Dwelling and the Problem of Metaphor in “Heidegger: The Question of Being & History”

Travis Williams
University of Michigan

Volume 13, 2020

Introduction: The Problem of Language

“We shall make no progress today,” Jacques Derrida announces to open the third session of “Heidegger: The Question of Being & History,” a course the French-Algerian philosopher presented at the École normale supériure on the rue d’Ulm in Paris between November 16, 1964 and March 29, 1965. We shall make no progress. “We shall be marking time today,” Derrida continues, “and we shall dwell almost the whole time on a problem that last time we were getting ready to leave behind us” (Heidegger: The Question of Being & History 47).[1] The problem that Derrida alludes to here is a problem of language complicating Heidegger’s ontological project in Being and Time, one that arises as a consequence of the proposed destruction of the history of ontology and the attempt to wrest the thinking of the meaning of being from the metaphysical tradition, impeding Heidegger in his attempt to formulate a fundamental ontology. Having set out to retrieve and properly pose the question of the meaning of being, Heidegger will, in Derrida’s words, necessarily, inevitably “run out of breath” [s’essoufflera] before he can address the question in any positive sense (QBH 44, 153). The principal objective of Being and Time—the retrieval of the question of the meaning of being—is thus left unrealized. In this way, Derrida shows, Heidegger’s attempt at a fundamental ontology never manages to advance beyond the “critical phase” of its analysis (QBH 153).

This problem of language that arises in Being and Time, detaining Heidegger in his attempt to think the meaning of being, will prove to be the central preoccupation of “Heidegger: The Question of Being & History.” Derrida’s course is, in this sense, an extensive exercise in thinking or reckoning with a problem. Emphasizing Heidegger’s inability to dispense with the categorical and conceptual language of metaphysics, Derrida frames this problem of language as a matter of the necessity or the irreducibility of metaphor, a theme he introduces in Session Two—noting in passing the necessity of metaphor in the construction of “plausible myths” of being (QBH 36)—and returns to in Session Three, offering it his full attention.[2] Asserting that “metaphor is interminable” and that “metaphoricity is the very essence of metaphysics,” Derrida asserts that one cannot by way of language overcome metaphysics (QBH 65; 159). Metaphoricity thus presents a problem for Heidegger’s fundamental ontology, constituting an ultimately insurmountable limit or impasse for speaking or thinking the truth of being.

This impasse that prevents one from properly or authentically speaking of the truth of being is not, for Derrida, the result of a regrettable accident or ontological misstep. It is, rather, a fundamental and unavoidable condition of language (QBH 59). Metaphor is irreducible. The task for ontological thought, then, as Derrida will present it, is not to overcome metaphoricity, revealing, once and for all, the non-metaphorical truth of being. The task, rather, is to think metaphoricity as such, guided by what Derrida comes to call “vigilance” in the face of the metaphorical nature of language, a commitment to a mode of thinking aimed at the destruction of metaphor while bearing in mind the ultimate interminability or insurmountability of metaphoricity itself (QBH 190).

Focusing on the treatment of the theme of metaphor in in Session Three of “Heidegger: The Question of Being & History,” an operation of thinking in which Derrida examines and, in a sense, deconstructs the Heideggerian metaphor of dwelling, this essay will trace the ways Derrida’s notion of the irreducibility of metaphor arises from and significantly reframes the stakes of Heidegger’s ontological thought. Whereas Heidegger remained committed to the prospect of bringing language to the truth of being—holding out hope, it would seem, for a formulation of the authenticrelation of being to history and temporality[3]—Derrida recognizes the impossibility of an authentic or proper account of the meaning of being, reflecting instead on the significance of the impasse or aporia as such, asking what it might mean to occupy or reside in this condition of inauthenticity vis-à-vis the truth of being, radically exposed, in a sense, to a world of language and experience without ground in the truth of being.

“Heidegger: The Question of Being & History” in this way raises the question of how to live—how to continue to dwell [continuer à séjourner], as Derrida puts it in Session Seven (QBH 160)[4]—in the absence of ontological truth, confronted by a problem of language that prevents or defers the arrival of any determinate knowledge of the meaning of being. This question, which would occupy Derrida’s thought, in various forms, for a period of decades, has consequences that extend well beyond the realm of purely ontological reflection. Nearly three decades after the 1964-65 course, we see this question reflected in Derrida’s contemplation of the experience of aporia and the relation to the other in Aporias (1993) and in the more overtly political line of thinking Derrida develops in texts such as The Politics of Friendship (1994) and Rogues (2003). Of interest to me, here, is the way Derrida’s reflections on the theme of metaphor in “Heidegger: The Question of Being & History” ultimately form the basis for a thinking of the enigmatic or aporetic nature of the political, what Derrida will describe in Rogues as the “enigma of the political,” a matter of fidelity—“always trembling, risky”—not only to a given past or present, but also to “what remains to come and has yet neither date nor figure,” ultimately a matter of a “friendship to (be) thought” that might constitute the basis for “an unconditional hospitality that exposes itself without limit to the coming of the other” (4, 149, emphasis in the original). This mode of thinking the political—which calls for the continual destruction and revision of the concepts that operate as provisional grounds for our politics—is ultimately rooted in the understanding of the irreducibility of metaphor and the recognition of the impossibility of overcoming a condition of inauthenticity vis-à-vis the truth of being that comes to light in “Heidegger: The Question of Being & History.”

1. On the Necessity of Language

How is it that this course, a course that sets out to interrogate notions of being and history, comes to be dominated to such a degree by the themes of language and metaphor? The simple answer is that Derrida, giving the course in 1964 and 1965, brings to it a certain preoccupation with the problem of metaphor in philosophical discourse, having taken up the theme in “Force of Signification,” a 1963 essay on the works of the Swiss thinker Jean Rousset that examines the metaphors made operative in the discourses of structuralism, and the 1964 essay “Violence and Metaphysics,” in which Derrida considers the persistence of the metaphor of exteriority in Levinas’s thought, examining the role of spatial metaphors in philosophical discourse.[5]

Setting aside Derrida’s predisposition toward the theme of metaphor, however, there is a more fundamental reason language occupies such a central position in Derrida’s readings of Being and Time. Heidegger’s inquiry into the meaning of being is, from the very beginning, intrinsically bound to language. From the outset of Being and Time language is always already an irreducible element of Heidegger’s ontological inquiry, forming the terrain from which Heidegger sets out in the attempt to retrieve the question of the meaning of being.

To understand why this is the case, we must briefly review the contours of the ontological task—the exposition of the question of the meaning of being—that Heidegger presents in the introduction to Being and Time. Heidegger begins Being and Time with the well-known assertion that question of the meaning of being has been forgotten. Having come to be dominated by the practice of telling stories of being, Heidegger maintains, ontological inquiry in the Western philosophical tradition has rendered itself blind to the most fundamental question of its analysis: the question of the meaning of being qua being. It is one thing, remarks Heidegger, to tell stories of beings and another “to grasp beings in their being” (Being and Time 34).[6] The former—insofar as it locates the truth of the being in an origin or a foundation, tracing beings “back in their origins to another being” (BT 5)—fails to consider the meaning of being in and of itself. This practice of narrativizing being, Heidegger maintains, mistakes beings for being, obscuring or ignoring the distinction between the ontic and the ontological. Substituting ontic history for ontological understanding, Heidegger argues, such narrativization of being takes for granted the question of the meaning of being itself. The history of ontology, dominated since the scholastics by metaphysics, has in this way covered over or forgotten the question of the meaning of being.

To properly address the meaning of being, then, philosophy must stop telling stories (BT 5; QBH 26). If we are to dispense with metaphysics, if we are to think the meaning of being in and of itself, Heidegger insists, we must resist the urge to narrativize being and abandon all philosophical discourse that locates the truth being in an ultimate origin or a fundamentum absolutum. As Derrida puts it, paraphrasing Heidegger, “[t]he Novelesque from which we must awaken is philosophy itself as metaphysics and as onto-theology” (QBH 26). Such an awakening is no small task, however, for it requires a radical transformation in our understanding of the relationship between being and history, one that proceeds by way of the Destruktion—the “destructuring” or desconstruction—of the history of ontology and the subsequent analysis of what Heidegger will call the “authentic historicity” of being.

It is here, with the assertion that we stop telling stories, Derrida notes, that Heidegger begins to encounter the problem of language that will eventually render him breathless. As Derrida writes: “The language difficulty hangs, then … on the fact that for the first time we are going to forbid ourselves resolutely and absolutely from ‘telling stories’” (QBH 26). The essential question for Heidegger thus becomes: if the narrativization of being, by way of metaphysics and onto-theology, will not serve to address the question of the meaning of being with the degree of radicality his analysis demands, with what concepts and in what language, does one address the question of the meaning of being itself?

It is worth recalling, at this point, the context in which Heidegger calls on philosophy to abandon this practice of telling stories in the introduction to Being and Time. Having announced the necessity to retrieve the question of the meaning of being, Heidegger identifies three components of his method of investigation: (1) the introduction of Dasein—specifically the temporality of Dasein—as the horizon for an interpretation of the meaning of being in general; (2) the affirmation that the task of clearing the grounds for a question as to the meaning of being must proceed through the destruction of the history of ontology; and (3) the characterization of the phenomenological method of the inquiry, phenomenology here understood not as an inquiry into the nature of phenomena per se but rather as a method of encounter with being, specifically a method of encounter that “let[s] beings be seen in their unconcealment” or alētheia (BT 30; 202).2 It is here, as he elaborates the phenomenological method of Being and Time, that Heidegger makes a critical distinction between unconcealment or alētheia—to let what is be seen—from the representation of being, i.e. the practice of telling stories of beings, that has constituted the metaphysical tradition. The demand we abandon the narrativization of being thus arises as a condition of Heidegger’s phenomenological method.

For the purposes of his analysis, Heidegger proposes we understand phenomenology not as a structure or system of thought with calcified concepts and theses, but rather as a “self-critical” method of inquiry (BT 32). “We can understand phenomenology,” Heidegger writes, “solely by seizing upon it as a possibility” (BT 34). Heidegger was thus not content to merely adapt or apply the formalized terms or concepts of phenomenology, such as they already existed, to an inquiry into the meaning of being. Instead, he insisted, the analysis must secure its own method, meaning one does not yet have the language at one’s disposal to think the truth of the meaning of being, a point Heidegger would later reaffirm in the 1947 “Letter on Humanism,” (“Letter” 261, n. 239). This does not mean that the inquiry into the meaning of being can do without language, however. Heidegger is careful to distinguish the phenomenological method of his inquiry from that of naïve, unreflective beholding (BT 32). Letting be seen—uncovering or discovering—by way of logos, Heidegger asserts, is integral to the method of the inquiry (BT 33).

If Heidegger is not willing to dispense with language tout court, this is because his entire analysis—beginning with the exposition of the question of the meaning of being and continuing through the fundamental analysis of Dasein—is grounded, in a sense, on the fact or phenomenon of language. I say grounded in a sense here, because Derrida will eventually show, with his explication of the problem of metaphor in Session Three of “Heidegger: The Question of Being & History,” that wherever language might appear to serve as a ground or foundation, it is in fact operating to obscure or cover over an absence or a lack of ground. That said, we can say that Heidegger, from the very outset, situates his ontological itinerary in the realm of language, tying the very possibility of the question of the meaning of being to language.

It is in language that we find ourselves nearest to an understanding of the meaning of being, Heidegger asserts. When we inquire about being, Heidegger writes, “we stand in an understanding of the ‘is’ without being able to determine conceptually what the ‘is’ means” (BT 4). Heidegger’s ontological project takes its orientation from this observation of the familiarity with being—a pre-comprehension of the meaning of being—that exists and operates constitutively in language. The question of being thus opens, necessarily, in and through language, in the way we express, always already in our relationship to language, a pre-comprehension of the meaning of being. It is through language, then, that the meaning of being first makes itself available as a matter of thought.

Heidegger’s inquiry into the meaning of being rests on this fact or Faktum of language, what Derrida will in turn describe as the pre-comprehension of the signification of the verb ‘to be’ inherent in the question: what is being? (QBH 45; BT 4). Setting aside, for the most part, the gestures toward phenomenology and alētheia, Derrida seizes on this linguistic element of Heidegger’s analysis, focusing his attention on the Faktum of language—the irreducible presence of language in the thinking of being—at the origin of Heidegger’s inquiry.

The recognition that this pre-comprehension of the meaning of being is always already present in language brings the question of history to the forefront of Heidegger’s analysis. The question of being and the question of history are bound, essentially, structurally by their co-proximity to language. As Derrida puts it at the close of the Session Two:

…[by] starting from the Faktum of language, and of a language in which the word be is heard, precise and unavoidable, Heidegger ties the possibility of his question and therefore of his whole subsequent discourse to the possibility of history. For there is no language without history and no history without language. The question of being is the very question of history. It is born of history and it takes its aim at history.

(QBH 46)

Seeking the meaning of being beyond the shared horizon of language and history, therefore, is not possible for Heidegger. Heidegger cannot simply deny the historical nature of being. Doing so would itself be a metaphysical gesture, in so far as it would locate the meaning of being beyond the experience of history and temporality, locating the origin of being in a transcendental or absolute ideal that precedes all of history and thus repeating the metaphysical postures that have guided onto-theology.

Heidegger thus sets out to rethink the history of being from within the shared horizon of language and history. This requires a radical reformulation of our understanding of the relationship between history and being, one that can account for the historical nature—the historicity—of being without falling back upon the metaphysical presuppositions that had determined the history of ontology up to that point. It is toward this end that he posits, in Being and Time, the movement of temporality—thrownness and being-toward-death—as the horizon for grasping the historicity of Dasein, attempting with the gesture toward temporality a break from notions of historicity that find their ground in the metaphysical presupposition of a transcendental being, such as a god, or a transcendental ideal, such as Geist or Ratio.

2. The Problem of Metaphor

Derrida will emphasize the ways this attempt to rethink the history of being is troubled at each turn by an unresolved problem of language. In seeking a fundamental ontology, in setting out to destructure the history of ontology, in positing an authentic historicity of Da-sein, in seeking the original rootedness of historicity in temporality, Heidegger’s attempt at a fundamental ontology continued to rely on the categorial language of metaphysics, all the while signaling the need to abandon it. As he had no language at his disposal that was not already compromised by metaphysical conceptuality, Derrida maintains, Heidegger lacked “the categorial means” to pose the question of the meaning of being in any positive sense (QBH 162).

For his part, Heidegger was not oblivious to the complex nature of this predicament. Reflecting on Being and Time in the 1947 “Letter on Humanism,” he notes: “to ‘philosophize’ about being shattered is separated by a chasm from a thinking that is shattered” (“Letter” 261). Revisiting this point later in the letter, Heidegger writes:

“Ontology” itself, however, whether transcendental or precritical, is subject to critique, not because it thinks the being of beings and in so doing reduces being to a concept, but because it does not think the truth of being and so fails to recognize that there is a thinking more rigorous than conceptual thinking. In the poverty of its first breakthrough, the thinking that tries to advance thought into the truth of being brings only a small part of that wholly other dimension to language. This language even falsifies itself, for it does not yet succeed in retaining the essential help of phenomenological seeing while dispensing with the inappropriate concern with “science” and “research.” But in order to make the attempt at thinking recognizable and at the same time understandable for existing philosophy, it could at first be expressed only within the horizon of that existing philosophy and the use of its current terms.

(“Letter” 271)

Being and Time, Heidegger thus acknowledges, continued to speak the language of metaphysics. Unable to break, definitively, with the categories and concepts of metaphysics, Heidegger could only gesture in Being and Time toward a dimension of thinking beyond metaphysical conceptuality. In the “poverty” of its analysis, Being and Time could only offer a feeble gesture toward another dimension of thinking. If the ontological discourse of Being and Time is distinct from those that came before it, however, it is distinct in that it does not fail to signal this limit and acknowledge what lies beyond its reach, namely the truth of the meaning of being.

Citing these same passages from the “Letter on Humanism,” Derrida echoes Heidegger’s understanding of the limits of Being and Time while further emphasizing the linguistic nature of the problem. Metaphysical conceptuality, Derrida will assert, inflects all language. As Derrida puts it, “…if one cannot go further, this is because in the language of metaphysics what is now announced cannot be said. The categorial, the categorial system of metaphysics can no longer serve us to speak that on the threshold of which we have arrived” (QBH 159). Continuing this thought, Derrida remarks:

…up until the end of Sein und Zeit, we could make do with this categorial after a fashion, customizing it, using for its own destruction, borrowing from it the stones that were thrown against its own edifice, or more peaceably by recognizing, in deconstruction, the structure of its stones and its contours and its capstone. So Sein und Zeit in this sense is still a metaphysical gesture, however self-destructive it be. And we have also seen why this whole language of civilization in which we have begun to speak is metaphysical, is metaphysics itself, and that language itself is metaphysics and that to that extent one should not expect by speaking to overcome metaphysics, in the simple sense of the word overcome.


The very operation of language is metaphysical. In so far as it cannot dispense with language—such as it is given, always already present—Heidegger’s analysis cannot take its leave of metaphysics. The significance of Being and Time, then, lies not in overcoming metaphysics and positing some positive content beyond metaphysical conceptuality, but rather in the self-destructive gesture that signals the limit of its own concepts. It is toward this point that Derrida announces in the seventh session:

One can understand this, when reading Sein und Zeit, only if at every moment one transposes the proper—that is properly metaphysical, therefore metaphorical—meaning of the word toward what is announced beyond it. This is why, since this transgressive intention is at work on the part of writer of Sein und Zeit, it had to be at work on the part of the reader who must simultaneously understand the beyond of metaphysics, the beyond of the conceptuality of Sein und Zeit and the necessity—for which Heidegger accounts—of continuing to dwell in or to pass through metaphysical inauthenticity.

(QBH 160, emphasis in the original)

Heidegger’s analysis is novel only insofar as it rejects the self-edifying postures that had sustained the metaphysical tradition up until that point, remaining resolutely committed to recognizing the limits of the very language in which it speaks.

I cite these passages at length, because they reveal a subtle but important distinction between Heidegger’s and Derrida’s positions relative the limits of ontological thought. Writing the “Letter on Humanism” in 1947, Heidegger remained fully committed to encountering a mode of thinking that might overcome metaphysical conceptuality, revealing a language capable of “advancing thought into the truth of being” (“Letter” 271). In a note affixed to the letter in a 1949 edition of the letter, Heidegger reiterated this point, acknowledging that the letter continued to speak the language of metaphysics while positing the existence of another language, capable of speaking the truth of being, that “remains in the background” (“Letter” 239n). Never failing to acknowledge the severity of the challenge, Heidegger remained intent to uncover a path through the language of metaphysics. “Everything depends on this alone,” Heidegger eventually asserts, “that the truth of being come to thinking and that thinking attain to this language” (“Letter” 261).

Derrida, by contrast, stresses the inevitability of metaphysical conceptuality, maintaining in no uncertain terms that “language itself is metaphysics” (QBH 159). For Derrida, then, there is no language available to us beyond that of metaphysics. There will be no simply overcoming or step beyond this condition of inauthenticity vis-à-vis the truth of being. Recognizing the impossibility of a clean exit from metaphysical conceptuality, Derrida subtly takes his leave of Heidegger here, presenting the possibility of “continuing to dwell” [continuer à séjourner] in metaphysical and therefore metaphorical inauthenticity (QBH 160). For Derrida, remaining in this predicament is not a matter of defeat or resignation, but the opening of possibility, insofar as the transgressive—destructive or deconstructive—potential of Heidegger’s thinking is not exhausted by the impossibility of realizing its objective. The pure or proper language of the truth of being remains, Derrida asserts, always on an the horizon, inviting the labor of deconstructive thought.

The radical potential of Heideggerian thought thus lies, for Derrida, in the unresolvable nature of the problem it presents. Confronted by this unresolvable problem, the only option available to us is to continue to dwell with the aporia it presents, sustained merely by the prospect—lingering on the horizon, perpetually to-come—of the non-metaphor, the never realized ground of the truth of being, what Derrida will call, in his concluding remarks of the course, that which “announces itself as the impossible on the basis of which the possible is thought as such” (QBH 223).

3. Dwelling in Metaphor

To fully understand the implications of Derrida’s assertions that “metaphor is interminable” and that “metaphoricity is the very essence of metaphysics” and the conclusion that there is no possibility of overcoming metaphysics, we must return to Session Three, where Derrida takes up the theme of metaphor in detail, exploring it through an interrogation of the Heideggerian metaphor of dwelling (QBH 63). Dwelling is the concept Heidegger adopts to describe Dasein’s proximity to and belonging in the world in the preliminary sketch of being-in-the-world in Being and Time, using the term to differentiate Dasein’s manner of being (in the world) from the being-present-at-hand of an object. Heidegger initially uses the term ‘to dwell’ [sich aufhalten] to describe Dasein’s primordial condition of being-in the world, in contrast to an object’s mere presence in the world, writing: “‘Ich bin’ (I am) means I dwell, I stay near … the world as something familiar in such and such a way. Being as the infinitive of ‘I am’: that is, understood as an existential, means to dwell near …, to be familiar with …” (BT 51, ellipses in the original). In, Heidegger continues, “stems from innan-, to live, habitare, to dwell. ‘An’ means I am used to, familiar with, I take care of something” (BT 54-5). Further elaborating the concept, later in the same section, Heidegger describes this mode of dwelling or being-in the world as a form of phenomenal knowing or grasping that consists of both “taking care” of the world and being “taken in” by it (BT 57-8).

For Heidegger, then, dwelling does not indicate a simple spatial relationship of residing in or being contained by, but rather an ecstatic mode of being, a mode of grasping from within, a manner of being always outside-itself, what Heidegger will eventually describe as the “ecstatic temporality of taking care” characteristic of Dasein’s “abandonment to a world of which it never becomes master” (BT 339).[7] This understanding of dwelling is further reinforced by Heidegger’s treatment of the concept in the “Letter on Humanism.” Describing the place of language in relation to being, Heidegger asserts that “language is the house of being in which the human being ek-sists (ek-sistiert) by dwelling, in that he belongs to the truth of being, guarding it” (“Letter” 254). It is in this sense, then, that dwelling represents an ecstatic mode of being, indicating a relationship of guarding and belonging to, taking care of and being taken in by.

Dwelling is a problematic metaphor for a number of reasons. First, given the historical context of Heidegger’s life and work, the choice of a metaphor that seems to grant privileged ontological status to one’s origin or home—a metaphor, as Derrida notes, that “resembles a pure and simple metaphor in the expressionist-romantico-Nazi style” (QBH 57)—bears obvious parallels with nationalist sentiment. Suggesting that one is nearest to the truth of being when one dwells in the familiar confines of one’s own, dwelling invokes, in the most straightforward and obvious way, the same romantic nostalgia for one’s home or homeland called on by the violent rhetoric of nationalism.

Even if we set aside this undeniable provocation and reflect on the significance of this metaphor from within the parameters of Heidegger’s ontological project, dwelling remains deeply problematic. Despite Heidegger’s attempts to present it as an ecstatic mode of being, dwelling is by nature a homely, static and heimlich metaphor. Invoking the authority of the familiar and original, dwelling would seem to suggest that one relates to language and being in the same way that one relates to the ontic structure that is nearest and dearest: one’s dwelling or one’s home. In a way that seems wholly antithetical to the radical promise of Heidegger’s ontological project, Heidegger’s choice of language here strikes a stark contrast to the professed desire to break with all the stories of provenance that privilege a presupposed foundational origin, stories that, by Heidegger’s own account, cover over the question of the meaning of being, mistaking ontic history for the history and meaning of being itself. Dwelling in this way seems to conform with neither the radical nature of Heidegger’s ontological itinerary nor the attempt to think the ecstatic or ek-static nature of Dasein’s relation to being.

Dwelling is thus a fraught or problematic metaphor, one that reflects all the contradictions of Heidegger’s struggle with and against the metaphysical tradition. This does not dissuade Derrida, however, as he will proceed in Session Three to offer a remarkable operation of thinking with respect to the metaphor, one that illustrates both the irreducibility of metaphor and the aporetic origins of language generally.

Dwelling, Derrida notes in Session Three, helps us understand the condition of co-implication between language and being, describing the proximity of language and being. Heidegger’s ontological inquiry, Derrida points, is guided by the necessity to “think language on the basis of being and the essence of man on the basis of a possibility of language” (QBH 57). We must think language on the basis of being, of course, because language always already is. The very existence of language implies being. At the same time, we must think Dasein on the basis of language because, as we indicated above, our relation to being exists in language. As “being is not a being,” Derrida writes, “it appears only in language” (QBH 59). The difference between being and beings—the ontological difference—is only evident in language. It is only through language that the distinction between being and beings can be thought. Being, in this sense, resides in language.

How do we understand these relationships of implication between language, being, and the human then? One cannot imply or condition the other, however, Derrida points out. Language cannot condition being for the simple reason that language cannot be thought to exist prior to or without being. Neither can being condition language, however, because to say that being makes language possible would make of being a formal, abstract, trans-historical condition of language, an eternal or absolute horizon. This is antithetical to Heidegger’s project, of course, because Heidegger want to think being without wrenching it away from or covering over its historicity and temporality, vowing instead to think being in what he calls its proper or authentic relation to historicity and temporality. Therefore, Derrida points out, one must find a way to speak of the relation of implication between being, language, and the human without resorting to a language of conditionality or cause and effect. This is where Heidegger invokes the metaphorics of dwelling. Heidegger calls on dwelling to describe this relationship of proximity or co-belonging without reducing this relationship to one of conditionality or causality.

Language is a dwelling, Derrida suggests, in the sense that it is an originary place. It is the always already into which one is thrown and from which one emerges. Derrida calls this the milieu: “that within which man dwells, man prior to his being determined as animal rationale, body and soul, and so on” (QBH 59). To dwell is not just to be placed in or to reside in, Derrida notes, in a passive sense, but also to “have the keep of” (ibid); what we might call residing in, in an active sense, maintaining one’s place, or taking care, as Heidegger puts it. Derrida writes:

…to dwell is also to have the keep of one’s house and what is stored in it, and to have the keep of this always-already that is the meaning of my relation to the house. Historiality is being in an always-already, is to be unable to go back any earlier than the house, for to be born is to be born in a house, in a place that is arranged and ready before me; it is my originary here, qua here, that I did not choose but on the basis of which every explicit choice will make sense.


Language is thus a dwelling in the sense that it is the milieu into which one is thrown and in which one resides. Language is the always already to which the thinking of being—and, in fact, all thinking—is given and from which it forges its way.Derrida, we might protest, begins to force the metaphor here. Privileging Heidegger’s reference to language as “the house of being”—going so far as to assert that “to be born is to be born into a house”—Derrida seems to suggest, rather paradoxically, that we have a stable, heimlich relation to language, that language is a shelter arranged for us and awaiting our arrival, a home to which we always already belong. Emphasizing sense of the dwelling as a structure, Derrida asserts that this shelter “is history itself, which is to say it is a constructed shelter, one that is constructed, assembled, a dwelling” (ibid.). This language of structures and foundations obscures, to a degree, the fact that Heidegger first thinks the concept of dwelling, in the preliminary sketch of Being-in-the-World [In-der-Welt-sein] of Being and Time, not in reference to a structure or shelter, but in the sense of a mode or manner of being, referencing the Latin verb habitare: to dwell or to reside (BT 54-5). It is only later, in the “Letter on Humanism” that Heidegger makes reference to the “house of being,” doing so, as we will see, in a qualified sense. Derrida’s emphasis on the figures of house and home here, however, only serve to further reinforce the romantic allusions of Heidegger’s language, painting the picture of the dwelling, one’s home, as the shelter, structure, or origin par excellence.

The assertion that one begins at home, that one is born in one’s house, of course, reeks of metaphysical presupposition. If Derrida means to indicate that language is merely an originary place, the milieu into which we are thrown, why adopt Heidegger’s romantic metaphorics of the home? Why retain this paradoxical figure of enclosure and stability, with all its allusions to origins, foundations, and the proper?

This is the point where Derrida’s thinking takes a truly interesting turn. If Derrida forces Heidegger’s metaphor, here, he does so in an attempt to overturn our entire understanding of the operation of metaphor. By thinking dwelling to its limit, examining it at its most basic level, Derrida will show that even the most fundamental, heimlich, familiar of metaphors, when thought in the full light of Heidegger’s analysis, rests on unstable or obscure foundations. As Derrida writes, reflecting on Heidegger’s presentation of language as the house of being: “We do not know first what house means, even if this word seems very familiar to us and to refer to the most familiar thing in the world. In truth it is what familiarity and proximity mean that we do not know, before having made explicit the relation of man to language and of language to being” (QBH 60). It is not the case, Derrida maintains, that applying what we know of dwelling in a home will help us understand what it means to dwell in language and being. In fact, Derrida suggests, the situation is the inverse: since we do not grasp what it means to dwell in language and being, we have never known what it means to dwell in a home. Derrida is, of course, merely paraphrasing Heidegger here, who has already written in the “Letter on Humanism” that speaking of a “house of being is not the transfer of the image ‘house’ onto being” (“Letter” 272). Rather, Heidegger continues, “one day we will, by thinking the essence of being in a way appropriate to its matter, more readily be able to think what ‘house’ and ‘dwelling’ are” (ibid.). So long as we remain in oblivion of the meaning of being, then, whenever we speak of the house or the dwelling, we do so without the first sense of what we mean.

Metaphor does not deliver us closer to truth through inference, as one might assume in an everyday sense, but rather the opposite. When we think we know what we are saying in common language, we are in fact speaking in metaphor. Whenever we speak without knowing the meaning of being, we speak in metaphor (QBH 62). It is in this sense that Derrida asserts, in the third session, that metaphor does not merely occur within language, but is the beginning of language (ibid.). In the moment we begin to speak, in the moment we begin to construct meaning through language, describing the relationship of one being to the next with a series of ontic metaphors whose movement obscures their absent or unknown origin, we cover over the aporia of being, we cover over the absence of this true and proper meaning of being.

For his part, Derrida will insist that language cannot reach this true and proper meaning of being. It cannot be made into an object of knowledge. There is thus nothing to be found at the origin or terminus of metaphor. In this sense, as Derrida writes, “metaphor is interminable” (QBH 63). In this sense, metaphor also represents “the ontic covering over of the truth of being” (ibid.). Whenever Heidegger uses metaphor, Derrida therefore concludes, he does so while simultaneously pointing to the insufficiency of metaphor, to the absent foundation or origin over which language and metaphor operate. This does not mean that Heidegger somehow avoids taking advantage of or exploiting metaphor. It merely means that he does so while bearing in mind that the so-called proper sense of the word—the sense that is grounded in the truth of the meaning of being—remains out of reach so long as we speak in oblivion of the truth of being.

Conclusion: Aporias

Language is thus a fraught and perilous shelter, a shelter constructed on unstable grounds. While Heidegger, at the outset of Being and Time, seems to hold out hope of securing this foundation, grounding language in the truth of being and one day emerging from the oblivion of metaphysical inauthenticity to think the essence of being, Derrida fosters no such illusions. As Derrida concludes in Session Three:

This means in particular that there is no chance, that there will never be any chance for those who might think of metaphor as the disguise of thought or of the truth of being. There will never be any chance of undressing or stripping down this naked thinking of being which was never naked and never will be. The proper meaning whose movement metaphor tries to follow without ever reaching or seeing it, this proper meaning has never been said or thought and never will be said or thought as such.


We cannot, merely by speaking, overcome or exhaust metaphor. We cannot, in language, take our leave of metaphor. Metaphor will prove to be irreducible. The thinking of being, Derrida eventually concludes, can only gesture to the truth of being as a distant, endlessly receding horizon (QBH 223). This gesture—even if it is a gesture guided by a desire for destruction and de-metaphorization, as is the case in Being and Time—must still announce itself in metaphor, as metaphor. The problem of language with which we began, thus reveals itself as an aporia.

This is not, for Derrida, a matter of resignation or impossibility. Rather, it constitutes a possibility for critical thought. The aporia presents itself as a task for thinking. The task, as Derrida understands it, is not to overcome metaphor, but to think metaphor as such (QBH 62). The task is not to overcome the insufficiency of metaphor—locating a metaphor to serve as master signifier or an object of our blind faith—but to think the insufficiency of metaphor as such. The task is to learn to live—to continue to dwell—with this aporia, approaching language not as a stable or impervious shelter but an unstable one, one that must be attended to and cared for from within. This means we must learn to think in a way that does not hypostasize language, taking it as truth, but that remains sensitive to the instability and inadequacy of the metaphors that operate as provisional and always already compromised grounds for our thinking. The destructive or deconstructive task, the “work of thinking,” as Derrida puts it, is in this way an endless labor (QBH 190).

The labor of thinking Derrida performs vis-à-vis the irreducibility of metaphor in “Heidegger: The Question of Being & History” would shape his thought for decades, guiding the critical thinking of deconstruction and serving as a foundation for his thinking of political and ethical themes from the late 1980s onward. In Aporias, Derrida asked if it is possible to speak of an experience of the aporia, noting the way this question of the aporetic, the insuperable or insurmountable limit, had recurred time and again, under different signs, across his writing (Aporias 15-6).[8] Whereas a problem might be understood as a project, a task to be accomplished, a line or a threshold to cross, the aporia, Derrida writes in this essay, is a matter of nonpassage, a matter of “the experience of the nonpassage, the experience of what happens and is fascinating in this nonpassage” (Aporias 12). Aporia, for Derrida, thus names the place “there is no longer any problem. Not that, alas or fortunately, the solutions have been given but because one could no longer even find a problem that one would keep in front of oneself, as a presentable object or project” (ibid., emphasis in the original). Returning to Heidegger and Being and Time in this essay, Derrida asks:

What if there was no other concept of time than the one that Heidegger calls “vulgar”? What if, consequently, opposing another concept to the “vulgar” concept were itself impracticable, nonviable and impossible? What if it was the same for death, for a vulgar concept of death? What if the exoteric aporia therefore remained in a certain way irreducible, calling for an endurance or shall we say an experience other than that consisting in opposing, from both sides of an indivisible line, an other concept, a nonvulgar concept, to the so-called vulgar concept?

(Aporias 14)

Without delving too deeply into the essay, which poses these questions of the aporia against the backdrop of Derrida’s contemplation of the relation to death and the other, I want to make the simple observation that these rhetorical questions are essentially the same questions Derrida poses with respect to metaphor in “Heidegger: The Question of Being & History.” What if metaphor cannot be overcome? What if there is no language, no concept, available to us to think the truth of being? Facing these questions, Derrida ultimately raises the prospect of nonpassage, the prospect of “continuing to dwell” in metaphor and thus in the condition of metaphysical inauthenticity (QBH 160). It is telling that, some three decades later, having shifted to the ethical register of death and hospitality, Derrida is still thinking, still grappling with, still dwelling on, this problem of how to live faced with this ultimately insurmountable border or limit.

Derrida’s answer to this series of rhetorical questions in “Aporias” thus resounds with significance for our consideration of “Heidegger: The Question of Being & History.” If the aporia is irreducible, if passage is impossible, Derrida suggests in “Aporias,” a duty arises for what Derrida’s terms the “nonpassive endurance of the aporia,” an endurance of the aporia that ultimately constitutes an openness to the arrivals of the unknown, as yet unnamed, other (Aporias 16). Is this not the same conclusion Derrida came to in 1965, confronting the insurmountable problem of language in Being and Time? As there is no overcoming metaphor, the only option at our disposal is a sort of nonpassive endurance of the aporia, continuing to dwell in and with the problem of metaphor, remaining resolutely open to the “impossible on the basis of which the possible is thought as such” (QBH 223). It is not hard to see, here, how this thinking of the irreducibility of metaphor and the experience of non-passage or the aporia, this thinking of endurance in the face of the impossible passage, makes way in Derrida’s thought for the (re)thinking of the political through the aporetic figures of democracy to-come and unconditional hospitality.

Reading Derrida’s lectures in “Heidegger: The Question of Being & History” reveals the subtle ways Derrida’s work (re)thinking the political at the end of his career is rooted in his reflections on metaphor and the limits of Heidegger’s ontological project in Being and Time. I emphasize the ways the questions that took form in “Heidegger: The Question of Being & History” remained with Heidegger throughout his career because I believe they remain essential questions for us today. How to live in the absence of the truth of being? How to continue to dwell with that we cannot name? These remain critical questions to bring to our thinking of the political today. In lieu of a conclusion, then, I would like to close with a simple observation. In our present, confronted by a political moment defined in many ways by the crises and contradictions of liberal democracy, it seems particularly important to bear in mind the lessons of Derrida’s thinking vis-à-vis metaphor. It seems particularly important, in this moment, to think carefully about the concepts we use as we attempt to rethink and reframe notions such as the polis, the commons, and the community. This is moment, then, that calls with particular intensity for a willingness to remain, to endure, to experience aporia, a willingness to embrace our exposure to the unknown and the unknowable. This is a moment that would seem to call for a particular commitment to vigilance with respect to metaphor, a thinking committed to, as Derrida puts it, “destroying metaphor while knowing what it is doing,” one that remains wholly committed to the interrogation of the given, while recognizing the limits and insufficiencies of the metaphor in which it speaks (QBH 190).

Works Cited

  • Derrida, Jacques. Aporias. Translated by Thomas Dutoit. Stanford University, 1993.
  • ————. “Differánce.” Margins of Philosophy. Translated by Alan Bass. University of Chicago, 1982. pp 1-29.
  • ————. Heidegger: The Question of Being & History. Edited by Thomas Dutoit. Translated by Geoffrey Bennington. University of Chicago, 2016.
  • ————. Rogues: Two Essays on Reason. Translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford University, 2005.
  • ————. “Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thoughts of Emmanuel Levinas.” Writing and Difference. Translated by Alan Bass. Routledge, 2005, pp. 97-192.
  • ————. “Force and Signification.” Writing and Difference. Translated by Alan Bass. Routledge, 2005, pp. 1-35.
  • Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time: A Revised Edition of the Stambaugh Translation. Translated by Joan Stambaugh. Revised by Dennis J. Schmidt. State University of New York, 2010.
  • ————. “Letter on Humanism.” Translated by Frank A. Capuzzi. Pathmarks. Edited by William McNeill. Cambridge University, 2008, pp. 239-76.


1. Subsequently abbreviated QBH.

2. This problem would occupy Derrida for some time, animating his thought in the essays “Force and Signification” (1963), “Violence and Metaphysics” (1964), and, most notably “White Mythology” (1971), among others.

3. In the 1967 essay “Differánce” Derrida will refer to this prospect as the “Heideggerian hope,” echoing a sentiment that appears in the seventh session of the course, describing the deferral of a “hope for an authentic historicity of Dasein” at the conclusion of Being and Time (“Differánce” 27; QBH 165).

4. At the open of Session Three and elsewhere in the course, Derrida uses a construct of the verb and preposition séjourner dans to indicate ‘dwelling in,’ ‘staying in,’ or ‘remaining with’ a question or a problem, in the sense of offering a question or problem sustained reflection (Heidegger: La question de l’Être et l’Histoire 46, 64, 85, 123, 263). Though the distinction is lost in English translation, this is not to be confused with dwelling in the Heideggerian sense. For the latter, Derrida consistently employs the verb habiter [to dwell] and the noun habitation [home; house], in keeping with Heidegger’s reference to the Latin verb habitare in Being and Time (Derrida Heidegger: La question de l’Être et l’Histoire 91, 98-105; Heidegger BT 54).

5. In “Violence and Metaphysics,” Derrida notes, evoking the parallel line of thinking he was developing vis-à-vis Heideggerian thought at the time, that “there is no philosophical logos which must not first let itself be expatriated into the structure Inside-Outside” (“Violence” 140). This structural metaphor of interiority and exteriority, Derrida asserts, is congenital to philosophical language, for “philosophy is only this language … philosophy can only speak it which amounts to thinking the metaphor within the silent horizon of the nonmetaphor: Being” (ibid.). One would attempt in vain to overcome the language of interiority and exteriority, Derrida asserts, prefiguring his own reasoning in White Mythology, writing: “For the meaning which radiate from Inside-Outside, from Light-Night, etc., do not only inhabit the proscribed words; they are embedded in person or vicariously, at the very heart of conceptuality itself” (“Violence” 140-1).

6. Subsequently abbreviated BT.

7. Temporality, for Heidegger, is constitutive of care: “As care, Dasein is essentially ahead-of-itself” (BT 322).

8. First published in 1993, this book, Aporias: Dying – Awaiting (One Another At) the “Limits of Truth”, arose from a paper Derrida gave at a conference in Cerisy-la-Salle in July 1992.