Philosophy lost in translation

The connection between philosophy and culture is undeniable, but so long as a philosophy represents only the “mentality” of a culture, then it is limited, explained Kwasi Wiredu. “Language is powerful, but it does not enslave.”

Wiredu, a Distinguished USF Professor of the philosophy department, delivered a lecture on the subtleties of languages and their impact on philosophical thought Thursday afternoon in the Marshall Center Ballroom.

Speaking to a group of about 150 students and faculty, Wiredu discussed how the meanings of words can be easily lost in translation. “Our own uses of language can lead us to all kinds of assumptions,” he explained.

As an example, he offered his own experiences while a graduate student at Oxford University in England.

Wiredu had difficulty understanding Descartes’ dualism, specifically the distinction he made between mind and body.

“I couldn’t understand why it gave me so much trouble,” said Wiredu. “Then, years later, I realized the reason why I found it so undeterminable was that I’d been thinking about it in my own language.”

The problem arose because the English word mind refers to an abstract rather than an object. It was not until he came to understand this difference that he was able to understand the concept behind Descartes’ philosophy.

Wiredu grew up in Ghana, West Africa, before the country gained its independence from British colonialists. It was not until he began to study in the West that he realized the distinct nuances between the two cultures and, subsequently, the two languages.

“I had to struggle between the African culture in which I was born and bred and the Western culture in which I was formally educated,” said Wiredu.

It was ultimately this struggle that led him to become one of the founding fathers of African philosophy, and likewise, it was also this struggle that eventually enabled him to transcend the barriers of language.

“I find it to be an empirical fact that languages are inter-intelligible,” said Wiredu. “But if we think inter-culturally … then the time will come where philosophy will not be bound by culture.”

Wiredu also pointed to the mentality of a culture as having a major effect on philosophical thought. It was, in fact, Africa’s longtime traditional inclination toward communalism that ultimately led it to support Marxism in the late 1960s and ’70s.

African communalism was assimilated into state-ownership, explained Wiredu. There is no reason to think that a culture will not imprint its own mentality on a philosophy.

“There were many aspects of Marxism which were rejected, specifically atheism,” continued Wiredu. “Still, one need not suppose that an interculturally informed philosophy will not be able to grasp the whole truth.”