Garfield (and Daya Krishna) on intercultural philosophy and the power of languages

Jay Garfield’s research may interest you or not, but his methodological musings are worth reading anyway. Here I linked to the interview where he compared the exclusion of Indian philosophy from syllabi, justified on the basis of the fact that there are already enough Western philosophers to work on and one does not have time to focus on anything else, to the exclusion of female philosophers based on the motivation that “We have already enough men whose works we need to study”.
Now, I have just read (the German translations of) an article of him on Polylog 5 (2000), which recounts his adventures in intercultural philosophy.

The article is a typical example of what Monika Kirloskar would define as the third phase of comparative philosophy, since Garfield is clearly aware of the political background of the questions he tackles. European or US scholars and their Tibetan colleagues are not on the same level while discussing, because of the different economical and political background they come from, and also because of the different languages they use (everyone translates into English, but who translates English philosophy into Tibetan?):

Überdies treffen euro-amerikanische Akademiker sich mit tibetischen oder indischen Akademikern unter ungleichen Machtbedingungen. Der Machtunterschied zeigt sich in konkret in ökonomischen und akademischen Bedingungen. […] Subtiler noch, aber darum nicht weniger bedeutsam, kodieren die Sprachen, in denen wir uns austauschen, Machtbeziehungen.

This asymmetry makes English into the “standard” language, the “neutral” paradigm against which a given philosophy is judged. But this is not only unfair, it is also risky, since English has its own (philosophical) history, and while looking at a certain text in translation, one runs the risk to project on it what was only part of the English terms used in the translation. Daya Krishna is among the few ones who can report first hand of what happens when one tries to do the opposite, since he encouraged the translation of Russell and Wittgenstein in Sanskrit, in order to make them accessible to traditional paṇḍits:

Perforce, therefore, the Sanskritic terms have to be translated into their western equivalents, giving the latter a magisterial status in deciding what the former mean or ought to mean. The converse situation normally does not take place; but recently when at Poona the experiment was tried of translating some issues in Russell and Wittgenstein into Sanskrit […] the difficulty became apparent. […] [T]he matter had to be translated into Sanskrit, but then those Sanskrit terms carried the usual connotations associated with them and resisted the imposition of new meanings upon them. (Daya Krishna 1989, p. 78, available here)

Thus, it becomes clear that the same happens while translating Sanskrit into English, and that involves the loss, and —even worse— the alteration, of much epistemic content.
Several interesting discussions on the use of English in the Academia among non-English native speakers can be found in the archives of Indology (under the headings “Help preserve cultural diversity” and “Language barriers — financial barriers”, see, for instance, this post), and some readers might be aware of a parallel discussion within Analytic philosophy (see here), but now I wonder whether the fact that many scholars of Indian philosophy are not English native speakers may have the indirect advantage that they do not take the history of English as a whole as obvious and that they might be more inclined to problematise the terms used in a translation. After all, non-native speakers might have a less immediate relation to English and be therefore more ready to reflect on, e.g., the distinction of “cognition” and “knowledge” and be able to discuss whether it accurately reproduces the opposition jñāna vs. pramā.

What do readers think? Which languages can you better critically evaluate?

On the use of the term “Intercultural philosophy”, see this post. The post on Garfield’s interview can be found here. Again, I am indebted to Elise Coquereau for having sent me a copy of Garfield’s article.

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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