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.

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog:, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

11 Replies to “Garfield (and Daya Krishna) on intercultural philosophy and the power of languages”

  1. As an undergraduate Luis Gómez did a great job of making me realize that I knew so little about many of the English words I used. He did a great job of getting us to reflect on the English terms we were taking for granted.

    About the issue of translating English-language philosophy into Tibetan, I know Jay has done some of this and I’ve from time to time tried to find people to do a project like that and the main obstacle has been that many Tibetans I’ve met have little to no interest in reading Western academic philosophy. It’s anecdotal, but maybe at least part of the reason for a lack of translation in that direction is a lack of interest?

    • Nic, thanks a lot for this interesting comment. I did not know about your attempts and it would be interesting to know more about them (if you have the time and the energy to do it, would you consider writing a guest post about the topic of translating philosophy into Tibetan and of the reactions you encountered?). I had the same experience with my Tibetan and Indian colleagues, but before starting to write about the lack of interest of India for everything happening beyond the jambudvipa, I wonder whether the asymmetry Garfield speaks about could be part of the explanation for this lack of interest. Tibetans are now concerned with the survival of their own endangered culture, perhaps they would be more open and willing to know about a culture they would not feel as threatening their own? I am here speaking of active interest, not of the gradual assimilation by young Tibetans of the dominant Chinese or English-speaking cultures.

      • Thanks, Elisa!

        I think you’re right that the cultural situations of Tibetans makes a big difference in this respect. People like me are in the nice situation of being able to take an interest in other languages and cultures without feeling like doing so is hurting (or failing to save) their own culture.

        I’d be happy to write about my experiences – though so far there isn’t much to tell – mostly it’s been me floating the idea to Tibetan colleagues in Tibet and Nepal and meeting with reactions of indifference or a “why the hell would I want to do that?” I’d still love to find someone team up with to translate something like Descartes’ Meditations or even newer stuff like Nagel’s The Absurd in Tibetan.

        A related experience I’ve had has been people in America and Europe being interested in translating Tibetan merely as a means to get at Buddhist teachings. That’s of course totally worthwhile, but I get the feeling that there is a lot of stuff in Tibetan outside traditional Dharma texts. Maybe that’s a similar issue – people who want Tibetan translations generally want Buddhist teachings, so that’s what gets translated … Have you encountered anything similar with Indian texts?

        • Nic, my general feeling is that this is especially true in the case of Buddhism. Buddhism has grown incredibly popular in the West and this also means that there are many more students (and, thus, scholars) interested in reading and translating Buddhist texts. By far less people are interested in reading and translating texts of other religions (Śivaism, Vaiṣṇavism, Jainism…) and, last, a tiny minority (at least in my experience) is interested in reading epistemological or other philosophical texts.

  2. I completely agree about the Machtbeziehungen (how could one not?) but not so much about the role of language in constituting them.

    First of all, linguistic bias (besides being “unfair” or “unfortunate”) is a symptom of something much bigger, and not separate from the economic and political factors mentioned above. There is the continued rise of English as a global language of power, which no amount of saṃvāda will change. And it seems that as English comes to be associated ever more closely with the dominant forms of knowledge (the natural and social sciences), the humanities become more and more provincial, and thus less dominant, and the circle continues. This is quite a different situation from the one that troubled Dayaji. He was worried that Sanskrit-speaking intellectuals from India couldn’t have a profitable conversation with English-speaking intellectuals from Europe. I’m talking about a situation where it’s increasingly difficult to encounter intellectuals who have command of either Sanskrit or English, because of the evisceration of certain forms of intellectual discourse by certain others, and the language politics that has accompanied this process, in India and elsewhere.

    Secondly, the instances cited—Russell and Wittgenstein—would be hard for native English speakers to understand unless they had some training in those traditions of analysis. “Language” is the issue only if we understand it in a wider, Bakhtin-like, sense. This raises the issue of translation in so-called “intercultural philosophy”: the point is surely not to express Russell’s theory of definite descriptions in Sanskrit, since without a great deal of context, it will sound like nonsense anyway. You can’t do intercultural philosophy without being intercultural (or cosmopolitan?) in some sense already. Translation, in the sense of a text produced in language y for people who don’t know language x, can have only the tiniest role to play in this enterprise.

    Finally, to veer slightly off the point: most scholars of Indian philosophy do not write “English” when they translate Sanskrit texts, but something like English Hybrid Sanskrit, which is usually harder for me (and probably for others) to understand than Sanskrit. Add to this the fact that almost every translation or article that speaks of the pañcāvayavavākya will name the avayavas differently. And add to this the fact that scholars have a reluctance to translate Sanskrit terms at all. These three factors seem to be a considerable impediment to Indian philosophy realizing its “intercultural” potential.

    • Andrew, on your last point (since I commented on the first one while answering to Ethan): I think that the problem with EHS is the purpose of one’s translation. In many cases, translators aim not at producing an independent text, but rather at creating an English bhāṣya which should be read along with the text in order to elucidate it (in some other cases, they aim, I sense, at showing that they know Sanskrit well enough and thus they reproduce its structure accurately —so that no one thinks that they did not recognise that instrumental!).

  3. I think Arindam Chakrabarti was also working on a book in Sanskrit on Western philosophy.

    I would also echo Andrew’s points that philosophy is odd in any language. This is obvious when interacting with my students, most of whom are native English speakers. For instance, I need to explain what philosophers mean by “realism” and “idealism” in the context of metaphysics, which has nothing to do with the usual meanings of those words in contemporary American English! Likewise, I’ve often wondered what, if anything, words like “pramāṇa” may have meant in “regular” Sanskrit or if there are equivalent words in contemporary languages like Hindi and Bengali.

    So, in addition to economic, political, and linguistic issues, philosophical language is often technically demanding and difficult no matter what one’s native language is.

    • Arindam did indeed finish his book, which would be worth looking at also in order to loose at least some of the problems hinted at by Jonathan. Although I do not think that one will find “liberation theology” in it, one might get a sense of which choices coudl be done. I, for one, tend to paraphrase concepts such as the ones mentioned by Jonathan, instead of trying to find a single term which translates them. mokṣaśāstra, to be more explicit, seems to me less clear than dīnānāṃ dīnatvavinirmokṣāya śramaṇam.

      As for English, your examples also point out that a native speaker has a preliminary idea of what the word “x” means. This helps her in most cases a lot (technical terms are even in philosophical texts only a small percentage of the whole vocabulary), but has the disadvantage you mention. In this sense, a non-native speaker might be in the advantage position of approaching the language already critically.

  4. These discussions remind me of a meet , I arranged in Central University of Tibetan Studies ( CUTS ) ’Sarnath ( Feb , 2009 ) , with an aim to open Dialog between the traditional and Modern astronomers , involving Tibetan Buddhist, Hindu as well as Modern Astronomers. This attempt was a kind of sequel of workshop on Matter and Motion in Buddhism and Science ’ 2007 in Nalanda . Geshe Nmwang Samten – the then Director of CUTS , took great interest to hold this kind of Meeting there..
    Many papers were collected as usual from the invited scholars. But the problem began as soon as the science papers were started being translated ( for circulation in advance among the Tibetan and other traditional scholars )in Tibetan / Hindi ! Most of the terms in those papers dealing with Modern Astronomy was turned out to have no conceptual analogue in Tibetan as well as in Hindi . This situation is not quite unlikely but was not anticipated beforehand to be acute to the extent of being almost untranslatable ! These all, however, proved once again that the norms of collaboration or possibility to open meaningful Dialog between Traditional and Modern understandings are yet to be worked out properly. In fact , at a certain stage of developments , most of the disciplines , within its own paradigmatic jurisdiction ,seem to achieve a kind of internal autonomy .Those who are actively engaged in developing the discipline/subject usually believe that the progress of the subject is a matter of judgment on the basis of the technical and conceptual tool already developed and possible to be developed within the paradigmatic jurisdiction of the subject itself.
    So the issue is precisely that , the Traditional astronomers are not even supposed to address many questions which are well known to have played a crucial role in developing 17th century dynamics ( unification of sacred sky and profane Earth ! ). In fact , the idea of mechanical cosmos was completely absent in Indian Astronomy ( in both of its Tibetan Buddhist and Hindu versions ) in spite of its incredible calculational rigor based on naked eye observation at least up to 17th Century . This effectively make Translation impossible at least in Astronomical context!
    However, the meeting finally took place! Thanks to a very smart translator sent from Dharamsala . He was spot translating all our modern Astronomy / Physics Talks into Tibetan . But , as none of us ( science speakers ) had any idea of Tibetan , there was no chance for us to judge the quality of the ‘Tibetan counterpart’ of our Talks !

  5. Hi Everyone,

    While I may not have put it as eloquently as others, I’ve felt for a long time that in addition to translations of English specific books into Sanskrit we need a lexicon or dictionary that takes key Western philosophical, theological, and scientific terms and translates them into Sanskrit. What, for example, is the Sanskrit term for “natural selection” or “consequentialism” or “liberation theology”?

    There is this book _ Pāścātyatattvaśāstretihāsaḥ_ By P. Sri Ramachandrudu, one which opens the discussion and I wonder if there are others like it (I haven’t read it yet!):

    It was reviewed by Shashiprabha Kumar, a well-known Nyāya-vaiśeṣika scholar:

    • J Hindu Studies (2009) 2 (1): 123-128 doi:10.1093/jhs/hip005

    I think that if Indian philosophy and theology is to thrive, it must more directly engage the traditional Panditas, Acaryas, Sastris, Upadhyayas, etc., and to do that one needs to engage the language and conceptual framework of the Indian tradition, one which is dominated by Sanskrit for some time.

    I can’t imagine anyone on this conference would say “it is a bad idea to translate Western philosophy, etc. into Sanskrit, Tibetan, Hindi, etc.,” so perhaps the question should be: how to go about doing it?

  6. Elisa, I think you’re quite right about the purposes of EHS translations. (I always think: if you’re going to write a commentary, why not just write a commentary, like John Taber did for the perception chapter of the ŚV?)

    I might regret it, but I will register a slight disagreement with Jonathan’s point: not about the kārya, about which I think Jonathan is absolutely right (making Indian philosophy an equal participant in global philosophy must involve making Sanskrit-speaking paṇḍits equal participants in this enterprise as well), but about the itikartavyatā. The question of translating technical terminology from European languages into Sanskrit is interesting (if only because Sanskrit, like bureaucratic Hindi, prefers calques to loanwords), but it seems pretty low on the list of things we need to do to kick-start this dialogue. Do we need a philosophical Raghu Vīra? Or do we need (a) a strong motivation to learn from other philosophical traditions, (b) institutional partnerships that will make it possible for people to learn, and not just at a conference here and there, but for an extended period? (For example, most American Sanskritists spend some period of time studying with scholars in India—is there any comparable convention among traditional scholars in India?) I would add (c) more productive collaboration between Western and Indian scholars, i.e., collaboration that results in scholarly work (I am thinking of Jacobi/Jinavijaya, Phillips/Ramanuja Tatacharya, etc.).

    Another question that Jonathan tacitly raised in grouping Sanskrit with Tibetan and Hindi is whether Sanskrit should really be the medium of this dialogue, or whether we can and should resort to another shared language (like Bernier's Persian) that might even open it up even further. In fact, most of the terminology that Jonathan mentioned can be found in academic Hindi (e.g., परिणामवाद), and I would assume in academic Bengali as well, although people writing in Indian languages sometimes still have to invent words (अन्तस्थता for "liminality").

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