How Do You Translate Philosophy?


by Justin E. H. Smith

On a certain plausible –but ultimately unsatisfactory– definition, ‘philosophy’ is simply a proper noun. It describes a particular tradition, just like the terms ‘ballet’ and ‘butoh’. It would be odd to claim that there is an indigenous tradition of Polynesian ballet, not because anyone believes that Polynesians are inherently incapable of appreciating or mastering this sort of dance, but simply because, as a matter of contingent historical fact, ballet emerged in Europe. This is a contingent historical fact that subsequently becomes essential to the definition of ballet. Ballet is, by definition, European. If it later appears anywhere else in the world, it does so by diffusion or appropriation, and not by chance, or in virtue of an innate, universal human capacity.

One way to approach the seemingly irresolvable question as to the nature of philosophy is to ask: is philosophy as a human activity more like ballet, or is it more like dance? That is, is it a particular cultural tradition, or is it a universal human activity with many distinct cultural inflections?

On the conception of ‘philosophy’ as a proper noun, as a particular cultural tradition, it may be established with certainty that philosophy is an invention of the Greeks, and that it is something that was later practiced by Romans, Muslims in the Arab world and beyond, Christian Europeans, and more or less secular Anglo-Americans and all the different groups under their cultural dominance. Let us in what follows call this conception of philosophy ‘Philosophia’, in acknowledgment of the heritage that is ostensibly inseparable from its identity conditions.

If philosophy just is Philosophia, there can be no Indian philosophy, for example, even if there are indeed undeniable attainments of an indigenous intellectual tradition. The six orthodox schools of classical Indian thought would have developed, we may presume, even if the Greeks had never existed. Thus the various Indian darśana-s are not philosophy, while the falsafa of the Arabic-speaking world is philosophy, because it derives directly from the translation and incorporation into Islamic tradition of the works of Aristotle and other Greek authors who were self-consciously working in the tradition of Philosophia.

Within Europe, it is often not clear that the conventional term for ‘philosophy’ preserves the connotations of the Greek, and in many cases the term deviates in its morphology from the combination of ‘love’ and ‘wisdom’. Dutch is among a handful of Northern European languages to have coined their own term for the word that in all neighboring countries derives from Greek. Yet we can be certain that when Spinoza is taught in a department of wijsbegeerte in the Netherlands today, this is an instance of philosophy. The very term, ‘wijsbegeerte’ is a conscious fabrication from the model of the Greek word for philosophy. It is not a cognate of ‘philosophia’, but a calque.

It is fairly common in the Germanic and Celtic languages of Northern Europe, such as Icelandic, Faroese, Welsh, and Breton, to deploy artificial terms for ‘philosophy’ that draw on the internal resources of these languages, conveying something of the same spirit as ‘philosophia’ without translating the Greek term morpheme-by-morpheme. Thus the Icelandic and Faroese ‘heimspeki’ appears to be a calque not of ‘philosophia’, but rather of the German ‘Weltweisheit’ or ‘world-wisdom’. This is significant, as it reveals something about the perceived scope of philosophy: it is a fundamentally worldly endeavor, and as such it is limited and, in the classical sense, profane. It is contrasted with the true wisdom that piety affords. Thus we find in a note written into the front cover of a 1618 book owned by the Scottish-Russian natural-magician and experimental philosopher Jacob Bruce [Iakov Brius], the observation: “Weltliche Weisheit ohne Gott ist die grösste Thorheit [Worldly wisdom without God is the greatest foolishness].”[1] By rendering ‘philosophy’ as ‘world-wisdom’, it may be that in the various languages of Northern Europe there was a recognition of the sort of caution Bruce expresses here, indeed of the impiety of excessive confidence in the project of philosophy.

The Japanese word that usually translates ‘philosophy’, ‘tetsugaku’, presents a different case. It was decided on very belatedly, following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, to designate Western philosophy in particular. It is composed of two semantic units, tetsu, meaning ‘wisdom’, and gaku, meaning ‘learning’. There is no mention of ‘love’ here. Yet this term may be considered a neologistic partial calque, invented for the precise purpose of talking about an imported tradition. Later, in the early 20th century with the rise of the Kyoto School of tetsugaku, the term would come to describe a hybrid tradition, incorporating elements of both European philosophy as well as Buddhist and Shinto ones. Tetsugaku, from its first appearance, designated a different domain of intellectual activity than either rangaku, on the one hand, which is the tradition of ‘Dutch’ or European learning and is principally concerned with the importation of positive and applied knowledge of the natural sciences and technology; and, on the other hand, kokugaku, or Japanese philology, which is to say the study of national tradition. Dutch learning was not profane or impious, but it was, by definition, imported, and as such could at most only be one part, indeed a carefully regulated and dosed part, of the intellectual life of Japan. The later appearance of tetsugaku in the 19th century, in turn, shows a clear conceptual distinction between the natural sciences on the one hand (which in Europe had often been treated as the domain of mere ‘worldly wisdom’), and philosophy on the other. This is not surprising, given the broadly Buddhist, and therefore thoroughly transcendentalist, background of the coiners of ‘tetsugaku’, and given their heightened receptivity to contemporary trends in European philosophy, particularly German Idealism and Romanticism, that made a sharp distinction between the sphere of interest of the natural scientist and that of the philosopher.

The great majority of words for ‘philosophy’ throughout the world are, as in English, direct or indirect loans from the Greek ‘philosophia’. To get a sense of the great diversity, languages that use some version of ‘philosophia’ to describe the activity of philosophy include Albanian, Azerbaijani, Karakalpak, Mongolian, and Haitian Creole. Rather than coming from recent European colonial impositions, in very many cases the Greek loan word in the languages of Africa and Asia, from Swahili to Uzbek to Tagalog, comes from direct or indirect contact with Islam, which spread the tradition of falsafa along with the Greek-derived vocabulary item.

In those cases where the word is not on loan from Greek, we often find calques or neologisms designed to capture the spirit of ‘philosophia’ and to signal that the activity in question comes from a different part of the world. We see a familiar pattern repeating itself from Japan to Mexico to the Andes. In Nahuatl, for example, there is no obvious pre-modern term that presents itself to do the work of ‘philosophy’, but it is easy to create one from available roots. In doing this, one has the ability to stress indigenous tradition (as in machiliztli, ‘knowledge derived from tradition’), or to speak of wisdom in general (as in tlazohmatiliztli, which is more plainly suited for referring to European traditions). In any case, however, the sense of a need for such a word comes in recognition of the fact that there is a word for a particular human activity that is used in other, globally dominant languages, and it is expedient to produce an equivalent term. [2]

The great majority of conventional terms for ‘philosophy’ that cannot be categorized as loans, calques, or neologisms, but that have their own aboriginal heritage and that mount a resistance to the incorporation of new terms, are evidently found in South Asia. Here one can avail oneself of the Sanskrit tattvajānam, which means literally ‘knowledge of truth’ or ‘knowledge of the way things are’, or one can invoke the notion of darśana, which literally means ‘vision’ and which is also the term that traditionally designates the six orthodox [āstika] schools of Indian ‘philosophy’: Nyāya, Yoga, Mīmāṃsā, and so on, as well, finally, as the unorthodox or nāstika schools such as Buddhism. ‘Darśana’, in turn, is the common term for ‘philosophy’ in many of the modern Sanskrit-derived languages of South Asia, such as Hindi.

It has often been remarked that in classical Indian thought there is no single overarching activity of darśana in the Indian intellectual life-world that encompasses what goes on in each of the individual darśana-s, in the way that, say, Philosophia was understood to encompass Platonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and so on. If we take any one of the darśana-s separately, moreover, it does not seem to give us anything close to a perfect match with the range of activities encompassed, in various centuries and regions and traditions, under the heading of Philosophia. Mīmāṃsā is principally focused on exegesis of the sacred Vedas. Yoga involves a practical component of the sort that exists almost nowhere in the various schools of Philosophia. Nyāya, or the study of the rules of inference, looks very much like the logical tradition of Philosophia, but many practitioners of Philosophia would be loath to accept that logic by itself deserves to be called philosophy.

To a great extent, tattvajānam does the work in modern Sanskrit that tetsugaku does in Japanese: it serves as a neutral term to pick out the shared activity of people whose activity bears an ancestral relation to philosophia, as well as of people working from within intellectual traditions, such as the darśana-s, that arose independently of Philosophia. For example, I am a prādyāpakastattvajānasya: a ‘professor of philosophy’. But this sounds forced, and exists only for the purposes of intercultural communication. The darśana-s, by contrast, do not exist to mediate between cultures. The resistance of South Asia to the encroachment of loans and calques evidently has to do with the richness and depth of the indigenous intellectual tradition there that most closely resembles Philosophia, and with the absence of a perceived need for much of the history of contact with Europe of a perceived need to learn philosophy from the foreigners.

This initial finding would seem to corroborate the oft-recited idea that philosophy is a human activity that has emerged independently only twice in human history: once in Greece, and once in India, with every other instance of philosophy being a radiation or diffusion of one of these. On such an understanding, Japanese and Chinese would have been more inclined to develop neologisms and loan words to describe the concepts and schools associated with Philosophia, since they had already done the something similar in the reception of Buddhism in its earlier radiation from India. But this begs the question. To suppose that there are two separate and independent origins for philosophy, once as Greek love of wisdom and once as Indian vision, takes for granted that we have a clear understanding of what philosophy is, and that we have discovered the necessary and sufficient conditions of it exactly twice. Yet in discussions of this sort, one seldom finds these conditions explicitly spelled out, and when a demand is made that they be spelled out, the participants in the discussion appear to flounder.

If in fact philosophy arose independently twice, then it could not possibly be comparable to ballet or some other distinct tradition of dance. But if it is not like ballet, then the most obvious alternative possibility is that it is like dance itself: a universal human activity that undergoes different inflections in different times and places. But if this is so, then we should not expect to find it in only two places, and instead should be able to take for granted that all human cultures everywhere, qua human, are going to be doing something homologous to the activity thought of by modern Europeans as philosophy.

The fact that the word for philosophy in so many places in the world is a word that derives from ‘philosophia’ strongly indicates that with the circulation of knowledge in the Islamic and later in the European expansions, philosophy was conceptualized by the people who spread it as akin to ballet rather than to dance. Compare the words for ‘ballet’ in various languages around the world: Arabic, ‘bāliye’; Hindi, ‘baile’; Tagalog, ‘ballet’, etc. Correlatively, the word for the Japanese tradition of butoh dance theater is, in every language, ‘butoh’ (or some close approximation of it). To attempt to describe butoh by a local name, borrowed from a familiar local tradition, would be to betray and misrepresent it. The term for philosophy has generally spread in the same way as ‘ballet’ or ‘butoh’, yet with some significant exceptions, which instead acknowledge the existence of local intellectual traditions. Are these latter cases betrayals of philosophy, or are they rather an acknowledgement that philosophy, again, is more like dance in general than it is like ballet?

I have suggested that there is something human beings do, qua human beings, that we should be looking for if we want to understand what philosophy is, rather than looking to one, or two, particular civilizational traditions that involve, as is the case in Europe and in India, a highly developed social practice of writing and institutionalized exchange. But what is this something? The full answer lies not so much in etymology or the comparison of names, but in what might be thought of as the anthropology of philosophy: the study of what human capacities are being activated when human beings reflect, infer, compare, classify, coin concepts, distinguish, and deny. My hypothesis is that, if we do this properly, we see that it is not a matter of translation at all. That is to say that there is such an activity, and that human beings engage in it qua human beings, rather than simply in virtue of contact with a particular tradition that extends back to Greece (or perhaps India). ‘Philosophy’ is not a proper noun.


[1] Theophrastus Paracelsus, Valentin Weigel, Philosophia Mystica, darinn begriffen Eilff unterschidene Theologico-Philosophische doch teutsche Tractätlein, Neustadt, 1618.

[2] See in particular Miguel León-Portilla, La filosofía nahuatl estudiada en sus fuentes, Mexico City: UNAM, 1993. I am grateful to León García Garagarza for bringing this work to my attention.