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).

APPENDIX:

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)

26 comments:

  1. Thank you for this interesting work. Random observation, to be taken with the usual caveats that go with discussing ethnicity: there are more Asian-sounding than Latin-sounding names on that list, and almost all European names sound Northern European.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes, as far as I can see, Sosa seems to be the only philosopher whose first language is a Romance language to make it on either list. Also, it's a bit funny to consider philosophers who grew up in India as non-ESL philosophers, since much of the formal education in India is in English and most middle- and upper-class Indians are very proficient in English.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. But it's still a second language. The (admittedly sparse) data I've seen suggests that some of the challenges you describe in the post are felt by anyone who isn't native in the language, even if they started speaking it regularly around age 5.

      Delete
  3. One question, as someone who struggles with the English language:
    Is the ability to express oneself part of what makes one a good philosopher? Is philosophy expressed better better philosophy, or philosophy which is no better, merely better expresed?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The ability to express oneself is, I think, part of being a good philosopher. The ability to express oneself <\i>in English<> is not. :-) However, English happens to be the language we have chosen as our lingua franca (more on this in a future post!), so, I guess, proficiency in English help us disseminate our ideas more clearly and persuasively and to a broader audience. I would however distinguish between clarity of expression, which seems to be essential to analytic philosophy, from style, which is not essential.

      Delete
  4. A small point, unlike Conrad, Nabokov was not an ESL-speaker. Nabokov didn't write in English until 1940, but was trilingual (Russian, French, English).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for pointing that out! I stand corrected! :-)

      Delete
  5. i recommend William Zinnser, On Writing Well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. thanks! but I'm trying to make a different point in my post...

      Delete
  6. Hi Gabriele,

    Thanks for writing about this important issue. A while back I wrote about this on the Philosophers’ Cocoon: http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2013/01/non-native-english-speakers-in-philosophy.html

    I have looked at the representation (or under-representation) of ESL philosophers in TT positions at the so-called “top” PhD programs in the US. Like your findings, mine are discouraging, too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorri, Moti---I haven't been following blogs that much lately and missed your post! Looking forward to reading it!

      Delete
  7. This is very interesting and I look forward to reading the further posts on the topic.

    I do think it’s worth distinguishing different dimensions of quality in writing, since the EFL/ESL distinction works quite differently in them. First, there are matters of style. Is the writing exciting, are there interesting metaphors, does it plot arhythmically, and so on. I suspect that there is no correlation here with the ESL/EFL distinction. A stylish writer in one language will be stylish in another (always supposing a threshold of competence). And there are many dull EFL writers. Secondly, there is the general run of correctness with respect to word-meaning, syntax, morphology, etc. Here, given the nature of language education in (especially) the US and the UK, and given that philosophers who are ESL folks will typically come from good schools in their native countries and have learned English properly (and often, as you Italians, with a large dose of Latin grammar), I venture to say that ESL people will, on the whole, write better than EFL people. They know properly about sequence of tenses, relative pronouns, etc. (Though as you point out, it may take longer for ESL people to produce the text that is, on the whole, better.) Finally, there is a subcategory of mistakes (which I don’t exactly know how to describe) that only ESL people will make. These will occur even in beautifully stylish, and on the whole grammatically-superior-to-EFL productions. I’m thinking of such things as when to use “to” versus “of” in expressions like “capable of” and “able to.” No EFL person would ever write “capable to”. But then, as per my second dimension, no ESL person will ever, ever write such things as “I wish I would have done that” (or worse: “I wish I would of done that”).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Simon: thanks for the comments. I agree we should distinguish different aspects of linguistic expressions, but I'm afraid I disagree with you on the first two points. Figurative language is very idiomatic and is used differently in different languages, so metaphors that stand in one language fall flat on their face in another (because of different idiomatic associations). As for the second point, maybe things are different in other countries but, believe me, you wouldn't want to have learned your English in an Italian school! :-)

      Delete
    2. I was fortunate enough to have parents who could afford and had the foresight to pay for private English lessons. Without that, my English would have been significantly worse. So there is also a huge class component here (but more on this in future posts hopefully)

      Delete
    3. anon grad efl studentSeptember 30, 2014 at 12:41 PM

      "I venture to say that ESL people will, on the whole, write better than EFL people. They know properly about sequence of tenses, relative pronouns, etc."
      - often these things could be the result of ESL people hiring proofreaders. For instance, in my country it's a popular practice to include costs of proofreadering in grant applications, and to pay for a proofreading before sending a paper to the journal for review (and of course, there are companies making good money by providing these things).

      Delete
  8. NB: I realize only now that you use 'EFL' in a different way from the way that I (and possibly most British people) use it, i.e. to stand for 'English as a Foreign Language'.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorry! I wasn't thinking of that use of EFL! I could have chosen a better acronym :-)

      Delete
  9. I'm grateful for this, Gabriele! I had been meaning to do some such number-crunching myself, but never got round to it. Let me point out that MAP (Minorities and Philosophy) aims to raise sensitivity about and address under-representation of non-native speakers of English in Anglophone philosophy (I take it it is especially non-native speakers that you have in mind here, although ESL speakers, though perhaps not EFL ones, are arguably not necessarily non-native). We should think of some way to collaborate! PS: MAP's website is www.mapforthegap.com and there is a UK section of MAP which I recently inaugurated and currently direct.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That sounds great! Let me try to turn that into a live link www.mapforthegap.com

      Delete
    2. sorry! it doesn't seem to work! You gotta love blogger!

      Delete
  10. Remember that von Wright (#187) is a Finn.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'll try to remember that but I'm not sure how it's relevant here. :-) Could you please clarify, John?

      Delete
  11. Thanks, that's very interesting. It seems to me that some of the debate (e.g. Sara Protasi's post on her facebook page) did not sufficiently distinguish between different forms of "discrimination". I think, for example, that the arguments against all-male conferences (role models, the way it makes philosophy look, esp. to students etc) apply equally to conferences featuring only native speakers, esp. if they take place in countries where English is not an official language.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I totally agree, Philipp! In fact, I think it applies to all conferences that aim at being international (e.g. in which there are speakers from both North America and Britain). It seems that every unearned advantage is unfair and to be a native speaker is in this context an unearned advantage and we should try to find ways to make the situation fairer. I do not have some magic formula for doing that but I think it's important to discuss it. (Also, this issue is closely related to other issues such as race in ways that I think are very important to spell out more clearly.)

      Delete
  12. My main problem with this is that I have no idea what proportion of the profession as a whole speaks English as a first versus a foreign language (hereafter E1L versus EFL). If there was anything about this in the post, I did not find it - I will admit to having skimmed some parts, though, so I'd be grateful if anyone could point out anything I might have missed. Barring that, though, the whole thing seems to be a textbook example of the base rate fallacy.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Jeff: It's hard to get good numbers, but I would think that there are a lot of philosophy departments around the world and there are a lot of philosophers working in them. (some estimates say around 16,000 higher education institutions in the world and even including 2-year colleges around 4500 in the US alone). Anyway, much of this is beside the point, I think analytic philosophy should be true to its self-image as a cosmopolitan enterprise and achieve a much better representation of the world population (only 8% of which is Anglophone (who's committing the base rate fallacy now? ;-) )) and that if it can't do that without becoming less Anglocentric and more inclusive from a cultural/linguistic point of view. I find it very surprising that this can sound controversial to some

    ReplyDelete