Lawrence Hatab: Proto-Phenomenology and the Nature of Language, Volume I: Dwelling in Speech

Proto-Phenomenology and the Nature of Language: Dwelling in Speech I Book Cover Proto-Phenomenology and the Nature of Language: Dwelling in Speech I
New Heidegger Research
Lawrence J. Hatab
Rowman & Littlefield International
Paperback £24.95

Reviewed by: Hayden Kee (Fordham University)

In Division I of Being and Time, Heidegger poses, but does not answer, the question concerning the nature of language (Heidegger 1927, 166). Lawrence Hatab’s new book, Proto-Phenomenology and the Nature of Language, Volume I: Dwelling in Speech (2017) takes up this challenge. But if Hatab in many ways takes his lead from the early Heidegger’s phenomenology of being-in-the-world, he is not afraid to move beyond the limits of that project, both in terms of the scope of substantive issues he explores and methodological resources he employs in doing so. The book focuses on the presentational, disclosive nature of language as it is revealed in everyday, practical, and dialogical contexts of use, arguing for the primacy of these aspects of language over the more decontextualized, representational features that are made the focus of much work in the dominant traditions of linguistics and philosophy of language. Hatab’s approach to foundational issues in the philosophy of language – such as the primacy of language with respect to thought and experience, and the nature and role of convention in language – is informed by a wide range of resources from the cognitive sciences, linguistics, analytic philosophy, hermeneutics, and, of course, phenomenology. With this convergence of methods and insights, the work both draws upon and provides further suggestions for interdisciplinary work at the intersection of phenomenology, cognitive science, and philosophy of language.

Hatab baptizes his approach “proto-phenomenology”. This approach is largely Heideggerian in its bearings, focusing on everyday facticity and immersive, practical involvements as central to our “dwelling” in the lived world. Hatab sees this as distinctive of the early Heidegger’s work, as opposed to other approaches in phenomenology, Husserl’s in particular, that the author views as still burdened with reflective, representational, and cognitivist prejudices (4). Proto-phenomenological insights are enriched throughout the book by work in the cognitive sciences that takes an embodied, enactive approach to experience. Though Heidegger’s influence is ever-present, Hatab seeks a novel idiom for conveying proto-phenomenology, one that is supposed to be more faithful to Heidegger’s thought than some other interpretations, while at the same time being free of some of the grander ambitions of Heidegger’s project. One aspect of Heidegger’s method that is central to Hatab’s approach is the use of indicative concepts (14ff.). These direct our attention to aspects of our dwelling in the lived world, but they are meant to show rather than define. As such, they are meant to be more faithful both to our everyday understanding of the world, an understanding that we are wont to falsify through sophisticated philosophical concepts.

Chapter 1 provides a general introduction to Hatab’s proto-phenomenology through an exposition of the central, correlated notions of dwelling and the lived world. This amounts to a description of the pre-theoretical way in which we directly engage our lived world, a mode of engagement prior to the subject-object distinction. Hatab articulates the lived world into interwoven personal, environmental, and social dimensions. Chapter 2 continues this exposition, detailing our fundamental ways of attuning to and understanding the lived world and the further unfolding of these through interpretation. Hatab clarifies the relationship between the cognitive sciences and proto-phenomenology, a topic, he argues, that to some extent requires a special treatment that has not yet been provided by the existing discussions of the naturalization of phenomenology. In some respects, chapters 1 and 2 read as precis of Being and Time. But it would be unfair to characterize it as a mere rehash in a new jargon of Heidegger’s classic work. Hatab’s analyses are informed and enriched by both the ensuing decades of phenomenological research and an impressive range of recent work from the cognitive sciences. Along the way, Hatab situates his own views in relation to topical issues in both phenomenological and analytic philosophy, such as the nature of consciousness and the relation between know-how and propositional knowledge. Hatab also discusses essential aspects of dwelling and the lived world given short shrift by Heidegger, such as embodiment (61ff.), intersubjectivity and empathy (48ff.), and ethics (49f.) . He provides a compelling account of how the distanced reflection that we engage in when the flow of practical engagement has broken down comes to feed back into and restructure the field of practical comportment in constructive ways, such as through habit formation, a point sometimes neglected by exegetes of Heidegger’s early thought (24ff.). His methodological reflections on the nature of philosophy as an undertaking born of but also departing from the lived world provide a welcome extension of a theme implicit, but never adequately developed, in Being and Time (102ff.). In addition to extending and reworking themes from Heidegger and discussing considerations neglected by or unavailable to him, Hatab’s departure from Heidegger’s seminal work is also marked by what is absent from these opening chapters. There is only a brief discussion of authenticity, and no indication of an intent to subordinate the proto-phenomenology of dwelling and the lived world to fundamental ontology.

Chapter 3 extends the analyses of chapters 1 and 2 by revisiting the basic structures of dwelling and the lived world, this time showing how each of them is permeated by language. Hatab clarifies the sense of and defends the claim that language is “the most important component of the lived world and its meaningfulness” (109). This claim directs the chapter throughout and leads it to its climax, a discussion of the relationship between language and thinking (146ff.). The inquiry is guided by two interwoven questions: (1) Is language constitutive of thought, in the sense that linguistic operations fundamentally inform human cognition? And (2) if language is constitutive of thought, does this imply a sort of linguistic relativism in light of the cross-cultural diversity of languages (146)? Though claims earlier in the chapter concerning the “phenomenological priority of language” (118ff.) seemed to be pushing in the direction of linguistic idealism, Hatab attempts to develop a nuanced view between the extremes of the communicative view (language is just the clothing of thought) and the constitutive view (language is productive of thought). If Hatab’s own position is not always easy to pin down on this question, his critique of the terms of the existing debate is nonetheless poignant: both the constitutive and the communicative views are committed to a representationalist vision of language and thought. The very conceptuality which guides these theories, and hence the manner in which they operationalize terms for experiment, has already abstracted away from the functioning of language in the more phenomenologically basic, dialogical practice-field of speech that proto-phenomenology seeks to describe (151ff.). Hatab tells us that his own view of the interweaving of language and thinking is informed by how these two aspects of dwelling interact during development (147, 151). We can thus hope to see his view refined in Volume II of the present work, where he will turn to a more detailed treatment of development and language acquisition.

Chapter 4 explores truth in relation to the disclosive and constitutive role of language elaborated by proto-phenomenology. Hatab establishes the priority of presentational truth in “fitting discourse” (187) over derivative conceptions of truth, such as correspondence, which arise only in representational contexts. The mistake of theories that privilege the representational functions of language and operate with a correspondence notion of truth consists in beginning with derivative contexts and functions of language, which only occur when the presentative function of language in immersive discourse is disrupted. But this neglects the prior and more pervasive contexts of disclosive, presentational truth in which the question of correspondence does not arise. Such immersive contexts provide the background within which alone representational functions of language and the correspondence notion of truth make sense. On the basis of this disclosive, presentational conception of truth, Hatab discusses issues of objectivity, realism, and pluralism, defending a “modest and expanded notion” of realism that accords with our everyday intuitions while discrediting a metaphysical conception of objectivity (188). Whereas the representationalist view operates with an objectivist conception of truth conditions, Hatab offers a set of existential, or “inhabitive”, truth conditions suitable for the social, environed, meaningful lived world (191). These allow for varying standards of truth across different contexts. But since truth is still constrained by the real, environing features of the context and by the embodied, social perspective that discloses them, this pluralism does not degenerate into an unlimited relativism (207). The chapter concludes with an illustration of how the views on language and truth developed throughout can be applied to a classic problem in philosophy, the mind-body problem, to produce an original clarification and dissolution of the problem (207ff.).

Chapter 5 concludes Volume I of Hatab’s two-volume effort and transitions to Volume II, Language Acquisition, Orality, and Literature. Hatab states that arriving at a “baseline philosophical orientation” such as proto-phenomenology is not so much a matter of inferential demonstration as it is a question of finding our “existential bearings”. As such, no decisive considerations can ever be brought forth to render such a foundation unshakeable. However, Hatab sees considerations arising from the study of language acquisition, and the history of literacy as it develops out of orality, as providing a certain kind of tangible evidence in favor of the proto-phenomenological approach to language (224). Developmental studies in psychology can be clarified by proto-phenomenological analyses of the lived world, which wards off the imposition of representationalist assumptions and the subject-object ontology and epistemology that accompany them. In turn, evidence from such studies provides a sort of corroboration and enrichment of the overall account of the lived world provided by proto-phenomenology. Studies of infant imitation and sociality, for example, offer a degree of corroboration for proto-phenomenology’s description of the world-oriented nature of our most basic modes of dwelling (226f.). In literate cultures, learning to speak is usually followed by learning to read and write. Hatab outlines ten critical distinctions between orality and literacy, arguing that literacy is both a necessary condition for philosophy, while also making possible the kind of representationalist assumptions about language that conceal its more originary, presentational-disclosive function.


One challenge that readers will face is navigating the novel terminology Hatab employs to articulate his proto-phenomenology. Many of the terms he introduces are directly grounded in their counterparts from Being and Time, but Hatab fashions new coinages throughout. This liberates him to some extent from the acquired baggage of the established idiom, facilitating new connections and an original appropriation of Heidegger’s thought. It also allows the book to serve as a general introduction to proto-phenomenology, accessible to readers without a foundation in the classics of the phenomenological tradition. However, it also means that readers familiar with the tradition who would like to bring Hatab’s contribution into dialogue with the existing literature will have to set up translational paradigms, and it is not always clear that the new terms are more amenable than the available ones. Translating Geworfenheit with “projection” (51), for example, whatever other considerations might speak in favor of it, confuses matters considerably given that in the existing literature, Entwurf is generally translated as “projection”.

The book is ambitious, its scope vast. For one, it does double service as an introduction to proto-phenomenology (chapter 1 and 2) and a proto-phenomenological treatment of language (chapters 3 and 4). Further, it spans a broad array of issues in the phenomenology and philosophy of language and mind while engaging a vast literature from diverse domains. At times, it feels as though breadth is being favored over depth, and it is not always clear how some of the topics discussed, such as freedom and Platonism, pertain to the overarching theme, language. However, part of what is distinctive about the phenomenological approach to language is the insistence on the embeddedness of language within the lived world, and it could be argued that setting up this broader context of speech is necessary if we are to stay true to the phenomena. And the copious references and suggestions for further development certainly serve the author’s intention of building bridges and opening doors for further investigations (xiii).

Proto-Phenomenology and the Nature of Language joins Charles Taylor’s The Language Animal (2016) and Andrew Inkpin’s Disclosing the World (2016) as the third book to appear in the last year of considerable interest for a phenomenological approach to the philosophy of language. There are many points of overlap and complementarity between these works, but one respect in which Hatab’s contribution is unique is in his constant awareness that the phenomenology of language has consequences for the language of phenomenology. The account of language that we develop in phenomenology must be consistent with the way in which we conduct phenomenological philosophy, as an endeavor that largely unfolds in language. Thus, Hatab is able to use his insights into the nature of language to clarify the terms of discourse surrounding classical philosophical questions, such as the mind-body problem, in what amounts to a sort of phenomenological ordinary language philosophy. He has also begun to explore insights for the nature of the philosophical endeavor as a whole, which is itself a particular way of taking up language that is founded in, if sometimes departing from, our everyday dwelling in the lived world. These insights will be developed further in Volume II, and Hatab has suggested that the most original work may be yet to come (6). That is surely something to look forward to, but with Volume I, we already possess a unique and provocative approach to phenomenology, and a stance on the nature of language that promises to stimulate new conversations and advance old ones.

Works Cited
Hatab, Lawrence J. 2017. Proto-Phenomenology and the Nature of Language: Dwelling in Speech I. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield International.
Heidegger, Martin. 1927. Sein und Zeit. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.
Inkpin, Andrew. 2016. Disclosing the World: On the Phenomenology of Language. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.
Taylor, Charles. 2016. The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press.

Leave a Reply