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A question regarding Classical Philosophy Programs?


thatsjustsemantics
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Hello everyone,

I tried searching for an answer to this question, but I had little luck. If anyone's aware of a thread on this topic, let me know.

 

Otherwise, here is the context leading up to the question: I am interested in Classical Philosophy, but my college cancelled its classics program (and thus its Greek language courses) a few years prior to my matriculation there. My writing sample involves classical philosophy (Plato's Meno and the Socratic Fallacy), but I don't have any noticeable proficiency in either Greek or Latin. Should I not bother applying for special programs in Ancient Philosophy because I lack a working knowledge of these two languages, and how can I sincerely talk about my interest in classical philosophy when I know no more than the Greek alphabet or a few words in Latin?

 

I am professionally proficient in French, so I am not too worried about satisfying some modern language requirements as well.

 

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I don't know for sure, but I think your situation would be more of a problem if you were intending to apply to Classical Studies programs. As Infinite Zest says, I would start studying right away, and I would also try to show some skills in Greek in your writing sample (maybe translating some passages or discussing syntactic problems in the texts you work on). 

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I'm a classicist, not a philosopher, so I can't comment about your chances with philosophy departments.  Regarding language proficiency, I'll say that Infinite Zest's suggestion sounds rather optimistic.  I'd encourage you to get some language coursework on your transcript with one of the intensive summer courses offered by places like CUNY or Berkeley, but it'll take more than a few months to comfortably read philosophical Greek or Latin prose.

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It's not December yet. I'd start studying... If you spent a few hours a day working on each language, I'm sure you could be able to read texts in both languages by December.

 

As someone who majored in ancient languages including Greek and Latin, I think this is more than optimistic, provided that the student is a fairly typical human being.  (No sarcasm intended at all.  If you're a very special human, perhaps you could be able to read texts in both by December.)  For the rest of us, it's extremely difficult to learn these languages.  For one thing, these languages changed over time.  Are you interested in reading the earliest or the latest Greek philosophy?  There is a ton of vocabulary, and the grammar rules change substantially according to context.  It's absolutely nothing like learning a modern, spoken language.  You could plausibly read two modern, spoken languages by December -- though even that would perhaps require some superpowers.  You're talking about reading philosophy, too, so keep that in mind.

 

To be frank, if I tried to learn these two languages and put together an application, not just to graduate school, but to graduate programs in philosophy -- in the same year -- I would probably die of exhaustion.

 

More realistically, you could do as Petros suggests: take up some formal study of the languages to signal your seriousness in the subjects.  I spoke with a Harvard philosopher of Plato -- that narrows it down! -- and he tells me that not everyone comes to ancient philosophy PhD programs having already learned the languages.  For what it's worth, he did tell me that knowledge of the languages sets an applicant apart from the rest of the pool.  (Presumably the rest of the pool generally hasn't learned the languages.)

 

I say all of the above with all due respect to InfiniteZest.  Perhaps InfiniteZest is a very quick study or has only experience in modern, spoken languages. [Edit: The thought just occurred to me that InfiniteZest could have been trolling all of us, in which case I say, well played!]

Edited by ianfaircloud
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I second Petros. I don't think it would be the best use of your time to try to teach yourself Greek and Latin- Greek especially isn't a language that can be self-taught to a significant degree of proficiency. A summer intensive can help you demonstrate your interest for sure- though I wouldn't necessarily count on one to get you towards enough proficiency to translate in your writing sample. That being said, most programs like you describe have pretty specific language proficiency requirements. If you find good programs whose requirements aren't so strict, go for it. Otherwise I don't think you'd have a problem applying to general philosophy programs without Greek/Latin proficiency while listing ancient philosophy as your AOI. Happily a good number of philosophy programs have strengths in Ancient philosophy without compartmentalizing it into its own department. 

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Hello everyone,

I appreciate all the responses. I believe that aiming to learn both Attic Greek and Latin  would not be a good use of my time during my gap year. I would prefer to be updated in some of the literature in Hellenistic philosophy instead. 

As ianfaircloud confirms, I am worried that my area of interest in Greek and Latin philosophy will lack some significance in comparison to other applicants who have devoted an impressive amount of time toward learning the language and the literature during their studies. In any case, I will list it as an area of interest and try my best to come off as sincere in that respect.

It is assuring that many students who do come to specialize in classical philosophy did not always have a wealth of experience in classical languages in the first place.

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As ianfaircloud confirms, I am worried that my area of interest in Greek and Latin philosophy will lack some significance in comparison to other applicants who have devoted an impressive amount of time toward learning the language and the literature during their studies. In any case, I will list it as an area of interest and try my best to come off as sincere in that respect.

 

I just want to offer a minor point of clarification, though I'm not sure the point will make a difference in your final conclusion. I get the sense that not too many applicants have devoted an impressive amount of time toward the languages. My sense is that the few who have, have an advantage over the many who don't. My sense is that some people are admitted without impressive knowledge in this area. I think some applicants are able to demonstrate their seriousness by dropping some time and money into a few courses in the area. At the very least, some applicants may at least be able to say that they've engaged in some private, personal study of the languages. (I only offer this because I don't want to scare anyone away from ancient Greek philosophy. There are advantages to pursuing it as an AOI. One, it's interesting and interdisciplinary. Two, the job market is generally a bit friendlier to those who specialize in ancient. Three, there generally isn't quite as much competition for these spots in the PhD programs.) edited for grammar

Edited by ianfaircloud
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So I should clarify my point. I think you could read some text in Greek and Latin by December. Not necessarily philosophical texts, but I'm sure you could have some reading knowledge by then. I picked up some reading knowledge of Latin in a semester, and it wasn't a big time commitment. I think what's important here is that you'll have an advantage over other candidates if you've studied some Latin and some Greek.

 

After a season of graduate applications, I think you need every edge you can get. I think this is particularly true when it comes to these more specialized programs (i.e. classical philosophy, HPS programs, and so on).

Edited by Infinite Zest
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As ianfaircloud confirms, I am worried that my area of interest in Greek and Latin philosophy will lack some significance in comparison to other applicants who have devoted an impressive amount of time toward learning the language and the literature during their studies. In any case, I will list it as an area of interest and try my best to come off as sincere in that respect.

 

With the utmost respect, sincerity means little to an admissions committee. However, you have some real evidence if you've actually started studying these languages or audited a class or two.

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I think what's important here is that you'll have an advantage over other candidates if you've studied some Latin and some Greek.

 

Again, speaking as a classicist, I wonder how much of an advantage self-study (which is what you seemed to be suggesting) would actually confer.  For classics departments, I can say that self-study doesn't count for anything: adcoms want to see graded coursework on the transcript.  For philosophy departments, I don't know.

 

Edit: And for someone like the OP, it’s worth noting that there are really two questions.  The first is about the language experience necessary to get into a program.  The second is what kind of language training, and how much, should one acquire in order to handle Greek and Latin texts competently in a PhD program and beyond.  Someone serious about ancient philosophy who has no language training might consider a classics post-bac in addition to some summer intensives.

Edited by Petros
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I feel like a lot of people are picking up on some interesting questions, but not the right one. In the absence of Attic Greek or Latin courses in my transcript, how much signifiance will the statement "I studied Greek/Latin by myself for x amount of time" in my personal statement be? There is little evidence that I did intensive work, and how are they to know that I am not lying? They might be charitable in that respect, but in order to set me apart from candidates who don't state that they know either Greek or Latin, I'd have to give some kind of measurable evidence.

Petros picks this up when he/she writes "adcoms want to see graded work" etc. As for a classics post-bac, Petros, do you know of any classics programs with strong faculty in Plato, Aristotle, and Hellenistic philosophy especially? There are very few ancient philosophy MA programs, with only Western Ontario U. coming to mind.

 

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The alternative to graded coursework is having one or more of your letter writers testify to your competence, or efforts to gain competence, in those languages. It's especially helpful if one of your letter writers does ancient philosophy.

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 There are very few ancient philosophy MA programs, with only Western Ontario U. coming to mind.

 

Georgia State has faculty working in ancient, and students have the opportunity to take Greek at Emory for free. That's a pretty good deal I think for those so inclined. Of course, I wouldn't call it an "ancient philosophy MA." 

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Georgia State has faculty working in ancient, and students have the opportunity to take Greek at Emory for free. That's a pretty good deal I think for those so inclined. Of course, I wouldn't call it an "ancient philosophy MA." 

Yeah, this sounds fantastic. I know O'Keefe works on Hellenistic stuff, but is there anyone else I'm not picking up on? I didn't know about the Emory thing; I think that sounds fantastic.

 

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Yeah, this sounds fantastic. I know O'Keefe works on Hellenistic stuff, but is there anyone else I'm not picking up on? I didn't know about the Emory thing; I think that sounds fantastic.

 

Dr. Berry also does the Greeks, though her main interest is Nietzsche (including Nietzsche on the Greeks). 

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On masters programs: Toronto also has the CPAMP (Collaborative Program in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy), which would enable you to get a ton of experience in ancient while earning your MA.

Two thoughts on the question more generally:

1) I'd suggest deciding on some specific ancient phil programs in which you would be interested, and then looking at the specific requirements they post on their websites. A lot of ancient philosophy programs don't actually require you to have much experience at all in the languages when you start the degree.

2) What does your financial situation look like? Each summer, CUNY runs what amounts to Latin/Greek boot camp (http://www.gc.cuny.edu/Page-Elements/Academics-Research-Centers-Initiatives/Centers-and-Institutes/Latin-Greek-Institute). It's quite expensive, but I've heard that people leave the program with a genuine working knowledge (basic, but working) of the language they've studied. You really could have a good handle on either Greek or Latin by the time you applied in December, if you did this program.

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An anecdote that's not precisely on point, but hopefully helpful: There was a point in time at which I was considering studying art history and specializing in Byzantine & Early Christian art. I had no background in Greek, and was greatly concerned that this would sink my application from the get-go-- I went to a professor who specializes in Byzantine art to express this concern. Her response: 'They'll be so excited you want to study Byzantine art they won't give a damn if you have any Greek to start. That's how I got here.' You can go into graduate programs that will eventually require knowledge of ancient Greek without having it to start.

 

There are probably a great proportion of people who want to do ancient philosophy than people who want to do Byzantine art who have background in Greek, but I don't think it's unreasonable to present yourself as an applicant without any Greek-- as long as you can tell some story about how you developed a strong interest in ancient Greek philosophy. Not everybody has the opportunity to study ancient Greek in college at this point. (The Latin might be a bit stickier-- I'd suggest, for someone looking into a summer course in a similar situation, to do a course in Latin so you've got *something* going in.) But you've got a perfectly coherent reason for not having any Latin or Greek. Not an ideal situation, but a decent admissions committee shouldn't penalize you for it. 

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Flybottle makes a good point.  At the risk of appearing tendentious, however, I'll reiterate that the question is not only "how much Greek do I need to get in?" but "how much Greek do I need to do good work in a PhD program and beyond?"  Someone who starts Greek from scratch as a first-year PhD student won't be able to use Greek for a couple of years at least (reading a page of the Apology per hour and checking every sentence against a translation doesn't count).  This is not to discourage the OP, and again, I'm speaking from a language proficiency perspective, not from a philosophy admissions perspective.

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Flybottle makes a good point.  At the risk of appearing tendentious, however, I'll reiterate that the question is not only "how much Greek do I need to get in?" but "how much Greek do I need to do good work in a PhD program and beyond?"  Someone who starts Greek from scratch as a first-year PhD student won't be able to use Greek for a couple of years at least (reading a page of the Apology per hour and checking every sentence against a translation doesn't count).  This is not to discourage the OP, and again, I'm speaking from a language proficiency perspective, not from a philosophy admissions perspective.

Petros is really on point here. It's taken me most of my undergrad to arrive at a reasonable level of proficiency in both languages - you'll likely move at a quicker pace in a graduate program, but even then, you likely won't really be at the point of being able to independently read either language with any degree of fluency until two or three years into your degree. And that would be a major hindrance. 

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