Thursday, July 25, 2019

Disadvantages of a Lingua Franca in Philosophy

A common language for academic discourse has an obvious advantage: Everyone can communicate, without need of translators, both orally and in writing. That's pretty awesome! We can approach the ideal of a unified global scholarly community to which anyone with the right training can contribute.

The downsides are maybe less visible to those of us who are native speakers of English, the current lingua franca of academia. The significance of these downsides varies by discipline and is probably larger for the arts and humanities, including philosophy, than for the sciences.

(For evidence that Anglophone philosophers, at least, treat English as the lingua franca of philosophy by almost never citing work written in other languages, see my recent article with Huang, Higgins, and Gonzalez-Cabrera.)

Here are three disadvantages of treating English as the common language of philosophical scholarship.

1. The current situation puts disproportionate burdens on non-native speakers. This is obvious on reflection, but easy for native speakers to forget. In their introduction to a special journal issue on "Linguistic Injustice and Analytic Philosophy", Filippo Contesi and Enrico Terrone highlight some of the burdens. Non-native speakers must spend enormous time learning English or be shut out of global academic discussion. Unless they are highly fluent, they will read more slowly and fail to understand some nuances or idioms. Unless they are highly fluent or exert great effort, their prose might seem awkward or clunky to native speakers. They might also face implicit or explicit prejudice in face-to-face discussion, if they have a heavy accent or a less confident speaking style. I invite my readers who are native English-speaking philosophers to imagine how difficult it would be to write all of their philosophy articles in German and always speak in German at talks and conferences. How much less you would probably publish -- and how much harder it would be to escape the periphery of the field!

In a multi-linguistic regime, everyone would bear linguistic burdens. Native English speakers would sometimes need to read works in other languages to stay at the cutting edge of their field. I had personal experience of this while researching 19th and early 20th century psychology for my book on introspection, which required me to read untranslated works in French, German, Spanish, and (I tried!) Czech.

One advantage of English as a lingua franca is that at least some people are relieved of linguistic burdens, even if the distribution of the remaining burdens isn't entirely fair. To this I respond: The burden of reading in another language, especially with new machine-translation tools, is much less than the burden of writing in that language. Yes, machine translation is far from perfect. The proper reading of machine-translated scholarly articles requires substantial familiarity with the original language, looking side-by-side at the original and the machine translation. But the skills required for reading machine translations are vastly less than the skills required for fluent writing -- perhaps especially writing in the arts and humanities. So although in a multi-lingual regime everyone would bear some language-learning costs, the total costs might be less overall. (There would also be an important role for Schliesser-style translator-advocates.)

2. In philosophy, and probably generally across the arts and humanities, the nuances of ordinary language matter. In the sciences, the substance of articles tends to depend on equations, experimental results, and technical vocabulary that is regularized across the discipline. Philosophy, in contrast, seems often to require an ear for linguistic nuance and often relies on concepts that are language-specific. Consequently, there is a risk that an Anglophone-dominated academic community will agree to, or assume, philosophical views that they would not have agreed to or assumed had a different language been dominant.

Much of my academic work, for example, concerns belief. What is it to believe a proposition? Can someone truly be said to believe something (such as that women and men are equally intelligent) if they sincerely say it but don't act and react generally as though it is true? Can we know a proposition that we don't quite believe? It is unclear to me to what extent my work, and other philosophers' work on belief, relies on English-language-specific intuitions. Friends of mine who speak other languages sometimes tell me that the English concept of belief, and perhaps especially the English-language-philosopher's concept of belief, doesn't map neatly and intuitively onto any of the terms in their languages that are ordinarily used to translate "believe", such as glauben (in German) and creer (in Spanish).

Similarly, a seminal paper by Edouard Machery and others in 2004 has launched a minor subfield exploring the question of whether English-language philosophers' judgments about the referents of proper names -- judgments that are central to philosophy of language as it is often practiced -- are cross-culturally robust.

Drawing on my knowledge of classical Chinese philosophy, some of the concepts those philosophers found natural don't have straightforward translations into English, and reflect ways of seeing or conceptualizing the world that are worth considering. De (德), for example, which is often translated "virtue" or "power", might combine something like moral virtue and social power into a single concept, rooted in the Confucian and Daoist tradition according to which if one has (Confucian or Daoist) moral virtue, a kind of power and social influence is apt to follow. An English-language philosopher, of course, could invent such a concept, even with no knowledge of Chinese -- but the classical Chinese word de (德) interestingly invites and facilitates that way of thinking.

Philosophy should, I think, prize having a wide diversity of terms, concepts, and intuitions about linguistic use, which can be compared and selected among. If English is too dominant, we risk being excessively predisposed to concepts and patterns of thought that are comfortable in English. This might be true, though presumably to a lesser extent, even for philosophers whose native language is not English, if they conduct most of their philosophical work in English.

3. Robust, partially separate traditions can nurture diversity of thought. Academic philosophy is subject to trends. In the 1990s, Twin Earth thought experiments were hot. In the past five years or so, implicit bias has become hot. There's nothing wrong with this. (Some of my own recent work concerns implicit bias.) But one of the risks of a linguistic monoculture is that scholars tend to read the same things, get caught up in the same trends, and have the same range of thoughts as a result. There's value in having different philosophical cultures whose participants focus on different sets of canonical works, focus on different ranges of questions, and regard different background concepts and ideas as the default -- and who then engage respectfully as equals with scholars from different cultures. We lose an important source of cognitive diversity if training in "philosophy of mind", for example, involves the same range of canonical texts for scholars across the world.

Here again, the situation in the arts and humanities might differ from the situation in the sciences. In the arts and humanities, including in philosophy, diversity of perspective is intrinsically important. Indeed, I would suggest, the value of the arts of humanities is to a substantial extent constituted by the ability of those disciplines to reveal a wide range of possible thoughts and values.

In Big Bang cosmology and plate tectonics, perhaps, we just want to get at the scientific truth. Although philosophy and the other arts and humanities can and do aim at uncovering truths, they also do something else equally important. They invite readers to challenge their own values and perspectives. They do this not necessarily to replace those values and perspectives with better alternatives, but because part of understanding the human condition is understanding how different things can look when you step outside of your familiar frameworks. A linguistic monoculture with English at the center deprives academic philosophy, especially native English speakers, of the philosophical and cognitive benefits of vividly engaging alternative literatures and conceptual frameworks from different linguistic traditions.

[image modified from here]


howard b said...

Wasn't there cross fertilization in the middle ages from translating the Greek authors like Aristotle into Latin from Arabic, or Lucretius into the lingua franca's again from Latin?
It goes both ways, or was that an artifact of the times?

Miroslav Imbrisevic said...

The monoglots are a recent phenomenon. Many British philosophers before and right after WWII knew French and German - John L. Austin interrogated German prisoners of war in their native tongue. Many universities in the UK at some point gave up the foreign language requirements for doing a degree. UCL, to their credit, still have a foreign language requirement []. But the monoglots often expect non-natives to have a perfect grasp of English. I was at a big conference in Switzerland recently, with delegates from more than 60 countries. One presenter from the UK gave a talk without regard for the non-native speakers present. His natural speaking pace was very fast; this is the first hurdle for any non-native. And he used six or seven idiomatic expressions, something which is always a problem because learners will interpret these expressions literally (e.g.: 'He led me up the garden path.'), unless they know them. Only a monoglot can show such - surely unintended - disregard for his non-native audience. The downside of this ignorance is that you will only reach a fraction of your audience.

Philosopher Eric said...

For professional jobs there will be various skills to acquire. Learning a new language is not generally one of them however, given that such skills can generally be acquired in various languages. But sometimes language is a requirement, such as to be a translator or often to be a government diplomat. It’s simply the nature of the beast. And if fluent English (and not just a major language) does now happen to be a requirement to do well in academic philosophy, then let’s not lie to ourselves about this, or certainly lose ourselves in fantasy notions about fixing naturally occurring social inequities.

I support the advancement of non-whites and females in the realm of philosophy, not because I want to fix perceived injustices to such peoples, but rather because I think that white men have proven to be crappy stewards of the field. I believe that science is extremely hindered today given that philosophy has not yet developed various generally accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology from which to guide the institution of science. Perhaps non-whites and females would help fix this void.

Similarly I support the advancement of non-English speakers in the field. But if English currently happens to be a requirement, then I would rather that such candidates do not use notions of social inequity to pretend otherwise. Such notions should hurt my cause, and I think the advancement of both philosophy, and science by extension.

Nichi said...

A (very good) philosopher mentioned in a seminar that in graduate school he learned to treat his dyslexia as an advantage in doing philosophy, since everyone else was used to reading more quickly and he already was familiar with slowing down. (I've also heard another philosopher with dyslexia memorized Being and Time because they didn't want to have to read it a second time.) Of course I don't think reading in a language one isn't very fluent with is quite the same, but I've noticed a benefit with a similar description. In English it's really easy for me to fall into reading whole pages at a time, picking up big pictures and intuiting the meanings of all the words, rightly or wrongly. Switching languages forces me to slow down and make sure I understand each word.

Also, given most professional philosophers are teaching, and that students may come from a variety of linguistic backgrounds, working in languages one is less fluent in seems to come with the dual benefits of better understanding where students might be coming from because of intuitions and such built into different languages as well as the challenges those taking the class in a language they're not so familiar with are facing.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it is time to develop an artificial language -- perhaps based upon some combination of Quine's predicate logic and (just as an example) Esperanto. Learning it would be the first requirement for a degree in philosophy. As Nichi says of reading other languages it would force us all to slow down, stay away from idiom, and to clearly define our terms and categories.

Perhaps we can learn something from translation of this argot into English (and back).

On the other hand, (pace Miroslav) we might also all benefit from making some second language a requirement for College (and perhaps in High School). Instructors could require (at least of their grad students) that they read and show understanding of foreign language philosophical papers.

Just a Thot,

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Howard: I'm sure that's true (though I am no expert on the period). There are definitely advantages to a lingua franca; the question is whether they are outweighed by the disadvantages.

Miroslav: Yes, that seems right to me!

Philosopher Eric: Social inequity seems to me to be one legitimate reason to want to see more women, people of color, and people whose first language isn't English. I don't think it's the only reason -- by why not think of it as an important consideration alongside the others? Most of us see repairing inequities as a legitimate reason for action in other domains (e.g., tax policy). Why not in academia too? Of course, that still leaves open the question of how much weight to put on it and what would be a fair and reasonable approach to addressing inequities.

Nichi: Interesting points. Thanks!

Stu: An artificial language might address some equity issues, but the costs would be high and I'd still worry about the other two reasons to not want a lingua franca.

Philosopher Eric said...

Repairing inequities is definitely a legitimate reason for action, so I do agree with you about that. Furthermore openly considering how much weight this particular issue deserves, suggests that you aren’t just fishing for “morality points” here. (In these matters many seem to, though perhaps often not consciously.)

It may be however that as humanity becomes more and more connected, its multitude of languages will become progressively more problematic. Mathematics should naturally be more safe in this regard, since it has its own universal language. Conversely philosophy seems ripe for trouble since ideas must effectively be translated into different languages in order for others to grasp what’s being said. So it may be that a single language will soon be mandated not just in it, but in many fields. If so then serious students would be wise to heed this trend wherever it exists. (There are cultural circumstances here as well. Apparently French people often hate speaking English with tourists, while Germans tend to enjoy displaying their proficiency.)

In a cultural and artistic sense, to me it would be an utter shame if all academic philosophy were to occur in English. I don’t think so however. I suspect that the field will split off into a form which remains very interested in culture and the vast tradition of the field. This community should appreciate language diversity among its members. Secondly there should be a community with a single goal — to reach agreements regarding metaphysics, epistemology, and value, from which to better found the institution of science. For this community, having but one language to decipher should be an important tool.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Philosopher Eric: That all seems sensible to me, except I want to add a third strand to the final two you end with. Not just "culture and tradition" and "reaching agreement" but also something like an appreciation of pluralism in not just the antiquarian sense. I am influenced here by "Stanford school" philosophy of science: The world is too complex for any single model to work. A plurality of inconsistent models, vocabularies, and approaches with competing virtues and deficiencies will always be necessary, in the physical sciences, but even more so in philosophy.

Anonymous said...

Background: I'm a boringly middle-class white male (etc etc etc) from a western Europeean coutnry, so on a global level I'm very well off - but English is not my native language. I currently live in the UK (for philosophy), even though it's pretty obvious that my home country is better off materially and socially than Britain, in general. From this perspective, I'm not sure I buy arguments 1 or 2 for linguistic pluralism in the way you frame them.

First, regarding the first argument for linguistic pluralism: I'm not sure about the framing of the justice issue. How exactly is it an injustice to non-native English speakers (like me) that contemporary analytic philosophy is mostly conducted in English?

Learning and using English regularly has been a good for me because it has opened up more of the world. But given my generally well off background, it's also a negligible good. I could have led a very good life without speaking English, not to mention without going into philosophy.

That being so, I don't really understand how I might be suffering from a form of injustice. Is it unjust that I was taught English in school (alongside other languages)? Is it unjust that I was exposed to a lot of English from other sources (e.g. music, games, and books) from an early age, hence becoming pretty much fluent in English as early as in my teens? Am I alienated from my true self or my cultural roots or some other scary communitarian thing? I don't follow.

Of course, it might be the case that *others* suffer from linguistic injustices here, even though I maybe don't. Someone who grew up with less access to English might be worse off than I am. But then what is at issue here needn't be an issue that has much to do with native vs. non-native speakers. Rather, there are much more general things to say here about how good the local education systems are, how conservative some local culture is, etc. Importantly, I doubt that injustices in those dimensions don't exist even among native English speakers. Someone who has grown up in the wrong class or group in Anglophone countries probably lacks access to Anglophone philosophy departments that I have, even though I'm not a native English speaker.

In fact, given how well off I am on a global level, how about this twist? It might be native English speakers who can't speak my language who are worse off here. You don't have very good access to my cultural background, but I have that to yours. I have a good that most of you don't.

Second, regarding the second argument for pluralism: I don't see why or how issues of linguistic difference would lead to a form of *problematic* Anglophone domination when it comes to philosophical content. I'm possibly more scientistic than you are here, but I think that using English (and, to a lesser extent, German and French) for stuff like philosophy of mind has opened up my conceptual repertoire far beyond what my native language could do. The way I see philosophy - though I realize there is significant disagreement here! - we're mostly using language as a tool to try to hone in on various (non-linguistic) features of the world, and English (etc) are much richer languages than my native language, so other languages are better tools to use than my native language. With this point in mind, I think it is true that pluralism is helpful. But it is helpful in part because English is helpful, not because English is problematically dominant.

Moreover, if I were to think of some concept or issue in my native language (or some other language!), I am pretty sure it would be fairly easy to import it into some philosophical text and defend it. I have never encountered a philosopher who would scoff at a concept or idea because it has its origins elsewhere than in English, so I would be very surprised if I were to encounter resistance doing this.

Matthew said...

I wonder if these might be some solutions to the problems raised:

To solve the problem of (1) conceptual stagnation and narrowness, maybe the philosophers fluent in various other philosophically explored languages might offer their best and most characteristic concepts to the lingua franca. English has always adopted useful words from other languages. Importing foreign concepts via their native terms would certainly enrich general philosophical discourse-- not only for native speakers of the lingua franca, but for philosophers of all backgrounds; including the speakers of other secondary languages.

To solve the problem of (2) the obliviousness of lingua-franca primary speakers to the difficulties of lingua franca secondary speakers, perhaps there should be some activism to require, or at least incentivise professional philosophers to become bilingual. This would probably increase refinement of thinking and self-critical awareness. This would not, however, be the same as linguistic pluralism. This system would retain a lingua franca at the center where (for instance); english-latin, english-french, french-german-english, chinese-english, etc... speakers could meet in a common marketplace of ideas. If there were no lingua franca the universal assimilations of important books and papers into the collective knowledge of the field would be slower, because instead of needing only to translate everything once into the lingua franca to initiate the universal assimilation, each work would instead need to be translated into every other philosophically active language.

Philosopher Eric said...

Thanks professor, I’m not used to professionals agreeing with me about this. Some philosophers have told me that I’m making a category error — unlike science, philosophy isn’t about achieving effective agreed upon answers. Others have worried that my position seems to arm the critics of philosophy — that I shouldn’t admit that it still needs what it hasn’t been able to develop in all these centuries.

Regarding the third variety of philosopher that you’ve proposed, I didn’t mean to imply that “a plurality of inconsistent models, vocabularies, and approaches with competing virtues and deficiencies”, wouldn’t exist as well. Not only does this exist in science and traditional philosophy, but I believe it would also need to exist under the new philosophy community that I propose. Like scientists this community would have certain common understandings, though each philosopher would still seek to advance the field by means of his or her otherwise unique perspective and desire to personally contribute.

For example, by now I must have mentioned several times that I propose one principle of metaphysics, two principles of epistemology, and one principle of value. If various scientists were to put them through their paces and find that these principles help them do their jobs more effectively, then not only should they grow more popular in science, but sensible philosophers like yourself should try to take them further through their own unique perspectives. Thus the community of philosopher which I speak of would exist, and depend upon that “plurality of inconsistent models, vocabularies, and approaches with competing virtues and deficiencies”, for vigor from which to potentially add to a common platform.

The goal would always be to help scientists do science better, and given that philosophers rather than scientists specialize in the methodology of science. It could be that “hard” forms of science naturally happen to be less susceptible to deficiencies in method than the mental and behavioral forms which are inherently close to us. If so then these fields should essentially be in a holding pattern until your field (and my hobby) is able to straighten them out.

Étienne said...

"If English is too dominant, we risk being excessively predisposed to concepts and patterns of thought that are comfortable in English. This might be true, though presumably to a lesser extent, even for philosophers whose native language is not English, if they conduct most of their philosophical work in English."

I think this is exactly right, and I suspect many non-native speakers who now mostly write philosophy in English experience the following: you find yourself speaking your first language at home, but then struggle to reach the same level of precision you have reached in English. To a large extent, writing good philosophy amounts to writing precisely. I mostly write in English, and it has for me become the language of precision in thought.

I also agree that we have lost the ideal of the multilingual philosopher in the profession. In many cases, I think discussing too many untranslated philosophy works in the context of a journal article may end up hurting you. Often, you need to quote what the reviewers are likely to have read so that they can decide if you interpret those works well and formulate fair objections against them, etc. One solution to this problem would be to have journals dedicated to the discussion of untranslated works, but I suspect that multilingualism won't really be valued unless it makes its way to the most prestigious journals.

The question of affirmative action for multilingual philosophers on the job market is also interesting: is there a strong case against it?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Anon Aug 1:

(A.) Here are a couple of ways of thinking about the injustice. (1.) If the burdens are inequitably distributed, that's unjust, even if the burdens turn out to be a benefit for those who carry them. (If you have to carry 20 pounds and I have to carry 10 pounds on a hike, as the result of an inequitable distribution of obligations, that's unjust even if you enjoy hiking with weight and benefit from it.) (2.) Journal referees often value fluency and writing like a native speaker, even beyond what we might think of as the content of the work and the quality of the arguments. Most people who aren't native English speakers can't quite attain that, even if their content and arguments are good. There's a structural injustice in privileging that type of writing in the journals that are sociologically central to the field.

(B.) Importing concepts is great! I do think it takes a huge amount of work to make an imported concept stick. And there's also the default background conceptualizations that are implicit in the language, and which might not present themselves as salient if the work is originally written in English.

Matthew: (1) seems like a partial remedy, yes. (2) is an interesting thought, but it's unclear what the incentive should be. Heavy-handed or paternalistic policies don't seem like a good idea to me.

Philosopher Eric: Yes, the view that truth isn't among the aims of philosophical thinking seems quite wrong-headed to me -- though I'm not sure that other humanistic disciplines need to stay in a "holding pattern" until we've figured things out or that philosophers have more insight into the methodology of science than scientists do. Things are more chaotic than that, and the disciplinary lines blurrier, I think.

Etienne: Yes, interesting points. Your comment about "precision" is especially intriguing (and I've heard it from others who write philosophy in English rather than their native tongue). One possibility is that the English concept seems more precise because that's the one you're used to using and the French (for example) concept doesn't map neatly onto it, rather than that there's some greater precision on philosophical English -- although the latter might sometimes be the case, too, if the terms are being rigorously defined in the literature. On affirmative action: I'm inclined to think that there are many forms of diversity that should be valued, cultural/linguistic diversity among them.

Miroslav Imbrisevic said...

One way to counter the self-centredness in Anglo-American philosophy is for speakers of other languages (who publish in English) to refer to writing in their native tongue. I don’t think this is a disadvantage when trying to have your paper published, provided you give a translation (and the original text) – common practice in the olden days. Although I live in the UK, I always have a look to see if there is anything in German (my native tongue) on the subject I am writing about.

There is something else we haven’t mentioned yet, which I find worrying. I have noticed how philosophy departments in Germany have gradually shifted their focus away from their own traditions to the Anglo-American literature. 40 years ago, when I was at Mainz University, Kant scholars would of course read Strawson, but today the anglophone literature dominates the reading lists.

Philosopher Eric said...

Your skepticism that soft sciences are in critical need of basic philosophical principles in order to become hard sciences, is quite understandable. I’m proposing something which is truly radical. But as a philosopher of psychology, you may also find it effective to test your “bullshit detector” in this regard. Surely my position here must be standard bullshit, right? Like panpsychism and all the rest?

Physics is of course a very “hard” example of science, while psychology is a very “soft” example of science. How do we know this? Because in physics all sorts of effective reductions are made, while nothing of the sort exists in psychology (and I’d add “yet” to this). If there are ontological explanations for this difference then I must concede that psychology can never harden up. But you and I are not substance dualists. How else might an ontological discrepancy be explained?

Instead I suspect that this discrepancy is epistemic — we can naturally be somewhat objective about physics, though psychology trips us up with various personal implications that we’d rather not be true. Thus in order to harden up the field of psychology, I believe that we’ll need effective principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and perhaps most critically here, value. I propose four such principles.

So where’s the bullshit? What ontological dynamics mandate that psychology always remain a soft form of science, even if we had a respected group of professionals with generally accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and value, from which to better found the institution of science?