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.

6 thoughts on “Gadamer on Symbolon and the Zugehörigkeit of Language and Reality”

  1. Cynthia—yours is a great blog, and I always look forward to your postings. You might want to change the title of this one, however: the proper German is ‘Zugehörigkeit’ (‘belonging-together’ or concurrence) and not, as you have it, Zegehörgkeit…darstardly typos!

  2. Hi Cynthia,
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