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  • Philosophy as Translation
  • Barbara Agnese (bio)
    Translated by Claire-Anne Gormally

The necessity of reconsidering and rethinking the aesthetics of a literary genre is not a novelty. Now that the traditional distinction between argumentative theory patterns and narrative styles of thinking has blurred, the relationship between philosophy and literature raises a principal question: the definition of philosophy itself and of philosophical activity. Modern literature, and in particular the novel of the last century, embodies a polyphonic, complex cognitive enterprise which includes both original uses of language and sophisticated patterns of moral reflection. Modern literature thus represents a new model of paradigmatic thinking for philosophical activity, and both philosophy and literature can be viewed as translational activities.

This paper first examines how famous translation theories in the field of the philosophy of language (Quine’s “radical translation,” Davidson’s “principle of charity”) frame philosophical activity as a translational one, after which (in parts 3 and 4) philosophy and translation are then considered alongside Wittgenstein’s thought on myth and science, leading to a discussion of the cognitive claim of the poetic work. This paper thus provides an introduction to an epistemological consideration of literature and to an analysis of the work of the Austrian poet and writer Ingeborg Bachmann from a post-analytical point of view.

Versions of the World

The whole tradition of philosophy and epistemology received a powerful impulse during the 1950s. Of particular concern here is Willard van Orman Quine’s renowned essay, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” In his famous discussion of these two dogmas, Quine attacks the two key concepts of traditional philosophy as well as the schools that had developed the ideas of the Vienna Circle and the Neo-positivism.1

The first dogma is the analytic-synthetic dichotomy: though Quine demonstrates that there is no logical-epistemological foundation for this differentiation, he retains it as a topological distinction. The innermost central sentences of a theory, its logical-conceptual core, are analytic; the peripheral sentences are synthetic. In this way a holistic system was born, wherein science is validated by the complete system or, to formulate it with the renowned context principle of Frege: scientific sentences only have meaning in a given, specific, defined system. Donald Davidson explains Quine’s philosophical move in the following way: [End Page 15]

To give up the analytic-synthetic distinction as basic to the understanding of language is to give up the idea that we can clearly distinguish between theory and language. Meaning, as we might loosely use the word, is contaminated by theory, by what is held to be true.

(“On the Very Idea” 187)

The second dogma is that of reductionism, which formed the traditional verification base of epistemology (the testability of theories in terms of their corroboration sentence by sentence). The general sentences of science are decomposed into individual sentences (by the logical analysis of language), which place us in an immediate relationship to the data of an objective, neutral experience.

Of this dogma, Quine criticizes the referential concepts of truth and the verification concepts produced by the Vienna Circle. The conversion of general sentences to protocol sentences (Protokollsätze), as they were called by neopositivists, means performing a work of translation of certain classes of expression to other classes. The latter places us in immediate contact with experience and observation. According to Quine, it is a matter of translation; however, we have no manual for translation. We have no logical epistemological foundation to justify the translation. This does not mean that we no longer translate, but that the translation will be pragmatic, based on a convention. Quine’s most famous example is the word “gavagai” in Chapter Two of Word and Object, “Translation and Meaning,” an example of radical translation, “i.e. translation of the language of a hitherto untouched people”:

A rabbit scurries by, the native says ´Gavagai´, and the linguist notes down the sentence ´Rabbit´ (or ´Lo, a rabbit´) as tentative translation, subject to testing in further cases.


During the 1960s, Wilfrid Sellars, criticized the philosophical myth of the “immediately given,” which is also attacked by the so-called “culture of paradigms.” In Science, Perception and Reality, Sellars makes a purely epistemological distinction...


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