Monday, September 29, 2014

Analytic Philosophy and the English Language: Some Data and Some Preliminary Thoughts

This is the first in a series of posts that I intend to write about the relationship between analytic philosophy and the English language (I have been thinking about writing them since 2011, when I first created this blog but then never got around writing them, so, please, bear with me if it's going to take me a while to write then other posts :-)  (UPDATE: please see here for a disclaimer to all the posts in this series)).

As an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) philosopher, I can't help but notice that the vast majority of analytic philosophers who publish in the top academic journals and for the top academic presses are native English speakers. Let me start with some data.

According to Wikipedia (I know... but I couldn't be bothered to find a more reputable source), around 430 million people speak English as their first language (which, assuming a world population of 7.125 billion people, means that Native English Speakers (NES) make up about 6% of the world population). English as a Second Language speakers, on the other hand, are between 470 million and 1 billion (i.e. 6.5%-14% of the world population).

What about analytic philosophy? Eric Schwitzgebel has recently posted a list of the 200 most cited authors in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. By my count, there are only two EFL philosophers in the top 50 (4%) and 6 in the top 100 (6%). Moreover, with the exception of Jeagwon Kim (who was born in 1934), they were all born before 1930. In the whole list, as far as I can tell, there is only one under-70 ESL philosopher (i.e. Thomas Pogge) and no EFL philosopher under-60. (This is a very rough count based on incomplete knowledge and I would welcome any and all corrections)

Data collected by Kieran Healy paints a similar picture. Healy posted a list of the 500 most cited items in four top general philosophy journals (Phil Review, JPhil, Noûs, and Mind) between 1993 and 2013. Even by the most generous count (i.e. including philosophers who moved to an English speaking country early in their lives such as Ernest Sosa and Bas van Fraassen), items authored by ESL philosophers constitute 6% of the top 100 items,  6.5% of the top 200 items, 5.3% of the top 300 items, and 5.8% of the top 500 items. All in all, on the most generous count, a total of 29 articles or books by 22 ESL philosophers can be found among the top 500 items cited in the last 20 years in what are arguably the top four generalist journals in analytic philosophy. (I list the items below. Again, corrections are welcome! NB: I did not count items from before 1900, which excluded a few items by, e.g., Frege and Kant but no more than 10 in total)

I think that analytic philosophers should find this data somewhat surprising (although few non-EFL philosophers seem to have noticed (but see here for an exception)). After all, many EFL philosophers are usually credited with being among the founders of analytic philosophy or its predecessors (Frege, Carnap, Wittgeinstein, and Popper are just a few illustrious example), so why did at some point analytic philosophy become mostly an NES business? I guess, it was partly a matter of historical and sociological contingency but, nevertheless, I think the question needs to be raised, especially in light of the fact that analytic philosophy has been widely practiced in non-Anglophone countries  for a few decades now.

The data is not just surprising, however. It's also slightly alarming from a methodological point of view. Analytic philosophy (more than other forms of contemporary philosophy) aspires to be universal. When we try to come up with an analysis of, say, knowledge, usually we take ourselves to be analyzing a concept that we take to be universal, not a culturally/historically specific concept. In particular, we don't typically take ourselves to be formulating the truth-conditions of English sentences of the form 'S knows that p'. However, it's much easier to confuse knowledge with 'knowledge' if the vast majority of the people who are in the business of analyzing the concept of knowledge are also native English speakers. Just to pick one example, the suggestion that knowledge-how is a form of knowledge-that sounds particularly implausible to the ears of native speakers of languages that descend from Latin, as these languages use two different families of words to express the concept of knowledge (broadly construed), which descend from the Latin verbs 'sapere' and 'cognoscere'. However, only one of these families of words can be used to express knowledge-how. For example in Italian, I can say 'So come arrivare all'areoporto' [I know how to get to the airport] but I cannot say 'Conosco come arrivare all'areoporto'. What the implications of this are for the thesis that knowledge-how is a form of knowledge-that is unclear, but, as experimental philosophers have (I think correctly) argued recently, we have to be careful not to rely on intuitions that purport to be universal but are in fact culture- or language-specific. One way this could be so is when we rely exclusively on the way the English language carves the conceptual space to explore that space. Heidegger, apparently, used to think that the German language (and Ancient Greek) were particularly well-suited for philosophy. Most analytic philosophers would probably scoff at this suggestion. However, they behave as if English is the best-suited language for philosophy.

Finally and on a more personal note, as a EFL philosopher, I find this data discouraging. I can't help but feel that one reason why there so few EFL philosophers on those lists is that only few EFL philosophers can write as stylishly, captivatingly, and persuasively as the best writers among NES philosophers and that you cannot really achieve the level of philosophical influence needed to be on one of those lists without being able to write that well in English. Sure, some of the most accomplished writers of the English literature were EFL speakers (Conrad and Nabokov come to mind) and some EFL philosophers write superbly in English, but, for the rest of us, doing philosophy in a different language will always be to some extent a struggle. I know I will never be able to write like, say, David Lewis (one of my favourite writers among analytic philosopher and a philosopher whose philosophical success is, I suspect, in no small part due to his ability as a writer). In fact, I shouldn't even try to write like Lewis (as the results would be quite frankly disastrous), but I would be fooling myself if I were to convince myself that my inability to write in English as well and as fluently as my colleagues who are native English speaker were not an obstacle to my work getting more recognition (or did not mean that I have to work longer and harder to write half as well). Consider just this. Competition for space in the top journals is fierce and editors are basically looking for reasons to reject papers. When choosing between two otherwise identical papers, an editor would probably be more inclined to choose the better written one over the other even if content-wise the two papers were indistinguishable. I would be surprised if stylistic considerations did not play a role in the decisions of NES editors and referees, at least at the level of implicit bias (and possibly even on those of EFL editors and referees).

Where to go from here? As I said, this is only the first in a series of posts I intend to write on the topic and I have some suggestions, but my hope is that, as a profession, we start thinking about how to change things, because, as it is the case when it comes to other issues of inclusivity, at the end of the day, we are all going to benefit from a broader philosophical community.

PS I love you, English language! (No, seriously, I have always been secretly in love with the English language and would not/could not write about philosophy in any other language. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean I'm particularly good at it or that it's any easier for me :-) )

UPDATE: For the sake of clarity, in light of Filippo's comment below, I have switched the labels for non-native and native English speakers from "ESL" and "EFL" to, respectively, "EFL" (English as a Foreign Language) and "NES" (Native English Speakers).


Items by ESL Philosophers on Kieran Healy's list.
  1. 39 (37) (Kim 1993)
  2. 57 (32) (Wittgeinstein 1953)
  3. 61 (31) (Wittgeinstein ???) (I assume this is the Tractatus)
  4. 67 (29) (Margalit 1979)
  5. 75 (28) (Almog 1989)
  6. 86 (26) (Recanati 1993)
  7. 109 (23) (Benacerraf 1965)
  8. 120 (22) (van Fraassen 1980)*
  9. 141 (20) (Sosa 1991)*
  10. 141 (20) (Carnap 1956)
  11. 141 (20) (van Fraassen 1989)*
  12. 195 (17) (van Fraassen 1984)*
  13. 195 (17) (Widerker 1995)
  14. 211 (16) (Hempel 1965)
  15. 233 (15) (Margalit 1979)
  16. 262 (14) (Hintikka 1962)
  17. 324 (12) (Sosa 2007)*
  18. 324 (12) (Tarski 1956)
  19. 363 (11) (van Fraassen 1995)*
  20. 363 (11) (Cappelen 2005)
  21. 363 (11) (Sher 1991)
  22. 363 (11) (Benacerraf 1983)
  23. 363 (11) (Kim 1973)
  24. 435 (10) (Arntzenius 2003)
  25. 435 (10) (Haji 1993)
  26. 435 (10) (Gärdenfors 1988)
  27. 435 (10) (Ramachandran 1997)*
  28. 435 (10) (Gupta 1993)*
  29. 435 (10) (Vendler 1967)

Saturday, September 27, 2014


In the last few days, a few philosophers expressed some surprise at the fact that among the people who asked for Brian Leiter to step down as the editor of the PGR were (to quote one of them verbatim) "many people [they] really respect and admire" (yes, it's the "cool heads" again). This really got me thinking because the obvious conversational implicature is that, among them, there were also some people whom they do not respect and admire. I guess it's perfectly okay not to admire some of your professional colleagues, but is it okay not to respect them??? I guess that this is just another consequence of Leiterism. Prof. Leiter himself his well-known for some disparaging/disrespectful remarks about individual philosophers  (including those that got him into trouble lately) and whole groups of philosophers (members of SPEP but also analytic metaphysicians).

Do we have to like everything that is done by other philosophers? No, we don't. Do we have to find everyone's work interesting? No, we don't. Do we have to understand why others are doing the sort of philosophy they are doing? No, we don't. But do we have to respect the fact that they see purpose in what they are doing even if we don't? Yes, we do. I think that, as philosophers, we should all be more prone to epistemic humility than we are. The fact is that, probably, if I don't understand why one would spend their life, say, studying the works of Deridda, the problem is more likely to be with me (who having only a superficial knowledge of Derrida can't see what can be interesting to them in there) than with them (who have likely found something meaningful to them in there). Many people are equally baffled by the fact that some of us find analytic metaphysics interesting, but I would hope they would respect it as a philosophical endeavour as I respect theirs (unfortunately, many philosophers don't; including many of my fellow philosophers of science).

Does this lead to some sort of relativism? Are there no hopeless projects in philosophy? I don't think so. There probably are hopeless projects in philosophy. For all we know, all philosophical projects might be hopeless in some sense of 'hopeless'. After all, we are just overly smart apes. But I hope it leads to some pluralism. Why can't we let a thousand flowers bloom without having to disparage the flowers we don't like (and probably don't fully understand)?

In any case, I hope to see the day when philosophers will no longer divide the field between those whom they respect and those whom they don't respect. We can criticize our colleagues, questions their assumptions or their goals, or... but we always have to do so with respect, assuming that the person on the other side is at least as smart and thoughtful as we are. Have I always done that? I'm afraid not. In fact, I'm afraid that this is partly a consequence of our training and partly an excuse not to familiarize ourselves with whole areas of philosophy, but I hope we can all become less dismissive of each other's philosophical endeavours. We all owe each other some respect.

PS (September 28, 2014): Just to clarify, I think it's (usually) okay to question/challenge a certain philosophical project (e.g. analytic metaphysics) with arguments. What, I think, it's not okay (to my mind) is to disparage it without arguments--e.g. just offering some cartoon caricature of it. I feel the same about the way many of my fellow analytic philosophers dismiss much continental philosophy. Although I confess I indulge in this sort of dismissiveness myself from time to time, I'm now trying to force myself to come up with arguments when I think a certain philosophical project is wrongheaded and, often, it's surprisingly difficult to come up with good arguments that go beyond the "I don't like it".)

Friday, September 26, 2014

The "Cool Heads" and the "Angry Mob"

Unfortunately, you know the pattern. First, a group of philosophers reacts strongly to some incident X and, then, after a while, a second group of philosophers starts complaining that the philosophers in the first group are overreacting/jumping to conclusions too fast/not in a position to know whether X ever really happened... Often philosophers in this second group start comparing philosophers in the first group to an angry mob. Let me call the philosophers in this second group 'the cool heads'. There is a few points I'd like to make about the cool heads.

First, an interesting sociological fact: anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that, often, the cool heads are white, cis-heterosexual, able-bodied men (there are exceptions, of course). In other words, they usually are among the most privileged members of our already very privileged profession. Most of this is hardly surprising: we all know well that most professional philosophers are white, cis-heterosexual, able-bodied men. What makes this unsurprising fact surprising is that the philosophers in the first group are often not white, cis-heterosexual, able-bodied men. To my mind, this makes the angry mob charge quite problematic, for angry mobs are usually considered irrational or non-rational. In this conversational context, the charge easily acquires sexist, racist, ableist overtones.

Second, 'angry mob' also has strongly classist overtones and, again, when used in this context, this is particularly problematic. As I mentioned, the cool heads are often among the most privileged members of our (privileged) profession, so the fact that they try to associate the philosophers in the first group as lower-class is quite telling. Perhaps, before accusing people who react strongly to X to be an angry mob, one should ask themselves 'Why am I not bothered by X as these other people are? Could it be that my own privilege prevents me from seeing what's problematic with X? Could it be that, if I were not a white, cis-heterosexual, able-bodied man (fill in as appropriate), I would find X more troublesome?' These are not easy questions to ask. They require one to acknowledge their own privileges, which can be uncomfortable especially in a profession in which people often tend to attribute their professional success to their talents and tend to discount the role their privilege has played in it.

Third, the idea, which seems to underlie much of the cool heads approach, that inaction is somehow intrinsically morally superior to action is extremely problematic. Yes, the cool heads will only reach a conclusion about X when all the evidence is in and they have thought about it carefully and they have eliminated all alternative interpretations and..., but, we are philosophers, so we know where that leads---the evil demon is a useful fiction in the philosophy classroom but it can't be the epistemic standard on which we act in the real world! The fact is that the cool heads do not realize is that their privileged position is what allows them to adopt such high epistemic standards. Because X could never happen to them! So it's easy for them to take the (supposedly) moral high ground and look down on the "angry mob" condescendingly.

The fact is that angry mobs are often the voice of the powerless against the powerful. Often angry mobs act in ways that we find reproachable but often the cause of their anger is very real and is something that needs to be addressed urgently. If it is a angry mob that forces you to confront the problems you'd rather ignore or tolerate (because they don't really affect you), then so be it...

Thursday, September 25, 2014

How Leiterism Can Be Bad for You

I did my graduate studies in a department in which, for better or for worse, no one ever talked about the Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR). In fact, believe it or not, I didn't even know about the PGR until the year I hit the philosophy job market for the first time. I was mind-blown! "What a great idea!", I thought. And I knew it wasn't for the prospective graduate students or at least it wasn't primarily for them. People who tell you otherwise are lying either to you or to themselves  ("Think of the grad students!"). It was primarily for the rest of us. Because. let's admit it, as academics, we are competitive and ambitious and the idea that there could be One True Ranking of all philosophy departments (or at least all "good enough" departments) is just too appealing to us.

From there, it's a short step to what I like to call 'Leiterism'. Leiterism is the view that an individual philosopher's "philosophical worth" is proportional to the rank of the department(s) they are associated with (where one is associated with both the department that awarded them their PhD and the departments one has worked/works for). Of course, I do not think Brian Leiter or any of the people who produce or consume the PGR would admit they are Leiterists. In fact, most philosophers (even you, I bet, dear reader), would vehemently deny that they are Leiterists but Leiterism (like some contemporary racism) acts more as a (more or less) implicit bias than as an openly endorsed doctrine. I hate to admit that, despite my best efforts, I myself am still a Leiterist. Leiterism subtly and surreptitiously influences my judgements--which papers I choose to read, which people I choose to cite, which talks I attend, .... I often make a conscious effort to counteract my unconscious Leiterism but unconscious Leiterism is hard to eradicate.

You probably won't be surprised to find out that I think that Leiterism is a bad thing! (Didn't I compare it to racism after all? Luckily, it's not nearly as bad as racism, as it affects mostly very privileged people, people who, like you and I, had the privilege of being in a position to (try to) become professional philosophers.) I'm not going to get into the reasons why Leiterism is bad in general here. Here, I want to tell you how I learned that Leiterism can be bad for you. Actually, I'm going to tell you an anecdote about how my own Leiterism was bad for me.

As I mentioned above, I only learned about the PGR the year I first hit the job market. At the time I wasn't quite yet done with my dissertation and wasn't really hoping to get a fancy TT job at a Leiterific department, but I had a young family to support and I couldn't afford one more year in grad school. Plus I thought I would at least learn something about the job market from the whole experience and I hoped that securing at least a temporary position would give me a better shot at a Leiterific job the following year.

Anyway, at some point towards the end of the job season, I finally received an offer for a 1-year VAP from a top-50 department. They expressed a lot of interest in me and made me feel like I was being courted. By a top-50 department, nonetheless! Plus they repeatedly mentioned that they would likely advertise the tenure-track version of the position they were offering me the following year (strongly, implying that I would be in a good position to get it if I were to accept the job). At the time, I was still in the running for two other temporary positions at Leiterific departments but neither of those positions came with the possibility of a permanent position at the end of the rainbow. And, anyway, and this was what really clinched it for me--how could I possibly turn down a position from a Leiterific department???

Of course, I ended up accepting the offer. And my family and I spent a miserable year in [...]. With hindsight, I feel it was one of the most questionable decisions we have made as a family and I feel that my Leiterism played a crucial role in making what turned out to be a very bad decision for us. When I was on the market the following year, I made a conscious effort to prioritize other considerations over Leiterificity. I made some counterintuitive decisions (counterintuitive for a Leiterist, that is) and I ended up accepting a tenure-track position at a lovely non-Leiterific department in a nice city. I have never really regretted it. I know that some people will assume I am less worthy of a philosopher because I don't work for a Leiterific department. I see it happening all the time, but I try not to be bothered by it because I know that, in some possible world, there is a much more miserable version of me working at some Leiterific department in the middle of nowhere.

Let me be clear---I don't blame anyone else for my own mistakes  (I can hardly blame my oldest child, who was just six month old at the time of the decision, or my wife for them and don't blame other Leiterists!). I was professionally inexperienced and very naive at the time. And, ultimately, I think I have learned a number of valuable lessons from that experience. One of them is to distrust the Leiterist in me.

PS I should add that my year as a VAP wasn't a completely negative experience. First, I probably learned more about professional philosophy in my one year as a VAP at [...] than in all of my years of grad school and I think that what I learned really gave me an edge on the job market the following year. Second, I met some really nice people, some of whom I'm still in contact with. Last but most importantly, our second child was born in [...] ;-)

PPS Also, I should mention that our year in [...] was miserable for a number of reasons--not just because of the location--and that there are perfectly sensible people who love living there---insofar as our miserableness was caused by the location, I guess it's just a matter of personal taste.


I think I know what you are thinking, dear Reader. You are thinking: "Oh, c'mon, who needs another philosopher's blog?"

Well, I do. It's not that I need a venue to showcase how wonderful, smart, cool I am (unfortunately, I am none of those things) or to broadcast the happenings of my glitzy jet-setting philosopher's life (although I consider myself very lucky, my life is not in any way glitzy or jet-setting (but more on that in future posts possibly)). It's more that there are a few things I'd like to talk about that I cannot talk about with anyone other than you, dear Reader.

I can't promise you frequent, intelligent, funny, fully-thought-through, typos-free, or grammatically-correct posts, but I hope you'll find some of what I'll say interesting and maybe think about it for a bit.

If you want to tell me what you think about a certain post, then please feel free to comment by using the comment box below it, dear Reader. Comments will be moderated and, if, for any reason, I don't feel like publishing your comment, I won't. I'm not here to guarantee your freedom of expression. I'm only to exercise mine ;-).