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Derrida on the Question of Being

Derrida on the Question of Being

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Published by Joel Sagut
A discussion on Derrida's ON SPIRIT
A discussion on Derrida's ON SPIRIT

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Published by: Joel Sagut on Dec 03, 2009
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DERRIDA ON THE QUESTION OF BEING(A discussion on Derrida’s
On Spirit: Heidegger and the Question
) Joel C. Sagut
Preliminary remarks
Among the instances where Derrida has clearly endeavored to talk about philosophicalissues, is when he talked about the issue of being particularly in the philosophy of MartinHeidegger. Derrida’s thoughts about Heidegger’s being is preserved in a book entitled,
Of Spirit.
 The book,
Of Spirit 
, reveals Derrida’s reading of Heidegger’s view on Being. Derridabegan the book with an inquiry about the term,
avoiding
. Hence, he asks,
What isavoiding
?
1
Derrida mentions of avoiding because he noticed that Heidegger seemed todisplay an ambiguous attitude towards the word,
spirit 
. He used it a few times and yet heplaced it in quotation marks: it’s as if saying that he does not really want to use theterm, that is, he
avoids
the term. However, while Heidegger seemeed to be very cautiousabout his employment of the term,
spirit 
, he seemed to have also acknowledged that hecould not really avoid it.Furthermore, Derrida also noticed that the word
spirit 
is not really a central theme inHeidegger’s philosophy. He himself says, “spirit, so it seems at least, is not a great wordof Heidegger. It is not his theme. It would seem that he was able, precisely, to avoid it.”
2 
But despite this, Derrida justifies his attempt to speak about the
Spirit 
in Heidegger’sphilosophy based on three grounds: (1) the term’s significance in clarifying the issues of language and translations, (2) its significance in politics, and (3) its frequent reference inmany religions.With these things at hand, Derrida believes that the issue on the
spirit 
remains to be oneof the open questions in Heidgger, and so, he justifies himself in delivering the topic.
On the word
Spirit 
 The first question that Derrida would like to address was obviously,
What is spirit?
AgainDerrida noted that the question has never been explicitly raised by Heidegger.Heidegger has no particular work devoted exclusively on the question of the
spirit 
.Derrida even says, “What is called spirit? What does spirit call up?... – the title of thebook that Heidegger never wrote.”
3
But Derrida argues that Heidegger intended todescribe the
spirit 
as that which is “not the thing, spirit is not the body... it is opposed toa thing, to the metaphysical determination of thing-ness.”
4
 How does Heidegger thenspeak about the
spirit?
 The question on
spirit 
rests on the issue about the Dasein. Heidegger thought that theissue of the Dasein is the only possible means whereby philosophy can recapture itsoriginal vocation to think about Being. When he criticized the entire philosophicaltradition of the West as onto-theological and thus spoke of the
destruktion
of metaphysics,
5
Heidegger proposed an
ontical turn
to such an ontological endeavor. The
1
Jacques Derrida,
Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question
. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), p.1. Henceforth, this book shall be referred to simply as
Spirit 
.
2
 
Spirit 
, p.3.
3
 
Spirit 
, p.14.
4
 
Spirit 
, p.15.
5
Martin Heidegger,
Being and Time
trans. by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson(Tubingen: Neomarius Verlag, 1963), p.41.
1
 
ontical turn rests in his attempt to first investigate the nature of the Dasein. Hecharacterizes the dasein as “an entity which does not just occur among other entities.Rather, it is ontically distinguished by the fact that, in its very Being, that Being is anissue for it... understanding of Being is itself a definite characteristic of Dasein’s Being.”
6 
Heidegger then says that if philosophy has to be salvaged from its degradation into onto-theology, then it has to talk about the dasein as the only being that is capable of askingthe Being.
7
Heidegger, though he does not intend to echo the Aritotelian hierarchy of beings, alsospeaks of the distinctions of beings: non-sentient beings, animals and man. Derridahimself recalls three theses related to this claim:
8
(1) The stone is without a world, (2)the animal is poor in world, (3) man is world-forming. The world which Heidegger spokeof here is the
spirit 
, that is the capacity to establish the self as a subject who canbecome fully aware of the
as such
(essence in Scholastic terms) of the entities that oneencounters. When Heidegger says for example that the stone is without a world, hespoke of this
without 
as a total absence of the awareness of one’s relation to the worldaround it. As when a stone is placed within a group of stones, none of these stones couldhave that awareness of 
being-with
the other stones. Furthermore, when Heidegger saysthat an animal is
 poor 
in world, he speaks of the poverty here not in the sense of lack of perfection or the inadequacy of the stone’s degree of perfection as when compared toman, but rather also about the lack of the animal’s capacity to ask the question about itsown
Being
and the
Being
of the world that it encounters. The difference, whichconstitutes the poverty of the animal, then between animals and the person is not aboutthe quantity of the world, or the awareness that an animal has on the world around it,but on the
quality 
of such awareness. Animals look at the world in a way that is
entirely other than
/
different from
the way a person would look at the world. Derrida himself says, “But this lack is not to be evaluated as a quantitative relation to the entities of theworld. It’s not that the animals have lesser relationship, a more limited access to entities,it has an
other 
relationship.”
9
Hence, in a sense, there is also a certain degree of nothaving-a-world for animals, even if such
without-having
a world is not the same as thestone’s being
without a world.
Animals precisely are poor in the world because they donot have the awareness of the entities
as such
. The question of 
Being
is never availableto animals. Such question can only be made available to man, the
Dasein
. Heideggerreiterated the privileged place of the Dasein when he says, “The dasein, cannot at all beinterrogated as such but he question, what is this? We gain access to its being only if weask, who is it? The dasein is not constituted by whatness but – if we may coin theexpression – by
whoness
.”
Hence, Heidegger’s discussion of the
spirit 
is primarily anchored on his existential (thedetour, the ontical) question on the
Dasein
. The Dasein is that singular being that asksits
Being
and as such resists all forms of “thingfication.” Derrida himself says, “nowprecisely, this entity which we are, this “we” which, at the beginning of the existentialanalytic, must have no name other than
Da-sein
, is chosen for the position of exemplaryentity only from
the experience of the question
, the possiblity of the Fragen...”
 
Spirit and Language
6
 
Being and Time,
p.32.
7
Heidegger claims in the
Being and Time
that the “dasein is an entity which does not just occur among other entities. Rather, it is ontically distinguished by the fact that, in itsvery Being, that Being is an issue for it.” (p. 78)
8
 
Cf. Spirit,
p.48.
9
 
Spirit 
, p.49.
10
Martin Heidegger
, Basic Problems of Phenomenology 
(Indianapolis: Indiana UniversityPress, 1982), p. 120.
11
 
Spirit 
, p.17.
2
 
 The Dasein then is the only being that is capable of speech, and such capacity is theDasein’s primordial means in raising the question about its
Being
. Hence, language is animportant issue in the unfolding of the
spirit 
in the history of philosophy in the West.Language becomes the Dasein’s means of articulating its own (particular) relations withthe world. But certainly, since a person’s awareness of the world is always
 particular 
,
 
forthe Dasein’s freedom is primarily characterized by
minenesss
,
there would also bevariations in the way one’s awareness of the world is articulated in accordance with thevariation of language and cultures of peoples. But what do we say about the variations of language? Was there a significance in the translations of the words
pneuma
or
spiritus
into the German
Geist 
? Heidegger believes that in every attempt to capture Being inlanguage, there is always a matter of “hiddenness.”
Hahn says, “just as our view of anyphenomenon presumes a point-of-view, and therefore a point-of-blindedness anddisclosedness, so with language.”
This is what Derrida would call as the
differance
.Derrida says, “This does not mean, as he has been taken to say, that there is nomeaning or sense in linguistic acts, only that these are not discoverable as ideally andimmediately coincident with each other but always deffered and in the process of becoming with respect to different senses and meaning.”
Mike Myers would even alsoargue that since Being is not a thing whose existence is complete and objectified, italways left something
unsaid 
and
hidden.
Being would always have a ‘reserve’.
Furthermore, this means that translations cannot really hope to become as faithfaul as itmay want to be. Translations in a sense is always a kind of a
mis-appropriation
or atleast a
re-appropriation
of the meaning of the terms involved. Hence, Heideggerattributes a certain degree of difference, or a falling away, from the original meaning of the term
spirit 
as it has been translated and transported to many languages in history. Yet, at the end of the series of these translations, Heidegger found the use of theGerman word
Geist 
as something closer to the original meaning than the Greek word,
 pneuma
and the Latin,
spiritus
. For Heidegger, these words, though they appeared in theearlier part of the history of philosophy, were heavily affected by the metaphysics of Plato and so, they have had also somehow already
thingfied 
the spirit.
Spirit and Politics
Derrida claims that Heiegger affirms the role of spirit in his
Rectorship Address
in 1933.In fact, Derrida claims that at this particular moment, Heidegger has already lifted thequotation marks around the term. Derrida describes the
Rectorship Address
in thesewords, “the splendor of the staging celebrating the quotation marks’ disappearance...And here, it makes its appearance. It presents itself. Spirit
itself 
, spirit in its spirit and inits letter...”
Derrida argues that in the address, Heidegger affirms that which is truly German.
 
Inother words, he affirms the spirit of being a German (Germanism, if we would be allowedto use the term). The Address, we may be allowed to say, exalts the German culture. Itspells out to the German people
who
they are: what and where they would like to be and
12
Heidegger says, “mineness belongs to any existent dasein, and belongs to it as thecondition which makes authenticity and inauthenticity possible.” (
Being and Time
, p.78).Further, he says, “Dasein is an entity which is in each case I myself; its Being is in eachcase mine.” (
Being and Time
, p.150).
13
Stephen Hahn,
On Derrida
. (USA: Wadsworth, Thomson Learning, 2002), p. 57.
14
Hahn, p.57.
15
See,
Signature Event Context 
, 19, 21 as quoted in Hahn, p.58.
16
Max A. Myers. ‘Towards what is religious thinking underway?,’ in
Deconstruction and Theology 
. (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1982), p.138.
17
 
Spirit 
, p. 31.
3

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