Linguistically Mediated Liberation: Freedom and Limits of Understanding in Thich Nhat Hanh and Hans-Georg Gadamer

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Abstract

Many despair at trying to understand something’s meaning and express dissatisfaction with language wholesale. What if some things simply are not understandable? Thich Nhat Hanh coined interbeing to name the fundamental principle of interdependence defining Buddhist ontologies, and uses interbeing to dislodge despair resulting from rigid expectations of how things must be. Thich also criticized a standard view of language as generating those rigid expectations. Drawing upon classical humanist traditions, Hans-Georg Gadamer promoted a hermeneutics whereby interpreters overcome existential alienation. In his theory of understanding meaning, Gadamer rehabilitated language as having its being in revealing aspects of truth. By situating Gadamer’s hermeneutics within Thich’s interbeing, I develop limits of understanding that facilitate freedom from despair about meaning and language. Thich and Gadamer both taught that the quest for stability within change is misguided. This requires rigorous attention to the limits of understanding. Attention to these limits serves to liberate people from clinging to the illusion that all things are understandable and despair accompanying the incapacity to understand some things.

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