Incomprehensibility. Investigating Obscuritas in Ancient Rhetoric and Modern Literature and Philosophy (1870–1970)

Research Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, 2015–2016
Felix Christen

In ancient rhetoric, the category of asapheia or obscuritas – darkness or incomprehensibility of speech – indicates a point in a rhetorical system that invites fundamental questions about the conditions necessary for interpreting speech and even the very possibility of understanding. In Nietzsche’s early lectures on rhetoric, he seeks out this spot where understanding speech becomes problematic. The lectures thus provide insight into the rhetorical prehistory behind Nietzsche’s later theoretical writings on interpretation, which became crucial in opening up the horizon of hermeneutics in the 20th century. The research project pursues this trajectory and examines, first, the discourse on incomprehensibility with special attention to founding moments in rhetorical thought (in ancient rhetoric and in Nietzsche’s writings), second, hermeneutics and its critics (in the writings of Heidegger and Adorno), and finally, ideas and reflections about the question of darkness/obscurity from the realm of literature (in the writings of Kafka and Celan). Incomprehensibility, whether in the late works of Nietzsche, Heidegger’s hermeneutics, or Adorno’s  Aesthetic Theory, does not simply refer to a characteristic of a given (literary or philosophical) text. Instead, it involves a fundamental methodological reflection that calls into question the relationship between subject and object, that is to say, an interpreter’s relationship to a text, including the interpreter’s own sense of self. The thrust of the argument is therefore not so much directed towards establishing (once again) incomprehensibility as a basic component of literary modernity based on a specific collection of texts, as Hugo Friedrich’s classic study The Structure of Modern Poetry does and other works by more recent scholars have also done (to be sure, when confronted with Celan’s poetry these approaches prove to be in need of revision). The central goal of this project deals more with revealing the driving forces behind definitions of incomprehensibility as found in texts on rhetoric from antiquity and in philosophical and literary texts from modern times. The critique of interpretation undertaken here raises issues from rhetorical, hermeneutic, and aesthetic perspectives.