Random thoughts on random topics

Phoenix Mountain, Beijing

On language as the medium of hermeneutic experience

Gadamer, in Truth and Method: “Interpretation […] is the act of understanding itself, which is realized—not just for the one for whom one is interpreting but also for the interpreter himself—in the explicitness of verbal interpretation.” This is the claim that language is the medium of hermeneutic experience. (And all experience, of whatever kind, is also hermeneutic.) Gadamer insists that the absence of explicit linguistic formulations does not constitute a counterexample: all non-linguistic demonstrations in fact rely on language. 

The general claim, that all understanding is linguistic, i.e., has language as its medium, definitely sounds counterintuitive, since we do intuitively feel that there are things that we understand but that we can not ‘put into words’. 

One thing to bear in mind, tough, is the intimate relation between understanding and interpretation: all understanding is interpretation, and all interpretation results in understanding. To the extent that this sound wrong, it might reflect a hidden assumption about the existence of something like ‘ultimate’, ‘final’, ‘true and complete’ understanding, a kind of understanding that transcends the kind of understanding that interpretation results in. That, Gadamer claims, is an illusion. 

That means that from a Gadamerian point of view our problem in fact reduces to the question: ‘Is all interpretation verbal (linguistic)?’ Again, we need to take that in a broad sense, i.e., without any presupposition of actual verbalisations. (In an analogous fashion, Gadamer argues that we need not worry about linguistic diversity.)

The claim then seems to come down to this: anything that is proposed as an interpretation is in principle subject to questioning, argumentation, justification. This must be so, for interpretation itself is the result of such questioning, etcetera. Asking questions, providing answers, disputing and justifying them, all this is done in language (or in a medium that presupposes language), and inasmuch as there is something that fails to be subject to these language-based procedures it can not part of the interpretation itself (and hence can not constitute (part of) understanding). 

It’s not that Gadamer would deny the existence of non-verbalisable phenomena, the claim is that as such they are not part of interpretation and hence not part of our understanding of something.  (Note that this comes remarkably close to Wittgenstein’s analysis of the ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ phenomenon in Philosophical Investigations, II.xi.)

To what is extent is this a feasible position? It seems it all centers around the question whether we can actually point to the existence of a kind of understanding that meets two requirements: it is essentially non-linguistic; it is somehow connected to the kind of understanding that is linguistic.

The second requirement is the really problematic one, I think. But it also seems justified. For without it, the dispute would in fact be merely verbal: Is there something that is not linguistic understanding? Of course there is. Can we call it ‘understanding’? Well, yes, but what would be gained by that? It is only when we can point to relationships between the two phenomena, that we really confront Gadamer’s position.

So the question is: Can we do that? What would be good examples?

Martin Stokhof
from: Radical Interpretation Discussion Board
date: fall 2004