Language and being: Crossroads of modern literary theory and classical ontology

Philosophy and Social Criticism 30 (2):187-220 (2004)
Abstract
My argument is that poststructuralist and postmodernist theory carries on and intensifies the main lines of a characteristically modern tradition of aesthetics whose most important point of reference is not French structuralism – as the term, ‘poststructuralism’, implies – but the tradition of 18th-century German romanticism and idealism that culminated in the work of Heidegger during the Weimar period in Germany between the world wars and afterward. What characterizes this modernist tradition of aesthetics is its valorization of language as a mode of being possessed of an ‘ontological’ status. I place the term ‘ontology’ in quotes in order to highlight the distinction between ‘metaphysics’, with its Aristotelian and neo-Platonic connotations of a ‘chain of being’, and the more modern term ‘ontology’, which was coined in the 17th century and which became widely used during the 18th century by Leibnizian philosophers Christian Wolff and Alexander Baumgarten; the latter, not incidentally, also helped to establish modern usage of the term ‘aesthetics’. ‘Metaphysics’ and ‘ontology’ have their roots, respectively, in those two most major currents of our western heritage, the Graeco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian. These currents, although inextricably linked to one another in innumerable ways, have nonetheless been engaged, as Nietzsche put it, ‘in a fearful struggle on earth for thousands of years’ that has been obscured by Heidegger’s and Derrida’s accounts of the history of western philosophy. Such accounts have projected what is basically a romanticist critique of Enlightenment values and thought on to a totalizing account of the history of Western thought since Plato. My purpose in emphasizing the distinction between metaphysics and ontology is to provide a conceptual framework within which our understanding of the development of modern aesthetics, and the concept of language that informed that development, can be related to the larger philosophical issues at hand. Literary theorists in the United States, by endorsing Heidegger’s and Derrida’s self-serving accounts of their writings as assaults on the entire history of Western philosophy, and by failing to judge them critically as outgrowths of that history, have not only obscured these developments. They have also sustained the central tenet of American literary theory since the 1960s: that there is such a thing as a ‘Western philosophical tradition’ on the ‘other’ side of which, through an endless series of linguistic coinages and ‘erasures’, we may maneuver ourselves. My claim is that to the extent that there is such an other side, we are already on it, and that we fundamentally misunderstand our situation if we regard it as ‘other’ to the Western philosophical tradition. Key Words: Derrida • Heidegger • language • ontology • theory.
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