I am teaching philosophy of religion this quarter, my first attempt at a philosophy course. In my courses on contemporary theology, I have tended to emphasize dialectical thought as a pedagogical key, using Cornell West’s summary, “negate, preserve, transform.” What is emerging in my teaching of philosophy is the pedagogical usefulness of Derrida’s idea of “binary oppositions.”
Already in a couple different texts, I’ve brainstormed with the students what the main categories and contrasts are, and repeatedly it turns out that they line up pretty well into two columns, governed by some overarching opposition. In book one of Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem, for instance, the opposition between “perfect and imperfect rights” (essentially “coersion vs. persuasion”) governs all other oppositions, causing them to come out in unexpected and even counterintuitive ways — most notably the claim that religion belongs entirely to the sphere of imperfect rights or persuasion. And that opposition then gives me a structure to help guide their reading, telling them to watch for the opposition between speech and writing and how that falls into the established governing opposition.
Derrida is often regarded as “obscure” (or “abstruse”), and certainly his project of overturning received oppositions is “advanced” when you’re dealing with students who are coming to philosophy for the first time — but for me at least, it’s clear that the notion of “binary oppositions” has an immediate pedagogical appeal.