Saturday, May 20, 2017

What is Language? (A Short Review of Hermeneutics)

What is language? Let us begin with this simple but difficult question. It is perhaps one of the most important questions ever asked in the history of Western philosophy. It is an investigation that opens a whole gamut of issues anchored in Being as such. The question, I suppose, is the equivalent of the ultimate metaphysical problem out there – what is being

1. Ferdinand de Saussure: Excursions in Structuralism

Structuralism was influenced by the developments in the science of anthropology, which has made the novel attempt to study language objectively in the same manner as the human artifact in the field of cultural anthropology. Structuralism, whose origins can be traced to the works of Ferdinand de Saussure, was intended “to be a human science, imbued with the full rigor and objectivity of the natural sciences, just as Freud had intended psychoanalysis to be a science of the human psyche.” (Johnson 2002, 228)

Saussure believed that a science of language can be developed. He made a distinction between langue and parole in which langue “could be described as the legislative part of language,” and parole “as the executive part of language,” arguing that one can find the “concrete instantiation of langue in the individual acts of speaking or writing,” (Ibid, 232) 

Language as langue, or language as code is that complex “system of signs that are diacritical,” which means that within that system “signs are in continuous opposition to other signs.” (Ibid) For Saussure, meaning is not natural. He wrote that language consists of signifiers and the signified. (Ibid) In this case, “the signifier is the ‘sensible’ side of the sign, the carrier of sense, while the signified is the mental construct or concept corresponding to a given signifier.” (Ibid)

Saussure explains that “langue is not a function of the speaking subject … It is the social part of language, external to the individual, who by himself is powerless either to create it or to modify it.” (Saussure 1983, 14) Herein, we speak of language as a system of codes. Language as code indicate that meaning does not lie somewhere beyond, but it is to be found in difference. Codes make sense because they “differ” from each other. In this regard, there is no truth to which language may refer to. There are only signs.

In following the works of Saussure, the post-structuralist Jacques Derrida introduced deconstruction. Derrida wrote that words have “value” or meaning insofar as they differ from each other. In his book, Writing and Difference, Derrida speaks of this difference as “differance.” For Derrida, “differance” indicates that texts both “differ” and “defer” in terms of meaning. Meaning comes from that moment whereby something is not immediately given. (Derrida 2002)

To differ means that each word acts as a sign that is distinct from another sign. Derrida, capitalizing in the structuralist idea of language as difference, thinks that there is no way to step out of language. The text is a world in itself. As such, the text is nothing but an endless stream of signifiers. For Derrida, there is no universal interpretation of a text. There is no reality except the text. Meaning, in this regard, is nothing but the “endless free play of signs.” (Ibid)

We can contrast such with the notion of language as reference. The referential function of language tells us that each word being a sign for something refers to something that is outside. Language refers to a word of objects that it signifies. Language, in this sense, as Paul Ricoeur has indicated, is about “saying something on something to someone.” (Garcia 2000, 6) For Ricoeur, there is a speaker who speaks about the world in which he is situated. Meaning in this regard proceeds from the subject’s meaningful lived experience in the world.

Deconstruction finds its roots in Martin Heidegger’s "destruktion.". Derrida’s deconstruction is a re-reading of the history or texts of Western philosophy. Modern philosophy was firmly anchored in the Cartesian cogito. Certainty has become the solid ground of human knowledge. But Derrida saw each epoch as different moments and that there can never be a unifying theme in history. The text in this sense must be interpreted without a universal function. Derrida has written that if such were the case, then “the entire history of the concept of structure, before the rupture of which we are speaking, must be thought of as a series of substitutions of center for center, as a linked chain of determinations of the center.” (Derrida 2002, 353)

What Derrida’s theory of writing “derives from his critique of logo-centrism is universal to the extent that it transcends the specification of any particular historical context.” (Johnson 2002, 241) For Derrida, all forms of interpretation of the text must be uprooted from the center. This uprooting or ‘free play’ of meaning is what he calls a rupture or a “disruption of presence.” (Derrida 2002) For Derrida, there is no truth to speak of. Reality simply consists of texts and the endless ‘free play’ of significations.

2. Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Analytic Tradition

The above post-structuralist contentions posed a challenge to the ability of language to truly mediate between thought and human experience. But while post-structuralism is a study focused on language as code, the analytic tradition used mathematics and logic in order to create a structural backbone on how language may be understood in the light of the advances made in the natural sciences. Ludwig Wittgenstein epitomized the spirit of the analytic tradition. 

Early analytic philosophers sought to explain the world through the picture-theory of meaning. This ‘perfect language’ is anchored in logic. For Bertrand Russell, the world consists of facts. Language is no more than the compendium of atomic propositions. Reality, in this regard, for logical atomism, can only be expressed by means of elementary propositions. “All x is y,” for instance, can be translated logically as, “There is one and only one x and this one and only one x is a y.” Through logical analysis, we can translate language into its symbolic forms, e.g. “Caesar crossed the Rubicon” is translated into aRb, with the variable “a” representing the subject-term “Caesar” and with the variable “b” signifying the predicate “crossed the Rubicon.”

Analytic philosophy may be divided into the two periods in Wittgenstein’s thinking - the early and the later Wittgenstein. The early philosophy of Wittgenstein tells us that “the workings of language depend upon its underlying logical structure,” and for this reason, what is needed in order to “solve the problems of philosophy we must, says Wittgenstein, make clear to ourselves the nature of that underlying logical structure.” (Grayling 1996, 34) This position, called the picture-theory of meaning, can be found in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. In that short book, Wittgenstein wrote that “a picture is a model of reality.” (Wittgenstein 1961)

It is explained in the Tractatus that “elementary propositions are logically independent of each other.” (Grayling 1996, 37) For him, a proposition is either true or false. For Wittgenstein, ‘only facts exist’. As such, A.C. Grayling elaborates that for Wittgenstein, “reality consists of all possible states of affairs, whether existing or non-existing.” (Ibid) The criterion of meaning in early Wittgenstein then is the existence of the state of affairs in the world. Thus, Wittgenstein states in the Tractatus that “the world is all that is the case.” (Wittgenstein 1961)

Wittgenstein’s early philosophy also suggested that philosophy is different from the natural sciences. For Wittgenstein, philosophy does not seek to explain the world. The true task of philosophy, he says, is to clarify the meaning of propositions. Philosophy in this sense is limited to the logical analysis of language. It does not intend to describe or explain anything higher, be it ethics or the metaphysical. Paradigmatically, Wittgenstein proclaims that “philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts.” (Wittgenstein 1961) The Tractatus follows as matter of strict principle that meaning is purely logical. The function of philosophy therein is confined to the logical analysis of language.

But the later philosophy of Wittgenstein, or his mature philosophy of language, has veered away from the limited conceptions analytic philosophy in the Tractatus. Language cannot be reduced to the ‘logical clarification of thought’. Wittgenstein's ordinary language philosophy, states that language is the language of everyday use. Meaning, in this sense, cannot be limited to the logical structure of propositions since there are countless human activities, each of which express a particular ‘form of life’.

In his Philosophical Investigations, published posthumously, Wittgenstein introduced the concept of ‘language games’ to analytic philosophy. Meaning, Wittgenstein says, is not about words, but rather, meaning is all about the function of words. Meaning, in this sense, is all about ‘use’. In elaborating the same, he writes in the Philosophical Investigations about the metaphor of language as a tool-box: “Think of the tools in the tool-box: there is a hammer, pliers, a screw-driver, a rule, a glue-pot, nails and screws.” (Wittgenstein 2001, 6) 

The use of the metaphor of the toolbox indicates that language indeed performs many functions. It cannot be limited to the statement of facts. In explaining the important role of ordinary language in understanding human experience, Wittgenstein says pure analysis is unnecessary because language is “in order as it is.” (Ibid, 98) On this basis, Wittgenstein says that meaning does not proceed from a monological activity, such as picturing, but from different ‘forms of life’ or contexts which point to various ways upon which language may be meaningful.

Grayling says that “a form of life consists in the community's concordance of natural and linguistic responses, which issue in agreement in definitions and judgments and therefore behavior.” (Ibid) This form of life refers to our practices or traditions in which we participate in order to truly understand each other. This means that by way of ‘language games’, we have a multiplicity of ways in expressing our experiences or in interpreting our rich mode of being in the world. In a way, our community serves as the context in which things are understood. The concepts we purport to express embody the perspectives that we have about the world in which we live. Language in this sense, is “inseparably bound and from which its expressions get their meaning.” (Ibid)

The critical role that Wittgenstein’s later philosophy played is that it has provided that important step for the notion of language games, which is crucial in understanding 'context'. This contextualization is pivotal in seeing language from a hermeneutic point of view. It gave an assurance that the meaning of language cannot be limited to mere categorizations, but is open to the varying horizons of meaning that the multiplicity of contexts may provide in terms of interpreting human experience.

3. Martin Heidegger: Language, Being and World Disclosure

Indeed, the deeper nature of language cannot be confined to basic propositions. This utter reluctance is shown by the fact that human understanding cannot be limited to propositional analysis. It is for this reason that the rootedness of language in human experience must be elucidated. This rootedness refers to the 'ontological' grounding of meaning. Understanding, primordially, is ontological. To understand in this sense is primarily to ask what makes understanding possible in the first place. Language, according to Heidegger, is always already bound up with Being.

Heidegger, in his very influential Being and Time, elucidates the formal structure of the question of Being. He says that the formal structure of this investigation comes in the form of a seeking. In seeking Being, the human as Dasein, as there-being, stands in front of the light of Being. Heidegger says that “every questioning is a seeking.” (Heidegger 1993, 45) It is a seeking that takes the question of Being, one that enables Dasein to determine the disclosure of beings in terms of their nature [what-ness] and their existence [that-ness]. (Ibid) Heidegger says that “insofar as Being constitutes what is asked about, and insofar as Being means the Being of beings, beings themselves turn out to be what is interrogated in the question of Being.” (Ibid, 47) In questioning Being, the human himself as Dasein is questioned. Dasein, in this regard, gets to be interrogated in his attempt to know the truth of Being.

Heidegger’s philosophy seeks to examine Being as such. In this regard, his manner of questioning is grounded in the basic question, “What is Being?” Heidegger, in his “Letter on Humanism,” proposes that if humans were to understand the meaning of Being, man as Dasein must “find his way once again into the nearness of Being.” (Ibid, 223) To be able to do so, Heidegger thinks that the human being “must first learn to exist in the nameless.” (Ibid) The ‘nameless’ for Heidegger comes as the Nothingness of existence. The Nothing, Heidegger says, is the groundless source of Being. Things as beings have names. Naming comes to reveal the objective existence of things as entities.

The Nothing comes before us through language, by way of speaking, but not when speech speaks of beings as entities, but only when the human being comes to speak of the Nothing. In Being and Time, Heidegger says that the sciences deal with beings and rejects the nothing as nothing, ex nihilo nihil fit, “from the nothing, nothing comes to be.” (Heidegger 1996) Heidegger says that Being dwells in the Nothing in which the meaning of beings is revealed. This meaning finds its expression in language, in which the truth of the Being of beings is acted upon in its revealing.

Heidegger says that “language is the clearing-concealing advent of Being itself.” (Heidegger 1993, 230) As the clearing house of Being, the meaning of beings comes to exist only through language. When the human as Dasein is speechless, he exists in the Nothing. But at the same time, the human is thrown to bear witness to the disclosure of the truth of Being. Dasein as witness to Being is held captive in the spell of its unfolding. Heidegger writes:

Man is rather thrown from Being itself into the truth of Being, so that ek-sisting in this fashion he might guard the truth of Being, in order that beings might appear in the light of Being as the beings they are. (Ibid, 234)

Heidegger writes that “language is the house of Being.” (Ibid, 237) What does it mean to dwell in the house of Being? To dwell here does not only mean to be present in the same way as things appear before us. For Heidegger, to dwell is to be in a situation in which the human comes to be in the disclosure of the world. The human being as Dasein indeed exists by dwelling in the house of Being, “in that he belongs to the truth of Being, guarding it.” (Ibid, 237) Heidegger calls this “ek-sistence”. For Heidegger, ek-sistence speaks of the way upon which the human comes to realize what it means to be in the world in terms of the disclosure of things, the truth of which reveals to him that Being is.

However, insofar as Being as that “destiny that sends truth, Being remains concealed.” (Ibid, 242) Dasein remains speechless, anxious of his possibilities. These possibilities disclose what it means to be in the world. Heidegger says that, “the call comes as the throw from which the Thrownness of Da-sein derives.” By being thrown into the world, humans have the ‘power to be’ in the world. The world exists as his possibilities for Being, in which in “his essential unfolding within the history of Being, man is the being whose Being as ek-sistence consists in his dwelling in the nearness of Being.” (Ibid, 245) To dwell in the house of Being means to be drawn to it. Heidegger, in this sense, declares that the “human is the neighbor of Being.” (Ibid)

The world is the groundless ground of all human possibilities. The world lays silent before us. For Heidegger, for Dasein the “world does not at all signify beings or any realm of beings but the openness of Being.” (Ibid, 252) Heidegger thinks that the “human is, and is human, insofar as he is the ek-sisting one.” (Ibid) The human being, in this regard, is one who “stands out into the openness of Being.” (Ibid) What is the meaning of this openness? This openness is Dasein’s being-in-the-world, in which the human stands in the unfolding or self-revealing of Being. This unfolding comes through speech, in which the world lays as the source of meaning. Human existence, in this regard, is made manifest through which language reveals and conceals what it means to be in the world.

The above needs an explanation. For Heidegger, to think is to think about Being. In “The Way of Language,” he writes that “thinking, in its essence as thinking of Being, is claimed by Being.” (Ibid, 264) Thinking is always linguistic since according to Heidegger, “Being is on its way to language.” Through language then, Being speaks before the human, holding his life together, in the light of its unfolding. And so, Heidegger clarifies the role of language:

But then does language itself speak? How should it manage to do so, when it is not even equipped with the instruments of voice? Nevertheless, it is language that speaks. What language properly pursues, right from the start, is the essential unfolding of speech, of saying. (Ibid, 411)

Heidegger writes that man is claimed by language, saying that “language speaks by saying; that is, by showing.” (Ibid) By speaking, humans speak of Being and is claimed by it. This means that in speaking, the truth of things comes into the open, thereby “reaching out to every region of presencing, letting what is present in each case appears in such regions or vanishes from them.” (Ibid) Language, in this regard, is Being itself that speaks.

4. Edmund Husserl: Transcendental Reduction

Edmund Husserl’s work is important to hermeneutics since his phenomenological method provided the crucial means in directing human consciousness to its proper objects – the very world of lived experience. Understanding in this sense grounds its niche in the uncovering of meanings that lie before a stream of presence where things are grasped in their immediacy. Husserl rightly proposed that while the subject is the foundation of consciousness, it does not end there. Rather, consciousness tends toward an object, hence the idea of intentionality. “Back to things themselves,” was Husserl’s battle-cry. This is to say, that for Husserl, “all consciousness was seen as directed, as consciousness of something.” (Cunningham 1976, 5)

Husserl introduced the idea of phenomenological reduction or the suspension of the natural attitude in order to allow experience to reveal its meaning without the biases brought forth by science or our everyday conventions. Richard Schmitt explains that “the epoche thus renders questionable what previously has been taken as certain and self-evident,” but this does not mean, however, “that experience as a whole is rejected.” (Schmitt 1986, 55) For Husserl, the phenomenological method is the act of “reducing of a real transcendent object to a real immanent object by bracketing out all considerations of its spatial existence,” which is the “reduction of transcendent reality to phenomenal reality.” (Cunningham 1976, 7)

What the above tells us is that we must suspend our judgments so that the meaning of the everyday objects of lived experience, the objects of phenomena, will not be clouded by the dusts of our biases. It is not to deny the experience but instead, it is about allowing the objects of experience to be revealed before human consciousness in terms of their clarity and freshness. The immediate result herein, according to Suzanne Cunningham, is the “restricting of what is acceptable as true to what is immediately self-evident.” (Ibid) 

For Husserl, the self-evidence of consciousness reveals two things: the intentional object of consciousness and the transcendental ego. (Ibid, 5) The notion of a transcendental ego is the thinking subject or self to whom in the act of consciousness the meaning of objects in any lived experience is revealed. According to Schmitt, the phenomenological method begins by “questioning what we had previously taken for granted or by wondering at what seems most familiar.” (Schmitt 1986, 51) In this method, Husserl says in The Idea of Phenomenology that the “primary mode of consciousness within the reduction, then, is reflection.” (Husserl 1950, 215)

Husserl asserts that the objects of phenomena are a part of the structure of human experience. It is by means of reflection whereby consciousness becomes the extension of the self or subject in which the whole world of experience is grounded. Schmitt explains, for instance, that in making subjectivity the ground for the validity of our judgments, what happens is that “I suddenly recognize that it is I who must decide whether the claims to reality of the objects of experience in particular and of the world as a whole in general, are valid claims.” (Schmitt 1986, 52)

Husserl considers the subject as transcendental. It is this ego that reaches out to the objects of lived experience. It acts as the giver of meaning for its entire world of consciousness, thus “bestowing unity and meaning on all acts and objects of consciousness, as well as on itself.” (Cunningham 1976, 9) For Schmitt, “the phenomenologist does not turn away either from the whole of experienced reality and actuality or from certain areas of it; he only suspends judgments concerning the reality or validity of what is experienced.” (Schmitt 1986, 52)

The transcendental ego thus reveals the eidetic world of consciousness. What this means is that it is the subject that reflects on the meaning of the world of objects that is actually lived. Now, for Schmitt, this sort of reflection involves critical detachment. (Ibid, 53) For instance, when I reflect about love, I do not just mean to express what love means to me, like some collection of loose memories of incoherent moments or acts in my mind. For Schmitt, “the scope of reflecting about oneself is considerably wider than that of thinking about oneself, since it includes facts about one’s relations to others and about oneself which had before remained unnoticed or had appeared irrelevant.” (Ibid, 54) The experience, in this regard, points to a world of everyday experience that is out there, in all its wonder and uniqueness, which is meaningfully given birth through the act of reflection. Reflecting on love, in this respect, reveals to us how one’s life is lived.

Phenomenology does not only dwell on the level of eidos or the essences of things. The meaning of perceptual phenomena will have to be described linguistically, not only in order to achieve apodictic clarity, but in order to allow the meaning of experience to unfold and for its objects to take root in our being-in-the-the-world. Within the horizon of this world lies a network of coherent meanings which gives our experiences a sense of unity. In this regard, one cannot separate human consciousness from the real world and intuit on the essences of things on the basis of pure reflection.

The idea is that the above concern gives rise to the question with respect to the role of language. The reality of language implies that our experiences cannot be purely subjective ones. We are immersed into the world and it is language that gives voice to our experience of being-in-the-world. In this way, the question of language then makes apparent not only the question of meaning but more importantly, the question of being or of truth in general. Language in this regard is foundational. For example, it is through language that our reflections on our lived experiences provide a clear social context to the meaning of the objects of our experiences.

5. Schleiermacher and Dilthey: Psychological Interpretation and the Historical Sciences

It is important to pay attention to the early development of hermeneutics in order to situate ourselves in the historical context of this study. It was Friedrich Schleiermacher who developed a universal hermeneutics, proposing a procedure in understanding texts in order to avoid misunderstanding. His method was based on what he calls "grammatical" and "psychological interpretation." The idea of grammatical interpretation was based on the rules of syntax, while “psychological interpretation is a divinatory process of placing oneself within the whole work of the author, an apprehension of the inner origins of a work, a recreation of the creative act.” (Gadamer 2004, 186)

Psychological interpretation requires that the reader must transpose or put himself into the mind of the author in order to determine the origin of thought. It is a form of interpretation that requires one to think in the same manner as the author has done. Interpretation in this sense becomes a subjective act whereby, according to Gadamer, the “the individuality of the author can be grasped by transforming oneself into the other.” (Ibid, 188) 

The individuality of the author becomes the basis of interpretation. Gadamer calls this requirement imposed by Schleiermacher as “an aesthetic of genius, where genius creates its own models and rules.” (Ibid) For Gadamer, it is through Schleiermacher’s work where hermeneutics emerged as a technique in interpreting texts. Here, hermeneutics is seen as a tool or method of understanding on the basis of the author’s individuality.

After Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey wanted to provide an epistemological basis for the science of history. He was concerned about the objectivity of historical knowledge. His basic concern was the importance of science to historical research and how, on the basis of the inductive method, one can understand history in an objective way, or “how the individual’s experience and the knowledge of it come to be historical experience.” (Ibid, 217) 

Dilthey sought some form of “historical coherence” as the ground for interpreting history. Gadamer wrote that “Dilthey was always attempting to legitimize the knowledge of what was historically conditioned as an achievement of objective science, despite the fact that the knower himself is conditioned.” (Ibid, 225) In this regard, it can be argued that Dilthey, following Descartes, wanted to found reality on something certain, and he saw this in the absolute certainty promulgated by the natural sciences on the basis of its objective tools.

The truth of history for Dilthey is some form of a self-knowledge. This form of self-knowledge is grounded in the artifact he calls “life”. Life is something which the historian can examine from the biographies of people. According to Gadamer, life is some form of self-knowledge, whose very nature “has given birth to scientific consciousness.” (Ibid, 228) For Dilthey, history is some form of a text that needs to be deciphered, but this procedure, which he borrowed from the natural sciences, was inadequate according to Gadamer. 

Gadamer says that Dilthey’s, “attempt to explicate the human sciences from the experience of life was never really reconciled with his firmly held Cartesian conception of science.” (Ibid, 249) Indeed, Gadamer’s point here is that the type of Cartesian certainty achieved by using methods of science will not be enough to ensure or warrant the emergence of truth in the historical human sciences. For Gadamer, the historical human sciences required a different kind of rigor.

With the advent of modernity, people have become positivistic, relying on the abundance of statistical data. The reality of the world, including its social and political condition, came to be analyzed mathematically. People, in this regard, are reduced to variables, subjected to the tools of an investigator. Science is based on the predictability of nature. Once a scientist discovers a pattern, one can then control nature by means of an experiment. 

Method performs the task of insuring that this form of knowledge is objective, which means that there is a distance between the investigator and his object of investigation. The natural sciences then thrive on the objectivity of truth which it validates inductively by means of the repeatability of results. Developments in biology, physics, and medicine proceed from foundational works done by pioneering researchers in the field.

As opposed to the above, human history is a continuous unfolding. In this regard, history cannot be apprehended merely as some form of a static statistical data. Statistics is helpful but it does not guarantee the full appreciation of the truth of human life. In a way, historical unfolding follows the same mode of revealing and concealing that Being does. 

As such, Gadamer speaks of understanding as “an event” that unfolds in history. This is evident in the historical human sciences. The human sciences, most evident in the field of liberal arts, have allowed persons to understand more fully the meaning of their social existence through the vast expanse of literary works written by the field’s own creative geniuses.

It is impossible to have an exact science of history or to apply the precision of scientific tools and instruments in the understanding of historical events. History proceeds from the autonomy of persons in choosing a course of action in life as a collective body. Method limits understanding, insofar as things will be subjected to control and patterns of predictability. This means that method closes its door to the exigencies of being, to its rich plenitude, which are revealed most fully in literature and the arts, two areas which highlight the indomitable power of the human spirit.  

The reality of human existence does not appear before us as some form of an absolute truth but rather, as a mystery in which we ourselves are perpetually put into question. This method of questioning, which seeks the truth in its manifold unfolding, is the rationale for the human sciences in its mode of inquiry that refuses to yield to the objectivism of the natural sciences.

6. Hans-Georg Gadamer: Play and Historically-effected Consciousness

Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method, published in 1960, unified all the great works in the hermeneutic tradition, beginning with the works of Schleiermacher in biblical hermeneutics and Dilthey’s historical school and the advanced phenomenological themes one finds in Husserl and Heidegger. Rightly so, Gadamer posed the problem of understanding not only as an objective problem. Rather, the German thinker posed it as a problem for the human sciences, which means that for him the question of understanding is beyond the objectivity of method.

As our starting point, we shall begin with the notion of the hermeneutic circle as properly understood by Gadamer. The hermeneutic circle for Gadamer concerns the anticipation of meaning in terms of understanding the text. In his conception, it refers to the way the reader approaches the text “in which the whole as envisaged becomes actual understanding when the parts that are determined by the whole themselves also determine this whole.”(Gadamer 2004, 291) What happens in this regard is that while the sum of the parts is never equal to the whole in terms of the text, the hermeneutic circle as a pedagogical device allows the unity between the reader and text. 

The hermeneutic circle is not something that is formal for Gadamer. It characterizes understanding as neither subjective nor objective. Subjective understanding sees the world of the text only in terms of the subject’s point of view. Objective understanding somewhat detaches the perspective of the reader from the world of the text. Gadamer rejects both as limiting. For him, understanding is simply “the interplay of the movement of tradition and the movement of the interpreter.” (Ibid, 293)

The above also reveals that all understanding unfolds within a tradition. Tradition in this sense is Being itself. Echoing Heidegger, within a tradition the truth unfolds before us. In relation to the text, Gadamer says that, “the anticipation of meaning that governs our understanding of a text is not an act of subjectivity, but proceeds from the commonality that binds us to tradition. But this commonality is constantly being formed in our relation to tradition.” (Ibid) 

The idea of a common understanding is never arbitrary. It is always an assertion of a truth claim that is constantly being challenged and tested. The authority of tradition persists, in this regard, because of its power that allows both reader and text to come into grips with the truth. Tradition in this regard determines the perspectives that define for both the text and its reader how understanding is to take place.

For Gadamer, understanding is the interplay between what is strange (the past) and what is familiar (present). The author, who belongs to the past, is bridged by means of temporal distance. Time is no longer a gap but rather the very possibility of connecting the distant past to the familiar present. As such, “it is in the play between the traditional text's strangeness and familiarity to us, between being a historically intended, distanced object and belonging to a tradition.” (Ibid, 295) 

The past for Gadamer is something that finds continuity in the present by virtue of the life of tradition since tradition is a living entity that governs the whole happening of all understanding. As such, what the history of effect reveals is that “if we are trying to understand a historical phenomenon from the historical distance that is characteristic of our hermeneutical situation, we are always already affected by history.” (Ibid, 300)

The history of effect connotes how history lives in the present. The past is not just some dead past. The past is to be understood on the basis of the horizon of the present that sets our expectations for the future. Gadamer criticizes the purely objective way of looking at history as if the events of the past are mere relics with no relation to the present. Ours is a problem of method. The limits of method for him though do not indicate the limits of science. As such the problem is not with the science of history but with the limits of its methods which sometimes resembles mere statistics or numbers. He writes that “when a naive faith in scientific method denies the existence of effective history, there can be an actual deformation of knowledge. (Ibid, 300)

It can also be recalled that Husserl’s understanding of consciousness is still "self-consciousness," or the Cartesian paradigm of subjectivity. Surely, for Gadamer, the Spirit is a movement that does not end in the subjectivity of a pure ego. It is for this reason that history is teleological but is without a telos or end. This also defines for us the hermeneutical situation. Gadamer writes that “consciousness of being affected by history (Wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewufttsein) is primarily consciousness of the hermeneutical situation.” (Ibid, 301) All understanding in this sense is a happening in which history is at work. Gadamer says that historical consciousness is “clearly doing something similar when it transposes itself into the situation of the past and thereby claims to have acquired the right historical horizon.” (Ibid, 302)

It is tradition that makes all understanding possible. As such, “to be situated within a tradition does not limit the freedom of knowledge but makes it possible.” (Ibid, 354) Understanding the text for Gadamer is to understand what is meaningful. It is one that “captivates us just as the beautiful captivates us.” (Ibid, 484) What this means is that the text always makes a truth-claim on us. 

For Gadamer, all understanding is play. While Gadamer is aware that play is often tied to a lack of seriousness, he however uses the idea of play in terms of the movement within tradition whereby the text and reader interact in the process of understanding. Understanding as an event in this sense refers to the interplay or fusion in which the horizon of the text and that of the reader are fused in the act of a “back and forth movement”, a situation in which the very legitimacy of our prejudices are tested vis-à-vis particular truth-claims. Play for Gadamer then is that 'back and forth movement' in which the meaning of the text is tested. Gadamer explains:

The movement of playing has no goal that brings it to an end; rather, it renews itself in constant repetition. The movement backward and forward is obviously so central to the definition of play that it makes no difference who or what performs this movement. The movement of play as such has, as it were, no substrate. It is the game that is played—it is irrelevant whether or not there is a subject who plays. (TM, 104)

7. Paul Ricoeur: Language as Primordially Symbolic
The human being, according to Paul Ricoeur, seems to be no more than language. (Ricoeur 1974, 265) Ricoeur suggests that there is no direct way toward understanding the self except through language. In his semiotics, the linguistic nature of the human being’s situated consciousness means that language is primarily reference. 

Language brings forth a representation of the world for humans. In explaining Ricoeur’s theory of interpretation, Deodato Alexis Itao writes that “Ricoeur conceived of man as a linguistic being whereby it is in and through language that man expresses himself and manifests his being; in other words, it is by means of language that man relates with other beings and with the world.” (Itao 2010, 2) 

For Ricoeur, “interpretation is the work of thought which consists in deciphering the hidden meaning in the apparent meaning, in unfolding the levels of meaning implied in the literal meaning.” (Ricoeur 1974, 13) The many levels of meaning herein refer to the layers of hidden meanings that symbols and metaphors give rise to. Human situated existence in this sense points to the different areas in which human life indicates a form of richness in terms of the narratives that express the human desire to be. 

Narratives are rich in symbolism. Through, myth finds its voice. These symbolisms may reveal the fall of man and how as a free being one can truly recover from the “pathetic of misery” as described by Ricoeur through willing, deciding and human action. In this regard, it is said that “there is the hermeneutics that seeks to recover and restore the real meanings of symbols.” (Itao 2010, 4)

According to Ricoeur, “the first truth – I think, I am – remains as abstract and empty as it is unassailable.” (Ricoeur 1974, 32) Descartes’ ego cogito is nothing but the self that is only conscious of itself. It is a form of consciousness that is self-aware and yet it is one that is detached from the world. Descartes, by requiring the methodic objectivity of mathematics as the basis for the truth, he has caused a disjointing between the human subject and the world. Modernity makes this apparent. By asserting that the cogito only knows of itself, Descartes casts doubt not only to the existence of the other, but also in the capacity of language and myths to mediate between the human subject and his culture, between the truth of other beings and one’s own.

Descartes defines human consciousness as some form of a vessel that needs to be filled. In fact, there is really nothing wrong with his methodic doubt. It is his description of human consciousness that is problematic. Consciousness cannot be described in terms of what is inside. To be conscious is always to be conscious of a world that is outside of it. The world is something that is lived. Our awareness of the world shows forth the dynamic interplay between our subjectivity or inner freedom and the world where it is rooted. Human consciousness is always situated, which means that it cannot be solely defined nor determined by some boundaries in the form of those physico-chemical reactions or by some psychic description. Human consciousness allows the possibility of meanings to be assimilated, for this consciousness is always a consciousness, to borrow from Heidegger, of one’s being in the world. 

Human situated existence reveals that the human being is a social, historical, cultural, and political being. The human being in this sense is not pure consciousness. Language in fact plays a crucial role in the various dimensions of human existence insofar as it is only by means of language whereby man is able to express his being-in-the-world or his situated existence. Since human existence is characterized by a freedom of movement, speech or discourse plays an important role for human self-expression. Thus, human consciousness, according to Ricoeur, “must be mediated by representations, actions, works, institutions, and monuments which objectify it; it is in these objects, in the largest sense of the word, that the ego must both lose itself and find itself.” (Ricoeur 1974, 32)

Ricoeur presents his hermeneutic theory most fully in his theory of the narrative. For Ricoeur, the narrative speaks of the life story of the human being. It transforms it into a meaningful unity. The narrative, by means of a plot, provides human existence with a way of grasping our being-in-the-world through language. It is in this regard that Ricoeur’s theory of the narrative is also a way of understanding time as lived time. 

St. Augustine, according to Ricoeur, analyzed time as a triple present, “the present of the past or memory, the present of the future or expectation, and the present of the present or intuition.” (Ricoeur 2004, 60) But in understanding the human narrative, Ricoeur fuses St. Augustine's analysis of time and Aristotle's analysis of emplotment because the former understands time without the idea of emplotment while the latter presents emplotment without taking into account those temporal aspects of action.          

St. Augustine established discordance between memory, attention, and the future. (Garcia 2000) This is because St. Augustine sees time as a distention of the soul (distention anime), a chasm that goes back again and again to the threefold present, thus establishing discordance. (Ibid) To eliminate this slippage, Ricoeur has creative used Aristotle's idea of emplotment. Emplotment therein is used as a tool which will bring concordance to what is discordant or unity to what is otherwise fragmented. This is done by virtue of the plot. The plot then is the means of giving a unity to the distention of the soul by giving it a temporal order. (Ibid) Ricoeur says that in Aristotle, “the plot puts together our temporal existence into order through a unity of intention.” (Ricoeur 1991, 29) By means of the unity the narrative, time in St. Augustine becomes human time.

The above reflection leads to the temporal understanding of action. Through emplotment, action is given its temporal unity. For Ricoeur, “there must be an irreducible feature in the living experience of memory.” (Ricoeur 2004, 5) This irreducible feature I believe is our life-story. The scattered events of human life become one meaningful story through the activity of emplotment. We understand ourselves better through the plot of a story. Ricoeur says that "the plot organizes together components that are as heterogeneous as the unintended circumstances, discoveries, those who perform and those who suffer them, chance or planned encounters, interactions between actors…” (Ricoeur 1991, 21) 

8. Concluding Remarks: Charito Pizarro’s Symbolic Mediation

In concluding this hermeneutic task, Charito Pizarro’s notion of symbolic mediation, as may be found in her book, “The Symbolic Foundation of Human History,” is an important step in providing an epistemological framework for the basic unity of truth and myth, or between science and religion. Past reflections in the sciences and literature often point to their irreparable divergence rather than a convergence of both. By way of introducing the idea of the archetype, Pizarro provides and retrieves the coherence found in the opposing poles of creation and evolution.

The Big Bang is sometimes presented in order to scientifically dispel the myth about the creation of the universe. But the idea of the Big Bang, which is often seen as the beginning of time, Pizarro claims, can be interpreted through Heidegger's ontological conception of Being as "revealing" and "concealing." Interestingly, in Pizarro’s work, one is introduced to the idea of evolution as a way of getting out of a spiral, arguing that the original meaning of the term “evolve” is “volute,” which means, “spiral.” For her, this means that evolution implies man getting out of the opposing poles of science and religion in order to find the unity of his being as such, and in the process, develop most fully in his being.

Language plays that mediating role between truth and myth. There is no direct route to the self, Ricoeur often points out. For him, the self can only be revealed by way of a detour, and in Pizarro's case, by way of symbolic mediation. Pizarro’s work suggests that even the transcendent reveals His reality through symbols. In this respect, the transcendent may be found in the genius of a Mozart or a W.B. Yeats. To understand time, she says that we must gather knowledge from all symbolic sources, and in order to do so, we need to interpret language.

Science, it must be noted, is not really a stranger to symbolic mediation. The circle has long been the symbol for perfection and mathematical computation does not disagree with the above assertion. The mathematical formula for a beautiful face, for example, is called the “golden ratio.” Pizarro herself traces the origins of the music and genius in the symbolism found in the concentric unity of a space-time continuum.Pizarro writes that “languages disclose the apodictic unity in the circle with the “I” as the point source of intentionality." 


Cunningham, Suzanne. Language and the Phenomenology Reductions of Husserl. (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1976)

Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. Translated by Alan Bass, (London: Routledge, 2002).

Garcia, Leovino. “Some Notes toward a Narrative Ethics.” (PAP Paper, 2000)

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. Second revised edition, translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald Marshall. (New York: Continuum, 2004).

Grayling, A.C. Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)

Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings. Edited by David Farrel Krell. (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993).

______________. Being and Time. Translated by Joan Stambaugh. (New York: SUNY Press, 1996).

Husserl, Edmund. The Idea of Phenomenology. Trans. By Lee Hardy. (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1950)

Itao, Alex Deodato. “Paul Ricoeur’s Hermeneutics of Symbols.” In Kritike Online JournalVolume 4, No. 2 (2010): 1-17.

Johnson, Christopher. “Claude Levi-Strauss,” in The Background to Critical Theory. Edited by Jon Simons, (Edinburg: Edinburg University Press, 2002).

Pizarro, Charito. The Symbolic Foundation of Human History. (Cebu City: Jader Publishing, 2016) 

Ricoeur, Paul. The Conflict of Interpretations. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974)

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Translated by R. Harris, (London: Duckworth, 1983, 14)

Schmitt, Richard. “Husserl’s Transcendental Phenomenological Reduction.” In Philosophy of Man. Ed. By Manuel Dy. (Manila: Goodwill, 1986)

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Translated by DF Pears and BF McGuinness (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961)

_________________. Philosophical Investigations (London: Blackwell, 2001)