Friday, March 14, 2008

Does philosophy have a nationality?

ABC's Philosophers Zone podcast this week was "Gavagai", a part of a series on translation issues in philosophy. In "Gavagai", Alan Saunders (the host) talks to Jean-Phillipe Deranty, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Macquarie University, about none other than Foucault and the difficulties of translating him into English.

In a nutshell, the discussion gets an interesting focus on whether philosophy is intrinsically connected to national cultures/ national thought, because it is done in and through a particular language. At the core of the question is, of course, the idea that language frames both reality and thought (and is framed in return by them), with the less examined corollary that language and national culture are one and the same.

For anyone obsessed with nationalism studies, like myself, such assumptions have long been debated and fought over in the field. From
John Hutchinson's theory of cultural nationalism, to Anthony D. Smith's discussion of the link between ethnicity/ shared symbolic universes/ language/ culture, to Gellner's discussion of the necessity for communication to become nationally bounded because of the requirements of industrialization, to Benedict Anderson's discussion of the role of print vernaculars in the formation of nations - and the list goes one - both modernists and ethnosymbolists have stumbled in some way on the question of language and 'national' universes of thought and expression.

Take this discussion between Saunder and Deranty, in which both get convoluted in the question of the national borders of thought (where national becomes equated with linguistic):

Alan Saunders: Is there moreover, something about English that just makes it inhospitable to Continental ways of thought? ...Does that make English ill-equipped for expressing philosophical concepts from German and French?

Jean-Phillipe Deranty: Yeah it's a fascinating question. ... the, I think, undeniable feel that there is something different about writing philosophy in English, or something different about the way English-speaking people and English people perhaps, write philosophy as opposed to Germans and as opposed to French. And again here of course we are back with the problem of cultural difference and this complex interaction between language and culture.

The idea that philosophy is different in England than in Germany or France seems intuitive. After all, it's not only the different educational contexts, but the different life contexts which are shaping our thought. And, as a previous podcast has discussed, language too may do just that - especially when looking at the different structures between Indo-European and Asian languages.

But here is also where the problems starts: the assumptions that living in England makes you an English(wo)man, buying into a homogeneous English cultures and one given English language is simply a nationalist one. Nationalism studies post Gellner have problematized the idea of a homogeneous cultural space, even if there is a 'national media system' (in James Carrey's formulation) and a 'national education system' (in Gellner's formulation). Not even such systems are unitary and fixed, in spite of their nation-building over-arching goal.

Furthermore, as a trip around the world will show, there is no such thing as one English language! And I am not referring here to the difference between Australian and British English, but the differences between the way in which one speaks in London or in Nottingham; or even more, the differences between the fancy London neighborhoods and the rather poor ones.

The same can be said about the idea of a French culture, of which - for instance - Foucault is taken to be representative. Just whose culture are we talking about? There are many types of cultures co-existing under the label of French, some more legitimate (like for instance the different cultures of intellectual elites and those of peasants), some less legitimate (from a nationalist point of view, like for instance the different cultures of immigrants to France). Class, race, age, position - all of them undermine the mere concept of a unitary cultural national space.

Last, but not least, I am bothered by the idea of national philosophical universes - with the annoying implication that "it takes one to understand one" (you have to be French to truly understand Foucault). What about philosophers who are mobile, living in several national contexts, where would they fit? And are German intellectuals living today sharing the same intellectual universe with Heidegger - or is the metaphysical national bond giving them the extra skills to truly understand him? Does that mean that all those who do not read an author in the original cannot grasp its ideas? (There is here another discussion about what and where meaning is and a glimpse into other disciplines, like communication studies could be quite useful!).

For me, such a discussion shows that Wimmer & Schiller's 2003 article on methodological nationalism remains quite relevant for social science research: one of the forms of methodological nationalism is to take nations for granted and to focus analysis on nationally-bounded social spaces. For Wimmer & Schiller, this form of methodological nationalism is so pervasive precisely because of:

“... the compartmentalization of the social science project into different ‘national’ academic fields, a process strongly influenced not only by nationalist thinking itself, but also by the institutions of the nation-state organizing and channelling social science thinking in universities, research institutions and government think tanks” (2002: 306).

Reference: Wimmer, A., Schiller, G. (2002) “Methodological Nationalism and Beyond: Nation-State, Migration and the Social Sciences,” Global Networks 2(4): 301-334.

Photo credits: cuspace

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