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Simon Critchley : biography

27 February 1960 -

Simon J. Critchley (born February 27, 1960) is an English philosopher currently teaching at The New School who writes primarily on politics, religion, ethics, and aesthetics. Critchley works from within the tradition of continental philosophy. He argues that philosophy commences in disappointment, either religious or political. These two axes may be said largely to inform his published work: religious disappointment raises the question of meaning and has to, as he sees it, deal with the problem of nihilism; political disappointment provokes the question of justice and raises the need for a coherent ethics.

Selected Works

The Ethics of Deconstruction (1992)

Critchley’s first book was The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas (Blackwell, 1992), which argued for an ethical dimension to deconstruction. Rather than being concerned with deconstruction in terms of the contradictions inherent in any text — an approach typical of the early Derrida and those in literary criticism aiming to extract a critical method for an application to literature — Critchley concerns himself with the philosophical context necessary for an understanding of the ethics of deconstructive reading. Far from being some sort of value-free nihilism or textual free-play, Critchley showed the ethical impetus that was driving Derrida’s work. His claim was that Derrida’s understanding of ethics has to be understood in relation to his engagement with the work of Levinas and the book attempts to lay out the details of their philosophical confrontation.

Very Little... Almost Nothing (1997)

Critchley’s second book, Very Little... Almost Nothing (Routledge, 1997) develops in a very different direction and shows his concern with the relation between philosophy and literature and the problem of nihilism.

Ethics-Politics-Subjectivity (1999)

Ethics-Politics-Subjectivity (Verso, 1999) is a collection of essays that includes his debate with Richard Rorty, as well as series of essays on Derrida, Levinas, Jacques Lacan, Jean-Luc Nancy. These essays also show a pronounced political and psychoanalytic turn to Critchley’s thinking. A new edition of the book appeared in Verso’s Radical Thinkers series in 2009.

Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (2001)

Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2001), is both an introduction to that tradition of thinking and an essay in meta-philosophy, which lays out the way in which Critchley sees the role of theory and reflection. In the book, Critchley addresses the perennial question of the two major Western philosophical traditions, that of analytical and continental philosophy. Critchley argues that the professional opposition between analytic and Continental philosophy is something that needs to be transcended. Critchley accepts that there is risk within continental philosophy of obscurantism, just as there is a risk of scientism in much analytic philosophy. But the primary purpose of philosophy is to understand ourselves, our world and, as Hegel puts it, to comprehend one’s time in thought. Critchley offers the example of the ‘will of God’ as the prime example of obscurantism, but within continental philosophy also the ‘drives’ in Sigmund Freud, ‘archetypes’ in Carl Jung, the ‘real’ in Jaques Lacan, ‘power’ in Michel Foucault, ‘différance’ in Jacques Derrida, the ‘trace of God’ in Emmanuel Levinas, and the ‘epochal withdrawal of being in and as history’ in Martin Heidegger.

On Humour (2002)

Since 2000, Critchley has turned his attention to what he calls ‘impossible objects’: humour, poetry and music. His On Humour (Routledge, 2002) continues the meditation on nihilism begun in Very Little…Almost Nothing; but he continues it in a very different key, analysing the meaning and importance of humour. Critchley argues that humour is an oblique phenomenology of ordinary bringing about a change of situation that exerts a powerful critical function. On Humour has been translated into eleven languages and has exerted considerable influence over debates around the role of humour in contemporary art practice.

Living octopus

Living octopus

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