Heidegger: The Question of Being and History

Heidegger: The Question of Being and History


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Few philosophers held greater fascination for Jacques Derrida than Martin Heidegger, and in this book we get an extended look at Derrida’s first real encounters with him. Delivered over nine sessions in 1964 and 1965 at the École Normale Supérieure, these lectures offer a glimpse of the young Derrida first coming to terms with the German philosopher and his magnum opus, Being and Time. They provide not only crucial insight into the gestation of some of Derrida’s primary conceptual concerns—indeed, it is here that he first uses, with some hesitation, the word “deconstruction”—but an analysis of Being and Time that is of extraordinary value to readers of Heidegger or anyone interested in modern philosophy.
Derrida performs an almost surgical reading of the notoriously difficult text, marrying pedagogical clarity with patient rigor and acting as a lucid guide through the thickets of Heidegger’s prose. At this time in intellectual history, Heidegger was still somewhat unfamiliar to French readers, and Being and Time had only been partially translated into French. Here Derrida mostly uses his own translations, giving his own reading of Heidegger that directly challenges the French existential reception initiated earlier by Sartre. He focuses especially on Heidegger’s Destruktion (which Derrida would translate both into “solicitation” and “deconstruction”) of the history of ontology, and indeed of ontology as such, concentrating on passages that call for a rethinking of the place of history in the question of being, and developing a radical account of the place of metaphoricity in Heidegger’s thinking.
This is a rare window onto Derrida’s formative years, and in it we can already see the philosopher we’ve come to recognize—one characterized by a bravura of exegesis and an inventiveness of thought that are particularly and singularly his. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226678924
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/11/2019
Series: Seminars of Jacques Derrida Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) was director of studies at the écoledes hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris, and professor of humanities at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of many books published by the University of Chicago Press, most recently The Death Penalty, Volume 1 and The Beast and the Sovereign, Volume I and II. Geoffrey Bennington is the Asa G. Candler Professor of Modern French Thought at Emory University. He is the author of several books on Derrida and translator of many others by him, and he is coeditor of The Seminars of Jacques Derrida series.

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The Question of Being and History

By Jacques Derrida, Thomas Dutoit, Geoffrey Bennington

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-35525-2


16 November 1964

I must first explain myself as to the title of this course, as to its very letter, which is important to me.

(1) I say: the question of Being and not ontology, because the word ontology is going to appear more and more inadequate, as we follow Heidegger's tracks, to designate what is in question in his work when the question is that of being. Not only is Heidegger not here undertaking the foundation of an ontology, not even of a new ontology, nor even of an ontology in a radically new sense, not even, in fact, the foundation of anything at all, in any sense at all — what is at issue here is rather a Destruction of ontology. Section 6 of Sein und Zeit establishes as a primordial task the destruction (Destruktion) of the history of ontology. Here — only here — the destruction is destruction of the history of ontology. That is, of ontology as it has been thought and practiced throughout its entire history, this history being already described by Heidegger, from the beginning of Sein und Zeit, as a covering-over or a dissimulation of the authentic question of Being, under not ontological but ontic sedimentations.

We understand this task as the destruction of the traditional content of ancient ontology which is to be carried out along the guidelines of the question [24] of being]literally: taking the question of being as guiding thread: am Leitfaden der Seinsfrage]. This destruction is based upon the original experiences in which the first, and subsequently guiding, determinations of being were gained.

As to this notion of destruction, a few remarks are necessary. (1) Destruction does not mean annihilation, annulment, rejection into the outer darkness of philosophical meaning. It does not even mean critique or contestation or refutation within a theory of the knowledge of Being. The point is not to say that all the thinkers of the tradition were wrong or committed an unfortunate error that would need to be corrected. We shall see later that what might superficially be interpreted as an error about being or a forgetting of being has its basis in a fundamental errancy that is a necessary movement of the thinking of Being and of the history of being. In destroying the history of ontology, Heidegger never refutes. Refutation in the sense in which it can be understood in the sciences or in common parlance has no meaning for thinking. And here, already, we have broached the very content of our problem. The concept of refutation belongs — implicitly — to an anti-historical metaphysics of truth. If it is possible to refute, this is because the truth can [25] be established once and for all as an object, and only particular conceptions of truth, more or less valid approximations to this ahistorical truth, belong to history. Only knowledge, and not truth, would on this view be historical, and it would be so only to the extent of its distance from truth, that is in its error. But, as Hegel had already shown, there is no simple error in philosophy once truth is historical. The metaphysics of refutation thus floats on the surface of a truth without history, which is to say that it is futile. Refutation is futile in Heidegger's view. But that does not mean that on this point Heidegger simply agrees with Hegel. You know that Hegel meditated a great deal on this difficulty of refutation (Widerlegung) in philosophy. He was led naturally to do so by his fully historical concept of truth and of philosophy. "Philosophy," according to the Lectures on the History of Philosophy, "draws its origin from the history of philosophy, and conversely. Philosophy and history of philosophy are mirror images of one another. The study of the history of philosophy is the study of philosophy itself, and especially of its logical aspect." And especially of its logical aspect.

And it is precisely because, for Hegel but not for Heidegger, philosophy is, in a profound and radical sense of the word, a logic, that, even while radically historicizing meaning, Hegel cannot purely and simply abandon the notion and value of "refutation." Being unable to abandon it, he extends its signification, inflates it to the point of making it signify the moment of negativity in general. And we know that this negativity is essential to historical production, to the production of history in general, to production, to productivity in general:

The philosophies have not only contradicted one another, but also refuted one another. To what extent? What in them is open to refutation? What is the meaning of this reciprocal refutation? The answer is given by what has just been said. Only the fact that some principle or some concrete mode of the idea, the form of the idea, now has validity as the highest idea, and as [26] the idea as such. In its own era it is, to be sure, its highest idea; but because we have grasped the activity of thinking as self-developing, what was highest steps down, no longer being the highest, although it remains a necessary element for the following stage. So the content has not been refuted; all that has been refuted is the philosophy's status as the highest, the definitive, stage. So the refutation is just the demotion of one determination to a subordinate role, to being an element. Thus the principle of a philosophy has not been lost, for it is essentially preserved in what follows, except that its status is now different. Nothing gets lost; only the relative position changes. This refutation occurs in all development, hence also in the development of a tree from the seed. The blossom is refutation of the leaves, such that they are not the highest or true existence of the tree. Finally, the blossom is refuted by the fruit. The fruit, which is the last stage, comprises the entire force of what went before. In the case of natural things these levels occur separately [Derrida's emphasis], because there nature exists in the form of division. In spirit too there is this succession, this refutation, yet all the previous steps remain in unity. The most recent philosophy, the philosophy of the current age, must therefore be the highest philosophy, containing all the earlier philosophical principles within itself. (Lectures, 59)

Let me pause for a moment in the middle of this quotation. You have seen that the natural example, the example of the tree, functions here only by analogy. In truth we have here only an inferior form of refutation, refutation in the form of division. Nature is the form of division, and what is left behind or refuted, the seed for example, has simply expired, and is not present as such in the tree, the flower is not present in the fruit. In spirit, on the contrary, and philosophy is the highest form of spirit thinking itself, refutation is preserved in presence — what one can call by a term that is not Hegelian, but that does not, I believe, betray Hegel's intention, sedimentation — and the sedimentation of forces (Hegel talks here of forces) is a phenomenon not natural but spiritual. It is spirit itself. With this passage from Hegel, and many other [27] passages (those from the phenomenology on error, for example) the sense of what in general is meant by last philosophy is clarified. Last philosophy as highest philosophy, superior philosophy, does not of course mean the last in date in the contrived succession of systems. In this regard, the recent is far from being always the last, and Hegelian philosophy is much more last than many philosophies that have followed it "in history," as they say. The Hegelian concept of "last philosophy" does not translate an empiricism of the fait accompli that leaves the last word to the one who speaks last. If one speaks to no purpose, or without understanding what has already happened, without following the philosophical conversation from its origin, one may well continue to hold forth, but one is not representing the last word or the last philosophy. The last philosophy, in the authentically Hegelian sense, is a philosophy that comprehends in itself the totality of its past and inquires after its origin or endlessly attempts to. To have the last word, one must truly speak last, and not just chatter on after the last speaker.

And it could well be that the philosophy that was the first to understand as such what is meant by the last, the being-last of the last philosophy, it could well be that such a philosophy — that of Hegel — was not only the last philosophy in its time but the absolutely last philosophy. This is often said, but we still have to understand what it means without giving in to the stupidities circulating around and about on the death of philosophy, on Hegel who believed that history would stop with him and the Prussian people, whereas, as people do not fail to add in this case, he was wrong since history continued after him, there have been several world wars, twenty-five systems of philosophy, and — ultimate proof that history continues — we are here, we exist and we are speaking and doing philosophy, as if all that were obvious, as if all that were important, and as if it had the slightest refutational relevance where Hegel stands when he declares the Last. It suffices to read him and to see in him something other than — let's say here precisely — a retard: it goes without saying that the end of history and of philosophy does not [28] mean for Hegel a factual limit after which the movement of history would be stopped, arrested, but that the horizon and the infinite opening of historicity has finally appeared as such, or finally been thought as such, that is, as infinite opening — the absolute infinite opening being thought as such. This is indeed the end and the closing of something, but of anything but history. To come back to our specific theme of refutation, it is perhaps possible that the last philosophy is indeed the one that, not content to refute, tries to think the essence of refutation and the essence of the last. Hegel's philosophy was not the last philosophy in the same way that Aristotle's, Descartes's, or Kant's (perhaps) were in their time the last philosophies; Hegel's philosophy as last philosophy was the philosophy that thought in itself the essence of last philosophy in general, of what "last" meant in philosophy. The last is not the last so long as it does not appear as such. The eschaton as such is thus said in Hegel's philosophy of refutation, and Hegel's logic is indeed an eschatology. This eschatological logic of Hegel's is, as you know, an ontology. To say that ontology is here eschatology is to say that the essence of being, the appearing of being in its essence is eschatological. This is what Heidegger says in Der Spruch des Anaximander (a text from 1946 collected in Holzwege, where it is translated as "Anaximander's Saying." Spruch, in fact, is a sentence, a judgment pronounced, Decision, in the strong sense of this word). In particular, Heidegger writes this:

As geschicklich [translated as destining, being as destining, dispensating Destiny] being is inherently eschatological. We do not, however, understand the word "eschatology" in the phrase "eschatology of being" as the title of a theological or philosophical discipline. We think of the eschatology of being in the sense in which the phenomenology of Spirit is to be thought, i.e., from within the history of being. This phenomenology itself represents a phase in the [29] eschatology of being inasmuch as being gathers itself, in the extremity of its essence hitherto struck by the seal of metaphysics, as the absolute subjectivity of the unconditioned will to will.

I make no commentary on that last sentence to which we shall return a little later.

So let me pick up again the reading of Hegel's text where I left off ([French] pp. 150–51).

The most recent philosophy, the philosophy of the current age, must therefore be the highest philosophy, containing all the earlier philosophical principles within itself. Refutation is the negative side. Hence it is far easier than justification; to "justify" means [to] discern the affirmative element in a determination and to call attention to it. So, on the one hand the history of philosophy displays the limitation, or the negative, of the principles, but on the other hand, the affirmative side too. There is nothing easier than exhibiting the negative side. Doing so gives one satisfaction, or the consciousness of one's superiority to that on which judgment is passed, which flatters one's vanity. In contrast, it is more difficult to recognize the affirmative side. By refutation one disposes of something easily, that is, has not fathomed it. The affirmative consists in fathoming the object and justifying it, which is far more difficult than refuting it. Insofar, then, as the philosophies are shown to be refuted in the history of philosophy, they are also shown to be preserved. But what has been refuted is not the principle, but the fact that it is the ultimate, the absolute and that it should have as such an absolute value; the point is to reduce a principle to the rank of a determinate moment in the whole. The principle does not disappear, but merely its form as absolute, ultimate. That is what refutation in philosophy signifies. (Lectures, 60)

In spite of the immense progress marked by this concept of refutation, as soon as one wishes to take seriously what a history of truth and a history of [30] philosophy can be, in spite of the proximity between this Hegelian relation to the history of philosophy and the Heideggerian relation to the history of philosophy, there remains a decisive difference over which I would like to pause for a moment, to verify for the first time but not the last that, as is indicated by Heidegger's itinerary and the increasing number of his references to Hegel, it is in the difference between Hegel and Heidegger that our problem is situated.

The Destruction of the history of ontology is not a refutation even in the Hegelian sense.

First of all because the Hegelian philosophy of refutation, that ontological extension of a refutation that is usually understood as a discursive and logical operation (refutation is properly speaking a discourse, a dispute), that extension is dictated by a logic and a philosophy of the Idea or the Concept in which Heidegger himself sees a moment in the history of ontology, the last moment, the moment of blossoming and of "summation" but which still remains a dissimulation of being beneath beings. Already in the first paragraph of Sein und Zeit, Hegel's logic is invoked as the last moment in a tradition of classical ontology that goes back to Plato and Aristotle, but as a last moment belonging to that tradition, recomprehending it, summing it up, but not taking that step beyond it — i.e., just as much back from it — that Heidegger wants to take. Speaking of the necessity of an explicit repetition of the question of being, Heidegger writes,

This question has today been forgotten — although our time considers itself progressive in again affirming "metaphysics." All the same we believe that we are spared the exertion of rekindling a [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] ["a Battle of Giants concerning Being" (Plato, Sophist 245e6–246e1)]. But the question touched upon here is hardly an arbitrary one. It sustained the avid research of Plato and Aristotle but from then on ceased to be heard as a thematic question of actual investigation. What these two thinkers achieved has been preserved in various distorted and camouflaged forms down to Hegel's [31] Logic. (Being and Time, 2)

And a little later, examining the three prejudices that up until that point had obscured the question of being, he cites first the prejudice that makes of being a concept and the most general concept, and he accuses Hegel not only of having determined being as the poorest concept, as the indeterminate immediate at the beginning of the Phenomenology and the Logic, and as a basis for all the later developments, but even, in doing this, of having neglected or forgotten, "given up" he says, the problem posed by Aristotle as to the unity of being as a non-generic generality, as transcending generality, as transcendental in the forced sense the scholastics gave to this expression to express what Aristotle understood by the analogical unity of being (Being and Time, 2).


Excerpted from Heidegger by Jacques Derrida, Thomas Dutoit, Geoffrey Bennington. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

General Introduction
Editor’s Note
Translator’s Note

Session One 16 November 1964
Session Two 30 November 1964
Session Three 17 December 1964
Session Four 11 January 1965
Session Five 25 January 1965
Session Six 8 February 1965
Session Seven 22 February 1965
Session Eight 15 March 1965
Session Nine 29 March 1965


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