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University College, Cork

Merleau-Ponty defines the philosophical enterprise in terms of the

emergence and establishment of critical consciousness. By the term 'critical
consciousness' he means not the application of sedimented knowledge in
the sense of a particular body of knowledge, but the vigilance which
continually attends to the question of the source of all knowledge. 1
This vigilance involves the assertion of a dialectic of reciprocal
implication between sedimented knowledge, on the one hand, and the
dynamism of the interpreting consciousness, on the other. It breaks with a
view of thought that simply follows a pre-established pathway in favour of
an approach in which thought discovers itself and its meaning only in terms
of an appreciation of the foundation of its temporal emergence.
Here we find an operative definition of philosophy as historical
enterprise. As critical theory, philosophy has the task of considering
history as an encompassing project that arises from attempts by individuals
to control their environments, to appropriate that control, and the
techniques that lend it assistance. Within this horizon truth is to be viewed
as situated event. Hence to assess the truth of statements we must attend to
the stage from which they arise, to the express content of what is said, as
well as to the place of the statement within the total context that constitutes
its latent meaning.
On this view man is essentially a questioner, whose problematic situated
character he continually seeks to understand. Man, as incarnate
appropriating event, is both self-mediative, and constitutive of his
environment. Hence the question arises once again: what leads from
spontaneous mediation or assertion to philosophic reflection on this
For phenomenology, the question of the structure and meaning of
language occurs within a context set by this problem. Its elaboration
involves a dynamic notion of selfhood as emergent through a living speech
which occurs in a conversational context. Man is born into a world of
constituted language which is socially transmitted and subjectively learned.

Man and World 14:3-14 (1981) 0025-1534/81/0141-0003 $01.80.

9 1981 Martinus Nijhoff Publishers by, The Hague. Printed in the Netherlands.

Hence man is never the isolated master of his speaking activity. On the
contrary, meaning has a history in the speech of individuals, a meaning
which integrates and encompasses the past, yet one which can go beyond
the past by making it the express object of critical questions.
Now we see that the dialectical interplay between sedimented meaning
(tradition) and its representation and extension (speaking), advocated by
Merleau-Ponty, is conversational in structure. Interlocutors are situated in a
shared activity of which no one in particular is the creator. Language,
therefore, is charged with a multiplicity of meanings, and nuances of
meaning, which are seized primarily by operating within the context in
which meaning has its reference.
Following Heidegger the problem of language as the problem of
reflection is worked out in the attempt to think the self-disclosure of Being.
In other words the problem of language, as indeed any problem if it is to be
philosophical, must always include the question of foundation of meaning.
Being is the horizon of the intelligibility of the world, insofar as this
intelligibility always is already present in the language of a tradition, and is
accepted by man in his foundational thinking. This horizon of
intelligibility is not something static; rather, it is a historical development
as the coming-to-presence of truth, in which Being reveals entities, and
simultaneously hides itself in virtue of the very fact that it reveals.
Heidegger's treatment of this problem, however, is not completely
straightforward. A difficulty with the role of Dasein as self-transcending
event, and as elaborated in Being and Time, provides much of the focus for
his later endeavours to grapple with a thinking that is truly foundational.
From the beginning his problematic concerns the meaning of ground,
foundation, or origin of meaning. His attempted break with the
metaphysical tradition on this issue initially took the form of the assertion
of the reciprocity between the forgotten ground (Being) and the self-
retrieving inquirer (Dasein), whose own mode of Being can be revealed in
the course of the inquiry into ground. Here we discover the circularity of
inquiry and its ground. On the one hand, the question of the meaning of
Being involves the question of inquiry as a mode of Being; on the other
hand, inquiry as self-referential event occurs only in relation to the
question of Being.
This effort to break with the representationalism of the metaphysical
tradition, and its calculable source, fails. The focus upon the question-
answer structure of the event of inquiry carries the implication that all
phenomena are open to understanding. This occurs insofar as Dasein and
Being are identified, for ontology concerns the very Being of man. The
passage from implicit to explicit understanding both constitutes the drama
of human existence, and is ontology. Hence a study of man leads to a
discovery of the interior horizon in which the problem of Being is posed.
This attention to the facticity of temporal existence, where the grasp of
Being occurs, is such that truth is viewed as the understanding of Being.
Here two problems arise. Insofar as it is argued that Dasein is the place
where the grasp of Being occurs, and which establishes the self-identity of
Dasein, the impression is given that the clearing of Being is somehow
produced by the resolute Dasein itself. Further, not only is the question of
Being improperly addressed, but also the question of how Dasein belongs
to the truth of Being is inadequately posed, because Dasein as timing event
is not seen in the light of Being alone.
Granted that the horizon-transcendence model used in Being and Time is
to be rejected, two questions arise: how to speak of a ground, or horizon,
not present in the mode of object? In other words, what lets the horizon
be? Secondly, how does this ground, as yet not experienced reflectively,
influence the relationship of Being and human existence?
Our problem about the limits of language arises within a context
delineated by these two problems. An initial clue toward its elaboration
comes from Heidegger's early account of temporality as 'primordial
time'. 2 Temporality comes to presence as self-giving event. Hence as
presencing time is Being. The dimensionality of time is not the extending of
an ecstatic horizon by Dasein, but is the very clearing of Being.
In his later work Heidegger is not content merely to assert the reciprocal
implication of time and Being, for these in their reciprocity need an
'appropriating event' to permit their historical manifestation. He argues in
Identity and Difference that such an appropriating event cannot be the self-
retrieving Dasein alone; rather, the question of horizon, as the presence of
an identity, is to be viewed in terms of a 'belonging together' of man and
Being. 3
Now it seems that Heidegger is faced once again with his earlier problem:
how to speak about this belonging-together? An adequate answer cannot
establish connections in terms of man alone, in terms of Being alone, or in
terms of the intertwining of both. For such an answer would still be
representationalist, in the sense of offering, even in some primitive way, an
axiomatic starting point, which the notion of reason always carries. The
articulation of the belonging-together of man and Being, on the contrary,
can occur only by means of a non-representationalist discourse:

This move is a leap in the sense of a spring. The spring leaps away, away from the habitual
idea o f m a n as the rational animal who, in modern times, has become a subject for his object.
Simultaneously, the spring also leaps away from Being. 4

Here, then, it seems that we witness Heidegger's major break with the
earlier movement of his own thought. There is a movement to the 'beyond
Being' as the a-temporal possibility of the reciprocity of human existence
and Being. Man and Being, time and Being can come into their own only

from a gratuitous, yet fundamental, belonging together. Ground, then, is

outside of time and undisclosable and, as such, is urirepresentable,
unknown. It is the sheer givenness of the intertwining of man and Being.
This shift is important for the question of ground which, hitherto, had
been posed as a question of ownness - a bringing of something into its
own, of being brought to stand in what is most proper etc. Henceforth it is
to be viewed as a question of otherness. The appropriating event, that
which regions, although unthinkable, establishes beings rather than
nothing, and thereby establishes the possibility of asking questions. It is
absolutely other, yet it is present historically in two modes: as the time of
Being; and as Dasein (temporality).
The question of truth remains, but no longer to be elaborated on the
transcendence model, i.e., in terms of the appropriating activity of the
being who possesses logos. On the contrary, the historical presence-absence
of ground is to be viewed in terms of the staying-presence of the Being-
gathered earth and sky, gods and men. The permanent, extra-temporal
groufid of all manifestation is given historically in the act of withdrawal.
As withdrawing presence, concealment at the core of unconcealment, it
draws thought forward.
Unconcealment, the clearing of Being, on the other hand, as gift of this
ground, permits a new perspective on language. Language is not produced
in transcendence, but is granted to those who stand open to their ground,
to those 'possessed' by logos. Language, therefore, is "not merely of the
making or at the command of our speech activity"5 It occurs primarily in
the mode of call, or invocation. It breaks through the subject-object
relationship, which is subordinate to the relationship of language with the
'light' that is not an object. Within this context a meaning is established
"in which language itself has distantly and fleetingly touched us with its
essentia! being". 6
Here Heidegger is not moving deliberately into an obscurantist
discourse, but is attempting to offer an inevitably paradoxical account of
language in relation to its unsayable source. This had important
consequences not only for the notion of language in general, but for the
notion o f the word in particular. For Heidegger the word is not a static
presence, a mere thing, but a donated sign. Its ground is always other than
its own presencing. This ground, as other, grants presence in turn to that
which is announced in the word, namely 'owning' and 'othering'.
Heidegger's notion of word introduces a separation within language.
Because ground, otherness, is revealed there is manifest a dephasing which
is language, or time. But language, or the essence of Being, is essentially an
event of recovery, a retrieval of truth. Truth is defined in terms of the
remission of language and the tension of retrieval. But this means that it is
essentially a re-presentation. In other words, truth is the recommencement
of a present which in its 'first time' is for the second time.
Now we encounter again two of Heidegger's fundamental problems. On
the one hand, the character of the break with the representationalist
tradition remains a problem; on the other hand, this means that a difficulty
remains regarding the status of his account of ground as other. It might be
argued against him that his view of language as retrieval offers no
fundamental break with a tradition where to understand the particular is
already to be placed beyond the particular. To speak, to understand,
therefore, is to be in relation with the particular by virtue of a knowledge
which is always knowledge of the universal. The word, the naming of the
individual, involves the transcending of the individual into the open of
which the individual is an instance. If such is Heidegger's position, then,
his specification of the meaning of ground encounters a difficulty in that it
seems to be open to the same objection that he himself brings against the
metaphysical tradition, namely, that it is to be viewed in terms of the
projection of, or abstraction from, the individual.
For Heidegger the key question here is whether or not there is a
foundational word. He argues that our current distinction of noun and
verb was introduced by Plato in The Sophist where they became names for
the two main classes of words. Heidegger claims, however, that the
participle is a more fundamental linguistic event, because of its dual
meaning, and its participation in both nominal and verbal meanings.
Hence whether the word is applied in its function of verb or noun, its
referent is itself a two-fold. This duality stems from the distinctive duality
in eon (being), the fundamental participle. Insofar as Heidegger translates
eon to mean both 'a being' (seiendes, a thing) and 'to be' (Sein, Being), we
again witness the fundamental circularity of all meaning. 7
He argues that Plato, and consequently the subsequent metaphysical
tradition, neglects this primordial realm of meaning, insofar as he
identifies logos and predicative judgment. 8 But insofar as language is
thought primarily in terms of assertion, or predicative judgment, its
ground is neglected. Following Heraclitus he talks about logos as gathering
- it gathers together and holds in a balanced tension the conflicting
opposites that constitute what is:

Logos characterises being in a new and yet old respect: that which is, which stands straight
and distinct in itself is at the same time gathered togetherness in itself and by itself, and
maintains itself in such togetherness.9

Such a view of logos presents us with a revised notion of interpretation

itself. The break with the model of assertion is simultaneously a break with
a view of language as the constituting activity of an isolated or social
project. Rather, language 'makes known', 'gives to understand', 'makes
appear' the concealing-unconcealment of horizon and project. This leads,
in turn, to central attention being given to the role of tradition, not as
something over and done with, but as carrying an unsaid dimension to
which a thoughtful return must always be made.
Hence Heidegger might reply to our objection that, with his view of
language, he is attempting to allow for a notion of ground that is not to be
established on the model of linear time, or simple presence of the same. On
the contrary, the unsaid is derived from the sheer givenness of ground, i.e.,
from the donation of the appropriating event. The unsaid, therefore, calls
language as the means whereby the concealing-revealing character of
ground may be brought to stand in abiding presence.
The rupture of synchronisable time that is operative here is the granting
of Being to a project through the power of saying. The rupture is indicated
in the presence of ground as call, which renders the one who is called
'elected'. As elected, he asserts ground in speech. Speaking, .saying,
therefore, has a dual component: it is an event of owning; and
simultaneously a recognition that the foundation of saying is outside of
saying itself. It lies in a mysterious realm which, nevertheless, lets itself be
said in some manner.
Now we must face our original problem with the question: what place is
left for thematisation or philosophy in such a schema? This is a particularly
difficult issue insofar as we think of thematisation as a matter of
accounting for the movement from difference to identity, i.e., of rendering
the diachronic synchronically. Against this Heidegger argues now that
thematisation, as foundational thinking, is the presencing of diachronic-
synchrony. In other words, saying (thought) emerges in relationship where
the fitness of the terms in relation is made present in a theme. Saying, in
turn, assures the co-existence in difference of the relating terms. Such
assurance is essentially ambiguous, however, for every incipient and
authentic naming utters the unspoken, and indeed in such a manner that it
remains unspoken. Ripeness as theme, therefore, is not a simple mediation,
but an epochal breakthrough to immediacy. It is that to which one is
'delivered over'.
To argue for the priority of immediacy seems to assert a dimension
which is at odds with the notion of thematisation which, as we have seen, is
literally re-presentation, in the sense of rendering the present anew, of
gathering dispersion into presence. It is that which breaks through silence
to speech. This leads, in turn, to an ambiguity in the naming event. For
naming as categorising event, as event of Being, must do violence to that
which it means fundamentally, i,e., ground, the other, the beyond Being.
Otherness is reduced to the horizon of Being insofar as it occurs or is
named, in the essence revealed in the name, or theme.
Given this difficulty we may ask the question: why naming at all?
Linguistically, naming for Heidegger depends on what Levinas calls the
'protuberance' of the verb. This is to say that the verb 'to be' both carries
the gathering activity and reveals the disruption between the gathering and
its concealed ground. From the beginning Being determines all beings.I~ As
logos, Being permits true speaking and hearing, for only where logos
discloses itself does the phonetic sound become a word. 11Hence thinking is
a 'taking to heart' which lets authentic saying occur. Saying, in turn, is a
gathering letting-be which takes to heart. The relation of saying (thinking)
and Being is one of Being (logos):

W h a t relation has Being to existence? Being itself is the relationship, insofar as it retains and
reunites existence in its existential (i.e., ecstatic) essence - as the place of the truth o f Being
amidst the beings...man as the existing one comes to stand in this relationship which Being
itself professes to be. 12

The primacy of Being not only assures a meaning that is truly universal,
but without it there would be no language at all. As Derrida indicates, its
absence would be not the mere absence of a particular word, determinate
semantic content, signified simple, or thing. 13 Without this word:

no essent as such could disclose itself in words, it would no longer be possible to invoke it and
speak about it in words. For to speak of an essent as such includes: to understand it in advance
as an essent, that is to understand its Being. Assuming that we did not understand Being at all;
assuming that the word 'being' did not even have its vaporous meaning, there would not be a
single word.14

It is in this sense that language announces itself, in that Being names the
presencing of what is present. Being, therefore, gives the word its function
of sign, and allows for all the possibilities of vocabulary.
Levinas argues that this indicates that for Heidegger the essence of Being
always appears as said. Words, as part of a historically constituted
vocabulary, are treated by Heidegger such that the being "which would
appear to be identical in the light of time is its essence in the already said.
The essence of Being is spoken", is
This means, however, that ground is not completely other,
unrepresentable, but maintains a dimension of disclosability. This
ambiguity leads Derrida also to indicate an unresolved tension in
Heidegger's work:

To be is the first or last word to withstand the deconstruction of a language of words. But why
does using words get mixed up with the determination of being in general as presence? A n d
why is there a privilege attached to the present indicative? W h y is the epoch of the phon~ also
the epoch of being in the form of ideality? '~

We have answered Derrida's question implicitly by indicating the

Heideggerian interpretation of Iogos as gathering. By according primacy to

the gathering event Heidegger is forced to account for saying as lapse of

time, i.e., in terms of the recoverable, the representable, that which is not
refractory to the simultaneity of the present. Saying includes apprehension
and recognition. It is the correlative of the said, and that by which time
This means that the task of predication is to make the time of essence be
understood. The said as verb is essence, or temporalisation. As logos it
permits the ontological difference to be open to understanding and
interpretation. On the one hand, the presencing of logos is such that the
name can resonate as a verb, and the verbality of apophansis is
nominalised. On the other hand, the ambiguity of logos (Being as
revealing-concealing) is nominalised in the space of identification.
Here Heidegger has not reverted to a simple representationalism, for
ground is never completely thematisable. There is a gap between ground
and saying that manifests itself continually in withdrawal (diachronic
presence). But ground and saying are correlatives nonetheless, insofar as
the revealing component of their relationship indicates a synchronic
presence. Ground (condition) and saying (conditioned) have a certain
although not total contemporaneity.
The reciprocity between ground and saying is such that Being, as the
field of synchronisable diachrony, is open to thematisation. This means, in
turn, that ground, the other, is present as the term of a project. Although
Heidegger is prepared to admit that there is a sense in which the ontological
difference cannot appear as such, for the early trace of this difference has
irrevocably been effaced, nevertheless poets and philosophers force this
unsayable essence to presence, even if momentarily, for they name it in
terms of images of light and darkness, veiling-unveiling, truth-untruth etc.
In other words, ground and thought are appropriate to each other.
As an alternative to this relationship as the foundational one Derrida
develops the notion of diffdrance, which is neither word nor concept, but
what he calls the 'juncture' of what has been most decisively inscribed in
the thought of our epoch. 17Diff~rance brings to presence an operation of
differing which simultaneously fissures and retards presence.
Similarly, Levinas talks about the irreducibility of the trace of the other
to indicate the closure of presence. What is effected in the functioning of
traces is a sameness as self-relation within self-difference, i.e., sameness as
the non-identical.18 He argues that this is a break with the predominance of
the notion of vision to which Heidegger remains bound, with its
implication of an encompassing understanding. It is this which leaves
Heidegger open to the charge that for him ground is in some sense the
result of an objectifying act, i.e., the affirmation that the object of saying,
while distinct from this saying, is a product of it. But this imputes a
dimension of possessiveness to language. Hence it cannot introduce the

inexpressible irreversibility of the beyond Being.

Now, however, Levinas himself must face the question of whether the
beyond Beingcan leave a trace that is not open to saying, to understanding.
He responds positively to this question and argues that the trace places us
in a lateral relation which is inconvertible to the order of Being and of
unveiling. Its introduction of the beyond Being does not occur as the
Heideggerian absence of ground (abgrund), or neutrality. We are
introduced not to the instrumental order of things, but to persons.
The person who is revealed here is not simply a unicity specified in
conceptual or cognitional terms. The unicity of the I is extra-categorial,
outside the individuation of the concept, and outside of the distinction
between individual and general, particular and universal. 19 But this means
that it is outside of representation; it is separate:

Separation designates the possibility of an existentbeing set up and having its own destiny to
itself, that is, being born and dying without the place of this birth and this death in the time of
universal history being the measure of its reality.2~

The closest Heidegger gets to this dimension is through his notion of the
'erratic', which effects a rupture of sorts. But the meaning revealed
through this non-preordained leap occurs 'within the said', and hence is
opposed to the beyond. Insofar as Heidegger argues that language is the
'house of Being' he maintains that it is an event that has Being as its
ultimate origin. Being, in turn, is always underway toward language, which
means that it always needs a place, a 'there', in order to be itself.
Now we m a y repeat that Heidegger's position rests on an ambiguity in
the word 'being'. Grammatically, it is a particle which, as such, may be
used either as a noun, or as an adjective with a verbal sense. As noun, it
means that which is, a being; as verbal adjective, it designates the process
by which a being is, namely, its Being. This ambivalence points to a
differetice between Being and beings.
The ambivalence in Being's self-presencing - it both gives itself and
withdraws - means that the realm of original givenness must always be
reconstructed. Naming, therefore, involves a retrospective seizure of that
which it seizes, namely, the immediate present. But the immediate present
always includes a dimension of withdrawal. Hence naming is a constant
quest of things past. The immediate in its withdrawal draws thought
forward by calling out.
The crux of this whole question of the limits of language, then, stems
f r o m the fact that the assertion that the ground of language is extra-
categorial - beyond history, the totally other - leads to the discovery of a
paradox in the word itself. As Heidegger argues, the word or name is an
identifying event; it is an answer to the implicit or explicit question, ' w h a t
is it?' In this sense its activitiy is representational, a conceptual relation in

the same. Levinas argues against Heidegger, however, that insofar as the
word, or sign, is not totally reducible to the theme, it occurs outside the
opposition of universal category and irrational essence. Original language
in this sense is the face to face relation. What is introduced here is not
otherness as a relation between terms and displayed in a theme, but the
neighbour for whom I am responsible.
The force of this objection, then, is that Heidegger, however
inadvertently, has accepted the classical subordination of language to
thought in that he accepts that rational knowledge is the first of words. His
account of ground operates in the realm of metaphor which, being but a
partial comparison as Plato indicates, always contains an element of
distortion. If distortion is to be avoided, or even modified, it must be ruled
over by some governing structures, which for Plato are subject to the
judgment of the court. This ultimate determination which presides over all
expressions of meaning, exemplifies with a completeness that avoids
distortion. Being, as foundation of meaning, serves for Heidegger as this
presiding judge.
On this view Heidegger's major error is that he anticipates that ground
as totally other can be brought to presence in the word. He accepts that
signs signify by their place in a system, and by their difference from other
signs. This formal aspect of language permits the conferring of an identity
of meaning to the temporal dispersion of events, synchronising them into
simultaneity. A central consequence of this view is that speech and its
ground are manifest in a theme. Thematisation, the self-renewing power of
the intellect, overcomes relativism, for it is an encompassing ability which
can thematise its own failures, even its own relativity. Here the discursive
logos is identified with the rational logos, and this assures communication.
Within this context the task of language is to achieve continually a greater
universality. Hence communication itself is constantly submitted to the
ends of truth.
Against this Levinas argues that the region behind the sign remains
invisible to the word in its epiphany, but this is not to say that it is a
nothing. On the contrary, in the face the other is delivered in person as
other, i.e., as this which is not revealed, as this which is not permitted to be
Insofar as this counterview wishes to break with the dominance of the
images of essence, form, structure, it is close to Derrida's attempted
deconstruction of logocentrism, and the elimination of centre. This task of
the deconstructi0n of centre will allow us to look once more at our guide
question for this topic of the limits of language, namely, the question of
experience and its thematisation. This is a question of how presence is
present, of the manner in which presence is revealed and becomes
represented. But this way of posing the question is to consign experience to

the order of images and knowledge, for understanding is the event or

structure that mediates between a first level experience and its assertion as
truth. Here understanding plays the role of centre. Its function is to direct,
balance, organise the structure of knowledge, and simultaneously, as its
organising principle, to limit its freeplay.
Levinas's position could be seen as one that wishes to reject completely
the image of centre. The other in his particularity does not fit the
accusative role, in the sense of being able to be specified as object of a
transitive verb. Hence I cannot speak of the other, make him a theme,
speak of him as an object. He can 'speak to' me, however, call me, which is
to accept that he has meaning prior to my donation. This is not a matter of
simply substituting one class of speech, or linguistic category, for another,
in the sense of the substitution of the vocative case for the accusative.. On
the contrary, it is a displacement of language. It is the emergence, or
elevation, of speech, and is not a c a s e of speech. In this manner the other is
allowed to be present as absence, and to appear as non-phenomenality. 21
The face, then, is not 'of the world'; rather, it is origin. It presents the
other beyond Being, outside of essence, witlaout metaphor, without
distortion, insofar as he is attained as the inaccessible, the intangible.


1. Merleau-Ponty, M., Signs (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), p. 110.

2. Heidegger, M., Being and Time (Oxford: Blackwell, 1967), p. 329.
3. Heidegger, M., Identity and Difference (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), p. 32.
4. Ibid.
5. Heidegger, M., On the Way to Language (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), p. 125.
6. Ibid., p. 159.
7. Heidegger, M., What Is Called Thinking? (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), pp.
8. Being and Time, p. 203.
9. Heidegger, M., Introduction to Metaphysics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959),
p. 131.
10. What ls Called Thinking? p. 76.
11. Introduction to Metaphysics, p. 111.
12. Heidegger, M., "Letter on Humanism," in Phenomenology and Existentialism (New
York), p. 159.
13. Derrida, J., "The Copula Supplement," in Dialogues in Phenomenology (The Hague:
Martinus Nijhoff, 1975), pp. 7-48.
14. Introduction to Metaphysics, p. 82.
t5. Levinas, E., Autrement qu'dtre ou au-dela de t'essence (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff,
1974), p. 49.
16. Derrida, J., Speech and Phenomena (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973),
p. 74.

17. Ibid., p. 130.

18. Ibid., p. 82.
19. Levinas, E., Totality andlnfinity (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), p. 188.
20. Ibid., p. 55.
21. Derrida, J., L'~criture et la Diff~rance (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1967), p. 152.