Derrida on ‘Being and Time’ and Humanism

By Colin Bodayle

In his surprisingly accessible “The Ends of Man,” Derrida gives Heidegger a close reading, providing unique insight into his project. The essay appears in 1968. The political importance of this year shouldn’t be understated, and Derrida draws significant attention to Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the student uprisings in Paris. 1968 ushers in a new epoch for both philosophy and the left, a turn away from the philosophy of the post-war generation (e.g. Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, De Beauvoir) towards the radical thinking of a new generation. This radical philosophy remains rooted (as was the previous generation) in Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger. The post-war generation placed these three thinkers under the heading of humanism, yet French philosophy in the 1960’s radically calls this humanistic label into question, provoking us to rethink the concept of “man” or abandon it completely.
In “The Ends of Man,” Derrida critiques the humanist misappropriation of these thinkers. Nevertheless, as we shall see, remnants of humanism remain, reasserting themselves even in Heidegger.

Heidegger in Post-War France

Anyone first attempting Being and Time soon encounters the word “Dasein,” which English translators usually leave in German. Even a neophyte can tell that “Dasein” differs from all traditional concepts of “human being,” as Heidegger makes this quite clear.

Yet this was not the situation in post-war France. Henry Corbin (the original French translator of Heidegger) rendered “Dasein” as “réalité -humaine” (human reality) and Sartre, too, employed this in Being and Nothingness, giving his stamp of approval. Derrida writes:

That this translation proposed by Corbin was adopted at the time, and that by means of Sartre’s authority it reigned, gives us much to think about the reading or non-reading of Heidegger during this period, and about what was at stake in reading or not reading him this way. (Margins of Philosophy, 155)

Thinkers like Sartre suspend previous humanistic and Christian concepts of man, yet – Derrida claims – “the unity of man is never examined in and of itself” (ibid. 115). Yet as Being and Nothingness describes the structures of the réalité -humaine, it performs the very “philosophical anthropology” from which Heidegger explicitly distanced himself. Derrida writes:

 … there is an uninterrupted metaphysical familiarity with that which, so naturally, links the we of the philosopher to “we men,” to the we in the horizon of humanity. Although the theme of history is quite present in the discourse of the period, there is little practice of the history of concepts. For example, the history of the concept of man is never examined. Everything occurs as if the sign “man” had no origin, no historical, cultural, or linguistic limit. (Ibid. 116).

Even more radically, Derrida argues that precisely for this reason, Sartre’s work remains ontotheological; that is, he assigns a particular meaning to the being of beings in general and then grounds this determination for beings as a whole in some highest being.1 Derrida writes:

Being in-itself and Being for-itself were of Being; and this totality of beings, in which they were effective, itself was linked up to itself, relating and appearing to itself, by means of the essential project of human – reality. (Ibid.)

Despite his confessed atheism, Derrida claims, Sartre preserves the metaphysical unity of man and God, and as such “the project of becoming God as the project of constituting human – reality” (ibid.) This self-described “humanism,” in various forms, remains the dominant theme of post-war philosophy from Christian existentialism to Kojève’s Hegel. While the literature of this period ostensibly calls the essence of man into question, it does so only to reassert an essence proper to man.

Deconstructing “Man”

“Man” – far from an innocuous or self-evident concept – Derrida sees primarily as a limit with the aim of excluding particular characteristics, ostracizing them from man’s essence. In Of Grammatology, he writes:

Man calls himself man only by drawing limits and excluding his other from the play of supplementarity: the purity of nature, of animality, primitivism, childhood, madness, divinity. The approach to these limits is at once feared as a threat of death, and desired as access to life without differance. The history of man calling himself man is the articulation of all these limits among themselves. (Of Grammatology, 244-5).

We might recall that Heidegger, similarly, claimed that Dasein can “win itself or lose itself” because of the “saying-I.” Derrida, similarly, speaks of “man calling himself man.” For Heidegger, “saying-I” – rather than consciousness – determines the individual self, even if inauthentically. For Derrida, on the other hand, “man calling himself man” determines the “saying-we,” the basic traits we assign as particularly definitive of humanity.

Accordingly, thinking back to those sections of Being and Time where Heidegger distanced fundamental ontology from anthropology, one might recall the statement where Heidegger first identifies Dasein:

The being whose analysis our task is, is always we ourselves. (Being and Time, 39; 41)

So then, one might ask, who is this “we?”

Heidegger’s “We”

The “we” of Dasein, Derrida claims, “repeats” the essence of man. Repetition/retrieval [Wiederholung] is an important concept for Heidegger. In repetition, a particular notion is “retrieved” from history and “repeated” within the facticity of today, re-drawing the concepts from a fresh phenomenological analysis. Thus considered, Derrida writes:

We can see then that Dasein, though not man, is neverless nothing other than man. It is … a repetition of the essence of man permitting a return to what is before the metaphysical concepts of humanitas. (Margins of Philosophy, 127).

Yet this analysis remains nevertheless guided and informed by uses of the word “man.” An interesting example Derrida points to is:

As ways in which human beings behave, sciences have this being’s (the human being’s) kind of being. We are defining this being terminologically as Dasein. (Being and Time, 10/11)

Heidegger rejects traditional notions of man such as the zoon logon ekhon or imagio dei because they are incomplete. Thus, unlike Sartre, he does not “presuppose” a particular concept of man, yet might his analysis nevertheless exclude particular characterizations? Derrida claims:

It is in the play of a certain proximity, proximity to oneself and proximity to Being, that we will see  constituted, against metaphysical humanism and anthropologism, another insistence of man, one which relays, relieves, supplements that which it destroys, along pathways on which we are, from which we have hardly emerged – perhaps – and which remain to be examined. (Margins of Philosophy, 124)

Derrida claims that Heidegger, in overthrowing the traditional notion of humanity, nevertheless puts a “placeholder” for the concept destroyed, a placeholder that remains another insistence of man.

The “play of a certain proximity,” Derrida claims, is that before the Kehre (or “Turn”), Dasein remains ontically closest to being (as the being that understands), yet ontologically furthest. After the Kehre, the “proper” essence of man is being’s own proximity to Dasein. The truth of being, as the proper end of man, is determined by its proximity, a form of presence:

The value of proximity, that is, of presence in general, therefore decides the essential orientation of this analytic of Dasein. (Ibid. 127)

Derrida emphasizes the “we” of Dasein that “always already” understands being. Here, Derrida states, however cautiously:

… the “we” at least is what is open to such an understanding, what is always already accessible to it, and the means by which such a factum can be recognized as such … (Ibid, 124)

Recalling that “man” determines particular limits, what limits does Heidegger draw here upon the essence of man? Derrida continues:

It automatically follows, then, that this we – however simple, discreet, and erased it might be – inscribes the so-called formal structure of the question of Being within the horizon of metaphysics, and more widely within the Indo-European linguistic melieu, to the possibility of which the origin of metaphysics is essentially linked. (Ibid.)

Without exhausting Derrida’s analysis of proximity and presence, but skipping ahead slightly, Derrida claims Heidegger’s thinking “has all the characteristics of a relève (Aufhebung) of humanism” (ibid. 134); that is, Heidegger negates metaphysics and humanism without completely overcoming them. Accordingly, Derrida points Heidegger’s use of metaphor, writing:

And if Heidegger has radically deconstructed the domination of metaphysics by the present, he has done so in order to lead us to think the presence of the present. But the thinking of this presence can only metaphorize, by means of a profound necessity from which one cannot simply decide to escape, the language that it deconstructs. (Ibid. 131)

In Being and Time, Heidegger announced (but did not complete) his critique of a temporal bias that understands time as a “series of infinitesimal nows,” a present-moment preference inherent in all ontology. Yet his solution, after the Kehre, to the meaning of Being itself, involves a heavy chain of metaphors, etymology, and double-meanings (which cannot be explained here). Heidegger’s thinking, however, cannot escape the Western tradition he critiques; as Derrida claims: “Its margin was marked in its own (propre) body.” (Ibid. 134).

Two Motifs

Derrida concludes by reflecting on the climate of French philosophy, as well as the possibility of escaping the systemic limits of the tradition, by which Derrida indicates something political in nature. He speaks of a “trembling,” writing:

The strategic bet. A radical trembling can only come from the outside … This trembling is played out in the violent relationship of the West to its other, whether a “linguistic” relationship (where very quickly the question of the limits of everything leading back to the question of the meaning of Being arises), or ethnological, economic, political, military, relationships, etc. (Ibid. 135)

Heidegger, in his radical deconstruction of the metaphysical tradition, nevertheless inscribes his “Dasein” within the Western conception of Being and metaphysics. This is systemic, Derrida claims, writing:

It is precisely the force and efficiency of the system that regularly change transgressions into “false exits.” (Ibid.)

For instance, earlier in the essay Derrida pointed out that the right of intellectuals to hold a symposium where they freely oppose Vietnam demonstrates that such opposition has no effect upon the system.

If the trembling comes from outside, can one undo the system from within? Derrida points to two motifs of deconstruction: (1) one can continually expose and deconstruct the system from within (like Heidegger) “without changing terrain,” running the risk of continually reasserting or repeating the system, or (2) one can “decide to change terrain, in a discontinuous and irruptive fashion, by brutally placing oneself outside, and by affirming an absolute break and difference” (ibid.)

Derrida goes on to suggest that the “new style” must employ both,  must “weave and interlace these two motifs of deconstruction.” Such philosophers, he claims, must publish many texts at once and speak many languages.


Barely scratching the surface of this essay, what should we take away? Derrida seems to be counteracting a particular tendency to dismiss Heidegger as humanistic. Nevertheless, Derrida acknowledges that “another insistence of man” runs throughout Being and Time. After all, Dasein seems to be a Western philosopher, and the fate of Being, as Heidegger says, holds the fate of the West.
However, Heidegger also would (on some level) agree with Derrida about the “trembling of the other.” In “On Time and Being,” Heidegger implies that the “destiny of being” is responsible for the malicious “civilizing mission” of Western technology and the assimilation of the third world into global capital.

When Derrida speaks of the other “trembling,” this seems to be nothing other than an allusion to Vietnam. If we were to reflect on the situation of philosophy today, how might we approach this question? Does the West’s “other” still tremble? Can the system be undone from within?

1. Cf. Martin Heidegger, Identity and Difference, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. “The Ends of Man.”  Margins of Philosophy. Translated by Bass, Alan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
—. Of Grammatology. Translated by Spivak, Gayatri Chakavorty. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by Joan Stambaugh. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.



One thought on “Derrida on ‘Being and Time’ and Humanism

  1. Pingback: Animals in Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’ – Reading Philosophy

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