Reader query: pronouns and historical texts

I had a question which I thought might be of interest to discuss on the blog.

Normally I work on contemporary political philosophy and I standardly use “she” or “her” whenever I can. But I am now trying to write a historical piece that deals with a political philosopher who uses “man” to refer to “people” and only uses the male pronouns “he”, “him”, etc.

Looking around the literature the standard thing to do seems to be to follow the practice of the original philosopher, because they don’t want to appear anachronistic. But this seems unsatisfactory to me, since it just reproduces the sexism of the original. But I’m not sure sticking to the language I would use for contemporary philosophy is a perfect option either.

Are there any thoughts on how to get around this, or what is a good compromise?

6 thoughts on “Reader query: pronouns and historical texts

  1. You might find useful this footnote from a criminologist who made a somewhat related point:

    Ronald Crelinsten, “The world of torture: A constructed reality,” Theoretical Criminology, vol. 7, no. 3, (2003), page 316n1: “I shall refer to torturers in the masculine as I am unaware of any research on women as torturers. I have come across occasional references to regimes that do use women torturers, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, but to my knowledge there has not been any systematic study of whether or how women are recruited or trained as torturers.”

    Hence I think it’s important to discuss the context of gender pronouns—particularly when doing political philosophy—rather than simply maintaining the original usage or risk being un-reflectively PC by adopting contemporary usage.

  2. I routinely replace exclusive language with [inclusive language] in square brackets, if I want to engage with the statements as if they apply to all people. I’ve seen this convention in published material as well. (Catholic feminists have to do this a lot when engaging with church documents. :sigh:)

    Occasionally, I’ll leave the language alone and discuss the issue; on occasion, I’ll [gender-flip] the exclusive language in square brackets in order to allow women to have the same experience in relation to the text as men have.

  3. i never replace the gendered language in philosophy texts (in the history of philosophy especially) with other-gendered language; to do so i believe erases the gendered thinking, and all of the interesting feminist philosophical problems that it poses, of the texts i am teaching/studying. i do draw attention to the gender exclusivity in class, and where possible in a footnote in papers and manuscripts. i am convinced by susan miller okin’s argument that replacing masculine pronouns with feminine ones serves to further mask gendered thinking without actually taking it on.

  4. I both use brackets as in comment #2 and also (sometimes, picking my battles) with a quote will follow up sexist pronouns with “(sic)” to emphasise the erroneous nature of the usage. It’s a bit aggressive, but so is reading a text with man in place of human.

  5. Pauline Kleingeld has an interesting discussion of this here: “The Problematic Status of Gender-Neutral Language in the History of Philosophy: The Case of Kant,” Philosophical Forum 25 (1993): 134-150. I tend to agree with Pauline that when we are paraphrasing or explaining or analyzing philosophical views that are not gender-neutral, it is distorting to use gender-neutral pronouns. My policy, then, is to note explicitly that I use the masculine pronoun exclusively when it more accurately reflects the philosophical views I am discussing and only because I want to get the history right (warts and all). But then (in the same essay) when I am discussing ways to oppose or improve those views, I revert to using feminine pronouns, alternating feminine and masculine pronouns, or using purely gender-neutral expressions.

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