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  • The Use of Western Concepts in Post-Soviet Philosophy Translation and Reception
  • Natalia Avtonomova (bio)
    Translated by Andrew Drozd

Is "Circulation" the Same Thing as "Vzaimoobmen" (Mutual Exchange)?

Let's start with a small comment on translation. The word "circulation" used in the French and English versions of our colloquium's title ("Circulation du savoir et histoire des sciences humaines"; "The Circulation of Knowledge and the History of the Human Sciences"), has as its primary meaning "motion in a circle," "going around," but it also means simply "motion," "transference." In the Russian version the word vzaimoobmen (mutual exchange) takes the place of circulation ("Vzaimoobmen znaniiami i istoriia gumanitarnykh nauk"). It presumes the presence of at least two things, between which a regular and at least partly equivalent interaction takes place. Thus the Russian version of the title prompts us to view things in terms of equivalent and interacting bodies, which is completely absent from the French and English versions.

Moreover, the Russian word vzaimoobmen ( vzaimodeistvie ) may possess not only a certain semantics but also a certain ideology that comes forth in those cases when the imagined interaction hides its actual absence or its insufficiency. I will give you one example of this from my own experience. In the six-year period from 1998 to 2004, I was the director of a program at the Collège international de philosophie in Paris. My program was called "The Russian Language under the Influence of Contemporary Western Thought" (La langue russe à l'épreuve de la pensée contemporaine occidentale). I was particularly interested in the borrowing of Western concepts and its role in the formation of a Russian conceptual language. However, this title, which one would think to be completely harmless, turned out to be "untranslatable" from French to Russian. The Russian language "on trial," "under the influence" of contemporary Western thought? "You can't say that," I was informed by people in Russia who were not supporters of the official ideology. [End Page 189] So I asked, "What can I say?" "Well, let's suppose, the interaction of languages, cultures, and so on." At first, I was amazed, but then I understood: the idea of the influence of Western thought on Russian language and culture, expressed directly and without beating around the bush, is unacceptable in Russian language and culture at the turn of 21st century and has a tendency to be replaced by the "softer" idea of (quasi-)equivalent exchange. Of course, the translator of our seminar's program into Russian had no such ideological reasons. However, he used the word vzaimoobmen , although there was actually no question of interaction.

Now we will examine precisely that aspect of the question that was emphasized in our research program at the Collège international de philosophie: the influence of Western thought on post-Soviet thought and the formation of a Russian conceptual language in this process. Of course, no one will deny the influence of Russian culture on the West. However, one can hardly deny that—in contrast to Russian literature, music, and, to a certain extent, painting—throughout its existence Russian philosophy, Russian thought, has influenced its Western counterpart incommensurably less than Western thought has influenced Russian.

Furthermore, within the bounds of this general theme, we will devote attention not so much to knowledge or ideas as such but primarily to the linguistic forms of the existence of knowledge—in our case, philosophical. There were moments in the history of cognition when it seemed possible to study the history of ideas by ignoring the language as well as their unimportant external forms and discussing only the geographical and cultural changes of some conceptual point. Such an examination, as a rule, was drawn to causal-deterministic schemes in the understanding of intellectual history. Now such an understanding is subject to doubt. Knowledge can "circulate" only in concrete linguistic forms, which contain, support, and, to a certain extent, define it. Much follows from this. The main thing is the need for translation and the ensuring of transmission. Translation is the transfer of content and meaning created in one language and culture by means of another language and culture. Whether or not such a transfer...


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