Philosophy of Language in Continental Philosophy

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The task of the philosophy of language within the tradition of continental European philosophy has been to overcome the idea of language as an instrument or as a means at the disposal of human beings. Although it has proved possible retrospectively to see Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) as a resource for this task, Johann Georg Hamann (17301788) and Wilhelm von Humboldt (17671835) both contributed more. Hamman was the first to give centrality to language and Humboldt, with his formulation that language is an energeia not an ergon, an activity not a work, opened the door to a more dynamic approach to it. However, it was not until the second half of the twentieth century that these insights were fully explored and decisively surpassed.

Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger's attempt to go beyond the instrumentalist and expression theories of language is most pronounced in his later thought, especially in On the Way to Language. His formulation, Die Sprache spricht (language speaks) is an effort to displace the centrality of the human subject in accounts of language: It is not primarily the human being, but language, that speaks. The human being speaks only in response to language. This insight arose when he shifted his focus from everyday speech, which is explored at length in Being and Time as part of his account of everyday existence, to the poetic word. Already in 1936, in "The Origin of the Work of Art" (2002 [1950]), Heidegger claimed that it was not the human being, as in Being and Time, but art and most specifically poetry, that brings beings into the open and gives to human beings their outlook on themselves. This led directly, some ten years later, to the famous formulation of his Letter on "Humanism" (1998 [1947]) that "language is the house of Being" (p. 239). It announces not only the sense in which humans inhabit language, but also the sense in which the human being belongs to the historical destiny of Being and is called to respond to it. The implications of this account emerge not only in his readings of the poetry of, for example, Friedrich Hölderlin, Stefan George, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Georg Traklreadings that are directed to undergoing an experience with language such that language transforms peoplebut also in his reading of the history of philosophy, where thinkers are understood to be saying the word of Being for their time. The words of Being function, somewhat like the work of art, to found a world.

Heidegger's approach to language is directed against the tendency to understand language in terms of something else, such as activity, spirit, or world view. That is why the focus falls on experiencing language. It is Heidegger's view that language shows itself as language only when language comes to be infused with silence. Language comes to be infused with silence mundanely when language fails people so that they are lost for words. For Heidegger, the thinker experiences something similar at a more profound level at the end of European and North American metaphysics. At that time the thinker lacks a word for Being and so can no longer accomplish the philosophical task of naming Being, for example, as idea, energeia, subjectum, or will. Indeed, for Heidegger it is only the lack of a word for Being in our epoch that gives rise to the insight that naming Being was the philosopher's task. However, this is not a negative experience. It is in the experience of language that Heidegger positions his thought as no longer metaphysical, albeit it is not yet beyond European and North American metaphysics. That Heidegger's clearest accounts of this experience arise in the course of his readings of Hölderlin and George show the extent to which his own self-understanding was moulded by the dialogue between poetry and thinking.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Like Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception (1962 [1945]) distinguished a creative or speaking speech that formulates for the first time, which he called parole parlante, from ordinary or spoken speech, parole parlée. What unites all of Merleau-Ponty's texts on language is a concern for the creative aspect of language, its capacity to say what has never been said, which he explored as an antidote to the dream of some philosophers to develop a transparent, algorithmic, language. However, unlike Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty's approach to language was from the outset already informed by psychology, and by the late 1940s he had begun to incorporate developments in linguistics. This tendency culminates in "Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence," which begins with Ferdinard de Saussure's insight that meaning is a function of the differences between words, their divergence from each other. Words do not directly signify anything; they are not tied to a preestablished signification. There is thus an "instructive spontaneity" of speech that leads Merleau-Ponty to the insight that people do not speak of Being so much as Being speaks in them, a formulation with clear Heideggerian echoes. The vitality of speech is also apparent when in a conversation one can no longer tell, as Merleau-Ponty famously puts it, what comes from one's dialogue partner and what is one's own contribution.

Hans-Georg Gadamer

Dialogue is also at the core of Hans-Georg Gadamer's account of language. In his philosophical hermeneutics, which he developed in most detail in Truth and Method (1989 [1960]), he highlighted how in dialogue one seeks to reach an understanding with a living person or a text about some topic. However, underlying the effort to reach agreement was an already existing agreement because every dialogue presupposes a community of language as the element in which the dialogue takes place. Hence he conceived the task of a hermeneutical reflection on language not as that of investigating how each language in spite of its differences from other languages could say everything it wants to say, which he characterized as a concern of the philosophy of language and linguistics. His question was rather how to make sense of the intimacy of thought and language because language is not a prison, which is evident because one can readily come to understand a foreign language. Gadamer's answer was to reject accounts of language that relied on conventionalism and preschematization in favor of an account that emphasized its generative and creative power. This led Gadamer to formulate the idea of the virtuality of language, by which he meant its inexhaustibility, its capacity to exceed what has already been said. Gadamer's account of the infinite resources of language can be seen as an attempt to resist Heidegger's account of the breakdown of the function of language within European and North American metaphysics, but he shared with Heidegger the conviction that language has people in its grip, that it speaks people more than people speak it. As evidence for this view he cited that the time when a text was written can be more precisely determined by its linguistic usage than from its author.

Jacques Derrida

At the heart of Jacques Derrida's understanding of language is his identification of European and North American metaphysics with logocentrism, such that the alleged primacy of presence within European and North American metaphysics is reflected in the alleged transparency of speech and the speaker's mastery over it. By contrast, writing, even before it reaches its destination, is organized around the absence, and possible death of the sender or the addressee, or both. Derrida's deconstruction of logocentrism is sometimes mistakenly understood as a championing of writing to compensate for its previous reduction to the status of a mere supplement to speech, for example, as when Plato presented it as an aid to memory. Nevertheless, Derrida's interest is not so much in what is normally understood by writing as in what he calls arche-writing or protowriting, which is the condition of all forms of language, indeed of all organized systems. Derrida's use of the word "writing" in this contest is strategic: It is intended to reverse the priority of speech over writing, but only as a prelude to passing beyond the opposition between them both.

As Derrida explained in Of Grammatology (1976), the inflation of the sign language is the inflation of the sign itself. He presented this as a symptom of the historical epoch in which what had finally been gathered under the name language came to be summarized as writing. Derrida thus does not advocate grammatology in the sense of a science of writing, but, engaging in his own form of grammatology in the sense of a provisional science of textuality, he finds that both linguistics and psychoanalysis fail to recognize the resistance of language to pure ideality, and thus fail to escape logocentrism. However, once made thematic, this tension need not be regarded negatively. By shifting the focus to textuality Derrida draws attention to the way that one can find, for example within the language of Saussure and Sigmund Freud, both the symptoms of the logocentrism of European and North American metaphysics and the trace of what it represses. Derrida performs a similar operation on Heidegger, from whom he had initially drawn the basic outline of his account of European and North American metaphysics. In this way, Derrida continued Heidegger's project of overcoming the conception of language as instrument or medium, but without relying on poetic language to accomplish the task, as had been the case with Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Gadamer.

See also Derrida, Jacques; Gadamer, Hans-Georg; Heidegger, Martin; Hermeneutics; Merleau-Ponty, Maurice.


Derrida, Jacques. De la grammatologie. Paris: Minuit, 1976. Translated by G. Spivak as Of Grammatology (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Wahrheit und Methode. Tübingen, Germany: J.C.B. Mohr, 1960. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall as Truth and Method (New York: Continuum, 1989).

Heidegger, Martin. Sein und Zeit. Halle: Niemeyer, 1927. Translated by Joan Stambaugh as Being and Time (Albany: SUNY Press, 1996).

Heidegger, Martin. Brief über den Humanismus. Bern, Switzerland: A. Franke, 1947. Translated as "Letter on 'Humanism'," in Pathmarks (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Heidegger, Martin. "Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes." In Holzwege. Frankfurt, 1950. Translated by Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes as "The Origin of the Work of Art," in Off the Beaten Track (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Heidegger, Martin. Unterwegs zur Sprache. Pfullingen, Germany: Neske, 1959. Translated by Peter Hertz as On the Way to Language (New York: Harper and Row, 1971).

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phénoménologie de la perception. Paris: Gallimard, 1945. Translated by C. Smith as Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge, 1962).

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. "Le langage indirect et les voix du silence." In Signes. Paris: Northwestern University Press, 1960. Translated by R. C. McCleary as "Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence." In Signs (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964).

Robert Bernasconi (2005)

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Philosophy of Language in Continental Philosophy

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