Polemos: The Struggle between Being and History in Heidegger and Derrida

Shannon Dowd
Niagara University

Volume 13, 2019

“Naturally, when he speaks of war, Heidegger does not tell stories…”

Jacques Derrida, Heidegger: The Question of Being and History, p. 199

What does war mean to Heidegger? And what does war mean for Derrida’s interpretation of Heidegger? In Heidegger’s Being and Time and Introduction to Metaphysics, war—understood broadly as struggle and confrontation—forms part of the question of being. War, in turn, takes on a critical role in Derrida’s 1964-65 seminar Heidegger: The Question of Being and History. In the seminar as a whole, Derrida asks: “What is the relationship between being and history in Heidegger?” and in the eighth session, Derrida explains that struggle, the Greek polemos, forms the connection between being and history.

Here, I explore the relationship between being and history in Heidegger and Derrida as it passes through polemos. In the first part, I focus on how polemos helps Derrida move from being to history, that is to say, how polemos answers the seminar’s overarching question about the relationship between being and history. In the second part, I ask further questions about Derrida’s interpretation of polemos. At stake in both parts are the consequences of positing war or struggle as an integral part of the question of being, with effects on language, temporality, and history. Through Derrida’s seminar, I examine the conceptual stakes of placing war with the question of being. In the conclusion to this essay, I suggest a modified formulation of how struggle fits between being and history.


How does polemos help Derrida turn from the question of being toward history? In the final three sessions of the 1964-65 seminar, Derrida shows that the concept of “authentic historicity” is little more than an extension of Heidegger’s idea of temporality in Being and Time.[1] Derrida notes that Heidegger was dissatisfied with the end of his 1927 magnum opus and so retook the theme of history in later years. As a consequence, Derrida argues that Being and Time must be read alongside Heidegger’s book on Kant, published as Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics in 1929, and the 1935 seminar on metaphysics, published as Introduction to Metaphysics in 1953. Without this later work, readers might be led to an erroneous understanding of Heidegger that emphasizes shared destiny over struggle. In turn, if Heidegger had emphasized shared destiny over struggle, then it would be easy to accuse him of blind Nazi romanticism. Instead, Derrida points to passages in the Introduction to Metaphysics where Heidegger sustains the importance of struggle, especially as polemos.[2] In Derrida’s words: “Heidegger neglects struggle and warfare so little in the essential movement of historicity that he increasingly emphasized that logos was polemos and eris and that the revelation of being was violence” (Heidegger 198; emphasis original).

Derrida’s statement can be broken into two parts: struggle and warfare are part of the essential movement of history, and being reveals itself as polemos. I will look at these two pieces in the opposite order, starting with (i) being as polemos and then (ii) the movement of history.

(i) Polemos appears as part of the revelation of being in a number of places in Heidegger’s work, but most clearly in the repeated quotation of Heraclitus’s fragment 53. In Gregory Fried’s translation the fragment reads: “War [polemos] is both father of all and king of all: it reveals the gods on the one hand and humans on the other, makes slaves on the one hand, the free on the other” (Fried 21). In the Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger clarifies his understanding of this passage: “The polemos named here is a strife that holds sway before everything divine and human, not war in the human sense. As Heraclitus thinks it, struggle first and foremost allows what essentially unfolds to step apart from each other in opposition, first allows position and status and rank to establish themselves in coming to presence” (Introduction 67; Einführung 47). Heidegger is careful to ward off misinterpretations that emphasize war in the traditional “human” sense. Derrida explains this struggle slightly differently, using polemos to move from being to history: “Polemos, then, means this unity of unveiling and dissimulation as movement of history” (Heidegger 199). The struggle is a simultaneous revealing and concealing of being, and this unexpected and misunderstood movement of conflict courses through history. Heidegger takes struggle seriously, Derrida says, “at the level of the thinking of being or of the truth of being” (Heidegger 199).[3] For Derrida, this violent conflict forms the basis of Heidegger’s ontological investigation, and only a willfully misguided interpretation could claim that Heidegger overlooks struggle in favor of a common or shared destiny.

However, Heidegger’s abandonment of shared destiny does not absolve him of charges of Nazism. Other commentators find Heidegger’s emphasis on conflict to be his clearest connection to Hitler. In a 1933 letter to Carl Schmitt, for instance, Heidegger mentions that both men had seen the importance of the Heraclitus fragment: “War [polemos] is both father of all and king of all…” (Fried 21). The quotation takes on sinister echoes given the rise of National Socialism. Moreover, in early translations of polemos into German, Heidegger rendered the word as Kampf, resonating with a key term in Hitler’s lexicon, where the father and king seemed damningly close to the Führer who had the power to separate men from gods and slaves from free.[4] In other words, taking polemos seriously is a polemical move in itself. On one hand, ignoring polemos leads to national socialist romanticism. On the other hand, stressing it approaches Hitlerism. The stakes are high, and both paths seem to lead to fascism.[5] Yet in his 1964-65 seminar, Derrida shows how to continue asking both the question of being and that of history without discarding polemos. He shows how to continue thinking about struggle alongside the question of being without lapsing into Nazism.

(ii) In order to accomplish this task, Derrida turns to history, making polemos the vehicle of movement between being and history. Derrida leaves his remark that polemos is part of “essential movement of historicity” (Heidegger 198) largely undeveloped until, in the final session, he provides a clearer explanation of his view of historicity in Heidegger. Derrida expands on the assertion that Heidegger does not “tell stories.” Heidegger’s understanding of history is not motivated by narrative form, nor does it have historical purpose. Derrida explains to a student in attendance that Heidegger’s philosophy is not teleological, explaining:

why and how there is no teleology in Heidegger, such that here one should not even say inequality but anequality, inequality presupposing a defect or a shortcoming with respect to a measure or a telos, to a common entelechy, to a measure of all things. The concept of anequality is the only one able to respect this originality, and the radicality of the difference of which Heidegger was always primarily concerned to remind us, an originary difference: that is, one not thinkable within the horizon of a simple and initial or final unity.

(Heidegger 208)

Derrida then adds, and this is critical: “So, an irreducible multiplicity of historicities” (Heidegger 208). This originary anequality offers a different interpretation of Heraclitus’s polemos that sets beings forth into multiplicity.

Here, Derrida signals a clear departure from Heidegger, altering the received interpretation of the Heraclitus fragment from inequal setting apart to anequal setting apart. By reading these passages together, it becomes clear that Derrida sees anequality from the very beginning of fragment 53. Polemos already differs from itself; it is already anequal to itself. This internal conflict, then, comes into conflicted being in the words: “Polemos is…” Recognizing in the “is” the affirmation of being and the metaphysical privilege of presence, Derrida signals the problem of the verb conjugated in “the third person singular of the present indicative” (Heidegger Introduction 100; Einführung 70; cf. Derrida Heidegger 224). Yet instead of dwelling on this present tense verb, Derrida emphasizes the difference inscribed in the fragment. This difference allows for multiple historicities that depart from an anequal and conflictive origin.


Derrida’s 1964-65 seminar clarifies his debt to Heidegger as well as his departure from his work. Yet Derrida also leaves some important questions unanswered. Most importantly, how is the fragment that begins “Polemos is…” transmitted into history and the “irreducible multiplicity of historicities”? Derrida does not expand his interpretation, but we can make a collage of his reading of Heidegger to produce a new version of Heraclitus’s fragment 53. Instead of the original version—“War [polemos] is both father of all and king of all: it reveals the gods on the one hand and humans on the other, makes slaves on the one hand, the free on the other” (Fried 21)—we might change it to: “Polemos links being and history; it unveils and conceals anequality.” In other words, polemos signals difference, an anequal, non-teleological difference bound in language. This revision suggests a more subtle understanding of the Heraclitus fragment, but leaves questions about the specific connection between polemos and history. Below, I break these questions into two distinct but related parts.

(i) First, Derrida affirms that polemos initiates multiple historicities, as we have seen. According to Derrida, Heidegger also avoids imposing narrative and metaphor to convey meaning, using an approach that is “not a matter of substituting one metaphor for another, which is the very movement of language and history, but of thinking this movement as such” (Heidegger 190). The goal is certainly not to consider polemos the subject of history—that is, conflict responsible for the narrative twists and turns of history—nor to think of polemos as a metaphor for history’s unfolding through conflict. Rather, the question is how polemos connects to historicity through apparent and dissimulated conflict.

For Heidegger, the struggle of polemos appears in form. In the Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger links polemos to the way that beings appear, or in his words, “take a stand.” Beings appear as they encounter their own limits. Heidegger explains: “For something to take such a stand [from nonbeing into being] … means for it to attain its limit, to de-limit itself” (Introduction 65; Einführung 46). Grammatical rules define certain ways of taking a stand, for instance, in the verb’s move from the indeterminate infinitive through conjugation or the noun’s inflection in case. Grammatical features mark the ways that being inclines from its stand as it “freely and on its own runs up against the necessity of its limit” (Introduction 65; Einführung 46). Heidegger even goes so far as to say that “Limit and end are that whereby beings first begin to be” (Introduction 65; Einführung 46). Being appears as inflection and conflict, and both appear in the delimitation of form. These inherent limits reappear in the later essay “The Origin of the Work of Art.” In that essay, Heidegger links strife directly to truth “in such a way that the conflict opens up in this being” (“Origin” 61). Citing a version of Heraclitus’s oppositions this time as “the question of victory and defeat, blessing and curse, mastery and slavery” (“Origin” 61), Heidegger argues that the work of art emerges from and returns to the earth as “figure, shape, Gestalt” (“Origin” 62). The work of art embodies the conflicted encounter with limits.

Derrida’s seminar, however, moves away from the association between strife and figure. He suggests that polemos ends up stuck with the stories and metaphors of inauthentic history precisely because polemos implies a container or border. It is always already wedded to a morphology or form, whether of language, art, or politics. In Heidegger’s formulation, it alludes to divisions, such as those between human and divine, slaves and free, barbarian and citizen, inauthentic and authentic. As a result, polemos posits an anequal history of, what Derrida calls, “irreducible multiplicity,” yet it cannot fully explore this anequality because it is bound by its own constitutive limit (cf. Heidegger Introduction 65-66; Einführung 45-46). As Geoffrey Bennington writes, “Even taking polemos as basileus [or king], as in the Heraclitus fragment of which Heidegger is so fond, is already drawing dispersion back into a potentially binary construal…” (Scatter I 245).[6] Instead, Derrida points toward the movement of setting apart. He asks: is there a way to talk about the struggle that links being and history without a limit or container, without assuming the divisions that result from this struggle? According to Derrida, Heidegger “runs out of breath” before this question—so critically linked to the question of authentic historicity. It remains a question that Derrida’s seminar solicits even now.

(ii) Second, these limits affect language and temporality. In his 1953 notes to the Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger adds to his discussion of polemos: “Confrontation does not divide unity, much less destroy it. It builds unity; it is the gathering (logos). Polemos and logos are the same” (Introduction 67-68; Einführung 47). For Heidegger, this gathering involves struggle—a struggle that reaches to the depths of the question of being and the gathering of sense that the term logos implies.[7] Derrida agrees in his seminar, writing: “Without the pre-comprehension of being that opens language, there would be no war” (Heidegger 198-199). However, Derrida shifts the emphasis, adding that “it is polemos primarily because in the meaning of being, in the manifestation of being, is dissimulation of being” (Heidegger 199). The polemical hinge between being and history is the pairing of revealing and concealing. Thus, it is associated with language, but not with something as simple as the “is,” or the morphology of the verb “to be.” Rather, Derrida explains that the logos forms part of the “irreducibly grammatical dimension of meaning[;] this writing, this necessary trace of meaning is the metaphorical process itself, historicity itself” (Heidegger 224). In other words, Derrida looks for the grammar between signs, a grammar that does not necessarily appear in inflection or declension.

At the same time, Derrida does not ignore the inevitable metaphors that appear in the knot of conflict, language, logic, and unity. Instead of simply saying that these concepts and phenomena conceal the comprehension of being, he pushes toward the trace as movement, the trace as part of the revelation and concealment of conflict. Rather than redoubling Heidegger’s polemos in a formula like “polemos polemicizes”—which would make borders border according to a fractal logic—Derrida traces movement among conflicting traces and meanings. He focuses on this paradoxical gathering in logos to point to the simultaneous inscription and erasure of metaphors as part of the question of being. Consequently, sense gathers, not only in the present singular indicative, but also in other tenses that, in turn, refer to other temporalities, and thus to multiple historicities.

In short, conflict has an irreducibly temporal dimension. Derrida asks how to understand anequality in multiple temporalities and how to think the “irreducible multiplicity of historicities” at the same time. Here, he comes to another thorny question: what is the relationship between time and history in anequal gathering, given the mingling of authentic and inauthentic, the conflict of unveiling and dissimulation? Is it possible to write history without privileging the present of the “is,” or is it possible to write a history in the future perfect tense of what will have been? Since temporality departs from and stands outside itself, is it possible to read with Derrida for an ecstatic history? Is it possible to identify mixed temporalities whose conjugations exceed grammatical form?

Here is another opening that Derrida offers as part of the destruction of history as narrative and metaphor, though he cautions that such a destruction “does not mean that one leaves the metaphorical element of language behind, but that it is in its new metaphor the previous metaphor appears as such” (Heidegger 224). He works toward the destruction and deconstruction of metaphor “accomplished slowly, patiently” (Heidegger 224).


At the end of the seminar, Derrida says, “Each of [the words of this title], even the name Heidegger, has turned out to be metaphorical” (Heidegger 225). Polemos too is metaphorical. I have suggested approaching the question of being from the struggle already at its origin, re-formulating the Heraclitus fragment as: “Polemos links being and history; it unveils and conceals anequality.” Yet important questions remain after this revision. My only response to these questions—and it is a necessarily partial response (cf. Heidegger 185)—is to replace the term polemos with something unhampered by the sovereign as king and the limit as border. My suggestion for re-examining these still important, still unanswered questions is to replace the bordered inscription of difference with an internecine one—to move from polemos to stasis, from the war of the sovereign to an internal conflict that, far from stagnant, posits historicities of difference.[8] I believe that this new starting point transforms the two questions I have left here—being’s relationship to language and history. Changing the stakes of polemos, just a breath away from logos, into stasis provides another path into the patient deconstruction of history as narrative and metaphor. It offers a way of re-positing the connected questions of being and history.

Works Cited

  • Bennington, Geoffrey. Kant on the Frontier: Philosophy, Politics, and the Ends of the Earth. Fordham University Press, 2017.
  • ——. Scatter I: The Politics of Politics in Foucault, Heidegger, and Derrida. Fordham University Press, 2016.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Heidegger: The Question of Being and History. Edited by Thomas Dutoit, translated by Geoffrey Bennington, University of Chicago Press, 2016.
  • ——. The Politics of Friendship. Translated by George Collins, Verso, 2005.
  • Fried, Gregory. Heidegger’s Polemos: From Being to Politics. Yale University Press, 2000.
  • Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by Joan Stambaugh, revised by Dennis J. Schmidt, State University of New York Press, 2010.
  • ——. Introduction to Metaphysics. Revised and expanded, translated by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt, Yale University Press, 2014.
  • ——. “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Poetry, Language, Thought. Translated by Albert Hofstadter, Harper Perennial, 2013, pp. 15-86.


01. Derrida repeatedly refers to §74 of Being and Time.

02. In particular, Alexandre Kojève focuses on being-with [Mitsein]. Derrida explains Kojève’s critique in order to tease out his own reading of the terms resoluteness [Entschlossenheit], destiny [Schicksal], and co-destiny [Geschick].

03. The full sentence reads: “Taking struggle seriously is thus to take it seriously not merely at the level of the ontic, or even at the level of the ontological (in the sense in which Heidegger is trying to destroy [illegible word] the ontological), but at the level of the thinking of being or of the truth of being” (Derrida Heidegger 199).

04. For more extensive treatment of these two events, see Fried’s Heidegger’s Polemos: From Being to History.

05. Some scholars argue fervently against the connection between polemos and history, arguing that polemos is a representation of an imperial European world-view, most obviously defective in Heidegger’s public allegiance to Nazism. The solution is to replace polemos with ethics, discarding ontology and affirming multiplicity, or put another way, to leave behind the question of being while accepting the dizzying multiplicity of beings.

06. The full quotation emphasizes the sovereign decision and reads: “…that returns to a sovereignist interpretation of decision” (Scatter 245). See also Bennington’s Kant on the Frontier, especially the “Prolegomena.”

07. Later in the Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger uses the term ousia.