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French, German, Greek, Latin, but Not Arabic, Chinese, or Sanskrit?

By Eric Schwitzgebel

When I was graduate student in Berkeley in the 1990s, philosophy PhD students were required to pass exams in two of the following four languages: French, German, Greek, or Latin. I already knew German. I argued that Spanish should count (I had read Unamuno in the original as an undergrad), but my petition was denied since I didn’t plan to do further work in Spanish. I argued that a psychological methods course would be more useful than a second foreign language, given that my dissertation was in philosophy of psychology, but that was not treated as a serious suggestion. I’d learned some classical Chinese, but I thought it would be pointless to attempt 600 characters in two hours as required (much more daunting than 600 words in a European language). So I crammed French for a few weeks and passed the exam.

I have recently become interested in mainstream Anglophone philosophers’ tendency to privilege certain languages and traditions in the history of philosophy. If we think globally, considering large, robust traditions of written work treating recognizably philosophical topics with argumentative sophistication and scholarly detail, it seems clear that at least Arabic, classical Chinese, and Sanskrit merit inclusion alongside French, German, Greek, and Latin as languages of major philosophical importance.

The exclusion of Arabic, Chinese, and Sanskrit from Berkeley’s standard language requirements could not, I think, have been mere ignorance. Rather, the focus on French, German, Greek, and Latin appeared to express a value judgment: that these four languages are more central to philosophy as it ought to be studied.

The language requirements of philosophy PhD programs have loosened over the years, but French, German, Latin, and Greek still form the core language requirements in departments that have language requirements. Students therefore continue to receive the message that these languages are the most important ones for philosophers to know.

I examined the language requirements of a sample of PhD programs in the United States. Because of their sociological importance in the discipline, I started with the top twelve ranked programs in the Philosophical Gourmet Report. I then expanded the sample by considering a group of strong PhD programs that are not as sociologically central to the discipline – the programs ranked 40-50 in the U.S.

Among the top twelve programs (corrections welcome):

  • Four appeared to have no foreign language requirement (Michigan, NYU, Rutgers, Stanford).
  • Seven (Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard, Pitt, UCLA, USC, Yale) had some version of a language requirement, requiring one of French, German, Greek or Latin — always exactly that list. Some programs explicitly allowed another language and/or another relevant research skill by petition or consultation.
  • Only Princeton had a language requirement that did not appear to privilege French, German, Greek, and Latin. Princeton only requires a language “relevant to the student’s proposed course of study” (or alternatively “a unit of advanced work in another department” or “completion of an additional unit of work in any area of philosophy”).

You might think that, practically speaking, Arabic or classical Chinese would be a fine language to choose. Students can always petition; maybe such petitions are almost always granted. This response, however, ignores the fact that something is communicated by other languages’ non-inclusion on the privileged list. For a tendentious comparison – maybe too tendentious! – consider an admissions form that said “we admit men, but also women by petition”. One thing is treated as a norm and the other as an exception.

Interestingly, the PhD programs ranked less highly by the Philosophical Gourmet had more relaxed language requirements overall. In the 40-50 group, only two of the eleven mentioned a language requirement or list of languages. Still, the privileged languages were from the same set: “French, German, or other” at Saint Louis University, and optional certification in French, German, Greek, or Latin at Rochester.

I do not believe that we should be sending students the message that French, German, Greek, and Latin are more important than other languages in which there is a body of interesting philosophical work. It is too Eurocentric a vision of the history of philosophy. Let’s change this.

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Eric Schwitzgebel is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside.  He is a member of the APA’s Committee on the Status and Future of the Profession.  

5 thoughts on “French, German, Greek, Latin, but Not Arabic, Chinese, or Sanskrit?

  1. This is a very interesting topic; thanks for bringing it up.

    What would you say to this defense of the status quo? You are considering philosophy programs in the United States. The reasonable presumption is that their Ph.D. candidates are either Westerners, or non-Westerners who want to be well-grounded in Western philosophy. Both groups of people need to study the Western tradition seriously, either because they (like it or not) are rooted in that tradition or because they desire to participate in it. It is undeniable that most major thinkers in the West have written in Greek, Latin, French, German, or English, and furthermore, a great deal of secondary literature has been published in those languages.

    Even if US students’ doctoral research deals with non-Western thought or with Western philosophy written in less dominant languages, they should be well-grounded in the dominant Western traditions. There’s also a good chance that they ought to read some secondary literature in French or German. Passing a reading exam in one or two of the “big four” languages doesn’t seem like much to ask.

    This argument does not make any judgment about the philosophical worth of thought that is conducted in other languages. I actually wrote about Unamuno myself in my undergraduate senior thesis at Berkeley; I read him in Spanish, and he taught himself Danish in order to read Kierkegaard. Obviously, there are great traditions of philosophy written in Sanskrit, Chinese, and Arabic. None of these traditions or languages should be demeaned. But I think there’s a good reason for doctoral students in the US, and in the West generally, to be able to read as many of the main Western philosophical languages as possible. I’m confident that Unamuno (a professor of Greek) and Kierkegaard would agree.

    Another topic for discussion on this blog would be the fact that at some institutions, people are permitted to write, say, a dissertation on Kant without reading German. How do we begin to count the misconceptions involved in that enterprise?

  2. Just one additional data point: UT-Austin’s language requirements do not specify a language (https://liberalarts.utexas.edu/philosophy/graduate/PhD-Program.php) but only that it not be English. (I did Sanskrit, but then again, that’s because my work demands it.) They are currently ranked 17, so between your two considered groups.

    Their requirement can also be satisfied by two additional graduate philosophy seminars or upper-division or graduate courses in a related area. I do not know how often this happens.

  3. Thanks for the comments, folks!

    Richard cross-posted this comment at the Splintered Mind, where I posted the reply below. He replied to that reply, so if you’re interested in this conversation thread please go there.

    This seems to me to be a sensible version of what I think of as the “ignorance justifies ignorance” argument (a couple of other common arguments are the “not really philosophy” argument and the “lower quality” argument). I appreciate the articulate expression of this point of view.

    A few thoughts about the argument:

    (1.) There is no realistic danger that the Western tradition will not be taken seriously in U.S. philosophy PhD programs, so it’s a matter of somewhat reducing the extent of its privilege.

    (2.) The U.S. is cultural mix. It is somewhat simplifying to say that our U.S. tradition is rooted in western Europe, when a substantial proportion of the students are of Asian descent and might have been raised with Asian cultural practices in their homes. At UC Riverside, where I teach, 33% of students identify as Asian and only 16% as non-Hispanic white.

    (3.) As an analogy that displays the core idea in the “ignorance justifies ignorance” argument, using a different specialization, consider an argument that degree programs in Music should focus mostly on classical European musical traditions and mostly disregard Asian, popular, South American, African and jazz traditions. My sense is that historically Music programs did strongly privilege the classical European tradition but that it has been a good thing to encourage expansion beyond that tradition. I don’t think there’s much risk (though I stand open to correction on this) that mainstream PhD programs in Music would cease to take the European tradition seriously even if they also encouraged non-European study.

    (4.) You might grant all of the above and still think that knowledge of one of those four languages is an essential tool for philosophers in the US in a way that knowledge of other languages is not. (Sometimes formal logic requirements are justified in this way, too.) I could imagine a world in which this is true, but it is far from true in philosophy as actually practiced today. Language is an essential tool for students who study the history of philosophy of works in those languages; but most students study other areas like contemporary ethics or contemporary philosophy of mind, and for them the language exam is a hurdle that doesn’t help them much later on, except as a way of broadening their vision. So as actually practiced, the language requirement functions to privilege certain areas in the history of philosophy and to encourage broadening in that one direction rather than in others.

  4. Picking up on something noted in Eric’s 4) above (i.e. “most students study other areas like contemporary ethics or contemporary philosophy of mind, and for them the language exam is a hurdle that doesn’t help them much later on”), I think Princeton is on to something with its option to pursue a language alternative: “Princeton only requires a language ‘relevant to the student’s proposed course of study’ (or alternatively ‘a unit of advanced work in another department’…).

    Adding stats/psychometrics, biochemistry, population biology/ecology, quantum mechanics, decision theory, computer programming, etc., to your philosophical education might be even more important these days than adding second language. I recognize that the point of Eric’s post is to question the Eurocentric language requirements at seven prestigious grad programs. But my central reaction to this issue would be to promote an additional research skill over any language, especially in the case of non-historians.

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