I know this mostly from continental philosophers, like Hegel, Adorno or Kant: they use the greek alphabet when writing ancient terminology like ergon, telos or megalopsychos, while MacIntyre for example does not. He simply writes it like I just did.

What was the reason of the former philosophers not to translate the terminology into latin alphabet?

  • 4
    Probably because learning proper Greek was part of the curriculum for them. It's likely that Hegel and Kant at least probably read the Greek philosophers in the original language. Adorno was influenced by Hegel.
    – Bread
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 11:23
  • 2
    Because the origin of Western philosophy was Ancient Greek, and thus many philosophical concepts originated from Ancient Greek Phil. Obviously, up to last Century, most Western philosophers was trained in Ancient classical culture, Mastering Ancient Greek as well as Latin. Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 12:06
  • My suspicion is that this is primarily due to different typographical conventions between German and English.
    – ig0774
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 13:13

2 Answers 2


Alasdair MacIntyre is a 20th/21st century philosopher writing in English.

Immanuel Kant was an 18th century philosopher writing in German. G.W.F Hegel was a 19th century philosopher writing in German. Both were trained in theology at different points during their education. For this education, they had to learn biblical Greek.

Adorno was a 20th century philosopher writing in German.

For Kant and Hegel, it was normal practice to write Greek and Latin terms in Greek and Latin respectively, because everyone who had a university education should have been able to read them at least to that level. (university education was not as common in Germany then as it is in the United States now).

Conversely, MacIntyre is a contemporary philosopher writing for an audience where very few people study Greek or could read it fluently.

I'm a bit less clear on why Adorno would do so. I think (and here I am speculating) that the educational requirements in Germany at his Gymnasium have incorporated more expectations for basic knowledge of languages including Greek than they do in the anglosphere where it is now common practice to translate all quotes and transliterate everything not written in the Roman script. For Adorno, there's a lexicon of the Greek terms he uses.

tl;dr - different eras and countries have different practices in the use of foreign terms.

  • 1
    Yet I'm suspicious if it really comes down to conventionalism. Merely saving some time of translation seems superifical to me, since he already used English terminology like 'materialism', which I can only explain if it has similar use as using ancient greek terminology, since it isn't properly translateable. Therefore I suspect a similar reason for using the alphabet.
    – LeBerg
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 11:56
  • 4
    If by "he" you mean Adorno, then my own hypothesis would be pompousness. Writing a Greek term in Roman letters is not "translation", it's "transliteration" and normally no meaning is lost. archai and chairos still look obviously Greek in both German and English.
    – virmaior
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 11:59
  • For Kant and Hegel, that was standard convention then. Everyone wrote their quotes in Latin and Greek because education was still largely (and later often) conducted in Latin and Greek in the German speaking world at the time.
    – virmaior
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 12:00
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    @virmaior: Considering Adorno's writing style in general, pompousness certainly is a good guess. He loved using more 'intellectual' terms and formulations (read: obscure foreign words) up to the point that even though it is 20th century philosophy, it is almost unintelligible even for native contemporary speakers. On the other hand, this is actually the level and language intellectual discourse took place in in Germany in the Golden Twenties, very much unlike MacIntyre growing up in the analytical tradition of "clear and concise" language. You just had to write and understand this style.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 12:29

Virmaior's answer is good and more defensible, but addressing LeBerg's comment that it seems like a superficial explanation, here is a potential deeper explanation. The following applies to some philosophers, especially those working on esoteric philosophy, and although it may not explain the intention of Adorno et al., it may set the stage for conventions they followed.

Language affects the way we think, and different languages can come with different worldviews. In esoteric wisdom traditions, alphabets are thought to convey layers of meaning. Hebrew is a good example of this even on the surface: each letter represents a sound, a number, and a symbol like a heiroglyphic. Arabic and Greek alphabets - which are both sometimes used in the way you describe - share common roots with Hebrew in the Phoenician alphabet. Esoteric philosophers take this importance of the alphabet further, as in the various forms of Kabbalah where the shape and arrangement of letters and the sounds they convey all contribute to subtle but important meaning in our communications.

With that background in mind, discussing a topic in English versus Hebrew will come with different contexts and worldviews, with different options on how to convey ideas. Further, discussing using the Hebrew alphabet versus transliterated Hebrew may come with yet another context and worldview with different options on how to convey ideas. This is recognized in religious institutions: special languages are still used to convey religious ideas and statements, and though transliteration can be used to make the language accessible to those untrained in it, the original alphabet is usually included side-by-side with transliteration and translation, or the original alphabet is used for words of particular importance.

That latter case is a pattern continued into some philosophic traditions, where native language is used for most descriptions but a revered special language (including its alphabet) is used for important concepts or words. It is as if the meaning of those spcial words can only be conveyed, or at least is best conveyed, with the language, alphabet, and worldview it was first recognized in.

  • 2
    Semitic languages written using abjads are a different issue, since transliteration necessarily adds precision and definiteness that the original language may not have intended. Wstrn lnggs wrttn wtht vls r nr ncmprhnsbl compared with Arabic or Hebrew, because the concept of the "root" (typically three consonants) of a family of words with (sometimes loosely) related meanings, plus a large number of lexical inflections, no longer exists in modern western languages but is fundamental to understanding written Hebrew and Arabic.
    – alephzero
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 18:55
  • 1
    @alephzero I understand that as one of the many layers of meaning people can grasp (hermeneutics) from those Semitic languages. While Greek may not have that same vowel-less ambiguity, it has closely shared ancestry with Semitic languages and comes with a perspective / worldview of its own that some authors may want to tap into for specific ideas / terms.
    – cr0
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 19:08
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    But the decision to write a Greek word using the Greek alphabet rather than the Latin alphabet was simply that that's what everyone did and expected. Similarly, I recently came across some diaries written by my mother in the 1930s in German; the German words are all written in Sütterlin script, while the Latin, French, and English words use roman script. For her, it was no different than writing foreign words in italic. Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 20:17
  • 1
    We know Adorno's interest in Schoenberg. Schoenberg-music. With Ernst Bloch's writing style, "Bloch-music". I don't know who coined this name for his writing style. For me, Bloch's "not yet" was significant. He most often went back to Faust, but we can also think of the Messiah to come. Anyway, Bloch cannot be read in a straightforward manner. Same with Adorno. There is always a going back to the text. Benjamin's piece on history is in this category. A message in a bottle for a repaired world to come. Bloch, "The Principle of Hope" 3 vol in English.
    – Gordon
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 20:48
  • 2
    Utopia and Reality in the Philosophy of Ernst Bloch Ze'ev Levy. I have not read this article. But Bloch was "mystical" from day one, so I don't assume he learned only from Scholem about Kabbalah. I don't know. jstor.org/stable/pdf/20718997.pdf?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
    – Gordon
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 21:49

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