This essay argues that, since Kant wrote in German and since German has no word for “right” corresponding in meaning to the English word, it is a case of conceptual anglocentrism to say, as many anglophone philosophers do, that Kant reformulated the foundations of ethics by formulating them in terms of the “right” rather than the “good.” Further, the essay shows how the German word Pflicht, central to Kant's ethics, does not correspond in meaning to the English word duty, whose cultural roots lie in English Puritanism. More generally, the argument is that, ultimately, “common knowledge” is possible only to the extent to which it can be stated in words corresponding to universal human concepts — a set of which has been identified through empirical cross-linguistic investigations — rather than in words whose meanings have been shaped by a particular history and culture. Finally, the essay shows how “NSM” methodology, developed within linguistic semantics, allows us to cast new light on aspects of German culture reflected in keywords such as Ordnung, Gehorsam, Befehl, and Pflicht — terms that appear to be anchored in the legacy of Luther and Kant.
Anna Wierzbicka; CAN THERE BE COMMON KNOWLEDGE WITHOUT A COMMON LANGUAGE?: German Pflicht versus English Duty. Common Knowledge 1 January 2015; 21 (1): 141–171. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0961754X-2818482
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