Philosophemes

David Hoy

Derrida likes to surprise, and the first surprise of this book is the title itself. The common assumption that the French Post-Structuralists abandoned the interest of their phenomenological predecessors in consciousness, subjectivity and the entire philosophical vocabulary including words like ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ is challenged by the titles of the two recent books by Derrida, De l’esprit and Psyché, both published in France in 1987. Of Spirit reflects on whether this vocabulary can really be avoided, and it does so principally by asking whether Heidegger, whose intention in Being and Time was to avoid the notion of spirit, was successful in doing so. While this point may initially appear to be of interest only to Heidegger scholars, Derrida’s ruminations should intrigue anyone interested in Post-Structuralism, since it is Heidegger the Post-Structuralists are thought to be following in their break with the traditional subject-object split that modern philosophy inherits from Descartes and that culminates in Hegel’s conception of Geist. In Heidegger scholarship, however, ‘spirit’ appears to be forgotten, not only by those who agree with Heidegger but even by those who disagree. This forgetting seems to signify a complete shift in 20th-century philosophy away from a paradigmatic interest in spirit, to such an extent that in philosophy no one knows what it is any more.

Part of the problem, as always, is translation. Both Heidegger and Derrida like to insist on the untranslatability of some central terms of traditional philosophy. Both generate many pages explaining how connotations change as pneuma gives way to spiritus and becomes Geist. Heidegger, of course, makes no mention of Hebrew and the word ruah, and for Derrida this exclusion connects Heidegger’s etymological method of doing philosophy to the vexing issue of Heidegger’s personal politics and ethics. Derrida adds some comic relief by dwelling on Heidegger’s strange insistence that genuine philosophy has only been done in Greek and German, and that now genuine thinking can only be done in German, for only there does Geist name itself. As an instance of the perseverance of this view Derrida cites Heidegger’s 1966 interview in Der Spiegel: ‘It is something which the French are always confirming for me today,’ Heidegger remarks, for ‘when they begin to think, they speak German: they say definitely that they would not manage it in their language.’ The Heideggerian argument for the incommensurable privilege of German is supposedly that if doing philosophy requires using certain terms, like Geist, and if these terms cannot be translated without the loss of central connotations, then philosophy can be done only in the original language, which is German. What is absurd but also scary here is not only the tautologous reasoning, but Heidegger’s continued assumption, even as late as 1966, that German is the only original language for philosophy. In an aside Derrida gives us a clue to his more general attitude when reading Heidegger, suggesting that he is especially intrigued with how the texts can seem at once both serious and hilarious: ‘That’s what I like about Heidegger. When I think about him, when I read him, I’m aware of both these vibrations at the same time. It’s always horribly dangerous and wildly funny, certainly grave and a bit comical.’

So Derrida carefully explains the difficulty of understanding Heidegger in French, given the differences between Geist and esprit. But the difficulty is even more pronounced when further translation into English is attempted. Both Geist and esprit can be translated by ‘spirit’ or by ‘mind’. But as Kant points out in his Anthropology, esprit carries in addition the connotation of ‘wit’ and ‘joking,’ which Geist does not, since German has two words, Geist and Witz. In the English translation of De l’esprit ‘spirit’ is the best choice, of course, since it captures better the philosophical ambiguity that Derrida is exploiting. So when Derrida says that ‘no one ever speaks of esprit in Heidegger,’ he might also seem to be right if esprit were translated as ‘wit’. He would seem to be wrong, however, if esprit were rendered as ‘mind’. American philosophers like Hubert Dreyfus have always included Heidegger in discussions of the philosophy of mind, and a recent book by Frederick Olafson is entitled Heidegger and the Philosophy of Mind. The word ‘mind’ also does not work for Geist, as translators of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit have learned, and as Germans (I am told) found out when Geist did not work in the label for courses on Anglo-American ‘philosophy of mind’.

In English ‘spirit’ is decidedly arcane, however, and Derrida’s surprising move is to return to it since he is right that no one speaks of ‘spirit’ in Heidegger. The standard assessment has been that instead of spirit, 20th-century Continental philosophers, including Heidegger and those he influences, are supposedly more interested in something else, usually identified as ‘language’. Moreover, Derrida is often described as the European philosopher who represents the most dramatic turn from a concern with consciousness as the paradigm of philosophy to language. Yet here he gives us a treatise on spirit, which recalls the supposedly abandoned paradigm. Even the diction of his title, the ‘of’ in Of Spirit is intended to suggest an older diction, the Ciceronian style (De Spiritu), and Helvetius’s De l’esprit, which was publicly burned in 1759.

No one will call for the burning of Derrida’s book any more, I hope, for the anger with which deconstruction was first received in literary theory has abated, and philosophy departments remain largely indifferent. Furthermore, on the political scene today, at least in ‘Theory’, it is Heidegger who is at the stake, not Derrida. The question that Derrida alludes to in his subtitle is, in one sense, the question of Heidegger’s politics, even if it is at the same time another famous Heideggerian question, one recently at issue in the LRB Letters column – ‘why is there anything at all, rather than nothing?’

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