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).
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.