A friend of mine recently told me about Dr. Teresa Blankmeyer Burke, the first deaf woman ever to receive a PhD in Philosophy in 2011, from the University of New Mexico. I was initially surprised that it was so recent, but my friend put a very concise point on it, asking: “How do you talk about Heidegger in sign language?” Talking about Heidegger requires myriad of spoken languages; even a combination of English, German, and Greek is often inadequate, prompting scholars to invent new terminology as they work through ideas. And this is true for work on any philosopher.
When it comes to philosophy as an academic discipline, American Sign Language is still rather young in its development, leaving many interpreters with the arduous task of spelling out some terms in their entirety or even skipping over them completely when there isn’t a suitable sign in the existing vernacular. Dr. Burke is quoted by the University of New Mexico Newsroom site back in 2011 as saying:
“As one of two signing Deaf philosophers in the country, the critical mass for language development of these terms was not there,” Burke said. Resorting to fingerspelling these terms causes the interpreter to fall behind. “Adding signs for common philosophical terms was imperative for me to keep up with the discussion.”
In addition to doing what all philosophy PhDs have to do – taking classes, teaching, writing a dissertation, learning languages, etc. – she sought ways to work with the ASL community to develop brand new signs to cover philosophical terminology and philosopher’s names, as well as creating lists of terms borrowed from other signed languages (the article linked above cites her use of Greek Sign Language for talking about Plato and Aristotle). Dr. Burke’s faculty page at Gallaudet University’s site explains it further, saying:
Given that American Sign Language is a relatively new language used by few formally trained philosophers, the philosophical lexicon in ASL is quite small. One of Burke’s aims in teaching philosophy to deaf and hard of hearing students is figuring out what it is to do philosophy in American Sign Language. This is not only a matter of developing the necessary philosophical vocabulary in ASL, but also includes such considerations as determining how linguistic features (e.g. use of space, hand and body orientation, gaze) mark philosophical moves, and what an argument looks like (literally) in ASL. In exploring the question of what it is to “talk philosophy” in ASL with her students, one strategy that Burke uses exploits syntactical markers in conversational ASL as pedagogical tools. As an example, when teaching her students to identify arguments, Burke employs the everyday ASL convention of asking rhetorical questions before supplying reasons, which are typically counted off in order on the non-dominant hand.
For a wonderful overview on deaf philosophy, Dr. Burke has posted a helpful presentation on the topic on her academia.edu page here. For a first person account of her story and the issues of deafness and philosophy, see also her essay “Seeing philosophy: Deaf students and Deaf Philosophers“, which I especially hope you read in full for illuminating information about both the linguistics and politics of deafness in academic philosophy.
For a more thorough look at the lexicon Dr. Burke is helping as content expert to build online, click here. Each term is given a brilliantly concise English written definition and accompanied by video demonstrations of the signs, and the page titled “About Our Translation Process” is philosophically provocative, raising issues about both the philosophy of language and the language of philosophy. An example from the page that’s particularly illuminating:
The concept of I-D-E-N-T-I-T-Y. ASL already has a sign that is generally used to express that idea. But in this workshop, we learned that there are actually 3 different ways to sign I-D-E-N-T-I-T-Y, depending on the meaning set forth by a particular philosopher in a particular sense of the meaning.
I imagine that as this lexicon grows and Burke’s work makes it easier for those who rely on signed languages to engage in mainstream philosophy, spoken and signed philosophical terminology will grow more in concert, and the result will be beneficial for all. I’m particularly intrigued by the use of syntactical markers in discussing arguments. I have to study Burke’s incorporation in more depth, but I imagine that students in all languages would find this technique helpful.