An interview with Santiago Zabala

Question: Who is Ernst Tugendhat and why is he important?

Santiago Zabala: Ernst Tugendhat is a Jewish philosopher, born in 1930 in the town of Brünn in what was then Czechoslovakia. After the rise of Nazism in Europe, his family was forced to immigrate first to Switzerland and then to Venezuela. His interest in Heidegger’s philosophy was kindled at the age of fifteen when his mother gave him a copy of Heidegger’s Being and Time and his aunt, Helene Weiss, showed him the transcripts she took from Heidegger’s seminars.

After he got his undergraduate degree at Stanford in 1949, he returned in Germany to participate in Heidegger’s seminars in Fribourg. He became, together with Hans-Georg Gadamer, Rüdiger Bubner, and Michael Theunissen, one of the most brilliant German disciples of Heidegger, but contrary to his colleagues, he did not follow his master and severely criticized his conception of truth. This criticism moved him toward analytic philosophy’s understanding of semantics, propositions, and singular terms, allowing him to find a way to respond to the ontological questions that Heidegger had rehabilitated.

He is one of the most important living philosophers not only for having introduced analytic philosophy to Germany (with the publication of Traditional and Analytical Philosophy in 1976) but also for fusing together analytic and continental traditions in the self-consciousness debate. In Self-Consciousness and Self-Determination (1979), which is his second book translated into English, Tugendhat reformulates self-consciousness on the basis of the linguistic turn, considering each intentional consciousness as a propositional consciousness. By following Heidegger’s deconstruction of the metaphysical model of presence, where mental states are configured as the relationship of an object in front of a subject (and become in this way an object as any other), he interprets them as propositional attitudes. In this way he overcomes metaphysics through analytic methods. While Gadamer developed Heidegger’s philosophy in hermeneutics (an “urbanization” of Heidegger’s ontology, as Habermas pointed out), Tugendhat did the same thing in analytic philosophy (the “semantization” of Heidegger’s ontology). I think that Tugendhat, just like Gadamer, owes everything to Heidegger and should be considered a “Heideggerian philosopher,” but he has not received the same positive reaction as Gadamer because the analytic community, which has always been too defensive toward anyone coming from Heidegger’s classes, tried to ignore him. After all, as Rorty used to say, “analytical philosophy looks like the last gasp of the onto-theological tradition.”

Question: Why is a study on Tugendhat necessary today, and what does his work add to contemporary philosophical discussions? What is unique in his work that bridges continental and analytic philosophy?

Santiago Zabala: A study on Tugendhat is necessary not only because there is no other but most of all because it demonstrates that the analytical/continental division does not condition philosophy anymore. If Tugendhat has been ignored until now it is because this division was strong enough to hide those philosophers that were able to fuse together the linguistic turn and the end of metaphysics. Today we have philosophers such as H. Putnam, R. B. Pippin, C. G. Prado, Robert Brandom, Barry Allen, and Samuel C. Wheeler III who overcame this division by talking with both sides. This, in a way, is what both Rorty and Tugendhat started more than twenty years ago. Two things distinguish Tugendhat: first, his ability to show how Heidegger’s ontological questions can find a response in formal semantics and, second, the fundamental hermeneutic nature of analytic philosophy.

Question: What do you mean by “the hermeneutic nature of analytic philosophy”? Isn’t this a provocation against analytic philosophy?

Santiago Zabala: I do not think it should be interpreted as a provocation because the “analytic philosophy” Tugendhat is after is not metaphysical but postmetaphysical. The hermeneutic nature of analytic philosophy only indicates those qualities that are common to a postmetaphysical approach. Such an approach must leave aside not only the subject-centered structure of traditional philosophy but also the object-centered method since the intersubjective understanding in language is the new universal system of reference. For such an approach language must always be relative and limited to our interest because a “metalanguage” is useless once we preclude the possibility of a “god’s eye view from nowhere.” If, as H. Putnam says, “we cannot have a view of the world that does not reflect our interests and values”—and hermeneutics is the first philosophy to recognize this precomprehension of the world—then a postmetaphysical analytic philosophy will have a hermeneutic nature. This expression was first used by Tugendhat in an essay entitled “Philosophical Method from an Analytic Point of View” (1989), where he tried to show the ontological status of language, that is, how there are no phenomena outside of the language that constitutes them. For example, is it possible to postulate an extralinguistic ethics? The answer is no because ethical phenomena cannot have a prelinguistic status. We get hold of them only by grasping other words that make up the environment for understanding the word “ethics.” This is why for Tugendhat it is so important to confront new linguistic communities since this is the best way to expand our particular point of view. The end of metaphysics also means the end of modernity, hence of any possible cultural metalanguage: “the potential expansion of horizons that can result from the encounter with other language communities,” said Tugendhat, “shows the latently hermeneutic nature of the analytic method.”

Question: Echoing Nietzsche’s famous statement, “there are no facts, only interpretations,” you have a section entitled “There Are No Facts, Only True Propositions.” Is this also part of the hermeneutic nature of analytic philosophy.

Santiago Zabala: Yes, Tugendhat’s criticism of phenomenology induces one to think that there are no facts out there in the world, only true propositions, because our understanding of objects only occurs through the way we talk about them. From the perspective of language itself, the universal dimension in which we live is not primarily a world of objects, entities, or facts but a world of sentences, propositions, and unities of meaning. According to Tugendhat, we do not need a representation to understand a predicate because the understanding of predicates does not take place through pointing to a general essence but through applying the predicate to different objects. In other words, understanding the meaning of the predicate does consist in seeing something but in mastering the rule that determines the application of the predicate. The meaning of the predicate is the rule that determines its application. This is why there are not facts but only true or false propositions: We do not represent objects to ourselves; we mean objects. The function of the predicate is not to stand for something but to understand its characterization function. In chapter 4 I explain this through the example of a red castle situated in Heidelberg (where Tugendhat taught for several years). In order to understand the sentence “The castle is red,” we do not need to show how the predicate of the sentence stands for a characteristic (redness) that is synthesized with the object, but rather to say that the object—the castle—is characterized in a specific manner by the predicate “is red.” The predicate does not link the indicated object by the singular term (the castle of Heidelberg) to an objective characterization (the redness) but rather determines the object according to a nature that belongs to the same object. The truth of the entire sentence will not depend on the object but on the meaning of the parts that constitute the sentence. Tugendhat’s insistence upon the predicative form (is red) against its nominative (the redness) is directly related to his anti-Platonism, that is, the hermeneutic nature of philosophy.

Question: This book was first published in 2004 in Italian; has it been updated?

Santiago Zabala: Yes, this is not only a translation but a new edition wherein much of the secondary literature has been updated. My Italian colleagues who have now read this new edition have asked me to update the Italian edition because the English edition is much more rich and clear. Apart from finding every essay by Tugendhat that has been translated (in edited books such as Contemporary German Philosophy, The Critical Heidegger, orHermeneutics and Truth), I was also able to use several studies where Tugendhat was analyzed, such as Pippin’s study on Hegel (Hegel’s Idealism), Andrew Bowie’s history of contemporary German philosophy, and also the recent festschrift for Tugendhat’s seventy-fifth birthday (Ernst Tugendhat’s Ethik).

Question: What do you think the reactions to this book will be? And how would you suggest the reader approach it?

Santiago Zabala: If it introduces Tugendhat’s philosophical thought to the Anglo-American public I would be very satisfied because this would also provide another example that the analytic/continental divide has ended, just as metaphysics has. The best way to approach my book is by considering Tugendhat an example of those philosophers whom Rorty called “conversational philosophers,” that is, those “who are sufficiently historicist as to think of themselves as taking part in a conversation rather than as practicing a quasi-scientific discipline.” Tugendhat is such a conversational philosopher; he pursued a conversation with his predecessors (Husserl, Heidegger) to turn them to new purposes (analytic philosophy). Perhaps the specific interpretation I give of Tugendhat might (as Tugendhat says in the dialogue that closes the book) induce some readers to say I make him depend too much on Heidegger or that he only confronts old analytic philosophers such as Frege and Russell. Also, those who are acquainted with his recent works on ethics, human rights, and anthropology might accuse me of not having investigated these themes. But my goal was only to work on his strictly philosophical studies, which ended shortly after the publication of Self-Consciousness and Self-Determination in 1979. Anyone interested in his other work, though, will find in the bibliography the list not only of all his publications but also all the secondary literature available on these as well. But I did not limit the book to his philosophical investigation solely because I believe it to be the most original and interesting part of his vast intellectual production but because his works on ethics, humans rights, and anthropology (in which I find much to agree with) have very little to do with his analysis of Aristotle, Husserl, Heidegger, analytic philosophy, and self-consciousness.