A wide-ranging 1996 interview in which Kai Kresse, editor of polylog, talks with Kwasi Wiredu, a Ghanaian philosopher, contains a section in which issues relevant to both the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and the possibility of translation are discussed in terms of Wiredu’s native language, Akan (map):
Kresse: Here, of course, the crucial point is language; so it is the language, the words, the concepts of philosophy which you describe as having to be cleansed of colonial burden. Using a phrase of Ngugi, one could say that colonising the mind is what has happened, and the objective must now be the project of decolonizing the mind at all different levels. Ngugi has worked on doing that in literature, and your programme is to work on decolonizing philosophical thought. In both cases we can speak of a decolonization, a liberation of the language in which Africans think or express themselves.
This now raises several difficult issues, above all maybe the relativity of languages, which gravely affect philosophical concepts. For example, you have sketched out that in your language Akan the famous phrase of Descartes, »I think, therefore I am« (cogito ergo sum), would be unintelligible. My question now is: is this an unsolvable problem – because the start of philosophy is inevitably within the language which one speaks, in which one perceives the world and with which one constructs meaning in the world? Taking you as an example, an Akan who has studied in English and has thus learned to philosophize in English: doesn’t there always remain a dilemma of the two options in which to philosophize? You could either philosophize in Akan or in English, but even upon the same issue that might be two different ways of philosophizing within yourself.
The question is, does not the language problem have to be linked to the project of an intercultural dialogue, which, if it wants to be fair and open to all (i.e. on a level of real equality), it has, above all, to grant equality on the level of language? Could you sketch out possibilities of how the language problem in the project of such an intercultural dialogue could be surmounted?
Wiredu: You have put the problem very nicely, and it is an extremely important one…. What I try to show is that, even though human beings are different, for example, they have different languages, and they have different ways of conceptualizing some very important matters, still they are all simply featherless bipeds, and as featherless bipeds they are also subject to certain fundamental rules of reaction with the environment. And it is because of this that they can exchange ideas over everything, in philosophy, in (practical) ethics or whatever.
As we start, we must be aware of the differences: we must investigate the differences. But when we have brought the differences to attention, we can then work on cross-cultural evaluation…. And, indeed, in the programme of decolonization, I envisage two stages: first, to elicit the differences, but second, to use what I call the independent considerations, i.e. considerations that are independent of the peculiarities of a particular language or culture, to make cross-cultural evaluations.
So if you take the Cartesian example, “I think, therefore I am” (which is a very good one for these purposes), the reason why he is able to say sum, “I am”, in the given context, is that in the language he is using there is something like the existential verb “to be” which can be used independently. In the Akan language there is no corresponding term representing this form of the word “to be”. Now, there is no special problem about this. Because I am an Akan who understands English, I can see the correspondences nevertheless. So that in itself is not a problem at all.
But I understand why an Akan, thinking and speaking in her own language, will not say something like that. He or she does not have the words for that in Akan. You see, “I think” in my language is medwen or mesusu asem, meaning, etymologically “I measure”, “I measure a matter”. Now, if I try to construct something like Descartes’ existential sum, it will be something like mewo, which is meaningless. (The apparent Akan equivalent would have to be something like mewo ho, which says “I am there”, whose locative significance would be suicidal from the point of view of both the epistemology and the metaphysics of the cogito.) Thus here we have a difference of structure, but the run of thought itself can be understood by the Akan who bothers to learn Latin, English, French, German or related languages. If he bothers to learn those languages, he can also see what is going on in Descartes’ sentence.
The way your language functions can predispose you to several ways of talking and, indeed, to several ways of reasoning. But we can, if we learn each other’s language, see what is happening, and we will be able to sweep a lot of those translational things aside and argue on the main points. Now, if I want to take on Descartes, it is not going to be enough for me just to say that the concept of sum is not in my language, therefore the statement is nonsense. No! I would have to go further, to develop my argument in English (or the relevant language). I maintain that I can develop a critique in English which is aided by the tendencies that I start with in my Akan language. But that is just the beginning, it can never be the ending: it is, in fact, only the beginning of a never-ending procedure.
The next section, Going intercultural, going multilingual?, is also interesting:
Time is short in the world, so some people, some philosophers will probably remain in the same language. Those who are specially interested in intercultural philosophy, however, would probably want to be able to use other languages in philosophical thought, in particular, languages which are very different from their own. And then they could see what can be done in and through cross-cultural evaluations.
(Via wood s lot.)