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.

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