Philosophical genres. A response to Peter Adamson

Would you say that the novel is of a more proper literary genre than poetry? Or would you say that the pop song is less of a musical genre than the sonata? To me these questions make no sense. Both poems and novels form literary genres; both pop songs and sonatas form musical genres. And while you might have a personal preference for one over the other, I can’t see a justification for principally privileging one over the other. The same is of course true of philosophical genres: A commentary on a philosophical text is no less of a philosophical genre than the typical essay or paper.* Wait! What?

Looking at current trends that show up in publication lists, hiring practices, student assignments etc., articles (preferably in peer-reviewed journals) are the leading genre. While books still count as important contributions in various fields, my feeling is that the paper culture is beginning to dominate everything else. But what about commentaries to texts, annotated editions and translations or reviews? Although people in the profession still recognise that these genres involve work and (increasingly rare) expertise, they usually don’t count as important contributions, even in history of philosophy. I think this trend is highly problematic for various reasons. But most of all it really impoverishes the philosophical landscape. Not only will it lead to a monoculture in publishing; also our teaching of philosophy increasingly focuses on paper production. But what does this trend mean? Why don’t we hold other genres at least in equally high esteem?

What seemingly unites commentaries to texts, annotated editions and translations or reviews is that they focus on the presentation of the ideas of others. Thus, my hunch is that we seem to think more highly of people presenting their own ideas than those presenting the ideas of others. In a recent blog post, Peter Adamson notes the following:

“Nowadays we respect the original, innovative thinker more than the careful interpreter. That is rather an anomaly, though. […]

[I]t was understood that commenting is itself a creative activity, which might involve giving improved arguments for a school’s positions, or subtle, previously overlooked readings of the text being commented upon.”

Looking at ancient, medieval and even early modern traditions, the obsession with what counts as originality is an anomaly indeed. I say “obsession” because this trend is quite harmful. Not only does it impoverish our philosophical knowledge and skills, it also destroys a necessary division of labour. Why on earth should every one of us toss out “original claims” by the minute? Why not think hard about what other people wrote for a change? Why not train your philosophical chops by doing a translation? Of course the idea that originality consists in expressing one’s own ideas is fallacious anyway, since thinking is dialogical. If we stop trying to understand and uncover other texts, outside of our paper culture, our thinking will become more and more self-referential and turn into a freely spinning wheel… I’m exaggerating of course, but perhaps only a bit. We don’t even need the medieval commentary traditions to remind ourselves. Just remember that it was, amongst other things, Chomsky’s review of Skinner that changed the field of linguistics. Today, writing reviews, working on editions and translations doesn’t get you a grant, let alone a job. While we desperately need new editions, translations and materials for research and teaching, these works are esteemed more like a pastime or retirement hobby.**

Of course, many if not most of us know that this monoculture is problematic. I just don’t know how we got there that quickly. When I began to study, the work on editions and translations still seemed to flourish, at least in Germany. But it quickly died out, history of philosophy was abandoned or ‘integrated’ in positions in theoretical or practical philosophy, and many people who then worked very hard on the texts that are available in shiny editions are now without a job.

If we go on like this, we’ll soon find that no one will be able to read or work on past texts. We should then teach our students that real philosophy didn’t begin to evolve before 1970 anyway. Until it gets that bad I would plead for reintroducing a sensible division of labour, both in research and teaching. If you plan your assignments next time, don’t just offer your students to write an essay. Why not have them choose between an annotated translation, a careful commentary on a difficult passage or a review? Oh, of course, they may write an essay, too. But it’s just one of many philosophical genres, many more than I listed here.

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* In view of the teaching practice that follows from the focus on essay writing, I’d adjust the opening analogy as follows: Imagine the music performed by a jazz combo solely consisting of soloists and no rhythm section. And imagine that all music instruction would from now on be geared towards soloing only… (Of course, this analogy would capture the skills rather than the genre.)

** See Eric Schliesser’s intriguing reply to this idea.

On translating as a philosophical skill

Having been raised as a medievalist, doing translations was part of my education. I don’t think highly of my own few translations, but I think translating should figure in philosophical curricula. Yes, I mean philosophical, not merely historical curricula! The reason is that doing translations will familiarise you with what is often praised as “rigour” among philosophers. Although most philosophers think that logics (and sometimes statistics) are crucial, I think that the subtleties of ordinary language can be explored quite thoroughly by trying to translate a small piece of text. It keeps you pacing through all the nuances of formulations. But what is it that keeps you going? Perhaps it is the fact that you have to succeed somehow, while a perfect translation remains impossible.

Have you ever pored over a sentence for hours on end? Once you’ve figured out the grammatical construction and have an idea of the standard word meanings, the real fun might just begin. I remember finishing the translation of a short text by Ockham and not understanding a word of the German that I had just jotted down. It was on the question of whether articles of faith can be demonstrated. The Latin was easy, but the terminology remained a mystery, and it seemed as if a whole theory was lurking behind every expression. I had not read any other text dealing with the same problem. I had no real idea about the tradition of translations, i.e. other translations of such texts, and as far as I could see, there was no secondary literature available. Now I had a text in my native language and didn’t understand a word of it. – To cut a long story short: I turned my work on that text into my MA thesis. This way, I went from complete blankness (in my mind) to an attempt of actually explaining what I found out. Yes, sometimes I even enjoyed it…

Now what is it that makes translating also a philosophical rather than merely a historical or philological skill? It is often assumed that translating requires a good command of the source language (i.e. the language you’re translating from). That might be true, but it’s your target language (i.e. the language you’re translating into, mostly your native language) that is truly challenging. Whatever you lack in your target language, will be lost. The process of translating makes you believe in the possibility of a correct translation, perhaps because failure is always with you. And it is this belief that keeps you pacing through your mental lexicon until it “clicks”. Understanding or perhaps even justifying what that click means, is where you begin to see the limits of your language as the limits of your world.

I think there are two extreme ways of viewing this clicking. (1) You might think that you finally found a translation that matches your source. But then doubts will arise as to what it actually is that guarantees that match. (Think of Quine’s Gavagai example, if you like) Aren’t you bringing in your presuppositions? Should you not try to replace them by more knowledge about the context? This is the view that you need to figure out the meaning of sentences. (2) The other way is to think that that you cannot even hope to rid yourself of your presuppositions. Rather you have to embrace them. If you take the source to be sincere, any translation that will make the sentence come out true in the target language will be fine. And you will pick the context in accordance with what you believe to be true. (Think of Davidson’s critique of relativism, if you like) This is the view that meaning presupposes an understanding of what makes a sentences true. – Yes, sorry, this paragraph is a bit dense. I’ll translate or reformulate it some other time.*

For the moment, I would just like to ask you to consider adding translating to the philosophical curriculum. In philosophy language is crucial. And except for writing and conversing, translating is perhaps the most intimate way of engaging with other people’s texts and one’s own shortcomings. In addition to that, our philosophical culture is lacking respect: translations are still too rarely acknowledged as serious work. Even if we can’t teach all the languages it takes to keep up the conversation in a global world, we need to teach the appropriate sensibilties that provide at least a glimpse of the efforts necessary for moving between the languages.

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*I think that Quine and Davidson can be read as endorsing two opposing  ways of viewing the Gavagai example: a relatvist one, prioritising meaning over truth, and an anti-relativist one, prioritising truth over meaning. I’ll happily go into that another time.