Gadamer on Language and Being

Gadamer’s claim, “being that can be understood is language,” (Truth and Method, 474) has been widely misunderstood, earning him the label of linguistic constructivist and placing him in the ranks of worthy anti-metaphysics of presence philosophers.  However, as Brice Wachterhauser, Joel Weinsheimer, Robert Sokolowski and Charles Taylor have argued, Gadamer is neither a linguistic constructivist who repudiates the metaphysical tradtion in toto nor a tradition-loving dogmatist (contra Habermas).  According to Gadamer, language does not create the intelligibility of reality.  Reality is itself intelligible; however, language functions as a kind of lens that makes reality more intelligible to us.  That is, just as the lenses of my glasses bring things into sharper focus, allowing me to see details to which I otherwise would have limited or no access, so too language brings reality into sharper focus but in no way is it the sole source of reality’s intelligibility.  On the one hand, in a “behind the scenes” kind of way, thought is mediated by language—particular languages such as Russian, German, French, etc.—all of which are both disclosing and limiting.  On the other hand, reality is mediated by language which enhances the intelligibility of the former.  Language opens up a world to us–a distinctively human world.  That is, as humans we have a world (in Heideggerian-inspired sense) because we have language, which is not to claim that language creates ex nihilo the intelligibility of reality.  Since, according to Gadamer, extramental reality has its own intelligibility which is compatible with language and in which language “participates,”  his view falls within the realist camp.  Yet, his realism has passed through both Hegel and Heidegger and having plundered their riches, he turns back to mine the Greek and Christian metaphysical traditions (yes, I said, “metaphysical,” but metaphysical in a non-repetition, history-friendly kind of way).Gadamer Painting

Language, for Gadamer is neither a tool to be used and discarded nor a stumbling block between us and reality, rather it is the medium through which reality comes into focus.  As Wachterhauser explains, “[f]ar from separating the intelligibility of the world from us, or substituting its own intelligibility, the thesis that ‘Being that can be understood is language’ roots language in the world and points instead to its integral connection with the things themselves” (Beyond Being:  Gadamer’s Post-Platonic Hermeneutical Ontology, 98).  One could even say that on Gadamer’s account language functions iconic-ly.  Language, when functioning properly, has, to use Watchterhauser’s words, a “self-effacing” quality. That is, it disappears and makes itself nothing in order to point to the subject matter or meaning itself; it allows the things themselves to become present while not drawing attention to itself.

By claiming that language enhances or brings reality into sharper focus, Gadamer is both embracing the idea of language as a mirror of reality (and he explicitly turns to the medieval, Christian thinkers here) and yet he goes beyond and adds to this metaphor.  That is, language does not simply reflect the intelligibility of reality but actually contributes to it.  Of course, such contributions can be negative and distorting; yet, they can also be positive and expansive, opening up new insights and ways of seeing the (very same) realities or texts we happen to be studying.  Here one can think of the many insights that have come to light through various interpretations of Holy Scripture, Plato’s dialogues, Augustine’s Confessions and any other text or work of art that has had lasting value.  As each interpreter, who is of course always already situated in an interpretative tradition, comes to the text, she comes with questions and concerns that relate to her own cultural context.  These questions in addition to her own preconceptions or prejudices (Vorurteilen) make up her horizon, which then fuses with the horizon of the text in the ongoing act of interpretation.  Though, as I mentioned, distortions of the text can and do occur, it is clear that this negative result is not the inevitable outcome of horizon-fusing over time.  Rather, as each age/interpreter comes to the text with different questions and concerns, the fusion of the two horizons allow the text to take on new life and to continue to speak as a true dialogue partner—a dialogue partner who can question me and my horizon, thus functioning as a potential catalyst for my own transformation.

Gadamer on Plato’s Idea of the Good and Aristotle’s theos

As is well-known, Plato in the Republic describes the Good Itself or the Idea of the Good as “beyond all being” (epekeina tés ousias; 509b).  Hans-Georg Gadamer, who has published widely on Plato, offers a reading of Plato that brings him much closer to Aristotle than is commonly presented in the literature.  For example, Gadamer argues that Plato’s Idea of the Good and Aristotle’s theos are different ways of talking about the same reality.  Wachterhauser unpacks Gadamer’s claim as follows,Hans-Georg Gadamer

When Plato refers to the Good as what is common in all things, he suggests that the Good is the principle of Being of all things, although it itself is not a being.  Similarly, Aristotle’s God, as the highest being, becomes the one principle uniting all beings as the one principle to which Being must be referred if we are ultimately to understand how all beings ‘move’ for the sake of a telos which is not synonymous with their mere existence.  Thus we can only speak of their being in light of this telos, which in turn can only be comprehended in light of the highest being, of the unmoved mover.  Thus all Being is spoken of analogously in that Being is predicated of things ‘to one end’ or what Aristotle called ‘pros hen’ predication.  All beings have this one being in common in that what they are can only be comprehended in analogy with the highest being.  The relative perfection of each thing is a matter of degree of approximation to the highest being (Beyond Being:  Gadamer’s Post-Platonic Hermeneutical Ontology, 89-90).

The common ground that Gadamer believes obtains between Plato and Aristotle allows him to “stress the importance of motion and change for comprehending reality” (Beyond Being, 90).  As Wachterhauser explains, Gadamer interprets Plato as presenting in mythical form what Aristotle articulated in his act/potency distinction in which things unfold teleologically over time.

Gadamer’s Dialogue with Augustine and Aquinas on the Verbum

In sharp contrast with a number of postmodern thinkers engaged in philosophical hermeneutics, Gadamer believes that we still have something to learn not only from Hegel and Heidegger but from Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas as well.  In fact, in his magnum opus, Truth and Method, Gadamer spends several pages discussing the Christian doctrine of the verbum, seeking to mine certain truths from the tradition in order to formulate his own position on the intimate relationship between language and thought.  Though at this point in my study of Gadamer, I in no way understand the intricacies and implications of Gadamer’s analysis and appropriation of this aspect of Trinitarian theology, I do find the possibilities intriguing.  In one of his claims, for example, he compares the relation between the inner mental and thought as akin to the consubstantial relation between the Father and the Son (Truth and Method, 421).[1] Here, as well as in several other passages in this section, Gadamer wants to stress the unity of (human) thought and language.  Just as the Father and the Son are of the same substance (hence, the unity part of the unity-in-diversity of the Trinity), so too language and human thought are essentially one; nonetheless, they can be distinguished.  Gadamer rejects any account that gives priority to thought and then conceives language as something “added later” and used as a mere “tool.” Rather, thought and language have a kind of originary unity.  This in no way means that all thought is thought in the same language.  Clearly, that isn’t the case.  But language is, as it were, thought’s voice, which is a polyphonic—that is, language comes in many varieties, but in all its varieties it works harmoniously with thought to make reality, which is intelligible in itself,  more intelligible for us (Gadamer, contra Habermas, is expressly not a linguistic constructivist!)Gadamer in Study

Though appreciative of Augustine’s contributions to the theory of the verbum, Gadamer seems to reject certain aspects of his account, particularly as applied to human thought and language.  For example, Gadamer says,

[t]he ‘language of reason’ is not a special language.  So, given that the bond to language cannot be superseded, what sense does it make to talk about an ‘inner word’ that is spoken, as it were, in the pure language of reason?  How does the word of reason (if we can translate ‘intellectus’ here by ‘reason’) prove itself a real ‘word,’ if it is not a word with a sound nor even the image of one, but that which is signified by a sign—i.e., what is meant and thought itself? (Truth and Method, 421).

Gadamer explicitly states that the “inner word” is not the Greek logos, “the dialogue that the soul conducts with itself.  On the contrary, the mere fact that logos is translated both by ratio and verbum indicates that the phenomenon of language is becoming more important in the Scholastic elaboration of Greek metaphysics than was the case with the Greeks themselves” (Truth and Method, 421-22).

Next, Gadamer turns to St. Thomas’s contribution to the theory of the verbum.  Thomas took the Christian doctrine based on the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel, combined it with Aristotelianism,[2] and more or less drops any talk of the variety of languages.  As Gadamer explains (and here I take him to be referring to St. Thomas’ doctrine of the verbum as applied analogously to humans):

For him the doctrine of the ‘inner word’ is the self-evident premise for investigating the connection between forma and verbum.  Nevertheless, even for Thomas logos and verbum do not completely coincide.  Certainly the word is not the event of utterance, this irrevocable handing over of one’s own thinking to another, but the word still has the ontological character of an event.  The inner word remains related to its possible utterance.  While it is being conceived by the intellect, the subject matter is at the same time ordered toward being uttered (similitude rei concepta in intellectu et ordinata ad manifestationem vel ad se vel ad alterum).  Thus the inner word is certainly not related to a particular language, nor does it have the character of vaguely imagined words that proceed from the memory; rather, it is the subject matter through to the end (forma excogitata).  Since a process of thinking through to the end is involved, we have to acknowledge a processual element in it.  It proceeds per modum egredientis.  It is not utterance but thought; however, what is achieved in this speaking to oneself is the perfection of thought.  So the inner word, by expressing thought, images the finiteness of our discursive understanding.  Because our understanding does not comprehend what it knows in one single inclusive glance, it must always draw what it thinks out of itself, and present it to itself as if in an inner dialogue with itself.  In this sense all thought is speaking to oneself (Truth and Method, 422).

What does he mean by the word still having the “ontological character of an event”?  I’m not exactly sure, but I take his point here to be that the inner word (whatever that is) has an ordering toward manifestation—as he says toward “utterance.”  The inner word in some sense has to be completed or formed, which is what (I think) he means by the processual character or the discursive nature of our thought.  If so, the natural question is, what then is the common ground of the analogy, since no temporality enters into the intertrinitarian relations?  To this Gadamer responds,

the successiveness characteristic of the discursiveness of human thought is not basically temporal in nature either.  When human thought passes from one thing to another—i.e., thinks first this thing and then that—it is still not just a series of one thought after another.  It does not think in a simple succession, first one thing and then another, which would mean that it would itself constantly change in the process.  If it thinks first of one thing and then of another, that means it knows what it is doing, and knows how to connect the one thing with the next.  Hence what is involved is not a temporal relation but a mental process, an emanation intellectualis” (Truth and Method, 423).

As Gadamer explains, Thomas, having grasped this processual character of human thought, employs a Neoplatonic concept to articulate both the “processual character of the inner word and the process of the Trinity” (Truth and Method, 423).  By drawing from Neoplatonic resources, Thomas is able to convey via emanation the idea of flowing out that does not involve a depletion of its source.  That is, just as the One is not lessened or deprived when it issues forth emanations, neither is the Father deprived when he generates the Son.    Gadamer then concludes his discussion of Thomas’ contribution to the verbum theory with a few final remarks about how the analogy (for Thomas) applies to human thought.  Similar to the way in which the Father is not depleted in the generation of the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity,

this is likewise true of the mental emergence that takes place in the process of [human] thought, speaking to oneself.  This kind of production is at the same time a total remaining within oneself.  If it can be said of the divine relationship between word [Son] and intellect [Father] that the word originates not partially but wholly (totaliter) in the intellect, then it is true also that one [human] word originates totaliter from another—i.e., has its origin in the mind—like the deduction of a conclusion from the premises (ut conclusion ex principiis).  Thus the process and emergence of thought is not a process of change (motus), not a transition from potentiality into action, but an emergence ut actus ex actu.  The word is not formed only after the act of knowledge itself.  Thus the word is simultaneous with this forming (formatio) of the intellect (Truth and Method, 423-24).

Thomas seems to capture the relation of logical dependence that obtains between the Word (Second Person of the Trinity prior to His incarnation) and the Father.  That is, the Son depends upon the Father in a way analogous to how a necessary conclusion depends on the necessary axioms from which it is logically deduced.  In both cases, the processual character or what follows logically is not a temporal “movement.”

However, Thomas’ account doesn’t seem to explain what is most relevant to Gadamer’s inquiry into human understanding and the relations between (diverse natural) language and thought. For example, the relation between any human concept and the multiple discursive and interpretive practices in which the concept is applied is not purely logical.  Just because Ivan grasps the concept “tree,” nothing logically follows as to how he will apply it or what natural language he will use in his discourse about trees in a given context.  In short, once we turn to actual dialogue and application of concepts as expressed in natural languages, we encounter a great deal of plurality and variability that comes into play.  In contrast, the procession of the Word is unitary, eternal and necessary.   Toward the end of Truth and Method, Gadamer returns to some of the themes discussed in this section and further articulates his understanding of the relation between language and thought and language and reality, thus, addressing certain areas where Thomas’ account either falls short or is simply silent. Hopefully, I’ll have time to post more on that and other related items in the near future.


[1] Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 2004.  Truth and Method, 2nd ed. trans. and rev. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall.  New York:  Continuum.    All citations from Truth and Method are taken from this edition.

[2] Cf.  Commentarium in Johannem, ch. 1, titled De differentia verbi divini et humani, and the difficult and important opusculum, compiled from genuine texts by Thomas, called De natura verbi intellectus.  [Gadamer draws on the latter work in this section of Truth and Method].

Dostoevsky on Sobornost: Are We Our Brothers’ and Sisters’ Keepers?

With the debates raging in America over healthcare reforms, I was reminded this morning while reading an article on Dostoevsky’s novel, Brothers Karamazov, of our lack of sobornost, an important teaching emphasized by the Russian Orthodox Church.  Sobornost (cоборность) is a Russian word meaning, “spiritual community of many jointly living people.”[1] Twentieth century Russian philosopher, Nicholai Lossky, father of theologian Vladimir Lossky, approached sobornost from a Hegelian-influenced perspective, viewing sobornost as a synthesis or even mystical unity that brings human beings together in order to work for a common, social good.  Sobornost is in many ways the antithesis of Western individualism, or any ethos that manifests a “so long as I’m taken care of, it’s not my problem attitude.”  In stark contrast, as N. Lossky expresses the concept, sobornost speaks of many individuals freely united on the basis of their common love for “absolute values,” and who are willing to relinquish (a kind of kenotic giving up) certain benefits for the sake of the good of the whole.Alyosha Karamazov

If you are familiar with Brothers Karamazov, you immediately perceive the way in which the sobornost theme permeates nearly every page of the novel.  In interesting essay entitled, “The Biblical Story of Joseph in Dostoevskii’s The Brothers Karamazov,” Richard C. Miller shows how this mystical connection of humankind plays itself out in the complex relations of the Karamazov brothers.  In particular, Miller focuses on the role of one fugal line in Dosteovsky’s polyphonic text, viz., Zosima’s interpretation of the biblical story of Joseph (of course mediated by Aloysha and thus adding another melodic line into the mix).  Among the many scriptural references in Brothers Karamazov (BK hereafter), we also encounter a long discussion on the book of Job.  As Miller explains,

the stories of Job and of Joseph are counterparts.  Job’s dealing with the nature of man’s relationship with God, Joseph’s with man’s relationship to his fellow man—his own brothers and his father.  […]  The two themes of these biblical works correspond to the two major areas of investigation in The Brothers Karamazov. Man’s relationship with God is the subject of great internal struggle for each of the brothers.  Alesha [=Alyosha] must face it after the death of his elder, Dmitrii [=Dmitri] confronts it in prison, and Ivan is persistently hounded by the problem almost from the first pages of the novel.  Both the Joseph story and Doestoevskii’s [=Dostoevsky][2] novel explore the motivation underlying fraternal and filial interactions.  In both works the protagonists are brothers who share the same father but were born of different mothers.  Although there is no one-to-one correspondence between the personalities of the major characters—Jacob and Fedor [=Fyodor], for example—the dynamics of family relations produce similar conflicts and passions.  The responsibility of each man for his brother, envy, vengeance for past wrongs, all feature prominently in both works (654).

Dostoyevsky PortraitNumerous threads could be taken up here, but I’ll have to limit myself to a few.  As Zosima’s story unfolds, we discover that his own conversion came about through his (mystical, grace irruption) realization of his intimate connection to humankind, that is, to all human beings, as well as to creation as a whole.  When Zosima was a young man, the woman he loved decided to marry another man.  Filled with vengeance, Zosima challenged the man to a duel.  The night before the duel, Zosima in a fit of rage beat his servant, Afanasey.  The next morning Zosima awoke to the singing of birds and the sun reflecting its brilliance in God’s creation.  He sensed a strange harmony of creation at play, which made him recall the words of his deceased brother, Markel who had been converted prior to his death.  Markel had come to see his solidarity with his fellow humans, which provoked him to proclaim, “everyone is guilty before every other human being of everything, and if only people would come to realize this, it would result in a kind of paradise on earth.” This experience moves Zosima to see his own guilt and to seek the forgiveness of his servant, as well as that of his thoroughly shocked dueling partner.  As a result of his conversion, Zosima constantly speaks of the need for active love which is a mark of true spiritual regeneration.  Each of the brothers (excepting Smerdiakov) undergoes this spiritual transformation, first through a falling to the ground and dying to oneself and then a rising to newness of life expressed in showing mercy toward others.

Gary L. Browning also takes up the theme of active love and our responsibility toward others in his essay, “Zosima’s ‘Secret of Renewal’ in The Brothers Karamazov.”  Browning highlights a key phrase in the novel, “each is guilty for all,” the force of which is lost in many translations, including Constance Garnett’s otherwise excellent translation, in which the phrase is rendered, each is “responsible for all.”  The Russian variants of this phrase, of which there are many scattered throughout the novel, all include forms of the verb, “виновать” (vinovat), which means “to be guilty.”  For example, when Zosima exhorts the Karamazovs, who were visiting him at the monastery, to love one another and all human beings, he says, “каждый единый из нас винован за всех и за вся,” (“every one of us is guilty for all and everything” [XIV]).  Is this just a pessimistic, nihilistic view of humankind and our relation to others?  No.  According to Zosima, the realization that we are guilty, not only for our own failings but are also implicated in the wrongdoings of all people  is  that which moves us out of our atomistic, self-absorbed and self-imposed shackles and frees us to experience love and  intimacy with God and others.

How are we guilty for all and everything?  Zosima tells us in his “Conversations and Exhortations,” gathered and mediated through Alyosha.  (Here Dostoevsky’s moral theory goes beyond both Kant’s and Mill’s, in a sense using sobornost to unite or synthesize what is best in both).  First, each of our lives provide inadequate examples for others.  (As a parent, this is strikingly clear to me).  In addition to bad examples, even our best examples do not have the power (solely in and of themselves) to fully liberate another.  This is shown in Alyosha’s failure to transform Fyodor.  Second, we judge others unjustly and with insufficient information.  Dostoevsky brings this home in a powerful way in Dmitri’s unjust sentence of guilty.  The medical “experts,” leading sociologists of the day, and a few clever witnesses were able to convince the jury of Dmitri’s guilt—all of which illustrates the way in which human judgment fails and often miserably.    What path then ought we follow? The path of confession, forgiveness and humble, active love—a path made possible by the One who died, fell to the ground, and a rose in new life which He offers to all who will receive it. 


[1] Ozhegov and N. U. Shvedova, Explanatory Dictionary of the Russian Language.

[2] Oh for the day when Russian transliterations are standardized!

Gadamer on Hermeneutical Experience

For those interested, my post, “Gadamer on Hermeneutical Experience,” is “live” on the church and postmodern culture blog.  Below is an excerpt to pique your curiosity.

According to Gadamer, experience, including hermeneutic experience, is a process which is essentially negative. By “negative,” he means that our expectations of what something is or means are regularly disappointed and disconfirmed. But if we begin with an expectation, a hope, then hope is always prior to experience and is its condition. As we move through our disappointments and struggle to understand—in light of our shattered expectations or dislodged assumptions and biases—the person or subject at hand, new expectations/hopes arise. Thus, hope both precedes and follows disappointment and disconfirmation. Experience, as Gadamer understands it, is characterized by alternating cycles of hope and disappointment… click here to read more.