In an unpublished seminar given in 1991-1992, Jacques Derrida investigates the notion of secrecy, its relationship to what is said, to truth and to death, among other central themes in philosophy.

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In the early 1990s, Jacques Derrida devoted several seminars to the question of secrecy. Editions du Seuil is now publishing them, beginning with the 12 sessions of the 1991-1992 seminar, collected under the title Répondre - Du secret (Respond - On Secrecy). The transcriptions of these lectures are accompanied by photos of handwritten notes indicating the plans for the sessions and various sketches. Some passages (in the 7th session) were also published independently by the author at the time.

This university course followed the usual Derridean procedures: the philosopher quotes expressions from everyday language or comments on texts in detail, exploiting the full potential of literature, semantics or etymology, and using these remarks to follow an original line of interpretation. This has frequently earned him criticism for the obscurity of his thinking or the labyrinthine nature of his reasoning. But Derrida himself responds, in a way, in the third session of this seminar, when he revokes the illusory belief in the clarity and transparency of common language – reaffirming, in essence, his method of deconstruction and dissemination.

To say or not to say the secret

If the title chosen for this seminar is Répondre - Du secret – where the hyphen can play the role of both separator and link – it is because the secret is intrinsically related to saying. In fact, Derrida opens his discussion with an analysis of a common expression: "a secret cannot be said". The apparently negative link between secrecy and telling is misleading: if secrecy cannot be told, it could be told, and the whole point of secrecy may lie in the risk of telling.

The philosopher points out, however, that as long as the secret is not revealed, it is essentially silence (and not telling) that dominates. Only questioning, or an interrogation, can break this silence and make public the existence of the secret. Hence the need for the person who holds a secret to respond to this questioning, but also to answer for this secret to the person who is questioning him.

This raises questions about the responsibility of the bearer of the secret, and his absolute sovereignty to say or not to say, to answer or not to answer, to speak or to keep the secret. These elements seem to suggest, on first analysis, that secrecy only exists between conscious and finite subjects, capable of speech and objective representation.

The question of the sovereignty and responsibility of the holder of the secret opens up a singular reflection on the status or professions of secrecy: the activity of the "secretary" is re-evaluated as the act of recording the secret; the case of medical secrecy or that of the priest, which he collects during confession, is also discussed. The character of Bartleby, in Herman Melville's novel of the same name, is the subject of a brilliant commentary: In this work, Derrida analyses the choice of the secretary who replies to his employer, when he wants to give him a task: "I'd rather not to".

Secrecy and truth

In choosing secrecy as the theme for his seminar, Derrida ultimately engages indirectly with a course on truth. In particular, he confronts the long philosophical tradition according to which truth is hidden, veiled, to be discovered, like the secret to which we are looking for the key, all the more so because it does not manifest itself. He takes this opportunity to recall Heidegger's analysis of the Greek way of telling the truth, for whom alêtheia means that which is not hidden or forgotten, in other words, that which reveals.

This fundamental link between truth and dissimulation also leads Derrida to study the philosophical traditions which, like phenomenology, have claimed to lift the veil and capture the secret. Derrida points out that it is difficult for such an approach to grasp the full complexity of the secret, insofar as it refuses to manifest itself.

Derrida then reminds his listeners and readers that the word "secret" comes from the Latin se-cernere, meaning "to separate, dissociate, set apart". In a luminous passage, he likens this term to "excrement", which designates that which is withdrawn and set apart. Similarly, he would later return to the case of the guilty party, i.e. someone who has to answer for his behaviour, and recognise himself as the cause of an action, while at the same time wanting to conceal what he is responsible for, or wanting to cover it up.

Secrecy beyond secrecy

Over the course of the sessions, the gap between the common or classical meaning of the concept of secrecy and the philosophical meaning as defined by Derrida widened. In particular, Derrida's use of the concept tends to detach itself from the anthropological and subjective conception of secrecy.

First, Derrida distances himself from the idea that secrecy is the privilege of the human being and his conscience. With it, the entire tradition of the Cartesian cogito, the Kantian subject – and even Freudian subjectivity – is discussed and deconstructed. In these pages, we find a very complete development around the figure of the resistance fighter who conceals a secret that the police or the enemy wants to appropriate in order to win a conflict.

To this, the author contrasts another register of behaviours, which raise questions about the being or truth of things, but which are not necessarily discursive and not necessarily confined to anthropology. In fact, the secret is not first given as a fact, simply waiting to be revealed; the secret must itself be posed or assumed. The process of trying to extract secrets from nature, for example, only makes sense if we have decided in advance that it is hiding a secret. It is in the area of this withdrawal that the secret and the seeker of secrets – or the truth and the seeker of truth – are situated.

From this perspective, Derrida refers to the thought of Heidegger. Admittedly, the German philosopher is looking for something specific to man and does not wish to include animals in his reflections on the existential analysis of Dasein, that is, on the questioning of the meaning of being. But in this thought, the question of the essence of speech and its correlation to what is given to be seen or known, to what for a time is hidden, concealed, and therefore secret, is at stake.

Death or the secret of the secret

Heidegger's philosophy also enables Derrida to shed light on another aspect of the notion of secrecy, namely the paradoxical status of the attitude of curiosity that we display in the face of it. On the one hand, the curious person seeks the revelation and publicity of the secret, which traps him in "the They", the idle talk; on the other hand, he wants to maintain the secret in its mysterious nature. This is where the Being-toward-death emerges, in the singular aspect of a relationship to the secret of the secret.

The question of death is thus discussed throughout the seminar sessions. It allows Derrida to produce rebound effects between Heidegger's thought and that of the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka, in his publications of 1975. A new dimension of secrecy opens up in these pages: that of the religious and its way of closing the relationship to truth.

In the end, while the notion of secrecy is the starting point for the entire seminar, it also provides Derrida with an opportunity to rework classic notions: truth, responsibility, negation (not saying), death, as well as subjectivity, interiority and the private. This gives the author's argument its full scope, and raises some of the most central issues in the history of philosophy.