Democracy without arcanum: philosophical anthropology and metaphorics after The Question of Being & History 1964 seminar. (Draft for “Transformative Thinking Workshop”, University of Michigan, September 2017). By Gerardo Muñoz


Jacques Derrida’s important early 1964 seminar on Martin Heidegger, The Question of Being and History (2016), is more than a mere exegetical reading of Being and Time. I think it is also wrong to think of the seminar as an attempt to promote a “Heideggerian paideia” of a philosophical master. From the first session, it becomes clear that Derrida is not interested in producing anything that could resemble what we think of as “critical theory”. Indeed, theories today could be thought-provoking novels and melodramas, and every time that one hears of ‘good theories in America’ it is most certainty because they are good novels. No stories, no masters. It should come to no surprise that Derrida says that the Heideggerian ‘destruction’ could never entail a refutation. The craft of refuting belongs to the sophistry of meaning made possible through exchange and measurement. It is not coincidence that the sophists were performers of rhetorical persuasion, a pragmatic practice that unified substitution, linguistics, and temporality in semblance of philosophical deployment [1].

This game of refutation is always potentiality hegemonic, since its capability for truth never leans towards a singular ex-position. It is rather in the metaphorics of discourse that the singular runs astray as truth of being. As a preliminary condition of his seminar, Derrida makes himself unsophistically clear: there will be no anti-philosophical sophistry, no refutation, and no university productive surplus. In fact, one of the challenges that reading this seminar poses today –especially as professors or students having some relation to the contemporary university world – is to be found in an unbounded desire to extract essential lessons for the ‘present’. But one must reject the journalistic temptation in the teacher’s lesson. Furthermore, today this difficulty cannot be entirely solved by favoring écriture, but rather by confronting the task of thinking outside the dispensation of the order of ‘philosophy’, ‘literature’, or ‘politics’ [2]. The seminar is an invitation to accept the integrity of thinking with no derivative systematic and telic program.

If this is true, then one must take Derrida very seriously when he contends that: “there are no Heideggerianism and no Heideggerian” (Derrida 223). This affirmation is not rebutting the construction of a philosophical school under the label ‘Heideggerianism’. Rather, it is preparing, in its place and deferral, another entrance that neutralizes the metaphorical dissimulation that subordinates the tragic dimension covered up by narrative production of originary sense. Throughout the sessions, Derrida stages the possibility of rendering visible the ways in which the metaphysical tradition has never ceased to sleepwalk over its principles in language. This condition of sleepwalking is not the story that metaphysics has produced in its ipseity; it is rather a secondary plot that keeps buried the conditions under which stories are told, transmitted, redrawn, and acknowledged in a process that binds ontology and history.

Hence, the texture of the onto-theological ground of the philosophical tradition is novelesque. Derrida tells us: “Telling stories,” in philosophy, is for Heidegger something much more profound that cannot be so easily denounced as doxography. The Novelesque from which we must awaken is philosophy itself as metaphysics and as onto-theology” (Derrida 26) Telling stories has been the pacifier for the infant misrecognition of metaphysics as the teleological movement of history. But there is no formal uniformity to the philosophical tradition. From Aristotle’s organon and Hegel’s philosophy of history, from Husserl’s empiricism and Descartes’ skeptical logos and Bergson’s duration, telling stories has produced what Derrida calls a state of immaturity, a permanent infantile stage of storytelling. This does not mean that adults are immune to storytelling, quite the contrary. One could argue that the Enlightenment’s call to an exit from immaturity was yet another variation of a sleepwalking night under the self-possession of logos in the name of an ultimate indivisible sovereignty. Let’s recall Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?”. If one submits to the courage to ‘use of one’s own reason’ then one must admit that no failure is possible, except as cowardice. This is why every fracture of the Kantian bodybuilder of reason needs to compensate with subjective guilty (‘only you are to blame for this failure’). Here we also are thrown into a story of modern capitalist subjectivity that necessarily needs to sublimate finitude as either economic guilt or political treason. Since there is no unifying form of infantile storytelling, a metaphoric combustion supplements the transaction of every epochal failure to radically confront the problem of history. The power of the metaphor works to alleviate and postpone the inquiry of the existential.

If metaphorics is the core problem in The Question of Being and History, it comes to a surprise that Derrida wouldn’t openly confront the strategic defense of storytelling pursued by the post-Heideggerian school of philosophical anthropology. Even more so, because Heidegger himself had seen in Max Scheler – who at times is seen as one of the “founding fathers” of philosophical anthropology –the strongest force of German philosophy during the first decades of the twentieth century [3]. But perhaps there is no mystery involved, and Heidegger’s ontological difference is nothing but a direct engagement to a philosophical anthropology’s recasting of a metaphysical and rhetorical humanism in the wake of biology and Weberian sociology of the separation of powers. Although this is not the place to reconstruct the strands of philosophical anthropology, I want to recap at least three movements to situate its program. First, one must recall its starting point in Max Scheler’s The Human Place in the Cosmos (1928), where a metaphysical humanity was thought as a dual substance between an external process of spiritualization and internal biological drive. Scheler’s hypothesis of the deficiency and excessive posture of the human will later become premises for Helmuth Plessner and Hans Blumenberg’s speculative projects of modern man’s self-affirmation against the risks of absolute contingency.

The driving force behind philosophical anthropology hinges on the idea that every singular human necessitates concealment from himself in so far he is deficient. For Plessner, speculative anthropology does not presuppose a subject, since man is first and foremost a homo absconditus that “never discovers himself complete in his actions [and] only has his shadow which precedes him and remains behind him” [4]. This deficient edge entails that man can only interact with reality through a partial and metaphorical mediation that fails to actualize an absolute inner-worldly history of salvation. As a non-absolute and fissured being, man can only relate through metaphors. Metaphorics for philosophical anthropology is thus a nonconceptual discharge of existence against the absolute or literalness of the objectivity of phenomena.

In fact, while Derrida was working on the 1964 seminar, another exponent of philosophical anthropology, Hans Blumenberg, had just written Paradigms for a metaphorology (1960), a collection of essays that attempted to rework the relation between history, metaphorics, and existence. Like Derrida, Blumenberg also departed from the crisis of phenomenology and metaphysical tradition in the wake of Heidegger’s radicalization of thinking beyond history and ontology in Being and Time. However, for Blumenberg, the question of being in philosophical reflection amounted to a dysfunctional mode of representation, since the essence of care would render impossible any form of delegation and incommensurable exchangeability [5]. If the question of Being presupposes an indeterminate structure of existence, then this could only mean that an absolute conceptualization could place philosophy as an index of poetics. The impossibility of substitution and delegation of singulars meant that it was philosophical anthropology’s task to explain man’s deficiency once immersed in reality as “always indirect, circumstantial, delayed, selective, and above all metaphorical” [6].  Because we cannot endure the absolutism of reality, man can affirm its existence only through rhetorical and symbolic forms that exceed empiricism and measurement into potential expectations. Metaphorics interrupts the absolute reality, while opening the singular vis-à-vis stories to the historical density of the concept.

Philosophical anthropology’s reaction to Being as care, is perhaps best explained in Blumenberg’s sardonic treatment of being as a “MacGuffin”, in which he refers to a dialogue that Hitchcock had made up between two men on a train [7]. So the story goes: one man asks about what is inside a package in the baggage rack, and the other answers, “Oh, that’s a McGuffin, it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands”. But if there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands, what is exactly a McGuffin? The mystery of the McGuffin begins as soon as one reveals his name, keeping silence of its logic or procedure. The McGuffin must remain a mystery. For Blumenberg, Dasein shares a similar structure that enacts curiosity in order to avoid boredom. The enigma of the McGuffin resides in the suspension of storytelling or rhetorical mediation involved. This is quite the opposite way in which Derrida refers to the source of the enigmatic and enigmaticity in the constitutive of privilege of the present at the heart of every metaphysical epoch. In an important passage of the seventh sessions, Derrida writes:

“Enigmatic, then, is the discourse — and the enigma is always, as its name indicates in Greek, ainos, a discourse and even a story — on history at the moment that it really must speak about the past. Enigmatic is the discourse on the past, enigmatic is the past as origin of discourse, enigmatic is historicity as discursively. The time of the past in discourse and the past of time in ek-sistence are the enigma itself. They are not enigmas among others but the enigma of enigma, the enigmatic source of the enigma in general, enigmaticity” (Derrida 174).

This passage brings forth several difficulties. To the extent that we are to understand the destruction of temporality of presence as a fundamental point of inflection of the destruction of metaphysics in the seminar, enigmaticity points to an aporetic limit in which the past of tradition, the generality of inheritance and transmission become one with the origin of the present. This relation is fundamentally enigmatic because the temporality of presence appears as one of dissimulation. In other words, the enigma signals the movement of metaphysics’ sonambulism. Here one is able to see the preliminary movements of Derrida’s subsequent deconstruction of the presence of metaphysics from the structure of the trace. Derrida seems to suggest the enigma recalls the fact that we take for granted the temporality of the present as presence. In this crucial injunction we can approach the irreducible distinction between Blumenberg and the project of existential temporality of Being.

Whereas Blumenberg understood the enigmatic formalization of presence as a danger of the absolutism of reality that solicited the human engagement through compensatory metaphorics for self-affirmation; for Derrida the destruction of presence entails a factical suspension of all metaphors conferring to a temporality always already that lets existence be. This letting be, however, cannot be re-metaphorized, as Giorgio Agamben has recently undertaken in Use of Bodies (2014), to make it coincide with an ontological primacy of the political [8]. Derrida’s early seminar is an attempt to make the case that for this im-possible inherence of the philosophical tradition without first privileging philosophy (ontology) as arcana for thought. Here destruction of metaphysical ontology essentially encompasses a transformation for thinking politics as excess to every foundation that works against singular existence. In an important passage of the seminar, Derrida warns of the impossibility of derivative originary politics:

“Heidegger does not provide, and does not have to provide, an ethics or a politics. Insofar as he is analyzing the essence of the decision in the situation — the decisionality and being of the structure in general — he does not have to tell stories and say what must be done, in fact, here or there, in this or that situation” (Derrida 187).

So, within a general economy of de-metaphorization, there are no derivative politics or ethics from the destruction of philosophical storytelling. For Derrida, more importantly, this also means that one must be vigilant of the force of the negative: every destruction of principial (archē) temporality cannot deliver us with an an-archia as a reversal towards an ethics of a non-political essence.  This gesture would belong to what one could call the nomic and temporal acceleration of a historicist philosophy of salvation. This is also why Karl Lowith found gratification when Heidegger told him that he “agreed without reservation that his concept of ‘historicity’ was the basis of his political ‘engagement’” [9]. In this framing, “Heideggerian” historicity yields a non-political dismissal of ethics. But we are not going to subscribe anecdotal veracity in a game of refutation. In fact, in the opening of existential historicity a relation between politics and thought is the infrapolitical designation that marks the passage from historical ontic storytelling to existential de-narrativization. Infrapolitics could depart from the Heideggerian suggestion that ‘essence of the polis is non-political’, but it avoids interpretations of this stepback as a flight from politics [10].

I think that what Derrida already quite forcefully discloses in the 1964 seminar is an infrapolitical historicity that is necessarily followed by an affirmation of a quasi-concept of democracy. I emphasize “–quasi” since democracy cannot constitute either a thetic or hegemonic ground. Infrapolitics would come to trace the non-metaphoricity in the metaphorics between thought and politics as a retreat from the anxiety of an arcanum. The destruction of the enigma of the temporality of present as privilege of presence necessarily demands a suspension of every political arcanum. Carl Schmitt defines the arcanum as the political secret of the modern state sovereignty’s technology, as the phantasmatic essence of politicity [11]. Thus for Schmitt “every great politics belongs to an arcanum”, which secures order and communal subordination, providing legitimacy of a mythical drama that unfolds a theological shadow containing liberal endless dialogue. The enigma of the arcanum coincides with a notion of history as a mystery, since it is also a political theology of communal salvation. The well-known Pauline notion of katechon in Schmitt’s thought is a way to concretely dispense every political decision to an existential temporalization that must decide in the face of disintegration. Indeed, in schmittian terms, the drama of history stages the katechon against anarchos, in an effort to tame the prevalent liberal ethical anarchy dispensed by the technical structuration of modern nihilism. This is why Schmitt represents a hyperpolitical thinker that guards and protects the arcana of an originary authority. But infrapolitics cannot amount to a negation of the arcanum in the direction of anarchy. This is the second option that existential infrapolitics denies.

Derrida was very attentive to this second slip in his early essay on Levinas’ “Violence and Metaphysics” distinguishing between being and commandment: “Being itself commands nothing or no one. As Being is not the lord of the existent, its priority (ontic metaphor) is not an archia. The latter are therefore “politics” which can escape ethical violence only by economy: by battling violently against the violences of an-archy whose possibility in history, is still accomplice of archaism” [12]. In his commentary on this important negation of the anarchy principle, Moreiras objects to the eschatology of messianic peace that every an-archy proxies for political arcana. Thus, the negation of archaic politics as an an-archy of ontology is still supported by the archē. In this sense, infrapolitics is the term that seeks to reorient a radical detachment of anarchy as a secondary declination that displaces the co-belonging of politics and ethics, to the irreducible distance between politics and thought. In fact, what we see in those gestures that have paradoxically posited anarchy as first principle – from Reiner Schürmann to Miguel Abensour to most recently Agamben’s an-archical modal subject within an archeological history – is that are still subjected (hypokeimenon) and subject to the deployment and clousure of the command [13].

In place of an arcanum that subordinates existence to politics and an a-historical anarchy as form of an ethics, Derrida’s elaboration of historicity in the 1964 seminar yields an infrapolitics as a third turn that is neither an anti-politics nor an ethics of the singular encounter with the other. Infrapolitics could thus be thought as a third moment that thinks with and beyond Heidegger the notion of democracy as always deficient, always to come, and quasi-concept that is never fully political, nor entirely given to closure. Many years later, Derrida would link democracy and historicity in Rogues in that: “…the language of democracy has an essential historicity of democracy, of the concept and the lexicon of democracy (the only name of a regime, or quasi regime, open to its own historical transformation, to taking up its intrinsic plasticity and its interminable self-critical, one might even say its interminable analysis)” [14]. The fact that Derrida denotes an “essential historicity” to democracy is fundamental. Unlike the political arcanum or the eschatological somnambulism of conducted by an-archy, democracy watches over the historical absolutism lacking in the horizon of politics as last instance of thought.

Infrapolitics names a transformative thinking that cannot be integrated under the arcana of the One, and that consigns a democratic indifference. The fact that democracy can provide a non-anarchic relation with the coming of nihilism, announces that only “in principle it assumes the right to criticize everything publically, including the idea of democracy, its concept, its history, and its name” [15]. Underneath, the historicity of being puts to work a deficient relation of every singular with politics. This form of democratic reinvention of ‘essential historicity’ at a near distance, poses another challenge for thinking freedom as a permanent examination of the fictio legis inherited from the legal institutions. Democracy presupposes the promises to think historicity (Geschehen) as an undoing of the present into present as past of a future. This is the final displacement of historicity of the origin where no arcanum is subsumed within existential temporality. Derrida comes close to explicitly naming a democracy of unequal singulars, which Jean Luc Nancy has called the democratic truth beyond the categories of onto-theology storytelling:

“…one should not even say inequality but anequality, inequality presupposing a defect or a shortcoming with respect to a measure or a telos, to a common entelechy, to a measure of all things. The concept of anequality is the only one able to respect this originality, and the radicality of the difference of which Heidegger was always primarily concerned to remind us, an originary difference: that is, one not thinkable within the horizon of a simple and initial or final unity. So, an irreducible multiplicity of historicities.” (Derrida 208).

The assertion of a historial democracy unlocks every process of singularization where politics is irreducible neither to “heroic individuals nor communitarian resolution” (Derrida 198).  The end of political ontology destroys the operative process of dissimulation produced in every hegemonic phantasy.  Thus, a-metaphorical thinking is the infrapolitical turbulence within the theory of politics and the ontological void of the political. But can we truly say that this amounts to a rejection of ‘philosophical anthropology”? Philosophical anthropology cannot provide us with a politics as the telic organization of existence to sustain community or history. It cannot depart from an-archic metaphorics. So it must come to terms with the finitude that is prior to the deployment of deficiency and delegation.

This is the supplementation that any philosophical anthropology should address in every (im)possible metaphorics. I take this to be one of the possible guiding marks in Derrida’s only mention of ‘philosophical anthropology’ in the seminar: “Philosophical anthropology, necessary though it is, must lean on this analytic of Dasein and come after it if it wants to rest on a satisfactory philosophical base” (Derrida 56). This tracing out of the metaphor borders an existential temporality that can only announce a movement to an infrapolitical reflection at work in the majestic (presbeia) and insufficient composure of democracy.






  1. Boris Groys, The Communist Postscript. London: Verso, 2010.
  2. Alberto Moreiras has made an important distinction between first and second wave of deconstruction in order to distinguish deconstruction as a reflective practice from the history of its reception. More importantly, this distinction helps to differentiate between a residual textuality and a turn towards thinking politics as infrapolitics. For a discussion of this, see Marranismo e inscripción (Escolar y Mayo, 2016).
  3. Martin Heidegger. “In Memory of Max Scheler” (1928). Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker (ed. Thomas Sheehan). New York: Transaction Publishers, 2010.
  4. Helmuth Plessner. “De Homine Abscondito”. Social Research, Vol.36, No.4, 1969.
  5. Hans Blumenberg. “Prospects for a Theory of Nonconceptuality”. Shipwreck with Spectator: Paradigm of a Metaphor for Existence. Massachusetts: MIT, 1997. p.107
  6. Hans Blumenberg. “An anthropological approach to rhetoric”. After Philosophy: End or Transformation, MIT Press, 1987. p.439.
  7. Hans Blumenberg. “Being – A MacGuffin: how to preserve the desire to think”. Salmagundi, No.90-91, 1991, p.191-193.
  8. At the end of Use of Bodies (2016), for instance, Agamben writes: “And if being is only the being “under the ban” – which is to say, abandoned to iself of beings, then categories like “letting be”, by which Heidegger sought to escape from the ontological difference, also remain within the relation of the ban”. p.268.
  9. Karl Lowith. “My Last Meeting with Heidegger in Rome, 1936”. New German Critique, No.45, 1988. p.115-116.
  10. Barbara Cassin. “Greek and Romans: Paradigms of the Past in Arendt and Heidegger”, Sophistical Practice, 164-188.
  11. Carl Schmitt. Dictatorship. New York: Polity, 2013. p.16-20.
  12. Quoted in Alberto Moreiras’ “Infrapolitical Derrida”, forthcoming, 2017. p.141.
  13. The contradiction of the an-archic position in contemporary thought has also been treated by François Loiret in his “L’épuisement des archéologies.”.épuisement-des-archéologies “.
  14. Jacques Derrida. Rogues: Two essays on reason. Stanford University Press, 2005. p.25.
  15. Ibid., p.28.



2 thoughts on “Democracy without arcanum: philosophical anthropology and metaphorics after The Question of Being & History 1964 seminar. (Draft for “Transformative Thinking Workshop”, University of Michigan, September 2017). By Gerardo Muñoz

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