Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Struggling with one's preliminary understanding

One of the dilemmas of every philosophical paper is that it has to presuppose a general understanding of the terms it wants to investigate upon. This preliminary understanding is the conditio sine qua non that enables one's investigation but at the same time it hampers it because it is pre-critical and because its users might not be aware of its philosophical burden. So, one might want to describe the phenomenological approach to the ethical aspect of the sacrificer in Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā and provisionally call the latter a "soul". In this way, each reader will project onto it lots of other thoughts (of Jewish or Christian origin, of Aristotelian or Cartesian influence…) and reify into an ontological category what was meant to be an ethical one. Even more risky is the fact that s/he will do it without being aware of it, just because of the intrinsic power of the word one has chosen.

However, one cannot define each word if not through other words. Hence, one will never be able to speak a natural language whose terms are not at all carrying the burden of their history. What to do? First, I suggest, one should be aware of the history of the terms one is using, in order not to be mislead in the same way as the naive reader described above. Second, one might choose to add a word of caution for the readers in case of particularly significant terms. The following is what I would say in the case of the Prābhākara "soul":

In the present case, terms such as “subject” will be defined in a closer way in due course and it will be eventually shown that the Prābhākara understanding of them might at times be strikingly different than the one common in contemporary Western thought. For the time being, suffice it to say that “subject” and any other term referring to it (such as “psychic”) are used just for lack of any better option and that they are to be intended in a very neutral sense, as referring to the “agent” (once again, an ambiguous term) of actions, acts of will and acts of cognition.

What do you do in your philosophical translation and essays?

On the importance of an historical approach, see here. On the Prābhākara concept of "subject", see here.


michael reidy said...

It would be understood by the reader that each key word e.g. self, other, object, is to be taken as provisional, as merely indicating a general area of discourse , then by discussion and examples the full meaning of the writer will become clear. What does an eternal object mean for Whitehead for instance? You have to jump into the pool and flounder until lifebuoys are thrown to you by him or his critics. Translation brings other problems of course but essentially all reading is translation from the writer’s meaning particularly in metaphysics.

elisa freschi said...

Translation brings other problems of course but essentially all reading is translation from the writer’s meaning.

This is so sensible. That's why I think we have to be aware of the fact that the terms we use are not neutral. Once again, it's all about being aware.

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