A philosophical lexicon: the translation of the Vocabulaire européen des philosophies (2004) is an invaluable resource for researchers in philosophy and the humanities more generally. Gathering the work of over 150 philosophers, this encyclopaedic project focuses on a series of philosophical terms that prove difficult to translate, disclosing their historical and linguistic intricacies. This review aims to provide a succinct analysis of its structure and rationale. It is suggested that a gap exists between the framing of the Dictionary in relation to a critical European cultural politics and the kind of philosophy it performs – a highly erudite contribution to both the history of philosophy and to philology. It is further argued that this does not get simpler with the edition of this book into English and the potential ‘globalisation’ of its scope. The entries displayed in three words ‘right, just and good’, show the difficulty of applying one and same justice in all European countries.
Please, scroll down to find the links to the review.
“RIGHT/JUST/GOOD: French clearly distinguishes between le bon and le juste, with the former emphasizing individual or collective interest and the latter universal moral law, English is less clear on the distinction between “right” and “just,” since “rightness” can mean both rectitudo and justitia. […] One of the most important debates in English-language moral and political philosophy concerns the relations between right and good (in French, between le juste and le bien), whence the exemplary difficulties raised by this quotation from Michael Sandel: “The priority of the right means, first, that individual rights cannot be sacrificed for the sake of the general good (in this it opposes utilitarianism), and, second, that the principles of justice that specify these rights cannot be premised on any particular vision of the good life. (Liberalism and the Limits of Justice)”.” The entries of the dictionnary displayed in three words ‘right, just and good’, show the difficulty of applying one and same justice in all European countries when people listen and speak with the same words about different concepts.
RIGHT / JUST / GOOD FRENCH bien, juste, bon GERMAN gut, wohl, recht ➤ DROIT, GOOD/EVIL [GUT], and FAIR, JUSTICE, LAW, PRUDENTIAL, TRUTH, UTILITY The French translator of English terms for “good” is always in danger of being confronted by cases in which the contrast between “right” and “good” seems to be one between bien and bien. French does not make a sharp distinction between le bien and le bon, the imperative and the attractive, whereas English has two distinct series that correspond quite clearly to two aspects of the good. Moreover, where French clearly distinguishes between le bon and le juste, with the former emphasizing individual or collective interest and the latter universal moral law, English is less clear on the distinction between “right” and “just,” since “rightness” can mean both rectitudo and justitia.
The Three Meanings of “Just” First of all, “just” has a cognitive meaning, that of French juste, in the sense of “correct,” “exact,” or “true.” Nonetheless, the English noun corresponding to French justesse is not “justice” but “rightness,” whence the intervention of the Anglo-Saxon lexicon (recht / right, straight), which complicates matters. “Right” and “just” are, then, more or less interchangeable with each other and, except for a few nuances, with “good,” which also has a cognitive sense (as in French, where a bonne réponse is correcte or juste). In this sense, the antonym of all three words—“good,” “right,” and “just”—is “wrong,” in the sense of “erroneous.” The second sense of “just” is the moral sense, and here again, the distinction from “right” and “good” is imperceptible. The virtue of justice, Latin rectitudo, corresponds well to English “rightness,” meaning “moral rectitude.” “Right” is used chiefly to qualify “good” actions, while “good,” like “just,” is used more to describe the character of the virtuous agent. But this resemblance is misleading. “Right” has a much broader semantic field and comes to designate not only the conduct of the virtuous man, but also what is good, the moral criterion in general in contrast to the morally wrong. As for “good,” it also has a nonmoral sense, the “good” in the sense of what satisfies appetites and natural desires, of happiness and well-being; and the passage from natural properties to moral properties has been, as we know, one of the thorniest debates in moral philosophy ever since Hume. It is at this point that the most serious translation problems arise, because there is no French equivalent for “right” (and especially no noun corresponding to “rightness”) with this prescriptive sense. However, the meaning of this distinction as expressed by Henry Sidgwick, who was a disciple of both Kant and Mill, is entirely clear: We have regarded this term [“rightness”], and its equivalents in ordinary use, as implying the existence of a dictate or imperative of reason which prescribes certain actions either unconditionally, or with reference to some ulterior end. . . . It is, however, possible to take a view of virtuous action in which . . . the moral ideal [is] presented as attractive rather than imperative . . . substituting the idea of “goodness” for that of “rightness” of conduct. (Methods of Ethics, bk. 1, chap. 9, §1) Finally, the semantic fields of “right” and “just” differ completely from one another because a third sense of “just” is “fair,” “equitable,” a meaning absent in the case of “right.” On the other hand, “right” has the meaning of “a just claim or title” (Fr., droit), as in the expression “rights and duties.” One of the most important debates in English-language moral and political philosophy concerns the relations between right and good (in French, between le juste and le bien), whence the exemplary difficulties raised by this quotation from Michael Sandel: The priority of the right means, first, that individual rights cannot be sacrificed for the sake of the general good (in this it opposes utilitarianism), and, second, that the principles of justice that specify these rights cannot be premised on any particular vision of the good life. (Liberalism and the Limits of Justice) This can be rendered in French as: “La priorité du juste veut dire, tout d’abord, que les droits individuels ne peuvent être sacrifiés au bien général (en ce sens elle s’oppose à l’utilitarisme) et, ensuite, que les principes de justice qui spécifient ces droits ne peuvent être déduits d’aucune vision particulière de la vie bonne.”
“The Priority of the Right over the Good” The most troublesome case is that of the expression “the priority of the right over the good,” which is untranslatable into French, and not solely because French lacks an equivalent for “right,” but also because of English’s lack of rigor. This expression has acquired two meanings that are related to each other but are still distinct and that have never been clearly explained because of the shifts we have already noted between “right” and “just.” The first meaning concerns Rawls’s liberal critique of the Utilitarians and their refusal to derive the right from the good. It contrasts “teleological and deontological doctrines” (see Box 1). The other meaning concerns the critique of liberalism made by the “communitarians,” the question of the independence of the norms of justice from common values and the “common good,” to adopt Habermas’s vocabulary. The expression “the priority of the right over the good” thus comes to mean the priority of justice over the good, as in the remarks by Michael Sandel quoted above. A first meaning is, as we have indicated, that of the priority of duty, of what must be done, over the good or happiness. Above all, it marks the priority of the question of freedom and moral autonomy over submission to the realization of a summum bonum given in advance by human nature. In this sense, the priority of le bien over the le bon is the fundamental thesis of an individualistic morality for which the capacity for individual justification through a social contract is the sole criterion of the validity of norms. This is a position parallel to the definition of the true by consensus and no longer by correspondence to a state of affairs external to judgment. But in what does this priority consist? Is it a logical priority—do we need the concept of “right” to constitute that of the “good”? That would presuppose that if this priority is not respected, there exist behaviors, organizations, etc. that are “good” without being morally right—which is absurd, whereas what is meant is that the imperative sense of the right has priority over the attractive sense of the good.
The Relations between “Right” and “Just” The other source of confusion comes from the fact that English seems to slide, without much rigor, from “right” toward “just,” from rectitudo toward justitia. New ambiguities are then created that are sources of confusion but also enrichments. This kind of slide can make it possible to leave the context of the moral analysis of the criterion of good and evil and to operate on a broader playing field, that of distributive justice, which includes politics and economics. That is the meaning of the well-known debate between liberals and communitarians, that is, between John Rawls, on the one hand, and Taylor, Sandel, and MacIntyre on the other. Contemporary liberal doctrine affirms, with Rawls, the independence of the principles of distributive justice with regard to the conceptions of a society’s good. That is the meaning of the remarks by Michael Sandel quoted above. What is demanded by the communitarian critique of the priority of the right over the good and of procedural ethics, as they are found in both Utilitarianism and Rawlsian theory, is a certain return to Aristotle against Kant, the possibility of restoring a substantial historical and social content to “right” by deriving it from the traditions, the conceptions of the good of a community, and no longer solely from the individual interest. Because of this slide from “right” to “just,” the French reader may well not really perceive what is at stake here. The essential point at issue concerns a culturalist and historicist critique of procedural liberalism. The difference between the two senses of bien that we have seen above—senses that are conflated in French, but clearly distinguished in English—is that “good” refers to particular conceptions of individual or communal good. But are they good in a universal way, that is, “right” for humanity as a whole? That is why in reality the debate is about universalist justice and local justice, about what is good for me and my group, or about what might constitute a “human right.” That is exactly what Rousseau means when he says that “the General Will is always right [droite], but it is not always good [bonne]” (Du contrat social, 2.3). He opposes le droit and le bon, which would be the best way to translate the conflict between the particularity and self-interest of the individual or the group, on the one hand, and the universality of the rule or the moral criterion, on the other.
http://www.transeuropeennes.eu/fr/articles/voir_pdf/83 Journal de bord en français
http://www.transeuropeennes.eu/en/articles/voir_pdf/83 Review in English