(TL;DR) Abbreviate ED as earlier dialects of your modern first language(s). I desire to read philosophy written in only ED, and not in languages which must be learned from scratch; but I fail to understand ED's olden morphology and syntax. Olden vocabulary is not a problem because dictionaries address it.

1. Without a modern gloss or paraphrase for philosophy in ED, should you learn ED? If so, how?
If not, how can you understand the original texts written in ED?

2. I can read and ask NOT about writing after 1850, because their grammars resemble today's grammar.
3. I ask NOT about ED that simply differ too much, and must be learned as a new language (eg: Old English).
4. This question presumes the inefficiency and futility of struggling word by word, which I already attempted. As I wrote on ELL, it is too inefficient to question anew every long sentence that confuses me; so I must transcend this approach 'by chance', which feels like a wastefully haphazard, torturous crawl of piecemeal creeps that hobble too narrowly to reach, even the rungs towards, the apex of sentential comprehension sought.

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    Just a note. I am not in academia, so maybe everyone else knows this. I learned from a grad student the other day that many departments in history and philosophy now offer highly condensed language courses that teach only essentials of grammar and syntax, with almost no vocabulary. The idea is to give scholars enough in one course to work on foreign texts with a dictionary. Seemed like a great idea. Not sure if such courses are offered in France, but they would seem to be somewhat helpful even in older dialects. It is true, for most non-English scholars, 18th century is the cut off. Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 17:37
  • @NelsonAlexander +1. Thank you for sharing, regardless of whether you are in academia. Would you have more information please? I would be interested in reading the syllabi of such courses.
    – user8572
    Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 18:48
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    Sorry, but I actually do not have such information. I was just told as much by a couple of students I was talking to, and I don't even know what these courses are called. Perhaps by googling around you could turn up something. If I happen to find out anything I'll reply. Good luck. Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 19:44
  • @NelsonAlexander Thanks. Allow me to have questioned this here: academia.stackexchange.com/q/54538/13306
    – user8572
    Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 23:18

4 Answers 4


It depends very much on how deeply you wish to delve into the works of a particular philosopher. Many general concepts translate well, and you can learn a lot using only translated works in your native tongue. However, the devil is in the details. Many of the best philosophers pushed the boundaries of their language, and when one does so, it becomes remarkably hard to effectively capture the intent of the philosopher when undergoing translation.

I can give two examples. The first is an incredibly common case. Everyone who has interacted with Christianity in English knows "Thou shalt not kill." However, that is not necessarily the most ideal translation. The phrase in its native Hebrew is "לא ירצח". The word translated as "kill" is the verb "רצח". Most modern scholars believe that word is more effectively translated as "murder," not "kill," indicating an "unlawful killing," but with other meanings such as "to break, to dash into pieces." Needless to say, it gets complicated when one discusses "unlawful killings" in a document often referred to as "the law." For the majority of applications, the translation as "Thou shalt not kill" is sufficient. However, when discussing the ethical implications of warfare with respect to Biblical law, it is essential to know the difference.

The other example is a favorite of mine is found in Sun Tzu's Art of War (disclaimer: this was my own study as a layman who really doesn't know enough Chinese to do such interpretation. Of course, I think my child is perfect in every way, just like every parent!). This book is often recommended to business professionals to explore parallels between the business world and war. In the first chapter, as translated by Thomas Cleary, we find:

Therefore measure in terms of five things, use these assessments to make comparisons, and thus find out what the conditions are. The five things are the way, the weather, the terrain, the leadership, and discipline.

He then goes to talk about each of them. This is a fine translation, and captures a great deal of the intent. However, more meaning is found in the original phrasing of the second sentence (I provide a Pinyin pronunciation and gloss here, from (source). The source also has the original words, as written by Sun Tzu. Stack Exchange's text format doesn't allow Chinese characters, so I had to omit them here):

Yī yuē dào, èr yuē tiān, sān yuē dì, sì yuē jiāng, wǔ yuē fǎ.
[one] [say] [Way], [two] [say] [Heaven], [three] [say] [Earth], [four] [say] [General], [five] [say] [Method]

Just from the gloss, we can see minor differences. For one, "weather and terrain" have been glossed as "Heaven and Earth." This is where we can dig into the the cultural implications of Sun Tzu's actual words. "Dào" is a fundamental Chinese concept that you can spend a lifetime exploring and never fully understand it, but it can be described as the way everything flows (somewhat analogous to our concept of the universe). "Tiān" and "dì" are literally Heaven (or Sky) and Earth, so the gloss captures them well. In The Daoist cosmology, oft represented by three horizontal lines on top of each other, heaven is above (the top line), the earth is below (the bottom line), and man is in between (the center line). The next two characters are complicated. "Jiāng" is great fun, often thought of as a symbol for "meat" and "hand," referring to nourishment. It can be translated literally as General, in the military sense, but the word is also oft translated as "will," or even "future" ("will" being an essential human trait for putting food on the table every day). "Fǎ" is another complicated word with many translations. It has been translated as "law," "discipline," as well as many others (including the glosses' translation as "Method" with a capital M).

If one looks at it from this perspective, one has the way everything moves, heaven, earth, and the will and discipline of man in between. While the translation by Cleary may direct one to look at a set of things. The study into the original words suggests an alternate mindset Sun Tzu might have been inspiring: pay attention to Everything, categorized in the traditional Chinese manner of The Dao, Heaven, Earth, and ways of Men. Sun Tzu recommends a general never forget to perceive anything, never omit any detail presented before him.

I spent many hours on this sentence, trying to explore its meaning in its original language. I readily admit that I probably still got it wrong (shameless plea: any who speak Chinese, please correct any inadequacies in my work!). However, I find it an excellent example of what you can get from a translation versus what you can get with an in depth study in the native tongue.

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    Very interesting exegesis. I am curious, does the reader glean some of what is lost in translation from the broader context/commentary of the sentence in the Cleary's translation, or is most of it still missing?
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 16, 2015 at 23:27
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    @Conifold I cannot speak to the reader in general. However, I personally missed this context completely the first few times I read his translation. It did not help that the set of footnotes containing opinions of commentators also focused on the very literal meanings of the words, as though they were explaining war to a young civil servant with no experience to speak of. It is my opinion that Cleary's focus was on capturing Sun Tzu's work with respect to what Westerners would call "warfare," and not in its relationship to other realms, such as schoolyard bullying or corporate politics.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Sep 16, 2015 at 23:33
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    "The weather, the terrain" bit is quite the interpretative flair. The dyad of heaven-earth or the triad of heaven-man-earth has a much deeper meaning in Chinese that may or may not be intended here.
    – virmaior
    Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 1:58
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    @virmaior True, and I appreciate the critique. My experience with Chinese philosophy is that it tends not to be lauded as "great" unless there are ways to read between the lines to find a more general application of the work beyond its stated scope, so I try to look for such opportunities. Sometimes that search can be a stretch!
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 17:32

The best advice on how to get better at reading a language (across different disciplines, and across different periods in the history of that language) is simply to read more of the language.

If I understand OP's question correctly he is asking how, as a native French speaker, say, to get a grasp on the English of someone like David Hume, who while he spoke and wrote modern English, is still somewhat remote from present day English in idiom and style.

Here's an example of the kind of passage I think the OP probably would find difficult:

All our reasonings concerning matter of fact are founded on a species of Analogy, which leads us to expect from any cause the same events, which we have observed to result from similar causes. Where the causes are entirely similar, the analogy is perfect, and the inference, drawn from it, is regarded as certain and conclusive: nor does any man ever entertain a doubt, where he sees a piece of iron, that it will have weight and cohesion of parts; as in all other instances, which have ever fallen under his observation." Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding, §9.

The language here is a bit unusual, even to native English speakers. For instance, the punctuation would be regarded as incorrect today. Stylistically, Hume writes long, complex sentences, which often include small clauses, like the one in bold, which interrupt the flow of the sentence. The only real way to learn to read sentences like this is by practice.

One technique to build facility reading this kind of English is to learn to diagram sentences. This is the method English speaking school children learn in order to build the ability to read passages like the one from Hume above.

  • +1. Thanks. To my surprise and joy, I think that I do understand Hume's quote above. Please feel free to replace it with something else that completely confounds!.
    – user8572
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 22:26

You question is about translation. What I believe you're asking is, 'is learning the mother-tongue of a philosopher, or the language any given philosopher produces in, necessary for understanding her or his philosophical work?'

I would say yes. Though, it depends upon how rigorously you want to engage in philosophical scholarship. Are you an aspiring scholar or a lay reader comfortable with reading philosophical works in translation, which is to say, outside of their original language. Are you comfortable relying upon the interpretations of others for understanding a philosopher or a philosophical text? Translation is necessarily interpretative, as there many concepts words, phrases, and idioms which cannot translate.

Those who are training to be a scholar of Plato, Aristotle, or the New Testament for example must learn Koine, a dialect of ancient Greece. Those who are training to be a scholar of Kant, Nietzsche, Hegel, Marx, or Heidegger must learn German. Those who are studying to be a scholar of Descartes, Rousseau, or Derrida must learn French.

  • Depending on the extent of "understanding" one needs, I'm not sure I agree with this answer. Looking at say, Kant scholarship, I'd agree that language knowledge is necessary if you want to be the next Allen Wood, but assuming Allen Wood has a good understanding of Kant, I'd say it's not necessary at the level of an undergraduate course on Kant. / And I wouldn't say most people who come here asking questions need more than a survey level understanding.
    – virmaior
    Commented Sep 16, 2015 at 6:11
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    Thus my clarifying question: "Are you an aspiring scholar or a lay reader comfortable with reading philosophical works in translation, which is to say, outside of their original language. Are you comfortable relying upon the interpretations of others for understanding a philosopher or a philosophical text?"
    – Kyle
    Commented Sep 16, 2015 at 6:27
  • Two thoughts. (1) your answer would be better if you put that question at the top instead of in the middle of a paragraph that already says "yes" Logically, it precedes the yes, and the answer would be clearer if you put it up at the top then. (2) Your answer doesn't address no at all. Doing those two things would make it a solid answer.
    – virmaior
    Commented Sep 16, 2015 at 6:49
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    @Kyle I answer your clarifying question: I am a lay reader comfortable with reading philosophical works in translation, which is to say, outside of their original language, and am comfortable relying upon the interpretations of others for understanding a philosopher or a philosophical text. I am not (yet?) an aspiring scholar`. Does this clarify?
    – user8572
    Commented Sep 16, 2015 at 15:07
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    Even a working philosopher does not have to be a scholar of Plato, Descartes, Kant, or any other historical figure, although the ties are closer than in other disciplines philosophy is different from history of philosophy. Then there is trade off, it takes time and effort to learn another language, fluency in it is often inferior to that in the native language, and struggling with understanding individual sentences may get in the way of grasping the larger scale train of thought. On the other hand, the latter may help fill in and/or amend what was lost in translation or misinterpreted.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 16, 2015 at 23:21

Let's say I read a good translation of Plato and Kant and worked hard to understand it and to appreciate the philosophy in the translated text. Which is very likely not exactly the same as the philosophy in the original text, and quite possibly not exactly as valuable as the philosophy in the original text (with a not very good philosopher and an excellent translator there would be the possibility that the translation is better than the original).

I have now the choice of learning classical Greek, and German, in order to read and understand the originals. Or I could start reading a good translation of Descartes. I would say it takes an awful lot of effort to learn these languages well enough that I get more out of the original text than out of a good translation. With the same effort put into reading a good translation of Descartes, I would most likely end up with a better understanding of philosophy.

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