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Open for Debate

The Ethics of Linguistic Plurality

11 September 2017

A guest post from co-authors Matteo Bonotti (Cardiff University) and Yael Peled (McGill University)

How we think about language tends to significantly influence, if not shape, how we think about the political ethics of language, namely how we theorize language when considering the empirical and normative dimensions of political life. In the history of ideas, approaches to language, and, consequently, to linguistic agency, generally fall under either the “designative” or “constitutive” category (Taylor 2016).

The former perceives language as a logos-based system of labels that are detached from the life and experience of the speaker, and which are employed to represent, order and understand a reality that pre-exists and is independent from them. The latter, by contrast, identifies language as a socially-embedded dialogic and interactive process, and is normally premised on the idea of linguistic holism. This is the view that different languages provide a distinctly comprehensive system of meaning through which co-linguals jointly perceive and experience the world. But the holistic label can also be extended to the designative category in certain cases, especially when it is grounded in a perception that considers ontological monolingualism (Schmidt 2014) to be a natural state of individuals and societies.

In our project we set out to challenge the premise of ontological monolingualism that underlies, overtly or covertly, much of the current debates on political ethics in societies characterized by linguistic plurality, societal and individual alike. More specifically, we propose that in a linguistically-messy world, both nationally and supra-nationally, the premise of ontological monolingualism, and the epistemic holism it presupposes, are no longer an adequate basis for theorizing moral and political agency in language. Or, in other words, that prevailing concepts of the political ethics of language, such as those underpinning much of the contemporary linguistic justice debate (De Schutter and Robichaud 2016), are often based on a monolingual experience of the world. But, for an increasingly large number of individuals, a monolingual experience of the world is essentially impossible, owing to factors such as the existence of a different heritage language, an international professional environment, or the experience of migration. The ordinary rather than extraordinary nature of a multilingual experience of the world suggests the need to reconsider prevailing approaches to language and linguistic agency in contemporary moral and political philosophy.

We therefore consider it necessary to explore, map and examine the experience of living in (and with) multiple languages, specifically in the context of political life and as part of linguistically-diverse political communities, in which language barriers (of various types and degrees) are an unavoidable fact of political life. What does it mean, for example, to be a multilingual citizen and political actor in a (supposedly) monolingual democratic political community? In what ways (if any) ought political institutions (e.g. education, healthcare) and public life to be reshaped so as to better represent, reflect and respond to the multilingual experiences of increasingly large parts of the citizenry? Our goal is to provide an ethically-nuanced and empirically-grounded framework for theorizing democratic political agency that transpires from an experience of intrapersonal and interpersonal linguistic plurality. The recognition of this plurality in democratic theory and practice, we propose, is imperative for realizing the democratic ideals of liberty, equality, inclusivity and mutuality in democratic life. Moreover, it is important for cultivating a sense of language-based “epistemic humility” (Peled forthcoming) among co-citizens who may not be fully co-linguals.

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