The Limitations of Speech

This is final draft for a talk I gave at a one day symposium on the teaching of sculpture, at the University for the Creative Arts, Canterbury, 14th June 2012

The Limitations of Speech

Derek Hampson

In the May 2012 edition of Art Monthly, in an article entitled ‘Do You Believe In Things’ Paul O’Kane calls for artists, particularly sculptors, to continue ‘to believe in things’. He characterises sculpture as ‘that branch of the arts that more than any other has considered the ‘thing’ or things to be at the centre of its particular universe’.

To support his belief in things, O’Kane cites the writings of several major 20th century thinkers on the theme, such as Marx, Freud and particularly Martin Heidegger, who  explores the idea of things in works such as What is a Thing.

O’Kane’s article is in part a gentle riposte to the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who is quoted as someone who does not believe in things. This refusal to believe in things can appear as a threat to the teaching of sculpture, making teachers and students disoriented, without solid ground from which they can express an understanding of the actuality of objects. Yet we could also see it as an opportunity, one in which established concepts of materiality are made questionable, allowing other alternative narratives to be considered.

In this short presentation I will endeavour to indicate one such narrative, one that proceeds from where speaking and objects meet. I will outline a relationship between discourse and objects, in which speaking as definition allows what is to appear as complete and present.  In the process creating a ground from which one might once more believe in things.

This narrative will be based upon the work of Martin Heidegger; beginning with his analysis of things in The Origin of the Work of Art (published 1950). In this work Heidegger discusses the nature of things, starting from the Kantian understanding, in which everything in the world, both visible and invisible, is a thing. Heidegger follows this with his own analysis, through which he finds only those objects that have come into existence without the involvement of human agency, can truly be called things. These are characterised as pebbles on a beach, or a clod of earth in a field. Heidegger uses the term ‘mere things’ to describe these, where ‘mere’ means pure. Furthermore these mere things can never be works of art.

In this analysis, things have no role in the constitution of artworks, and yet as Heidegger also says, works of art ‘… are as naturally present as things’. This understanding finds expression in our everyday language, when we say a sculpture is in bronze or a painting is in oils etc.

A work of art is not a thing but has the character of a thing – this strange duality is not confined to artworks, for Heidegger ‘every concept of being has a specific double-character to its meaning’ (Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy, 20). For us this structure of duality is hidden, covered over by sedimented layers of misinterpretation. If we are to access an original understanding of things, through their innate duality, these misinterpretations need to be swept away.

Heidegger approaches this task through an analysis of Greek philosophy’s understanding of the world and the beings/things in it.  The Greek term for being is ousia, which is also commonly translated as ‘substance’. Heiddeger traces the Greek understanding of substance through an analysis of ousia, which he finds has a natural ambiguity due to its double meaning, as both being and Being. This ambiguity finds expression in how we experience entities – they can be present or absent, they can be here of they can be there, they can be visible or invisible.

That substances have a dual character is familiar to us through the concept of the subject/object relationship, which finds its ultimate expression in the writings of Immanuel Kant. For Kant the thing is unknowable, conceptual, accessed through the sensations it gives us, rather than through the thing in itself, i.e. a thing’s objectivity can only be known subjectively.

This abstract sense of the duality of things, is overturned in Heidegger’s phenomenological analysis of our experience of them. He finds they are with us, alongside us – they press upon us, they are present; yet they also constantly disappear from view. How can we account for this?

In our everyday commerce with the world, substances are invisible, we are never aware of them, we ‘… overlook them in seeing beyond them. They do not have the character of presence…’. Heidegger equates this capacity for things to disappear from view with the everyday.

It is only when the everyday is disturbed by an unexpected event that what is hidden comes into view. For example when writing with a pen, it runs out of ink, only then does the pen becomes visible. This invisible/visible structure of substance is reflected in the structure of definition, called upon to show substances as visible and as present and complete.

The function of definition is; ‘making one familiar with a being in its being’. Definition in this instance is not meant to specify the Scholastic term definitio, which compares one object with another, through the specification of genus and specific difference; which has the aim of helping us arrive at what the object under discussion is.  Heidegger goes beyond the Scholastics, he turns to the Greek horismos. Rather than focusing on what an object is, horismos tells us how an object is, in terms of limit (BCAP, 29).

This setting into its limit is the function of the horismos, which finds expression in the customary/terminological structure of speaking. Customary speaking can be thought as equivalent to the everyday, and occurs when we speak with each other, without the need for further qualification. Like the everyday object, which is invisible, we have no need to see the subject of customary speech, it is ‘self-evident’. Only in the terminological expression does the substance comes into view.

I will go a little further into what the terminological meaning tells us – the thing to notice is the name itself; ‘terminological’ implies terminus – end, limit. This returns us to the concept of horismos, which has within it the concept of limit. Thus the expression of the terminological meaning, can be understood as showing the definition of a thing in terms of its limit. This terminological expression as limit, is in turn based upon the self-evidence of the customary.

How does this help us in the task of understanding substances in their presence and completeness? For this we need to return to the concept of substances/ousia in order to understand the nature of objects as we experience them. Heidegger finds that substances were understood by the Greeks as ‘property, possession, goods, estate…’. From which he concludes that they are a ‘being that is there for me in an emphatic way … that is there at my disposal’ (BCAP 19). Thus substance is available for me – and as such it has the character of being present.

The term the Greeks used to capture the character of substance as being present is soma. Soma is usually translated as body, i.e. corporeality. Heidegger warns us that we must not fall into a trap of understanding the term as meaning ‘materiality’ or ‘having-the-character-of-stuff’. Rather soma means having the ‘characteristic obtrusiveness’ of ‘a being that is there’. Yet rather than just being there, it is being there for me – such that soma later takes on the meaning of ‘slave or prisoner’, denoting what is there belongs to me and is at my disposal.

The soma is experienced as being present, but also hidden. It is only when it is brought out of hiding through terminological speech, is it experienced as being complete. This is demonstrated by the somata, characteristics of bodily substances. These somata include surface, which defines a body’s limit, beyond which there is nothing. The being-there of things means both, being present and being complete. This being-there is uncovered through speaking as a process of definition that opens our eyes to ‘that which is there’.


To understand the dual nature of the object I called upon a form of definition that allows access to its duality, i.e. the horismos. This demonstrates that in order to get at that which is there, in its presence and completeness, I have to proceed from that which is not there; i.e. things understood in their customary/everyday invisibility. Thus understanding of the terminological object as complete and present is based upon its everyday being.

One can speculate that Deleuze’s refusal to believe in things, corresponds to the world of the invisible everyday, which provides the ground on which all articulation on the nature of things proceeds, which leads Heidegger to write:

I must have ground under my feet, a ground that is there in an immediate self-evidence, if I am to get at being, I cannot in fantasy, hold myself to a definite concept of being and then speculate. (BCAP, 27)

Derek Hampson