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From Philosophical Idealism to Linguistic Ontology

Dante carries out his radically existential revelation even while remaining faithful to a certain idealism of the mind. In the Vita nuova, he designates Beatrice as “the glorious lady of my mind” (“la gloriosa donna della mia mente,” II.l), and in the Paradiso the “mind in love” (“la mente innamorata”) lingers longingly (“donnea”) on her, seeking her with its eyes:

La mente inamorata, che donnea

con la mia donna sempre, di ridure

ad essa gli occhi piu che mai ardea ....

  • (XXVII.88-89)
  • (The mind in love which lingers longingly on my lady always, more than ever burned to turn eyes on her) ....

Although this philosophical idealism is strongest in Dante’s treatises, notably the Convivio,' we see here that it remains an aspect of his thinking through to his journey’s height.

Dante’s “minor” works foreshadow a conception of philosophy that anticipates the entire trajectory of modern thought with its totalizing metaphysical drives and directives that culminate in Hegel. However, the crucial difference is that, for Dante, the closure that counts is not achieved within a philosophical system and in a determinate language, but only in a poetic reaching out toward the ineffable “beyond” of language. Everything depends on whether the whole that is mirrored in language is itself a complete statement formulated in language or rather opens to embrace what is beyond language and leaves language gaping open to what it cannot comprehend—to a whole to which language and thought belong, but which they cannot encompass and control.[1] Rather

Philosophical Idealism—Linguistic Ontology 277 than identifying revelation with an articulated truth, Dante concludes, in the final sentence of the Convivio, that the perfection of wisdom of which Lady Philosophy is the friend dwells in the deepest secret of the divine Mind (“nel secretissimo della divina mente”). He thereby turns philosophical idealism into an open, existential relation to the Infinite and so anticipates the Paradiso's obsessive turning toward the ineffable.

Admittedly, Dante’s theoretical pronouncements on language do not consistently support as radical a view of language as comes to be embodied in his poetry, especially as we are able to understand it in light of posterior developments centuries later. Dante writes, for example, in De vulgari eloquentia I.ii.3, that speech is “nothing but the communication of our thought to others” (“nichil aliud quam nostre mentis enucleare aliis conceptum”), and this, too, is evidently in some sense true. However, it is rather in the linguistic and poetic theory actually realized in his poetry that Dante unveils his profoundest understanding of language and its implications for his theological vision, no less than for his artistic experimentation.

Dante’s poetry itself actually performs an act of thought that is fathomless in its insights and implications. Here I have interpreted these implications with frequent reference to more recent thought about language. I concede that I am not exactly reconstructing Dante’s own understanding of what he was doing. Instead, I am bringing out the full significance of the creative use of language in Dante’s poetry as it may be appreciated retrospectively with the theoretical lenses and resources available to us today. The premise for such a reading is a conviction that the Paradiso is an attempt to experience the essence of language as the essence of being—and even of the Supreme Being. To write, and by consequence to read, the Paradiso in this way is to “undergo an experience with language” (“mit der Sprache eine Erfahrung machen”), in Heidegger’s idiom from On the Way to Language.3 For both Dante and Heidegger, the question of language is the question of being: it entails the question of all beings in their originary ground and togetherness, their proleptic mutual relatedness in making up a world or cosmos. Language opens an ontological dimension through aesthetic and other types of experience by a subject.4

“Hegel and the Negation of the Apophatic,” Contemporary Debates in Philosophy and Negative Theology: Sounding the Unsayable, ed. Nahum Brown and J. Aaron Simmons (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), focusing on Hegel’s early poem “Eleusis” as seminal to his whole oeuvre. Nahum Brown’s contribution to this volume likewise proposes an apophatic re-reading of Hegel.

  • 3 Martin Heidegger, Untertvegs zur Sprache (Pfullingen: Neske, 1959), 159.
  • 4 Warren Ginsberg, Dante’s Aesthetics of Being (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999); John Took, Dante’s Phenomenology of Being (Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press, 2000).

  • [1] John Took, Dante: Lyric Poet and Philosopher (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 98-105. 2 It is possible to turn the interpretation of Hegel around dialectically and read him, too, as ambiguously orienting philosophy to this gaping void. Andrew W. Hass does this in
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