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

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 space, where understanding speech becomes problematic. The lectures thus provide insight into the rhetorical prehistory of Nietzsche’s later theoretical writings on interpretation, which became crucial for opening up the horizon of hermeneutics in the 20th century.

The research project pursued this trajectory and examined, 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 quality 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, therefore, is not so much directed towards establishing (once again) incomprehensibility as a basic component of literary modernity based on a specific collection of texts, as in Hugo Friedrich’s classic study The Structure of Modern Poetry and other works by more recent scholars (to be sure, when confronted with Celan’s poetry, these approaches prove to be in need of revision). Rather, the project revealed 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 thus addresses issues ranging from rhetorical, hermeneutic, and aesthetic perspectives.

Research Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation 2015–2016
Head researcher(s): Felix Christen


Felix Christen


Leitung der Arbeitsgruppe
20 May 2016 – 21 May 2016

Felix Christen: Friedrich Hölderlin's Poem "Die Titanen"

Bad Homburg v. d. H.

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18 Nov 2015 · 1.00 pm

Felix Christen: Verstehen und Nicht-Verstehen. Zur Frage nach der Unverständlichkeit in Rhetorik, Literatur und Philosophie

Universität Stuttgart, Keplerstraße 17, 70174 Stuttgart, Raum 17.11.

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Workshop (Lecture and Discussion)
09 Oct 2015

Felix Christen: ›Interpretation‹ und ›Commentar‹. Zwei philologische Begriffe in Nietzsches Philosophie

Harvard University (USA)

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02 Oct 2015

Felix Christen: Manuscript and Meaning: The Hermeneutics of Materiality in Manuscript Editions

Washington (USA)

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