Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question 
by Jacques Derrida, translated by Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby.
Chicago, 139 pp., £15.95, September 1989, 0 226 14317 1
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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?’

Sceptical readers may well ask yet another question: namely, why should anyone think that these two questions are connected, let alone identical? The answer lies in part with the particular texts that Derrida examines. What he notices is that in 1927 Heidegger tells us in Being and Time that ‘spirit’ is part of the traditional philosophical vocabulary that will have to be ‘avoided’ (vermeiden, another apparently innocent, but equally problematic term, on Derrida’s reading). Consistent with this disavowal of Geist is Heidegger’s praise in 1957 of Trakl for successfully avoiding the adjective geistig. Between these years, however, and especially in 1933-35, Derrida discovers that Heidegger himself not only used geistig frequently and in a positive way, but was celebrating spirit. Moreover, the central text where spirit begins to play a major rhetorical role is Heidegger’s rectorship Address of 1933, when he took over the leadership of his university. This failure to avoid speaking of spirit is not remarked on by Heidegger. Derrida considers whether Heidegger’s inconsistencies are unconscious slips or deliberate concealments. He even suggests that Heidegger’s 1957 text on Trakl may be deconstructing, whether advertently or inadvertently, Heidegger’s rhetoric of 1933-35.

If this is the major plot of the book, its intended effect is to make us suspicious not simply of the biographical Heidegger, but more generally of the close connection between the philosophical vocabulary of spirit and political bad faith. The moral of Derrida’s tale is not necessarily that ‘spirit’ should or could be avoided, or even that it should not be. The meditation is a broader one on the difficulty of what could be called philosophical avoidance. Can philosophical terms such as ‘spirit’, ‘consciousness’, ‘subject’ and ‘object’, really be successfully avoided? Even more generally, can philosophy be avoided? The issue is not so much whether these philosophical terms (Derrida calls them philosophèmes) are too deeply entrenched in our ‘folk psychology,’ but whether they play a rhetorical role which is so difficult to suppress because theorists are usually not conscious of the rhetorical devices used to make their points. These devices generate distinctions, bifurcations and dichotomies which in turn can result in the binary oppositions that make politics possible. That is, without some oppositions (for instance, left and right) there would be no need for politics. Derrida claims, therefore, that investigating how these philosophemes function ties in to the investigation of what he calls ‘the very meaning of the political as such’. Whether he is doing anything more here than excusing philosophy in general, and deconstruction in particular, from the charge of being apolitical is an open question, and indeed, yet another candidate (not mentioned by Derrida) for the question of Derrida’s subtitle.

Heidegger is, unfortunately, not a good test case for these questions. The bad faith accompanying not only the political years but the later attempts to find ways of avoiding a disavowal of these years encumbers any purely philosophical assessment of his career. However, what interests Derrida is not so much what Heidegger as a philosopher tried to say, but what he tried not to say. In this he is following Heidegger himself, for Heidegger typically claimed that it is more important to see, not just what a thinker explicitly thought, but what the thinker left unthought. Derrida prefers to speak in the plural of ‘unthoughts’, since he is not trying to identify, as Heidegger did, the great, unifying unthought tying together a thinker’s myriad ideas. Therefore, Derrida picks out something that Heidegger himself would probably not have found significant – that is, some inconsistencies in whether the adjective ‘spiritual’ is used rhetorically in a pejorative or an approbatory sense.

Derrida can make points that would seem tedious in the hands of other commentators seem dramatic. Thus, he finds it ‘spectacular’ that when Heidegger quotes his own definition of spirit from the 1933 rectorship Address in the 1935 Introduction to Metaphysics he fails to include the quotation marks around spirit. Is this a simple clerical omission or a deliberate suppression? The example, and the extensive discussion in the 1935 text of what spirit is most genuinely (including a criticism of both Marxism and positivism for having reduced spirit merely to ‘intelligence’, i.e. instrumental, calculative reasoning about means instead of ends), shows that a noted scholar like Beda Allemann is just wrong to say that ‘spirit is one of those words which Heidegger only uses in quotation marks after Being and Time.’ But to suggest bad faith on Heidegger’s part here would seem an exaggeration. If logical compulsion tells us to include quotes in every case where we are discussing the concept instead of the referent, grammatical parsimony tells us that this would produce too many quotes, and that the context will often suffice.

What this apparently marginal slip in Heidegger points up, however, is the difficulty that 20th-century philosophers like Heidegger have in trying to avoid the traditional philosophemes at the same time as they would continue doing philosophy. The problem is that anything lacking these philosophemes does not seem to be recognisable as philosophy. Philosophers like Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Derrida himself therefore try to say without saying. There are two devices for this which particularly interest Derrida, and which Derrida has himself exploited. One is quotation marks to use a term without really using it – that is, to mention it but not to refer with it. Another is Heidegger’s special strategy of printing a term like Being under an X that crosses the word out, letting him avoid the term but at the same time not avoid it, at least not without letting us know what term it is that he wants to avoid. I shall focus more on the first of these devices.

Heidegger often uses quotes self-consciously to make subtle distinctions. As Derrida makes clear, Heidegger’s own method of deconstructing the history of philosophy involves putting quotes around the traditional philosophemes like ‘spirit’, ‘soul’ and, in general, any term smacking of subjectivity in contrast to the objectivity of mere things. Heidegger’s technical term Dasein is not supposed to be another such name for human subjectivity, but to explain how the sometimes useful distinction between subjectivity and objectivity arises.

Reconstructive defenders of Heidegger may think that what Derrida’s deconstruction does not explain sufficiently is that once Heidegger has explained how the subject-object distinction can be derived from the starting-point of Dasein, then the terms that were to be avoided may come into play again, although in a modified understanding. Thus, Derrida suggests that Heidegger smuggles ‘spirit’ back into Being and Time, despite his intention of avoiding the word. Late in Being and Time Heidegger claims, roughly, that whereas the tradition understands the spirit as falling into time and space, and sees this as an imperfection of spirit, Heidegger’s analysis intends to show that spatiality and temporality are not imperfections of human existence, but on the contrary, are its essential functions. Heidegger will state his reversal of the traditional understanding by saying that ‘because Dasein is “spiritual”, and only because of this, it can be spatial’ or that (contrary to Hegel) ‘ “spirit” does not first fall into time, but it exists as the primordial temporalising of temporality.’

These claims might seem to be fallaciously trading on the familiar distinction between use and mention. A critic of Heidegger would say that Heidegger slides from mentioning the term spirit in quotes at the beginning of the second passage to using the term by dropping the quotes in the second occurrence of the word (in the pronoun ‘it’). The same practice occurs in the definition of spirit in the rectorship Address, with the quotes around the first instance of the word apparently forgotten in Heidegger’s citation of the definition two years later: ‘Spirit [in quotation marks in the Address but not in the Introduction to Metaphysics] is neither empty sagacity, nor the gratuitous game of joking, nor the unlimited work of analysis of the understanding, nor even the reason of the world, but spirit [here the quotation marks had already been removed in the Address] is the being resolved to the essence of Being.’

A defender would reply that Heidegger’s intention in all these instances is to use the quotes to mark the difference between the old and the new ways of understanding the relation between human existence and the spatiotemporal world. The term would have to mean something different in the second occurrence from what it does in the first, and would not need quotes for the second occurrence, or even once the context made clear the connotations Heidegger was avoiding and those he was confirming.

Which of these is Derrida’s line, the critic’s or the defender’s? The answer seems to be ‘both, and neither,’ and turns on Derrida’s curious preoccupation with deconstructing the use-mention distinction. In response to some of Derrida’s earlier writings, some critics (including John Searle) suggested that Derrida did not keep the boundary between use and mention clear. Derrida’s response has been, repeatedly, to show that he is aware of the distinction, and indeed, that he likes to play with it deliberately. This response would have sufficed, but Derrida also seems compelled to try to show that there is no such distinction. He says the distinction is ‘put forward’ (proposée) by speech act theory, and he may think that he is therefore vindicating himself in his debate with Searle. But the distinction is older than speech act theory, and is a handy logical tool which it is hard to imagine anyone wanting to deconstruct. However, Derrida summarises his painstaking explication of Heidegger’s use (and dropping) of quotes around spirit by suggesting that in these cases use and mention are interlaced and even ‘inextricable’. This seems wrong, since the critic and the defender whom I have imagined do seem capable of separating use from mention in these sentences. So Derrida has not identified some compelling counter-examples to the use-mention distinction, and his repeated attempts to undermine this useful distinction seem unnecessary.

In the title essay of Psyché Derrida associates the use-mention distinction with another that does grow out of speech act theory, the performative-constative distinction. Here he seems to have been misled by Paul de Man, who asserts in Allegories of Reading that ‘the difference between performative and constative language (which Nietzsche anticipates) is undecidable.’ Unlike the use-mention distinction, however, I doubt that anyone would be surprised by examples like those Derrida analyses in Psyché and Otobiographies which are performative and constative at once. In a section of the essay ‘Psyché’ called ‘Beyond the Speech Act’, Derrida describes a poem by Ponge called ‘Fable’, the first line of which says, ‘By the word by this text begins,’ with the second line continuing, ‘and the first line is true.’ Derrida rightly thinks that this is an interesting case where the poem constates that it is performing a poetic act which is at the same time descriptive and effective. The play on use and mention both in the first line and between the second line and the first is also intriguing. But the case does not prove the undecidability of language. It is not a counter-example to the use-mention distinction, and it does not deconstruct what Derrida describes as the ‘oppositional logic’ or la distinction intouchable between the performative and the constative, simply because these need not be construed as exclusive. There are many common occurrences which are both at once, such as ‘By these words I thee wed,’ but these cases do not show that textual meaning is fundamentally undecidable. If there is a genuine philosophical conflict between deconstruction and speech act theory, it should be shown to depend on more central points than the use-mention or the performative-constative distinctions.

More interesting than how Derrida’s fascination with quotation marks carries over from earlier criticisms of deconstruction is how his current work reflects on more recent criticisms of the apparently apolitical stance of deconstruction. Earlier Derrida had suggested (in Spurs, for instance) that philosophy could be entering a deconstructive epoch where it was put entirely in quotation marks. Deconstruction’s doubts about whether philosophemes really refer to anything, and about whether there is anything outside texts, struck many as implying that deconstruction discounted the real effects that words have in the world. Now Derrida has denied that implication, and is insisting on the political potential of deconstructive analysis. Here he does so by showing that Heidegger’s inability to avoid a metaphysical word like ‘spirit’ is correlated with Heidegger’s political experiences. Derrida is neither claiming that the slip back into metaphysics is caused by the political error, nor is he asserting the opposite causal relation. What he is showing is that political self-justification is often accompanied by a rhetorical appeal to metaphysical oppositions such as spirit and nature, and that this slip back into metaphysics itself can come at the precise moment where the self-justification appears politically suspect.

Derrida tries to show this not only for Heidegger, but also for political innocents, taking Valéry and Husserl as examples. He finds even a ‘victim’ like Husserl in 1935 celebrating the European spirit while explicitly excluding ‘non-Aryans’ like the Gypsies, Eskimos and Indians. So the rhetorical appeal to the freedom of the spirit, and to a general humanism, can in the same breath be misperceived even by a ‘non-Aryan’ victim who fails to sense the Eurocentric and racist cast of his own language. This bias is not accidental, suggests Derrida, but is consistent with Husserl’s philosophical insistence on transcendental subjectivity and the teleology of (European) reason.

This inculpation of a political innocent does not excuse Heidegger, of course. The point is to be cautious of philosophical appeals to spirit, and to the freedom of spirit. Derrida is aware that one could try to defend the Heidegger of 1933-35 by suggesting that when Heidegger insists that the destiny of the German people is a spiritual one, Heidegger is saying that this destiny is precisely spiritual and not natural, biological or ‘racial’. So Heidegger may therefore be using the standard Nazi rhetoric of ‘earth and blood’ but meaning something different. However, this unlikely excuse for the political Heidegger only increases the damage to the philosophical Heidegger since it re-invokes the split between spirit and nature that Heidegger was attempting to deconstruct. So his resurrection of the word ‘spirit’ does not give it a totally new meaning that no longer relies on the metaphysical oppositions that he hoped to avoid.

That a vestige of the anthropocentric, hummanist teleology of the metaphysical tradition survives in Heidegger is also confirmed, according to Derrida, by another apparently marginal set of statements in Heidegger’s texts where Heidegger’s rhetoric ‘is all the more peremptory and authoritarian for having to hide a discomfiture’. These statements contain references to what Heidegger calls ‘animality’. Again, Derrida draws our attention to a small contradiction in Heidegger’s passing remarks about animals and then suggests that Heidegger here shows that he is still entrapped in what he wanted to deconstruct: namely, the history of ontology where ‘man’ is taken as the measure. The contradiction comes in that Heidegger claims on one occasion that animals have no world (keine Welt, auch keine Umwelt), and on another that they are not without world (weltlos, as a stone is), but simply poor in world (weltarm), unlike ‘man’ who is weltbildend. Derrida ponders on what it would be like to be weltarm, and in passing notes the curious passage where Heidegger first imagines the device of ‘crossing out’ or holding something ‘under erasure’: ‘When we say that the lizard is stretched out on the rock, we should cross through [durchstreichen] the word “rock”, to indicate that while what the lizard is stretched out on is doubtless given him in some way, it is not known [or recognised] as rock.’ This ignoble beginning of Heidegger’s later strategy of crossing out ‘Being’ suggests that Heidegger still privileges man because of man’s spirituality, and has not transcended the epoch of Cartesian-Hegelian subjectivity. The notion of spirit shows that Heidegger retains a humanist teleology, which carries with it an evaluative hierarchy that Heidegger should have bracketed.

While Derrida may have found an internal difficulty in Heidegger, who wanted to transcend spirit and its accompanying metaphysics, he is less clear about the larger philosophical question of whether this humanist teleology is good or bad. His own rhetoric repeatedly suggests that appeal to this humanist teleology and the vocabulary of the freedom of spirit is the ‘price to be paid’ not only by Heidegger but by anyone in Heidegger’s time as well as today. This phrase suggests that Derrida finds ideas like the freedom of spirit inadequate, but he does not say why. He does not seem to welcome a humanist teleology, but he explicitly says that he does not criticise it either:

It has remained up till now the price to be paid in the ethico-political denunciation of biologism, racism, naturalism, etc ... Is it avoidable? Can one escape this programme? No sign would suggest it ... Can one transform this programme? I do not know.

Contrary to interpreters like Christopher Norris who read Derrida as giving Kantian transcendental deductions of necessary beliefs, Derrida here seems to be proposing instead of a transcendental argument merely an economic argument. The reasoning is that we need to be able to denounce fascism and racism, and the only way that we know to do this now is by appeal to the humanist vocabulary of spirit. Unlike a transcendental argument, which would establish that it is necessary to posit spiritual freedom, Derrida’s argument is merely that this vocabulary is so far the one that we have to settle for since it is the only one available, the ‘price to be paid’. The economic rhetoric is reminiscent of Pascal’s wager, except that Derrida does not really seem to like or to accept the humanist teleology that he says we must invoke. He explains that his project is only to analyse and exhibit the mechanisms of humanist teleology, while apparently remaining agnostic about its soundness or its viability.

Can philosophy do anything more today? Many of us hope that it can. Of course, too much is often expected of philosophy. Derrida reminds us of Heidegger’s own complaint that philosophy is expected either to be the foundation of a time and a culture, or to be able to reflect on and reveal systematically the presuppositions and fundamental principles of a culture. To expect too little of philosophy is perhaps worse, however, than expecting too much of it. Reflections on how mistaken philosophical claims are to be avoided should not lead to the conclusion that all philosophers can do today is to avoid saying anything. I do not mean to imply that Derrida is himself trying to avoid saying anything. On the contrary, one result of his close reading is to show that when philosophers like Heidegger do try to avoid saying certain things explicitly, they may end by saying them implicitly. Derrida’s analyses suggest that it is also possible to say something by avoiding saying something, as well as that there are some things that can be said best by explicitly not stating them.

Even if he is entirely right for these cases, however, philosophers will undoubtedly continue to believe that there are ethical, epistemological and social commitments that need to be articulated as clearly and forcefully as possible. Deconstructive commentaries like this book may be valuable, but if they limit themselves to commentary, they may complacently allude to substantive questions indefinitely without ever taking a stand. Derrida challenges Heidegger’s own privileging of questions, yet Derrida has himself been accused – by Jürgen Habermas – of sharing this Heideggerian preference for questions over answers. This book does little to deflect that criticism. Of course, raising new questions is and always has been a central task of philosophy. This study of Heidegger is a fine example of how Derrida can make readers of philosophical texts notice difficult problems in almost imperceptible details of those texts. The next question is, if Heidegger did not succeed entirely in resolving the substantive questions, can we? I would say that it is reasonable not to be distracted or dissuaded by Heidegger’s particular inconsistencies.

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