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.

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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!

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