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Thursday, July 27, 2006


I still find it difficult to figure out what the conventions are for 'he'/'she' pronoun choice in philosophical examples. Back in the mid-90s when I was an undergrad in Copenhagen my teachers told me to use '(s)he'. But I was quickly corrected by my supervisor when I started graduate school. He told me "just use one or the other". For a long time I wondered whether the 'or' was supposed to be exclusive. I concluded that that was probably what he meant. But he didn't follow his own advice. He would tend to make the farmers, truckdrivers, prisoners and serial killers females, and the nurses, homemakers, and wedding planners males. Since then there has been even more confusion. Some have told me to alternate for reasons of fairness. Others have told me to avoid 'he' and 'she' altogether and only use 'one', 'I', and 'you'. Yet others have told me that women can choose freely but that men must use 'she'. So which is it?


Jeremy Pierce said...

There is no convention. I prefer the singular 'they'. It most closely matches ordinary English. It avoids the awkwardness of 'he or she' and doesn't lead to problems with which sorts of examples get which gender. If you're going to insist on just using 'he' and 'she' for singulars, then I would say you should just alternate between them such that the examples get random assignment of gender.

Carrie Jenkins said...

I like the convention of using 'he' and 'she' randomly, except when it is useful for reasons of clarity to use a particular one (so for instance, if the first character in an example is a he, the second one should be a she so as to make it clearer which one you're talking about). I'm not a fan of the singular 'they'.

CK said...

As a former English major, I have to weigh in on "they." Unless you're using it in a plural sense, I think it's both clunky and ungrammatical. If you want to be gender-neutral, there's always the term "one" ("one must argue that", etc.)

With Carrie, I find that alternating he and she in examples is just fine. Today I ran across the first instance of s/he in a philosophy paper and found it slightly distracting. It reminds me of the mad hyphenations and parenthetical silliness that goes on in lit crit.

Brit Brogaard said...

Thanks! I will definitely try to avoid '(s)he' and 's/he' :-)

Adam Arico said...

I try to always use 'she', if only to balance out the centuries, nay millenia, of academic misogyny. Plus, that seems to me to be the direction that philosophy is heading. The only time I use 'he' is if I'm talking about a male character in a specific example (e.g., "Imagine a possible world in which Jon is a biology student...").

I'm w/ Carrie and Colleen on the "singular they", which I think is inherently contradictory, as well as grammatically awkward.

Mike said...

David Gauthier actually used a randomizing device in his choices over 'he/she' in _Morals By Agreement_ (of course, it cannot be fully random without lots of confusion). That seemed a little extreme to me. I thought the ferver had since died down, as it has over 'chairman, chairperson' and such.

Brit Brogaard said...

Yes, that seems extreme. As Will Hutton (from *the Observer*) once pointed out,
"the paradox is that there is nothing so 'politically correct' as having a go at political correctness" :-)

Robbie said...

Hartry Field has a fun little note about the randomizing strategy in the intro to "Truth and the absence of fact". For him, the danger is that you'll end up writing: 'from each according to her means, to each according to his needs'.

That's a frivolous example, but it dramatizes the point that if you switch between "he" and "she", you do open yourself up to people reading in (unintended) significance to your choice of gender in particular cases.

I started to use "she"-only, a few years ago. It sounded wrong and self-conscious at first, but very quickly sounded perfectly natural, which seemed a happy result and a reason to continue. It's also easy and stress-free to implement.

Perhaps the optimal thing would be if it were a random matter which gender a given writer used in their examples (pretty much exclusively)? That gets the fairness of the randomizing strategy, without the costs... (We could assign it to people when they got to graduate school... :-) )

Zoe said...

I actually objected to "she" when it was first used as it sounded contrived but it is now so common as to be unremarkable. The other option to using "she" is to feminise "he" - if the word came to mean "he or she" (maybe even leading to the dropping of she completely) I think that would be a good solution.

Has anyone read any novels by Greg Egan? I know this isn't practical, but he uses a beautiful sexless pronoun system throughout his books (ve, vis etc.)

Zoe (if you're wondering who I am, I linked here from Carrie's website and discovered that you were talking about the kind of things that I like to rant about in the pub.)

Brit Brogaard said...

I like the thought of you (or anyone) ranting in pubs about these topics :-)

I haven't read any of Greg Egan's novels, but for some reason the sexless pronoun reminds me of Stephen Neale's (the philosopher) numberless definite article. I forget how he writes it, but I think it is "whe".