Book Symposium (author’s response): Words Underway by Carolyn Culbertson, week 3

This week is the final installment of our book symposium featuring Dr. Carolyn Culbertson’s recently published book, Words Underway: Continental Philosophy of Language. Below you will find Dr. Culbertson’s response to  Dr. Jessica Elkayam’s (Sam Houston State University) and Dr. Dave Vessey’s  (Grand Valley State University) reflections on her book. Enjoy!

(Both Dave Vessey’s and Jessica Elkayam’s commentaries were presented at the author-meets-critic panel at the 2019 North American Society for Philosophical Hermeneutics, hosted by the University of Oregon.)

Response, Author Meets Critics Session, NASPH 2019

I want to thank Prof. Elkayam and Prof. Vessey for their thoughtful remarks on my book and for the opportunity to think more about my general approach in the project. Both provide useful synopses of the overall argument while focusing on different aspects of the project. Prof. Vessey’s remarks focus especially on how I develop the point that there is a need for a theory of language that can explain: (1) the important role language plays in how we inhabit the world, (2) the role that interpersonal communication plays in this world-formative power of language, and (3) the way that linguistic alienation, in the various forms that it takes, can thus be world-diminishing, even world-shattering. As Prof. Vessey points out, my argument in Words Underway is that these matters have not traditionally received much attention in the field we call “philosophy of language” but that they are developed extensively in the Continental tradition. Both Prof. Vessey and Prof. Elkayam highlight the centrality of the theme of linguistic alienation in the book. Prof. Elkayam’s remarks are especially helpful in the way that she distinguishes between the two senses of alienation from language that I discuss in the book. As she explains, I discuss both the sense in which alienation is an essential part of linguistic being and the sense in which it is a distortion of our linguistic being. It is this second sense of alienation (that Elkayam refers to as alienation2) that, I argue, is the object of normative critique in the Continental tradition.

Let me focus now more explicitly on Prof. Vessey’s comments and, in particular, on the challenges he posed to me regarding my inclusion of certain figures in the book. First, in his remarks, Prof. Vessey suggests that there is a fundamental incompatibility between how Gadamer approaches language, on the one hand, and how Derrida and Blanchot approach language, on the other. He argues that Gadamer is in fundamental disagreement with Derrida, for example, when Derrida claims in his Monolingualism of the Other that there is an “originary alienation that institutes every language as the language of the other.” He thus suggests that my argument would be better served by sticking with theorists who are compatible with Gadamer’s hermeneutic approach rather than Derrida and Blanchot.

I concede that, if we take Derrida’s point to be that in every way and in every instance, language transcends understanding, then Derrida’s claim is at odds with Gadamer’s own claims about language. In Words Underway, however, I have tried to present a reading of Derrida and Blanchot that highlights the dialectical dimension of their conception of language. In the third chapter, for example, I describe their interest in post-Holocaust literature as motivated by a need to respond to this literature – a literature that is precisely hard to respond to insofar as it is hermetic, pain-stricken, and tied to a scene of trauma. I have followed Derrida in arguing that reading such literature is an instance where language appears as other – not in an absolute sense where language is beyond understanding but in the sense that it makes a claim on us, calling for a proper response, a response of understanding. This is also how I read Blanchot’s argument that language can at times have the function of negation. I will admit to reading Derrida and Blanchot a little against the grain here. However, I do so because I take issue with the direction of the grain, which I think was established during a period in Continental philosophy where it seems we had only two choices – to embrace dialectical thinking or to be attentive to alterity. It is in this context that Gadamer and Derrida could not have a productive conversation and where, I think, each came to symbolize one side of this opposition.

One of things that draws me to Gadamer’s work, however, is that I think he actually provides a way out of this false dichotomy. His is not an account of understanding that avoids dealing with the other, the unpredictable, the uncanny. Nor, however, is it one that treats such an encounter as the absolute limit of thought. Instead, Gadamer argues that understanding takes place precisely in those encounters that pull us up short, demanding of us that we reflect on the prejudices we carry with us at that time and that we transcend our given horizon toward new possibilities. Incidentally, let me say that, as a teacher, Gadamer’s description of understanding has been very influential for me, because it helps us to see how learning is still possible after Meno’s paradox. Gadamer shows us that one needn’t already be familiar with what one is to understand. In fact, the unfamiliarity of the object, the non-coincidence between it and one’s prejudices, is a necessary condition for learning to take place. Gadamer’s argument also interests me as a philosopher who thinks a lot about the social and interpersonal dimensions of understanding. These encounters with the unfamiliar are the very encounters where many others would say that understanding is impossible. I worry about the ethical and political implications of reaching that conclusion. So, in Words Underway, I’ve attempted to explain how resources in the Continental tradition can help us to avoid that conclusion.

Prof. Vessey argues that, for Gadamer, “language is first and foremost our openness to the world,” and that since it is “that which makes possible openness to any other,” “it can never be other.” Simply put, I agree with the premise but not with the conclusion. Consider the title of the first two sections of the third part of Truth and Method: “Language as the Medium of Hermeneutic Experience” and “Language as Determination of the Hermeneutic Object.” These sections each identify distinct moments in the process of understanding. Language functions, as Gadamer explains, as the medium of hermeneutic experience. In this role as medium, it is, as Prof. Vessey says, “our openness to the world” and “it makes possible openness to any other.” However, we must also talk about what it means that language is also a determination of the hermeneutic object and that Gadamer describes the hermeneutic object par excellence, the text, as a “lack of immediacy,” – a lack that, Gadamer insists, is “not a defect,” since “this apparent lack, the abstract alienness of all ‘texts,’ uniquely expresses the fact that everything in language belongs to the process of understanding” (407). Texts, then, can present themselves as non-immediate, as requiring interpretation. They can make us grapple with the prejudices that we inevitably bring with us as we try to understand them. Similarly, Gadamer describes how other linguistic ‘objects’ – a foreign text or the speech of another that we encounter in genuine conversation – provide similar occasions for understanding to emerge. In sum, language is the both the medium and the object of hermeneutic experience. Both of these moments belong to the process of understanding.

This process is dialogical. I always bring language with me as an important part of the fore-structure of my understanding, but that fore-structure is not set in stone. Although we know that linguistic concepts and habits of language change slowly, they do change, and they do so through these educational, hermeneutic encounters. This is why “my language” is never just an unchangeable pre-schematization of experience. I agree with Gadamer when in Truth and Method he says that “language has its true being only in dialogue, in coming to an understanding” (462). Because of this, I highlight dialogical alienation throughout the book. In fact, I do not think we can understand any kind of linguistic alienation (e.g., the depressive patient that I consider in Chapter 5 or the survivor of trauma that I consider in Chapter 3) without taking seriously the connection between this alienation and dialogue. In modern liberal societies like our own, where we tend to think about human flourishing as the non-relational autonomy of an individual or a group, when we are attentive to forms of silencing, the tendency is usually to think that non-intervention is the solution. We think: if we just back off, those who have been silenced will talk, and they’ll talk in the words authentic to them. I think that such an approach is itself alienating, as it fails to recognize that our capacity for speech means little if it doesn’t function as a way of arriving at mutual understanding with others. This is why I argue on behalf of Kristeva’s approach to connecting with depressive patients, and it is why at the end of my chapter on “Rethinking Women’s Silence,” I argue:

Such linguistic alienation cannot be properly understood with a model that brackets out the influence of others on our speech, taking this kind of mediation as a violation of our linguistic authenticity. This model, which contemporary identity politics makes quite tempting, overlooks the essential role that others have in our linguistic identification and risks rendering invisible the value of empathetic listening alongside other forms of interlocutory caretaking (79).

In other words, for me, the proper, dialectical response to linguistic alienation is genuine engagement in dialogue. This is why I insist on understanding that linguistic alienation that is the object of normative critique (what Prof. Elkayam calls alienation2) as a distortion of a kind of alienation that is intrinsic to us as linguistic beings (alienation1).

Next, Prof. Vessey questions my choice to engage with Heidegger’s thought in the book. There is much to say in response to Prof. Vessey’s provocative remarks about reading Heidegger, and I take the questions raised by his remarks to be very germane to hermeneutic inquiry, as they pertain very much to interpretation, critique, and tradition – all essential subjects for hermeneutic investigation. In the interest of time, I will just say a couple of things here about the points on which I share Vessey’s concerns and why I think, nevertheless, reading and engaging Heidegger’s work remains important. First, I follow Gadamer in believing that dialogue is essential to our thinking and flourishing as human beings. As should be clear throughout Words Underway, I think that opportunities for dialogue (and critical self-dialogue) are all around us, and thus that there is no shortage of sites where significant hermeneutic dialogue can and should take place. I thus consider the narrow historical scope of Heidegger’s conception of dialogue (evident especially in his narrow focus on modern Germany’s dialogue with ancient Greece) a significant shortcoming in his work. While it is true that not every exchange of words between different people is a genuine conversation (as not only Heidegger’s discussion of idle talk but also studies in critical pedagogy make clear), I think we should indeed worry about a philosopher who loses faith too easily in the deliberative power of the pluralistic communities that define modern, liberal democracies. I say this, because I think that loss of faith in this power can open the door to a dangerous backlash against modern liberal democracies, and this backlash seems to play an essential role in the formation of modern fascism.

With the resurgence of fascist tendencies in several countries around the world today, I think it is especially important today to revisit ideas, movements, and texts that have become part of canonical culture, examining how they may wittingly or unwittingly either reinforce or defend against fascist tendencies. This being said, I do not think that we should simply stop reading any text that contains arguments found to complicit in these tendencies. In many cases, it is important to read these texts, articulate where the problematic arguments are, and use this as the basis for a conversation about our own times. This is not the same thing as treating the text like a public monument. It is, instead, using the text as a basis for a conversation. How do I do this in Words Underway? While the book does not directly address how ideas about language may make up part of a fascist worldview, the focus in the last three chapters is on the importance of challenging hegemonic discourses that attempt to speak for a people while simultaneously denying some of them real agency within these discourses. If this analysis helps people better understand how forms of political power can bring about linguistic alienation of this kind and what is wrong with such a scenario, then I think it helps us to think through what are for me some of the more problematic aspects of Heidegger’s philosophy of language.

Let me turn next to Prof. Elkayam’s remarks and, in particular, to two questions that she raises that I found particularly helpful. First, Prof. Elkayam makes the observation that I slip between speaking about world (singular) and worlds (plural) in the book. She wonders if “an ontologically singular conception of world aligns with the enabling conditions of language acquisition (and thus our vulnerable openness to a closed future), while the ontically plural conception of worlds aligns with the variety of ways we live our immersion (some more plurally than others, recalling Anzaldúa’s mestiza).” I can see where the semantic slippage would cause some confusion, and I am thankful for the opportunity to reflect on what caused this unintentional slippage in my language. For a long time, I have found it helpful to talk about the different worlds we inhabit in a phenomenological sense. I take this to be one of the major gains of Heidegger’s discussion in Being and Time of the concernful dealings [der Umgang] within which things show themselves proximally and for the most part. This discussion, I think, has proven fruitful for phenomenological projects after Heidegger that have been interested in examining the diverse forms that lived experience can take and the conflicted selves that can emerge because of this heterogeneity. For this reason, I sometimes talk about worlds.

That said, I think there is a danger when we imagine these worlds as self-enclosed, self-referential systems. For this reason, the term world and worlds (and, likewise, worldviews) can be equally misleading. As I explained previously in response to Prof. Vessey, to inhabit a world is not just to have a set of pre-schemas that, when applied, are indifferent to what is not already assimilated to them. Rather, we grapple with what we do not yet understand and hopefully expand the limits of our understanding through these encounters. I describe this in Words Underway as the dialogical process of understanding. Of course, the sites of linguistic alienation that I discuss in the book are all places where a dialogical process of understanding has run aground. It is largely by exploring what goes wrong in these situations that I try to bring into clear view the ideal of dialogical understanding.

Regarding this last methodological point, Prof. Elkayam asks: “Does alienated experience not have the potential to speak back to the originary tear in the fabric of time that both bounds our mortality and opens the intervals of possibility through which we move?  Does this potential not make the alienated most qualified to speak to the ontological structure of human experience, not as fetishized others instrumentalized for alētheiac disclosure, but as meriting an ontic distinction with ontological purchase to which particularly those privileged to not experience such ‘distinction’ are compelled to pay especially close attention?” While I do not have any adequate response at the time to Prof. Elkayam’s invitation to speak about the connection between linguistic alienation and mortality, I would like to take her question as an invitation to briefly speak here at the end to the relationship between my project and others that theorize how people can be marginalized and disempowered within forms of discourse. Many of the experiences of linguistic alienation described in Words Underway call for what Miranda Fricker calls epistemic justice and the hermeneutic virtues that enable it (Fricker, 2007). One also thinks here of the work of feminist standpoint theorists who have argued for the epistemological necessity of theorizing from the standpoint of the oppressed. For epistemic justice theorists and standpoint theorists, when we cease to attend to these standpoints, we miss out on the development of our own understanding. Like these theorists, I believe that the development of understanding must proceed by attending to sites of linguistic alienation. However, the theory of linguistic alienation itself does not simply derive from any one of these standpoints. As Uma Narayan (2004) and Georgia Warnke (2017) have argued, one who occupies the standpoint of the oppressed does not necessarily have a critical theory of social reality on their own. For this reason, there is a lot more work to be done clarifying the relationship between these critical dialogical theories of understanding and the plurality of worlds in which people live, many of those worlds being shaped by forces of oppression. My hope is that the account of linguistic being, dialogical understanding, and linguistic alienation that I offer in Words Underway makes a substantial contribution to this effort.

I thank both Prof. Vessey and Prof. Elkayam for the thoughtful readings that they have offered and for their helpful questions. I thank also the North American Society for Philosophical Hermeneutics for hosting this session at the University of Oregon and for Prof. Nielsen at Hermeneutical Movements for hosting the transcript of our exchange for the benefit of other readers.

Book Symposium: Words Underway, by Carolyn Culbertson, Week 2

Welcome to week 2 of our book symposium featuring Dr. Carolyn Culbertson’s recently published book, Words Underway: Continental Philosophy of Language. This week we present Dr. Jessica Elkayam’s (Sam Houston State University) reflections on Culbertson’s book. Next week we will post Dr. Culbertson’s response. Enjoy!

(Both Dave Vessey’s and Jessica Elkayam’s commentaries were presented at the author-meets-critic panel at the 2019 North American Society for Philosophical Hermeneutics, hosted by the University of Oregon.)

Enriched by the Thousand Darknesses of Deathbringing Speech: A Response to Carolyn Culbertson’s Words Underway

I.

I’d like to begin today by offering my thanks to the Executive Committee for the invitation to engage with Carolyn Culbertson’s excellent book, which is not only a welcome, but a unique contribution – as much to Continental philosophy as to hermeneutic phenomenology and feminist theory.   In the Acknowledgments to Words Underway, Culbertson notes indebtedness to her mentor Jon Lysaker for the standard of clarity she sets as the companion to rigor in her writing.  In my view, she has so well achieved this simultaneous end and homage that the reader can be tricked into thinking the subject matter of the book is as easy as it is accessible.  But like the performance of a gifted dancer, such ease is an illusion hard won, in this case by the clear effort to distill the object of study down to its essence.  What this means for the humble reader who endeavors to speak to this pithy volume is that so much emerges from the unpacking that it is almost even harder to be exhaustive or at least moderately global in approach than if one were responding to a five hundred page tome.  Thus I propose to acquaint you with the broad brush strokes of Culbertson’s project and to alight on two key questions that aim to speak to some of Culbertson’s foundational concerns.

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Culbertson sets up from word one to ascribe to a certain Kristevan notion of the subject, i.e., to the subject as speaking being, in whose speaking its very subjectivity is inscribed.  However, though Kristeva is a key player in Culbertson’s project, and indeed will take center stage in Chapter Five, “The Omnipotent Word of Medical Diagnosis and the Silence of Depression,” Culbertson resists Kristeva’s formulation in favor of her own: linguistic being.  Moreover, though Culbertson will explore the ontological implications of the human relation to language, she does not define the human as linguistic being so as to elaborate a taxonomic ontology of the one that speaks.

Rather, Culbertson stresses the status of language as a “technological invention, an artificial product that humans first started to develop many thousands of years ago and have been gradually transforming ever since” (1).  The notion of language as an invention, as a tool – the acquisition of which we cannot witness as an event in the evolution of the species (1) – anticipates Culbertson’s feminist commitment to worlds that could be otherwise, to worlds that structurally involve alterity but that needn’t (or perhaps better shouldn’t) systematically obstruct targeted inhabitants from meeting the foundational linguistic conditions for flourishing.  Culbertson brings such obstruction under the rubric of linguistic alienation, about which I shall say a good deal more, but for now let it suffice that, consonant with many of the Continental strands of feminism with which she clearly identifies, Culbertson strategically undermines the presumptions of nature as a first effort to hold space for otherwise silenced testimonials. 

Balancing the claim to the artificiality of language as human invention, on the other hand, Culbertson emphasizes its importance to human development.  Again, while we cannot witness the acquisition of language in the evolution of the species, we can witness it in the life of the child whose world increases as much in depth as it does in nuance through the process of habituating to language, first external and only later “something much more intimate” (1).   As with the acquisition of a skill, use of language becomes more fluid over time; in fact we incorporate it as a part of ourselves from which we are less inclined to recognize having ever been separated. I believe this is what Culbertson means when she insists that we become linguistic beings, a theme she elaborates in Chapter Three, where she argues such becoming is not something we attain to once and for all at some fixed threshold in development; “it is ongoing…we continue this becoming for the rest of our lives” (45). 

Perhaps out of sensitivity to the temptation to regard the development of a subject as though in a vacuum (too often the result of our diagrammatic philosophical imagination’s effort to sketch in convenient stick-figures), Culbertson emphasizes the interpersonal power of words.  As linguistic beings, we can be struck by the impact of others’ words, as in the joyous, though arguably rare experience whereby others’ expression gives voice to something we had only previously sensed but never fully understood.  However, Culbertson cautions us to recognize, this is only “half the story” (2).  For the linguistic being’s reliance upon language to found its identity can also be a “source of alienation” that takes form both momentarily (as when we experience frustration in bringing a thought adequately to word) or chronically – when, for example, “the terms of the deliberation have been stacked against any genuine disclosure” or “attempts to communicate routinely fail, as can happen in cases of trauma” (2).  In either case, that the linguistic being experiences alienation evinces “the importance of language for our existence,” indeed so much so that when we experience a certain species of linguistic alienation, our very mode of existence has been unsettled (handout, #1: a quotation followed by a schematic that gives you the sense of the broader role of LA in CC’s philosophy of language),

II.

In brief, linguistic alienation expresses itself in two modes, the first of which – as the cause of extreme suffering – should be, at the least, the subject of normative critique, and the other of which, by contrast, is essential to human flourishing.[1]  Culbertson’s strategy is to use the first mode of alienation to demonstrate the short-sightedness of traditional (i.e., analytic) philosophy of language.  On account of its commitment to language as the static possession of a community of speakers (who, insofar as they contract to speak and share it, relate to it identically), analytic philosophy of language is unable to account for linguistic alienation, as a consequence of which it fails to contend with it at the intersection of epistemology and ethics.  As such, and in spite of its democratic aspirations, analytic philosophy of language not only violates the need for a phenomenological fidelity to the ways in which linguistic beings actually live language[2] – adaptively, as an ongoing revisionary process, with differing degrees of mastery and control, modulation and voice – but also fails to mobilize a response to injustice sufficient to initiate significant change. 

The primary instances of this injustice that Culbertson will take to be the phenomena of her careful analysis and to which I will most frequently refer are the suffocation/co-optation of the voice in the trauma of the Holocaust (Chapter 3) and the recourse to silence in response to a discursive, yet alien or estranged self-understanding that characterizes female depression (Chapter 5).  In other words, because traditional philosophy of language has been so focused on dissecting the idiom it takes to be ultimately determinative of the lens through which human existence makes sense of itself – in a kind of closed loop the likes of which it seems reiterates what Rivera called the logic of the social – phenomenologically evidentiary experiences of alienation that demonstrate distantiation (estrangement) within the idiom call to be reckoned with all the more forcefully. 

That said, and the reason one might be tempted to regard the alienation operative in injustice as derivative, Culbertson insists that “in another sense, alienation is intrinsic to our relationship to language and comprises part of what makes linguistic activity so important to human fulfillment” (8, emphasis mine).  In her expansion of this claim, we encounter a favored phrasing, viz., that language occasionally “pulls us up short,” i.e., that we have an experience of language as failing to immediately recognize, understand, or master (hence Culbertson’s eventual identification of such language as non-immediate).  The image of being pulled up short suggests that our understanding cannot go the distance and is left hanging.  It thereby experiences an interruption in the flow of recognitive meaning-making that compels us “to be more attentive to what we are trying to understand, and, in turn, more reflective on and potentially critical of our habitual ways of recognizing and interpreting what we encounter” (8). 

Thus, being left hanging[3] – having been pulled up short – we come to occupy an interrogative posture that, while it is temporarily alienated from the linguistic milieu, is nevertheless (for Gadamer at least, as Culbertson’s Chapter Two attests[4]) a normal part of reading a text and engaging in conversation with another (8).[5]  The suspension of habits of interpretation as well as the continual adjustment of projected meaning are key ways in which alienation – in its positive valence as a species of distance or non-immediate openness[6] opposed to the immediate possession of the instantaneously mastered – is not a source of suffering, but can even, by strengthening the claim of conversation or text,[7] be a source of fascination or joy (8).   Culbertson continues, and here I quote her at length because what she says, I would argue, reveals the stakes of the project as a whole (handout, #2):

“…Although emphasizing…both can create confusion at times, both forms of alienation are important to consider and indeed…must even be considered in relation to one another.  It is important, after all, to resist oppressive forms of social organization that leave people alienated from language…[but] if we think that the ultimate goal of such resistance should be to restore for people a relationship to language that is fully immediate, without the possibility of ever having their linguistically embedded habits of thinking challenged in dialogue with another… [this goal] would be ethically and politically problematic in that it would mean shutting people off from other voices that have yet to speak and be understood, that await participation in the living system of language.  More primordially, it would be problematic in that our openness to dialogue with the other and the critical self-relation that such openness entails are intrinsic parts of our linguistic being.  Without this openness, we become creatures of a different kind” (8-9, emphases mine).

Noting the two points of emphasis in the quotation – on the two modes of linguistic alienation that must be considered in relation to one another, and on the ontologically foundational openness (which, if compromised would significantly alter what it means to be human) – I would add that interpreters of Culbertson’s argument should resist the temptation to suggest that the alienation that characterizes exertions of power to stifle, to silence, and thus to interfere with the flourishing of a linguistic being derives from the alienation intrinsic to the linguistic being’s way of being as the distantiation always at work within language that maintains its horizonal openness to interpersonal relationality, making understanding an act of suspension, deferral, and adaptation rather than one of mastery. 

Certainly in the order of priority, intrinsic alienation is primary (alienation1) and the alienation of injustice secondary (alienation2).  But the relation that obtains between them is something more complex than an order of rank or emergence akin to ontological conditions for ontic manifestation.  It seems instead that [handout, #3] Culbertson wants to ground the normative critique of alienation2 in its interference with the function and flow of alienation1, not to argue that alienation2is a lesser species of alienation1, a hierarchical inferior.  As such, (2) does emerge from (1), but only insofar as it, by definition, frustrates or obstructs the function of (1).  As linguistic beings, we need the space of estrangement.  It is like a breath of possibility, an open…likely silent… interval that enables our very presence to/with our interlocutors, an interval we must  preserve in order to breathe, and in order to speak and be heard (which puts me in mind of a potentially ontological justification for Dotson’s open conceptual frameworks).  This is a need that all too often goes unmet, however, a need all too often frustrated by the secondary alienations of suffocation (silencing) and co-optation (instrumentalization of the voice), to name but a few.

III.

Thus, Culbertson argues that being pulled up short by language, i.e., the primary alienation intrinsic to the way we participate in living language,[8] is the condition for the possibility of knowledge, not what undermines the possibility of our knowing[9].  For it is insofar as I wait…suspend my usual habits of interpretation and remain open…that I am able to listen, whether to the speech of another, or to that of a text within the historical framework to which I must be continually adaptive, responsive.  With this, we can see the link between the epistemological task of articulating the function of the understanding [Culbertson’s aim 3], and alienation1, which allows us, in dialogue with others – and especially when we are compelled to listen to the testimonials of those who have suffered from alienation2 – to keep “interpretation in suspense until the right time.  No mastery in language,” Culbertson concludes, “can fill in gaps like these” (9).

Such gaps again indicate an interval opened by suspension, indicate primary alienation as a way of spatio-temporalizing the flow of a current through pause, pause which opens the space of possibility, pause which grounds reflective critique (and in my view, this is precisely the point Culbertson makes by invoking Butler in the closing pages of her Introduction – handout, #4[10]).   The idiomatic expression that something noteworthy “gives us pause,” seems especially trenchant here.  Culbertson cites Kristeva, from her groundbreaking Black Sun (handout, #5): “Our gift of speech, of situating ourselves in time for an other could exist nowhere except beyond an abyss.  Speaking beings…demand a break, a renunciation, an unease at their foundations.” [11] 

Yet for Culbertson, Kristeva offers more than a poetic rendering of the founding, albeit abyssal, condition of language for the speaking (linguistic) being; she also thereby contests a dominant conception of language in the contemporary moment.  The tendency in the latter is to assume human language can be understood or modeled on programming language, such that all one requires to understand language is technical knowledge of its fixed rules, “a technical means of communicating orders to a recipient” (10).  The programmer “speaks,” and the computer “listens,” i.e., performs the action commanded, “preferably without any of the long pauses…that tend to punctuate all points in the process of human communication” (10).  The comparison may hold, Culbertson grants, for rudimentary, individual speech acts of the kind a new language learner masters first, but its explanatory power ends there, given the bigger picture of human communication when the intervals for listening and/or self-examination become integral to a developmentally mature understanding. 

Culbertson therefore refutes the objection that the tools of science are perfectly adequate for the task of approaching the function of language by arguing that reading, writing, and conversation (the first two of which for the Gadamerian appear to be species of the third) are beyond the scope of any model that regards language as a “process that can be broken up into a series of observable events” (14). Culbertson observes, “We humans delight in those conversations that take us to unexpected places, just as we delight in the book that says something different each time we read it,”  thereby demanding a philosophical explanation where the empirical sciences fall short (14).

Interestingly, as Culbertson argues in Chapter One, some of the work that does this best comes from a writer, not from a philosopher per se, viz., Walker Percy, whose invocation of several key figures in the Continental tradition was unusual for a time when, “philosophy of language…was associated almost exclusively with Anglo-American philosophy” (15).  Percy offers three key insights that Culbertson expands and explores through a parallel reading of the phenomenological Heidegger (of Being and Time), and which concern (handout, #6):

  1. what is distinctive about human linguistic activity (emergence into language is a transformation of world)[12]   
  2. what is essential about the role of language for our existence (it is the medium through which our understanding takes place); and
  3. what it is that keeps us from recognizing these things today (our equation of reality with the explanandum of the empirical sciences).

Culbertson patiently unfolds each insight, culminating in a treatment of the experience of Helen Keller which, though admittedly rare, demonstrates how the world transforms with the acquisition of language.  What otherwise “is what it is, an ahistorical field of presence,” comes to be that world that is shot through with life, constantly re-vitalized through speech (19-20).  Given that most of us do not experience language acquisition as Keller did, that by the time we reach maturity we have lived with language as our intimate companion for so long that we forget the wonder of its acquisition, it comes as little surprise that dominant linguistic models overlook its ontological function.  “Still, in times of crisis we may reconnect with this” (20, emphasis mine). 

Crisis situations, Culbertson notes in what strikes me as a very Heideggerian gesture, can interrupt this immersion, revealing to us “the true nature of our mode of being – the being for whom being is an issue,” which is to say, crisis situations put our usual way of being into suspense, opening it to question and, consequently, to the possibility of revelation (I stress possibility because not all crises go the way of illuminating our ontological structure – for many, crises shut down revelation.  Fear is a powerful motivator and perhaps an even more powerful cognitive regulator). 

It is notable that Culbertson slips between world in the singular and worlds in the plural (handout#7),[13] and I wonder if there’s an ontological distinction in play here between them.  Given that I want to hear more about this, my first question goes to whether an ontologically singular conception of world aligns with the enabling conditions of language acquisition (and thus our vulnerable openness to a closed future), while the ontically plural conception of worlds aligns with the variety of ways we live our immersion (some more plurally than others, recalling Anzaldúa’s mestiza).  Accordingly, is there a distinction in play here between something like worldhood [Weltlichkeit] and world [Welt] that might allow the latter to be pluralized?

***

Recalling the relation between the two forms of alienation, as I read it, Culbertson wants to claim that the first form (what I called alienation2 but which comes first in the order of explanation) obstructs the function of the primordial second – that form of estrangement that is the condition for the possibility of conversation and language acquisition – which has, it seems a temporal correlate to each of its functions: projection beyond [temporalized as future], listening and remaining open [present], and operating always within the terms of an inherited idiom over which we have very little control [past]). 

Thus, what we are called to do, provided we agree that normatively the goal is to maximize linguistic flourishing for all linguistic beings along the lines of a free flow of primordial alienation (as paradoxical as that may sound), is to root out instances of alienation2, to lift its obstructions from the path on which language exercises its function (of estrangement and familiarity, departure and return, distantiated detach and immanent intimacy).  As I endeavored to demonstrate, Culbertson insists that we must terminologically maintain alienation in both of its valences in spite of the difficulty of working the relation between them.  And this because otherwise we run the risk of insisting that everyone is always entitled to a completely familiar experience of language, that alienation per se is without merit.  A dangerous politics, she is right to point out, can be born of the conditions of such entitlement. 

But I wonder if part of the reason she maintains them both as alienation rather than terminologically distinguishing them is that she senses an affinity between them, at least insofar as they are both species of frustration, of a frustrated effort to self-retrieve that is condemned to a stifling opacity (or silence).  While remaining sensitive to the possibility that a colonial distinction between human and non-human may complicate the question of who counts as dying,[14] I wonder further if this opacity has its basis in human mortality as the ontological condition for the possibility of the distinction of language among our kind.[15]

But if there is in fact something to the distinction of death in being human (hence a distinction ontologically primordial to the social), significant implications for the testimonials of the alienated would follow. Though often characterized by traumatic tears in the fabric of (discursive) immersion, does alienated experience not have the potential to speak back to the originary tear in the fabric of time that both bounds our mortality and opens the intervals of possibility[16] through which we move?  Does this potential not make the alienated most qualified to speak to the ontological structure of human experience, not as fetishized others instrumentalized for alētheiac disclosure, but as meriting an ontic distinction[17] with ontological purchase to which particularly those privileged to not experience such “distinction” are compelled to pay especially close attention?  There is no doubt that normatively speaking, we make a better world the more we eradicate trauma, but insofar as it has happened, insofar as it is happening, and insofar as the prospect of stopping it once and for all may, though importantly setting a normative standard, never be once and for all achieved, should others, and especially those who claim to do philosophy, not do their part by listening?  Naturally, great care has to be taken not to instrumentalize testimonials for the sake of ontological clarification – this would be precisely that subsumption of otherness to an alētheiac impulse that would fetishize it.  The ethical import of listening here cannot be underestimated, as indeed Culbertson goes to great lengths to show in both chapters three (in the discussion of bearing witness and poetic language) and five (as therapeutic for the one who would transform her depressive silence into linguistic flourishing). 

Hence my second question: is our (potentially distinctive) relation to mortality what, on the one hand, conditions our openness to language and, on the other, furnishes the closure that frustrates our efforts at total transparency? Or do you want to maintain that the primordial alienation in/of language exists independently of mortality, since our deeply politicized relationships to death/dying (consider, for example, social death or the disparity in value between lives) give the lie to the claim that death is the originary condition of distinction?  Especially in light of the role death plays in your reading of Blanchot (as the originary condition of fleetingness to be transformed/negated into meaning by the word), as well as in the study of Celan (to which I alluded in the title of my response, and in terms of the ruinous remains of what has passed through deathbringing speech), why is there no discussion of being-towards-death in your treatment of linguistic alienation?

IV.

Questions now posed, I’d like to beg your indulgence a moment longer so as to close with a final observation on Words UnderwayWords Underway offers a compelling justification for its embrace of Continental philosophy of language.  The fact that we put such little stock today in the kind of understanding that develops from dialogue with our contemporaries, and even less in the kind that emerges in (textual) dialogue with the past, Culbertson argues, “has troubling implications for our attitudes towards public discourse and, of course, for the fate of the humanities, in which the art of such understanding has traditionally been fostered” (11).  Furthermore, in overlooking the social conditions that nourish our flourishing as linguistic beings, that give us the sense that we have a voice in our communities, we not only miss the opportunity to link the cultivation of justice for the linguistic being to the function of democracy, but we also we miss the opportunity to recognize how frustration of the cultivation of voice leads to tremendous suffering (11). 

I want to emphasize, in the end, that one of the chief virtues of this book is the masterful way in which its author justifies recourse to her field not on the grounds that it is good because it is her field, not because it is so obvious that, should she elect it, it must be the most resonant with life.  Rather, Culbertson actually demonstrates why, in light of pressing concerns of the day, Continental philosophy of language is able to carry us considerably farther than those theories, the current dominance of which, through exclusion and dismissal, silence those potential interlocutors to whom the contemplative, the investigative, and especially those who would envision a better world are most compelled to listen.

Thank you.


[1] “The first form occurs when one’s linguistic being is jeopardized and in a way that causes extreme suffering.  Within the Continental tradition, it is this form of linguistic alienation that is often and rightfully the object of normative critique.  The second type of alienation, by contrast, is regularly valued by Continental philosophers” (8).

[2] I should remark that I find this need to be self-evident, a founding condition for doing philosophy.  However, it should not be assumed that this need is self-evident for all; it is assumed that a faithfulness to experience is valued, whereas I get the distinct sense that often in analytic philosophy of language lived experience (Erlebnis) is a foreclosed category, set aside as inferior on the grounds that it psychologizes the laws of logic and thereby implicitly commits to a tempting, yet erroneous metaphysics.    

[3]A formulation that reminds me of Heidegger’s in GA 29/30, viz. that of being left empty by boredom.  Because of the lens through which I read these analyses, I can sometimes overlook the reliance upon that methodology.  That is to say, it is when our usual absorption, the way we proximally and for the most part behave, is interrupted, that we experience the alienation that calls us to become more aware [of, for example, what we structurally are in terms of the function of time (Heidegger’s Angst or Langeweile) – or, for Culbertson, in terms of our intimate, though foundationally abyssal relation to language]. 

[4] Whereas in Being and Time, Heidegger articulated a conception of language as equiprimordial with understanding in terms of what is proximally and for the most part true of how we live in the world of our concern, in the later work “Heidegger retains the argument that our primary relationship to language is immersive…but places a new emphasis on the need to ‘make our way to language’” (33).  As Culbertson reads the later work, much of it is intended “to provoke a transformation in our relationship to language,” and it unfolds through hints and gestures as modes of speaking that open up “something inexhaustible for thought” (34).   This runs the risk, however, of making the non-immediacy of thought not only impenetrable to understanding, but also the true nature of language, “a nature that is hidden from us for the most part but occasionally can be grasped” (35). 

  Gadamer, by contrast, handles the non-immediacy of language as a moment of recognitive understanding, and thereby with greater clarity, though she holds out for the performative dimension of Heidegger’s lectures, i.e., for the possibility that what he does is more consistent with how she reads Gadamer than what he says

[cf. 39]

).

[5] In Chapter Two, Culbertson begins by situating Gadamer in the hermeneutic tradition of which he came to play a major part.  Unlike many of his 19th century predecessors for whom the non-immediacy of language, i.e., the withdrawal of the context in which the original [text] was written, its unavailability to the present moment, was a problem, Gadamer regarded such non-immediacy as “serving a positive role in the development of understanding” (35).  As interpretation of the work of art makes plain, our task is not to reconstruct what the work said, but to ask what it says to us, today.  This does not mean foisting subjective associations onto the work.  Rather, we should allow the work to interrogate us, which means “coming to see some of the habitual presuppositions that we carry as particular and finite, thus allowing our understanding to expand beyond the limits of our present presuppositions” (36). As such, interpretation involves a “bidirectional movement” that makes the unfamiliar familiar and the familiar, unfamiliar. 

  Though the non-immediate quality of language is significant, Culbertson explains, Gadamer’s advance beyond Heidegger can be located in the crucial insight into the relation between immediacy and the non-immediate.  The latter enriches the former, deepening our understanding over time, making it an act of recognition:

“It is recognitive understanding that results from interpretation, which is to say, from our encounters with those objects whose meanings are not immediate.  Through the bidirectional movement of interpretation…A part of our pre-reflective understanding is brought to light for us and raised to greater truth” (37).

Non-immediacy is not, therefore, a deficiency.  Accordingly, “philosophical hermeneutics ought to recognize the unique cognitive import of such encounters” (37). 

  This goes hand in hand with my own questions as regards the purchase of the alienated testimonial for a deeper understanding of what it may mean to be human.  Insofar as language retreats from the trauma survivor as from the female depressive, their own coming to understand its non-immediacy can have a therapeutically transformative effect (though there is no guarantee that it will).  Beyond what it does for the meaning of their lives – which is enough in and of itself, though not all there is – does the import of such encounters also partially lie in what they can teach?

[6] Importantly, Culbertson refers to this as alienation from language as a “ready-to-hand source of meaning,” (8) nodding in the direction of the first two chapters of the book, which will rely upon Heidegger (and consequently Gadamer) to ground her Continental philosophy of language as intrinsically open and adaptive – i.e., temporally oriented by futural projection from within the thrown horizon of a past, yet integrally interpersonal in its orientation to the present (hence Butler in Chapter 4). 

[7] Cf. Chapter Three, and specifically Culbertson’s closing discussion of Derrida on bearing witness and poetic language.

[8] To give the sense that what makes it a living system (cf. the block quotation from 8-9, and my emphases, above) is alienation1, that breath, that pause.

[9] A claim mirrored in her reading of Gadamer in Chapter Two, for whom the non-immediacy of language is not a deficiency, but plays a positive role in the development of the understanding (cf. specially the discussion on 35-37, confirmed by the analogy drawn in Chapter Three between alterity as the foundational condition for bearing witness and the “non-immediacy of the text…[as the] condition for the possibility of truly reading” (58-59). 

[10] Her reference is to “What is Critique?: An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue,” in The Political: Readings in Continental Philosophy, ed. David Ingram (London: Blackwell, 2002), 2015.  Butler writes, “One asks about the limits of ways of knowing because one has already run up against a crisis within the epistemological field in which one lives.  The categories by which social life is ordered produce a certain incoherence or entire realms of unspeakability.  And it is from this condition, the tear in the fabric of our epistemological web, that the practice of critique emerges” (Butler 215, Culbertson 10).  

[11] Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York, Columbia University Press, 1989), 42.

[12] “ To talk about development of language as the entrance into a new world…[means that] there is a fundamental transformation not only in how we think about the world, but even more fundamentally in what appears to us and how it appears.  Language’s function becomes ontological rather than instrumental” (17). 

“When one has a linguistic world, one pushes for everything to have a place and meaning in language.  In children, this is manifest as the desire to know the name for all things.  In adults, it is the desire to expand one’s understanding of this world through language” (18). 

Also note: In Chapter Five’s discussion of how Kristeva theorizes depression, Culbertson explains the two senses of the archaic preobject, the loss of which characterizes (narcissistic) depression (or melancholia).  First, the preobjectal phase in development is characterized by a time before the world is split into subjects and objects, and the loss of this phase by the advance in development that comes to recognize oneself as distinct from others still can, like an open wound, “continue to throb throughout even adult life” (89).  Second, preobjectal loss is characterized by loss of a certain relationship to the mother, who protected us in our time of utter vulnerability and from whom, as infants, we were primordially unable to fully distinguish ourselves.  “Putting these two together,” Culbertson writes, the loss of the preobject “is the loss of that mode of being that preexists a world of subjects and objects, a world structured by an awareness of my separation from others.  In sum, in order to understand oneself as an individuated subject…one must undergo a difficult transition…[This] is a necessary feature of any life wherein meaning is set forth between people through language.  This is because meaning requires a transformation away from the infant mode of being for which no other exists.  It requires that one inhabit the world as a linguistic being, so that meaning is found not in the immediacy of things, but in the participatory process of world disclosure” (89, emphasis mine).  Note that the singularizing/individualizing (Vereinzelung) quality of death is not primary; that place is reserved for the intrinsic alterity inscribed into the development of linguistic being (subjectivity) by language.  Cf. also Chapter Six on the otherness inherent to language for Derrida (as Culbertson reads him against Bennington), 117.  She appeals here also to Butler, and thus to Levinas throughout Chapters Four (on Butler) and Six.

[13] Cf. for example, “In these ways, the worlds I am immersed in shape not only what I care about, but even shape the basic way in which things appear to me” (22).  Also, “These examples go to show that, when we interpret language – verbal or nonverbal – we do so always in the context of shared worlds of practical concern” (23, see also 24).  Interestingly, the latter instance follows upon an excellent discussion of the empiricist claim that the only way in which beings appear to us as they really are is when we set aside our practical interests (23).  Heidegger, Culbertson rightly points out, counters that “beings appear to us, proximally and for the most part, through such pre-reflective acts” and in this way, understanding [Verstehen] is most basically constituted.  Moreover, she continues in the next paragraph, this is characterized by thrownness, i.e., by the effect of factors beyond our control on our horizons of interpretation, and she speaks here to ways of interpreting as plural possibilities in response to a singular world (23, cf. also 31, the opening lines of Chapter Two).

[14] And here is where I think the move to subsume the ontological distinction of death under the social (vis-à-vis a European obsession with mortality, the material conditions of which are arguably colonial) is insightful even if I cannot subscribe to it entirely.  If only human beings die, and the colonial distinction involves naming the human to the exclusion of the non-human (which puts me in mind of Derrida’s now famous reading of Heidegger’s 29/30 lecture course on the Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, wherein he claims that the restriction of the animal’s world to an Umwelt means the animal merely croaks [creuver] rather than dies), then it seems that any categorical consideration of the human on the basis of death exposes itself to this objection.

[15] And here is where I think the move to subsume the ontological distinction of death under the social (vis-à-vis a European obsession with mortality, the material conditions of which are arguably colonial) is insightful even if I cannot subscribe to it entirely.  If only human beings die, and the colonial distinction involves naming the human to the exclusion of the non-human (which puts me in mind of Derrida’s now famous reading of Heidegger’s 29/30 lecture course on the Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, wherein he claims that the restriction of the animal’s world to an Umwelt means the animal merely croaks [creuver] rather than dies), then it seems that any categorical consideration of the human on the basis of death exposes itself to this objection.

[16] Here I’m thinking of Bewegtheit and the three senses of possibility operative in Being and Time, one of which is deactualization.

[17] This makes me think back to my interest in the form of distinction Ortega cites in Anzaldúa.  I cannot recall the exact term for this, but what it describes is on the one hand, a condemnation of the individual to extreme suffering, but on the other, an opening of transport between worlds that grants the one who suffers a species of visionary power that becomes a deep part of their spiritual identity.

Book Symposium: Words Underway by Carolyn Culbertson, Week 1

Our first book symposium features Dr. Carolyn Culbertson’s recently published book, Words UnderwayContinental Philosophy of Language. We have invited two scholars, Dr. David Vessey (Grand Valley State University) and Dr. Jessica Elkayam (Sam Houston State University) to comment on Culbertson’s book. (The essays were part of an author-meets-critic panel at the recent annual conference for the North American Society for Philosophical Hermeneutics at the University of Oregon.)

This week we begin with Dr. Vessey’s essay, then next week we’ll post Dr. Elkayam’s essay, and the following week, Dr. Culbertson’s response. Enjoy!

Author Meets Critics: Carolyn Culbertson’s Words Underway for NASPH, 2019

Prof. Culberson’s book takes a fascinating approach to developing a philosophy of language. It looks at the phenomena of linguistic alienation and determines what that tells us about the nature of language and its function in our self-understanding. The book’s six chapters can be divided into three sections. The first two chapters—“Walker Percy, Phenomenology, and the Mystery of Language” and especially “Words Underway: Guiding Insights from Hermeneutic Phenomenology—lay out the basics of her theory of language; the middle three chapters—”On Linguistic Trauma and the Demand to Write,” “Rethinking Women’s Silence,” and “The Omnipotent Word of Medical Diagnosis”—all map out different forms of linguistic alienation and the ways that we use language to cope with them; the final chapter—“Language as Habitat”– considers the objection that some theories of language entail “linguistic determinism”, the view that the range of our thoughts are limited by the range of our language and she argues that her view, along with Heidegger’s and Derrida’s, does not entail that conclusion.

Prof Culbertson calls her project a Continental, hermeneutic, philosophy of language, but given how intertwined language is the with the formation of the self, her book should also be read as providing a theory of the self, one that not only relies on language for its distinctively human form, but precisely because of that reliance is vulnerable to “linguistic alienation.” Linguistic alienation can take a number of forms, each telling us something about language and the role of language in self-formation and cultivation. Prof. Culbertson is not this categorical in the presentation of her view, but it strikes me we can isolate three distinct kinds of linguistic alienation, each one corresponding to a different feature of her theory of language. I will refer to these as: dialogical alienation, traumatic alienation, and colonial alienation. All share her general definition of linguistic alienation, “a significant disruption in one’s linguistic being” (55), all “unsettle our very mode of existence” (3), and all are cases “when one’s linguistic being is jeopardized” (8). There is another form of linguistic alienation which is related to these forms; I’ll call it textual alienation as it occurs when we have difficulty understanding a text or utterance. Prof Culbertson distinguishes it from the other forms of alienation as it lacks the suffering that comes from a linguistic self-alienation

Let me describe each briefly. Dialogical alienation is when you find yourself no longer able to “collaborate with others in the activity of world disclosure “(105). World making and disclosing require opportunities of expression and bearing witness that for various personal or cultural reasons are not available to people.

“In trying to give expression to some experience we sometimes find words skewed, inadequate, or inexplicably difficult to interpret. At other times we may feel shame and embarrassment at words we have spoken, confronted by unintended meanings that persist beyond our control… the terms of deliberation may be stacked against any genuine disclosure. Alternatively, others might come to feel chronic alienation if their attempts to communicate routinely fail” (2-3).

Prof. Culbertson is especially clear about how gender roles can create and maintain linguistic alienation. Invoking the work of Ann Ferguson and Sandra Bartky she argues that women are disproportionately expected to play an empathetic role in their relations with men. She writes,

“As a linguistic being, the mean of things and the ends to which I am directed are not just given to me to accept as is, but require me to engage in the task of interpretation. When I regularly direct my powers of world-disclosure to serve as a back channel for another however, I am stunted in the development of this capacity. … Bartky understands alienation to consist … in the diminishment of that capacity essential to human flourishing… the loss of the creative labor of meaning-making” (78-79).

Prof. Culbertson also points out that women more than men engage in self-silencing and deferring to the authoritative pronouncements of medical professionals.

The second form of linguistic alienation occurs in cases of trauma, where we are unable to find the words to integrate what has happened to us into a functioning picture of our lives. Prof. Culbertson turns to the case of holocaust survivors and how many turned to writing as a means of recovering from their trauma, to the extent it is possible. “Trauma indeed wreaks havoc on the trust we typically put into language to make sense of things and to settle the meanings of our experiences” (52). We find a longing for language in trauma, and a need for attestation, for reestablishing interpersonal connections that can only come when someone else acknowledges ones presence in ones words—“self-presence in this case is emphatically also other presence” (58).

The third form of linguistic alienation is colonial alienation, when one is required to operate in the world through a language not one’s own. For the colonized “language will often feel alienating, because they are discouraged from cultivating a critical historical relationship to their language” (120) They long for the linguistic and cultural purity denied them through being forced to use the oppressor’s language.

Given these many forms of linguistic alienation, Which theory of language takes seriously the possibility of linguistic alienation? Prof. Culbertson is right that the theories of language that can make the most sense of these phenomena are the ones that connect language with self-making, and those are most commonly found in among Continental philosophers (or, I’d like to add, non-Continental philosophers influenced by Continental thinkers, such as Charles Taylor and John McDowell). The first element of the theory is the most obvious: language is “our primary way of making sense of the world, including ourselves” (3). But it is not merely a tool in our toolbox for understanding, it fundamentally transforms the way we exist; it has “ontological significance” (7).

Prof. Culbertson joins Heidegger and Gadamer (following Scheler) in arguing that language distinguishes us from other non-human animals by opening us up to a world and freeing us from a mere environment. Gadamer sets up the distinction this way:

“To have a world means to have an orientation (Verhalten) toward it. To have an orientation toward the world, however, means to keep oneself so free from what one encounters of the world that one can present it to oneself as it is. This capacity is at once to have a world and to have language. The concept of world is thus opposed to the concept of environment, which all living beings in the world possess” (TM, 440-41).

Language gives us the ability to represent the world to ourselves which then gives us the freedom from “the pressure of what impinges on us from the world” (TM 441). As for Prof. Culbertson, for Gadamer the shift is ontological: “to have language involves a mode of being that is quite different from the way animals are confined to their habitat (TM 449). Prof. Culbertson acknowledges that we understand animal communication much better now than they did in the mid-20th century, but nonetheless argues that the difference remains. Language use among humans differs from other animals in that it is used for multiple purposes; animals onlyuse language to communicate information. For humans “words… [are] no longer just tools for communication; they [are] sources of meaning and understanding” (19). On the one hand it is because language is more than merely a means for communicating information that we alienation can occur among humans; one the other hand the way language functions to make possible meaning opens up a new role for communication. The world we meaningfully inhabit is a shared world. Acquiring language introduces an interpersonal human need to “bear witness” to loss and “to find an empathetic other who will listen and, as part of this listening, engage in the process of interpretive understanding” (55). So far, then, a theory of language that can make sense of the variety of forms or linguistic alienation will be one that places language at the center of understanding and that marks an ontological shift towards jointly inhabiting a share world.

In addition, Prof. Culbertson argues that language is “non-immediate.” We experience the non-immediacy of language “when the words we encounter cause us to pause, to revise some of our presuppositions, and to theorize about the subject matter from this perspective” (41). Meanings are not always clear to us. Prof. Culbertson writes,

“With a lot of the language we hear, what is meant is immediately clear to us and requires no reflection. With non-immediate language, though, it is different. Non-immediate language speaks by soliciting us to interpret the subject matter brought forward and thus to participate in the cumulative process by which it is understanding” (38).

She argues that in Heidegger’s later writings he erroneously treats language as essentially mysterious; she sides instead with Gadamer, who sees the mystery of language as an invitation to arrive at a new interpretive understanding (and self-understanding). I should clarify that Prof. Culbertson disagrees with Heidegger’s theory, for in practice, she claims, Heidegger’s writings show an agreement with, and perhaps even the influence of, Gadamer. (Prof. Culbertson doesn’t make this point but I think it always should be made: Heidegger’s claim here that a great figure could decipher the mystery of Being revealed through poetic language is not essentially anti-Semitic, though it was for him. It is essentially totalitarian and essentially contrary to Gadamer’s spirit of dialogue.)

Prof. Culbertson continues to discuss Blanchot and Derrida, among others, but the main features of her continental philosophy of language remain the core views: language is world forming, uniquely world disclosing, shared, and non-immediate. Understanding language that way makes clear why “alienation is intrinsic to our relationship to language and comprises part of what makes linguistic activity so important to human fulfillment” (8). These features of language: world-forming, world-disclosing, our sole means for intelligibility, and non-immediate are found in Heidegger’s, Gadamer’s and Derrida’s theories of language, but also Paul Ricoeur’s and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s (and Charles Taylor’s and John McDowell’s). There is not one, but multiple, mutually incompatible, Continental philosophies of language that could explain linguistic alienation. Although there is a prominent, American interpretive approach to Continental thought that places Heidegger and Derrida as the focus–interpreting each through the other—, when it comes to philosophy of language and linguistic alienation that might not be the tradition to draw upon. I say this partially because I think it’s best to avoid Heidegger when possible, and, in this case, it is possible. Given what we know about Heidegger he should be a philosopher of last resort, but that is only part of the reason. If we are going to take seriously Gadamer’s reflections on language and the place language plays in our openness to the world and each other, then we need to reject the more empiricist and nominalist model presented by Blanchot and Derrida. Blanchot’s an easier case to make. As Prof. Culbertson puts it, for Blanchot “language in general serves the purpose of capturing what is more stable and permanent among the stream of fleeting impressions that make up our first order experiences” (49). It is a form of resistance against the “fleetingness of experience…an attempt to capture what risks being lost in the constant flow of first-order experience.” On Gadamer’s view there are neither impressions nor first-order experiences upon which language operates. Language is the opening of experience. Blanchot famously argues that language represents a thing by negating is specific reality; Gadamer argues that language reveals the thing in its reality. For Blanchot language is a necessary failure of understanding; for Gadamer language is necessary for the success of understanding. Prof. Culbertson quotes Derrida as claiming that there is an “originary alienation that institutes every language as the language of the other” (116), a view that fundamentally disagrees with Gadamer’s view that language is first and foremost our openness to the world. It can never be other; it is that which makes possible openness to any other. Gadamer identifies this trend in Derrida: “Derrida sounds as if he were a distant observer of the infinite network of all signs and of all references to other things. This is really an example of his use of the language of metaphysics put forward on the philosophical basis of nominalism” (“Hermeneutics Tracking the Trace” in The Gadamer Reader, 388). Even if it is the case that a particular natural language limits the way we can think about ourselves in ways which we cannot flourish, that itself is only revealed to us through our own linguisticality.

Ricoeur’s continental philosophy of language has the advantage of making explicit the intersubjective role of attestation and witnessing as essential to language and he, more than Heidegger, Gadamer, and Derrida, links his philosophy of language to a philosophy of the self (cf. Oneself as Another). He also has written extensively on Freud and psychoanalysis. Nonetheless, I would argue the continental philosophy of language that is most helpful for understanding linguistic alienation is Merleau-Ponty’s. It also is closer to Gadamer’s than Derrida’s. Merleau-Ponty shares the idea that the acquisition of language transforms our relationship to the world—“a self only develops into a free agent by way of the instrument of language and by taking part in the life of the world” (The World of Perception, 87). He stresses the essentially dialogical nature of language—”we must have another idea of projection, according to which the other’s speech not only awakes in me ready-made thoughts but also involves me in a movement of thought of which I would have been incapable alone and finally opens me to unfamiliar significations” (Basic Writings, 237) And is also clear about the alienation in language—”Just as our common membership in the same world presupposes that my experience, insofar as it is original, should be the experience of being, so our membership in a common language or even a common universe of language presupposes a primordial relation between me and my speech, which gives it the value of a dimension of being in which I can participate. Through this relation, the other myself can become other and can become myself in a much more radical sense” (Prose of the World, 140). He makes clear how thought emerges through language: “Similarly, thought arises over there, while I am looking for it in a particular inflection of the verbal chain” (Prose of the World, 37), and most importantly, how the body’s failure of functioning can create a crisis of meaning and therefore of language—”the word bears its meaning in the same way that the body incarnates a manner of behavior” (Sense and Non-Sense, 53). This I take it is particularly helpful as trauma, even while lacking language, lives on in the body. And finally, Merleau-Ponty takes up the cases of an extreme form of linguistic alienation—aphasia—and develops his philosophy of language with the goal of explaining how that occurs and what are its losses.

So among the many continental philosophies of language that help explain linguistic alienation, I think Merleau-Ponty’s has more promise than the one that arises from the traditionally American reading together of Heidegger and Derrida. I think Prof. Culbertson has written a terrific book, and she is exactly right about the central theme of the book—linguistic alienation needs to be taken seriously and any theory of a linguistic self needs to be able to explain those phenomena.

David Vessey, Grand Valley State University

Book Spotlight: Inheriting Gadamer: New Directions in Philosophical Hermeneutics, ed. Georgia Warnke

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This week’s book spotlight is, Inheriting Gadamer: New Directions in Philosophical Hermeneutics, edited by Georgia Warnke (Edinburgh University Press, 2016). The book has four parts: 1) Critique and Causality, 2) Hermeneutics and Openness, 3) Place, Play and the Body, and 4) Science, Medicine, and Biotechnology. Chapter contributors include Santiago Zabala, “The Anarchy of Hermeneutics: Interpretation as a Vital Practice,” Georgia Warnke, “Philosophical Hermeneutics and the Politics of Memory,” Jeff Malpas, “Place and Hermeneutics: Towards a Topology of Understanding,” and Lauren Swayne Barthold, “If Enhancement is the Answer, What is the Question?”

Description from the back book cover

Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics – one of the seminal philosophies of the 20th century – has had a profound influence on a wide array of fields, including classical philology, theology, the philosophy of the social sciences, literary theory, philosophy of law, critical social theory and the philosophy of art. This collection expands on some of these areas and takes his hermeneutics into yet new fields including narrative medicine, biotechnology, the politics of memory, the philosophy of place and the non-verbal language of the body. And, building on Gadamer’s well-known discussions with Heidegger, Habermas, and Derrida, Inheriting Gadamer sets him in dialogue with Mahatma Gandhi, Christine Korsgaard, Charles Mills and others. In these ways, the volume holds fast to a Gadamerian virtue: cultivating our important philosophical traditions while embracing the constant need to re-think their meaning in new circumstances and in relation to new knowledge.

Book Spotlight: Gadamer and the Transmission of History by Jerome Veith

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This week’s Book Spotlight features Jerone Veith’s recent book, Gadamer and the Transmission of History. You can read Dr. Greg Lynch’s review of the book for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews here.

Description from Book Cover

Observing that humans often deal with the past in problematic ways, Jerome Veith looks to philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer and his hermeneutics to clarify these conceptions of history and to present ways to come to terms with them. Veith fully engages Truth and Method as well as Gadamer’s entire work and relationships with other German philosophers, especially Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger in this endeavor. Veith considers questions about language, ethics, cosmopolitanism, patriotism, self-identity, and the status of the humanities in the academy in this very readable application of Gadamer’s philosophical practice.

Book Spotlight: A Hermeneutic Approach to Social Identities by Lauren Swayne Barthold

One of Hermeneutical Movements’ aims is to promote the philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer and those who think with and beyond Gadamer. Our Book Spotlights, Article Spotlights, Mini-Reviews, and Online Book Symposia work toward that end. Book Spotlights are brief 100-200 word descriptions of a book. Article Spotlights are brief 100-200 word abstracts with links to the authors’ articles. Mini-Reviews are 500-1500 word engagements with a theme or book chapter. For Book Symposia, we will invite two scholars to write 1500-2000 word essays on an author’s work and will also include the author’s response. All three essays will then be posted and readers are invited to participate by offering constructive and critical comments.

Our first Book Spotlight is Lauren Swayne Barthold’s book, A Hermeneutic Approach to Gender and Other Social Identities (Palgrave, 2016)

Book Description (From Back Cover)

This book draws on the hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer to inform a feminist perspective of social identities. Lauren Swayne Barthold moves beyond answers that either defend the objective nature of identities or dismiss their significance altogether. Building on the work of both hermeneutic and non-hermeneutic feminist theorists of identity, she asserts the relevance of concepts like horizon, coherence, dialogue, play, application, and festival for developing a theory of identity. This volume argues that as intersubjective interpretations, social identities are vital ways of fostering meaning and connection with others. Barthold also demonstrates how a hermeneutic approach to social identities can provide critiques of and resistance to identity-based oppression.  

Lauren Swayne Barthold is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Gordon College, USA. She is also the Cofounder and Coadvisor of the Gender Studies Minor. She is the author of several works on Gadamer, including Gadamer’s Dialectical Hermeneutics. 

Articles by James Risser Available via the Journal of Applied Hermeneutics

Each summer the Canadian Hermeneutic Institute invites a visiting scholar for a three-day workshop devoted to hermeneutic philosophy. Last summer Dr. James Risser was the visiting scholar, and the work he presented and discussed has now been published in the Journal of Applied Hermeneutics. You can download the published articles (free) directly from the journal’s website. The linked articles are listed below.

When Words Fail: On the Power of Language in Human Experience; Speaking From Silence: On the Intimate Relation Between Silence and the Speaking Word; Hearing the Other: Communication as Shared Life