LIFESTYLE

The Linguistic Incompetence Of Today's Philosophers In India

We are allowing, even encouraging, mediocrity instead of excellence.

24/04/2017 10:06 PM IST | Updated 02/05/2017 8:42 AM IST

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The great German philosopher G W F Hegel is infamous for his peculiar assertion that philosophy is the history of philosophy. While there is no need to go that far, anyone familiar with the academic discipline of philosophy knows that the study of the history of philosophy is crucial to, and indeed inseparable from, academic philosophy. English was not the language within which most of the writings that constitutes that history (or those histories) were composed. Greek, Sanskrit, Latin, Pali, Arabic, Hebrew, German, French, Italian, and a few others—most of the work we study in today's academic philosophy curricula were originally written in these languages. We read them predominantly in English translations.

[Y]ou cannot be an excellent Kant scholar without a reading knowledge of German. Nor can you be an excellent Nietzsche or Frege or Wittgenstein or Heidegger scholar.

There is no doubt that a basic understanding of these texts is accessible through the translations we read. But as students of philosophy evolve into research students, doctoral candidates, and specialists, it becomes increasingly important toward the success of the philosopher that s/he should have more direct and authentic access to the writings s/he is aiming to be specialist of. To put it plainly, you cannot be an excellent Kant scholar without a reading knowledge of German. Nor can you be an excellent Nietzsche or Frege or Wittgenstein or Heidegger scholar. You cannot be an excellent Derrida scholar without a reading knowledge of French. You get the idea, I suppose.

Or perhaps you do not.

For, I do not know of a single PhD program in philosophy in India that requires competence in languages. Quite the contrary, the learning of languages by students of philosophy is hindered through various rules and restrictions regarding taking courses in other degree programs, and the philosophy departments themselves do not offer the necessary language courses to their students, though I am sure they could without great difficulty or expense. And yet, PhD dissertations continue to be written on Kant or Nietzsche or Heidegger or Derrida and so on. These are, necessarily, mediocre productions. But philosophy departments keep churning them out anyway.

And everyone who should know better just looks away.

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There are, of course, a number of problems clustering around this core issue. For example, we have failed even to ensure basic English proficiency to a number of our postgraduate students. At the same time, numerous philosophy programs in the north run bogus Hindi-medium options, although the material translated into Hindi is minimal in quantity and sub-standard in quality (I have heard similar tales of woe about other regional-language programs). These failures of ours serve to perpetuate the caste and class disadvantages that the educational system was designed to ameliorate. I am well aware that these lapses are caused by complex, seemingly insoluble complicities of apathy, ignorance, bias, and bureaucracy. In those cases, however, people are not doing their jobs; we are neglecting to implement or carry through with systems or programs that are in fact often already in place, at least on paper. In the case of the linguistic incompetence of philosophy students, there are no systems in place—we are allowing, even encouraging, mediocrity instead of excellence. And we are doing it institutionally. This is one of the many reasons why contemporary philosophy in India is in such a poor condition.

[N]umerous philosophy programs in the north run bogus Hindi-medium options, although the material translated into Hindi is minimal in quantity and sub-standard in quality...

I cannot anticipate the full clamour of objections here, but I can pre-empt a few. First, acquiring a reading knowledge of languages such as ancient Greek or German is neither prohibitively difficult nor time-consuming. A two-hour per week time slot could easily be fit into any philosophy program schedule, where courses in various ancient and modern languages could be offered, supplemented by readings of philosophical passages in the original languages. Within a year's time, students would have developed basic competency in their target languages. Second, as someone who has taught (on a voluntary basis) both an ancient and a modern language within academic philosophy departments in India, I am in a position to reject the commonly asserted claim that students would not be interested in taking on extra work and that the courses would thus remain unattended.

Finally, I am well aware of the unstated background here, the ancien regime: the domination of philosophy departments by saffron pandits and their suffocating sanskritisation. That clearing out was important, creating space for the blossoming of critical and innovative thought so essential for the realization of philosophy as a public good. But for philosophy to fulfill its role in our society, our philosophers must be excellent, not mediocre. That will never be possible under the currently enforced regime of linguistic incompetence.

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