Ignorance of Languages Limits Knowledge

Those who truly want to remedy their ignorance will have to move beyond the confines of a single language. It will be a lot of work, and it’s easy to make excuses and find ways to avoid the effort, but we have to stop fooling ourselves and start doing the work. Let’s take Kant as an example to illuminate this point.

A person can know seriously a lot about Kant without departing from English language resources. You could read every different translation of Kant’s work into English. You could read English commentaries, books written about Kant in English, journal articles arguing about different aspects of the interpretation and adjudication of Kant’s philosophical positions and how they relate to earlier and later philosophers’ work. You could be completely overqualified in understanding Kant on that basis alone. And that stuff is all great, and if an English-speaker wanted to understand Kant really really well then all those things would be at least commendable, or perhaps even necessary. But it wouldn’t be sufficient.

There would always be a shortcoming in understanding Kant, as long as (and insofar as) there is an ignorance of the German language that Kant wrote in. One’s original insights would be limited by that ignorance, and any new proposed insights would be uncertain because built on an inadequate foundation. As well, even any English treatments of Kant which hinge on an interpretation of the German will be impossible for the person who doesn’t know German to evaluate with any competence. That’s not even to mention that all German resources that deal with Kant will be inaccessible, or accessible only insofar as some other English speaker has summarized or translated them, in which case, we have to trust that the English speaker who did the summarizing or translating is not incompetent or biased. A true mastery of Kant’s philosophy is impossible without a knowledge of German.

The same limitations will hold true for every other thinker who writes in a language other than English, and even for every major English thinker whose thought has been treated by significant scholars who write their own scholarship in a language other than English.

In other words, the person who really cares about learning and growing in understanding will need to make the cultivation of languages a regular and permanent part of learning.

That’s not to say everyone needs to be a polyglot, or that no worthwhile or meaningful learning can take place in a single language. The point is only that there are necessary limitations on the person who only knows one language, limitations that fall away as more languages are mastered.

Where to begin, then? My list currently looks like this: English is an excellent starting point, and I feel fortunate to have grown up fluent in this language. Beyond English, there is German, French, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Italian, Arabic, Russian, Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi, Turkish, Farsi, Swahili. And there are many more beyond that as well, but that’s my top list, and it’s already enough to keep a person busy for many years. The first seven on the list (up to Arabic) I arrived at by asking myself what languages I’d need to know to be on a par with Leo Strauss. I’m currently making some efforts (large or small) at learning the first nine languages on the list (up to Mandarin). Someone else’s list might look different than mine. Someone else might want to have Polish or Spanish somewhere high up on the list, or might want to have Sanskrit and Classical Chinese and Cree and ancient Persian and Aramaic as priorities. Those ones would all need to be on my own list as well, eventually.

The thinker who knows many languages is seen with a kind of instinctive awe, and my contention is that such an impression is not illogical but reflects an awareness of an inescapable reality about the intellectual life.

The point is, if we’re serious about wanting to learn as widely and deeply as possible, we need to make a list of languages, and start working at it, as soon as possible, and continue ceaselessly. The further we get, the better off we will be.

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