Chad Engelland (Ed.): Language and Phenomenology

Language and Phenomenology Book Cover Language and Phenomenology
Routledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy
Chad Engelland (Ed.)
Hardback £120.00

Reviewed by: Sarah Pawlett Jackson (St Mellitus College)

Language and Phenomenology is a collection of 15 essays edited by Chad Engelland. Doing what it says on the tin, these essays cluster around questions about the relationship between language and phenomenology, in a range of different ways and with different axes of analysis in view. The text is bookended by Engelland himself. In both his Introduction and the essay that culminates the text he draws our attention to the fact that phenomenological discourse is itself a language with its own vocabulary and grammar. As Richard Kearney tells us in his contribution on linguistic and narrative hospitality, ‘a mother tongue has many children’ (267). The text exemplifies these two points in its form and content. If all the contributing authors are fluent in the language of phenomenology, there are nevertheless different dialects, or – to use Engelland’s own terminology – ‘inflections’ (273) represented.

Reading the text as a whole presents as a question the extent to which there is agreement or disagreement between the authors that it gives voice to. The collection seems to offer different conclusions about the nature of the relationship between phenomenology and language, but there is a question in this reader’s mind as to how much of this difference is ultimately terminological, rather than substantively philosophical. These questions of interpretation themselves find a mirror in the questions that are put to us in the text. As reviewing a work involves mediation and a kind of ‘translation’ of the authors, I am minded of Kearney’s observation that ‘…each dialect has its secrets, whence the legitimate double-injunction of every guest language cries to its host: ‘Translate me! Don’t translate me!’ (265). I will explore some of the threads, themes and tensions that the text presents, then, whilst recognising the limits of this ‘translation’.

Between them these essays variously look at the possible relationships and connections between speech and language, language and thought, language and meaning, dialogue and language, dialogue and mood, dialogue and perceptual experience, experience and judgement, language and normativity, language and self-consciousness, experience and interpretation, language and embodiment and language and truth. The most prominent scholarly figures in this text are Husserl and Heidegger, with multiple essays dedicated to exegeting both the early and late work of this prominent pair. Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer and others are also brought into these overlapping and intersecting conversations. All of the essays are rooted in the phenomenological tradition, but many find a natural conversation partner with analytic philosophy, drawing the likes of Wittgenstein and Frege. Aristotle is another figure who makes several appearances, offering another bridging point between traditions, as Heidegger’s analysis of language interacts and modifies Aristotle’s account of language.

This bridging of traditions is perhaps in part a natural feature of the subject matter itself, where the philosophy of language has more typically been seen to be the domain of the of the Anglo-American tradition. As Engelland highlights at the off, the domain of ‘phenomenology of language’ ‘initially appears empty’…While philosophy as conceptual analysis obviously involves a close interaction with language and problems of language, it is not at all clear that the same holds for philosophy as description of the structure of experience. What is the specifically phenomenological contribution to language?’ (1). This text seeks to be part of clarifying and constituting this contribution. It succeeds in offering a rich contribution to ‘phenomenology of language’ as its own domain, tracing some central threads about the fundamental presuppositions such a domain has to grapple with, whilst also making space for detailed reflection on the lived experience of our linguistic lives. In this task the form of a multiplicity of voices is a strength, offering a snapshot of this field in both its depth and breadth. This text would not suit beginners to phenomenology, as it assumes a ready familiarity with the tradition. For those already engaged in phenomenological ideas, the writing is largely very accessible and illuminating.

The text is split into two parts, the first titled ‘Language and Experience’, the second ‘Language and Joint Experience’. The second part therefore takes a specific slant on the over-arching theme of the text, namely the relationship between language and experience in the light of the fact that both are inescapably tied to our intersubjective interactions with others. These two parts, Engelland tells us, seek to track both the first-person and the second-person character of language in our lived experience.

The first section offers eight contributions: Daniel O. Dahlstrom argues that language is the ‘light’ by which objects are illuminated. Taylor Carmen evaluates Merleau-Ponty’s account of the connection between language and the expressive body. Dominique Pradelle explores a way of understanding the ‘pre-predicative’ dimension of experience. Jacob Rump argues that perception has normativity ‘baked in’ and outlines why this is relevant to an understanding of the relationship between language and experience. Scott Campbell offers that Heidegger’s understanding of ‘taking notice’ offers a way of speaking that discloses rather than conceals our experience. Leslie MacAvoy outlines how Heidegger modifies Aristotle’s account by shifting logos to perceptual experience itself. Katherine Whitby offers us eight possible ways that language can disclose the world to us, landing with the centrality of dialogue as world-disclosing. Anna Gosetti-Ferencei focuses on poetry as a particular form of language, exploring the phenomenology of poetry and poetry as phenomenology.

The second section is comprised of seven essays. As the focus here is on the intersubjective dimensions of language and experience, many of these authors interface their analyses with analyses in developmental psychology. The joint attention contexts of language learning shared by infants and their caregivers shed light on connections between intersubjectivity, language and experience which are others hiding in plain sight in our adult experience. Andrew Inkpin argues that neither individualism not social holism are adequate ways of accounting for language, but that both the individual and social aspects of language are compound, complex and co-constitutive. Pol Vandevelde draws on the work of Vygotsky to argue both that language scaffolds thought and thought scaffolds language. Michele Averchi uses Husserl’s distinction between expressions and indications to make the case that while there are non-linguistic forms of information transfer, only linguistic forms can function as truly communicative acts. Lawrence Hatab argues for the priority and necessity of language in all forms of world-disclosure. With a different emphasis, Cathy Culbertson argues that forms of play mirror and prefigure spoken conversation. Richard Kearney offers both an analysis and a manifesto for what he calls ‘narrative hospitality’, characterised by flexibility, plurality, transfiguration and pardon. Engelland culminates with a meditation on the ways that we learn a phenomenological language, arguing that this is grounded in, and a completion of, our ordinary language learning. He sketches a distinction between linguistic and non-linguistic forms of communication in terms of the capacity of the former to reach beyond presence to that which is absent.

Whilst the polycentric nature of an essay collection means that there is not a straightforward over-arching argument to analyse here, the key thread that runs through the text as a whole – as the section headings suggest – is that of the nature of the relationship between language and experience. There are at least three different possible positions one might take to the question of the fundamental relationship between experience and language. Broadly speaking these are: (i) Language is imposed on or secondary to the ‘raw data’ of phenomenal experience, where these are two distinct kinds of thing. (ii) Phenomenal experience is in fact linguistic ‘all the way through’, and there is no such thing as pre-linguistic experience – this is a myth. (iii) There is some category of (something like) pre-linguistic experience but this aspect of our experience is nevertheless still structured in a way that is congruent with or isomorphic to linguistic structure.

If we were to caricature phenomenology, we might be inclined to say that it preaches the first of these positions. One might suppose that in the Husserlian exhortation to get ‘back to the things themselves’ the phenomenologist is seeking to analyse that which is prior to language itself. It soon becomes clear, however, that this is not necessarily the case, and indeed, not the tack that most phenomenologists take, despite the emphasis on lived experience as a methodological starting point. This is both because language survives the bracketing process as part of the content of our experience of the world, but also because it becomes clear that (in some way) language is a condition of the possibility of our experiencing the world in the way that we experience it.

Most phenomenologists want a more nuanced account of the relationship between language and phenomenology, but what is the nature of this relationship – or set of relationships? As Engelland makes foreground in his Introduction, we see in the work of classic and contemporary phenomenologists both that: ‘Experience takes the lead but it is an experience widened by speech. One can thereby identify a basic tension within the phenomenological treatment of language: on the one hand, phenomenology subordinates speech to experience. On the other hand, phenomenology identifies the reciprocity of speech and experience’ (3). Further, phenomenologists want to be ‘mindful of the linguisticality of experience’ (13). Engelland here roughly lays out the three emphases above, highlighting that the phenomenological tradition has included elements that imply (i), (ii) and (iii). These positions, when laid out beside each other, seem mutually incompatible. What then are we to make of these competing emphases? What are the arguments in favour of each? This collection seeks to help us think through this question, by together taking a long hard look at these tensions. Each of the essays in their own way make an attempt to ascertain a coherent understanding of where and how language sits in both the form and the content of our lived experience.

On the face of it, it seems as though different authors in the collection come to different conclusions with respect to the question of whether experience is linguistic ‘all the way through’ or not. Contributors such as Hatab make claims in favour of ‘the priority of language in world-disclosure’ (229), emphasising the way that human beings always already dwell in language – which looks like option (ii). Others such as Pradelle argue that the pre-predicative dimension of experience is more primitive than the linguistic dimension, yet there is a form of logos that structures this ‘lower order’ (58) of experience which bridges it to the linguistic – which looks like option (iii).

Another way of framing the key question here might be: Is logos simply the domain of language? And if not, how are we to understand pre- or extra-linguistic logos, or ‘logos in its nascent state’ (72)? Or again to re-frame, in the inverse: If there is some logical structure to our pre-verbal experience, is this because this pre-verbal content is in fact still in some way ‘linguistic’, so tracks the logos of language (as MacAvoy seems to argue with the claim that ‘perception already speaks’ (120))? Or is there a logic that is genuinely and distinctly pre-linguistic here (As Pradelle and Rump both seem to argue)?

These different suggested relationships cash out in a particular way in the second section of book, which focuses on the intersubjective contexts of both language and experience. These papers focus on communication between people, including both pre-verbal forms of communication and verbal dialogue. Mirroring the questions above, we might ask – when we talk about ‘pre-verbal’, ‘extra-verbal’ or ‘non-verbal’ communication (including, for example tone, gestures and body language) are we saying that there is a kind of ‘grammar’ built into these forms of communication that is quasi-linguistic? Or do these forms of interaction have their own logic which is distinct from language, only secondarily entering into some kind of relationship with the linguistic elements of an interaction? Again, we seem to get different answers to this question. Averchi argues that there is a distinct logical and structural difference between verbal and non-verbal forms of communication, which shows up in the difference between language’s capacity to communicate the absent and the abstract – this looks like option (i). Hatab argues that all communication is linguistic and denies the possibility of experience not already shaped by language, which looks like option (ii). A seemingly different position comes through in Culbertson’s article. She looks at the structural similarities between forms of play and spoken conversation, making a case for a structural similarity, congruence and interconnection of pre-verbal and verbal forms of dialogue in this way. A slightly different take but a similar conclusion comes from Pol Vandevelde, using Husserl, who highlights the difference between ‘semantic consciousness’ and ‘phonetic consciousness’ (199). Semantic consciousness is the ‘perceiving-as’ that we are most familiar with: when I hear someone speaking in English, I cannot hear this as ‘mere noise’ but I non-inferentially hear the meaning of the words and sentences. Phonetic consciousness however highlights a slightly different layer of meaning in my reception of speech. Even when I hear someone speaking in a foreign language that I don’t understand, I still grasp it as speech. This maps onto the development of speech in infants, where an infant can recognise speech patterns as speech, and join in proto-dialogue, before understanding the meaning of the words themselves. In Vygotsky’s words, there is ‘a prelinguistic phase in the development of thought and a preintellectual phase in the development of speech’ (195). Vandevelde’s endorsement of this here looks like option (iii).

This central question re-framed yet another way asks: Is language a broader category than we might ordinarily think it is (incorporating the seemingly non-verbal) or is logos a broader category than we might ordinarily think it is (incorporating the non-linguistic)? And – what is at stake in this difference, if anything? This is where the question of the philosophically substantive vs merely terminological comes into play. Does it make a difference if we think about this dimension of our experience as structured by pre-linguistic logos or by pre-verbal language? Are these two ways of saying the same thing? If not, what further might be needed to distinguish these two ways of thinking? This is a genuine question, but I don’t think that the collection as a whole can land us either way.

A slightly different take on this central question asks whether language is necessarily objectifying of our experience, with this question is addressed head on by Campbell. Again, the caricature of the phenomenologist in our minds might say that all language is theory-laden, and it brings a distorting or at least limited and limiting lens to the ‘given’ of experience. This perspective, which has a clear alignment with option (i) above, might argue that language is always re-presenting what is presented in experience. However, there is another suggestion, that language can also straightforwardly present our experience, and successfully communicate this experience to another. Here we have the thought that different types of speech do different kinds of things, in different ‘phenomenological registers’ (109) and perhaps disclose or conceal the world in different ways. Campbell looks at Heidegger’s analysis of the writings of St Paul as a case of ‘taking notice’. Gosetti-Ferencei’s account of the ‘phenomenological moments’ (150) in poetry also offers a picture of language which ‘presents’ rather than represents. ‘Taking notice’ is ‘a kind of pre-predicative and non-propositional language, that is, a language that is evocative, perhaps even stream of consciousness, narrative and exploratory instead of theoretical and objectifiying’ (96). This kind of language is to be distinguished from Heideggerian ‘idle talk’, which conceals the lived reality of our experience. We might read Campbell’s interpretation of Heidegger as akin to option (ii), particularly where he contrasts this with his interpretation of Husserl, which looks more like option (iii). He says: ‘Husserl…thought that predicative language could bring to light the inherent meaningfulness in pre-predicative experience. Heidegger on the other hand, explored a way of thinking about language that was itself pre-predicative’ (110). Whether Campbell’s interpretation of both Husserl and Heidegger is right here is its own question, but even if Campbell is right here, this is not necessarily a point that forces a further dialectic, as both positions could be true. These two articulations of how language might disclose the meaning of experience are not mutually exclusive. There is nothing in this analysis which can arbitrate between option (ii) or (iii) for us. Again, we might wonder how much is ultimately at stake between them, if anything.

Part of the difficulty in assessing where philosophical differences lie and where differences are merely terminological is connected to the fact that both ‘language’ and ‘experience’ ae themselves such wide and contested terms. Each have a cloud of (overlapping) concepts associated with them, and how one understands these associations makes all the difference for the conclusions one draws about the nature of other associations. How one understands the relationship between, for example, dialogue and language will shape how one understands the relationship between dialogue and experience and therefore between experience and language. What gets defined into the relata in question defines what is claimed about the nature and possibility of the relationship. For example, whilst Hatab makes the strong claim that ‘the disclosure of the world is gathered in language, not objects, perception, thought or consciousness’ (299), we find that he defines ‘language’ in such as way that includes ‘facial expressions, touch, physical interactions, gestures, sounds, rhythms, intonations, emotional cues, and a host of behavioral contexts’ (236). This to say, Hatab defines a host of non-verbal embodied interactions into what he means by language. With all manner of embodied meaning brought under the umbrella of language, the claim that language is the sole discloser of the world no longer looks like the narrow claim it initially did. And as above, once language is given a wide definition, it is less clear what is at stake, if anything, between a position like Hatab’s and a position like Pradelle’s. Perhaps Hatab’s non-verbal ‘language’ and Pradelle’s ‘pre-linguistic logos’ are the same thing, and there are ways of seeing option (ii) and option (iii) as the same thing viewed two different ways.

This point about definitional difference noted, a more fertile way of exploring further the possibility of extra-linguistic dimension of our experience might ask: how are we to understand the nature and structure of a pre-linguistic logos (or a pre-verbal language)? The suggestion from a number of authors is that this is given by the normativity that is built into perceptual experience itself. The structure of consciousness as intentionality, which means that seeing is seeing-as, hearing is hearing-as, and so on, gives us the logos embedded in perception. What are the conditions of possibility for consciousness so structured? As MacAvoy gestures towards in her essay, the structure of the world itself is relevant here, and further analysis of the networks of meaning embedded in the ‘interobjectivity’ of things might be part of this further exploration. There is also a possible theological direction in view here, as Kearney indicates – ‘there is no pure pristine logos, unless it is God’s’ (265). Indeed, further exploration of the pre-linguistic logos might take the famous opening lines of St John’s gospel as its starting cue: ‘In the beginning was the logos.Language and Phenomenology offers a springboard to further exploration of this logos baked into to fabric of reality and the logic of phenomenal consciousness, though the conversation is still unfolding.