Peter Fitzpatrick’s writings prove once and for all that it is possible for a law professor to write in beautiful English. His work also proves once and for all that the dominating tradition of Anglo-American legal philosophy and of law teaching has been barking up the wrong tree: namely, that the philosopher and professional law teachers can understand justice as nested in empty forms, better known as rules, doctrines, principles, policies, and other standards. The more rigorous our analysis or decomposition of the forms, we have believed, the more closely do we access the identity of laws. Justice has been assumed to be a matter of intellectually accessing such analysed forms. Fitzpatrick’s articles and books embody an implicit critique of the analytic view of law and of justice. My entry point into this critique is his preoccupation with Jacques Derrida’s theory of laws as universals and with Derrida’s theory of justice as an inaccessible immediacy or presence in context-specific or concrete experienced events. Each event is experienced in an official’s decision. Such a decision represents what Derrida, Fitzpatrick, and Hegel call ‘individuality’.
Derrida’s theory of law presents a conundrum. Derrida misses the possibility that law may exist by virtue of its content rather than its form. Derrida misses this possibility because, heavily influenced by Kant (in Derrida’s theory of law), Derrida associates law with universals. This is so because Kant (and Derrida) are preoccupied with the identity of what counts as a law (lois) rather than with a law’s legitimacy. A universal cannot exist unless it is legitimate, and it is legitimate, I claim, by virtue of its content. In his association of law with universals, Derrida presupposes that legal knowledge exists with reference to a territorial-like boundary. The forms are represented or signified by signs (signifiers) within a boundary of the ultimate form (the state, the nation, or humanity). This ultimate form as a universal, like the discrete rules or forms, lacks socially contingent content. A boundary separates knowable universals from the unknowable world on the exteriority of the boundary. The unknowable world is constituted by concrete events experienced in context-specific circumstances. In his legal theory Derrida hones in upon the decision as the experienced event. In a decision, one is present or immediate with the event. Derrida considers such immediacy as justice. The immediacy, however, can only be represented as a sign (sometimes called a signifier). The sign, in turn, represents an empty signified or form, according to Derrida. Because the immediacy remains a representation rather than a presentation of the experienced event, laws as universals cannot be just. The rupture between the inaccessible immediacy of a decision on the one hand and the represented empty forms on the other is critical to Derrida’s theory of law.
I claim that this rupture permeates Derrida’s writings about law because Derrida possesses a territorial-like sense of legal knowledge. I shall argue to this effect as follows. In the first section I shall explain the importance of Fitzpatrick’s exposure of the vacuity of the foundation of the system or structure of universals. In the second section I shall flesh out two elements of Derrida’s legal theory: law as form and the ipseity or concrete event that the form excludes from law. This takes me to the third section, where I shall elaborate how Derrida’s legal theory presupposes knowledge as territorial. I shall argue in the final section that this very sense of territorial knowledge prevents justice from accessing law and law from accessing justice. I conclude with the hint of a very different sense of law, one that draws from experiential knowledge in contradistinction to territorial knowledge.