I find myself siding with the Minotaur…

Here’s Levi on the recent video (see his post here) mocking those who would advise students to learn French and German. Now, it is a bit much to request a student who has advanced to PhD status to learn German. But it’s not a logic of the infinite debt. Perhaps it’s because I came up through DePaul, where we had to graduate with two languages (and I also buffed up my Latin and worked on Greek as well) but I think this is advise I would give to young grad students, and in fact advise I just gave to a graduating student of my own going on to grad school. You won’t be required to read Sanskrit or Spanish as well, but it’s true that I think people who work on certain figures can make some lame mistakes if they don’t know certain languages.

For example, I’ve seen essays on Derrida by people who don’t know German, and it shows when they go through his own riffs on Heidegger or Hegel or someone else. Does that mean they should learn German? No, but I wouldn’t trust their reading if they couldn’t approach Derrida in the original French. When I was on the job market, I had an interview at a school where someone doing ancient philosophy was just then doing Greek—after the PhD, after getting a job.

In some sense, that’s as it should be. My advise to people taking a long time on theIr PhDs: get a job (hopefully!) and let someone else pay you to do research…your painstaking year doing that extra chapter would be rewarded and celebrated (not the stuff of scorn) once you have a job (if there are any left). So, someone using some internal funding to take language classes as a faculty member is good to me. But did that lead me to trust their work? No.

Levi writes, “It never ends and this is because the debate isn’t really about qualifications, but about upsmanship.” No, clearly graduate students who are doing Continental philosophy should know more, not less languages. But, of course, if you’re doing a PhD in an English-speaking country, then the most sought-after skill, though, is your ability to communicate clearly and argue well in English…

Update: To be clear, it’s not Levi’s view that one shouldn’t learn languages or such nonsense. He’s only picking on those who would forever detour students such that they can never get out of some subservient position. On that, he’s absolutely right. I just wanted to use his discussion to discuss the bit about languages in the video itself…


  1. I said this in a comment chez Levi but I’ll say it here too because, you know, I like to see myself talk.

    When one deals with things of any kind, there are certain fundamentals that might be useful. Sometimes it’s language, sometimes it’s other things (I deal with computing, and so engineering is another example.) One ought not to learn as much of one kind of thing as possible, and indeed I do think we became overly-obsessed with languages in the humanities at the expense of other material groundings. What you want to know is this: what types of background knowledge would improve my understanding of my chosen area? Or on the flipside, what sorts of ignorance might hold me back?

    Sometimes German is one of those. But other times it might be sommeliership, or polymer engineering, or color theory, or metallurgy.

  2. Way to entirely miss the point Peter. I’m taalking about pedentry, not whether we should learn languages. I took German, French, and Greek as well. This post really surprises me. You know very well what sort of academic I’m referring to.

  3. Right. I think it’s also clear that sometimes people think learning the language gives them a trump card on a philosopher. (These are mostly young students who endlessly point to the original, just to show they can read it…)

  4. One other point on language. There is a tendency to view learning languages as easy, just requiring work. Problem with learning another language is just someone who shouldn’t be in grad school. This was the view of one of the Heidegger bears (and an actual comment on the first video). Look, learning foreign languages is the hardest thing I’ve had to do for grad school. I’m pretty dyslexic, and couldn’t read freakin’ English until I was in the third grade. When theorists talk about the opacity of language, I want to be like, “no duh.” I don’t have a point here about requirements (I’ve got my competencies in German and French. And I also picked up Italian), but more about certain biases that run in certain parts of the humanities.

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