“We think it is more or less inevitable at this point that English will be the global lingua franca of academic philosophy for the foreseeable future. We also think it is for the most part a good thing. But it has also produced some problems…”
In the following guest post, Peter Finocchiaro (Wuhan) and Timothy Perrine (Rutgers) argue that “the rise of English as the global lingua franca of academic philosophy might lead to several epistemic goods being unjustly distributed in our community, including credibility, education, and the standing to speak.”
The Rise of English as the Global Lingua Franca of Academic Philosophy
by Peter Finocchiaro and Timothy Perrine
Academic philosophy is a global institution. Nearly every country has universities with philosophy departments. Philosophy journals are read around the world. And many philosophers grow up in one country, get a PhD in another, work in a third, and have students who come from a fourth. Like many global institutions, academic philosophy has increasingly relied on English as a shared language for communication—as a global “lingua franca”. When a Finnish philosopher meets a Colombian philosophy at a conference in Japan, they will likely do philosophy in English.
We think it is more or less inevitable at this point that English will be the global lingua franca of academic philosophy for the foreseeable future. We also think it is for the most part a good thing. But it has also produced some problems for our community—problems that we think need to be analyzed and addressed so that philosophy can be more inclusive.
To get a sense of the kinds of problems we have in mind, consider the following case. A philosopher is ﬂuent in English, having learned it as a second language. Their academic research consists in reading and writing in English. But a recent referee report complains that their paper is “not idiomatic” (even though the referee doesn’t identify a single passage that is unclear, disorganized, or obscure) and requests that the philosopher have their paper checked by a “native” speaker of English. So, to appease the referee, the philosopher reaches out to a “native” English speaking colleague. Both philosophers then spend some time trying to guess what’s not “idiomatic” so that the language can be “ﬁxed” and the paper can be published.
Maybe this sort of thing hasn’t happened to you. But it’s almost certainly happened to someone you know or someone that you’ve read. It has happened several times to our coworkers and friends.
In a new paper of ours, we argue that these problems are instances of language-related injustice. The paper is part of a new special issue of Philosophical Psychology on understanding bias. Thanks to the generous support of Lex Academic, it is freely accessible here for 12 months as the winner of the Lex Academic® Essay Prize for Understanding Linguistic Discrimination.
As we argue in the paper, in the above case the philosopher gets labelled as a “non-native” speaker of English and is held to certain linguistic norms set by a “native” English speaking community. But satisfying those norms is unnecessary for understanding their paper. We analyze this and other cases using the framework of epistemic injustice, speciﬁcally distributive epistemic injustice (though we think there can be other frameworks that are also useful). We argue that the rise of English as the global lingua franca of academic philosophy might lead to several epistemic goods being unjustly distributed in our community, including credibility, education, and the standing to speak.
At the end of our paper, we consider some proposals for dealing with these. They are:
1A: Increase assistance with English—journals should provide English-language services such as proofreading at no cost to the author.
1B: Abandon “readability” standards—journals should stop evaluating submissions on the basis of “readability”, including how “idiomatic” the English is as well as its “ﬂair” or “style”.
2A: Diversify the canon—philosophers (and journals) should engage with work from a wide range of traditions, not just the mainstream Western canon.
2B: Expand the SEP—articles written for the SEP should be translated into other languages and/or the SEP should commission original entries in other languages.
3A: Increase non-native English speaker representation—editorial boards of journals, admissions committees of graduate programs, etc., should include more non-native speaking philosophers.
3B: Increase cross-linguistic representation—journals should publish material that spotlights non-English language philosophy, especially that which is produced in non-Anglophone countries.
Readers may recognize some of these proposals. In 2021, Filippo Contesi created the Barcelona Principles for a Globally Inclusive Philosophy, which was discussed on Daily Nous here, with related discussion here. Contesi’s Principle 3 is almost identical to our Proposal 3A, and Principle 1 is very similar to our Proposal 1B.
In our paper, we brieﬂy argue that the B proposals are better than the A proposals. As we see it, Proposal 1A is likely to just reinforce unnecessary linguistic norms that privilege native speakers; a better alternative, as expressed by Proposal 1B, is to abandon the enforcement of those linguistic norms. Proposal 2A is admirable and in general we favor diversifying the cannon. But we doubt it would do much to address the linguistic injustices we are worried about. A better alternative, as expressed by Proposal 2B, is to make current high-quality research more accessible to people from different linguistic backgrounds. Proposal 3A is similarly admirable, but non-native speakers are likely already overburdened with administrative tasks. A better alternative, as expressed by Proposal 3B, is to increase the representation of current research from philosophical communities working in languages other than English.
Maybe our evaluation of these proposals isn’t exactly right. We’re open to being corrected about that since an adequate evaluation should rely on a complex balance of empirical facts, personal experiences, and communal structures that we can’t claim to be experts in. We’re more interested in bringing greater attention to the conversation that Contesi and others have started: what should be done about the problems caused by English becoming the global lingua franca of academic philosophy? Indeed, since the both of us are “native” speakers of English, we’re eager to hear more from others, especially “non-native” speakers.
So let us know what you think of these proposals, and let us know what you think about other proposals that we haven’t mentioned. Additionally, we’d be interested in hearing about people’s experiences that don’t neatly ﬁt into the cases we give above or in the full paper. At the end of the day, what we want is for academic philosophy to be more inclusive for all of its members around the globe.