Saray Ayala (-López) works as an Assistant Professor of philosophy at California State University Sacramento. They received their BA from Universidad de Murcia, and a PhD from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Their research ranges across philosophy of cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and social and feminist philosophy. They are especially interested in explanation, conversational dynamics, cognitive externalism, sexual orientation, and sex/gender & science. They enjoy philosophy almost as much as music.
English patrol at the borders of Philosophy
I’m grateful to Meena Krishnamurthy for this blog, such a valuable philosophy resource. I’m delighted to take part in it.
This post catches me during my first trip to Siberia. Besides black tea and foxberry jam, the main component of my days is deciphering cyrillic. I read streets signs and book covers like a child discovering the mental expansion that comes with learning how to read. I’ve learned new concepts for which I don’t know the word in English nor Spanish, the only two languages I speak. I wonder if these new concepts will end up becoming part of my repertoire, as it happened with the ones I learned when I started reading in English. In Ted Chiang’s “Story of your life”, the main character learns heptapod, the radically different written language of an alien civilization. As she masters her heptapod, her mental capacities expand in radical ways. While sipping tea in the very early Siberian sunrise, my mind drifts into a world in which I incorporate Russian into my conceptual tools and this expands my thinking in unimaginable ways.
This daydreaming leads me to what I want to share with you. Instead of the more or less sci-fi possibility of mental expansion that comes with learning and thinking in new languages (a la Sapir and Whorf), I’d like to reflect here on how contemporary philosophy seems to be going in the opposite direction, limiting itself to one single language. Is this something to worry about? Is there anything interesting to learn from reflecting on this issue? I believe that the English language is playing a doubly problematic role in philosophy. First, the English language is currently critical in demarcating the boundaries of the philosophy discipline, and second, it is infecting philosophy with the evils of its own demarcation problem. That is, contemporary philosophy relies on the same problematic signs that are commonly used to identify good and proper English.
- Demarcation and dominance
There is an old question in philosophy, which in relation to science is called “the demarcation problem”. That is, the question of what counts as philosophy, and what doesn’t. There is also a relatively new issue, and that is the dominance of the English language and Anglo philosophy in contemporary philosophy. We find two parallel questions within the English language: The old problem of distinguishing between proper and improper or bad English (this question arises in a broad range of contexts, from British colonies to UK streets and schools, from bilingual programs in non-English speaking countries to assimilation programs for immigrants in the US). The second, relatively recent issue, exacerbated by globalization, is the dominance of the English language across countries, which results in more and more non-native speakers who communicate in English.
- A clarification:
There are at least two comparisons that are relevant for a demarcation enterprise, one that contrasts X with pseudo-X, and another that contrasts good X with bad X. I won’t distinguish between these two.
- Learning from demarcating?
In his SEP entry “Science and Pseudo-Science”, Sven Ove Hansson writes “From a theoretical point of view, the demarcation issue is an illuminating perspective that contributes to the philosophy of science in the same way that the study of fallacies contributes to the study of informal logic and rational argumentation.” Can we say the same about demarcating philosophy and English? In principle, it seems so, for we do learn about philosophy when we identify cases of pseudo or bad philosophy. Take an immature student essay or a bogus Op-Ed. These cases can be valuable teaching materials to illustrate how not to write philosophy. Similarly, instances of bad English (e.g. bad grammar, bad pronunciation) can teach us something about good English.
- The English-Philosophy demarcation combo
There is a practice of demarcation both in the philosophy discipline and the English language (I won’t argue for this claim here). Interestingly, in contemporary philosophy the demarcation enterprise includes the English language. Let’s call this the demarcation combo. Both in English-speaking countries and also in many non-English speaking countries, most good and proper philosophy is currently done in English, and needs to be done in good and proper English. In non-Anglophone countries, learning the proper philosophical style involves learning also the proper English. Even in English-speaking countries, people who communicate in non-standard English need to include the learning of the proper English in their toolkit in order to write good and proper philosophy papers and present philosophy works in the appropriate manner.
- A diagnosis: the demarcation combo impoverishes philosophy
In spite of the possibility mentioned in 3, that is, that the demarcation endeavor can in principle teach us something about philosophy, and about English, I argue that the demarcation combo is not teaching us anything of interest about either philosophy or the English language. Furthermore, I argue that it is actually impoverishing philosophy. First, it limits philosophy by excluding all the non-Anglo philosophy and all the philosophy that is not in English. Second, it infects philosophy with the evils of English demarcation. Let’s start with the first problem.
- Poor philosophy
It’s a trivial observation that most of the philosophy that is being discussed and taught in Western but also in many non-Western countries, is a very limited sample of philosophies and philosophers. It focuses on a few authors, all too similar amongst themselves, a few ideas, and a few ways of discussing those ideas. It is also focused on a single language, English. This is obviously limiting, for many works and philosophers are left out in many contemporary discussions. A possibility I do not explore here is that by being done exclusively in English, contemporary philosophy might be tailored to the English language. If so, this would betray its aspiration to universality (Contessa 2014; Ayala 2015).
- The evils of English demarcation
The English language is limiting philosophy in yet another sense: it is infecting philosophy with its nefarious demarcation problem. The problem with English demarcation is that it takes standard uses of English as paradigms of proper and good English, and non-standard uses (e.g. African American Vernacular English, ASL, foreign and regional accents) as deficient. This has an important impact on philosophy.
When communicating, we identify the presence of proper or good English relying upon signs. One of those signs is accent. Even though language competence and accent are two different things, accent is usually taken as a sign of language competence, and more disturbingly, as a sign of competence more generally (Lippi-Green 1997). There is plenty of empirical research on how non-native speakers are generally perceived as being less competent (Boyd 2003), less credible and skilled (Giles 1973), and less intelligent (Lindemann 2003). And this is not a consequence of a lack of intelligibility. Several studies suggest that biased attitudes play a critical role here (Linderman 2002). For example, perceived ethnicity affects perceived accent, which in turn can affect perceiver’s comprehension (Rubin 1992). A recent study by Huang et al. (2013) reveals an accent bias against non-native speakers of English similar to the gender bias Steinpress et al. (1999) found in evaluations of CVs. Biased perception is not restricted to non-native speakers. Take the case of Rachel Jeantel, who was the most important witness for the prosecution in the trial of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvor Martin. In spite of her testifying for several hours, Jeantel’s testimony played no role in jurors’ deliberations. Her African American Vernacular English was considered “hard to understand” and “not credible”, as a juror said in an interview (Rickford & King 2016).
All this is relevant for philosophy because philosophers fare no better than any other language user, and inevitably rely on problematic cues to proper or good English when discussing philosophy in English.
Another sign that can be seen as the written parallel to accent is writing style. Writing can be accented, in the sense of having properties that are different from some accepted standard, e.g. sentence construction, choice of words. Contemporary philosophy has a standard of writing style, one that we need to learn as students. Deviations from this standard are perceived, like accented speech, in a negative way. They wrongly signal a lack of language command. Even worse, they can be perceived as a sign of defective thinking. Unfamiliar sentence constructions and peculiar choice of words, often found in texts by non-native speakers and many other non-standard users, are in this sense similar to references to unfamiliar sources and traditions of thought: they produce a sense of unintelligibility, whether or not accurate.
In a philosophy work, unintelligibility is dangerously close, if not identical, to lack of quality. While in data-based disciplines sounding good and intelligible (that is, sounding standard) is important, in philosophy it is critical. For a philosopher, this is all there is to convey your point (Ayala 2015).
Given all the above, intelligibility is not a good practical criterion to judge the quality of a philosophy work. When non-standard accents and writing styles kick in, people are very bad judges of intelligibility. We easily get an illusion of unintelligibility, and rush into a judgement of poor quality. However, contemporary philosophy relies on this and other signs of standard English to identify good and proper philosophy, and this jeopardizes non-standard and foreign accents and styles. Thus, besides being limited to Anglo-philosophy and philosophy in English, contemporary philosophy is also limited in another way: it relies on the same problematic cues to intelligibility and quality used in English demarcation. The dominance of the English language is part of the problem: it is because English has become the dominant language in contemporary philosophy, that demarcation practices for English are also patrolling the borders of philosophy.
The late sunset finally occurs. I’m sipping yet another tea, and daydreaming with a multilingual philosophy that exploits the resources of several languages. A richer, expanded, more inclusive philosophy.
Ayala, S. 2015. Philosophy and the Non-native speaker condition. APA Newsletter Feminism and Philosophy.
Boyd, S. 2003. Foreign-Born Teachers in the Multilingual Classroom in Sweden: The role of Attitudes to Foreign Accent. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 6: 283–95.
Contessa, G. 2014. Analytic Philosophy and the English Language: Some Data and Some Preliminary Thoughts. Yet Another Philosophers Blog?!?, September 29, 2014, accessed February 14, 2014, http:// yetanotherphilosophersblog.blogspot.com/2014/09/analytic-philosophy-and-english.html.
Giles, H. 1973. Communication effectiveness as a function of accented speech. Speech Monographs 40: 330–331.
Hansson, Sven Ove. 2017. Science and Pseudo-Science. SEP Summer 2017 Edition, Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
Huang, L., M. Frideger & J. L. Pearce. 2013. Political Skill: Explaining the Effects of Nonnative Accent on Managerial Hiring and Entrepreneurial Investment Decisions, Journal of Applied Psychology 98(6): 1005-17.
Lindemann, S. 2002. Listening with an attitude: A model of native-speaker comprehension of nonnative speakers in the United States. Language in Society 31: 419-441.
—- 2003. Koreans, Chinese, or Indians? Attitudes and Ideologies about Nonnative English Speakers in the United States. Journal of Sociolinguistics 7: 348–64.
Lippi-Green, R. 1997. English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States. New York: Routledge.
Rickford, J. R. & S. King. 2016. Language and linguistics on trial: Hearing Rachel Jeantel (and other vernacular speakers) in the courtroom and beyond. Language 92 (4): 948-988.
Rubin, D. L. 1992. Nonlanguage factors affecting undergraduates’ judgments of non-native English-speaking teaching assistants. Research in Higher Education 33(4): 511-531.
Steinpreis, R. E., K. A. Anders & D. Ritzke. The Impact of Gender on the Review of the Curricula Vitae of Job Applicants. Sex Roles 41: 509–28.