<< zurück / back

Martin Jay (University of Berkeley, USA)

Can There Be National Philosophies in a Transnational World?

In June of 2000, the Times Literary Supplement published an anguished commentary by the Polish philosopher Adam J. Chmielewski entitled “Looking Westward: The Submissiveness of Polish Philosophy.”[1] Reflecting on the demise of Marxism as a universalist lingua franca for Polish intellectuals, indeed for all of their counterparts in Eastern Europe, he noted that since l989, they have been frantically searching for a new guiding paradigm, a new way to orient themselves in an unfamiliar global intellectual landscape. Without a reigning Weltanschauung they have felt spiritually bereft. Inevitably, he lamented, they have turned to the West for answers, for no original Polish projects are on the horizon. “The Polish philosophical condition is some kind of disease,” Chmielewski ruefully observed, “an illness of mind which is incapable of originality, because it is scared of any independent thought, though the fear is now of a different character: it is the fear of being old-fashioned, outmoded, not au courant.”[2] Instead of generating their own ideas or reviving native traditions, they slavishly recycle fads from abroad, especially English-language countries. “It is apparent,” he sarcastically concluded, “that the more affluent a country is, the more truth-containing it is thought to be.” Symptomatic of the disease, “Polish journals and books are plagued by more or less randomly selected writings of Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, Donald Davidson, Martin Jay, etc.”[3]

Now, as you can imagine, I was stopped short reading that final sentence, which was arresting for several obvious reasons. First, I had never been accused before of contributing to a plague of any kind, let alone one that was subverting the integrity and originality of an entire national philosophical tradition. To be credited with that kind of malevolent power provided, I have to confess, a rush of excitement. Secondly, I was both flattered and amused to find myself listed alongside three figures who are among the most significant voices in American philosophy of our time, clearly a dual category mistake both in terms of academic discipline and level of eminence. Jorge Luis Borges would have chuckled at the resemblance to his fictitious Chinese encyclopedia list of incongruent categories made famous by Foucault in The Order of Things. But third and most importantly, I was taken with the irony that a European intellectual like Chimielewski would feel threatened by an American scholar whose entire work has been dedicated to introducing and interpreting European ideas to English-speaking audiences. That is, unlike Rorty, Davidson or Putnam, I am a humble intellectual historian, not a credentialed philosopher, and my role has always been that of a not-so-secret agent bringing foreign ideas to our own shores. To be accused of representing the imperialism of American thought was thus a delicious irony for someone whose work dealt almost exclusively with intellectuals like Horkheimer, Adorno, Foucault, Habermas, Bataille, Lukàcs, Kracauer, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, who either never made it here or usually hurried home as soon as they decently could after having arrived.

More interesting, however, than the ill-conceived inclusion of my name in a dishonor roll of intellectual imperialists undermining the integrity of Polish philosophy is the very assumption underlying the accusation that such an integrity ever existed, which could then be undermined. For after all, one of the most persistent assumptions of the Western philosophical traditions, indeed a founding assumption of philosophy tout court, is that ideas transcend the contexts of their generation or reception. To add a contextualizing adjective like the name of a nation or culture to the noun “philosophy” is thus inherently oxymoronic in a way that, say, attaching one to a cuisine or even a body of poetry is not. Socrates’ contemptuous rebuke to Phaedrus is typical: “For you apparently it makes a difference who the speaker is, and what country he comes from: you don’t merely ask whether what he says is true or false.”[4] Even if we may now speak of ancient Greek philosophy, Plato did not think his Forms stopped being ideal once you sailed passed the Aegean or Aristotle believe that his syllogisms were only valid within the city-states of the Hellenic world. Even when Sophists like Protagoras argued than “man was the measure of all things,” they didn’t assume that such a man had to speak Greek and wear a toga; even barbarians outside the pale might measure up. Likewise, later figures like Descartes never doubted that anyone could hold clear and distinct ideas in their minds no matter where his or her extended body might be located, and Kant had no trouble believing that the categorical imperative bound moral men wherever they might hear the call of duty. As Derrida noted in one of the seminars he devoted to “philosophical nationality” in the l980’s, “no cultural identity presents itself as the opaque body of an untranslatable idiom, but always, on the contrary, as the irreplaceable inscription of the universal in the singular, the unique testimony to the human essence and to what is proper to man.”[5]

The perennial struggle against what became known in the l9th century as “psychologism,” a struggle which we associate in particular with Gustav Frege and Edmund Husserl, has been waged ever since Plato denounced the Sophists for relativizing truth. Protagoras was wrong, the philosophers argued, for making man the measure of all things rather than recognizing the independent validity of truth no matter who held it. Directed as much at sociological or even anthropological reductionism as at its individual psychological counterpart, the argument was that Mind should never be reduced to the specific contents of the distinct minds whose contingent status was irrelevant to the more fundamental questions addressed by philosophers. The claim that local contexts, national or otherwise, could determine the validity of ideas, that judgments were dependent on the qualities of those who held them, was anathema to the inherently transcendental, universalist and ahistorical assumptions of traditional philosophy, whatever its more idiosyncratic ontological commitments may be. Logic and mathematics became the model for all rigorous philosophical thought, as the law of the excluded middle or the numerical equivalent of Pi were valid in themselves and for all time. Even ethical and aesthetic values, some critics of psychologism like Heinrich Rickert and T.E. Hulme came to argue, could be understood apart from the mere convictions of their defenders. They too could at least aspire to eternal and transcendent status.

The same universalist premises underlay many other non-philosophical discourses, for example those deriving from the mono-theological musings of those who worshiped the jealous God of the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic faiths of Abraham. Although anthropologists of religion might rest content with comparing variations on the theme of the sacred, those invested in the one true God had no compunction about asserting absolute validity for their beliefs. And of course, modern science also came zealously to promote the idea that experimental testing is replicable no matter the local context where the test takes place. Water, it seems, will boil at 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level in Madagascar and Siberia as well as in Munich. Or at least so goes the received wisdom about the scientific method.

That wisdom, to be sure, has itself come under increased scrutiny by sociologists of science, who have unearthed the concrete practical limitations on the credentialed communities who have the legitimacy to conduct the tests and disseminate the results. Thus, for example, Steven Shapin in A Social History of Truth, has pointed out that gentlemanly codes of conduct in l7th-century England helped to determine whose accounts were credible and whose were not, even during the Scientific Revolution associated with figures like Robert Boyle.[6] Civility and decorum rather than the sheer persuasiveness of the better argument often bestowed the power to win assent. As Foucault had noted—and Shapin explicitly draws on his legacy—knowledge and power are not strangers to each other.

Still, one might argue that although violated in practice, the ideal of disinterested knowledge unbeholden to the status of those who produce or defend it remains the operative norm in scientific inquiry. If the public sphere model made familiar to all of us by Jürgen Habermas can be said to approach its counter-factual state of full realization anywhere, it would be in scientific discourse. But philosophy too has generally sought to defend its methods in similar terms, resisting the cultural relativism of those who would tie it too firmly to contexts of generation or reception. Even those philosophers who espouse such a perspectivalist relativism or reduce ideas to mere worldviews rarely avoid the performative contradiction involved when making general pronouncements about all ideas being only relatively valid.

It is then itself a form of performative contradiction and therefore philosophically illegitimate to worry about the threat to a specifically Polish philosophy or any national tradition in philosophy for that matter? Is it simply bad philosophy ever to apply limiting adjectives of this kind? And if we do decide to abandon universalist assumptions, why assume that national culture provides the relevant context to explain and delimit the more local contexts that matter? What about those diasporic traditions that have a history of wandering from one to the other, following the pattern that became known as “traveling theory” since the celebrated essay by Edward Said of that name in the l980’s?[7] Although not without their national inflections, they often learn to speak new tongues, or at least new accents, as they move restlessly from one context to another.

Speaking in tongues, however, is usually considered a virtue for certain kinds of religious adepts, but not for philosophers. A neutral meta-language beyond or above vernacular idiosyncrasy has long fascinated those who see mathematics or symbolic logic as the ideal towards which rigorous thought should aspire. Insofar as carefully defined concepts are understood to be the building blocks of the philosophical discourse that shares this aspiration, the other dimensions of language that we can roughly call the rhetorical have been marginalized or neutralized. Rigorous, shared definitions were demanded to overcome the messiness of everyday usage. Or so it seemed until a century or so ago. For after what became famous as the linguistic turn in philosophy, what was marginal became central and what seemed neutralized returned with a vengeance. Metaphor, whether living or dead, gained new respect as an inevitable vehicle of meaning, which may well outstrip the attempts of rigorous conceptualists to still its potential for polysemic play. All of this is, of course, well known, and does not warrant belaboring.

But what does merit underlining is the extent to which the medium of language—or more accurately, the many concrete languages—in which philosophy is expressed may inflect the content of that expression. Indeed, ever since Descartes abandoned Latin for his native vernacular and began writing in French, even the most universalist philosophers have tacitly acknowledged that it makes a difference how what is being said is said. The alleged opposition between philosophy and poetry is undermined, or at least relativized, if we acknowledge that both are written in a particular idiom, however much they may seek to transcend it. Thus it hasn’t been missed, at least by Jacques Derrida, that in their famous debate on the absolute prohibition of lying, Immanuel Kant could refer to Benjamin Constant as simply Der französische Philosoph and was called in return un philosophe allemande “as if this debate about lying were also a conflict between philosophical nationalities.”[8] For a while, of course, it was possible to claim that some languages were more inherently suited for general philosophical expression than others, some intrinsically clearer than others, even closer to the text of nature. French itself was famously defended in this way by Antoine de Rivarol in his l784 Berlin Academy Prize treatise “De l'universalité de la langue française.” According to Rivarol, the order of French syntax mirrored the order of the rational mind, an assumption that those among us who had to learn it as a second language may find improbable. Ce qui n'est pas clair n'est pas français “What is not clear is not French,” he famously asserted, which is an even more remarkable claim for those of us living in the era of Lacan, Derrida and Deleuze.

A generation after Rivarol, the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte made comparable claims for German as the most suitable language for philosophical expression.[9] Arguing that French had become a dead language, mired in formulaic clichés and no longer connected with the living community out of which it emerged, he asserted the vitality of German as the language of freedom, capable of binding together the cultural nation that was at the forefront of the human struggle for emancipation. Here it was not so much clarity that was a virtue as purity, the purity of a natural tongue that escaped corruption by neighboring languages. There was originally an Ursprache, a language spoken by our ancestors, which was closest to nature (Fichte was not a conventionalist when it came to sign systems: “language,” he insisted, “is not an arbitrary means of communication, but breaks forth out of the life of understanding as an immediate force of nature”)[10]. German, he famously claimed in his l808 Reden an die deutschen Nation, is closest to it in his day. Unlike other people who had emerged from the same stock but no longer lived in their native lands, they had “retained and developed the original language of the ancestral stock.”[11] The link between their sensuous experiences and supersensuous ideas was still intact. Its contemporary speakers thus had the potential to realize the metaphysical task of liberation somehow latent in their language, which they could do if they acted as an organic community to bring it about. Whether or not Fichte was an ethnic, perhaps even racist nationalist or just a linguistic one has been debated ever since, but what is important for our purposes is his argument that the German language had a special mission that set it apart from its competitors, especially French.

The philosophical dimension of that mission remained potent well into the 20th century, in thinkers as disparate as Heidegger and Adorno, who continued to believe with Hegel in their good luck being native speakers of “an idiom that is originally speculative.”[12] Both insisted that German with its convoluted word order and wealth of interchangeable suffixes and prefixes provided an especially rich expressive medium for the presentation of their respective philosophies, whether ontological or dialectical. Both distrusted the pretension to linguistic clarity and univocality assumed by the Cartesian tradition, which they saw as complicit with a tacit privileging of the ocularcentric bias of the technological world view. Both understood the aesthetic and rhetorical moment in the language of philosophy, which should not strive to emulate the bland neutrality of scientific denotation.

But they differed over a crucial question: the value of maintaining the purity of German, with Adorno explicitly repudiating Heidegger’s fetish of etymological origins and disdain for words of foreign, especially Latinate extraction. Although in his 1955 essay “On the Question ‘What is German?,” he explained his return after the war as a home-coming to a language that “has a special elective affinity with philosophy and particularly with its speculative element,”[13] Adorno never forgot his positive lessons as an exile from his national linguistic home.[14] What he called the “jargon of authenticity” enveloped certain words in an auratic nimbus that lent them an unearned profundity. Adorno, mindful of the links between Heidegger’s thought and his politics, saw the latter as ominously paralleling ethnic cleansing of a more sinister kind. For purists, he argued, “German words of foreign derivation were the Jews of language.”[15] For all their debts to Heidegger, many recent French post-structuralists share Adorno’s admiration for macaronic linguistic hybridity, rejecting the search for either a neutral meta-language or a vernacular purified of intrusions from the outside. Like the l8th-century German enemy of Kantian transcendentalism, J.G. Hamann, they have often deliberately mixed words from many languages, dead and living, in an effort to disrupt the apparently direct expression of ideas, making us attend instead to their inevitable refraction through the linguistic media that convey them.

Whether universalist assumptions about philosophy are challenged by the belief that one specific language is better than others or that a delirium of different languages is necessary to make up for the inadequacy of each, the linguistic turn has helped undermine the hope that a neutral metalanguage above the Babel of different vernacular tongues might provide a foundation for philosophical expression. Whether considered a prisonhouse, in Nietzsche’s famous metaphor, or a more benign house of being in Heidegger’s, language or more accurately, languages have come to be recognized as inevitable mediators of thought, perhaps even their tacit generative matrix.

It might, of course, be argued in response that such considerations rarely inhibit the migration of ideas across linguistic boundaries or make impossible the transfer of content from culture to culture, nation to nation. What defenders of this more optimistic conclusion dismissively call “the myth of the framework” — the title of a famous essay by Karl Popper[16] - means that however much conceptual thought is mediated by the languages in which it is expressed, no insuperable barriers exist to communication of common thoughts across linguistic frontiers. It may be the case, as the linguist Harald Weinrich has argued, that although isolated words and even concepts in one language may defy perfect translation into another, full texts can more easily surmount linguistic barriers. “No word is translatable,” he writes. “But we don’t ever have to translate words. We translate sentences and texts. It doesn’t matter that the lexical meanings of words don’t usually correspond exactly from one language to another. The issue in the text is really the textual meanings, and we can handle these adequately—just by making the context correspond. In principle, therefore, texts are translatable.”[17]

Although this claim may appear a bit too rosy for those who worry that contexts are themselves not always so easy to commensurate, theories, as we know, do easily travel, sometimes even returning home having been broadened by the experience. Nor is it so obvious that a shared language produces a shared philosophy, as anyone familiar with the Austrian as opposed to German philosophical tradition in the l9th and early 20th centuries can well attest. Whereas the latter tended to be idealist, anti-positivist and historicist, the former was often inclined towards realist, positivist and anti-historicist positions. In complicated ways that we can’t address now the different religious traditions and national histories of each country had as much as if not more impact than their common language. It is not surprising that an essentially Protestant Germany optimistic about its national future would philosophize in a different mood from a Catholic Austria uneasy about the survival of a delicate compromise with other nationalities in the moribund Habsburg Empire.

Perhaps a more fruitful approach to the specificity of national traditions in philosophy would focus more on concrete institutions and practices than linguistically shaped worldviews or conceptual frameworks. Rather than relying on the residually Romantic notion of a latent national spirit or organic language community, it may be more prudent to examine empirically the concrete conditions in which philosophy is carried out in different settings. As Paulin Hountondji argued in his l980 book, Sur la “philosophie africaine,” rather than an “ethnophilosophical” inquiry based on a problematic belief in the essence of African philosophy, it is wiser to investigate philosophy in Africa.[18] In a recent essay entitled “Is There Such a Thing as ‘French Philosophy’? or Why do We Read the French so Badly,” Alan D. Schrift seeks to answer the question he poses precisely in this way.[19] Noting that previous attempts to discern a specifically French tradition, such as those of Victor Delbos during the First World War and Léon Brunschvicg shortly after it, sought an answer in substantive terms — in an alleged French partiality for clarity and cultivating the human spirit absent from the philosophy born across the Rhine — he argues that the real answer lies in “certain institutional practices unique to the French academic world.”[20] These produced a highly centralized philosophical culture, in which personal relations were often as critical as intellectual power. In particular, he points to the crucial role of the Ecole normale supérieure on the rue d’Ulm in Paris until at least the l960’s in training virtually all important French philosophers (three exceptions that prove the rule being Jean-François Lyotard, Paul Ricoeur and Gilles Deleuze), providing a highly competitive, personally charged atmosphere for philosophical inquiry and debate. Most of the ENS’s students had, moreover, already bonded when they attended one of two famous lycées in the Latin Quarter: Louis-le-Grand and Henri IV. In later years, prestigious positions in places like the Collège de France or the Ecole des hautes etudes would often be determined by the connections and alliances made at a very early age. In addition, the peculiarly French competitive exam, established in l766 by Louis XV, called the agrégation, meant that anyone wanting to teach at the secondary level or above must prepare in the same way for a national test whose consequences for their future career are formidable. In l809, Napoleon decreed that a year of philosophy had to be taught in all French lycées, which involved uniform instruction throughout the empire. Because it is known in advance which philosophers will be among those whose legacy will be examined in any particular year, all the potential competitors are forced to read the same texts and are presumably influenced by the same ideas. Thus, Schrift speculates, the inclusion of Nietzsche in the syllabus for the agrégation in l958, the first time in three decades that he was included in the programme, may help explain why the generation that came of age after l968 was so besotted with his ideas.

Another recent account of the uniqueness of French philosophy, Tamara Chaplin’s Turning on the Mind, also takes into account the importance of an institution in distinguishing French from other traditions.[21] In her case, however, it is not the academic organization of the discipline, but its extraordinary exposure on French television in the second half of the 20th century on shows like Lectures pour Tous, Apostrophes and Océaniques, giving it a popular appeal unlike in any other country. She points out that the power of philosophy on television was itself rooted in earlier French traditions: “a penchant for clarity (with its attendant stepchild, vulgarization); a richly diverse literary style; a proclivity towards autobiography; and a sustained interest in practical morality. Each of these attributes ultimately influenced the development of philosophical television in France.”[22] In France, philosophical ideas and the personality and values of the philosopher were always intimately intertwined with debates often having ad hominem qualities, a characteristic that was only exacerbated by the celebrity culture spawned by televised shows on ideas and those who espoused them. The old role of the moraliste dispensing lessons in practical wisdom, associated with Montaigne, Pascal and other giants of French thought, continued well into the current era.

There is a lot to be said for this more institutional approach, elaborating the enabling conditions of specific traditions, but a question immediately arises about the Frenchness of French philosophy raised by Schrift’s example of the l968 syllabus. That is, if the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche became so powerful an influence for whatever institutional reason, isn’t there something odd about calling the results quintessentially French? Ironically, the same Victor Delbos who introduced a patriotic course on French philosophy at the Sorbonne during the First World War was known as the author of the first book in his language on Husserl’s phenomenology. How French, we might wonder, was his own worldview?

This issue is skillfully treated in a recent book by Ethan Kleinberg called Generation Existential, which deals with the reception of Heidegger’s thought in France from l927 to l961.[23] He also acknowledges the institutional influences on French philosophy based on the jury d’agrégation’s power to set the curriculum for all of France. He even goes further than Schrift by claiming that there was a fit between the type of rationalist idealism, neo-Kantian in origin but very much influenced by the positivism of Auguste Comte, imposed on the system by Bruschvicg during the l920’s and l930’s, and the ideology promulgated by the Third Republic. “Under Brunschvicg’s reign” he writes, “students studied Plato, Descartes, and Kant, in that order, presented as the logical progression of philosophy. For authors whom Brunschvicg and the French neo-Kantians rejected, such as Aristotle and Hegel, only a cursory refutation was required….As a philosophy that upholds the primacy of formal reason and the unlimited development of rational humanity, Brunschvicg’s neo-Kantianism was an ideal match for the Third Republic that held these same issues dear.”[24]

But that fit began to be challenged, Kleinberg goes on to tell us, by the generation that came of intellectual age in the years before World War II, when the Third Republic was already perceived by many to be moribund and corrupt. Although there was an indigenous resource in the spiritualist vitalism of Henri Bergson that might have been tapped to challenge the hegemony of the neo-Kantians and neo-positivists, his star was waning at the same time, partly because there wasn’t much élan vital obvious in French culture in the interwar years and partly because his long awaited work on religion proved an anticlimactic disappointment. Inspiration had to come from elsewhere, and in fact it came from outside the rigid straightjacket provided by French philosophical institutions. The reception of phenomenology, initially Husserl’s version and then with increasing power, Heidegger’s, was enabled by the efforts of figures like Emmanuel Levinas, Alexander Koyré, Alexander Kojève, Georges Gurwitch and Bernard Groethuysen, all, in Kleinberg’s words, “foreign intellectuals who made themselves ‘at home’ in post-World War I France. The arrival of figures fleeing Russian in l917 via Germany infused French intellectual life with scholars raised on Russian literature, exposed to Marxist doctrine, and schooled in modern German philosophy. German-Jewish intellectuals fleeing anti-Semitism in German universities represented a later wave of intellectuals coming to France. Levinas brought a new way of reading philosophy; Alexander Koyré and Kojève imported interpretations of Hegel.”[25] Although initially on the margins of the philosophical establishment, the “strange defeat” of the Third Republic, to adopt Marc Bloch’s famous phrase, let them come to the center.[26]

The reception of foreign ideas, and we can add those of thinkers like Kierkegaard and Nicholas Berdyaev to Hegel and Heidegger, was to be sure, uneven and often resisted. For political and other reasons, there was a succession of efforts to discredit and expel Heidegger’s version of phenomenology in particular, beginning almost immediately after its introduction and continuing into our own day. “The very process of rooting Heidegger’s work in that country has been tense and often violent,” writes Kleinberg, “as exemplified by the numerous Heidegger Affairs that continually resurface. The process of amnesia and rediscovery of the ‘insidious,’ ‘foreign,’ ‘totalitarian,’ and ‘hostile’ nature of Heidegger’s work is indicative of a larger French trend toward appropriating and then disowning academic traditions.”[27] One can find a similar pattern of assimilation and expulsion, domestication and alienation, with other non-indigenous figures who had a powerful impact on French philosophy, such as Nietzsche, Spinoza, Marx and Freud.

The result is that anything that might be called “French philosophy” cannot be fathomed without taking into account the troubled introjection of impulses that were by no means native. Although, to be sure, they were subjected to powerful and creative misreadings that meant they were not simply duplications of the original — even Brunschwicg’s neo-Kantianism was a far cry from that developed in the Germany of Heinrich Rickert and Wilhelm Windelband — their presence precluded any meaningful upholding of rigid national boundaries in philosophical discourse. At first glance, “French philosophy” may seem a solid monolith from the outside, a bit like American philosophy might appear to a Polish intellectual feeling threatened by its imperialist penetration of the local culture, but from within, it proves to be as porous and polluted as any other national tradition. It is wise, in other words, to remember, as Pierre Machery has pointed out in his own answer to the question, “Y a-t-il une philosophie française,” that the great founding father of the native tradition, René Descartes, spent a good deal of his time in exile in Holland and Sweden developing his ideas.[28]

The difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of deciding what is inside or outside a body of thought or cultural formation is itself an issue that has been the subject of theoretical inquiry. In an insightful essay called “Why is Theory Foreign?,” published in l990 during what used to be called the “theory wars” in the American academy, Bill Readings pondered the implications of the threat posed to traditional styles of literary criticism by the incursion of post-structuralist theory. He noted that resistance to theory often takes the form of accusing it of being an alien intruder. “The foreignness of theory, the casting of the theorist as a foreign invader,” he writes, “is itself the product of a theory of interpretation, which goes unrecognized as such in that it is normally classified as the description of reading. This theory of interpretation identifies the text and its reading in terms of a hierarchically ordered division of inside and outside. As reading enters the text from the outside, so critical theory, in the private demonologies of many English professors, enters the cozy hearth of the English Department, where reading is practiced, from the outside.”[29] Although the habit of stigmatizing foreign theories can be discerned as early as Dryden, who damned the French esprit de finesse as superficial and ornamental, the quintessential 20th-century figure was F.R. Leavis, who understood reading in terms of participatory immersion in a text rather than subjecting it to a general categorical explanation or contextual reduction.

The foreign theorist is construed as an agent of disembedded abstraction, the snake who introduces the self-conscious reflexivity that disrupts the serenity of the interpretive garden. In contrast, native readers are comfortable in their culture, never needing a road map to find their way home, always familiar with the concrete particulars of their environment. Their own subjectivity is mirrored in that of the texts they read, which allows their interpretations to be understood not as impositions from without, but rather as “enactments of a mimetic interpretative justice.”[30] As might be expected of a devotee of French theory, Readings distrusts the binary opposition implied by this dichotomy of inside and outside with its implied scapegoating of the alien theorist, who is placed on the side of hermeneutic injustice. “The answer to the question of why theory is foreign is thus because it is only by casting theory as foreign that we can suggest reading is native: a reading that would not be French, would be respectful of, would correspond to, the interiority of the text. Theory is demonized as foreign in order to hide the foreignness that inhabits the very heart of reading.”[31] Conversely, theory cannot itself be understood as immanent to itself, self-sufficient in a way that makes the texts it interprets entirely external. It too is haunted by the irreducible presence of its apparent opposite.

Readings’ focus is on literary criticism, but the same point might be made about the defense of native philosophical traditions against the menace of alien pollution. Here too, as we have seen in the case of the French debt to a welter of foreign influences, foreignness also inhabits the very heart of philosophy, which is always already displaced. As we have seen in the case of the variable French assimilation of and resistance to Heidegger discussed by Kleinberg, the host culture is often uneasy with a guest who stays too long or begins to take over the living room. Traveling theory often has to keep its bags packed and move on to the next welcoming inn, when that unease turns to outright hostility. There is an inevitable power dimension to the relationship, which creates friction when compromise turns sour. But whatever the power dynamics or uneven distribution of resources and rewards, the goal of full purification of a philosophical tradition, perhaps of any cultural formation striving to police its borders, will inevitably be frustrated.

The result, however, is not a homogenous smoothing over of all differences and the creation of that universalist, utterly transcendental philosophizing so often sought in the Western tradition. It might be tempting to call it cosmopolitan instead, to use a term that has come once again into vogue, suggesting that philosophers are citizens of the world rather than individual nation-states. But doing so might lull us into thinking all the implications of linguistic and institutional difference were really nugatory. It would be best therefore, it seems to me, to think of philosophy in the modern world, indeed much intellectual endeavor, as transnational rather than national, universal or cosmopolitan. That it, it is located not primarily within the national state nor in the interstices between them, let alone on a supranational, meta-linguistic level, but rather in a fluid and multi-directional negotiation among communities, discursive and institutional, that themselves lie both within and without their national borders at the same time. And as such, it performatively instantiates one of the most powerful ethical imperatives philosophy so often defends: tolerance for, even positive embrace of the plurality of differences in the human condition that resist being subsumed under one over-arching transcendental model of universal human nature.

A recent publishing venture called Keywords: For a Different Kind of Globalization, edited by Nadia Tazi, illustrates the kind of transnational exchange I mean.[32] It was launched by the Charles Leopold Mayer Foundation and realized by the Alliance of Independent Publishers, which includes the Shanghai Cultural Publishers in China, La Découverte in France, Double Storey Books in South Africa, Le Centre Cultural Arabe in Morocco and Lebanon, Sage Publications in India and Other Press in the United States. Rather than imitating the British literary critic Raymond Williams’ earlier Keywords, which provided short entries for many important words, all written by one author, Tazi chose six authors from different parts of the world and asked them to write long philosophical essays on the meaning and history of terms in their own cultural contexts. So far the words chosen have been “Identity,” “Truth,” Experience,” “Gender” and “Nature.” In each case, scholars from Africa, Europe, the Arab World, China, India and America were asked to provide commentaries on these keywords, which were then published simultaneously in English, Chinese, Arabic, and French translations. The working assumption of the series is that each culture has a unique perspective, which emerges from their linguistic and institutional histories, but on a common theme. The editor understood the project as experimental and gave only the most general and flexible guidelines to the authors (I say this, as it were, from experience, as I was asked to contribute the essay on the American concept of experience). As Tazi noted in the preface to the series, “in this plural space that has no center, in which the suggestions may intersect or be ignored or excluded, the confrontation can only hold surprises. The map of problems, their formulation, the development of ideas, the range of preoccupations, the levels of historicity and abstraction, and the degree of intensity necessarily fluctuate. Hybridizations are not always recognized and identity fixations are not always where one expects to find them. Gaps of temporality run through the various societies themselves (and not just across borders) by crystallizing other forms of discontinuity. The unspoken is at least as significant as what is presented.”[33]

Inevitably, there are inconsistencies and lacunae, and it will doubtless seem unfair to some that all the entries for Europe were written by French scholars and Latin America is conspicuous by its absence. Even plural spaces sometimes have discrepancies in the ways in which they are configured; the force fields of power in which they operate do not produce grids that are perfectly isotopic. But as an exercise in transnational philosophical reflection, the set of volumes is a remarkably suggestive achievement. As the subtitle of the series indicates, it strives for a new kind of globalization, one in which there is no hegemonic center, no imperative to strive for universal meaning, and cultural differences are acknowledged. And yet, translation between and among those cultures is optimistically fostered as a goal worth attaining. Perhaps at times, the result is even that happy fusion of horizons posited by hermeneuticians like Hans-Georg Gadamer, who believe in the possibility of an ever-expanding consciousness that can harmonize alternatives worldviews and come to a higher level synthesis. At others, to be sure, the dialectic remains negative, caught in a tense field of forces that repel as much as attract, and no harmonious sublation is achieved. Here theory remains inevitably foreign in Readings’s sense of it as reflexively outside of a cozy community of native readers, but not threatening as such because, pace Fichte and his progeny, there is no indigenous tribe to be subverted by invasions from without. Here perennial philosophical questions and possible answers circulate in a never-ending shuffling of the deck, with cards that both reflect local origins and inevitably transcend them. Here even Polish philosophers anxious about their submersion in a sea of translations from abroad might find some solace in the realization that it is translation all the way down.


[1] Adam J. Chmielewski, “Looking Westward: The Submissiveness of Polish Philosophy,” Times Literary Suppplement, June 23, 2000.

[2] Ibid., p. 16.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Plato, Phaedrus, 275c.

[5] Jacques Derrida, l’Autre Cap, suivi de la démocratie ajournée (Paris, 1991), p. 72. For a general discussion of the lectures, see Dana Hollander, Exemplarity and Chosenness: Rosenzweig and Derrida on the Nation of Philosophy (Stanford, Ca., 2008).

[6] Steven Shapin, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (Chicago, l994).

[7] Edward Said, “Traveling Theory,” in The World, the Text and the Critic (Cambridge, Mass., 1983).

[8] Jacques Derrida, Without Alibi, ed. and trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford, 2002), p. 43.

[9] Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Addresses to the German Nation, trans. R.F Jones and G.H. Turnbull (Chicago, 1922). On his more general philosophy of language, see Jere Paul Surber, Language and German Idealism: Fichte's Linguistic Philosophy (Amherst, NY, 1996).

[10] Fichte, Addresses to the German Nation, p. 60.

[11] Ibid., p. 54.

[12] This phrase is cited without reference by Jacques Derrida in On Touching - Jean-Luc Nancy, trans. Christine Irizarry (Stanford, Ca., 2005), p. 74.

[13] Theodor W. Adorno, “On the Question ‘What is German?’,” Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York, 1998), p. 212. For a consideration of the ways in which Adorno philosophized in German, see Steven Helmling, Adorno’s Poetics of Critique (London, 2009).

[14] As he noted in “On the Question ‘What is German?’,” referring to German’s speculative affinities, “unquestionably the German language also has a price to pay for this quality in the omnipresent temptation that the writer will imagine that the immanent tendency of German words to say more than they actually say makes things easier and releases him from the obligation of thinking….the returning émigré, who has lost the naïve relationship to what is his own, must unite the most intimate relationship to his native language with unfailing vigilance against any fraud it promotes; against the belief that what I should like to call the metaphysical excess of the German language in itself already guarantees the truth of the metaphysics it suggests, or of metaphysics in general.” (p. 213).

[15] Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (London, l974), p. 110.

[16] Karl Popper, “The Myth of the Framework,” in The Myth of the Framework: In Defense of Science and Rationality, ed. M.A. Notturno (New York, 1994).

[17] Harald Weinrich, The Linguistics of Lying and Other Essays, trans. Jane K. Brown and Marshall Brown (Seattle, 2005), p. 24.

[18] Paulin J. Hountondji, Sur la “philosophie africaine,” (Paris, 1980).

[19] Alan D. Schrift, “Is There Such a Thing as ‘French Philosophy’? or Why do We Read the French so Badly,” in After the Deluge: New Perspectives on the Intellectual and Cultural History of Postwar France, ed. Julian Bourg (New York, 2004).

[20] Ibid., p. 23.

[21] Tamara Chaplin, Turning on the Mind: French Philosophers on Television (Chicago, 2007).

[22] Ibid.,. p. 22.

[23] Ethan Kleinberg, Generation Existential: Heidegger’s Philosophy in France, 1927-1961 (Ithaca, 2005).

[24] Ibid., p. 5-6.

[25] Ibid, p. 9.

[26] Marc Bloch, Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940, trans. Gerard Hopkins (New York, 1999).

[27] Ibid.

[28] Pierre Machery, “Y a-t-il une philosophie française?,” Histoires de dinosaure: Faire de la philosophie 1965-1997 (Paris, 1999), p. 319.

[29] Bill Readings, “Why is Theory Foreign?,” in Martin Kreiswirth and Mark A. Cheetham, eds., Theory between the Disciplines: Authority/Vision, Politics (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1990), p. 77.

[30] Ibid., p. 81.

[31] Ibid., p. 84.

[32] Nadia Tazi, ed., Keywords: Identity (New York, 2004); Keywords: Gender (New York, 2004); Keywords: Experience (New York, 2004); Keywords: Truth (New York, 2004); Keywords: Nature (New York, 2005).

[33] Nadia Tazi, “Series Preface” to all the volumes, p. ix.