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From Abstraction to Wunsch

From Abstraction to Wunsch The Vocabulaire Européen des Philosophies

Howard caygill

DICTIONARY Say of it: ʻItʼs only for ignoramuses!ʼ . . ʻIʼd rather die than use one!ʼ

Gustave Flaubert, Dictionary of Received IdeasThe Vocabulaire Européen des Philosophies* deserves a warm welcome from everyone interested in philosophy and its history. While connoisseurs of philosophical lexicography will take particular delight in many of the workʼs artful technical features and its often audacious solutions to some of the fundamental problems of the genre of philosophical dictionary, the significance of the Vocabulaire far exceeds such considerations. The work in many respects redefines the genre of the philosophical dictionary, reviving the cultural ambitions of both the medieval summa and such Enlightenment dictionaries as Bayleʼs Dictionnaire historique et critique (1702). It defines philosophyʼs past and its future prospects, as well as opening up new areas of research by suggesting unexpected links between existing problems and traditions of philosophy and between philosophy and its ʻnon-philosophicalʼ others. Its cultural ambition ensures that it remains critical, never lapsing into the extremes of the uselessly monumental or antiquarian, respecting Batailleʼs definition of the modern dictionary as beginning not with the meaning of words but with their tasks.

Such a text – over fifteen hundred pages largely set in double columns scrupulously and programmatically respecting the idioms of the major European philosophical languages – is less to be read than to be lived and worked with. It provides a vast number of entries organized (and typographically distinguished) in terms of ʻuntranslatableʼ terms and their equivalents in the vernacular languages, meta-entries on languages and themes, and introductory short entries. The entries are historically rich, punctuated with shaded insertions of short essays on related themes, concluding with generous and useful bibliographies. With a work of such scale and ambition what follows can only be a provisional report on a few months of cohabitation, premissed upon admiration for the Vocabulaireʼs achievement tempered by a certain curiosity concerning some of its limits and eccentricities. These may be functions of a necessarily partial reading – who could claim or want to claim to have read a whole dictionary? – but some of the omissions and oversights are striking, and, given the overall ambition of the work, worthy of reflection.

One example of such a limit is the absence of an entry on the philosophical dictionary itself, crucial not only as a site for the debate and codification of philosophical idioms but also as a vector for the teaching and dissemination of philosophy. Book V of Aristotleʼs Metaphysics is the earliest surviving example of the philosophical dictionary, organized in terms of concepts, although the genre as we know it is largely a product of the Enlightenment. In his study of the dissemination of Spinozist ideas – Radical Enlightenment – Jonathan Israel described the early Enlightenment dictionary as a vector for radical philosophy, ʻa philosophical engine of war which massively invaded the libraries, public and private, of the whole continentʼ. The subentry on lexicography in the entry on ʻLogosʼ is too general to help, unless of course the entire Vocabulaire be considered as a vast entry on this very question.

Before pursuing further the dominant and inevitable trope of a dictionary review – repining over what is absent or excluded in its pages – it is necessary to pay unequivocal tribute to the extraordinary achieve* Barbara Cassin, ed., Vocabulaire Européen des Philosophies: Dictionnaire des Intraduisables, Editions du Seuil/ Dictionaires Le Robert, 2004. xxiv + 1531 pp., €95.00, 2 85 036 580 7 (Le Robert), 2 02 030730 8 (Seuil).ments of the Vocabulaire. Habitual readers or users of philosophical dictionaries will find in the Vocabulaire a summation of the form of the philosophical dictionary, operating at nearly all the levels covered by this genre. At its most basic, the work is designed to satisfy readers in search of a concise, working definition of a concept or problem: each major entry is preceded by a short, historically informed summary of the task or problem posed by the word set in italics. In this respect the work functions well in comparison with my preferred versions of the genre of short-entry philosophical dictionaries: D. Runesʼs 1962 Dictionary of Philosophy, the excellent Enciclopedia Garzanti di Filosofia of 1981 and, perhaps surprisingly, I. Frolovʼs Dictionary of Philosophy, first published by Political Literature Publishers (Moscow) in 1980. Each of these gives a short definition of a concept or theme oriented by a particular vision of the relationship between philosophy and non-philosophy. Runes emphasizes the relationship between philosophy, ethics and theology; the Garzanti volume philosophy and culture; Frolov science and political theory. The Vocabulaire has its own pre-orientation, to which Iʼll return below, but it nevertheless functions well within the generic rules of the short-entry dictionary. The entry ʻQualiaʼ, for example, is a model of the genre, combining a short, conceptual description with a historical sketch of the dissemination of the term from Latin into the modern languages.

The Vocabulaire also makes a powerful contribution to the subgenre of the dictionary of a distinct period of philosophy, especially the inaugural period of Ancient Greek philosophy. In its treatment of Ancient Greek concepts the Vocabulaire far exceeds other available working dictionaries in its etymological precision, conceptual rigour and ability to open new perspectives on apparently well-known terms. In comparison the Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon of 1967 seems garrulous, while J.O. Urmsonʼs The Greek Philosophical Vocabulary of 1990 and Ivan Gobryʼs 1982 Le vocabulaire grec de la philosophie are too limited and dry. The Vocabulaireʼs many excellent entries on Greek philosophical words are in most cases complemented by a review of their subsequent history. As an example, Alliezʼs entry on ʻAionʼ, with the insert by Couloubaritsis, while rooted in an account of the Greek experience of the term also provides a fascinating lesson in ancient, medieval and modern understandings of time, with the insert referring to debates in modern Greek philosophy whose importance is neither widely known nor properly appreciated. The magisterial entries on such terms as ʻSubjectʼ by Baliber et al. and ʻTruthʼ by Braque et al. are similarly impressive, and deserve to be published in pocket editions to be consulted on trains, in airports and while waiting for buses. In addition to such entries on philosophyʼs fundamental words of power are the apparently more modest but equally fascinating contributions to discrete concepts such as ʻto ti en einaiʼ by Courtine and Rijksbaron. Perhaps most disappointing is the entry on ʻBeingʼ, where the editors seem to have (understandably) flinched and restricted themselves to a short list of cross-references, directing the reader to ʻEstiʼ for classical and ʻSeinʼ for post-Kantian discussions of the word.

The Vocabulaire also functions well as a dictionary for medieval and modern philosophy. Most of the large thematic and conceptual entries include a discussion of the medieval transformation of Greek concepts. Courtineʼs entry ʻResʼ (an English translation of which will appear in Radical Philosophy 139, September/October 2006) is exemplary in this respect, offering a full analysis of the medieval development of the notion of a thing. It is also noteworthy for its inclusion of the Arabic versions of Greek concepts, vitally important for the medieval Latin reception of philosophical concepts. The Vocabulaireʼs recognition of the contribution of Arabic to the development of the language of philosophy is on the whole rather traditional, focusing upon its role as a vector for the Latin reception of Greek concepts and texts. This approach seems the result of a self-imposed editorial restriction, but one which is drawn perhaps too tightly. The contribution of the work of Henri Corbin in bringing Arabic and Persian philosophical texts into French and his postwar achievement in recovering an entire history of Islamic philosophy for European thought remains largely unacknowledged, with Corbin making a sole appearance as a translator of Heidegger. This aspect or restriction of the Vocabulaire will inevitably provoke an intensification of the debate into the relationship between the self-image of philosophy and ʻEuropeʼ which can only to be welcomed.

The Vocabulaire proves an invaluable source for information and guidance for the field of modern philosophy, although the reader must be prepared to search not only through the body of the dictionary but also through the conceptual network accessed via the indexes. The latter comprise an index of names, principal authors and passages cited, translators and translations and finally an index of words. Perhaps unique in its respect for the modern dissemination of philosophical concepts throughout the vernacular languages, the entries of the Vocabulaire cover most of the modern ʻEuropeanʼ languages including Basque, Ukrainian and Finnish and Hungarian – the latter pair contributing specific words for divinity. The coverage of Russian terms is especially impressive, the pursuit of the entries in the index of Russian terms providing a course in Russian-language philosophy. The entries on the philosophical languages are also invaluable, especially those on ʻRussianʼ and ʻGreekʼ by Malamoud/Omelyantchik and Couloubaritsis. The entry on ʻEnglishʼ by Clero and Laugier is the most disappointing, never seriously confronting the significance of the emergence of English as the current philosophical koine. In the midst of such linguistic diversity the Vocabulaire succeeds in presenting many of the central concepts and arguments of the philosophy of the modern period.

Part of the pleasure of combing the Vocabulaireʼs indexes consists in being diverted in unexpected directions: I have still not been able to find ʻa prioriʼ but the search has led to many, probably more interesting, places. The indexes also permit the Vocabulaire to be used as an example of another subgenre of the philosophical dictionary, that of the idiosyncratic individually authored work. Quineʼs Quiddities and Savaterʼs Dizionario filosofico establish the limits of this subgenre between the often wicked individualism of the former and the parochial gossip of the latter. In the case of the Vocabulaire it is possible, using the list of contributors provided at the beginning of the work, to follow the entries of a particular author, often adding up to a text in their own right, as is the case with those of Balibar, Courtine and Alain de Libera. The list of contributors also makes it possible to identify large individual contributions by writers such as Alliez on ʻAionʼ, Badiou on ʻFrenchʼ, Bodei on ʻItalianʼ, Bollack on ʻMemoryʼ, Dastur on ʻAppearanceʼ and Malabou on ʻPlasticityʼ.

A further possibility opened by the indexes is the use of the Vocabulaire as a dictionary for the work of individual philosophers. The principal authors index seems designed to serve precisely this purpose although there are differences in the treatment of philosophers, some being considered more principal than others, or, as is noted at the head of the index, being ʻtreated in a more detailed mannerʼ. The entries on Aristotle, Descartes, Hegel, Heidegger, Husserl, Kant, Plato and Wittgenstein are accordingly distinct from the others in the type and extent of their coverage. This is an indication of the virtual canon that structures the Vocabulaireʼs vision of philosophy and its history.

There are two subgenres of the philosophical dictionary to which the Vocabulaire does not pretend to make any contribution. These are the dictionaries that focus on philosophers and on philosophical texts. There is very little biographical information or attempt to reconstruct and present an individual philosophical itinerary, as is the premiss of Lange and Alexanderʼs Philosophen-Lexicon. The same holds for the treatment of philosophical works as a basic unit of meaning – there is no systematic treatment of the philosophical text as a whole such as that proposed in Franco Volpiʼs Dizionario delle opere filosofiche. Instead the Vocabulaire samples and reassembles fragments of text into a consecutive historical argument, separating concepts from their setting within texts and detaching texts from their broader cultural and political situations. The systematic relegation of the integrity of the philosophical text as a site for philosophizing is evident even in attempts to recuperate the notion of the integral work in the index of principal authors. The entry on the Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1787) gives a list of topics in order of appearance in the Critique but it would be impossible to gain any sense of the consistency of that text from this presentation.

The Vocabulaire eschews any systematic reference to dates and places of philosophersʼ lives and the publication of their works, strangely distancing itself from the geo-philosophy to which its attention to linguistic difference would seem to incline it. While the individual articles possess detailed and valuable bibliographies, with much of the necessary bibliographic information nested within them, this is not assembled in the indexes not systematically respected in the texts of the articles themselves. The effect of this perhaps necessary avoidance of repetition of dates and places is to blur the historical specificity of emergence and development of philosophical concepts. While such biographical and bibliographic information is readily available elsewhere, it would have been very simple to add it to the indexes and make the coverage of the Vocabulaire more complete.

In spite of such caveats regarding biography and bibliography, the historical range of the Vocabulaire remains one of its most impressive features, providing a comprehensive account of the history of the European philosophical language. Rivalling Joachin Ritterʼs monumental and still incomplete Historisches Wortebuch der Philosophie, the Vocabulaireʼs sense of engagement and argument with the history of philosophy contrasts favourably with the often indiscriminate citation that characterizes the German work. Yet the inevitable choices taken in each article regarding inclusion and approach are guided not only by an implied canon but also by a vision of philosophy defined by what it regards as its friendly neighbours and what it silently excludes.

To a large degree the Vocabulaire is informed by a vision of philosophy as standing in close proximity to art and aesthetics and to a marked but lesser degree to psychoanalysis. One of the most wonderful features of the work is its systematic descriptions of the relationships between philosophical and aesthetic concepts. This is evident not only where it might be expected, in the entries on ʻAestheticsʼ, ʻArtʼ, and ʻBeautyʼ, but also in entries not usually anticipated in philosophical dictionaries such as ʻBaroqueʼ and ʻWork in Progressʼ as well as in crossovers between philosophical and aesthetic concepts such as ʻStimmungʼ and ʻFormʼ. ʻBaroqueʼ and ʻWork in Progressʼ are extremely suggestive: the former proposing a review of the debate around the nature of the stylistic concept, the latter an eccentric but engaging attempt to situate Schwitterʼs Merzbau in terms of the concept of energeia. The impressive entry on Stimmung (attunement) aligns musical and philosophical senses of the term with two facing essays on Heideggerʼs and Stockhausenʼs uses of the concept. Energeia is one of the key organizing concepts of the Vocabulaire cited by the editor Barbara Cassin in her introduction as part of a distinction between language as an inventive action and as a thing or completed work (ergon). Although the word does not have its own entry, the index of Greek words functioned perfectly to direct this reader to the appropriate entries and the short essay by Cassin nested within the entry ʻForceʼ. The fascinating opening paragraphs of this entry by Balibar on the relationship between the concepts of force and energy create a desire in the reader to find out more about this and other episodes in the relationship between philosophy and natural science, but unfortunately this is left unsatisfied by the Vocabulaire. The absence of comprehensive coverage of the concepts of natural philosophy is perhaps the most questionable aspect of the entire work.

If nested within the Vocabulaire is an implied dictionary of philosophical aesthetics, traceable through the cross-references at the head of each related entry, what is definitely – stunningly – absent is a dictionary of philosophy and science. The Vocabulaire offers a history of philosophy that rigorously respects and enforces the divergence between philosophy and science in the modern period, a divergence repeatedly called into question, especially in recent French philosophy and history of science. The most obvious and superficial symptom of this exclusion appears in the indexes of words. There is no entry on Wissenschaft and the index refers to Art, Nature, Literature, Geisteswissenschaften. The entry on nature, surprisingly short, moves from Aristotleʼs dictionary definition of physis (Metaphysics V) to Heideggerʼs reading of physis: it is accompanied by supplementary arguments on ʻHomer, Physis and Pharmakonʼ and the ʻSurnaturalʼ. There is no ʻScienceʼ and the reference in the French index has in parenthesis ʻhuman, moral, new, political, social, de lʼesprit, of man, of language etc.ʼ, with cross-references to ʻHuman Sciencesʼ, ʻWritingʼ, ʻEpistemologyʼ, ʻGeisteswissenschaftenʼ and ʻPoliticsʼ. The absence of an entry on science is not covered by the small entries on Epistemology and Human Sciences, nor on the discrete sciences such as astronomy, biology, chemistry and physics.

The systematic absence of natural philosophy and philosophical cosmology is confirmed by the relegation of Newton from a ʻprincipal authorʼ to a ʻproper nameʼ, a fate not shared by Cardinal John Henry Newman. The Bergson preferred by the Vocabulaire is the early model of the 1890s, not the author of Creative Evolution or Duration and Simultaneity, and the only reference to Hegelʼs Philosophy of Nature is to be found, tangentially, under the entry discussing the Russian term Samost. The superficial absence of direct reference to natural philosophy extends into the articles themselves, which seem uniformly to respect the modern separation between philosophy and science. A striking exception already mentioned is Balibarʼs entry

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Diffusion Populaire 21 ter, rue Voltaire, 75011 Paris difpop@globenet.org, www.difpop.com [archive]ʻForceʼ, which, with its clear distinction of force and energy and its philosophical history of the former, will have to satisfy those coming to the Vocabulaire from their readings of Bergson, Whitehead, Deleuze, Prigogine and Stengers in search of help in understanding the philosophy of nature. More typical is the entry ʻMutazioneʼ (Mutation), which focuses on Machiavelliʼs account of political mutation with no reference to the mutations of the concept itself in evolutionary biology and genetics. Creationists, incidentally, will be cheered by the complete absence of Darwin and his natural philosophy from the Vocabulaire, to say nothing of the concept of evolution.

Nevertheless, the Vocabulaire is an immense achievement. It demands time to live with it and to learn how to use it. It may be that many of the shortcomings and parochial habits that I have sensed are less a function of the work than of insufficiently developed skills in using it. As a philosophical dictionary, it is perhaps sui generis and any attempt to judge it according to existing generic rules is fundamentally misplaced and inappropriate. The work certainly succeeds in its ambition to map differences within the linguistic histories of philosophy and it opens new agendas for – as well as setting new standards of – debate. It makes an important contribution not only as a work of reference, but, more significantly, as a report on the place of philosophy in European culture and its prospects, as it is called to leave the confines of the peninsula and its languages.

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