There is no doubt that hermeneutics today does not have the role of cultural koinè it enjoyed at the end of the last century. On the contrary, hermeneutical thought appears underestimated and misunderstood as fundamentally anti-modern. The rediscovery of the real essence of hermeneutics and the appreciation of its contemporary relevance requires that we critique several of its post-modern interpretations. This volume goes precisely in this direction. It is the product of a conference held on the 27th and 28th of September at the University of Montréal, where some of the most relevant scholars of hermeneutics aimed to rethink the relation between hermeneutics and metaphysics, traditionally considered antithetical.
Jean Grondin, the editor of the volume, immediately underlines that this signals a specific stance against those post-modern philosophers (Vattimo, Rorty, Ferraris), who have tried to read hermeneutics as “anti-metaphysical” or “post-metaphysical”, unbinding it from every “perennial structure” and underlining the heterogeneity of reality and languages with no possibility of a superior unity. These interpretations also differ, I can add, from Di Cesare’s conception of hermeneutics as “a-metaphysical” (Di Cesare 2013). The aim of this volume is to delineate a new way of connecting these two disciplines – a path already traced by Grondin’s fundamental works (Grondin 2004, 2013, 2019) – with the presupposition that metaphysics is only possible as hermeneutics just as hermeneutics is only possible as metaphysics.
As Jean Greisch notes in his contribution, this might appear as a “backward-looking operation” (18). Indeed, hermeneutics is based on the assumption of radical finitude and the centrality of history, which seems opposed to the metaphysical inclination to determine universal and perennial structures. However, the two most important heirs of Heidegger’s philosophy, i.e., Gadamer and Ricoeur, distanced themselves both from Heidegger’s critique of metaphysics and from post-metaphysical readings. Against the Nietzsche-Heidegger duo that criticizes metaphysics and claims its overcoming, the authors of this volume follow distinct paths that go in the same general direction: they try to show the intimate connection between hermeneutics and metaphysics. The relevance of this volume rests in this attempt to highlight some possibilities for the renewal of hermeneutics. At the same time, the contributors to this volume try to reassess the very concept of metaphysics, freeing it from exceedingly rigid interpretations and trying to harmonize metaphysics with contemporary needs.
The task of this volume is in this respect very ambitious and tackles two complex and variegated concepts, hermeneutics and metaphysics, both from historical and theoretical points of view. The risks of generalization or naiveté, sometimes incurred in the single contributions, is on the whole avoided. The different papers promote stimulating proposals that invite further development. In particular, the focus of the volume and its relevance consists in the fundamental aim just mentioned; namely, rethinking hermeneutics against its underestimation, an underestimation that derives from the association of hermeneutical thought with so called “weak thought” or with “new realism”. This accords with a recent recovery given to hermeneutics, in particular in the USA (George-Heyden, 2021), a path that could hopefully be developed in order to underline and exploit the import of hermeneutics with regard to contemporary questions. Paradoxically, its contemporaneity can be underlined only by reconnecting it with metaphysics: this is the fundamental challenge of this volume.
The contributions can be divided into three main parts: in the first, the authors (Greisch, Rodrìguez) try to rethink hermeneutics, while in the second, complementarily, the essays aim to renew metaphysics (Perrin, Beuchot). In the last part, the contributions focus on the main “hermeneutical thinkers” in order to see how they realize (Boutet, Jaran, Canullo) or trace (Vallée) a renewing of the relation between hermeneutics and metaphysics.
Rethinking Hermeneutics: Transcendence and Ontology
There are different ways to tackle the complex question of the relation between hermeneutics and metaphysics. Jean Greisch chooses a theoretical approach that moves from the conceptual analysis of the notions of “hermeneutics”, “metaphysics” and “transcendence”. He follows a thread that unites Dilthey, Rosenzweig and Heidegger, showing that they do not simply oppose metaphysics; rather, they stress the “meta” function of thought, which is a crucial element of metaphysics as such. Both Dilthey (in Introduction to the Human Sciences) and Rosenzweig (in The Star of Redemption) underline the need for a new understanding of metaphysics. The latter, moreover, talks not merely of philosophical anthropology, cosmology and theology, but rather of “meta-physics”, “meta-ethics” and “meta-logic”. Analogously, Heidegger talks of a “metaphysics of Dasein” that has its prerogative in the “transcendence of Dasein”, as it emerges in Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics and in the 1928-30 lessons in Freiburg and Marburg (Introduction to Philosophy, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, and The Basic Problem of Phenomenology). The author stresses that for Heidegger (as for Dilthey) Dasein is intrinsically “transcendent”. As the fundamental quote of Heidegger emblematically explains, Dasein, as a monad, has no door and no windows because it does not need them. This is not because Dasein does not need to “go beyond”, but because it is “already beyond”. Indeed, Heidegger focuses on the concept of the “hermeneutic of transcendence” in relation to the concepts of “freedom”, “essence of ground”, and “essence of truth”. Greisch affirms that all of us “engage” an explicit metaphysical questioning, because we all are fundamentally the play of “originary transcendence” (23).
Greisch follows this path, aiming to underline the need to keep transcendence as an intrinsic characteristic of Dasein: this necessarily requires the elaboration of a “metaphysics of Dasein”. Moving from the strict connection between metaphysics and Dasein, reconnecting to a terminology used by Ricoeur (in Réflexion faite), he focuses on the double structure that characterizes metaphysics: expansion [enlargement] (with Aristotle’s refutation of Parmenides that shows the unification of the attributes in ousia) and hierarchisation [hiérarchisation] (with Plato’s discourse on the five categories of same, other, being, rest and movement). In this same direction, the author refers to Stanislas Breton, who, in Reflexion sur la function méta, analyses three aspects of the “meta” function, and which become four in Greisch’s own account (metaphor, metamorphosis, metastasis, metabolism). These issues of the function “meta” are connected by the author with those of transcendence. Transcendence relates to “trans-ascendance”, an idealization without elevation, and to “trans-descendance”, as incarnation. The author explains this structure by drawing a diagram that shows how the vertical axis (consisting of trans-ascendance and trans-descendance), intersects with the horizontal axis, encompassing the directions of “trans-possibility” (understood as the extension of Dasein into the future, with reference to Heidegger’s “project”) and “trans-passibility” (understood as excess and not as mere constriction, like Heidegger’s “thrownness”).
Ramon Rodrìguez’s contribution focuses on another fundamental pair of concepts, often considered opposites: historicity (the leading concept of the nineteenth century, indicating what is essentially becoming and situated in a specific context) and ontology (the emblem of perennial structures). The author analyses Gadamer’s conception, which has often been misinterpreted as “historicist”, with the intent to underline that, on the contrary, Gadamerian thought must be considered opposed to historicism [Historismus]. He thus reads Gadamer as capable of thinking a new way forward not only for hermeneutics, but also for metaphysics, by conceiving the concept of history in connection with truth.
At first glance, Gadamerian hermeneutics might appear clearly distinct from metaphysics, as several post-metaphysical thinkers claim. First of all, hermeneutics focuses on the concept of the “radical finitude” of the human being: only on that basis can every relation between Dasein and the world be understood. In this respect, we are in front of a thought that rejects every globalizing or exhaustive concept of existence. Secondly, hermeneutics opposes presence, which is characteristic of the structure of essence and being in metaphysics, with “the happening of the event [Geschehen]”. Hermeneutics in fact aims to think the constant motility and openness of understanding [Verstehen]. Despite this fundamental claim, Rodrìguez determinately claims that it is possible to talk of a “hermeneutical philosophia prima” (42).
The author aims to stress the relevance of Gadamer’s conception of history for a correct understanding of his conception of language. Analyzing the second part of Gadamer’s Truth and Method, he shows Gadamer’s intent to criticize historicism as the tendency, I claim, to historicize everything except the very subject who understands the historicized content. In opposition to this idea, Gadamer points to the relevance of tradition (as Überlieferung, and not as monolithic tradition, as the author correctly stresses). History is a specific spatial-temporal context where Dasein is situated and where comprehension begins. It is remarkable that here the author underlines Hegel’s influence over Gadamer’s philosophy. However, this fundamental reference is not fully developed. It might be relevant to analyze how Gadamer develops the insights of Hegel’s philosophy in contraposition to historicism, pointing to the fundamental issue of the connection between history and truth without returning to the concept of “absolute spirit”. This emerges not only in Truth and Method but also in a previous essay titled The Problem of Historical Consciousness. It is also notable for the relation with metaphysics that Gadamer often defines himself as a defender of the “bad infinite”.
Rodrìguez wants to show that only by focusing on this issue it is possible to correctly understand the famous and controversial Gadamerian saying “being that can be understood is language” (Gadamer, 1960). This sentence must be conceived neither as a classical metaphysical formulation, namely that language is the supreme being – in this respect I claim that it is important to stress that Gadamer himself returned to these questions, rethinking the role of language in relation to its limits (as the essay on The Limits of the Language testifies) – nor as a post-metaphysical complete absence of truth in the multiplicity of languages that lack any unity. The author claims that we need to understand language as the fundamental medium of our historical being (45). Passing from Geschichtlichkeit to Sprachlichkeit means that the famous concept of the “fusion of horizons” (between the interpreter and the text, between different cultures) is only possible in the communal horizon of language. When it comes to this fundamental claim, I think it is crucial to stress that speaking of language as a medium does not mean it is an instrument [Mittel], but rather is a center [Mitte] where the human being is inevitably situated, as Gadamer affirms with reference to Hegel.
At the end of his contribution the author aims to restate his claim: it is possible to conceive of a “philosophia prima” in Gadamer, but this does not imply the recovery of the idea of a final foundation of philosophy. The connection between being and history constitutes a path of Dasein open to experience and connected with its transcendence (as Heidegger understands it). It is my belief that this could be explained as the infinite possibility of the finite. In this direction, Rodrìguez stresses that there is no reference to an “onto-theological” conception, with a hierarchical classification of being. As the concept of the “classical” implied by Gadamer testifies, his conception of history does not entail an atemporal vision, but rather the way in which the past is able to talk to the present: “This atemporality is rather a way of historical being” (51).
Rethinking Metaphysics: Physis and Analogy
The next two contributions in the volume follow a complementary path, renovating the concept of metaphysics in order to show its compatibility with contemporary hermeneutics. Christophe Perrin’s paper inspects the conflictual relation between physics and metaphysics, aiming to underline the impossibility of doing away with metaphysics. In light of this, not even hermeneutics can surpass metaphysics: what must be done is to establish a ground for a “metaphysical hermeneutics”. The author moves from the famous assertion ascribed to Newton to “guard oneself against metaphysics”. This represented a fundamental warning to the positivists and, in general, for those thinkers who tried to overcome metaphysics. The author tries to show that the assertion does not mean a mere critique of metaphysics, but rather a “sage memento” (62), by appealing to the classical argument that criticizing metaphysics necessarily implies doing metaphysics. In this respect, the two disciplines – i.e., physics and metaphysics – appear strongly connected, despite having been considered separate since the modern age, with the former being focused on corporeal entities and the latter on the higher causes that account for the very possibility of those entities (God, the cosmos, the soul). The author follows this path by analyzing the conception expressed by Newton, showing that the exhortation to “guard oneself against metaphysics” does not refer to something external one must drive away, but rather to an intrinsic tendency that is always present in the physicist himself, a “metaphysical drive” that may lead physics to lose its purpose and dissolve in the “curiosity” mentioned by Aristotle. In this respect, the physicist must follow the advice presented in Voltaire’s Candide: cultivate your garden. In sum, Perrin aims to show the hermeneutical circularity that inhabits metaphysics: “In order to understand metaphysics we must think, but in order to think we must understand metaphysics” (68). The somewhat rhetorical conclusion of the author is that the perpetual stimulus to think metaphysically helps us understand that not even hermeneutics can escape the metaphysical temptation.
Mauricio Beuchot also engages with the concept of metaphysics in order to propose its reformulation. He focuses on ontology in particular, claiming, contra Vattimo, that hermeneutics without ontology would be “acephalous”. The author underlines that both Gadamer and Ricoeur – the two fundamental hermeneutical thinkers of the contemporary world – developed a kind of ontology (an ontology of art in Gadamer, an ontology of the self in Ricoeur). For the author it is possible to rethink metaphysics only by elaborating a concept able to face the objection raised by Nietzsche and Heidegger. In this direction, the author develops the concept of “analogical ontology” proposed by Paul Gilbert. He focuses on the role of analogy, moving from Aristotle’s intuition that “being can be said in many ways”. Analogy – as developed by Pseudo-Dionigi in the three phases of negation, affirmation, and excess – aims to affirm that God’s being neither coincides with that of other entities nor wholly transcends it; rather, it is analogically related to it, encompassing both similarity and differentiation. An analogical ontology makes use of the concept of symbol as what mediates between the universal and the particular. In light of this, the human being is a symbol of God in a way that is neither univocal (as in classical metaphysics) nor equivocal (as in post-modern thought). These categories are of course too schematic, but they are directed at exposing the author’s proposal: “The human is the metaphor of being in a metonymical way, as a part that is sign of the whole” (77). The focus is an ontology of man that follows Heidegger’s conception expressed in his fundamental Ontology: Hermeneutics of facticity. The author wants to present an intermediate way. The last part of the essay appears to be less cogent, for the author tries to show the need for this concept of metaphysics by considering the metaphysical tendency as a sort of “pharmakon” for the modern melancholia that would be aggravated by post-metaphysical thinking. The aim of analogical ontology should thus be ethical and political. It should be a concept able to take into account the motility of the modern philosopher and to answer Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s critiques: an ontology that is both universal and concrete, based on the historical situation of man.
Dilthey, Heidegger, Gadamer, Ricouer: “Hermeneutical Metaphysics?”
Rudolf Boutet’s contribution aims to stress the connection between metaphysics and hermeneutics moving from the tendency, common to Gadamer and Ricouer, to hearken back to the metaphysical tradition. This approach, the author stresses, is not merely a kind of “history of philosophy”, but rather a “creative interpretation of metaphysics”. This is particularly evident in Ricouer’s The rule of metaphor where he recovers the Aristotelian conception of being with the aim of giving a metaphysical basis to the internal dynamism of being concealed by the historical assimilation of being to substance. He addresses the Aristotelian doctrine of being conceived of as a “poetic of being”: being reveals the metaphor as an actualization of being (Ricouer, 1975). Analogously, Gadamer concludes Truth and method by making referencing to the Platonic-Plotinian conception of beauty as the emblem of the manifestation of truth. Boutet claims that this is not just a historical reference but rather a movement that keeps together philosophy and history. He specifically analyses Ricouer’s conception of time developed in Time and narrative. Ricouer deals with the aporia of time, that is, time is at the same time both plural and unique. The author correctly affirms that this analysis is the basis for Ricouer’s conception of history and its criticism of both utopianism (that paralyses action) and the mere restatement of past structures. This approach to tradition is what the author defines as a “creative interpretation” of metaphysics that does not come down to a merely subjective decision. It is rather “an interpretation that, in order to be adequate to the object, decides to produce a sense” (91). The fundamental claim is to rethink the creation of sense through a symbolic interpretation connected to both the metaphorical and conceptual levels. Just like Beuchot proposes an intermediate way via analogy, Boutet claims a mediation between the metaphysical issue and the multiplicity of reality.
François Jaran’s paper contributes to the general aim of the volume by focusing on how hermeneutics is able to tackle fundamental metaphysical questions such as the existence of the external world. In particular he wants to show that Heidegger inherits the “resolution” of this problem from Dilthey, despite his critique of Dilthey’s philosophy. The author contends that the intent animating Dilthey’s thought is to “explain life with itself”. This informs his critique of metaphysics and in particular its separation between man and world, such as theory and praxis, as it appears in the Introduction to the Human Sciences. Even though Dilthey strongly criticizes metaphysics (Dilthey, 1924), the author affirms that it is possible to talk of a “Diltheyan ontology” (101). According to the author, the concept of Erlebnis (crucial for Dilthey) should constitute the analogy of being. In fact, for Dilthey, the problem of the justification of the external world does not exist, because man is naturally situated in this world, as it emerges from his lived experience. From here, the author comes to affirm that, for Dilthey, Erlebnis is substance and the external world its accidents. This entails that the external world is given immediately to human beings. In strong connection with this, Dilthey refers to the concept of Innewerden (to become aware) that perfectly fits the relation between man and reality. In this direction Jaran claims: “Erlebnis is a primitive datum, whose seizing gives access to the more fundamental reality” (104). The author also claims that the concept of Innenwende is at the center of Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s conception, as a sort of key word of hermeneutics – I would rather claim that this cannot be the case for Heidegger nor for Gadamer, even though they inherit Dilthey’s conception of the relation between human and world. Indeed, they distance themselves from a philosophy of mere interiority based on Erlebnis, opposing to it, as is well known, the concept of Erfahrung.
Dilthey’s claim is undoubtedly a rehabilitation of a kind of experience where there is no distinction between the perceiver and the perceived; as such, he is critical of the traditional metaphysical conceptions that separate man and world. So the author aims to stress the “metaphysical aspect” present in Dilthey’s philosophy: “It is a philosophy that criticized the so-called ‘metaphysical speculation’, but it is however itself a metaphysical speculation” (106). Using this interpretative key, Jaran stresses that this is the main thread that leads to Heidegger, in particular referencing paragraph 43 of Being and Time, defined by Jaran as one of the “most metaphysical” paragraphs of Heidegger’s book. Heidegger in fact, following Dilthey, affirms that there is no separation between man and the world, because Dasein is co-originary with the world: it is not possible to think the world and Dasein separately; in fact Dasein gibt es (is given) together with the world. Thus, the author wants to stress that both Dilthey and Heidegger provide a solution to a crucial metaphysical problem. One last remark: following this parallelism, it would seem that Heidegger’s Dasein has the same role as Dilthey’s Erlebnis, being (in the author’s view) the substance whose accidents make up the world. I think this could be problematic and could make us lose sight of the claim of Heidegger’s philosophy (the role of Dasein as a peculiar being and not at all as being), thereby implying an existentialist reading of Dasein.
Marc-Antoine Vallée’s intent is to investigate whether hermeneutics has the “sufficient resources” to elaborate a metaphysics, conceived in the widest possible sense as “a reflection on beings and on its principles” (114). The author has a prudent (and sharable) vision, claiming that in the main contemporary hermeneutical thinkers, namely Gadamer and Ricouer, there is only the basis for a further development of “metaphysical hermeneutics”. The author rightly wants to oppose Caputo’s criticism of Gadamer’s hermeneutics (Caputo, 1987) as still connected with metaphysics, proposing a “radical hermeneutics” that intertwines with deconstruction and refuses every metaphysical problem. On the contrary Vallée claims that we must recover the relation of Gadamer and Ricouer to the main metaphysical questions. He investigates two central metaphysical topics in Truth and method, namely, the role of language and the connection of beauty with truth. I think, however, that it could be useful to remind ourselves that, as far as the question of art is concerned, Gadamer has notably rethought the Platonic-Plotinian conception of art in a more “anthropological” direction, as we see in the fundamental essay The Relevance of the Beautiful. Vallée also focuses on Gadamer essay Phenomenology, Hermeneutics, Metaphysics, in which the author affirms that “phenomenology, hermeneutics and metaphysics are not different philosophical points of view, but rather the same expression of the philosophical act itself” (116). Analogously, the author indicates three possible metaphysical directions in Ricouer: the metaphysics of symbol (in Existence and Hermeneutics), the metaphysics of text (The Rule of Metaphor), and the metaphysics of the self (Oneself as Another).
The author’s main claim is that these philosophers are not metaphysical in a traditional sense (as Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel), but rather, following Grondin (2003), it is possible to talk of a “silent metaphysical dimension”. For Vallée, Gadamer and Ricoeur exhibit a sort of reticence to explicitly think metaphysically; moreover, there are some bases that prevent a complete development of a metaphysical conception. In fact, hermeneutics inherits the main claim of Heidegger’s thought as the openness of thinking and a refusal of every fundamental. From this point of view, going beyond the conceptions of Gadamer and Ricouer, hermeneutics could deal with a concept of “metaphysical rationality”. In his last remark, the author wants to recover the thought of Augustine, considered as a metaphysical thinker who set the stage for a “metaphysics of existence”. The message that emerges, I claim, is that, to promote hermeneutics nowadays, we need to recover a metaphysical conception, as proposed by Augustine.
The last article moves from Gadamer’s proposal in the above mentioned essay Phenomenology, Hermeneutics, Metaphysics, in which he claims that the question of metaphysics is “still open” in the contemporary age. Carla Canullo aims to show the intrinsic connection of metaphysics and hermeneutics by taking into account their etymologies. The two disciplines emerge in Greek philosophy: specifically, while metaphysics arises in Aristotelian thought in the aim of showing that being can be said in different ways, hermeneutics is conceived by Plato in his Ion, affirming that the poet’s interpretation is able to grasp the essence of reality. However, in modern metaphysics (since the Scholastics) being is thought in terms of a “fixed conception”, while hermeneutics is a discipline that allows for the openness of thought. In opposition to this conception, the author claims that since its birth, metaphysics represents a “second navigation” that moves from the investigations of natural beings to their essence. Since that time, metaphysics is always renovating itself. This can be confirmed by the term “meta” (already at the center of Greisch’s contribution) which, among different significances, means “between two”, i.e., the crack which metaphysics has always left open. Following the author’s argumentation, this implies that metaphysics is not a fixed discipline, but is rather in a constant, dynamic movement from and to physis – the movement expressed by the “meta” of metaphysics. On the other hand, hermeneutics, following the Greek “legein”, is connected with “collection”, keeping together. So, as metaphysics passes through physics, hermeneutics presupposes the need of “something” that must be collected: “Hermeneutics collects what the ‘meta’ prefix divides” (131). This recollection, however, does not imply the elimination of difference. The author affirms that metaphysics and hermeneutics mirror each other in a continuous work of renewal. This movement, which happens continuously, constitutes the emblem of the relation between the two, and can never arrive to an end.
Caputo, John D. 1987. Radical Hermeneutics. Indiana University Press.
Di Cesare, Donatella. 2013. Gadamer. A Philosophical Portrait. Translated by Niall Keane. Indiana University Press.
Dilthey, Wilhelm. 1924. Die geistige Welt. Einleitung in die Philosophie des Lebens. Teubner. Translated by R.A. Makkereel, F. Rodi, Introduction to the Human sciences. 1989. Princeton University Press.
Ferraris, Maurizio. 2014. Introduction to New Realism. Bloomsbury.
Gadamer, Hans-George. 1960. Wahrheit und Methode, Mohr Siebeck. Translated by J. Weinsheimer, D.G. Marshall. 2004. Truth and Method. Continuum.
George, Theodore, Gert, Jan Van der Heyden (eds.). 2021. The Gadamerian Mind. Routledge.
Grondin, Jean. 2004. Introduction à la métaphasique. Presses de l’Université de Montréal.
Grondin, Jean. 2013. Du sens de choses. L’idée de la métaphysique. Puf.
Grondin, Jean. 2019. La beauté de la métaphasique. Essais sur ses piliers herméneutiques. Puf.
Heidegger, Martin. 1927. Sein und Zeit, Niemeyer. Translated by J. Stambaugh, 2010. Being and Time. State University of New York Press.
Ricouer, Paul. 1975. La métaphore vive, Éditions du Seuil. Translated by R. Czerny. The Rule of Metaphor. 1977. University of Toronto Press.
Vattimo, Gianni, Rovatti Pier Aldo (Eds.). 2012. The Weak Thought. SUNY Press.
Johan de Jong’s The Movement of Showing opens with the observation that “Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida consistently characterize their thought in terms of a development, movement, or pathway, rather than in terms of positions, propositions, or conclusions” (xix). In other words, they do not stake out a definite position that they defend against all comers; rather, they call attention to the movement that carries us beyond each apparently fixed position that a work might seem to present. Indeed, not only do they not aim to delineate a fixed, complete, and fully consistent position, they regard such a delineation as impossible, so noting that they fail to accomplish it does not suffice as a criticism of them. Readers, or would-be readers, of Derrida in particular often stop here, dismissing his work as so much nonsensical relativism. De Jong instead asks how we are to understand this movement that resists any fixed position and how we might critique it without taking it for a failed attempt to establish a fixed position. These questions, which de Jong addresses in an admirably nuanced fashion that makes this book well worth reading, ultimately point us to questions about justice and responsibility.
Thus we as readers find ourselves confronted with the question of what it means to read de Jong’s text responsibly. How do we engage with the impossibility of reducing it to a single determinate position about the three philosophers – G.W.F. Hegel, Martin Heidegger, and Jacques Derrida – with which it primarily deals? For what is here called a “movement” must exceed de Jong’s stated positions as it exceeds theirs. Asking “how such a discourse of movement can be understood and criticized,” he maintains that “answering this question does not, as some may think, itself require indirectness, textual extravagance, or a poeticization of philosophical method (even though these cannot in principle be excluded from the realm of philosophical efficacy)” (xxii). What, though, does it mean to say that answering a question does or does not require indirectness? “Indirectness” is the word de Jong has chosen to name the “undercutting gesture” by which “Derrida’s claims and conclusions are invariably repeated, reversed, retracted, contradicted, visibly erased, or otherwise implicitly or explicitly complicated” according to the movement that cannot be contained within any fully determined position (xxii). Yet if indeed thought itself cannot be thus contained – if any position that one might suppose to be fully determined in fact always already undercuts itself – then it is less a matter of indirectness being required than of indirectness being impossible to avoid, at least in implicit form, no matter how hard one tries. De Jong’s style does differ considerably from Derrida’s; readers who regard Derrida’s style, or styles, as obfuscatory should not be able to make the same complaint about de Jong’s, and if they read The Movement of Showing they ought, moreover, to come away with a better understanding of why Derrida wrote as he did. That said, de Jong implicitly recognizes that indirectness is also at work in his own book when he writes that “the very term ‘indirect’ is itself also not the adequate, definite, final or right word for what is investigated here” (xxii). I will return, at the conclusion of this review, to the question of indirectness in de Jong’s text. For the moment, let us note that the impossibility of finding any “adequate, definite, final or right word” will be a recurring theme throughout, and it is one that we must bear in mind when reading any text, whether a book by Derrida, The Movement of Showing, or, for that matter, this review. At the same time, we cannot escape words, however inadequate and indefinite they may be, nor should we desire to – and the joint impossibility and undesirability of such an escape will prove central to ethical responsibility.
Part I, “Sources of Derrida’s Indirectness,” examines, with remarkable nuance and precision, Derrida’s manner of writing. In chapter 1, De Jong begins by arguing that, contrary to what some commentators have supposed on the basis of certain of Derrida’s more direct assertions, Derrida does not and cannot offer a theory of language. Readers of Of Grammatology at times make the mistake of deriving a theory of language from it, which they then attribute to Derrida, according to which speech, traditionally considered superior to writing because of its immediacy, is in fact just as mediated as writing and should therefore be understood as arche-writing, or writing in a more general sense of the term. Derrida’s point, however, is that this theory is already in Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, Saussure’s intentions to the contrary notwithstanding. Taking it as Derrida’s theory fails to understand that there can be no definitive theory of language. Arche-writing is not writing understood more broadly, as if we could fully understand language once we worked out the proper definition of “writing”; rather, it marks the impossibility of attaining some ideal meaning that would be unmediated and fully present. Derrida does not offer a theory, explains de Jong, but seeks rather to show the movement that reveals the limits of all theories, even as they try to present themselves as complete.
Readers of Derrida who recognize that neither he nor anyone else can offer a complete and consistent theory of language often interpret him as an opponent of metaphysics, but de Jong shows in chapter 2 that this interpretation also fails. There is no way out of metaphysics, and Derrida does not propose to offer one. Seeking to overcome metaphysics is itself metaphysical, for any attempt to get outside metaphysics already depends on metaphysics to define itself. What is more, the history of metaphysics is the history of this attempted overcoming. Questioning metaphysics is not, therefore, a matter of opposition, and this questioning even calls itself into question precisely because any attempt to think metaphysics necessarily occurs within the language of metaphysics. That theories are limited in no way entails that we can step outside or overcome their limits.
Having demonstrated the problems with certain popular interpretations of Derrida’s texts – that he offers a theory of language and that he calls for the overcoming of metaphysics – de Jong asks, in chapter 3, whether Derrida can be justified. If Derrida argues that all positions are incomplete and undo themselves, then pointing to omissions or inconsistencies in his work hardly serves to refute him, but it is equally unclear what grounds one might find to justify a work that disclaims the very attempt to produce a complete and consistent position – and de Jong insists that Derrida’s would-be defenders must recognize the latter point just as much as the former. It is not that Derrida makes a virtue of mere contradiction, as if one ought to embrace inconsistency itself as final and definitive. But de Jong emphasizes that “Derrida cannot be completely safeguarded against the accusations from which his works must nevertheless be tirelessly distinguished” (76). Derrida is not the mere relativist that he has often been accused of being, and yet “the risk of assimilation and supposed misreading is not an extrinsic one, but intrinsic to the operation of deconstruction” (78). There is a real sense, therefore, in which Derrida cannot be justified – which is not to say that his work can be dissociated from justice (a point to which de Jong will return). De Jong warns us against the “reassurance mechanism” that consists in saying, “Never mind [Derrida’s] critics; they clearly haven’t read the texts” (78). The point is apt, but I suggest that one might ask the critics whether they have read their own texts. For a more careful reading might show them that misreading and reading can never be neatly separated; nor, for that matter, can writing and what one might call miswriting. As deconstruction operates within any text, it is not only Derrida’s texts that cannot be safeguarded from any possibility of misreading – and this point is one that merits greater emphasis than de Jong gives it in this chapter. He rightly points out what he calls the vulnerability of Derrida’s texts, at the risk of suggesting that Derrida’s texts are unusually vulnerable. Still, Part I is an excellent reading of Derrida, and since reading and misreading cannot be disentangled, there is no way to exclude every possible misinterpretation. De Jong’s argument that Derrida does not call us to overcome metaphysics, as if going beyond metaphysics were possible, is a particularly valuable contribution to the literature.
De Jong now turns to Hegel in Part II and then to Heidegger in Parts III and IV. Since Derrida cannot be outside the metaphysical tradition, his relation to Hegel and Heidegger cannot consist, as it has often been thought to do, in rejecting them as still too metaphysical. This reexamination of Hegel and Heidegger thus follows from the analysis in Part I, and it shows that they are rather less different from Derrida than they are generally imagined to be – without, however, assimilating them into a single position. All three thinkers reveal the limits of any thought that seeks to establish a fixed position, while they also recognize that we cannot step outside or beyond the limits of thought itself.
Part II, “Movement and Opposition,” begins with the argument, in chapter 4, that for Hegel as for Derrida, philosophical questioning cannot itself be detached from its object. Indeed, de Jong writes that “Hegel is the first philosopher to explicitly locate the aforementioned entanglement right at the heart of the philosophical enterprise” (85). It is for this reason that philosophy cannot arrive at a conclusive end to its investigations: philosophy is always investigating itself. Hegelian dialectic is often interpreted to mean that philosophy will progressively free itself from its own limits and reach Absolute Knowing, a final position in which alterity is no more, and Derrida’s own readings of Hegel have fueled this misconception. Through a consideration of the development of Hegel’s thought, de Jong shows that Hegel does not propose that philosophy’s movement can or should be brought to a halt. Precisely because the absolute is not the cessation of movement, “Hegel’s ‘absolute’ idealism must be interpreted as an affirmation of the limits of reflection” (121): reflection does not transcend its limits but is carried along within them, and it is within its limits that it finds itself haunted by the alterity that can never be made fully present.
What, though, of Derrida’s own readings of Hegel, in which Derrida seems to regard Hegel as an opponent of alterity and himself as an opponent of Hegel? De Jong turns to this question in chapter 5 and argues, without denying the differences between the two philosophers, that Derrida’s relation to Hegel is not, and cannot be, one of simple opposition. In any case, opposition is never simple, since the sides of a dichotomy are necessarily dependent on each other to the very extent that they are defined by their opposition. What is more, Derrida offers multiple readings of Hegel – or, to put it another way, the name “Hegel” does not stand for the same figure every time it appears in his texts. At times, as for instance in “Tympan,” it does stand for a figure who seeks to eliminate the risk posed by negativity or alterity – but “Tympan” is less a supposedly definitive reading of Hegel and more an attempt “to stage a confrontation of philosophy with that in which the philosopher would not recognize himself, not so foreign to philosophy as to leave it undisturbed, and not so close to philosophy as to do no more than repeat it” (134). It is, in short, an attempt to call attention to philosophy’s limits so that it will not mistake itself for the final, complete answer. Derrida’s target is not Hegel but a complacent Hegelianism that believes that all that is worthwhile is, or at least can be, subjected to its comprehension. Reading “Hors livres, préfaces” in Derrida’s Dissemination, de Jong finds that Derrida first describes the Hegel of Hegelianism before coming to the Hegel who is a thinker of movement and of difference – a Hegel who is not Derrida but in whom Derrida finds a “point of departure” (149) that is not simply the basis for opposition. Or, as de Jong puts it, “Derrida needs Hegel’s ‘speculative dialectics’ as a point of contrast, but he is aware that Hegel cannot be reduced to those terms. […] The more radical [sic] Derrida presents himself as moving beyond Hegel, the more emphatically his allegiance to Hegel is reaffirmed” (151). Derrida needs Hegel because of how Hegel can be read and misread: the thinker of movement who has been misinterpreted as a thinker of overly definitive absolutism is a fitting interlocutor for another writer who, precisely because he is also a thinker of movement, is profoundly concerned with questions of interpretation, questions of reading, misreading, and the complex interplay thereof. Indeed, one should not suppose that reading and misreading are independent and readily distinguishable – a point implicit in de Jong’s insistence on the impossibility of safeguarding Derrida from misreadings.
Part III, “Heidegger: The Preservation of Concealment,” reads Heidegger’s Being and Time and Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event) in order to explore the theme of indirectness in Heidegger. In chapter 6, considering Heidegger’s criticisms of the language of Being and Time, de Jong argues that the problem was not that the language of Being and Time failed by remaining too much within metaphysics, nor can the Kehre be understood as a turn to looking for a language that would adequately say being. Rather, the language of Being and Time was, in Heidegger’s later view, insufficiently attentive to the inevitability of a certain failure, and Heidegger came to seek “a language that would take into account, recognize, and preserve a certain necessary failure-to-say with respect to (the question of) being” (156). This language would still be metaphysical since the overcoming of metaphysics is itself metaphysical, but it would strive to reveal the very impossibility of finding a location outside metaphysics from which to philosophize. Already in Being and Time questioning is no straightforward matter, however: that Dasein questions being from within being is crucial to the book – an obvious point in itself, but what has been neglected is that the middle and late Heidegger’s works, including those written post-Kehre, therefore represent not a break with his early thought but a deepening of themes and problems that were in play from the start.
Chapter 7 pursues this analysis via a reading of the Contributions. De Jong emphasizes that the forgetfulness of being is neither a problem that can be solved nor an error that can be fixed. Heidegger’s goal is not and cannot be to overcome this forgetfulness but is “to recognize and preserve that forgetfulness as such, or interpret it originally” (200). Indeed, overcoming the forgetfulness, as though it could be left behind, would amount to forgetting it again. What is essential is that we strive not to forget the forgetfulness, that we strive to recognize the limits of thought – which is precisely not stepping beyond them as if they could become negligeable. This recognition, moreover, is a movement that never becomes a completed process.
Part IV, “Of Derrida’s Heideggers,” shows that Derrida’s relation to Heidegger, like his relation to Hegel, is not simply a matter of opposition. In Derrida’s texts, the name “Heidegger” is no more univocal than the name “Hegel.” Chapter 8 explores this complex relation through a reading of Derrida’s Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles. The key point is that Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche risks closing off the meaning of Nietzsche’s texts by arriving at some result that is then taken as definitive and final, yet Heidegger’s texts cannot themselves be closed off by interpreting them once and for all as the refusal of indirectness and undecidability. And as de Jong observes, “[Derrida] does not make a simple choice between these two Heideggers. The virtue of that undecidability lies in its potential to open the texts of these thinkers and resist reducing them to the content of an unequivocal thesis” (240). This remark also has worthwhile implications for the question of what it might mean to critique Derrida, though de Jong does not make them wholly explicit: that Derrida cannot be reduced to a purveyor of definite theses means that there are multiple Derridas, and a fruitful critique – fruitful in that it would recognize the limits of thought without seeking to go past them – would then be one that draws out this multiplicity rather than presenting a univocal Derrida who is assigned the role of opponent.
Chapter 9, turns, finally, to the question of responsibility. Here the question of critique or justification gives way to the question of justice. De Jong notes that “in the debate about the ‘ethics of deconstruction,’ interpretations have tended to work within a Levinasian framework, which understands ethics primarily with reference to the ‘other.’ That is quite right, but there is a risk if the other is confused with the external” (242). It is worth explicitly noting what is implicit here: that the other in Levinas is not a matter of externality, as alterity would then be one pole of the externality-internality dichotomy and so would fall within totality. In any case, de Jong’s analysis, which emphasizes complicity and proceeds through a reading of Derrida’s Of Spirit, is excellent. De Jong recognizes the indirectness of Derrida’s texts as a gesture of responsibility. What might appear as an irresponsible refusal to be associated with any position, and hence as a withdrawal from potential criticisms, is an attempt to grapple responsibly with the failure of any position – yet it is a responsibility that can never escape its own complicity with those failures. Heidegger’s own complicity has struck many as uniquely grave, and de Jong notes that Derrida does regard Heidegger’s use of the term Geist, in his 1933 rectorial address, as complicit with Nazism. It does not follow, however, that we can purify our own thought by rejecting Heidegger; Derrida himself cautions us against such an attempt to achieve purity. For Heidegger’s complicity with Nazism took place, writes de Jong, “by way of a mechanism or a ‘program’ of complicity and reaffirmation that Derrida himself does not claim to be able to escape. The program itself consists in the very attempt to escape, the thought that one can exceed racism or biologism by elevating oneself above it to a position of reassuring legitimacy” (251). More broadly, the quest for absolute purity cannot be untangled from a drive to declare oneself innocent – that is, not complicit in anything or, to put it another way, not responsible. But “the ‘fact’ that not all forms of complicity are equivalent” (252) does not mean we can avoid complicity, that we can overcome or go beyond it. We are responsible in advance, inescapably responsible, unable to establish a position that would justify us, free us from complicity, and let us relax in the security of non-responsibility. De Jong’s emphasis on complicity ties back to his earlier argument that Derrida’s texts cannot be made safe from misreading. By resisting the opposition between Derrida’s critics and his defenders, de Jong resists the temptation to safeguard thought, thereby reminding us of our limits. It is because we will never be able to present the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as the saying goes, that we are complicit – which is a call not to despair but to the responsibility that, as de Jong’s The Movement of Showing skillfully reminds us, we cannot evade.
An afterword begins by addressing the question of indirectness in de Jong’s own text, and here he proves a less skillful reader than he did when interpreting Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida – though his failings are instructive and perhaps unsurprising, given that we cannot escape complicity with the attempt to arrest the movement of showing to arrive at some fixed position. De Jong asks “why, if [he] ha[s] been successful, [his] own exposition will not have displayed the implicit or explicit self-complication that has been [his] theme” (264). One response, which he admits is “facile,” is that “[he] ha[s] set out to do nothing more than to provide a commentary, and to provide a way of reading that goes against certain ideas about how to interpret the work of Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida. […] There is no reason why that reading could not be explicated unequivocally” (264). Granted, he himself calls this response “facile,” yet that it should be offered at all indicates the durability of the opposition between a commentary and the work commented upon, with the commentary appearing as merely secondary and derivative. Derrida, let us recall, commented on works by Hegel and Heidegger, and as I noted above, de Jong’s own analysis suggests (though without explicitly saying so) that there are multiple Derridas, as there are multiple Hegels and Heideggers. I do not mean to suggest that all Derridas, Hegels, or Heideggers on whom one might comment are equally valid or fruitful. The Derridas, Hegels, and Heideggers whom one encounters in de Jong’s text are remarkably well interpreted, whereas, to take an extreme example, anyone who attempts to read Of Grammatology as a guide to birdwatching is likely to be disappointed. Consider, however, Derrida’s remark in “Des tours de Babel,” concerning translation, that “the original is the first debtor, the first petitioner; it begins by lacking [manquer] – and by pleading for [pleurer après] translation” (Derrida 2007, 207). The so-called original text never stands on its own but is already a translation, is already separated from itself by its inevitable equivocity. Commentary is not exempt from this condition: it is never “nothing more than […] commentary.” De Jong’s writing is clear in that it is easy to follow – easier than Derrida’s, Hegel’s, or Heidegger’s often is – but that does not mean it is univocal. Commentary too is separated from itself – and, moreover, it is a way of translating the so-called original. The texts signed by Hegel, Heidegger, or Derrida call out for commentary because they are not summed up in what they say – nor in what any commentary or translation could say. The commentary and the translation plead as well, and they are not safe from misreading. Whether de Jong’s text displays self-complication and whether it does complicate itself are two different questions, and besides, one might well argue that it does display self-complication precisely by calling our attention to our inevitable complicity.
De Jong offers, as a “more principled answer,” the reply that “an awareness of the performative complexity of philosophical texts does not in itself necessitate a specific style” (265). This answer still tends to assume that self-complication must be blatantly visible as such, but de Jong rightly observes that “it is not a matter of doing away with representation or opposition, nor with the traditional form of an academic treatise. At issue is precisely an ‘inner excess,’ or how in what presents itself as proposition, representation or claim, something more, less, or other than what is ‘posited’ in them is taking place” (265). Indeed. Derrida’s styles are not the only ones in which worthwhile thinking may occur. And as there are multiple Derridas, there are multiple de Jongs, whom this review certainly does not exhaust, and I recommend that anyone interested in Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, or questions of indirectness more broadly read The Movement of Showing and encounter them for him- or herself. If I have dwelt at some length on the brief and admittedly “facile” response, and if I still reproach the “more principled” response with suggesting, in defense of the book’s clarity, that it is possible to avoid self-complication through the choice of a particular style, it is to highlight a certain complicity with the overly definite and determinate that inevitably accompanies writing. Indirectness cannot, however, simply be opposed to directness, as if one were pure and the other not – a point de Jong does not make explicit but that he could well have. Complicity with the overly definite and determinate is the only way to speak or write at all, and refusing to speak or write out of a desire for purity is an attempt to abdicate responsibility.
Indeed, de Jong in his afterword goes on to observe that “even given the limitations of the propositional form, of representation, and of oppositional determination, it is in and through them that we can and in fact do say more, less, or something else than what is merely ‘contained’ in those determinations” (272). Hence the limits of language are not to be regretted, which is a crucial point. Thus de Jong refuses to take “a negative or skeptical view on language as inadequate or as failing,” calling instead for “a productive view on propositions and claims such that they might carry or co-implicate more than the content that is ‘contained’ in them” (272, emphasis in original). That a text is “lacking,” to recall the above quotation from “Des tours de Babel,” does not mean that it has failed, as though it would have been better for it to lack nothing so that there was no call for translation’s creativity. Complicity does not put an end to creativity – far from it. Because there is no manual telling us precisely how to live out the responsibility by which we are committed in advance, our responses must be creative ones. One of the virtues of The Movement of Showing, though by no means the only one, is that it warns us against considering language—and hence what is expressed through language—a failure because of its limits, and that it points out that language even owes its richness to those very limits. In short, The Movement of Showing is a text that rewards attentive reading, and it makes a valuable contribution to the field.
Derrida, Jacques. 2007. “Des tours de Babel.” Translated by Joseph F. Graham. In Psyche: Inventions of the Other, vol. 1, edited by Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth Rottenberg. Stanford: Stanford University Press.