The Perils of Making Philosophy a Lingua Americana

The Chroncile review

From the issue dated August 11, 2000


In the age of globalization and the United States' undisputed dominance, American popular culture commands the international market and pervades world consciousness.

But what about the high culture of philosophy, so long and so essentially defined by its European tradition? In 1901, the American pragmatist philosopher William James felt it necessary to begin his European lectures with an explicit "apology ... for so presumptuous an act.

"It seems the natural thing for us [American philosophers] to listen whilst the Europeans talk. The contrary habit, of talking whilst the Europeans listen, we have not yet acquired," he said, though he hoped that it would soon become a well-established practice.

A century later, that hope seems amply fulfilled. Europe has been experiencing something of a fascination with American philosophy. Since philosophy plays a far more central and respected role in Europe, American philosophers are often asked to lecture not only at universities there, but also at a variety of cultural venues, particularly when our research is closely related to the arts.

To avoid generalities, let me testify from personal experience. Although never asked to speak in an American art museum, I have been invited to give many lectures in museums and cultural centers throughout Europe, particularly in France, Germany, and Austria, which pride themselves on combining traditions of artistic and philosophical greatness. Already flattered by the offer of traveling expenses and an attractive honorarium, I am sometimes further honored with the role of featured speaker, even when some European colleagues seem far more worthy of that privilege, through their greater seniority, professional stature, or specific knowledge.

While not ranking among America's "most wanted" philosophers, I have seen (in just the past eight years) three of my books translated into French and two into German, and more than 20 of my articles published in those languages. Interviews with me have been published in French, German, Finnish, Swedish, Portuguese, Polish, Spanish, and Italian -- but I have yet to be interviewed for any American journal or magazine. If European interest in my work was aided by my academic appointments there, those appointments themselves derived from prior interest in (and translation of) my work. My project as Fulbright professor in Berlin was devoted to American pragmatism and democracy, and my appointment at the Collège Internationale de Philosophie, in Paris, is for work in American aesthetics.

My case is not unique. Europe's interest in American philosophy surely stems from the philosophical achievements of William James, John Dewey, and other classic American thinkers. But it is also a product of America's growing cultural influence in the world -- an influence that, in turn, seems a product of America's political, economic, technological, and military dominance.

I doubt that it's mere coincidence that French translations of American philosophy seemed to surge and peak with the decline and fall of the Soviet or Marxist alternatives. Today's American philosophers are far more extensively translated than their illustrious progenitors. Only two of Dewey's books have been published in French translation, while the neopragmatist Dewey-booster Richard Rorty can already claim seven, as can John Searle, the analytic Berkeley philosopher of mind and language.

Of course, there were also distinctively professional reasons, involving local European politics within the discipline, for the increased importation of American philosophy since the mid-70's. Our hardheaded empiricism and logical common sense were helpful to younger generations of French philosophers in their struggle to challenge the then still dominant schools of thought: existential phenomenology (which claimed to reveal essences by introspective consciousness, and was represented by Sartre and Merleau-Ponty), Marxism (Althusser), psychoanalysis (Lacan), and poststructuralism (which saw reality as the indeterminate product of the changing play of linguistic differences, for instance in the works of Derrida). Young German philosophers similarly imported American philosophies of conceptual analysis and pragmatism to challenge the symbolic and institutional power of the reigning German schools of phenomenology (e.g., Husserl and Heidegger), hermeneutics (which saw all reality and experience as interpretation; e.g., Gadamer), and critical theory (based on a synthesis of Marxist and Freudian themes, most powerfully exemplified in Adorno).

There is an underlying logic here that likewise explains the past importation of Continental philosophy into America. Since the philosophies that dominate the local field are strongly entrenched, philosophers seeking a radical transformation of that field need to import something from outside that seems powerful enough to make an effective challenge. In Europe, America's potent image as champion of the free world and as creative master of new ideas and new technologies, reinforced by the global penetration of American culture and the authority of English as the international language, endowed even an upstart American philosophy with a symbolic aura of power and prestige.

As the dollar soars over the euro, as big business and the Internet confirm the world dominance of the English language, it seems a good time to be an American philosopher in Europe, surfing the crest of our planetary force on the wave of cultural globalization. But some tricky and turbulent crosscurrents are stirred up by that wave, as I learned from two recent trips, to Frankfurt and Paris (trips that also reminded me of the differences between the French and German cultural environments). In late March, I delivered the inaugural lecture at a five-day conference organized by the Frankfurt Opera on the aesthetics of mise en scène, and sponsored by some large, multinational corporations, including Hilton and Mercedes-Benz.

Opera is remote from my area of expertise (my writing on music having focused on rap and country), so I was extremely puzzled to have been chosen to open the conference on a gala evening when my talk was followed, on the same stage, by a performance of Don Giovanni. Why not choose one of the several German philosophers in attendance who knew opera much better than I?

Good manners precluded asking my hosts their real motives for my selection. But I surmised that importing an American keynote speaker could better serve the opera's aim of projecting a grand international profile, and could assure its generous sponsors that their funding was appropriately spent. An advocate of American pragmatism and popular art might, moreover, lend a provocative sense of freshness to challenge the association of opera with stuffy conservatism. So there I was on center stage, as if to imply that American culture, through sponsorship by multinational corporate capital, was storming even the most monumental citadels of European art.

Some limits to our imperial influence, nonetheless, remain. In a deft reassertion of national culture, the Frankfurt Opera secured for the conference the symbolic patronage of the Goethe Institute, whose president was assigned the task of greeting the public before my talk. And I was obliged to deliver my lecture in German, a humbling experience for someone who first learned the language only in the mid-90's, for a Fulbright stay.

Speaking the host language was not enough to appease audience sensibilities in Paris, where I was invited to lecture at the Pompidou Center in mid-May to open a lecture series for a forthcoming exhibition on themes of popular entertainment in contemporary art. From almost 10 years of experience, I knew Parisian philosophy audiences to be respectfully polite and nonconfrontational, sometimes almost to a fault. But that night I met a vehement critique, not for the specific theses of my argument, but essentially for being a representative of American culture -- the very thing that had only recently made my work so appealing to the French intellectual market.

The term "anti-Américain" was frequently used by members of the audience; and reading the French newspapers that week, I realized that the sentiment I encountered exemplified a general trend, to which a whole section of May's Le Monde Diplomatique, an intellectually prestigious and progressive monthly review of political news and commentary, was devoted. The cultural anti-Americanism expressed on its pages transcended the familiar complaints against Hollywood, Disney, and McDonald's. Also condemned was the intellectual imperialism of American theory.

These new critiques of the "cultural imperialism" of "American national thought" come not merely from the disgruntled ranks of intellectual nobodies who are tired of listening to Americans who never listen to them. The phrases I cite come from France's most influential social theorist, Pierre Bourdieu, whom I know well and whose work is much esteemed worldwide for its originality, its disciplined, scholarly care, and its openness to international dialogue (including an appreciation of American thinkers).

Now he feels compelled to savage American theory as a whole for its "mental colonization" of Europe through the imposition of our local intellectual categories on European theory: "'communitarianism,' 'multiculturalism' and their cousins 'postmodern,' 'ethnicity,' 'minority,' 'identity,' 'fragmentation,' etc." The conceptual imperialism "of the peculiarities of American society and universities," to use Bourdieu's phrase, is further caricatured (and demonized) as the theoretical handmaiden to the globalization of neoliberal politics and economics.

When an astute thinker like Bourdieu is led to such sweeping generalizations, disregarding the dissent of many U.S. intellectuals from the ideals of neoliberal globalization, something must be wrong in the circulation of international ideas. So I asked other French colleagues about the anti-American cultural backlash.

A common complaint is that the American academy has invented around a handful of much-translated heroes -- Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Francois Lyotard -- its own notion of contemporary French philosophy rather than really trying to come to grips with what is actually happening on the French philosophical scene. One reason given for this alleged failure is that most American philosophers, even those who specialize in what we call "Continental philosophy," do not have sufficient knowledge of French and German (language and culture) to engage in meaningful dialogue with their European counterparts. In both France and Germany, I have heard the accusation that while American philosophers of the generation now reaching retirement (for instance, Rorty, Hilary Putnam, and Arthur C. Danto) demonstrated wide reading in foreign languages, younger generations seem increasingly to assume that there's no need to cite recent scholarship that is not written in, or translated into, English. French philosopher friends have expressed frustration that their own work is typically ignored by American philosophers, even by those who specialize in French philosophy.

Shouldn't we expect that French philosophers could give us special help in deciphering the complex word play and elusive allusions of writers like Derrida and Deleuze, since they think in the same language? But respect for language, in this old-fashioned sense, does not seem to count anymore.

Nor, apparently, do conventional facts of cultural geography. Indiana University Press is publishing two books this season on what it now calls "American Continental Philosophy," as if to announce that the term "Continental philosophy" need no longer be associated with contemporary thought from the European continent. The European reactions that I encountered regarding this strange new coinage ranged from ridicule at its marketing gaucherie to anger at the American arrogance of cultural expropriation. One German mordantly mused, "If Arizona can have London Bridge, why shouldn't Indiana have its own Parisian philosophy? After all, it already has its own Notre Dame; so why, in the land of Disney, can't South Bend be the Left Bank?"

It is tempting to dismiss such plaints as mere worried resentment at the loss of European cultural hegemony, but we might learn more by taking them seriously. Are American philosophers growing too lazy (or too pressured or too poorly trained) to make the effort to read widely in foreign languages? Or are we simply laboring under the presumption that if philosophical work is not translated into English, it must not be worth the effort of translation, hence not worth serious attention?

Given the great cost and difficulty of publishing philosophical translations (and the very high quality of philosophical scholarship in Germany and France), this presumption seems wildly off target. Accepting it will encourage some dangerous consequences: the homogenization and consequent diminution of the international philosophical conversation, parochial insularity in the discipline's debates, and the further deterioration of language skills. The last would not only reduce our ability to provide for future translations, but also hamper our understanding of even classic European texts that have been translated, since even the best translation is better understood by knowing the original.

In failing to read our European contemporaries in their own languages (especially when they write about their own philosophical classics), don't we deprive ourselves of important cognitive sources? Then again, a social constructivist might reply that the Anglophone philosophical establishment can simply determine and ensure, through its increasingly global institutional power, that only what appears within the dominant discourse and language of English can count as significant. Unless we insist on that second assertion, we must admit the risk of losing important sources of knowledge, and thus of falling behind our European (and Asian, Latin American, and African) colleagues who are far more able and willing to read what we write.

What remedies are available? To insist on better foreign-language training than most philosophy graduate programs now provide would be a good start, but a deeper change of attitude and sturdier habits of multilingualism are surely needed.

Such change may not be feasible, a pragmatic realist must concede. The reigning pressures and reward system in the American philosophical academy are stacked against it. Our tenure, promotion, and merit committees clearly give far greater value to publications in English (which they can read) than to those in foreign languages, even the philosophically rich and formerly prestigious French and German.

But if ever a profession were well-suited to measuring what is against what could or should be -- well, wouldn't it be ours?

Richard Shusterman is a professor of philosophy at Temple University and directeur de programme at the Collège Internationale de Philosophie, in Paris. His new book, Performing Live: Aesthetic Alternatives for the Ends of Art, is due from Cornell University Press in December. Section: Opinion & Arts

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