Philosophy Today

Volume 59, Issue 3, Summer 2015

Jennifer Gaffney
Pages 523-539

Can a Language Go Mad?
Arendt, Derrida, and the Political Significance of the Mother Tongue

This article examines Jacques Derrida’s criticism of the significance Hannah Arendt attributes to her mother tongue in, “What Remains? The Language Remains.” I begin by developing Derrida’s claim in The Monolingualism of the Other that despite Arendt’s suggestion otherwise, the German language can and did go mad. I argue that his criticism, while powerful, overlooks the political concerns at work in Arendt’s commitment to her mother tongue. I turn to Arendt’s analysis of language in Eichmann in Jerusalem to show that by distinguishing Eichmann’s “empty talk” from the mother tongue, she suggests that our primary language is integral to political life insofar as it reminds us of our radical singularity and our responsibility to the world. With this, I maintain that Derrida’s decisive intervention in this discourse does not settle the question of the mother tongue; instead it raises new questions concerning the political significance of our relation to language.