Metalinguistic Awareness in Academic Philosophy

"Tongue-Tied: Rawls, Political Philosophy and Metalinguistic Awareness" (with Matteo Bonotti) is now available at the APSR (November 2016 issue).


Is our moral cognition “colored” by the language(s) that we speak? Despite the centrality of language to political life and agency, limited attempts have been made thus far in contemporary political philosophy to consider this possibility. We therefore set out to explore the possible influence of linguistic relativity effects on political thinking in linguistically diverse societies. We begin by introducing the facts and fallacies of the “linguistic relativity” principle, and explore the various ways in which they “color,” often covertly, current normative debates. To illustrate this, we focus on two key Rawlsian concepts: the original position and public reason. We then move to consider the resulting epistemic challenges and opportunities facing contemporary multilingual democratic societies in an age of increased mobility, arguing for the consequent imperative of developing political metalinguistic awareness and political extelligence among political scientists, political philosophers, and political actors alike in an irreducibly complex linguistic world.

From the APSR editors:

Much of our political theory—and political practice—assumes a common normative language. When we say “rights,” we expect others to have the same conception we do. Yet this is demonstrably not the case. This is a problem that political theory has not yet dealt with, a shortcoming that Yael Peled and Matteo Bonotti seek to overcome in “Tongue-Tied: Rawls, Political Philosophy and Metalinguistic Awareness.” To begin with, once we recognize the problem, they say, we realize that we need to work toward a common language for our civic discourse. But we also need to be open at all times to other languages and the perspectives they have to offer. The subtle analysis of this article will help guide us as we strive to improve our civic discourse today.

On Dehumanisation by Unrealistic Expectations: In the Wake of Elie Wiesel's Death

Some of the reactions to Elie Wiesel’s death yesterday prompted me to go back to a certain strand of thinking I was developing at the time, about what could be termed “a consumerist theory of the good”. I began mulling over it several years ago, noticing the frequency with which claims about democratic life and ideals, and especially their incapacity to fully deliver on their aspirations, are voiced in the same tone used to complain to customer service that one’s iPhone doesn’t work properly, or that there somehow exists a mismatch between the technical specs on the box and the devoice’s actual performance.

This confusion of political ideals with consumerist discontent with unfulfilled technical specs is worrying for a number of reasons, that go to the heart of the fundamental difference between a fully-controlled manufactured product and an open-ended and often messy interdependent social system. But it is also troubling because it advances at the same time a metaphysical perception of the good life, that is also at its heart deeply non-humane.

And so, this perception mocks individuals for failing to exemplify divine moral standards, and shoots them down as phoneys and hypocrites for such a “failure”. It sneers at any human aspiration that is unable to fully realise itself. And is so invested in its criticalist mission to relentlessly point out the gap between ideals and reality, that it conveniently exempts itself from the need to say something about the good life that recognises the complexity of human associations and of their histories, self-understandings, experiences, traumas and aspirations, which cannot be reduced to the factory-settings equivalent of moral and political philosophy.

No human is a saint. No association of human can fully epitomise a vision of the good life that is atemporal, flaw-free and perfect. The expectation that they will - and should - be so, and the unavoidable disappointment that results from it, is in itself a form of dehumanisation by unrealistic expectations. It might make a certain self-styled community of the good feel good about itself; but it systematically kills the one force of human nature that is indispensable for making the world a better place: hope. And a world devoid of hope is a world devoid of humaneness. Holocaust survivors’ memoirs are a good place to see just how much.

On Non-relational Love in Academic Life

Saying that early career untenured academics aren’t exactly having it easy is serving the obvious with a large side of the trivial. There exist fewer openings for tenured positions; fixed-time contracts are short, while research and teaching expectations are higher than before; salaries and benefits (if at all) are often low to the point of not being a living wage; a globalized knowledge economy and a buyer’s market means the next job might well mean a relocation to the other side of the globe, on a temporary legal status, sometimes for relatively short periods of time. And so, the kind of ideal professional that emerges from these realities is not only someone with a promising record of teaching and research. It is also someone who offers prospect employers maximum personal flexibility and availability, most importantly with regard to their time.

We junior academics work hard, often very hard, and not only in response to the time-heavy nature of profession (the running joke is that the flexibility of academic life means we get to choose *which* sixteen hours of the day we wish to work). Many of us do so not merely because ‘this is what we love’ (as if research and teaching is a kind of an excessive hobby), but rather because we are strongly invested in our work in terms of our identity. We are often very committed to our research and teaching, regularly putting in the extra hours to make sure that the work is done to our satisfaction and approval, even when the standard by which we are measured is a personal one, which doesn’t necessarily translate into immediate material gains.

We love our work, and that is no bad thing. What is bad, however, is the fact that the profession in its current state channels our love, and our emotional resources in general, towards our work and away from our social relations. Being ‘all in’ in the form of committing the entirety of our self to our work is seen as a badge of honor and an affirmation of one’s total commitment to the profession, even through ill-health and personal tragedies. And the more it is lauded, the more it is interiorized as the new standard. Be all in, dear junior academics, or be out. So we try to be all in, and in doing so we gradually reduce the social webs of our loves and affections. Sometimes we get lucky (as I’ve been, far more than my representative share), working with supportive colleagues and mentors and staying around for longer periods. But not everyone does, and even when they do, there is no guarantee of it lasting for long.

And here lies the cruel logic of this system: ‘being all in’ makes perfect sense. After all, on a career path that often seems like a patchwork of short-term positions around the globe, in which the most constant law of nature is transience, what is the point of maintaining, let alone developing, those social webs? Finding a partner or even thinking about having a family seems completely detached from one’s realities. What is the point of getting to know someone, or becomes acquainted with a place, if in a year or less one is most likely to find themselves in a brand new location, assuming that they are so ‘lucky’ to begin with? Why bother getting to know one’s neighbors and neighborhood, and what is the point of joining a choir or an orchestra, if it is only likely to end, again and again, in a heartbreak when the time is up?

The almost certain prospect of creating social webs only to have them terminated shortly afterwards on a regular basis is a foolproof recipe for social isolation. The more we are encouraged to direct our love towards our work and away from other people, the more prone we are to mental illness, which is, unsurprisingly, rampant in academia. And it is fast transforming from a side-effect of academic life to a rule of the game. Within the profession, unsustainable competitiveness and conservative academic culture (among others) means we increasingly regard each other as competitors playing a zero-sum game - for jobs, for grants, for prestige. And the more consumed we are by our passions within the profession, the less occasions we have of pursuing them healthily outside it.

Trying to play the game of academia, especially without tenure, runs the risk of reducing our perception of and capacity for love to a notion that is non-relational. I may (and do) love my work, but it cannot love me back, and doesn’t replace those familial and social ties part of whose purpose is to do just that. Even in the most optimistic scenario, expanding our non-relational love at the expanse of its relational counterpart can easily reach an unhealthy equilibrium. And when things don’t turn quite so well, as they most often do, we run the risk of purposefully reducing ourselves to an isolated subject committed, with the full range of one’s emotional capacities, to a single purpose that could never reciprocate the gesture.

In Memory: Tsujita Kyoji

Victor Borge famously said that ‘the shortest distance between two people is a smile’. Tsujita Kyoji, or Kyoji sensei as he was commonly known at the East Asia department of the Hebrew University, taught me that a smile is also the shortest distance between two people who may not necessarily have linguistic symmetry.

Kyoji sensei was my Japanese teacher for four years, during which I, like the rest of his students, quickly grew to love and respect him. He was an incredibly kind individual and a generous and patient teacher. And he was a true mensch, with his gentle sense of humour, his wide smile and that twinkle in his eyes. As a linguist himself, I remember his great enthusiasm and support when he found out that I’m studying Japanese as part of a structural linguistics course. I remember his gentle encouragement to learn Turkish for comparative purposes, and my complete awe at his understanding of Hebrew which of course far surpassed mine.

Kyoji, together with his wife Mariko, who taught Japanese politics at the Hebrew University, opened their home and heart to us on many occasions. It seems to me incomprehensible that he is now gone forever. Whenever I think of or use what I sill remember of my Japanese, my thoughts often go back to him, and to the more profound and subtle lesson that he taught us; that is, that kindness and benevolence can transform even seemingly insurmountable tasks, including the learning of his seemingly impenetrably complex native language, into a gradually and safely realisable process. And that a smile is indeed the shortest distance between two people, in any language and outside it.

Kyoji sensei passed away early in the New Year. May he rest in peace.

The Musical Mitgefühl

I was born into a deeply musical family and, more broadly, a musical kibbutz community. Community sing-alongs, choirs and ensembles were a part of my childhood and adolescent environment that was as natural to me as breathing or walking. This meant that, from a relatively early age, I participated in various musical bodies, first as a choir singer and later as a (mostly) woodwind player.

Now, common music-making, and especially common singing, is a fascinating thing for someone who is interested, as I am, in the intersection of ethics and language. This is because music is, fundamentally, a non-linguistic system of human interrelationability. That is, a set of conventions and practices that enables individuals who may otherwise be complete strangers to one another, and without any kind of a common (natural) language, to share a sense of direction and purpose, and produce a sense of fellow-feeling among them. Not all music, of course, is instrumental, and textual settings can render particular pieces as highly captivating. But tonality seems to play at least as big a role, if not greater, in the production of this kind of momentum of human commonality, precisely because it appeals to our non- (or even pre-) linguistic nature.

There is nothing particularly new or novel about this observation, of course. Herder noted the immediate sense of sympathy associated with the very sound of a language, and Rousseau stressed the importance of music for communicating emotions as part of his idea of virtue as the ‘sublime science of simple souls. More recently, Leonard Bernstein has articulated this notion beautifully in The Infinite Variety of Music, with regard to the emergence - and decline - of atonal music: “[...] we are still earth creatures, still needful of human warmth and the need to communicate among ourselves. For which the Lord be praised. And as long as there is reaching out of one of us to another, there will be the healing comfort of tonal response.” (p. 13)

This unmediated fellow-feeling generated by joint music-making may, of course, be easily abused, precisely because of its intuitive nature. The tonality of military music, folksongs and national anthems are easily manipulatable in the service of adverse purposes. When misused, music can be an incredibly powerful force that transforms unmediated and often intuitive fellow-feeling into an instrument of group violence. But when used for good, the intuitive compassion generated by joint music-making can be a powerful tool for creating good will and a sense of commonality among otherwise estranged individuals. It may not in itself eliminate away social and political tensions; but it seems like a good way of creating the ‘circumstances of benevolence’ that just might.

The Diverse Ethnomusicology of Hanukkah

Just as Hanukkah sometimes feels like the less-glorious and sparkly version of Christmas, Hanukkah songs sometimes feel like a second-best to the magnificence of the Christmas carols (e.g. ‘Joy to the World’, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, ‘The Truth from Above’) and other seasonal works such as the Messiah or the Christmas Oratorio. This might also partially account for the strong popularity of Maoz Tsur (‘My Refuge, My Rock’), whose melody and harmony seem to originate at least partially from a 16th century German carol, among both Israeli and Diaspora Jews. However, as is often the case with Israeli ethnomusicology, it is incredibly diverse. The repertoire of Hanukkah songs spans a 15th century English round (‘Mi Yemalel’, ‘Who can Retell’), a German carol (‘Maoz Tsur’), an extract from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus (‘Hine Hu Ba’, ‘Here He Comes’), Hassidic tunes (e.g. ‘Simu Shemen’, ‘Pour Oil’), local kibbutz traditions (e.g. ‘Omed Kol Ner’, ‘Each Candle Stands’), and many, many others. So, while perhaps not scoring the highest on musical grandeur, it still is pretty impressive as far as its ethnomusicological plurality is concerned.

(Note: the linked recordings are part of the ‘Zemereshet’ - ‘web-singing’ - project, aimed at the documentation of pre-1948 Israeli songs that are potentially in danger of being lost or forgotten. It contains to date approximately 3000 songs, including details of their composers, lyricists, notable performers and recordings, geographical origins and cultural history. Anyone interested in contributing to this important project is encouraged to contact the project team).

The Foucauldian Game of Academic Boycotting

Recent months have seen a renewed interest among academics in the question of academic boycotting, particularly with regard to the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) lead by the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. The rationale that underpins these efforts seems to be that a worldwide isolation of the State of Israel would eventually lead to a change of its policies towards the Palestinian people, which are deemed by BDS activists as oppressive and discriminatory. Israeli academy, according to that view, is implicated in the continual oppression of the Palestinian people and occupation of its land, and is therefore a justified target of an academic boycott.

The topic of boycotting in general has received thus far little attention if at all in moral and political philosophy, a surprising fact that makes it somewhat more difficult to engage with the ethics of boycotting in a more fine-grained way. The ethics of academic boycotting seems to be even more under-theorised, which is pretty striking considering the recent widespread support among academics for boycotting UIUC in the wake of the Salaita affair. The issue is clearly a complex one, and I have no intention of providing here any kind of an exhaustive account of the various difficulties that it raises (e.g. compatibility with academic freedom, collateral damage, the causal chain). What I intend to do here, however, is to raise a point that seems to have attracted little consideration or awareness, which is the incredibly mercurial nature of academic boycotting.

What does academic boycotting mean, precisely, in practice? The answer seems surprisingly vague. During the height of the Salaita affair, for example, it became very clear that, institutionally-codified statements aside, different individuals have very different ideas of what academic boycotting actually means, and what kind of practices they choose to include in it. Some refused to serve as examiners of UIUC thesis, while others did not. Some refused to write letters of references for UIUC student and junior faculty, while some argued that this would constitute an unjust collateral damage. Some wondered aloud whether they should refuse to review manuscripts written by UIUC faculty, or collaborate with UIUC faculty. It therefore became very clear that taking part in the boycott effectively meant very different things to many individuals, bundled together under the general umbrella of ‘boycotting UIUC’. In other words, there suddenly was a new game in town, with little attention given to the fact that its rules were in fact incredibly vague and far from being transparent in any way.

In ‘The Lonely Politics of Michel Foucault’ (in The Company of Critics), Walzer mentions that Foucault ‘doesn’t play chess, or any other game whose rules the rest of us might know’ (p. 192). The mercurial nature of academic boycotting seems to follow a similar pattern, which forces boycotted academics – often through no fault of their own – to play a game whose rules they don’t know and often have no easy way of finding out. Since every boycotter is free to interpret the boycott as they see fit, the rules of the boycotting game as a whole are almost entirely individual-based. Some won’t review manuscripts or grant applications submitted by a boycotted individual; others won’t accept his or her students for graduate or postdoctoral work; some would refuse to collaborate with a boycotted person, consult his or her work, or host them as academic visitors. Boycotted individuals, in other words, became all of a sudden the target of a set of rules that seemed unclear if not downright arbitrary.

Although my point here is a general one, my interest in this particular debate has an obvious personal angle. As an Israeli with a degree from an Israeli university I have been on the receiving end of such individual-based mercurial interpretations a number of times, purely on the basis of my nationality and with little or no regard to my own moral views. In other words, I was given no choice whether to become a ‘stakeholder’, so to speak, in this debate or not, being coerced by others to play a game whose rules were never properly clarified at any stage. Here are some of my own experiences during the past couple of years:

Some boycotters would consider me a non-expiring target, due to my country of origin and educational background. In the eyes of others, I would be considered ‘legit’ as I am not presently affiliated with an Israeli institution. Some would consult my work, but refuse to collaborate. Others would agree to collaborate but reject me as a campus visitor. Others would be inclined to make special dispensation for projects co-led with non-Israeli nationals, so as not to penalise them. In each of these cases, the precise boycotting practice would mostly not be disclosed from the outset, requiring a careful and patient piecing together on my part of what each interlocutor would define as their own boycotting practices. In some cases it has been made clear that my boycotting interlocutors were seeing themselves as granting me some kind of an exceptional privilege by agreeing to interact with me at all, and some have indeed revoked it at a later point. To date, however, I still struggle to comprehend how exactly this sentiment is compatible with the most basic principles of academic freedom and collegiality.

To be clear, the purpose of this post is not to dismiss academic boycotts as such, although I personally struggle to come up with a sufficiently compelling moral and practical argument for those. Rather, my goal here is to point out that conceptually-vague boycotts force boycotted individuals to play a game that they did not choose to play, whose rules they do not know, and which they don’t always have a straightforward way of finding out. Forcing an effectively arbitrary set of rules on individuals seems to me to stand in complete opposition to moral philosophy as a profession and a vocation. One obvious way of remedying this situation would be for boycotters to be more - rather than less - outspoken, openly declaring not only their support but also what precisely does it amount to in practice. If anything, an open disclosure would better serve their cause by making it more visible and concrete. So, if there is indeed a compelling argument for academic boycotting, then making it less of a Foucauldian game seems like a better way to advance it.

If I forget Thee, Jerusalem

"I’ve come back to this city where names
are given to distances as if to human beings
and the numbers are not of bus-routes
but: 70 after, 1917, 500
B.C., Forty-Eight. These are the lines you really travel on.
A man who comes back to Jerusalem is aware that the places
that used to hurt don’t hurt any more.
But a light warning remains in everything,
like the movement of a light veil: warning."
(Jerusalem 1967: II)

Yehuda Amichai’s Poems of Jerusalem is probably the best guidebook to the beautiful, complex and deeply troubled city of Jerusalem as I remember it. It doesn’t offer much in the way of where to eat, sleep or shop. But it provides an intricate and profoundly humane x-ray of the ‘Venice of God’, where religions, cultures and languages endlessly evolve and intermingle, each with its own baggage of hopes, delusions, realizations and fears. And the more one reads through it, the more they understand that the soundtrack of Jerusalem is that of irreducible frictions and tensions bound together by the forces of history and memory.

"Jerusalem is built on the vaulted foundations
of a held-back scream. If there were no reason
for the scream, the foundations would crumble, the city would collapse;
if the scream were screamed, Jerusalem would explode into the heavens."
(Jerusalem 1967: XIX)

Recent events suggest that too many people with too much political power on all sides fail to comprehend Amichai’s gentle warning on the fragile equilibrium that prevents Jerusalem from either crumbling or exploding. Those people would gladly see the scream being screamed, and the city exploding into the heavens which they consider their to be own exclusive domain. These are the merchants of the Venice of God, Jews and Arabs alike, united in a common destructive purpose and indifferent towards the many pounds of flesh already claimed by their cynical game. Their path to redemption is paved with the sorrowful lamentations of those who have mourned Jerusalem’s dire in previous times of turbulence.

Calvin, Hobbes and Mental Health in Academia

Depression is a toxic soup made out of poisonous ingredients: sadness, despair, hopelessness, worthlessness and guilt, stewing together over long periods of time. For some, this emotional soup takes the form of a chaotic mix that wreaks havoc on their body and mind. For others still, this turbulent soup generates a clear realisation that they are not destined for happiness. Since all life has to offer is never-ending pain and sadness, the reasoning goes, what is the point of continuing to live? In some cases, that clear realisation sometimes translates into a small voice with a single and sinister message that says: ‘you do not deserve to live.’

The impossibility of a life that is not full of interminable pain, as is the feeling of not deserving to live, is a bleak conclusion, and one that is surprisingly hard to refute even when one’s profession involves working on a daily basis with the fundamental idea of equal respect for all individuals and their equal moral worth and dignity. This, however, often seems like the only logical conclusion in a professional world in which depression teams up with the impostor syndrome, one of academia’s most permanent features and least favourite ghosts.

Impostor syndrome, for those fortunate enough never to have experienced it, is that deeply seated conviction that one is a fraud and will soon be unmasked as such. Accomplishments are attributed to pure luck, timing or deception, rather than to genuine competency, skill and expertise. Self-perceived ‘fakers’ - being women, highly educated and in a high-level position serve all as risk factors - live with unrelenting feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and guilt. Where things get really ugly, however, is when the impostor syndrome joins hands with depression, within the ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short-’ (or sometimes long-) term realities of today’s academic job market.

Depression tells you that ‘there is no happiness in this world for you’ or even that ‘you do not deserve to live’. The impostor syndrome tells you that ‘you are a fraud’. And in today’s academic world, this ugly marriage between the two actually makes a perfect, if twisted, sense. Every unsuccessful grant or job application, every rejected manuscript, every negative teaching evaluation – all work together as a a kind of an accumulating database of empirical evidence showing that one is, truly and genuinely, incapable and unworthy of being an academic, and, at a deeper level, of being. The academic vocation often constitutes a huge part of one’s sense of identity and agency in the world. The logical leap from ‘the professional self’ to ‘the self’ is therefore pretty much irresistible.

Academic Calvinism’ in a Hobbesian reality is playing with fire. The tendency in academic culture to regard mental illness as ‘weakness of the (moral) will’ leaves too many people with burns, too often serious ones, and sometimes even terminal ones. It doesn’t result in better research, teaching or collegiality. The underlying logic of this system, financial and otherwise, seems to be working very hard to affirm the twisted logic of a depressed individual struggling with an impostor syndrome, which equates success with moral worth. It seems implausible that such a twisted and self-defeating reasoning could fuel academia for too long. It also seems like an open betrayal of the very principles that it claims to be standing for.

Methodological Bashing as a Nihilistic Endeavor

Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind is one of my all-time favourites. The film, recounting (with some artistic license) the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial as a commentary on the McCarthy era, immediately struck a chord with me from the very first viewing. Having made some often unpopular and sometimes much-criticised choices in my life, owing to my moral beliefs and intellectual tendencies, means that it was very easy for the film’s take-home message on the importance of free and independent thinking to resonate with me. One line in particular has stuck with me so much that I keep going back to it when, every so often, my resolution is tested. This is the line spoken by Cates’ lawyer, Drummond (the magnificent Spencer Tracey), in response to his client’s increasing self-doubts:

“I know what Bert is going through. It's the loneliest feeling in the world. It's like walking down an empty street listening to your own footsteps. But all you have to do is to knock on any door and say: ‘if you'll let me in, I'll live the way you want me to live, and I'll think the way you want me to think.’ And all the blinds'll go up, all the doors'll open, and you'll never be lonely ever again.”

The importance of independent thinking, however, is not the only major point that Inherit the Wind sets out to make, even if it is the primary one. A much more subtle point, but no less significant in my eyes, is made in the very last scene, in the wake of the trial in which Cates – although found guilty – is sentenced to pay only a very small fine. With the liberal ‘right to think’ having won the trial, Drummond is finally having it with the smug and self-indulgent cynicism of the reporting journalist Hornbeck. “You know, Hornbeck, I'm getting damned sick of you” he says. “You never pushed a noun against a verb except to blow up something”. Hornbeck tries to deflect Drummond’s criticism, but is faced with the following question(s), which leaves him (temporary) out of his usual quick and witty retort:

“You're like a ghost pointing an empty sleeve, smirking at everything that people feel or want or struggle for. I Pity you […]. Isn't there anything? What touches you? What warms you? Every man has a dream. What do you dream about? What do you need? You don't need anything, do you? People, love, an idea just to cling to? You poor slob. You're all alone. When you go to your grave there won't be anybody to pull the grass over your head. Nobody to mourn you, nobody to give a damn.”

Free, independent thinking, in other words, is not synonymous or interchangeable with self-indulgent bashing for it’s own sake. A methodological shoot-down is not so much about seeking a better world as it is about advancing nihilism – the moral view according to which all values are baseless, that there exists nothing to believe in, and no loyalties or purposes other than the urge to destroy. The danger of ‘inheriting the wind’, that final and very insightful scene suggests, is not particular to any kind of belief system along anywhere on the ideological spectrum - religious, conservative, liberal or otherwise. This is one of the things that make this film so much more than an ideological pamphlet, and one of the reasons why it’s so great.

On Academic In-di

Interdisciplinarity (“in-di”*) is the multiculturalism of academia. That is, it is the kind of a diversity-related buzzword which has a significant rhetorical power that is in direct tension with its actual practices. In-di research, like multiculturalism, might be “celebrated” (whatever that means) in academia, but its realities are much trickier and often a lot less straightforward, comfortable or forgiving in comparison with research that is more wholly contained within the recognized borders of an existing traditional discipline.

This is the case, I think, because in-di research raises the same kind of identity issues generated by life in a multicultural reality: who am I, and where do I belong? In-di researchers are often faced with uneasy questions regarding the most basic building blocks of their work (e.g. what makes a good research question, and how are hypotheses to be tested?), intellectual community (which societies should I belong to? Which journals should I focus on? Where should I apply for funding?), employment options (which departments will understand the importance of what I do, without seeing me as an outsider?), and many others. This seems to be particularly the case in an age in which more simplistic metrics, such as disciplinary journal ranking and formal suitability to teach introductory undergraduate courses, are being increasingly used in hiring and promotion decisions.

In less general terms, my own case is a pretty good example of just that. I double-majored in political science and linguistics, specializing in political philosophy which was also the field of my DPhil. My postdoc institutions were (primarily) philosophy departments. My main work connects ethics, power and language in several different permutations which are not always easily or even properly identified as interconnected in any way (e.g. language policy and political epistemology). The upshot of this epistemic compound is that I do not fit too easily into existing institutionalized knowledge structures. Publishing in top journals in one of my disciplines is most often invisible or meaningless in the eyes of the others (ironically, my highest impact factor publication to date was in neither of my core disciplines**).

So, it means that I routinely move between intellectual communities (conferences, societies, journals) and epistemic frameworks - a wonderfully enriching and stimulating practice that is in fact much more conducive to creative and original work. But it also means that there are very few places where I feel at home, because life as what Burt called a “structural hole” means that it is harder for non in-di researchers to “get” who I am and what I do. I am sometimes perceived as not enough of a philosopher for some in philosophy, a pseudo political scientist for some in poli-sci, and a faux linguist in the eyes of some linguists My epistemic loyalties, in a sense, are often perceived as divided. This is not the kind of peer-perception that makes one’s life particularly easy in the current academic world, which is becoming increasingly reliant on formal standardized metrics that tend to disadvantage in-di research.

The problem with the kind of epistemic “Westphalian” thinking, however, is that it stifles important and groundbreaking work. Imagine a world in which it would be inconceivable to have fields such as economic history or biochemistry, simply because their intrinsic epistemic messiness is perceived as a threat to a static and institutionalized equilibrium of who’s doing what. A Westphalian approach to knowledge conflates the crucial distinction between an idea (or a thought, intuition, insight or observation) and the way(s) in which we are used to think about it. Ideas, of course, always come from somewhere, and disciplinary biographies certainly play an important role in that regard. But it does not mean, however, that they must always go (that is, be formulated and tested) in the same way. If they do, then we are no longer doing research, but rather simply playing out a script that has been written by others and upon which we have little influence. This practice may have many names, but “science” (in the sense of Wissenschaft, i.e. a systematic and dynamic inquiry) probably isn’t one of them.

* Having been “raised” in more than one academic discipline, most of my work is interdisciplinary by nature. However, having to use that word repeatedly in talks can be a true verbal torture. So, the solution that I found several years ago is to abbreviate “in-ter-di-scip-li-na-ri-ty” to “in-di”, which is much kinder on one’s productive flow of speech during oral presentations. It also makes a nice homophone with “indie” (e.g. in art, music, design) while sharing its spirit of independence and creativity, which is practically a prerequisite in good in-di research.

** IF 31.477, to be precise. The irony still makes me smile sometimes.

Special Issue Finally in Print

After almost two years in the making, our special issue of Language Policy, co-edited with Tom Ricento and Peter Ives, on language policy and political theory is finally out and in print (vol. 13:4). Contributors include Daniel Weinstock (“The Complex Foundations of Language Policy”), Stephen May (“Contesting Public Monolingualism and Diglossia: Rethinking Political Theory and Language Policy for a Multilingual World”), Ronald Schmidt Sr. (“Democratic Theory and the Challenge of Linguistic Diversity”), Tom Ricento (“Thinking about Language: What Political Theorists Need to Know about Language”), Peter Ives (“De-politicizing Language: Obstacles to Political Theory’s Engagement with Language Policy”) and myself (“Normative Language Policy: Interface and Interfences”). Also included are an introduction to the thematic issue and a book review of Van Parijs’ 2011 Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World. Overall, it is a very nice feeling seeing this project finally coming to fruition, and hoping that it will indeed achieve the intended impact on the field.

At the same time, however, it is still frustrating that despite recent progress made in the emerging area of normative language policy, and language ethics more generally (that is, ethical questions beyond the relatively narrow notion of linguistic justice), there still seems to be relatively little work in what is a topic of pivotal importance to most, if not all, contemporary political debates, such as nationalism, multiculturalism, immigration, democracy and difference etc. It has been over 10 years now since Kymlicka and Patten’s Language Rights and Political Theory, and 3 years since Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World. Encouragingly, many important, insightful and interesting contributions (workshops, articles, special issues, monographs) are now underway by an increasing number of researchers in widening circles, working to link normative political theory and language in a number of ways (e.g. normative language policy, intellectual history of language, cross-linguistic political epistemology). Let us hope that the picture will be sufficiently different when we next take stock 10 years from now.

Il va neiger and the Limits of Language

Since I work in political philosophy and linguistics, I get to think routinely and intensively about language - how it works (semantics, pragmatics, syntax, semiotics), how we make it work (policy, politics, ideology), and also, in a sense, how it ends up ‘working us’ in return (epistemology, ontology, ethics). This is the most fascinating field of research that I can think of, even if it can - and indeed does - generate instances of severe cognitive overload every so often.

In recent years, however, I have become more and more interested in the question of the limits of language; that is, those places, times and occurrences in which language breaks down, functions in a imperfect way, or is almost entirely absent. Extreme emotional states are a useful example of such breaking points – those very happy or very sad situations in which we feel that we have ‘no words’ to describe how we feel. It is usually then that we become much more aware of how fundamentally reliant we are on linguistic interactions in making sense of our world and our selves. Taking a closer look at those places in which language is not so obvious or even useable reveals many interesting insights about the linguistic/nonlinguistic interface that is so elemental to the human condition.

Francis Jammes’ il va neiger (‘It Is Going to Snow’) is one of the most incisive and thoughtful poems to trace, with great gentleness and care, that very delicate threshold between the linguistic and the nonlinguistic, and its connection with human relationality. Its tone of introspective sadness always resonates something very deep within me, so deep and primal that I’m not even sure what to call it. But, then again, that is precisely the point.

Il va neiger... (1893)

À Léopold Bauby

Il va neiger dans quelques jours. Je me souviens
de l’an dernier. Je me souviens de mes tristesses
au coin du feu. Si l’on m’avait demandé: qu’est-ce?
j’aurais dit: laissez-moi tranquille. Ce n’est rien.

J’ai bien réfléchi, l’année avant, dans ma chambre,
pendant que la neige lourde tombait dehors.
J’ai réfléchi pour rien. À présent comme alors
je fume une pipe en bois avec un bout d’ambre.

Ma vieille commode en chêne sent toujours bon.
Mais moi j’étais bête parce que tant de choses
ne pouvaient pas changer et que c’est une pose
de vouloir chasser les choses que nous savons.

Pourquoi donc pensons-nous et parlons-nous?
c’est drôle; nos larmes et nos baisers, eux, ne parlent pas,
et cependant nous les comprenons, et les pas
d’un ami sont plus doux que de douces paroles.

On a baptisé les étoiles sans penser
qu’elles n’avaient pas besoin de nom, et les nombres,
qui prouvent que les belles comètes dans l’ombre
passeront, ne les forceront pas à passer.

Et maintenant même, où sont mes vieilles tristesses
de l’an dernier? À peine si je m’en souviens.
Je dirais : Laissez-moi tranquille, ce n’est rien,
si dans ma chambre on venait me demander: qu’est-ce?

It Is Going to Snow... (1893)

(trans. hincentinde)

It shall snow in a few days. I remember
The previous year. I remember my sorrows
Beside the fire. If someone had asked me ”What is it?”
I’d have said, “Let me be. It’s nothing.”

I thought at length, last year, in my room,
While the heavy snow fell outside.
I thought for naught. Now, as then,
I smoke a wooden pipe with an amber mouthpiece.

My old oak chest-of-drawers still smells good.
But I myself was foolish, because so many things
Could not change, and it’s folly
To want to drive away the things we know.

Why then do we think and speak? It’s curious;
Our tears and our kisses, they don’t speak,
And yet we understand them, and the footsteps
Of a friend are sweeter than sweet words.

We’ve christened the stars without considering
That they had no need of a name, and the numbers,
Which prove that the beautiful comets will pass
On into the shadow, will not make them  pass on.

And even now, where are my old sorrows
Of last year? I scarcely remember them.
I’d say, “Let me be. It’s nothing,”
if someone came into my room to ask me, “What is it?”

Throw Momma under the Trolley?

The fact that philosophy is a men-dominated field often comes as a surprise during some conversations I sometimes have with non-philosophers and non-academics in general. While many are aware that women are underrepresented in the STEM subjects, it seems somehow to be presupposed that the social sciences and the humanities have reached at the very least a representative ratio as far as gender is considered. This is, however, very far from being the case, particularly in philosophy (which is sometimes referred to as “the academic equivalent of boxing”), as well as history and economics. To learn a bit more about women’s experiences in academic philosophy, have a look at this dedicated and very insightful blog.

The problem of gender underrepresentation in academic philosophy, however, is not reducible to issues of sexism in pedagogy and the workplace (which are of course very serious in themselves). It also seems to have a more direct and serious impact on the discipline itself and the work that it produces. In a relatively recent paper on gender and philosophical intuitions (which, among other things, raises important questions concerning philosophical pedagogy), Buckwalter and Stitch cite a 2009 paper in Philosophical Issues by Zamzow and Nichols reporting gender differences in response to the trolley problem. In Zamzow and Nichols‘ research, participants were asked the following question:

“You are taking your daily walk near the train tracks and you notice that the train that is approaching is out of control. You see what has happened: the driver of the train saw five people working on the tracks and slammed on the brakes, but the brakes failed and the driver fainted. The train is now rushing toward the five people. It is moving so fast that they will not be able to get off the track in time. You happen to be standing next to a switch, and you realize that the only way to save the five people on the tracks is to throw the switch, which will turn the train onto a side track, thereby preventing it from killing the five people. However, there is a stranger [or, in the other vignette: a 12-year-old boy] standing on the side track with his back turned, and if you proceed to throw the switch, the five people will be saved, but the person [boy] on the sidetrack will be killed”.

Gender, Zamzow and Nichols found out, matters for moral intuitions in two ways: first, men and women responded differently to the question “is it morally acceptable for me to pull the switch”. Men judged the killing of a stranger as less morally acceptable that women did, but the picture was reversed when the person on the side track was a 12 year old boy. Second, men and women responded differently when the person on the side track was described as a (gendered) sibling: more men than women deemed the killing of one’s brother as morally acceptable, while more women than men deemed the killing of one’s sister as morally acceptable. Interestingly, however, there was no significant difference between men and women respondents when asked what they would do when presented with such a dilemma. The authors also cite further work in experimental philosophy suggesting that men are more likely than women to make utilitarian judgements, and that women tend to make more egalitarian moral judgements.

It is obviously risky to make any kind of hard and binding generalizations based on what still seems to be an overall limited number of studies. But the suggestion that gender has some kind of an effect on moral intuitions seems to necessitate at least some kind of a methodological humility, in the same way that mistaking Anglo English for the linguistic human norm (as Anna Wierzbicka notes in Understanding Cultures through Their Keywords) is a seriously methodologically-flawed conclusion. Throwing momma under the trolley, or making momma the decisionmaker on whom to throw under it, makes a non-insubstantial difference to what we eventually come to recognise - and promote - as a universal human intuition. The more mommas (and grandmothers, sisters, daughters and nieces) we include in the discussion, the better chance we have of eventually reaching at some point anything nearing that degree of universality.

Reading: “In Search of a Lost Ladino”

Marcel Cohen’s In Search of a Lost Ladino: Letter to Antonio Saura is a short but powerfully profound text on the mental anguish of living with (and in) a dying language, and more generally on life with a complex linguistic and cultural identity. It raises very perceptively questions of identity and belonging in historically turbulent times, at the interface between East and West and religion and modernity. It is also a very little-known text, which I think is a great shame. If any of those topics are of interest to you whether professionally or personally, then read it. It won’t take much of your time, and will give you in return much to think about, in a gentle and very insightful way.

Here are some short excerpts from the English translation (published by Ibis). Longer excerpts from the original French are available here. Give it a try if you were ever an immigrant in a new land and a new tongue; if you ever tried to be intimate with a person who does not share your native language; if you can only partially speak with and understand some members of your family; if the future of your culture is not guaranteed; and if you're just interested in a very short but profound text on the (linguistic) human condition.

“You can’t imagine, Antonio, what the death agony of a language is like. You seem to discover yourself alone, in silence. You’re sikileoso (sad) without knowing why”.

“Antonio, to rediscover my words I have to close my eyes, and many expressions come back to me without my quite knowing how. What can I say to you with la yaka – “the cucumber’s ass” (“that doesn’t come to la yaka”, my grandmother used to say), which made us burst into laughter, or with the expression “son of a mamzer” (bastard) and all the things that make you “lose your mind”… Words stampede. They vanish as quickly as they arise. But what else can we expect of them? Really, they only tell us about smells, the distant sweetness of dondurma, of keftikas, of all those home-cooked delicacies. Ultimately, they just reflect nostalgia and the tragedies of the past. As soon as I glimpse them, words escape and die far away, like clouds in the sky.

The mother tongue: that’s what we called what we spoke at home. Will this mother ever die, Antonio? In her, our past grows old; in her, we are completely present to ourselves. And, if words are our true domain, how could they not also be part of our future? How could we imagine that we could one day become mousafires (strangers/visitors) to ourselves in our own tongue? In our deepest beings we know very well that things don’t die, or at least not the feeling that we have for them.

But when, day by day, this language crumbles, Antonio; when, in its death throes, it slowly dilutes in the mabul (flood), and, alone, in your room, you have to close your eyes to exhume a few scraps; when there is no longer anything to read in this tongue and no friends to speak it with; when the woman you live with looks at you like a sick man who is slowly losing away what remains of his sanity, and you feel obliged to forget a little more of yourself; when, staring at her on certain days, the past coming back at you in fits and starts, you feel like a complete stranger, having never really shared a roof with her because an ocean separates the two of you; when, despite all your efforts, you are unable to reveal more than a part of yourself – then, Antonio, you must admit that death speaks through your mouth”.

In the beginning...

There was nothing (except God). Or the Word. Depends on which of the two Testaments one prefers. Although, coming to think of it, “nothing” is a word (as is “God”), so, technically, there might not be an immediate need to pick sides just yet.

This blog has been in the making for some time, partly due to time constraints, and partly due to the intriguing challenge of writing for a broad and (mostly) unknown audience. As is the case with all new things, intentions are much safer to state than predictions. So, in the mythopoeic spirit of the opening Hogfather quote, this blog is intended as an in-progress venue for thoughts, intuitions, ideas and observations on topics that have caught my attention or that are otherwise of particular interest to me. There will be musings on philosophy, politics, linguistics, music and generally on life (plus the universe and everything) in a messy intellectual and social world. But hopefully there will also be much rejoicing, while I make things up as I go along.

(The blog currently does not contain a comments section, mainly due to my limited programming skills. If anyone has an idea how to make iWeb play nicely with a third-party comments provider and is happy to walk me through the installation process, send me a word and I’ll be happy to incorporate it - with due credit to that kind soul).