‘From linguistic conflict to multilingual identity’, by Mireille Hildebrandt

by admin on June 9, 2015

With interest and consent I read Thomas Mertens Opinion on this blog: ‘A small linguistic conflict in legal philosophy’. I find his argumentation very convincing, though my conclusions differ substantially. Precisely for our association and journal I believe this to be a critical subject.

At the end of the 70s I travelled to my prospective parents in law in Bombay. While enjoying their hospitality I was struck by the ease with which my sister in law (then 14) spoke fluently in four languages (Konkani, Marathi, Hindi, English), while also studying French in school (not so fluent, but comparable to our own highschool French or German). She was by no means an exception. In the 80s, when I stayed for several months with my parents in law in Goa, I took lessons in Konkani (the official language). I could choose from different scripts. In Goa Konkani is written in Devanagari and Roman script, in other parts of India also in Kannada and Malayalam, while Muslims often use the Arabic script. One can read local Konkani newspapers in more than one script. Note that the script differs, while the language is the same. Both experiences (the self-evident skill of multilingual expression and the multiplicity of scripts) made me realize the importance of the ability to test one’s linguistic assumptions from the perspective of another language or script. This goes for dead languages, but equally – though in a different way – for direct interaction with those fluent in another language.

On the basis of my first academic passion, the study of cultural anthropology, I was familiar with the fact that language and culture are interdependent. Philosophically speaking it is a truism to suggest that we perceive and construct the world through the lens of a particular language system (taking note that the system dynamically depends on the use of language). Another language implies that the relationship between words differs, and with that also the reference to the reality that is thus signified. Also, the grammatical configuration of the other language will differ, which has major implications for the way we navigate reality. The same goes for artificial languages, such as that of the law. For a Dutch lawyer, to understand the meaning of the common law concept of ‘trust’, it does not suffice to refer to a Dutch legal concept; the grammar of common law traditions must be investigated. Similarly, the existence of alternative scripts matters for the configuration of the life world; pictographic, ideographic, and phonetic scripts create distinct relations with the world they refer to (which can be described as more or less iconic, indexical and/or symbolic based on Peircean semiotics). These distinct relations between the system of the script and the web of meaning it generates obviously engage different ways of thinking, presenting and representing what counts as reality. Compare, for instance, the different manners of writing numbers and their implications for the capacity to calculate complex relations; notably the ‘invention’ of the number ‘zero’ had huge consequences for the possibility to conduct complex numerical analyses (on which currently much of our infrastructure depends).

In his column Thomas Mertens sounds the alarm bell about the trend – now also prevalent in the humanities – to publish mainly or solely in English. This trend would explain why the venerable Tijdschrift voor Rechtsfilosofie en Rechtstheorie decided to make the switch to an English language journal under the heading of Netherlands Journal of Legal Philosophy (NJLP). In his opinion this will eventually diminish the quality of the Dutch debate and disrupt the relationship with Dutch legal practice (which is predominantly articulated in Dutch).

Mertens rightly believes ‘that language is not an arbitrary instrument to express scientific insights (translation mh)’. In my opinion, the tendency to address an English language audience has, therefore, major consequences for: (1) the choice of the subject (an author wishing to address the German theory of ‘the protected legal good’ cannot assume that a reader has access to a translation of Binding’s work), (2) the methodology (the analytical approach seems dominant), and for (3) assumptions about the shared background knowledge of the reader (the author needs to take into account, for instance, the specific interpretations of Kantian legal philosophy that prevail in the Anglo-American debate that is often oriented to his moral philosophy and far less to his writings on the role of positive law, which did inspire neo-Kantian philosophers such as Radbruch or Kelsen). Because English native speakers are less inclined to learn other languages (to put it mildly), they will most often not be familiar with the primary text of legal philosophers such as Radbruch, Binding, Duguit or Hariou, but ‘think from’ the translation (if they are at all interested in consulting such ‘exotic’ authors). Some things get lost in translation. Though this need not have dramatic implications, I dare say that for legal philosophy ‘globalisation’ may lead to agenda-setting based on whatever issues dominate English language debates. From that perspective I agree that a full fledged transition to an English language journal could lead to an impoverished debate on what matters in Dutch legal discourse. A monoculture, reinforced by a unilateral diet of matters that may be problematic in a common law legal culture but not necessarily for us. Even if the journal remains open to Dutch publications while perceiving them as folklore, this would lead to an imbalance between the gain of having access to the international debate and the loss of local cultivation. The latter requires active intervention; Dutch contributions should be cherished, though not as tender saplings but as part of the foundation of our journal.

In short, the change of course of the journal can easily lead to a docile adaptation to the mono-cultural hegemony of the debates that dominate in the English language discourse in the sciences and the humanities. This raises two questions: (1) why than opt for an English title? And, (2) how to prevent impoverishment of the debate with Dutch legal practice?

From an anthropological and philosophical perspective it has long been clear that multi-linguistic proficiency has many advantages. Recently, neuroscience has added evidence on how this comes about. We are not speaking of bookish knowledge of another language, but of the ability to switch between the thinking and action patterns of more than one language system. This is not about the – certainly very important – study of dead languages and close reading, but precisely about the ability to anticipate living users of another language with another worldview. Multilingual fluency requires to develop and coordinate as well as to continuously switch between multiple identities. It leads to a plurivocal identity grounded in distinct linguistic systems that are directly linked to mutual expectations of different interpretive communities (Stanley Fish). Think of the Necker cube; you can see depth in different ways, but never both ways at the same time. On top of that it is difficult not gain control over the switch in perspective, it is largely an unconscious process. Multilinguists are used to cultivate a plurality of worldviews, expectation patterns and a richly differentiated action potential, while they are more or less aware of the fact that these systems cannot be reduced to each other without loss of meaning. This awareness is pertinent from a philosophical perspective and especially from the viewpoint of legal philosophy. Philosophers (and not only philosophers) may have a tendency to reduce our normative reality to one coherent system. Great minds have dedicated a life to building their all-encompassing system. Such a tendency goes with the need to translate other normative systems into one’s own, while neglecting the inverse translation that invites us to investigate our own system from the perspective of another. From the point of view of constitutional democracy monolinguistic discourse is problematic to the extent that it fails to take such an inverse position, since this can lead to a denial, disruption and even destruction of the plurivocality that is crucial for democratic participation. In that sense multilingual discourse has ethical and political philosophical meaning. Therefore I prefer a multilingual journal, and this choice should be visible in a title that enables to take the stage in international debate while still clarifying the Netherlands identity of the journal. How to prevent that pressure to publish in English impoverishes the local, Dutch debate? The answer is simple. Debates on issues that are specifically relevant to Dutch readers can be conducted in Dutch. At the same time an attempt to frame these debates in a broader international context will open them up to an English audience, thus providing added value. This also forces the author to take a view from elsewhere, testifying to Ricoeur’s magnificent Soi-même comme un autre (yes, French contributions are also admissible in the NJLP), thus both enhancing and relativizing our comprehension and appreciation for the own Netherlands language and culture. More important, I believe that the Dutch roots of NJLP offer inspiration to rearticulate specific elements of the continental European philosophy of law in discussions that could not originate in the inner circle of English language debate. We can thus kill two birds with one stone. We learn to relativize and reassess our own position; others gain new insights. This is the added value of a multilingual international, but nevertheless Dutch NJLP.



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