Thursday, March 09, 2006

On requirements in philosophy departments

My blog has lately become a series of posts directing you to my other posts about politics. Just to change things up a little, I'm going to post an email that I wrote to the philosophy department tonight. Lots of grad students here are trying to convince faculty to eliminate the language requirement, which now requires fourth-semester competence in a foreign language. Some graduate students oppose it. This is the majority of an email that I sent to my fellow students today:

There are lots of ways to be a good philosopher, and contribute to philosophy. You can develop a deep knowledge of Greek, read many ancient philosophers, and become an Aristotle scholar. You can study lots of philosophy of mind, take several classes in the psychology department, and become a philosopher of perception. You can read in all areas of philosophy, and do work that connects different areas. I wouldn't want the world of philosophy to lack any of these types of people.

There is, however, no way to be a perfect philosopher. Life is short, and grad school (we hope!) is shorter. Making people take three more classes extends their time in grad school by a semester, or displaces three other classes that they would've taken. So how should we set up our requirement structure to produce the best philosophers possible? And how should we set it up so that students can do the other things that will be required of them, like teaching undergrads and evaluating job talks in other areas?

Here's my proposal: only require everyone to take those things that everyone will find more valuable than what they would've taken otherwise. Since we'll be required to evaluate job talks in other areas, it's sensible to have a system of distributional requirements between core analytic philosophy, ethics, and history. (I take Brian Weatherson's choice of this tripartite categorization system as the natural one by which to divide job postings in the JFP as defeasible evidence of its value.) Since basic logic is a common teaching requirement and occasionally useful in all areas, we require competence with basic logic. Maybe there are other things that almost every successful philosopher, from metaethicists to Hegel scholars, will need. If so, we should argue for them on this basis.

Guidance in our course of study need not come from a requirement system. In fact, it should come from personal interests that drive hard work, promising lines of thought that require more study for fuller development, and conversations with faculty and other students. There are many wonderful faculty members and graduate students in our department with whom we can have these conversations. They're eager to help us design the course of study that is best for each of us.

Our department is capable of producing excellent philosophers of many different kinds. This doesn't mean that we should have many requirements -- in fact, it means that we shouldn't. To impose many different requirements isn't to promote all different specialties -- it's to promote generalism at the expense of all else. A system with few requirements permits the generalist and all kinds of specialists to flourish. This is the system that I fought for two years ago, and I'm willing to fight for it now.


Anonymous said...

As a student of foreign languages and area studies, I am generally in support of language requirements. I feel that there's a lot to gain from understanding, communicating, and learning to think in another language. Languages are not simply separate codes for expressing oneself - they are also the code developed by a certain cultural group for expression of their particular way of thinking, of highly specialized cultural experiences, and when a language is lost, we do not only lose that code, but we also lose that knowledge.

In applying the defense of langauge learning to philosophy, I would look to the future - surely, there have been many important works of philosophy written in the philosopher's native language, of which we use a translated version. Often, argument is intimately connected to the words used, as they signify specific values. When a non-philosopher translates a philosopher's work, do they really communicate all the meaning implied from work written in the author's native tongue?

While it may not be important to have every run-of-the-mill philosophy grad student reading works in the author's native language, some philosophers should continue the study of language. What will happen to the study of philosophy when philosophers of differing native languages can no longer communicate adequately? While this may not happen within our lifetimes, you have to look at the overall effect of an increasing number of universities abolishing foreign language requirements in all disciplines. What knowledge will be lost?

In a utilitarian view, I'm sure that this defense does not adequately cover the problem of requirements for ALL students. But how does one promote some study of languages in all disciplines, in order to safeguard the transfer of knowledge between cultures?

Just some thoughts.

- Katie B.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Just to fill in one of the details, Katie -- the language requirement in our university requires fourth-semester competence in some foreign language.

I just finished the language requirement last semester, taking my fourth semester of German. Maybe if I had studied German seriously for two more years and actually read some German literature or lived in Germany, I'd have experienced the gains you're talking about. As it stands, I've gained nothing. I'll mostly forget the German I've learned in a couple of years. Two years of undergraduate German hasn't taught me how to "think in another language" -- instead, I just memorized the way a bunch of pronoun and adjective endings go. I haven't noticed any difference in how my philosophical thinking goes (though I am slightly more adept at using Google Language Tools).

I agree that it's good for some philosophers to have in-depth knowledge of a foreign language. Similarly, it's good for some philosophers to know theoretical physics, and good for some philosophers to know lots of economics. That's why we shouldn't require any one of these things. Dadahead's point about how much more there is to know in 2006 than in 1906 is important here.

crevo said...

I honestly can't see how someone could claim to be a philosopher and not understand a foreign language. It baffles the mind. That seems like a sure-fire way to tie you to a certain way of thinking.

But I think you're right. Four semesters probably isn't enough. Perhaps the philosophy department should require more, including readings in the given language.

What is philosophy if not language? How do you know language if you only know one? I can't know about cars generally by just knowing about my own car. I need to know in what ways cars are the same and in what ways they are different. And its best to have a good knowledge of several in order to understand how this works.

Anonymous said...

Can someone really just specialize in say the last fifty years of philosophy of mind? And if not, then the person would be to some extent a historian/scholar, and would then need languages. And isn't the language requirement a barrier to entry? How do you weed out thousands of applicants if there is no investment in learning a language? That's why nurses learn chemistry.