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Orientation to Philosophical Logics and Rhetorics of Self-Reflexivity

Self-reflexivity is inherent in the structure of language itself. It is the condition by virtue of which language becomes a means of arresting phenomena and breaking down their uninterrupted flux into intelligible categories and articulable units. Return to the same or “re-flection”— literally “folding back”—is necessary in order to mark and identify anything as something. A determinate object can be grasped as defined and abiding only through some kind of repetition or reflective reiteration of its determinate content or identity.1 Language is a reflective medium that specularly projects qualities or characteristics as entities so as to grasp them in the stable and perduring—but also, for that very reason, relatively static—terms of codified discourse. A kind of ersatz eternity is produced by language through its powers of abstraction, which reflect phenomena out of temporal flux. By this means, language produces the world as more than just inarrestable flux, as Friedrich Nietzsche, for one, observed in his characteristically “untimely” reflections on the inherent and unlimited (though also veiled and neglected) metaphoricity of language.[1] What language produces is fully realized in a world or represented realm that projects the results of language as preceding it, even though this realm is first conceivable only in and by means of language.

If language, then, has created this illusion of stability represented ultimately in the idea of eternity, does that make the idea of eternity false and mendacious? Nominalists that we are today, we are tempted to think that what is real is a world of concrete empirical phenomena given before language. The implication is that the realm of essences that language projects out of its own internal relations or self-reflections is only virtual

Orientation to Philosophical Logics 21

and really—or existentially—nothing. But this is to forget that the action of language is already presupposed in individuating and differentiating the phenomena of the empirical world in the first place. Consequently, the world is nothing that is simply given or that we can have a hold on independently of language. We have been duped into assuming that we could look at the world in itself rather than always only through the lens of language. Philosophers as differently oriented as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, and Wilhelm von Humboldt all agree in maintaining that the world is itself given to us only in and through language. But this means that the world’s origins remain as mysterious as the origin of language itself. Furthermore, there is nothing that is simply, concretely, and determinately given apart from and outside of or anterior to language.

That language predetermines the real is a conviction shared by the main currents of phenomenological, hermeneutic, and post-structuralist thought pursued in continental philosophy today? Dante’s medieval understanding likewise sees everything that is through the lens of language. Theologically, all is created by the Word. From such a perspective emerges a sort of logic of language that is the same as, or at least homologous to, a logic that is to be found paradigmatically in theological thought about God—“theo-logics,” we might say, adopting a certain rhetoric of religion.[2] Across the spectrum of monotheisms, God is all and in all (to echo I Corinthians 15:28). Thelogically, nothing can be said or thought—or even be—outside of God. God is reflected internally to everything. This postulate echoes in the Paradiso's celebration of that truth “outside of which no truth ranges” (“’1 ver ... di fuor dal qual nessun vero si spazia,” IV. 124-26). Something of this same inescapability marks the nature of language, too. Whatever it says about the world outside itself is always also a reflection of its own saying. Such is the ubiquitousness of self-reflection—in language and divinity alike.

This self-reflexive logic inherent in language is not at all the logic of the logicians but rather a poetic logic such as Giambattista Vico discerns and elicits as characteristic of the tradition of the humanities (section 53). In language, all true knowing can only be of what human beings themselves have made. Vico calls this the verum-factum principle. He is relaying certain essential insights from ancient rhetorical tradition and its thinking in and through language. This tradition is reconstructed and revalorized philosophically by Ernesto Grassi. But it has typically been

ignored by modern philosophical thinking in the analytic and empiricist (and now cognitivist) modes intent on knowledge of things themselves free from all the accumulations of tradition handed down in words. Such a motivation drove the Cartesian project inaugurating modern rationalist philosophy under the aegis of a refoundation of knowledge based on the pure, conscious intuition of self—a knowledge supposedly disabused of all the prejudices of tradition passed down by verbal means. All such discursive knowledge was suspended and placed under a veil of methodological doubt. It was held in abeyance, pending verification by direct first-person, self-reflexive experience. What the Cartesian cogito did, especially as applied by secular-minded Cartesians, was to appropriate the structure of self-reflection for the subject itself and erase all others to which or whom the self might be beholden. Self-reflection was recognized as the ultimate ground of the real, but it had become fundamentally an act of the human subject rather than of the divine Mind.[3]

Recent decades have seen a number of revivals of rhetorical approaches to thinking and arguing, approaches that give precedence to the word and that surrender pretensions to any pre-verbal access to the knowledge of things. The “new rhetoric” of French literary critics and linguistic thinkers—la nouvelle rhétorique—was a seminal influence at the forefront of this movement. Following closely on its heels, Anglo-Saxon critical theory produced the “rhetoric of inquiry” in the so-called Iowa school, as well as the related researches of Wayne Booth. All are instances of a widespread turn back to rhetoric as a primary rather than only a derivative form of knowing. In all these cases, rhetoric—which

Orientation to Philosophical Logics 23 highlights and exploits the self-reflexivity of language—is considered not just as ornamental, but as essential, to the structure and substance of thinking and argument.” This has been demonstrated in detail especially with respect to metaphor.[4] Rhetoric turns out to be indispensable to disclosing meaning and even to revealing truth.

In historical perspective, these movements can be considered as a latter-day renaissance of the rhetorically based humanism of the Renaissance, of which Dante is a premier representative. Dante is placed into this background of linguistic humanism (Sprachhumanismus) and is even made to stand out as an origin for it by Karl-Otto Apel. Against this backdrop, Dante’s thought shows up as seminal for the whole development of critical theory down to the present day with, notably, Jiirgen Habermas. Apel’s book (The Idea of Language in the Tradition of Humanism from Dante to Vico) is a reminder of all that this crucial tradition of modern and contemporary thought owes to ideas that find one of their most original expressions in Dante. Ernesto Grassi’s work in reconstructing this tradition and its relevance for modern philosophy and contemporary religious thought similarly sets Dante’s groundbreaking role into relief.

As is most evident in a long historical perspective, these movements run curiously parallel to theological traditions of thinking self-reflexively in and through the word. One such line can be traced from the Kabbalah through religiously philosophical thinkers like Franz Rosenzweig, with his “new thinking,” which he characterized as a “speaking thinking” (“das sprechende Denken”), as opposed to the “thinking thinking” (“das denkende Denken”) typical of modern philosophy. Although he was not usually sympathetic with the Kabbalah, Emmanuel Levinas extended a line of thinking that takes language, or more exactly Saying (le Dire),

as a primary manner of relating to reality.[5] He shares this fundamental insight into the linguistic constitution of the real with phenomenological philosophers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty and with critical thinkers like Walter Benjamin. This linguistic grounding of the real forms the most basic and general background for the specific speculative elaboration of self-reflection that the present work purposes to lay out in certain of its revolutionary, modern emergences starting from Dante—and also from Duns. The self-reflective thinking of the divine Word with Duns Scotus furnishes the enabling charter for the new metaphysics that engenders modern science. The same radical embrace of reflexivity leads to Dante’s new thinking of revelation in poetic language.

Throughout Book III of his Convivio, and most pointedly in Book IV, Chapter ii, Dante theorizes philosophy as essentially a form of contemplative self-reflection: “The philosophizing soul ... contemplates its contemplation of itself and the beauty of that act, turning itself back on itself and falling in love with itself on account of the beauty of that first gazing” (“1’anima filosofante ... contempla lo suo contemplate medesimo e la bellezza di quello, rivolgendosi sovra se stessa e di se stessa innamorando per la bellezza del suo primo guardare,” IV.ii.l8). Dante’s poetry in the Paradiso embodies this classic notion of self-reflection and turns it in the direction of the revolution of modern consciousness in ways anticipating our most innovative thinking in both philosophy and rhetoric today.

  • [1] Catherine Pickstock, Repetition and Identity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), in a kindred project, develops an original reflection on “non-identical repetition” in intense critical dialogue with contemporary French philosophy (Derrida, Deleuze, Badiou, Meillassoux et al.), but also amply nourished by medieval metaphysics. 2 Friedrich Nietzsche, “Über Wahrheit und Lüge im außermoralischen Sinne,” Werke, ed. G. Colli (Berlin: De Gruyter 1980), 367-84, trans, as “On Truth and Lie in an ExtraMoral Sense,” Truth_and_Lie_in_an_Extra-Moral_Sense.htm. Accessed July 28, 2020.
  • [2] A lucid digest of such epoch-making ideas in language philosophy is Erich Heintel, Einführung in die Sprachphilosophie (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1991 [1972]). 2 The parallels between “logology” and theology are explored by Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970 [1961]). 3 Ernesto Grassi, Rhetoric as Philosophy: The Humanist Tradition (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980).
  • [3] The dependence of Descartes himself on medieval models and his transposition of Scholastic theology into the new frame of a modern phenomenological subject-based philosophy was made manifest by Etienne Gilson, La liberté chez Descartes et la théologie (Paris: Vrin, 1982 [1913]). Jean-Luc Marion builds on this foundation in numerous books on Descartes, particularly Sur la théologie blanche de Descartes (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1981) and Sur le prisme métaphysique de Descartes (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1986). These works, among others, help bring to light modernity’s submerged theological presuppositions. 2 Key essays include Gérard Genette, “La rhétorique des figures,” Introduction to Pierre Fontanier, Les Figures du discours (Paris: Flammarion, 1968), 5-17; Roland Barthes, “L’ancienne rhétorique—Aide mémoire,” Communications 16 (1970): 172-229; Tzvetan Todorov, Littérature et signification (Paris: Larousse, 1967). 3 Brian Vickers, Defense of Rhetoric (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988) and Brian Vickers, ed., Rhetoric Revalued (Binghampton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1982); see, further, Herbert W. Simons, ed., The Rhetorical Turn: Invention and Persuasion in the Conduct of Rhetoric (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990). 4 Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983) and The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989). 5 The historical significance of this rhetorical turn is sifted by James L. Kastley, Rethinking the Rhetorical Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997); it is applied to modal logics by Nancy S. Struever, Rhetoric, Modality, Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
  • [4] Many different approaches through discourse theory and deconstruction, metanar-ratology and metafiction, systems analysis and sociology are surveyed in the introduction to Florian Lippert and Marcel Schmid, eds., Self-Reflection in Literature (Leiden: Brill/Rodopi, 2020), 1-19. 2 Recognition of metaphor as the basis and substance of thought extends even to the cognitive sciences with George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). A connection with Vico is made by Marcel Danesi, Lingua, metafora, concetto. Vico e la lingüistica cognitiva (Bari: Edizioni dal Sud, 2001); in English, see Danesi, Vico, Metaphor, and the Origin of Language (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993). 3 Karl-Otto Apel, Die Idee der Sprache in der Tradition des Humanismus von Dante bis Vico (Bonn: Bouvier, 1963). 4 Eduardo Mendieta, The Adventures of Transcendental Philosophy: Karl-Otto Apel’s Semiotics and Discourse Ethics (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), 37-72, traces this genealogy. 5 A condensed epitome is Grassi’s “The Claim of the Word and the Religious Significance of Poetry: A Humanistic Problem,” Dionysius 8 (1984): 131-55. 6 Franz Rosenzweig, “Das Neue Denken. Einige nachträgliche Bemerkungen zum ‘Stern der Erlösung,’” in Gesammelte Schriften III (Dordrecht: Nijhoff, 1984), translated in Franz Rosenzweig’s “The Netv Thinking,” ed. Alan Udoff and Barbara E. Galli (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998).
  • [5] Emmanuel Levinas, Autrement qu’être ou au-delà de ¡’essence (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1974), trans. Alphonso Lingis as Otherwise than Being and Beyond Essence (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1991). 2 An approach to constructing a tradition of thinking through the word that bridges from Kabbalistic theological sources to modern philosophy is proposed by Elliot R. Wolfson in Language, Eros, Being: Kabbalistic Hermeneutics and Poetic Imagination (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005).
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