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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Egid

Philosophy in... Sakha

Updated: May 3

III - Shamans and Journalists

“[Olonkho poetry] tells us very substantial things about one possible way of representing our place in the world, our relations with others, our relations with nature, the fate of the soul after death”

Justin Smith-Ruiu is a Professor of Philosophy at Université Paris Cité and a writer of unusual scope. He is the author of many books in the history of philosophy, including ‘The Philosopher: A History in Six Types’, that serves as a major inspiration for this series. He is also one of our most consistently original and provocative essayists, writing on everything from Proust to the history of fermentation, the internet and Zhdanovshchina, many of which are available on his ‘Hinternet’. In this interview on philosophising in Sakha, we discuss Olonkho poetry, the distinctive position of Sakha in the diverse linguistic landscape of North Asia, and its fate under the Soviet Union, as well as ‘hyperactive intentionality detection devices’, the philosophical significance of animism, and living in the coldest inhabited regions of the world.

I - Turkic, Tungusic and Paleo-Siberian: Multilingualism in the Sakha Republic

Welcome once again to "Philosophising in…” the interview series about philosophy in lesser studied languages. This week I'm going to be talking with Justin Smith-Ruiu about philosophy in the Sakha language of Eastern Siberia. I wanted us to get started today by talking a little bit about Sakha itself, a language which is sometimes also called Yakut, and about the people that speak it. What's in the name?


Okay, where to start? Sakha is a Turkic language, the north-eastern most language in the Turkic family, which extends from the west of the Black Sea in southeastern Europe. There are pockets of Turkic languages in Romania, Bulgaria, across all of Anatolia, of course, through Central Asia, a number of the so-called “stans”, Kazakhstan, so on, all speak Turkic languages as well.


The Sakha people or the Yakuts as there are sometimes called – I don't have any strong preference for the one or the other – seem to have been based around the area of Lake Baikal in heavy synthesis with Buryat and Mongol groups, until the rise of Genghis Khan and the expansion of the Mongol Empire when they seem to have, for various reasons which I think we can all understand, wished to live somewhere further from the centre of the empire; to avoid taxation or conscription or torture or any number of possibilities. They fled northward into the Lena River Valley, which is one of the coldest places on earth, so cold that the Mongols seem to have thought it was not any longer worth their trouble to pursue these people in flight from them, and over the course of the following centuries, say, 13th, 14th, 15th centuries, they developed a distinct culture, not just in the Lena River Valley, but also even further to the north into the Arctic where they met Paleo-Siberian people like the Yukaghir and Tungusic people like the Evenk and naturally had a very culturally productive encounter with these different groups, all while retaining a kind of vague, almost mythological memory of their origins further to the south.

Forest Landscape in the Sakha Republic

One interesting feature of their oral epic tradition is that the figure of Genghis Khan, often comes up, but he comes up as a divinity, which is to say that he's been literally apotheosized into something more than a historical figure, and this could be because their information deteriorates as it passes from generation to generation, but there could be other more kind of logical internal reasons for this. So retaining some kind of shared cultural memory of a time when they were further to the south, but also significantly hybridizing with other more distinctly circumpolar cultures, and this lasts until the 17th century when the Russians arrive.

And ever since the 17th century, there was, you know, there were several decades of Yakut resistance to Russian domination; refusal to pay tribute, and so on, but I think that by 1700 or so, this had failed, and they were under Russian domination as they had previously been under Mongol domination. And of course, this culminates in the Soviet period when there is, I like to say sometimes, ‘two cheers for Soviet support of minority cultures!’, because under the Soviets, there was a very active campaign to stimulate, to cultivate a Sakha literary tradition, which would serve the purpose of kind of unifying the Sakha nation – of course within the Soviet Union – and a part of this was trying to create a kind of high art, a linguistic register for theatre, even for opera, and for cinema, and so on, which was quite active and productive over the course of the middle of the 20th century.


Since 1990, the Sakha people have been more or less floating on their own without centralized state support from Moscow and naturally this, together with the rise of new information technologies, has very significant implications for the integrity and the quality of the language, both as spoken in an everyday context but also as a literary language and overall the consequences of, let's say, going solo or losing state support have not been good.


That said, some people imagine that it's a much more endangered language than it is. There are about 450,000 speakers of Sakha, which means that probably on the list of languages spoken in the world, it's among the top. I mean, I know that’s hard for us to understand as English speakers! But in the region, Sakha is actually a kind of lingua franca, subordinate to Russian of course, but still if you are a native speaker of say Yukaghir, which is spoken by only a few hundred people, you're likely to speak both Sakha and Russian as you come into contact with other people in your broader region.

Sakha Men in the Early Twentieth Century


So it's not dying out tomorrow, but especially in urban settings, it's in crisis. And so I think part of my interest is trying to do what I can to kind of bring this linguistic world into contact with English and so to speak circumventing the Russian middleman that has been responsible for almost all exposure that Sakha has had in the outside world, just like you can't really imagine accessing the Quechua language without Spanish or circumventing Spanish. Similarly, Russian is the point of access to the Sakha language, even though the languages have nothing in common historically, Sakha today involves a lot of Russian vocabulary and for young, urban, post-Soviet Sakha people, there's also massive code switching comparable to, say, New York City 'Spanglish' or something like that.


That's an excellent introduction for us, situating the language in its historical and geographical context. I found what you were saying about the different sort of points of contact between Sakha and other languages really interesting: before the migration to the north you have the early contact with Mongolian that is in the process of becoming truly pan-Eurasian language, then later on you have contact with the much more localised Paleo-Siberian and Tungusic languages. More recently there is contact with another, global and imperial language in Russian, and today its status as a ‘local’ – which feels strange to say for the world’s largest sub-national administrative region – languages of exchange: is the idea there that speakers of a language with only a few hundred native speakers in contemporary Russia will access the broader ‘national’ life via Sakha before the ‘federal’ life in Russian?


Yes indeed, and I mean, there was a point when I really wanted to study one of these Paleo-Siberian language. I was actually thinking not so much of the circumpolar languages of the far north – I was really interested Ket, a Yeniseian language, because that's the one that seems to provide the most likely prospect for establishing a link with Native American languages, the so-called Yeniseian and Na-Dené hypothesis that links central Siberia to Arizona. So that all fascinated me. The problem is there are just no resources out there. With Sakha on the other hand, you can go on YouTube and listen to podcasts and never exhaust the content that's out there. If you're studying a language with only 25 people speaking of it, it's a lot harder.


I think the key distinction, the key cultural divide is one that is entirely geographically determined within Sakha culture. You have the people who settled the far north, who adapted or evolved into a form of life that is typical of a circumpolar people around the world, including those of Canada and Alaska and Greenland, which is to say hunting intensive and also extremely dependent on a world of snow and ice and little else. And the Lena Valley, which you could call the core of the Sakha world, it's based on an August harvest of grass that is then the basis of the livestock, of livestock husbandry and horses and cows, very special horses and cows that can survive in minus, minus 50 degree winters, but nonetheless horses and cows that are at the center of Sakha social reality, you know, ‘cherchez la vache’ as E. E. Evans-Pritchard said of the Azande, you know, if you, if you want to understand what's going on, look at how they're relating to their cows, right? That's just fundamental. And then hunting and encounters with, with, with bears and other wildlife are, you know, also important, but, but much, much, much less than say encounters with seals and polar bears in the far north.

Mountain Landscape in Northern Sakha Republic


I also wanted to mention in, to the north west in the actual administrative division of Siberia, not Yakutia, there's another group called the Dolgan, who are almost like a creolized product of the encounter of three groups, the Yakuts moving to the northwest, Tungusic groups, but also Russian arctic boatsmen who settled there, probably in the late Middle Ages. And so some of these people are as descended from Russians, ethnically Russian, people as they are from Mongolic or Tungusic people.


And, you know, while they look very Russian, their form of life is solidly north Asian and their language Tungusic and Turkic.  So it's really a fascinating world of hybrid identities and a place where the old distinction between, 'Russian', 'White', 'Western', 'European' versus 'Mongolic', 'Turkic', 'Tungusic', 'Asian', just collapses in that massive grey area of North Asia.


II - 'A Shadow of a Shadow of a Shadow': Philosophy and Olonkho Poetry

I suppose one thing that unites all these very different groups of people is the utter extremity of the climate, leading them to live very particular kinds of social and cultural lives. I'm interested in how this is reflected in their art and their ideas. Your project at the moment, as I understand, is to translate the Olonkho, the national epic of the Sakha. And so I wanted to ask you first of all to tell us a little bit about this national epic and about your project in translating it? And then, to turn us towards philosophising in Sakha, whether we should, and if so, how we should understand works like the Olonkho to be a source of philosophical insight.


Okay, where should I start? A few words about Olonkho and what it is and then we can move on to questions of philosophy. Olonkho is often mistakenly referred to as a single work, like you would refer to ‘the Olonkho’ and the way you refer to ‘the Odyssey’. This isn't quite correct. Olonkho is rather a genre that has several versions: more than I at present know about, and I've been studying it for seven years now. Several different legend motifs keep returning again and again and that are as wide as medieval ‘knights errant’ tales in Europe. So it's a tradition of epic oral recitation by a special member of society known as the Olonkhosut or Olonkhohut, depending on your dialect. And this might be translated as ‘bard’. That's one way to think of the social role of the Olonkhohut, as a bard who travels and is invited into a home in a village upon arrival to recite for the whole night. The recitation lasts an entire night and ends at dawn and so might go on for eight or nine hours and the longer he recites and the more they like it, the more he gets paid.


So there are different components of the epic recitation that are meant to hook and to keep people paying attention. And there are parts that are strictly recitative and there are parts that are sung. The Olonkhohut is also a musician. This is a question that really interests me recently. I think what we're looking at here, if I can dare to speak this way, is a kind of ‘primordial’ art form that combines elements of music and storytelling and likely also dance. And we call all that ‘poetry’ just because it's the closest thing we can think of. In a way, it's already denatured when we call it poetry. It's even more denatured when we attempt to transcribe it and present it in a textual form. It's even more denatured when we not only transcribe it, but translate it. So my English translations, which I'm working on with a Sakha collaborator named Liubomira Romanova for a publication in the World Literature in Translation series of the University of California Press, is really going to be, so to speak, a shadow of a shadow of a shadow: a translation of a transcription of an oral performance that was recorded 80 years ago. You will get a little bit of a sense of the guy in the room in the candlelight doing his thing like his ancestors did, but it's a distant trace. That's okay. We do what we can.


Now, a very brief word about the content and then we can turn to the question of philosophy. I mentioned knights-errant tales. I would say the supernatural element is a lot more present here, somewhat as in Greek mythology you have a lot of intercourse between the different planes of reality in particular, the plane of the gods and the plane of the humans. Curiously, I think in ways that echo features or let's say cosmological representations that we see across a wide swath of Eurasia in Sakha culture, you have a tripartite cosmic scheme, which is to say the Upper World, the Middle World and the Lower World, ordinarily human beings, which is to say Sakha people inhabit the Middle World, the so-called aïyy [айыы], the good spirits typically inhabit the Upper World and the so-called abаasy [абаасы], inhabit the Lower World as you would expect: the bad guys are underground and the good guys are in the clouds.


That's a familiar way to lay things out, but there is a lot of back and forth and there are a lot of encounters between humans and abаasy and even indeed marriages and hybrid children, much like you find heroes in Greek mythology who are half divine. Most of the epics relate the deeds of a hero and a lot of really delirious supernatural encounters along the way with the Upper World, the Lower World. All of this is represented by the world tree, the so-called Aal Luuk Mas of the sort, mas [мас]means tree, it's comparable to Yggdrasil of the Norse. The tree is the cosmos in its epitome and it connects all three of the realms and facilitates interchange between them.


There is something powerfully comical about Olonkho as well. I think there is a much more delirious, comical element with a lot of obscenity and a lot of really grotesque scenes of sexual encounters between humans and quasi-humans. When an ogre gets slaughtered, he doesn't just get slaughtered, he gets an arrow that – how should I put it – goes up through his digestive system: stuff like this. It's all really quite funny in a Loony Tunes sort of way. That's something to enjoy.


Sakha Children in Yakutsk

Let me now move to philosophy. One thing that I like to point out and that I pointed out to you in other conversations is a comparison with Homer. We know that what we call today, the Iliad and The Odyssey were in circulation at least a few centuries before they were ever written down. Thanks to Milman Perry in the 1920s and his comparative ethnological study of Balkan bardic traditions, we know that there were comparable bardic traditions, and have comparable traditions in West Africa and all over the world. The term ‘oral literature’ is contested, but whatever I'll use it for today, there are comparable oral literary tradition that encode and epitomize the whole range of cultural values and cosmic representations, asking questions like ‘Who are we?’, ‘What is our place in the world?’, ‘Where did we come from, and where are we going?’. Now if you take the case of Homer, this gets recited in a comparable way for a few centuries, then little by little, you know, people think it might be a good idea to write this down. And so in some sense, the only difference is that the writing down of the Olonkho begins in the late 19th century and the writing down of Homer begins in the 8th century BCE.


So different moments in the history of these literary traditions happen at different times. Now you might be saying, ‘yeah, but Homer isn't philosophy’. Well, right. But Plato and Aristotle certainly have to contend with Homer as an authoritative source. There's a weight of authority in these cryptic poetic proclamations, even if they aren't making arguments in the way that we associate with philosophy.


In general, I'm of the view that philosophy should, to some extent, concern itself with cultural traditions that as I put it in a number of different places, pack philosophical commitments into cultural expressions where these commitments are not defended in an argumentative way. Again, as I put it in a number of different places, philosophy should take an interest in expressions of philosophy in the ‘ore’ form: you've got iron, but it's packed into a rock, right? You've got iron ore, and you can get the iron out by doing some metallurgy. Similarly, for complicated reasons and certainly not as any kind of mark of cultural inferiority, some human cultures have philosophical commitments about who we are, what our place in the world is that are, so to speak, packed into this ‘ore’. And I don't see any reason why we should stay away from these commitments as philosophers, simply because you have to do a bit of ‘metallurgy’ in order to get them out, if that makes sense.


And of course that's contested, because I am sounding there pretty close to the view of someone like Alexis Kagame in his defence of ethnophilosophy in regard to the Bantu linguistic cultural sphere. And what can I say? I understand the limits and the dangers of this, but I think it's better than the alternative because the alternative is only recognizing as philosophy those handful of cultures in human history that have done the metallurgical transformation themselves, right? And built up institutions where the sole purpose is to examine in a distilled or pure form these distinct fragments of culture that we recognize as philosophical commitments. I don't think they have to be totally distinct in order for that to happen.

III - Journalists, Shamans and Hegel in Sakha


Absolutely. That idea of philosophy in the ore of culture is one that I found myself coming back to in lots of the discussions that we've had throughout this series – there are so many different means by which to try and conduct this process of extraction. You mentioned Kagame who proposes that we look at the grammar of a natural language and try and extract the series of categories or even an overarching world view from it, which I suppose you could do for Sakha just as easily as the Bantu languages he focuses on. But I want to present a challenge that we’ve touched on before in this series, one made by the late great Paulin Hountondji: that in oral literature the necessity of focusing so much on memorization necessarily precludes a critical engagement with ideas. Oral traditions on this picture might be able to describe things in various ways, but they're not going to be able to critique them. Do you think that's right at all? And on the other hand, if Olonkho is a means of depicting the natural and social world of the Sakha – the relations between the upper and the lower realms, their orientation in the world, their relation to animals and things like that – rather than critiquing it, can that constitute something worth calling philosophy?


I think it's complicated, and I'm on record as saying that although I finished my PhD in philosophy years ago, I still don't know what philosophy is. I really don't. And I honestly think that if my professional colleagues think they do, it's probably because they haven't pushed at its outer limit. They haven't gone looking for the borderline cases. If you stay close to home and work in an established tradition, like say, analytic metaethics, then this question of the boundary between philosophy and non-philosophy isn't going to strike you with the same force. That said, over the past 24 years, I've also seen held up for candidacy as philosophy works that no one would have considered in the 1990s. For example, I published a piece on Anton Wilhelm Amo in a volume on neglected philosophers that included people like Ida B. Wells, the 19th century African American thinker who was usually classified as a journalist who wrote quite a bit on lynching and the great shame of racism in the United States after the Civil War.


If we can posthumously conscript journalists to the philosophical canon then I don't see why we should draw the line at the boundaries of our own culture. Ida B Wells is someone who like us reads and interacts with newspapers and writes in English and I don't see why we should not go looking also for people who are quite a bit further removed from our cultural practises like engaging with newspapers: for example you know reciting Olonkho epic poetry. In other words, once we've acknowledged that the argumentative treatise doesn't exhaust what we're willing to consider as philosophy, when we say that we can also find it in late 19th century newspaper columns, then I don't see why we should go on saying ‘sorry get back to your argumentative treatises’ when someone tries to look at oral epic poetry from northeastern Siberia. We prove as a matter of fact that as a discipline philosophy is prepared to range beyond the argumentative treatise, and once we've done that I think we just have to say, 'you know what I'm going to go look for whatever source material helps me to understand better what it is to be a human being in the world'.

Olyokma River, Sakha Republic

Maybe this is just a temperamental thing, but I'm a philosopher because my diploma says so. Beyond that I take an interest in this and leave it to other people to figure out what the connection is. It remains an open question for me. What I will say is that I think Olonkho is a much more kind of generative collection of source material than say the collected lyrics of Taylor Swift for thinking about what it is to be a human being. It tells us very substantial things about how one possible way of representing our place in the world, our relations with others, our relations with nature, the fate of the soul after death and so on. It's quite rich source material, and that's all I care about.

Excellent, well I think you are probably preaching to the choir with the claim that it is philosophically rich material, and with the idea that we might be less concerned about policing traditional disciplinary boundaries – though others might make a stronger case that I can for the philosophical significance of Taylor Swift lyrics, I’m really no expert on either, But to be able to argue the point to someone who isn’t inclined to agree, could you explain what you take to be some of the particularly interesting ideas that you have encountered in working on this material?

One important thing that isn't distinctly Sakha, or even distinctly Siberian – I think we will certainly find comparable representations in traditional cultures of the Americas in particular – but is still something important that I think any philosopher should take an interest in or should spend some time understanding, are those groups of people that have a broadly animistic conception of nature. Why should we spend time doing this? Well, because I would say it's the default relationship to nature in most times and places in human history and prehistory. It's the way human beings have generally related to the world around them. Humans view a world that is teeming with spirits or animate forces that have wills of their own that need to be placated and most human energy goes into managing the relationship with these forces. These forces include wild animals, bears and so on but also of course natural phenomena like lightning and so on. I would go so far as to say that this relationship to the world is our ‘factory setting’ so to speak - that's the way our brains were configured and to appreciate it, to work your way into it really helps to get a clearer understanding of how the human mind works. Some cognitive scientists like to talk about the idea of the brain as a ‘hyperactive intentionality detection device’ – think of the question ‘why do we feel like we're being watched if we walk down a forest path in the middle of the night?’. I can think of two ways to respond: you could say ‘oh that's just superstition, get over your superstition you fools!’; but we might also see it as telling us something about how our minds work. So that's one general point I feel might be useful for philosophers: I feel like I have a much better understanding of what it is to to really respect bears and lightning and other parts of reality in a way that I did not before.

Now somewhat more distinctly Siberian in comparative ethnography and comparative religion, ‘shamanism’ is a loaded term, and I think in general there's some kind of agreement that because of people like Carlos Castañeda and the idea of Yaqui shamanism and its connection to kind of 1960s countercultural representations of, broadly speaking, people with lots of mojo, right? We tend to shy away from the term ‘shaman’, but if it applies anywhere, it applies in north Asia. That's where the term was first used, where it was first described as a distinct religious representation and model of how nature works, of how you channel nature's forces. You find all of this most clearly in north Asia, and the Sakha people traditionally are shamanists.


I mean, you know, we also we also use the term ‘Tengrist’ sometimes to describe that's a Turkic term that describes also the religion of pre-Islamic Turkic people all the way into Anatolia. Tangara in Sakha, tengri in Turkish mean either ‘sky’ or ‘god’ depending on context. So you've got broadly speaking Tengrist or shamanist representations and associated practices and I think this is significant because one question that keeps returning for me concerns the social role of a shaman. The shaman is a figure who is kind of priestly but also kind of sketchy, right? A shaman is often a weird dude who should be kept at a distance, you know, he's kind of like a beggar, kind of like someone you can't easily welcome into your home and stuff like that. But he's also someone who has very special powers.


I should also mention an interesting fact about North Asia. Different languages from different linguistic groups have different words for the male shaman. ‘Shamaness’ by contrast is the same word across several different Tungusic, Mongolic, Turkic and Paleo-Siberian languages, which strongly suggests that there is an ancient matriarchal form of shamanism that dominated in the region prior to the point that came much later when people started saying, ‘hey, wait a minute, men can be shamans too!’. That's a late-coming idea and there's a substratum of matriarchy across North Asia.


Sakha Women in Traditional Dress, Early Twentieth Century

Both these are representations that I think key to understanding human experience ‘on its factory settings’ – we ditched our factory settings and added a bunch of weird extra bells and whistles when we started practicing monotheism and going to giant cathedrals and later valuing secular modernity and stuff like that. If you want to understand what it was like before we traded out our factory settings, then you've got to pay attention to cultures like the one I'm attempting to. It might not be the best representative for this sort of lesson, but it's still pretty important.


One example is that we see the circulation of spirits and forces in all sorts of vivid ways: we see animals that sometimes can talk, that sometimes can't talk; the talking horse that gives advice is a recurring figure. We also see a particular preoccupation with the fissure on the top of the skull and this is often covered ceremonially by like a metallic disc so that spirits cannot slip in through the through the fontanelle and haunt you or make trouble for you on the one hand, but on the other this is also where babies come from. The baby spirit slips in through the top of the pregnant woman's skull. Now no one would dare suggest that as a philosopher you've got to affirm it as true. At least I'm not going to. But the more you learn the more you get a kind of comprehensive picture of a very different way of representing human individuality, life, substance, power and so on. This is something I think we need to be paying attention to.


A final example that I really love and that I've written about a little bit is that is that traditionally Sakha people have a sort of tripartite theory of soul. It's not the vegetative, the sensitive and the rational that we recognise from Greek philosophy, it's something quite different. You've got salgyn-kut [салгын-кут] which is to say the air soul which is what facilitates your ability to engage in conceptual and abstract thought. You've got buor-kut [буор-кут] which is to say earth soul which is your body. And so this is weird because you know ordinarily you would think well my body is not my soul but here it is understood to be just one manifestation of your soul. But the one that interests me most is iïe-kut [ийэ-кут] which translates literally as mother soul. And that is to say your culture: the motifs you weave and the recipes you cook and the games you engage in at the summer solstice festival, things like that. That's one third of your soul right there!


This idea that an individual culture can have its own collective shared soul that is constitutive of what you are is I think probably something that's much more common across all human experience than we tend to think as modern secular types who can hop from culture to culture and feel like we're taking ourselves with us. Anyhow, I'm just giving you some examples here of various representations we can glean from Sakha culture, none of which I would necessarily take as true.


Maybe I am happy to hold this kind of distanced ethnographic gaze so to speak it's because I started out as a historian of philosophy, working on Leibniz’s metaphysics, where no one ever told me I was supposed to take Leibniz’s metaphysics as true. Am I supposed to believe that every corporeal substance is the is the phenomenal result of an infinite ensemble of immaterial monads, seriously? So maybe because I you know was kind of trained up already with this kind of distanced ethnographic gaze on a seventeenth century German erudite, it seems to me perfectly natural to move on to other representations that to my mind are no more and no less outlandish than the theory of monads and to be like ‘hmm what can I learn from this way of representing our place in the world?’, rather than again holding it up for candidacy as true. But that’s just my disposition.


I think it's a disposition that many of our readers might share – it’s certainly one that I share. I mean in particular that none of the Sakha notions that you've mentioned just now sounds anymore outlandish than the Monadology, and that both can constitute sources of philosophical insight. It seems to me that studying Sakha thought – or really any very unfamiliar ways of conceptualizing the world – might have two quite different benefits: on the one hand we see interesting alternative ways of ‘carving up’ our reality, of thinking about what kind of things there are, how we might relate to one other, how we orient ourselves in the world. On the other hand in exploring these alternatives we realize the contingency, even the parochialness of our particular way of carving up reality. Its very much the same process as learning a new language. You realize that some of these particular distinctions maybe between ‘believing’ and ‘knowing’ don't really strike you with the same force in a quite different language. There's the ‘negative’ side of realising our ways of speaking or thinking is very much just one way of thinking and speaking, and on the ‘positive’ side we see coherent alternative systems of speech and thought in their fullness.


Yeah, interesting, a few thoughts here. One thing that's interesting to note is that over the course of the 20th century we unsurprisingly start to see translations of Marx and Engels and Lenin into Sakha and even some pre-Marx philosophers like Hegel, maybe some others that the Soviets considered somewhat meritorious.


So we can read Hegel in Sakha?


Yeah, I mean not the complete works certainly but attempts were made and what's interesting about these is that these attempts are heavily reliant on borrowings from Russian which are in turn often borrowings from Latin or German or when it comes to borrowings or calques when it comes to philosophical terminology, but if you look at a translation of the Theses on Feuerbach or whatever into Sakha you're going to see a huge reliance on Russian vocabulary.


There are these efforts – maybe you've talked about this with Bachir Diagne – but I think I've mentioned to you Cheikh Anta Diop, the spiritual forefather of Afrocentrism has an incredible text where he tries to give a glossary of chemical terms translated into Wolof without any reliance on Greek or Latin or French roots. Now I don't speak a word of Wolof, and I have no idea what he's coming up with there, but he's effectively trying to express terms like “sulphur dioxide” or whatever using only Wolof roots and that looks like a major, and almost Olympian challenge to pose to yourself, like, why would you do that?! Science is a shared global vocabulary at this point: just go back and resort to the Greek or Latin – who cares!


But the effort itself is really interesting and you know what you realize if you're trying to think about the philosophy of mind in Sakha, what you realize is that the very idea that you can even do that depends on a massive lexical-conceptual mediation from another language – Russian in this case – from another language that has already so to speak been ‘synchronized’ or ‘calibrated’ with the tradition in question. That is to say we have been coming up with equivalencies for Latin, German, French philosophical notions in Russian since the end of the 17th century: 1698 was the first translation of Christiaan Huygens’ Cosmotheoros.


There's a whole interesting story there that in the big scheme of things doesn't go back that far, whereas with the vulgates of western Europe it's almost as if they became respectable national literary languages precisely through the process of assuring the learned that they were able to express the same ideas that had already been being expressed in Latin for several centuries before that; Peter Burke is great on this stuff, on the early modern history of dictionaries and glossaries and grammars of national languages as a key part of the emergence of national identities. So with Russian you've got this process from the end of the seventeenth century, with Sakha you've really only got an attempt to calibrate the Sakha language only from say 1890 to 1990. Since 1990 these efforts have stopped again.


This pair of examples – translating Hegel in Sakha on the one hand, and your translating the Olonkho into English on the other – is a really nice way of showing how the process of philosophical translation serves both to enrich the Sakha language with so many different terms and ideas and distinctions and on the other hand of Sakha contributing a lot to a global range of philosophical possibilities with ideas like that of the communal ‘mother-soul’. I think that's a lovely note for us to end such an incredibly rich discussion on, so I’m going to thank you on behalf of myself and the audience for sharing your interest and your expertise with us.


Yeah thanks Jonathan, it was nice to talk


IV - Further Reading

Justin Smith-Ruiu and Liubomira Romanova (eds. and trans.), The Olonkho Epic Tradition of Northeastern Siberia: New Translations from the Sakha, World Literatures in Translation, University of California Press, 2025. 

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