I am planning on learning a European language over the summer, probably German, Spanish or French. What is recommended both in terms of philosophy literature which is best understood in the original language, and what is recommended as a language which opens up more avenues of thought because of how the language is structured differently to English? For example, I have been told German has many subtle distinctions in its synonyms, which might make it harder to understand German philosophers in translation.

Edit: this is a hard question to answer 'objectively' but as someone with much less experience of philosophy it is harder for me to know the differences in the literature's or benefits of learning one language or another

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    Anecdotally I would say German is useful. I'm not sure that issues of mechanical translation are particularly problematic though. There are plenty of good English translations. French I've found less helpful. This is likely because I find a lot of French philosophy incomprehensible in any language. But that could just be me. I don't read Spanish or Italian well enough to comment.
    – Alex
    Mar 16, 2018 at 13:20
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    Recommended by whom for what purpose? What would make a recommendation of this kind authoritative? I don't see how there could be an objective answer to this question, (meaning, it falls under "primarily opinion based").
    – Not_Here
    Mar 16, 2018 at 13:31
  • Learn Yiddish and then "upgrade" to German. :):). I say this half-jokingly, but it's not a bad way to do it. Even if you are Catholic, some Yiddish can't hurt. It's fun, full of great insults. The Idiots Guide is fine. Have fun and before long you'll have the cadence and structure of German.
    – Gordon
    Mar 16, 2018 at 20:51
  • Btw there is a free download at Internet Archive "Heidegger in France" Dominique Janicaud, which gives some insight into the interrelationship between the two countries philosophy-wise. Finally, there are a lot of young people in Brazil. They seem to be studying philosophy down there. Could Portuguese be a sleeper!? I mean for the future, new material.
    – Gordon
    Mar 16, 2018 at 22:30
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    Does this answer your question? Do you need to learn the old dialects in which older philosophy is written?
    – User
    Feb 6 at 9:44

1 Answer 1


The five great European philosophical languages are Classical Greek, Latin, French, German, and English.

Descartes wrote occasionally in French in the 17th century; and Rousseau always in French in the 18th. Bergson (of dubious reputation now) wrote in French in the 19th century. Mention must be made of Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, de Beauvoir. Althusser, Ricoeur, Badiou in the 20th century and on the side of postmodernism Lyotard, Foucault Derrida and others. Further French names could be mentioned but I think only Descartes is among the immortals.

German is THE European - or at least Continental - post-classical philosophical language. Where to begin, where to end ? Kant, Schelling, Fichte, Schopenhauer, Marx, Nietzsche, Frege, Husserl, Heidegger, Habermas. The list could be doubled or trebled.

English is an important language philosophically : Locke, Berkeley, Hume, John Stuart Mill, Russell ... I'm putting a word in for it even though it's not one of your options ;)-

Spanish is I think the language in which the least first-rate work has been done in philosophy compared with French and German. Unamuno (Sentimiento Trágico, 'The Tragic Sense of Life') and Ortega y Gasset are the only names that come immediately to mind. Spanish is notable, however, for philosophical novels - from Cervantes' 'Don Quixote' to the many, brilliant novels of Gabriel García Márquez.

From my background as a university teacher of philosophy I do not hesitate to recommend German. Other teachers of philosophy must speak for themselves. My opinion is fixed.

  • And how much time do you think it takes to get to the standard needed to be able to read philosophical texts Mar 17, 2018 at 21:17
  • Philosophical texts are usually harder to read than a purely basic knowledge of a language allows. But (a) your knowledge will grow as you read, particularly if you read a German text in tandem with an English translation; and (b) you will not be dependent, as will most of your fellow students, on the English version. When a discussion centres on a particular German word or phrase you will be able to pick up its meaning more accurately from a German lexicon or commentary. You will be able to think in German. There's no fixed or average timescale.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Mar 17, 2018 at 21:29

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