The Question Concerning Heidegger

June 27, 2016   •   By Richard Polt

Heidegger: The Question of Being and History

Jacques Derrida

IN MAY, a bearded passenger was escorted off an American Airlines flight because the woman next to him had reported the suspicious scribblings on which he was concentrating. Did they detail a terrorist plot in Arabic?

No: They were differential equations, and the man was Professor Guido Menzio, a University of Pennsylvania economist.

What if Algerian-born, eagle-eyed Jacques Derrida had been in that seat, writing one of the manuscript pages that are reproduced in this new volume, where jottings reminiscent of shorthand or calculus form lines that tilt gradually farther down on the left as they descend the page?

During his lifetime (1930–2004), Derrida repeatedly faced charges of intellectual terrorism. His enemies saw him as a frivolous obscurantist who was out to demolish objectivity and truth. His notorious “deconstruction” supposedly undermined the very idea of an authoritative answer. It was a bomb thrown into the halls of academia, and of culture at large.

The truth in this charge is that Derrida did, in fact, question the ideal of a final account, an ultimate system — not by bombing, but by tickling and teasing. Derrida would delay the arrival of an answer, wiggling one word here and another there in the texts he read, to the point where he inspired many readers to let go of their desire for a solution and simply keep reading, reading.

Derridean reading is hardly chaotic or nihilistic; deconstruction is not destruction. (Even though he often uses the word “destruction” in his Heidegger seminar, it translates Heidegger’s Destruktion and means dismantling or deconstruction, not annihilation.) All of Derrida’s interpretations presuppose a deep study of the traditional canon, and he pays homage to the texts he reads, though not necessarily to the grandiose ambitions of their authors: he honors the texts by meticulously sifting through their nuances and ambiguities.


In Heidegger: The Question of Being and History, the text under examination is Martin Heidegger’s groundbreaking Being and Time (Sein und Zeit, 1927), which Derrida reads in light of the tradition that Heidegger himself addresses, including Husserl, Nietzsche, Hegel, and other great philosophers going back to the early Greeks. This book comprises lectures from 1964–’65, which Derrida composed just a few months after the first, partial translation of Being and Time appeared in French. (The first English translation had been published in 1962.) Heidegger was still new to many in France at this time, and in fact, most of the septuagenarian philosopher’s writings were still unpublished in any language.

But Derrida’s is not an interpretation for beginners. The audience is presumed to have “read carefully the whole of Sein und Zeit,” as well as other Heideggerian texts such as Introduction to Metaphysics. Those who are novices will probably be baffled by phrases such as “the privileged being of the question of being will be the questioning being, posing the question of being.” Here the difficulty is exacerbated by translator Geoffrey Bennington’s choice to use “being” to mean both an entity (or in everyday parlance, something that exists) and the “to be” itself (the very meaning of existence). Unfortunately, English permits this ambiguity, whereas in German, the difference between Seiendes and Sein is clear, as is the French distinction between l’étant and l’être.

For those who are prepared, this text makes for absorbing reading, and its style is not as precious and convoluted as that of Derrida’s published books. These are lecture notes, which suffer from some incomplete sentences and some formulations in need of revision, but which are meant to be intelligible to an audience of advanced students.

Derrida begins by asserting that in Being and Time, Heidegger is not trying to found a new system. Heidegger is “not here undertaking […] the foundation of anything at all, in any sense at all.” Instead, he is questioning a tradition that we can conveniently sum up with the word “metaphysics.”

That tradition cannot be refuted; in fact, the very “concept of refutation belongs — implicitly — to an anti-historical metaphysics of truth.” Instead, what Heidegger and Derrida insinuate into the metaphysical edifice is “a slight trembling of meaning,” a kind of “shaking” that does not bring the construction down, but “bring[s] out the structures, the strata, the system of deposits.” Deconstruction isn’t shattering; it’s shuddering.

But what is metaphysics, and why should it shudder?

In Heideggerian terms, metaphysics is any attempt to sum up how things are in general — to characterize beings as a whole and give a clear account of them, typically by taking a certain kind of entity as the prime model or point of reference. The problem is that such a project turns its back on the question of being (Sein). The meaning of being is enigmatic, and it is essentially historical.

Metaphysics “wrench[es] itself away from historicity” for the sake of “total presence.” The dream of perfect presence — an ultimate truth, a complete answer — pretends that we can refute the past, overcome it, or do without it. But if history can’t be eliminated, there is no possibility of “a pure point of departure” — or, for that matter, a pure arrival.

Metaphysics defines past and future in terms of the present: it reduces the past to a bygone present, and the future to a present that hasn’t yet come. Instead, it’s the other way around: the present is defined by future and past. From this perspective, the present is “no longer the originary and absolute form of experience but the past of the future.” Here is the justification for Derrida’s proclivity for the future perfect in his later texts — the “will have been” construction that was adopted as an affectation by some of his imitators.

Heidegger, who in one of his texts envisioned “the end of philosophy and the task of thinking,” came to see philosophy as ineluctably metaphysical. “Philosophy, what Heidegger wants to transgress, is in its entirety a philosophy of the Present, privileges the Present.” Some philosophers seem to appreciate history, but they end up denying it. Husserl, for instance, thinks of philosophy as a Western historical tradition, but he conceives of that tradition in terms of the ideal of “a pure, univocal, transparent transmission.” If there’s anything Derrida calls into question, it’s that ideal, which is based on the metaphysics of presence. The case of Hegel is still more obvious: he insists on historical development, but all for the sake of a culmination in perfect presence, unrestricted self-consciousness. Hegel is an “infinitist,” and infinitism is precisely what Derrida (with Heidegger) is trying to shake.

It might seem that the clearest example of unalloyed presence is presence to oneself — Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am.” Apparently,

I am is the proposition of being that is the clearest and the surest, because I know what being I’m talking about and I know what being I’m talking about because here the proximity of the one speaking to the being that he is seems absolute, absolute to the point of being not even a proximity but an identity.

However, the assertion “I am” presupposes some familiarity with what it means to be — and this meaning turns out to be elusive. Descartes and Cartesians of all stripes are exposed as would-be masters of truth who in fact are just sweeping the uncertainties under the metaphysical rug. (A case in point is Sartre, whose Cartesian misreading of Heidegger in works such as Being and Nothingness comes in for repeated criticism in these lectures: 88, 135, 187, 192.) I do not know myself with perfect clarity, any more than I know what it is to be human. The question of my own being is important, but “[t]he response will never take the form of an object coming to fill or satisfy an expectation or a desire”; the response can only be an “awakening that has never ceased to wake up to itself.”

To awaken from the metaphysics of presence is to come to appreciate history. But Derrida observes that although historicity is the theme of the dramatic climax of Being and Time, section 74, what Heidegger says about it is primarily negative, and his positive account is largely just a restatement of his theory of temporality. After this climax, Being and Time seems to peter out, to “[run] out of breath” — and in fact, the book was forever to remain unfinished. Instead, Heidegger turned to new styles and themes in a search for the “historicity […] of being.” The one specifically historical concept in Being and Time, says Derrida, is Wiederholung, or “repetition” (“retrieval” would be a less misleading translation). Retrieval takes place when one “takes up transmission, the return of the past, going back to the origin.” Of course, that origin is not a once-intact presence that can be brought back to life. Instead, “the historian” — and anyone who is trying to establish an authentic relationship to history — “must [retrieve] a past that was also an opening toward the future, which never was a present and positive fact.”

If this all seems excessively abstract, consider that individuals and communities are always engaged in some kind of relation to their past, and disputes over the nature of that relation can be passionate and consequential. In American politics, for instance, “originalists” claim to be true to the Constitution’s original intent, the meaning it had for the founders. But Derrida would suggest that the time of our founding was itself “an opening toward the future” — an invitation to us to draw on a legacy — and that the Constitution’s meaning could never have been crystal clear. This does not mean that anything goes, but that like every historical entity, the United States is constituted not by a set of self-evident truths, but by a nest of interminable debates.

The question of being — seemingly the most abstract of all — actually requires us to engage with our own history. For instance, in Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger makes the etymological argument that Indo-European words for being develop from three roots that Derrida sums up as “live, blossom, dwell. The significations have been erased and the history of the word be is the history of this erasure.” The point is not to insist that being should revert to meaning only these three things, but to appreciate the process by which “in this erasure […] being [liberates] itself from the metaphysics of living, of blossoming, of dwelling, to such a point that it [can also] mean the non-living, the non-blossoming, the non-dwelling.”

Derrida celebrates this “liberation with regard to any possible metaphor.” In order to think of being (Sein, être), we have to stop treating it as if it were a being (Seiendes, étant). We must stop telling “stories” about it and approaching it metaphorically. “[T]he thinking of being announces the horizon of non-metaphor.”

But it would make no sense for Derrida, of all people, to try to think literally rather than metaphorically, as if we could pin down the way things really are in themselves, forcing them into pure presence. “The proper meaning whose movement metaphor tries to follow without ever reaching or seeing it, this proper meaning has never been said or thought and will never be said or thought as such.” Echoing Nietzsche’s saying that “truth is a mobile army of metaphors,” Derrida calls metaphor “the beginning of language” and says that “language itself is metaphysics.”

So Derrida’s project is not to think, speak, or write without metaphors, but to realize that we have been driven by metaphors all along. “[I]n a new metaphor the previous metaphor appears as such, is denounced in its origin, in its metaphorical functioning and in its necessity.” We are no longer the captives of a metaphor that we mistake for fact. Instead, we learn to feel ourselves gliding from metaphor to metaphor, to understand that this gliding is “the very movement of language” and that “the metaphorical process itself [is] historicity itself.”

But once we have awakened to this metaphorical process, we can also detect a hint of something else at “the origin of language.” To appreciate “the finitude of meaning,” we may need to recognize “a certain silent permanence of non-meaning, or rather an absence of meaning that precedes the opposition between meaning and non-meaning.” This is the “shadowy zone against which [what seems self-evident] stands out.”

In conclusion, Derrida points out that the words “being” and “history” are themselves metaphors, as is the name “Heidegger” — and even the word “metaphor” itself. All this stands to be deconstructed. But deconstruction “will not be a gesture decided and accomplished once and for all, by someone in a book, a course, in words or deeds. It is accomplished slowly, patiently, it patiently takes hold of the whole of language, of science, of the human, of the world.” Readers must decide whether this is a humble statement or a very arrogant one.

All told, because it dates from the early years of Derrida’s career and because it is a series of classroom lectures, this book serves as a helpful preparation for reading the more intricate and playful texts that he published in the late 1960s and beyond. It also shows just how indebted Derrida is to Heidegger, who is treated with deference here despite the occasional beginnings of a critique. For example, Derrida points out that Heidegger sometimes uses the metaphor of reading — as if being, or we ourselves, were texts — despite the fact that Heidegger, like many philosophers, tends to privilege oral over written communication. In contrast, Derrida proposes that speech is “already text”:

[D]egradation, forgetting, chatter, the moment of the text, are all essential possibilities that are always already present at the heart of speech […] inauthenticity does not supervene on authenticity, does not surprise it from the outside but is its essential, permanent and necessary accomplice.

He was to develop this thought at length in Of Grammatology (1967).

A fascinating list of Derrida’s other courses from 1960 to 1984 includes studies of figures as diverse as Hume, Lautréamont, and Gramsci, and enticing titles such as “To Think Is to Say No,” “Can One Say Yes to Finitude?” and “Respect.” We can look forward to more publications from this trove, which will no doubt eventually be translated into English.


The kind of instability that Derrida induces is not crude and odious, like “the brutality, muteness and deafness of a library-burner or a thought-strangler pushing his brutish rage to the point of not knowing what a library is and that it is a library that he is burning” — or like the downing of an airliner or the destruction of a skyscraper. Derridean instability is like the turbulence we encounter on our flights, which rattles us a bit and induces some queasiness, reminding us that our arrival is never guaranteed — that we are “at the mercy of an unforeseen breath of air.”

Who is a terrorist? Derrida might observe that the 9/11 killers had to learn to fly an airplane. So the most dangerous people on a flight, potentially, are the pilots — like Andreas Lubitz, who set a Germanwings plane on a pitiless crash course into the Alps last year. Derrida’s aim is to unsettle the authority of those who determine our flight plans and destinations — those who, however “good” their intentions may be, deceive us with the illusion that we are approaching a final presence, and tempt us to forget that we are always on the way. The fight against this temptation is, for Derrida, a noble cause: as he puts it in his 1989 essay “Force of Law,” “deconstruction is justice.” (For Derrida on terrorism, see Giovanna Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida [University of Chicago Press, 2003].)

There are countless ways to arrogate an authority that stands in need of deconstruction. Heidegger himself claimed such authority when he aligned himself with the Nazis and tried to become the führer of his university in 1933. What Derrida calls “the sciences of the psyche” — today, neuroscience in particular — are as likely as mullahs, metaphysicians, or politicians to assure us that they’ve determined what it’s all about. All such poses that claim certainty about beings ignore the ways in which being and history — if we may call them that — irritate all certainties.

To his credit, Derrida never made any claims to final authority. He would be the first to agree that a text by a mathematician or a philosopher can be mistaken for one by a terrorist, and he’d add that such ambiguities can never be eliminated. There is no way to prevent “significations from signifying the opposite of what they signify.” But for those who like to keep reading, the ineliminable ambiguities are a source of both pleasure and illumination. Paths “that do not arrive [are] not […] the worst paths of thought.”


Richard Polt holds a BA in philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley and a PhD from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.