Dominance Of The English Language In Contemporary Philosophy: A Look At Journals


“If you’re an academic aiming to reach a broad international audience, it is increasingly the case that you must publish in English. Philosophy is no exception.” So writes Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside), in a post at The Splintered Mind.

As he notes, this gives native English speakers an obvious professional advantage of being able to reach a worldwide readership without having to write in or even learn a foreign language. What are some of the other issues that arise from the dominance of English in philosophy today?

One issue is control of the institutions of philosophy, such as journals.

In the post, Schwitzgebel looks at “the extent to which people who make their academic home in Anglophone countries control the English-language journals in which so much of our scholarly communication takes place.”

You can read about his methodology here. He looked at the editorial boards of a number of top philosophy journals—564 editorial board members in all. His findings were that “of these, 540 (96%) had their primary academic affiliation with an institution in an Anglophone country. Only 4% of editorial board members had their primary academic affiliation in a non-Anglophone country.”

Here is the breakdown:

The following Anglophone countries were represented:

USA: 377 philosophers (67% of total)
UK: 119 (21%)
Australia: 26 (5%)
Canada: 13 (2%)
New Zealand: 5 (1%)

The following non-Anglophone countries were represented:

Germany: 6 (1%)
Sweden: 5 (1%)
Netherlands: 3 (1%)
China (incl. Hong Kong): 2 (<1%)
France: 2 (<1%)
Belgium: 1 (<1%)
Denmark: 1 (<1%)
Finland: 1 (<1%)
Israel: 1 (<1%)
Singapore: 1 (<1%) [N.B.: English is one of four official languages]
Spain: 1 (<1%)

What, if anything, should be done about this? Schwitzgebel writes:

It seems to me that if English is to continue in its role as the de facto lingua franca of philosophy (ironic foreign-language use intended!), then the editorial boards of the most influential journals ought to reflect substantially more international participation than this.

Your thoughts, readers?

Matthew Cusik, “Course of Empire (Mixmaster II)”

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Owen Flanagan
Owen Flanagan
4 years ago

An important related finding has to do with the amount of research in psychology that studies mostly peoples of the North Atlantic. http://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~henrich/pdfs/WeirdPeople.pdfReport

Francesco
Francesco
4 years ago

Is there anywhere a reliable list of top “continental” philosophy journals? My guess is that even there Anglophone editorial boards would dominate, though possibly by a much smaller margin.Report

Grad Sockpuppet
Grad Sockpuppet
4 years ago

This is not constructive and probably not relevant (given who’s actually on editorial boards), but Canada isn’t an anglophone country, even if it is for all intents and purposes of the study.

More constructively, it’s not surprising. One of the big problems facing Francophone education in philosophy is just that most of the important contemporary work is untranslated. So either we have to assign some English texts in our classes (which is both politically and practically difficult, especially in Francophone Canada), or we mostly just have to teach primary historical texts. And that just ends up reinforcing the problem, since students end up having to catch up on their own.Report

SCM
SCM
Reply to  Grad Sockpuppet
4 years ago

If Canada isn’t anglophone because French also has official status, then one might as well say that the UK isn’t anglophone because Welsh and Cornish also have official status or that New Zealand isn’t anglophone because Maori has official status (and, curiously, English not). Alternatively, if one goes by the typical first language of people in the society, then Canada (75%) would only be somewhat less anglophone than the US (80%).

(Arguably, Singapore should also be considered anglophone, but I suppose in the present context this could depend on whether academics in Singapore typically speak English as a first language alongside Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil.)Report

Bruno Verbeek
Bruno Verbeek
4 years ago

This has been noted in non-anglophone countries decades ago. It puts us at a disadvantage. Some claim that this disadvantage is a kind of injustice (Philippe van Parijs (2011), Linguistic Justice for Europe and the World, OUP). I think it causes certain views to be marginalized, not because they lack merit, but because they are not shared in Anglophone parts of the world. That is not necessarily unjust, but it is a pity for it deprives mainstream philosophy from some valuable insights and theories.Report

Non-anglophone
Non-anglophone
4 years ago

On many occasions, Schwitzgebel generated some remarkably interesting data. This time, however, I do not find his data surprising at all. (This does not mean that I do not appreciate his efforts. Quite the contrary. So, thanks, Eric!)

He analysed the editorial boards of journals in the analytic tradition (well, OK, PPR is supposed to be a journal in the phenomenological tradition, but, hey …). I come from Southern Europe and everybody there knows that, apart from a few significant exceptions, there is not much analytic philosophy going on there. Those who do analytic philosophy thus emigrate to an English-speaking country (as I did) or, to a lesser extent, to Northern Europe (I am including Germany in this category). As expected, these are the places where the editorial board members have their affiliations.

I would be more interested to know how many editorial board members are not English native speakers, even though they work and live in an Anglophone country. Report

Matt
4 years ago

I think it causes certain views to be marginalized, not because they lack merit, but because they are not shared in Anglophone parts of the world.

In my experience this seems almost backwards to me. If, say, Croatian philosophers work primarily on Croat, few people outside of Croatia will read them. This is so even of countries with larger populations. (It’s certainly so for Russia, for example.) But, if such philosophers learn English – as they often to – they can and do spread their ideas much more widely. So, rather than leading to marginalization, the fact that English is an extremely wide-spread academic language allows for greater interaction and sharing of ideas. Nothing would more encourage the ideas of these people to be marginalized than to limit them to vastly smaller audiences.
I have just returned from a conference where about 1/3 of the participants were not native English speakers. The languages involved were such that it would have been difficult to do the conference if there wasn’t a common language. Using one allows much greater participation by people from all over, not less. (One participant at the conference was an Italian scholar who teaches in Sweden. I asked her if she teaches in Swedish and she said no, that the teaching was in English. She said she knows Swedish only poorly. Once again, the use of English as a common language for academic work has broadened, not narrowed, her opportunities. Such cases are common.)

(I’ve read a fair amount of Van Parijs’s work in this area, and though I typically like him very much, here he seems almost 180 degrees wrong to me.) Report

Anne
Anne
4 years ago

Contemporary analytic political philosophy suffers from a severe lack of metalinguistic awareness, which, frustratingly, gets in the way of its self-proclaimed capacity for critical and rigorous reflection. This is probably attributable, historically, to the designative presumption that underlies the specific social history of English, and, more recently, the fact that Rawls read Chomsky rather than Sapir. Report

MOS
MOS
4 years ago

There have been some attempts to include non-english-written papers in the scene. Philpapers has already made some agreements to share entries in Portuguese with the Brazilian site PhilBrasil (http://www.philbrasil.com.br) and in Polish with the Polish Center for Philosophical Research (http://www.obf.edu.pl/polskie-philpapers/). It is also worth noting that some of the journals edited in non-English-speaking countries also publish mainly in English. This is the case, for example, of Disputatio (Portugal), Critica (Mexico), and Manuscrito (Brazil)—to name just a few (in a mainly analytic tradition) examples.

Despite the fact that they are all open access and the quality of the peer-reviewed process, they are not so influent as one might expect. This fact raises questions about the assessing of quality, biases, and other factors that might be operating in such cases.Report

non-English-speaker
non-English-speaker
4 years ago

1.
In fact, one of the reasons why opted for the analytical tradition is its extensive use of a single language, which happened to be English (+formal language). It should be much more hospitable than the kind of academic atmosphere that requires the mastery of Latin, Greek, French, English, German combined, which I heard was the case before WW2. Without Indo-European background at all, the monopoly by a single language (it must have been better if Esperanto had thrived) is still better than the oligarchy of various languages among which your native tongue will never get included.

2.
It is evident that English is a bar for many aspiring non-native philosophy students (I have witnessed many bright colleagues struggling solely due to English writing, etc.), it seems to me that the situation is getting better. The usage of literary devices, which always are painful to non-native speakers, get discouraged in philosophy writing at least within the analytical tradition. And my impression is that contemporary Anglophone philosophers are living up to this standard more seriously than their predecessors. The non-formal writing by Russell and Quine involving a florid style, for example, has been an impediment for me.

3.
My humble message to native English speakers is that what you find to be ‘friendly/casual/witty’ style of writing may turn out to be undecipherable for non-native readers, since it almost always accompanies metaphors exclusive to English. If I have ever been offended by the ‘imperialistic’ writing style of the status quo, it should be the preponderance of English puns in professional writing, which reflects the author’s unawareness of foreign readers not grasping non-literal connotations.

For instance, the coinage “alief” by Tamar Szabó Gendler has sometimes been uneasy for me to accept. I believe that the concept ‘a-lief’, which is named so due to its associative, automatic, arational, animal, antecedent, affect-laden, action-generating nature, has greatly enhanced our understanding in philosophy of mind. It is unfortunate, however, that her technical term is derived from purely accidental morphology exclusive to English, therefore making it nearly impossible to be translated into another language.

This is why I sometimes think that there should be more ‘terse/dry/dull’ writing in professional philosophy than now. In the same vein, formal apparatuses are almost always ‘anti-colonial,’ so should be encouraged. Of course, it can be legitimately pointed out that it risks alienating non-professional native English speakers from the field. This is perhaps the trade-off that one has to confront as a professional philosopher.Report

M86
M86
4 years ago

The situation is especially punitive for non-native English speakerswho work in philosophy and we should be really serious about this.
As Saray Ayala (CSUS) claims: “In philosophy, language is not only a tool to analyze problems and a means of expression, as it is in other disciplines, neither is it just a platform to sell your ideas, as it happens in business. In philosophy, language is often the subject matter itself. It is reasonable to think that if the perceived quality of your work tracks, among other things, your perceived command of a language, a non-native-speaking philosopher working on language is under special scrutiny. The research showing that judgments about a speaker’s language proficiency are affected by listeners’ negative attitudes towards non-native accent and non-native speakers (Kang and Rubin 2009; Lindemann 2003) suggests this scrutiny might be an unfair extra demand due to bias against non-native accent, and not (always) the result of an unbiased evaluation of the speaker’s actual command of the language. In addition to the above, an eloquent expression of an argument or criticism is a sine qua non to be considered a good philosopher. If your accent or your command of English adds noise to your intervention and promotes prejudiced perception, your standing as a philosopher is jeopardized. ”

Ayala, S. (2015) Philosophy and the non-native speaker condition (http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.apaonline.org/resource/collection/D03EBDAB-82D7-4B28-B897-C050FDC1ACB4/FeminismV14n2.pdf)Report

recent grad
recent grad
4 years ago

I’m not sure the professional advantage worry is all that great. Keep in mind all the advantages that come with being able to speak multiple languages, even if English isn’t your first language. First, there is the professional philosophy advantage of being more prepared to do historical work and work in comparative philosophy. Second, there are the professional advantages of being able to work in more countries. Third, there are great professional advantages in fields other than philosophy which would seem to outweigh the downsides of not being a native English speaker in philosophy.

So, yes, if you want to publish in Mind or Phil Quarterly, then being a native English speaker is an advantage. I don’t deny that. But that’s just one element of professional philosophical success. And in the realm of professional success simpliciter, it’s minuscule. It sounds akin to saying that if you want to be an offensive lineman in the NFL, weighing over 300 lbs is an advantage. It doesn’t follow that it’s an overall advantage for those who want a meaningful job, or even for those who want to be in the NFL in other ways.. I for one would absolutely trade the professional advantages of being a native English speaker for being fluent in multiple languages, and I would do so *even if* I knew I’d want to stay in professional philosophy.Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
4 years ago

While it does put non-native English speakers (or non-English speakers, even morseso) at a disadvantage, isn’t having a lingua franca for a field of inquiry a good thing? As noted above, if everyone learns English (or some other language, but right now it’s English for historical reasons), then they can converse with each other and exchange ideas much more easily than if everyone spoke separate languages. What seems more important to me is native English speakers having an awareness that they are writing for an international audience, and as such to be a clear as possible. This doesn’t mean writing in Basic English or anything so extreme, but being overly stylistic or loading a paper with cultural reference or jokes is something to be avoided. I would imagine it’s very annoying for a non-native English speaker (or even a non-American) to read much of Jerry Fodor’s work, who can’t help but try to cram as many jokes and cultural references in as possible. Report

Anne
Anne
Reply to  Urstoff
4 years ago

The issue isn’t so much whether it is a good thing or a bad thing to have an international scientific language, as it is the question whether what happens with all the knowledge produced in all the other ones. “Everything worth knowing is in English” is a very, very dangerous methodological trap, because of the consequent self-exemption from reading anything that isn’t. It might work if one specialises in Anglo-American primary sources, but anything beyond that, including claims about moral universals and other linguistically-encoded conceptions of selfhood, community, morality and other topics, just makes that discussion incredibly provincial. Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
Reply to  Anne
4 years ago

That’s a legitimate worry, but it’s not clear what to do about it barring translation into English being a standard procedure for non-English journals. If 80% (arbitrary number for the sake of example) of philosophy is produced in English, and the other 20% is split among 20 languages (or however many), then it’s from an individual’s point of view, it’s simply not worth learning the other language (which is an enormous investment, especially in adulthood) unless that language is fairly dominant in your favored research topic (e.g., German and Kant scholarship). Report

Anne
Anne
Reply to  Urstoff
4 years ago

Something like epistemic humility comes to mind. A person who cannot read any other language other than English should probably not make universal claims about the human experience and human commonality with as much surety as is often the case today, or else should explain how they successfully transcend the boundary of language in making any kind of phenomenological claims. Same goes for subfields such as comparative political theory, or really any kind of inquiry where alterity is a crucial issue. Coming to terms with the boundaries of one’s knowledge used to be a defining element of philosophy as a pursuit. This seems like a good path for reconnecting it with this imperative. Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
Reply to  Anne
4 years ago

You’re making an empirical claim, though, that language significantly affects experience. What kind of claims do you have in mind about which monolinguals should have more skepticism?Report

Anne
Anne
Reply to  Urstoff
4 years ago

Claims about selfhood and its substance are an obvious case, because they impact notions of alterity. Then, more broadly, claims about the the interplay of moral and linguistic agency. Then we can talk about things like compositionality and meaning – I’ve yet to meet, for example, a philosopher of language who knows much about agglutinative languages, let alone how to work with them. And this is before saying anything about things like intentionality in multilingual contexts, or the different philosophical implications of different degrees of metalinguistic awareness. It’s just funny – or frustrating – sometimes how little linguistics there is in the philosophy of language. Report

Filippo Contesi
4 years ago

Apologies for the plug, but issues such as those raised in the post and comments are the topic of a planned special issue of Philosophical Papers that, with Moti Mizrahi and Enrico Terrone, I am guest editing (and to which Eric S. will contribute his number analyses). We are accepting submissions! Please visit:
http://contesi.wordpress.com/cfpReport

uggioso
uggioso
4 years ago

Most native English speakers face the terrible disadvantage of not having had opportunities to learn foreign languages from an early age. Most of us who attended an American public school, for instance, did not have the chance to begin learning a foreign language until age 14. In my experience, the classes were few and the instruction mediocre. Consequences of this disadvantage include: a greater barrier to disciplinary choices requiring foreign language skills; being excluded from job opportunities in many countries; being excluded from discussions conducted in foreign languages; being mocked for ignorance (we all know the polyglot joke, of which Americans are routinely the butt). Report