Another perspective on ESL philosophy

We recently posted about a campaign – modeled on our GCC – to raise awareness of the underrepresentation of non-native English speakers in philosophy. Sara Protasi has a different perspective on this issue, and she’s given me permission to share her thoughts here:

There are two senses in which something can be “unfair”. First, something can be *unfortunate*, an event or action that we would to exclude from any ideal world. Falling and breaking one’s neck is unfair in this sense. These are things that we regret, and try to prevent from happening.

Second, something can be *unjust*. When something is unjust, indignation and resentment are the appropriate reactions. Fighting for social justice is what we do in this case.

Then there are borderline or vague cases (not committing to any philosophical view here! Just using the terms loosely). Maybe being perceived as ugly, or being short, are like that. You are disadvantaged in many domains, and people may have different views about whether that’s unjust or simply unfortunate. The domain clearly matters: a TV show, a beauty pageant, a court, etc.

{I think there is some philosophical literature on notions of unfairness, but I don’t recall any specific reference right now. Apologies if this sounds trivial and not in need of being repeated}

I think *one* (only one) of the problems affecting the recent heated discussion on the disadvantage suffered by non-native English speakers in philosophy is that some people confuse these two meanings, or anyway are not careful enough in trying to distinguish them. I am among the lucky non-native English speakers who learnt English fairly early on (starting with some trips to the US when I was a teenager), went to graduate school (a second time) at (in?!) an Anglophone institution, and who speaks English with a lighter accent than the average Italian (and Italian is closer to English than Mandarin or Turkish, which gives me a further advantage). And yet, I know all too well how hard it is to do philosophy in a language other than yours. When I came to the US, the first few years were exhausting in good part because of this. As a kid in school I used to be considered an excellent writer, and now I wasn’t. I could not use what I thought were the appropriate words. I was a grammar fetishist and suffered for not being able to speak properly. I could not understand people at social events, where the noise level is higher and people speak all together. I had a hard time following seminars discussions.

Today, after seven years living in anglophone countries and having a partner with whom I speak mostly English, I am still frustrated by what I perceive as a suboptimal level of fluency. I had to hire a proofreader for my dissertation. I check online dictionaries *every single day*. I worry about prepositions, idioms, pronunciation *all the time*. I could go on and on, but let me instead add that some of these issues are not merely due to language but also due to having been raised and educated mostly in Italy. My education was quite good in general, but analytic philosophy is relatively young in Italy, and even though I had good teachers my philosophical Italian education simply does not compare to what I got at Yale, or I could have gotten at Michigan (where I was a visiting scholar a couple of times) or at other US institutions. This is obviously a purely contingent fact, due to a… (looking for the right word here!) wealth of factors: cultural, historical, economic, etc. Italians, like any other people from around the world, can be great philosophers. But it simply isn’t the case that they have the best analytic philosophy departments at this time in history. {Proviso which probably won’t spare me the wrath of some Italians, but here it goes: there are some excellent Italian analytic philosophers, and many good ones, who work and teach in Italy. I think they correlate with those who have had at least a partial education abroad, but I don’t have hard data on this, just anecdotal evidence. One might say that my perception of who is excellent is primarily driven by my knowing that they have been abroad. We can talk more about whether that’s the case, but I don’t think it’s a fruitful avenue of discussion.}

This, as the fact that analytic philosophy journals and conferences and even Facebook discussions take place in English, is very unfortunate. But it doesn’t seem to me to be unjust. That it is not unjust doesn’t mean that we should not try to alleviate the difficulties of people like me, or people who fare much worse than me. We should help non-native speakers to achieve the level of fluency required to succeed at philosophy in the context in which they want to do philosophy (I am partially repeating points made by commenters at Feminist Philosophers, such as “louisechanary”). But it’s not an injustice in the same way that racial and sexist and ableist and homo/transphobic discrimination is. Being able to speak good English is essential to do good philosophy. Being White, or male, or straight, or gender-conforming, or able-bodied is completely irrelevant.

There remains some space for actual, unjust discrimination in this area, of course. Discriminating or being inadvertently biased against people who speak English with an accent, or who speak and write in good but not fully idiomatic English is obviously something we should be aware of, and condemn. But even that is not as widespread or harmful as other forms of discrimination, in my experience, both from a first- and third-personal perspective (although since this is an empirical matter, I would be interested in scientific evidence that proves otherwise). Also, as it has been said by many, it seems to me that speaking with a certain accent is a lot more disadvantageous than being a non-native speaker in itself, so there are different nuances to be considered even within the language discrimination issue. But if the accent worry is already covered by the race or ethnicity worry, then maybe we can be less concerned with accent in itself.

What worries me the most, of this discussion, is that we seem to be slipping all too easily in the usual wars about who is the most disadvantaged, but at the same time forgetting that *it does make sense to worry about who is the most disadvantaged*! What I mean is that it is a psychologically harmful tendency: we should all unite to fight injustice of all kinds!

On the other hand, a perceived injustice may not be an injustice, or may be a minor injustice, and it is important to keep that in mind. We have finite resources (we have finite span of attention, funding, etc.). Worrying about poor kids who don’t have toys is worthwhile, but worrying about starving kids is more worthwhile. Similarly in this case: we have to figure out what our priorities as a community are. I think some of us think that, based on evidence and experience, some forms of discrimination are in more need of attention than others. And some other *very real* (I have lived them!) events and actions, while unfortunate and regrettable, are not forms of discrimination at all.

46 thoughts on “Another perspective on ESL philosophy

  1. “Being able to speak good English is essential to do good philosophy. Being White, or male, or straight, or gender-conforming, or able-bodied is completely irrelevant.”
    The fact that the GCC views all-male line-ups as problematic without maintaining that the presenters at such conferences fail to do good philosophy should be a clue that it is not about ‘good philosophy’. It is “another perspective” but an all-too-familiar perspective to suggest that it is perfectly fine that native speakers of English (from some countries) determine what the new and interesting philosophical topics are and that male and white philosophers show up on syllabi because what gets included is indeed good philosophy.

  2. I’m not an expert on colonialism, but I’m pretty sure it is a major factor in explaining why so much of current philosophy (and academic discourse in general) is done in English.

    If we are going to assess whether the LCC is *really* a matter of justice, a discussion that does not mention the possible connection to colonialism strikes me as very incomplete.

    And since colonialism is well established across numerous fields, I think the onus is on people skeptical of the LCC being a matter of justice to show how it is not wrapped up in colonialism/imperialism.

  3. I am a philosopher and I grew up speaking Cantonese. I did not become fluent in English until a few years after I moved to the US at 13 (I recall my first dream in English at about 17 or so). In graduate school, I was particularly interested in philosophy of language and English being my second language certainly presented an obstacle. I simply did not grasp the subtleties of English as quickly and as intuitively as many of my native-English-speaking colleagues. I had to learn that “She came home in a flood of tears and a sedan-chair” is a category mistake which to my Cantonese-ears sounded like an awkward if somewhat cute sentence. Philosophy of language became a study of the nature of a foreign language to me. Couple that with the then common assumption that to do philosophy is to do philosophy of language, it turned philosophy into a doubly-removed enterprise. In some respects, analytic philosophy still has the feel of a philosophy based in English. “That” clauses marking out a proposition and quantification over them strike me as an artifact of English. None of this is to belittle English-based philosophy. But as a foreign language speaker, there is a constant feel that Anglo-American philosophy is the philosophy of English.

    More distressingly, when I first went on the market, a perspective employer and a fellow philosopher called my adviser inquiring if I spoke English. Given my Asian name, the caller was concerned that I could not teach properly with my accent (which somehow the caller amazingly inferred from my writing). To be fair, I do speak English with an accent but I also have years of positive teaching evaluations. Samples of the latter were included in dossier but they did not convince the caller that I am capable of speaking English effectively. I often wonder how many job applications have been tossed aside (or simply placed in the “maybe” pile) because of the (subconscious) belief that the foreign-sounding applicant doesn’t speak English well.

  4. I agree with much, in fact probably all that Sara Protasi says here. When I came to the US for the first time, I was in my mid-20’s, never having been to an English speaking country before. It was hard sitting in a graduate seminar room full of people who were native English speakers and just graduated from a bunch of Ivy league schools. There were two things at play which I remember distinctly – I could not think (or formulate my thoughts) as fast in English as they could, sometimes struggling to formulate them at all, and my preparation/experience in philosophy was clearly insufficient too. My previous education was simply not good enough (and thus I am infinitely indebted to the people who admitted me to the program that they saw something promising in my application nevertheless!) In any case, it was unfortunate for me, indeed, but there was nothing but work to be done – and nobody there to do it for me (how could there be!). However, at no point did I feel being biased or discriminated against in virtue of this fact. If anything, everybody was incredibly helpful, correcting my grammar and suggesting better ways to express myself. In the comments on the previous thread by Contessa, I suggested that there are ways to help non-native speakers – but they are a lot of work (I am not sure why it was thought to be a top-down approach – it looks to me exactly as bottom-up approach – actually doing something for people who need help rather than running online campaigns that do some, but rather limited service to people who actually come here to study and work or for people in the home countries who would like to contribute to philosophy).

    Concerning the worry that only English speakers from some countries determine THE topics: I think there are two issues here (at least).

    First, it is true of analytic philosophy but it is perhaps a coincidence that they are English speakers. Historically, analytic philosophers moved from German speaking countries to UK and US, bringing that kind of philosophy here – because of WWII. That philosophy took deep roots here while it was, simultaneously, uprooted in its place of origin. In some countries, Italy or France, it never had deep roots. So it started to be done in UK and US, and, for obvious reasons, in English. In a few decades later, English becomes a lingua franca of science (and at least the Western world) and so many (though by no means all) English speaking philosophers lose much motivation to learn other languages, esp. as most analytic philosophy has always been in English or is now translated in ways that are almost on a par with the original (Wittgenstein). Analytic philosophy in much of continental Europe is a relatively young discipline and usually plays a “catch-up” game with what is going on in US/UK/AUS/CAN/NZ. So that is why what gets determined as a topic often comes from English speakers – but not because they are English speakers!

    Second, however, there are topics in philosophy, including analytic philosophy, that function within a given philosophical culture and are determined by it but do not reach much beyond it. Philosophy always has had these two strands – the local and the global. In my country, for example, we have a long tradition of Hegelian/Marxist inspired philosophy of science and structuralist aesthetics. In my view, these are the two most important themes there and they trump in their presence there anything people determine here as the topics. The former is basically analytic philosophy, just done with a bit of local flair, so to speak, the latter is a thing of its own – it is continental philosophy but one that trades in almost scientific exactness (not well-know part of philosophy in the US). In other words, there are philosophical worlds both global and local. In some countries, analytic philosophy is not the prevalent form of philosophy – but it does not mean that these countries do not have a say in determining philosophical topics – even if not, perhaps, in the English speaking world. Similarly, the other way round.

  5. Dien Ho, I wouldn’t want to justify your treatment by your perspective employer, but I will mention that having faculty who cannot communicate very well at all with students is a huge issue in some fields, particularly those where understanding English is less important. So it may be that the university has some stern policy or, if philosophy is in a College of Arts and Sciences, then the dean may be known to go ballistic if he meets a candidate with poor language skills. If that’s so, leave it to a philosopher to implement the policy so rudely.

  6. I feel that there may be two issues that are getting conflated here.

    (1) First there is the fact that, as Sara Protavi underlines, analytic philosophy is carried out almost entirely in English. I think that this fact should cause some concern. It does, I think, result in a warped perspective on a lot of issues, particularly in philosophy of language. (Incidentally, the reasons why the English language is dominant in analytic philosophy do ultimately have a lot to do with colonialism, simply because the global spread of English has a lot to do with the history of colonialism.)

    (2) But holding fixed that fact, the advantages possessed by native speakers of English seem absolutely unavoidable. It’s more or less trivial that, for any verbal activity carried out in language L, all other things being equal, native speakers of L have an advantage over non-native speakers — and if the activity in question is one that requires extreme verbal precision, then they usually have a profound advantage.

    (Note that this doesn’t mean that unfair discrimination, intentional and unintentional, against non-native speakers can’t also occur.)

    So what ought we to do? Well, one thing is obvious: we should, as Protavi says, “help non-native speakers to achieve the level of fluency required to succeed at philosophy in the context in which they want to do philosophy”.

    But there’s another thing which hasn’t been mentioned: I think that Anglophone analytic philosophers (including both native and non-native speakers of English) should try to support the development of analytic philosophy in languages other than English.

    There’s a lot that can be done here, but the simplest thing (if one has some competence in a language other than English) is occasionally looking through the relevant literature in that language on topics one works on. One might find philosophers, and ideas, well worth knowing about, and one can bring them to the attention of one’s colleagues.

    It’s also, frankly, a good experience for an native speaker of English occasionally to talk about technical issues in analytic philosophy using a language of which he or she is *not* a native speaker: it has a salutary humbling effect, and of course it does more than anything else to help the native speaker understand issues faced by non-native speakers.

  7. Unsurprisingly, I disagree with Sara but I’ll explain why in a post because I’d like to focus on the details of her argument. I’d like to second Ingo Brigandt’s and Stacey Goguen’s comments though, which I think are spot-on (TBH, I didn’t want to sound too “radical” and, in retrospect, that was a good idea, as the backlash has been bad enough without getting into issues of colonialism and cultural imperialism! :-) ) Also, I also agree with a lot of Dien Ho says about how English affects the philosophical content of our philosophical ideas in ways that are at least methodologically questionable. As for the comments about the job market—horrible but hardly surprising! I have often wondered myself how many of my job applications were dead in the water because of the “weird-sounding” name at the top of my cv and that, in spite of the fact that, as a European, I enjoy a huge amount of racial privilege in this context. I can only imagine what it must be like for those who are racialized as non-white and whose first language and cultural background are even from the dominant ones than my language and cultural background.

  8. Dien Ho, I am really sorry to hear about your job market experience, but to me that sounds a lot more like something caused by racist prejudice rather than a prejudice based on not being a native speaker per se, especially given that you went to secondary school in the US, and so there was no objective reason to doubt your fluency, or think that you had an accent too heavy to impede understanding. I am ready to bet a similar experience has happened to no Dutch or Finnish immigrant that were in your situation (with Finnish or Dutch-sounding names–notice that Dutch is very similar to English, but Finnish isn’t), or even who applied to jobs coming from a non-English speaking education system. Second, I would like to spell out clearly something that was maybe too implicit in my originale post. Of course philosophy, analytic or otherwise, can be done in languages other than English! And at excellent levels. But for purely contingent, historical, and to some extent unjust reasons (i.e. colonialism) English is the international scientific language, and also the language in which most international conferences in analytic philosophy takes place. It is also the language dominant at most excellent research centers and institutions where people presumably would like to get a degree, or a job, or even just visit. Since the Languaged Campaign was proposed in a context in which people speak English, I thought that was the obvious reference context and didn’t carefully spell this out. But I do it now. I am not saying that English ought to be the language in which we do philosophy, analytic or otherwise. But given that at the moment that’s the case, then philosophers need to achieve a quite high level of proficiency in English. As I said in my post, this has caused me, and many others, to undergo a much more stressful and difficult educational process, and it still affects my professional life daily. But I remain unconvinced that as a White, able-bodied, gender-conforming woman I experience much discrimination because of that, even though I have encountered much difficulties. So I remain unconvinced that the best thing we can do with regard to this issue is to have a Languaged Campaign similar to the Gendered Campaign. There are also other concerns that I won’t reiterate (limited resources, etc.).

  9. I spell this out more clearly in my post, Sara (see the link I posted above), but can you explain me how according to your criterion being blind or visually impaired does not count as merely unfortunate as opposed to unjust? It seems to me that, in the current context (where for example philosophical texts with lots of logical formulas etc are very inaccessible to those of us who are blind or visually impaired) being sighted is relevant to one’s ability to do philosophy in the same socially and historically contingent way in which being able to speak English. I hope you agree that this is not merely unfortunate but that the problem is that we live in a ableist society and that we should try to mitigate the effects of that as much as we can. So, where is the difference between the two cases, according to you?

  10. Also, Sara, are you suggesting that Dien Ho would have experienced the same obstacles had he been a second generation Asian American whose first languages included English? And Dien Ho seems to have perceived the bias as at least in part a linguistic bias. Sure, language is often a proxy for race in this context but who are we to speak to *his* experiences and explain them to him?

  11. GC, I’m not Sara, but here’s a try. A person who is blind will encounter difficulties which are unfortunate, but aren’t due to any particular injustices *within philosophy*. No matter what your field or your discipline, it’s just harder – in the current context – to be blind than to be sighted. (And I suspect that it would *at least in some contexts* remain harder to be blind than to be sighted even in a society free of ableism, but that’s another matter.) But a person who is blind also faces particular barriers due to the way philosophy as a discipline works that they’d be less likely to encounter in other fields. Philosophy conferences are often *much* less accessible than conferences in other areas of the humanities, for example. And you’re much less likely to see disability taken seriously as an area of study – or to see disability viewed in a positive, non-medicalized light – than you are in the other humanities. So philosophy can feel like a hostile place for disabled people in a way that’s particular to philosophy and philosophy’s culture.

    In contrast, the difficulties faced by an ESL philosopher are – as Sara explains them, at least – the difficulties faced by anyone working in a lingua franca discipline where the dominant language is not their own. There may be background injustices going on with such difficulties, just as there are background injustices which make it harder to be blind. But it isn’t obvious – at least to me, but maybe I’ve missed something important here – that any of these difficulties are particular to philosophy. Nor is it obvious that these difficulties represent any particular injustice within philosophy per se that philosophers qua philosophers need to attempt to remedy within the culture of their own discipline. That’s not at all to say that philosophers shouldn’t be sensitive to the challenges faced by ESL philosophers, or try to provide resources to ameliorate them. I take it that Sara’s point is just, in part, that recognizing these difficulties needn’t mean that philosophy *in particular* has an ESL problem the way it has a gender problem or a race problem that’s unique to the culture of philosophy.

  12. Magical ersatz: You just heard testimony from yet another non-native speaker (Dien Ho) who feels that there is a clear discipline-specific language problem and yet you feel you can dismiss hat evidence while accepting that there are discipline specific race and gender problems. Couldn’t this be a case in which a native speaker should exert some epistemic humility? Anyway I don’t think there is much I can do to convince you. You are free to ignore the testimony of many non-native speakers. You clearly seem to think you are in a better epistemic position than us to judge.

  13. I should also add that I do think that the current ableist status quo is unjust, not merely unfortunate for disabled philosophers and that I’m surprised that people would think otherwise. We could do so much more to make our discipline more accessible and classifying the current ableist status quo as merely unfortunate as opposed to unjust is simply baffling to me.

  14. Gabriele, I’m not sure why you think I want to ‘ignore the testimony of non-native speakers’ or that I ‘clearly seem to think [I am] in a better epistemic position than [you] to judge.’ Nothing I said implied anything of the kind. I was trying to offer an elaboration of the points made by Sara Protasi – who is a non-native speaker, and also a woman in philosophy. And I also said very clear that I could be wrong, and that I could be missing something important. So your reaction seems uncharitable, to say the least.

    As for the comments made by Dien Ho, I don’t dispute for one second that he has faced stigma and prejudice, as well as hardship. But as Sara points out some of this may well be racial, rather than linguistic. And it isn’t clear to me how much of it he views as philosophy-specific. I would love to hear more from him about this.

  15. “Classifying the current ableist status quo as merely unfortunate as opposed to unjust is simply baffling to me.”

    I don’t think anything said in this comments thread or in the original post suggests that ‘the ableist status quo’ is merely unfortunate.

  16. I’m not a philosopher, but I’ve lived and worked most of my life in a second language and while in more aspects of daily life, I have no problems, in verbally expressing or even writing very complex ideas such as are used in philosophy, I often find myself searching for the correct term in Google or unsure of how to construct the sentence I need because it’s too syntactically complex and because I need to use a grammatical or syntactical construction that does not rapidly come to mind as it does in my first language. At times it just seems like too much trouble to express my complex ideas in the second language, especially in public situations (if not to friends) and I just keep silent.

    That’s no problem in writing history, for example, because first of all, in history there’s almost never a demand for a rapid reply as there is in philosophy and second, because doing philosophy calls for more precise verbal exactness than doing history or
    writing journalistic articles (which I have done in the second language) does.

    So I understand what Gabriele is getting at.

  17. magical (can I call you “magical”? :-) ): you said: “A person who is blind will encounter difficulties which are unfortunate, but aren’t due to any particular injustices *within philosophy*” which seems to suggest that the inaccessibiltiy of our discipline (e.g. overuse of symbols and formulas) is merely unfortunate. Your claims seem to me to be clearly false but then I defer to the epistemic authority of blind and visually impaired philosophers on this.

    I hope you don’t take the fact that Sara is a non-native speaker who denies linguistic bias in philosophy constitute much evidence! Until a few years ago, many female philosophers would have vehemently deny there is gender bias in philosophy (and some still do!) I never took that to be evidence to dismiss the testimony of those female philosophers who claimed there was gender bias.

    You say: “As for the comments made by Dien Ho, I don’t dispute for one second that he has faced stigma and prejudice, as well as hardship. But as Sara points out some of this may well be racial, rather than linguistic. And it isn’t clear to me how much of it he views as philosophy-specific. I would love to hear more from him about this.”

    First of all, see my point above about the counterfactual situation in which Dien Ho is a second generation Asian American. Second, I would take his testimony at face value when he says the bias he faced was linguistic and not only racial. Third, if you actually pay attention to what he says rather than trying to diagnose the problem from the armchair, Dien Ho says: “I was particularly interested in philosophy of language and English being my second language certainly presented an obstacle. I simply did not grasp the subtleties of English as quickly and as intuitively as many of my native-English-speaking colleagues. I had to learn that “She came home in a flood of tears and a sedan-chair” is a category mistake which to my Cantonese-ears sounded like an awkward if somewhat cute sentence. Philosophy of language became a study of the nature of a foreign language to me. ” If that’s not a discipline-specific problem what is? Anyway, I don’t want to speak on his behalf and if he’s still following that thread maybe Dien Ho can clarify this point himself (I think he made his point loud and clear but maybe it’s just me).

  18. “You said: “A person who is blind will encounter difficulties which are unfortunate, but aren’t due to any particular injustices *within philosophy*” which seems to suggest that the inaccessibiltiy of our discipline (e.g. overuse of symbols and formulas) is merely unfortunate.””

    Did you read the whole paragraph? I followed this up immediately with the claim that there are also tons of discipline-specific problems that a blind person will encounter. The claim was simply that *some* of the problems faced by blind people in philosophy won’t be philosophy-specific. (It doesn’t follow, of course, that all those problems are merely unfortunate.)

  19. I still think your use of “unfortunate” in that context was…. well, unfortunate! :-) Ableism seems to be an injustice in all its forms to me but maybe we have different philosophical views about the nature of “disability”. In any case, I think I have made my case and I think you have made yours and I don’t think there is much I can do to persuade you at this point. You are welcome to ignore the testimony of all those non-native speakers who said that there is a discipline-specific problem. Dien Ho spent over half of his comment explaining very clearly one of the discipline specific problems but, for some reason, both you and Sara just ignored that part of his comment and decided to diagnose his problem differently from the way he did and focussed on his race instead. If that’s not an instance of whitesplaining I don’t know what is…

  20. I call them as I see them, magical, but I would like you to tell me why that wasn’t a case of whitesplaining according to you. Dien Ho was pretty clear about the linguistic nature of the bias he faces and has faced and both you and Sara tried to argue that the nature of the bias *he* faces and has faced is not linguistic but racial. You also completely ignored the comments he made that made it pretty clear there are some discipline-specific linguistic biases and are still ignoring them. If there is a charitable interpretation of all this what is it?

  21. I should also add that charity might be the wrong standard in these matters. Anything except the most obvious and overt cases of ableism, sexism, and racism can be reinterpreted as not being ableist, sexist, and racist if one applies charity (if only because ableism, sexism, and racism are based on false beliefs and the principle of charity imposes not to ascribe false beliefs to our interlocutors). I think that the standard in this context is that if it is plausible to interpret a claim or a behaviour as having ableist, sexist, or racist conversational implicatures it is up to the speaker to take all due care to cancel those implicatures if they are not intended.

  22. Isn’t one difference between being blind and being non-native speaker of a language that, in the former case, one cannot do anything to make oneself see (and so it is up to others, the community, to help), but in the latter case one can learn the language?

  23. Knowing English is not essential to doing good philosophy. It makes it easier to succeed in analytic philosophy in the US, sure, but so does being a man. Knowing English is not a requirement for thinking. It is a requirement for reading and writing and speaking in English.

  24. R, Sara has already clarified her point about the relationship between English and ‘good philosophy’ – see her comment at #10.

  25. p, I feel like me and you are talking past each other on this topic. One of the points I’m trying to raise is that there seem some sort of “glass ceiling” for non-native speakers in analytic philosophy, as evidenced by the low proportion of papers by non-native speakers cited in the top 4 journals for the past 20 years. The evidence also seems to show that unless you start learning a language very early on (the latest number I have heard is as early as 3.5 years old and was mentioned by Brian Weatherson) you never achieve the same fluency as a native speaker. So, one of my hypotheses is that native-level fluency is a necessary condition for being able to access the higher echelons of our profession. This of course doesn’t mean that many non-native speakers reach near-native fluency. It only means that that near-native fluency should not be a conditio sine qua non insofar as one is sufficiently fluent. And let me say this again. I don’t think this is only a fairness issue. It also has methodological ramifications. I have already mentioned one (possible cross-cultural/linguistic variation of philosophical intuitions) but another one is this. If all that matters in philosophy is the logical structure of arguments as opposed to their rhetorical power, why is native-level fluency in analytic philosophy so important for success in the field?

  26. @magicalersatz
    “[…] the difficulties faced by anyone working in a lingua franca discipline where the dominant language is not their own.”
    I suggest a further difficulty for speakers less fluent in English is caused by the argumentative / adversarial style of discourse common in philosophy. A culture of focussing on understanding the other person’s point of view rather than on “winning” the argument would go some way towards alleviating that.

  27. My apologies for not reading the whole comment section, but I cannot refrain from commenting myself. Miss Protasi says that we should “help non-native speakers to achieve the level of fluency required to succeed at philosophy in the context in which they want to do philosophy”. This is not the point. Here we are not talking about the dominance of the English speakers over the English non-speakers. We are speaking about the tacit preference that is given to native English speakers over non-native (but nevertheless fluent) English speakers. There are, indeed, a lot of non-native English speakers who are fluent in English: they study, teach, present in English and publish in international journals. And yet, if you look at the most cited papers and books in philosophy of the past 20 years, you find a wast majority of native English speakers and few non-native English speakers who basically have spent all their academic life in Anglophone institutions. There are analytic philosophers from non-Anglophone countries who write in English and publish in international journals, yet their works are less cited than the works of the native English speakers publishing in the same journals. How do you explain this?

    It should be interesting to see whether there is some deep mechanism of implicit bias here – something for which, if we look at the results of google scholar and we are undecided whether to read the paper by dr. Jones or the paper by dr. Santiago (both published in the same journal!), we tend to choose the previous but not the latter. Otherwise, I really cannot explain why the vast majority of most cited works in philosophy in the past 20 years is authored by native English speakers – unless, of course, we say that in order to be a good philosopher not only you have to be fluent in English but you must also BE English!

  28. I also totally agree with Stacey Gouguen (comment 3). This is a matter of justice, this is a matter of colonialism! The problem that Gabriele Contessa has raised in his original post – and which was raised by some other European philosophers, like the German historian of science Gereon Wolters (although I’m sure no one has read Wolters’ papers… even if they are written in English!) – was also raised, several times and in different writings, by Ian Hacking. Hacking uses a wonderful expression, that is “linguistic imperialism”. Following Hacking’s expression, I would say that people on the dominant side of imperialism may not notice how oppressive some mechanisms can be.

  29. Another thing. In websites like this, we often speak of “biases”. One of the biases social psychologists talk about the most is the so called “in-group bias”, the tendency to prefer people coming from our group and to distrust *outsiders*. Of course, the problem here is the definition of *group*. However, it seems pretty uncontroversial to me saying that – considering that the main loci of analytic philosophy are Anglophone departments and that the major international journals and publishers in analytic philosophy use English as lingua franca – the *group* of analytic philosophy is predominantly composed by native English speakers. Ergo…

  30. My apologies for the delayed contribution to this conversation that is both important and deeply personal. I am grateful for the discussion between Sara, Gabriele, Magical, and all. In addition to the stack of exams that needed to be graded, my lateness had to do with the uncertainty I feel about my views.

    I hesitate to place too much epistemic privilege on my own experiences because my judgments are partly the products of social forces. To wit, those who have been treated unjustly often dismiss the injustice and chalk it up to the way the world is. Intellectual rigor and clarity can only do so much battling instinctual beliefs formed after years of social conditioning. My failure to call fouls, for example, should not be strong evidence that none exists.

    The question of whether non-native English speakers are discriminated or unfairly treated in philosophy centers on whether there are features unique to contemporary philosophy that creates greater difficulties for non-English speakers.

    One example is analytic philosophy’s tendency to reward a certain type of behaviors. When philosophy is happening in real time (e.g., a Q/A after a talk), being quick and articulate are professional virtues (conducive to one’s job prospect as a graduate student). If one is a non-native speaker of English, the process of simply formulating one’s thoughts in a clear manner takes effort and time. Often, the dialogue has moved on before one is able to share one’s thought. The confidence of those who speak with ease when doing philosophy-in-real-time stems partly from their linguistic abilities. In this sense, I often envy those who do not have to struggle. I have been in this country for almost 30 years and it still takes some effort to formulate grammatically correct and fluid prose. I doubt learning more English is what the doctor orders. English simply does not come as effortlessly to me as it does to many. It is not a matter of grasping the grammar and vocabulary of the language. It is a matter of it not being my native tongue. Perhaps I am an anomaly but I am certain I am not the only one. S Walllerstein’s observation that history demands less of this verbal/linguistic dexterity than philosophy suggests that philosophy is different (perhaps not in kind but in degree) from other disciplines. My experience at medical conferences and the MLA also confirms that philosophy, especially analytic philosophy, is a special practice akin blitz chess. Of course, being quick and clear during a Q/A is neither necessary nor sufficient for being a good philosopher. When the profession values performance of this kind, it does so without justification and it harms those who lack the abilities.

    I became familiar with the works of Teresa Blankmeyer Burke and had the honor of meeting her this summer at a conference. Our discussions about deafness and philosophy reminded me a great deal of my own experiences. She recalled how she no longer talks philosophy while walking down stairs because she could not read lips and see where she was going at the same time. A few accidents later, she learned the lesson. Suppose that real-time philosophy is done while walking up and down stairs, deaf philosophers would be at a great disadvantage. Doing philosophy while walking on stairs might be the industry standard and it might even be efficient. But not to be sensitive to the demands that it places on deaf philosophers is inexcusable. After all, walking down stairs and doing philosophy is not an essential feature of good philosophy. The standard Q/A format presents an analogous challenge (albeit not to nearly the same degree) to non-native speakers. It is a format that favors native speakers and it is a format that is not essential to doing good philosophy. I don’t know what the alternative should be or what accommodations we can make to ensure a more inclusive environment. But it is clear that some artificial institutional formats place non-native speakers at a disadvantage and perhaps we should recognize them.

    As I mentioned in the earlier post, philosophy of language taught in the Anglo-American tradition certainly favors English. There is a sense that philosophy of the English language IS philosophy of language and this is clearly not true (Quine certainly noted this distinction). But imagine if one extrapolates well-accepted views in philosophy of language to a more language-neutral discipline, say, philosophy of mind, the latter would be conceptualized, analyzed, and developed with an implicit English language bias. From a philosophical point of view, there are serious questions about the appropriateness of the move (what are the odds that the nature of our minds is best revealed via the structure of English?). I don’t know what philosophy of language would look like in Chinese and I certainly don’t know what philosophy of mind would look like investigated via the lens of a philosophy of the Chinese language. The fact that these questions are hardly explored belies the reality that philosophy of language in the analytic tradition is largely an English language endeavor. Given the language-neutral nature of philosophy (something that I think we’d like to believe is true), the fact that the English language remains a substantive source of philosophical insights should raise some worries.

    One’s failure to speak English clearly is often not the product of a lack of grasp of the language. It takes but a few racist encounters where one’s accent is mocked mercilessly for one to hesitate to speak. Couple that with a discipline’s emphasis on English competency, you have a discipline that merely passes on the effect of racism. I entirely agree with Sara’s point that there is surely a distinction between language discrimination and racism but I also think it is important to see the connection. Analytic philosophy can rightly insist that it does not discriminate against non-native speakers but so long as linguistic dexterity is a professional virtue, the effects of racism will remain. Perhaps this is not unique to analytic philosophy but it might be worth out time to appreciate the challenges confronting those who regularly endure bigotry.

  31. Of course this is impressionistic, but It should be noted that, when one looks at the history of analytic philosophy, works written directly in English by non-native speakers have played quite a large role. Carnap, Hempel, Grünbaum, Reichenbach, Tarski, van Fraassen, Hintikka, Popper: these are not exactly marginal figures. Of course, it would be interesting to see some proper statistics, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, based on citation rates, Anglophone scholarship in analytic philosophy is considerably more cosmopolitan than is the case in other fields.

  32. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Dien! I’m really happy to see that we are finally having this really important conversation!

    grad student: I have crunched some numbers in this post if you are interested. Nothing particularly rigorous from a statistical point of view but it might give you a ballpark idea.

    I’m not sure what fields you have in mind but, to me, the fact that analytic philosophers can delude themselves into thinking that analytic philosophy is cosmopolitan when the vast majority of its practitioners are white Anglophones who grew up in one of five countries (US, UK, Australia, Canada, NZ), which together account for less than 8% of the world population is a clear symptom of the whiteness and the Anglocentrism of our discipline. Analytic philosophy might be cosmopolitan in its ambitions but it’s definitely not cosmopolitan in its current state. We wont make much progress towards that cosmopolitan idea until we rid ourselves of the delusion that our discipline is already cosmopolitan.

  33. I didn’t claim that analytic philosophy is cosmopolitan — it’s clearly not. I claimed that *Anglophone scholarship in analytic philosophy* (the corpus of books and articles about analytic philosophy that are written in English) may be more cosmopolitan than is the case for Anglophone scholarship in many other disciplines.

    For instance: there were, to be sure, many more important twentieth-century sociologists who were not native English speakers than there were twentieth-century analytic philosophers who were not native English speakers. But I’m not sure that there were more important twentieth-century sociologists who were not native English speakers *but nonetheless wrote in English* than analytic philosophers.

    (I should have said ‘disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences’; certainly there are more non-native speakers writing in English in mathematics and the sciences than in analytic philosopher.)

  34. To condense a comment I made on the previous thread: those five countries account for 8% of the world population, but (at a rough estimate) getting on for 2/3 of total world spending on higher education (predominantly by the US, of course), and they (or, again, the US) seem to spend it in a way that, compared to continental Europe in particular, is much more focussed on the development of international-class institutions at the top (arguably at the expense of broad tertiary-education coverage).

    I’m entirely prepared to believe that there is also implicit or explicit bias operating over and above that. But the major driver for overrepresentation of NES in academia in general compared to their 8% presence is the economic dominance and higher education policy of the United States. 40 of the top 50 universities in the Shanghai Rankings (including all of the top 18) are in those five countries; continental Europe spends less than half as much as those five countries on higher education. These are not matters within our control.

  35. Thanks, David and grad student. One thing that Sara’s OP usefully draws out is that there are (at least) four things that might be getting run together here:

    (i) ESL philosophers encounter special difficulties
    (ii) ESL philosophers encounter special stigmas and biases
    (iii) ESL philosophers encounter special stigmas and biases particular to philosophy
    (iv) ESL philosophers are under-represented/undercited/etc in philosophy because of (ii) and (iii)

    And claim (iv) is just really hard to assess, even if you think (i)-(iii) are all true, I at least – again, maybe I am missing something – don’t know what at what baseline I ought to expect people to pursue a career in a lingua franca discipline where the dominant language isn’t their own.

  36. David: as I have already mentioned in response to your previous comment (I don’t know if you had a chance to see my response), your explanation does not seem to explain why NES are significantly less overrepresented in, e.g., mathematics and physics (especially when the latter is a much more resource-intense discipline than philosophy).

    magicalersatz: Do you think that (iv) has been established for gender and race? If so how? It seems to me that a majority of philosophers have come to accept (iv) in light of considerations analogous to (i)-(iii), but maybe there is a relevant difference I’m missing? Also, you keep talking about analytic philosophy as a “lingua franca discipline” but what does that mean? Isn’t English the lingua franca of choice for virtually all academic disciplines? Again maybe I’m missing something? Personally, I don’t see myself has having chosen “to pursue a career in a lingua franca discipline where the dominant language isn’t their own.” I have chosen to pursue a career in philosophy. It just so happens that English is the lingua franca of philosophy. What you said really sound a lot like victim blaming!

  37. David Wallace: does your argument explain why the papers authored by native English speakers are more read, discussed and cited than the papers authored by non-native English speakers published in the same journals? Perhaps you would say that people prefer to read and cite works authored by people working in some institutions rather than another – i.e., we prefer reading the papers of dr. x, who works at Cambridge, and of dr. y, who works at Chicago University, over the papers of dr. z, who works a university in Hungary. We can definitely say so, but this exacerbate rather than solving the problem. Basically, you are saying that the reason why philosophy is not cosmopolitan is that philosophy is not cosmopolitan, and that there’s nothing we can do about it becasue, at the end of the day, it’s all about money and funding. I’m not sure whether I disagree with that and actually I think this is something many philosophers should consider more carefully, instead of regarding themeselve as the “pure pursuer of the Truth”. As I think Gabriele himself has already said, however, it is not clear whether your descriptive claim should also be taken as a normative claim: since there are these issues concerning money, funding and so on, philosophy ought to be like it is and cannot be changed.

    magicalersatz: is claim (iv) really hard to assess? Look at the top cited papers in the last 20 years in philosophy. There are a lot of non-native English speakers who have tenured positions in philosophy deaprtments, both in Anglophone and non-Anglophone institutions, and who regularly publish in prestigious international journals. Do they get as many citations as the works authored by native English speakers? Do they get invited as often to conference as their native speakers colleagues? Can you name 20 or 30 contemporary non-native English speaking philosophers? (The last question is clearly rethorical, because you can now check on google.)

  38. Gabriele (I didn’t see your previous reply): I’m not claiming that asymmetries of funding explain everything salient here, just that they explain rather a lot of it, and that in particular they obviate the idea that the baseline to discern bias or discrimination is the 8% of the world population who are NES. They also make the “justice” aspect of the conversation more complicated. After all, the Eurozone countries are democracies. They have taken a policy decision to spend much less on HE than the US, and to spend it in ways much less geared to produce world-class research. That policy decision has the predictable outcome that fewer of their citizens will be world-class researchers.

    As for physics, I don’t actually know whether it’s more cosmopolitan than philosophy, though I strongly suspect you’re right. (That’s going to follow just from my economic analysis: I believe Asian HE spend is (even) more science-dominated than western spend.) Though I also strongly suspect that a look at the most cited postwar papers in physics would display a very strong presence of NES writers, because again the US has been really dominant in physics. Certainly it’s way, way higher than 8%.

    Vincenzo: it doesn’t attempt to explain “why the papers authored by native English speakers are more read, discussed and cited than the papers authored by non-native English speakers published in the same journals”. It offers a space for such an explanation: citations tend to be very dominated by a relatively small number of very influential papers, and it’s plausible that those papers tend to be authored by people at the very strongest research universities, and those are mostly in the Anglosphere. But I don’t know if that’s actually right.

    You characterise my view as “you are saying that the reason why philosophy is not cosmopolitan is that philosophy is not cosmopolitan, and that there’s nothing we can do about it because, at the end of the day, it’s all about money and funding”. That’s half right. I’m actually saying that the *main* reason why philosophy is not cosmopolitan is because the Anglosphere countries, especially the USA, spend more on higher education than the rest of the world put together. But I agree, there’s nothing we (qua philosophers) can do about that fact.

  39. I’ve just scrolled through the Healy list of 500 most cited items in philosophy. ESL philosophers seem *reasonably* well represented on that list – certainly better represented than women or racial minorities. Philosophers I believe to be ESL who appear – multiple times, in many cases – in the top 500 cited items include Wittgenstein, Sosa, Kim, van Fraassen, Cappelen, Popper, Carnap, Tarski, Recanati, Benacerraf, Arntzenius, Frege. . I’m probably leaving some out, since I was just scrolling through. There are also plenty of philosophers on that list who might, for all I know, be ESL. I really have no idea. (And trying to judge from names doesn’t bring out the best in my cultural biases.)

    Are ESL philosophers still undercited, even if less undercited than other groups? I don’t know! I don’t know how many ESL philosophers there are. And more strongly, I don’t know how many ESL philosophers we should expect there to be.

    For the case of gender and race, we both have a fairly good idea of the current numbers within philosophy and a fairly good comparison class from other fields (the gender and racial makeup of, for example the rest of the humanities and social sciences in English-speaking universities). This lets us demonstrate both the under-citation of the women and non-white philosophers we actually have and the under-representation and women and non-white people in philosophy as compared to peer disciplines at English-speaking universities.

    But I don’t have any idea what either of these comparison classes looks like for ESL philosophers, and so far this hasn’t been explained to me. So I really don’t know whether ESL philosophers are under-cited or under-represented.

    At this point, I’m going to bow out of this discussion.

  40. Okay, I’m closing comments here, because the comments being submitted are getting too ugly and too time-consuming to moderate. If people want to have a conversation about these issues in which they insist on throwing around accusations and attributing bad motives, that’s their business. But it’s not going to keep happening here.

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