onsdag 14. november 2012

Philosophising Away from Home.

In the Wikipedia article about Oswald Hanfling we read:
It was impossible to tell, either from his conversation or from his writings, that Hanfling was not a native English speaker. He once commented to Elizabeth Anscombe that he found it strange that Wittgenstein had continued to write in German throughout his life. Anscombe; who must have assumed that Hanfling was English, replied that only someone who wasn’t able to read Wittgenstein in German could have made that remark.
Oswald Hanfling was a native German, so Wittgenstein's original texts were not incomprehensible to him. His incredulity had other sources. Hanfling lived most of his life in England, and always wrote the language. Maybe he found it hard to understand why others with similar stories were unable (or unwilling) to do the same? Wittgenstein also lived in England for many years, and was a competent English speaker -- not just the everyday language; he was apparently an eminent philosopher in English too. He would dominate philosophical discussions with English colleagues. His lectures were all in English too. So, I think I see where Hanfling's question comes from -- I am not sure I share his sense of strangeness, though.

Now, I do not know why Wittgenstein kept writing in German even when he must have done quite a lot of his actual thinking in English. (When discussing in English, you need to think in English too, don't you?) Some think that certain languages are better at certain tasks than others. German, some have claimed (was it Nietzsche?), is a more philosophical language than English. I cannot see why this should be so, and find it harder still to believe that Wittgenstein should have harboured such ideas.

Still, there might be something to this line of thinking, if we strip it of the metaphysics. Jon Hellesnes, for instance, has suggested that Hans Skjervheim was helped to philosophical excellence because he was a pioneering Nynorsk (one form of written Norwegian) philosopher:
His thinking was probably helped a little by writing in Nynorsk. Because there exists relatively little philosophical literature in this language, there are no standardised ways of saying things. There are few patterns, few clichés. Anyone who philosophises in Nynorsk, has to be a creative user of the language. The linguistic situation, therefore, is in it self an aid in avoiding certain bad habits.
Neither German nor English lack philosophical tradition. Still, much original philosophy continues to be written in those languages, and Wittgenstein himself was hardly a man of a thousand clichés. Philosophising in a small language may help you to avoid (bad) habits, but a philosophically innocent language is not a necessity. Hard critical thinking is more important. But philosophy contains more than critical thinking. Creativity is also important. Both critical and -- perhaps especially -- creative thinking might be harder on linguistically foreign turfs.

Lately I have been thinking about philosophising away from home. As readers of this blog will have noticed, during the past few months I have written quite extensively in English. This marks a change in attitude with me. I am, as it were, moving away from Anscombe's position towards Hanfling's understanding of things. I used to be sceptical about philosophising in English. Today I am less so. Not that I have forsaken my objections entirely.

One objection is that philosophising is working with language. Philosophical problems arise and needs to be fought in the sphere of meanings, where, as Cora Diamond has put it, language is being used at full stretch. And one's native language is usually far more elastic than any other. Mastery of the language is no guarantee for good philosophy, of course; but philosophical bewilderment often feels like being out on slippery ice -- good footwear is a prerequisite for getting somewhere.

Another objection is that philosophy often is a personal quest. Philosophical problems are problems I have with my own thinking. The problems are mine in the sense that others cannot solve them for me. This is an important difference between philosophical confusion and practical problems. If there is a leakage in my bathroom, a plumber may well fix it for me. But if I am confused, say, by the mind-body relationship, I cannot simply let an academic philosopher do the thinking for me. This is not denying that we can learn much from other philosophers struggling with the same issues. It is just that for my problem to go away, I am the one who must stop being bothered by these questions. Sometimes I read another's thoughts in total agreement, but for this to solve my philosophical difficulties, I have to see it as a solution to my difficulties, and that is something only I can do. This is connected with seeing some thoughts as one's own -- and that again, may be connected with language. To me at least, my own thoughts sometimes seem alien, or dressed up, when expressed in a language that is, as it were, not my own.

That, I suspect, was the source of my earlier scruples about blogging in English.

This feeling of alienation used to seem deep and important to me, because, I believe, my instincts were that this feeling of alienation (when seeing my own thoughts expressed in English) reviled some deep and important truths about the connection between thought and tongue and personal identity. I never actually tried to spell out my instincts, so I am not sure exactly how this connection was imagined. Perhaps something like this: One can only reach one's full potential in one's own tongue; one cannot get to the bottom in one's thinking in other languages; in foreign languages one's thinking will inevitably be foreign too, so in order to think authentically one relies one's native language. But this looks like bad metaphysics. Some people claim that you feel most at home on your childhood's playground. There is a kernel of truth to that perhaps, but it is not a very deep truth nor is it of a metaphysical kind. We simply tend to be at ease with what we are accustomed to.

Nevertheless, I do, for these very reasons, think that good philosophy written in a foreign language is admirable, and not simply because good philosophy is admirable (bad philosophy, of course, isn't admirable in any language). Great writings are always impressive, but isn't it additionally impressive that Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) wrote most of her wonderfully crafted and many-layered stories in English or French; that the Polish Joseph Conrad ended up as one of English literature's great stylists even though English was only his third language; or that Samuel Beckett is recognised not only as an important playwright but also as a giant in modern French literature?

Talent is evidently important to reach such mastery of foreign languages. But you can get quite far by way of practise too. I don't know how gifted Oswald Hanfling was, nor for that matter Hans Skjervheim, who also wrote extensively in both English and German. (Internationally Skjervheim is best known for his thesis, Objectivism and the Study of Man (1957), that actually preceded Peter Winch's influential The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy (1958) on some important points, and has had some influence, particularly in Germany, where both Jürgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel reckon Skjervheim as an inspiration.) Come to think of it, philosophising in your second language is, historically speaking, the rule rather than the exception. For nearly two thousand years, from Antiquity through the Middle Ages and well into Modernity, Latin was after all the language of international philosophy.

Wittgenstein was a genius, a philosophically troubled soul, and a genuinely deep thinker. Perhaps things are different for his kind. Or perhaps he just felt that he needed the sharpest tools available to him to rid himself of his troubles, and that those tools happened to be German. Perhaps he did not see the point in (or have time to) sharpening up his English to do something he already could do in German. I am not in any sense comparing myself to Wittgenstein, but lately I have come to see things differently. Blogging in English does not just provide a needed brush up on my language skills. It also attracts more readers to my blog, which I like. Lately I have been writing at a slower pace, and yet the traffic has been steadily increasing. This I ascribe to my English posts. Last, but not least, there is a kind of philosophical reason for writing in English too. Philosophy is largely a struggle with one's own perplexities, but keeping things too close sometimes make it hard to see clearly. Taking a step back or pushing things away might actually improve one's vision. Sometimes, when I am stuck on a problem, or my foothold is constantly slipping, it is helpful for me to put on my English hiking boots.

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