- All about Über
"About" (prep.): "on the subject of, concerning, with regard to." Lying at the point where intention, content, and reference should merge, this ubiquitous preposition and the relationships it facilitates have long been a concern of philosophers. Logicians and semanticists have grappled with the problem of what it means to say that an individual sentence is about something and whether this is different from maintaining that an entire paragraph, chapter, or book is about something.1 For scholars who work on the philosophy of mind, the challenge has been to explain how, as John Searle formulates it, "this stuff inside my head [can] be about anything," a question that has implications for a range of metaphysical and epistemological issues (16).2 In these discussions, "aboutness" has often served as a synonym for the "directedness" or "intentionality" characteristic of mental states that is said to distinguish them from physical phenomena, a position made famous by Franz Brentano and further explored by Edmund Husserl.
Brentano resurrected the term "intentionality" from scholastic philosophy, whose grammarians were concerned to distinguish between what is being talked about and what is being said about what is being talked about. Central to such reflections is a passage from De Interpretatione in which Aristotle describes the archetypal speech act as "a statement of one thing about another thing [legein ti kata tinos]" (17a25).3 Heralded as the moment at which the propositional form [End Page 1153] becomes hegemonic in the philosophy of language, Aristotle's argument presents the capacity to facilitate relations of aboutness as a—if not the—defining quality of verbal praxis.
At first glance, the reach of aboutness may appear to be restricted to what J. L. Austin termed constative utterances. It is questionable, however, whether any linguistic intervention, be it a statement, bet, or promise, takes place without the expression of some minimal token of relevance or topicality that confirms that whatever is being said or written is somehow apropos. A pronouncement, outburst, or interjection gains illocutionary or perlocutionary force only insofar as it seems to deal with, touch on, or be concerned with something, and this is the case even when the dynamic is self-referential and the mere fact of the utterance's own articulation is what is at issue, whether as a mechanical recitation or nonsensical babble.
The defining feature of the Aristotelian proposition, the fact that it says something about something, is no guarantee that what is imparted will be definitive or exhaustive. Etymologically derived from an Old English word that meant "nearby," "around," or "on the outside of," the preposition "about" is haunted by the adverbial "about," which introduces a degree of approximation ("we're about to get there;" "she's about six feet tall"). Uncertainty about just how precise an "about" relationship can be arises in part because in suggesting that it is at the level of the predicative utterance that language says something about something, Aristotle implicitly distinguishes the clausal form from the representational and referential capacities of individual words. "About" thus serves as a constant reminder of the ways in which grammatical, logical, and rhetorical dynamics inexorably overshadow the authority of lexical elements, especially nouns. If "about" condemns us to an irreducible degree of inexactness, it is because it marks the limit of an understanding of language as a stable set of signifiers existing in perfect one-to-one relationships with discrete semantic contents.
Depending on the context, there are a number of German prepositions that can be translated into English as "about," the most obvious of which is über. Usually characterized as a near cognate of the Latin super and the Ancient Greek hyper, it has numerous senses and, in addition to "about," can mean "above," "across," "at," "by," "of," "on," "over," or "via." A text in which having some control over these competing senses of the word proves to be of considerable importance is Ernst Jünger's 1949 Über die Linie (Across the Line), which was written for a volume of essays in honor of Martin Heidegger's sixtieth birthday. The piece got the attention of its dedicatee, who in an elegantly [End Page 1154] symmetrical gesture penned a...