Derrida’s Heidegger Course, 1964-5, seminar 1

The inquiry into “the question of being” as a guiding thread is distinguished from understanding it as a) Hegelian “refutation” as ontological development in history, and b) any “ontology”, because it is not a matter of seeing the truth of an historical being but of showing why all efforts at ontology essentially miss clarifying the meaning of being.

In many of Derrida’s later works, we see him begin by justifying a complex, and often idiomatic sentence related to his topic. For example, the declaration of the friend in the Politics of Friendship, or about learning to live in Specters of Marx. In Derrida’s ’64-5 Heidegger course, Derrida begins by justifying his title: “The question of being and history” – the precise wording of which is important to him, he declares. We can also compare it to the preceding year’s seminar on History and Truth – which also engaged a close study of Heidegger (excerpts can be read in Edward Baring’s recent article in History and Theory), where Derrida produces a phrase related to Heidegger’s assertion that Being cannot be engaged in telling stories. The reasoning for that also appears in the present course too, at points, as we’ll see in later chapters.

9780226355115From the first lines then, we have a scholar who is attentive to the precise wording of propositions and theories, the explicit and implicit connections they pose, and their argumentative justification. Moreover, he is also aimed at a faithful reconstruction rather than leaping into criticism. The first seminar looks to explain why one ought to say “the question of being”, and not “ontology”, even if the latter term appears positively in Sein und Zeit. The answer to that question leads essentially into why one is also concerned with “history” – and precisely what is meant by the term. As Heidegger himself notes in his own seminars, there are numerous meanings to history (Heidegger identifies six in his course on expression).

The first seminar is short and introductory. Section 6 of SZ is determined as key to understanding the project; it is not a founding of an ontology, but the “destruction” of ontology. But destruction is not refutation (2,6), despite a very real proximity. Thence a comparison between Hegel and Heidegger on this. Both historicise meaning in a certain way. But refutation is a case of logical validity. Refutation is a key moment in the dialectic where a prior determination of being is subordinated, so that a further one can appear. It’s a matter of logic as an ontology of the “Concept” in Hegel’s sense. As Hegel remarks, “the blossom is the refutation of the leaves” (on 3).

In showing Heidegger’s difference here, Derrida glosses Destruktion as “a de-structuration, the shaking [JD has just used the word ‘solicitation’ above] that is necessary to bring out the structures, the strata, the system of deposits” (9). It is thus understood in the Husserlian sense of a sedimentation of tradition that has become invisible and needs to be uncovered, a process Derrida has already investigated closely in his minor thesis commentary on Husserl “Origin of Geometry” (published 1962 and winner of the Prix Cavaillès).

Heidegger’s novelty, however, is the question of being has never unveiled itself as such. Destruction then is the destruction of the history of ontology. A “question of being” entails the interrogation of ontology, without the positing of an ontological thesis. Derrida provides – here as only a “beginning” – some reference points to support this way of understanding it. First, section 3 of SZ where the question of being is given primacy over regional ontologies. Particularly important here is Heidegger’s declaration that “all ontology … remains fundamentally blind … if it has not previously clarified the meaning of being sufficiently” (on 13). Second, in Einfuhrung in die Metaphysik (1935), H. shows that the thinking of being is not the concept of being but something prior to it, and thus proposes abandoning it. Third, in “Neitzsche’s word” (1936-40), H. argues that “ontology” must refer to beings, and not beingness itself (15).

“Ontology” then is a) limited, b) blind to the depth required and c) essentially restricted to the wrong phenomena. Derrida concludes then that the destructuration of ontology is not only the destruction of the history of ontology, but also to destroy [and does Derrida mean this here in the negative sense or still its technical meaning? (16)] ontology itself.

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