Language, body and truth

In a recent published study in neuroscience (Mehl et al, 2017) which has its central ideas popularised in the media (Moss, 2017), it throws up some very interesting philosophical questions for the hermeneutically attuned. Via the methodology of so-called conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA), it is shown that we can deceive both ourselves and others in our spoken words when we are in adverse social conditions, such as chronic stress, making self-reporting quite unreliable as a methodology. Instead of self-reporting, what the researcher looks for are genetic expressions which in some cases bypass consciousness or self-awareness and state the true state the body of the person under investigation, such as post-traumatic stress. In the study cited, genetic expressions are apparently innocuous everyday words which are used repeatedly by the person, such as “so”, “really” and “very” (Moss, 2017). On the surface, CTRA appears to pose a serious challenge to philosophical hermeneutics, because when two people are supposedly engaged in an existentially revealing dialogue, the Dasein of the self-deceiver or deliberate deceiver becomes opaque and even concealed, making it difficult for the Gadamer’s model of fusion of horizons (leading to mutual understanding and growth) to do its beneficent work. Or should the hermeneutician not give up hope in interpretative horizoning and instead go looking for these genetic expressions like what neuroscience investigators do, but use them in a more holistic way which remains true to the ontological integrity of Dasein? And yet, in the search for and capturing of these linguistic biomarkers as natural language of the affect unmediated by self-consciousness, is there any danger that hermeneutics will be compromised by scientistic unreflection? Or can social genomics, which Mehl et al subscribe to, benefit from the traditional adherence to personhood in philosophical hermeneutics? Is not the sense that one is no longer a complete person the leading cause for mental breakdown for someone caught up in adverse social conditions? Is not the reduction of a person to a random, uncontrollable series of genetic expressions the very picture of madness that a therapist wants to free a distressed patient from?



Matthias R Mehl, Charles L Raison, Thaddeus W W Pace, Jesusa M G Arevalo & Steve W Cole, Natural language indicators of differential gene regulation in the human immune system. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114, 2017. doi:10.1073/pnas.1707373114.

Rachel Moss, Saying these words a lot could be a sign you’re stressed, Huffington Post, 10 November 2017.


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