THE PHILOSOPHER KING
Recently, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that “Turkish is not the language of philosophy”, implicitly supporting the government’s decision to incorporate Ottoman Turkish, the old Turkish written in Arabic letters, into the high school curriculum. He was delivering a speech to natural and social scientists in a ceremony for the annual Science Awards of TUBITAK, the Turkish equivalent of NSF.
Mr Erdoğan, who cannot speak any other language than Turkish, however, has a point. The most selective high schools and the elite universities of the country teach in English. The crème de la crème of Turkish students typically study science, math, medicine and philosophy in English or French throughout their educational and academic careers. This is rarely considered an issue in the country, it is often encouraged and admired.
Politics aside, Turkish intellectuals are divided on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s revolution in 1928 to introduce the Latin script for Turkish and to “purify” the Turkish vocabulary. Torn between inventing a new vocabulary for Turkish with a political agenda and rejecting the imperial past all together with its cultural and religious heritage, Turkey created generations who cannot read and understand poetry or prose written in as late as the early twentieth century. Even Atatürk’s own Nutuk (Speech), delivered in 1927, needs to be “translated” so that the young generations can actually read it (I never attempted to read it in its original language). In contrast, for example, it would be quite unusual to imagine a German college student not able to understand the original text of Über Sinn und Bedeutung of the German philosopher Frege, published in 1892.
More interestingly, Turkish intellectuals of the late twentieth century in Turkey created a rather strange language to write philosophy. They invented new but unusual words for philosophical concepts, translated the traditional philosophical terminology into Turkish in their own way, and ended up writing in a language that most people, including most philosophy undergrads, cannot even understand. Not only were people unable to read the literature from the late nineteenth century, they also could not decipher the new scientific and philosophical language of 1960s and 70s.
Turkey has traveled a long way to express itself intellectually, even in its own language. What needs not to be done today is to interfere with the academic language running its course, and interrupt its natural continuity. It has been done problematically many times in the past since the inception of the Republic, and Mr. Erdoğan seems to aspire to do it again.
The country must make peace with its intellectual past both politically and intellectually, and the government must give up its dreams to reinvent the language. When it comes to language reform, Mr. Erdoğan has a clear political agenda while the Turkish intellectuals seem to have none. Perhaps, this is what gives Mr. Erdoğan the courage to interfere with almost every single aspect of the social and intellectual life of the country.