“You can’t properly think in English”

Let me introduce you to a little discussion on language and philosophy in the Netherlands. The title of this post refers to the title of an interview with the Dutch philosopher Ger Groot (Erasmus University, Rotterdam) in the Dutch newspaper Trouw (Saturday 22th November). In this interview Groot expresses his deep worries about the gradual transition in the philosophy departments from Dutch to English. His objections are manifold. Ger GrootWriting essays in a non-native language gives a loss of subtility of expression and sensibility of turns of thought. Moreover, it will lead to an impoverishment of the native language as well. In short, the drift of the interview is that this development will inevitably lead to an attenuation of the education of philosophy in the Netherlands.

The article remained largely unnoticed. A couple of letters and reactions expressed approval and it must be admitted that Groot touches upon a couple of relevant objections. For example, he mentions that the translation of philosopical topics to the public domain (newspapers, other media) needs the creation of a philosophical discourse in the native language. The comparison with theology is readily made in this regard. The same objection can be made by and large for theological education as well. Doing theology has a practical aim: it serves the Church and its practices. But the language employed in most congregations in the Netherlands will be Dutch. That seems to have an important consequence for the language employed in theological education.

So, Ger Groot seems to underscore a valid point of view. However, in one sense I strongly disagree with him, for Groot presupposes a specific relation between language and reality. Let me give an example of this: “In science the use of language is very limited. In the case of philosophy the importance hardly can be overestimated. Words and philosophical concepts are indissolubly connected with each other.” “Anglo-Saxon philosophy often doesn’t fully realize how ‘language-dependent’ our thinking is.” In this connection, he speaks about a linguistic mono-culture. The journalist then remarks that there has been one scientific language before: Latin in the Middle Ages. But Groot’s answer again is typical: the use of Latin lead to scholastic thinking.

What is the problem with this way of reasoning?

1. First of all, there is a historical problem. It simply is a myth that one language leads to one (type of) philosophy. Latin was indeed the language of the scientific community, not only in the Middle Ages, but long since. Calvin’s Institutes for example were written in Latin, but it’s not a specimen of scholastic theology, in contrast with his friend Peter Martyr Vermigli, for example. That is not to say that a particular language is a matter of indifference. Far from that! And, of course, it is true that there are different traditions of doing philosophy. But my point is that accounting for these differences only, or even largely, in terms of (a particular) language is a gross misrepresentation of the complex reality of philosophical development.

2. The second problem is a philosophical one. In particular, it refers to the history and development of philosophy in the Netherlands. One of the remarkable achievements of Dutch philosophy has been in the area of the research of medieval philosophy. The name of Lambertus de Rijk stands out. A quote of Antonie Vos (pupil of De Rijk) from his The Philosophy of John Duns Scotus to illustrate this point:Lambertus de Rijk

In his important introduction to medieval philosophy, De Rijk lists four examples of original contributions that excel the inventions of ancient Greek, Hellenistic and Latin philosophy: terminist logic, which is in fact a part of the much wider phenomenon of the logica modernorum, the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas, the critical theory of knowledge of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and a way of thought which differs markedly from necessitarian Greek philosophy.

3. Groot does not only seem to be unaware of this alternative way of thinking and doing philosophy in the Netherlands, by Lambertus de Rijk and his pupils, he also missed the systematic importance of these discoveries. Scholastic medieval thought emancipated from Greek and Hellenistic thought with its thought patterns of necessitarianism. It disconnected the absolute parallelism of thinking and being. But if that’s true, it is nonsense to bound up the content of a particular philosophy with the language in which it is spoken or written. In fact, this way of doing philosophy asks for a new sensitivity to the way language is used. One and the same sentence, be it in Latin, Dutch of English, can mean something completely different in a different context. Unearthing these differences is the task of a philosopher, and a theologian as well. Not always easy, but worth the effort!

So, yes, you can think properly in English, although it might be hard work, especially for a Dutchman…


One thought on ““You can’t properly think in English”

  1. If one thinks, like the good professor, that the use of Latin leads to scholasticism then it is kind of awkward that Descartes, Spinoza, and Newton all wrote in Latin.

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