Deconstructing the Philosophical Resistance to Biology

Does deconstruction have a future? Is there still a discernable living theoretical practice within it? Deconstruction, as practiced by Derrida, could still make a great contribution in biology and contemporary definitions of life, but this same area reveals the changes that deconstruction must undergo to unleash its power, which even now certain metaphysical allegiances tend to curb.

I will start with something very simple: Derrida’s interpretation of Aristotle’s famous definition of man as “a political animal,” itself supported by the declaration: “Man is a rational animal.” Derrida’s interpretation, developed in the first volume of The Beast and the Sovereign, is not direct. We infer it from his readings of three figures: Heidegger, Foucault, and Agamben.

First Heidegger casts suspicion on the Aristotelian definition, which purports that man’s essence, determined to be “animal,” is primarily zoological and biological. Derrida, though questioning some of Heidegger’s dichotomies (between, say, living thing and machine, or dying and perishing), does not shift the critique of the biological and the zoological. In his Introduction to Metaphysics, writes Derrida,

Heidegger begins by asserting the secondary character, the fundamentally derived, late-on-the-scene, and (from the ontological point of view) fundamentally very unsatisfactory character of a definition of man as animale rationale or as zōon logon ekhon. Incidentally, he interestingly and unassailably calls this definition ‘zoological’ […]. [S]o long as one has not questioned ontologically the essence of being alive, the essence of life, it remains problematic and obscure to define man as zōon logon ekhon. Now it is on this unquestioned basis, this problematical basis of an unelucidated ontological question of life that the whole of the West, says Heidegger, has constructed its psychology, its ethics, its theory of knowledge, and its anthropology.1

Nowhere in the rest of the analysis, as he admits, does Derrida ask why the definition of man as animal or living thing ought necessarily to appear as the mask of an unelucidated “ontological question.” He never considers the possibility that the Aristotelian definition might contain an incipient auto-deconstructive process, a sort of time bomb that, far from establishing for all time something like an essence of man, heralds the birth of an animal subject. He thus never considers the consequences that the emergence of such a subjectivity would have both for “man” and for “animals.”

Would this not, indeed, have been the best way to begin a critique of the Foucauldian concept of biopolitics and its reinterpretation by Agamben—a critique that, in point of fact, constitutes one of the chief features of The Beast of the Sovereign? As Derrida reads his way from Heidegger, to Foucault, and on to Agamben, neither biology nor zoology ever comes into play. They are not the core of the debate. What matters to Derrida is showing that Heidegger’s wariness of the zoological definition of man has already taken into account the biopolitical character of metaphysics, and that in this sense Foucault and Agamben invent nothing.

Had they read Heidegger as they ought to have done, Foucault and Agamben would have understood that there was nothing new in “modernity,” that the definition of man as a rational animal and zōon politikon had already founded the biopolitical program. “I am not saying that there is no new ‘bio-power,’” writes Derrida, “I am suggesting that ‘bio-power’ itself is not new. There are incredible novelties in bio-power, but bio-power or zoo-power are not new.”2

Derrida’s focus on novelty prevents any examination of just how much metaphysics there still is in the Heideggerian critique’s rejection of the zoological and the biological. It does not do justice to “zoology,” ignoring the discipline’s profound renewal since the 19th century through the contributions of phylogeny, biochemistry, population genetics, animal physiology, ethology, and ecology. It fails to explain how these other disciplines have in large part destabilized traditional notions of animals, of the relation between man and animal, of the relation between man and non-animal life, and so on.

The way in which Derrida likens biology to a programming endeavor actually prevents him from discerning its deconstructive potential. The current epigenetic revolution thus escapes him. Epigenetics is the science that studies the mechanisms that transcribe the genetic code for each individual, each phenotype. Transcription proceeds along internal, programmed chemical mechanisms but depends also on environmental factors, such as milieu, habit, experience, and education. Which means that the symbolic—a term that in this context I prefer to culture—is already at work at the heart of biology. That the entanglement of the organic and of meaning could itself be one of life’s structures, that the symbolic conceals itself from ontology by taking on life—now, this is an idea that could allow deconstruction to advance its own political project: on the one hand, the critique of anthropocentric sovereignty; on the other, respect for the animal cause.


  1. Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Bennington (trans.), The Beast & the Sovereign, (Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 354 – 55.
  2. Ibid., 439.


Catherine Malabou

CATHERINE MALABOU is a philosopher and writer. A Professor at Kingston University, she is the author of many books translated into English, such as, most recently, Before Tomorrow, Epigenesis and Rationality (Polity, 2016).