Jacques Derrida: Heidegger: The Question of Being and Historyd History (Trans. Geoffrey Bennington)

George Webster


Heidegger: The Question of Being and History Book Cover Heidegger: The Question of Being and History
Jacques Derrida. Translated by Geoffrey Bennington
University of Chicago Press
Cloth $40.00

Reviewed by: George Webster (University of Warwick)

In the academic year of 1964-65, Derrida taught two courses at the École Normale Supérieure: an agrégation course on ‘The Theory of Signification in the Logical Investigations and Ideen I’ and ‘Heidegger: The Question of Being and History’. Having fulfilled his curricular obligations with the former, it was Derrida’s own interests that governed the choosing and development of the latter. This volume, painstakingly transcribed and translated from Derrida’s own handwritten notes, therefore provides a glimpse into some of the earliest workings of Derrida’s thought.

Given through nine sessions, this lecture course is concerned with rendering apparent the essential link between being and history (referred to as ‘historicity,’ to avoid confusion with the academic discipline and actual world history) throughout Heidegger’s thought. As to it’s broad construction, sessions one-through-six of the lecture series constitutes an introduction to the titular concepts, Heidegger’s approach, and an account of the ways in which Heidegger breaks from two other prominent philosophical reflections on historicity – those of Hegel and Husserl. Sessions six-through-nine feature Derrida’s examination of the role of historicity in Being and Time (henceforth BT) as well as Heidegger’s corresponding critique of Western thought.

In his introductory session, Derrida focuses on the use of the word ‘being’ in his course title over that of ‘ontology’. He forwards the view that Heidegger’s destruction (Destruktion) of the history of ontology (initiated in BT) develops into the rejection of the very notion of ontology itself as Heidegger’s thought matures. This session also features the first of many comparisons with Hegel. Here Derrida clarifies Heidegger’s method of Destruktion by contrasting it with Hegelian dialectical refutation (Widerlegung). He demonstrates that whilst Hegelian Widerlegung gathers up and sublimates its previous elements in the process of producing a higher philosophy (3), Destruktion is a ‘deconstruction’ or ‘solicitation’ that reveals what is hidden within the structures of philosophical thought (9).

In his second lecture, Derrida turns to the place of the term ‘history’ in his course title. He explains that Heidegger is perhaps the first philosopher to identify an essential relation between being and history and highlights two basic ‘assurances’ (41) that betray the essential historicity of being. First, the fact that we are ‘always already’ linguistically familiar with the meaning of being in some preliminary fashion (42-3). Second, the fact that Dasein is the being that is interrogated (Befragtes) within the question of the meaning of being (46).

In session three, Derrida pauses to explore an implication of the first assurance just outlined: the connection between being and language. As he examines the role of metaphor in Heidegger’s thought, Derrida masterfully decodes the famous Heideggerian statement that ‘language is the house of being’ (57-9). Derrida suggests that, on Heidegger’s view, metaphor obscures the meaning of being and that a proper, poetic language capable of directly speaking being should eventually arise (62-3).

Session four opens with a lengthy analysis of Heidegger’s seemingly innocuous reference to the Befragtes as a text on which the meaning of being is to be read (77-84). Derrida then shifts back to focus on the second assurance of being’s historicity: the identification of Dasein as Befragtes. Derrida explicates the two principal reasons for this identification: first, the fact that Dasein is itself the being that poses the question of being (85); second, that through this questioning Dasein comes closer to its own essence (85-6). He then highlights the problem of the hermeneutic circle: the objection that we cannot identify Dasein as the being through which we will gain access to the meaning of being without first enjoying this access (86). Derrida argues that not only is this objection unproblematic, but that it emphasises the very historicity of being that Heidegger is working to reveal insofar as it demonstrates ‘the impossibility of a pure point of departure’ (90) for philosophical thought. This session closes with the beginning of a lengthy account of the differences between Hegel’s, Husserl’s, and Heidegger’s respective reflections on historicity. Here, Derrida contrasts Heidegger’s view that being is essentially historical with Hegel’s view that historicity depends on state, culture, memory, and consciousness (99-104).

Continuing this juxtaposition through session five, Derrida now brings in Husserl, who he suggests has a comparable account to Hegel’s insofar as they both assume a primary distinction between the historicity of culture and the non-historicity of nature (105). Derrida embarks on a perhaps unnecessary and tangential comparison of Hegel and Husserl (105-113) before beginning to account for the ways in which Heidegger breaks from the Husserlian account (114-126).

It is clear that Derrida struggled with timing toward the end of session five, leaving him to finish his survey of Heidegger’s breaks with Husserl in the sixth session (127-133). The most significant of these breaks is the fact that, for Heidegger, the Husserlian account constitutes a ‘worldview’ (129) – that is, a representation of the totality of beings. Derrida points out that, for Heidegger, the idea that philosophy offers such a worldview (Weltbild) has its origins in Plato. Heidegger therefore sees Husserl as part of the metaphysical tradition he is trying to deconstruct (130-1). Derrida now shifts to his analysis of BT, wherein he demonstrates that reflection on Dasein’s relation to its birth and death reveals the prejudice which has hitherto blocked any proper recognition of historicity: the privileging of presence and the present (137). Rejecting this prejudice, Heidegger suggests that birth and death are not events no longer or not yet present. Rather, they coexist in Dasein insofar as Dasein is the continuity (Erstreckung) between them (148).

In session seven, Derrida acknowledges the ‘running out of breath’  (153) of BT with respect to its analysis of historicity. He suggests that the thematic of temporality, as the origin of historicity, is what obscures any further results. Looking for clues as to the specific difficulties, Derrida exposits the later material of BT and identifies the terminology of (in)authenticity as something dropped in later works (168). Moreover, Derrida highlights Heidegger’s identification of the assumption that underlies various inadequate conceptions of historicity: the centrality of the human subject (170). Derrida makes clear that Heidegger is moving us away from the idea that there is a historical subject to whom events happen to the idea that subjectivity is supervenient upon already historical ek-sistence (175).

Not wanting to dismiss BT, in his eighth session Derrida explores its final chapters for any original concepts that might pertain to and differentiate historicity from its originating temporality. He examines the concepts of   ‘auto-transmission’ (Sichüberlieferung) (180), which describes temporality, ‘resoluteness’ (Entschlossenheit) (185), through which temporality and historicity become authentic, and ‘being-toward-death’ (188). This latter concept leads Derrida to an evaluation of Alexandre Kojève’s suggestion that there exists a relation of analogy between Heidegger and Hegel with respect to their reflections on freedom and death. Derrida is unsympathetic to this view, arguing that Hegel’s and Heidegger’s accounts are ultimately inconsonant because Hegel’s conception of temporality is, for Heidegger, inauthentic ‘intra-temporality’ (194-201). Finally, Derrida strikes upon what he believes to be a concept uniquely characteristic of historicity in BT: repetition (202).

In his final session, Derrida explicates Heidegger’s derivation of world history (Welt-Geschichte) and historical science from the historicity of Dasein (206-214). This involves a digress through Nietzsche and his relation to Hegel (215-221). Derrida then makes some conclusory remarks. He indicates the direction of Heidegger’s later thought and further emphasises the role of metaphor, suggesting again that, for Heidegger, the gradual deconstruction of metaphoricity will instigate a new language through which we could come into direct contact with being and in which the designation ‘being’ would itself be obsolete (223). Finally, in a comment that presages his own subsequent work, Derrida claims that the ultimate problematic for Heidegger will be that of difference (225).

It is evident that this course yields some of Derrida’s earliest reflections on ideas that would later come to define his mature thought: such as deconstruction, writing, trace, metaphysics of presence, binary opposites, and difference. Moreover, this is one of the most readable and accessible of Derrida’s works. He is clearly a gifted exegete, rendering much of Heidegger’s complex text transparent. His thoroughness as a scholar is also clear to see, given his numerous insightful comparisons with Hegel; not to mention the fact that only the first division of BT was available in French at the time of this course (and then only for a few months). As such, most of Derrida’s references to Heidegger were his own translations and this course likely provided an initial exposure amongst its attendees to much of Heidegger’s thought.

There are, however, some weaknesses that could be addressed. Although Derrida readily admits it (222), the tone of this course remains preparative throughout and the reader never feels as though they are getting to the heart of this essential relation between being and historicity. The transition between sessions five and six is awkward; it would also have been beneficial to see more on the distinction drawn between metaphor and poetry in session three – especially given the import Derrida assigns to it. Also, there are moments when the relevance of Derrida’s reflections on the relations of Husserl and Nietzsche to Hegel come into question. Finally, whilst there is the occasionally inconvenient ‘[illegible word]’ notation, this frustration more rightly serves as a testament to the immediacy of our access to Derrida’s thought and as a credit to the translators.

Leave a Reply