Why Turkish intellectuals couldn’t leave their mark?

I was reading a E. M. Cioran’s interview… It is one of his rare interviews, Cioran doesn’t like much to give interview. He talks about his personal life, his severe insomnia, his relationship with women and other people. Besides he tells really interesting anecdotes, and then links them what he thinks of being, life, and other philosophical issues. There are lots of points taking my attention in the interview. But the reason of this post is not one of them. Somewhere Cioran talks about his relationship with Romanian intellectuals such as Eugène Ionesco, Isidore Isou who had lived in Paris. I thought that the Romanian intellectuals living abroad, especially in Paris are not limited with Eugène Ionesco and Isidore Isou, and that there were considerable number of Romanian intellectuals in that situation, and who had given remarkable works during their life. Tristan Tzara, Constantin Brâncuşi, Gherasim Luca… There are probably more people that I don’t know. At that point I couldn’t help but think Turkish intellectuals living in Paris. So this post is about them. The question is clear: Why Turkish intellectuals couldn’t somehow achieve producing worldwide recognized works? Actually I don’t know the answer either, and I’m aware of its difficulty. So, my main aim is to elaborate the question rather than answering it.

The adventure of Turkish intellectuals in Paris goes back to Ottoman times. The first long stay starts with Süleyman Ağa (to the best of my knowledge), and he dedicates an itinerary to Paris, named Süleyman Ağa Seyahatnamesi. But the real exodus of Turkish (Ottoman) intellectuals to Paris is the departure of a group either with the purposes of education or the reason of political exile. Later this group took the name of young turks (jeunes turcs), and played an important role in the configuration of both political and intellectual life of Turkey. This group issued periodicals between 1889-1908, published in different languages and different countries from England, France, Italy to Greece, Romania. With the foundation of Turkish Republic, Paris became an important place in the imagination of Turkish people, especially in the eye of intellectuals, with its influence on the development of modern ideas. But this interest towards Paris and its intellectual life mostly remained one sided, or it didn’t go beyond the political interest at best.

Turkish intellectuals’ love of Paris didn’t end with the foundation of republic, but became intensified even more. Lots of French novelists and theorists from Honore de Balzac, Victor Hugo, Pierre Loti to Emile Durkheim, Henri Bergson Emile Boutroux were translated into Turkish[1]. By the way, comings and goings of Turkish intellectuals to Paris went on, in sixties Paris was a kind of peregrination to a Turkish intellectual. The relationship of Turkish intellectuals with French philosophy and intellectual life in general is a complicated issue, which exceeds the limits of this post. What I’m trying to say is that this influence almost always remains one-sided: Either Turkish intellectuals contended with transferring ideas of French intellectuals into Turkish environment, or their contribution to more general intellectual advance was limited with the some minor articles[2]. So what I see problematic here is one-sidedness of this relationship, and fruitlessness and insularity of Turkish intellectuals, not the necessity of developing a national consciousness or a kind of national theory, in which I already don’t believe.

So, in comparison with the Romanian intellectuals we see that the works of Turkish intellectuals could not go across the national boundaries. There must be various reasons for that. Maybe the French intellectual atmosphere was not ready to receive Turkish intellectuals’ ideas, maybe it was already saturated by the influence of German philosophy, or maybe simply there were no worthwhile ideas at all. In any case, it seems that there is not any fruitful interaction between French intellectuals and Turkish intellectuals unlike in the case of Romanian intellectuals. One can think that this is not a situation specific to French intellectuals, but it is about the entire intellectual history of Turkey, and its relationship with mainly Western theories and texts. German and English traditions were (and maybe are) influential to some extent in configuration of Turkish intellectual scene. Germany had both political and intellectual influence on Ottoman Empire. Before the Second World War, some Jewish German intellectuals were invited to Turkey, and they had brought logical positivistic ideas with them. And also we can mention certain influence of English and American intellectuals. One of the leading female intellectual figures, Halide Edip Adıvar went to England, and she met with Bertrand Russell. Then the intellectual circles there esteemed Halide Edip’s ideas, an even she went on a United States tour, visited different american universities, and young students met her with a great enthusiasm while receiving her as the prominent female intellectual of new Turkey[3]. Today she is probably already a forgotten figure, yet she obtained nearly world wide recognition during her life. But intellectuals like Halide Edip Adıvar can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Nazım Hikmet or Abidin Dino has still recognition today, but still they don’t clear away the legitimacy of our question. First, they were really exceptional figures that they have produced works going beyond their time. And second, they don’t really symbolize the case of interaction of intellectuals of a country with the intellectuals of another one. They had their own agenda, and they somehow managed to break limits of Turkish intellectual.

So, maybe we could extend our question to the whole Turkish intellectual landscape: Why Turkish intellectuals couldn’t produce more ‘universal’ works? In addition to the international parceling of intellectual legacy all over the world by mainly Western scholars[4], there must be some internal reasons stemming from the own structuration of Turkish intellectual life. As I said at the beginning, I don’t know the answer, and I don’t think it is the easy one. What would Romanian intellectuals have that Turkish intellectuals don’t have? Today intellectual arena is much more complicated than the past. There really are leading scholars in Turkey, and all over the world, working in various areas. But still, we can say that academic production today in Turkey concentrated on certain areas, remained in local, if not national level, and is somehow imprisoned of political, sociological, religious restrictions. And if we think in terms of intellectual history, we can still ask why Turkish intellectuals couldn’t produce world wide recognized works in the countries such as France, Germany, England, United States, etc. where they live in. Among these countries, French case seems still emblematic to me, since its influence still keeps going today, even though it has diminished, and it gave its place little bit to America.



[1] Some of them were translated in the range of a project launched by Ministry of Culture of Turkish Republic, by minister Hasan Ali Yücel. Until the end of 1946, 496 works had been translated into Turkish.

[2] I remember that we read an article of Hilmi Ziya Ülken in an undergraduate course of philosophy, written in French, and published in a French book in France. But I don’t think that many people would be aware of that.

[3] Çalışlar, İpek, Halide Edib – Biyografisine Sığmayan Kadın, Everest Yayınları, 2010.

[4] This kind of approach is mainly problematized under the name of post-colonialism or subaltern studies by scholars such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak or Dipesh Chakrabarty. Actually Turkey doesn’t fit into this picture so well, since it doesn’t have a history of colonialism. But among Turkish intellectuals, anti-imperialist approaches have always gained favour, and some theoreticians blame ‘imperialism’ as the reason of Turkish intellectuals’ ineffectiveness.


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