IS CONTINENTAL PHILOSOPHY’S VOCABULARY ELITIST?

In a previous blog post I used the phrase “deconstructing the question already includes constructing the subjacent problematic of the view one is responding to”. Justin Weinberg proposes the formulation “analyzing a question includes identifying its assumptions”, as a less elitist equivalent. I think this proposed translation is moderately acceptable, but that something important is lost. The notion of “problematic” includes the idea that the implicit assumptions hold together in an underlying theoretical structure that generates the problems that can be posed in its terms, and that it is incommensurable with other such structures. “Problematic” also entails a historical approach, taking into account how these theoretical structures have evolved over time and could be made to evolve further.

Further, it may sound classy iand daunting in English, but “problematic” is not so elitist a word for the French. It is taught in high school as part of the way to plan an essay, not just in philosophy but in every other subject. Sometimes if you want to understand a different way of thinking about things you must get into the different vocabulary. “Elitist” often means “unfamiliar to me”. French philosophers don’t like having their ideas reformulated in different language if it means that important nuances are lost. One way they have of getting at these nuances is by using neologisms or just abstract words, often more or less deviated from their ordinary acception.

Lastly, French vocabulary seems more highbrow to us than to them as they have a Latin based language and English is Germanic and Latin based. So in English we will often have a choice between a highbrow Latin-derived word and a Germanic-based synonym that seems more normal. As there is no such option in French latinate words seem perfectly normal to them. For example, in the phrase you cite I use “subjacent”, but it might be less elitist to say “underlying”. In French there is just “sous-jacent”, so there is not this feeling of having preferred the highbrow word to the more concrete one.

I can see no conceptual loss involved in transposing “sous-jacent” into “underlying”, so this substitution OK by me. However, as I explained above, replacing “problematic” by “assumptions” does involve a loss or reduction of meaning, so I do not accept that part of your proposition. Sometimes clarity requires adopting new words, and lexical elitism would be to insist on translating everything into a basic vocabulary that seems best only because we are used to it, because we have not got out and around enough in our reading.

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