Tuesday, October 04, 2016

French, German, Greek, Latin, but Not Arabic, Chinese, or Sanskrit?

[cross-posted at the Blog of the APA]

When I was graduate student in Berkeley in the 1990s, philosophy PhD students were required to pass exams in two of the following four languages: French, German, Greek, or Latin. I already knew German. I argued that Spanish should count (I had read Unamuno in the original as an undergrad), but my petition was denied since I didn’t plan to do further work in Spanish. I argued that a psychological methods course would be more useful than a second foreign language, given that my dissertation was in philosophy of psychology, but that was not treated as a serious suggestion. I'd learned some classical Chinese, but I thought it would be pointless to attempt 600 characters in two hours as required (much more daunting than 600 words in a European language). So I crammed French for a few weeks and passed the exam.

I have recently become interested in mainstream Anglophone philosophers’ tendency to privilege certain languages and traditions in the history of philosophy. If we think globally, considering large, robust traditions of written work treating recognizably philosophical topics with argumentative sophistication and scholarly detail, it seems clear that at least Arabic, classical Chinese, and Sanskrit merit inclusion alongside French, German, Greek, and Latin as languages of major philosophical importance.

The exclusion of Arabic, Chinese, and Sanskrit from Berkeley’s standard language requirements could not, I think, have been mere ignorance. Rather, the focus on French, German, Greek, and Latin appeared to express a value judgment: that these four languages are more central to philosophy as it ought to be studied.

The language requirements of philosophy PhD programs have loosened over the years, but French, German, Latin, and Greek still form the core language requirements in departments that have language requirements. Students therefore continue to receive the message that these languages are the most important ones for philosophers to know.

I examined the language requirements of a sample of PhD programs in the United States. Because of their sociological importance in the discipline, I started with the top twelve ranked programs in the Philosophical Gourmet Report. I then expanded the sample by considering a group of strong PhD programs that are not as sociologically central to the discipline – the programs ranked 40-50 in the U.S.

Among the top twelve programs (corrections welcome):

* Four appeared to have no foreign language requirement (Michigan, NYU, Rutgers, Stanford).

* Seven (Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard, Pitt, UCLA, USC, Yale) had some version of a language requirement, requiring one of French, German, Greek or Latin -- always exactly that list. Some programs explicitly allowed another language and/or another relevant research skill by petition or consultation.

* Only Princeton had a language requirement that did not appear to privilege French, German, Greek, and Latin. Princeton only requires a language “relevant to the student’s proposed course of study” (or alternatively “a unit of advanced work in another department” or “completion of an additional unit of work in any area of philosophy”).

You might think that, practically speaking, Arabic or classical Chinese would be a fine language to choose. Students can always petition; maybe such petitions are almost always granted. This response, however, ignores the fact that something is communicated by other languages’ non-inclusion on the privileged list. For a tendentious comparison – maybe too tendentious! – consider an admissions form that said “we admit men, but also women by petition”. One thing is treated as a norm and the other as an exception.

Interestingly, the PhD programs ranked less highly by the Philosophical Gourmet had more relaxed language requirements overall. In the 40-50 group, only two of the eleven mentioned a language requirement or list of languages. Still, the privileged languages were from the same set: “French, German, or other” at Saint Louis University, and optional certification in French, German, Greek, or Latin at Rochester.

I do not believe that we should be sending students the message that French, German, Greek, and Latin are more important than other languages in which there is a body of interesting philosophical work. It is too Eurocentric a vision of the history of philosophy. Let’s change this.


Related Op-Eds:

What’s missing in college philosophy classes? Chinese philosophers (Schwitzgebel, Los Angeles Times, Sep 11, 2015)

If philosophy won’t diversify, let’s call it what it really is (Garfield and Van Norden, New York Times, May 11, 2016)

And on the opposite side:

Not all things wise and good are philosophy (Tampio, Aeon, Sep 13, 2016)

The image is, of course, from the Epic Rap Battle, Eastern vs Western Philosophers!


Richard P said...

This is a very interesting topic; thanks for bringing it up.

What would you say to this defense of the status quo? You are considering philosophy programs in the United States. The reasonable presumption is that their Ph.D. candidates are either Westerners, or non-Westerners who want to be well-grounded in Western philosophy. Both groups of people need to study the Western tradition seriously, either because they (like it or not) are rooted in that tradition or because they desire to participate in it. It is undeniable that most major thinkers in the West have written in Greek, Latin, French, German, or English, and furthermore, a great deal of secondary literature has been published in those languages.

Even if US students' doctoral research deals with non-Western thought or with Western philosophy written in less dominant languages, they should be well-grounded in the dominant Western traditions. There's also a good chance that they ought to read some secondary literature in French or German. Passing a reading exam in one or two of the "big four" languages doesn't seem like much to ask.

This argument does not make any judgment about the philosophical worth of thought that is conducted in other languages. I actually wrote about Unamuno myself in my undergraduate senior thesis at Berkeley; I read him in Spanish, and he taught himself Danish in order to read Kierkegaard. Obviously, there are great traditions of philosophy written in Sanskrit, Chinese, and Arabic. None of these traditions or languages should be demeaned. But I think there's a good reason for doctoral students in the US, and in the West generally, to be able to read as many of the main Western philosophical languages as possible. I'm confident that Unamuno (a professor of Greek) and Kierkegaard would agree.

Another topic for discussion on this blog would be the fact that at some institutions, people are permitted to write, say, a dissertation on Kant without reading German. How do we begin to count the misconceptions involved in that enterprise?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

This seems to me to be a sensible version of what I think of as the "ignorance justifies ignorance" argument (a couple of other common arguments are the "not really philosophy" argument and the "lower quality" argument). I appreciate the articulate expression of this point of view.

A few thoughts about the argument:

(1.) There is no realistic danger that the Western tradition will not be taken seriously in U.S. philosophy PhD programs, so it's a matter of somewhat reducing the extent of its privilege.

(2.) The U.S. is cultural mix. It is somewhat simplifying to say that our U.S. tradition is rooted in western Europe, when a substantial proportion of the students are of Asian descent and might have been raised with Asian cultural practices in their homes. At UC Riverside, where I teach, 33% of students identify as Asian and only 16% as non-Hispanic white.

(3.) As an analogy that displays the core idea in the "ignorance justifies ignorance" argument, using a different specialization, consider an argument that degree programs in Music should focus mostly on classical European musical traditions and mostly disregard Asian, popular, South American, African and jazz traditions. My sense is that historically Music programs did strongly privilege the classical European tradition but that it has been a good thing to encourage expansion beyond that tradition. I don't think there's much risk (though I stand open to correction on this) that mainstream PhD programs in Music would cease to take the European tradition seriously even if they also encouraged non-European study.

(4.) You might grant all of the above and still think that knowledge of one of those four languages is an essential tool for philosophers in the US in a way that knowledge of other languages is not. (Sometimes formal logic requirements are justified in this way, too.) I could imagine a world in which this is true, but it is far from true in philosophy as actually practiced today. Language is an essential tool for students who study the history of philosophy of works in those languages; but most students study other areas like contemporary ethics or contemporary philosophy of mind, and for them the language exam is a hurdle that doesn't help them much later on, except as a way of broadening their vision. So as actually practiced, the language requirement functions to privilege certain areas in the history of philosophy and to encourage broadening in that one direction rather than in others.

Richard P said...

Thanks for your reply, Eric. I have no interest in justifying ignorance, and I do think programs ought to encourage and enable the study of non-Western philosophy. The question is how much of a grounding in Western philosophy all doctoral students in the West should have, regardless of what their other studies will be, and whether that grounding requires some study of the "big four" languages.

I didn't mean to suggest that US students are purely Western, but surely Asian Americans, along with everyone else who lives in this country (and much of the rest of the world) are deeply engaged in cultural, scientific, technological, and political practices that are indebted to the history of Western philosophy. They need to understand some of that history in order to understand themselves. And at the doctoral level, the "big four" languages are helpful, in my opinion, in improving their understanding. This self-understanding may even be a prerequisite for a sensitive and respectful encounter with non-Western thought.

Students who focus on, say, contemporary philosophy of mind without ever seriously studying Aristotle or Hegel are not only missing opportunities to expand their thought, but also failing to understand the genealogies of many of the concepts and debates in which they themselves are engaged. So "broadening their vision" to improve their understanding of their own presuppositions is crucial, I'd say. And a smattering of Greek and German would do them some good.

I agree that my vision is at odds with the actual academic world ... but we are debating what ought to be the case, aren't we?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for clarifying, Richard! I agree that we're talking about "oughts", so that's fine.

A few more reactions:

(1.) Let me clarify why I think of your view as broadly in the "ignorance justifies ignorance" vein. If you allow that non-Western philosophy is equally good as philosophy, then the natural explanation for why it hasn't had much influence on mainstream Western philosophy the past few centuries is that we were ignorant of it. But then the fact that it hasn't had much influence on the mainstream Western tradition is deployed to justify deprioritizing learning it. So past ignorance -> less influence on current thinking -> continued ignorance.

(2.) Knowing "some of the history" of Western philosophy is of course a low bar. So I think you must mean something like "a lot" instead of just "some". But then the question is how much more than they are normally exposed to without a language requirement, and could that time be as fruitfully spent learning some other piece of the history of philosophy that is less familiar? Or at least does it make sense for departments to leave that decision to the student's discretion or preference?

(3.) On broadening one's vision, my guess is that it would be even more mind-expanding to learn Arabic, Indian, or Chinese philosophy than to learn more about Plato and Hegel. I agree that seeing the genealogy can be helpful in understanding your presuppositions; but so also can exposure to traditions that don't share those presuppositions, yes?

Richard P said...

Your points are good.

Yes, I guess I do mean "a lot" of history of Western philosophy, at least in terms of intensity of study (not necessarily number of words). I think it would do every student good.

But perhaps translations are fine for many purposes, and it is quite true that encountering non-Western philosophy can make Westerners more self-aware about their own traditions.

My essential concern is what I perceive as an excessive focus on recently published articles without enough reading of great books, and I suppose that concern could be addressed by requiring Ph.D. students to read Chuang Tzu or Nagarjuna at least as well as by requiring them to pass a language exam.

Matt said...

When I was a grad student at Penn, I'd just come back from two years in the Peace Corps in Russia. Russia has a pretty idiosyncratic philosophical tradition (I even wrote a little survey paper on it with a Russian philosopher, for anyone who is interested) but I had some interest in particular bits of it - some of the pre-marxist socialists in particular. (One other issue is that lots of Russian intellectuals before the mid-19th Century wrote in French more than in Russian.) Even though I knew Russian, I wasn't good enough at it to do academic work, and wanted to keep working on it so that I might do so. But, my request to study Russian for my language requirement was refused. ("No tradition" I was told.) So, I pretended to learn German instead. I do know that a former grad student there who worked on Islamic philosophy learned Islamic, but I expect it was in addition to Latin (he did/does medieval philosophy generally, too) not rather than Latin.

Anonymous said...

Presumably, the language requirement is related to an idea that the language may be useful, or even essential for research. So, I would only be worried about a lack of Sanskrit or Classical Chinese on the list if the program in question had an expert in Indian or Chinese philosophy and writing a dissertation in these areas was a viable option. In a sense, the language requirement is simply a manifestation of the value judgment already expressed in the composition of the departments., and changing the language requirement itself without dealing with the underlying problem wouldn't seem to make any real difference.

Michel X. said...

My impression--and it's purely anecdotal!--is that most language requirements haven't really been tinkered with since their introduction whenever ago, and that they are the way they are in the absence of a departmental consensus over their real purpose.

If the purpose is to ensure we're equipped with the tools necessary to conduct our research, then I would expect language requirements to be sensitive to the needs of our research projects. As a matter of fact, that will probably mean that most of us end up learning either French, German, Greek, or Latin (or all four for medievalists!). Of course, there's always the question of what to do with those of us for whom no language other than English is especially relevant, and here the rationale probably breaks down. I suspect it switches instead to the intrinsic value (or broad instrumental value) of having a second language (or more). That's fine, but it offers no good reason to restrict it to FGGL.

My own graduate program requires either one other research language at the advanced level, or two at the intermediate level. Although the default languages are FGGL the department is happy to test for other research-relevant natural languages. If memory serves, in the recent past that's meant Arabic, Italian, and Japanese, among other languages. The trouble is that although this sounds pretty good in principle, the department doesn't have much in the way of resources to support the acquisition of a new language, and doesn't really adjust its degree timeline or funding in light of the significant commitment that learning new languages represents. The result is that, e.g., most Canadian students (it's a Canadian program) just end up taking the test for French, since we've had ten or more years of education in it already. I wonder what the results would look like if we canvassed departments about their language learning resources...

I'm not sure this is always a helpful comparison, but I think that a similar lack of consensus attends a lot of logic requirements too. The default choice seems to be to work our way up to proving the incompleteness theorems. While there's something to be said for learning all that, it's not really clear to me that it does much to improve our ability to teach logic (especially intro), or that it's more useful to the bulk of us (in terms of research or general knowledge) than other subjects would be (e.g. modal or paraconsistent logics, or even intermediate stats). It's just sort of the way things have always been done, and I suspect the reasons for it aren't really obvious to anyone.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Richard: I share that concern. Also related to my September blogpost about the tiny percentage of citations of non-English sources (even in translation) in the highest-visibility Anglophone philosophy journals: http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2016/09/how-often-do-mainstream-anglophone.html

Matt: Yes, that's disappointing!

Anon Oct 6: I think it makes two differences: First, there's a signaling issue: what are students being implicitly or explicitly told about the history of philosophy. Second, I assume that historians of any era will need to know the language used in that era, formal requirement or no, so the language requirement is only effective in forcing non-historians to learn a language, which will probably not prove very useful in their research (given the current research scene). So its justification ought to be in terms of broadening, or something like that. And why insist on broadening only in a European direction?

Michel X: Yes! I pretty much agree with all of that.

Anonymous said...

At USC, it is the norm for philosophy students to take a class that fulfills the 'research skill' alternative to the language requirement. Fulfilling the school's language requirement by taking a language class would be very unusual, to my knowledge. I've no idea how widespread this practice is.

Pilot Guy said...

I always thought a Signalling argument - outside of Economics - was a bit like the Slippery Slope argument - not actually an argument at all.
There must be better reasons for upsetting an existing apple cart than signalling reasons.

Andrew Richmond said...

For what it's worth, Columbia has dropped the language requirement. It might still be on the website, but it's officially nixed as of this semester.

And Toronto, which ranks in the PGR with the group you've chosen, only has a 'research tool' requirement. You can fulfill the requirement with formal tools, languages, etc. I remember them being pretty loose about it but I don't know how they treated students trying to fulfill it with Greek as opposed to those learning, e.g., Sanskrit.

John said...

Another disappointment is that certain programs lack a language requirement altogether. Hopefully students of the history of philosophy are learning the requisite languages even if they aren't required.