Re: "Letter on Humanism"--Readings 6 & 7

Dear Tony, you asked:
on what grounds do you think that Levinas'

critique of Heidegger is unsubstantiated and based on a misreading?

This simple question demands a massive answer. In my response I
simply tried to articulate--perhaps not very clearly--some of the
ways in which you used Levinas's Heideggerian ideas to second his
critique of Heidegger. This is to my mind the worst thing about the
deconstructionist tradition (ironic that that's not an oxymoron).
But the fault is no one's but Heidegger's; for he established the
discursive proprieties (or lack thereof) with his infamously violent
interpretive appropriations of other thinkers (Nietzsche being to my
mind the most obvious case). Thus Nietzsche diagnosed nihilism, but
--though he spent his whole life struggling against it-- was in fact
themost extreme representation *of* nihilism. Whether there is some
textual basis for this or not (and I think there in fact is), it is
not exactly the sort of hermeneutic generosity that Gadamer,
Foucault and others recommend as the only was to actually understand
the text of the other. Thus Derrida can take Heidegger's ideas,
reformulate them, and use them to criticize the texts from which
they are drawn (doing to Heidegger what Heidegger did to Nietzsche).

Incidently, I take it tahat it is Derrida who takes the
Heidegger/Levinas intersection most seriously. Levinas is always
lurking around the corner in _Aporias_ (which as you probably know
is where Derrida tries to develop Levinas's critique of Heidegger on
death, especially as that critique is taken up, amplified, and
partially transmogrified by Blanchot). The secondary literature in
French is obviously the place to look here, though I am dubious that
a lot of good work has been done--so it's good that you are
reopneing the case. As I said, Derrida is too; so Aporias (and the
essay on Violence and Metaphysics, which directly bears on this set
of issues--given that a certain amount of violence is
inevitable--here Der accepts Levinas's criteria, how much is
tolerable? I'm not sure he should've accepted the criteria) would
be a great place to pick up the latest threads.

I'm actually driving to Irvine today for Derrida's seminar (its on
Heidegger again, as it was last year), so I need to get going. But
one last thing: Heidegger rejected fundamental ontology, at least
he rejected the idea that an ontology could be given which would
provide the interpretive for-having for an elucidation of being as
such. Really what he gave up, I think, is the idea that being as
such could be elucidated; that belief, operating implicitly
throughout the metaphysical tradition, leads to the forgetting of
being and is a central part of the problem. Heidegger is rarely very
open about his mistakes, and up until 1929 he is still talking as if
the turn to history would effect the 'more original repetition' that
he had called for at the end of Div. II (B&T). But I take it that
what I call the "radical historicization' of ontology which is
implied but not yet grasped explicitly in B&T, radically undermines
the attempt to draw substantive ahistorical (or transcultural)
conclusions from a phenomenology of everydayness (which is always
the phenomenology of this group here and now). Ths is not to say
that the elucidation of the structure of temporality doesn't
structure all possible understandings of being, though Heidegger
never addressed that question explicitly (as far as I know). But
rather that the existential are in fact the existential modalities
of revealing of a historically situated people (1920's Germany)
which in many ways fit into the history of nihilism (being is given
is contexts of use, see Dreyfus's series of important articles)
better than Nietzsche (that B&T fits the place in the history of
nihilism which Heid tried to place Nietzsche!) There is thus some
question as to whether and in what sense later Heidegger is still
doing phenomenology. In some ways he is (he still asks his students
to reflect on where in their experience of a thing the being of that
this is located), but in other ways it's not so clear (is
Heidegger's rendering of the Presocratic experience of being as
aidos phenomenology? If so, it's at several degrees remove, perhaps
its a speculative phenomenology, or a phenomenology of
language--though both need arguing). Anyway, the important point is
that the same motivations which led Heidegger to fund. ontology in
27 led him to the history of being by 30/31, and if one goes along
with the motives for this move (the turn) then there is right there
strong prima facie reason for being suspicious of Levinas's claims
to have succeeded in actually founding ontology (in the also
speculative reading of the face to face). But here it's not so much
two systems, as two superstructures which *share* the same base
(because Levinas constantly relies on the existential analysis; it
makes sense that he would want to read the turn, then, as a Nazi
influenced move rather than as a move motivated by substantive
philosophical reasons, so that he would not have to acknowledge the
necessity of a turn away from his (levinas's) own claims to be
instantiating a fundamental ontology. Or maybe not. A question
that might help here is: Does history--taking history
seriously--undermine Levinas's ontology? Does the ontology of the
face-to-face that Levinas comes up with hold true as it is applied
backward historically? If it does, and the argument could certainly
be made (especially given Levinas's fondness for rather ancent
sources), then we might have a place where a very sharp contrast
between the two thinkers could be drawn. (One could of course still
see Levinas's ontology as derivative of Heidegger's, but at least
their real differences would begin to be clarified. I take it that
such clarification is a necessary first step, if we are to avoid
simply arguing, with Levinas, against Heidegger, by jumbling
together Heideggerian ideas and anti-Heideggerian hermeneutic
suspicians).

Iain Thomson
UCSD Philo.



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