Neurolexicography, or I kangaeru ergo suis

Look up the word “think” in an English-Japanese dictionary and you’ll find two main alternatives: “kangaeru” and “omou”.

Often when Japanese splits a concept more narrowly than English, native English speakers have a horrible time learning to make the distinction. I’ve never known of anyone who had trouble with “kangaeru” vs. “omou”, though.

That’s because the difference is clear. “Kangaeru” refers to a higher-brain process, “omou” to a lower-brain one. “Kangaeru” is linear and deductive and rational, it figures and reckons, it is based on assumptions, reaches conclusions. “Omou”, on the other hand, is an attitude, a stance, a belief, almost a feeling.

Descartes famously asserted, “I think, therefore I am” (or, “Je pense, donc je suis”). Inexplicably, this has been translated into Japanese as ‘’ware omou, yue ni ware ari”. That’s right—”think” (or “cogito” in “cogito ergo sum”) has been rendered as “omou”, instead of the obviously correct “kangaeru”. I would like to track down the Japanese scholar responsible for this original mistranslation, which has certainly confused countless Japanese students of philosophy over the centuries.

Talking about my cat’s behavior in Japanese, I never use “kangaeru”—that’s simply not something cats do. But I use “omou” all the time: “gG [cat’s name] thinks he’s going to get fed.” So this mistake in translating Descartes’ phrase is by no means benign. The mistranslation has the effect of making Descartes’ proof of existence apply to my cat!

One Response to “Neurolexicography, or I kangaeru ergo suis”

  1. chris Says:

    This isn’t a mistranslation at all. Though the japanese translation doesn’t mean “I logically think, therefore I am”, it means “I consciously percieve, therefore I am”. And that’s exactly what Descartes wanted to express. Therefore “omou” is the only correct translation.

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