This is my on-going close reading on some of Jacques Derrida’s most important seminars on Martin Heidegger from 1964-1965. It will introduce some of the basic aims of Heidegger’s philosophy and his famous notion of “the end of [Western] history”.
Much of Derrida’s deconstruction came from his readings on Heidegger’s unfinished work Sein und Zeit where he challenged its English translation as “Being and Time”. Derrida’s reading on this book happened when it was not completely translated into French, which made him use many of his own translations. In it, Derrida famously argues how Heidegger changed his intentions sixteen years later after publishing Sein und Zeit. Much of Derrida’s project of “deconstruction” is an extension of Heidegger’s thoughts on “destruktion” of history.
Last updated: January 16, 2020.
What Comes Before the Question?
Ontology is the study of “being” (human existence). The easiest way to understand Heidegger is to consider the question any theoretical physicist would ask: “What comes before the universe?” For Heidegger, it isn’t so much the answer than it is about the question in-itself. Heidegger is interested in what allows us to formulate this question in the first place. For Heidegger, asking a question always involves a certain form of being who precedes the question. To ask a question is to know what the question is—that there exists a question where one already knows parts of the answer to because it is guided by some form of being (later on, this “being” will be known as “Being”). In order for us to inquire about the universe, there is always already a being in the universe. It is because we first exist as a human being in the universe which allows us to question it (a question that is guided by the intentionality of being). Thus, to know what a question is, to suggest the question of “what comes before the universe?”, and to question such question, is to pre-comprehend a certain form of being in the universe. In order for us to interrogate this being, one must already “know” something about it and exist within it.
It is not surprising that “What is being?” has been the most foundational question in history—particularly in philosophy. While this originary question can take many other forms (i.e. “What is the meaning of life?”), the importance is that a certain form of being had always been the main object of inquiry in human existence. To ask “What is love?”, one must already have some sense of the love being (i.e. the experience of it in some way). To ask “What is physics?”, one is already aware of their physical being. We always have some sense of being before one ventures out into some non-being by interrogating the very being that one has pre-comprehended through the question. There are many different beings who has different preferences on how they should “be” in this world. For example, scientific beings, mathematical beings, physical beings, biological beings, philosophical beings, sexual beings, psychological beings, etc.
The Problem on the History of Ontology
Hence the being that we pre-comprehend is what establishes the question as such. What then, is “being”? This originary question marks the beginning of thought because it seeks for the most authentic form of being which precedes this question. But for Heidegger, one of the things that complicates and contaminates this question (i.e. the ways it is asked and answered) is the hegemony of Western history. For Heidegger, we have lost touch with Being through the historical dominance of various cultural traditions, values and philosophical methods. It is thus, impossible to question being without answering it with some preconceived historical concept of being. One can even say that we have a prejudice and discrimination towards being due to the privilege of Western history (i.e. Eurocentrism). This idea, which was first conceived in the early 20th century, influenced a discipline known as “post-colonialism” (in 1970s) which addresses the problems of colonialism and the dominance of colonist ideologies over marginalized people. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (who is a Derridean) was well known for transforming this Derridean reading of Heidegger into colonial theory. For Spivak, the marginalized “subalterns cannot speak” not only because they are oppressed by dominant colonist ideologies, but because when we try to understand these marginalized people, we can only do so through our dominant Western historical tradition (i.e. we filter the things they say via our own privileged history; in my view, this problem is quite complex once we factor in Derridean / Heideggarian views on Dasein, temporality and Derrida’s engagements with Lacanian psychoanalysis, particularly with the infamous Freudian death drive).
One of the question that is addressed in post-colonial theory is parallel to the Heideggerian question of history: can being escape from the hegemonic traditions of Western history in order to retrieve originary “being”? For Heidegger, the originary question of being is contaminated and murmured by dominant historical methods that consistently overlapped each other over time. The moment one asks the question of being, they are already associating it with all forms of hegemonic forms of traditional, cultural and philosophical methods (i.e. Hegelian, Kantian, Cartesian, etc.).
In order to overcome this problem, we must think of another history that is radically other to ontological history. We must therefore, distinguish the difference between “being” and “Being” (with a capital B). This Being is the most original being which constitutes and always already guides the question of being along with the answers we have in response to it. For Heidegger, this Being is what he interprets as the German word Dasein (“being-there”)—something that we have lost touch with because philosophers had always avoided to solve it. In order for us to retrieve Dasein and a “fundamental ontology”, we have to destroy the dominant history of ontology and its methods which obscures our ability of conceiving it. For Derrida however, Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit only revealed to us “the historicity of Dasein but not Being”—or to quote without translation “…of Dasein but not Sein.“. This is because the word “ontology” in its etymological sense, is also contaminated by its own history of metaphysics that traces all the way back to Aristotle. Even if one destroys the history of ontology, the word (fundamental) “ontology” can only designate a discourse about being which would only be a history of being, but never Being itself. Where Heidegger once thought that “ontology can escape the history of metaphysics, he now thinks ontology is historically metaphysical”. Heidegger no longer wanted to only destroy the history of ontology, he wanted to destroy ontology itself.
To answer the question of Being through “What is being?”, one must avoid answering it by defining being through ontic-metaphysical history because by doing so only marks a closed loop of the meaning of being within itself (i.e. being caught within ideology or a certain hegemonic tradition). Instead, and this is where the contradiction lies, one must look towards the signification (Bedeutung) of “being” through its grammar and etymology (the study of the historical origins of words) because for Heidegger, “language is the house of being”. The paradox that Heidegger proposes is how Being is a radical alterity that cannot be defined through the discourses of ontic history, yet can only be found within history. As Derrida points out, “Ontology only concerns the on and not the einai [essence]” (my parenthesis). Yet, it is Being that is buried in history which still has an effect on the question of being in its hegemonic ontology and history. What comes before the question of (onto-metaphysical-historical) being is a Being who pre-comprehends herself even when its meaning has been obscured through the privilege of various ontic history (i.e. I privilege scientific being and therefore, I will answer the question of being through the historical context of science). Hence, one always have some sense of Being before asking the question of being because it is in the very form of the question which opens up this originary question of Being. Another words, the question of Being is within the question of being through grammar and etymology. And it is only by looking at the history of being (i.e. its etymology) where one can retrieve Being.
For example, in the question “What is being?”, the word “is” implies that there is always already a Being which allows one to say that being is like this or like that (being is scientific, sexual, etc.). To put it in Derrida’s own words, “what is the being of the is which allows one to say that being is like this or like that?” Here, it is crucial we understand that “is” is the third person singular of the verb be. Thus, “Being” is the third term that avoids all ontic historical discourses even within the question of “What is being?”. This is one of the reasons why Heidegger writes
Being under erasure, a philosophical gesture that he started doing several years after publishing Sein und Zeit. One cannot retrieve Being by simply interpreting “Being” because the meaning of the word remains obscured and full of preconceived historical methods as we interpret its etymology. Finally, I must also add, this is one of the reasons why I believe Derrida crosses out is in Of Grammatology (1967).
[Note: In Voice and Phenomenon (I wrote an essay about it here), Derrida translates Husserl’s use of the German word “Bedeutung” as “want-to-say” instead of its usual translation as “signification”. One can already guess who it is that “want-to-say” (wants to signify) which is that of Being whose intentionality is always contaminated by a phenomenology of “the past of the future” (I have mentioned elsewhere that the problem of ideology is quite complex). Recall earlier, I spoke about how the question about the universe is always carried through by an intention that is guided by Being which one pre-comprehends. Nevertheless, Derrida is interested in the pure morphology of Bedeutung and the ways it could be translated and interpreted. Bedeutung’s polymorphic qualities are similar to the word “is” where we have some idea of what “is” means, but never in the absolute sense because its meaning changes depending on how we use it through grammar, implying that the meaning of Being shifts as a pure morphology (i.e. Just like “Being”, “is” can be used in an existential sense, sexual sense, scientific sense, etc.).]
The Destruction of Hegelianism, History and Ontology
For G.W.F Hegel, the study of the history of philosophy is the same as the study of philosophy—particularly the logical aspects of it. One can make the same claim in regards to the history of ontology and (fundamental) ontology. Let us follow Derrida’s thoughts and separate the difference between Heidegger’s destruction (of history and ontology) and Hegel’s notion of refutation. As Derrida points out, destruction is not a criticism, annihilation, a denial of historical ideas or a Hegelian refutation. Heidegger destroys history and ontology, but he never refutes in the Hegelian sense. Yet, not only is destruction and refutation are distinguished by a mere nothing—the destruction of history and ontology is what Derrida famously refer as deconstruction (although, I must note, Derrida sometimes rejects this word). To understand this, let us look into Hegel’s idea of refutation.
For Hegel, every century of philosophies in history are marked by its “highest idea” making it “the last philosophy” of the time. For example, in 18th century we have Immanuel Kant. In early 19th century we have Hegel and later on Friedrich Nietzsche followed closely by Sigmund Freud and Edmund Husserl. Overtime, the highest idea steps down and yields to another highest idea. Refutation is this demotion of the highest idea which brings out a new highest idea. A metaphorical example of refutation Hegel uses is to think of how tree leaves are refuted by the blossom in which the blossom is refuted by the fruit. The importance is to understand how Hegel thinks each highest idea is related to the previous one—only that its relative position changes within the new highest idea while dividing into something different. Whereas for Heidegger (according to Derrida), each highest idea does not preserve what precedes it because the highest idea is a refutation of the previous one through division. This new highest idea via refutation is an inferior form. The blossom is the inferior form of the leaf and the fruit is the inferior form of the blossom. Each highest idea or ontological inquiry is the inferior form of the previous. Another words, the blossom is not present in the fruit because it has been refuted. Both the blossom and the fruit are not the true existence (Being) of the tree. Yet, all three of these (leaf, blossom and fruit) and their individual processes remains in unity within themselves and appears as if they are authentic being on its own.
We can already see why refutation is similar yet different to destruction of ontology and history. On one hand, new ontological, cultural and philosophical methods are the refutation of other historical, philosophical and ontological inquiries which are inferior to such form. These new methods appears as a unity which obscures our ability to reach Being. On the other hand, this last philosophy is no longer capable of refuting anything since the essence of refutation has been lost through history and distorted by logic, where the concept and historical predetermination of refutation ends up refuting its own essence. Therefore, to speak of Being is to speak of eschatology (i.e. death) because to retrieve Being is to destroy its history that is defined by other beings. Once again, this is not to say that Being is some empty concept beyond language and its history. The contradiction lies in the notion that Being is within language and history because language is the house of being. What one discovers in language is the aporia of Being through the obscurantism of ontic history. And beyond this ontic history of “telling stories” (i.e. myths, philosophical novels, ontology, highest ideas) which is incredibly difficult (impossible?) to escape, there lies the historicity of Being within language and the question of being that is always already guided by Being (the “always” as a priori which modifies the “already”). Nevertheless, Hegel conceals the meaning of being within history, trapping himself into the historical tradition by recomprehending Plato and Aristotle. As a result, Heidegger’s destruction of history and ontology equates to the destruction of Hegelianism itself.
This is why Derrida once praised “Chinese philosophy” by saying that the Chinese “has no philosophy, but only thought”. While most people would probably get offended by this statement, Derrida was actually complimenting the fluidity of Chinese “thought”. This is because Derrida is alluding to Heidegger’s project of retrieving fundamental Being and the difficulties of escaping hegemonic histories. Heidegger wanted philosophy to transition into pure thinking, escaping ontic history. Since philosophy itself is dominated by the West, there is no room for radical alterity. To say that Chinese (or other great thoughts such as Indian) as “philosophy” is to in turn make a colonizing gesture.
Nevertheless, unlike Hegel where the highest idea is created by refuting the previous, Heidegger destroys the highest ideas of history and ontology then surrounds it with an ontological silence—a nothingness. For Derrida, contrary to the popular interpretations through our beloved Heideggarians, Heidegger does not go on to invent the highest idea known as “fundamental ontology”. Heidegger simply goes silent and does not propose any alternative ontology or philosophy. The destruction of history and ontology is the “shaking up”, the deconstruction of the history of ontology and ontology itself; to de-structure which brings out the structure of being only to recognize that Being is radically other to the historical-ontological inquiry that is neither outside nor within language. Since it is impossible to address the question of being without the concept of being and its predetermination, one must from the very beginning, work within metaphysical-historical concepts of being and language in order to lift up its veils and retrieve the history of Being. After all, as Derrida points out, there is no history without language, and no language without a history. This is the fundamental gesture of destruction which is precisely, a deconstruction.