File spoon-archives/heidegger.archive/heidegger_1998/heidegger.9810, message 38

Date: Mon, 05 Oct 1998 15:53:36 +0900
Subject: Re: Meaning

Michael and Jim,

Michael, thanks very much for your explanations concerning Heidegger's
"Aus einem Gespraech von der Sprache." My German is pretty rusty, so I
really appreciate your insights. I certainly find your 'from' rather
than 'on' valuable. Do you think it might also be possible to
translate 'von' even along the lines of 'from' or even 'from within'
or 'from the perspective of.' That is, could 'von' and 'Aus' be
working the same vein, as it were? Or would German usage exclude that?
I get the feeling reading the conversation even in translation that
what is important in "what" the conversers say is (is supposed to be,
at least) coming from the essence of language -- at least as much in
how the speakers say things as in what they say. Pardon a further
question, but how does "From a conversation _of_ language" sound? Here
"of" would have have the oscillating sense of 'concerning/about' and
'belonging to' which I believe Heidegger sometimes points toward (in

Yes, as you eloquently point out, Heidegger does give his own
definition of Japanese 'koto.' It's a very suggestive one that seems
to also draw on Kuki Shuzo's own highly personal interpretation of the
Japanese word 'iki,' which is extremely complex and might be crudely
glossed as 'gracious attractiveness' or something like that. The thing
that worries me a bit is that Heidegger's definition of 'koto,'
extremely interesting and suggestive as it is, is not one that
resembles the definitions given by Japanese philologists or linguists
or the usage of ordinary Japanese speakers, at least the ones I'm
aware of. In fact, Tezuka Tomio, a professor of German literature from
Japan whose visit to Heidegger in 1954 seems to have occasioned the
"Conversation," recalls the following:

     I replied: 'The word you are asking about is _kotoba_. Since I am
not a specialist in this area, I cannot offer a precise account, but I
think that the _koto_ is connected with _koto_ [meaning "matter"] of
_kotogara_ [meaning "event" or "affair" (_Sache_)]. The _ba_ is a
sound transformation of _ha_ and has connotations of "many" or
"dense", as with leaves (_ha_) on a tree. If this is right , then the
_koto_ of "language" and the _koto_ of "matter" are two sides of the
same coin: things happen and become language (_kotoba_). The word
"_kotoba_" may have its roots in ideas of this kind.'
    This explanation seemed to fit well with Heidegger's ideas. Taking
notes on a piece of paper that was to hand, he said: 'Very
interesting! In that case, Herr Tezuka, the Japanese word for
"language", _kotoba_, can mean _Ding_ [thing]'.
     There was an element here of forcing the word into a preconceived
idea, but I was not in a position to contradict this interpretation.
'Perhaps one can say that', I replied. 'In my opinion it could mean
thing [_Ding_] as well as affair [_Sache_]'.
     'Isn't that so? Have you read my essay "The Thing"?....

[From Reinhard May, 'Heidegger's Hidden Sources,' Routledge, 1996, p.
60; trans. by Graham Parkes from 'Ex oriente lux,' Steiner Verlag,
I was stimulated to open this book by Michael's messages, and it might
be interesting to people on the list, although it's demythologizing
tone and lack of philosophic focus are serious limits.] By the way,
however, Tezuka's linking of 'koto' (Old Japanese for 'language') and
another 'koto' (thing [abstract], matter, event [!],' isn't accepted
by any historical linguist I know of; it resembles more of a pun.

Michael, I assume one of the reasons Tezuka felt hesitant about
Heidegger's interpretation of 'koto' was that a concrete, sensuous
thing is usually called 'mono' in Japanese as opposed to a 'koto,' an
affair, event, abstract thing.' I guess Heidegger is trying to
problematize just this distinction, but still, isn't there a sense in
which Heidegger is mainly _using_ the Japanese word to illustrate a
point he could have made just as well in German? What I'm wondering
about is just how much two-way conversation is going on in
"Conversation" and, to repeat the same thing, just how widely the
hermeneutic-poetic circles by which the conversation proceeds actually
curve. Of course "Conversation" is a fictional (poetic?) work and
doesn't pretend to be a transcription of Heidegger's talk with Tezuka,
but I find myself wishing that the event-circles were a little wider.
Since Heidegger does claim that Japanese and East Asian languages are
"other," the question of whether he has dealt sufficiently with their
alterity does seem important.

Michael, would it be reductive to say that in "Conversation" Heidegger
is working a difference between ontic languages and the essence
(Wesen) of language? And for him is there one house of language here
or are there many? "Is there" something like language in general as
opposed to individual languages, and, if so, are these both different
from the essence of language or is the distinction elsewhere? I'm
getting dizzy trying to understand simultaneously the importance of
place and dwelling poetically and the importance of conversing with
the radically other, for example, East Asian languages in relation to

Jim, yes, the modern standardized Sino-Japanese characters (kanji) for
'kotoba,' 'word, speech, language,' mean, roughly, 'word' plus
'leaf/leaves.' But I'll wager that even if you personally interviewed
130 million Japanese, very few of them (a few Shinto priests perhaps?)
would give 'word leaves' as the primary meaning or consider 'kotoba'
vegetative, although more people may have made the association during
the period nationalism of the 30s and 40s, when the emperor's words
were believed to organically represent the hearts/minds of all
Japanese and, at the same time, to bring about their own reality or
thinghood. In somewhat the same way, the Japanese word for 'nation
state' is 'kokka.' Literally its Sino-Japanese characters mean
'state-family.' Now of course many modernizers and nationalists sought
to inculcate a belief that the new, post-1868 Japanese state was
actually just one big old family with the emperor as the grand
patriarch, but this belief was surely never universal, even during the
war. In the 1990s, it would be out of the question to read either
'kotoba' or 'kokka' literally and expect to communicate with people.  

You've ask a good question, nonetheless. I just don't know when the
particular combination of Sino-Japanese characters meaning
'word-leaves' became the standard for 'word, language.' Up until 1868,
a variety of characters were used, although 'kotoba' was often simply
written in hiragana or katakana phonetic scripts. A wild guess would
be that the 'word-leaves' combination was chosen to become the
official standard because of its elegant courtly heritage by Japanese
modernizers and supporters of the imperial system sometime between
1868, when Japan definitively began to "modernize," and the end of the
1880s, when mass literacy (and universal conscription) and a
"rationalization" of the language were in full swing. (You mention
some of the "reforms.") By the 20th century, it may have seemed
natural (at least on prompted second thought natural) to scholars like

The earliest examples of 'kotoba' in Old Japanese were written 1)
phonetically using Sino-Japanese characters, 2) in various characters
having the meanings 'word, language, expression, etc.' in Chinese, and
3) in a combination of the characters 'word' and 'feather' ('ha'). The
last seems to have been an elegant conceit, but it's still a
suggestive one! The direct connection of words with leaves seems to
have been made by Kyoto courtiers, who used mainly hiragana phonetic
script for 'kotoba' in their non-literary-Chinese writings, especially
waka poems and diaries. This was rather late(!), around the late 9th
century. This elegant metaphor was part of a tendency of the courtiers
to call writings 'grass' or other vegetative names such as 'leaves,'
'seaweed,' or 'forest,' a metaphor cluster which apparently come from
ancient Chinese literature. The 'organic stem' metaphor already seems
clearly implicit in the quote from the 'Kokinshu' kana preface which I
quoted yesterday.

The almost metaphysical use of 'blossom'/'flower' images came a little
later, in the medieval period, when Buddhism became influential in
almost all the Japanese arts. (It's also the period when 'ku' and
'iro,' mentioned by Heidegger in "Conversation," also became
widespread in Japanese society.) May suggests that Heidegger got the
blossom image from Benl's work on No drama. The dramatist and theorist
Zeami (or Seami) has much to say about the flowering of the deeply
insightful No actor (he's talking only about males) who
(ontologically??) becomes of the role rather than (ontically??) simply
acting it. Zeami has been translated into many languages, and I
suspect those involved in therapy might possibly find his writings

Jim, I certainly hope I'm not talking about any kind of "pure" Yamato
language which is the source of all authenticity, etc. The works of
Roy Miller you mention, along with those of many Japanese linguists,
are certainly a good antidote to that discredited paradigm. What I was
trying to sketch was that the 'words-as-leaves' metaphor was
constructed within a single dialect, the courtier dialect. Beyond the
court and those influenced by the very prestigious Kyoto courtly
dialect (which began to flourish about three centuries after the
earliest extant documents), the words-as-leaves metaphor doesn't seem
to hold (from the earliest documents up until the present) -- except
among nativist-nationalist or neoclassical scholars and nationalist
supporters of the imperial system, which was virtually recreated after
1868. Though the imperial system was based mainly on the Prussian
model, it was justified mainly with romantic neoclassical imagery
claiming to go back to the primeval, "pure" period of Yamato and the
Yamato language you mention. In the process, later (early medieval)
imagery, such as words-as-leaves, was read back into (or substituted
for) the ancient texts. It also gained dominance and was standardized
in modern Sino-Japanese character usage, which, I believe, shouldn't
be taken literally.

Still, I am bothered by Heidegger's putting "we Japanese" and similar
expressions into the mouth of the "Japanese" in "Conversation." "We
Japanese" is a phrase commonly used by Japanese in English, but I
sometimes get the uneasy feeling that Heidegger is pushing it as far
as it will go in order to set up an all-too-easy alterity of East
Asian languages. This may possibly verge on the almost mystical sense
of "the inaccessibility of Yamato Kotoba" you mention, although plenty
of distinctions can also be made. This is a very difficult and
delicate problem, so I would appreciate your, and others', help in
understanding it.

I will check out the references to Humboldt you mention. It's
interesting that May (p. 19) thinks Heidegger is also drawing on
Humboldt's notion of the word as a bud blossoming from language. I
wonder if Heidegger is also drawing on flower images (and other
organic images) from from the late 18th and early 19th century German
discussions in general? Do you know if Schelling makes something of
blossoms or petals?

Thank you both for your stimulating thoughts.


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