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Review of  The Linguistic Turn in Hermeneutic Philosophy

Reviewer: Adriano Palma
Book Title: The Linguistic Turn in Hermeneutic Philosophy
Book Author: Cristina Lafont
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Philosophy of Language
Subject Language(s): German
Issue Number: 12.989

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Lafont, Christina (2000) The Linguistic Turn in Hermeneutic
Philosophy, translated by Jose Medina, MIT Press, 378 pp.,
hardback, ISBN: 0-262-12217-0, $ 45.00.

Adriano Palma, Tsh UTC Compiegne and Institut Jean Nicod, Paris

The book consists of three parts..I is mostly historical in
character and deals with the tradition of the philosophy of
language in Germany, treating in particular Hamann, Humboldt,
Heidegger, and Gadamer. II presents and discusses J. Habermas'
views together with Lafont's own appreciation and understanding
of the.cluster of theories of direct reference (heirs of Kripke,
Kaplan, and Donnellan.) III is an extended treatment of Habermas
views on morality and of the interpretation Lafont provides of
internal realism (the view endorsed by the American philosopher
H. Putnam.)

The text may be a very difficult read for linguists. Strangely
enough having as a subject a linguistic turn there isn't a single
example of linguistic analysis of a corpus, or of sentences. Nor
one finds any treatment of obviously linguistic topics such as
acquisition, anaphora, case assignments and so forth. The notion
of language at stake appears to be the public E-language of
competent adults, something close to the everyday notion of
"Dutch" or "Xhosa", in contrast with the I-language more often
dealt with in linguistics, at least in several of its strands.
Also no use is made of distinctions between phonology, syntax,
and semantics. The only relevant aspects considered are the
semantics of NP, with not much weight given to VP. The general
approach risks being lost in generalities, but a way to zero in
on the topic is to realize that in one German tradition in
philosophy, language is seen not only as uniquely human trait but
also as a magic key capable of providing foundations for a lot of
stuff (ontology, cultures, whole world views, and last but not
least morality.)

The first part presents historical background giving some insight
on the roots of her theme. Hamann was a virulent critic of his
friend Kant and more generally a mighty opponent of anything that
resembled the ideals of the Enlightenment and his views on
language boil down to the (almost) Whorfian view that a language
(an E-language, one has to assume) embodies an entire world view.
His arguments to this effect are somewhat obscure and not well
understood, at least by this reader. Not being an expert in the
history of ideas myself, I can only suggest a general attempt to
situate Hamann in the cultural history of Prussia by Isaiah
Berlin (1). Berlin demonstrates in clearer ways what Hamann was
about than Lafont. A bit clearer is Humboldt, who at least did
try to tackle languages and not (only) to show that Kant was
badly erring. Lafont sees Humboldt as a precursor of the
philosophies of dialogues, an early supporter of linguistic
holism (roughly the idea that meanings cannot be local: one has
to have a whole language to be able to manage even its most
minuscule fragments such as single sentences), and a theorists of
the central communicative feature of language. He wrote, e.g.,
"Language only exists in ongoing speech; grammar and lexicon are
hardly comparable to their dead skeleton" (as quoted by Lafont on
p. 41.) An obvious difficulty for views like this holism is that
they make virtually impossible to understand acquisition which
seems a matter of degrees far more than a singular instantaneous
event. Even the most radical versions of the Chomskyan idealized
speakers have a period of possibly 24 months to acquire
linguistic competence. It sounds a bit odd to hold that while a
child is learning what "convince" means he has to now what
"persuade" means. Humboldt is probably one of the first to remark
that language has to make an infinite use of finite means",
though Galilei noticed it well before him. The claim has been
repeatedly used by Chomsky to see in Humboldt a precursor of the
notion of discrete infinity of the output of the language
faculty. Incidentally Lafont seems to endorse the criticism that
Chomsky is wrong because of the basic objectivist view that
Chomsky must preusppose (p. 31). The point is made by T. Borsche
and I don't know what it means.

What Lafont retains of Humboldt is the emphasis on dialogue and
what she calls the constitutive role of language and its
essentially social character. Lafont turns then to Martin
Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer. Both appear to be intent on
something which Lafont calls the linguistic turn. While she
claims we have a tradition that sees language as expressive (of
thoughts, sensations, etc.), the authors she cites view language
as a demiurge that creates universes. Heidegger at times
seems.bent on a bizarre form of linguistic creationism. Lafont
twice or thrice cites his remark to the effect that "only where
there is language is there world' (p. 63 and ff.) The claim is
easily seen as far fetched once one considers the comparative
weight of the evidence we have for the existence of, say, single
cell organisms and the evidence provided by Heidegger. I take it
as a given that single cell organisms are devoid of language.
Lafont is aware of this:"...[...] there is no thing where the
word is lacking..With this claim Heidegger establishes a
dependence between thing and word, clearly not with regard to the
existence of the former, but rather with regard to the
possibility of our access to our understanding of the thing."
(P.64) The claim is quickly seen to be trivial (namely given that
we have concepts, once we label with word-concepts their
extension we access our verbal understanding, not exactly an
earth-shattering discovery.) Even more curious to this reader are
the sections devoted to Gadamer. He not only renders more extreme
the form of holism in question, but attaches to it an ethical
value. It is an openly reactionary value. His aim is to apply
insofar as possible some principles (like charity, for instance)
quite likely appropriate in philological quests and extend their
range to comprehension in general (an even stronger form of
holism, if possible.) The reaction is against a perceived
invasion of scientific views in the field of the humanities. What
Gadamer calls interpretation is an ethical notion, as Lafont
correctly points out: "[Gadamer] wants to restore the binding
normative power of tradition for all those individuals who are
immersed in it" (p.79). What all of this has to do with language
is not very clear, since it is not at all clear that to learn
Japanese one has to embrace any particular tradition (of making
tea, of kendo, of seppuku, and so forth.) However one sees a bit
better that in the German environment the treatment of language
came to be seen as something akin to ethics. From considerations
about the use of public languages, however those are to be
defined, if at all, these philosophers believe it possible to
draw moral conclusions. To this reader this seems very strange
and borders on incoherence: in which sense your favorite moral
monster (Hitler, Pol Pot, McVeigh, Darth Vader, what have you)
should be criticized for linguistic incompetence?

The second and third part of the book treat Habermas's recent
views. Habermas was part of the Frankfurt "critical theory"
groups during the second half of the last century. Such groups
were largely involved in a sort of Hegel-inspired sociology. In
his later career he has been under the influence of Austin
inspired theories of speech acts, as well as more generally from
English speaking philosophers. He is also very involved in
historical debates (over the Enlightenment and universalism of
ethical values for instance, of which he is a defender, opposing
some of his interlocutors such as Gadamer, seen by him as
defenders of particularisms, relativisms, etc.) Again in Habermas
language ought to be understood as an E-language used by adults,
fully competent. It seems that his current project is to find a
sort of "universal pragmatics" (not that anyone thought there
should be local pragmatics, so that the Inuit would not be able
to understand "it's hot in here" as -at times- a request to open
windows) which overcomes hermeneutics' shortcomings. Hermeneutics
is religious term Gadamer uses for his doctrines.

An interesting twist of Lafont's treatment is to make use of the
theories of direct reference by Donnellan, Kripke, Putnam and
others to rescue Habermas from a perceived danger of.triviality
of the sort above indicated. Lafont interprets the Fregean thesis
that meanings determine references (of referential terms) as
leading to the semantic holism endorsed by Quine, Putnam,
Heidegger etc. In short if meanings determine referents, there is
no access to anything on earth (or heavens) that is short of the
complete understanding of a language, the possession of the
alleged beliefs attached to it, and so on. Theories of direct
reference break the link between epistemology and reference. They
do it by allowing a linguistic contact (reference) that does not
entail any epistemically substantive claim (contra Heidegger and
Co. we can very well refer to something without ever knowing what
it is.) It does not take any specific theory to reach this
insight, since any demonstrative ('that') on the face of it
refers without any particular Fregean sense attached to it. And
moreover it is questionable whether Frege's notion of reference
is a synonym for everyday referring. This injection of direct
reference permits Lafont to take on some of the Habermasian
insights without having to fall in to the fray of relativism and
incommensurability. In particular she thinks Habermas' views can
be saved from the dangers of a sort of collective solipsism.
Briefly her thesis is that there is a predicative function of
language as well as a referential function. To think all language
is predicative (in the sense of saying of something that it is so
and so) leads to the extremes of linguistic creationism of
hermeneutics. Lafont tries to save as much as she can from the
alleged destructive criticism levied against hermeneutics..
She goes then into some metaphysics, rehearsing known topics. It
seems to me that is a commonplace that truth outstrips epistemic
notions (of anything, rational, rationally justified, rationally
justifiable, acceptable, and so on, one can always asks whether
it is true. This is not a great discovery but a simple fact about
the fallible character of our beliefs.)

Summarizing the book makes it visible how a tradition in the
philosophy of language approaches its subject. It is at time
swerving into the strange temptation to have a theory of
everything which makes it very difficult to capture the content
of the claims made. It is equally difficult to understand whether
the claims made have in fact empirical consequences, or more
generally testable consequences of some kind or other. It would
be indeed a neat achievement if we could extract from these types
of theories of discourse something clear. To clarify what I have
in mind, it helps to take a concrete example. Even within a
tradition and a particular political community there are manifest
disagreements. I am told, by reliable sources, that Hindu
speakers vehemently disagree about the moral rightness of suttee.
Do they lack linguistic competence? And if so, what do they lack?
(They seem to understand each other perfectly well at the point
that feminist groups explain to police officers facts hidden by
entire communities and villages.) Are they irrational human
beings? Do they have conflicting assessments of the relevant
premises in their discourses about the topic? No answer seems to
me to be forthcoming from long stretches of theorizing where not
one single consequence is drawn which can be testable. This is
annoying when immensely important human interests are treated
form the intellectual standpoint. The philosophy of language here
illustrated and presented appears to be bent on avoiding any
possible way of being acceptable or non acceptable, just because
one does not know what could make it false.

There are some typos here and there (e.g. p. 249 n. 21,
'Recannati' ought to read 'Recanati'; the same misspelling is
repeated on p. 370 in the bibliography.) It is difficult to judge
whether it is a matter of difficult translation or of an
exceedingly awkward style but the text is written in an almost
too hard to swallow Teutonic heaviness. Just one example: "For
given that we can only infer the correctness of our beliefs from
the convincingness of our reasons, and given further that no
substantial criteria for justification can be precluded a prior
from being problematized, it follows that we can only infer the
convincingness of our reasons from the result of a process of
rational argumentation -that is, the process taking place under
the conditions of an ideal speech situation" (p. 284-285).

Isaiah Berlin, The Magus of the North, J.G. Hamann and the
Origins of Modern Irrationalism, London, 1993.

Adriano Palma is a member of the department of Technology and the
human sciences of the University of Technology of Compiegne and a
member of the Jean Nicod Institut in Paris. He was trained in
philosophy and is interested (mostly) in the philosophy of mind
and language. His pet theories are about indexicality in natural


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