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The Verge of Philosophy

The Verge of Philosophy

by John Sallis

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The Verge of Philosophy is both an exploration of the limits of philosophy and a memorial for John Sallis’s longtime friend and interlocutor Jacques Derrida. The centerpiece of the book is an extended examination of three sites in Derrida’s thought: his interpretation of Heidegger regarding the privileging of the question; his account of the


The Verge of Philosophy is both an exploration of the limits of philosophy and a memorial for John Sallis’s longtime friend and interlocutor Jacques Derrida. The centerpiece of the book is an extended examination of three sites in Derrida’s thought: his interpretation of Heidegger regarding the privileging of the question; his account of the Platonic figure of the good; and his interpretation of Plato’s discourse on the crucial notion of the chora, the originating space of the universe.

Sallis’s reflections are given added weight—even poignancy—by his discussion of his many public and private philosophical conversations with Derrida over the decades of their friendship. This volume thus simultaneously serves to mourn and remember a friend and to push forward the deeply searching discussions that lie at the very heart of that friendship.

“All of John Sallis’s work is essential, but [this book] in particular is remarkable. . . . Sallis shows better than anyone I have ever read what it means to practice philosophy on the verge.”—Walter Brogan, Villanova University

Editorial Reviews

Graham Parkes
“Here is another brilliant book by one of our finest philosophers. The Verge of Philosophy continues Sallis’s thoughtful investigations into the Platonic dialogues, now in more explicit dialogue with Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida. In this profound and elegantly crafted work, Sallis extends lines of thinking developed in earlier writings—and the result bristles with scintillating insights.” —Graham Parkes, University of Hawaii

Michael Naas
“This is a remarkably clear, focused, easily readable and yet deeply profound meditation on the limits of philosophy. Written in rigorous and precise prose, it draws on Sallis’s immense erudition without letting that erudition burden the text. His meditations on philosophy are also put into thoughtful dialogue with his friendship with Derrida, particularly around their respective readings of Plato. Though we have come to expect work like this from Sallis, this text on the limits and origins of philosophy reads like a new beginning.”
Walter Brogan
“All of John Sallis’s work is essential, but The Verge of Philosophy in particular is remarkable. It is beautifully written with a mature clarity that belies its immense subtlety. Philosophy itself and the future of philosophy is the main concern, but this is also a book about the politics of music, about whether it is still possible for philosophy to sing and to hear the song of the gods. Sallis shows better than anyone I have read what it means to practice philosophy on the verge and how this might be possible.”

"A creative, original work of philosophy. Sallis attempts to walk the verge between and among the philosophers Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, and Plato. Although the text is relatively short . . . it is careful, rigorous, and dense, engaging issues that have become the hallmark of Sallis's creative contribution to philosophy. . . . For those interested in any of the philosophers addressed, this rich book . . . is a pleasure to read."
Library Journal

In this brief yet highly engaging book, Sallis (philosophy, Boston Coll.; Topographies) examines the limits and purpose of philosophy through the writings of Plato, Martin Heidegger, and longtime friend and interlocutor Jacques Derrida. Sallis explains that philosophy is a dynamic process whereby, like the escaped prisoner in Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" (The Republic), the philosopher is transformed by his or her knowledge. This knowledge brings philosophy to its limits, a point at which discourse and understanding become difficult and must be looked at through the philosophy that led it there; for Sallis, this philosophy is Platonism. He explains that in Plato's works, philosophy began to develop a distinction between the "intelligible" and the "sensible," which in turn provided the foundation for all succeeding philosophy. Sallis discusses the return to what he refers to as a new Platonism, which contains much of Plato's original thought but has also been brought to a new verge through Heidegger's and Derrida's writings on the philosopher. All told, Sallis has written a unique work that combines philosophical analysis with a heartfelt reflection on his friendship with Derrida.
—Scott Duimstra

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University of Chicago Press
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The Verge of Philosophy


The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2008 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-73431-6

Chapter One

Plato's Other Beginning

Beginning is what is most formidable.

Think of the beginning of a sentence or of an essay or of an entire book. The beginning, the very first word, must anticipate, before anything has been said, all that will be said. With the first word, the whole of what one would say must already be in play, even if one's intention never simply precedes its realization in speech, even if one genuinely knows what one wants to say only when one has succeeded in saying it. Or think of the beginning of an intricate geometrical proof, of how the first equation or construction must anticipate, before it has been traversed, the entire course of the proof. In order to begin, one must somehow know what, on the other hand, one cannot, as one begins, yet know. Or imagine a painter at the moment when he first puts brush to canvas. At that moment when he begins to paint, the entire picture must somehow be in view, even though as such it cannot be in view, not even, as we say, in the mind's eye. Imagine—or, though the prospect is daunting, at least try to imagine—a composer as he sets down the very first note or chord, hearing somehow at that moment the entire, still unsounded composition, the composition that even when sounded will necessarily be sounded and heard, not in a moment, but across an expanse of time. Could one ever hope to imagine how Beethoven, almost totally deaf, could have sensed where to begin so as to arrive, with artistic necessity, at the choral setting of An die Freude?

And yet—if bordering on the unimaginable—beginnings are made. Sometimes their character as beginnings is emphasized, as when one begins with a discourse about beginning. Or as in the final movement of the Ninth Symphony, which begins by quoting, in order, the themes of the preceding movements, interrupting each, in turn, before then letting the final theme begin to sound very softly in the double-basses, as if emerging from silent depths.

Even as a beginning is made—and one hardly knows how—it remains formidable. For one cannot but be keenly aware from the beginning, in the very moment when one begins, that the stakes are very high indeed. If the beginning is faulty or limited, everything will be compromised. Eventually one will be compelled to return to the beginning, to make another beginning that compensates for what was lacking in the first beginning. Or rather, to make another beginning that attempts insofar as possible to compensate: for one cannot always simply undo having already begun.

In the Platonic dialogues, too, beginning is nothing less than formidable. As interrogated and as enacted, beginnings are pervasive in the dialogues. For instance, the ascent represented and enacted at the center of the Republic is described as an ascent to the beginning of the whole ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) (Rep. 511b–c). It is also, at once, an ascent from the cave-like condition in which humans find themselves in the beginning—hence an ascent from one beginning to another, from—as Aristotle will put it—what is first for us to what is first in itself. Furthermore, one could think of the question of the city, the question that overarches the entire dialogue, as a question of beginning, as a question of how to begin anew with a city as secure as possible from the corruption to which political life is otherwise exposed. This aspect of the political question reaches its comedic climax when it turns out that the founding of such a city will require the expulsion of all who are more than ten years old. In order to begin anew, it must become a city of children (see Rep. 541a).

The Timaeus is even more permeated with the enactment and interrogation of beginnings. Indeed an injunction as to how to begin is set forth in the dialogue: "With regard to everything it is most important to begin at the natural beginning" (Tim. 29b). And yet—most remarkably—the Timaeus itself violates the very injunction it sets forth. Not only does it defer the beginning of Timaeus' speech, inserting prior to it speeches by Socrates and Critias that are quite different in character; but also, even once Timaeus begins to speak, it turns out that he has not begun at the natural beginning and so is eventually compelled by the very drift of the discourse to interrupt his discourse and set out on another, to make another beginning.

Even if this other beginning in the Timaeus has a certain distinctiveness, even if its sense is incomparable, it is not as such unique. Indeed the dialogues abound with various kinds of fresh starts and new beginnings. One of the most decisive occurs in the dialogue in which all the discursive and dramatic elements are brought to utmost concentration on the end, on death; precisely here, in the Phaedo, as the centralmost discourse of this dialogue, there is an account of Socrates' beginning, of his venturing another beginning. As he prepares to die, Socrates turns to the past, to his own beginning; he tells his friends the story of how he first began with a kind of direct investigation of nature and of how, after such investigations failed, he came to set out on a second sailing by turning from things to [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], making thus another beginning. But among all the polyphonic discourses of the Platonic dialogues, there are none in which this turn to 8'(@4 has not already been taken. It is always the second sailing that bears Platonic thought along. It is as though Platonic thought makes its first beginning only in launching another beginning, as if, in first beginning, it already sets out on another beginning.

* * *

It cannot but appear remarkable, then, that Heidegger writes of the first beginning in terms that, though generalized, more or less identify this beginning with Plato. At the very least it will be necessary to say, in response, that if indeed Plato's thought constitutes a first beginning, it will prove to be a far more complex beginning than the expression first beginning might at first suggest. For within this alleged first beginning there are, as the examples just cited show, multiple instances of another beginning.

Yet a great deal more specificity is required in order, first of all, to determine the precise sense in which Heidegger takes Platonic thought to be the first beginning and then, secondly, to hear the resonance evoked in the Platonic texts themselves by this characterization. In listening to this resonance, it will be a matter of determining whether these texts accord with and confirm the characterization of Plato's thought as first beginning or whether within these texts there are retreats that go unsounded and that can effectively recoil on that characterization.

What, then, does Heideggermean by first beginning? In Contributions to Philosophy this expression designates the beginning of philosophy, of what later comes to be called metaphysics. The first beginning occurs in and through the Platonic determination of being as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]. This determination establishes the distinction between intelligible [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] and sensible thing as the fundamental—that is, the founding—distinction of philosophy or metaphysics. This distinction provides then the fundamental framework for all subsequent philosophy or metaphysics. The sequence of determinations of and within this framework constitutes the history of metaphysics, which reaches its end when, in Nietzsche's thought, the distinction between intelligible and sensible is completely inverted and thus its possibilities finally exhausted.

In designating this beginning as the first beginning, Heidegger does not intend to suggest that it is a simple beginning. It is not a matter of a beginning made for the first time, preceded by nothing else of its kind. Indeed it turns out that what Heidegger takes to occur in Plato's thought is a beginning in the form of a transformation, a redetermination, a change. As founding metaphysics, this beginning is first only in distinction from the other beginning that would be ventured beyond the end of metaphysics. This other beginning is what Contributions to Philosophy would prepare—that is, this text is engaged in crossing over to the other beginning.

How are the two beginnings related? There are expressions in other texts, if not in Contributions itself, that suggest a certain mutual externality, such expressions as Überwindung—or even Verwindung—derMetaphysik. The relation would, then, be such that what was begun in the first beginning would have run its course, have come to its end, so that now this first beginning could be left behind—as something overcome, gotten over—as one ventures another beginning. And yet, there is no such externality: in venturing another beginning, one does not simply leave the first beginning behind; one does not simply abandon the metaphysics to which the first beginning gave rise. In Contributions to Philosophy Heidegger writes: "The other beginning is the more originary taking-over of the concealed essence of philosophy." Thus, in the other beginning something essential to philosophy that, on the other hand, remained concealed from philosophy is to be taken over in a way that is more originary than was the case in philosophy. It is to be taken over in such a way that it does not remain, as in philosophy, simply concealed.

Thus the other beginning, beginning beyond the end of metaphysics, is at the same time a return to the first beginning, a return that enters into the first beginning so as to grasp it more originarily than in the first beginning, so as to grasp somehow that which, though essential to the first beginning, remained—in the first beginning—concealed. The double character of this move, that it is a move beyond metaphysics that, at once, goes back into the beginning, is perhaps most succinctly expressed in the following passage from Contributions to Philosophy: "The leap into the other beginning is a return into the first beginning, and vice versa.... The return into the first beginning is ... precisely a distancing from it, a taking up of that distance-positioning [Fernstellung] that is necessary in order to experience what began in and as that beginning. For without this distance-positioning—and only a positioning in the other beginning is a sufficient one—we remain always, in an entangling way, too close to the beginning, insofar as we are roofed over and covered [überdacht und zugedeckt] by what issues from the beginning" (BP §91). One could say: what is decisive is to move through the first beginning, to move disclosively from the first beginning back to that which, though essential to it, remained, in the first beginning, concealed. What is decisive is the move from the intelligible-sensible framework that governed metaphysics back to what within that framework remained concealed. What is decisive is the move from the Platonic determination of being as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] back to that which, precisely through this determination, came to be concealed.

Heidegger insists on the distance required in order to carry out this move. He insists that sufficient distance is provided only by being positioned in the other beginning, that is, only from a stance beyond metaphysics, only from the position that results from twisting free of the Platonic-metaphysical distinction between intelligible and sensible. Only if one gets out from under the roof of metaphysics can one—according to Heidegger—find one's way back from the determination of being as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], back to that which came to be concealed precisely through this determination. Heidegger is insistent: only from the distance of the other beginning can one carry out this regress within—this regress back through—the first beginning.

It is this insistence that I want to put in question. My intent, however, is not to show that such a regress is broached at certain critical junctures in the history of metaphysics, though there are indeed crucial indications of this in, for instance, Plotinus, Schelling, and Nietzsche. Leaving open in the present context the question whether such a regress remains closed to those who remain under the roof of metaphysics, the question I want to raise concerns Plato himself. Can one mark in the Platonic texts themselves a regress from the determination of being as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] to that which subsequently in the history of metaphysics remains essentially concealed? Does Plato in founding metaphysics also destabilize it through a regression to that which escapes metaphysics? Does there belong to the first beginning a countermovement toward another beginning, Plato's other beginning?

In order to develop this question, it is necessary to focus on the interpretation of Plato that is at work in Heidegger's determination of Platonic thought as constituting the first beginning. This interpretation is primarily that expressed in Plato's Doctrine of Truth, the redaction of which belongs to the very years in which Heidegger composed Contributions to Philosophy and the other manuscripts closely linked to it. If one takes Contributions to Philosophy as carrying out primarily the leap into another beginning, one can regard Plato's Doctrine of Truth as carrying out the complementary return into the first beginning.

Since Plato's Doctrine of Truth seems to go furthest in this complementary direction, I shall limit my discussion to it. Although this text is well known—perhaps all too well known—I will need to crystallize the parameters and the determining schema of the interpretation developed in this text. In this way it will be possible to mark with some precision the limit of Heidegger's interpretation of Plato's thought as first beginning and also to draw from Heidegger's texts certain resources for rethinking what Heidegger puts in question, for rethinking this questionable moment beyond the debate with this text. Yet even as we retrace the configuration of Heidegger's text, some features may begin to strike us as strange, if not as outright provocative.

Radicalizing and ironizing an ancient distinction, Heidegger casts his interpretation as one directed to Plato's teaching (Lehre) regarding truth, as aiming to say what remains unsaid in the Platonic text. At the very outset—most remarkably—he says this unsaid, exposes in writing the unwritten teaching, thus already in the beginning circling back from the interpretation, still to come, that will uncover the hidden teaching. It is as if the text—this text on beginnings—began by transposing the end, the outcome of the interpretation, to the beginning. Even before the text to be interpreted is cited, Heidegger says what only the interpretation of that text can reveal, says the unsaid, writes the unwritten: "What remains unsaid there [that is, in the text still to be cited, translated, and interpreted] is a change [eine Wendung] in the determination of the essence of truth." From this beginning one can read off, in advance, most of the parameters as well as the determining schema of the ensuing interpretation. Two determinations of truth will be exhibited: first, the Preplatonic determination and, then, the determination that is effected in the Platonic text and that comes to prevail in the history of metaphysics. It is to be shown that in the Platonic text—specifically in the passage with which Book 7 of the Republic begins—a change is effected from the earlier determination to what will become the metaphysical determination. It will turn out that what effects this change, what drives the transition from one determination of truth to the other, is the Platonic determination of being as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.].

The schema can also be construed from the perspective of Contributions to Philosophy. Then, over against the exhibiting of the constitution of the first beginning, there would take shape a double gesture with respect to the older determination of truth: on the one hand, the regression that recovers it by moving through the first beginning; on the other hand, a demonstration of how in Plato's text a repression of this other determination is already operative.

Turning to the beginning of Book 7 of the Republic, where Socrates enjoins Glaucon to "make an image of our nature in its education and lack of education," Heidegger proceeds to interpret the passage that ensues, letting the interpretation be discreetly guided by the most telling words in Plato's text. One such word is [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], rendered as Bildung or, with reservations, as education. The image that Socrates makes for Glaucon, that he describes and asks Glaucon to envision, has to do with education. By casting what he says in relation to the image of a cave, Socrates makes an image of our nature in its education and lack of education. Thus the image that Socrates actually makes and Glaucon envisions is not just that of a cave but rather of the movement through which the soul undergoes education. The expression by which Socrates describes this movement is [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], a revolution or turning-around of the entire soul. Heidegger emphasizes this turning-around; and in order to designate that to which this turning-around is oriented, he brings into play another of the telling words used by Socrates in the passage. It is for Heidegger the most telling word: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], which Heidegger translates, not as das Wahre (the true), but as das Unverborgene (the unconcealed). In this translation, in the shift that it effects, Heidegger's entire interpretation is broached.


Excerpted from The Verge of Philosophy by JOHN SALLIS Copyright © 2008 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John Sallis is the Frederick J. Adelmann Professor of Philosophy at Boston College. He is the author of many books, including, most recently, Transfigurements: On the True Sense of Art, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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