In and Out of Words

Journal of Continental Philosophy 3 (1):105-134 (2022)
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What is the relationship between language and experience? This question was a central concern of the eminent Kyoto School philosopher and lay Zen master Ueda Shizuteru (1926–2019). In fact, this question has long been a focal issue of the Zen tradition. Famously, if also paradoxically, the Zen tradition has claimed to “not to rely on words and letters” even while producing volumes of texts: poetry and didactic discourses as well as encounter dialogues (mondō) and kōan collections. Critics have accused Zen of being self-contradictory in this regard, yet Ueda demonstrates that Zen’s paradoxical ambivalence toward language is not a problem, but rather the point. Moreover, he explains how Zen teachings and practices can help us radically rethink the relationship between language and experience after the “linguistic turn” in philosophy. In this article, I examine Ueda’s contributions to the philosophy of language by bringing his thought into critical dialogue with Continental philosophers such as Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Gadamer as well as with some scholars of Zen. In short, Ueda rejects both the view that we are trapped within the bounds of language and the view that we could meaningfully dwell in a world outside of language. Rather, he argues, in everyday life as well as—in an intensified manner—in Zen practice and poetic expression, we are called on to engage in a ceaseless movement of “exiting language and exiting into language.”



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Bret W. Davis
Loyola University Maryland

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