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  So, given that the bond to language cannot be superseded, what sense does it make to talk about an ‘inner word’ that is spoken, as it were, in the pure language of reason?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].

Derrida on Dionysius: A Mystical Iconoclast or a Misread?

In recent years a number of postmodern thinkers have become interested in negative theology and Neoplatonism. For example, Jean-Luc Marion has found within negative theology an inexhaustible resource that harmonizes well with his own theological and phenomenological project. Jacques Derrida has also engaged negative theology; however, he seems to have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward it and particularly dislikes what he interprets in Dionysius’ thought as the retention of a “transcendental signified.” As Eric Perl explains,

“Deconstruction is fundamentally a theory of signification, which attacks the (supposedly) traditional notion that a signifier (word, text, or image) refers to a signified, the meaning which itself is prior to and independent of the signifier. Derrida calls this the “transcendental signified”: the meaning underlying the expression, the archetype underlying the image, that which is not sign but “pure signified.” On the traditional assumption, any system of meaning, be it a written text or the cosmos itself, has such a transcendental signified. In the case of a text, it is the author’s intent, what he means to express; in the case of the world, understood as a system of signs, it is God” (“Signifying Nothing,” p. 125).

Derrida takes the description above to be characteristic of Western metaphysics, and thus his own project attempts to show that no such transcendental signified can be found outside, beyond or prior to the text or world. In the end, all we have are signs. “We can never transcend signs to arrive at a pure signified which is not itself a sign” (Ibid., p. 126). Here is where Derrida’s attraction to negative theology and Neoplatonism comes in focus. As we have seen, in Dionysian thought, God is beyond being and thought. That which can be thought exists and that which is is not God but “only an image, sign, or expression.” Hence, for Derrida, the common bond between negative theology and deconstruction is their mutual agreement that everything in the realm of existence and hence thought is sign all the way down. No transcendental signified or ultimate meaning is accessible, but remains forever deferred. “But whereas for Neoplatonism this implies that the world is infinitely meaningful, the manifestation of God, for deconstructionism it implies that the world is meaningless” (Ibid., p. 126).

Though Derrida has no doubt contributed significantly to contemporary thought and his insights have and should continue to be appropriated, one wonders whether he has correctly interpreted Neoplatonism and negative theology particularly as manifest in Dionysius. For Dionysius, as is the case with Plotinus, God is both beyond being (transcendent) and excessively present (immanent). As Dionysius explains,

“God is […] known in all things and as distinct from all things. He is known through knowledge and unknowing. Of him there is conception, reason, understanding, touch, perception, opinion, imagination, name, and many other things. On the other hand he cannot be understood, words cannot contain him, and no name can lay hold of him. He is not one of the things that are and he cannot be known in any of them. He is all things in all things and he is no thing among things. He is known to all from all things and he is known to no one from anything (DN VII.3).

Here Dionysius highlights both creation (i.e., everything that exists) as theophany, where everything that is manifests God, and God’s radical transcendence in light of the fact that He is beyond the order of being, the created realm. Derrida seems to focus only on the “and” side of the Dionysian world, i.e., on God as wholly other—other in the sense of a transcendental signified, a being beyond Being who is still entangled in a signifier/signified dualism. Hence, the Derridean read of Dionysius is that of “a kind of ‘mystical iconoclast,’ who calls us to strip away all created symbols and images and attain a non-symbolic vision of and union with God as ‘pure signified’” (Ibid., p.) Dionysius, however, in no way suggests that we must finally do away with all symbols in order to encounter God. “This divine ray can enlighten us only by being upliftingly concealed in a variety of sacred veils which the Providence of the Father adapts to our nature as human beings” (CH I.2). Hence, we experience God not by peeling away or overcoming signs, but by embracing the signs as icons. In other words, God is present and manifest in the signs and “sacred veils” that both conceal and reveal Him. Derrida has done a superb job of describing the concealing aspects of Dionysius; however, it seems that he has not properly understood the iconic function of signs.