This short text was written in December 2005, as an end of term paper for an undergraduate philosophy course at SUNY Purchase taught by Prof. Frank Farrell, who also supervised my philosophy senior thesis. I’m somewhat reluctant to share such premature work, but at the same time feel some urge to make available writing which is otherwise just sitting in a hard drive waiting to be forgotten. I recently used Derrida’s closing question (“Who Who, We?”) as the title of an Anarchist Mountains Trio song, which I became reacquainted with via Sylvia Wynter’s “The Human Being as Noun?”


“But who, we?” Derrida’s Ends of Man

In “The Ends of Man,”  Derrida asserts that, although the French readings of the Three German Hs (Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger) inject them with an unintended anthropological Humanism, and thus get them wrong, the three thinkers are nonetheless still ‘guilty’ of being Humanists. This is problematic for Derrida, who wishes to overcome Humanism’s anthropocentric perspective, thus radicalizing the space Heidegger cleared for the role of language. [The so-called “Linguistic Turn.”]  Derrida then leaves us with the implication that his textual way of reading and understanding the world is able to transcend the ‘problem’ that even Heidegger has seemed unable to distance himself from.

The essay begins in a seemingly strange fashion; an unusually political statement by Derrida, in which he describes the essential link between philosophy and politics. Opening with “Every philosophical colloquium necessarily has a political significance,”[1] this is made necessary as Derrida’s coming attack against Humanism has radical political consequences that he attempts to address subtly in this preface.

What is identifiable as his argument begins with a recapitulation of the accepted ‘French’[2] reading of Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger, after stating that he will answer the question, “Where is France, as concerns man?”[3] Derrida identifies the problem with the French misappropriation of Heidegger early on in the essay, as he writes:

as is well known, [“human-reality”] (en humane)  is a translation of Heidegger’s Dasein. A monstrous translation, in many respects, but so much more significant. …Certainly the notion of “human-reality” translated the project of thinking the meaning of man, the humanity of man, on a new basis, if you will.[4]

Derrida sees that French readers, Sartre above all, have misread Heidegger and as a result of this psychological interpretation of Being, have morphed Dasein into Angst, and presence into absurdity. Although Heidegger may indeed owe more to Soren Kierkegaard than he may let on, this reading is more then just a misinterpretation, but totally misses Heidegger’s true point, which Derrida purports to now explain. It is Heidegger that Derrida truly focuses on in this essay, and Heidegger who he wishes to defend most of all against the misreading by the French. Before continuing with his analysis of Heidegger, he first grounds his analysis in the interpretation of Hegel and Husserl, which contribute to the seemingly natural desire, or progression of ideas, to read Heidegger in an existential manner.  I will thus now briefly outline Derrida’s analysis of the French readings of Hegel and Husserl.

Hegel’s rational self-consciousness is necessary to his system and his concept of a rationally understandable, progressing History. For Hegel, history moves dialectically towards an ultimate End, culminating in Absolute Spirit and freedom. Derrida claims that the Phenomenology of Spirit

does not have to do with something one might simply call man.  As the science of the experience of consciousness, the science of the structures of the phenomenality of the spirit itself relating to itself, it is rigorously distinguished from anthropology.[5]

Once this is understood, Derrida must then insist that, according to Hegel himself, there is a necessary correlation between his phenomenology and anthropology, although it is one that Derrida has just demonstrated is not aligned with the French reading. Hegel’s development of consciousness is necessarily related to the consciousness of man, as “consciousness is the truth of man to the extent that man appears to himself in consciousness in the Being-past, in his to-have-been,” etc.[6]

Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology is also based around a critique of anthropology, which seems to discredit the French attempt at interpreting his work. However, Husserl’s transcendent phenomenology also conflates the idea of the signifier with the self, and thus is not able to distance itself far enough from Humanism as Derrida would like. Derrida makes this argument clearly, stating that “for Husserl, as for Hegel, reason is history, and there is no history but of reason.” The latter “functions in every man, the animal rationale, no matter how primitive he is…,”[7] thus cementing Husserl’s place as a Humanist.

Derrida works to defend Heidegger from the claims made by the French that wish to read Dasein as existential angst. From Derrida’s perspective, despite his profound influence on his own work, he claims that Heidegger has trapped himself in the concepts he wishes to destroy, and has this not truly transcended man. Heidegger believed himself to be breaking away from traditional Western metaphysics by reviving the Aristotelian question of Being, doings a sort of ontological phenomenology. He empowers language as the force behind human-reality, and it is in this characterization that Derrida sees Heidegger as trapping being in Humanism. He writes, “We can see that Dasein, though not man, is nevertheless nothing other than man. It is…a repetition of the essence of man permitting a return to what is before the metaphysical concepts of humanitas.”[8]  He continues that Heidegger argues that the problem with Humanism is that it does not realize the proper dignity of man, and that Heidegger is in this sense against Humanism. However, because this is only because Humanism does not set man high enough.  Heidegger believed that his characterization allows for a clearing which in turn allows for the potentiality of language and what not.

Heidegger himself was satisfied with his re-contextualization of Humanism, and the space it cleared for a new understanding of ‘man’ and Being.  It is not very clear what one would gain by adopting Derrida’s abandonment of Humanism, but the debate is still open, however, which is perhaps why this essay required its unusually political preface.  In fact, the political ramifications would be revolutionary, especially in the conditions of French Intellectualism revolving around the Declarations of the Rights of Man, an essential Humanist document, which pronounced in 1789 that there existed universal rights and truths which should be spread across the world.    Levi-Straus argued against the same notions, charging that the supposed ‘universality’ described by Humanism, and the ‘man’ who declared these rights and truths, used “these concepts simply a cover for the West’s ethnocentrism, colonialism, and genocide.” [9]  Derrida is thus aligning himself, at least in this political sense, with Structuralisms such as Levi-Straus, who deny the importance and homogeneity of the Humanists, who, like Sartre, turned to Marxism in an attempt to break away from the old traditions of Humanism, which lead to the above problems.[10]  (Orthodox) Marxism isn’t satisfying for Derrida, as is to be expected, as it allows the same mistakes of Humanism, preaching liberation for all peoples under the banner of everyone taking part in an unfolding history (which also happens to be centered in the “West.”)  It seems that for these reasons, it became important for Derrida to defend the German’s from this ‘French’ Humanist reading.

I do not quite find Derrida’s last move to be satisfying, however, for he does not seem to address Heidegger’s intended meaning for the importance of language. He properly orients Heidegger’s version of Humanism as being tied to the subject, but doesn’t provide a clear argument for why this loose alignment to the subject is detrimental.  As the ‘house of Being,’ and as participants in this system, of utilizing language in a reciprocal relationship with the World, why should we cease to focus on our perspective as subjects? Thus Heidegger has attempted to finally escape the philosophy of the subject, without abandoning the subject, by giving language a power that transcends the subjects who employ it. Language, for Heidegger, has become not a tool, but a governing force, in some sense a stand in for an absent God. Like poetry and song, modes of philosophical thinking, for Heidegger, “…grow out of Being and reach into truth.” [11]

Works Cited and Consulted

 Derrida, Jacques.  Trans. Alan Bass.  Margins of Philosophy.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Heidegger, Martin.  Trans. Albert Hofstadter.  Poetry, Language, Thought.  New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1971.

 Lilla, Mark.  “The Politics of Jacques Derrida.”  The New York Review of Books, June 25, 1998, pp. 36-41.


[1] Jacques Derrida.  Trans. Alan Bass. “The Ends of Man,” Margins of Philosophy. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.)  Pg. 111.

[2] That is to say, Anthropological, Humanist, or Psychological, as interpreted by a majority of French intellectuals at the time.

[3] Derrida, “Ends.” Pg. 114.

[4] Ibid. Pg. 115.

[5] Ibid. Pg. 117.

[6] Ibid. Pg. 121.

[7] Ibid. Pg. 122.

[8] Ibid.  Pg. 127.

[9] Mark Lilla. “The Politics of Jacques Derrida.” 21 June 1998. The New York Review of Books, June 25, 1998, pp. 36-41.

[10] I might assume, though without any specific knowledge, that Derrida would be somewhat opposed to Levi-Straus’ structuralism as it is, or course, anthropological, and thus retains essential elements of the Humanism of which he has set himself up against.  Insofar as structuralism is useful, politically, in the debate between structuralism and existentialism/Marxism (via Sartre,) however, it seems clear to me that it is useful to Derrida in this context.

[11] Martin Heidegger.  Trans. Albert Hofstadter.  Poetry, Language, Thought. (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1971.) Pg. 13.



Arman, Artériosclérose, 1961

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