Michael Naas on Derrida, Heidegger and Historicity

At the Philosophy Lecture Series, Michael Naas examined the lasting influence of Heidegger in the formation of Derrida’s concept of history.

Screen shot 2015-12-16 at 2.56.08 PMPROVO, Utah (Dec. 3, 2015)—Philosophy professor Michael Naas has studied the work of the late world-famous philosopher Jacques Derrida for nearly 30 years, but he only recently discovered how much the man owed to another philosopher: Martin Heidegger.

Naas is one of the world’s leading translators in Derrida. He is currently engaged in the long-term project of translating the majority of Derrida’s seminars, a large corpus of lecture notes that have yet to be translated and published.

Starting in 1960 (his first teaching appointment), Derrida would enter every class with 20 to 40 pages of texts. “Not notes, not an outline, but a full-blown text – sometimes handwritten,” said Naas.

Derrida’s lectures were presented in this format up until his death in 2004. Derrida is known to have been a prolific writer, with some 70 published books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics in the history of philosophy.

Yet when Derrida died in 2004, scholars questioned what was to be done with all of his lectures. Very few of them had been published, and many of them did not coincide with his written work, Naas said.

Naas now works on a team of American, British and New Zealander scholars on a project to translate all of Derrida’s seminars from French to English. The end product will be 43 volumes.

“We need a lot of help because none of the people currently working on this project are going to make it to the end. We’re still about 80 years away from finishing,” said Naas.

The project is crucial to forming a better understanding of Derrida, and by extension, the theme of historicity in Derrida’s work. Historicity, Naas explained, is a term used by Derrida to describe what opens and inaugurates history.

Through this project, Naas has been able to form a better idea of the influence German philosopher Martin Heidegger had in shaping this concept.

For example, Naas said that with the recent publication of Derrida’s seminar of 1964–1965, “Heidegger: The Question of Becoming a History,” it is “already becoming abundantly clear that within this long history a special place will have to be reserved for the question of history itself, especially the question of historicity in its irreducible relationship to language and to violence.”

“I said that it was only recently – and that’s why these seminars are so important – that I’ve been reading Derrida for years and only just began to see the importance of this notion of historicity, the importance of a philosopher that thinks historically, not simply within history, but thinks the very notion itself,” Naas said.

Naas explained that Derrida’s engagement of Heidegger was “decisive for Derrida’s own rethinking of the relationship between language, history and violence.” This rethinking, he added, would also become crucial in Derrida’s development of what is now widely known as deconstruction.

Naas explained that Derrida developed the notion of deconstruction in relation to Heidegger. In Derrida’s Violence and Metaphysics, and his seminar on Heidegger given that same year, Naas said that this configuration “really comes into focus in a truly original, powerful and enduring way.”

Derrida’s engagement with Heidegger over the next four decades would go on to include questions of technology, the animal, species difference and sexual difference. Naas added, “The relationship between language history and violence that came to draw his attention in the early 1960s will continue to haunt him, right up to his very last seminar, ‘The Beast and the Sovereign’ in 2003.”

Naas concluded, “We are, it seems, not very far from that transcendental of which Derrida spoke way back in 1963, the violence that once again we are liable to reduce or to forget, to think we can avoid or else master, though it is in the end always it that seizes and masters us.”


—Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

Sylvia covers the Philosophy Department for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a double major in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.