Philosophers of Babel

Ross Perlin in The New Inquiry:

K10097[The Dictionary of Untranslatables] is at its best not so much when unpacking keywords from disparate national traditions or when wading into the depths of wide-angle comparative philosophy, given that a deep comparison of European “nature” with Chinese ziran would pose many more problems than anything attempted here. But the Dictionary is revealing for the way it sketches, lexically, a set of parallel but alternate intellectual traditions. What language teachers call “false friends” are everywhere, inspiring a constant alertness to nuance. Did you know that French classicisme summons up Versailles (which we’d call baroque) but it was German Klassizismus that crystallized our idea of the “neoclassical”? Or that the vital feminist distinction between “sex” and “gender,” current in English since the 1970s, was “nearly impossible to translate into any Romance language,” not to mention the problems posed by the German Geschlecht, as Judith Butler writes in the Dictionary? Further probing may even make us wonder whether the nature/culture distinction so sharply drawn (and now promoted) by the English idea of “sex” vs. “gender” is the right distinction—the languages of the world offer many other possibilities.

This is the kind of “philosophizing through ­languages” that the Dictionary’s editors have in mind, and they’re right: philosophy has always been about bending (and coining) words to work in particular ways, about consciously harnessing and creating abstraction out of linguistic systems already engaged willy-nilly in much the same task. A century ago, analytic philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein saw the problems of philosophy as all boiling down to unclear language; contributors to the Dictionary lay a similar stress on words but revel in their contested indeterminacy. They chart a middle course between Anglo-American “ordinary language philosophy,” which harvests the way we actually talk, and quasi-mystical etymology spinning and neologism making in the style of Martin Heidegger (though the Dictionary doesn’t shrink from taking on such translation-proof Heideggerisms as Dasein and Ereignis). Though generally grounded in intellectual and linguistic history, the Dictionary’s authors sometimes seem to forget that they’re handling actual words rooted in and shaped by spoken languages, not just talismans passed down and swapped back and forth by a transnational philosopher tribe. Occasional cross-referencing with Urban Dictionary is strongly recommended, likewise Raymond Williams’s Keywords and Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas.

Read the rest here.