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Reviewed by: Viktoria Huegel (University of Brighton)

Why we hesitate

Halfway through Heteronome Subjektivität, Eldracher explores Derrida’s idea of différance in order to engage it for a restoration of the subject in a heteronomous understanding. In a footnote in the same chapter the author indicates that this appropriation of Derrida’s work is not self-evident:

The late works (of Derrida) (after around 1985) are often marked by an indecisiveness (Unentschlossenheit) concerning the question whether the concept of the subject should play a significant role in deconstruction or whether it was so disrupted by Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein that there is no place for it anymore.[1] (52)

It is true. Not without reason, Heidegger had dismissed the term from his thinking and instead replaced it with the notion of Dasein. Certainly, as Heidegger himself writes, “Da-sein is a being which I myself am, its being is in each case mine.” (Heidegger, 1996: 108) It experiences its own self primarily by distinguishing itself from all other beings it comes across in the world. This determination however indicates an ontological constitution: the assumption of the substantiality of Dasein describing it as the ontological interpretation of a subject is nothing more than that, an assumption. Any notion of an “I” must consequently be understood as a noncommittal formal starting point for a hermeneutical examination of the Dasein’s being, always being aware that it might well not be me that is the who of the everyday Dasein. As Dasein is in-the-world there is no such thing as a subject behind it which is isolated from its surrounding world.

In order to justify his endeavor, Eldracher therefore appeals to Heidegger’s earlier work in which he still speaks of an exit out of a philosophy of subjectivity without having to give up the “subject” as a term.

There is world only in so far as Dasein exists. But then is world not something “subjective”? In fact it is! Only one may not at this point reintroduce a common, subjectivistic concept of “subject”. Instead, the task is to see that being-in-the-world, which as existent supplies extant things with entry to world, fundamentally transforms the concept of subjectivity and of the subjective. [2]  (108)

Eldracher demonstrates how the figure of Dasein opens up the metaphysical subject toward its temporal dimension. The subject is decentered and temporalized as it only understands itself in its throwness into a world which it shares with others. Subjects are therefore not understood as initially autonomous actors whose subjectivity is grounded in the subject itself; instead its constitution rests in the subject’s existence.

Still, Heidegger falls back into an individualized understanding of the subject by interpreting this existence from the perspective of the subject’s constitution. After his turn he shifts the perspective from Dasein to Being (Sein), which suggests that ontological phenomena are no longer thought as aspects of Dasein, but instead as moments of withdrawal. Being is now depicted in the figure of an abyss (Ab-grund). It is Being that brings beings and therefore Dasein into existence. Yet it cannot be grasped as a foundation (Grund) due to Being’s temporal character. In the moment of founding, Being is always already withdrawn. Being moves between presence and absence. With this deconstructive gesture Heidegger is able to capture how the impossibility of foundation is the condition for its possibility. The metaphysical moment of foundation becomes temporalized and with the gift of Being man too becomes temporalized: man ek-sists (ek-sistiert) (cf. 87).

Eldracher argues that Heidegger himself misses the decisive conclusion from his analysis: The subject owes its constitution as a subject to an experience which is profoundly foreign to it (49). With that the metaphysical opposition between the subject and the world collapses. Yet Heidegger himself does not realize the possibility of a re-interpretation of the subject, because the subject as a term and concept is liquidated.

Heidegger’s critique of the subject is therefore ambivalent: It provides us with all essential movements for evading the philosophical tradition of the subject and to re-think subjectivity as heteronomous; it however resists this venture as a project which focuses on ontology neglects freedom (to act, Handlungsfähigkeit), responsibility and self-understanding. (16)

Eldracher’s book commits to the subject as a philosophical category and therefore to the enterprise of an affirmative turn in Heidegger’s subject critique which is appropriated for a re-interpretation of the subject as heteronomous. This understanding aims to respond to an aporia which lies at the heart of the metaphysical idea of an autonomous subject: even though autonomy is assumed as being immanent to the subject, the subject constitutes itself through a liberation from all those dependencies that threaten the subject’s autonomy. This however implies an existential dependency on something other than the subject itself: “without the heteronomous there is no opponent, against which it needs to be fought” (10). Eldracher therefore attempts to comprehend those heteronomous aspects which are constitutive for the subject’s constitution in the concept itself. With this heteronomous subjectivity Eldracher hopes to write a counter-narrative against the dominant idea of autonomy.

Eldracher chooses Heidegger’s subject criticism as the bedrock for his venture because he was “the first philosopher who alludes to exposure of human beings to something other” (90). Although, for a heteronomous understanding of subjectivity, Heidegger’s figure of the abyss still needs to be radicalized. It needs an appropriation of it from an ontic, rather than ontological perspective in order to open up the subject towards alterity.

With this prospect in mind, Eldracher first adheres to the ethical turn in the work of Levinas which is meant to renounce Heidegger’s ontology. Levinas reproaches Heidegger for still attempting to incorporate alterity into an underlying structure of Being. The unity and symmetrical movement of the ontological structure ultimately rejects alterity and thereby makes it impossible for a philosophical analysis to take into focus the exposure of the subject towards the Other. According to Levinas, it is not Being but the Other that touches and thus forms the subject.

With that Levinas is able to break with the notion of totality by describing alterity with the experience of infinity over the “absolute Other” (119). It cannot be grasped by the subject; it evades our language. The Other obstructs the closing of totality, it disrupts the homogeneity of the order and does not integrate within its logic. Here, Levinas connects Heidegger’s explication of temporality with the idea of infinity. The face of the Other is the (non)place where infinity and temporality meet, and at the same time constitute subjectivity. Levinas translates the abyssal relationship found in Heidegger’s thought: the subject encounters the Other at the very border of the world which means that the encounter has already happened before the subject identifies itself, and is identified as a subject. The Other repeatedly divides and thus re-constitutes the subject which is therefore always disrupted in its autonomy and self-referentiality. Levinas is thereby able to avoid Heidegger’s individualizing notion of the conscience and instead interprets the possibility of responsibility as originating in the constitution of a heteronomous subject (137). According to Levinas the call to responsibility which Heidegger originated from within Dasein, reaches the subject from a constitutive externality, namely the Other. The subject cannot determine whether it is called or not –  the (non)relation to the Other is always already there. Yet it can still choose whether it responds to the calling and this is where the freedom of the subject can be located. Freedom arises in dependence and the subject’s limitations and is only experienced in the burden of an infinite responsibility for the Other. The responsibility which cannot be refused becomes the content of identity. The subject becomes singular not through its inner unique personality but the fact that it is not able to delegate its guilt to someone else.

For Eldracher, this suggests that Levinas proceeds Heidegger because with the ethical turn to the Other he is able to address the question of how subjects can develop an idea of the self. The quasi-normative conclusion the author draws is that subjects can understand themselves best in their experience of alterity (148). He locates the corresponding decisive shift from the deconstructive towards the affirmative aspects of Heidegger’s subject criticism in the work of Michel Foucault.

While genealogy describes Foucault’s rather deconstructive project, his later works explore the possibilities of resistance and freedom by including the constitutive aspects of power. Close to Levinas’ account, freedom here needs to be understood as relational and not an inherent capacity of the subject. It happens in the very resistance against, thus dependence on, those powers to which the subject is already subjugated. Foucault’s understanding of freedom further allows us to consider the participation of the subject in the process of its constitution. In fact, it constitutes a decisive step to understand how subjects can form self-referentiality which allows them to understand themselves as agents in a historical and cultural context (249).

Foucault draws upon the Ancient concept of self-care to describe how the subject forms itself in taking on a stance to the given moral codes and thus a certain way of life. Instead of the sole subjugation to moral laws and norms, social practices such as relation of power and truth are understood as a framework within which the self cultivates itself. In this context, the idea of parrhesia indicates the subject being open to the world, which does not stand opposed to him as its object, but instead always already asserts itself in the subject. With this, Foucault is the first to introduce an affirmative notion of subjectivity into his thought which enables him to address the role of self-relationality in the subject’s constitution (260).

The chapter on Foucault’s work heralds a decisive hinge for Eldracher project: A deconstructive tradition which breaks down the concept of subject by laying bare moments of alterity meets a hermeneutical approach which is used to incorporate these moments of alterity in the constitution of self-understandings.  According to Eldracher, it needs both traditions for an affirmative turn of Heidegger’s critique of the subject. Deconstruction aims to destruct erroneous self-understandings by demonstrating the impossibility of a fixation and naturalization of subjectivity and point out how the self of subjects always relies on alterity.  It thereby intervenes when the hermeneutical approach risks to close the openness of the subject. Similarly, hermeneutics aims to reveal all those obstructions due to which the subject is not able to understand itself as being open to the world and others, but instead understands itself (erroneously) as a substance. It steps in where deconstruction risks to losing sight of the constitution of self-understandings of the subject, or in fact the subject itself.  For Eldracher hermeneutics and deconstruction hence describe two sides of the same coin. The proximity of both approaches is already illustrated by Heidegger himself: “Hermeneutics is destruction!” (62).

For this reason, the project leads towards Taylor’s work to which Eldracher turns in order to develop the participatory aspect of subjectivation which Foucault already touches on in his analysis of self-care. Eldracher uses Taylor’s concept of moral ontology in order to demonstrate how being human is always a being. Moral ontology in this context is understood as fundamental and ontological condition of potentiality. Every subject is always somehow thrown into the world, which the subject cannot determine and which stipulates its existence. Taylor emphasizes that world always appears in historical concrete relations; there are thus always worlds. At the same time, moral ontology is bound to the ontic: it depends on its reproduction and interpretation through subjects. With that, the self-understanding of the subject is thus always captured between past and future. The self-understanding has always already formed but simultaneously needs to be actualized through future interpretations. Eldracher claims that with this ontologically re-interpreted humanism Taylor is able to address freedom and self-understanding without understanding them as belonging to the substance of a subject (315f).

Taylor and Foucault take on different perspectives on the genesis of modern subjectivity which is why they can complement each other. While Foucault reveals illegitimacy of subordinating processes of subjectivation, Taylor’s affirmative genealogy draws out how self-understandings are stabilized and how they overcome previously dominant self-understandings. Like Foucault, Taylor draws on the contingency of certain self-understandings; however, he does not follow Foucault’s move to simply delegitimize them. Instead, a genealogy needs to affirm positive historical narratives in order to keep identity in the sense of a reference point for subjectivity (333).

Similar to deconstructive authors before him, Taylor reveals which narratives have laid the discursive ground for the idea of autonomous subjects. He overlooks problematizing how those narratives and in particular the narrative of nature as the source for morality not simply ground autonomy, but further suppress any notion of heteronomy. Nevertheless, Eldracher argues that Taylor’s anthropology of being human is able to avoid falling back into a metaphysical humanism as it is bound to a moral ontology. It is not transcendental but instead always refers to a certain historical praxis.

Eldracher insists on the contribution Taylor’s approach made by including the inner perspective of the subject and the role of self-interpretation. He argues that without an affirmative re-interpretation of the subject the criticisms raised by deconstructive works remain politically insignificant. This is why the author is rather dismissive of Derrida’s work as being limited to a structural analysis (197).

Derrida follows Levinas’ criticism in his venture to open up metaphysical thought towards alterity. He resumes Heidegger’s explication of temporality on the structural level asking how language subjugates the three-dimensionality of time under presence and thus affirms the closure of metaphysics into totality. Derrida attempts to demonstrate this supremacy of presence in language though the notion of différance. Like Heidegger’s figure of the abyss and Levinas’ call of the Other, différance describes a play of withdrawal and reference. It puts metaphysical logic into question as it exposes the supplement or the doubling in any transcendental signified. In every meaning of a signified there is subsequently a surplus of meaning; this surplus is contained in the meaning of the signified itself at the same time breaks with its unity. The identity of any phenomenon including the subject therefore always already relies on something which is foreign to it; the phenomenon is never identical to itself (175).

Derrida’s critique focuses on how the criticism of the metaphysical subject is consequently interwoven with a deconstruction of our understanding of meaning. According to Eldracher, it therefore appears to be more precise than Heidegger’s critique of the subject because not only does it reject the category of the subject as a metaphysical construction, but it further problematizes a specific, historically contingent understanding of subjectivity (160). He concludes that it needs a heteronomous understanding of the subject which is able to acknowledge those traces of alterity and non-identity which can be discovered by différance.

As stated above there is an indecisiveness to be found within Derrida when it comes to the subject, similar to the hesitation we can also detect in Heidegger’s work. For Eldracher, this moment of indecisiveness constitutes an important juncture in the deconstructive project. It needs a decision as to whether the concept of the subject should play a significant role. Eldracher’s response is yes. He commits Derrida’s thought to a re-constitution of the subject in a heteronomous understanding and thereby attempts to comprehend Derrida’s notion of différance to utilize it for his own endeavor. It seems however that by that Eldracher misses the depth of Derrida’s venture and the extent to which he radicalizes Heidegger’s subject criticism.

Let us take a moment at this juncture to take Derrida’s indecisiveness more seriously. Taking the named conversation with Jean-Luc Nancy as a whole, Derrida’s indecisiveness is not simply a transitory moment. He is not temporarily torn between an acceptance or rejection of the term because, according to Derrida, there no such thing that could be accepted or rejected. In fact, what has been shown by deconstructive work is that there is no agreement of those thinkers who speak of the subject on what the term actually means. Instead it seems that once certain predicates have been deconstructed, we cannot be sure anymore what we are even designating with the term; the unity and the name have been radically affected. As it turns out, “the subject is a fable” (Derrida 1991, 102).

For Derrida something happened when Heidegger introduced the idea of Dasein, a gap opened. For the first time, thinking was decentered, it moved away from the subject. But it did not go far enough. Ultimately, his endeavor was still restricted and came with new problems as Dasein ultimately repeats the metaphysical logic of subjectivity. Derrida reminds us that “We know less than ever where to cut – either at birth or at death. And thus means that we never know, and never have known, how to cut up a subject” (Derrida 1991, 117), or Dasein in fact.

He hence follows Heidegger’s late shift of perspective away from human beings as those carrying language, to language itself. Certainly, there is a possibility that there is a who as the power to ask questions (which is how Heidegger defines Dasein). But Derrida is interested in how the question of the who? itself is overwhelmed if language is no longer defined as being reserved for what we call man. He speaks of an “originary alliance”, an affirmation, a “yes, yes” of language (Derrida 1991, 100). Before any question can be raised, language is already there. This original alliance is why, according to Heidegger, language cannot be anymore an attribute which characterizes the human. Instead language withdraws itself from us: “In its essence, language is neither expression nor a confirmation of man. Language speaks.” (Heidegger 1950 cited in Eldracher, 105) Derrida continues this by asking: “What if one reinscribes language in a network of possibilities that do not merely encompasses it but mark irreducibly from inside, everything changes.” (Derrida 1991, 116).

Derrida does not go beyond a structural critique as there might be nothing behind the subject. It remains a metaphysical construction. This however does not support the argument that such a structural critique remains ethically and political neutral thus insignificant, as Eldracher states. Derrida puts into doubt Eldracher’s assertion that the traditional position of the subject is the self-evident center for any inquiries on political and ethical dimensions of freedom (Handlungsfreiheit) and responsibility (345).

Derrida warns us to not rush into those words because they risk to over-hastily reconstituting the program of metaphysics together with the suffering that comes from its “surreptitious constrains” (Derrida 1991, 101). Instead he intends to start with responsibility itself, a responsibility which cannot first come after a subject has been established, but is an axiom that must be assumed (108). The reason for this is that there simply is no understanding of the subject, in fact no concept at all, which could be adequate for the responsibility Derrida emphasizes; a responsibility which is “always more and to come” (108). Any endeavor to reconstitute the subject, even in a heteronomous understanding would still assert a calculation and therefore a limitation of responsibility.

For that reason, Derrida demands to eschew the term to some extent. Certainly, he agrees with Eldracher that it is impossible to forget it; yet one might be able to re-arrange it in a way that it no longer dominates the center of ethical or political enterprises.

Against Eldracher’s perception, Derrida’s work does not simply languish indecisiveness, instead it declares an undecidability when it comes to the subject which is demanded by responsibility itself: “there is no responsibility, no ethico-political decision, that must not pass through the proofs of the incalculable or the undecidable. Responsibility demands an “unconditional commitment to deconstruction” (107). It appears that Eldracher’s project seems to struggle with its own indecisiveness: Accepting the aporias of subjectivity which have been laid bare by deconstructive ventures, he still holds tight to the term of the subject. Let us therefore turn the question on its head for a moment: Eldracher seems to acknowledge the extent to which certain predicates of the subject have been deconstructed, in Heidegger’s critique as well as in the works of Levinas, Derrida and Foucault. What is the benefit, and to what right then does he still speak of the subject? Throughout the book, Eldracher only mentions the “traditional connection” of the term to discussions of political and ethical dimensions of freedom and responsibility to defend the subject, as well as the idea that the metaphysical discourse of subjectivity could never be eliminated and corrected (349). But is this enough? In light of Derrida’s work these arguments appear rather rash. Disregarding potential flaws for a moment, both Heidegger’s and Derrida’s ventures remind us to slow down, to take a moment before throwing oneself into the enterprise of re-interpreting the subject. They demand to first ask oneself to what questions such a project even intends to answer. And at times, it might even be the rightly posed question, and not the answer that can prompt political consequences.


Derrida, Jacques. ‘“Eating Well”, or the Calculation of the Subject: An Interview with Jacques Derrida’. In Who Comes after the Subject?, edited by Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor, and Jean-Luc Nancy, 96–119. London: Routledge, 1991.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. New York: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Heidegger, Martin, and Michael Heim. The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic. Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

[1] All translations are my own, unless otherwise indicated.

[2] Translation found in Heidegger, Martin, and Michael Heim. The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic. Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984, 195.