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Return of the Translator


Return of the Translator
Jonathan Ree
‘The Death of the Author’ is one of the great catchphrases of
recent philosophy. It started as the title of an essay by Roland
Barthes in 1968, and cleverly captures the idea that the act of
reading ought to attend to textual structures rather than authorial
personalities – that there are higher forms of criticism than literary
biography. This anti-authorial line was not particularly new, of
course, but it linked Barthes with several other big publishing
events of the sixties: Althusser’ s Reading Capital (1965), Derrida’ s
Of Grammatology (1967) and, shortly afterwards, an influential
lecture by Foucault on the ‘author-function’. Death of the author
became a by-line for Parisian Theory, 1968.

It was mainly in England that the phrase caught on, or rather
in English-language regions of the world. It was part of the flurry
of intellectual importation which, like it or not, has been the most
eyecatching phenomenon of philosophy in English over the last
twenty or thirty years. And it really is a clever phrase. First it sums
up a complicated argument, and then it packages it as if it were an
established truth, to be questioned only by people who are
seriously ill-informed. Those in the know will also realise that it
alludes to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the bullying bore who
denounced old values not because they were valueless, but simply
because they were old. It’s not that the authority of God or the
author is an incoherent construction, but simply that people do not
take it seriously any more. ‘Could it be possible?’ says Zarathustra,
recoiling in amazement: ‘This old saint in the forest has not yet
heard anything of this, that God is dead?’

For twenty-five years, then, importers of French philosophy
have been scoffing at the old saints of bosky England. ‘Could it
be possible? These old fools have not yet heard anything of this,
that the author is dead!’ The fogeys retaliated with virulent
sarcasm. The death-of-the-author theorists were charlatans, they
said: emperors with no clothes. Just listen to how they write! Take
any page at random, and see what you get: text, discourse,
interrogation, problematic, privileging, interpellation, alterity:

it’s hardly even English! Reports of the death of the author may
be exaggerated; but clear and responsible thinking – civil, unshowy
and discussable – certainly seems to have been buried alive under
this rubble of broken Franglais.

Patriots raising the alarm about fraudulence and tainted prose
are never far away when foreign philosophy is introduced into the
English-speaking world. They mocked the English Nietzscheans,
Bergsonians, and Hegelians; they ostracised generations of English
Marxists; they sniffed at Mill for his indulgence towards
‘Germans’; they growled at Coleridge’s attempts to show that


Kant was more than a passing fad, and at Hume for admiring that

Biographers’ Revenge
Authors imported under the death-of-the-author label have offered
a very large target to their opponents. The ironies have been all too
obvious, with publishers and academics falling over themselves
to present their wares in terms of the ‘approaches’ which can be
tagged with the names of different authors. Althusser, Foucault,
Derrida; Irigaray, Cixous, Kristeva: these are the sorts of terms
that structured the new syllabuses, research projects, and
publishers’ lists. Summarise a Theorist was almost the only game
in town. Trade publishing catered to the same author-fetish by
means ofliterary biographies. No-one behaved as ifthey thought
the author really was dead.

Biographical nemesis is now starting to engulf the death-ofthe-author authors. There is Derrida’s ‘Circumfession’ – a set of
autobiographical jottings which Derrida has appended, atthe foot
of each page, to a painstaking summary of his life’s work written
by Geoffrey Bennington in a high-altitude mid-channel style.

(Geoffrey Bennington and Jacques Derrida, Jacques Derrida,
translated by Geoffrey Bennington, University of Chicago Press,
1993). As the title suggests, Derrida’s memoir ranges over his
penis and other more personal matters: it has given joy to all who
bear a grudge against great thinkers.

Foucault and Althusser have been even more gratifying. For
one thing, both of them are dead in reality, not just in Theory,
which may give all of us a certain feeling of superiority. There is
also the exciting thought that they were death-dealers: Althusser’ s
pitiful murder of his wife, recounted in the extraordinary opening
pages of his book; and the exciting, though false, allegation that
Foucault deliberately infected people with AIDS when he knew
he was dying. (James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault,
Didier Eribon, Michel Foucault, and David Macey, The Lives of
Michel Foucault, all reviewed by Kate Soper in Radical Philosophy
66; and Louis Althusser, The Future Lasts a Long Time, reviewed
by David Macey in this issue.)
Reviewers have commented with gaiety on the paradox of
biographising authors who supposedly proclaimed the death of
the author, and the old routines about emperors and foul prose
have duly been revived. Now that the fling with French Theory is
over, it is asked, may we be allowed to become our moderate
empirical selves again? The greying theorists have done their
weary duty too: denouncing those guardians of tradition for still

Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

being so complacent, so anti-theoretical, so empiricist. In short:

so bloody English!

Alas, poor English. Some commentators praise us for our
doughty Ambridge empiricism and our refusal to take foreigners
seriously. Others insult us (and, if they are consistent, themselves)
for the same thing. But how can any of them be so sure of their
stereotype of the national philosophical character? And anyway,
what is English supposed to mean? Not only the people of
England, it turns out: inhabitants of Wales, Scotland, and probably
Ireland, and perhaps even the relics of empire in Australia,
Canada, Africa, Asia and the United States are all reckoned to be
patrials of the empiricist nation: all those bits of Western Civ, in
short, which are supposed to lie outside the cultural ambit of
France and Germany.

Philosophical Nations
The idea of France , Germany and England as the three philosophical
nations of the modern world goes back to the eighteenth century,
and the first systematic histories of western philosophy. Coleridge,
who was the first to present such a history in English (a course of
lectures given in 1818-19), postulated a providential international
division of labour between England, France and Germany. ‘One
country,’ he says, ‘was to employ its brains, another its hands,
another its senses.’ Senses belonged to the French; brains to the
metaphysical Germans; and hands were left to the English.

Coleridge’s sentiment was endorsed by Mill, perhaps the first to
use the fateful term ‘Continental philosophers’ to describe thinkers
whose ‘lofty aspirations’ were bound to overshadow the ‘sober
good sense, free from extravagance’, of ‘the English mind’.

It may seem an excessively English thing to say, but the
theory of national philosophical types does not really have much
empirical support. Intellectuals in France and Germany have not
always found their compatriots lofty and adventurous, and it
would not be hard to see a strong line of speculative idealism
running through such subjects of the English crown as Herbert of
Cherbury, Thomas More, Henry More, Cudworth, Norris, Trotter,
Berkeley, Shaftesbury, Reid, Hazlitt, Coleridge, Martineau,
Hamilton, Green, Simcox, Bradley; or – if one cared to cast the net
a little wider – Milton, Blake, Carlyle, Eliot, Ruskin and Arnold.

It is as if there were an international conspiracy to exclude any
writer from the canon of English philosophy who fails to conform
to the a priori truth that English thinkers are insular, theory-shy
empiricists. As W. R. Sorley pointed out in his History of British
Philosophy (1920), the view could only be sustained by ‘historians
on the look-out for system rather than for thought’ . The stereotype
was so comprehensively inaccurate, he said, that it ‘does not
admit of defence and hardly of excuse’.

One might go further than Sorley: if modern English philosophy
has one obsession, it is translation and commentary on French and
German philosophy. When philosophy was established as an
academic discipline in England in the nineteenth century, it was
enthused first by Kant and then by Hegel. And English analytic
philosophy, originating in Russell and Moore’s revolt against
idealism, was also strongly marked by foreign origins, both
French and German. (And Italian too, which makes a welcome
change from the great-power chauvinism of the three philosophical
nations.) Phenomenology was also getting established, with

Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

Husserl’s lectures in London in 1922 and Boyce Gibson’ s
translation of Ideas in 1931. It was not till the fifties that the
internationalism of English academic philosophy faltered, with
Oxfordian analysis priding itself on being an inheritor of ‘our
empiricism’ and dismissing everything else as ‘Continental
Philosophy’ – glamorous perhaps, but fraudulent, ill-written, and
scandalously unclear.

In the United States, with its refugees from Nazism, the
identification of analytic philosophy with Englishness was never
plausible. And in Oxford itself, one young student was already
rebelling against the ‘insularity’ of Oxford. He was Michael
Dummett, who later became Professor of Logic at the University,
and gave analytic philosophy a new lease of life there. In an
interview in his Origins of Analytical Philosophy (London,
Duckworth, 1993), he describes how he took a course on
epistemology in about 1949, where one of the set texts was
Frege’s Foundations of Mathematics, just translated by J. L.

Austin. ‘I was absolutely bowled over by it; I had never read
anything of that quality in my entire life. I therefore decided that
I had to read everything that this man had written.’ Like countless
English thinkers before and since, Dummett hearkened to a
philosophical call from across the Channel. He got a German
dictionary and started toiling through Frege – a commitment
which matured into his celebrated opinion that the only proper
object of philosophical study is ‘meaning’ or ‘thought’, and that
the only viable path to it lies through the analysis of language.

Foreign Origins
Origins ofAnalytical Philosophy picks up threads from Dummett’ s
earlier books, weaving them into an explanation of how, between
1884 and 1906, Frege opened the path that led to authentic
linguistic philosophy. Frege’ s breakthrough, on this reading, was
his rejection of psychologism, or the idea that thought can be
analysed in terms of subjective mental processes. Dummett calls
this result ‘the extrusion of thoughts from the mind’ (though
‘death of the author’ might have commended itself too), and he
holds that it was not due to Frege on his own, but to Husserl as
well, and that both of them were standing on the shoulders of
Brentano. The theoretical rewards of treating Husserl and Frege
as close intellectual collaborators are demonstrated in Dummett’ s
discussion of colour and language, whose interest adds weight to
his conclusion that ‘the roots of analytical philosophy … are the
same roots as those of the phenomenological school’ , and that the
idea of a gulf between English and Continental philosophy is
‘absurd’ . The problem of the identity of English philosophy also
comes up in John Skorupski’s English-Language Philosophy
1750-1945 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993). The story
Skorupski tells comes in two phases. Up to the end of the
nineteenth century, he says, English philosophy was essentially a
debate between naturalism, which saw human beings as part of
nature, and idealism, which tried to place them outside it. In the
twentieth century, however, both naturalism and idealism were
replaced by ‘modernism’ which, according to Skorupski, was
riven by a new polarity of reason and feeling, the former represented
by analytical philosophy, the latter by phenomenology.

Philosophical modernism is now played out, he argues, in both
analytical and phenomenological forms, and the future lies in an


eventual unification between ‘analytical modernism’ and
‘naturalism’ .

Skorupski accepts Dummett’ s account of analytic philosophy,
and so, despite having defined his subject as ‘English-language
philosophy’, he devotes more pages to Frege than to anyone else
except Mill; and he offers almost as much on Wittgenstein,
together with expositions of Carnap, Schlick and Neurath. The
sources of analytic philosophy, after all, are ‘at least as much
Continental (specifically Austrian and German) as they are AngloAmerican’.

Skorupski’s enlightened internationalism is, I suppose, no
less than one should expect from a would-be ‘analytical naturalist’ .

Curiously, though, his tale is still haunted by the ghosts of
philosophical national characters, conceived in unashamedly
organicist terms. One of his main explanatory principles is ‘the
British naturalistic temper’ , and he finds something monstrous in
Coleridge’s attempt, as he puts it, ‘to graft German idealism onto
that tree of English tradition’. He considers Green’s attempt to
‘plant absolute idealism in British soil’ to have been ‘quixotic’,
even if the outcome was a ‘successful transplantation’. (,This
brief and gorgeous flowering of absolute idealism in a distant and
hostile climate was certainly a curious thing. The roots and
original stock were undoubtedly German, yet the resulting plant
was profoundly and paradoxically British.’) Fortunately for us
all, Green was of ‘solid Puritan and Evangelical Midland stock’,
so that, despite a ‘fatal inheritance’ from Hegel, he always
belonged – as did Coleridge – to a ‘recognisably British mode of
philosophising’. (Bradley, on the other hand, was not ‘a man of
roots’ .) When at last Russell put an end to the idealist invasion he
was simply reasserting ‘the collective geist (sic) of Englishlanguage philosophy’ .

The what? The Geist of English philosophy? Does a German
idealist word like Geistreally belong in the word-store of a British
analytical naturalist? Or is Skorupski himself, perhaps, no ‘man
of roots’?

Native Witcraft
The phenomenon is not really surprising, of course: no one would
get far with philosophy in English who avoided words borrowed
from other languages. A history of British philosophy could
describe ten centuries of discussion in Latin (A1cuin to Berkeley),
to which less than four centuries in English might be seen as a brief
autumnal epilogue, spoken in a second language. A different book
with ‘English language philosophy’ as its theme might describe
the halting attempts of English authors to get their language to
speak philosophy – sometimes by transliterating Latin words
(such as quaestio or principium), and occasionally, more
imaginatively, by forcing English words to serve the turn (as, in
part, ‘begging the question’ does for petitio principii). One of the
great might-have-beens in the history ofthe language is the effort
of one Ralph Lever, in the sixteenth century, to devise a
philosophical vocabulary rooted in English, so that ‘Logica’

would become “Witcraft’ for instance; and instead of such
Latinisms as ‘every proposition is an affirmation or a negation’,
we could come out with the Bullish fact that ‘every shewsay is a
yeasay or a naysay’.

Lever failed. As a result, philosophy in English has always
been composed in sentences which many native-speakers

experience as alien or exotic. It is sometimes hard to tell the
difference between people engaged in arduous thinking, and
those who are hoping to sound impressive,. at least to themselves,
by juggling recklessly with macaronic wonder-words. Even
Coleridge lost his poetry when he started to philosophise, and was
satisfied to say that ‘intelligence and being are reciprocally each
other’s substrate’ or that Fichte’ s ‘theory degenerated into a crude
egoismus, a boastful and hyperstoic hostility to Nature … while
his religion consisted in the assumption of a mere ordo ordinans,
which we were permitted exoterice to call God’ . Dr J ohnson must
have groaned in his gave. You do not have to share his metaphysics
of pure English to think that such sentences are short of the
conversability, colour and rhythm of everyday working prose, or
to think he may have had a point when he blamed ‘the licence of
translatours, whose idleness and ignorance, if it be suffered to
proceed, will reduce us to babble a dialect of France’ , except that
in Coleridge’s case it was German, Greek and Latin as well.

Philosophical English has been fashioned by the translators,
mostly anonymous, as much as by Locke, Berkeley, and Humewho anyway were translators themselves, in that they thought in
Latin or French as well as writing in English. And the tendency to
prefer translitering Latin or Greek-Latin philosophical terms by
the job lot, rather than translating them one by one, means that
philosophy occupies a part of the English lexicon which is poshly
distinguished by its undigested latinity – a problem which is far
less severe in French, where latinisms are not exotic, or in
German, where (because of a process of translation that goes back
to the tenth century) it is possible to speak philosophy with hardly
any latinisms at all. Thanks to the translators, philosophy suffers
a far greater democratic deficit in English than in French or

Philosophy in English lives amongst anxieties of translation.

This applies to Bacon and Locke, as well as to Bradley and Green;
and it applies to the death-of-the-author phenomenon too. Like its
predecessors, it has been evaluated as much in terms of its
language (delicious or unpalatable according to taste) as of what
it tries to say. Some of the linguistic acquisitions it has brought
with it, such as deconstruction, or the refurbishment of desire and
discourse, may be gains. Some, however, are more embarrassing
– such as the attempt to incorporate the term differance into
English as an unmodified French word. Derrida devised the term
in the hope of thematising difference in a different way. To
highlight the difficulty of the attempt, he wrote it with an ‘a’, so
that the difference between difference and differance could be
seen but not heard. But everything that may be gained by this
device is destroyed in English if the word is left in French, since
the difference between difference anddifferance is all too painfully
audible. Translationism here has become a boomeranging status
symbol rather than an enlargement of anyone’s thought and

There is nothing more English than ‘Continental philosophy’ .

Philosophy in English (as in every other language, no doubt) is a
creature of translations. Its translators are its poets, the
unacknowledged legislators of the English philosophical world.

And so English philosophy remains haunted by a repressed
knowledge of its alien origins: after the death of the author,
perhaps the return of the translator?

Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

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