Phenomenology and Metaphysics

  • Dan Zahavi
Part of the Contributions to Phenomenology book series (CTPH, volume 49)


What is the relation between phenomenology and metaphysics? Is phenomenology metaphysically neutral, is it without metaphysical bearings, is it a kind of propaedeutics to metaphysics, or is phenomenology, on the contrary, a form of metaphysics, perhaps even the culmination of a particular kind of metaphysics (of presence)? What should be made clear from the outset is that there is no easy or straightforward answer to the question concerning the relation between phenomenology and metaphysics. The term “metaphysics” is simply too ambiguous. Even among phenomenologists the term is used and understood in quite different ways, and the answer to the question has consequently varied accordingly. Let me briefly illustrate this with a few examples:
  • Many of Heidegger’s writings in the decade after Sein und Zeit have the word “metaphysics” in their title; just think of Was ist Metaphysik, Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik, Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik, and Einfiihrung in die Metaphysik. Some have even dubbed this period Heidegger’s “metaphysical decade”, and suggested that Heidegger turned to the language of metaphysics in order to complete the phenomenological project of Sein und Zeit (Crowell 2001, 225, 229). Later on, of course, Heidegger became far more critical towards metaphysics, and conceived of it as being characterized by a forgetfulness of Being. Metaphy sics investigates beings, it does not concern itself with Being qua Being (Heidegger 1978, 362). To put it differently, metaphysics consistently thinks of Being as a kind of ontic entity. This is why Heidegger eventually described metaphysics as a thinking of identity, that is, as a thinking that seeks to annul the ontological difference between Being and beings. Either metaphysics understands Being as the totality of beings, or (more frequently) Being is thought of as the ground of beings (be it in the form of logos, idea, energeia, substantiality, subjectivity, will, etc.). But to think of Being as the ground of beings is, according to Heidegger, still to think of it as something ontic, namely as the highest (or most fundamental) being. The clearest example of this can be found in the classical proofs of the existence of God, which is one of the reasons why Heidegger characterized metaphysics as onto-thea-logical. Ultimately, Heidegger would emphasize the need for substituting the conceptual apparatus of metaphysics for a more. authentic type of thinking (Heidegger 1978, 312, 315, 363).

  • In Totalité et infini, Levinas criticizes Heideggerian phenomenology for remaining too subservient to ontology. For Levinas, ontology is a totalizing enterprise. It is a philosophy of power characterized by a relentless movement of absorption and reduction. It absorbs the foreign and different into the familiar and identical. It reduces the Other to the Same (Lévinas 1990, 33, 38). In contrast, metaphysics is defined as an openness to Otherness, as an acknowledgment of the infinite. In fact, metaphysics is nothing but a movement of transcendence, namely the very relation to the absolute Other (Lévinas 1990, 32, 44). Given this alternative between ontology and metaphysics, the following question then arises: what has priority? Is, as Heidegger claims, the relation to the Other relative to an understanding of Being, or is it rather the relation to the Other that conditions the understanding of Being? In Totalité et infini, Levinas’ answer is unequivocal: “Ontology presupposes metaphysics” (Lévinas 1990, 39).

  • In the conclusion of L’être et le néant, Sartre discusses the metaphysical implications of his preceding analyses and defines metaphysics as “the study of individual processes which have given birth to this world as a concrete and particular totality. In this sense metaphysics is to ontology as history is to sociology” (Sartre 1943, 683). Whereas ontology describes the structure of a being, metaphysics seeks to explain an event, namely the upsurge of the foritself (Sartre 1943, 685).

  • As for Derrida, he, of course, is known for having argued that phenomenology, in spite of itself, remains a kind of metaphysics (Derrida 1972, 187). Despite its attempt at a new beginning, phenomenology uncritically took over a series of metaphysical core concepts and categories, and thereby remained caught in the very frame of thought that it sought to overcome. Among these concepts, the notion of presence looms large. Traditional metaphysics defined Being as identity in presence. Although Husserlian phenomenology attempted to move beyond this framework, it never really succeeded, but remained convinced that identity is more basic than difference, proximity more original than distance, and presence prior to every kind of absence and negativity (Derrida 1972, 36–37). This is not only clear from its use of the notion of evidence—the measure of truth and validity—which is defined as intuitive self-givenness, but also from its understanding of transcendental subjectivity, which (according to Derrida) is conceived of as pure self-presence, as a self-sufficient immanence, purified from all types of exteriority (Derrida 1972, 187, 207, 1967a, 9).1 As for the Heideggerian destruction of metaphysics, Derrida also has his doubts: “But all these destructive discourses and all their analogues are trapped in a kind of circle. This circle is unique. It describes the form of the relation between the history of metaphysics and the destruction of the history of metaphysics. There is no sense in doing without the concepts of metaphysics in order to shake metaphysics. We have no language—no syntax and no lexicon—which is foreign to this history; we can pronounce not a single destructive proposition that has not already had to slip into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest” (Derrida 1967b, 412). Ultimately, we will have to content ourselves with a perpetual problemati sation. A new beginning is not possible.


Intentional Object Transcendental Phenomenology Metaphysical Question Transcendental Idealism Husserlian Phenomenology 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dan Zahavi
    • 1
  1. 1.University of CopenhagenDenmark

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