Heidegger’s Antiphilosophy

Presentation to Political Theory Group: “Another Topology for New Tasks” (Derrida, Of Spirit 132-33.). Derrida on Heidegger on Trakl.  Zusage.  November 21, 2019.  (This is an extract from a much longer paper to be published in Política común. A Journal of Thought.) 

In “The Ends of Man” Derrida’s claim is that Heidegger’s existential analytic, wrong for having chosen the wrong metaphoricity of the proper and the improper, of the proximate and the distant, can only repeat metaphysical humanism at the very moment it ostensibly brings it to an end; and it is a gesture with no future.  For Derrida in 1968 this was no less than the very name, or one of the names, of Heidegger’s political error.   Heidegger’s “national-estheticism,” to use Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s expression as quasi-synonymous with Derrida’s reference in the same text to Heidegger’s “closed autism,” was not only sustained for a few years in the 1930’s but lasted well into the 1940’s and perhaps even beyond.  Lacoue-Labarthe thinks that Heidegger’s essential political projection was “archi-fascist” well into the 1940s and that archi-fascism is present, if occasionally dissembled, in all the Hölderlin readings.[1]   But the final enigma for me is not how Heidegger could have fallen into fascism, and into the extreme cruelty and stupidity of his “historial anti-semitism,” but, granting that he was already there, how Heidegger’s fascism could open itself to produce thoughts through which fascism—as well as other hopeless and sinister form-of-life possibilities–could then be left behind.[2]  This still seems to me a question of the utmost political importance for our time. 

There is in the Heideggerian text a radical opening to an outside, to a thought-other-than-ontotheology, other than metaphysics, that is hardly recognized, or only begrudgingly so, even though it constitutes, by itself, the only true, that is, the only genuine reason why we are still forced to deal with Heidegger nowadays; and why he should still interest us even politically, indeed more so than so many perhaps biographically unblemished ostensible thinkers of the democratic left.   Derrida was already right in 1968 regarding Heidegger’s “risk” as such.  He knew, however, that not everything was said by exposing the risk or indeed Heidegger’s fall into it.[3]  And he continued his meditation on Heidegger’s problematic during most of his life.  Let me refer to this call for an other beginning against the ruins of metaphysics as Heidegger’s “antiphilosophy.”  

            At the heart of Of Spirit Derrida states something that he had already said elsewhere and repeatedly, which organizes the very construction of the argument that goes from Hegel to Husserl to Heidegger in “The Ends of Man,” and that tends to be dismissed by many, through dire incomprehension, in spite of its importance: what he says is that, from the point of view of the radical critique of subjectivity carried out in Being and Time, which is not just any critique of subjectivity but actually the work’s central claim against modernity, it is hardly possible to make liberatory or revolutionary political claims.  Derrida says that all political claims of that kind would have to be made from within subjectivity, and modern subjectivity to boot.  Dasein is precisely not a political animal in the modern sense, and no subject speaks from Being and Time.  The conclusion Derrida draws is quite stunning and has probably not received enough critical attention.  He thinks that, rather than following or believing Heidegger’s political rhetoric, such as it was, all too soon, “the only choice is the choice between the terrifying contaminations . . . Even if all forms of complicity are not equivalent, they are irreducible.  The question of knowing which is the least grave of these forms of complicity is always there” (Derrida, Of Spirit 40).  Derrida calls for a politics of the lesser evil and essentially argues–he has already argued it in his 1963 essay on Emmanuel Levinas and will again argue it elsewhere–that seeking the lesser evil, which means less violence, is the primary political obligation.  The bite is of course that any wager for a greater evil is necessarily politically damnable.  It is never a matter of doing away with violence, which would be an impossible and self-deceiving task.  This implies that there is only a difference of nuance, of positioning, important as it may be, but not a qualitative difference, between the democrat and the anti-democrat or the less-than-democrat:  a politics of lesser evil is still a politics of calculation and a politics of scale. And the justification for this position is that one can never overcome metaphysical thought, fallen thought, one can never overcome inauthenticity in the Heideggerian sense, and one can never overcome the state of factitious fallenness, the state of facticity.   A more provocative way of saying this: if we reject Heidegger’s antiphilosophy, only a politics of lesser evil remains possible.  That may well be so.  

The claim is that metaphysics always returns, that metaphysics is what returns, that metaphysics is the thing that can and will be repeated endlessly.  But this means that Derrida critiques Heidegger for what he says he never manages to do, he never accomplishes, that is, for refusing the inevitability of the return, for refusing to be intimidated by the unavoidability of metaphysical return.  Derrida critiques Heidegger because Heidegger opposed a purportedly “authentic” possibility to the state of inauthentic fallenness in factitious existence.  A radicalization in Heidegger–subjectivity is metaphysics, subjectivity dooms us to inauthentic dealings with the world–permits Derrida’s critique of an other, second radicalization in Heidegger, according to which metaphysics ought to be left behind for the sake of a possible “other beginning.” But for Derrida this call for an other beginning—the scarcely passable, perhaps the impassable path–would be already, and necessarily, a metaphysical return, a bad return, not to the Heimat of the promise, but to radical inauthenticity, a return to the position Heidegger first denounced and disavowed.  And it is, as we know, a return that can carry the worst inside itself, including the attempt at a politics of absolute evil (or of absolute good, which would come to the same thing.)  Derrida seems to cipher all of this in the repeated allusions to Heideggerian logocentrism, so many times unconcealed by the Heideggerian insistence on Versammlung as gathering, assembling, collecting.  If Heidegger looks for a return, it is perhaps the return of a distant but gathering Heimat beyond the stroke of dissension and infinite dissemination.  But Derrida says:  only metaphysics returns, your very notion of return is already metaphysics, metaphysics gathers and repeats, and there is noVersammlung that does not betray a violent suppression, Versammlung, the very call for it, is already dissension, is already major violence and reduction.   What happened, then, to the 1968 call, in “The Ends of Man,” for “a change of ground”?  The last words of Jean-Luc Nancy’s important book Banalité de Heideggerare “it is necessary to learn how to exist without being and without destination, not to pretend to beginnings or to re-beginnings—not to conclude either” (Banalité 85).  They sum up a certain exhaustion with the rhetoric of change, of return, of recommencements.  Nancy does not want to hear of returns, does not want to hear of beginnings or origins or ends—but is that not precisely the change of ground, is that not precisely the possibility of a form of life other than a metaphysical life?  And of a transfiguration in the figure of man?[4]   Ias Nancy’s call itself not a wager for an antiphilosophical other beginning?  How could it not be?  

            In the middle of his first contribution to the 1988 Heidelberg Conference, convoked to discuss the revelations in Victor Farías’ Heidegger et le nazisme, Derrida cuts to the chase: speaking about what seemed hegemonic in 1988 Europe, and focusing not on the easy-to-critique neoliberalism but rather in the social-democracy that was still central to the European state and to the rhetorical construction of the European Union, he said that there is “a social-democratic discourse whose referential values are those of the rights of man, democracy, the liberty of the subject.  But this is a discourse that has an awareness that it remains philosophically very fragile, and that its force of consensus in official political discourse, or elsewhere, rests on traditional philosophical axioms that are . . . in any case incapable of dealing with that which is opposed to them” (Derrida in Conférence 64).   Derrida’s words have taken on a dramatic urgency in the last few years, and it simply will not do to invoke the reassurances of a return to the foundations of liberal discourse such as the European and North American Enlightenment produced.  It is not only that there is no such return, and that contemporary thinking, from Nietzsche onwards, cannot very well be swept under the carpet.  It is also that, for better or for worse, the legacy of the Enlightenment has failed us for a good part of the last two hundred and fifty years.  Yes, Heidegger’s positions seem threatening to the pious ones for whom the authority of liberal reason is still paramount—the Kantians and Gramscians and residual Hegelians may, however, rest assured that there is no future in their own kind of endless repetition.   If they are the ones who want to take upon themselves the mantle of responsibility, well then, they will have to hear that they are mistaken, and that their responsibility could well be a form of self-delusion.  Derrida claims that he considers that today’s political responsibility cannot avoid the questions Heidegger raises—that, in fact, political responsibility today directly forces an opening to the Heideggerian questions: “relying upon traditional categories of responsibility would seem to me, today, precisely, irresponsible” (68).  

              The discourse on responsibility, curiously, does not get properly deployed in the Heidelberg conversation until questions from the audience force it: “what reasonable concept of responsibility should we then think of today?” (101).  Derrida replies that the Kantian concept, premised on a moral law whose adoption would grant the freedom of man, premised therefore on a substantial notion of the subject of the political, and even since integrated into the axiomatics of democracy, could not avoid Auschwitz (or indeed the horrors of 19th and 20th century colonialism) (103).  And, we can add, it has not avoided the devastation of the earth under liberal-democratic regimes compatible with the rule of capital—so much for axiomatics.  Abandoning a Kantian-type, intentionalist, voluntarist notion of responsibility can be done—this is what the philosophical legacy has produced, and there is nothing else—only through a displacement of the notion of responsibility as a response of man to himself, premised on the moral law in the heart of man, “towards something else, towards the question of being, and it is going through it, without stopping as Heidegger did, that one must redefine responsibility” (Derrida, in Conférence 112).  Whose Zusage, whence the Zusage?  This is what makes Heideggerian antiphilosophy an essential and non-renounceable aspect of the legacy of Western thought, which can only be abandoned at the price of a regression.  

            “We come back to the question of the question,” Derrida says (112).  For many years, Derrida says, Heidegger thought that questioning, as the piety of thought, was thinking at its highest point of dignity. But Heidegger changed his mind, or elaborated his thinking, upon the recognition that questioning was always already a response, “questioning is already a listening—to the other.  I do not have the initiative, not even of the question, not even in this piety of thought that is the question” (124).  The sovereign subject of modernity is no longer the subject of responsibility.  “The moment of Zusage,” Derrida says, goes beyond the moment of Being and Time and subsequent years, when already, of course, Dasein was imputable and needed to respond.  But Zusage introduces something else: “to determine what and who I respond to.” It is there that things become politically determined (125).  Not much more is said: a new model of responsibility that develops between the Zusage, which is an acquiescence in general, and the juridico-political demand that ensues, which remains ineluctable and undecidable, and cannot be decided in advance or once and for all (126).  The acquiescent response to being or ex-istence must in every case also be a response to the other, and the response to the other must be consistent with the originary Zusage:  correspondence.

            But, Derrida says, traversing the undecidability—that is the place of the political decision without which there is no responsibility.  Nothing is given in advance.  There is only, in every case, a “terrifying test” (126).   But is this not the very opening into the change of ground Derrida was requesting in 1968, to a certain extent against Heidegger?  The weaving and intertwining of Derrida’s two “strategic options” confirms a path of thought against conventional modern philosophy—against the structures and the pieties of political subjectivity, that is, of modern subjectivism as we have understood them: it is the path of the non-subject of the political.  Contemporary thought measures itself there.  Everything else, it seems to me, is blockage and ruinous repetition. 

Alberto Moreiras

Texas A&M University

Works Cited 

Calle-Gruber, Mireille.  La conference de Heidelberg (1988).  Heidegger.  Portée philosophique

 et politique de sa pensée.  Paris: IMEC, 2014.  

Derrida, Jacques.  “The Ends of Man.”  Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 30.1 (1969): 

31-57.  

—.  “Like the Sound of the Sea Deep Within a Shell.  Paul de Man’s War.”  Peggy Kamuf transl.  

Critical Inquiry 14 (Spring 1988): 590-652.  

—.  Of Spirit.  Heidegger and the Question.  Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby transl.        Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.  

Farías, Víctor.  Heidegger et le nazisme. Myriam Benarroch and Jean-Baptiste Grasset transl. 

 Paris: Verdier, 1988. 

Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe.  Heidegger and the Politics of Poetry.  Jeff Fort transl.  Urbana: U of 

Illinois P, 2007. 

—.  Introduction. Martin Heidegger,  La pauvreté. (Die Armut).  Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and

 Anna Samardzija transl.  Strasbourg: Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg, 2004. 7-65.

—, and Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Nazi Myth.”  Brian Holmes trans.  Critical

 Inquiry 16 (Winter 1990): 291-312. 

Lyotard, Jean-François.  Heidegger and “the Jews.”  Andreas Michel and Mark Roberts transl.

 Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1990.  

Ott, Hugo.  Martin Heidegger.  Unterwegs zu seiner Biographie.  Frankfurt/New York: Campus, 

1988.

Nancy, Jean-Luc.  Banalité de Heidegger.  Paris: Galilée, 2015.  

Trawny, Peter.  Heidegger et l’antisémitisme.  Sur les “Cahiers noirs”.  Julia Christ and Jean-

Claude Monod transl.  Paris: Seuil, 2014. 

Zarader, Marlène.  The Unthought.  Heidegger and the Hebraic Heritage.  Bettina Bergo transl. 

 Stanford: Stanford UP, 2006.


[1]  See Lacoue-Labarthe, Heidegger, 16, 66, and passim for archi-fascism, and “national-aestheticism” in 85-86.  But all of this needs to be read in light of the work previously done with Nancy in “The Nazi Myth,” and Lacoue-Labarthe’s further reflections on onto-mythology.  See also Lacoue-Labarthe’s edition of Heidegger’s 1945 essay “Poverty,” La pauvreté.  When at some point Lacoue-Labarthe wonders whether a proper “renunciation of the myth” had become possible—well, that would be the precise moment in which the ghost of national-socialism would have been conjured away (see on this La conférence de Heidelberg  136).  

[2]  For “historial anti-semitism” see Trawny, Heidegger 26 passim.  For Trawny Heidegger’s anti-semitism is “inscribed in the history of being” (26).  This is an understanding taken up in a major way by Nancy in Banalité, especially after 39.  

[3]  Regarding the political risk of an engagement with Heidegger, in 1968 Schneeberger’s compilation, with all the crucial documents, had already been long published and Derrida was aware of it.  But 1988 is a special year, since the Paul de Man scandal had only happened the previous year (see Derrida, “Like the Sound”), Víctor Farías’s book on Heidegger and Nazism had just been published to enormous media attention, and both Lyotard’s book Heidegger and “the Jews” and Derrida’s own Of Spirit.  Heidegger and the Questioncame out that year.  Also Lacoue-Labarthe had published in the same year his important book La fiction du politique.  And finally Hugo Ott’s biography, Martin Heidegger, also from 1988, complements and contextualizes Schneeberger’s documents in fairly definitive ways. Marléne Zarader’s fascinating The Unthought.  Heidegger and the Hebraic Heritage would come out in French in 1990. Of course today we have more available materials concerning Heidegger’s Nazi commitment, and his anti-semitism, given the publication of many of the so-called Black Notebooks and of many seminars taught by Heidegger in the 1940s.  Scholarship has continued to debate the topic, but perhaps the most important contributions are Trawny, Heidegger et l’antisémitisme and Nancy’s Banalité de Heidegger.  And yet perhaps one of the most important discussions on the subject (although it does not touch on antisemitism) was the one held by Derrida, Lacoue-Labarthe and Hans-Georg Gadamer in Heidelberg in 1988.  See La conference de Heidelberg.  

[4]  “Transfiguration” is essential to what is at stake in Heidegger’s essays from the 1950`s.  See “Language” 184.  

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