Travails of Translation (Macherey, Hegel, Spinoza)

In Avec Spinoza, Pierre Macherey has a lovely little essay called “Le Spinoza idéaliste de Hegel”. In it he makes some fascinating arguments about the sort of interpretive work the German idealist needed to do in order to make the savage anomaly assimilable into his system, focusing mostly on Hegel’s comments on Spinoza in the third volume of the Lectures on the History of Philosophy.

Now when producing a translation, you should cite whatever the author’s quoting in the language being translated into, rather than the original, whenever possible. So, for example, Macherey typically cites Garniron’s French translation of the Vorlesungen as the Leçons sur l’histoire de la philosophie. And when he cites Hegel’s original German, he goes to the Sämtliche Werke edited by Glockner. But readers of this essay in English aren’t likely to have those lying around (I don’t). They are much more likely to have the English translation of the Lectures—maybe the older one by Haldane and Simon (HS)—which, incidentally, is also the version of the Lectures you’ll find for free on—maybe the more recent one by Brown and Stewart (BS). So when Macherey quotes from the Leçons, the thing to do is to find the same passage in the English translation and quote from one or both of those. That way your readers don’t need to go looking for books in other languages, and if they’ve got them in English, your references will actually be helpful.

All good! The principle makes sense, and the texts are clear.

Er—well, they start out clear. It doesn’t take long to realize that the two English translations are pretty seriously out of sync with one another. For example, Macherey says that the following is the first line from Hegel’s chapter on Spinoza, which should be helpful:

“Le rapport de la philosophie spinoziste à celle de Descartes est seulement celui d’une développement, d’une accomplissement consequent du principe de cette dernière.”

BS: “Spinozism is related to Cartesianism simply as a consistent carrying out or execution of Descartes’ principle.”

HS: “The philosophy of Descartes underwent a great variety of unspeculative developments, but in Benedict Spinoza a direct successor to this philosopher may be found, and one who carried on the Cartesian principle to its furthest logical conclusions.”

The BS is a solid, near-direct translation. The HS seems to have the same idea at the end there, but where’d the rest come from? It’s definitely not in the French that Macherey’s looking at. The HS seems to have a bunch of extra stuff in it in general: after that single line, the BS moves on to a new paragraph that starts talking about Spinoza’s biography; the HS goes on for six or seven more sentences, and then moves on to what looks like the same biographical material. So, it looks like the BS is a closer match to the Garniron.

But then there are quite a few quotes that don’t have clear correlates in the BS, but which do have corresponding lines in the HS. Macherey quotes Hegel:

“La pensée simple de l’idéalisme spinoziste est : ce qui est vrai n’est purement et simplement que la substance unique don’t les attributes sont le penser et l’étendue (nature) : c’est seulement cette unite absolue qui est effective, que est la réalité effective—c’est seulement elle qui est Dieu. C’est comme chez Descartes, l’unité du penser et de l’être, ou ce qui contient en soi-même le concept de son existence.”

Don’t go looking for this passage in the BS; you won’t find it. Nowhere is there anything about ‘Spinoza’s simple idea’, followed by that (pretty complex) way of attempting to sum up the whole of Spinozist philosophy; and here’s the real kicker: at no point in the BS do we find anything like ‘extension (nature)’, a parenthetical identification of two terms that are very different for Spinoza (extensio sive natura?!), which Macherey’s argument makes a big deal out of.

Meanwhile, in the HS we find:

“The simple thought of Spinoza’s idealism is this: The true is simply and solely the one substance, whose attributes are thought and extension or nature: and only this absolute unity is reality, it alone is God. It is, as with Descartes, the unity of thought and Being, or that which contains the Notion of its existence in itself.”

Well, that looks…exactly right. So it looks like the Garniron corresponds with the BS sometimes and the HS other times, and we’ll just have to be casuists about it.

(In an extra twist, the BS, which has nothing to correspond with, it turns out, a lot of quotes that Macherey pulls from the Garniron, is apparently a translation of the Felix Meiner Verlag edition of Hegel’s Vorlesungen, which is edited by Walter Jaeschke and… Pierre Garniron. Hmm.)

Then, check this out. Macherey thinks that Hegel really botches his translation of Ethics I, Definition 6. That, for reference, reads:

“Per Deum intelligo ens absolute infinitum, hoc est substantiam constantem infinitis attributis, quorum unumquodque aeternam et infinitam essentiam exprimit.”

Naturally, Machery quotes the French translation of Hegel’s allegedly problematic German translation of Spinoza’s Latin:

“Dieu est donc l’essence absolument infinie, autrement dit la substance qui consiste en d’infinis attributs.”

The BS provides us with the closest match, where Hegel writes:

“God, therefore, is the absolutely infinite being or the substance that consists of infinite attributes.”

But is it a close match? Because wait, how was this supposed to be problematic here? Macherey: “comme si Spinoza avait écrit essentia à la place de ens…” So now we check the Werke, and lo, Hegel writes: “Gott ist das absolut unendlich Wesen…” Wesen is essence, but it also could be being; if Hegel hadn’t written hundreds of pages on the doctrine of being (Sein) and an entirely distinct doctrine of essence (Wesen), the slip would be understandable. But Macherey’s right: Spinoza didn’t write essentia, he wrote ens.

And that’s how I found out, by trying to translate Macherey’s French essay on Hegel and Spinoza, that the English translations of Hegel’s translation of Spinoza’s Latin into German, in which he makes a serious error (ens -> Wesen), just go ahead and fix that error (Wesen -> being) without saying anything.

Language, huh?

My translation of the essay is here.


No Sophistication

At some point during my political education, I learned what I thought was an important lesson about motivation and complexity. Popular culture teaches us from a young age that there are Good Guys and Bad Guys. But this, of course, turns out to be ridiculous, for a host of reasons. That the world’s entire range of people is not captured by different kinds of ‘guys’ is just the beginning. There’s also the realization that the Manichean parsing of social antagonism is untenable.

That is, at some point you realize that here, in Real Life, the villains aren’t people who wake up in the morning, look themselves in the mirror, stroke their goatees, and say: Ah, it’s a good day to commit some Heinous Acts! Today, Evil will triumph!

No, as a sophisticated and mature thinker of the complexities of real politics, one is encouraged to recognize that nobody is evil in that easy sense; everyone does what strikes them as good, and it does a disservice to these people and these complexities to imagine anyone as a cartoon villain. Disservice is one thing, but the main thing is that you’ll be botching it: the imaginary of the cartoon villain is not an accurate or faithful way to picture the world.

So, you learn: it’s not as simple as Disney made it out to be; the villains are people too, and it would surely be better to understand than to simply condemn them. Whenever you condemn, what you’re condemning is a caricature. And that’s to stay all-too-comfortably at the level of imagination or inadequate knowledge. At my best, I think—I hope—I follow this Spinozist ethos in evaluating political actors.

Then you hear that the new Republican budget plan includes eliminating federal funding for PBS and NPR; they want to slash funding for the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities. They want to put a stop to the arts and humanities; they want to kill This American Life and Sesame Street. They suggest that we cut funding from the EPA, the CDC, and the Department of Education: ah yes, climate scientists and public school teachers, they’ve gotten a pass for too long. Never mind that this won’t actually ‘balance’ anything, as though that were really the goal; these sorts of cuts are the policy goal.

These people are making me unlearn my sophistication. What good are the lessons of subtlety in the face of such simple, stupid kinds of hatred? They are the cartoon villains I was told didn’t really exist. Who the hell wakes up with an enthusiastic love in their heart for the fight against educational programs and public health research? Who wants to make sure there’s not even any new art to contemplate as the rising seas sweep our decadence into oblivion? These desires are directly evil. No surprise they’re actual Nazis.

Hume’s Moral Enquiry

Hume says that we make moral distinctions. That is, we distinguish between right and wrong. Now Hume knows that some people deny that there is such a distinction: there are moral relativists, people who claim that there really is no right and wrong. But Hume says: these people may claim they think this, but they’re either lying to us or are really lying to themselves. At the end of the day, the avowed relativist does think that some things are right and other things are wrong. And Hume’s basic gesture is to say: don’t even engage with these people. You won’t win that argument, and it’s not worth even trying. This is, by the way, not dissimilar to a claim Sartre will make about the anti-semite: trying to have an argument with them is basically a waste of time; you have to respect the rules of debate and discussion, but they don’t. Continue reading “Hume’s Moral Enquiry”

Place and Expression

This is a response I gave to a paper entitled ‘Leibniz on Place’ by Jen Nguyen at DePaul’s philosophy graduate conference yesterday, 2.11.2017.

Nguyen’s paper raises a fascinating series of issues in the context of Leibniz’s metaphysics, which to my mind come down to this central question: where is a place? In some ways, as she notes, Leibniz’s view on place is commonsensical enough: a place will turn out to be a point of view on the world; this is its intrinsic determination, as opposed to the purely extrinsic or formal definition, according to which a place is a set of coordinates in abstract three-dimensional space. And if this squares with common sense, it’s due to a strange sort of phenomenological intuition, rather like how, to borrow from Wilfrid Sellars’ terminology, we sense an incompleteness in the ‘scientific image’ of the world and supplement it with the ‘manifest image’. We want to say: no, this place, this room, is not defined by the amount of space, the quantitative distance between the walls, the placement of the windows, the positions of these tables and chairs; rather it is a matter of the way we perceive it, what it opens up for us, how we are determined within it, a question of perspective and orientation, affect and delimitation: it is how we express it. Continue reading “Place and Expression”