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Book review: Van der Heiden - The Truth (and Untruth) of Language

Book review: Van der Heiden - The Truth (and Untruth) of Language

Gert-Jan van der Heiden
Heidegger, Ricoeur, and Derrida 
on Disclosure and Displacement
300pp. Paperback. Duquesne University Press. 

In philosophy equivocal language can count on resistance and criticism. It is often considered as unnecessary and striving against philosophy’s main imperative to be clair et distinct, if I may borrow Descartes famous phrase here. The unnecessary use of unclear and equivocal language is a point of criticism often uttered against some philosophers that are known to be difficult to read and understand, such as Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida, who happen to be two protagonists of Gert-Jan van der Heiden’s reworked edition of his doctoral thesis. Van der Heiden investigates how language can disclose beings to our understanding, but is also characterized by several displacements that problematize the idea that language can present reality unequivocally. Fortunately for us, van der Heiden succeeded in writing a book that excels in clarity, which is a major accomplishment considering the difficulty of his subject and his choice of authors.

Van der Heiden sets out to investigate the relationship between truth and language in contemporary hermeneutic philosophy. This branch of philosophy is called ‘hermeneutic’ because its major intuition is that we can have no access to the world and the beings existing in it outside of linguistic structures (‘hermeneutics’ is traditionally the art of text interpretation). When reality is structured like a ‘text’, so to speak, hermeneutics deals with our access to reality and becomes of philosophical interest. Our language use is then not simply a representation of a reality otherwise unaffected by understanding and interpretation. With this conception of language another conception of truth arises that does not presuppose the presence of things, but rather concerns their coming into presence, which is then seen as a primordial function of language: it lets things be. This is a different conception of language than one that understands sentences only as assertions about a pre-existing world. In that case truth is understood as the correspondence between language and reality, and untruth as the lack thereof. When language is understood in its power to let things be in the first place, this disclosing function has been said by Heidegger to denote an experience of truth as aletheia (disclosedness) that the Ancient-Greeks already had, but that had been pushed to the background in the history of philosophy that followed by a conception of truth as correspondence (or varieties thereof). This conception of truth brings with it another form of untruth. Untruth is in this case not a lack of correspondence, but rather the simple concealment that is necessary in order for things to be unconcealed. This simple concealment makes truth as disclosure possible, and is called untruth precisely because it is the space out of with truth lights up, which of course cannot be measured according to truth itself. Then we have an indication of the title: both the truth and untruth of language are at stake here.

When we take the sketched ‘linguistic turn’ for granted, we can understand the two major tracks Van der Heiden identifies in this hermeneutic philosophy. One the one hand, language becomes the medium through which things are disclosed and show themselves. On the other hand, language causes all sorts of displacement. Metaphorical language, for example, transfers a word from its proper domain into another. When Van der Heiden discusses metaphoricity, it is not so much for the sake of beautiful poems or engagement with art, but rather to address the metaphorical power of language to displace itself and the things it discloses. It is not accidental that in Van der Heiden’s treatment of displacement the notion of writing takes a central position, because it is writing par excellence that embodies the displacing characteristics of language that poses a danger for the desired clarity and univocality of philosophical concepts. Written language distances us from the original place and time of utterance, allowing distortion of the intended meaning and thus facilitating misunderstanding. For Plato this was reason enough to say that serious philosophy should not be written down. It would distort the full understanding of truth, and created the risk that philosophical truth would be ridiculed by the masses that also gained (superficial) access to it if it was written down. Language as it is spoken apparently does not have these dangers. When I teach someone my philosophical insights I am present to correct them and the truth of what I say takes place in the here and now. When truth is thought of as something absolute, this apparently immaterial taking place of language in my saying indeed seems to be the most undiluted presentation.

Seen from that perspective the displacing qualities of language are a danger to its ability to disclose something truthfully. It is fitting that Van der Heiden’s book begins with a treatment of Heidegger, because it is he who stresses this ability of language to disclose things. But although Heidegger in general is trying to overcome, insofar that is possible, the tradition that thought of writing as a danger to the immediate pureness of truth, Van der Heiden argues that Heidegger still privileges speech above writing. Thinking truth as disclosure presupposes also the thought of ‘something’ concealed. Without this concealment there would be no occurrence of truth in the sense of unconcealment. But one of the dangers that has always been attributed to writing is that, although it is not fit for truth, it appears to be so. Phrased in these terms, the danger of writing is that it acts as a disguise, it shows something, but only in a covered up way while acting as if it is the correct one. This concealment (pseudos) is not the concealment (lethe) that is necessary for truth as unconcealment (a-letheia), but rather the concealment that covers up the more primordial disclosure of things and the simple concealment involved in it, that Heidegger understands following the model of saying. So it seems that in the end the displacements involved in language are secondary to a most primordial disclosure of the being of things in language. In order to let itself be grasped by this disclosure, thinking has to finds its proximity to poetry, struggling with language to seek a genuine way of saying that does not displace the primordial disclosure of being.

This turn to poetry in Heidegger late works is quite famous (some would say notorious), but strangely enough the metaphoricity that we usually associate with poetry is not embraced at all by Heidegger. Van der Heiden succeeds in providing a very clear overview of Heidegger’s thought on metaphor, without ever losing the healthy distance that is required in order to differentiate himself – a philosopher writing about Heidegger – from a fanatic disciple (a so-called ‘Heideggerian’). In order to understand Derrida’s comments on metaphor for example, it is very important to understand why Heidegger renounces metaphor. According to Heidegger, metaphors imply a distinction of domains that is metaphysical, that is to say, they imply a transference from the domain of what we are familiar with (‘the sensible’) to an unfamiliar domain of abstraction (‘the intelligible’). The distinction itself is metaphysical, and poses the intelligible as a separate domain. The ultimate conclusion of this separation of domains is that in the end we cannot access the intelligible domain in itself, but only from the perspective of what we already know. For Heidegger this is typical of the very metaphysics he tries to overcome: it tries to answer the question of what the being of a being is, by looking at a being that is familiar to us. But then ‘being’ in general is only knowable for us insofar as we have metaphorical access to it, because it resembles something we already know. Then we implicitly act as if the being of a being is a being. In Plato’s famous allegory of the cave for example, the notion of the Idea of ‘the Good’ is metaphorically accessed through the image of the sun. Van der Heiden provides a very clear overview of Heidegger, and highlights all the relevant points for setting up a discussion with Ricoeur and Derrida, but not without questioning for example Heidegger’s thought that metaphors only exist within metaphysics (it only seems obvious in the case of philosophical metaphors). Van der Heiden never fails to remain clear-headed and always provides a fresh and clear overview of the discussed authors. To be honest, this is a quality that cannot be underestimated when you think of the literary hocus-pocus and bewildering erudition going on, especially while reading Heidegger and Derrida, but often also in secondary literature that deals with them.

Heidegger is in a way the hinge around which the theme of this book unfolds, for his thought forms the background against which both Ricoeur and Derrida develop their own thought. But both Ricoeur and Derrida understand the displacement of language as a productive element, rather than something risking to disguise the original disclosure of being through language. It is fitting that Van der Heiden spends two chapters on metaphor and on mimesis, because in these themes the lines of disclosure and displacement intersect. They have a connection to both the creative and productive aspects of language and to the displacing aspects. In the case of metaphors, a word is transferred and thus displaced to another domain, but by doing so it provides a new understanding. Mimesis presents something anew, but is at the same time a representation and thus a displacement. So in these cases displacement is not seen as a disguise of disclosure, but rather as itself constitutive of a new or repeated disclosure.

The choice to focus on Derrida and Ricoeur in discussing disclosure and displacement is a good one, because they both take on the heritage of Heidegger in characteristic ways. Generally speaking, we can say that Ricoeur follows up on Heidegger in line with the ‘hermeneutic’ tradition, while Derrida appropriates the ‘hermeneutic’ way of thinking language in order to deconstruct it. Van der Heiden shows convincingly that for Ricoeur the disclosure resulting from the displacement involved in a metaphor is taken up in the process of interpreting that aims at deciphering a hidden ideal meaning of a text. So here disclosure does not so much give us meaning in the first place, but is guided by a meaning of the text that precedes it. Metaphors provide in grasping this ideal meaning.

Derrida lays more emphasis on other aspects of Heidegger’s heritage, and thinks disclosure more fundamental than Ricoeur does. Derrida follows Heidegger’s thought that disclosure and truth are only possible on the basis of a preceding untruth. But Derrida radicalizes this thought by arguing that every disclosure can only be a disclosure on the basis of a previous displacement because in order for something to be given in language, this language is always a repetition, which involves a transmission and translation from context to context. (Those who are interested should investigate Derrida’s notion of ‘iterability’). As I said earlier, the relation between the clarity of the philosophical concept and the displacing powers of metaphor is full of tensions. Derrida drives this tension to its ultimatum by arguing that the metaphor does not simply exist within metaphysics, but rather points to the original displacements that make philosophical language possible in the first place.

I had to indulge in giving these abstractions, because, frankly this book is very abstract. The matters discussed in The Truth (and Untruth) of Language are mainly of theoretical philosophical concern, so surely this book is not for everyone. It is written in an academic style and for academic purposes. Reading this book will not fulfil a reader looking for a revolutionary reading, a bag of literary tricks or fun storytelling. Apart from the last, one could always read for example works of Derrida himself. But then again, I would say this is in no way a shortcoming on behalf of Van der Heiden. Academic language can be revolutionary in this case, because it brings together authors that can themselves be quite enigmatic, to say the least, with a comprehensibility that is not often achieved. This philosophy of truth is hermeneutic, but certainly not hermetic.