Philosophy as Translation:

American philosophy, perfectionism and cross-cultural understanding


(Traditional Paper: 3500 words)


1. What can American philosophy do in the age of globalization?


Today, in spite of circumstances of tension and conflict among different cultures, both within and without national boundaries, the world is “unified” in a global market and national boundaries are blurred. Any naïve assumption about the understanding other cultures plainly will not work. Even the politics of recognition faces the danger of being assimilated into the unifying force of globalization. We need, in such circumstances, to question once again our relationship with our own culture and nation, while at the same time reconsidering what it means to understand other cultures. Dewey’s idea of “democracy as a way of life,” an idea based upon the principle of mutual learning as “friends” (Dewey, 1988), and its application for “mutual national understanding” (Dewey, 1983), is not its exception. Dewey once said that philosophy, as the general theory of education, is involved in the formation of “fundamental dispositions, intellectual and emotional, toward nature and fellow-men” (Dewey, 1980, p. 338). If so, American philosophy, including pragmatism, needs to respond to the following question: What should American philosophy do in the age of globalization, especially with regard to the enhancement of cross-cultural understanding? Its answer requires us to reflect upon the kinds of disposition we should cultivate towards our fellow human beings and the kinds of commitment we should profess.

As a way of responding to this question, this paper attempts to shed new light on the possibility of American philosophy from the perspective of “perfectionism” – the tradition of thinking that involves the question of how one should live a good life (Hurka, 1993, pp. 3-5). In contrast, however, to its typically teleological strain, this paper highlights the uniquely American version of perfectionism: the idea of perfection without perfectibility, a process-oriented notion of perfectionism, which Stanley Cavell seeks to resuscitate in his reading of Emerson and Thoreau. It is especially in connection with cross-cultural understanding that I shall highlight Cavell’s Thoreauvian idea of philosophy as translation – translation in the broader sense of the encountering of the strange in the familiar, of finding anew one’s place in one’s language and culture. This is derived from his reinterpretation of the kind of American cultural asset that Thoreau’s Walden is, a book in which he finds, perhaps paradoxically, a peculiar version of cosmopolitanism. Philosophy as translation puts an emphasis on language as the crucial component of practice and action – in rebuilding the self’s relationship with one’s own culture as well as with that of others, and in reconsidering what it means to learn from each other as “friends,” as “neighbors.” Cavell shows that reading Thoreau’s text in itself provides us with a “clearing,” a path that illuminates in a new way our modes of cross-cultural dialogue – transforming the metaphor of “crossing” borders with entanglements of “inter-” and “intra-”cultural dimensions. His suggestion of philosophy as translation offers us a powerful orientation today for creating “neighbourhood” in a globalized world, in the hope of achieving common humanity but without settling down in solidarity.


2. Translation amd bottomlessness: Cavell’s The Senses of Walden


Let me begin with a discovery made through my own experience of translating Cavell’s The Senses of Walden into Japanese. It was constantly evident to me that the task was something other than a matter simply of transposing one meaning to another. In the process I found that the existing Japanese translations of Walden were constantly being destabilized, the meanings of its sentences and words overturned. Cavell’s and Thoreau’s language refuses to be fixed and defined, and this is part of its point. The following passage from Walden, which Cavell cites, captures the evaporative nature of language in Cavell’s and Thoreau’s text:


The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement. Their truth is translated; its literal monument alone remains. (Thoreau, 1992, XVIII)


As a translator, I was constantly posed with the sense of being on the border of being correct and wrong in the choice of words. I was struck by the absolute limitation of translation, and at the same time its open-ended possibilities. This in turn is the process of myself being turned back to myself, my native langue, and my culture as if I encountered them once again. Cavell says about Thoreau as a writer: “The writer keeps my choices in front of me, the ones I am not making and the ones I am. This makes me wretched and nervous” (Cavell, 1992, p. 49). This is trying for the reader; indeed it is a “trial” in which Cavell as the writer tests his reader by measuring her degree of “reading, in a high sense” (p. 4).

Cavell’s text destabilizes our conventional idea of translation simply as a mechanical process of switching from one language to another or as a developmental stage from the first language (mother tongue) to the second language (foreign tongue). It reminds us that there is something more in the difficulty of translating a foreign text – more than difference in vocabulary and grammar. The very fact that Cavell’s writing is said to be difficult even to native speakers has a deeper implication than one might assume. In fact Cavell says that a purpose of writing The Senses of Walden is to make Walden more difficult (Cavell, 2004; Standish and Saito, 2005, p. 214). Whether one is a native speaker of English or not, one is struck in Cavell’s text by the sense of bottomlessness (Michaels, 1992, p. 417) – the sense that bearings offered by the writer of the text are constantly being lost. The writer challenges the apparently stable ground of language on which the reader stands and challenges the attitude of reading that relies on the authority given by the text. At the same time, Cavell says: “There is a solid bottom everywhere” (Cavell, 1992, p. 76). The bottom of reading, or the secure ground of reading, is in the hands of the reader: it is her responsibility to weigh towards this and to find where to stand. Cavell’s position is anti-foundationalist, but it is not a complete abrogation of the hope of finding the bottom. It is a matter of “finding as founding” (Cavell, 1989) – an Emersonian deconstruction of the ground of our existing framework of thinking. This is the process-oriented search for criteria. It represents Cavell’s Emersonian moral perfectionism – the idea of perfection without final perfectibility (Cavell, 1990, p. 12).

Cavell’s ordinary language philosophy exemplified in The Senses of Walden helps us understand the complex relationship between the native and the foreign. The main task of his ordinary language philosophy is to return language to its ordinary context, to forms of life. It constitutes Cavell’s resistance to philosophy’s suppression of the human voice, and his attempt to regain intimacy between our words and life. It is in Emerson’s and Thoreau’s writings on the ordinary and the common that Cavell rediscovers the rich sources of American philosophy, as philosophy that “underwrites” ordinary language philosophy (Cavell, 1983, pp. 32-33, 48). The denial of them as philosophers, Cavell says, is America’s loss, and simultaneously philosophy’s loss – “America’s characteristic failure to realize and act upon what was best in itself” (Cavell, 2005b, p. 4).

Cavell’s ordinary language philosophy, then, is inseparable from his search for an authentic Amercanness and his (and Emerson’s and Thoreau’s) attempt to found (that is, to find) a new nation. The Senses of Walden exemplifies this project of reconstruction in America and philosophy. In contrast to Derrida, whose task is to deconstruct the “finished edifice of philosophy,” Cavell claims that Emerson’s is “to avert foundation, in advance,” in “founding, or deconfounding, American thinking” (Cavell, 1996, p. 65). It is the work of questioning more thoroughly one’s relationship with the native – with native language and native culture as well as with native community and nation. In Walden and The Senses of Walden, words are not mere words but are inseparable from the work of “placing ourselves in the world” (Cavell, 1992, p. 53).

Cavell here emphasizes the significance of Thoreau’s provocative idea of the “father tongue” – “a reserved and select expression, too significant to be heard by the ear, which we must be born again in order to speak” (Thoreau, 1992, III, 3, in Cavell, 1992, p. 15). Surely the mother tongue is the essential starting point of one’s being initiated into the language community. While the mother tongue, with its emphasis on speech, suggests a relation of immediacy, however, the father tongue in its primary association with the written word enables a reflective, indirect relationship with what is native. The indirectness of the written word gives us the time to think, to deliberate and to readjust our relationship with the world. This is anything but to deny the mother: rather it is to “keep faith at once with the mother and the father, to unite them, and to have the word born in us” (Cavell, 1992, p. 16). Rebirth involves the process of translation. It is not, however, simply a matter of shifting from the mother to the father, as if this were a matter of developmental stages, or comparable, say, with the difference between the acquisition of first and second languages. Translation does not come after the acquisition of the first language: it already starts in one’s initiation into the language community, in the relationship with the mother tongue.

While conventional philosophy has been searching for the foundation of the truth in secure knowledge, Cavell converts the task of philosophy into putting the reader into a state of “conviction.” The reader is “convicted” by the text (p. 34) in that she is caught in a position of responsibility not only of reading a text, but also of destabilizing and rebuilding the foundation of her mother tongue. Reading in the father tongue is the process of the reader and the writer being engaged in a cooperative task of “conjecturing” – that is, of testing the criteria of words and culture, and of keeping alive the search for their truth. A foreigner’s sense of being foreign in reading and translating Cavell’s text is not created solely by the fact of its being written in a foreign language.


3. Philosophy as Translation


Cavell’s ordinary language philosophy suggests that reading and writing, epitomized by and conducted through the father tongue, are the processes of readjusting and rebuilding one’s relationship with one’s native language. It also suggests that this is a process of translation in the broader sense, a process that starts from within the native language. This involves creating a distance in intimacy within one’s familiar language and self, of building a relationship of the “double” or “perpetual nextness” (Cavell, 1992, pp. 102, 108). The Senses of Walden opens our eyes to diverse cross-cultural dimensions. First and foremost is its explicit reference to Eastern philosophies, as is exemplified in the notions of leaving and detachment followed by Bhagavad-Gita, and in its receptive mode of writing and thinking itself. Cavell’s text, however, suggests a much deeper, broader, though still implicitly cross-cultural implication: an indirect form of cross-cultural dialogue through reading and translating a foreign text. By enhancing this cross-cultural implication of Cavell’s ordinary language philosophy we can see how he represents Thoreau not only as a quintessential American figure, but also as a cross-cultural figure who transgresses the boundary of – in effect, transcends – America.

In a recent essay, “Walden in Tokyo” (Cavell, 2005b), Cavell elucidates this dimension of The Senses of Walden. He wrote The Senses of Walden when the Vietnam War was nearing its denouement. (Cavell, 2004; Cavell 2005b). In this sense it attempts to enact the process of finding an alternative way of America’s relationship with Asia. In Thoreau, so influenced by Eastern philosophies, Cavell finds an alternative mode of thinking, sometimes of receptivity and silence. It is in this sense that Cavell emphasizes that Walden is a book about other cultures (Cavell, 2005b, p. 4). Cavell wrote the book with a sense of shame towards his own culture and nation, for the decline of its original ideal of founding a new nation. It searches for a way of transcending America from within America, as a task of “this new yet unapproachable America” (Cavell, 1989). Here the spirit of Cavell’s Emersonian moral perfectionism is manifested – American democracy ever to be attained.

At a much deeper level, the very process of Cavell’s engagement with his America as culture and nation already in itself entails the origin of cross-cultural encounter – en-counter as the confrontation with another culture within one’s own. Cavell says: “Such visions [as Thoreau’s] prepare for the self-criticism of one’s culture, preparing us for a change of our lives, to become deliberately not blindly strange to our conceptions of ourselves” (p. 8). Such internal criticism is made possible by the teachings of other cultures. A mere incorporation of those “outside” sources into the native, however, does not create the moment of that teaching: neither does a simple juxtaposition or comparison of the foreign to the native. In its most intense form of encounter, the native is destabilized by the foreign. Cavell’s attempt to overturn the relationship between the inner and the outer through the conversion of the familiar to the strange makes possible the moment of this intense cross-cultural encounter. His writing suggests the intricacy of the relationship between the inter- and intra-cultural dimensions.

This brings forth a further cross-cultural implication of Cavell’s rereading, and indeed, translating, of Thoreau’s Walden: “Walden can be taken as a whole to be precisely about the problem of translation, call it the transfiguration from one form of life to another” (p. 17). By transfiguring and broadening the concept of translation, Cavell presents us with the idea of philosophy as translation: “philosophy to make human existence, or show it to be, strange to itself” (p. 7). Even when the text does not directly speak about cross-cultural dialogue, the reader is as a foreigner who experiences the process of translating the native to the foreign – through the face of the writer’s internal criticism of his own culture and native language. This can be understood as an occasion for mutual reflection between different cultures, where the mirror’s value is not just in the image of clarity but in the clouding that is a sign of life. Mutual reflection here should be distinguished from mutual understanding, especially if the latter involves a direct “face-to-face” dialogue between the different. In mutual reflection the relationship is more indirect – symbolized by a relationship through the father tongue, by written words. In observing the way the other confronts his own culture and language, one is turned back upon her own culture and language, as a stranger. The idea of mutual reflection suggests that “mutual understanding” can be blocked not only by difference in an inter-cultural dimension, but also by blindness to the difference in an intra-cultural dimension – the reader’s and the translator’s inability to confront their own native language and culture, and sometimes perhaps, their naïve trust in understanding the familiar.


4. Towards perfectionist cross-cultural understanding


When Dewey says that “democracy must begin at home,” he means that without starting by learning “love” at home, we cannot love or understand “distant peoples,” or “the people of foreign lands,” as “our next door neighbors” (Dewey, 1984, p. 368). However important his idea of democracy as a way of life is and however significant its implications for cross-cultural understanding, Cavell’s philosophy as translation, understood in the light of his perfectionism and his ordinary language philosophy, reminds us of the fact that cross-cultural relationships cannot simply be between the native and the foreign. Love is not simply the matter of securing the ground of stability at home: it also already involves the destabilizing of an apparently secure and stable foundation. While sharing with Dewey the idea of democracy constructed and criticized from the inmost to the outmost, Cavell’s idea of mutual reflection (with its emphasis on the written word) offers us a standpoint from which to gain critical awareness of a danger that besets the language of mutual understanding: the danger of the unconscious assimilation of the different into the same, the possibility of blindness to the foreign in the near, the residual or the excess in experience beyond the immediate and the visible. This might be thought of as a danger entailed by our trust in immediacy and directness, as if this were the underside of our fear of not being able to get closer to the other. This is skepticism reemerging on a cross-cultural horizon. Cavell awakens us to an illusion of the knowability of the immediate and invites us to keep discovering and rediscovering the strange and the foreign within the same, to release from within ourselves the voice of the different that eternally escapes our full grasp. Building the relationship of neighborhood (in of Cavell’s formulations, “befriending” [Cavell, 1992, p. 108]) and understanding other cultures are not simply matters of matching (and alternately, mismatching) the same (we) and the different (they): rather these speak more of an intricate relationship between the different, within and without the same. As Cavell suggests in “Walden in Tokyo,” the understanding of another culture does not need to amount to a “homerun,” the wholeness of full understanding: it can be a matter rather of “getting to first base” (Cavell, 2005b, p. 16) – the incomplete understanding that acknowledges the “residuum unknown, unanalyzable,” in Emerson’s phrase (Emerson, 1990a, p. 168). This is Emersonian perfectionism, perfection without final perfectibility, our assiduous search for the common that is ever still to be achieved. It is always accompanied by the sense of disappointment, the sense that we “cannot be sure.” It is this humble recognition of the unknowable that drives us to further understanding, an indirect way of demonstrating love for neighbors – and that offers simultaneously a response to the question, “Who is my neighbour?”

Unlike the characteristic discourse of cosmopolitanism or the politics of recognition, Cavell does not call for immediate bonds or commonality, but rather for “isolation” as the sincerest way of building neighborhood with others (Cavell, 1992, pp. 85-86). This is emphatically not to represent Thoreau as a typically American individualist. It is rather that Cavell and Thoreau are searching for “a common origin” (p. 160), the origin not in the beginning but in the end to be achieved. “We have yet ‘to get our living together’ (I, 100), to be whole, and to be one community” (p. 96). Without starting with an acknowledgement of isolation, and without having the sense that “what is most intimate is what is furthest away” (p. 54) – the sense of eternal distance from the other (within and without one’s own self) – the common will always be enclosed, totalized, whether in globalization or solidarity. Suggesting Emerson’s maxim that “the inmost in due time becomes the outmost” (Emerson, 1990b, p. 131), Thoreau aspires towards an alternative route to the common, one that starts essentially within each of us, in “home-cosmography” (William Habbington, in Thoreau, 1992, XVIII, 2). The task of philosophy as translation has already started within home, in one’s relation to language, culture and nation. In Thoreau’s “home-cosmology,” a relationship of home and cosmos is transactional, neither term being reduced to the other, neither as the fixed ground. Each of us is on the way, in transition, between and within home and cosmos.

Cavell’s American philosophy of perfectionism points us both to national and global citizenship. He thoroughly resists patriotism in the aggressive sense, a form of love that cannot tolerate the irritants that inevitably arise within our midst, a love that cannot abide self-criticism, that allows the self to acquiesce in its mother tongue and native culture, without being able to open itself to translation. Simultaneously in resistance to any easy appeal to the cosmos, Cavellian education for citizenship is provocative, “shunning the cosmopolitan and embracing the immigrant in yourself” (ibid., p. 158). Cavellian education for national citizenship in itself entails the bud of global citizenship: an alternative way of achieving global citizenship through inter-/intra-cultural dialogue.

It is in the light of this that a distinctive role is elucidated for a philosopher who practices American philosophy in a cross-cultural dimension. Like Thoreau, who lives as a “visible saint” on the border between the town of Concord and the woods of Walden, she plays the role of a prophet on the edge of her own culture and langue, in her profession of philosophy. This requires that she work in the interstices of a culture, without settling down in any fixed space. She plays translator by converting the mother tongue into, as it were, a “foreign” father tongue, by seeking the indirectness and separation that is the means of a common still to be achieved. In the very way she is engaged with her own culture and language, she offers a mirror to the eye of an outsider (both native and foreign) so that the latter can also be engaged in the criticism of his own culture, on his part.



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