This is my on-going close reading on some of Jacques Derrida’s most important seminars on Martin Heidegger between 1964-1965. It is within these seminars where Derrida first uses the word “deconstruction”. The post will introduce some of the basic goals of Heidegger’s philosophy and his famous notion of “the end of [Western] history”. This is a repost of an older one that I made last year. I reworked this post so much that it deserves to be recognized as new (because I got smarter—sort of). The reason for the rework is because I am currently rethinking the relationship between Heidegger, Derrida, and post-colonialism.
Regardless, 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 that Heidegger changed his intentions sixteen years later after publishing Sein und Zeit—which is known as “the turn”. Derrida’s entire project on “deconstruction” is an extension of Heidegger’s thoughts on the “destruktion” of history.
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 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). 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. to have the experienced it in some way, either sensually or emotionally). 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, literary being, sexual beings, psychological beings, etc.
The Problem on the History of Ontology
If 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 address 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 “subalterns cannot speak” not only because they are victim to oppressive ideologies which they are not aware of (thus, prevents them from speaking), 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). This problem is quite complex once we factor in Derridean / Heideggarian views on Dasein, temporality and Derrida’s lengthy engagements with Lacanian and Freudian psychoanalysis and the unconscious mind. Certainly, Spivak is also not an easy read due to her taking on Derrida’s project on deconstruction by attempting to “write against writing”.
A good example to showcase this colonial problem can be witnessed during Derrida’s later career (2001), where he points out that the Chinese “has no philosophy, but only thought”. While most people would probably get offended by this statement, Derrida was actually complimenting the Chinese by alluding to Heidegger’s project of retrieving fundamental Being and the difficulties of escaping hegemonic Western histories which dominates philosophy. Thus, to say that the Chinese, or other great thoughts such as Indian, as “philosophy” is to colonize and depreciate its uniqueness by centering through Eurocentrism.
Nevertheless, 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 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 Western 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 carried out by a mode which he calls “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 (Being and Time) only revealed “the historicity of Dasein, but not Being”—or to quote without translation “…of Dasein but not Sein.” (for the sake of length, I won’t explain what this “historicity of Dasein” entails). This is because the word “ontology” in its etymological sense, is also contaminated by its own history that traces all the way back to Aristotle. Even if one destroys the history of ontology, the etymology of “ontology” can only designate a discourse about being which would only privilege Western 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). 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 (because Being is related with time; hence Heidegger’s book is called Being and Time). 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.
For example, in the question “What is being?”, the word “is” implies that there is always already a Being who 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 Being and Time. One cannot retrieve Being by simply interpreting and investigating its etymology because the meaning of the word remains obscured and full of preconceived historical methods. This is why “Being” is such an obscure term that, even Jacques Lacan took an interest. For Lacan, it is because there is a lack in being (i.e. a Being that is missing from the hegemonic history of beings) where philosophers would ask “What is being?” (I wrote an intro on psychoanalysis, here). Finally, I must also add, this is one of the reasons why I believe Derrida crosses out is in Of Grammatology (1967).
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 explained some of Derrida’s views on temporality and “differance”, here). Recall earlier, when 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. 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, implying that the meaning of Being shifts as a pure morphology through the experience of time.
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 “destruktion” (of history and ontology) and Hegel’s notion of refutation. As Derrida points out, destruktion 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, 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 (along with all the phenomenologists). 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. In other words, the blossom is not present in the fruit. 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 the 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 due to its predetermined privilege of history. On the other hand, this last philosophy is no longer capable of refuting anything since the essence of “refutation” has been lost through history, 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” (also because being is related to temporality). What one discovers in language is the aporia of Being through the obscurantism of ontic history and the metaphor of language. Beyond this ontic history of “telling stories” (i.e. myths, literature, 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 includes the destruction of Hegelianism.
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 (i.e. thought?). 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 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 historical predetermination, one must from the very beginning, work within privileged metaphysical-ontological historical concepts of being and language in order to reveal “the historicity of Being”. After all, there is no history without language, and no language without a history.