OCD Philology

Before we proceed, I need to say something about all the non-English words in these posts.  This is not about using etymology to make words present.  It has to do with my problems with translations that don’t seem to get it right, deliberately or not.

I first became concerned about this issue when reading Aristotle about 13 years ago.  I began to notice how often the translation seemed to freeze motion where there could be process.  This “thing” is a property of that “thing,” or a member of the class of those “things.”  I found the original Greek texts on the Internet, which on the Perseus site nicely link each word to a dictionary.  Guess what?  In every passage I checked, Aristotle did not use a Greek word with all the implications of the English word “thing,” certainly not a separate word for “thing,” and often used a verb or verb-form where the translator used an abstract noun.

In the end, however, I came away deeply frustrated with Aristotle, beyond any translation issues.  There were two central problems with Aristotle in my mind: (1) his analysis of motion as change from one state of an underlying substance to another state of an underlying substance, from one static thing to another static thing; and (2) his analysis of us ultimately as things, whether you called this thing “soul,” “person,” or “self.”  This was when I became aware of the Buddhist teachings of impermanence and “no self” and started reading Buddhist and Daoist philosophy to see if they got it any better.  Once again translations started setting off alarms in my head.  When I checked, I would find the same English word used for different Chinese characters or different words in Sanskrit or Pali.  Or different English words used for the same character or word in the original.

Here, I am trying to make a virtue of my OCD about translations.  We start with the shame and fear Laura felt about her aphasia, her difficulty with translating the thoughts in her head into words that others could understand. In the following posts on fear, shame, anger and pain, I will use the ways in which others describe these emotions to present how Laura hurt, but also incidentally to present some of the frustrations of translating.  Ultimately I fear that I am not even close to being sure what the Greek, Latin, Chinese, Pali, or Sanskrit really means. Time and time again both Laura and I would feel a similar frustration that she had not really said what she meant, or that I just didn’t get it.

More positively, I want to honor Laura’s serious love of words, her philological studies of the texts of Spanish literature and her skill as a lawyer in turning the words of a statute into the practical guidance of regulations—to the extent, however, that amateurish mistakes do not detract from imitative praise.

In an earlier post I described blogging as living in an unfinished house.  One way in which my OCD keeps telling me that this work is unfinished is that I have not read everything that’s been written on the subjects discussed here.  I want to read everything so that I don’t sound as if I think an idea is original with me when it’s been expressed even more clearly by someone else.  Nor do I want to spout off ideas that have already been thoroughly debunked. For instance the comments that I just made about Aristotle and my frequent emphasis on verbs, change, and doing are all made without a background in the literature of process philosophies.  (Seibt)  But I charge on, keeping in mind Bernard Williams‘ advice that “there is no reliable way of converting the disadvantages of amateurism into the rewards of heroism.”

Even where I have done some more study of an issue or a philosopher, I have had to stop exploring every aspect of the issue and the entire corpus of the philosopher in order to get on with writing.  For instance, in the coming posts we are going to look into what Aristotle and Aquinas have to say about the role of imagining in pain and other feelings.  To give this subject its proper due, not only would I have had to delve more deeply into Aristotle and the literature about him, for the sake of my brother Patrick I would have to explore Bernard Lonergan’s lengthy tome Insight, the epigraph for which comes from On the Soul (428b1): “The faculty of thinking then thinks the forms in the images ….”  That translation uses  “faculty” for eídē, while R.J Smith in the Complete Works translates dúnamis as “faculty” when referring to imagining.  (428a1).  So, you see how long this could take.

Then, of course, I would need to address other philosophers such as William James and Sartre on imagination, to name just two.  It could go on like that.  For myself I would also want to study the Abhidhamma, the third basket of the Theravada Buddhist canon.  The Theravada Abhidhamma consists of seven books, one of which runs over 6,000 pages.  That doesn’t include Buddhaghosa’s three long, semi-canonical commentaries, nor the Sarvāstivāda and the Dharmaguptaka Abhidammas.   Perhaps this is why the monk scholars pushed the doctrine of multiple lives for those of us who don’t reach enlightenment in this lifetime.  So much to study and so little time.

One by-product of going with what I’ve read is that these presentations talk more about Aristotle and Aquinas than one might expect from a Buddhist or a Daoist.  One virtue in this necessity is that I am at least explicit about the Western roots of much of what is said here.  It has been my experience that some Western translators and expositors of Eastern philosophy use concepts and terms loaded with the mind-set of European philosophers, but quote from and write as if they are basing what they have to say solely on Eastern texts.  They do this without examining the differences between the two.  For example, some use Kant’s terms “noumenon” and “phenomenon” to present the Buddhist idea of two-truths.  They are not the same.  This exercise at least forces me to work out the remnants of 16 years of Catholic schools, including four years of Thomist philosophy and theology in college.  Also, to the extent that these presentations explicitly address the tension between where I’ve been intellectually and where I’m heading, this tension will help clarify both.

In the end, I don’t care whether what is written here can be labeled “Buddhist” or “Daoist.”  On that subject I would add that despite the comfort I took in reading Buddhist scripture and writings during Laura’s illness, these posts do not present the teachings of the Buddha as therapy for the injured and the suffering. They do not aim to be feel-good, self-help distractions, but rather to address how to attend to what we are doing right now and to what is happening around us right now, whatever you want to call that process.

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