Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Gadamer and the Living Virtuality of Speech

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Gadamer and the Living Virtuality of Speech

Article excerpt

In part three of Truth and Method, HansGeorg Gadamer seeks to counter the reductive treatment of language that he takes to have originated in Plato's Cratylus by insisting on what he calls elsewhere the "ontological valence of the word" (Seinsvalenz des Wortes).1 It is this ontological valence, which can be understood as the specific gravity or density that belongs to the word as such, that enables language to take up a position as the medium, or "middle" (Mine), in which and as which the happening of truth takes place. Now inasmuch as Gadamer conceives of the happening of truth as an event in which "I and world meet or, rather, manifest their original belonging together,"2 it is apparent that he remains oriented by the same dialectical demand for the unity of thinking and being that was first articulated by Parmenides. However, as Gadamer sees it, there is one decisive difference-a difference that separates him from virtually the entire metaphysical tradition spanning from Plato to Hegel: for Gadamer, language is installed within the unity of thinking and being as the irreducible middle term. Indeed, as Gadamer's later writings make clear, language itself becomes the central issue for philosophical hermeneutics.3 As what Gadamer calls the "trace (Spur) of fmitude,"4 language inscribes difference into the event of the understanding of being, so that elsewhere Gadamer can insist that "it is enough to say that one understands in a different way, if one understands at all."5

It is worth noting that, in its specific resonance as the foundational voice of metaphysics, the voice of Plato represents a decisive provocation for philosophical hermeneutics. This provocation is especially clear with respect to the question of language, where Gadamer's aim is to challenge the traditional privilege of the original with respect to the copy. The general horizon of this traditional approach to language-which Gadamer, in a clear echo of Heidegger, describes in terms of a "forgetfulness of language" (Sprachvergessenheif)-is delineated by Gadamer in the third part of Truth and Method, much of which is concerned with presenting a history of the concept of language. In a word, Gadamer shows that this horizon is determined by the question of language's correctness. Beginning with the Cratylus, the presumption has typically been that language stands always in need of legitimization, which it can however receive only by virtue of an appeal to what is not language, viz., the thing itself. According to Gadamer, this question of correctness fundamentally determines Plato's experience of language and, subsequently, the vast majority of Western thought about language. In Gadamer's view, however, language is thereby deprived of its ability to speak for itself. In being subordinated to a non-linguistic original, the word suffers an ontological devaluation that disregards what is of value in the word as such. Sprachvergessenheit, which construes the word as a mere sign, is thus opposed by Gadamer's insistence on what might be termed Spracherinnerung, the remembrance of language and its own originary power.6

Hence what transpires in Gadamer's account of language is precisely what the title of part three of Truth and Method had in fact promised: an "ontological shift of hermeneutics guided by language."7 With respect to language, that is, Gadamer advocates a shift from the conception of an original being elevated above its derivative linguistic signs or copies to a conception of being couched in a notion of linguistic belongingness, wherein what was formerly regarded as a mere copy can now be accorded its proper ontological dignity. Corresponding to this shift in language, then, would be a shift in hermeneutics itself. For once language is recovered in its ontological dimension, it follows that hermeneutics, as the interpretation of language, simultaneously realizes its own newfound status as the interpretation of being. Thus we see that, in responding to Plato, philosophical hermeneutics becomes an ontological enterprise. …

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