As earlier reported, Ireland launched philosophy ABC classes for high school students. The Irish Times quotes President Michael D. Higgins as saying last year, at a function at Aras an Uachtarain to mark World Philosophy Day, that teaching philosophy in schools, and promoting it in society, is urgently needed to enable citizens “to discriminate between truthful language and illusory rhetoric… The dissemination, at all levels of society, of the tools, language, and methods of philosophical enquiry can, I believe, provide a meaningful component in any concerted attempt at offering a long-term and holistic response to our current predicament … I believe that the virtues of reflection, of critical reasoning and of ethical enquiry are ones that have gained renewed urgency in the present moment, as humanity is faced with unprecedented challenges of a global kind – from climate change to mass migration…” The First Lady, Sabina Higgins, studied philosophy at the National University of Ireland (Galway) and is a patron of Philosophy Ireland, an organization tasked with disseminating philosophy in society.
In Ukraine, philosophy has been taught on a university mandatory curriculum basis. More often than not, the students have not been enthusiastic, except for separate cases when the lecturers proved talented enough to spark up their interest in the subject. Den has been consistently promulgating the idea and for quite some time the Editors have kept the special rubric, Lavka filosofa (Philosopher’s Shop), a small haven for the intellectual readers.
The Editors would like to keep this tradition and the following is interview with Dr. Oleh KHOMA, Ph.D., head of the Chair of Philosophy and Humanities, Vinnytsia National Technical University, lecturer, Taras Shevchenko National University (Kyiv).
Photo by Artem SLIPACHUK, The Day
Dr. Khoma, you said before our interview that creating a “cultural environment” should be one of Ukraine’s priorities today, that we’re passing up a unique chance, that we won’t stand another one. What did you have in mind?
“An individual with a limited experience, even if lifelong, tends to lose the ability to put two and two together, I mean an ability to see what’s happening on a broad range, in perspective. I have long been doing translations dealing with philosophy. The importance of this job became obvious to me practically from day one. It stood to logic to assume that the Ukrainization of philosophy and the entire education system was important, that it would be systemic, occurring on all levels. What happened showed that we were out of sync, that those who should couldn’t cope with their tasks. They simply couldn’t figure out what was happening. It didn’t take too long to change the National Flag and the National Anthem, but those were attributes. There was an inner dimension to the state-building process, meant to secure [domestic] stability. I mean the issues that had to be resolved in order to implement a new project. Now we’re disastrously lacking such issues.
“What has happened over the past 25 years is illustrative material. We, the academic community, keep teaching our students, issuing diplomas, going through the motions of performing the academic process. However, what we’re doing is supplying our students with textbooks and manuals that are funded by the central budget. Often, the authors copy each other. The students aren’t interested, something well to be expected; they know they don’t have to respect the authors, and they simply don’t care.
“Translations from philosophers’ works are like a litmus test for authenticity. The author can be seldom caught with his pants down. He can always claim that he really believes that what he’s written is true. We have enough tests to expose philosophy scribblers, but they are thriving in the public domain, where any exposure can be regarded as an act of violence against a creative personality. Now translations are more material and relevant, with assessment criterions, including a variety of small facts that have to be considered by the translator. If you can’t write a commentary on a given classic text or translate a word in a certain context, you’ll end up branded as a nincompoop. Philosophy spells encyclopedic knowledge, in terms of humanities and exact sciences, so a translation reveals the translator’s knowledge or lack of it.
“During Soviet times, Ukrainian was used to translate fiction literature, but never philosophers’ works. At one time a colleague of mine, graduate of a Moscow university, told me something amazing. She said students could read copies of Nietzsche’s books at the university’s library back in the 1970s-1980s. In Kyiv, only 3rd-year-students could apply for access to the special library archives, following interviews with plain-clothes KGB officers telling each applicant that this access implied a great deal of responsibility as a true son/daughter of the Soviet Ukrainian Fatherland. Perhaps the only adequate translations of Karl Marx and Frederic Engels were made after [what went down into Ukrainian history as the] Executed Renaissance. According to Academician Myroslav Popovych, the editors were ordered to count the number of words in the Ukrainian version. They were told the numbers had to match those in the Russian version. No problem, considering that the translations were from the Russian, not from the original.”
ARISTOTLE’S “METAPHYSICS” HAS TO BE ADEQUATELY TRANSLATED TO MAKE THE LANGUAGE SOUND CULTURAL
“After Ukraine proclaimed national independence, foreign embassies and foundations, among them the International Renaissance Foundation, started funding such translations. What looked like a philosophy translation boom of the 1900s and early 2000s turned out to be a professional quality test. The results varied after each such test, considering the circumstances. Closer to the year 2010, the fund influx shallowed and there was no help from those ‘upstairs.’ As it is, we seem to have in our possession institutions funded by the central budget, tasked with keeping our national education system on a proper level, but all we actually have is bureaucratese rhetoric. All the cabinet members in charge, whether Moscow- or Ukraine-minded, have been no good. The Ukrainian Book Institute was established in 2015-16. That was a positive phenomenon, but its Charter reads that red tape will be heavily involved; it doesn’t provide for boards of experts that should constitute its backbone. We have a joke that the charter has everything one can read on the website of the Polish Book Institute (2004) [www.bookinstitute.pl]. None has bothered to look up the National Book Center of France, established back in 1946. What can one expect from a small entity whose CEO and the small supervisory board are supposed to encompass all aspects of the publishing business? A case study in our state-building effort.
“On the other hand, progress has been made. I mean the Lviv Publishers Forum and Book Arsenal. Both projects have been on an upward curve. A professional philosopher award competition took place in 2016, along with a sophisticated philosophy translations competition, held for the first time in Ukraine. All that was public initiative, proof of the structuring of our society. A public effort, however dedicated, will never match a government publishing program in the philosophy domain. As it is, we remain culturally and intellectually vulnerable without Ukrainian versions of works by Hegel, Aristotle, and a dozen other classics. Aristotle’s ‘Metaphysics’ has to be adequately translated to make the language sound cultural. Some can read it in English, Russian, even in Greek, but the point is that we must have our adequate Ukrainian version.
“Of course, there is a limit to individual heroism. Vitalii Terletsky translated Immanuel Kant’s ‘Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Present Itself as a Science’ and wrote a lengthy foreword, offering a carefully balanced system of terminology. His was a masterpiece, considering the grant with which he had do carry out the project (a grant usually lasts for a year and you have to come up with something special or screw up; the customer doesn’t care, so long as you deliver). The thing is to make an effort that wouldn’t be sporadic, to try to come up with a system. We have a giant infrastructure, including the education ministry, all our universities. What is it good for if unable to secure adequate functioning?
“How well are the Ukrainian researchers acquainted with Western literature? What reference sources can our university lecturers offer their students? I guess these are the most important issues and we have to make every effort to resolve them. We must develop standards, open schools, but few ‘upstairs’ seem to be interested.
“What we are witness to is another manifestation of our postcolonial mentality, immaturity. Our sad version of ‘Home Alone’ that has been there for the past 25 years. The impression is that we are unable to assume responsibility for our life; that someone else should care for us, give us food and money. We are in a simulation mode and this may well have bad consequences. Ours is a soap opera culture and few seem to realize that we’re living in a world packed with challenging realities.
“How come foreign embassies decided to fund our translations with our government looking the other way, thinking they were smart enough to have someone else do their duty?”
One is reminded of the volunteer movement…
“Absolutely! Let them take care of the army while we’re sitting in our comfortable office armchairs. Who needs strategic planning? Ours is an ad hoc mentality aggravated by a postcolonial irresponsibility syndrome. And this considering the events over the past several years! Honestly, I can’t see any reforms in the education sphere under such conditions. What we lack is a target-oriented development project. Each society is aimed at reaching a certain target, planning measures to be taken by the citizenry to reach that target. No society can survive in this world without building firm foundations first.”
PROGRESS CAN BE MADE BY TAKING SMALL STEPS
The issue of elite is obviously on top of the agenda for any postcolonial country. How do you think this issue could be resolved in Ukraine?
“A very good question. We were witness to an attempt to have foreigners holding important government posts, in lieu of the national elite that we badly need. That attempt failed, our system refused to accept them, the way the human organism rejects implants sometimes – not because the organism is bad or the implants are, but owing to biology.”
You mean we have to raise our own elite?
“We certainly do. Patriotism is a major factor. Some people are prepared to work simply to do something for the good of their country, without thinking about payroll. No foreigner would act like that, if only a saint or with Ukrainian blood running in his/her veins.
“There is no way to replace the existing elite overnight, but we could look for and find fresh blood, given more ‘social lifts.’ No effort has been made to that effect. I think our elite will grow up and mature during the process. I don’t expect any big changes for the better in the nearest future. Rather, changes for the worse, considering that those ‘upstairs’ are good enough to bring them about. Also, I dream of waking up in the morning to see an upgraded society. Otherwise we won’t survive the shock we’re under. Progress can be made by taking small steps. Most importantly, by keeping up a good job. According to mathematics, progress spells success at a certain stage, in terms of scope. However, it also takes a dedicated effort, awareness of the goal to be reached, and enthusiasm. It is necessary to generate growth points. These days, they are generated by separate enthusiasts, but there is no systemic effort.
“Education is a very sensitive realm. When left to fend for itself, it begins to stagnate, focusing not on a strict social criteria, but on its own, which proves degraded. The lack of tasks set in the education sphere is explained by the lack of tasks facing the regime. Here the key role is played by the political elite, of course. A responsible elite exists where there are negative external circumstances, when it is necessary to make adequate decisions.”
Don’t you think that we are facing these circumstances?
“Yes, I do, but the situation requires a realistic approach and a degree of cautious optimism. There will always be shortcomings, but it is necessary to see and encourage positive trends, however tentative.”
Mr. Andrii Baumeister said in a recent interview that such trends exist in Ukrainian philosophy, that there is a renaissance in it. His assumption met with a number of skeptical responses.
“This is graphic proof of what’s happening in Ukraine. One can find similar responses in other spheres. The question is: What do these skeptics have in mind? I think I understand what Mr. Baumeister is driving at, but others believe that progress boils down to becoming a world champion overnight. We see no such radical changes. Nietzsche wrote: ‘The greatest events – they are not noisiest but our stillest hours. The world revolves, not around the inventors of new noises, but around the inventors of new values; it revolves inaudibly.’ History offers several examples of such ‘stillest hours.’ German philosophy of the 17th century is one of them. Few if any outside Germany were familiar with the works of those philosophers at the time, and their research deserves every praise. The situation changed after Gottfried Leibniz started writing his works in French and traveling abroad. He was recognized in certain academic quarters, but the real breakthrough for German philosophy came in the second half of the 18th century, and it was the result of an effort made by several generations of dedicated scholars. Did Leibniz notice any changes in his society when traveling abroad in order to build a reputation? His works were published by the journal Acta Eruditorum, a smalltime periodical. He made his name by corresponding with Nicolas Malebranche and meeting with several other leading European intellectuals.
“I would be happy if we had such positive trends in Ukraine, however tentative, if we had three to four instead of one or two periodicals specializing in philosophy, even though three to four such journals would be a drop in the bucket for Ukraine. Still, this would mark a positive trend that would eventually bear fruit.
“South Korea is another example in sociopolitical history. Back in 1969, the World Bank predicted that the country would remain mostly agrarian, heavily depending on international financial aid, but already in 1970 (if my memory serves me right) South Korea showed some 10 percent GDP growth and kept on an upward curve during the next decade.
“Discussing only the bad aspects is counterproductive. Unfortunately, this trend appears to be predominant in Ukraine. The impression is that all those gloomy scenarios are engineered by people outside Ukraine, or by graduates of a finishing school who had lived Buddha-like lives before they faced our current realities. We have lived in our society since the date of birth. Anyone can lecture on how things should be done properly, but the question is: What can you actually do to improve the situation? Here our possibilities are limited, so any degree of progress, however small, would be a godsend.
“As regards our philosophy, there is a degree of progress, and I agree with Mr. Baumeister. Over the past several years, our quality philosophical periodicals (two or three, I guess) have established good review procedures. Another evidence of progress is the number of doctorates submitted and defended over the past five years, including those by Andrii Baumeister, Vakhtang Kebuladze, Andrii Bohachov, and Serhii Sekundant. There is also the increasing quality of local publications (few as they are), including those by university students. There are innovative projects at the Taras Shevchenko University (Kyiv), aimed at upgrading the philosophy curriculum, with students working using original reference sources in the West. All this is what I call important positive factors, even though discussing radical changes in the situation would be premature. The education system in Poland, for example, is far better than that in Ukraine. Our numerous philosophy faculties remain on paper.”
MORE EVENTS IN PHILOSOPHY NEEDED
The sixth volume of the Vocabulaire Europeen des Philosophies, Dictionnaire des Intraduisibles (Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon) is already out in print. You are one of the coordinators of this project that definitely marks a significant phase in our scholarly history. Has this project met with adequate responses from our academia?
“I must say that the dictionary’s honeymoon is over. I remember the atmosphere, back in 2009. Euphoria! The first volume came off the presses and was praised on every level. It made headlines in Kyiv. The Dukh i Litera [Spirit and Letter] Publishers had a limited budget, but there were a number of enthusiastic writers and translators who later talked other experts into joining the project. Their combined effort resulted in the implementation of a project unprecedented in Ukraine’s scholarly history. In fact, that publishing company did something only the abovementioned Book Institute could have accomplished. Technically speaking, the project was a very difficult one. Translations from the French, in the first place. The original had entries borrowed from various languages, at least three per entry, with quotes from previous French versions. We had no Ukrainian reference sources, so we had to make translations from French, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, you name it. All such translations had to be edited with an eye to Ukrainian realities, and we had to add our commentaries envisaged by the international project.
“I have said that most Ukrainian translations in the philosophy realm are from the Russian, using their terminology. Any philosopher here faced the language barrier. A [Russian-Ukrainian] dictionary was the only remedy. Naturally, referring to the original sources required the translator’s qualification. You would be surprised, but we found such translators in Ukraine.
“The fist volume was an attempt to work out a systemic approach. The second one was when we could relax somewhat and reap the proverbial fruit. I believe that the first professional award, conferred on the Ukrainian version of the Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon in 2011, as the best publication project, was well deserved, followed by the Ukraine-France Hryhorii Skovoroda Prize. Doesn’t this sound as proof of progress in Ukrainian philosophy?
“Yes, there is progress, but the big problem is that it is slow. Filling in this gap would take at least 10-15 quality translations a year. I can’t see this problem unsolved in a country with a couple dozen university philosophy faculties. Each could contribute one translation and that would suffice. What we have instead is like that joke when one is asked whether he can play piano and he answers that he doesn’t know, because he has never tried. Most our philosophy faculties are artificial, like many other things in Ukraine – perhaps because such is our national destiny, because we remain unable to realize what has to be done in the first place. We are tasked with missions we can’t carry out; they want results from us we can’t produce. This means that we have to do something to get prepared for such missions and deliver.
“Nowadays, the [Ukrainian version of the] Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon is a must for each intellectual in this country. Our philosophical community accepts this dictionary as a matter of course. I regard this as a good sign. If we take something really good for granted, then we must have altered our standard assessment code. I can’t say that the dictionary has become a page-turner, but I feel sure that it has become a reliable reference source within the academic community.
“The philosophical community in Ukraine is diversified, including in terms of professionalism. I often find myself displeased with the professional criterions offered by my colleagues. I find them lacking, but I realize that it takes time. It is important to keep up the dictionary project trend, lest it suffer the destiny of Saturn V, a huge and heavily financed US project meant to deliver man to the Moon, that has remained shelved after the end of the project. Our project doesn’t seem to be headed that way, but we must not twiddle our thumbs. We need more events in the philosophical realm. This brings to mind last year’s philosophy award conferred on Viktor Kozlovsky’s excellent book dedicated to Immanuel Kant. It was a project that had taken a dedicated effort lasting a number of years, and it was a significant event in our academic community. Also, Serhii Sekundant’s book about Gottfried Leibniz. I don’t know of any such fundamental publications in any post-Soviet countries. His was a monograph rating the highest Western standard, with a number of innovative ideas. They wrote their books all their lives . This is proof that we had no gaps, that we had scholars who were filling them. When you spend a decade working on a big project, seeing no result, you may assume that nothing is happening. Untrue.”