The argument that I would like to develop in these pages can easily be summarized. It consists in raising the inherited question of the relationship between theory and practice, but considered under Heidegger’s hypothesis that metaphysical rationality produces its own closure. That inherited question is to be raised anew, then, from a perspective that forbids couching it in opposites such as ‘theory and practice’.
I would like to show what happens to the old problem of the unity between thinking and acting once ‘thinking’ no longer means securing some rational foundation upon which one may establish the sum total of what is knowable, and once ‘acting’ no longer means conforming one’s daily enterprises, both public and private, to the foundation so secured. The hypothesis of closure entails more than the obsolescence of any such speculative base upon which life is to find its steadiness, its legitimation, and its peace: it entails the necessity of a deconstruction. In its rigorous, not its inflated sense, this term denotes the dismantling of what Kant called dogmatic philosophy. Deconstruction interrupts, throws out of gear, the derivations between first philosophy and practical philosophy. It was because of such derivations that ontology used to be called first philosophy: it provided the founding and legitimating discipline in relation to the body or system of the specialized disciplines. This, then, is the argument: in the answers that they have traditionally brought to bear on the ‘special’ question “What is to be done?” philosophers have relied, in one way or another, on some standard-setting first whose grounding function was assured by a ‘general’ doctrine, be it called ontology or something else. From this doctrine, theories of action received their patterns of thought as well as a great many of their answers. Now, the deconstruction of metaphysics situates historically what has been deemed to be a foundation. It thus closes the era of derivations between general and special metaphysics, between first philosophy and practical philosophy. As one of its consequences, deconstruction leaves the discourse on action suspended in a void. It deprives such discourse of the schemata that properly belonged to speculations on sensible or divine substance, on the subject, on spirit, or on ‘being’. But it follows further that action itself, and not only its theory, loses its foundation or archē.
It is a decisive question for me today how a
political system, and what kind of one, can at
all be coordinated with the technological age.
I do not know the answer to this question. I
am not convinced that it is democracy.
“Only a God Can Save Us Now”1
It is the nature of this “I do not know,” of the ignorance admitted in these lines—feigned? sincere? or perhaps necessary?—which is of interest here. I am not treating this avowal of ignorance as a signifier that would refer to some state of consciousness or some event in Martin Heidegger s life; one that would be the symptom, in other words, of some psychological, political, or moral signified. Whether the avowal of ignorance is pretended or sincere, whether it refers to political longings and leanings or not, is not my subject. But perhaps this avowal is not accidental. Perhaps it directly concerns the single question that never ceased to preoccupy Heidegger. In any case, it can be paralleled with other ‘confessions’ of ignoranee: “The greater the work of a thinker—which is in no way measured by the extent and number of his writings—all the richer is what remains unthought in that work, that is, what emerges for the first time thanks to it, as having not yet been thought.”2 “The fact that the real has been showing itself in the light of Ideas ever since Plato, is not a fact brought about by Plato. The thinker only responded to that which addressed itself to him.”3 “The plurivocity of the essence of reality at the beginning of modern metaphysics is the sign of an authentic [epochal] transition.”4 “What Kant, beyond his express formulation, brought to light in the course of his laying the foundation . . . Kant himself was no longer able to say anything about. Generally, whatever is to become decisive in any philosophical knowledge is not found in the propositions enunciated, but in that which, although unstated as such, is brought before our gaze through these propositions.”5 Like the works of Plato, Descartes, and Kant, Being and Time itself is traversed by something unthought or unsaid that is not due to chance: “Do not our own efforts, if we dare compare them with those of our predecessors, ultimately evidence a hidden avoidance of something which we—certainly not by accident—no longer see?”6
A very distinct ignorance, then, seems to prevail at the moments of transition between epochs, at the ‘decisive’ moments (decidere, ‘to cut off,’ ‘to set apart’). It remains to be seen what this ignorance bears upon and what is the source of its necessity. Perhaps it has nothing to do with the opinions and convictions of an individual, with his sense of political responsibility or with the sagacity of his analyses of power. What if the avowal of ignorance were integral to the body of writings which circulate, operate, put people to flight, or make them think—that is, which function—under the name of ‘Heidegger’? What if this ignorance were so necessary to his discourse that without such a confession it would no longer quite be a text, a fabric governed by internal laws? Can it be said that the Heideggerian corpus is structured according to rules that are few in number, one of which directly concerns this ignorance? That this ignorance is closely woven into the texture of his thinking? If this is so, ‘to read Heidegger’ will mean to inscribe that other individual, called the interpreter, into the same textual fabric and to advance solely within the written word. Such an approach is modest. Indeed, it deprives itself of the very possibility of verifying or invalidating through experience what is read. It is modest as is ‘thinking’, which cannot avail itself of the prestige of knowledge. But to approach Heidegger in this fashion is also violent: if it is possible to exhibit a few general rules of procedure in his writings, it may also be possible to steer what is said in a direction the man Martin Heidegger would not have wished to be led.
‘Heidegger’, then, will take the place here of a certain discursive regularity. It will not be the proper name, which refers to a man from Messkirch, deceased in 1976. We might say ‘with Heidegger’, but in all strictness we must say ‘in Heidegger’.
We know that ‘being’ was his obsession, his first and final word—or at least nearly so. For it is true that toward the end even he could no longer hear it and would rather speak of ‘presencing’, of ‘world’, or of ‘event’. What would be more tempting then, more deserving perhaps, than to develop, after Heidegger, what his obsession with that single question prevented him from accomplishing, and to ‘derive’ a ‘practical philosophy’ from his ‘philosophy of Being’? It may be regrettable that he did not take this step himself. But after all we have the first philosophy, and a little ingenuity may suffice to extract from it a “Politics,” an “Ethics,” or even a “Second Critique.” It could be argued that Heidegger, concerned solely with the lofty problem of ‘being’, would not have had such an acute sense for more concrete, more earthbound, or at least more philosophically traditional questions: so much so that in his life he stumbled at one of these concrete particulars that was more perilous than Thales’ well. His obsession would be embarrassing especially when measured against his predecessors since Socrates, who consistently repeated that “virtue is knowledge,” that practical reason receives its architecture from pure reason, and that theōria, since it is what is most noble within our reach, prescribes the routes to praxis. In short, Heidegger’s obsession would simply have made him forget that agere sequitur esse, action follows being. He turned the question of being over and over—to us to translate it in terms of action.
I would like to show on the contrary that Heidegger does not at all dissociate ‘being and acting’. He does not overlook the latter to the advantage of the former. To speak of presencing as he does is to speak of acting. He does not disjoin the ancient unity between theory and practice, but he does much worse: he raises the question of presencing in such a way that the question of acting is already answered; he raises it in such a way that action can no longer become a separate issue; in such a way that to seek an enduring standard for answering the question, ‘What is to be done?’ is to search in the vacuum of the place deserted by the successive representations of an unshakable ground; in such a way, finally, that the epochal constellations of presencing have always already prescribed not only the terms in which the question of action can and must be raised (ousiological, theological, transcendental, linguistic terms), but also the ground from which it can and must be answered (substance, God, cogito, discursive community) as well as the types of answers that can and must be adduced (hierarchy of virtues, hierarchy of laws—divine, natural, and human—hierarchy of imperatives, and hierarchy of discursive interests, that is, cognitive or emancipatory). The Heideggerian deconstruction (Abbau—the term only turned into a catchword once translated into French, fifty years after it was coined) of the historical constellations of presencing shows that one can speak of the closed unity of the metaphysical epoch at least in one respect: the concern with deriving a practical philosophy from a first philosophy. ‘Metaphysics’ is then the title for that ensemble of speculative efforts with a view to a model, a canon, a principium for action. In the light of the deconstruction, that ensemble appears as a closed field. The hypothesis of the closure of the metaphysical field is the point of departure for everything that will follow. This hypothesis functions doubly (even though the opposition between system and history will eventually fall victim to that same hypothesis): it is a systematic closure, inasmuch as the norms for action formally ‘proceed from’ the corresponding first philosophies; and it is a historical closure, since the deconstructionist discourse can arise only from the boundary of the era over which it is exercised. The hypothesis of closure determines the deconstruction at each step of its progress. It confers its ambiguity on the Heideggerian enterprise: still enclosed in the problematic of presence, but already outside the fief where presencing functions as constant presence, as identity of self with self, as unshakable ground.
The hypothesis of closure also confers its radicality on the deconstructionist move: action bereft of archē is thinkable only at the moment when the problematic of ‘being’—inherited from the closed field of metaphysics but subject on its threshold to a transmutation, to a passover—emerges from ontologies and dismisses them. If in the epoch of post-modernity (in short, since Nietzsche) the question of presence no longer seems capable of articulating itself as a first philosophy, and if the strategy of the concept of ‘presencing’ in Heidegger annihilates the quest for a complete possession of self by self, it is in the epochal constellation of the twentieth century that the ancient procession and legitimation of praxis from theōria comes to exhaustion. Then, in its essence, action proves to be an-archic.
‘Anarchy’ is only the complement of the two premises that have just been advanced, namely: (1) traditional doctrines of praxis refer this concept to an insurpassable science from which proceed the schemata that are applicable to a rigorous reasoning about action; (2) in the age of metaphysics’ closure, this procession from or legitimation by a first science proves to be epochal—regional, dated, finite, and ‘finished’ in both senses of the word: complete as well as terminated.
Correlatively, here ‘anarchy’ means: (1) The prime schema which practical philosophy has traditionally borrowed from first philosophy is the reference to an archē, articulated according to the attributive πϱòς ἕν or the participative ἀφ’ ἑνός relation. Theories of action not only depend in general on what prevails as ultimate knowledge in each epoch but, furthermore, they reproduce the attributive-participative schema as if it were a pattern. In this way, these theories have their origin in first philosophy, and they borrow from it the very design of seeking an origin for action, a first instance on which the manifold is to rest. The attributive-participative schema, when translated into the doctrines of praxis, results in the ordering of acts to one focal point. This focal point is continually displaced throughout history: ideal city, heavenly kingdom, the happiness of the greatest number, noumenal and legislative freedom, “transcendental pragmatic consensus” (Apel), etc. But none of these transferences destroys the attributive, participative, and therefore normative, pattern itself. The archē always functions in relation to action as substance functions in relation to its accidents, imparting to them sense and telos. (2) In the epoch of closure, on the other hand, the regularity of the principles that have reigned over action can be laid out. The schema of reference to an archē then reveals itself to be the product of a certain type of thinking, of an ensemble of philosophic rules that have their genesis, their period of glory, and that today perhaps are experiencing a decline. What we read, then, in Heidegger is that the principiai function has been assured by numerous firsts over the course of the centuries; that the regularity of this function is formally reducible to the Aristotelian πϱòς ἕν (of which the ἀφ’ ἑνός is but the symmetric counterpart); and that, with the closure of the metaphysical era, the epochal principles (metaphysical “stamps,” Prägungen) that have ordered thoughts and actions in each age of our history are withering away. Anarchy in this sense does not become operative as a concept until the moment when the great sheet of consteilations that fix presencing in constant presence folds up, closes in upon itself. For Western culture, things manifold have been frozen—diversely, of course, according to the epochs—around a first truth or a rational principium. Since the attributive schema has moreover been exported into practical philosophy, these rational principles delineate the structure in which is located the princeps, the authority to which all that is feasible in an era is referred. The first philosophies furnish power with its formal structures. More precisely, ‘metaphysics’ then designates that disposition where action requires a principle to which words, things, and deeds can be related. Action appears without principle in the age of the turning, when presence as ultimate identity turns into presencing as irreducible difference (or reducible only categorially). If these are the contours of the program of deconstruction, the necessity of an avowal of ignorance begins to be glimpsed: the very question of a “political system coordinated with the technological age” is one of principial constructs.
The most adequate expression to cover the whole of these premises would be ‘anarchy principle’. The word ‘anarchy’, though, clearly lends itself to misunderstanding as does the juxtaposition of the two nouns which, for the professionals of speculative contradiction, inevitably suggests redemption through sublation. ‘Anarchy’ here does not stand for a program of action, nor its juxtaposition with ‘principle’ for dialectical reconciliation. With this twofold caveat, the paradox of the expression is nonetheless instructive, dazzling. Is not the backbone of metaphysics—whatever the ulterior determinations by which this concept would have to be specified—the rule always to seek a first from which the world becomes intelligible and masterable, the rule of scire per causas, of establishing ‘principles’ for thinking and doing? ‘Anarchy’, on the other hand, designates the withering away of such a rule, the relaxing of its hold. This paradox is dazzling because in two words it points within and beyond the closure of metaphysics, thus exhibiting the boundary line of that closure itself. The paradox that the expression ‘anarchy principle’ articulates locates the Heideggerian enterprise, it indicates the place where it is situated: still implanted in the problematic of τὶ τò ὄν; (“What is being?”), but already uprooting it from the schema of the pros hen, which was connate to that problematic. Retaining presence, but dislocating it from the attributive schema. Still a principle, but a principle of anarchy. It is instructive to think this contradiction. The principial reference then appears to be counteracted, both in its history and in its essence, by a force of dislocation, of plurification. The referential logos becomes “archipelagic speech,” “pulverized poem” (“parole en archipel,” “poème pulvérisé,” René Char). The deconstruction is a discourse of transition. By putting the two words ‘anarchy’ and ‘principle’ side by side, one prepares oneself for this epochal transition.
Needless to say, here it will not be a question of anarchy in the sense of Proudhon, Bakunin, and their disciples.7 What these masters sought was to displace the origin, to substitute the ‘rational’ power, principium, for the power of authority, princeps—as metaphysical an operation as has ever been. They sought to replace one focal point with another. The anarchy that will be at issue here is the name of a history affecting the ground or foundation of action, a history where the bedrock yields and where it becomes obvious that the principle of cohesion, be it authoritarian or ‘rational’, is no longer anything more than a blank space deprived of legislative, normative, power. Anarchy expresses a destiny of decline, the decay of the standards to which Westerners since Plato have related their acts and deeds in order to anchor them there and to withdraw them from change and doubt. It is the rational production of that anchorage—the most serious task traditionally assigned to philosophers—that becomes impossible with Heidegger.
The deterioration of foundations is hardly an explicit theme in Heidegger insofar as it affects action. Rather, he recognizes it in an oblique way. Yet Heidegger says more about the uprooting, the rootlessness, of action than repeated declarations such as “thinking changes the world” lead one to suspect. Indeed, from Being and Time through the last of his writings he curiously inverts the relationship between ‘thinking’ and ‘acting’ as viewed retrospectively from the borderline of metaphysical closure. He articulates the inversion of the transcendental status proper to the ancient distinction between theory and praxis in ever new ways. This inversion will appear as the factor that begins to render the distinction in question anachronistic. Heidegger makes action deprived of archē the condition of the thought which deconstructs the archē. Whether this is expressed in terms of ‘authentic temporality’, of ‘releasement’, of ‘dwelling’ in language, or of ‘letting things come to presence in their world’, a practical determination, and one that determines all action, always appears as the a priori for the ‘thought of being’. This is more than a simple inversion of the relationship between being and acting; it is the subversion of that classical relation, its overturn (vertere) from the base (sub-). Heidegger actually inscribes himself here in a tradition entirely different from that of Aristotle. Plotinus and Meister Eckhart teach that practice, rather than issuing as a consequence from an operation through which the mind grasps being, functions as the condition of the mind’s presence to itself. Heidegger, however, transmutes these sources, since the practical a priori becomes dissociated from presence as the ideal possession of self by self.
In the age when ‘principles’ expire, presence can no longer denote anything noumenal. The deconstruction of action can be measured by the yardstick of Kant, the champion of the specific preeminence proper to practical reason: no practical philosophy without a noumenal a priori. Heidegger would subscribe to this discovery. But since presencing—being—is not a noumenon for him, the entire enterprise of devising a practical philosophy must fall. This is Kant turned against himself. Presencing is not a noumenon, nor is it the contrary of a noumenon, an empirical phenomenon or a positive given. Between the Scylla of an ideal, principial, ontological, noumenal understanding of presence and the Charybdis of its positive understanding, Heidegger traces the middle line of the categorial, subverting Kant as well. Presencing is one, but simply as the unity of the formal traits that link the epochs. Hence the impossibility of a practical philosophy drawn from the ‘thought of being’. Hence, too, the importance of a table of the categories of presencing which establishes this impossibility. Such a table should put an end to all readings of Heidegger that, whether openly or not, tend to reduce ‘being’ to some version of the absolute. There is no manifestation of the absolute to be found in Heidegger’s phenomenology of presencing, which is to say, in his deconstruction. If the identity in difference is of a purely categorial order, this phenomenology has broken with idealities, with the whole enterprise of construing some identity of self with self. Similarly, if manifestation is only another name for presencing and not its appearing, not the manifestation of presence, then the possibility of an epiphany of an in-itself in history vanishes (together with the possibility of a regulation explainable through a deductive-nomological model). One may add: if logos designates the structure of the constellation in and by which beings are near one another at any moment of the synchronic cut, and not the ‘reason’ enduring beyond all breaks and ruptures, it seems difficult to insert Heidegger within onto-theo-teleological logocentrism. Finally, if ‘presencing’ is the name for the synchronic constellation in which present beings circulate, and only that, it is entirely impossible to fit his thought into some philosophy of otherness, be it the divine Other or human others. The categorial solution that is brought to bear on the old problem of identity and difference, or of the one and the many, directly affects the discussion of action: there is no unity of action except that which characterizes an epoch. For, as I will attempt to show, ‘in principle’ all men do the same things. . . .
The avowal of ignorance concerning the political system best adapted to the technological age now appears as a consequence of another radicalized Kantian topic, enlightenment. “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage.”8 For radical phenomenology, Western man has incurred his tutelage by endowing some of his representations with ultimacy. Release from such self-incurred tutelage can only come from reason’s undoing what it has itself set up. To submit to a critique the measure-giving figments it has imposed on itself is to exhibit their origin. This cannot be done, however, by inquiring once again into the makeup of the subject, since it is precisely the transcendental I that Kant ends up instituting as yet another first. Critical phenomenology has therefore to turn to the history of presencing if it is to lay bare the conditions of self-incurred tutelage and complete the business of enlightenment—emancipation—left unfinished by Kant. Metaphysical thinking sets up systems of wardship under the guise of rationality; it is speculative inasmuch as its rationalization of bondage is held to mirror an a priori order that can be known through contemplation or reflection. Phenomenological thinking, on the other hand, points out the mechanics of those systems as well as the interests they support. But contrary to what contemporary critics (particularly from so-called Critical Theory) have charged, dethroning the transcendental subject as the modern ultimate referent in no way amounts to celebrating irrationality and dismissing the struggle for enlightenment. Heidegger sharpens that struggle as he turns ‘thinking’ polemically against ‘reason’, the originator of speculative custodial agencies. His avowal of ignorance only indicates that radical phenomenology has no such supreme guarantor to turn to.
The avowal of ignorance now also appears more coherent, better inscribed, at least, in the general unity of the texture which is the deconstructionist discourse. If the question of political systems can become an issue only within epochal and principiai organizations, and if, furthermore, the epochal-principial modality of presencing comes to an end in the age of closure, then weighing the advantages and inconveniences of the different systems is a bad way of raising the political question. This can be shown in several ways.
First, and most obviously, by the opposition between thinking and knowing. In Heidegger, no dialectic links thought and knowledge; no synthesis makes it possible to pass from one to the other: “Science does not think.” This opposition, also inherited from Kant (although in spite of the consistent use Heidegger makes of it, he never recognizes the debt), establishes two territories, two continents, between which there is neither analogy nor even resemblance. “There is no bridge that leads from science to thought.”9 We “think being” and its epochs, but we “know entities” and their aspects. There is a generalized ignorance, then, that strikes thought in all its advances. If Heidegger invokes this necessary poverty of philosophy so persistently it is perhaps because it is the placeholder of a necessity even closer to the very matter of thinking.
Furthermore, on the boundary line that encloses a long history the matter of thinking is to “repeat” or retrieve presencing itself, to “win back the originative experiences of metaphysics through a deconstruction of representations that have become current and empty.”10 If that long history actually reaches its end (and Heidegger’s confident affirmation in this regard, as well as that of others after him,11 may leave one perplexed), then in the crisis the structure of its field lapses out of order; its principles of cohesion lose their efficacy; the νόμος of our οἶϰος, the economy that encloses us, produces fewer and fewer certainties. The moment when an epochal threshold is crossed is inescapably one of ignorance.
Finally, the necessary ignorance concerning political systems and their respective merits results from the constellation of presencing whose dawn is described to us as a cessation of principles, a deposing of the very principle of epochal principles, and the beginning of an economy of passage, that is, of anarchy. In the epoch of transition, then, words, things, and actions would come to presence in such a way that their public interaction is irreducible to any systematicity. It is through a historical deduction of the categories of “the other beginning” that action deprived of a unifying pros hen will become thinkable. The same deduction will establish the possibility of thinking an identity within manifold praxis that will consist only of “guiding traits.” Since these traits apply to ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ alike, that distinction loses its pertinence.
This said and understood, nonetheless it must be added that the avowal of ignorance is, of course, a feint. And one that is more than strategic—unless the word ‘strategy’ is understood, not in relation to human actions and the art of coordinating them, but in relation to the economies of presencing. Then one sees that there are strong reasons for feigning. Indeed, after having outlined the withering away of principles, how could one avoid questions of the following type: What is your theory of the State? And of property? And of law in general? What will become of defense? And of our highways? Heidegger makes himself scarce. After one of the most direct developments of what could be called ontological anarchy—expressed at this juncture by the concept of “life without why,” borrowed from Meister Eckhart (via Angelus Silesius)—Heidegger concludes: “In the most hidden ground of his being, man truly is only if in his way he is like the rose—without why.” The “without why” points beyond the closure; therefore it cannot be pursued. The brusque halt of the development—“We cannot pursue this thought any further here”12—as well as the feigned ignorance, are inevitable when “another thought” is attempted. To strengthen this point a little further: a life “without why” certainly means a life without a goal, without telos; also it is said that “in the most hidden ground of his being”—hence, totally—man must be deprived of telos. For man to be “in his way like the rose” would be to abolish practical teleology. It is clear that the objections rebound: But without telos action would no longer be action. . . . Indeed. Whence the necessity of the feint.
To deconstruct action is to uproot it from domination by the idea of finality, the teleocracy where it has been held since Aristotle. A deconstruction, then, is not the same as a destruction. At the end of the Introduction to Being and Time Heidegger announced a “phenomenological destruction of the history of ontology.”13 By that he meant a way of rereading the philosophers. The subject matter of destruction is made up of philosophical systems, of books. With the help of that method Heidegger hoped to retrieve the thought experiences from which each of the inherited ontologies was born. The subject matter of deconstruction, on the other hand, is provided by the constellations of presencing that have succeeded one another throughout the ages. If the closure must be understood as it has been sketched here, if it is that disturbance of the rules whereby the general unity of the constellation called culture rearranges itself, then deconstruction is necessarily all-inclusive, indivisible. The Abbau cannot contain itself within a ‘region’, within a determinate science, or a discipline. Action is not deconstructible in isolation. This is why the first task is that of a phenomenology of the epochal principles.14
The point of departure of this entire enterprise is not really innovative. It is the very traditional wonder before the epochs and their slippages: How is it possible to account for the fact that, in the heart of an epochal enclosure (those enclosures called polis, Roman Empire, Middle Ages, etc., or, according to a scarcely more discriminating division, seventeenth, eighteenth, or nineteenth centuries) certain practices are possible and even necessary, while others are not? How does it happen that a Revolution was impossible in the Middle Ages, just as an International was during the French Revolution, and a Cultural Revolution was at the moment of the First International? Or, according to a perspective that is less alien to the questions of the ‘principles’ than it may seem: How does it happen that a Duns Seotus, although surnamed Doctor subtilis, could write neither a critique of pure reason nor a genealogy of morals? How does it happen, in other words, that a domain of the possible and the necessary is instituted, endures for a time, and then cedes under the effect of a mutation? ‘How does it happen?’ This is a descriptive question, not to be confounded with the etiological question, ‘Why is it that . . . ?’ The causal solutions brought to bear on these phenomena of mutation, whether they are ‘speculative’, ‘economist’, or whatever, leave one unsatisfied for the very reason of the causal presupposition which they cannot question—which they cannot situate, for this presupposition is only an epochal incidence of the pros hen schema.
To situate the epochal principles in the history of the modalities of presencing is to draw a genealogy of these principles. This entails a double task: on one hand, such a genealogy will trace the ancestral line of the last of these principles, technology; by so doing, it will establish the filiation that leads from “the Greek dawn’’ to “the night of the world” in which—according to Hölderlin—modernity is engulfed. On the other hand, the genealogy of principles will show how this lineage itself was born; how, with a certain radical turn, the Socratic turn, the constellations of preseneing began to be dominated by principles; how, at last, with another no less radical turning, which announces itself in the technological reversal, these constellations can cease to be dominated by principles. But this thought of a possible withering away of the principles is only progressively articulated in Heidegger. It has been clear from the start that the question, “When are you going to write an ethics?”15 posed to him after the publication of his major work, arose from a misunderstanding. But it is only in Heidegger’s last writings that the issue of action finds its adequate context: the genealogy of a finite line of epochal principles.
When one considers the sufferings that men have inflicted and inflict on one another in the name of the epochal principles, there can be no doubt that philosophy—or “thinking”—is no futile enterprise: a phenomenology that deconstructs the epochs “changes the world”16 because it reveals the withering away of these principles.
After Being and Time, [my] thinking replaced
the expression ‘meaning of being with ‘truth
of being’. And so as to avoid any
misapprehension about truth, so as to exclude
its being understood as conformity, ‘truth of
being’ has been elucidated as ‘locality of
being’—truth as the locus-character of being.
That presupposes, however, an
understanding of what a locus is. Hence the
expression topology of being.
Seminar in Le Thor, 196917
These lines indicate how Heidegger should be read.
Only in his last writings does he raise the question of presencing as that of “loci.” These loci are the historical economies. In each moment they constitute a field of presencing. Across the epochs presencing articulates itself differently, sets itself to work (ποιεῖν) diffv erently. The ‘poietic’ character of presencing is what Heidegger calls Dichtung, “poetry.” “Poetry that thinks is in truth the topology of being.” Needless to say, this has nothing to do with the art of composing verse, or even with human Ianguage. “The poietic character of thinking”18 is only the echo, the reverberation of presencing and its poietic character. Presencing crystallizes (dichten means “to thicken,” to render dense) into successive orders. Conversely, these epochal crystallizations determine the kind of words we speak and write in. The self-ordering of presencing thus must be understood as the primordial language. Throughout his texts, the essential concern of Heidegger’s thinking remains the same: to understand ‘being phenomenologically as presencing, and to understand it through the manifold modes that entities have of rendering themselves “dense,” of ordering themselves, of constituting a text or ‘poem’. When the guiding idea of Heideggerian phenomenology is “the meaning of being,” this manifold is one of regions: entities ‘given for handling’, entities ‘given as objects’, and ‘being-there’. When its guiding idea is “the truth of being,” the manifold is one of epochs: Greek, Latin, Modern, Technological. Finally, when the guiding idea is “the topology of being,” the manifold is no longer a matter of regions or epochs, but is the “coming-to-presence” itself: an event of multiple origination which, as a transcendental condition, renders the spatial, temporal, linguistic, and cultural “loci” possible.
Only with this last form of multiplicity does the thrust of the problematic appear which has moved Heidegger throughout the trajectory of his polymorphic writings with their shifting vocabularies: to grasp presencing as a force of plurification and of dissolution. From the genealogical perspective, the historical constellations of entities appear as orders arranged under an ordering first. But once the phenomenological gaze moves back from the quality and interplay of things present toward their presencing, the line of descent in which these constellations were put into place by figures of an epochal first proves to have itself sprung from an initial concealment: from the forgottenness of the event of presencing and the inability to sustain its manifold. The genealogy, then, which calls attention to the multiplicity of historical orderings, discovers at this line’s start the incapacity to stand or bear, and hence to understand or grasp, the “poietics” in those orderings, the plasticity of their making and unmaking. The quest for principles springs from a lack of stature.19 Heidegger’s last writings could therefore be read as the attempt to elaborate the chief traits of an economy of presencing that is not reducible to one archē—the traits of a plural economy.
If this is the case, it is clear that the “phenomenological destruction of the history of ontology” promised in Being and Time, can be fully understood—and carried out—as a deconstruction only from the standpoint of Heidegger’s last writings. Only then does it become apparent how time can be “der Sinn des Seins”: not the “meaning” of being, but its directionality; the “sense” as the direction in which something, e.g., motion, takes place (this acceptation of both the English ‘sense’ and the French sens—‘sense’ of a river, or of traffic—stems, not from Latin, but from an Indo-European verb that means to travel, to follow a path). Not the “signification” of being for a man and hence “a human accomplishment”20 (a misunderstanding that Heidegger says threatened the deconstruction in its first phase, that of a destruction in Being and Time), but the directionality of the orderings by which constellations of presencing produce themselves. Not the sens unique, the one-way street of the epochs unfolding across the ages either (a misunderstanding that threatened during the phase of “the history of being”), but the multiple presencing in which things present emerge from absence. These distinctions are what is most difficult in Heidegger. The point here is that the correct understanding of his early writings is obtained only if he is read backward, from end to beginning.
The hermeneutical dilemma of whether Heidegger should be read forward or backward appears most clearly in connection with praxis. Much has been written on the possible political implications of Being and Time. According to some, the pronouncement to follow the Führer, made six years after its publication, could already be seen in germ in that book. The address delivered by Heidegger at the inauguration of his university rectorship, with its call for triple mobilization in the service of labor, arms, and knowledge,21 would show the outcome of a direction taken by him ever since the Existential Analytic. The key term which supposedly indicates this continuity of thinking is that of resolve, Entschlossenheit. The same themes are said to reappear still later with the praise of the great statesman (compared to other “creators” like poets, artists, and thinkers) in the late thirties. Heidegger’s early writings are thus supposed to constitute the framework that his political speeches would only have had to fill out as rallying cries to a leader capable of walking alone and resorting to violence. Hence the themes of the Rektoratsrede and other speeches of that period, focusing on “the battle community of teachers and students,” would be neither accidental nor isolated in Heidegger.22 Later, his hands burned by politics, Heidegger is said to have chosen less compromising subjects for his publications, notably Hölderlin’s poetry. It would be all too understandable that on several subsequent occasions he declared himself incapable of seeing any practical implications of his thinking. Thus, if Heidegger is read from beginning to end, Karl Jaspers’s judgment seems to have bearing: not only did he never renounce his nostalgia for a certain past, but “the fundamental constitution of that way of philosophizing must lead, in praxis, to total domination.”23
When read backward, from the last writings to the first, Heidegger appears in a different light. Once again, his texts alone are at issue. From the viewpoint of the topology, praxis—just like theōria, it should be added—is only the response that the actors in history give, and cannot but give, to the constellations of presencing that enclose them. If there is a ‘normative’ aspect to this phenomenology of the epochal constellations, it consists in the possibility of a withering away of the principles and a plurification of action. Under different titles—the “fourfold” or “quadrate” is only one of many—Heidegger then attempts to think presencing explicitly as plural. The action that responds to presencing so understood, will be diametrically opposed to the Führerprinzip; it would be a type of action irreconcilably alien to all reduction to the uniform, an action hostile to the standard.
The hermeneutical dilemma is noteworthy here: in reading Heidegger forward, that is, from the Existential Analytic to the Topology, an “idealization of unity to the detriment of plurality”24 may be construable out of a few sparse texts of his. But in reading Heidegger backward, from the Topology to the Existential Analytic, the evidence is to the contrary. Presencing then appears more Nietzschean, deprived of metaphysical principles, “chaotico-practical.”25 Instead of a unitary concept of ground, we then have the “fourfold”; instead of praise for the firm will,26 detachment; instead of the integration of the university into the civil service, protest against technology and cybernetics; instead of a straightforward identification between Führer and right,27 anarchy.
Heidegger’s treatment of the traditional opposition between theory and practice shows most clearly that his texts must be read in reverse order. Indeed, in Being and Time, this relation is still ambiguous. Commentators hold various opinions: either that in that work practice takes precedence over theory, or that theory takes precedence over practice, or finally, that their distinction is altogether abolished.28 In the later works, the more the “truth of being” comes to be understood in its historical essence, the more the terms ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ disappear, and must disappear. If theory as well as practice turn into ways of responding to the constellations of unconcealment, to aletheiological constellations, then their distinction is subsumed within the broader notion of ‘thinking’. “Thinking acts insofar as it thinks.”29 The genesis of theoretical knowledge from the circumspective concern that accompanies all manipulation of entities given for handling30 tells us little about thinking. Manipulation, from which theory may be born, is technical. In the Analytic this is dissociated from projects of existence and later comes to be viewed as the natural outcome of Greek ϑεωϱία. “The characterization of thinking as ϑεωϱία and the determination of knowing as ‘theoretical’ attitude, occur already within the ‘technical’ interpretation of thinking.”31
The rudimentary character of the notions of theory and practice in Heidegger’s early writings, and consequently the necessity of completing them with the later writings, is the result specifically of the still entirely insufficient conception of technique in Being and Time. In the only passage in which Heidegger speaks of technique,32 it is limited to the handling of instruments in research: the installation of a measuring dial in physics, the preparation of a substance on a microscope slide in chemistry, etc. Here the concept of technique stands for the sum of procedures employed in conducting scientific research. As yet it in no way designates technology as transformative of nature. Even though certain traits that become part of the latter concept are not entirely absent from Being and Time, they nevertheless enter into it from an angle that has nothing to do with a reflection on action. The project of quantification results from an inauthentic totalization of existence. In such an existentiell project, the distinctions between what is given for handling or available (zuhanden), objectively given or subsistent (vorhanden), and there-with-others (mitdaseiend) disappear.33 Only retrospectively can it be held that the descriptions of the ‘mathematical project’ as an existentiell a priori contain in germ the later descriptions of technology as Gestell, enframing, and of the total control it exercises over the modern world. And retrospectively, we can—and should—wonder that these descriptions of technology seem to derive from a priority of the inauthentic over the authentic in Being and Time rather than from the few scattered remarks concerning the techniques of scientific research.34
Further evidence that Heidegger ought to be read backward results from his most compromising declarations in favor of Nazism. As is well known, in a course given in 1935 Heidegger praised “the inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism, which resides, the text says, in “the encounter between global technology and modern man.”35 This statement stands indeed in direct line with the thinking of Being and Time—but only in what it says about technology. How could a political movement be supposed capable of bearing up against global technology, unless the latter was still viewed as a force that might be stemmed and modified? Consequently, in the mid-thirties technology is still seen as an inauthentic project that an authentic project could in some way redress. What is new in this affirmation, when compared to Being and Time, is that the inauthentic project is now identified with “Russia and America, which are metaphysically the same, namely in regard to their world character and their relation to the spirit.”36 It is only toward the end of the thirties that Heidegger discovers the understanding of technology that will remain his: the force of totalitarian and monolithic enframing, to which he will continuously oppose a manifold thinking of presencing as manifold. Then, “the global imperialism of technologically organized man” will encompass “Americanism” as well as “man who wills himself as a people, breeds himself as a race and finally empowers himself as lord of the earth.”37 From the viewpoint of such an encompassing notion of technology, the preceding works appear in their true function, as trailmarks. “Wege, nicht Werke.”38
Here, then, is how in such a theory of the texts the an-archic, anti-teleocratic element can be traced back as far as Being and Time. Authenticity is described there as anticipatory resolution. Existence is freed for its own finitude by the resolute anticipation of its death. “Anticipation turns out to be the possibility of understanding one’s ownmost and uttermost potentiality-for-being, that is to say, the possibility of authentic existence.”39 If our ownmost potentiality-for-being reveals itself in the anticipation of our death—and Heidegger was always to maintain that it is a change in attitude toward our death that would produce a new experience of presencing—then it is my total negativity that will totalize my existence. Is this not an odd “potential” if it projects me toward my negation? It is as if what is “most originarily”40 myself projects me nowhere, toward nothing. Indeed, what is it that my existence makes its own in becoming authentic? My possibility of not being at all. Nothing, then, is made my own. Since he retains ‘potential’ and the ‘possible’ as the decisive marks of authenticity, it is clear that the concept of authentic existence contains no teleological structure. Higher than archē and telos stand an-archy and a-teleocracy since “higher than actuality stands possibility.”41 It is true that, as the horizon of anticipation, death is certainly a concretization of the teleological structure that characterizes ‘care’ in general. But to speak of death as one’s ownmost possibility, a possibility that has to be appropriated ever anew, is already to introduce an element of non-finality into authenticity that is absent from the descriptions of care. Authentic temporality—not linear, but ecstatic—abolishes the representations of a ‘terminus a quo’ and a ‘terminus ad quem’ in the understanding of existence. The ecstatic potential is thus anticipatory of death while devoid of relations, unbezüglich. Death is “one’s ownmost possibility, non-relational and unsurpassable.”42 In this way, Heidegger thinks the authentic as ecstatic fullness of one’s potential, ontologically exempt from all relations to entities, including the relation to death represented as an entity. All entities convey a ‘why’: those that are subsistent or given as objects yield knowledge, and those that are available or given for handling are there for use. Knowing and using constitute the two ways the real or the actual imparts its teleological structure. “But higher than actuality stands possibility.” Why higher? Because the possible is never either subsistent or available. Possibility, and consequently potential, thus never fall within the coordinates of archē and telos, that is to say, within the coordinates of causality. The understanding of time through which Heidegger reverses all metaphysics since Aristotle is so innovative because it undermines these representations. Ecstatic time is opposed to linear time—the Aristotelian “number of becoming” as well as the Augustinian “extendedness of the soul”—as the possible is opposed to the unity of act and potency, as thinking is to knowing, and as the principle of anarchy is to the principle of causality.
From what has been said, the following consequences can be drawn for a theory of Heidegger’s texts:
1) If periods or articulations are to be distinguished in these texts, it is advisable to renounce once and for all the opposition between “Heidegger I” and “Heidegger II”43 and instead to retain the three moments I have mentioned: the first in which the question of presencing is raised as that of the “sense of being,” the second in which it is raised as the “truth of being”—more precisely as the history of that truth, alētheia—and the third in which it is raised by the “topology of being.”
2) Situated on the boundary line of metaphysics’ closure, Heidegger is not, cannot be, a systematic thinker. Nevertheless, what he says about Nietzsche—that we must learn to read him with the same rigor as we read Aristotle—applies even more to himself. It is obvious what we stand to gain and lose by a rigorous reading of his texts. We gain a precise and sustained strategy of thinking, directed against withering principial referents, against the illusion of any legitimating first that could function as a rule for thinking and as an authority for conduct. We lose the Heidegger that has become a boon to the market of poetic and religious tranquilizers. However, the rigorous reading of his texts requires a starting point and a method.
3) The starting point is the hypothesis of “the end of the history of being,” the end of that history of presencing in which “being lies in destiny.”44 Its ending is technology, understood not as a set of tools for some people’s material culture—as one would speak of Roman or medieval technology—but as the phenomenal configuration of the twentieth century. From Plato through our own age, Western civilization has been placed under the control of metaphysical “stamps” (Prägungen), under the control of what I call the epochal principles. But if the history of epochs is drawing to a close, it can no longer simply be held that “the history of being, alone, is being itself,”45 for another shape of presencing then takes over from epochal unconcealment.46 The “stamps” or principles belong to the epochs and wither away with them. Heidegger calls the other shape of presencing or of being the Ereignis, the event of appropriation. But, and this is crucial, “the Ereignis is not a new stamp of being belonging to the history of being.”47 That is my starting point.
4) As for the method, it consists in reading Heidegger backward. The notion of “sense” in Being the Time (first moment) can be freed from its neo-Kantian overtone—“meaning”—and be correctly understood as directionality only through the historical-destinal conception of “truth” (second moment), which casts off the subjectivist, neo-Kantian inflection; likewise, “truth” can be clearly understood as epochal unconcealment only through the still later notion of “topos,” site or locus (third moment). The topology brings the epochs to their end. In other words, the reason why ecstatic temporality does not yet allow Heidegger to think of presencing “as time”48 appears only with the destinal temporality of the history of presencing; this destinai temporality in turn is located, situated, by the temporality of event, by the topology.
5) When looked at in the light of the history of presencing, human practice appears as a response to the epochal constellations of truth. This discovery, made after Being and Time, inaugurates the Kehre, “turning,” in Heidegger’s thinking. From the still later point of view of the topology, human practice is not sufficiently described by this character of response. If the epochs are drawing to their close, presencing is deprived of any principle, that is, of any archē and telos. Human practice, then, can and must be thought of as likewise “without why.” Retrospectively, goalless practice is in no way absent from Being and Time. As was said, the very word ‘potential’—Möglichkeit—stands for a power (Macht, from mögen—all words of the same root as ‘making’, machen, as well as ‘mechanic’ and ‘magic’), a sheer power potential, a sheer superabundance with no purpose or end, be it intrinsic or extrinsic. In reading Heidegger from end to beginning, then, the practical implications of his thinking leap into view: the play of a flux in practice, without stabilization and presumably carried to the point of an incessant fluctuation in institutions, is an end in itself. The turn beyond metaphysics thus reveals the essence of praxis: exchange deprived of a principle.
These five rules for reading Heidegger allow for preliminary answers to a few objections. The proposed theory of the texts separates some pertinent from some pointless questions about deconstruction.
Here is one possible objection: By putting so much emphasis on the economies of presencing—economies of epochs, first, and then of the event—you cannot but lose sight of all that Heidegger has to say about language. Now if there is a question today that generates unanimity at least as a question, it is certainly that of language. Therefore, you are denying Heidegger entry into the most lively debates of our time.—Not so. In its ultimate topological form, the deconstruction situates language as it can be spoken in a given epoch: “Man’s relation to language could transform itself analogously to the change of the relation to being.”49 Hence, there is a certain identity between language and being. Incidentally, the topology also makes it possible to situate the ideal of scientificity that predominates in contemporary preoccupations with language.
One might also raise the following objection: It is understood that our relation to being and its metamorphoses follows no rational necessity, no progression toward more and more conscious, free, logical, universal forms of life in society. Granted. But you go overboard to the other extreme. The emphasis on the economies merely amounts to a positivism of historical periods. Hence the Heideggerian waitfulness: “We are to do nothing but wait.”50 Wait for an era of presencing more favorable to thinking? As one waits for a sunny day to go to the beach? If that is not historicist positivism!—The text cited does treat, in an oblique way, the possibility of a shift toward something new in history, toward what “as yet has never been experienced.” Heidegger asks how we are to gain access to radical novelty. We must think about that place, he says, “from whence alone such a transition can happen.” The transition from one historical economy to another can thus be accomplished only if thinking locates itself in another place, a place other than the succession of the given economies. A place other than the given: the place of what “gives” the given. This is the “step backward” through which Heidegger adopts and modifies the transcendental tradition. To put it differently: the place to be gained is one where “the essence of thinking” and presencing understood as an event arise together, inseparably. A place that can be determined only by categorial traits. The unity of thinking and presencing results from an appropriation and antisubjectivist transformation of what Kant called the highest synthetic principle,51 but it is not epochal positivism.
It would furthermore be mistaken to view the deconstruction as no more than a provisional discipline, auxiliary to phenomenology, and thus to object: You make a great case for the deconstruction, but does the topology of the later Heidegger not simply make it obsolete?—The question is mistaken inasmuch as the topoi of being are to be construed “without regard for a foundation of being in entities,”52 construed, that is, precisely by deconstructing such foundations. During the period of Being and Time, there can be no projection without facticity and no construction of a fundamental ontology without deconstruction of the foundational ontologies. In those early writings, the deconstruction is an integral part of the construction, just as the essential structure that is to be projected belongs to the matrix of facticity. The phenomenological reduction wrests the structure of being from this matrix. Reduction, construction, and deconstruction then are the three parts of hermeneutical phenomenology.53 Later, in On Time and Being, there can be no “understanding of what a locus is” without a distancing. This is to say that according to the last texts the analysis retrogresses first from the situated or manifest entities (from the given, or again, from the present, das Anwesende) toward their site or their being-manifest (being-given or the mode of presence, die Anwesenheit); then it retrogresses further to the self-situating, the self-manifesting as such (the giving, Es gibt, or presencing, das Anwesen). This double step backward54 is one of the ways Heidegger, in his later writings, dismantles the ancient philosophical quest for a stable and credible foundation on which to rest our knowing as well as acting. Manifestation founds nothing. It is therefore gained at the cost of deconstructing historical presence or ‘being manifest’. From the situated entities, to their site, then to the situating—the emerging into the open, presencing—the transcendental retrogradation is deconstructive essentially.
Here is another unfounded question: Is the hypothesis of closure not pure utopia? Indeed, if the truth of being, alētheia, has “as yet never been experienced,” “renouncing the transmitted ways of thinking” strongly resembles the imaginary barter in which a dim present is exchanged for a bright future. In fact, “the step back from the one thinking to the other thinking”55 seems to correspond exactly to the equivocal idea of a utopia: on one hand the thinking to come would be the excellent place (εὖ-τόπος) where truth radiates, since the historical concealment of presencing, the epochē, would cease. But on the other hand, this future thinking would accentuate lēthē, the essential concealment or absence in the heart of presencing; therefore it would also be Nowhere, the no-place (οὐ-τόπος) of truth, a forever unattainable radiance. Does Heidegger not put forward the other thinking as a salvation, opposed to the prospect of a future run by “demonic”56 technology? The demonic is the technological enterprise as it tightens its grip, making the future the age of horror; it is the victory of knowing over thinking, consequently of a knowing that whirls in mere accumulation of information; it is total administration, the ideal of order for the sake of order, without specific content, reifying the political apparently beyond recourse. Does Heidegger not challenge such a prospect of the future with the help of the beneficial exeat called “closure” quite as Thomas More challenged the England of Henry VIII with the blissful isle of Nowhere?—Here, the answer has to follow the same line as my earlier remark regarding anarchists: Utopianism, whether conceived as the theory of the perfect city or as the philosophy of history attaining its future culmination in some universal harmony, is as ‘metaphysical’ as theoretical anarchism.57 In either case, political thinking consists in weighing the advantages and drawbacks of one theory or another. Nothing of the kind occurs in Heidegger. The pertinent question is therefore not of knowing whether technology may be counteracted, mastered, surpassed, sublimated; whether nature, given over to the rule of reason for two millennia and summoned to surrender its energies to the reign of comfort for two centuries, may be ‘restored’, whether man can be ‘reconciled’ with it. About matters such as these the deconstruction has nothing to say. If it did, the double step backward, carefully elaborated by Heidegger, would—for better or worse—once again amount to a “transmitting” between theory and practice.58 One would disengage oneself from practice in order to step back and occupy some vantage point, some theoretical Sirius from which to ascertain ethical and political criteria. One would return to the πϱòς ἓν of the Nichomachean Ethics, where actors are related theoretically to the ideal of the prudent man,59 and of the Politics, where citizens are measured theoretically against the ideal of the perfect city. These are just so many principiai relations that, as will be shown, are parasitic on the Physics. Utopia is the most fanciful and imaginary instance of the substantialist relation to the One. Consequently, one Sirius is not enough. The retrogression has to be twofold, from practice to theory of practice, and from theory to thinking.
Here, then, are what I consider to be the pertinent questions inscribed in the Heideggerian texts. They concern (1) the epochal principles and their withering away; (2) the reversals between epochs (Wenden) and the closing turn (Kehre), as well as the way in which these shifts affect action; (3) the “origin” of action; (4) the categorial unity of the economies of presencing as the location of the ‘one’ and the ‘many’ in history; (5) the practical a priori required in order to think presencing, and with it several concrete consequences of the deconstruction for action. In the five corresponding parts of this work, I want to show how these still rudimentary notions yield a coherent picture of Heidegger’s thinking about practice and politics, and how they allow him to maintain that the epoch of closure is also that in which the ancient derivation of action from being exhausts itself.
To do this, I will have recourse to an assortment of terms not all of which are to be found in Heidegger, and some of which he expressly rejects. In order to develop an argument, it seems inevitable to me to reinstate certain words excluded from his vocabulary because they were too heavily overdetermined, such as ‘term’ (excluded in order to keep thinking on the way, in a certain indeterminacy without reaching any ‘terminal’), ‘category’ (too integral to a “logic of things”), ‘transcendental’ (too closely connected to subjectivism) and many other standard locutions from the tradition. Words such as these need to be converted, to be deconstructed, so as to make them say both more and less than they are expected, or allowed, to say within the closure. The key notions not found in Heidegger just enumerated will be elucidated along the way. If expressions like ‘epochal principles’ and ‘economies of presence’ are not literally Heideggerian formulations, these concepts are no less strictly operative in his texts. The demand for a fairly liberal attitude toward the words he uses is again a result of the hypothesis of closure. This hypothesis imposes on the deconstruction a vocabulary and a reading that remain philosophical, but whose extreme edge already plunges beyond that ‘archeological’ layer where they invariably guaranteed for the mind a first principle. The terms we have inherited no longer fulfill this architectonic function. Taken up within deconstruction, they occur as though in quotation marks.