Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Language Requirements

It's my impression that departmental language requirements are becoming extinct. And in my view that's a good thing. Students working on, say, Aristotle need to acquire a command of Greek that goes far beyond what departmental requirements would impose, and students working on, say, current debates in the metaphysics of free will probably have no occasion to use a foreign language in their research at all. In fact, students of the latter kind would be far better off devoting the time they might dedicate to learning a language to learning more modal logic, or more physics, or more psychology. And students in the former category would be better served by an intensive summer program in the languages they need, as determined by a dissertation director, given the student's projected research. The department, in other words, should have no independent role in any of this. It seems obvious to me.

But perhaps I'm overlooking some rather compelling consideration in favor of a departmental requirement?


Dan-in-upstate-NY said...

The question is whether we want philosophy to be international, or whether we want to limit ourselves solely to the Anglo-American world.

Anonymous said...

People do philosophy in English all over the world. And I say this being myself a foreigner doing philosophy in English.

There is no point in a strict language requirement (except if the dissertation requires it), but there is a point in having a 'special skills' requirement, i.e. a requirement that student take a certain number of classes outside of philosophy.

Anonymous said...

I'm not going to glorify philosophizing in English by learning Ancient Greek. THEY should learn Ancient American!

Anonymous said...

I assume you're talking about a requirement in the graduate program, and not a requirement in the undergraduate program?

I support a requirement for undergraduates across the board. Forces them to learn English grammar.

Dr. Killjoy said...

As far as I can recall, this hasn't been a serious issue for the last 10-15 years or so. Nowadays most top (analytic) philosophy programs either have no language requirement whatsoever or more or less consider them antiquated and so frequently count them satisfied in a variety of non-traditional ways (e.g., evidence of competency in any natural language, regardless of philosophical significance, or some relevant area such as computer programming or mathematical logic).

Anonymous said...

perhaps I'm overlooking some rather compelling consideration in favor of a departmental requirement?

The intrinsic joy that comes from hazing the young and forcing them to jump through the same pointless hopes that one jumped through one's self as a student? What could be more justificatory than that?

Anonymous said...

Spiros: Si hoc non legere potes, tu asinus es.

Anonymous said...

My university abandoned the language requirement two years ago for just the reasons you cite. The new requirement puts in all in the dissertation director's hands. You have to know the language(s) s/he wants, to the degree s/he specifies, at the time s/he chooses.

Anonymous said...

You know the horrible thing is that you should not be able to get a BA in the humanities at all without at least a second language.

Universities are producing too many PhDs in philosophy and if the logic dudes can't handle a course or two in French German, Greek or Latin, and the historians can't handle algebraic interpretations of modal logic, well maybe they should go do something else with their lives. Getting rid of the people who are not able to handle something that is not in their focus would mean that there would not be as many marginal students graduated by so called top schools.

I am for more departmental requirements in languages and technical subjects not fewer.

Anonymous said...

Learning languages encourages people a) to branch out in their work and b) to explore the history of philosophy. Both of those are good things, even for a logician.

Anonymous said...

The new requirement puts in all in the dissertation director's hands. You have to know the language(s) s/he wants, to the degree s/he specifies, at the time s/he chooses.

Well, there is something to say in favor of formal requirements, as opposed to those that potentially leave these things in the hands of insane maniacs. (You must have fluent Polish by the end of the summer, or you'll never be competent to work on Tarski!) I guess students should avoid having insane maniacs as dissertation directors, but that does cut down the pool of potential advisers quite a bit.

D in NY said...

Those who are in favor of abolishing language requirements seem to be making one or more of the following assumptions:

1. The work of philosophers written in languages other than English is not valuable, or is not relevant to the work done by English-speaking philosophers. The field of philosophy can develop perfectly fine, even if philosophical works in other languages are ignored.

2. The burden is on non-English-speaking philosophers to learn English, if they want to be taken seriously or have a wider audiences. English-speaking philosophers, on the other hand, need not do anything.

3. Learning a foreign language is nothing but a 'distraction' from more 'important' matters of one's philosophical training.

These are questionable assumptions, no?

Anonymous said...

Isn't it sometimes argued that a person with an advanced degree ought to know another language? I don't find this particularly compelling, but some people have an idea of what an "educated" person should know. I think the language requirement sometimes fits into this. Anyway, we had it at my school. I took a bunch of German literature classes, just for fun. Gotta say, I enjoyed reading Der Tod in Venedig in German, though the German hasn't helped one bit with my philosophizing.

As for "Si hoc non legere potes, tu asinus es"? I just googled it. Suck it!

Anonymous said...

One time in grad school I was having a drink with a candidate who had been working in an ethics-related field at two of the top programs in the country, and he started musing about whether there was a difference between "ethics" and "morals." When I happened to mention the respective Greek and Latin roots of either word, he looked at me with what appeared to be astonishment-- he had never heard this before.

English Jerk said...

Different languages lexicalize concepts differently and, within fairly narrow constraints, their sentences put those concepts into different relations. Consequently, different languages offer different perspectives on the world, and those differences could potentially illuminate any topic a philosopher might take an interest in. And since philosophers have, in general, a greater scholarly interest in our underlying concepts than, say, astronomers, philosophers would probably benefit from foreign language study more than people in many other fields.

Then again, almost anything might cause a philosopher to come up with new ideas—a foreign language, a physics course, a mild bout of mental illness. So why should language have any special status? One reason is that philosophy itself is conducted through language, and language isn’t a neutral vessel that has no effect at all on the argument it communicates. Surely all of us have had the experience of thinking that we had an argument completely worked out only to discover, during the labor of putting it into words, that there were problems we didn’t notice. Sometimes this discovery might just be a result of time passing or of gaining some distance from the ideas, but surely the friction between the categories of natural language and the concepts we’re arranging plays a significant role. The more languages we know, the more instructive that friction can be.

Moreover, a greater sensitivity to language makes one less likely to mistake idiosyncrasies of the way English carves up the world for universal human concepts or general features of the objective world. And, no doubt, part of the thinking behind a language requirement is that it can indirectly nudge people out of the unreflective Anglo-centrism that even highly educated people in this country regularly display. The world has nearly 7,000 languages (see, and most of the world’s population can use multiple languages. Thinking we Anglophones need to know only one is, from a global point of view, just plain odd.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who finds it both amusing and tragic that so many Anglo-American philosophers of language are monolingual?

Marinus said...

Well, that's a big load of Sapir-Whorf.

"So why should language have any special status? One reason is that philosophy itself is conducted through language, and language isn’t a neutral vessel that has no effect at all on the argument it communicates."

This isn't true: language is a neutral vessel where propositional content is concerned, and arguments work through their propositional content. There is no significant difference between, say, Aristotle's 'sea battle' argument about the truth of future contingents in his original ancient Greek, in the German Frege discussed it in and the English we read it in. What's more, if language wasn't neutral in regard to propositions, then the problem wouldn't only be in translation but also between speakers of the same language, because there would be no well-formed relationship between sentences and their meanings (to put it loosely), like Quine believed.

There are many situations where non-propositional elements of language -- stuff like rhyme, meter and rhetoric -- is important, but philosophy isn't for the most part one of them. Or shouldn't be.

Having said all that, I'm not bothered by language requirements. I do think it's an advantage for someone to have more than one language at their disposal, but I don't come from a monoglot society.

Logic Dude said...

Anon 3:25: I am one of the "logic dudes" and I had 8 years of Latin and 5 years of Greek by the time I left high school. So don't bug me.

Anonymous said...

I recall reading an interview with Rorty some years ago in which he reported something along the following lines: once the philosophy department at Princeton did away with the general foreign language requirement, there was a subsequent decline in the number of students choosing to write dissertations on non-English-writing philosophers. His explanation was that, once students had to decide on a dissertation topic, it was too late to learn the relevant language(s) for writing a scholarly dissertation on most figures in the history of philosophy.

Anonymous said...

I am one of the "logic dudes" and I had 8 years of Latin and 5 years of Greek by the time I left high school. So don't bug me.

How many other "logic dudes" can say that? Two? Three?

Anonymous said...

I took 3 years of Greek and 3 years of Latin in university, and had years of French in high school. I never use any of these skills in doing philosophy.

I think there is about as much importance in philosophers learning to read the classics in the original langugages as there is in scientists doing so. In other words, not much, maybe a little, but definitely not enough to make the investment of time worthwhile to _force_ these things on someone.

As for Rorty's comment that interest in doing continental (etc.) philosophy declined with the decline of monolingualism: well, chalk one up for monolingualism, then. I spend far too much time as it is trying to distance myself and my discipline from continentals and other idiots. The quicker continental philosophy dies, the better. And I hope the view of philosophy as obsessed with its classics goes with it.

English Jerk said...


Let me clarify: Language is not a “neutral vessel” just in the sense that there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence in any natural language between concepts and words or between sentences and “propositions.” (This claim has nothing whatsoever to do with Sapir-Whorf, or any weaker form of linguistic determinism.) It follows that when you use language to do philosophy (to think or to communicate your thoughts to others), you face a wide array of obvious difficulties. For example, you may find that the language you’re using doesn’t lexically make a distinction you need to make (between kennen and wissen, say), or you may find that the resources of your language don’t offer you a pragmatically intelligible way of expressing certain relations between concepts in a sentence (doing so requires, say, a heavily center-embedded construction). Neither of these problems have anything to do with a situation in which you have to choose between two different sentences with the same “propositional content” (i.e., “rhetoric”—“meter” and “rhyme” are even more obviously irrelevant to what I was saying). If you accept that these (non-rhetorical) difficulties can arise when attempting to formulate an argument in a natural language, it follows that they might arise but go unnoticed. In other words, it might be the case that, for example, you ought to be making a distinction that your language fails to lexicalize (but that another language does). It’s always possible to spell out such a distinction periphrastically, of course, but it seems likely that a distinction of that kind will be more likely to go unnoticed. Arguments may well "work through their propositional content," but they aren't written or communicated that way.

Hanuman said...

Hear, hear, English Jerk! I'm not sure this warrants a stringent language requirement, but it is a very nice argument for philosophers to learn some foreign languages. The more distant, the better, too.

To Dan-in-NY's second comment, I don't think opponents of a language requirement are committed to any of those assumptions. They need only assume that the cost of requiring each philosopher to learn a foreign language outweighs the benefit of having all philosophers being able to read works in other languages. Perhaps some people really do work on topics about which non-English-speaking philosophers haven't said much, but more likely, people can rely on other, multilingual philosophers to inform them of crucial ideas that were first put to paper in other languages. Specialization at work. This may not be ideal in the sense that many of us get only "filtered" versions of the original, but the question is whether it's a big enough problem to merit forcing everyone to learn another language.

Anonymous said...

As for Rorty's comment that interest in doing continental (etc.) philosophy declined with the decline of monolingualism: well, chalk one up for monolingualism, then.

No, that wasn't Rorty's comment, nor was it reported as such. Anon 6:56, why in the world are you conflating 'continental philosophy' with 'the history of philosophy'? Rorty's point was that students were opting not to write dissertations on canonical historical figures like Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant because they didn't have the requisite language skills.

Anonymous said...

My mistake, Anon 12:53am.

However, I stick by the point that there is about as much need for scientists to learn other languages in order to do science (since they, too, might conceivably wish to write on historical works not written in English) as there is for philosophers to.

In both cases, the main thrust of the disciplines are -- rightly -- toward doing new work and advancing current debates. All that is not to say that there is no merit in working with older texts (which I happen to enjoy myself). I'm just saying that this is increasingly the ambit of a small minority of serious philosophers, so we shouldn't force _everyone_ to learn other languages.

Anonymous said...

D in NY: the assumption is not that philosophy in other languages is not valuable. It is that learning anything has opportunity costs. I do read a foreign language, in which a great deal of philosophy is written, but that language is not useful to me in my work. I can't read everything relevant to me in English anyway... There simply aren't enough hours in the day.

Anonymous said...

My department has fairly strict language and logic requirements. Do you know what our students complain about the most? The logic requirement, because advanced competency in metalogic is not relevant to the vast majority of us (advanced modal logic, on the other hand, would benefit most). As far as our language requirement goes, we all come out quite competent in some other language. The only downer is for those of us working in areas that are primarily or almost exclusively English--especially when English is already a foreign language for us. That, however, is a problem with the way our requirement works, not with the foreign language requirement (more generally) itself. I think just about all of my peers would tell you that knowing a foreign language or two has proven beneficial to them in one way or another.

And hey, if you're really good in your foreign language, you might be able to land a job somewhere where it's spoken, or publish in some journals that would otherwise be largely off-limits to you.

Marinus said...

English Jerk:

I'm still not convinced. The defensible version of your claim, that in some languages some distinctions will be easier to make than others, is so weak that I believe we needn't take it seriously. For instance, in my native language there's no lexical distinction between 'justice' and 'fairness', but that is no impediment at all to discussing whether what in English is called justice is the same thing as what in English is called fairness. Just like French speakers have no difficulty at all in distinguishing between friendship and romantic love, or, a more striking example, Aquinas was sharp enough to figure out that in the Latin translation of Aristotle he was working from there were in fact two different senses of 'bonum' ('the good') at play, which maps pretty neatly on the two different ancient Greek terms translated as 'bonum'. Nothing in philosophy is easy, and seeing past mismatches between lexical and conceptual distinctions is such a low hurdle nobody discussing the matter with any seriousness should be bothered by that.

Anonymous said...

@ Dan: Contemporary philosophy is international. One reason for this is that English has come to dominate scientific and scholarly discourse. The language requirement is an institution that dates back to a darker time of national philosophies and other such nonsense.

By the way, I'm another "logic dude" with years of utterly pointless latin and greek in high school and college, reasonable competence in French, Spanish, and German. There are more of us than you'd suspect.

While none of these languages has helped me as a professional philosopher, they have helped me avoid philistinism. However, as we all know, many great philosophers have been philistines. Come to think of it, if I were more of a philistine, maybe I'd be a better philosopher.

Anonymous said...

Spiros asked if there was a reason to retain a language requirement. Lots of people responded by saying that learning a second language would help with doing philosophy (at least in some cases). Clearly these responses don't address the question: the claim must be that a language requirement can be expected to help us do philosophy better than would learning more logic, or more math, or more psychology or whatever. No one has argued that. So the upshot might be: we should replace the language requirement with a breadth requirement (actually, not even that, since the opportunity cost of doing something else is doing less philosophy).

Anonymous said...

So the upshot might be: we should replace the language requirement with a breadth requirement.

Breadth of philosophy? I suggested earlier that the language requirement is a breadth requirement in some places. But it has to do with what someone with a Ph.D. should know, generally speaking, and not with what a philosopher as such should.

Anonymous said...

another logic dude here. I majored in foreign languages as an undergrad. I see no point in requiring it for the Ph.D.

Anonymous said...

Why require anything at all except for the research or writing of a dissertation?

That's only partially snarky.

Here's the non-snarky way to put it.

I've been at this game awhile now. Masters done, working on the big ole D. And I can admit (anonymously, of course) that I've never read anything other than contemporary philosophy (1950s onward). Every last historical writer - Descartes, Kant, Mill, etc. - I've read only secondary sources about. (I wrote an entire essay on the Sea Battle argument for a grad seminar that got a shiny gold star and only read that section in D.I. because it was quoted in Anscombe or something.) The only stuff I bother to read directly is stuff that has to do -- more or less directly -- with my dissertation. Yet I've jumped through all my requisite hoops and am whittling away at my project.

I'm a knockout teacher (I get good reviews and a chili pepper to boot), I have loads of students gush about how much they love the class and how they never thought to think like that. I got nice grades on good papers. I rarely, if ever, did the assigned class reading and usually just write on whatever I want anyway. (This, FYI, is at a mid-tier Leiter school - so analytic I'm pretty sure the globe sitting in the department library only has North America and England on it.)

The few times I've actually tried to familiarize myself with historically important work, I have been run out because, quite frankly, it's not an effective use of my limited time. I have a certain number of years of funding in which to get this diss DONE.

Sure, I think it ought to be different. For one thing, I'd love to be able to sit around and read and think about this stuff because it's interesting, and its good philosophy, and it is deserving of my time and consideration. And I do think knowing the history of philosophy will make me a better philosopher.

Just like I think knowing more languages (I grew up bilingual with a non-romance language, and studied French, Latin, and Greek) would make me a better philosopher.

But grad school is barely about being a better philosopher anymore. It's about meeting the benchmarks demanded by the discipline at the right times in the right ways, to set you up with the right formula to get the right job. And we should just all stop for a minute and acknowledge that.

It's impractical to require anything except the research and completion of a high quality dissertation *because that's all that really matters to your future employer*. Coursework, we all know, basically has nothing to do with this task. It's fun, its interesting, etc. but it doesn't prepare you in anyway to write a dissertation. Knowing about metaethics is no more significant to my project than knowing French.

Skip all the course requirements altogether. Students team up with their committees immediately and the committee decides what the student needs to learn and how they will learn, and the committee asseses them. (This of course requires something even more outlandish -- that professors actually learn how to teach students as well as how to measure learning.)

It sounds crazy, but it totally works. Look at SLACs who use similar "No-grades-build-your-own-curric" models. Their grads are basically tiny geniuses.

Anonymous said...

I know this is jumping on a tangent and that this thread is dead, but I didn't want to let Anon 2:28's comments go unacknowledged.

Anon 2:28, after suggesting the removal of all requirements except the dissertation, writes: "It sounds crazy, but it totally works. Look at SLACs who use similar "No-grades-build-your-own-curric" models. Their grads are basically tiny geniuses."

I'm currently at a school that has a choose-your-own-adventure program like the one you mention (it has both undergrad and grad versions). It has normal programs as well, so there's a respectable sample of students who (presumably) differ in little else than their choice of the normal or "No-grades-build-your-own-curric" models.

The kids in the choose-your-own-adventure programs are pretty much terrible at everything, except being generally pretentious idiots. They have an extremely uneven knowledge base and are usually woefully ignorant of the most basic aspects of philosophizing (or whatever they're trying to do). This means that they're incapable of saying anything intelligent about any topic outside of their chosen sub-sub-field (but are usually so overconfident that they say whatever comes to mind anyway). Indeed, their lack of adequate training in any sort of general philosophical inquiry (the sort that you don't get in the coddling world of undergrad (under either model) and usually only get during the graduate level coursework phase) means that they often can't even properly interpret the scores of specialized information they've taken in. The sort of no-grades build-your-own-curriculum model you mention makes people not only bad generalists but bad specialists.

The reason for this should be obvious: When you're starting off in an academic program, you DON'T know what the lay of the land is and you don't know the best way to approach it. Putting someone who is generally ignorant of the academic landscape in charge of their future studies in that field is like trying to teach a child geography by asking them to construct a list of all the countries they would like to know the names and locations of.

The people who should be responsible for setting up curricula should actually know something about the curricula. I understand that, on your proposal, students would be set up with their committee so that the committee would have a major say in what sort of things the student focused on, so some of this worry is avoided. However, most people starting out at graduate school have no idea of what they'll want to do by the end, or, if they have an idea, they usually change their minds! Coursework is a way to gain broad knowledge about different philosophical fields and topics and good practice at doing philosophy in a variety of different ways. We shouldn't sacrifice this useful portion of the Ph.D. process so that we can build idiot-savant super-specialists who are only capable of writing on some wacky sub-field that they made up.

People who don't get or don't respect the value of a well-rounded philosophical education end up vastly overestimating their abilities, which will usually come back to bite them when their incompetence can no longer be ignored. I ask of you, Anon 2:28, not to disregard the value of a well-rounded philosophical education just because you aced your coursework without having to break a sweat or crack a book and you're the world's greatest teacher and you're writing a mind-blowing dissertation without having to read much of anything written before 1950. Not all of us are so lucky.

... That being said, language requirements are bullshit and a gigantic waste of time.

Anonymous said...

Anon 641,

I don't think you got the gist of my comment. I do think I'm a pretty snky teacher, but my point - that there are a lot of things I'd like to do, like, for example really intensely study the history of philosophy (or other languages, particularly Latin and French for philosophical reasons) because Id really love to know those things and I think theyd be pretty awesome learning experiences. But when I look at what advancement in the professional world demands of us, it's not that we are well-learned; it's that we fit a mold.

I feel like my experience studying philosophy would have been very different if I did undergrad at a non-top50 school. But having been at one, I quickly learned swagger counts more than content, and if you were up on everything after 1950 in English, you were "wasting time" doing anything else. Isn't this the reality of the era of specialization? I mean, isn't that basically the argument here for getting rid of the language requirement? "if your diss doesn't require it, you don't need it." " what about needing it to be a well rounded scholar." "oh yeah, I did that in undergrad.

But my diss doesn't require me to know about, ie, metaethics. And I met my breadth requirements for ethics in undergrad. So why require me to do anymore of it at the grad level? That argument against language reqs works for anything covered at the UG level, not essential to the dissertation.

Dawson said...

I am dyslexic and while I have two undergrad degrees and a masters I can't get into a post grad program due to the language requirements. Do you think this will ever change on a program level.