Axel Arturo Barceló
During the past week, Mexican philosopher Guillermo Hurtado published a brief article entitled “Adiós al español” in La Razón (a Mexican newspaper). Hurtado’s article is the latest in a long list of publications that decry the increasing tendency of Mexican philosophers—especially Mexican philosophers who work in the analytic and naturalist traditions—to write and publish in English. The article ends with this assertion: “[it is] unacceptable … to assume that to be a respectable philosopher one should stop writing in Spanish.”
Of course, the current situation is not peculiar to Spanish, but rather affects all philosophers who write and publish in a language other than English. Nor, as Hurtado points out, is this pressure to write and publish in English peculiar to contemporary philosophy: it could well be argued that in earlier historical contexts a similar situation prevailed with respect to German and Latin. For the problem is not the predominance of the English language per se, but rather the existence of a hegemonic language in which it is widely assumed that philosophy must be done. I maintain that since English is currently the hegemonic language for the production of philosophy, philosophers whose mother tongue is English bear special responsibilities both to accommodate philosophers for whom English is not the first language and to make philosophy more accessible to them.
Debate about how Mexican philosophers should respond to the hegemony of English has ensued in academic circles in Mexico for some time now. On the one hand, there are philosophers, such as Hurtado, who encourage younger generations of philosophers to write and read philosophy in Spanish and to recognize the wealth of a very long tradition of thinkers who have written in this language. On the other hand, there are philosophers who defend the increasingly common practice of writing (giving talks, organizing conferences, etc.) in English as the only means by which to incorporate Mexican philosophers in the worldwide philosophical conversation. As some younger philosophers have commented, although the language in which you write philosophy makes the philosophy itself neither better nor worse, the language in which you write philosophy does in fact bear on the possible impact that it will have. As one student commented on Facebook, it is not that we disparage our language, but rather that we feel the need to reach a wider audience, which means writing for an audience that predominantly reads philosophy in English.
Herein lies the crux of the matter: the institutional and material power that philosophers who read philosophy only in English possess. It is truly astounding that journals that present themselves as the leading venues for publication in the profession—and are treated as such by the vast number of professional philosophers—publish articles whose bibliographies include only texts written in English. What is truly unjustifiable, furthermore, is that the major academic publishing houses in the USA and the UK publish so few translations of philosophy—especially contemporary philosophy—that has been written in a language other than English.
In American universities (but not only there), the problem begins with professors who teach courses the syllabi of which include only works published in English. Although doing so might be acceptable at the undergraduate level, this practice is certainly not acceptable at the graduate level. Such an education in philosophy builds the foundation for the notion that English is the only language that one needs to do philosophy, that is, one does not need to understand or engage with philosophy done in any language other than English in order to be a professional philosopher. In short, the problem is not philosophers for whom—although we write and publish in English—English is a second language; rather, the problem is philosophers who read only philosophy written and published in English. That is why I have written this blog-post in English, not Spanish: because it is in your hands, philosophers whose first language is English, to do something to alleviate this epistemic injustice.
Hurtado is correct when he argues that it is possible for very good philosophy to be written and read only in Spanish. Philosophy has been written and read in Spanish for several centuries. Indeed, we have developed a very valuable philosophical tradition and community. However, the existence of this tradition and community does not make the decision about which language in which to write philosophy easier for those of us who want to contribute to the worldwide discussion of philosophical ideas without alienating our own students and our neighbours.
posted by Shelley