“We Shall Make No Progress Today”

Gareth Williams
University of Michigan

Volume 13, 2019

To liberate the question of being and history, one must, then, stop telling stories, which is to say that one must take a step beyond ontic history… One must, then, constantly and firmly maintain the distrust of historicism.

Jacques Derrida

In Hegel, a fragmentary text from 1938-39, Martin Heidegger re-visits his unresolved confrontation with Hegel that ten years before had characterized the final pages of Being and Time:

If the standpoint of a necessary confrontation with Hegel’s philosophy is to be on an equal footing with it, and that means of course that it is in an essential respect superior to it, while at the same time not brought to and forced on it from the outside, then this standpoint of the confrontation must in fact lie concealed in Hegel’s philosophy—as its own essentially inaccessible and indifferent ground.


Heidegger advanced the thesis that the basic determination of Hegelian philosophy that can lead to a more originary standpoint is negativity. But for Heidegger, Hegel did not take negativity seriously enough (29). Hegel’s negativity, he wrote, is “not a question for him”, for in Hegel it “does not become questionable because negativity is already posited with the domain of its inquiry that is presupposed by it” (Heidegger, Hegel, 29). In other words, for Heidegger the dialectic was only ever the sublation of “the not into the ‘yes’” (38). In Heidegger: The Question of Being and History, Derrida sides at least to an extent with Heidegger, referring to Hegel as “one of the greatest novelists of philosophy” (39).

In contrast to Hegel’s storytelling, Heidegger proposes the decontainment of the question of being, the clearing of the indeterminacy and immediacy of being —in its very beingness—in such a way as to perceive in a more originary manner what is fundamental in its determinateness and power of determination. As is well known, Heidegger’s purpose was to save thinking from the concealments that remain inherent to every modern ontic sociology, historicism, and common sense dialectical metaphorization of the empirical. Heidegger, then, proposed not to go beyond, but to go back into the concealed ground of Hegel’s thinking (xiii). This turn back into the concealed ground is the orientation of a hermeneutic protocol designed to circumvent the ontic history of storytelling and metaphoricity, to confront and unveil the originary aporia of dialectical speculation, and thereby to clear the way for the possibility of an originary negativity unmediated by translation and representation: Heidegger would refer to this as the inceptual commencement for the thinking of history and being.

In a draft for his 1939-40 essay “Koinon: On the History of Beyng”, Heidegger referred to the originary standpoint or “inceptual” commencement as the “supremacy” that was “at once avoided by Western humankind” (179). The absolute sovereign distance that “commencement” is, says Heidegger in this draft, “is the secret of history” (179). This reference to the commencement as the supremacy that the West has avoided is, of course, not devoid of significance. Indeed, in The History of Beyng Heidegger also refers to the question of the originary standpoint, or inceptual commencement, as that which “reigns over all that is to come” (21). As such, what lies essentially inaccessible and in-different to the oblivion of being—both beyond and concealed in the metaphysical entrenchment of being’s abandonment—is the secret supremacy and reign over all of the originary that is to come.

Alongside what Derrida refers to as Heidegger’s “romantic-Nazi style” of metaphorization, this going back into the concealed ground in order to “step beyond” the history of storytelling, and this in such a way as to clear the way for an originarity beyond translation and representation, is, of course, where we need to tread carefully. My purpose today is to suggest that Derrida does precisely that in his third seminar, in a truly infrapolitical gesture to wrest the Heideggerian “supremacy” of commencement from commencement itself, thereby shaking the ground of the supreme height of the metaphysical perspective that lies at the heart of Heidegger’s own thinking. In this gesture, in this style, Derrida’s task is to invalidate and destroy the weight of Heidegger’s not so veiled theological piety, but to do so by not succumbing to the ontic seductions of thinking being as “a signification abstracted from an empirical signification” (71). The line that Derrida traces in this seminar is neither originary supremacy nor originary empiricity. In the process, he seeks to shift the ground of all common-sense knowledge of proximity and distance.

In the second seminar Derrida gives full weight to the significance of Heidegger’s confrontation with Hegel when he notes, in the formulation of the always already, that “the always wrests the historicity of the already from empiricity”. But, he adds, “the weight of the already in the originary signifies already the absolute and originary historicity of the question of being, signifies that the question of being is fully and originarily and through and through historical” (42-3). However, in contrast to Heidegger’s insistence on the supremacy of the originary standpoint—on beingness in all its immediacy as the appearance of that which is supreme in its most intimate distance—Derrida’s third seminar proposes speaking another language, speaking in a different style from that of either an originary sovereignty (supremacyreigning over all etc) or the ontic dwelling places of common sense, such as sociology, anthropology, or historicism (58-9). Rather, against common sense, he proposes the unceasing deconstruction of the conjunction of empiricism and metaphysics by delving into language itself. It is at this point that Derrida begins to traverse Heidegger’s classification of the dialectic as a turning away from, and forgetting, via metaphor, of the supremacy of commencement. However, in this gesture Derrida also effectuates a distancing from Heidegger’s absolute, (absolutist?), idealism.

It is in the wake of the common sense metaphors and hegemonies of the modern “epoch of the ‘We’”—in response, that is, to the epoch of the biopolitical reproduction of an ontic “readiness for deployment” that admits a being as a being only insofar as it is makeable as a consciousness (Koivov 157), that Derrida’s third seminar begins to approach the problem of metaphysics and empiricity—the metaphorics of gathering, proximity and self-identity—which he recuperates initially from Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics:

Today the We is what counts. Now it is the “time of the We” instead of the I. We are. What Being do we name in this sentence? We also say: the windows are, the rocks are. We — are. Does this statement ascertain the being-present-at-hand of a plurality of I’s. And how does it stand with the “I was” and “we were” with Being in the past. Is it something by-gone for us? Or are we precisely that which we were. Are we not becoming precisely just what we are?” .

(Heidegger 73-4, Derrida 53)

At this point Derrida notes: “What appears here in particular is the proximity, and very specifically that proximity of self to self—which is trying to state itself in the cogito or the ego suma proximity that, in the form of absolute proximity—that is, of self-identity, grounds the signification of every other proximity” (53). What appears here, in other words, is the illogical, analogous underpinning of every humanist gathering, of every ‘We’.

In the relation between Heidegger and Derrida two fundamental questions emerge in the wake of Hegel:

  1. To the extent that in Hegel consciousness is for itself what it is, and this only to the extent that it knows itself as self-consciousness (Heidegger, Hegel, 68), is there an understanding of a ‘we’ available to us that is not always already sublated in advance in its dialectical elevation toward the absolute, via the analogical “assimilation of everything and everyone into a common element that regulates the impulse of power in advance” (Heidegger, History, 167). In Hegel, obviously, there is no such thing available to us. For this reason, Heidegger asks in The Introduction to Metaphysics, is there a “being-present-at-hand of a plurality of I’s?”).
  2. Is there a thinking available to us that has not already fallen into oblivion in the face of the metaphysical synthesis of Being to History, and, as such, to the experience of the priority of the present as the only site from which to achieve the illusory certainties of a collective standpoint, the perception of proximity to ourselves, as a ‘We’? As Heidegger puts it: “And how does it stand with the “I was” and “we were” with Being in the past. Is it something by-gone for us? Or are we precisely that which we were”. Heidegger takes distance from Hegelian subjectivism; and, in his comment of this passage, Derrida remains vigilant of Heidegger’s own proximity to the time and standpoint of the ‘We’, understood as the absolute proximity of self-identity.

If the operation of dialectical thinking is only ever retroactive from the present, with the present as the metaphysical site for the synthesis of consciousness of all that comes and be-comes before it, and if the synthesis of consciousness (‘We) coerces consciousness in the direction of the realization of History as progress (Hegel, 70), then the dialectic can only ever be a retroactive metaphoricity that is both the end and origin of all metaphysical storytelling and historiographical knowledge: “Today the We is what counts. What Being do we name in this sense?” asks Heidegger.

As Derrida begins to highlight in the second seminar, what is only ever at stake is the unveiling and dismantling of the ways in which storytelling conceals the essence of language in its co-belonging with Being. It is for this reason that in the third seminar, Derrida observes the following: “The co-belonging of being and language . . . forbids us from making the being of language dependent, as a simple character or power among others, on a being that might be called man . . . The meaning of being is, let’s say without metaphor and abstraction, the condition of possibility of language on which it nonetheless depends . . . There is no truth in anthropology. This is a facile schema on which I do not insist. So one must think language on the basis of being and the essence of man on the basis of the possibility of language” (56-57).

Derrida strives to save being and time from the markers of commonsense storytelling regarding the illusory proximity of consciousness and self-consciousness; he strives to save thinking from self-identity, from “man” understood as the simultaneous positing of the subject-object dialectic, or techne of representedness, as well as from each and every hegemonic metaphor of historiographical certainty and commonsense proximity. In other words, he strives to wrestle thinking from the machinated ontic determinations of every ‘I am’, or ‘we are’ contained within, and by, every political, historiographical and cultural humanism.

What interests Derrida about the opening of Being and Time is the misleading nature of what Heidegger refers to as the pre-comprehension of the word being. This, he says, is “the argumentative schema that is barely sketched out by Heidegger” (52). Derrida continues, observing that upon further scrutiny the word be can only leave us in perplexity (63), to the extent that the history of the word is the history of the erasure of its originary meaning, the history of the imposition of the ontological difference between being and beings (64), and, of course, the history of the enforced oblivion of the former by the latter. As such, while Heidegger proposes forging “the standpoint of a necessary confrontation with Hegel’s philosophy”, Derrida begins to wonder about the problems posed by the very principle of intelligibility of any standpoint attached to the relation between language and being. Derrida observes: “Assuming we agree that we have to think man on the basis of language and language on the basis of the truth of being, why translate these ‘on the basis ofs’ and these ‘conditions of possibility’ into house, shelter, habitat and so on?” (58). Extreme vigilance is required in relation to such forceful metaphorizations, Derrida suggests.

Heidegger, of course, assumes the forceful thematic and metaphorization of proximity by classifying language as the dwellingshelter and house of being. Derrida suspects, however, that this metaphorical determination of being in relation to language essentially uncovers a principle of intelligibility for the first person singular or plural, as the translated metaphysical container and receptacle of both being and dwelling. The metaphor of proximity, states Derrida, “which underlies the proposition of identity [I am, We are) is here misleading” (53). It is precisely this thematic of proximity and its attachment to the incomprehension of being that, on one hand, anchors Heidegger’s “expressionist-romantico-Nazi style” (57), and, on the other, leads Derrida to begin to shake the historico-conceptual ground regarding any determined or determining signification for the word be, in which house both attests to, yet veils, the originary co-belonging of language and being.

Just to reiterate, then, what Derrida moves toward is nothing other than the destruction of humanism’s prioritization of the present as a result of being’s representedness as house, shelter, habitat etc. The question uncovered here, in other words, is that of the signifier itself. Derrida proceeds by recuperating and traversing the work of the philologists, Renan and Nietzsche. His reasoning here is perfectly clear: “The point here is not to use metaphors as instruments of rhetoric . . . but to return to the origin of metaphor or metaphoricity, and this to think metaphor as such before it is seized upon by rhetoric or a technique of expression” (62). In this sense Derrida proposes an approximation to metaphor as such, with a view to liberating thinking from the forceful history of representation; from the dialectical progression of Hegelian consciousness, from representedness itself, and, as such, from metaphoricity’s grammatical rationalization of force. Against being’s forceful (violent) representedness as house, shelter, habitat etc, we face the question of the signifier being itself. In this, Derrida proposes to do with Heidegger what Heidegger proposes to do with Hegel, that is, to no longer tell stories regarding what lies concealed in Heidegger’s philosophy as its own essentially inaccessible and indifferent ground.

It is the etymology, the originary unveiling of the signification, of the word be (“for now at least”, Derrida says, “grammar cannot help us” [64]) that allows Derrida to proceed. Without being able to delve into the particularities of Derrida’s reading of Renan and Nietzsche in the third seminar, other than to emphasize what Nietzsche refers to as the “low empirical origin” of the concept of being (“esse basically means to breathe” [cited in Derrida, 70]), it is worthwhile highlighting Derrida’s succinct conclusions, since here we see him distancing himself from Hegel’s notions of negativity and experience, and also distancing himself from Heidegger’s tendency in Being and Time to fold being into metaphoricity and representedness. He does all of this while keeping intact the question of negativity (of ek-sistence in Heidegger), but without echoing the language of the supremacy of the originary standpoint or the reign over everything of the “inceptual” commencement in Heidegger:

The signification of the word being signifies precisely that it has to do with more than signification; otherwise it would not be in conformity with the signification. If there is only one thing in the world the analysis of which is not exhausted by an analysis of signification, it is indeed being. It follows that being, without existing outside the signification “being” is not to be reduced to the signification “being”. So that the link between being and the signification “being” is of an absolutely unique type.


At this point we can conjecture that the uniqueness of this link is that what belongs to being can be attained by no force; it is never knowable on the basis of any power for it has no hold, no security, no standpoint, and can never be transported or described as a story. The signifier being therefore demands speaking in a different style. In an approach to the Heidegger of the late 1930s, we could say that it demands a style imbued with the ability to point toward the clearing of the inhabitual, that is, toward the strange, that which shakes the style and limitations of metaphysics in such a way as to fully disrupt the habitual (Beyng, 73).

It is of course significant that Derrida ends the third seminar in reference to the Fort-Da as the originary metaphor of Da-Sein, thereby thinking at all times at a distance from the sovereign language of supremacy and the reign over all—the supreme height—of inceptual originarity that plagues so much of Heidegger’s thinking. Derrida says: “When the Da is metaphorical, when absolute proximity is metaphorical, of what can it be a metaphor? Of another proximity? Or of a distancing, and is not the other proximity, the other Da, a fort? Is not the difference between fort and Da the first metaphor of Sein, the first metaphysical occultation of Being?” (74).

For Derrida the fort/da, as the first metaphor of Sein, is the unveiling of repetition (rather than commencement), a repetition without reign, with no supremacy or ruling over, with no differentiation of the lower from the higher, and, therefore, with no sovereignty. It is the never-ending primary repetition of commencement in its commencing, with no transition of history, no historiographical objectification, no interregnum, no dialectical elevation toward the absolute, no dwelling place for the ‘We are’; just the signifier as repetition and deconstruction as the democratizing destruction of the Heideggerean supremacy of originarity.

This question also reappears at the end of Session Nine, when Derrida observes: “The only concept that appears to me properly to belong to a problematic of history . . . is the concept of repetition . . . repetition is something quite other than a becoming-present-again, than a restoration of the past of what has been left behind . . . This is why repetition has its origin in the future; and as repetition is the possibility of an authentic history, history has its possibility in the future and in death as the possibility of the impossible” (202-3). The fort-da, as the originary metaphor of the signifier being, is the secret of history that never stops breathing life into the unsurpassable line between perceptio and apperceptio. And it is only in the style of that infrapolitical line between perceptio and apperceptio that we can convey the exhaustion of a certain commonsense language of force and consciousness; that we can abandon thinking the subjectivity that is the receptacle and containment of every modern force; and that we can breathe a little more ek-sistence into the strange, inaccessible, and indifferent line between being and beings.

Indeed, it is only on that line—on the infrapolitical line between the habitual and the inhabitual—that “we” (whatever that might denote) can contemplate the conditions of possibility of a style that no longer contents itself with the telling of stories, with the fables of dialectical consciousness and progress inspired by the metaphysics of Geist, in such a way as to no longer guarantee the sublation of “the not into the ‘yes’” (Heidegger, Hegel, 38), for this is, after all, the main storyline of the political that already thematizes the world as we know it. But within this, there is no step to take beyond ontic history, and in Derrida no step to take beyond Heidegger.

Works Cited

  • Derrida, Jacques. Heidegger: The Question of Being and History. Ed. Thomas Dutoit. Translated by Geoffrey Bennington. Chicago, The U of Chicago P, 2016.
  • Heidegger, Martin. Hegel. Translated by Joseph Arel and Niels Feuerhahn. Bloomington, Indiana UP, 2015.
  • ———. The History of Beyng. Translated by William McNeill and Jeffrey Powell. Bloomington, Indiana UP, 2015.