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Self-Reflexivity as an Eminent Way of Theological Transcendence

By a sort of structural necessity, language is always about itself, whatever else it may allude to or reference. Language achieves intelligibility only by virtue of a certain return to itself. Its elements must be discernible as differentiated from other sounds or sensations in the environing acoustic or graphic continuum. In its return upon itself language is thrown into relief in its being as language.

This inescapable self-reflexivity of language is grounded in (and perhaps grounds) the structure of Being itself. This means that it is grounded, furthermore, in the prime instance of being, namely, divinity, God— insofar as such “things” can be thought or conceived at all. Historically, these purportedly ineluctable principles or “truths” concerning both language and ontology, at least as they have been conceived in Western culture from Aristotle to Emile Benveniste, are embedded and reflected in theological doctrines. Particularly the doctrine of the Trinity, which is constituted by relations of self-reflection, and the conception of God as the Word (Logos) which was in the beginning with God and which was God (Gospel of John 1:1), illuminate the nature of language in its self-reflective, creative capacity of self-engenderment and worldly incarnation.

Philosophically, these doctrines are given perhaps their fullest, most systematic exposition by G. W. F. Hegel. Hegel’s Science of Logic (Wissenschaft der Logik, 1812-16) is a matchlessly penetrating treatise on self-reflection (“Selbstreflexion”) as the underlying metaphysical principle of all Being in its dynamic unfolding in history. But long before this explicit, systematic theorization, Dante poetically intuits self-reflexivity in language as the engine driving history and rendering thought intelligible. Linguistically realized self-reflexivity is the principle that holds together the exposition of reality throughout the universe—insofar as the real can be reflected in and by language at all. Dante, moreover, is sensitive to the specifically linguistic aspects of self-reflection that Hegel sometimes seems to cover over in his overriding concern for scientificity and for conceptual thinking as absolute and therefore, presumably, independent of its encultured linguistic medium.[1]

Dante’s persistently autobiographical reflection already saturates his first book, the Vita nuova, and it only becomes more pervasive and comprehensive all the way through to the end of his oeuvre. His relentless self-profiling is the most macroscopic mark of his revolutionary significance in inaugurating a new era of self-reflection. A self-conscious, self-reflective individual stands forth compellingly in Dante’s work as never before. This gained him recognition as the first modern European by the likes of Jakob Burkhardt in his landmark history of the Italian Renaissance. We can see this reflective self-consciousness developing in

Dante’s early works, and we will take stock of them along the way. But to go straight to the heart of the matter, we begin in Part I with some detailed analysis of the Paradiso.

  • [1] Much has been done recently by scholars such as Pierre-Jean Labarriere, Pierre Macharay, and others to nuance this commonplace by underlining the key role of language in Hegel’s conceptual thinking. Bruno Liebrucks’s Sprache und Bewußtsein (Frankfurt am Main: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft, 1964-79) translates Hegel’s philosophy of the Absolute into terms conversant with contemporary language philosophy. The topic is focused by Jim Vernon, Hegel's Philosophy of Language (London: Continuum, 2007) and is variously analyzed in Jere O’Neill Surber, ed., Hegel and Language (New York: SUNY Press, 2006). 2 Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Italian Renaissance, trans. S. G. C. Middlemore, 2 vols. (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1958), 1.151. Originally Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien: Ein Versuch (Basel: Schweighauser, 1860). More recently, Marco
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