Heidegger and the “Danger” of the Ancestral

First caveat into this post: I breezed quickly through Paul Ennis’s recent paper on speculative realism.

Paul is more convinced than I ever was by Meillassoux’s arguments about the ancestral. But what Paul attempts to do, at least implicitly, is strengthen Meillassoux’s argument by moving it from an epistemological question to an ontological one, framed by a discussion of Heidegger. (For those who are new to the topic: Meillassoux in his book After Finitude claims that post-Kantian phenomenology can’t account for events that happened prior to the rise of human consciousness, since those events are prior to any correlation between subject and object.) But I’m still puzzled as to how the ancestral would be a “danger” in Heidegger’s terms. Here are, I take it, the two important passages from Ennis on this.

For Heidegger the ancestral is not merely something radically unknowable but it is potentially a danger [die Gefahr]. There are good reasons for Heidegger to repress the aporia of the ancestral since it is not only a time before being but more strictly a time without temporality [die Zeitlichkeit] and therefore something completely inexplicable within the context of fundamental ontology. It is for Heidegger not a meaningful topic and might even act as a dangerous curiosity [die Neugier] covering over the present danger of technics [die Technik].

The Gestell is clearly a major preoccupation for Heidegger. It has
multiple manifestations open to phenomenological investigation. The absent
danger [die Gefahr] of the ancestral is here also deficient in that it is indicated,
or mediated, via beings but is not encountered directly and it has no direct
relation to Dasein. There is no intuition, no ideal content, and no “corresponding object” other than the arche-fossil. In order to consider ancestral objects real rather than ideal then one must find a way to think about these objects outside the correlation. Since temporality, which is always the binding tie or horizon between being and thought, disallows this possibility we must look elsewhere for our mediating access point. This requires I contend, that we locate a space outside the space of pure ideality. It is, perhaps surprisingly, Heidegger who opens up such a space. If we can prove that Heidegger allows for real objects then one also posits a space of real objects, and if such a space emerges then one confirms that there is a space of real objects operating outside the bounds of human temporality. It is but a short step then to extend this insight to the ancestral realm.

You can see that Ennis begins to build here an argument for trying to move Heidegger towards a certain realism. But he doesn’t quite get there in the paper, and so I’ll leave that aside. But why is the ancestral a “danger”? This danger refers to a specific epoch in which the dangers of a certain heightening technics perhaps leads us to engage the Gestell. Perhaps. Is the ancestral, or a fixation upon it, something that could only come about in this epoch? (Leave aside for the moment the technology needed to provide evidence for ancestral facts, such as the age of the Earth.) What is the link between technics and the ancestral?


  1. At least one problem with the paper is that it is disjointed – but it is a chopped up paper edited down to fit the timeslot and one part I did cut out was my broader explanation for why the ancestral could be considered an ‘absent’ danger – i.e. not a danger in the sense that technics is a danger for Heidegger but a danger in that it encourages thinking about a time with no relation to the task of thinking (the ontological difference i.e. interest in the ancestral is for Heidegger just another ontic enterprise). Discussing the ancestral would also be a way to sneak the natural attitude back in – Husserl discusses evolution along these lines (Heidegger would probably have cried if he’d been given a chance to read Dennett).

    But yes why the link between technics and the ancestral? Well I do want mean anything more than how the technical is precisely what allows us to build up a picture of the ancestral so yes I do mean the rather mundane fact that it is technics that works to open up this ‘time before being’ (the tools are what now expand the horizon including a horizon that discloses a time that is not ‘temporal’ – in the being and time sense).

    Of course I’m also intimating to the various traces of absence that are all over Heidegger – and this I owe to Derrida and so in footnotes (what is absent in my paper!) in the diss I tend to point that out as well.

    To put it differently I accept with Heidegger that ‘this is no longer the earth’ that we dwell on but also that when I see the stars (and I never see them as such but a kind of deferred or delayed image of them) I do not see them as Heidegger did and I can’t since the degree of knowledge I have (my realist inheritance) and he had access to as so radically different. But I think Heidegger had a feeling for what was to come on this point and so he only ever makes casual references to it so in that sense it is a kind of absent danger to come (and that for us has arrived).

    As you can see this kind of discussion would have been a little bit out of place in a paper delivered to people who were not all into Heidegger and so I avoided dwelling on it too much – I did not want to alienate my audience with too much cryptic Heidegger chat!


Comments are closed.