Back to Where We've Never Been: Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida on Tradition and History

This paper will address the topic of “tradition” by exploring the ways that Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jacques Derrida each looked to return to traditional texts in order to overcome a perceived crisis or delimiting fault in the contemporary thought of their respective presents. For Heidegger, this meant a return to the pre-Socratics of “early Greek thinking.” For Levinas, it entailed a return to the sacred Jewish texts of the Talmud. For Derrida, it was the return to texts that embodied the “Western metaphysical tradition,” be it by Plato, Descartes, Rousseau, or Marx. I then want to ask whether these reflections can be turned so as to shed light on three resilient trends in the practice of history that I will label positivist, speculative or teleological, and constructivist. By correlating the ways that Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida utilize and employ “tradition” with the historical trends of positivism, speculative/teleological history, and constructivism, I hope to produce an engagement between theorists whose concerns implicate history even though they may not be explicitly historical, and historians who may not realize the ways that their work coincides with the claims of these theorists.

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