Monday, November 30, 2009

Who on Earth Are All These Romanians?

One particularly unusual discovery I made on the internet this weekend was the wikipedia page for Romanian Philosophy. I stumbled on this during a typical bout of procrastination while I was editing one of my essays. Sometimes, I look up random countries on wikipedia and see what our semi-democratic encyclopedia has to say about them. I noticed that the page on Romania had a link to a separate item on Romanian philosophy. I decided to check it out, expecting a brief summary of university growth in the country, perhaps a paragraph on restrictions under the Ceausescu regime, and a list of a few people writing today.

When I got there, I discovered a page that described, in chronological order, every figure who made some original contribution to philosophy in Romania from the 17th century to the present. Each figure got at least one paragraph describing their basic concepts, publications, and place in the philosophical societies and divisions of Romania. The entire article was easily 10,000 words long. The grammar was sometimes mildly sketchy, as if every now and then an English sentence would be written with a Romanian word order at the beginning. But these were rare enough that I could tell this incredibly comprehensive page was written by a fluent English speaker. English was certainly a second language, but the writer was fluent.

The page was first created in summer 2007, by an editor named Bogdan Rusu. And I must say that I am impressed. Not only is this page clearly the summation of a great deal of research, but it strikes me as having a sense of futility about it. I was fascinated to read through such a detailed summary of the development of the philosophical institution about which I previously knew nothing. But as I read through the article, what struck me was how none of this sometimes very creative philosophical activity ever made it outside Romania to any degree.

There’s an engagement with Hegel and Kant that has travelled in entirely different directions than in the regions more mainstream to a philosopher in Canada, the English, French, and German languages. This has lasted just as long in Romania as in Germany, because many of Hegel’s students were Romanians who returned to work in philosophy departments of their home country. From what I can gather, Heidegger was appropriated into the Romanian scene in the way I’m used to seeing, but there are a couple of idiosyncratic engagements with his ideas. Analytic philosophy never made much headway, aside from a few smaller groups of logicians and knowledge theorists. I think this might be because it took a long time for Russell and Wittgenstein’s works to be translated into Romanian. And the continental traditions, with its roots in Hegel, would have found a fertile conceptual ground in Romania, which already had quite an affinity with Hegel anyway.

What I think about most, though, is the degree to which a thriving philosophical scene can be isolated by political and linguistic factors. Romania spent much of the twentieth century isolated from the philosophical revolutions happening in Germany, France, Britain, and America. So their philosophers weren’t able to enter a dialogue with the vanguard in those countries. The English language attacks on Hegel made no impact there. And now we’re left with a country that has had a fascinating philosophical development, but that has made no contribution to what we in North America think of as ‘mainstream’ philosophy. Accidents of development and politics have made an intriguing tradition practically irrelevant.

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