Analytic Philosophy, Inclusiveness, and the English Language

Philosophers are endorsing a set of principles “to address the structural inequality between native and non-native speakers [of English], and to provide as many scholars as possible globally a fair chance to contribute to the development of contemporary philosophy.”

The “Barcelona Principles for a Globally Inclusive Philosophy,” as they have been named, are prefaced with the following remarks:

We acknowledge that English is the common vehicular language of much contemporary philosophy, especially in the tradition of so-called “analytic” or “Anglo-American” philosophy. This tradition is in large part based on the idea that philosophy should adopt, as far as is appropriate, the shared and universalistic standards of science. Accordingly, the analytic tradition has now spread worldwide, far beyond the countries where English is the majority native language(which constitute only about 6% of the world’s population). However, this poses a problem since non-native English speakers, who have not had the chance to perfect their knowledge of the language, are at a structural disadvantage. This disadvantage has not yet been sufficiently addressed. For instance, the most prestigious journals in the analytic tradition still have very few non-native English speakers on their editorial boards, have no explicit special policies for submissions from non-native English speakers, and continue to place a high emphasis on linguistic appearances in submitted papers (e.g. requiring near-perfect English, involving skim-based assessment etc.). 

The principles appear on the site of Filippo Contesi (University of Barcelona), and cite an issue of Philosophical Papers he co-edited with Enrico Terrone (University of Genoa) on “linguistic justice and analytic philosophy.”

Here are the principles:

  • To evaluate, as a rule, publications, presentations, proposals and submissions without giving undue weight to their authors’ linguistic style, fluency or accent;
  • To collect, to the extent that it is feasible, statistics about non-native speakers’ submissions (to journals, presses and conferences), and/or to implement self-identification of non-native speaker status;
  • To include, to the extent that it is feasible, non-native speakers within journal editorial boards, book series editorships, scientific committees etc.;
  • To invite, to the extent that it is feasible, non-native speakers to contribute to journal special issues, edited collections, conferences etc.;
  • To provide, to the extent that it is feasible, educational and hiring opportunities to non-native speakers.

The principles and list of signatories are here. You can ask to be added to the list of signatories by emailing Dr. Contesi.

UPDATE: Some useful context and data from Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside) here.

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Daniil M. Ozernyi
2 years ago

While the general idea of standing up against inequality is indeed chivalrous and commendable, as a linguist working mainly in the area of third language acquisition and language assessment (and a non-native speaker of English), I’d like to comment on a few ambiguities and/or incoherencies.

  1. To evaluate, as a rule, publications, presentations, proposals and submissions without giving undue weight to their authors’ linguistic style, fluency or accent: while I agree that giving undue (i.e., discriminatory) weight is a peril to justice, I am not entirely sure how to evaluate “undue” vs “due” weight in this context. Fluency and accent have long been part of standard assessment of speech, and unless someone on the committee which is considering a presentation (speech doesn’t apply to others) is familiar with language assessment, I am not sure how the line can be drawn. In terms of style, I am not entirely sure what that means exactly: neither written nor spoken standard assessments do not tend to include “style” because of the obscurity of the term. Then, I am rather confident that the line between giving undue weight to style and dismissing lousy English is hard to draw. “Style” might include organization, coherence and cohesion, etc. But then what does it mean to give undue weight to style? Surely, while standing up against injustice, one would not want to hinder the high standard of language and articulation which academia (and philosophy in particular I reckon) is marked with.
  2. To collect, to the extent that it is feasible, statistics about non-native speakers’ submissions (to journals, presses and conferences), and/or to implement self-identification of non-native speaker status: easier said than done. Giving the complexity of identification of “native speakerism”, what use will those data be? In other words, depending on what the authors define to be a native speaker (but I take it they assume standard definition: speakers for whom English was not the first language), huge portions of targeted population might not want to include themselves in the pool. Most of the non-native (per the standard definition above) speakers who publish in the journals have attained near-native proficiency, which I am rather tempted to call native, since the line between the two has never been drawn precisely. Given that they might not want to identify themselves as non-native speakers, what are we left with?
  3. To include, to the extent that it is feasible, non-native speakers within journal editorial boards, book series editorships, scientific committees etc.: for what purpose? Language acquisition is an unconscious process which is possible grâce à an innate endowment. I would argue that here is no inherent difference between a native speaker and a person who has achieved what we call “ultimate attainment”. Again, as studies would attest, such attainment is possible in all domains: syntax, semantics, pragmatics, morphology (cf. Hopp 2010), and even phonology (which is the only one sometimes requiring changes in anatomy in a gross sense). If the language of the journal is English, then all contributors have to maintain the same level of articulation. I see little point in distinguishing that which need not be distinguished because it contains no difference.
  4. To invite, to the extent that it is feasible, non-native speakers to contribute to journal special issues, edited collections, conferences etc.: same as above. What’s the point? Linguistically, the contributors are all equal, having either native or near-native level of English. If one wants different cultural perspective, then by all means – but that’s a different story. If one wants a contributor with an experience of another language, then non-native speakers are far from the only group to be targeted.
  5. To provide, to the extent that it is feasible, educational and hiring opportunities to non-native speakers: it would be great to provide those opportunities for everyone, and to eliminate bias against non-native speakers in hiring committees, etc. Other than that, I am again puzzled by singling out non-native speakers.

To conclude, my point seems to rest on the contention that near-native speakers and native speakers can be in all respects undistinguishable. Such proposition granted; the points of this proposal become ambiguous with a vague target audience. For example, the fifth principle would seem to be well-suited for learners of English who have not yet achieved near-native level. Other points could not fit the same audience: admitting someone with imperfect English to be a member of the editorial board is equally undesirable whether they are a native or a non-native speaker. Lastly, I feel that the authors would do well by inviting some language acquisitionists (those focusing on second language acquisition, I reckon) in their discussion on linguistic justice.

Last edited 2 years ago by Daniil M. Ozernyi
I like Canada
I like Canada
Reply to  Daniil M. Ozernyi
2 years ago

As a non-native speaker who has 5+ publications in top 10 journals in philosophy, I’d like to make comments on a few things.

1. The fact that one has published in top journals in English doesn’t mean that their English level is near-native. I am not sure exactly what you mean by “near-native level”. But I have 5+ publications in top 10 journals but I’ve never thought my English is near-native. And I don’t think I’ll reach that level in my life. I have lived in an English-speaking country for more than five years but I still should spend much more time than my colleagues to achieve the same result (e.g., reading a 30 pages paper, grading students’ papers, etc.).

2. I’ve just read the abstract of your reference (Hopp 2010), but I don’t think that reference sufficiently supports your claim that “ultimate attainment” is possible for all L-2 learners. First, it looks like they got L1 English, Dutch, Russian speakers tested on German, but I am not sure if they will get the same result with L1 Chinese, Korean, Japanese speakers. European languages are more or less similar compared to those East Asian languages. Second, Hopp got people tested on case-marking, subject-verb agreement, etc. But these are easy ones. I have no problem with those things. But I still sometimes have difficulty with the usage of determiners such as “the” or “a”. I think this might be partly because my native language is a determiner-less language in the sense that it doesn’t have an expression corresponding to “a” or “the”. But if you want to claim that ultimate attainment is possible for all L-2 learners, you should provide good evidence that even people like me can master the usage of English determiners.

3. As long as I know, there is not much of a difference between native and non-native speakers when they are asked to create or process simple sentences. But the gap between them increases when they are asked to create or process very complicated sentences. I am wondering if this has been refuted.

Last edited 2 years ago by I like Canada
Daniil M. Ozernyi
Reply to  I like Canada
2 years ago

Anent (1): while it is indeed hard or impossible to judge whether a person has attained near-native or native level solely by looking at a publication, I believe an assumption that if the paper gets through the initial screening, then the writing is indeed of native/near-native language, is a safe assumption. How specific people feel about their levels is another matter, and I do yield that I do not know any studies which address the topic. This is, however, subjective, thus I presume it varies.

Anent (2): (2.1) finding evidence for ultimate attainment being possible for any language in any given domain are generalizable to other languages within the same domain, given that languages generally do not differ at Deep Structure level (cf. Chomsky 1995, but also cf. Chomsky and Lasnik 1993); the possibility of ultimate attainment has little connection to specific idiosyncrasies of any language since all language variation is constrained by the same innate endowment (viz. Universal Grammar). That is, the matters are much more complicated than contrastive analysis (Robert Lado style) would have it. It is entirely possible (there’s little to suggest the opposite) that a native speaker of a language which does not have overt marking of, say, definiteness might have harder time acquiring another language without overt marking and easier time acquiring a language with overt marking, all depending on the underlying system of that or that system. 

(2.2.) It’s entirely true I only gave one reference, but here’s some more from other domains: Lardiere 2007, and perhaps 2005 (but one needs to be very careful interpreting her findings, it’s a case study, after all), and Goad and White 2006. Lastly, the acquisition of the determiner which was touched upon is not a simple process, and comprises acquisition of definiteness, specificity, determinacy (inter alia) (all different roles expressed by a definite article). The formidable complexity of these acquisition processes is captured by Ionin 2003 and her subsequent studies. Studies on acquisition of these primarily semantic properties are limited (leave alone on ultimate attainment). The processes involved seem to be rather intricate.

Lastly, anent (3): Hopp (2006) was a study on processing, but I am not sure her stimuli would fit the definition of complex (if one takes complex to mean embedding, etc.). Perhaps ambiguities are complex enough. There are also methodological problems to many of these studies (cf. Cummings and Fujita 2021). On the other hand, Fujita and Cummings 2020 has a study on garden-path sentences where there is a difference, yet the source of it is not (well-)understood. You mention simplex/complex sentences, but it’s all about the complexity of the structures in those sentences. The definition of simple/complex is vague when not talking about a particular syntactic phenomenon. But one could go on about these things…

Again, most of the exposition above is entirely linguistic – it is presumptuous to think philosophers need to know any of that. This is also primarily the reason I wrote in the first place. The topic is a linguistic one as much as it is a philosophical one (at least).

P.S. I appeal to Chomsky and (mostly) generative studies rather unapologetically –- but in all fairness to the audience, there are indeed (some) other approaches.

Last edited 2 years ago by Daniil M. Ozernyi
Non-native Anon
Non-native Anon
Reply to  Daniil M. Ozernyi
2 years ago

A quick comment on the first point: “I believe an assumption that if the paper gets through the initial screening, then the writing is indeed of native/near-native language, is a safe assumption.”

Even granting that this is a safe assumption, I think the comment downplays the hurdles that non-native speakers face and why so many of them (presumably) support adopting Barcelona Principles. This is because the comment overlooks the fact that very many academics who are non-native English speakers use proofreading services. My impression is that most of the time they read and write English quite well or at least well enough to get their message across, but they don’t have near-native language skills. (As my reply illustrates.) This means that they read and write more slowly than native speakers do, and often they need to have the manuscript proofread a few times (original submission, a new submission after a likely rejection, a revised submission, and so forth). The other option is to use the little time they have in addition to their other responsibilities to become more proficient in English. But this means that they have (initially) less time to do research. None of these extra hurdles they need to go through come across by simply looking at the quality of the language of the submissions, because the manuscript is of near-native language as it has been proofread by a native speaker.

Note that the requirement of near-native language brings about an extra hurdle for those, who can write well enough to express their views somewhat clearly enough, but whose language skills are not on a par with native speakers: not everyone can afford to have their manuscript proofread. I personally have had to face this problem; luckily, my current university offers proofreading services to every employee for free.

Nicole Wyatt
Reply to  Daniil M. Ozernyi
2 years ago

As a native English speaker who has been witness to comments from referees about all sorts of stylistic foibles, I find the claim that we cannot distinguish between giving undue weight to style and critcising lousy English entirely laughable. Of course there may be boundary cases, and the distinction may not carve the world at the joints in the way an analytic metaphysician may desire. But this does not mean that the rough and ready distinction is not perfectly usable for our purposes.

Here’s an off the top of the head sample of the ridiculous stylistic complaints reviewers have made (concerning both my writing and that of others): the sentences are too short; the use of headings and sections is “lazy”; emdashes should be colons; colons should be emdashes; a translated passage did not “flow” (despite acknowledging that the translation was accurate); infinitives are split (this is not ungrammatical in English, it is just Latin envy).

With respect to fluency, accent and presentations, the amount of accent based discrimination I see in Canada against people who are native speakers of the various and sundry dialects of English, never mind those who are not native speakers at all, is appalling, and it is naive in the extreme to think that philosophers are somehow immune.

2 years ago

From my own vantage point as someone working in the interface between philosophy, political science and linguistics (with some specific background in sociohistorical linguistics), there’s something incredibly dismaying about the significant lack of general language awareness in Anglocentric analytic philosophy, an understanding of its very particular intellectual history, and just as particular underlying linguistic ideology. I find it genuinely odd that most philosophers appear to know more about the source of their foods and clothes than the source of their professional linguistic norms, conventions and habits. This seems to me like a gaping omission in philosophical education, especially in departments and institutions that perceive themselves as global.

Reply to  Yael
2 years ago

What is the particular underlying linguistic ideology, etc., that you are referring to? It would be helpful for those who wish to be educated in the ways that you suggest if you elaborated a bit.

Reply to  egz
2 years ago

Of course. The special issue project co-edited by the petition organiser is one such good source. This is a complex topic straddling multiple disciplines, and, in the absence of a well-established body of integrated scholarship, much of the work involves figuring out how to put the different pieces together into a meaningful whole. So here are a number of key pieces in that puzzle, some specialised, some more popular: 

Crystal’s “The Fight for English” is a wonderful and accessible intro (focusing on English,) to the topic of linguistic prescriptivism in general, which is really key to this debate, before even moving to look at philosophy more closely. (And if this piques anyone’s interest, there’s a massive body of scholarship in education on TESOL and linguistic norms in critical applied linguistics; also the recent-is Routledge handbook on language awareness). Taylor’s line of work on distinguishing between instrumental and constitutive philosophies of language (e.g. the recent “The Language Animal”) is helpful for getting a more in-depth philosophical understanding that link phenomenology and epistemology and Peter Ives’ work is great in identifying how these differing philosophies end up as distinct ideological structures. Part of this line of thought has developed significantly very recently with philosophers such as Masaharu Mizumoto and others, through cross-linguistic approaches to epistemology (e.g. the OUP and Routledge edited volumes). 

In a similar vein, Anna Wierzbicka’s body of work in linguistic anthropology offers an very thoughtful critique of English as a human norm, partly by looking specifically at English and its place in the development of intellectual history (e.g. the 2006 and 2013 books). Then there’s the piece of the puzzle that has to do with the social history of English as a scientific lingua franca (e.g. Montgomery’s “Does Science Need a Global Language?”) and how it is intertwined with the sprawling development of bibliometrics in 20c academia. Then there’s a whole bunch of scholarship on the political economy of world Englishes, especially in the knowledge economy (e.g. Tom Ricento’s work). And this really is barely the tip of a very big iceberg in ethics, epistemology and phenomenology.

All of this, and my “rant” above, aren’t meant to suggest an abolitionist approach to standard language in analytic philosophy. My very modest point is that so much of the linguistic infrastructure of the field is often highly invisible to those who work in it. And this oddly low level of awareness is not good news for a field whose main preoccupation is “thinking about thinking”, and even less so for any efforts to create a more inclusive research and teaching intellectual community. There’s a lack of linguistic epistemic humility in not being aware of where one’s linguistic norms/habits/convictions come from, and that there’s nothing absolute or non-contestable about them; and this raises major issues when one unreflectively enforces on others norms that amount to personal aesthetic and stylistic preferences, simply because they happen to be regarded as occupying a more privileged position of epistemic authority.   

To end this longer-than-intended reply, just think of something like a referee suggestion that a manuscript be looked over by a “native speaker”. This is actually a terrible – and very ideological – conception of epistemic authority over linguistic norms. The “speaker” bit is ableist, and unhelpfully perpetrates this strange notion that language equals speech, which is exclusionary towards Deaf philosophers (and Deaf individuals general). Then the “native” bit: many native English monolinguals will be very unhelpful for this purpose, because they don’t have the necessary training in academic philosophy and its very particular linguistic shape to bring the manuscript into a closer alignment with what the referee has in mind. It also helps to point out that English is not a monolithic entity, and that not all varieties (e.g. racialised, class- and geography-based ones) are equally welcome in philosophy journals. Even among highly educate L1 standard English monolinguals, conceptions and conventions of what “good English” looks like are very far from being uniform. I’ve seen this countless times, including in collaborations with such researchers in fields from anthropology to family medicine and everything in between. All this means is that the criteria for what counts as “good English” can be very arbitrary, which seems like a major issue for a field that specialises in systematic and principled reflection. 

Again, none of this is to say that the only way towards linguistic justice in academic writing is a total abolitionist approach. Only that it would be very useful for philosophers to have *some* idea of where their own particular linguistic norms, habits and convictions come from, so the debate over that common standard language in philosophy would be less arbitrary and/or about appeal-to-authority, and more principled instead. 

2 years ago

It would be wonderful if university departments and publication venues offered fairly remunerated, reliable translation and proofreading services, and if well-regarded journals accepted submissions originally written in a language other than English reviewed by either members of their staff or guest reviewers fluent in the relevant language. I think this would go some way to diversifying who receives what publication opportunities, and to improving cross-national collaboration in our field.

Mike Ossman
2 years ago

Folks may think this would make reviewers’ jobs miserable, but I think it’ll make them easier if the journals are sincerely committed to linguistic inclusivity.

For example, Daniil in a comment above pointed out a possible ambiguity between so-called “lousy” English and individual style. But I argue the reviewer can ignore such questions entirely. They just have to ask themselves the other questions, “Does this author’s thesis come across clearly, and is it well-supported? Do their arguments fit into the themes of our journal?” And so on. No more need to ask, “Does the language live up to the high standards of our journal?” I catch a scent of exclusivity in such questions, and I think if there’s any arbitrariness problem it is there.

I am reminded of the very first paragraph of the apology, in which Socrates asks his listeners to excuse his manner of speech as if he were a foreigner and only pay attention to the truth or falsehood of his words. Of course there is some irony there but I think there’s insight as well.

A Postdoc
2 years ago

Since some people (like Daniil) complain that the principles are not clear enough, I’d like to point out two real-life examples of cases in which the principles are violated. With concrete examples it should appear obvious that the principles provide at least helpful guidance (if not targeted solutions) that can indeed help address structural inequalities in our field:

  • Example of violation of (1) (don’t give undue weight to style and language): AJP’s instructions to referees. The instructions of AJP invite referees to consider the following questions when deciding over acceptance or rejection “Is [the paper] enjoyable, even exciting, to read? Does it display flair, or elegance, or vivacity in the writing? (Or is the prose, for example, leaden or repetitive?)
  • What the principles recommend: just don’t include this sort of advice. If a journal needs to give hints concerning how refereeing is to be done, focus should be brought instead on argument, significance, originality, etc. Revising recommendations to referees can a long way towards changing our current culture, where referees feel the need to pick on the author’s English or “inelegant” prose, into one that focuses instead on non-linguistic qualities of the work.
  • 3) Many prestigious philosophy journals (especially from the US) have in-house editorial boards: Phil Review (Cornell), J of Phil (Columbia), PPQ (USC) etc. This is the opposite of what point (3) recommends.
  • What the principles recommend: journals should commit to diversify their editorial committees by inviting non-native speakers to the board, either from their department or from other departments

The list can go on. But I think that even if the principles are a bit vague, the examples show that they do already provide sufficient guidance to move some first tentative steps towards addressing structural inequalities between native and non-native speakers. We can surely improve, and the first step is to identify practices that don’t fit the principles (like the AJP guidelines and many US-based editorial boards), and propose solutions to address the structural inequalities faced by non-native speakers.

2 years ago

As a non-native English user, although I don’t agree with all the principles, I do remember being disgusted by a journal (Journal of Moral Philosophy) which requires contributors to tick before “the submission has been proofread by a native speaker” or something similar a few years ago.