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  • Truth is Translated:Cavell’s Thoreau and the Transcendence of America
  • Naoko Saito

1. What can American philosophy do in the age of globalization?

Today, in spite of circumstances of tension and conflict among different cultures, both within and without national boundaries, the world is "unified" in a global market and national boundaries are blurred. Any naïve assumption about the understanding of other cultures plainly will not work. Even the politics of recognition faces the danger of being assimilated into the unifying force of globalization, with America herself acting as its incubator. We need, in such circumstances, to question once again our relationship with our own culture and nation, while at the same time reconsidering what it means to understand other cultures. Dewey's idea of "democracy as a way of life," an idea based upon the principle of mutual learning as "friends" (Dewey 1988), and its application for "mutual national understanding" (Dewey 1983), is not its exception. Dewey once said that philosophy, as the general theory of education, is involved in the formation of "fundamental dispositions, intellectual and emotional, toward nature and fellow-men" (Dewey 1980, 338). If so, American philosophy, including pragmatism, needs to respond to the following question: What should American philosophy do in the age of globalization, especially with regard to the enhancement of cross-cultural understanding? To what extent can Dewey's American ideal of democracy exert its critical force against the tide of Americanization? Its answer requires us to reflect upon the kinds of disposition we should cultivate toward our fellow human beings and the kinds of commitment we should profess.

As a way of responding to this question, this paper attempts to shed new light on the possibility of American philosophy from the perspective of "perfectionism"—the tradition of thinking that involves the question of how one should live a good life (Hurka 1993, 3–5). In contrast, however, to its typically teleological strain, this paper highlights the uniquely American version of perfectionism: the idea of perfection without perfectibility, a process-oriented notion of perfectionism, which Stanley Cavell seeks to resuscitate in his reading of Emerson and Thoreau. It [End Page 124] is especially in connection with cross-cultural understanding that I shall highlight Cavell's Thoreauvian idea of philosophy as translation—translation in the broader sense of the encountering of the strange in the familiar, of finding anew one's place in one's language and culture. This is derived from his reinterpretation of the kind of American cultural asset that Thoreau's Walden is, a book in which he finds, perhaps paradoxically, a peculiar version of cosmopolitanism. Philosophy as translation puts an emphasis on language as the crucial component of practice and action—in rebuilding the self's relationship with one's own culture as well as with that of others, and in reconsidering what it means to learn from each other as "friends," as "neighbors." Cavell shows that reading Thoreau's text in itself provides us with a "clearing," a path that illuminates in a new way our modes of cross-cultural dialogue—transforming the metaphor of "crossing" borders with entanglements of "inter-" and "intra-"cultural dimensions. His suggestion of philosophy as translation offers us a powerful orientation today for creating "neighborhood" in a globalized world, in the hope of achieving common humanity but without settling down in solidarity.

2. Translation and Bottomlessness: Cavell's The Senses of Walden

Let me begin with a discovery made through my own experience of translating Cavell's The Senses of Walden into Japanese. During this process it was constantly evident to me that the task was something other than a matter simply of transposing one meaning to another. I found recurrently in the course of this work that the existing Japanese translations of Walden were destabilized, the meanings of its sentences and words overturned. Cavell's and Thoreau's language refuses to be fixed and defined, and this is part of its point. The following passage from Walden, which Cavell cites, captures the evaporative nature of language in Cavell's and Thoreau's text:

The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement. Their truth is...


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