Review: The Truth (and Untruth) of Language: Heidegger, Ricoeur and Derrida on Disclosure and Displacement

Gert-Jan van der Heiden, The Truth (and Untruth) of Language: Heidegger, Ricoeur and Derrida on Disclosure and Displacement, Duquesne University Press, 2010, 296pp, $25.00 (pbk), ISBN 9780820704340.

Reviewed by Karl Simms, University of Liverpool

Van der Heiden's project is deceptively modest: to understand how Heidegger, Ricoeur and Derrida address poetic language and truth through the twin concepts of disclosure and displacement. This, of course, already presupposes much: that truth is to be found in poetic language rather than any other sort (scientific, propositional, etc.), and that the concepts of disclosure and displacement are central to discerning a certain commonality of purpose between these three thinkers.

Van der Heiden's book is organised into four principal chapters: 'Heidegger on Disclosure and Language', 'The Transference of Writing', 'Inventions of Metaphor', and 'Mimesis in Myth and Translation'. In the first, he reminds us that for Heidegger, Being arrives to Dasein in a state of unconcealedness (alētheia), but that metaphysics from Plato on has veiled the way whereby Being brings its unconcealedness with it. In Sein und Zeit, the 'fundamental phenomenon of truth' is 'the disclosedness of Dasein' (p. 46), and on this rests a conception of language that is 'apophantic', which is to say, it reveals beings (to themselves), rather than representing the world. This apophantic, or showing, character of language is dependent on Dasein's disclosedness. In his later work, Heidegger turns towards the essence of language and in so doing sees language as the origin of disclosure itself, rather than being derivative of it. Along the way, Heidegger rejects the project (associated with Frege and the analytic tradition) of producing an unambiguous computable metalanguage: such a metalanguage by definition cannot find truth as disclosure within the heart of language itself, as a lived experience. By the same token Heidegger also rejects everyday speaking which, through its forgetting of the originarily authentic in its adoption of cliché and idle talk, does not bring language to language itself. This bringing of language to language can only be achieved, according to Heidegger, through poetic language, leading him to readings of Stefan George and Hölderlin as exemplars of poets who unconceal the essence of language to beings. Heidegger thus privileges Ereignis, the event whereby the appropriate word is said in poetry as an unconcealment of truth and reality. The essence of language is this poetic Sage, saying.

This leads Heidegger to a dismissal of writing as a displacement of this Sage, a displacement which conceals the essence of language. Thus disclosure and displacement are the two opposing poles which delimit the field of Heidegger's enquiry into language: disclosure as the unconcealment of language's essence and displacement as its concealment. It is at this point that van der Heiden sees Ricoeur and Derrida as engaging with Heidegger, both in accepting his premises regarding the alētheic nature of language, and in rejecting the opposition he establishes between writing and authentic saying. Ricoeur, we recall, appropriates and radicalises Gadamer's notion of distanciation. For Ricoeur, writing entails a fourfold distanciation. Firstly, it partakes of the distanciation common to any form of discourse, that between event and signification. What a piece of discourse means can always in principle be distanced from the event of its being articulated: I can have a conversation on a certain topic one day and tell a third party about it on another day. The second form of distanciation is peculiar to writing, in that a written text may be distanced from its explicit addressee, if it has one: 'the text addresses everyone who can read' (p.79). Thirdly, writing distances from the world, insofar as in hearing speech I understand meaning directly, whereas writing draws attention to its structure, form, genre and so on. What is significant about this for Ricoeur is that through this suspension of the world, written text is able to present an imaginary or fictive world: fiction refigures and redescribes the world we inhabit (it is not clear from Ricoeur's account, or from van der Heiden's summary of it, why the stories produced by oral cultures do not enjoy the same privilege). And fourthly, writing distances self from self, as when we 'lose ourselves' in a book. Contrary to Gadamer, who held that we impose our Vor-urteile (pre-judgements or prejudices) on texts, for Ricoeur we expose ourselves to texts. Texts increase the interpreter's understanding of the world while exposing his or her illusions.

More here.