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One thing that has always perplexed me while reading philosophy is the odd use of punctuation. — Namely, the use of em dashes to begin a sentence. I find this most prevalent in Hegel and Wittgenstein who both wrote in German.

From Hegel's Encyclopedia Logic:

One thus sees, for example, an electrical phenomenon, and asks for the ground of it; if we receive the answer, the electricity is the ground of this phenomenon, then this is the same content that we had immediately before us, merely translated into the form of something internal. — Furthermore, however, the ground is not merely what is simply identical with itself, but also different from itself and, for this reason, diverse grounds can be put forward for one and the same content, a diversity of grounds that proceeds according to the concept of difference, then further to opposition in the form of grounds for and against the same content. — If, for example, we consider an action, more specifically a theft, then this is a content relative to which several sides can be distinguished.

From Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations:

  1. In what sense does an order anticipate its fulfilment? — By now ordering just that which later on is carried out? — But this would surely have to run: “which later on is carried out, or again is not carried out”. And that says nothing.

Any ideas why this style is favoured and if it can be considered valid use? Thanks.

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  • I've seen at least one differently punctuated translation. Unless the dash is a device to represent a different original formatting where space is limited, I'd strongly advise against its use before a sentence – the sentence break is offsetting enough (or the next steps up would be an ellipsis between sentences, then a new paragraph). Can you find licensing for this use of the dash? Commented Dec 24, 2021 at 12:14

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In German, a dash can be used instead of a paragraph break, according to Wikipedia (in German), as in this example: „Das Unglück ist lange her. – Hat man eigentlich jemals …“

However, Nietzsche for example used dashes above and beyond that, as he also used double dashes (— —) and sentence-end dashes.

It's up to the translator what they do with punctuation. In the text you read, they chose to keep the punctuation.

It's highly unusual to see sentence initial dashes in English — I can't find anywhere that recommends or documents this practice. I found an example in the abstract of Effectiveness of Bicycle Safety Helmets in Preventing Head Injuries. I would use a colon instead of a period and dash, which is how the abstract appears elsewhere, so I'm not sure the significance of the first site's punctuation. I can't think of any other times I've seen a dash to begin a sentence in English.

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First, German punctuation does not use the same rules as English punctuation (which can hardly be said to have rules, though German certainly does). However, punctuation is largely a matter of sentences, not paragraphs. What you use for bullets in bulleted lists is up to you.

Second, philosophy as a discipline has a long history (beginning with the Academy and the Lyceum) of argument -- vocal argument -- as the means of determining truth. So disputes were oral, with the written version appearing sometime later, if they got around to it.

Third, punctuation of any sort changes radically; Shakepeare's punctuation is not at all like Modern English printing. And people have their own ideas about how to punctuate their writing (and others').

Finally, especially with Wittgenstein, most of philosophy is a matter of language games, where the philosophical argument shatters the unstated presuppositions behind certain ideas and ways of talking about them. This show itself in Wittgenstein's writing by his using whatever devices of writing, speech, punctuation, and lexical choice he pleases. Naturally, his arguments are not only couched in texts.

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  • English definitely has rules, though many of them are learned subconsciously by native speakers who might not know the names for or explicit forms of them. Take, for instance, expletive infixation.
    – nick012000
    Commented Dec 26, 2021 at 3:02
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    @nick01 How many exceptions (these include obvious exceptions and divided usages) prove that the postulation of a 'rule' is untenable? Expletive infixation is pretty un-*#x!@x-productive. And John Lawler is speaking about punctuation, where even prestigious style guides disagree. Commented Dec 26, 2021 at 12:51
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Edwin Ashworth wrote (in a comment):

I've seen at least one differently punctuated translation. Unless the dash is a device to represent a different original formatting where space is limited, I'd strongly advise against its use before a sentence – the sentence break is offsetting enough (or the next steps up would be an ellipsis between sentences, then a new paragraph). Can you find licensing for this use of the dash?

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