Not historicism: Derrida’s Heidegger Course, s.2

Continuing my summary of Derrida’s 1964-5 seminars on Sein und Zeit.

Derrida keeps up a continuous narrative of where he is up to in his narrative. Pedagogically, it’s very useful – he recalls what they discussed the previous time (usually a fortnight before), and he repeats in concise fashion the conclusions that were reached. It doesn’t feel repetitive, and is rather effective for the reader. Clearly, Derrida thought about his audience, and how the seminar could be best structured for them. The second seminar completes the introductory remarks about the course, and then launches into the main analysis.

Derrida repeats his conclusion that Heidegger is searching for a “way out of ontology in general” (17). He then lists a bunch of contemporary Heideggerian scholarship that aims at discussion a “Heideggerian ontology”. The point is pretty clear; a thorough interpretation ought to tread extremely carefully on that point. In any case, now attention turns to justifying the insistence on history  (which is my personal interest with this text, as it happens). JD reprises the point about the difference between hegelian Widerlegung and Heidegger’s Destruktion.

  Derrida’s hand-writing – some images of the MS are reproduced in the Heidegger seminar. It’s very difficult to decipher. This image is from Malabou’s Counterpath.

What does history have to do with the question of being? It’s a good question, because (JD asserts) philosophy has never affirmed a radical link between being and history (p.21). It’s quite a classical picture – ontology is about abstracting from history. Derrida isn’t insisting on this, and he’s well aware of the complications, in Hegel, for instance – who is one of the key dialogue partners for the course. Marx’s attempt to take history seriously is a good prompt to launch into Heidegger’s comments in the “Letter on Humanism” on Marx. For MH, Marx certainly reaches a profound level of historicity in the concept of labour. “Labour”, glosses Derrida, is the original level at which the actual is made objective through the human being (p.22). Heidegger’s analysis though argues that labour, as techne, as a way of making beings manifest, then this is not yet the most fundamental layer of history – though it is nevertheless profound.

So what then is the “history of being” Heidegger aims at? To understand this, JD looks at the question that MH poses. Which language can you ask the question of being in? Derrida asks. But the question about language isn’t original to Derrida as some might suppose, and in fact goes to §7 of SZ, where Heidegger comments in his discussion of method that the words and the grammar are lacking for the question of being. The problem hangs around the depth of what is aimed at, and with that Heidegger rules out “telling stories” as a mode analysis.

Narrative, telling stories, is a large area in theoretical accounts of the humanities. So why does Heidegger (and JD, seemingly, too) rule it out? It’s actually about “philosophical stories”, not stories per se. It’s about the appropriate form of argument for this particular inquiry, for “ontology” (recalling the caution about this word from last time). Given that we’re asking about history and being, and as we’ve noted, being classically is presented ahistorically, and what is more history usually essentially concerns narrative – then both of these terms must be of a novel type. Now, I don’t want to repeat here the entirety of Heidegger’s analysis and Derrida’s commentary on it. I’m summarising, so I’ll try to say it quickly: Heidegger is after the being of the beingness of beings. What, how, why, is it that beings appear as such? To refer that question to just another being is to illegitimately warp the inquiry (eg. to God, to a material cause) and thus obscure the real aim of the question. That’s what is meant by “telling stories” = deriving the meaning of being from a being (p.29).  That is, in Heidegger’s terms, an ontic explanation. That’s not to say that sciences and other inquiries are illegitimate of course. Just don’t pass them off as being able to answer the question about being. This is a question that a science cannot ask (this point becomes important later in connection to Husserl’s self-understanding of phenomenology).

Next, Derrida tracks down Heidegger’s rather obscure references to Plato’s Sophist on the question of being; why does Heidegger refer enigmatically to this dialogue? Because they leave a question about being in suspension. In response to the questions left hanging in the Sophist, the Timaeus, Derrida observes has a remarkable passage where Socrates asks for a true story, not a myth, of the origin of things (p.35). Timaeus responds that that’s impossible; we can only judge by what we know – that is, beings. Ontic metaphors are necessary it seems.

Or consider Hegel again (p.37). The thinking of pure being is nothing (Encyclopedia §88), and so philosophical knowledge must be distinguished from what is regularly considered knowledge. And yet, Derrida observes, Hegel also insists that regular knowledge also pre-comprehends pure being. So the secret of being is both inaccessible and widely shared. There’s an important difference between Hegel and Heidegger once again however. Heidegger is not satisfied, and still things Hegel’s formulation is ontic, by virtue of its negation (a quotation here from What is Metaphysics? makes the point, on p.38).

So, even beyond Hegel’s question, Heidegger affirms the distrust of historicism, which looks like a step toward the ahistorical. History for Heidegger is the truth of being, the refusal of historicism, in order to lay bear the historicity of meaning. That is not referring meaning to its historical context. As is shown much later in the seminars, the historicity of meaning is not an operation available to the historian (pp.97-100, and 109-10).

The final part of the introduction addresses the fact that Being and Time is only a preliminary to the history of being. Returning once again to the structure of the question, to what is interrogated (a being), and the what is asked about (being itself), we see that the analytic of Dasein, as is clear in Heidegger’s overall intentions for the work, are a stepping stone. An immense step forward, Derrida comments, but still only a step.

The final 5 or 6 pages of the second seminar launch into the first “major part of the course” (p.41). It picks up immediately from the introduction, however, because given what has just been said, the clear question is this: why then does the question of being go via the analytic of Dasein? But I shall leave this part for a post on the third seminar.

There are levels of historicityBeneath the causal and contextual matters dear to historians are several layers of the history of meaning, of how things come to be determined as facts in the first instance. Can being itself have a history? The question was posed – and denied in in Plato. If it does, it is not the history of beings, nor derived from any being. The history of being cannot be historicism. What language then can we possible utter it in? The mode of questioning becomes crucial then for getting the inquiry right 




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