7. On Dialogue
To Its Cultured Despisers
DONALD G. MARSHALL
The terms “conversation” and “dialogue” lie at the heart of Hans-Georg Gadamer's description of understanding. In a phrase that draws together many lines of his thought, he speaks of “the conversation that we ourselves are” (TM378). Although “understanding a text and reaching an understanding in a conversation” appear to be very different (TM378), Gadamer's analysis enables the insight that describing “the task of hermeneutics as entering into dialogue with the text” is “more than a metaphor” (TM368). To understand something is to reach an understanding with another about it, and that can only be achieved through a conversation that sustains the interplay of question and answer.
Much can be said—and has been said, by Gadamer and others—to explain, support, and elaborate these claims. It is true, I think, that some who read the preceding paragraph may form the impression that they already understand it. Within a contemporary American context, the terms “conversation” and “dialogue” seem immediately familiar. We have seen any number of public meetings, large and small, advertised as “conversations” or “dialogues.” The former director of the National Endowment for the Humanities presented as his main goal setting up a program of conversations across the country about what America means. Religious leaders tirelessly call for dialogue both within and between religious bodies. The president proposed a national “dialogue on race” and participated in small-group discussions that were nationally televised. Nor are the terms uncommon in the narrower area of understanding texts. Robert Maynard Hutchins's introductory volume to the set of Great Books of the Western Worldbore the title The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education, and the philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote a famous pamphlet called “Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind.”
This ceaseless drumming predisposes many to think of dialogue and conversation as self-evidently good without much reflection on why they are or even on what they are. Such people will feel little temptation to read a difficult 6oo-page book that demonstrates what they already know—or think they know. Even if they read it, they may well substitute their own preconceptions for Gadamer's specific ideas. They may be more dangerous to a just appreciation of Gadamer than are his critics. It is difficult to correct the misunderstanding of someone who feels certain that he agrees with you.
In the spirit of hermeneutic philosophy, however, my concern here will be with the critics of dialogue, for Gadamer argues that only by confronting objections to one's ideas, and indeed only by strengthening as far as possible the arguments against oneself, can one attain genuine insight. I divide criticisms of dialogue into two groups. The first responds to the ubiquity of calls for dialogue in contemporary life that I have sketched. Dialogue's status as a dominant but unexamined value irresistibly provokes critical examination from those who are suspicious of all received ideas, particularly those whose invocation lays automatic claim to good faith. Criticisms of dialogue as a currently conventional value may be legitimate, but there is still room to ask whether suspicion of an ideological use—or abuse—of dialogue may lead to objections to Gadamer's thought that miss the mark. The second line of criticism challenges in more fundamental and rigorously philosophical terms the very idea and possibility of dialogue. Together, I believe, they will throw into sharper relief Gadamer's understanding of dialogue.
A first line of objection to Gadamer is that he is silent about the concrete identity of persons as they have entered into dialogue, or been excluded from it. In the Socratic dialogues, for example, women have no place, even though the Republic acknowledges that men and women are equally qualified for philosophical training. St. Paul counts it a disgrace for a woman to speak in church, even as he asserts that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. The law in some Southern states made it a capital offense to teach a slave to read or write, yet Jefferson thought it self-evident that all men were created equal. Not even the silencing of the Jews, who had contributed so much to German philosophy and culture, seems to disturb Gadamer's equanimity. This objection turns into bitter accusation when John Caputo writes,
For deconstruction, tradition is largely the story of the winners while the dissenters have been excommunicated, torched, castrated, exiled, or imprisoned. … If Gadamer is interested in how the metaphysical tradition passes along its stored-up treasures, Derrida is on the look-out for the police state that inevitably accompanies theories of infinite wealth. Philosophical herme-neutics takes a stab at recognizing the finitude and flux that inhabits all human institutions, but deconstruction doubts that hermeneutics has its heart
Caputo's remarks are notably impertinent, in every sense of the word. Like every other human being, Gadamer doubtless has his shortcomings, but he is innocent of the blind self-righteousness that speaks this sort of violent language. Gadamer is not Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but neither is Professor Ca-puto. Genuine moral authority is quite distinct from cheap indignation.
The spirit of dialogue, however, is not to triumph over intemperate eristic but to strengthen the other's argument. Gadamer has himself stressed that understanding is neither a method nor something abstractly mental but a mode of being. His rehabilitation of prejudice aims to account for understanding's dependence on the resources of existence a person brings to dialogue with a text or another person. Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is palpably a work of the Enlightenment. This is not a limitation, which would suggest that later histories will supersede it with the advance of research; on the contrary, this is exactly what is unsurpassable about Gibbon's interpretation. Truth and Method, published in 1960 when Gadamer was sixty, could not, of course, anticipate the categories of group identity that are so central to contemporary American culture. At that time, the murderous history of this century had made any such categories seem beyond the pale. Given that context, it took some boldness to insist that an adequate account of understanding could not do without such particularities. At the same time, nothing in Gadamer countenances a reductive and essentialist identity politics. To the dialogue in which understanding takes place, each individual brings a horizon, “the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point” (TM3O2). The word indicates how “thought is tied to its finite determinacy” (TM302). But on the other side, it also “means not being limited to what is nearby but being able to see beyond it” (TM302). Horizons can be too narrow, but they also can be expanded and new horizons can open up. Horizons are not fixed or static, but they move and change with individual and cultural life. Hence, “the closed horizon that is supposed to enclose a culture is an abstraction” (TM3O4). In dialogue, the participants' individual horizons “fuse” (TM3o6). The term may not be happily chosen, but the context makes clear that what is implied is not any surrender of individuality nor subordination under an alien outlook. If prejudices “constitute the horizon of a particular present” (TM3o6), that horizon is constantly being formed by a process of testing prejudices. When Gadamer says that through dialogue we rise “to a higher universality that overcomes not only our own particularity but also that of the other” (TM3O5), the terminology is legitimate because “universality” is not abstract. The whole force of the term “horizon”
Gadamer's thought, then, can allow for and even insist on the indispens-ability of the particularities each person brings into dialogue. But a person accomplishes this by bringing those particularities into the language of dialogue. Here, too, “Being that can be understood is language” (TM474). This, however, occasions a second line of objection. For in what language—or whose language—will a dialogue be conducted? Gadamer intends his stress on the diversity of languages as a critique of any dream of a universal language or of the idea that thinking can transcend the actual languages that are the accomplishments of specific historical communities. The problem becomes clear even in a thinker as judicious as Martha Nussbaum. In a carefully considered argument for cosmopolitanism in outlook and conduct, she acknowledges the appropriateness of paying special attention to our local reality:
A useful analogy is one's own native language. I love the English language. And although I have some knowledge of some other languages, whatever I express of myself in the world I express in English. If I were to try to equalize my command of even five or six languages, and to do a little writing in each, I would write poorly. But this doesn't mean that I think English is intrinsically superior to other languages. I recognize that all human beings have an innate linguistic capacity, and that any person might have learned any language; which language one learns is in that sense morally irrelevant, an accident of birth that does not determine one's worth. That recognition of equal worth has practical consequences for the ways in which I react to and speak about others.
This shows an admirable effort to check ego and ethnocentrism. But can the goal be achieved by an exercise of moral will? English is in fact a world language. Someone whose native language is Xhosa or Inuit-Inupiaq has access to a much more restricted group. Some languages do not have a developed philosophical tradition or, even if they do, the works of that tradition are known to few outside the language. A speaker of Hungarian or Dutch who wants to reflect on certain philosophical issues will have to take up terms and ideas articulated in languages with an established tradition. What is opened here is the problematic ethical situation of all dialogues in which the aim is genuine mutuality and yet the relation is inherently asymmetrical. In the political and historical world, it is not in the power of individuals to establish equality, for the asymmetry results from historical institutions and realities. Thus, a call for “dialogue” with persons from the third world proffered by someone who enjoys the security of the European-American world is quite different from the opposite invitation by someone who has access only to the limited power and resources of the third world, a world made precarious by a history of colonial subjection.
The apparent plausibility of this argument testifies to language's constitutive disappearance in favor of the world it brings into view. The asymmetry of actual power relations is attributed to language itself and thus mystified. The fact that nothing we can do to the language of dialogue will eliminate these distorting asymmetries bears witness that language is not an instrument subject to our will. It is not a place where power is stored up or exercised. When Gadamer says that the being of language lies in dialogue, that is, in “coming to an understanding,” he immediately draws the conclusion:
This is not to be understood as if that were the purpose of language. Coming to an understanding is not a mere action, a purposeful activity, a setting up of signs through which I transmit my will to others. Coming to an understanding as such, rather, does not need any tools, in the proper sense of the word. It is a life process in which a community of life is lived out. (TM446)
Communities do not simply have a language, they form it. In dialogue, language “places a subject matter before those communicating like a disputed object set between them” (TM446). It discloses the world as “the common ground, trodden by none and recognized by all, uniting all who talk to one another” (TM446). “Every conversation,” Gadamer claims, “presupposes a common language, or better, creates a common language” (TM378).
As Gadamer describes dialogue, there can thus be no decision, whether unilateral or mutual, about the language of dialogue that precedes the dialogue itself. If we imagine a dialogue between an English speaker and a speaker of Inuit-Inupiaq, it is a mistake to think that it is the speaker of Inuit-Inupiaq who is at a disadvantage. Such a dialogue offers the speaker of English occasion to ask what his or her words really mean. The more apparently “impoverished” the language of the person addressed, the deeper and more fruitful this self-questioning can be. The loss of the presumed sufficiency or self-evidence of one's own words is the dawn of thinking. To enter into a dialogue means to give hearing—oneself as well as the other—priority over speaking. Heidegger's excavations of the philosophical tradition tirelessly teach the dangerous advantage an established terminology confers. This does not mean that the tradition is a record of error but only that it must be reanimated and appropriated for thinking to take place. Gadamer refers to Kleist's essay “On the Progressive Elaboration of Thoughts in Discourse” to bring out this point: “A word becomes real when it proffers itself in our speaking on its own out of however thoroughly pre-schematized a thesaurus and customary usage. We speak that word and it leads to consequences and ends we had not perhaps conceived of” (TM548). Language is not an “infinite text” that we learn to “recite” (TM548). Language is not “a stock of words and phrases, of concepts, viewpoints and opinions” (TM549). On the contrary,
Speaking is only speaking if we accept the risk of positing something and following out its implications …. In fact, language is the single word, whose virtuality opens for us the infinity of discourse, of speaking with one another, of the freedom of “expressing oneself” and “letting oneself be expressed.” Language is not its elaborated conventionalism, nor the burden of pre-schematization with which it loads us, but the generative and creative power to unceasingly make this whole once again fluent.
This is why Plato's dialogues retain their power to stimulate thinking. Their language arises out of the consideration of the subject under inquiry. It does not harden into a terminology. This certainly presents a challenge to commentators, who for two millennia have striven to contain and codify this power of thinking. But the dialogues remain unsubdued.
Of course if two persons speak different languages, a translator will be needed. But translation does not consist in letting one language dominate the other — a notion that makes no sense. Donald Davidson has elaborated the argument of W. V O. Quine against any claim that a meaning in one language could be radically untranslatable into another language. It is in fact a secret bias in favor of a language like English or German to suppose that anything that can be said in it would be untranslatable into or unintelligible in Xhosa or Inuit-Inupiaq or any other language. The particularity of a given language is not a barrier between its speakers and the world that is disclosed in any other language. Precisely because that world is disclosed in language it is “of itself always open to every possible insight and hence to every expansion of its own world picture, and is accordingly available to others” (TM447).
These contrasting views of language need testing against a particular instance. Derek Walcott's Omeros suggests itself precisely because it embraces a polyglot and palimpsestic world. The central characters — Achille, Hel-ene, Hector — bear the names of those in Homer's epic, but the names are mocked and treated with contempt by French slave masters who thereby implied that the superiority of their civilization legitimated their dominion. Although the slaves were eventually liberated by the British, their descendants' poverty and situation at the edge of empire prolong an economic submission. Yet Walcott's transposition of Homer's story discloses the dignity of these lives. The power of this revelation does not merely restore the inhabitants of a fishing village on St. Lucia to their full humanity, but even more it restores Homer to himself from the misappropriation of the colonizers. It is Homer who gains the most, since the claim of his poem to truth depends on the confirmation of its applicability in the Caribbean. Without that, his poem shrivels to a mere “masterpiece” and his name shrinks to the pretentious moniker of a New England farmer. In this interaction between the founding poem of the Western tradition and the Creole of a colonized people, it is the colonized whose lives and experience disclose the poem's
But even if these responses to Gadamer's critics are persuasive, do they not pave the way to a third and more fundamental line of objection, of which the others are perhaps only variants or, rather, exfoliations? This objection turns against dialogue Gadamer's own argument that “the goal of all attempts to reach an understanding is agreement concerning the subject matter” (TMsgs). If dialogue presupposes “sharing in a common meaning” (TM492), does it not follow that it precludes an acknowledgement of differences, which are not always resolvable? If all horizons fuse into “a single historical horizon,” “the one great horizon” (TM3O4), what happens to the variety and even conflict of traditions? Understanding “consists in subordinating ourselves to the text's claim to dominate our minds” (TM311). In language, “a totality of meaning” is disclosed. But if that is so, is not dialogue inherently coercive, concealing or erasing difference and yielding an agreement that can only be an extension of received opinion, of the status quo? Does not the language of “agreement” and “sharing” and “the common” turn here into the language of domination and totality? Must the person who enters into dialogue surrender his one real power, the power of resistance? If we listen to the Socratic dialogues with the ears of Callicles and his kind, these victims of Socratic openness refuse to speak or else withdraw into resentful and angry silence perhaps because they feel, viscerally as much as mentally, that the first word anyone proffers Socrates becomes the end of a string with which he will, in the end, tie his interlocutor's tongue with Gordian knots.
This is likewise the point of John Milbank's startling rejection of calls for “dialogue” between religions:
The very idea that dialogue is a passage for the delivery of truth, that it has a privileged relationship to Being, assumes that many voices are coalescing around a single known object which is independent of our biographical or transbiographical processes of coming-to-know. It then follows that the many different biographies (experiences) and traditions can be appropriated by all as angles upon the truth, which are themselves radiations from the truth.
But in fact, dialogue “is not relevant to the poor and dispossessed, because justice toward them is not primarily a matter of listening to them, but constructing for them and with them the circumstances in which they can join in many conversations, no longer as the poor” (183). Far better than this pretense, Milbank suggests, would be acknowledgment that any serious religious faith is seeking not the sacrifice of its own difference but rather the conversion of those it addresses (190). In a similar vein, Stephen Tyler finds in the image of “faces suffused with the glowing light of reasonable reason, cooperation, consensus, harmony, and agreement, … a cloying Franklinesque
It is not surprising that some of Gadamer's words would be a stumbling block to some, like many Americans, who pride themselves on resisting authority, and a scandal to others, like many Germans, who blame themselves for not resisting it enough. Feelings run so strong here that it may not help — one thinks of the title of one of Wayne Booth's books, “now don't try to reason with me” — to say that a careful reading of Truth and Method shows that these very words point in precisely the opposite direction. When Gadamer speaks of the submission required by dialogue, he always speaks of the first person, not the second or third: “Openness to the other, then, involves recognizing that I myself must accept some things that are against me, even though no one else forces me to do so” (TM3 6 1). To say that “only what really constitutes a unity of meaning is intelligible” (TM294) is to assert that discovering the true meaning of a text or work of art is “an infinite process” (TMsgS). Just as is the case with natural law according to Aristotle, ‘no dogmatic use can be made’ of this meaning” (TM3ao). It lies at the heart of Gadamer's thought that understanding has the character of experience, and that experience “in the genuine sense” is always negative (TM353): we only possess our knowledge clearly when we discover that it is in some way wrong, limited, inadequate. The genuinely experienced person is radically undogmatic and therefore open to new experience.
What is being lost sight of is that Gadamer's is not in fact a theory of dialogue. It is a theory of understanding. His core claim is that if we understand a text that comes down to us from the past, then that understanding has the character of dialogue. Since it would seem very strange to argue that no one ever has or ever could understand a past text, it is usual to say that we do not “really” or “fully” understand, or at least not in any “rigorous” sense of “understand.” What such terms could mean is left unexplored. It is part of Gadamer's argument, not his critics', that understanding cannot be measured against abstract, impossible, and unexamined idealizations. The strict question, therefore, is whether, conceding that understanding does take place, a description of dialogue as the conduct of question and answer best characterizes understanding. Gadamer is not recommending dialogue either for its presumed ethical or humanizing qualities or as a method for achieving understanding. His idea is quite far from anything like Jurgen Habermas's procedural conception of uncoerced, undistorted communicative rationality. The latter may be defensible as a prescription
It would be a mistake, however, to let replying to Gadamer's critics lead one to acquiesce in the unstated premise that he universalizes the role of dialogue in human affairs. In an essay that takes a broad view of Gadamer's thought, Dieter Misgeld shows that those who assert that Gadamer “has underestimated the place of power or coercion in social life and therefore has failed to address the phenomenon of domination as a social problem in modern societies are mistaken.” Precisely because he recognizes the limited sphere of dialogue oriented toward understanding, he refuses to pretend that hermeneutics is a critique of domination or an answer to the problems of political life. Politics is a realm of power from which differences and inequalities can never be eradicated. As Misgeld puts it, Gadamer even asserts that “Disorder … is the natural condition of a political world-order” (172). Ordinary politicians do not seek understanding in dialogue, but “test the limits of the other's convictions in order to see where he or she can be overwhelmed and where his or her real powerlies” (1 74). But it does not follow that politics is simply relations between allies and foes. For Gadamer, “politics is the art of transforming enmity into a negotiable opposition of interests”
Far from taking a triumphalist tone, Gadamer is acutely aware both of the limited sphere within which dialogue can be carried on and of the forces in the contemporary world that threaten its survival. In a highly politicized, overadministered society in which the individual “feels dependent and helpless in the face of its technically organized forms of life” (Gadamer, cited on 166), instead of identifying with a history and a world with which he or she feels some solidarity, the individual can only adapt to “a managerial and administrative apparatus that demands responsiveness to externally established behavioral clues, be it in the form of media images, advertising, or bureaucratic regulation” (167). Gadamer is deeply skeptical about any politics of emancipatory resistance to this social formation:
Any form of Utopian politics aiming at the achievement of an ideal order or any form of planning (be it piecemeal or total planning) is suspect to him, as long as both forms of politics or administration and management do not respect the fact that political decisions are finite and that they are based on limited knowledge gained in the interpretation of situational constraints and subject to a great variety of standards of measurement and evaluation. (170)
The history of Utopian politics in the last century lends some support to Gadamer's reservations. He invokes instead the old image of piloting, the art of seeking and maintaining “an equilibrium among different and often conflicting forces,” making “decisions under conditions of uncertainty,” working for “an always-to-be-reestablished fragile, common ground” (170). Admittedly, there is here no magic to stir men's blood or rally them to the great cause of liberation, but perhaps what Gadamer suggests is all we may prudently hope to achieve and in the long run quite enough.
Because Gadamer rarely has a specifically political question in view, articulating the interplay between his conception of understanding and any potential political position requires at least the care Misgeld brings to it. His essay makes clear that Gadamer has a more comprehensive and well-proportioned understanding of contemporary social and political realities than some—one might even say most—of his critics, who parrot the shibboleths of oppositional and identity politics. But using political labels to accuse and dismiss Gadamer's ideas not only requires reductive and distorting
Consider, for example, an essay by Judith Butler, “Universality in Culture.” The paradox she asserts is that while “standards of universality are historically articulated” (47) and hence “culturally variable” (45), exposing this fact is itself “part of the project of extending and rendering substantive the notion of universality itself” (47). To assert a political norm as universal need not require “an idealizing presupposition of consensus, one that is in some ways already there” (49). On the contrary, that the universal is asserted only in particular situations shows that it is “a postulated and open-ended ideal that has not been adequately encoded by any given set of legal conventions” (48). The universal is therefore “articulated precisely through challenges to its existing formulation, and this challenge emerges from those who are not covered by it” (48). So conceived, the universal anticipates a future “that has not yet arrived, one for which we have no ready concept, one whose articulations will only follow, if they do, from a contestation of universality at its already imagined borders” (49). When political claims conflict, it would be a mistake merely to enumerate them as “radical particularisms between which no communication is possible” (51). Nor is it inevitable to treat one claim as merely either ruled out by or one more example of the universal asserted by the other. What is required instead is a “difficult practice of translation among the various languages in which universality makes its varied and contending appearances” (49). If each is accepted as a claim to universality, each becomes able to provoke in the other “a radical rearticulation of universality itself” (46). There is always the risk that that rearticulation will be short-circuited, but it is “the movement of that unanticipated transformation [that] establishes the universal as that which is yet to be achieved and which, in order to resist domestication, may never be fully or finally achievable” (52).
Butler's thought exactly matches Gadamer's description of understanding. Aristotelian ethics and legal interpretation are exemplary for Gadamer because they make manifest a kind of universal that exists only in its concrete expressions. To say that every interpretation anticipates a completion, whole, or “totality” (TM474) of meaning is to say that meaning cannot be
In calling the first class of objections to dialogue political and the second class, to which I will now turn, philosophical, I do not intend any invidious distinction. There is no sharp divide, though I believe there is a difference in what questions or issues are uppermost. However philosophical they may be, the critics I have been discussing are directly concerned with political and social matters. Such questions are rarely to the fore in Gadamer's writing (though they are in some of his essays, especially), and they are certainly not in Truth and Method. As I have suggested, there is considerable danger of distortion or misunderstanding when one tries to make a thinker answer questions he or she has not posed. At the very least, it is unlikely that one will get a direct response and care must be taken not to pounce on a few terms or remarks and force them into an alien frame. At a minimum, a complicated process of translation that keeps in view the whole of a line of thought and therefore the situation of particular terms or ideas within that whole is indispensable.
The case seems to be different when another thinker offers a view radically opposed to the same or a closely related question. But similar care will be needed when the thinkers never encountered each other's thought directly but are brought together by a third party, who must then find a language that establishes common ground without distorting either thinker or favoring one over the other. It was the hope that a direct encounter might take place—a thing rare enough in the history of thought—that led to a public meeting between Gadamer and Jacques Derrida in Paris in 1981. Hermeneutics and deconstruction seemed so obviously to be opposed on fundamental matters of language, reading, interpretation, and understanding that an exchange of views between the thinkers most closely associated with each line of thought seemed highly promising. The results, as is well known, were disappointing. For whatever reason, Derrida virtually ignored Gadamer's writings and even his remarks on the specific occasion. Diane P.
Aware of these difficulties, I want to take a step back and try a more indirect approach. I want to begin by considering Maurice Blanchot, a writer and thinker of the highest importance for Derrida, who has nevertheless pursued an autonomous path. Blanchot has never, so far as I know, shown any awareness of Gadamer, and though they share some philosophical sources, notably Heidegger, they seem to have carried Heidegger's legacy along quite original lines toward apparently opposed conclusions. I will not attempt to bring these opposed conclusions into a direct confrontation but rather to consider whether Blanchot's thought may be more complicated, perhaps even internally divided, than is sometimes supposed. If so, then even if a dialogue between Blanchot and Gadamer cannot be opened here, at least a precondition for such a dialogue may be met.
The record of Blanchot's thinking is found not only in philosophical essays but in a number of haunting and disquieting narratives. It may seem at first impossible to locate these strangely abstracted narratives within the time and space of ordinary experience, and yet they do not seem allegorical or symbolic in any obvious way. There is, I think, a sense in which Blanchot's narratives do belong to experience, but to experiences that are at once extreme and yet cannot be treated as exceptional or marginal, so that everyday life could be screened from the limitless disturbance they introduce. In the narrative Thomas the Obscure, Blanchot situates in this way an experience of the impossibility of dialogue that his philosophical writings present in the language of argument:
Although she did not expect to hear him answer and even if she were sure that he would not answer she would not in fact have questioned him, there was such a presumption in her manner of assuming that he could give an answer (of course, he would not answer, she did not ask him to answer, but, by the question she had posed him personally and relating to his person [she asked, “But, what are you?”], she acted as if she might interpret his silence as an accidental refusal to answer, as an attitude which might change one day or another), it was such a crude way to treat the impossible that Anne had suddenly
What emerges here is a radical questioning not just of communication in a particular instance but of the anthropological and ontological presuppositions that assure that dialogue is possible at all. Questioning and answering seem to go on in our lives all the time. But the most fundamental question—“what are you?”—may occasion a recognition that my being is not at my disposal to be turned into an answer. Posing a question requires that I hold myself back, that I permit a determinate void to open in my world into which an answer can emerge. What is there is a question—“what are you?”—that would require my holding back, voiding my whole world, because nothing less would provide adequate room for the answer. By asking the question, I would erase myself as a participant in the very exchange I had initiated. The one who answers would likewise have exhausted himself, said everything he had to say, but now with the very person addressed no longer there (or here) to hear it. The only adequate answer would then have become no answer at all, in the absence of the question it answered. The ef-facement of the questioner and the exhaustion of the answerer leave nowhere for the exchange to go. Having lost both its origin and its anticipation of a future, the exchange would have cancelled the structure of time and therefore lost its present as well. With the self-elimination of the questioner and answerer as “beings who can be questioned,” the space and time within which dialogue could take place have also been eliminated.
What Thomas the Obscure offers as represented experience is explored discursively in The Infinite Conversation. Implicitly recognizing the received idea of dialogue that underwrites its importance for many contemporary philosophical and cultural projects, Blanchot attends to overlooked aspects
What makes dialogue serious is that in it language is essentially dual, exposed to “the indecision of Yes and No” (80; Gadamer makes the point in TM364-65). The advantage we gain from distributing this duality between the equal and reciprocal partners in dialogue is that we escape the false unity of monologic self-enclosure and orient our thinking toward a unity of being that presents itself. In contrast, Blanchot points to difference, which cannot be reduced to unity or even equalized, but which “gives voice to two instances of speech by keeping them separate even as they are held together only by this separation” (81). In such a dialogue—but “rather than dialogue, we should name it plural speech” (215)—the other is left in a strangeness that is empty, since to give it any content whatsoever would violate precisely its strangeness. Where understanding has “always already posited ends and values” in a language that speaks “our will to clarity” (182), this other speech gives voice to the absurd, the impossible. If the possible is what has the power to be, only in the space “where the essence of man is the impossible” can language escape power, force, violence, and thus lay bare “this limit of man that is no longer a power, not yet a power. A space from which what is called man has as if in advance always already disappeared”
Within the space of a short essay, it is not possible to surround these excerpts with enough prose to bring out their plausibility and relation to features, however extreme, of ordinary experience. Fortunately, Gerald Bruns has already performed that necessary task brilliantly. The general theme, however, is clear enough. Blanchot rejects dialogue because he sees it as confining its participants, their language, and what they say to the realm of the possible. It deploys a limiting, coercive force — he does not hesitate to call it “violence” — a force that is both political and ontological, to impose uniformity and obliterate difference. Instead, Blanchot seeks the language of a thinking not oriented to unity. This is the language of the infinite conversation, of plural speech, that is not an alternative to dialogue but the other of dialogue that attentive reading and hearing uncovers already within it. I have chosen excerpts that set forth this conception in terms that appear directly opposed to Gadamer. But it is worth repeating that caution is in order. Only a hasty and simplistic reading would allow one to leap to conclusions by contrasting Gadamer's talk of a whole, a unity, a totality of meaning with Blanchot's rejection of unity. A careful reading shows that Gadamer too opposes the Hegelian kind of dialectic that issues in unity, just as he rejects a knowledge that conceptually or empirically dominates either the world or other persons. And on the other side, a reader might suspect that Blanchot's call for plural speech commits a performative self-contradiction, since his own writing over more than fifty years is traversed by rigorously consistent restatements of a few closely linked insights. Notoriously, everyone Blanchot writes about ends up sounding like Blanchot.
Yet it is more important and more in the spirit of dialogue to ignore obvious objections. As Blanchot says, “Criticism has little hold on me. What is weak does not need us to grow weaker, but we ought to preserve and reinforce what is strong” (267). We must consider whether it unduly constricts Blanchot if we ask only how he differs radically from Gadamer. Have we really understood him if we extract only the statements that seem to put dialogue into question? For a number of the pieces in The Infinite Conversation would conventionally be called “dialogues” — a fact of which Blanchot could hardly be unaware. Perhaps we should ask whether he wants to show another form of conversation, of “this back and forth of words between us”
I recall being present at a conversation between two men who were very different from one another. One would say in simple and profound sentences some truth he had taken to heart; the other would listen in silence, then when reflection had done its work he would in turn express some proposition, sometimes in almost the same words, albeit slightly differently (more rigorously, more loosely, or more strangely). This redoubling of the same affirmation constituted the strongest of dialogues. [!] Nothing was developed, opposed, or modified; and it was manifest that the first interlocutor learned a great deal, and even infinitely, from his own words repeated—not because they were adhered to and agreed with, but, on the contrary, through the infinite difference. For it is as though what he said in the first person as an T had been expressed anew by him as ‘other’ [autrui] and as though he had thus been carried into the very unknown of his thought: where his thought, without being altered, became absolutely other…. Just as there was no relation between these two repeated instances of speech, these two men had in a certain sense nothing in common, except the movement (which brought them very close) of turning together toward the infinite of speech, which is the meaning of the word conversation. (341)
We cannot speak here of “unity,” for there are not in this case two perspectives entering into a dialectical synthesis. And yet each speech is doubled, sutured by the pause that separates it from itself. Instead of different speeches dialectically united, speech itself differs from itself; difference speaks.
Such a speech is impossible, which means that it does not belong to the realm of the possible, to what lies within our power to say. We are perhaps not far from Hoffmansthal's “Letter of Lord Chandos,” whose fictional writer says that he is convinced that to save his soul he must speak a language of which he knows not a single word. The impossibility of such a speech points to a speech beyond possibility. If Lord Chandos does not know this language, perhaps that indicates that when we know a language we do not stand toward it in a relation like the perceptual or conceptual knowing epistemolegists describe—and describe accurately enough, for all that. Only such a language might save our soul instead of merely expressing it, merely emptying it out in words. “We live upon the bread of faithful speech,” writes Wallace Stevens. If there is such a language, that might put Thomas the Obscure in a different light, as in this passage:
And in each of his reasonings, more mysterious still than his existence, he experienced the mortal presence of the adversary, of this time without which, eternally immobilized, unable to come from the depths of the future, he would have been condemned to see the light of life die out on his desolate peak, like the prophetic eagle of dreams. So he reasoned with the absolute
Perhaps to understand Blanchot we must find this moment where his thought turns on itself—not a dialectical reversal, but a repetition or redoubling that is an infinite difference, the difference between, say, “dialogue” or “conversation” and, after reflection has done its work, “dialogue” or “conversation.” This is just as true of Gadamer. Blanchot, Gadamer: same difference.
Both Blanchot and Gadamer have learned much from the later Heidegger. Blanchot continues in Heidegger's line of thought through his own chi-astic language to unexpected and logically extreme positions. The originality and audacity of many of Gadamer's ideas are concealed beneath a language that he has deliberately chosen (and for philosophical reasons) to keep calm and conversational. But it seems certain that Gadamer's feel for dialogue comes from his lifelong study of Plato. It may be useful to remind ourselves of what Platonic dialogue is like, since it could scarcely be more divergent from the straw man most critics of dialogue knock down. We should recall, for instance, that Socratic dialogue begins not in eagerness to state a view, but in ignorance, with a question, and it often, after a perplexing array of views and many dialectic twists, ends without a conclusion. Socrates' rejection of long speeches and insistence on the give and take of short interchanges shows that dialogue provokes thinking by interrupting the flow of opinion and its prefabricated language. Along the way, Socrates repeatedly asks his interlocutor to say whatever he thinks, completely without shame or fear, and not to abandon his view until he feels compelled by the argument. Nor is Socrates satisfied with agreement. Instead, he often rebukes the interlocutor by pointing out that a view has been accepted too easily, that objections have not been considered, that aspects of the position have not been examined. Many of the interlocutors are far from pliant. They become mocking, contemptuous, stubborn, angry, occasionally withdrawing into a silence that is more ominous than any alleged “violence” Socrates' questions and answers could perpetrate. Noncitizens are welcomed to these discussions, and in some dialogues Socrates himself says little or nothing, stepping back (or is it stepping forward?) into the role of the listener. Nor does Plato draw a sharp line between argument and character. Dialogue calls for the lifelong development of the whole person. He makes clear that whether someone accepts an argument as convincing depends very much on his willingness to surrender his own position and on the depth, quality, and passion of his commitment to truth before all else. When some position is reached at the end of a dialogue, Socrates is rarely contented but usually
While the study of Plato has nourished Gadamer's lifelong reflection on understanding, his work also bears a deep imprint from a specific group of contemporaries, namely, German-language lyric poets. When asked whether hermeneutics applies primarily to what is old or also to contemporary literature, Gadamer replied, “It is entrusted with all that is unfamiliar and strikes us as significant. That is why I have written about Celan, one of the most inaccessible poets of world literature.” In a wonderful essay, “Are the Poets Falling Silent?” Gadamer indicates the special importance of poetry today and for hermeneutics above all. It lies especially in poetry's en-dangerment, its vulnerability in a world “increasingly ruled by anonymous mechanisms and where the word no longer creates direct communication” (73). Poetry is important precisely because its necessity, even its possibility, come into question “in an age where social unrest and the discomfort with our social life in an anonymous mass society is felt from all sides and where the demand for rediscovering or reestablishing true solidarities is advanced over and over again” (73). The poets are not falling silent, but they are becoming, in a phrase Gadamer takes from Rilke, “indescribably discreet” (74): “As discreet messages are spoken quietly so that an unintended person cannot overhear them, so has the poet's voice become. He shares something with the one who has an ear for it and who is sympathetic. He whispers something to him in his ear and the reader, who is all ears, nods finally. He has understood” (81).
Gadamer calls one of Celan's poems “a hermetic dialogue” (OnEducation 120), and the phrase could apply to most of them. This is Celan's special importance,
|In den Fliissen nordlich der Zukunft|
|werf ich das Netz aus, das Du|
|mil von Steinen geschriebenen|
|In the rivers north of the future|
|I cast out the net, that you|
|hesitantly weigh down|
|with stone-written shadows.|
The tension between throwing out the net and weighting it resonates with the tension between the I and you. The poet cannot catch the poem without a you who burdens it with the weight of meaning. Yet the you must hesitate, must find exactly the right weight, so that the net neither floats away nor sinks, but, “as the fisherman says,” stands (Gadamer on Celan 75). The poet's experience is, however, common to each and every one of us, for “No human can look into the future except as always hoping … always beyond any justified expectation concerning what comes next” (76). But if the reader is in this sense the I, once again, who is the you? Because the poem does not say, “the answer is not left to our interpretive wish” (77). As with the commandment to “love your neighbor,” the question “who is my neighbor?” is already a failure of understanding. The you “is the you of the I”: “one can first comprehend what is being said when one understands himself to be the one who should always already know, here and now, who the you is: everyone” (77). In this indescribably discreet way and against everything in our historical situation that makes it seem impossible the poem tries to catch the I who cannot not always already share language with each and every you. “The question,” Gadamer says, “is not whether the poets are silent, but whether our ear is acute enough to hear” (78).
Nothing, of course, forces us to enter into this relationship. In fact, almost everything in our world militates against it. The horrors that have been and continue to be perpetrated in our century seem to divide humankind into the oppressors and the oppressed and demand action to end injustice, not idle chatter with the oppressors or false consolations for the oppressed. The din and racket of mass media, the “floods of informational chatter that wash over us” (178), deafen us to the only word—a whispered word—that might open dialogue. The manipulation and debasement of language deprive
|Whichever word you speak-|
|to destruction (289)|
And yet, if poetry can exist at all, it remains what it is, Gesprach, conversation, dialogue, even though “often it is despairing dialogue” (163): “A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps” (115). Without assurance, Celan continued to write, as long as he could stand it, poems sent on their way “toward something standing open, occu-piable, perhaps toward an addressable Thou, toward an addressable reality” (116).
Dialogue is not a method. It is not at the disposal of our will, even our good will. We cannot be exhorted, cajoled, or sermonized into it. No one can be forced into it—or out of it. We do not enter into dialogue, we find ourselves already in it—but only if we are already listening with the most intense attention, all ears to the discreet, the whispered word. Dialogue has no guarantees, being pure risk. In contemporary poetry like Celan's, dialogue comes to itself, to its essential, its inalienable weakness. But if—a large if—anyone is left in this world who wants to understand, dialogue has already begun.
1. Han-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ad rev. ed., trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Crossroads, 1989). [BACK]
2. John Caputo, “Gadamer's Closet Essentialism: A Derridean Critique,” in Dialogue and Deconstruction: The Gadamer-Derrida Encounter, ed. Diane P. Michelfelder and Richard E. Palmer (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), 258-64; here 264. [BACK]
3. Martha C. Nussbaum, with respondents, For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism, ed. Joshua Cohen (Boston: Beacon, 1996), 136. [BACK]
4. Derek Walcott, Omeros (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 1990. [BACK]
5. John Milbank, “The End of Dialogue,” in Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered: Myth of a Pluralistic Theology of Religions, ed. Gavin D'Costa (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis, 199°)’ 171-91; here, 175. [BACK]
6. Stephen A. Tyler, “Ode to Dialog on the Occasion of the Un-for-seen,” in The Interpretation of Dialogue, ed. Tullio Maranhao (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 292-300. [BACK]
7. Dieter Misgeld, “Poetry, Dialogue, and Negotiation: Liberal Culture and Conservative Politics in Hans-Georg Gadamer's Thought,” in Festivals of Interpretation: Essays on Hans-Georg Gadamer's Work, ed. Kathleen Wright (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 161-81; here, 171. [BACK]
8. Judith Butler, “University in Culture,” in Martha C. Nussbaum, with respondents, For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism, ed. Joshua Cohen (Boston: Beacon, 1996), 45-52. [BACK]
9. Diane P. Michelfelder and Richard E. Palmer, eds., Dialogue and Deconstruc-tion: The Gadamer-Derrida Encounter (Albany: State University of New York Press,
10. Maurice Blanchot, Thomas the Obscure, trans. Robert Lamberton (New York: D. Lewis, 1973). [BACK]
11. Maurice Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Hanson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993). [BACK]
12. Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (New York: Vintage, 1988), 237. [BACK]
13. Gerald Bruns, Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997). [BACK]
14. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, “The Letter of Lord Chandos” in Selected Prose, trans. Mary Hottinger and Tania and James Stern (New York: Pantheon, 1952), 129-41. [BACK]
15. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Gadamer on Celan: “Who Am I and Who Are You?” and Other Essays, trans, and ed. Richard Heinemann and Bruce Krajewski (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), 70. [BACK]
16. Hans-Georg Gadamer, On Education, Poetry, and History, ed. Dieter Misgeld and Graeme Nicholson, trans. Lawrence Schmidt and Monica Reuss (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 73-81. [BACK]
17. John Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995), 267. [BACK]