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

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