Disclosing the World

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Disclosing the World develops a phenomenological conception of language, drawing extensively on the work of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein, and argues for its importance to philosophy of language and recent cognitive science.

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MIT Press
Table of Contents

Or keep reading below to get some idea of what the book’s about …

The book’s origins lie in personal experience, specifically the varying degrees of linguistic breakdown I experienced for many years while living, working, and studying philosophy in Germany.  This extended immersion in a ‘foreign’ language led me naturally to an interest in philosophy of language, and to the conclusion that much of what falls under that heading has little to do with my own experience of language. So the book’s basic aim is to offer a view of language that does a better job of capturing just that.

Heidegger plays a central role in the book. I was originally drawn to Heidegger’s work by his highly distinctive – idiosyncratic, ingenious, often bizarre – use of language, which is clearly intended to exemplify his own philosophical view of what language does. Although Heidegger’s most striking writing about language comes in later works, I focus on the ‘early’ Heidegger. The reason for this, apart from providing an overall picture of language that avoids any problematic disconnect between language and world, is that its focus on ‘everyday’ life accommodates postively the close connection between language use and practice. I read Heidegger as outlining a distinctive view of how linguistic signs put us in touch with our surroundings. On the one hand, words have many practical roles as ‘tools’ in human life. On the other hand, language has a special role in conveying to us or showing us how the world is arranged. However, although Heidegger gives us a valuable framework for understanding how language discloses the world, I argue that this is all he offers, so that to realize the full potential of this framework we need to fill out his position by looking to other authors.

To understand better how language presents the world to us – the way it shows up specific details of how the world is arranged – I turn to Merleau-Ponty. Part of what makes Merleau-Ponty valuable is his emphasis on the intimate connection between human embodiment and language. However, I focus particularly on his discussions of Saussure and his extensive comparisons of language with painting.  While Saussure provides a conception of linguistic form that accords well with our experience of language, Merleau-Ponty’s interpretation of modern painters such as Cézanne provides a model for understanding how language uses sketchy, partial and ‘abstract’ marks – the imprint of finite embodied agency – to direct us to features of the world.

To understand better the connection Heidegger discerns between language, practice and our grasp of the world, I turn to the later Wittgenstein. Although it was not his own stated aim, I argue that Wittgenstein (once he had shaken off his earlier fascination with logical systematicity) arrived at a conception of language-games and linguistic rules that is sufficiently imperfect and versatile to describe accurately the many different forms of practical role language plays in human life.

Having pieced together these three authors’ views into a single phenomenological position, the book considers some of the ways this view might be of broader significance. Of particular importance here is Heidegger’s opposition to the primacy of propositional meaning, which is fundamentally at odds with most post-Fregean philosophy of language. I argue that Heidegger was right about this, and that a phenomenological view is needed to both complement and correct mainstream (analytic) philosophy of language. Finally, the book sets out a positive view of the relation between phenomenology of language and science. Given their shared focus on experience and various shared commitments, I argue that phenomenology of language and recent cognitive science (in the embedded-embodied tradition) naturally complement and mutually require one another.