Three cheers for Jonathan Bennett

I rather doubt that it is worth teaching history of philosophy to undergraduates very early in their careers (ok, they might profitably read small gobbets, ripped from their contexts, but that’s not the same, is it?). To my mind, the proper way of initially honouring the Great Dead Philosophers is to take some of their problems seriously — but it seems to me pretty unlikely that the best way to take their problems seriously (in the company of near beginners) is to start where they did.

But be that as it may: if you are going to teach sizeable chunks of e.g. Locke, Berkeley and Hume to beginning undergraduates, the least you can do is make them accessible by translating them into modern English first. After all, we are supposed to be teaching philosophy, not teaching how to read 17th/18th century texts in order to excavate the arguments. So three cheers to Jonathan Bennett for taking on that task and doing it all so splendidly (and it is difficult to think of anyone you’d trust to do a better job).

I can imagine that lots of his colleagues in the history-of-philosophy trade will be dismissive of the enterprise or think it a waste of Bennett’s great talents. But not me — his early modern texts site is terrific. Check it out if you haven’t done already! You might even find yourself, like me, reading chunks of the Great Dead Philosophers with some unaccustomed enjoyment.

3 thoughts on “Three cheers for Jonathan Bennett”

  1. I thought about this for some days. But I don’t get it. I can see that philosophers like Scotus or Heidegger are difficult because of their extensive use of self-invented technical terms. E.g. you can actually translate Scotus from Latin to English and it is no more comprehensible than it was before. Similarly with Heidegger I imagine. But this is hardly true of Locke, say (or Hume or Berkeley). So I don’t really see the need for ‘translation’ of this kind.

    Also, real translators are always tempted to translate some term of a pre-modern writer with a modern term. E.g. in medieval terminology there is ‘supposition’ which one is tempted to translate as ‘denotation’ or ‘reference’ to make it more intelligible to a modern audience. This is anachronistic, and distorts what the old philosophers had to say.

    This distortion was taken to an extreme, in my view, in the work of DP Henry, in attempting to ‘translate’ scholastic writing on logic into predicate calculus. Bennett’s work is not so extreme, but it is a flavour of that.

    Really don’t understand what is wrong with undergraduates reading early modern texts in the original. Haven’t taught students for some time, I admit.

  2. I put the two versions into parallel text here.

    Most of the time he is putting slightly antiquated English terms into not antiquated, e.g many ages since -> many ages ago.

    He has also corrected Locke in at least one place! Locke says

    For a mental proposition being nothing but a bare consideration of the ideas, as they are in our minds, stripped of names, THEY lose the nature of purely mental propositions as soon as they are put into words.

    A mental proposition is nothing but a bare consideration of the ideas as they are in our minds, stripped of names; so IT loses the nature of a purely mental proposition as soon as it is put into words.

    Interesting nonetheless. I suppose if you want to strip out the activity of teaching early modern thought, from that of learning different forms of English, which is an education in itself, it is a Good Thing. But can’t help feeling something is lost on the way. E.g. the correction above is of what is typical of much of Locke, and is part of the charm. Which is now lost.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top