Meaning or Presence?

Quoted from: Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht” Our Broad Present, 2014

My departure from metaphysics in this very sense takes into account and insists on the experience that our relationship to things (and to cultural artifacts in particular) is, inevitably, never only a relationship of meaning attribution.

As long as I use the word things to refer to what the Cartesian tradition calls res extensae, we also and always live in and are aware of a spatial relationship to these things. Things can be “present” or “absent” to us, and, if they are present, they are either closer to or further away from our bodies. By calling them present, then, in the very original sense of Latin prae-esse, we are saying that things are “in front” of ourselves and thereby tangible. There are no further implications that I propose to associate with this concept.

Based on the historical observation, however, that certain cultures, like our own “modern” culture, for example (whatever we exactly may mean by modern), have a greater tendency than other cultures to bracket the dimension of presence and its implications, I have come to propose a typology (in the traditional Weberian sense) between “meaning cultures” and “presence cultures.”

Here are a few of the (inevitably, and without any bad conscience, “binary”) distinctions that I propose to make.

In a meaning culture, firstly, the dominant form of human self-reference will always correspond to the basic outline of what Western culture calls subject and subjectivity, i.e., it will refer to a body-less observer who, from a position of eccentricity vis-à-vis the world of things, will attribute meanings to those things. A presence culture, in contrast, will integrate both spiritual and physical existence into its human self-reference (think, as an illustration, of the motif of the “spiritual and bodily resurrection from the dead” in medieval Christianity).

It follows from this initial distinction that, secondly, in a presence culture humans consider themselves to be part of the world of objects instead of being ontologically separated from it (this may have been the view that Heidegger wanted to recover with “being-in-the-world” as one of his key concepts in Being and Time).

Thirdly, and on a higher level of complexity, human existence, in a meaning culture, unfolds and realizes itself in constant and ongoing attempts at transforming the world (“actions”) that are based on the interpretation of things and on the projection of human desires into the future. This drive toward change and transformation is absent from presence cultures where humans just want to inscribe their behavior into what they consider to be structures and rules of a given cosmology (what we call rituals are frames for such attempts to correspond to cosmological frames).

I will abandon this typology here, for I trust that it has fulfilled the function that I have assigned to it within the larger context of my argument: I wanted to illustrate that, on the one hand, language in meaning cultures does cover all those functions that modern philosophy of European descent is presupposing and talking about. On the other hand, it is much less obvious what roles language can play in presence cultures (or in a world seen from a presence culture perspective). The six types of “amalgamations” between language and presence that I want to refer to in the second section of my text are intended to present a multifaceted answer to this same question.

From: Gumbrecht, H. U. (2014). Our Broad Present: Time and Contemporary Culture (Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture). Columbia University Press.


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