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Philosophy-speak

October 19, 2011

I’ve been reading a lot of philosophy recently, and will be doing so for the next few years as I have just started a part-time PhD in that subject; and I’ve noticed a number of linguistic tics or tricks that modern philosophers have, some of which are quite annoying. One is the expression ‘just in case’, not used in the familiar sense, but to mean ‘in precisely in and only in the case that’ – eg a philosopher may say something like ‘An untrue statement is a lie just in case it is intended to deceive’. To me this sounds plain silly. And I can promise here and now not ever to use the phrase in that sense.

Another one is ‘To be sure’, used to mean ‘Granted’, when conceding a point that seems to count against one’s case, but (as one is just about to make clear) doesn’t really. ‘To be sure, A; however, B.’  This really only works when B is a genuine answer to A, but the formula can be used to give the impression of a real argument when actually B isn’t an answer to A – it is just the view one agrees with and so positioned to have the last word. I have noticed this trick in the writings of both Terry Eagleton and John Gray (not that either of those are philosophers). I don’t like it anyway, but it’s infuriating when abused in this way.

Then there’s the habit most modern philosophers have of using she/her as a pronoun to indicate a person of either sex; presumably this is intended as a corrective to centuries of he/him being used in that way, but it always sounds self-conscious to me, as if deliberately drawing attention to the writer’s non-sexist credentials; and sometimes the result really does sound incongruous. An example I came across in the British Library today – the philosopher Gerald Dworkin is making the point that some actions are bad in themselves, whatever the agent thinks of them, and cites dwarf-tossing as an example. In a footnote he adds: ‘This is true even when the agent disagrees – she may want to go on tossing dwarfs, resent the interference etc’.  The image of a woman dwarf-tosser here is bizarre and distracting. I am not saying women never throw dwarfs (though I am sure they do not do it anywhere near as often as men do). But if one wants a sex-neutral pronoun, what  is wrong with ‘they’? (‘This is true even when the agent disagrees – they may want to go on tossing dwarfs, resent the interference etc.)

I am sure there are more, but I can’t think of any just now. I’ll be back with more on this theme.

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