Thursday, October 30, 2014

Is Linguistic Bias Unfair or Just Unfortunate?

In a guest post at Feminist Philosopher, Sara Protasi argues that, while gender and racial biases are unjust, linguistic biases are merely unfortunate (click the link "ESL philosophers" at the bottom of this post to see my posts on the topic so far). Since I take this to be an argument against my attempt to raise the issue of linguistic bias, I would like to respond.

Before addressing Protasi's main argument, I should note that what we might call the unfairness argument is only one of the arguments that I have offered so far to the effect that we should start thinking about linguistic bias in academic philosophy. A second argument is the cross-cultural variation argument---much philosophy relies heavily on intuitions about how concepts apply to specific cases (pace the few philosophers who have argued that it doesn't) and one worry is that these intuitions might be somewhat affected by one's cultural/linguistic background (a worry that has been raised, for example, by experimental philosophers). In my view the best way to address this worry is to make sure that the analytic philosophy community is more diverse and more representative of the overall world population. A third argument, the rhetoric argument, is that, if analytic philosophy is about logic as opposed to rhetoric (as its practitioners claim), then it is not clear why one should achieve more than a certain level of fluency to practice it. (More on this in a future post!).

Anyway, even if the only argument in favour of discussing and trying to remedy linguistic bias were the argument from unfairness, I don't find Protasi's objections convincing. In fact, I think that her argument relies on very questionable assumptions and it has questionable consequences. Here is what I take to be the core of Protasi's argument:

"[The fact that the best analytic philosophy departments are currently in the Anglophone world and] the fact that analytic philosophy journals and conferences and even Facebook discussions take place in English, [are] very unfortunate. But it doesn’t seem to me to be unjust. That it is not unjust doesn’t mean that we should not try to alleviate the difficulties of people like me, or people who fare much worse than me. We should help non-native speakers to achieve the level of fluency required to succeed at philosophy in the context in which they want to do philosophy [...]. But it’s not an injustice in the same way that racial and sexist and ableist and homo/transphobic discrimination is. Being able to speak good English is essential to do good philosophy. Being White, or male, or straight, or gender-conforming, or able-bodied is completely irrelevant."

First, I would like to note that Protasi concedes that, even if linguistic bias were not unjust it does not follow that one "[...] should not try to alleviate the difficulties of [non-native speakers]." So, I'm not exactly sure why the distinction between "unjust" and "unfortunate" matters to this debate. Since Protasi seems to agree that we should do something to address linguistic bias (even if it's not unjust) I'm not sure exactly whether we are disagreeing on anything here (I have never claimed linguistic bias was unjust---I only claimed it was unfair insofar as it makes the playing field less level).

Second, I would like to note that it seems to be plainly false that "[b]eing able to speak good English is essential to do good philosophy", as Protasi claims. I can only assume (or at least I hope) that Protasi didn't really mean what she said (although, after reading Brian Leiter's post at 3am, nothing surprises me anymore in this department). I hope Protasi would not deny that excellent philosophy can be done (and has been done) in Arabic, Sanskrit, (Ancient) Greek, and German just to pick four uncontroversial cases. I take it that, at most, what is essential to do good philosophy is to be able to speak some natural language or other.

But what did Protasi mean then? I'm not sure but the problem is that, as soon as her original claim is weakened, it is not clear if the distinction between unjust and unfortunate can withstand scrutiny. I take it that what Protasi meant was something along the lines of "In the current social/historical context, fluency in English affects one's ability to do philosophy, while being white, or male, or straight, or gender-conforming, or able-bodied do not." But, if this is Protasi's criterion for distinguishing the unjust from the merely unfortunate, not only her claim seems to be patently false but also her criterion seems to have extremely troubling consequences. Consider, for example, how, in the current social/historical context, being sighted affects one's ability to do philosophy. Just to take two examples,  one need to read papers that are often filled with formulas and symbols that are very inaccessible to screen-readers and other devices used by people who are blind or visually impaired and conference presentations often rely on slides and handouts that contain crucial bits of information that cannot be easily accessed on the spot by people who are blind or visually impaired. Contrary to Protasi's claim, being sighted would seem to be highly relevant to one's ability to do philosophy (in the current ableist context). However, according to Protasi's criterion, the fact that philosophy is so inaccessible to people who are blind or visually impaired may be unfortunate but it is not unjust.

Clearly, something has gone wrong with Protasi's argument! I think the problem is that Protasi tries to draw a moral distinction that doesn't exist. Any unearned advantage is to some extent unfair (or unjust if you prefer). The only distinction that matter is the one between the cases in which we can mitigate to some extent the consequences of those unearned advantages so as to make the situation fairer and the cases in which we can't mitigate them at all. Of course, in the real world, the difference between the two is usually just a matter of degree. The effects of unearned advantages can be often only mitigated and not completely eliminated. This is probably the case with language and with sight and, hopefully, it is not the case with race and gender. Hopefully, one day we'll manage to completely eliminate all unearned advantages people enjoy in virtue of their gender or their race and live in a post-gendered/post-racial society, but until then the best we can do is to work as hard as we can on trying to mitigate the effects of those unearned advantages as much as possible. So, Protasi's distinction between the unjust and the unfortunate seems to be ill-conceived.

One last note. Towards the end of her piece, Protasi writes:

What worries me the most, of this discussion, is that we seem to be slipping all too easily in the usual wars about who is the most disadvantaged, but at the same time forgetting that *it does make sense to worry about who is the most disadvantaged*! What I mean is that it is a psychologically harmful tendency: we should all unite to fight injustice of all kinds!
But, as far as I can see, Protasi just engaged in the sort of behaviour she is denouncing here---she seems to be the one who just tried to convince us that some disadvantages (the ones that are unjust) were worse than others (the ones that are unfortunate). And, although it does indeed make sense "to worry about the most disadvantaged", first, it is important to remember that to be able to even consider pursuing a career in academic philosophy is in itself a symptom of a huge amount of privilege, the sort of privilege that most of the world population can only dream of, so that even the most disadvantaged among us are still extremely privileged compared to the majority of the world population and, second, it seems a non sequitur to think that, in order to worry about the most disadvantaged, we have to focus exclusively (or even predominantly) on the "worst" disadvantages. As far as I can see, it would be like saying that we are not going to work on a cure for diabetes until we have found a cure for cancer. Even if the mortality rate for cancer is much higher than the one for diabetes, it seems that, nevertheless, we can (and should) work to try to find a cure for both insofar as we can. It would seem extremely callous to tell someone who suffers form diabetes that we'll only focus on diabetes after we have taken care of cancer. Moreover, contrary to what Protasi is claiming, it is exactly by prioritizing some privileges over others that we might end up pitting underprivileged groups one against the other. Finally, given the intersectional nature of privilege, the most disadvantaged are likely the ones that are subjected to multiple negative biases especially when there is significant overlap (as in the case of language and race).

I said it already many times but I'll repeat it again---diversity breeds diversity in these circumstances. The more diverse and inclusive our discipline is the more diverse and inclusive it will become.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The LCC Backlash

About a week ago I wrote a post in which I proposed a Languaged Conference Campaign to highlight the underrepresentation of non-native English speakers in the line-ups of philosophy conferences and volumes. I was expecting this to be a relatively uncontroversial move, since many support the Gendered Conference Campaign, whose aims and methods the LCC was supposed to co-opt. Boy, was I wrong!

After Jennifer Saul kindly posted a link to my post about the LCC on Feminist Philosophers, all hell broke loose (mostly on the social media but also via e-mail/personal message). The objectors seemed to fall into two groups. A first group were NES philosophers who seemed to be mostly intent on trying to undermine the campaign aims and methods, while seemingly asking innocent questions. In the past few days I have been asked numerous times all sorts of questions on all sort of issues related to my proposal (from the vagueness of the definition of "native English speaker" to the difficulties of identifying someone's native language from their name and from public biographical information available about them).

While I agree that there is no 100% reliable method to do that, I suspect that NES philosophers tend to overestimate the number of cases in which there would be much doubt as to whether a philosopher is a native English speakers (I guess that that's part of the point of the campaign). Also, while the definition of "native English speaker" might be somewhat vague (in a number of ways), I suspect the borderline cases are few and far between in the philosophical community (and, anyway, since when has the vagueness of a definition prevented us from applying it outside of the philosophy seminar room?) Also, since it would be practically impossible to flag all conferences/volumes that feature only NES speakers/contributors anyway, my policy would be to desist from flagging a conference/volume whenever the publicly available evidence is inconclusive and, in any case, all one needs is to track reliably NES philosophers.

But, of course, philosophers being philosophers, I was subjected to a barrage of improbable scenarios, possible counterexamples, borderline cases of nativeness, and requests for definitions clarifications, most of which was totally irrelevant and had little or no real-world significance. Some people even questioned the notion that native English speakers tend to be more fluent or have less of an accent than non-native English speakers (probably misunderstanding the notion of NES and thinking one has to speak a language from birth to be a native speaker, which, of course, it's not the case---a native language is a language acquired during the so-called critical period of language acquisition). Many of these requests were posed as innocent questions (but we all know that philosophers often like to dress up what they take to be their most lethal objections as innocent questions (see the translation of "I'm puzzled" here)). Others were posed much more directly as (supposedly) lethal objections to the campaign's aims and methods.

One of the things I found most surprising is that not even one of these "challenges" was preceded by some acknowledgement on the part of the challenger of the enormous privilege and native speakers of (the "right" dialects of) English (roughly British, American, Canadian, Australian English) enjoy within analytic philosophy. In fact, only a handful of NES philosophers have been ready to acknowledge their linguistic privilege (interestingly, not one of them had any "innocent" questions to ask).

Another thing that I found particularly interesting was that many of those who questioned the practice of guessing one's native language from one's name are supporters of the GCC. To be honest, I have a hard time believing that guessing whether a person self-identifies as male from their name is less problematic than guessing whether their first language is English from their name and their publicly available biographical information. First, the gender guesser is probably assuming that the people whose gender they are guessing have names such as "John", "Paul", and "George", but what if the names they are not familiar with such as "Andrea" (which is a male name in some languages and a female name in others), "Kara" and "Maxime" (which is unisex in some languages), or "Aditya" or, indeed, "Gabriele" (which most English speakers assume are female name)? In a philosophical community that were truly representative of the world at large, wouldn't guessing one's gender require guessing at least what language their name is? Second and more importantly, whether's one's first language is English is pretty much an objective question. If you have grown up in an Anglophone country from the age of, say, 5 and have done most of your schooling in English, then your first language is English even if your parents spoke only, say, Urdu at home. Moreover, I cannot see how even falsely assuming that someone's first language is English can be hurtful or damaging to them. I happen to live in a city in which much of the population is non-native English speakers and sometimes my interlocutors falsely believe English is my first language. I cannot see how that could be offensive or hurtful to me in any way. One's gender, on the other hand, is a much more complex, personal, and private issue. What if a trans* woman finds a volume she has contributed to flagged as an all-male volume because the editors of the volume refused to update her name? Note that I am not raising these issues to raise doubts about the GCC, whose aims and methods I support. Rather, I'm trying to argue that guessing a person's gender from their name is not less problematic than guessing their first language (in fact, at most the opposite seems to be true).

One more interesting observation is that the debate quickly turned to a debate about tone. First, it's well known from online discussions of feminism that the tone card is often played to distract the attention from the substantial issues being discussed. Second, I think that it is important to understand that tone is one of the most difficult aspects of a language to master for non-native speakers and that to play the tone card in this context is particularly problematic because it seems to be part and parcel of the issue that is being raised. Tone is very language-, culture-, and context-specific and assessing tone on such a non-transparent medium as the internet is difficult even for native speakers. For non-native speakers, it's only worse. Kieran Healy has two funny tables that "translate" between British English and American English ( According to the table, when the British academic wants to say "You are an idiot", they'll say "I'm confused". This is of course a joke but there is some truth in it. British tone is difficult to master for speakers of, say, American English and vice versa. I wish NES philosophers would give some thought to how hard it is to master these different standards of tone for non-native speakers and made as much of an effort to understand that non-native speakers might also have different tone standards just like Brits and Americans do according to those tables.

The second group of challengers were potential allies who thought that the LCC's focus on language is mistaken. One subgroup seemed to think that linguistic bias is ultimately racial bias. While I do not deny that language is often a proxy for race (in fact that's partly the point, as far as I am concerned), I doubt that if you manage to achieve a better racial representation you thereby achieve better linguistic representation. I feel that a scenario in which the philosophical community has achieved a better racial representation by including only people of, say, East Asian and South Asian descent who grew up in America and are native English speakers but without including any people who grew up in Asia and are non-native speakers is far from ideal. In fact, it seems to me that in that scenario the racial problems have not been fully addressed. I would like analytic philosophy to become as global as its intellectual ambitions seem to require.

A second subgroup includes people who think that we should focus first on more urgent and serious issues such as race, gender, and disability. Of course, as I said many times, I take these to be compatible aims. In fact, I think that diversity breeds diversity and that the more diverse and inclusive the philosophical community becomes along a number of dimensions, the better. Second, I don't know how feasible and advisable is to rank biases in terms of strength. It seems to me that insofar as a majority of philosophers enjoys the benefits of an unearned advantage (be it being male, being white, or being a native English speaker) the situation is somewhat unfair and we should try to find ways to make it fairer. The idea that we should address underrepresentation/diversity/inclusiveness problems one-by-one and in order of "importance" seems to miss the intersectional nature of these problems and requires that those who are affected by the problems deemed less "important" wait patiently for the solution to the other problems. But this is just naive. These sort of problems are never completely solved, not until our societies will completely rid themselves of racism, sexism, ableism, which probably won't be for a long time. In the meantime, we should strive to make philosophy more inclusive and hospitable along a number of dimensions.

One more point. Some of the philosophers in the last group were non-native speakers and some NES philosophers used them as a reason to suggest that the language issue might not be really there. If even some non-native speakers do not feel they are subject to linguistic bias, however, this is hardly an argument. Consider an analogy. Many women seem to think that feminism is bad and sexism does not exist  (or at least that it no longer exists in the "Western" world)? But is the fact that some women are oblivious to sexism a reason to think that sexism does not esxist?

Finally, I want to thank all the EFL philosophers who contacted me privately to express their support. I find it a bit chilling that so many of them told me they were concerned about expressing their support more publicly but, to be honest, I don't blame them as I was not expecting the full extent of the backlash I have received. At this point, I really don't know if I have the time, the patience, and the energy to deal with the level of scrutiny and criticism I have been subjected to by so many NES philosophers for the last few days, so I'm not sure what the future will hold for the LCC. It has become clear to me that I have all to lose and nothing to gain from this and, frankly, I don't know how far I am willing to go.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

"Do NES Philosophers Even Care?"

Since I have started writing about EFL philosophers (click on the label "EFL philosophers" below to see my posts on the topic so far), I have been contacted by many EFL philosophers who wanted to express how happy they were that someone was finally raising these issues in a public forum (if you want to call this blog a public forum). One of the questions I have been asked by these philosophers is: "But do NES philosophers even care?" "Do NES even read your posts on the topic?"

The answer is, of course, that some do. However, so far, most NES philosophers seem to be ignoring my posts about EFL philosophy. I think that this is normal. If we have to take philosophy's attitude to its gender and race problems as a model of these processes, first the issues are totally ignored, then they are denied, then they are belittled and ridiculed, and only when those who raise the issue keep raising it over and over again and won't shut up (and usually when they find some allies), people might finally start giving it some thought. So, all things considered, I'm not surprised that, so far, NES philosophers have by and large ignored the issues I have raised in my posts (there are a few exceptions, of course!).

What I find most discouraging, though, is the silence from feminist philosophers who happen to be NES. I tend to see philosophy's diversity issues as interrelated---to my mind, the more diverse and inclusive analytic philosophy, the better and you cannot make philosophy truly more inclusive in one dimension without also making it more inclusive in other dimensions as well. But, so far, I have not heard one spontaneous comment from any of my many NES feminist philosopher friends. Maybe, this is because they think this is not their fight (as if the problem were not intersectional and there were no philosophers who are both female and non-native English speakers). Or maybe it is because they think that the issue of language is small potatoes compared to the huge gender problem philosophy has (again, assuming the two issues are largely distinct and not at all overlapping). Maybe they might even think that focussing on issues other than gender is going to detract from the little amount of attention the discipline has finally decided to pay to its serious gender issues. I'm not sure. All I know is that I was expecting the silent majority of philosophers to be silent---that's what silent majorities do, isn't it? and that is what maintains the status quo from which they benefit---but I cannot deny I am disappointed by the silence I have heard so far coming from the feminist philosophers' camp.

UPDATE: There is now a post on Feminist Philosophers about the LCC. I take this to be a positive development and I hope that it's a sign that the pessimism I express at the end of this post was mistaken.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The "Languaged" Conference Campaign

Okay, I know---'Languaged' is not a word in English, but so what? :-) I think we should start a campaign to highlight the underrepresentation of non-native English speakers in the line-ups of many (supposedly international) conferences and edited volumes. The campaign is, of course, modelled on the (very effective and much needed!) Gendered Conference Campaign promoted by the Feminist Philosophers blog. And, like that campaign, this campaign is not about blame; nor is it about identifying the causes of the underrepresentation of non-native English speakers in analytic philosophy. It only aims at raising awareness of this systematic phenomenon (especially among philosophers who are native English speakers who seem to be mostly oblivious to it). Analytic philosophy aspires to be universal in its scope and yet it is surprisingly provincial and insular when it comes to including people whose native languages are not English. As I have argued elsewhere, I think that this phenomenon hurts not only EFL philosophers, but analytic philosophy in general. I hope that the LCC will start raising awareness about this issue.

Please feel free to e-mail me at g 'dot' contessa 'at' gmail 'dot' com to bring any conferences/volumes with an all-native-English-speaker line-up. I will post these on this blog (and keep the source of the "tip" anonymous). Please note that, since it's not always easy to verify whether or not a certain philosopher is a native English speaker, sometimes conferences/volumes will be incorrectly flagged. In those cases, please contact me at the above address and I will run a correction and retract the post. Again, the purpose of the campaign is not to point fingers or to "name and shame"---it's to highlight a systematic problem.

PS Note that the LCC campaign does not advocate for the inclusion of philosophers who are non-native English speakers at the expense of philosophers who are members of other groups that have been historically underrepresented in analytic philosophy. To the contrary, the campaign is animated by the idea that the more diverse and inclusive analytic philosophy is, the better it is for everyone. Also, it is quite possible that the bias due to language is not nearly as strong as the biases due to gender, race, or ability. I am not interested in playing the Oppression Olympics. First of all, professional philosophers tend to be more privileged than the overall population (as usually they are highly educated and solidly middle-class (even if with the increasing number of adjuncts this is quickly changing)). Second, the sort of linguistic bias targeted by the LCC is closely associated with but is not identical to racial/ethnic biases experienced by underrepresented racial/ethnic minorities, so it is difficult sometimes to distinguish between the two and to determine the individual contributions each bias makes. (Also see my disclaimer here)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Disclaimer; or Analytic Philosophy, the English Language, and I

Since I am writing a series of posts about doing philosophy in English as a non-native English speaker (all posts in this series will be reachable by clicking on the category "EFL philosophers" at the bottom of this post) and since misinterpretation is rampant on the internet, I would like to clarify the following points in a (quite likely hopeless) attempt to avoid any misunderstandings/misinterpretations/misreadings:
  1. I love English. It's probably my favourite language and I think that, for a number of reasons, it's a particularly effective language to use as the lingua franca of philosophy---I do not advocate for replacing English with another lingua franca (Esperanto or Latin :-) ).
  2. At this point in my life, I would probably find it harder to write about philosophy in Italian (my native language) than to write in English. So, I'd pick English over Italian any day (but please don't tell my MAMMA! :-P )
  3. I am particularly privileged in that my parents could afford to pay for private English lessons for me from a relatively early age (I think I was 8 when I started) and had the foresight to do so. So, because of my class, I am in a much better position than many other non-native speakers, who only learned English in school or started when they were older than I was. I count myself lucky for that but not all EFL philosophers have had my luck.
  4. I feel I have had my share of success in terms of publishing and I do not feel that, personally, I have been affected in a particularly negative way by my not being a native English speaker, but I think this is not because I am smarter than other EFL philosophers---it's likely the result of my privilege (see point 3). The reason I am writing these posts is that I feel that the playing field is not level and that this has all sort of negative repercussions on EFL philosophers in particular but also on the field in general and that we should have a frank conversation about ways in which we can change things.
  5. The notion of first or native language is somewhat vague. This is how it is defined in the Wikipedia entry on First Languege: "A first language (also native language, mother tongue, arterial language, or L1) is the language(s) a person has learned from birth or within the critical period [...]". The critical time period is hypothesized to be a range of ages after which language learners typically do not achieve first-language level of language acquisition.
  6. ...
[I'll keep adding to this list as the potential misunderstandings pile up! :-) ]

More Data On The Underrepresentation of EFL Philosophers

As part of a series of posts about philosophers who are not native speakers of English (or EFL (English as Foreign Language) Philosophers) (click on the label "EFL philosophers" under this post to read the other posts in the series and please read the disclaimer), in a previous post, I have presented some data that seem to support the view that works by EFL philosophers are dramatically under-cited in analytic philosophy and some reflections on why this might have a negative effect on the discipline.

In an interesting post by at Aesthetics for Birds ("Diversity and Inclusiveness in Aesthetics Publishing"), Sherri Irvin provides us with some data (see table) suggesting that EFL philosophers might be also significantly under-published. The data is admittedly very limited as it consists of the acceptance rates at a top aesthetic journal (The Journal for Aesthetics and Art Criticism) and only over three years but the numbers are staggering---even in the most favourable year for philosophers not based in an English speaking country, submissions from philosophers based in the US were 3.5 times more likely to be accepted than submissions from philosophers based in non-English speaking countries and submissions from philosophers based in other English speaking countries were 2.3 times more likely to be accepted than submissions from philosophers based in non-English speaking countries. Of course, the measured variable in this case is not perfectly correlated with the quantity of interest (there are EFL philosophers who work in English speaking countries), but I assume the correlation is strong enough to make the data significant. While I think that the JAAC should be applauded for collecting and publishing these data (if only more philosophy journals followed suit!), I think this is a very worrisome phenomenon that again suggests analytic philosophy might be more insular and less universal than its self-image suggests.

(Of course, one could argue that JAAC is not a truly international journal, as it is published by the American Society for Aesthetics and doesn't have a duty to be representative of the composition of the international aesthetics community. However, this would be to miss the point, which is that it's not clear why the acceptance rate of a journal that practices double-anoynmous reviewing should be affected by the country the author(s) currently reside(s))

* Note that I have decided to start using the label 'EFL philosophers' for philosophers who are not native English speakers and 'NES philosophers' for those who are native English speakers.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

CFC: Minorities and Philosophy

On behalf of MAP-UK:
"To interested philosophers and students of philosophy in the UK:
In order to examine and address issues of fairness and participation faced by minority and underrepresented groups in academic philosophy (e.g. class, disability, native-language, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender minority groups), a number of UK departments have recently started to build a UK network of chapters of MAP ( ).
With 34 active chapters to date, 2 of which in the UK, MAP (Minorities And Philosophy) is a successful and widespread organization in the US and elsewhere. If you would like to have a MAP chapter at your own institution, this Call For Collaborators is for you. MAP chapters are generally run by students (typically 3 per department), mostly post-graduates but often with the help of undergraduates (and sometimes solely run by undergraduates) and of academic staff members.
If you think your Philosophy Department would benefit from having a local MAP chapter, and you are willing to do something to help to build one, I would be very happy to hear from you. More informal enquiries are also welcome.
Filippo Contesi (MAP UK Director) ( )"

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Little Thought Experiment for Philosophers Who Are Native English Speakers

[This is a second post in a series of posts about doing philosophy in English as a non-native English speaker (the first post is here. All posts in this series will be reachable by clicking on the category "EFL Philosophers" at the bottom of the post; please see here for a disclaimer to all the posts in this series).]

Let me start with a little thought experiment for philosophers who are native English speakers (we are philosophers---we love thought experiments, right?), as, I suspect, some have never thought about this before. Suppose that, tomorrow, all international philosophy journals announce that they will only start accepting only submissions in Spanish (or French, or whatever language you have learned in school as a second language (if you happen to be bilingual, don't cheat---pick a language you are not a native speaker of!)). Your career (and, possibly, your livelihood if you don't have tenure yet) still depends on publishing in those journals and so does your ability to disseminate your work to a wider international audience.

What would you do? You probably would still try to publish in those journals. But how hard would be for you to write a philosophy paper in Spanish (or substitute your non-native language of choice here)? And how likely would it be for your paper to get accepted? Sure, you learned Spanish in school but you are far from being fluent (lo siento, mi amigo/a, pero esa es la triste verdad) and around the world there are many philosophers whose first language is Spanish and who write beautifully and fluently in Spanish without much effort and, as good as your Spanish might be it will never be as good as theirs and, even if it were, it would still be much harder and more time-consuming for you to write as well in Spanish than it is for them.

As you are engaging in this thought experiment, it's a good time to remind you that the Dunning-Kruger effect is a widely confirmed and extremely pervasive psychological phenomenon and you are probably overestimating both your proficiency in Spanish and your ability to get your Spanish-language papers and books written, published, read, and cited.

If you think that this little thought experiment is unrealistic or unfair, we can change the story around a bit and we can suppose that the Soviets won the Cold War and that Russian is the language in which philosophy is taught and communicated internationally. You attended a prestigious PhD program in Moscow and have had a chance to improve on the Russian you had learned in school back in your home country (be it the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics of North America or the the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics of the British Isles, or the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics of the Australia and New Zeland), but your Russian is still far from being as good as that of a native speaker of Russian and, even if it is as good, it is much harder and more time-consuming for you to write an academic paper as well as a native Russian speaker.

Nowadays ESL philosophers (i.e. philosophers whose first language is not English) are very much in the same situation in which you have found yourself in the thought experiment(s) you have just performed and, before writing other posts on the topic, I though it would be helpful for philosophers whose first language(s) is/includes English to contemplate the situation (albeit briefly and only imaginatively) from the perspective of an ESL philosophers.

Monday, October 6, 2014

New Feature/Call for Proposals: The Philosophy Spotlight

Since this blog is now officially active, I was thinking of hosting a regular feature on it. It's going to be called "The Philosophy Spotlight". It will consist in a post by a philosopher, X, recommending a paper by another philosopher, Y, and explaining briefly the content of the paper and why they think the paper should be widely read.

The only necessary conditions are:
  1. X is distinct from Y (no self-nominations and no anonymous nominations, sorry!). 
  2. Y does not hold a tenured or tenure-track appointment (or the equivalent) in a Leiterific department. (I hate to have to do so but we are going to rely on the latest PGR ranking to determine whether a department is Leiterific, On this interpretation, D is not a Leiterific Department iff D does not appear on the general "international" top-50 list of the latest PGR.) [Modified on Oct 9, 2014. Thanks to Roy T Cook for suggesting a modification of this condition in the comments] 
  3. Y has agreed for his/her paper to appear on The Philosopher's Spotlight. 
Some further considerations you might want to keep in mind in choosing a paper to nominate (none of them amounts to a necessary condition; nor does their disjunction).
  • Y's paper is not published in a top journal. 
  • Y is a philosopher who belongs to an underrepresented group in philosophy (since this is not a necessary criterion, I'm not going to specify what I mean). 
  • Y's paper is of broad philosophical interest. 
  • ... (I might keep adding optional criteria here. Please feel free to suggest additional optional criteria in the comments!) 
Proposals for guest posts should be sent to me by e-mail at g 'dot' contessa 'at' gmail 'dot' com. Please use "Spotlight Proposal" in the subject line of your message and include Y's name, Y's paper title, a quick blurb (content of the paper, why it's interesting), and a link to the PhilPapers entry for the paper.


Quick Q&A (apparently, misunderstanding is endemic on the internets and any attempt to pre-empt it generates even more misunderstanding but let's give it a try...).

Q1: "Why do you hate philosophers who work in Leiterific departments so much?"

A1: Believe me: I don't! In fact, some of my best friends work in Leiterific departments :-) Moreover, I think that a lot of excellent or interesting work is being done by people who work in those departments. However, I also think that the papers of people who work at Leiterific departments tend to receive much more attention than those written by people who don't work in those departments and, as a result, papers in the former group get more cited, read, discussed, etc, which leads to a sort of Matthew effect, in which works that get attention get more and more attention and works that don't get it get less and less attention. I think that many people who do not work for a Leiterific departments publish many excellent papers that receive too little attention. My hope is that this feature will allow people to come across high-quality papers they might have not come across otherwise. If people read more broadly (i.e. not just what's written by the usual suspects or by their network of philosophical friends), we are all going to be better for it, including people who happen to work in a Leiterific departments. I have come across many wonderful papers who are not as widely read/discussed as they should and the only explanations I have for that are sociological.


Q2: "If these other philosophers are so good why don't they work in a Leiterific department? And why aren't their papers more widely read?"

A2: Oh, c'mon you must joking now! Many excellent philosophers do not work in Leiterific departments! And people don't have time to read everything, so they make decisions and often they do so by using proxies such as affiliation, publication venue, etc., which are not always reliable. (Have you ever read a bad paper in a top journal? I have read a few! Have you ever read a mediocre paper by a superstar philosopher? I have read a few!). (More on the myth of philosophical genius and how it's at odds with the collectivist spirit of analytic philosophy in this post)


Q3: "What's the difference between this and the Philosophy Tag hosted by Daily Nous?"
A3: Good question, Justin! :-P Well, first, here, everyone can nominate a paper they think should get more attention, not just people who have been nominated by someone else. Second, the rules make it impossible for The Philosophy Spotlight to become a game in which the usual suspects end up nominating each other's papers. (To be clear, I'm not saying that this is what's happening in Philosophy Tag but nothing in the rules of that game prevents it from happening). Anyway, even if there were no differences, two games are better than one, right?


Q4: "Is this some sort of Anti-Philosopher's-Annual?"
A4: I think the Philosopher's Annual is an excellent idea, especially in a profession in which it's becoming harder and harder to keep up with the burgeoning numbers of publications. I'm not too convinced by the execution, as, I feel, it ends up encouraging the sort of Matthew effect I was mentioning above.


Q5: "Isn't Leiterific a political term? Is the goal of all this political or epistemic?"
A5: I have talked a bit about Leiterism and its problems in a previous post and, I guess, "Leiterific" is a term that tries to make fun of the Leiterism inherent to the attempt to rank philosophy departments (it is not, however, meant to make fun of people who work in any of the departments I call "Leiterific" (see A1 above), not even of Brian Leiter). As for the second question, I don't think it's an exclusive conjunction. At the risk of sounding Foucauldian, I don't think we can clearly distinguish the political and the epistemic in this context. The two goals are intertwined---I believe that, if the profession were less elitist and more egalitarian, it would be not only more just but more likely to make epistemic progress.

(I would like to thank the many Facebook friends who provided me with feedback/suggestions on the original idea and, particularly, to Alison Reiheld, Dustin Locke, Jason Turner, Justin Weisberg, Kate Norlock, Leigh M. Johnson, Meena Krishnamurthy, P.D. Magnus, Rachel Briggs, Ruth Groff, Sara Bernstein, and Whitney Mutch for their comments!)

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Analytic Philosophy, the Distribution of Philosophical Labour, and the Myth of Philosophical Genius

When I read a good philosophy paper (and I hope I will read many more now thanks to The Philosophy Spotlight!), I often feel a strange sense of gratitude. I'm thankful to the author(s) for having thought long and hard about some issue and having spared me some time and effort---thinking is fun but it's also hard and time-consuming! No one can think through all the issues they find philosophically interesting all by themselves.

Thinking about it, one of the things that I like the best about analytic philosophy is that it is very much a collective/collaborative enterprise.  Of course, the cult of philosophical genius is alive and well among analytic philosophers (think of Saint Gottlob!) and underpins the contemporary philosophical superstar scene (and its underlying Leiterism), but it is, to my mind, at odds with the spirit of analytic philosophy. The idea that underlie analytic philosophy, I think, is that philosophical labour can be distributed and that philosophical progress does not occur by giant leaps forward performed by a few philosophical geniuses (who leave only exegetical questions for the rest of us to answer) but it is slow and gradual and takes a lot of painstaking work performed by many people chipping away at small problems a bit at a time. Of course, occasionally, a single philosopher finds a philosophical diamond while working in the philosophical coal mine, but these events are rare (and that they are more a matter of sheer luck than philosophical genius) and extracting cartloads of coal from the philosophical mine is as important as finding the occasional diamond. So, let's keep digging together, fellow miners in the philosophy coal mine! 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Who Can Afford to Be Out of the Loop?

Recently, I had an interesting online exchange with a famous philosopher who works in a top department (someone, incidentally, whose philosophical work I admire and who, according to sources I consider reliable, is a really nice person, so none of what follows is meant to cast any shadow on his character). Let me call this philosopher, Prof. X.

The exchange started after Prof. X said on the Facebook thread of another famous philosopher that he hadn't made up his mind about signing the "September Statement" because of concerns similar to those expressed by Alexander Rosenberg in this post. (As a side note, it's incredible how much issues in the professions are discussed behind the walls of Facebook these days! (more on that in a possible future post?)) I replied that I thought that those concerns had been amply addressed in some of the comments below Rosenberg's post. Prof. X told me that he did not have time to read enough blog posts and comment threads to form an informed opinion on the matter and that, in fact, he didn't have time to continue that exchange (to be fair, he said that much more nicely than it might be coming across from my summary!). And than he added something that I have have heard already many times from other philosophers in positions similar to Prof. X's. Namely, he said (more of less verbatim) "I'm not a blogging kind of guy" and "I'm sort of out of the loop".

My reply (and the point I'd like to make more publicly in this post) is that not having enough time and being out of the loop in this sort of contexts can be symptoms of privilege. It's easier to say that one doesn't have time to think about y and take action on y when one is not directly affected (and would be very unlikely to be in a position of being ever directly affected) by a certain (sort of) behaviour. It's easier to say that, say, one don't have time to think whether we should revoke an invitation to speak in our department to someone who has been accused of sexual assault when someone is unlikely to ever be (or have been) themselves a victim of sexual assault. It's easier to say that one does not have time to sign the "September Statement" when one is unlikely to ever be in the position of being publicly attacked by someone in a more powerful position (or when one can easily dismiss those attacks).

What the "out-of-the-loop-ers" don't seem to understand is that we'd all be rather doing philosophy or dealing with the many items on our to-do list rather than spending time thinking and talking about the philosophy profession, but some of us can't afford to do that! (Believe me, I'd rather be working on that paper right now!) So it's a luxury and a symptom of privilege to be able to say "I don't have time to think about this". I often think of all the time and energy so many of my colleagues are putting into making the philosophy profession a more inclusive and hospitable place and I am thankful for that, especially considering that those who are doing so often are the ones that occupy less privileged positions and this takes a further toll on them (what if they spent that time writing or reading or thinking or...?).

If you can stay out of the loop and you don't have time to think about the issue in the profession, it's probably because you can afford it, but remember that this is one of those situations where not to be part of the solution is to be part of the problem, for inaction is just a way to perpetuate an often unjust status quo!