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Gustav Siewerth (19031963) was a significant early twentieth-century Catholic philosopher who brought the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas to bear on modern thought, above all German Idealism and phenomenology. His philosophy had a notable influence both on Hans Urs von Balthasar and Ferdinand Ulrich, the latter of whom adopted principles formulated by Siewerth even as he critically reinterpreted them within his account of being as love.

The present selection is taken from a late work by Siewerth, his Philosophy of Language (Philosophie der Sprache [Johannes Verlag Einsiedeln, 1962], 60‒64), a compilation of four interrelated essays that treat the theme of language from various angles, from the grounding of the word in images drawn from corporeal experience to the refinement of speech in poetry and praise. The following excerpt is found in the last pages of the volume’s second essay, “The Senses and the Word” (“Die Sinne und das Wort”), where the author develops aspects of Thomistic anthropology in a mode that is marked by his reading of Heidegger in the thirties and forties on the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin.

The selection was translated from the original German by Erik van Versendaal.

Giving Names

Where does the word end up when it dies away (verhallt)? It does not “go under” into empty nothingness, but resonates (hallt) there where the vibration (Hall) of speech was directed. That is, speech is either kept in the heart of its addressee, wondrously gifting him on its winged couriers, or else it reverberates in the very things it invokes, in the natures to which it refers. What this means is clarified if we unfold the metaphysical essence of the mother tongue. If the perceiving child safeguards the images of his world, these nevertheless remain enveloped for him in a shadowy silence. But when the mother bestows her loving speech on the child, she sends winged words that appeal and refer to things like intimate messages of love. These words vanish in being sounded, only to let their spirited pictures, drawn from the heart, continue ringing in the things they bespeak. In this way, things themselves become familiar and even homelike to us in the love-breath of maternal speech, and are endowed with the graciousness of its words, which whisperingly caress these things and call them into life. From now on the child sees the “chair” or the “puppet” when it is spoken of, and he cannot turn toward any nature without that maternal word chiming along with it as its name. To give things their names means to reproduce them (sie einzeugen) in the life of the heart. Only insofar as something is born-forth and attested to (bezeugt) in being named can it be for us a familiar thing (Zeug) with which we dwell and work.

The Poetic Word

Through the word’s kenosis into the thing and its rising as the name, speech proceeds in “unison” with the thing and the thing with speech. The word is the thing. Since we today write the word on paper and so perceive it as an image out of letters, we have forgotten that at one time the word only rung out in the thing and that the thing was only vibrant in the word. Thunder truly quakes in being uttered, and lightning shoots and shocks and blinds with rending force when it is said. In speech’s care for the essence of beings lies the truth that the word shows forth the thing itself. So just as God created the world out of nothing, the poet fashions a world in the word. It is not our envisaging that imitatively reproduces whatever is poetic in a poem, but rather the words of the poem are that which give life to us. The gleam in the appearance of things that stems from our own imagination plays only a lesser role when, for instance, we hear:

Therefore, since all around us are heaped

The summits of Time,

And the most beloved dwell nearby, wearing away

On mountains most separate,

Give us innocent water,

O pinions give us, with minds most faithful

To cross over and to return.[1]

The poem is its own word. Everything that would be brought before the imagination beside and beyond the words we hear will be misleading and distracting compared to that which is called upon in the word itself—that which the word gathers before our vision, for our encounter, and as an event.

The Essential Wealth of Speech

So the perceptive gathering of linguistic reason unifies the living tree of our sensory power with the tree of the world, whose summit is the luminous sky, whose ground is the dark soil, and whose trunk comprises trees, mountains, the air, people. But reason transcends all of these into being, which pervades, unifies, and grants all things, and indeed in its unifying abyss of light and its godly night everlastingly releases itself from all things earthly. Being is the “absolute” or the “released” (das Abgelöste), just as it is at the same time that which is most resolutely near. Being is the revelation of God himself in his “images,” which at once profoundly conceal him.

Because the power of being as released and releasing prevails in speech, the expressive word holds the thing fast, opens it up into its truly abiding unity, and brings it within reason’s firm grasp. That which the word holds together and grounds it also places into the freedom of the “absolved,” so that the collecting power of the logos repairs what is broken, refers in its judgments to being qua being, and in being itself lets existing things stand-forth and remain themselves, giving birth thereby to metaphysical discourse. Insofar, however, as being itself comes into language, every sentence will be pervaded by being’s essential, grounding, unifying, and exhibiting power, and the natures it names will refer in the darkling light of unmoved being to God, the ground of all principles. When language is carried out in accord with its own proper character, it places all images and appearances into the essential, rendering them into sensory signs that point the way to God. Language thus endows the poet with the illuminating power for the truth and goodness of natures. Because the poet is inspired by God, he can bring to expression essential and ontological depths in the word’s vibrant reflection of reality. The poetic proclamation is lit-through by the truth of being, provided the word has gathered up the clarifying strength to penetrate and mirror the world within reflective thought. The poet thus lives out of the wisdom of language, and its inner power “to espouse” (Vermählungskraft) what is.

The Essential Light of Images

What releases the image into the essential and divests its appearance is the “shine” of being, whose original and revelatory radiance is distinguished by way of the word from superficial vagueness and deceptive seeming, and in this word is brought into its essential manifestation. All beholding clears itself out in its unveiling into the truth of an essential vision, whether this be the metaphysical word that says being or the Word of God that calls for a decisive judgment. He to whom the image yields the disclosure and arrival of being in its abiding, along with the collected peace that comes with the simultaneous extroversion and introversion in the act of beholding, lets the word of being prevail over every step and in every domain of understanding and instruction. He it is who attends silently and perceptively to the word of the poet, recollecting himself in the quiet of the heart’s listening—for “the word’s power waxes as it sleeps.”[2] As Hölderlin later sings:

He must suffer beforehand;

but now he names that which he loves most.

Now, words for it must, now,

Rise forth like flowers.[3]

Gustav Siewerth (1903‒1963) was a German philosopher.

[1] Friedrich Hölderlin, “Patmos,” trans. Michael Hamburger, translation slightly modified.

[2] Friedrich Hölderlin, “Bread and Wine,” stanza 4.

[3] Ibid., stanza 5.

Gustav Siewerth (1903‒1963) was a significant early twentieth-century Catholic philosopher who brought the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas to bear on modern thought, above all German Idealism and phenomenology. His philosophy had a notable influence both on Hans Urs von Balthasar and Ferdinand Ulrich.

Posted on March 1, 2021

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