Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: The Heidelberg Conference. Mireille Calle-Gruber (ed.), Jeff Fort (tr.) New York: Fordham UP, 2016; 93 pages. ISBN: 978-0823273676. 

Reviewed by Pedro Góis Moreira, Catholic University of Portugal, Lisbon.

While the Heidelberg Conference occurred few months after the publication of Farias’ Heidegger et le Nazisme, this book was first published in French two months after Mitchell and Trawny’s edited volume Heidegger’s Black Notebooks: Responses to Anti-Semitism. Translated into English in 2016, the publication of the proceedings of the Heidelberg Conference is quite timely. On the other hand, and although the book is a solid translation, the content of the conference leaves us wanting more. Unfortunately, someone looking for an interesting discussion on Heidegger and anti-Semitism or a second round in the Derrida-Gadamer dialogue might feel somewhat disappointed by this text.

A quick summary: the Heidelberg Conference was an encounter between Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe to discuss the thought of Heidegger. What makes this encounter interesting is that none of the participants prepared a text. (They were, as they liked to repeat, “taking a risk.”) Although the title of the conference was “Heidegger : portée philosophique et politique de sa pensée,” a lot more was going on. In her preface to the book, Mireille Cale-Gruber kindly reminds us of the contextual cues that are (almost literally) looming over this conference, like the fact that Heidegger et le Nazisme was published in December 1987, and the conference occurred the 5th and 6th of February, 1988. Then there are the facts that Heidegger made his rectoral speech fifty years before in that very same room, that seven years ago, Derrida and Gadamer met in Paris in what was an unfruitful attempt at a conversation between hermeneutics and deconstruction; and finally, there was the publication, a few days prior, of an article by Gadamer on Farias’ polemic.

Gadamer’s article, “Like Plato in Syracuse,” is included at the end of the book. This sort of detail is what makes the book an excellent edition. Even though the original French edition had three supplementary pieces on the media’s reception of the conference, the addition of Gadamer’s article is essential to understand some of the aspects of the conference. Additionally, the prefaces by Jean-Luc Nancy, Reiner Wiehl, and Mireille Cale-Gruber are all very good (even though Cale-Gruber, who started the conference with an opening speech, mainly repeats her opening statement in the preface). The translation is irreproachable: we are in the good hands of Jeff Fort, who translated works by Derrida, Lacoue-Labarthe, and Jean-Luc Nancy. The endnotes succeed in keeping track of the speakers’ references.

Regarding content, there seem to be two interesting threads: the discussion on Heidegger and some points of contact between Gadamer and Derrida in line with their last meeting. Gadamer, in fact, makes clear in his opening statement that he intends to have a dialogue with Derrida. He therefore begins by emphasizing the difference between hermeneutics and deconstruction. To be sure, Gadamer, Derrida, and Lacoue-Labarthe always address Heidegger in their contributions, but Derrida and Gadamer seem to have a side-dialogue that relates to their last encounter.

Even though Gadamer sees Derrida as emphasizing rupture over communication and “hidden meanings” (sous-entendus) over dialogue, (6-13) he says that he found Derrida’s idea that Heidegger gave continuity to some form of logocentrism curious. (8) Derrida, a little bit later, takes back the theme of logocentrism: Derrida says he wanted to question logocentrism in Heidegger himself, but that such questioning could not be made without Heidegger’s concepts and that, therefore, he had to “bend” these concepts in order to use them. (33-4)

In his next contribution, Gadamer picks up the question of logocentrism and claims that Derrida is actually close to Heidegger: Heidegger also liked to stretch concepts in order to impel thinking. The resulting fragmentation of concept, for Gadamer, should be reintroduced not through the poem but through conversation. (41) To this, Derrida answers that he has “nothing against conversation” (41) but that, seven years ago in Paris, he was not sure if hermeneutics could make sense of interruption in psychoanalysis. After all, for Derrida (and Gadamer agrees), rupture is the condition for conversation, but hermeneutics seems to be forced to restructure itself entirely every time psychoanalysis introduces a rupture. Right before opening the conference to Q&A, this discrete dialogue (yes, a dialogue) between Derrida and Gadamer acquires some solemnity when, pushing back the question of hermeneutics, Gadamer says:

H-GG: Let us set hermeneutics aside. I believe that we are at the beginning of a conversation, and I thank you very much. It is beginning now.

JD: It is beginning. (44)

Gadamer then adds that “what is beginning” is the “reconstruction of a text”—i.e., that this is the kind of fragmentation-reinsertion that Gadamer aims for. Derrida agrees but answers that for the conversation to continue, it must accept the interruption and the fact that the future is yet to be determined. Gadamer agrees with both assertions and questions from the public are welcomed.

The thread on Heidegger also seems to have this seminal but inconclusive tone: the three mainly insist that Heidegger’s ties to National-Socialism are not enough of a reason to brush him aside. Derrida, as is his habit, is particularly acute to the glooming aura of the Farias polemic around the conference, an aura that weighed heavily on the speakers’ tacit and explicit words (cf. his opening statement, pages 13-24.) The pressure to explain why we should not give up on Heidegger impels many hints, but few firm answers.

Lacoue-Labarthe, for instance, insists that Heidegger contains the key to understanding Nazism, (28-9 and 36) but he does not develop the idea here (only in La Fiction du politique, published the year before). Derrida and Lacoue-Labarthe also address the idea of responsibility, claiming that in face of the “relief” (27) some feel in hastily dismissing Heidegger, there must be a “responsibility of work” (60-2)—that is, of working on Heidegger in order to understand his relation to National-Socialism. The question of responsibility, however, ends up being somewhat displaced: Derrida devotes much time to explaining in what sense deconstruction is not irresponsible when it attempts to deconstruct received notions of responsibility. (65-9 and 74-5)

Gadamer also insists on the idea taken up by Nancy in the preface that Heidegger’s relation to Nazism must be thought of in the light of the forgetting of being. Lacoue-Labarthe’s answer to Gadamer is sobering: he makes sense of Heidegger’s urgency, but insists that “[o]ne cannot say, without thinking it through any further, that the industrial production of corpses is the same thing as motorized agriculture.” (47)

Finally, there is an interesting reflection on Heidegger’s rectoral address. By the end of the conference, there is a question on knowing whether the rectoral address is a “Nazi text.” (70) Lacoue-Labarthe answers that the address, if not explicitly Nazi or anti-Semitic, contains arguments against Marxism (the worker not as a class but as the State) and against the intellectuals. He says that Heidegger refines the Nazi stereotypes and reappropriates them. Derrida adds that the address is a very complex text, charged by the context of criticism against the German university that was present since the Nineteenth century, and filled with Heidegger’s strategies of concession to the Nazi regime. Hegel, Schelling, Fichte, or Nietzsche are also critics of that university. Gadamer goes as far as to say that Heidegger was a “National-Bolshevik.” (73)

By the end, the Heidelberg conversation seems incomplete. Not only is there no conclusion to the dialogue between the speakers and Heidegger, but neither is one to be found in the second round between Gadamer and Derrida. Amidst the Heidegger cacophony, Gadamer and Derrida seem to have resolved their differences since their last encounter, but the conversations were interrupted at the moment a foundation was built. Regarding Heidegger himself, maybe Derrida was right in his opening statement: the heavy “specter” of Heidegger might have been an element that blocked thinking instead of impelling it; the need for the speakers to justify themselves prevented them from fully exposing their ideas.