Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Why I want to read philosophy in other languages

It is well-known among my friends that I am a foreign language buff. Some of my friends also know that I am a philosophy buff as well. These things might seem to be totally separate from each other, and to some degree they really are. But there is one way I'd like to combine them, which is to read some philosophy written in French, German, or Greek without the aid of translation. Why would anyone want to do this, you may be wondering? This post attempts to explain it.

Greek New Testament

First of all, there's the foreign-language angle. I am interested in French and German for their usefulness in business, and Ancient Greek because it is the language of the New Testament. (I have a post for each of these languages about why I would want to learn them - French, German, and Greek if you're interested.) So what does this have to do with philosophy? Mainly, it's that if you really want to have a reading knowledge of a language, it helps to read stuff originally written in that language.

Alexandre Dumas, author of "The Count of Monte Cristo"

Most people would want to read literature in that language; with "literature" defined here as moving stories - or in the more precise definition of Princeton University, "creative writing of recognized artistic value." (see their dictionary's entry on literature) Most people learning French would rather read "The Count of Monte Cristo" or "Les Misérables" than "The Spirit of the Laws" or "Democracy in America." Why, then, would I prefer to read the latter?

Victor Hugo, author of "Les Misérables"

To answer this question is to get into the issue of why I like philosophy at all. I wrote an entire post about this subject, so I will not attempt to address it in its entirety here; but some brief comments on it are warranted for this post. Let me say briefly that I like the way that philosophy makes you think, and I have a particular interest in political philosophy. I am a political animal, as readers of this blog may have noted; and I have much interest in the political ideas that have been given us from centuries past. Good ones, bad ones, it doesn't matter to me so much; as long as they're influential, and have a lot of disciples out there. I'll read ideas I know are bad, if they have a massive following that it would be worthwhile to persuade away from them. (Marx comes to mind.) And with that being said, it might be worthwhile to make a few general comments about the authors that I want to read:

Karl Marx

Friedrich Engels, co-author of many of Marx's works

First of all, the worst author on this list: I want to read Karl Marx in the original German. (Why I want to learn German is discussed in another post.) There is a lot of influential philosophy written in German; but none is quite as visible as Karl Marx, so he seemed the logical choice for my own (future) German practice. I was basically an economics minor (technically it was a certificate, but it was from NAU); so I think it's probably important for me to be able to engage Marxists in open debate. Marxism is falsely perceived by its disciples to be a science, so it will be helpful to be able to demonstrate its fallacies, and show that my attacks on it are not based on mistranslation. Many a liberal believes conservatives to be close-minded, and part of my reason for wanting to read Marx is to show them how wrong they are. I'd love to be able to say: "I've read Karl Marx in the original German! What opposing ideas have you read lately?"

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The other bad author on this list was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a writer from an earlier century who wrote in French. He was considered influential on the French Revolution; and some, like Hegel, even blamed Rousseau for its excesses. Rousseau argued, among other things, that humanity lived in a utopian state before the introduction of private property; when everything became unequal, and thus (in his liberal mind) unjust. If you've ever heard of the "noble savage" myth, this is one of the guys who created it - Karl Marx was influenced by Rousseau. I had to read some Rousseau in college, so I know that there are still people influenced by his ideas (including the professor who assigned it). Like Marxism, it is important to be able to debunk Rousseauian ideas; and so I've wanted to read his book as well. (I've read him in translation, but not in the original yet.)

Constitutional Convention, influenced by Montesquieu

But the French authors I most want to read are not the bad ones - there are some really good authors on my list as well. These include the great philosopher Baron de Montesquieu, and the later philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville. Both of them are of great interest to Americans; as Montesquieu was influential on our Founding Fathers, and Alexis de Tocqueville is the most famous foreign commentator on American democracy. (More on him later.)

Baron de Montesquieu

Montesquieu's book "The Spirit of the Laws" discusses his theory of separation of powers, which was later used by our Founding Fathers in the writing of the U.S. Constitution. Our government has three separate branches of government, and checks and balances between those branches. (Those checks and balances are another Montesquieu idea, incidentally - an excellent one, too!) Montesquieu is quoted in the Federalist Papers; showing his influence on the Founding Fathers. I've read some excerpts from Montesquieu before, but never the whole thing (even in English); and I would love to be able to read him in the original French.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" is another classic French work, and is the most important foreign commentary on American government. I don't know a whole lot about de Tocqueville, but what I do know about him is quite interesting; and I would love to know more about him. I've never read any of his book, even in English; and I would love to be able to read him in the original French.


The last of these authors is the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who wrote in Greek. My primary reason for wanting to learn Ancient Greek is to read the New Testament in the original; but I also have much interest in Plato, and had to read some Plato back in college. His works about the trial, imprisonment, and execution of Socrates interest me; as does his classic work the "Republic." Plato is one of those authors I have mixed feelings about; as he said many things I disagree with, but also many things I agree with. Regardless of how much I agree with him, though, the man is extremely interesting; and was one of the most influential philosophers in Western history. Thus, I would love to read him in the original Greek.


All fine and dandy, you might be thinking; but why not just read these authors in translation? Besides my earlier-mentioned reason of wanting to practice my languages, and use books originally written in them; there is one other reason, which is that there's something special about reading a work in the original. We can get a better sense of the nuance, the aesthetics, and the flavor of it. Some of this inevitably gets lost in translation, even when the translation is excellent; and so I wanted to read these works without any of their original intended meaning being lost. This is something that can only be done in the original; and so I want to read these authors in their own words. (There's some fine philosophy written in English - notably John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and the Federalist Papers - but there's also much of value in other languages as well; and I wanted to have access to them as they wrote it.)

John Locke

Adam Smith

John Stuart Mill

So that's a little about why I want to do this. If I ever accomplish these things, I will provide updates on my blog; and will probably write in some detail about it later.

Why I'm glad I learned French

Why I want to learn German

Why I am learning Ancient Greek

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