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Adventures of the Double Negation:on Richard Bernstein's Call for Anti­ Anti­Humanism «Adventures of the Double

Adventures of the Double Negation:on Richard Bernstein's Call for Anti­ Anti­Humanism

«Adventures of the Double Negation:on Richard Bernstein's Call for Anti­Anti­ Humanism»

by Reiner Schürmann


PRAXIS International (PRAXIS International), issue: 3 / 1985, pages: 283­291, on www.ceeol.com.

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issue: 3 / 1985, pages: 283­291, on www.ceeol.com . The following ad supports maintaining our C.E.E.O.L.

Praxis International



Reiner Schürmann

Double negations are adventurous strategies to engage in. To be sure, “anti-anti-humanism” has a strong rhetorical appeal. Who is not wholeheartedly in favour of the many warm feelings and luminous phantasms associated with the term “humanism”: concern for man, for his values and

noble achievements; devotion to the humanities, hence to progress in learning and education; the ideal of Renaissance man and of the Enlightenment; the

furtherance of the well-being of the greatest number

the positive mood Richard Bernstein so eloquently advocates. In sum, “anti-anti-humanism” stands for life against death. The double negation evokes anti-anti-life, which is to say, anti-death—away with death—which is to say, long live life. Before responding to him on praxis and Heidegger, I wish to address this general thrust of his argument and examine whether by it he is not, like Ulysses, much thrust about (polytropos) himself.

all the ingredients of

Redemptive or compulsive repetition?

Again, double negations are adventurous—as adventurous perhaps as an Oedipal crisis. The Oedipal conflict is indeed the arch-model of a double negation in which life and death are at stake. Richard Bernstein expects from anti-anti-humanism the constitution of “higher forms of life.” This expectation places him in good company. Oedipal struggles contain indeed the possibility of redemption. In Richard Bernstein’s paraphrase of Hegel, they contain the possibility of “a beginning that at once presupposes what has been, breaks with it, and fulfills and redeems it.” More specifically, the family relation produces its contradiction—the desire to kill my father—which destroys its original content; but this contradiction can in turn be negated as I go and found a family myself. Redemption from parricidal impulses is granted through fatherhood. With it, civil society—the higher form—appears. It makes life vanquish death as the social process dissolves stable entities, makes the static dynamic and the particular, universal. Likewise, anti-anti-humanism could be a strategy that breaks with man as an entity and redeems him as dynamic and universal.

* This is a commentary, delivered at the 1984 convention of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy in Atlanta, on R. Bernstein’s paper, initially entitled “Anti-Anti-Humanism,” and published as “Heidegger on Humanism” in Praxis International 5, No. 2: 1-20.

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But instead of redemptive, the outcome of the double negation may turn compulsive. Whether its strategy heads one way or the other depends on what you do or say after the second negation. “Kill my father?”: first negation. “No!”: second negation. All is well—at least for the nineteenth-century philosophers whose up-beat mood Richard Bernstein finds so inspiring—if you go on to say: “Rather found a family and raise children.” Things go less well if you say: “[Kill my father?] No, no, no!” (brackets enclose the simple negation). This sequence merely iterates the second negation, it denatures the redemption and turns it into compulsion. The qualitative transformation is aborted as the negation turns obsessive, and it no longer matters whether it is double, triple or quintuple. “[Kill my father?] No!” is equivalent to: “[Kill my father?] No no no no no!” Things do not go so well here since repetition-compulsion is held to be enacted by the death instinct rather than the life instinct. The higher form of life is done for, and Oedipus miscarries in his duty to generate civil society. If anti-[anti-humanism] is equivalent to anti-anti-anti-anti-[anti-humanism], then much more than the up-beat mood that Richard Bernstein so rightfully praises may be lost. Earlier it seemed that anti-anti-humanism stood for life against death. But if the reduplication fails in its dialectical task and lapses into compulsion, the double negation actually stands for death against life. Such at least is Freud’s explanation in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. 1 What is it that the instincts seek in compulsive repetition? To return to an earlier stage of evolution, he says, and approximate the inorganic. To adjudicate whether the conceptual strategy in Richard Bernstein’s double negation is redemptive or compulsive, whether it is the work of dialectics or of Thanatos, it is necessary to look briefly at the origin of this entire debate. Unfortunately he offers us no background information on it whatsoever.

Critical humanism and its negation

The expression “anti-humanism” was coined originally, if I am not mistaken, by Louis Althusser in the early 1970s. It was meant to negate a position, critical humanism, which has therefore to be recalled first. “Humanism” will turn out to designate those conceptual strategies in the “soft sciences” that refer all possible topics to man. One may call those strategies therefore referential. “Anti-humanism,” on the other hand, will designate systemic strategies. Their distinction should produce something akin to the Edison effect in this debate: a conversion of heat into light. (a) The concept of humanism from which this odyssey of negations set out is one that appeared in France after the Second World War. As opposed to the “classical” humanism, Sartre wrote, the “critical” will, first and foremost, “never consider man as an end because he is always in the making.” In the classical view—from the Greeks to Kant and beyond—man was treated as a given, an entity, something unchanging, whereas in the critical view he appears as a perpetually unfulfilled task: not an end, but open-ended. Second, as a consequence, critical humanism does not render a “cult to mankind” since “that would imply that we ascribe a value to man on the basis of the highest deeds of certain men. This humanism is absurd.” Critical humanism is

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prospective rather than retrospective. Third, if man has as yet to become human, this does not imply any absolute goal lying ahead of him. Sartrean critique is a “doctrine of action,” of man’s circumstantial efforts “in seeking outside of himself a goal which is just this liberation, just that particular

fulfillment.” 2 The goal sought after can only be a contingent, never a necessary one. As open-ended, prospective, and contingent, critical humanism requires,

in Sartre’s terms, a revolution to establish “more human relations among all

men.” “Revolutionary thinking is at the same time a humanist thinking. The assertion, we, too, are humans lies at the very heart of every revolution.” 3 This

implies an etiology of class conflicts: they arise, not from some anonymous or even automatic development of capital, but from past and present contingent choices. “It is not things which are ruthless, it is men.” 4

Thus the class struggle translates into two types of humanism: bourgeois, which, as the offspring of the classical ideals, is “the counterpart of racism: it is

a practice of exclusion,” and proletarian, which is “true and positive

humanism.” 5 Klaus Hartmann considers Sartre’s “humanization” of Marxism his “paramount undertaking.” 6 One may add that it was prompted and made possible by the publication of Marx’s manuscripts of 1844, a decade and a half earlier. But Sartre, as it were, de-metaphysicizes the young Marx, relegating among versions of pre-critical humanism even speculations about man’s species-being and about its full re-appropriation. There is an undeniable kinship between Richard Bernstein’s Ithaca and this de-metaphysicized human essence. One thinks one is reading the Critique of Dialectical Reason when one hears him praise the American pragmatists for intimating “how we can foster a sense of solidarity and community among human beings,” and when he calls for “a critical community without any

absolute beginning points or finalities.” But then polytrepein, Homeric

tumbling-about, sets in. After this salute to the doctrine of essential manque— the doctrine that archai and tele are never given—one can only be perplexed by his description of what he likes and wants: a humanism capable of “putting us back in touch with ourselves.” This is what every metaphysics of full presence phantasized about, from the Platonic dialogue of the soul with itself to the young Marx’s conception of “generic being” (Gattungswesen). It may take a bit

of speculative doing to bring the self in touch with itself while at the same time

holding fast to the absence of absolute beginnings and ends. How can one claim at the same time and from the same point of view (and on the same page) both the full presence of man’s essence and its insurmountable lack? Richard Bernstein’s very option for man, the position he wishes to redeem through double negation, is already a split vote: for pre-critical, but also critical humanism; for metaphysics, but also phenomenology; for essence in Feuer- bach’s, but also Sartre’s sense; for man’s presence to himself, but also his absence. His referential strategy—the method in the soft sciences of referring all issues back to the standard “man”—follows two mutually exclusive programs, that of the subject appropriating its essential attributes through practice, and that of “a radical critique of the metaphysics of subjectivity.” Even the most cheerful mood will fail to amalgamate into one position en-telechic with a-teleocratic humanism. For an initial stand to be sublated by


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double negation, this is one platform too many. (b) Althusser coined the term “anti-humanism” in a discussion of Marx. It is, however, aimed against the metaphysics of subjectivity in general and its latest version, critical humanism, in particular. “In 1845, Marx broke radically with every theory that based history and politics on the essence of man.” 7 Whether given as a fact, donnée, or as a task, ordonnée—whether classical or critical— human essence is a standard that obfuscates Marx’s chief theoretical discovery. The negation of humanism sets up an alternate theoretical field. Althusser also speaks of an alternate “continent” or problematic. The type of intelligibility Marxism is capable of providing, he claims, does not encounter the problematic that refers attributes to a subject, whether these are held to make up the individual (attributes such as reason, consciousness, or emotions) or to constitute society (attributes such as labor, historicality, praxis, or phronesis). The conceptual strategies in this alternate theoretical field are not referential, but systemic. The concepts put to work stand in relation, not to one ultimate representation, but to each other. Much needless lament about entropy and decline would fall off if the critics of anti-humanism took note of what the phrase designates, namely, the shift in methods of inquiry which got under way in several sciences in the nineteenth century and which has also been described as the structuralist turn. The original pattern scientists then turned away from was that of attributing accidents to a substance. The pattern they turned toward was that of a set of elements defined by its wholeness, its law of transformation, and its self- regulation. In Althusser, these elements are the productive forces, the relations to production, the infra- and the superstructure, ideologies, etc. In Lévi- Strauss, they are the constituents of symbolic codes. In the early Foucault, they are, in one instance, labor, life, and language. In each case the inquiry into structure has yielded insights that the methodic focus on “man” as the guiding concept would have precluded. To seek a type of intelligibility different from the referential-attributive- predicative strategies is no cause for alarm. It may seem “extremely danger- ous,” as it does to Richard Bernstein, only if one holds that philosophy today has to be either a theory of communicative action or else will remain, in his words, “totally inadequate.” Such either-or’s have been the jaws of all dogmatisms. To understand that systemic inquiries do not encounter, because of the kind of questions they raise, “the noblest task of the citizen—decision making according to one’s responsibility” (Hans-Georg Gadamer) does not amount to “ ‘giving up’ on the humanitas of homo humanus .” It amounts to locating each issue in its proper domain. Kant had discovered a comparable continental rift between problematics when he established that “causality in accordance with the laws of nature” pertains to a philosophical discourse that does not encounter the problem of “another causality, that of freedom.” 8 As it raises different questions and follows different conceptual strategies, a systemic inquiry does not encounter—either to affirm or deny—issues such as freedom and responsibility, praxis and phronesis. This much may suffice as background information on the concept of anti-humanism.

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Being is said in many ways

Richard Bernstein asks: “How are we to account for Heidegger’s virtual silence about praxis and phronesis in his later writings?” The account is easily given. The disjunction that I have traced between two conceptual strategies, attributive versus systemic, indicates the direction. What did Heidegger turn toward in the reversal (Kehre) his thinking underwent around 1930? As Richard Bernstein points out, it, too, is expressly directed (at least in the “Letter on Humanism”) against Sartre. In referential or attributive investigations the term to which qualities such as freedom are attributed sets the standard for thinking. For humanism, man is the first law of thinking. In his anti-humanist strategy, now, Heidegger calls something else “the first law of thinking,” namely, that thinking “fit” “the destiny of truth.” 9 He speaks, not of problematics or continents, but of “sites.” What he turns toward in the Kehre are the synchronic constellations in the history of the West as well as the traits of their diachronic transformations. He calls the synchronic regularities for instance “fundamental positions,” 10 epochal “stamps” or “stampings,” 11 “jointures,” 12 or simply “constellations.” 13 As the phrase “destiny of truth” suggests, these are all words with which to address the mode of unconcealedness (alétheia) that predomi- nates in a given age or era. The diachronic transformations are described not only as “destiny” (Geschick) and its “unfolding,” 14 but also as a “free sequence,” 15 or as “sudden epochs.” 16 All of these terms pertain to a strategy in which man does not play the role of a theoretical standard. “In its new site thinking has, from its starting point, given up the pre-eminence of conscious- ness and its consequence, the pre-eminence of man.” 17 The later Heidegger devotes much of his effort to laying bare the “traits” of “something all- pervading which pervades being’s destiny from its beginning to its completion.” 18 His deduction of the rules for diachronic transformation— which this is not the place even to outline—displaces the categorial. He seeks enduring features, no longer upon man, but in history. What this is however the place to indicate is the guiding issue which Heidegger’s anti-humanist, that is, systemic inquiry is meant to elucidate. Richard Bernstein has indeed given a paper on anti-anti-humanism and Heidegger in which he says not only little about humanism and nothing about anti-humanism, but equally little about Heidegger’s one persistent question, the being question, and nothing about the one answer he obstinately tries to bring to bear on it, time. The titles of both Heidegger’s best known and his last publication—Being and Time and “On Time and Being”—indicate this abiding preoccupation. In the late 1930s he even stated that “the question of being and time” was a matter of “thinking being as time.” This, he added, is “the most difficult thought of philosophy.” 19 Of that most difficult thought, let alone of the reasons why it can only be approached through a systemic, not a referential inquiry, Richard Bernstein tells us nothing. The necessity of raising the question of being otherwise than in reference to man lies, however, at the core of his topic. The reason why referential thinking is incapable of tackling that most difficult issue is that, by definition, this kind of philosophy identifies being with


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one entity or another. Heidegger lists some such entities historically repre- sented as ultimate: “the suprasensory World, the Ideas, God, the moral Law, the authority of Reason, the Happiness of the greatest number, Culture, Civilization.” 20 It is immediately obvious that these representations from which metaphysicians have taken their cue are one and all related to man. That is the reason why Heidegger can claim not only that metaphysics is humanistic through and through, but also that it is nihilistic. Inasmuch as the question, “What is being?” has consistently been answered by pointing toward one entity held to be most intensely present, being qua being has been worth nothing for the tradition. One can only agree with Richard Bernstein’s equation “philoso- phy = metaphysics = humanism = nihilism” (“enframing,” however, does not pertain to this series of terms since it designates one stage in that history, not the very lineage of stages), although one may feel distressed at his failure to provide any reason for that equation in terms of the temporality of being. The most difficult thought, that of the temporality of being itself, was still unattainable in Being and Time since fundamental ontology was assigned the task of tracing the “originary rootedness” 21 of all phenomena in Dasein. The project of Being and Time, then, ran into a dead end because of its starting point, Dasein, which entailed the impossibility of stepping from man’s Zeitlichkeit to being’s Temporalität. 22 The most difficult question cannot be thematized in relation to the root or referent “man” since the very quest for one ultimate phenomenal root defines the thematic continent from which Heidegger, with the “reversal” in his thinking, turns away. “No, the concept ‘root’ makes it impossible to articulate man’s rapport to being.” 23 Why and in what way, then, does the systemic, not the referential, pre-understanding allow one to think being as time? It does so by opening up the ontological difference as a two-fold step back from phenomena, that is, as a three-tiered difference. Being is spoken of in many ways: nominatively (a being or entity), adverbially (epochal ways of being), and infinitively (to be). Metaphysicians have not exactly “forgotten” the ontological difference, but they have inquired about being only for the sake of entities and not for being’s own sake. They have stepped back from entities to their way of being that makes them entities: from la onta to ousia, or from entia to entitas—in Heidegger’s terms, from das Seiende to die Seiendheit, “beingness.” Interested exclusively in grounding entities, they have omitted to inquire into being, das Sein (literally “the to-be”), independently of such groundedness. The decisive layer in this triad is the middle one, beingness, which is conditioned by being but conditions the entities. What this means concretely appears, however, only when the triad is phrased in temporal terms. There the middle layer is made up of what I described earlier as the fundamental positions, epochal stamps, jointures or constellations of unconcealedness in history. Thus the stars are entities that enter into successive systems of presence. They have one way of being present when Aristotle treats them as divinities endowed with reason, soul and causal efficacy—the only intelligibles we can also see. They have another mode of presence when, to a medieval person, they are creatures each propelled by its angel, and another mode still in the early modern designs of celestial mechanics. As descriptive, Heidegger’s phenomenology of the history

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of being steps back from entities to these epochal modes of presence; as transcendental, it steps back from these modes to being itself, now understood as the event of presencing. One may call “temporal difference” the triad:

present entity—mode of presence—event of presencing (das Anwesende, die Anwesenheit, das Anwesen). This three-tiered temporal difference is Heideg- ger’s last word in his systemic, non-humanist, inquiry into being as time.

The politics of mortals

Phenomenologists have the reputation of proving under-equipped when it comes to politics. If they claim for their discourse the status of mere description, they can “do” a phenomenology of any regime; if they claim a critical-transcendental status, they make it their profession to step back from the struggle of regimes to the acts of consciousness that make them at all possible. In either case, intervention in the public sphere is not the phenomeno- logist’s forte. This state of the profession is true of all phenomenologies that trace political formations to acts or possible acts, latencies, in the subject. The state of phenomenological research looks different as one thematizes the historical networks into which any entity must enter to become a phenomenon—that is, as phenomenality is constituted, not by consciousness, but by the economy of interconnections within which a phenomenon occurs. Then it appears that the epochal economies in the West have been dominated since the Greeks by one ultimate representation. To systematize, here again: in the Greek context, that representation would be nature; in the Latin, God; and in the modern, the subject. The step back from modes of presence to being as presencing is described by Heidegger as the “entry into the event.” 24 This is to say that those epochal modes of presence need not be dominated by one arch-present entity; that the forgottenness of being is nothing other than that domination, and the retrieval or recollection of the being-question, nothing other than an end to that domination. The entry into the event requires a laboring through metaphysics and an eventual exit from underneath its sway. It requires the active struggle against those representations the tradition has held supreme and which have already lost their credibility. The enumeration of referents quoted earlier—the Ideas, God, Reason, Culture, etc.—concludes indeed; today these representa- tions “suffer the loss of their constructive force and become void.” 25 This is to be understood not only in regard to any single referent, e.g., reason, but to all epochal economies stamped by a supreme referent of whatever kind it may be. The self-emptying of ultimate referents has to be understood as the end of anthropocentrism, since, as I have shown, these various figures are but variations upon the epochal rule of man. The task of removing remaining instances of an organizing First, when read together with the task of “an open resistance against humanism” 26 —against “man” as the standard—appears then as the practical corollary to the task of living differently with our death. “The rational living beings must as yet become mortals.” 27 As animal rationale, man rules supreme over his world; as mortal, he is one variable in the systemic play of the world. “Mortal” is man’s most thoughtful name in Heidegger’s


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anti-humanist strategy. Mortals have renounced all ultimate holds. Only as mortals can we “enter into the event.” “Rational animal” is an attributive- predicative-referential concept while “mortal” is a systemic one. This is obvious from the context in Heidegger in which it appears, the discussion of the “four-fold.” Is anti-anti-humanism a politics of mortals? Hardly so since sublation and redemption are nothing if not devices against mortality. One might have believed that the redemptive paradigm in politics had found its end at Waterloo, when the “world-spirit on horseback” (Hegel on Napoleon), the great redeemer of family and civil society, was forced to dismount. Is anti-anti-humanism then a theoretical tool for reconciliation among groups in

society? Hardly, since, as I have shown, its theoretical starting point amounts to

a double bind: the conceptual support system of position and determinate

negation is unquestioningly presupposed and equally unquestioningly rejected

as a “metaphysics of subjectivity.” As a consequence, the dialectical reconcilia- tion Richard Bernstein suggests is more miraculous than marvelous. Is it perhaps a usable critical tool, comparable precisely to Nietzsche’s “philosophy

of the hammer”? With a hammer one locates hollow spots in a construct, breaks

off what is rotten, and frees dormant forms. Due to the split option at the outset, anti-anti-humanism proves, however, to be what all Heidegger readers are familiar with, a broken hammer. “When its unusability is discovered, equipment becomes conspicuous.” 28 What does become conspicuous in this piece of slashed equipment is, I am afraid, the syndrome of repetition- compulsion. It can and should, for the sake of clarity, be put in terms of the Enlightenment tradition. That legacy is merely being claimed and claimed again by Richard Bernstein. The question is whether one is willing to think of praxis otherwise than in terms of determinations affecting an actor, otherwise than referentially. Concerning activities such as myth-telling and laboring, that willingness seems to have quelled most resistances. The repetition syndrome is at its deadliest in the axiom of all orthodoxies: Non nova, sed nove, no new teachings, only the old ones stated anew. This, not the step from referential to systemic analyses—from “humanism” to “anti-humanism”—is the true col- lapse of the enlightenment project. Kant defined enlightenment as “man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage.” 29 What is it that men have incurred as their oldest and most comforting tutelage? The representational dominance of ultimate referents. Their doubtful comfort will not be broken by reiterating “no-no” before another thinking, called for by the possibility of another beginning (the sense of novelty that, ironically, Richard Bernstein praises about the nineteenth century!), and requiring another praxis: the politics of mortals. Inasmuch as this other praxis consists in bringing down those referents already void, it—the politics of mortals, not anti-anti-humanism—truly releases men from their self-incurred tutelage.

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Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, ch. 3-5, trans. James Strachey (New York:

Liveright, 1961), pp. 12-37.


Jean Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions, trans. B. Frechtman (New York:

Philosophical Library, 1957), pp. 49-51.


Jean-Paul Sartre, “Materialism and Revolution,” in Literary and Philosophical Essays, trans.


Michelson (New York: Criterion, 1955), p. 56.


Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, trans. Alan Sheridan-Smith (London:

Humanities, 1976), p. 748.


Ibid, pp. 752 and 800.


Klaus Hartmann, Sartres Sozialphilosophie: Eine Untersuchung zur Critique de la raison dialectique (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1966), p. 193.


Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Vintage, 1970), p. 227.


Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B 472.


Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, ed. David F. Krell (New York: Harper, 1977), p. 241.


Grundstellung, ” e.g., What is A Thing? trans. W.B. Barton and V. Deutsch (Chicago:

Regnery, 1967), pp. 96 and 183.


Prägung,” e.g

Identity and Difference, trans. J. Stambaugh (New York: Harper, 1969),


62; “Gepräge,ibid., p. 58.


Gefüge, ” e.g., The Question of Being, trans. J.T. Wilde and W. Kluback (New Haven:

Twayne, 1958), p. 105.


Konstellation ,” e.g., The Question Concerning Technology, trans. W. Lovitt (New York:

Harper, 1977), p. 49.


entfalten,” e.g., The Question of Being, op. cit., p. 87, or “Austrag,” e.g., What is a Thing?, op. cit., p. 183.


freie Folge,On Time and Being, trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York: Harper, 1972), p. 52.


jähe Epochen,The Question Concerning Technology, op. cit., p. 54.


Vier Seminare (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1977), p. 125.


Identity and Difference, op. cit., pp. 51 and 67.


“Nietzsche,” The Will to Power as Art, vol. 1, trans. David F. Krell (New York: Harper, 1979), p. 20 (emphasis added).


The Question Concerning Technology, op. cit., p. 65.


Being and Time, trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson (New York: Harper, 1962), p. 377. The German text has “ursprüngliche Verwurzelung. ”


See ibid., p. 63 (the translators render the first term as “temporality” and the second as “Temporality”).


Vier Seminare, op. cit., p. 127.


On Time and Being, op. cit., p. 41 (the translator renders Ereignis here as “Appropriation”).


See above, note 20.


Basic Writings, op. cit., p. 225.


Pojetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper, 1971), p. 179.


Being and Time, op. cit., p. 102.


Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?” (A481), trans. and ed. Lewis White Beck, Kant: On History (Idianapolis: The Library of Liberal Arts, 1963), p. 3.