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Word as image: Gadamer on the unity of word and thing


One of Gadamer's largest and most characteristic concerns has been to show that hermeneutics is a form of practical philosophy. The central task of hermeneutics as practical philosophy for Gadamer is to reflectively appropriate the moral resources of our tradition in order to respond to the skepticism—characteristic of our age—about our ability to reach the truth in our normative judgments. Practical philosophy in this sense depends upon Gadamer’s conception of language as disclosive of truth. The form of disclosure that is especially important in this regard is the uncovering of truth in the space between conversation partners, a space that is opened up and constituted by the merging of the horizons of the participants in a dialogue. The claim that truth is disclosed in the search for, and discovery of, a shared language in and through which the matter at issue between the participants in a conversation can come to presentation is grounded in Gadamer’s account of the “belonging together” of word and thing. Gadamer maintains in this respect that the thing itself is given in language. To help us understand this claim I turn to Gadamer’s discussion of the image, since—in a comparison that Gadamer explicitly makes—here, too, the image “gives” the thing. Notwithstanding this, the disclosure of things in language is always only partial. The concluding section of this essay brings into focus this finite and limited character of linguistic disclosure and hence of language itself.

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  1. I thank Dennis Schmidt for first drawing my attention to questions about the relation between word and image in Gadamer’s work.

  2. Gadamer, “On the Scope and Function of Hermeneutical Reflection,” in Gadamer (1977, 29). This sentence in not found in the original German text; see “Rhetorik, Hermeneneutik, und Ideologiekritik” in Gadamer (1967, 121).

  3. This conception of language, which originates with Hobbes and Locke (among others), has been carried into contemporary analytic philosophy of language.

  4. See the useful discussions of this historical background in Taylor (1990a and b). Taylor has recently produced a definitive account of his work in this area in Taylor (2016).

  5. Gadamer (1998, 127–128, 1983, 154–156).

  6. This is not to suggest, however, that language does not sometimes function referentially. It is only to say that language is not exhausted by this capacity and that this function does not characterize what is essential about it.

  7. Gadamer, “Text and Interpretation,” in Gadamer (2007, 167, 1997, 149–150).

  8. Gadamer, “Man and Language,” in Gadamer (1977, 62, 1993a, 149). Our being encompassed by the language that is our own will also mean that language does not simply emanate or issue from a subject: “The subjective starting point, which has become natural to modern thought, leads us wholly into error. Language is not to be conceived as a preliminary projection of the world by subjectivity, either as the subjectivity of individual consciousness or as that of the spirit of a people. These are all mythologies,” Gadamer, “The Nature of Things and the Language of Things,” in Gadamer (1967, 67, 1977, 79).

  9. This image turns out in fact merely to reflect a particular moment in the history of human self-understanding, one tied very closely to the emergence and development of the natural sciences and of a representationalist epistemology.

  10. Gadamer (1990a, 461, 2004, 453).

  11. Gadamer, “Text and Interpretation,” in Gadamer (1997, 150, 2007, 166).

  12. See Heidegger (1996, 140–141, 153, 2006, 150, 163–164).

  13. Gadamer (1990a, 422, 2004, 417).

  14. See Gadamer, “Man and Language,” in Gadamer (1977, 65, 1993a, 151).

  15. See Gadamer, “Man and Language,” in Gadamer (1977, 63, 1993a, 149).

  16. Gadamer (1990a, 388, 2004, 386).

  17. See Gadamer (1990a, 406, 2004, 403).

  18. See Gadamer (1990a, 421, 2004, 417).

  19. “A word is not just a sign. In a sense that is hard to grasp, it is also something almost like a copy or image,” Gadamer (2004, 416). In the original German Gadamer uses the word Abbild rather than Bild. This suggests that insofar as the word is like an image, it is an image that belongs to and depends on the being of the thing it images, and this, we shall see, will turn out to be a significant feature of the relation between word and thing. “Das Wort ist nicht nur Zeichen. In irgendeinem schwer zu erfassenden Sinne ist es doch auch fast so etwas wie ein Abbild,” Gadamer (1990a, 420).

  20. See Gadamer (1990a, 410–418, 2004, 406–414) for his discussion of the Cratylus and its significance.

  21. Gadamer (1990a, 420–421, 2004, 416–417). The relation between word and image in Gadamer is a topic that has not attracted much critical attention or commentary, although Schmidt (2013) and Risser (1994) constitute important exceptions.

  22. What follows is drawn from the section of Truth and Method titled, “The Ontological Valence of the Picture” [Die Seinsvalenz des Bildes], Gadamer (1990a, 139–149, 2004, 130–138). Weinsheimer has mostly translated Bild throughout this section as picture (the exceptions being the discussion of the relation of the image to its original and that of the copy to its original as well as the discussion of the mirror image. In both cases he uses image). The German Bild is a more capacious term and is used by Gadamer to mean both picture (as in a painting) as well as image (which can range from icons and statues to mirror images and mental representations). I have chosen to use image throughout this discussion because picture seems to me too narrowly focused in its meaning.

  23. See Gadamer (1990a, 156, 2004, 144).

  24. See Gadamer (1990a, 145, 2004, 135).

  25. Gadamer (1990a, 420, 2004, 416).

  26. Gadamer (1990a, 148, 2004, 137).

  27. See Gadamer (1986).

  28. Gadamer (1990a, 454, 2004, 447). See also “The Nature of Things and the Language of Things,” in Gadamer (1967, 66, 1977, 77).

  29. Gadamer (1990a, 446, 2004, 440).

  30. Gadamer observes that “that which comes into language is not something that is pregiven before language; rather, the word gives it its own determinateness [Bestimmtheit],” Gadamer (1990a, 479, 2004, 470).

  31. Gadamer (1990a, 407, 2004, 404).

  32. “Wer Sprache hat, ‘hat’ die Welt,” Gadamer (1990a, 457, 2004, 449).

  33. Wachterhauser (1994, 162).

  34. Gadamer (1990a, 421, 2004, 416–417).

  35. Gadamer (1990a, 97, 2004, 80).

  36. Gadamer (1990a, 149, 2004, 138).

  37. Gadamer makes this and the following observations in “Hermeneutics and the Ontological Difference,” Gadamer (1995, 58–70, 2007, 357–371), an essay that, we are told in the helpful introduction by Palmer, forms part of the collection of Gadamer’s papers on Heidegger and constitutes a kind of philosophical memoir of the development of Heidegger’s views in the period 1922–1924.

  38. Gadamer (1995, 65, 2007, 365).

  39. Grondin (2003, 146).

  40. “The word spoken to one is not representable in conceptual symbols […] The word is rather there as something that reaches one […] language belongs to practice, in human being together-with-one-another and human interchange. Hermeneutics says that language belongs to conversation, that is, language is really only what it is, if it supports the attempt to understand and leads to exchange, speech, and response. It is not propositions and judgments, but questions and answers. As a result, the basic orientation of philosophical thinking about language today has changed. This is a change that leads from monologue to dialogue” (Gadamer, “Die Vielfalt der Sprachen und das Verstehen der Welt,” in Gadamer (1993b, 343), trans. by David W. Johnson and Sabine Bobenhausen, unpublished).

  41. Gadamer, “Culture and the Word,” in Gadamer (1983, 13, 1990b, 4). See “Zur Phänomenologie von Ritual und Sprache,” in Gadamer, (1993b), 409, for the link between language and the dimension of the Miteinander.

  42. Gadamer, “Semantics and Hermeneutics,” in Gadamer (1977, 89–90, 1993a, 179–180).

  43. Gadamer (1990a, 462, 2004, 454).

  44. Grondin (1995, 150). Grondin maintains that the notion of Sprachlichkeit or linguisticality has not always been well understood. His point finds support in Supplement II of Truth and Method: “I would say that the misunderstanding in the question of the linguisticality of our understanding is really one about language—i.e., seeing language as a stock of words and phrases, of concepts, viewpoints and opinions. In fact, language is the single word, whose virtuality opens for us the infinity of discourse, of speaking with one another, of the freedom of "expressing oneself" and "letting oneself be expressed,” Gadamer (2004, 553); Gadamer, “Wie weit schreibt sprache das denken vor?” in Gadamer (1993a, 206). In a note to his remark quoted above, Grondin refers us to Gadamer’s essay “Boundaries of Language.” Gadamer concludes this essay thusly: Finally the deepest of the problems that essentially inheres in the boundary of language is to be indicated […] It is the awareness that every speaker has in each moment when he seeks the correct word—and that is the word that reaches the other—the awareness that he never completely attains it. What reaches the other through language, what has been completely said in words, is always less than has been meant or was intended. An unstilled desire for the appropriate word—that is what constitutes the true life and essence of language. Here a close relationship appears between an inability to satisfy this desire, désir (Lacan), and the fact that our own human existence dissipates in time and before death (Gadamer, “Boundaries of Language,” in Schmidt [2000, 17]). Lawrence Schmidt also characterizes Sprachlichkeit in similar terms, calling attention to Gadamer’s characterization of it in the late essay “Europa und die Oikoumene” (1993) as “an impulse toward the word” (Schmidt, “Participation and Ritual: Dewey and Gadamer on Language,” in Schmidt [2000, 136]).

  45. Gadamer (1990a, 470, 2004, 462).

  46. See Johnson (2020).

  47. See Johnson (2015).


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Johnson, D.W. Word as image: Gadamer on the unity of word and thing. Cont Philos Rev 55, 101–118 (2022).

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