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Language as Speculative Mirroring of the Whole of Being in the Word—Gadamer

Dante’s use of mirrors to represent Paradise is founded on a speculative metaphysics that was honed to a fine art in the Middle Ages and has not ceased to fascinate thinkers down to Hegel and Gadamer. Dante presents God specularly, through an indispensable imagery of mirroring, yet this approach to God becomes fully intelligible, not only by the light of images, but also through the speculative character of language. God cannot properly be represented in an image, nor be understood in language, but language’s speculative structure can reflect the whole of beings. By expressing this totality, language approaches the envisioning of Being itself—esse ipsum—for many Scholastics the preeminent name for God, insofar as God is capable of being linguistically expressed at all.

Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics stresses how whatever can be understood to be anything is necessarily within language, indeed is language. According to Gadamer’s motto, “Being which can be understood is language” (“Sein das verstanden werden kann ist Sprache”).1 This makes language into a self-enclosed world, and yet precisely this structure is what enables openness to the Other, the encounter with God, and a premonition of—if not a passage to—the outside of language.

Mirroring in language enables total mediation of the inward by the outward because it totalizes the inward, which does not appear at all as such, in an image of the outward.[1] This type of specular relation enables the infinite to be represented in a finite word. By reflecting on its own finiteness, an interpretive act in language can reflect itself as a delimitation of an infinite unsaid. Saying relates through its own determinate being, its situatedness, to an infinite unsaidness. Language, because of its specularity, can express more than what it says; it can “hold what is said together with an infinity of what is not said in one unified meaning” (Truth and Method, 469). This enables interpretation to “see through the

Language as Speculative Mirroring 273 dogmatism of a ‘meaning-in-itself’” (473). Every meaning depends on a larger context.

Thinking speculatively means not taking objects of thought as just positively given, but rather reflecting on the way in which they present themselves as they do for the thinker. The whole of what is thinkable can be placed under this condition. As Hegel argues in the Introduction to the Phenomenology, even the so-called thing-in-itself is in-itself for consciousness, since it is consciousness or thinking which thinks this very distinction. This negation of the purely objective mediates the relation of thought to all that it can think about and enables the thinkable to be thought as a whole. Hegel and hermeneutics are heirs of Vico in precisely this respect. The in-itself per se is infinite and impossible to apprehend, but when it is brought under the concept of being thought by consciousness as in-itself, it has a certain determinateness that first makes it graspable in a concrete sense even in its infinity. Only through the determinateness of the finite can the infinite be determinately conceived.

Similarly, in the speculative proposition, the subject term is not posited in itself in its own discrete meaning in order then to be joined with an independently definable predicate. Instead, the true subject comes out only through the predicate, and vice versa. This is “the dialectical movement of the proposition itself” (“die dialektische Bewegung des Satzes selbst”), what Hegel calls “the really speculative” (“das wirklich Spekulative”). This achieves what Gadamer in turn calls the “dialectical self-destruction of the proposition” (Truth and Method, 467). The dialectical movement of the proposition expresses the speculative relation—the mirror-like relation—that is language’s speculative presentation of the thing itself. To say that language is speculative means that it and its object are aboriginally for one another: they are not posited as existing independently. One is always within the relation and inter-determination of language and things whenever one tries to talk about either language or things. Given this predicament, it is not possible to talk objectively, but only speculatively, about whatever (like God) is not finite.

Taking the speculative dialectic of thought and the concept developed by Hegel into the realm of language, Gadamer speaks of a speculative dimension belonging to language as such, according to which “the finite possibilities of the word are oriented toward the sense intended as toward the infinite” (469). What an utterance specularly mirrors is not just itself but the whole of language and indeed the whole of being that is presented in language. Accordingly, “Someone who speaks is behaving speculatively when his words do not reflect beings, but express a relation to the whole of being” (469). This possibility is based on a logic of self-negation that lies at the very root of linguistic significance. It has been worked out


G. W. F. Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes, in Werke, vol. 3 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1979), 61.

contra Gadamer in terms of the thought of difference by Derrida. It was thought through previously by Hegel in his doctrine of the speculative concept or proposition. And yet, “What he [Hegel] calls dialectic and what Plato called dialectic depends, in fact, on subordinating language to the ‘statement’ ” (Truth and Method, 468). This is why the linguistic turn in philosophy, especially with Heidegger, points us back to a moment before modern positivisms and in the direction of Dante’s inextricably linguistic understanding of everything, his “pansemiosis.”

The Paradiso’s speculative reflecting of the whole of being is effected by poetic language, particularly by dint of metaphor, and thus self-reflection in this sense also turns toward the Other, toward references other than those literally signified. Language works to effect a totality: it makes possible the totality that Dante realizes in the aesthetic system of his Commedia. Language is the image of God in which all that is unpacked and laid out through the universe is contained, as if bound by love in a single volume (“legato con amore in un volume,” XXXIII.85-87).

Hegel’s philosophy is a culmination of self-reflexive thinking based on Christian revelation. The divine is fully and finally revealed in Jesus Christ—in divinity reflected in human being taken to its perfection. This divine-human self-recognition is the goal of spirit (Geist) throughout its evolution. However, since Hegel’s time, we have come to expect and prize something else more than this completed closure of self-reflection.

Kierkegaard, in the wake of Hegel, called passionately for recognition of something irreducibly Other that remains indefinable in our experience of the Absolute. And he has been followed in this insistence by a numerous progeny of postmodern heirs. Yet just such recognition was already unmistakably built into Dante’s way of thinking and existing as oriented to a transcendent God.

Mirror images totalize worlds and thereby symbolize eternity. The mirror reflection in visual arts since the Renaissance has been a mechanism for rupturing the frame and opening represented space up to what it does not encompass[2]—to the outside in relation to which whatever is represented exists. Emblematic here is Diego Velazquez’s painting Las Meninas (1656), with its depiction of the painter painting and its inset mirror reflecting what stands outside and surrounds the painting, including the Spanish sovereigns. By means of such self-reflection, the givens of the senses are made into a whole. Dante, like Augustine before him and like Hegel after, is not yet willing to settle for truth that is less than the whole.

Language as Speculative Mirroring 275

In the seventh heaven, Beatrice tells Dante to use his eyes as mirrors (“specchi”) for seeing into the heavenly sphere as itself a mirror (XXI.16-17). In the Empyrean, Dante “makes mirrors of his eyes” in order to see not himself but the blessed in their eternity (XXX.85). To do so, he drinks with his eyelids of the river of light, which metamorphoses from straight to round as his perspective switches from temporal to eternal (88-90). What Dante’s eyes mirror is finally not himself, nor even his own temporal world, but his source in a wholly other, an eternal world. Already in the Earthly Paradise, Dante saw not himself but the gryphon representing Christ’s two natures mirrored in Beatrice’s eyes (Purgatorio XXXI.106-26). Cusanus, in his sublimely mystical treatise De visione Dei, formulates this essential insight philosophically: “in the mirror of eternity we see not our own image, but the truth of which our seeing is itself an image” (“quod videt in illo aeternitatis speculo, non est figura, sed veritas, cuius ipse videns est figura,” 15.63).

  • [1] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1960), 478, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall as Truth and Method, 2nd rev. ed. (London and New York: Continuum, 2004). 2 Cf. Hegel, Enzyclopedie (1830), sec. 140: “that which is only inner can only be outer” (“das, was nur innerlich ist, nur äußerlich sein kann”).
  • [2] Marta Ruiz del Árbol, Reflejos: De Van Eyck a Magritte (Museo Thyssen, Bornemisza: Miradas cruzadas 6, 2013). 2 Edward Booth, O. P., St. Augustine and the Western Tradition of Self-Knowing (Villanova: Villanova University Press, 1989)—or in a condensed version “Hegel’s Conception of Self-Knowledge Seen in Conjunction with Augustine’s,” Augustiniana 30 (1980): 221-50.
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