Expressing Latin concepts in German words

Peter Leithart quotes and summarizes Ernst Benz, author of Mystical Sources of German Romantic Philosophy (Pittsburgh Theological Monographs.  Benz argues that German philosophical language borrowed from poetic language to translate theology and philosophy from Latin (the scholarly language of the Middle Ages) into German.  French scholars, whose language was more closely related to Latin, did not have this problem.

Here is Leithart’s summary and reflection of the German adaptation (the last 3 paragraphs of his 5-paragraph post):

That changed with “German Thomistic mysticism,” particularly with Eckhart.  In his preaching to nuns, he could not rely on Latin theological terms and treatises, and so he had either to “translate the abstract terms of theological language into poetic images” or “create a new terminology of abstractions improvised in German.”  If he translated theological terms into poetic images, “the translator was forced to form some very audacious and dangerous paradoxes, which were capable of being understood and considered as heresies” – and in Eckhart’s case were so understood.  But the alternative was to use “new concepts and unheard-of abstractions” that would make the sermon incomprehensible.

Eckhart is responsible for the development of a “new German philosophical and theological terminology” but one that had a strong poetic and mystical component.  Boehme continued the project, introducing all the basic vocabulary of German philosophy down to Heidegger and beyond.  Sein, Wesen, Wesenheit, das Seinende, das Nichts, Nichtigkeit, as well as Form, Gestalt, Anschauung, Erkenntnis, Erkennen, Vernunft, Verstand and Vertandnis, Bild and Abbild, Grund and Ungrund, Ich and Ichheit and Nicht-Ich – all of it came from “German mystical speculation.”

Perhaps this is as good a description of “Continental” philosophy as any: It’s not merely the philosophy of Kant’s Third Critique, but philosophy whose categories (including Kant’s!) came from German poetic mysticism.

This is an interesting example of how our languages can’t always (or perhaps can’t ever) be perfectly translated into other languages.



  1. It is fascinating how our language and culture bear a momentum in our understanding of new concepts, helping to explain how and why ideas morph as they spread.

    I’ve more often encountered this between Hebrew and Greek with respect to Scriptures, but it is a universal truth on the imperfect nature of modeling and communication.

    Great point, Scott.


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