Words Underway offers the first full account of the important contributions the Continental tradition has made to the philosophy of language. Carolyn Culbertson examines the vital work of a range of thinkers, including Heidegger, Gadamer, Blanchot, and Kristeva. The book argues that Continental theorists are particularly helpful in recognizing our unique potential for becoming alienated from some discourse. At the same time, Culbertson argues that Continental philosophy of language tends not to treat the alienated relationship to language as something absolute. For most Continental theorists, at least, language is a living system, that is, a system maintained by undergoing constant expansion and transformation by language users. The book goes on to explore the attention Continental theorists have given to the way that forms of political power, for example gender dynamics in communication, can sometimes thwart this process and thus reinforce alienation. This book will transform the reader’s sense of what the philosophy of language is about and will attract the attention of students and scholars of both philosophy of language and the Continental tradition.
Introduction: Philosophy of Language in the Continental Tradition
Chapter 1: Walker Percy, Phenomenology, and the Mystery of Language
Chapter 2: Words Underway: Guiding Insights from Hermeneutic Phenomenology
Chapter 3: On Linguistic Trauma and the Demand to Write: Continental Philosophy and the Literature of the Holocaust
Chapter 4: Rethinking Women’s Silence: Contributions from Continental Feminism
Chapter 5: The Omnipotent Word of Medical Diagnosis and the Silence of Depression: On Kristeva’s Therapeutic Approach
Chapter 6: Language as Habitat: Doing Justice to Experiences of Linguistic Alienation
Culbertson’s book breaks new ground in offering a comprehensive treatment of the philosophy of language from a continental perspective, not simply a survey of representative authors but a unique thematic path for new directions that exceed standard assumptions: how normative and developmental elements take precedence over mere descriptive accounts of linguistic formats; how the experience of alienation is a key factor in human discourse and development; how creative openness is an ever-ready impetus in language; how constraining and liberating forces both contribute to identity formation and cultural possibilities. Highly recommended.
Culbertson makes a clear and convincing argument for the importance of continental philosophy of language to contemporary thought, an argument that is accessible to beginners and useful to experts. Rather than surveying the entire field, she begins with Heidegger and Gadamer to establish the inescapable ways that language and existence are interwoven. She then complicates and enriches this picture by examining how continental thinkers address moments of “alienation” from language, from the traumas of the Holocaust, to the challenges of gender (Butler), from the silences of depression (Kristeva) to the agonies of colonialism (Derrida). She closes by returning to Heidegger and the questions posed at the beginning, so that the reader can see why it makes sense to speak of continental philosophy as a distinctive tradition. Her book is an important contribution to scholarship and to the classroom.
Focusing on linguistic alienation, Words Underway makes a persuasive case for the importance of continental thought for language philosophy. Lucidly argued, it counters linguistic determinism by showcasing the disclosive and transformative force of language, through an original analysis of, among others, Heidegger, Gadamer, Derrida, Butler, and Kristeva. It breaks new ground by bringing together phenomenological and hermeneutical approaches to language with feminist philosophy.
Words Underway calls for developing continental philosophies of language, and in doing so opens paths for philosophers to engage language beyond its characterization as a rational tool for the articulation of experience, for representation, or as a mere system of meanings. Culbertson’s original work not only shows that to be human is for us to live in language but draws one back to it as elemental for understanding existing in and through alterity.
In Words Underway, Culbertson takes continental philosophy of language in new directions, drawing on hermeneutic phenomenology in Heidegger and Gadamer, deconstructive approaches in Blanchot and Derrida, French feminist theory in Kristeva, and as well critical gender theory in Butler. Written in clear and simple style, this masterful debut explores, in classic phenomenological manner, how our access to language transforms the experience of suffering of loss, memory, social alienation, and survival into something else. Culbertson pushes beyond the use of language as tool in communication, and the linguistic turn, and convincingly argues that the non-immediate relationship to language expresses world-forming and meaning-making as more essentially creative of the human being.
Culberston’s Words Underway is a significant contribution to the continental study of the philosophy of language. Not only does she engage a diverse group of thinkers—Gadamer, Derrida, Percy, Celan, Butler, Kristeva—but she also brilliantly explores how we as linguistic beings experience alienation in our various linguistic practices.
Carolyn Culbertson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Florida Gulf Coast University. She has published articles in journals including Southwest Philosophy Review, IJFAB: International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics, Continental Philosophy Review, Philosophy Today and Comparative and Continental Philosophy. She is the co-founder of the Southwest Florida Feminist Community Reading Group and Vice President of the North American Society for Philosophical Hermeneutics.