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Lost in translation

Peter Anstey writes…

Sometimes our historiographical categories can so dominate the way we approach the texts of great dead philosophers that we project them onto the texts themselves. Unhappily this is all too common among historians of early modern philosophy who take as their terms of reference the distinction between rationalism and empiricism.

For example, Stephen Priest, in The British Empiricists (2nd ed. 2006, p. 8) claims:

    Although historians of philosophy claim that Kant invented the empiricist/rationalist distinction and retrospectively imposed it on his seventeenth- and eighteenth-century predecessors, this is a historical mistake. The distinction was explicitly drawn using the words “empiricists” and “rationalists” at least as early as 1607, when the British empiricist Francis Bacon (1561–1626) wrote: “Empiricists are like ants; they collect and put to use; but rationalists are like spiders; they spin threads out of themselves” and: 

    Those who have handled sciences have been either men of experiment or men of dogmas. The men of experiment are like the ant; they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance.

    […] Leaving aside the use of the words “rationalism” and “empiricism” (or similar) the distinction between the two kinds of philosophy is as old as philosophy itself. It is true that many rationalist and empiricists do not describe themselves as rationalists or empiricists but that does not matter. Calling oneself “x” is neither necessary nor sufficient for being x.

However, a careful reading of Bacon’s Latin reveals that he is not using the Latin equivalents of ‘empiricists’ and ‘rationalists’, but rather empirici and rationales, terms that have quite different meanings in Bacon. For Bacon, the empirici are those who focus too much on observation and the works of their hands (New Organon, I, 117). Quacks who prescribe chemical remedies without any knowledge of medical theory are commonly called empirici and the term is usually a pejorative in the early seventeenth century (see De augmentis scientiarum, Bk IV, chapter 2). By contrast rationales are those who ‘wrench things various and commonplace from experience… and leave the rest to meditation and intellectual agitation’ (New Organon, I, 62).

Another example of projecting the rationalism/empiricism distinction onto a text is found in the recent English edition of Diderot’s Pensées sur l’interpretation de la nature. Diderot’s work contains a very interesting discussion of philosophical methodology. Article XXIII says,

    Nous avons distingué deux sortes de philosophies, l’expérimentale et la rationnelle.

The translation in the Clinamen Press (1999, p. 44) edition reads:

    We have identified two types of philosophy – one is empirical and the other rationalist.

But Diderot doesn’t contrast empirical with rationalist. Rather the contrast is between experimental philosophy (la philosophie expérimentale) and rational and the context makes it clear that rationnelle here is used to refer to what the English called speculative philosophers. The terminology and the content of Diderot’s discussion makes far more sense when read in the light of the experimental/speculative distinction. Yet this is lost in the English translation.

Having pointed out two examples of reading the traditional historiography into the texts themselves, I should like to end with a note of caution. Those of us who regard the experimental/speculative distinction as having more explanatory value than the traditional post-Kantian terms of reference also need to be aware that we too can fall into the same trap of reading the ESD into the texts under study and not allow the texts to speak for themselves.

One thought on “Lost in translation

  1. Really interesting, Peter. Didn’t know about that translation of Diderot (or rather, knew it existed but had not looked at it and thus never noticed this funny translation). Just recommended the other day that your distinction betw. experimental and speculative nat. phil. be looked at by an author whose interesting ms. (in French) on Diderot, chemistry and experimental philosophy I’m reviewing.