Gadamer on Symbolon and the Zugehörigkeit of Language and Reality

Gadamer understands language as having an ability to enhance the intelligibility of reality and thus make the truth of things more evident. Wachterhauser offers a way into Gadamer’s claim by turning to the latter’s claim that language and reality belong together, as language has a symbolic function.  Here Gadamer has in view the Greek understanding of a symbol (symbolon) in which a simple object, such as a piece of pottery, was broken and one half was given to the host and the other kept by the guest.  As Wachterhauser explains, this symbol

was originally given as a gesture of friendship and hospitality between households that were able to visit each other only rarely.  […]  If on some date, far in the future, a descendant of the original recipient presented this token of friendship, it was acknowledged as a symbol of the accord and bond of hospitality linking both families over generations.  The key idea is that such a ‘symbol’ represents a prior accord and the presentation of the symbol functions not only as a sign of that accord but it actually functions to make that accord palpable and real.  In this sense, the symbol is not a mere symbol or a sign that has no essential effect on the reality it stands for.  In this case, the ‘symbol’ completes the pledge; it plays an integral role in fulfilling the promise once given.  What was not manifest—the bond of hospitality between households—becomes manifest with the presentation of the symbolon.  The ‘symbol’ actually has an effect on making the bond between households real (Beyond Being, 100).

Similarly, language has a symbolic function (in the sense indicated above) in that it makes manifest both the prior accord or unity of thought and language, and it affects reality by making reality more intelligible.  In short, language affects reality by bringing it into sharper focus and enhancing the already-existing intelligibility of the thing itself.  Watcherhauser builds upon Gadamer’s notion of symbolon via a discussion of Plato’s Symposium.  In Plato’s dialogue, Aristophanes gives a mythological account of how humans how come to be in their present “incomplete” form.  Originally, humans were spherical and whole in themselves, needing no other to complete them sexually or otherwise.  However, their self-sufficiency soon turned into pride that led to their downfall.  As punishment for their arrogance and autonomy-gone-astray, the gods cut them in half and turned their sexual organs outward (in their present form) so that they would seek their completion in an other.  Connecting this myth to Gadamer’s understanding of the belongingness of language, thought and reality, Wachterhauser writes,

The relevance of this myth for language is that in Gadamer’s terms language stands to reality like these two lovers stand to each other.  Language belongs so closely to intelligible reality that although it is never synonymous with intelligible reality it is capable of ‘completing’ it in a sense by enhancing its intelligibility.  Understanding is never merely a receptive act in which the intelligible form is, as it were, poured into us from without, but also always an achievement of language.  Reality and language ‘belong together,’ like two lovers each of whom is essential to the other.  This ‘belonging together’ that lovers experience is never simply experienced as ‘fate,’ as if it were preordained that they find each other and ‘complete’ each other.  Such a ‘belonging together’ of lovers is also an achievement and a work of the lovers themselves.  I say “also an achievement” because it is never solely their achievement.  Love between two people cannot be forced; it depends on a prior disposition of each person, which allows them to ‘fit together.’  But love also does not succeed automatically; such ‘elective affinities’ require work and always remain, in part, a genuine achievement of the persons involved with each other (Beyond Being, 101).

Just as the two lovers must have a prior compatibility, so too must language and reality have this prior unity so that they might contribute to the other’s good rather than do violence to the other.  In other words, just as a false lover by re-creating himself in the other is not really interested in what he can learn from the other, and how he might be transformed by the truth of the other, so too linguist theories that deny the intelligibility of reality in itself simply re-double the interpreter and leave no room for genuine reciprocity.  Yet, as mentioned previously, on Gadamer’s view, language does not merely reflect reality, it also has a productive role which allows new insights to emerge.  For example, when Richie Beirach (an amazing jazz pianist) plays Chopin’s Prelude Op. 28, No. 20 in C Minor, his performance is not identical to Chopin’s—it’s not a re-production or a mere repetition (as if such were possible).  Beirach’s version adds something new to Chopin’s piece; yet, this something new in no way destroys the identity of the work, as anyone listening and familiar with the piece immediately recognizes it as Chopin’s Prelude Op. 28, No. 20 in C Minor.

Charles Taylor on Gadamer’s Hermeneutic Experience of the Other and the Changed Self

“In coming to see the other correctly, we inescapably alter our understanding of ourselves.  Really taking in the other will involve an identity shift in us.  That is why it is so often resisted and rejected.  We have a deep identity investment in the distorted images we cherish of others … If understanding the other is to be construed as fusion of horizons and not as possessing a science of the object, then the slogan might be:  no understanding the other without a changed understanding of self.  The kind of understanding that ruling groups have of the ruled, that conquerors have of the conquered—most notably in recent centuries in the far-flung European empires—has usually been based on a quiet confidence that the terms they need are already in their vocabulary.  Much of the ‘social science’ of the last century is in this sense just another avatar of an ancient human failing.  And indeed, the satisfactions of ruling, beyond the booty, the unequal exchange, the exploitation of labor, very much includes the reaffirmation of one’s identity that comes from being able to live this fiction without meeting brutal refutation.  Real understanding always has an identity cost—something the ruled have often painfully experienced.  It is a feature of tomorrow’s world that this cost will now be less unequally distributed” (“Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” 141).

Du Bois, Hegel, and the Structural Context of Black Double-Consciousness

A guest post by Blake Emerson, a first year doctoral student (JD/Political Science) at Yale University.  Blake blogs at Radical Negative.

American political discourse has had difficulty grasping the reality and gravity of racism. Our political theory, economic system, intellectual history, and cultural norms all circulate around notions individual autonomy and responsibility. Analyses and remedies to racism have thus focused upon individual agency and culpability. Racism, so the story goes, is the attribute and fault of the bigot. Racist actions are only those actions that intend to harm other individuals by virtue of their membership in a certain ethnically and/or physically defined group. The enemy to racial equity in this narrative is thinking in terms of groups, and assessing the value of others by their group membership. The panacea, then, is to judge people solely by their individual virtues and vices. According to this liberal principle, the end of racism requires the repression of racial categories from public discourse. The law and attendant public values aim to be color-blind. They intend to wipe race off the political and social map, in hopes of engendering a cognitive tabula rasa with respect to interpersonal interaction, exchange, and moral assessment.

The color-blind filter forecloses conceivable political analyses and solutions that might consider collective outcomes as significant, or might think of agency, discrimination, and culpability as residing in anything other than the solitary embodied mind. The atomized, color-blind lens places us behind a veil of ignorance—one more insidious, but perhaps not altogether genealogically distinct from John Rawls’ instrument of normative political reasoning. Thus America law generally avoids questions of race, and, for the most part, is only cognizant of racism when individuals or institutions demonstrate an explicit intent to discriminate. Liberal political theorists, likewise, conclude that the only instances of racism that should concern us are individual acts of prejudice. And they find our institutions more or less adequate to address these blemishes on liberal perfection.

American political thought is deeply complicit in this color-blind discourse. Our failure to recognize and engage the magnitude of the problem of race arises in part from a deeply engrained philosophical sensibility, enshrined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and rooted in British empiricism and social contract theory, which takes the individual as sole unit of analysis, responsibility, and political justice.  Within this theoretical frame, we cannot adequately articulate why racial disparities that cannot be traced to the intentions of individual actors demand new thought and new politics.

The racial equity field has therefore begun to shift the debate away from this atomistic liberal focus. Theorists in the racial equity field have developed the notion of “structural racism,” recognizing that traditional liberal theorizing has not come to terms with perpetual and plastic conditions of racial inequity. In building this theory, racial equity practitioners have brought the reality of systemic racism in America to bear on our theoretical discourse. Theoretical discourse must now respond with an adequate conceptual housing entertain and critique the workings of racial injustice. Roughly, this will require an account of racism that focuses on the implicit logic of institutions, processes, and practices that produce racial disparity, rather than the expressed intent of those processes.

As a first step towards elucidating this mode of analysis, I propose to turn to an alternative philosophical tradition, upon which American academic discourse has touched, but whose critical and normative energies remain largely untapped. I argue that G.W.F. Hegel’s social phenomenology and political metaphysics provides fertile ground for a more robust analysis of the problem of race than liberal theory can provide.

Hegel’s thought can be brought to bear directly upon questions of race through its impact on W.E.B Du Bois’ mode of racial critique, which has left an indelible mark on American race theory. Shamoon Zamir has already outlined the ways in which the logic of the first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk mirrors the dialectic of self-consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit (Zamir: 1995, 115-168). In “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” Du Bois employs Hegel’s logic to explicate elite African American Consciousness at the turn of the century. Susan Buck-Morss gives further credence to the profitability of an Hegelian conversation on race with her hypothesis that Hegel’s master-slave dialectic in the Phenomenology suggests a radical politics informed by the Haitian Revolution (Buck Morss: 2000). If Hegel’s dialect of self-consciousness is inflected with historical fact of slavery, it should not be a surprising that Du Bois found its dynamics relevant to the condition of African American consciousness during reconstruction. In inspiration and in application, then, Hegel’s Phenomenology is implicated in questions of race, as it relates to slavery.

Zamir and Buck-Morss’ work connecting Hegel’s Phenomenology with slavery and racial consciousness is most valuable for the critical purchase it gives the question of race on Hegel’s political thought, and, conversely, for the purchase it gives Hegel’s political thought on the problem of race. I therefore take up Zamir’s understanding of Dubois’ Hegelian notion of black double-consciousness in order to determine the conditions of the possibility of that consciousness.

Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness draws on Hegel’s insight that unequal power relations between subjects create failures of recognition that split, torture, and deny freedom to self-consciousness. In the dialectic of Lord and Bondsman, self-consciousness seeks to achieve recognition through another self-consciousness. Elsewhere, Hegel will describe such relations of recognition as essential to freedom. Therefore, we can read self-consciousness’ epistemological efforts in the Phenomenology as an element of a broader effort to achieve freedom. At this particular stage in the dialectic, recognition fails because the relationship between the two self-consciousness is not equal; one is enslaved to the other. Successful and complete recognition would require that each self-consciousness see the other as equal to itself, and therefore adequate to the task of recognizing and reflecting itself. The unequal relation of slavery creates a circumstance in which the master sets the terms of recognition, and therefore undermines the reciprocity that is essential to it. The master comes to define the identity and the consciousness of the slave, such that the slave is not recognized as independent by the master. He is defined by his inferior position.

Du Bois’ analysis of black double consciousness during Jim Crow takes up this notion of unequal recognition to describe how racial power relations in America do violence upon the black psyche:

the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,–a world which yield him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,–an American, A Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keep it from being torn asunder (Souls, 8).

While Hegel’s dialectic describes this unequal relationship as slavery, Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness refers to the condition of black consciousness after emancipation. Du Bois therefore suggests that the social and political conditions in America after slavery nonetheless reproduced power relations that mirror slavery in their dynamics and consequence. To understand these racial structures we must look beyond the fact of an unequal power relation between self-conscious subjects. We must locate and define the structures that create such a power relation. This requires that we turn from a subjective account of race to a structural account. In Hegel’s system, we must move from the phenomenology of consciousness to the explication of the moral, economic, political and social structures that enable human freedom. Where race has influenced and corrupted these freedom-conducive structures, we can identify specific sites of structural inequity that must be addressed. In this way, Du Bois’ application of the master and slave dialectic indicates that an analysis of subjective self-consciousness alone cannot grasp the wider and more powerful operations of racism.

I intend to analyze these conditions through Hegel’s account of human freedom in Elements of the Philosophy of Right. There, Hegel describes requirements for a just society that align with the liberal norms and political and economic structures that exist in modern American society. To the extent that racial exclusion colors and informs the concrete embodiment of Hegel’s norms and structures in the circumstances of American history, such exclusion calls into question the integrity of the liberal state, particularly its principle of color-blindness. Reading the racial history of America through the lens of Hegel’s account of ethical life, civil society, and the state, I argue that racist intentions can be attributed not only to individuals, but also to our political, social, and economic institutions. To explain how racial hierarchy continues to flourish in American life even in the absence of slavery, I analyze how Hegel’s political structures abstract and represent the individual intentions of members. My aim is not to offer an exhaustive racial critique of the Philosophy of Right, but rather to point out analyses and vocabulary within the text that could flesh out existing theories of structural racism, and the political thought those theories demand.

Musings on Gadamer on Plotinus on Dunamis

In his essay, “Thinking as Redemption:  Plotinus Between Plato and Augustine,” Gadamer discusses Plotinus’ understanding of dunamis, describing it as a living power that “fulfills itself and maintains itself by the power of its activity” (86).  He goes on to say that the new accent that Plotinus gives to dunamis adds a dynamic aspect to a certain Greek idea of being as presence.  “No longer is being the streaming present that is manifested to the gaze of thought only in its predictability—as idea, nature, substance; being is now the secret power that is dormant in everything, a being that never lets itself be seen, assayed, or exhausted, but manifests itself on in its expressions” (86)

This passage reminded me of a recent conversation I had with a professor about racism and sexism.  Isn’t this previous Greek view of being as—“the streaming present that is manifested to the gaze of thought only in its predictability—as idea, nature, substance” in some sense what is at the center of racism, sexism and other related –isms?  No doubt the means through which we, so to speak, get to that center varies.  For example, with racism, the visual seems to play a large role.  This emphasis on the visual is clearly seen in Kant’s writings on race and his emphasis on skin color.  But however one gets to the center, different communities/traditions at different times come to view a certain pattern/ideal as the standard/norm—a kind of static form of sorts of what it is to be a human, what it is to be a male, a female etc.—and whatever person or group deviates from that is then either an inferior instance or worse is excluded from the category as a whole (i.e. simply isn’t a human or is at least treated by the community as not fully human).

In contrast, what if human reality is more like this living power of which Plotinus speaks?  If so, then we should expect new insights, genuine surprises, developments in tradition, multiple interpretations, mystery, the inability to exhaustively define femininity and masculinity, different ethnic groups and so on.  After all, we as Christians believe that humans are imago Dei, i.e., created in the image of God who is beyond our full comprehension, so why shouldn’t we expect a real difficulty in defining ourselves and others?

From what I can tell so far, part of Gadamer’s project in Truth and Method is to re-appropriate ancient and medieval insights, bringing them into conversation with thinkers like Hegel and Heidegger so as to offer a corrective to the Western tradition.  In other words, his project is both de-structive as well as con-structive, and he in no way advocates a facile dismissal of the insights of previous thinkers.  It seems that on one level Gadamer’s view of hermeneutics might be understood as applying Plotinus’ view of dunamis as living power which “fulfills itself and maintains itself by the power of its activity” to tradition, texts and works of art which, in reflecting the dynamism of reality, likewise manifest dynamism and flexibility of their own.  That is, tradition/texts/works of art are themselves “living” and consist in some genuine sense of this living power or built-in dynamism which permits expansion through successive generations and yet simultaneously manifests an identifiable continuity with the past.  Does Gadamer’s view then suggest a dynamism “all the way down”?  That is, does ultimate reality (which for the Christian is the Trinitarian God) also exhibit this dynamism?  I’m not sure how Gadamer would answer this question; however, in his reading of the later Plato, he understands Plato as including motion and rest in the transcendentals.  This is part of Gadamer’s critique of Heidegger, as he does not fully accept Heidegger’s reading of the Western tradition as one extended variation on the “forgetfulness of Being” (Seinsvergessenheit).  Rather, Gadamer takes Plato’s inclusion of motion and rest in the transcendentals as a statement against a strict view of truth as orthotes (“correctness”). (For Gadamer, the Ideas are not the center of Plato’s philosophy—the center is the dialectic between the One and the Many).  Consequently (or ironically), Plato’s truth is much like Heidegger’s aletheia—a constant interplay of concealment and unconcealment.  Along these lines, Gadamer emphasizes that the Idea of the Good never shows itself directly but always indirectly and every revealing is simultaneously a concealing (this is the case with all the Forms as well).  This “motion” within the Ideas of revealing and concealing and showing themselves in different ways at different times in history is harmonious with the possibility of multiple, true interpretations over time, as different interpretative communities bring different questions to the text in relation to the cultural-political and other particularities of their day.