Common Languages and Shared Vulnerability

A recent partner in conversation insisted that sometimes it just is not possible to arrive at a common language, and that it would never be possible for her to agree with those who hold out for that possibility. In the same conversation, we heard from another participant about the work of peace building in areas of the world that have suffered brutal crimes inflicted by neighbors on neighbors. The realization that there are people overcoming and learning to live with the most horrible pain considerably tempered our exchange.

I think we came to see that it is one thing to agree to disagree about something inconsequential, or even about something that leads to very different opportunities and challenges. But mutual understanding hinges on a shared language. To give up on it is to give up on the possibility of fully inclusive community. It is to give up hope for a future in which healing can happen, in which there are no permanent divisions.

Keeping the conversation going, keeping the dialogue open, changing the rules as we go along to keep the game in play: if there are any principles that should never be compromised, these are among my candidates. Our shared human vulnerability is incontrovertibly at issue most pointedly precisely at the moment when one says we will never agree on the possibility of a common language. This is exactly the time and the place when it starts to be OK to begin a process of delegitimizing and dehumanizing someone else. When there is no hope of a common language, the first step toward rationalizing ignorance, prejudice, misunderstanding, demonization, and scapegoating has been taken.

A shared language is not a prison or a smothering demand for conformity. For one thing, the refusal to hold out for the possibility of a common language is already stated in a common language. Saying “we will never agree” is an instance of what Ricoeur (1967/1974) calls the “violence of the premature conclusion.” The internal contradiction of using a common language to say that we cannot hope for one is the mirror image of the person who argues for violence. Arguing is already a step into a language others can understand, implying a choice in favor of meaning over violence. The fundamental ethical and philosophical human choice takes place right here, in the desire for meaning and, as Habermas (1995, p. 199) puts it, in considerateness for a shared vulnerability. Accordingly, Ricoeur (1967/1974, p. 88) asserts,

The importance of this subject derives from the fact that the confrontation of violence with language underlies all of the problems which we can pose concerning man. This is precisely what overwhelms us. Their encounter occupies such a vast field because violence and language each occupy the totality of the human field.

The process of working out shared meanings in a common language is not a prison sentence, however. Including opportunities and concepts for critical engagement and deconstructive rethinking provide a way to prevent common languages from being overly confining. The Socratic midwife comforting the afflicted is complemented by the Socratic gadfly afflicting the comfortable (Bernasconi, 1989; Risser, 1989).

Heidegger (1982, pp. 19-23, 320-330; Fisher, 2010; Fisher and Stenner, 2011) accordingly describes the ontological (or phenomenological) method in terms of three moments: reduction, application, and deconstruction. Putting things in words is inherently reductive. There are infinities of ways of representing any experience in words, but even the most poetic among us has to choose the words that work to serve the purpose. And we may come to see on repeated application that our purposes are compromised by ambiguities that threaten to enact the violence of premature conclusions. Attentive concern for implicit meanings may lead to ways of discerning new distinctions and new conceptualizations, leading to new reductions and new applications. Languages are living and changing all the time. New sensitivities emerge and come into words by general consensus.

Ironically, being caught up in the desire for meaning can lead to the closing off of opportunities for creating meaningful relationships. Parsing differences into ever more local distinctions and separate historical and cultural dependencies can lead to a feeling that the barriers between positions are insurmountable. This way of arriving at premature conclusions has been especially prevalent among critical theorists who focused so exclusively on the deconstructive moment in the ontological method that they forgot that their writing inherently put a new reduction into play.

For instance, Delandshire and Petrosky (1994, p. 16) proclaimed that one of the ways their “post-structuralist view of knowledge is incompatible with the necessities of measurement is that interpretations are not assumed to be consistent or similar across time, contexts, or individuals.” The extremes in this display of hubris were called out by a number of observers. Bloom (1987, p. 387), for instance, held that deconstruction “is the last, predictable, stage in the suppression of reason and the denial of the possibility of truth in the name of philosophy.”

In contrast with these opposite extremes, others have kept their critical perspective in close contact with philosophical principles. Gasche (1987, p. 5) offers a “determination of deconstruction” within which “the latter’s indebtedness to the basic operations and exigencies of philosophy comes clearly into view.” Similarly, throughout his career, Derrida (2003, pp. 62-63; also see Derrida, 1981, pp. 27-28, 34-36; 1982, p. 229; Caputo, 1997, p. 80; Kearney 1984, pp. 123-124) repeatedly took pains to explain that:

…people who read me and think I’m playing with or transgressing norms—which I do, of course—usually don’t know what I know: that all of this has not only been made possible by but is constantly in contact with very classical, rigorous, demanding discipline in writing, in ‘demonstrating,’ in rhetoric. …the fact that I’ve been trained in and that I am at some level true to this classical teaching is essential. … When I take liberties, it’s always by measuring the distance from the standards I know or that I’ve been rigorously trained in.

Derrida (1989b, p. 218) recognized that

As soon as you give up philosophy, or the word philosophy, what happens is not something new or beyond philosophy, what happens is that some old hidden philosophy under another name—for instance the name of literary theory or psychology or anthropology and so on—go on dominating the research in a dogmatic or implicit way. And when you want to make this implicit philosophy as clear and explicit as possible, you have to go on philosophizing…. That’s why I am true to philosophy.

To give up on philosophy is to give up on the desire for meaning, for the working out of a common language, to accept an inevitably premature conclusion as definitive and to choose violence as an acceptable means of working out differences. Spivak (1990, 1993) then speaks to the strategic pauses that must interrupt the critical process to allow new determinations to inform revitalized concepts and applications in dialogue.

Finally, moving forward from here to better understand what it means to measure distances relative to standards requires close consideration of mathematical issues of modeling and signification. These issues reside deeply in the motivating ideas of philosophy, as has been widely recognized over the course of the history of Continental philosophy, through the works of Husserl, Heidegger, Gadamer, Derrida, and others (Derrida, 1989a, pp. 27, 66; Fisher, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2010; Kisiel, 2002). Much more remains to be said and done in this area.


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Bloom, A. (1987). The closing of the American mind: How higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Caputo, J. D. (1997). A commentary. In J. D. Caputo (Ed.), Deconstruction in a nutshell: A conversation with Jacques Derrida (pp. 31-202). New York: Fordham University Press.

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Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003a). The mathematical metaphysics of measurement and metrology: Towards meaningful quantification in the human sciences. In A. Morales (Ed.), Renascent pragmatism: Studies in law and social science (pp. 118-153). Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003b). Mathematics, measurement, metaphor, metaphysics: Parts I & II. Theory & Psychology, 13(6), 753-828.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004). Meaning and method in the social sciences. Human Studies: A Journal for Philosophy and the Social Sciences, 27(4), 429-54.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010). Reducible or irreducible? Mathematical reasoning and the ontological method. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11(1), 38-59.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011). Integrating qualitative and quantitative research approaches via the phenomenological method. International Journal of Multiple Research Approaches, 5(1), 89-103.

Gasché, R. (1987). Infrastructures and systemacity. In J. Sallis (Ed.), Deconstruction and philosophy: The texts of Jacques Derrida (pp. 3-20). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Habermas, J. (1995). Moral consciousness and communicative action. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Heidegger, M. (1967). What is a thing? (W. B. Barton, Jr. & V. Deutsch, Trans.). South Bend, Indiana: Regnery/Gateway.

Heidegger, M. (1982). The basic problems of phenomenology (J. M. Edie, Ed.) (A. Hofstadter, Trans.). Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press (Original work published 1975).

Kearney, R. (1984). Dialogues with contemporary Continental thinkers: The phenomenological heritage. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press.

Kisiel, T. (2002). The mathematical and the hermeneutical: On Heidegger’s notion of the apriori. In A. Denker & M. Heinz (Eds.), Heidegger’s way of thought: Critical and interpretative signposts (pp. 187-199). New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Ricoeur, P. (1967). Violence et langage (J. Bien, Trans.). Recherches et Debats: La Violence, 59, 86-94. (Rpt. in D. Stewart & J. Bien, (Eds.). (1974). Violence and language, in Political and social essays by Paul Ricoeur (pp. 88-101). Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.)

Risser, J. (1989). The two faces of Socrates: Gadamer/Derrida. In D. P. Michelfelder & R. E. Palmer (Eds.), Dialogue & deconstruction: The Gadamer-Derrida encounter (pp. 176-185). Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Spivak, G. C. (1990). The post-colonial critic: Interviews, strategies, dialogue. New York: Routledge.

Spivak, G. C. (1993). Outside in the teaching machine. New York: Routledge.


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One Response to “Common Languages and Shared Vulnerability”

  1. The Problem with Premature Conclusions | portfoliolongo Says:

    […] blog post written by my friend, William Fisher, inspired this drawing. I encourage you to read it. William has a lot to say, and he always pumps […]

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