Why Philosophers Should Study Indigenous Languages

Justin E. H. Smith in his personal blog:

I believe there is much to be learned philosophically from the study of languages that are spoken by only a small number of people, who lack a high degree of political self-determination and are relatively powerless to impose their conception of history, society, and nature on their neighbours; and who also lack much in the way of a textual literary tradition or formal and recognisably modern institutions of knowledge transmission: which for present purposes we may call “indigenous” languages.

This is of course going to be a hard sell, given that the great majority of Anglophone philosophers do not even recognize the value of learning German, Latin, Arabic, Sanskrit, or Chinese, and believe that they can penetrate as deeply as one might possibly go into fundamental philosophical questions from a standpoint of monolingualism. German, Latin, and the others are cosmopolitan languages, and historically all cosmopolitan languages, rightly or wrongly, have functioned as vehicles of what most discerning people are prepared to recognise as philosophy. But there is a significant difference even among the five cosmopolitan languages I’ve listed, which can begin to point us towards the even greater difference between all five of these, on the one hand, and, say, Yanomami, Ainu, Ket, or Sámi on the other: the first three cosmopolitan languages may be grouped together, as having a long legacy of shared and standardised terminology such that problems of translation between them are relatively small; by contrast, while there is to some extent a legacy of translation from Sanskrit towards Chinese, often via Tibetan, for the most part philosophical terminology has developed in these languages independently and without any felt need to establish cross-linguistic equivalencies.

More here.

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