Immanuel Kant And The Case Of The Missing Wooden Head
Years ago in Modern Philosophy class we, of course, read many of the main philosophers who contributed to what’s commonly referred to as the modern, or enlightenment project. We read excerpts from Descartes, (probably my favorite) Immanuel Kant, Nietzsche, Hume, Locke, and Alisdair Macintyre. Notice they all have weirdly spelled names. After having to write a two page paper every-single-week after the reading, you do learn to spell them though, by memory. You have to.
If it wasn’t my favorite class, it was one of them for sure. Nietzsche was entertaining, and makes some interesting points. I highly recommend reading Alisdair Macintyre’s work After Virtue, and have mentioned that to family and friends over the years.
Kant was so influential, that just about no philosopher could resist invoking him in some way or another afterward in their work whether criticizing or praising him.
I don’t remember which of Kant’s books it was, probably something like a collection of excerpts, but do remember at some point coming across an allusion to the Fables of Phaedrus, to an story about “a wooden head.” Being a curious person by nature, I wondered what it was about and whether it could add something to what I had read in Kant. I made a mental note to look it up later, on a school break when I’d have more time and papers weren’t breathing down my neck.
Eventually, I was happy to download the fables from the Gutenberg free eBook site, which has a lot of great old books on there for free. I don’t think I’d ever heard about Phaedrus before, or had even read Esop, so was interested to see what it was about. They’re pretty interesting fables, and also teach a moral lesson, although some seem more superstitious than helpful.
I remember finishing the book and wondering how I had missed Kant’s wooden head reference, the main reason I had read the book. Now, I’m certainly not the quickest mind when it comes to things, but I had been carefully reading the book. So, I ran a word search inside the document to see how I had missed the reference. Maybe my mind had wandered or I’d fell asleep or something.
To my surprise, once again, there was no wooden head. It simply was not there. Perplexing!
Naturally, at some point, it finally dawned on me to do a Google search. Nothing there either. The wooden head now had affectively become a cold case…
A couple of years passed. My mind began to once more rack itself over this artificial predicament, to give me something to worry about. I figured that it had been enough for the google search algorithm to have changed, or hopefully someone had written a paper since then that could illuminate the matter… perhaps the illuminati! j/k
Perhaps now I might find someone referring to that fable so I could finally read it! I was surprised by the search results. Perfect strangers had talked about the wooden head but still nobody seemed to have any clue which fable Kant was referring to. Nobody, or at least in my search results.
I found it hilarious and tantalizing that they seemed to have the exact copy of Kant that I did, and quoted him the way my copy read, but didn’t know the story he was talking about either. So close, but still so very far! Once more, I temporarily gave up, but then picked up Phaedrus for fun, a few years later, to read the fables one final time…
The Deciding Factor
To make a long story short, I still couldn’t find the fable using the normal way of reading, but the idea popped into my head to do a word search for “fox” instead of “head” because the quotation had something to do with a fox, too. I reread only the handful of fables containing foxes more closely and did find what Kant referred to, finally. I no longer felt like my noggin was made of wood!
What Went Wrong?
We have to remind ourselves that when we read Kant, we’re not reading what he actually wrote himself. Naturally, he wrote in German. We are only reading an English translation of Kant.
This is significant because when we read Kant saying “wooden head” that might not even be what he said at all. The English translator might have used a word that somewhat changed things a bit. Added to the difficulties, is that Phaedrus probably wrote his fables in either some form of Greek, Latin, or some other language. So, even if Kant did read Latin well, and had even translated it into German absolutely perfect, it wouldn’t matter to anyone reading an English translation.
Say for example if the English translator had sacrificed some of the text’s accuracy for easy readability when he translated Kant into English. We’d be experiencing problems because of the changes of meaning. Or, if Kant read the Latin well, but had a misunderstanding, of what “wooden head” meant in Phaedrus’s language, or context. What if “wooden head” was a slanderous nickname for someone everyone knew around Phaedrus’s time and Kant didn’t know? What if Kant was making a joke or play on words and the English translators didn’t pick up, or took for granted everyone would understand?
There are also many other considerations that make translating one text into another very difficult in conveying an accurate transmission of data. Now, accurate communication is as much a responsibility to the receiver of information as it is to the conveyer of information, but break downs often occur even with the best intentions from both sides, even when both people think they’re speaking the same language.
If you read After virtue, you’ll see but one analogy is like when someone asks “what did the ancient greeks think about da-da-da?” Let’s just assume we have accurate information.
Well, seeing as how there were several different groups of ancient greeks, and cultures, scattered all about the Mediterranean and beyond; and several centuries to pick from, even if you only looked at the very same region, which particular group are you asking about, and when? Things change from one generation to the next, and people can have totally different understandings of what words mean. Historical and cultural contexts might throw us off.
I’m not saying that’s what happened, just giving an example. So, what DID happen?
With a reasonable amount of certainty, here is the fable that cantelope… I mean Kant alluded to:
Fable VII. THE FOX AND THE TRAGIC MASK.
A Fox, by chance, casting his eyes on a Tragic Mask: “Ah,” said she, “great as is its beauty, still it has no brains.”
This is meant for those to whom fortune has granted honor and renown, leaving them void of common sense.
I’m going to assume the best German translation of that is head, or that the Germans refer to the face differently than we do, since face is a part of the head. I’m totally guessing though.
So, we might call it a wooden mask, because we automatically associate masks with the face. Kant might have called it a wooden head, because that’s just the way they say it in the diailect of German he spoke. I’m just glad fox translated over well, or I’d never have found it!
Notice no mention of the mask’s composite make up is made. It’s described as “tragic” though. I don’t know what “tragic” could be translated as in Latin or German, or if that has anything to do with the problem that occurred.
This is about the only fable that comes close to what Kant was talking about, and seems to make the most sense, to me at least.
It’s all enough to make a person feel like they have a wooden head on their shoulders… with a termite burrowing in it! So there you have it ladies and gentlemen of the jury: The missing wooden head of Immanuel Kant! I rest my case.