Is there a need for a phenomenological approach in the philosophy of language? According to Andrew Inkpin’s Disclosing the World, phenomenology indeed offers a better account of the way we experience and perceive language than most contemporary philosophical approaches to language do.
In his exposition of the need for a phenomenology of language, Inkpin refers to certain kinds of experience that most contemporary philosophical approaches to language are unable to apprehend, mostly due to “antecedent assumptions about what language should be like – the degree of systematicity or the form it should have, the epistemological function it is desired or perceived to play, how it connects with philosophy of mind or metaphysics, and so on – in a way leaving them peculiarly insensitive to the factors that speakers might perceive to be at work in different kinds of linguistic phenomena’ (p.4). Instead of drawing on some ‘ideal’ of language, Inkpin takes our experience of language as his starting point. By doing so, Inkpin wants to come to an understanding of language as ‘a process of articulation in the public space that plays a constitutive role in human actions and thought’ (p.5).
In his phenomenological approach to language, Inkpin elaborates a ‘minimalist conception of phenomenological method, defined by the basic commitment (…) to describe accurately how things appear or manifest themselves’ (p. 6). The development of this phenomenological conception draws extensively on the work of Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Ludwig Wittgenstein. By combining the philosophical ideas of these three thinkers, Inkpin tries to come to a unified view, claiming that these three positions have the potential to complement one another. In particular, Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit, offers a framework in which two aspects of language, the presentational and the pragmatic, are further developed by using Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein respectively.
The first part of the book sets out this Heideggerian framework and focuses on the ‘role Heidegger sees language having in the broader phenomenon of disclosure and a pattern of commitments that characterize his conception of language as a phenomenological one’ (p.25) As Inkpin himself notes, it is not obvious to focus on Sein und Zeit when discussing Heidegger’s view on language. Indeed, language became increasingly central in Heidegger’s philosophical work and his earlier work Sein und Zeit ‘had treated language as peripheral to his overall philosophical project and discussed it only in a dispersed and fragmentary manner’ (p.25). However, in Sein und Zeit Heidegger emphases the foundational role of understanding equipment in everyday practices. According to Inkpin, this yields a better account of the pragmatic aspect of language which will disappear in Heidegger’s later writings, but which is surely central to lived human experience of language.
In this first part, Inkpin addresses the role played by language in disclosure. Inkpin concentrates on Heidegger’s phenomenological conception of the world and his account of how human understanding of the world takes a determinate form, culminating in language. According to Inkpin, ‘Heidegger’s conception of language belongs to an overall picture of intentionality that centers on and is shaped by his idea of Dasein as being-in-the-world’ (p.54). Heidegger thus does not consider language as something with an inside-outside topology, but respects the various processes and phenomenal relations it is involved in. Starting from the idea that ‘in describing some phenomenon one must respect its character as unified whole’ (p. 55), Heidegger rejects attempts to conceive language in terms of symbolic forms, categories of meaning or the logic of propositions, because ‘picking out one of these aspects as the “essence of language” cannot yield a philosophically adequate understanding of language’ (p.55). Language is to be understood as embedded in the world.
After explaining the more general features of the Heideggerian framework Inkpin considers Heidegger’s view of the disclosing function of linguistic signs. According to Inkpin, Sein und Zeit ‘brings together two distinct factors in the articulation of lived meaning (…) each of which clearly features in our prereflective experience of language and has implications for the inferential properties that linguistic expressions manifest in sentential contexts’ (p. 90). Linguistic signs are thought of as bearers of both presentational and pragmatic sense. Linguistic signs are entities that ‘can reveal features of the world to us through either a proper appreciation of their presentational implications or a grasp of their pragmatic utility’ (p.90). However, Heidegger does not offer a detailed conception of each kind of sense, which leaves open the question of how the relation between presentational and pragmatic sense is to be understood. Inkpin therefore explores these two aspects by drawing on the philosophical works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Ludwig Wittgenstein respectively.
In the second part of the book, Inkpin therefore tries to come to a better understanding of the presentational aspect of language by discussing Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s view on language. This view considers language as a kind of ‘incarnate sense’, meaning that sense is generated by embodied agents living their lives. According to Merleau-Ponty, the use of linguistic signs is inseparable from what makes them meaningful: ‘the word, far from being the simple sign of objects and of meanings, inhabits things and is the vehicle of meanings’ (p.97). For Merleau-Ponty, language is primarily expressive behaviour and shares various features with painting. In literary language use, but also in translation, we are ‘attentive to the role of linguistic form in anchoring specific associations or nuances of meaning’ (p.153). In these kinds of contexts, linguistic signs are experienced ‘as literally the means of which thoughts are composed, as expressive “materials” that embody certain constraints’ (p.153). In this way linguistic signs can be seen as bearers of presentational sense.
Although Merleau-Ponty’s view on language offers the possibility to fill in one of the gaps that remained in the Heideggerian framework, Merleau-Ponty’s focus on expressive and creative language use seems to downplay the use of established language . At this point, Wittgenstein is brought in to discuss the pragmatic sense of linguistic signs. In contrast to both Heidegger and Merleau Ponty, Wittgenstein did not consider himself a phenomenologist. Without trying to interpret Wittgenstein as a phenomenological philosopher, Inkpin states that his conception of language is compatible with a phenomenological one. Therefore, Wittgenstein’s notion of language-games can be considered a way to understand the pragmatic sense of linguistic signs. In particular, the later Wittegenstein’s claim that practice constitutes meaning can be seen compatible with the approaches of both Heidegger and Wittgenstein, who both stressed the embeddedness of language in human practice and experience.
Combining Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein, Inkpin comes to an overall picture that ‘sees languages as embedded in human practice, in embodiment, and in their own semiotic horizon’ (p. 225). Within this framework the relation between pragmatic and presentational sense ‘should be thought of as one of symbiotic complementarity’ (p.227). According to Inkpin, the combination of these two distinct aspects of sense articulations provides a basis for explaining different kinds a phenomena related to the experience of language. This claim results in three important implications.
Firstly, Heidegger’s conception of the world questions the traditional opposition between realism and idealism. According to Heidegger, there is no gap ‘between the way the world appears to us in the perspective of our projects and the way the world is “in itself”, because ‘the expression ‘Being-in-the-world’ marks genuine and direct contact with our surroundings’ (p.234). Therefore, language does not have to be seen as representations that are standing between us and real objects, but as a way of being in contact with them. The embeddedness of language in other phenomena implies ‘that knowledge of language is not sui generis, but is intrinsically bound up with more general awareness of the world’ (p.243-244).
Secondly, the phenomenological approach shows the limitations of the semantics approach — the more mainstream philosophical approach to language. Semantics cannot be seen a self-sufficient functionality, because linguistic meaning is ontologically and functionally embedded in the world. Furthermore, the phenomenological approach shows that language should not be overrationalized and that thinking of language as a systematically ordered whole misrepresents the specific modes of intelligence that language use embodies.
Thirdly, Inkpin suggests that his descriptive phenomenology of language can be complemented with the explanatory approach of 4E cognitive science (approaches in cognitive science that emphasize the importance of the embodiment, embedding, enaction and extension of cognitive processes). Just as Inkpin’s phenomenology, 4E cognitive science is attentive to the role of things outside the head in understanding cognition. But the availability of a theory capable to offer some explanation could make us wonder whether there is still need for a purely descriptive phenomenological approach to language. But Inkpin claims that 4E cognitive science needs phenomenological description of our experience of language, because this description has a role to play in identifying the constituent parts of embedded/enactive/extended cognitive systems.
Inkpin’s book therefore succeeds in showing the value of a phenomenological approach to language in relation to both mainstream approaches in philosophy of language and cognitive science. Inkpin’s approach points out the embeddedness of language and shows the need to complement the prevalent semantics approach with a phenomenological one. Furthermore, Inkpin stresses the need to see phenomenology and 4E cognitive sciences as complementary, undermining the unnecessary competition between science and philosophy. Inkpin grounds his approach on the work of three respected thinkers and tries to explain their ideas as clear as possible, while at the same time assigning them a place in his bigger framework. He does not try to give an overview of already existing phenomenological theories of language, but rather elaborates his own philosophical framework, building in Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein. This makes Disclosing the World much more than an interesting introduction to the philosophical ideas of these three thinkers on language. Inkpin’s book offers an interesting perspective on what a phenomenology of language could be and why it should be necessary. Although it is not always as accessible as one would like it to be, this book is certainly a must read for everyone interested in philosophy of language.