says of Kierkegaard’s allusion that “[it] describes a relation to the wholly other, hence an absolute dissymmetry.” This line parallels the version of tout autre est tout autre which reserves absolute alterity for God, i.e. God is wholly other and radically different from humanity. What we should remember is that for Derrida the titular phrase for chapter four, i.e. tout autre est tout autre, seriously problematizes the ethics that this scriptural quotation sets up.
The first time Jesus says “The father who sees in secret” he is telling his disciples not to display their piety or alms-giving publicly. He says: “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them…But when you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” In this moment Jesus concatenates ethics and religion. He sets the boundaries of what is to be within the realm of person-to-person and what is in the realm of human-to-God, but these two spheres, however bounded from one another, share the unseen gaze of God. All this is to show that, in the Bible, the relationship of humans to other humans is divided from and radically different from the relationship humans have with God. And contrary to Derrida’s formulation tout autre est tout autre religion is not soluble in ethics.
It should now be clear that, as I said above, that the characterization of God and His relationship to humans in the Gospel of Matthew is not in line with the phrase: toute autre est tout autre. God, in the Bible, remains wholly outside yet “conditions” human interaction and existence. But tout autre est tout autre implies that the ethical and the religious are indistinguishable spheres or relationships. This indistinguishability, according to Derrida, should render us at some level “paralyzed by what can be called an aporia or an antinomy”. But in fact society “operates so much better to the extent that it serves to obscure the abyss or fill in its absence of foundation, stabilizing a chaotic becoming in what are called conventions”. For Derrida, this indistinguishability is a hole in the logic of society; ethical interaction should not be possible because it lacks a clear articulation. Nevertheless, due to “a lexicon concerning responsibility that can be said to hover vaguely about a concept that is nowhere to be found,” we beat on. Society, it seems, manages to obfuscate the lack of foundation with those very νόμοι, which Jesus claims he is not here to abolish. The customs and conventions of society conceal the fact that the reason for ethical interaction, whether it be for one another or for God, is unclear, yet out of habit and tradition we remain blindly ethical and secretly religious.
- The Bible, Revised Standard Edition. Meridian Books, New York: 1974.
- Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death. Trans. David Willis. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 2008.
Jacob Glover is in his senior year in the Contemporary Studies Programme at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is a frequent contributor of book reviews and essays.