Naoko Saito's new book, American Philosophy in Translation
Exploring the possibilities of American philosophy from the perspective of translation, and in turn elucidating the dynamism and tension within American philosophy, this book invokes the idea of philosophy as translation as human transformation and presents a broader concept of translation as internal to the nature of language and of human life.
Translation is both a skill and an impossibility. By putting translation at the heart of American philosophy, Saito has found a concept that amazingly leads Dewey's instrumentalism towards Cavell's transcendentalism, what she calls his an-archic perfectionism. Content with no fixed principles, beyond the language of mutual recognition, acknowledging only the blank impossibility of understanding ourselves and others, Saito outlines a Cavellian modulation of what Dewey called “democracy as a way of life.” In our divisive time, this extra-vagant work of philosophy is sorely needed.
Gordon C.F. Bearn, Professor of Philosophy, Lehigh University, USA
Introduction to American Philosophy in Translation By Naoko Saito
This book is the product of many years spent reading and studying American philosophy. Mostly I have done this from a remote part of the world –far from America across the Pacific Ocean – and, like so many others, in a language that is not my own. In American studies, these factors and the sense of the unapproachable they arouse constitute a drawback of daunting scale, but in certain respects this situation provides its own strengths.
I came to the idea of this book, and to thematizing these issues in terms of translation, partly through a sense that there was something still to be released in American thought and pragmatism, and that an outsider's viewpoint might actually be beneficial in this. What, though, is an outsider? If translation involves, as I shall argue, the experience of being thrown to the outside of one’s familiar language and culture, the very experience of being an exile, in some ways the notion of an outsider should not be alien to American thought – especially, that is, when one thinks of the internationalist commitments of John Dewey with his faith in American democracy and of his celebration of the diversity of influences within and beyond the borders of the United States. Similarly, the earlier American escape from the "inside" of Europe was achieved in part through a reception of otherwise alien forms of thought, whether of indigenous American or of East Asian sources, the “Eastern strains” in American philosophy.
It is in through the experience of standing on the precarious border between inside and outside that I hit upon the related ideas of translation, transcendence and transformation – following Henry D. Thoreau's closing remarks in Walden:
The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star. (Thoreau 1992)
The account offered in the book that follows is driven by my strong attraction to the best assets of American culture, assets that seem, to this outsider’s eye and ear, to have been stifled in stereotypical forms of American discourse. The book is an endeavour to attend in a fresh way to the voices of Dewey, Ralph W. Emerson, Thoreau and Stanley Cavell.
Fifteen years have passed since the publication of my first single authored book, The Gleam of Light: Moral Perfectionism and Education in Dewey and Emerson (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005). The theme that I explored in that book – the close though in some respects tensioned relationship between Dewey and Emerson, and more broadly pragmatism and American transcendentalism – is still here, carried forward into the present text, with a new focus on translation.
Emphasizing the tension, I have now taken a new stance to the effect that Cavell’s work makes it possible to see that American philosophy has always been in the process of translation. With the incorporation of insights from many published articles, presentations and informal conversations during the period of time that has elapsed between these two publications, I hope my argument succeeds now in opening new vistas on the philosophy that has been my concern.
To address this general task, involving politico-psychological crisis of democracy, this book will explore the possibilities of the antifoundationalist strain of American philosophy, in resistance to political realism. American philosophy asks us to think in uncertainties, without relying on the illusion of a fixed ground and without falling into anarchism or relativism. Against the backdrop of the anxieties of inclusion manifested in negative emotions, doubt, and the tragic dimension of human being, this book takes the stance that such an antifoundationalist approach is crucial in expanding the contemporary influence of American philosophy.
As an original way of achieving this task, I highlight the idea of translation—as a mode of thinking through which to enhance the possibilities, and to elucidate the shifting identities, of American philosophy. It is of importance here that translation is recognized as involving something more than conversion between two independent language systems. In other words, translation is a way of thinking that exposes the hidden tensions within American philosophy, especially between Dewey’s pragmatism and Emerson’s and Thoreau’s transcendentalism, in such a way as to destabilize its apparently common ground. The book takes the position that American philosophy is in itself in the process of translation.
Here it is Cavell’s ordinary language philosophy that helps to translate American philosophy. As what is I hope a unique contribution to recent studies on Cavell, this book will shed new light on his ordinary language philosophy. It will thematize philosophy as translation (Standish and Saito 2017). Cavell’s language itself performatively enacts this process of translation in all its transitivity and volatility (Cavell 1992, p. 27). Translation is not simply a substitute or metaphor for human transformation. Rather, as the experience of rewording the world, in the little rebirths this continually effects, and hence in its renewal of interest in the world, translation is transformation. Cavell’s cross-cultural stance via translation is manifested even within American philosophy, already at an intracultural and intralinguistic level. Undergoing the sense of a rift within and without the self is at the heart of the experience of translation.
As an ingredient of philosophy as translation, this book highlights a skeptical dimension of human being as a crucial point of divergence between pragmatism and transcendentalism. Acknowledging the place of the negative emotions of shame, doubt, fear, and anxiety as a crucial component of democracy as a way of life, it argues that, in the name of realizing a spirit of affirmation and awakening today, approaches to doubt more subtle than pragmatism are needed.
In order to realize democracy as a way of life as Dewey envisioned a century ago, and in response to the anxieties of inclusion, philosophy as translation today points us to an alternative political education. Connecting the psychological and existential to the political, translation involves an answerability to others and an experience of the inadequacy of this that is not unconnected to the sense of shame. These are emotions we experience when we live with dissent. Such emotional destabilizing goes beyond the political language of mutual recognition and of respect for different values. It points us to political education for human transformation—political education that is inseparable from language education (and the experience of translation) and from transcendence.
In this general structure, chapter 2, “The New Dawn of American Philosophy,” begins to explore the contemporary significance of American philosophy in the context of a “global resurgence” in American philosophy (Bernstein 2016), to borrow Richard Bernstein’s phrase. The chapter attempts to elucidate what Hilary Putnam calls the “inspirational” aspect of American philosophy by focusing on how these American scholars have helped us anticipate the dawning of American philosophy—their own dawn as well as ours still to come—inheriting the Emersonian and Deweyan tasks of creating democracy as a way of life. This chapter, with its special focus on Dewey’s pragmatism, evaluates the use of American philosophy today for reclaiming the humanities in education.
Chapter 3, “Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life: Reclaiming the Philosophy of Affirmation and Chance,” is written against the backdrop of the anxieties of inclusion as the manifestation of negative emotions, doubt, and the tragic dimension of human being, and in response to the criticism that American philosophy, and especially Dewey’s pragmatism, lacks a tragic sense. It represents American philosophy, in its perfectionist spirit, as a philosophy of affirmation and of awakening. Dewey’s pragmatism reconstructed in the light of Emersonian moral perfectionism can give us new hope—hope for an American way of transcending the tragic.
In chapter 4, “American Philosophy in Translation,” a philosophical analysis of Dewey’s visit to Japan, provides the basis for a repositioning of the vocabulary of Dewey’s pragmatism, its terms, and ways of thought. To this end we shall take a turn from comparison to translation as a means of American philosophy’s internal criticism. In this sense, the language of American philosophy is continually to be translated, continually to cross borders. The suggestion is raised that pragmatism, if translated via transcendentalism, can reinforce the possibilities of antifoundationalism.
In chapter 5, “Stanley Cavell and Philosophy as Translation,” it is shown that Cavell’s ordinary language philosophy enables us to translate American philosophy—by elucidating its internal tensions and by exploring the possibility of its antifoundationalism. This chapter extends consideration of his ordinary language philosophy with reference to the idea of philosophy as translation (Cavell, forthcoming; Standish and Saito 2017). Dewey’s notion of communication is contrasted with and destabilized by Emersonian and Thoreauvian translation. Along these lines, this chapter will represent Cavell as a translator between different strands of thought and language, including between the dissonant voices of American philosophy.
Chapter 6, “Skepticism, the Untranslatable, and Transcending the Tragic,” attempts to show that the obscure dimension of philosophy as translation is inseparable from this threat of skepticism (Cavell 1994, p. 5; 2010, p. 528). The undergoing of the sense of a rift within and without the self is at the heart of the experience of translation. Cavell’s response to skepticism is introduced in relation to the sense of groundlessness and anxiety at the heart of human being. Returning to the issue of the tragic sense of life discussed in chapter 3, and readdressing the question of how to transcend the tragic, the chapter highlights the skeptical dimension of human being as a crucial point of divergence between pragmatism and transcendentalism. The truth of skepticism opens a path to living in uncertainty, confronting and accepting anxieties, and to a turning point, from mourning to morning.
In chapter 7, “Changing Politics, Challenging Inclusion,” the implication of philosophy as translation for our political lives is explored. This is a crucial element of Cavell’s Emersonian moral perfectionism. American philosophy in translation points to an alternative political education. Cavell’s Emersonian moral perfectionism redirects the perception of the dissenting voice in political and citizenship education. Cavell’s and Thoreau’s political path is characterized as a politics of acknowledgment—acknowledging the obscure dimensions of human life and the unredeemable debt we owe to others. The emphasis on the dissonant, the deviant, and the discordant will point us to citizenship without inclusion.
In the final chapter, 8, “Transcendence, Translation, and Political Education for Human Transformation,” as implications of American philosophy in translation, an alternative path to political education for human transformation is presented. Such a political education is inseparable from linguistic education in the broad sense. This political is thus therapeutic and transformational by nature—being inseparable from translation as the experience of transcendence. In this sense, linguistic education is political education. The experience of translation as transcendence involves something aesthetic. Cavell’s philosophy as translation enables a shift in the emphasis in political thought from rational deliberation, with its assumptions of neutrality, to aesthetic judgment, to which affective response and engagement are essential. Such political education, realizing the aesthetic within the political, points toward what Thoreau calls “Beautiful Knowledge”—the fusion of the functional and the beautiful. This is transcendental knowledge as the fruit of translation, the kind of knowledge acquired where translation is transcendence.
Bernstein, Richard J. 2016. “Global Resurgence of Pragmatism.” (Keynote speech at the special session organized by SPIRITS project at Kyoto University coorganized with the American Philosophy Forum of Japan) (Saturday, 11 June 2016, International Science Innovation Building, Kyoto University).
Cavell, Stanley. 1992. The Senses of Walden (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press).
Cavell, Stanley. 1994. A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Cavell, Stanley. forthcoming. “Walden in Tokyo.” (To be published in Stanley Cavell and the Thoughts of Other Cultures. Edited by Paul Standish and Naoko Saito).
Standish, Paul, and Saito, Naoko (eds.). 2017. Stanley Cavell and Philosophy as Translation: The Truth Is Translated (London: Rowman & Littlefield).
Thoreau, Henry D. 1992. Walden and Resistance to Civil Government. Edited by William Rossi (New York: W. W. Norton & Company).