Philosophy of Religion

Geschlecht III – Authentic Faith, Religion, And Politics In Derrida’s Readings of Heidegger’s “Geist”, Part 2 (Jake Sirota)

The following is the second of a three-part series. The first can be found here.

At this point Derrida’s appraisal of Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics becomes crucial, for if, as Derrida says, “the Address relaunches and confirms the essential elements of Sein und Zeit, so the Einführung [Intr. to Meta.] repeats the invocation of spirit launched in the Address.[1] The Introduction develops the precise mechanics of the link between Being and spirit which the address leaves unsaid, and as Derrida puts it, “it even relaunches it, explains it, extends it, justifies it, specifies it, surrounds it with unprecedented precautions.”[2] Derrida’s reading will be supported by what is eventually found in the Black Notebooks, and particularly in Ponderings IIand III, though he never had access to them.[3]

As Derrida succinctly puts it, the relevant thrust of the Introduction is that “One could say that he spiritualizes National Socialism”[4] by characterizing spirit in terms of the “blood and earth” of the German people, by virtue of which they might create a spiritual world which resists the “great pincer” of Russia and America’s “mathematical-technological thinking of the modern age.”[5] [6] What is called the “battle community” of German teachers and students in the Address must be ready to take up willful arms against that time when “the spiritual strength of the West falls and the joints of the world no longer hold,”[7] such that Germany’s “splendor and greatness” might persist.[8]

As Derrida reads it, Heidegger’s dogged attempts to get back behind the Greeks – to employ spirit in dissolving the rhetoric of subjectivity and truth upon which the history of metaphysics relies, and towards which he levels Destruktion – “is not just a risk run,” but one realized. The risk that is run by tying this metaphysical goal to the German people – and to emphasize the conceptual chain, thus back to the spatiality of Dasein – results in “terrifying contaminations:”[9]

If its [the Rectoral Address] program seems diabolical, it is because, without there being anything fortuitous in this, it capitalizes on the worst, that is on both evils at once: the sanctioning of Nazism, and the gesture that is still metaphysical.

And if “the Address relaunches and confirms the essential elements of Sein und Zeit, so the Einführung [Intr. to Meta.] repeats the invocation of spirit launched in the Address.[10]That is to say simply that if the Address picks up on faith where it is left open in BT and modulates it into spirit, then IM takes spirit over from the Address and furthers its embeddedness in Heidegger’s project.

Derrida registers that this shift between the rectoral address and IM accompanies a shift in thinking for Heidegger about the possibility of questioning itself: “…if nothing precedes the question in its freedom, not even the introduction to questioning, then the spirit of spiritual conduction… can be interpreted, through and through, as the possibility of questioning.”[11] This is to say simply that by the Introduction, Heidegger shifts from thinking the questioning of Being as a given possibility to thinking about the very possibility of the Seinsfrage.

Thus, since spirit is what predicates questioning in the first place, once questioning itself takes center stage, so must spirit. And insofar as this is the case, the political resonance with which Heidegger has invested spirit – the resonance of a metaphysical Nazism – must also take center stage. This trajectory and Derrida’s reading of it relate explicitly to religion and faith, a relationship which appears in Heidegger’s criticisms of Christianity in both the Introduction and “Die Sprache im Gedicht,” an essay from 1952 on the poet Georg Trakl.

Geschlecht III and Beyond: Spirit, Religion, and Politics After Heidegger

That Heidegger antagonizes a particular version of Christian faith in working out his notions of German spirit and proper questioning is no secret. At the outset of the Introduction, Heidegger uses the idea of a Christian secure in their faith as the foil to his thesis of uncertain questioning:

One who holds on to such faith as a basis can, perhaps, emulate and participate in the asking of our question in a certain way, but… if such faith does not continually expose itself to the possibility of unfaith, it is not faith but a convenience. It becomes an agreement with oneself to adhere in the future to a doctrine as something that has somehow been handed down. This is neither having faith nor questioning, but indifference…[12]

In other words, the Christian way of asking after Being, in presupposing an answer rooted in and provided by God, in fact sidesteps the issue entirely. If the Grund- and Vorfrage are inherently unstable and uncertain, then the presumption of a divine answer prevents authentic asking in the first place. As Heidegger says, “Anyone for whom the Bible is divine revelation and truth already has the answer to the question…before it is even asked.”[13] In Heidegger’s sense they are not even truly asking. Heidegger’s framing of questioning is an always open uncertainty, yet one which forecloses any possibility of a ‘questioning faith,’ and becomes critical to thinking faith for Derrida.

While both Derrida and Heidegger share the conviction that authentic thinking on Being is always already laced with uncertainty, they diverge when Heidegger asserts that the Christian is constitutionally incapable of such uncertainty within the framework of Christianity. Because of this, Heidegger vocally maintains that God and faith have no place in proper thinking, going so far as to say that “A ‘Christian philosophy’ is a round square and a misunderstanding.”[14]

But why does Heidegger arrive at such a dogmatic stance on Christianity? One which ignores the plurality of ways in which faith might operate not only for Christians (his specific target here) but for all who have faith of some sort in a divine presence (an implicit target)? Why does a degradation of religion, thought to be distinct from and mutually exclusive with the primordial German spirituality, predicate authentic questioning after Being? These are questions which bother Derrida, who in Of Spirit was perplexed by how Heidegger could have landed at this conclusion. If, as Heidegger himself makes the case in the Introduction, the question is originary, as that which comes prior to all other thinking, then it ought to come, as Derrida says, “before all politics, all psychagogy, all pedagogy.”[15]

This is to say that, insofar as spirit has come to be tied inextricably to Nazism for Heidegger, it cannot predicate questioning, nor can the commitment to deriding faith. Precisely the opposite should be true – spirit should foreclose the possibility of such a factional alignment, of such a dogmatic adherence to a political structure. In other words, in making use of spirit as a justification for Nazi doctrine, Heidegger makes the very mistake for which he castigates the Christian – he allows a presupposed truth be that which opens up the possibility of his questioning.

For Derrida, “all this conducts the Einführung back to the Rectorship Address,” and begins to put forward “a kind of geopolitical diagnosis, of which all the resources and all the references return to spirit…”[16] and under which “the German people…this ‘metaphysical people’ par excellence, is at once the most spiritual, and the most exposed to danger.”[17] This reference to a collective, to a ‘we,’ again gestures back to that originary faith found by Derrida in BT, for “Geopolitics is none other than a Weltpolitik of spirit.”[18]

What was perplexing to the Derrida who wrote Of Spirit is no less so to the Derrida of Geschlecht III.[19] While by 1953, when Heidegger wrote “Die Sprache im Gedicht,” he was of course no longer formally and publicly associated with political Nazism, many of the nationalistic sentiments which led to the ‘spiritualizing’ of Nazism in the first place remained intact. In fact he only intensifies his antagonism towards Christianity through his assessment of Trakl. And yet, for all the digressions and distancing we have noted thus far, Derrida nevertheless remains, throughout Geschlecht III, committed to at least some significant aspects of Heidegger’s thought.

As Rodrigo Therezo has argued, Geschlecht III can be read as a place where Derrida’s reading of Heidegger runs quite close to Heidegger himself and where the process of reading itself, both of Heidegger reading Trakl and Derrida reading Heidegger, is quite fraught.[20] Derrida’s sustained writing on Heidegger and spirit represent an enduring and energetic drive to understand spirit’s place in the questioning of Being, though those are of course not his own terms, and to the importance of that questioning to the relationship between religion and politics. However, one of the most important places where Derrida takes up a stance of distance from Heidegger is on the notion of the ‘place’ [Ort] of Being, an appraisal which very much predicates the passages explicitly taking on Christianity and faith.

Much of Derrida’s take on the Trakl piece is an attempt to work out Heidegger’s method of reading, one which attempts a separation from traditional methodology of poetic interpretation. Characteristically dismissive of what he takes to be Western traditions of philosophical and critical thought, Heidegger attempts to circumvent such conventions in reading Trakl. The preliminary dismissal of method does double duty: on one hand it allows for a radical and counterintuitive assessment of Trakl’s poetry. On the other hand, it vouchsafes Heidegger’s own method and conclusions, as he has already disregarded the critical tools which might be turned against him. It is this atmosphere in which Derrida is taking up a reading of Heidegger on Trakl, a reading which focuses on Heidegger’s distrust of ‘method’ coming from the pitfalls he sees in its conceptual presuppositions.

Having acknowledged the difficulty of criticizing Heidegger from within this atmosphere, Derrida nevertheless pushes us to think that there is perhaps a residue of conceptual presupposition which remains operative for Heidegger himself in “Die Sprache im Gedicht.” Derrida reads Heidegger as implicitly relying on the concept of a ‘place’ [Ort] at the end of the ‘path’ [Bewegung] of questioning, and of the path itself as existent. This extends into the poetic origins of Trakl’s work through Heidegger’s insistence on an originary poetic thread which gives Trakl’s poems their voice.

As Heidegger says, “The fact that each of Trakl’s poems, all unrelated, even if not uniformly, points to the same place [Ort] in the poem, attests to the singular unity of his poems’ groundedness in the root [Grundton] of his poetry.”[21] This Grundton, which resonates through all of Trakl’s poetry, is the identifiable trace by which Heidegger claims to be able to locate the originary place from which all poetic thought can grow. Not coincidentally, by tracing this through the ‘spirit of the German language,’ Heidegger is able to insist that only German spirituality can uncover the ground of the questioning of Being.

While, as Derrida points out, “Heidegger proposes from the outset to rethink place,”[22] and to root out Christian presuppositions about Trakl and his work, there is nevertheless a sense in which place itself remains a presupposition:

We might say that ‘before’ Being and Nothingness there is Place, that which gives rise and makes it so that there is (es gibt) Being and Nothingness gathered together. If place is regularly, typically defined by gathering (Versammlung), our entire approach to the Heideggerian gesture will have to question this privilege of gathering and all that it entails.[23]

While Heidegger is careful to maintain that the destination at the end of the path of questioning is not predetermined, “The question thus questions after that which already takes place and shows itself, for example in the poem. The poem is there.”[24] In this sense, there is, as Derrida puts it, “ultimately an absolute univocity of language” that points back towards the “homeland” of Trakl’s poetry.[25] As we have already seen in earlier texts, Heidegger has been less than ambivalent about univocity, equating it to the techno-scientific attitude of modernity he polemicizes against in the Introduction.

As such, he must differentiate the Germanic, spiritual univocity of Trakl’s poetics from the vulgar singularity of modernity.[26] The difficulty of doing so is, as David Farrell Krell notes, to Derrida “more than a ‘tension’ in Heidegger’s situation.”[27] While Heidegger accepts that Trakl uses language and concepts drawn from the Christian worldview, he must explain this usage as being subsumable under the language of Geist if he is to maintain that Trakl speaks from a ‘univocally’ spiritual position.

Heidegger’s point is to say that even the polysemy that such Christian motifs indicate can in fact be reduced down to the Germano-spiritual Ort from which Trakl’s poetry springs. “But Heidegger will attempt to reduce this polysemy by demonstrating that Trakl is not Christian, or, more rigorously, that the place from which he speaks or to which his poems tend to return as to their source, his Gedicht, is not the Christian place.”[28]

When Heidegger adjudicates Trakl’s ‘Christianness,’ he does so in part based on the fact that on his deathbed Trakl does not invoke the trinity, does not utter the names of God or Jesus. To him, this is an out and out indication that the poet’s Christian language is not to be taken at face value. Trakl’s, Heidegger says, “Is not even Christian despair.”[29] Derrida’s response to this is worth excerpting at length, as it reveals several pertinent points:

… Heidegger asks why such a resolute, decided Christian does not pronounce the names of Christ or God with his last breath. He seems to suppose with this that a Christian or a man of faith in general can and must be ‘resolute’ or ‘decided,’ can and must be what he is unequivocally, and nothing else. No more polysemy, no more indecision all of a sudden: either you’re a Christian or you’re not, and if you are, you don’t forget to name God and Christ. Nevertheless—and Heidegger knows this, should have taken it into account, knows it better than anyone…a Christian and a man of faith in general is not necessarily a man of certainty… A faith without anxiety, without indecision…would not be a faith.[30]

From his reading of the Introduction in Of Spirit to his reading of “Die Sprache im Gedicht”’ here, Derrida is sounding the same concern – if by his own logic Heidegger ought to know better than to orient his thinking around such an unnuanced dogmatic stance, why does he do so? “Despite his discretion and his caution, such an assertion” that Trakl simply cannot be authentically Christian “remains rather violent and, I will say once more, rather dogmatic.”[31] Why is it Trakl’s Christianity that so irks Heidegger? Derrida shares Heidegger’s fear that a metaphysics of presence leads to programmatic thought; however, he does not agree that religious faith necessitates such a metaphysics, or that spirit and faith are incompatible. Derrida argues that Heidegger is ultimately unable to consolidate this tension:

…to say, then, ‘neither the concepts of metaphysical theology nor those of ecclesiastical theology are sufficient,’ one must presuppose that these concepts have a univocal sense or a masterable, gatherable plurivocity, that these concepts of theology, metaphysics, and dogmatics also have a place that is one and from which one can say ‘this is not Trakl’s place, Trakl’s Gedicht,’ or ‘this is not a place commensurate with the place of Trakl’s Gedicht.’ But what would happen if we were not in agreement on this point, if we rejected this presupposition, if we said: there is not only one place for this thing called Metaphysics or Theology, or, what’s more, if we want to access the Place of texts, the place from which so-called metaphysical or Christian texts proceed, we must stop believing in a certain univocity and read them how we read Trakl, by giving them the same credit.[32]

If one were inclined to articulate Derrida’s position in Heideggerian terms, an uncertain faith might be quite spiritual – might allow access to the path of questioning. In a sense, Derrida sees Heidegger’s understanding as a lack of imagination regarding the possibilities of a faith within religious bounds and as a worry that he will fall back into the trap of Western metaphysics he is so desperately working to escape. As Derrida puts it, “the obstinacy in shielding Trakl and shielding himself from a ‘place’ of Christian thought pushes Heidegger to simplify excessively.”[33]

This oversimplification, far from merely representing some oversight of Heidegger’s in the interpretation of a fairly obscure German poet, rather indicates a far deeply set of issues Derrida takes with Heidegger’s relationship to language and nationality, insofar as he has come to see Germany and the German language – as again we have already seen in more openly political texts – as the fertile soil out of which a new vision of modernity can spring and the material-political aims of the Nazi party as a means of propagating that vision:

[Trakl’s poetry] speaks German not only from a German place but from a place that, in turn, situates the place of the West, the Christian West as well as the West of Platonic and post-Platonic metaphysics—and thus of what Heidegger calls metaphysical theology—it must be the case that the German place here holds an absolute privilege both with respect to the Platonico-Christian West it allows us to think to the extent that it, too, belongs to it, and with respect to this same West to the extent that it does not yet belong to it or already no longer belongs to it, which also allows it to think this West and say it.[34]

If Heidegger in other writings can recognize the unspeakability, the unknowability, the radical ineffability of Being, then he ought to recognize the spiritual potentiality of uncertain faith. Derrida goes on to suggest that, insofar as Heidegger has come to think spirit as the possibility of questioning, spirit necessitates uncertainty – it is in fact the truest mark of spiritual faith that it is uncertain of its object: “…when a Christian despairs, I imagine that he despairs first and foremost [of the fact]…that he can no longer recognize the form of Christian despair in his despair. The Christian despairs of Christianity, or else he doesn’t really despair. …so he despairs as a Christian when he despairs of Christianity.”[35]

Jake Sirota is a graduate student at the University of Chicago, specializing in philosophy of Religion. He specializes in continental philosophy of religion, deconstruction and religion, religion and naturalism, phenomenology, modernity and dis/re-enchantment, queer issues, postcoloniality, and religion in the public sphere.This article appears in the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory Vol. 21, No. 1.


[1] Ibid., 41.

[2] Ibid., 41.

[3] Commentary on the Black Notebooks—to mirror their place in Heidegger’s trajectory of thought—will occur marginally—as parallel and yet no less conceptually central—in footnotes.

[4] Ibid., 39.

[5] Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 40.

[6] In Ponderings II we find further confirmation of this in a medium where Heidegger was a deal more experimental than anywhere else, constellating ideas prior to their systematization in published writing:

How everything has become accessible to ‘meditation’ and reflection today! Nothing can any longer resist analysis or withdraw from it. Yet—still more fatally—we believe we would come in this way to the ground and soil, whereas we merely suck the blood out of the last impulses and forces of active and constructive questioning. Should everything be swallowed up in analysis? Or do we come and finally bring ourselves—each one with his own mission—into the thrilling and unfamiliar moment of populist-spiritual action? (Pond. II §231, 74-75.)

At this point the initiation of the ‘beginning’ is still something Heidegger sees as a volitional possibility—should, by force of a ‘populist’-national and personal will, the German people choose to undertake it, they might hasten the downgoing [Untergang] of the history of the West. That is, they might fulfill the spiritual destiny of the German people. What lies after this Untergang remains unknown to Heidegger, but what stands in the way is clear—“The harm of the human sciences, the sciences of the spirit [meaning those sciences which seek to calculate, represent that which is properly spiritual]—how they inundate, destroy, and disempower everything spiritual.” (loc. cit.)

[7] RA, 11.

[8] Again, resonances in Ponderings III. While in the Address, geopolitics is certainly an atmospheric backdrop, in the Introduction it becomes a priming focus. In Pond. III we can see the development of this turn towards painting the specter of the non-Germanic West as paradigmatic of representational modernity:

The communal-civil happening is to be unfolded in its actuality in order to attack all the harder and sharper and fuller the floundering (rootlessly and without rank) of the new spirit—i.e., in order to guide the awakening actuality of German Dasein to its greatness for the first time, a greatness concealed to this Dasein and waiting for it, a greatness around which the most fearful storm is raging. (Pond. III §5, 80.)

So here obviously is the preference, again, for the German people as those whose ‘unique greatness’ prepares them to weather the storm of calculative modernity through the willful enactment of the spiritual project. It is in this period (around the time of the Address)that the rhetoric of the will first begins to fade, and by the time that the Introduction is published it will be, to an extent, displaced by the concept of questioning as attunement to unconcealment—the ‘logic of silence’ that begins to emerge in Pond. IV (contemporaneous with the Introduction). For example, in Pond. III, Heidegger intimates that the work of the rectorship, that is the work of education towards the question of Being, is to be acting “against my [Heidegger’s] innermost voice.” (Pond. III §8, 81. See also §65, 94.)

              Yet at this point he has not totally given up on the grand nationalist project as one of volition, for “the great experience and fortune that the Führer has awakened a new actuality, giving our thinking the correct course and impetus. Otherwise, despite all the thoroughness, it would have remained lost in itself and would only with difficulty have found its way to effectiveness. Literary existence is at an end.” (Pond. III §10, 81.) It is Nazism, symbolized by the “spiritually political leadership” (Pond. III §30, 85.) of Hitler which ends the possibilities of ‘literary existence,’ which I take to mean the possibility of non-political thought—“Metaphysics as metapolitics.” (Pond. III §32, 85.) As we see initially in the Address, and then in IM, it is the leader who inspires spirit in the Volk, and the pastoral possibility remains alive in spite of its now-beginning decline from pride of place in Heidegger’s thought.

[9] OS, 40.

[10] Ibid., 41.

[11] Derrida, ibid., 43.

[12] Heidegger, ibid., 8.

[13] Ibid., 7.

[14] Ibid., 8.

[15] Ibid., 43.

[16] Ibid., 44.

[17] Ibid., 45.

[18] Ibid., 46.

[19] While GIII has only recently become available to the public, and even more recently in English, it was originally composed as lecture notes for Derrida’s 1984-85 seminar in Paris. A detailed account of the movement of this text from inception through publication can be found in David Farrell Krell’s Phantoms of the Other: Four Generations of Derrida’s Geschlecht. See specifically chapter five. Important to note for the purposes of this paper is that the material that appears as GIII was conceived several years prior to the appearance of Of Spirit. What this shows is that the religious and political concerns that appear in force in GIII are working in the background of and conditioning the trajectory of Of Spirit.

[20] Rodrigo Therezo, “Doublings.” in Epoché: A Journal for the History of Philosophy vol. 24, 2019.

[21] [Daß jede der Traklschen Dichtungen, gleich unverwandt, wenn auch nicht gleichförmig, in den einen Ort des Gedichtes zeigt, bezeugt den einzigartigen Einklang seiner Dichtungen aus dem einen Grundton seines Gedichtes.] Heidegger, GA 12, 35. Translation my own.

[22] Derrida, GIII, 8.

[23] Ibid., 10.

[24] Ibid., 11.

[25] Ibid., 74.

[26] See loc. cit., as well as Heidegger, ibid., 71.

[27] David Farrell Krell, Phantoms of the Other: Four Generations of Derrida’s Geschlecht (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015) 188.

[28] Derrida, ibid., 83.

[29] [Es ist nicht einmal christliche Verzweiflung.] Heidegger, ibid., 72. Translation my own.

[30] Derrida, ibid., 87. (Brackets in original, emphasis mine.)

[31] Ibid., 83.

[32] Ibid., 84.

[33] Ibid., 89.

[34] Ibid., 76.

[35] Ibid., 93.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.