From Text to Understanding

“To explain more is to understand better.” This was how Prof. Dr. Leovino Ma. Garcia began his lecture on Paul Ricoeur’s Hermeneutics. Ricoeur has comprehensively and extensively written about various themes in philosophy and in life that would concern any philosopher, or anyone for that matter, in any given era. As Ricoeur’s bibliographer, Prof. Garcia took upon himself the task of passing on his knowledge and understanding he has learned and lived both from reading and from conversing with Ricoeur. This paper, which by reading would take the form of a third generation notes on Ricoeur (the first generation being Paul Ricoeur’s From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics II, and the second, Dr. Garcia’s “Hermeneutics as Understanding Oneself before the Text”) hopes to present itself as an outline and a reflection on Dr. Garcia’s “Understanding” (“Hermeneutics as Understanding Oneself before the Text,” here to be used as the primary source) and Ricoeur’s Text (“The Hermeneutical Function of Distanciation” in From Text to Action, the secondary source).

The Responsibility of Philosophy to Language

“Language is an infinite use of finite means.” (Wilhelm von Humboldt)

There are diverse ways of expressing man’s presence in the world. We first have to acknowledge this creative power of language, then to situate the various expressions in relation to one another. In relation to language, philosophy has a double responsibility: to safeguard the openness of language, at the same time to promote the creative power of language. This is crucial in philosophy because “the very progress of sciences like linguistics, logic, semiotics go hand in hand with the forgetting or ignoring of the creative power of language which is precisely at stake in philosophy.”[1]

The primary task of philosophy is to link language anew to reality insofar as the sciences of language tend to abolish the link, the relation between language and reality. To this primary task I add two other complementary tasks – to link language to the speaking subject, the concrete living person, insofar as the sciences of language give the privilege to systems, structures, codes, cut off from the speaking subject; finally to link language anew to the society, insofar as the loss of the speaking subject, the loss of the personal dimension also implies the loss of the special dimension of language.[2]

Language as Object

Discourse is given as an event: something happens when someone speaks. The notion of discourse as event is essential when we take into consideration the passage from a linguistics of language or codes to a linguistics of discourse or messages. The distinction comes, as we know, from Ferdinand de Saussure and Louis Hjelmslev; the first distinguished “language” [langue] and “speech” [parole], the second “schema” and “use.” The theory of discourse draws all the epistemological consequences of this duality. Whereas structural linguistics simply places speech and use in parentheses, the theory of discourse removes the parentheses and proclaims the existence of two linguistics resting upon different principles.[3]

The sciences of language (structural linguistics, founded by the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure) placed within parentheses the question of the relation of language to reality. Prof. Garcia recalls the methodological postulates of this science from which thus bracketing resulted.

First, in order for language to become the object of the empirical science, it must become an autonomous object. De Saussure introduced the distinction between langue (language as code), where he placed the constitutive rules of the code within the linguistic community, and parole (language as speech), where he placed the external acts, the individual performance, and the free combinations of discourse. Isolating the totality of entities from which we choose the free combinations, we thus have the homogeneous object: langue (language as code).[4]

In language as code, one must still distinguish the system (synchronic linguistics) from its changes (diachronic linguistics). The second postulate therefore is to give primacy to the system of langue at a given moment over its evolution, that is, “behind all change, one must be able to find the system.”[5]

Third: In a state of system, there are no absolute terms, but only relations of mutual dependence. For Saussure: In langue, there are only differences.

Fourth: The totality of signs must be taken as a closed system in order to be analyzed and to be considered as having no external but only internal relations.

With these fundamental postulates, we can already relate the position of the structural linguistics to the three fundamental problems which were evoked: that of reality, that of the subject and that of intersubjectivity. First, the postulate of the closed system results in “the abolition of the relation between language and reality.” Second, in language as code, no one speaks, such that “the notion of the subject, relegated to the side of parole, ceases to be a linguistic question and falls to the domain of psychology.” Third, “this abolition of the relation of language to the subject is accompanied by the abolition of the relation of language to the other…. There can be no second person where there is no first person.”[6]

The Realization of Language as Discourse

Discourse is “the intention of saying something on something to someone. The creativity consists in how you chain the words, pulling together words or sentences to come up with a text.

Our experience of language manifests something of its mode of being which resists this reduction. For us who speak, language is not an object but relation – and mediation, in a threefold way: first it is the mediation of man to the world; in other words, language is that by which, we express reality and, have a world. Language is furthermore mediation between man and man. Insofar as we both refer to the same things, we form a linguistic community, a “we.” Finally, language is a mediation of the self to itself. It is through the universe of signs, of texts, of works of culture that we understand ourselves. In this triple way, language is not object but relation, communication. Speaking is the act by which language is surpasses itself as a sign towards the world, towards the other, and towards oneself.[7]

The character of discourse finds its basis from features of the sentence as act. Moving on from signs which are intralinguistic, avirtual, atemporal, anonymous, and only a potential creativity, we come to the discourse, which is virtual, temporal, and actual. The sentence, which is extralinguistic, is no longer just a group of signs, it now has a predicative function where it can now creatively and infinitely use the finite systems. It is in the instance of discourse that language gets to have a temporal function. It is in this fleeting event of the discourse that it actually exists.

The intention of language is not only the intention of saying something on something, but also the intention of someone who signifies himself in discourse. “When someone speaks, he takes hold of language and posits a relation to the world. In positing such a relation, he posits himself as the responsible subject of his discourse.”[8]

In the instance of discourse, someone says something on something to someone. Although each moment of discourse (every this-here-now) is a fleeting event, its meaning remains. Now, this meaning, which is retained, can be written down. But as soon as it is put down into writing, the meaning of discourse and the intention of the speaker cease to coincide. The world the speaker referred to is lost, and the speaker is dead.

Language as text and work

With writing, things already begin to change. For there is no longer a situation common to the writer and the reader, and the concrete conditions of the act of pointing no longer exist. This abolition of the ostensive character of reference is no doubt what makes possible the phenomenon we call “literature,” which may abolish all reference to a given reality.”[9]

Ricoeur proposed three distinctive features of the notion of work. First, a work is a sequence longer than the sentence, which raises a new problem of understanding relative to the finite and closed totality that constitutes the work as such. Second, the work is submitted to a form of codification (literary genre) that is applied to the composition itself, and that transforms discourse into a story, a poem, an essay, and so on. Third, a work is given a unique configuration that likens it to an individual and that may be called its style.[10]

Concrete language is realized in units which go beyond the sentence in texts and works. At this new level, we must now take up the triple mediation of language between man and the world, between man and man, between man and himself.

Here, the question is to know if the notion of reference characterizing the relation of language to the world can be applied to discourse, understood as text or as work. Furthermore, if it can be applied to all works, more particularly to poetic works, because for the logician, the question of reference only holds for descriptive propositions.

In a broad sense, we call “poetic” those texts whose claim to truth does not fall within the framework of the descriptive proposition. What Prof. Garcia shows in his thesis is that “the power of reference is not an exclusive aspect of discourse, but that poetic works also refer to a world.”[11] He explains that in the poetic work, “discourse manifests its power of reference as second reference, presupposing the suspension of the first reference of discourse.”[12]

Poetry is commonly held to be a discourse without a reference, that its language has no relation but to itself. The thesis here does not deny this but rather build on this. It holds that the suspension of reference, in the sense defined by the norms of descriptive discourse, is the negative condition which enables us to bring out a more fundamental reference.”[13] The positive task of explicating the reference of discourse which is non-descriptive and poetic no longer belongs to the discipline of linguistics but to the discipline of interpretation: hermeneutics, the science of the rules of interpretation of texts, an interpretation which consists in the art of unfolding what Ricoeur and Gadamer call the “world of text.”

Theory of Metaphor

With regard to the relation to reality, metaphor is to poetic language what model is to scientific language.

In scientific language, the model is essentially a heuristic device which aims, by means of fiction, to break up an inadequate interpretation and to clear a way for a new, more adequate interpretation. When the models are not miniature replicas of real thing but more original constructions on which one can read, in a simplified way, the more complex relations of the things to be explained, scientific imagination also becomes truly creative. This consists in seeing new connections in reality by the detour of an object purely constructed. In the words of Mary Hesse, the model is an instrument of “re-description.” The direct deductive explanation describes. The direct explanation by the detour of model, redescribes. The same process is found in metaphor.[14]

The metaphor is a redescription of reality. On the semantic level, discourse manifests itself as a message addressed by a sender to a receiver, as the demand for recognition by the speaker. On the logical level, all-reference is co-reference, that is, the world spoken of is common and each speaker is capable of understanding that his unique view on the world is only a perspective when it intends the same world. On the rhetorical level, language is used publicly in competition with other opinions before an audience. On the poetic level, language appears as a catharsis, where a new vision is being offered to spectators, a view where they can see the same world, with the same reference, in a new light.

This is the ultimate task of metaphor, the ultimate function of a poetic work: to enable us to see the world differently, to suspend our usual way of seeing ourselves, and to transform ourselves in the image of the world that is opened up by the poetic word.

Discourse does not end with its being written down as text. What is written always gets to have a reader, as soon as it is written, it is detached from its writer, and is subjected to a new interpretation in each new reading. The task of philosophy is to be there when the creative power of language opens up a world to a reader, and leaps from text to understanding and moves the reader to action. For the most crucial moment is when the reader puts down the text and looks out into space. In that moment, no one knows what’s going to happen next.

Ivan Deligero

August 9, 2011


[1] Prof. Dr. Leovino Ma. Garcia, “Hermeneutics as Understanding Oneself before the Text,” p. 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ricoeur, P. (1991), “The Hermeneutical Function of Distanciation” From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics II (Illinois: Northwestern University Press), p. 71.

[4] Cf. Garcia, “Hermeneutics as Understanding Oneself before the Text,” p. 1.

[5] Ibid., p. 2.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 3.

[8] Ibid., p. 4.

[9] Ricoeur, P., FTA, p. 85.

[10] Ibid. p. 80.

[11] Garcia, “Hermeneutics as Understanding Oneself before the Text,” p. 5.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., p.6.

[14] Ibid., p. 6.

1 comment
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