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Philosophy and Literature 25.1 (2001) 113-126
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Gadamer on Poetic and Everyday Language
Gadamer's writings since the appearance of his ground-breaking Truth and Method 1 elaborate and defend the diverse claims of his much-contested philosophical hermeneutics. This is taken further in many recently translated essays where we witness the application of basic hermeneutical insights to areas as various as pedagogical theory and modern medical practice. These investigations are important, as they testify to the universality of hermeneutics. Yet more significant in Gadamer's recent work is a pronounced turn towards "the poetic." Despite large claims in Truth and Method about the irreducibility of the linguistic, there is precious little on the poetic in this work, apart from a few asides about the relationship between poetry and the everyday language of conversation. The distinction between poetic language and everyday language of the "life world" makes a token appearance in Truth and Method (TM, pp. 469-70) and increases in significance in more recent works, especially those occasional essays devoted to aesthetics, poetics, and hermeneutically inspired readings of modern German lyric poets. 2
A good deal turns on the distinction between "everyday" or "ordinary" language and "poetic" language. Gadamer's increasing appreciation of the poetic leads him into interpretations of contemporary poetry, notably the hermetic lyric of Paul Celan. 3 The different dimensions to language are brought into relief when considered in relation to the notion of play. Like the poetic, "play" and "playfulness" are cursorily mentioned in the First Part of Truth and Method as repressed aspects of the truth of the work of art. When hermeneutically reclaimed, they stand as a buttress against subjectivist, modernist versions of the aesthetic. Yet Gadamer fails to fully thematize "play," as it disappears [End Page 113] from view in Parts Two and Three of Truth and Method, losing itself in the interpretive turn towards those other facets of hermeneutic truthfulness, historicality and language. In the later essays, specifically those reflecting upon the poetic and the aesthetic, "play" becomes wider and assumes a much greater significance. Play, and this is most evident in the language of poetry, reveals itself to be a fundamental characteristic of language itself.
Notions of "play" and "language-games" are more obviously associated with the later work of Wittgenstein. Many critics have observed, en passant, an obvious proximity between Wittgenstein and Gadamer, although their closeness has been noted rather than explored 4 . Converging around the issue of everyday language, Gadamer and Wittgenstein radically disagree vis-à-vis "poetic language." For all his appreciation of language's specificity and consequent resistance to theory, its endless slipperiness and variety, Wittgenstein, early or late, seldom confronts language at its most opaque and elusive, that is, in the poetic.
What does this Wittgensteinian silence about "poetic language" reveal? The movement away from a logic-driven picture theory of meaning (in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) to the more informal, loosely textured, pragmatics of language (in the Philosophical Investigations), represents hostility to philosophical abstraction and an appreciation of the "rough ground" of ordinary, philologically speaking, "living,"language. What should we say of the literary and poetic dimensions to language, themselves significant dimensions to "living" language? The ability of the language-games to change, the capacity of language to transform itself and work in new uncharted regions--about these Wittgenstein is largely silent.
Gadamer's concern with the poetic shows how many of these questions might be addressed from within another philosophical tradition. Were Wittgenstein less inscrutable, it would be tempting to regard the ordinary/poetic distinction, and its dependence upon the notion of "play," as a clear advance on the familiar language-game model. This is a temptation I partially resist. Wittgenstein's enigmatic comments, in the closing pages of the Philosophical Investigations, on "aspect-dawning," "seeing-as," gestures, and pictures, not to mention his compressed and aphoristic "poetic" style, force one to draw back from such an easy conclusion. [End Page 114]
In "Philosophy and Poetry" (OTROTB, pp. 131-39) the different aspects of language are likened to types of currency in...