“Heidegger, the Philosopher’s Hell.” In Points: Interviews

Originally published in French in 1992 as Points de suspension, Entretiens by Éditions Galilée. This is Jacques Derrida interviewed by Didier Eribon, published in Le Nouvel Observateur, November 6-12,1987. The interview was preceded by this note:

Victor Farias’s book, Heidegger et le nazisme, published last month by Verdier, has suddenly relaunched the polemic over the political past of the great German thinker. The evidence gathered is overwhelming. Some are wondering whether one can still read Heidegger, still comment on his work. This week two books by Jacques Derrida will be published by Galilée: De l’esprit, Heidegger et la question and Psyché, Inventions de l’autre. In the first of these, he shows that Nazism is inscribed at the very heart of the philosophy of the author of Being and Time. Nevertheless, we must not give up reading this disturbing work, he declares in the interview he gave to Didier Eribon. For we must continue to think what Nazism was. And we must continue to think, period.

Jacques Derrida at large table with coffee and various papers before him

Didier Eribon now writes:

Is there anything here to cause a scandal? No, except in those places where too little interest is taken in other, more rigorous and more difficult work. I am thinking of the work of those who, especially in France, know the majority of these “facts” and these “texts,” who condemn unequivocally both Heidegger’s Nazism and his silence after the war, but who are also seeking to think beyond conventional and comfortable schemas, and precisely to understand. Understand what? Well, that which ensures or does not ensure an immediate passage, according to some mode or other of the aforementioned “translation,” between the Nazi engagement, in whatever form, and what is most essential, acute, and sometimes most difficult in a work that continues and will continue to give cause for thinking. And for thinking about politics, I have in mind first of all the works of Lacoue-Labarthe, but also certain texts, each very different, by Levinas, Blanchot, and Nancy.

Why does this hideous archive seem so unbearable and fascinating? Precisely because no one has ever been able to reduce the whole work of Heidegger’s thought to that of some Nazi ideologue. This “record” would be of little interest otherwise. For more than a half century, no rigorous philosopher has been able to avoid an “explanation” with [explication avec] Heidegger. How can one deny that? Why deny that so many “revolutionary,” audacious, and troubling works of the twentieth century have ventured into or even committed themselves to regions that, according to a philosophy which is confident of its liberal and leftist-democratic humanism, are haunted by the diabolical? Instead of erasing or trying to forget it, must one not try to account for this experience, which is to say, for our age? And without believing that all of this is already clear for us? Is not the task, the duty, and in truth the only new or interesting thing to try to recognize the analogies and the possibilities of rupture between, on the one hand, what is called Nazism— that enormous, plural, differentiated continent whose roots are still obscure—and, on the other hand, a Heideggerian thinking that is also multiple and that, for a long time to come, will remain provocative, enigmatic, still to be read? Not because it would hold in reserve, still encrypted, a good and reassuring politics, a “Heideggerianism of the left,” but because it opposed to actual Nazism, to its dominant strain, only a more “revolutionary” and purer Nazism!

In what follows,

is Didier Eribon speaking while
is Jacques Derrida responding.

Your last book, Of Spirit, also deals with Heidegger’s Nazism. You inscribe the political problematic at the very heart of his thinking.
Of Spirit was first of all a lecture given at the closing session of a colloquium organized by the Collège International de Philosophie under the title “Heidegger, questions ouvertes.” The proceedings of this colloquium will soon be published.3 The so-called political question was broached in an analytic manner during a number of the presentations, and without indulgence either for Heidegger or for the sententious judgments that, no less on the side of the “defense” than on that of the “prosecution,” have so often managed to prevent reading or thinking, whether one is talking about Heidegger, his Nazism, or Nazism in general. At the beginning of the book, and in certain essays in Psyché, I explain the trajectories that led me, and once again this goes back a long way, to attempt this reading. While it is still preliminary, it seeks to knit a multiplicity of motifs around Nazism, motifs concerning which I have always had trouble following Heidegger: questions of the proper, the near [proche], and the fatherland (Heimat) [patrie], of the point of departure of Being and Time, of technics and science, of animality or sexual difference, of the voice, the hand, language, the “epoch,” and especially, this is the subtitle of my book, the question of the question, which is almost constantly privileged by Heidegger as “the piety of thinking.” As regards these themes, my reading has always been, let’s say, actively perplexed. I have indicated my reservations in all my references to Heidegger, as far back as they go. Each one of these motifs of worry, it’s obvious, has an import that one can, to go quickly, call “political.” But from the moment one is having it out with [s’explique avec] Heidegger in a critical or deconstructive fashion, must one not continue to recognize a certain necessity of his thinking, its character, which is inaugural in so many respects, and especially what remains to come for us in its deciphering? This is a task of thinking, a historical task and a political task. A discourse on Nazism that dispenses with this task remains the conformist opinion of “good conscience.”

For a long time I have been trying to displace the old alternative between an “external” history or sociology, which in general is powerless to take the measure of the philosophemes that it claims to explain, and on the other hand, the “competence” of an “internal” reading, which for its part is blind to historico-political inscription and first of all to the pragmatics of discourse. In the case of Heidegger, the difficulty of articulating the two is particularly serious. There is the seriousness of what is at stake: Nazism from the day before yesterday to tomorrow. The difficulty is serious as well to the extent that Heidegger’s “thinking” destabilizes the deep foundations of philosophy and the human sciences. I am trying to shed some light on certain of these missing articulations between an external approach and an internal approach. But this is pertinent and effective only if one takes into account the destabilization I just mentioned. I therefore followed the practical, “pragmatic” treatment of the concept and the lexicon of spirit, in the “major” texts as well as in, for example, the Rectorship Address. I have the same concern when I study various connected motifs in “Heidegger’s Hand” and other essays collected in Psyché.

People will not fail to ask you: from the moment you situate Nazism at the very heart of Heidegger’s thinking, how is it possible to continue to read this work?
The condemnation of Nazism, whatever must be the consensus on this subject, is not yet a thinking of Nazism. We still do not know what it is and what made possible this vile, yet overdetermined thing, shot through with internal contradictions (whence the fractions and factions among which Heidegger situated himself—and his cunning strategy in the use of the word “spirit” takes on a certain sense when one thinks of the general rhetoric of the Nazi idiom and the biologizing tendencies, à la Rosenberg, that won out in the end). After all, Nazism did not grow up in Germany or in Europe like a mushroom…
Of Spirit, then, is a book as much about Nazism as about Heidegger?
In order to think Nazism, one must not be interested only in Heidegger, but one must also be interested in him. To think that the European discourse can keep Nazism at bay like an object is, in the best hypothesis, naive, and in the worst it is an obscurantism and a political mistake. It is to act as if Nazism had no contact with the rest of Europe, with other philosophers, with other political or religious languages…
What is striking in your book is the rapprochement you effect between Heidegger’s texts and those of other thinkers, such as Husserl, Valery…
At the moment when his discourse situates itself in a spectacular fashion in the camp of Nazism (and what demanding reader ever believed that the rectorship was an isolated and easily delimitable episode?), Heidegger takes up again the word “spirit,” whose avoidance he had prescribed; he raises the quotation marks with which he surrounded it. He limits the deconstructive movement that he had begun earlier. He maintains a voluntarist and metaphysical discourse upon which he will later cast suspicion. To this extent at least, the elevation of spirit, through the celebration of its freedom, resembles other European discourses (spiritualist, religious, humanist) which are generally opposed to Nazism. This is a complex and unstable knot which I try to untangle by recognizing the threads common to Nazism and to anti-Nazism, the law of resemblance, the inevitability of perversion. The mirroring effects are sometimes dizzying. This speculation is staged at the end of the book…

It is not a question of mixing everything together, but of analyzing the traits that prohibit a simple break between the Heideg-gerian discourse and other European discourses, whether old ones or contemporary ones. Between 1919 and 1940, everyone was wondering (but are we not still wondering the same thing today?): “What is Europe to become?” and this was always translated as “How to save the spirit?” Frequently analogous diagnoses are proposed of the crisis, the decadence, or the “destitution” of spirit. But we should not limit ourselves to discourses and to their common horizon. Nazism was able to develop only with the differentiated but decisive complicity of other countries, other “democratic” States, academic and religious institutions. Across this European network, this hymn to the freedom of spirit surged up and still arises, a hymn which is at least consonant with Heidegger’s, precisely at the moment of the Rectorship Address and other analogous texts. I try to grasp the common and terribly contagious law of these exchanges, partitions, reciprocal translations.

To recall that Heidegger launches his Nazi profession of faith in the name of “the freedom of spirit” is a rather stinging reply to all those who have recently attacked you in the name of “conscience,” “human rights,” and who reproach you for your work on the deconstruction of “humanism,” taxing you with…
With nihilism, with anti-humanism… You know all the slogans. I am trying, on the contrary, to define deconstruction as a thinking of affirmation. Because I believe in the necessity of exposing, limitlessly if possible, the profound adherence of the Heideg-gerian text (writings and acts) to the possibility and the reality of all Nazisms, because I believe this abysmal monstrosity should not be classified according to well-known and finally reassuring schemas, I find certain maneuvers to be at the same time ludicrous and alarming. They are very old but we are seeing them reappear. There are those who seize upon the pretext of their recent discovery in order to exclaim: (i) “It is shameful to read Heidegger.” (2) “Let’s draw the following conclusion—and then pull up the ladder: everything that, especially in France, refers to Heidegger in one way or another, even what is called ‘deconstruction,’ is part of Heideg-gerianism!” The second conclusion is silly and dishonest. In the first, one reads the political irresponsibility and renunciation of thinking. On the contrary, by setting out from a certain deconstruction, at least the one that interests me, one can pose, it seems to me, new questions to Heidegger, decipher his discourse, situate in it the political risks, and recognize at times the limits of his own deconstruction. Permit me, if you will, to cite an example of the sort of bustling confusion I would like to warn against. It is from the preface of the investigation by Farias that we were just evoking. At the end of a harangue clearly meant for domestic consumption (it is once again la France that is speaking!), one reads this: “For numerous scholars, [Heidegger’s] thinking has an effect of the obvious [un effet d’evidence] that no other philosophy has been able to achieve in France, with the exception of Marxism. Ontology culminates in a methodical deconstruction of metaphysics as such.”4 The devil! If there is some effect of the obvious, it must be for the author of this hodgepodge. There has never been an effect of the obvious in Heidegger’s text, neither for me nor for those I mentioned a moment ago. If there were, we would have stopped reading. And one can no more speak of an “ontology” with regard to the deconstruction that I try to put to work than one can speak, if one has read a little, of “Heidegger’s ontology” or even “Heidegger’s philosophy.” And “deconstruction”—which does not “culminate”—is certainly not a “method.” It even develops a rather complicated discourse on the concept of method that Mr. Jambet would be well advised to meditate on a little. Given the tragic seriousness of these problems, doesn’t this Franco-French, not to say provincial, operation seem alternately comic and sinister?
Perhaps this confusion has to do with the fact that your books are difficult to read. It is often said that in order to read Derrida one has to have read all Derrida. In this case, one has to have read also Heidegger, Husserl, Nietzsche…
But this is true of so many others! It is a question of economy, of saving time. Although they don’t get asked about it, all scientific researchers have to confront this question. So why is the question asked only of philosophers?
But it is particularly true for you.
In order to unfold what is implicit in so many discourses, one would have each time to make a pedagogical outlay that it is just not reasonable to expect from every book. Here the responsibility has to be shared out, mediated; the reading has to do its work and the work has to make its reader.
Of Spirit is taken from a lecture, and its style is fairly demonstrative. But your earlier works, such as Parages or “Ulysses Gramophone,” were more like literary attempts on literary texts.
I always try to be as demonstrative as possible. But it is true that the demonstrations are taken up in forms of writing that have their own, sometimes novel rules, which are most often produced and displayed. They cannot correspond, at every point, to the traditional norms that precisely these texts are questioning or displacing.
Your book on Joyce was, all the same, rather disconcerting.
I was writing about Joyce. It would be a shame therefore to write in a form that in no way lets itself be affected by Joyce’s languages, by his inventions, his irony, the turbulence he introduced into the space of thinking or of literature. If one wants to take the event named “Joyce” into account, one must write, recount, demonstrate in another fashion, one must take the risk of a formal adventure
Do you adapt your style to each object you fasten on?
Without mimeticism, but while incorporating in some way the other’s signature. With some luck, another text can begin to take shape, another event, irreducible to either the author or the work about which nonetheless one should speak as faithfully as possible.
So with each book you have to invent a new “tone,” as Robert Pinget would put it?
Yes, the most difficult thing is the invention of the tone, and with the tone, of the scene that can be staged, that you can let be staged, the pose that adopts you as much as you adopt it.
Do you consider yourself to be a writer?
The attention paid to language or writing does not necessarily belong to “literature.” If one is to interrogate the limits of these spaces, “literature” or “philosophy,” I wonder if one can still be altogether a “writer” or a “philosopher.” No doubt I am neither one nor the other.
One gets the impression that you have, in the course of the last few years, deserted France for the sake of an American career. Is this a choice you are making?
No, I am not emigrating! I have no American “career”! Like others, I teach every year, for no more than a few weeks, in the United States. It is true that my work is generously translated, received, or discussed in other countries. But I did not choose this situation. I live, teach, and publish in France. If there is some imbalance, I am not responsible for it.
And do you regret it?
On the French side, yes. The debates and the work that interest or concern me are more developed in other countries. This is true not only for me or for the field in which I work. As regards so-called difficult things, even and especially when they are closely related to the French idiom, the debates are richer and more open abroad.
How do you explain that?
It has to do with the state of the French university, notably in philosophy. It also has to do with what is called the cultural field, with its media filters, it should be noted, with the Parisian space, its cliques and its pressure groups. And then, as we were saying, it has to do as well with the way in which these texts are written. They suppose a formalization, a potentialization of previously acquired knowledge that cannot be immediately deciphered. If certain texts are overcoded, if the cultural translation of them remains difficult, this situation has nothing to do with anybody’s deliberate will…
In Psyché, there is a text on Mandela and apartheid.5 This is one of your rare political texts…
And what if someone were to have fun showing you that these two books on soul and spirit are also the books of a political activist? That the essays on Heidegger and Nazism, on Mandela and apartheid, on the nuclear problem, on the psychoanalytic institution and torture, on architecture and urbanism, etc., are “political writings”? But you are right, I have never been, as you were saying, a “militant or an engaged philosopher in the sense of the Sartrean figure, or even the Foucauldian figure, of the intellectual.” Why? But it’s already too late, isn’t it?


  • 1. Victor Farias, Heidegger and Nazism, trans. Paul Burrell and Gabriel R. Ricci (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989).

  • 2. In the American translation of Heidegger and Nazism from the French (which is itself a translation from Farias’s original Spanish), the passage Derrida refers to reads as follows: “we ourselves could not really understand his later development without taking account of his evident loyalty to a certain principle that rightly belongs to National Socialism and is conveyed in a manner and style that also belong to it” (p. 7). The translators, thereby, bring an added zeal to their task, since even Farias apparently did not go so far as to suggest that Heidegger’s “manner and style” “belonged” to National Socialism.—Trans.

  • 3. Heidegger, Questions ouvertes (Paris: Osiris, 1988).

  • 4. Christian Jambet, “Preface” to Heidegger and Nazism, op. cit., p. 14.

  • 5. “The Laws of Reflection” and “Racism’s Last Word.”

    Bibliographic information

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