Deconstruction and the problem of sovereignty

Paul Patton

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This paper surveys Derrida's discussions of political sovereignty in order to highlight his preference for a cosmopolitan world order and show how the deconstruction of sovereignty cannot proceed on the model of his earlier analyses of concepts such as justice, hospitality, forgiveness and democracy. How does one deconstruct the unconditional and apparently undeconstructible concept and institution of sovereignty? Two elements of Derrida's response are then critically examined. First, I explore his qualified defence of the principle of sovereignty and his reluctance to unconditionally reject it on the grounds that it is implied in the ‘classical principles of freedom and self-determination’. I argue that the critique of the ideals of personal agency and freedom based on a conception of individual sovereignty ought to be pursued but that this need not imply rejection of the normative priority of individuals. Second, I examine his efforts to distinguish between sovereignty and the unconditioned that he aligns with deconstructive thought. I argue that, while the institutions and exercise of sovereignty are deconstructible, there is a sense in which pure sovereignty remains a necessary foundation for political liberalism and for a cosmopolitan world order.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-20
JournalDerrida Today
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - May 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Derrida
  • politics
  • democracy
  • sovereignty
  • cosmopolitanism
  • freedom
  • deconstruction


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