Speaking of difficult books…and I know I told myself to read more poetry (and I am, really, most recently Michael Burkard’s Fictions from the Self)…I am entranced and overawed by Barbara Cassin’s amazing Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon. Here’s a thorough and intelligent review by Michael Kinnucan, going into more depth than I have time to post on this blog. What I want to mention about the text is its beauty and its acknowledgment of ambiguity, a quality that translates (ha!) into every aspect of human existence: our ambiguous relationships with our environments, with other humans, with our foods and our governments, our psyches, our cosmos.


We cannot write about the act of translation without encountering ambiguity. We cannot really address philosophy without acknowledging that differing perspectives [context, culture, era, psychology, and of course, language] pose serious complications to understanding across languages and cultures. And even within a culture! For jargon and specialized terms can make understanding by even the most educated layman very, very difficult indeed.

While Cassin’s tome–and it is a collaborative work, with many brilliant people as contributors–presents itself as a philosophical lexicon, the connections with other disciplines (psychoanalysis, for example, with Freud’s famous coinages, and certainly poetry) are unavoidable. It may be challenging to translate the German Schicksal, a Kantian form of the idea we call in English fate, but in such cases the reader is generally going to be familiar with Kant and perhaps aware that the subtle connotations may vary. Take the word sign, however, and each reader–even those who have linguistics or anthropology or philosophy as a background–brings his or her own connotations to the definition and to the problem of translating what any individual author means by the use of the word.

Maybe this doesn’t sound fascinating to you. I relish it! And who knew (I sure didn’t) that even the word reality is a neologism, “coined by Duns Scotus” in the 13th century?

At 1200 pages of small type, this text is a tool, not a beach read. What a find, though. I have no doubt I will be referring to it for years to come, and that it will keep me wallowing in marvelous ambiguities.



Phenomenology: a beginner’s understanding

“Phenomenology is the attempt to discover the origin of the object at the very centre of our experience…[to] describe the emergence of being and…how, paradoxically, there is for us an in-itself.”

             Maurice Merleau-Ponty

The philosopher argues that while empiricism, psychology, and neurology (brain science was still in its infancy in 1951, and I think Merleau-Ponty would have been fascinated by current medical science involving brain studies) are valuable and offer insights into philosophy, they fail to uncover the origin of being. He also argued that philosophy could become less relevant if philosophers continued to ignore phenomena. Granted, many of us could not care less about the origin of being; but this philosopher claims there is no way to truth if the questioner does not recognize the limits of his or her own perspective first, including physiological limitations that earlier philosophers ignored. Because of radical, rapid developments in science and medicine during the 20th century, and the impact on medical and environmental ethics, Merleau-Ponty’s writing is significant today.

That for us in the quote above means within each individual’s perspective; that in-itself, derived from the Kantian ding an sich, means we possess the ability to ken that the other is unknowable even as we treat the other as an object empirically, physically, intellectually–hence the paradox. Those readers familiar with Kant will recognize similarities with noumenon.

One of Merleau-Ponty’s analogies involves a house. We name it: house. We perceive only one aspect of it in time: what is visible with our human eyes or our other senses. We see the front of the house while knowing the house has a back, sides, a foundation, and interior–none of which are visible to us simultaneously, given our physiology. Yet we are capable of believing (not merely assuming) that there are hidden facets to the house, the pipes, the insulation, electrical wiring for example. And we can believe in a world that embraces all of these facets, even what we cannot see, hear, touch but all of which we can “know.” The house can be a physical phenomenon, one I encounter with my physiological senses; and it can also be imagined by me (intellectually) whole or in part–the house for-me as opposed to the house in-itself–and the person next to me will experience the house for-her and even the house in-itself in a different way due to a whole spectrum of physiological, psychological, and intellectual perspectives. Are any of these perspectives “true”? Are any of them “false”? The facts of empiricism do not explain the mystery of our knowing what we cannot empirically know through induction. The hypotheses of intellectual philosophy do not acknowledge the being-here of the physical experience and the complex psycho-socio-neurological goings-on that make up cognition.

What appeals to me about phenomenology is its awareness that we are limited by our perspectives to the fields of our physical, physiological, psychological, and intellectual points of view–including the empirical, science and its “facts.” And yet, this philosophy admits of our ability to imagine beyond these limits, to speculate; we function amid apparent paradoxes such as the simultaneous existence of unity and monadic separateness, perspectives that overlap, interconnect, communicate with and relate to those other than our own perspectives (or phenomenological fields). Phenomenology accepts that the philosopher’s thinking must be conditioned by situation. Thus, if I understand it aright–and I may not–phenomenology admits of us being in the world-as-itself.


“Be here now,” as Ram Dass famously advocated in a book all of my friends had in their libraries in the 1970s.

Ram Dass' Be Here Now

Ram Dass’ Be Here Now

I’m over-simplifying. Yet I see a correspondence between the phenomenological approach and some aspects of (so-called) Eastern knowledge-practices/philosophies. The idea of consciousness as a network of intentions. The statement that “consciousness does not admit of degree.” The notion that actions and observations matter.

And now I am like the Zen practitioner…as far as phenomenology goes, I have “beginner’s mind.”