Jacques Derrida was indeed a contemporary intellectual who addressed the problems of the day by questioning established discourse and singular identities: the attack on Apartheid and support for the exemplarity of Nelson Mandela in South Africa; the continued use of capital punishment in the United States; the meaning of the word ‘Europe’ as the European Community began to take shape; the plight of undocumented immigrants, or the sans papiers, resulting from a new international diaspora and the failure of the nation-state to be unconditionally hospitable. Derrida debated these issues vociferously with his contemporaries, figures such as Jurgen Habermas, Hans-George Gadamer, and Richard Rorty.
To be contemporary, in the case of Derrida, suggests being modern or new. The ways in which he solicited, in the etymological sense of ‘shaking free,’ reified and inherited notions such as the idea of Europe and hospitality enabled him to see things from another place. For Derrida, the task of the intellectual is to respond to anti-egalitarian oppression, but to do so without resorting to simplistic answers and while continuing to press questions. His approach to intellectual engagement is more conducive to being able to apprehend the limits of reason. He opted for what Chantal Mouffe once characterized as an agonistic encounter that challenges Kantian universalism.
For Derrida, responsible political engagement cannot be programmed; it can only be achieved through theoretical speculation and the recognition of the aporetic and conflicting demands of a particular issue. In Specters of Marx, Derrida warns us about reductionism and normalization. ‘If it [a realistic history of political philosophy] did not try to read all the apparently contradictory possibilities, they [these sophisticated discourses] would dress up as “realism” at the very moment they fall short of the thing.’ Unlike a figure such as Sartre, whose political praxis could only be achieved through programmatic engagement and teleological commitment to the messianic, Derrida refused, from the start, an overdetermined political program based on a series of formulaic ideological presuppositions. Instead he opted for a confrontation with what he described as an ‘infinite demand,’ in the biblical sense of the expression, ‘signifying a justice that is not one’:
The idea of justice is always very close to the bad, even to the worst for it can always be appropriated.