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The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader by Deborah Cameron | LibraryThing

Some difficulties that have been raised go well beyond a handful of problematic terms or gaps. Deborah Cameron offers striking examples of writing that take males as the norm without using any particular terms to which one might object, such as the following, from The Sunday Times :. The lack of vitality is aggravated by the fact that there are so few able-bodied young adults about. They have all gone off to work or look for work, leaving behind the old, the disabled, the women and the children.

Cameron Moreover, examples like this and others Cameron provides pass unnoticed by newspaper editors and many readers. There is clearly a problem, but it is not a problem that can be pinpointed by picking out some particular term as objectionable and in need of reform. Eliminating language use that takes males as the norm, then, must involve more than changing a few terms or usage rules. Some feminists e. Corresponding arguments are also put forward about other languages. One thing that is meant by this is that English can be said to be male in a manner similar to that in which particular terms can be said to be male—by encoding a male worldview, by helping to subordinate women or to render them invisible, or by taking males as the norm.

One sort of argument for this begins from the examination of large quantities of specific terms, and the identification of patterns of male bias, and proceeds from this to the conclusion that the male bias of English is so widespread that it is a mistake to locate the problem in a collection of words, rather than in the language as a whole. The first stage of this sort of argument is, obviously, a lengthy and complex one. The sexualisation of words for women is considered especially significant by the many feminists who take sexual objectification to be a crucial element, if not the root, of inequalities between women and men.

For more on such examples, see also Baker This widespread encoding of male bias in language is, according to theorists like Spender, just what we should expect. Males though not, as she notes, all of them have had far more power in society, and this, she claims has included the power to enforce, through language, their view of the world. Moreover, she argues, this has served to enhance their power.

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There is sexism in language, it does enhance the position of males, and males have had control over the production of cultural forms. Spender Spender takes the evidence for this claim to be far more than circumstantial, however, and to support it she discusses the efforts of prescriptive grammarians. We have also seen ways that what might be called maleness can make it more difficult for women to express themselves. Where we lack words for important female experiences, like sexual harassment, women will find it more difficult to describe key elements of their existence.

If one takes such problems to go beyond selected particular terms, and to infect language as a whole, it is natural to suppose that women are to a large degree silenced —unable to accurately articulate key elements of their lives, and unable to communicate important aspects of their thoughts. Spender and others also suggest that the maleness of language constrains thought , imposing a male worldview on all of us, and making alternative visions of reality impossible, or at least very difficult to articulate.

These arguments often draw upon the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis Sapir ; Whorf Some suggest that male power over language allows men to shape not just thought, but also reality. This is a very strong version of what Haslanger has called discursive constructivism. Haslanger Feminists like Spender and Catherine MacKinnon argue that male power over language has allowed them to create reality.

Haslanger discusses this argument in detail. In general, the solution suggested is not to attempt to create a neutral language that can accurately capture reality in itself, a goal they would take to be nonsense. Instead, we must aim to create a new reality more congenial to women. Some feminists have argued that the only way to achieve this is for women to create their own language, either by redefining terms already in use, or by inventing a new language, with new words and new rules. Only in this way, they suggest, will women be able to break free from the constraints of male language and male thought, to articulate a competing vision for the world, and to work toward it Daly and Caputi ; Elgin ; MacKinnon ; Penelope ; Spender Lynne Tirrell offers an especially sophisticated and complex discussion of this idea.

The claims discussed above concerning the maleness of English, its causes, and its effects, are far from uncontentious. First, the extent of male bias in language is debatable. Although it is right that there is much to worry feminists about a wide variety of specific terms and usages, it is far from clear that it is appropriate to claim that English is male-biased in some sweeping sense. It is also unclear exactly what the claim being made is. If the claim is simply that there is much for feminists to object to, then it is almost certainly right—but it is far from obvious that it is useful to focus on such a general claim rather than on specific problems, their complexities and their possible solutions Cameron b.

Next, the power that men have undeniably exercised in society though, importantly, some groups of men have been vastly less powerful than others by no means translates to a general power over language. Language is a difficult thing to control, as those who have attempted to create languages have learned. The main power men have had has concerned dictionaries, usage guides, and laws. The claimed effects of the maleness of language are also problematic.

We have already seen problems for the idea that men control language. The idea that men also control or create thought and reality faces further problems. Nonetheless, it does seem right to notice that problems with specific terms can render it more difficult for women to communicate about important elements of their lives, and probably also more difficult to reflect upon these elements Hornsby These difficulties could perhaps be described as partial silencing, partial constraint of thought, or hermeneutical injustice Fricker , which we discuss more fully in 2.

If the criticisms above are right, then women certainly do not need to create their own language. Moreover, the idea that women could craft a common language that allowed the articulation of all their experiences seems to ignore the fact that women differ enormously from one another Crenshaw ; Lugones and Spelman ; Spelman ; see the section on feminism and the diversity of women in the entry on feminist philosophy.

If women cannot use the same language as men, why should we suppose that women can successfully share a language? Feminists have also devoted attention to another aspect of language—the use of metaphor see the section Feminist Critiques and Conceptions of Objectivity in the entry on feminist epistemology and philosophy of science ; and the entry on feminist approaches to the intersection of pragmatism and continental philosophy.

In particular, feminists have discussed the use of gendered metaphors in philosophy and in science. At its extreme, the age-old relationship of the egg and the sperm takes on a royal or religious patina. The egg is also passive, which means it must depend on the sperm for rescue.

The vision of reproduction suggested above is an inaccurate one. The sperm fails to behave in the single-minded manner suggested. Instead, the. Martin Martin argues that scientists have been slow to discover these facts, partly due to the metaphors they employed; and that even as they have learned these facts they have been slow to update their metaphors.

Gendered stereotypes, Martin suggests, can impair our understanding of reproduction—by leading scientists to employ misleading metaphors that conceal the truth. The use of gendered stereotypes in scientific imagery can also help to perpetuate damaging stereotypes, for example by reinforcing the tendency to see females as passive. Gendered metaphors have been used at many levels of discussion, including the most general. An important topic of feminist concern has been the historical tendency to conceive of the scientific endeavour in gendered ways. Keller The tendency to describe nature in feminine terms is a long-standing and widespread one, well-documented in Lloyd Lloyd links this to a tendency to describe reason and the mind as male, and to contrast these with supposedly feminine emotions and bodies.

She argues that these metaphors play a powerful role in the history of philosophy, shaping and often distorting our views both of reason, mind, emotion, and body and of men and women. In the early days of feminist philosophy of language, much attention was devoted to ways that philosophy of language was problematic from a feminist point of view. One sort of criticism was that philosophy of language, like English, displays a male bias.

Another was simply that philosophy of language is ill-equipped to further feminist aims. Those making these criticisms did not suggest that philosophy of language be abandoned, but rather that it should be reformed—purged of male bias and turned into a discipline that can help in the attainment of feminist ends. What reasons were given for supposing that philosophy of language is ill suited to achieving feminist ends? There were a variety of reasons Hintikka and Hintikka ; Hornsby ; Nye , , but one common thread involves the idea that philosophy of language is excessively individualistic.

Criticism of individualism in philosophy is widespread in many areas of feminism. However, we will sketch what seems to be at issue in concerns over philosophy of language. Some claim that philosophy of language focuses excessively on the states of mind of individual speakers—in particular on their intentions Hornsby Grice, which does indeed analyse speaker meaning in terms of speaker intentions. For more on this, see Saul Others suggest that semantics assigns too important a role to the notion of reference to discrete individuals Hintikka and Hintikka Individualism of this sort is said to be problematic for several reasons.

One common claim is that this sort of individualism is characteristic of male thinking. Men tend, according to this line of thought, to be interested in separate, discrete individuals; while women are interested in connections and relationships. Thus, it is suggested, an individualistic philosophy of language is one that represents a male way of thinking about the world. For philosophy of language to be true to the experiences and language use of both men and women, then, the individualistic philosophy of language which is characteristic of male thinking will need to be supplemented or replaced by a version more suited to female thinking Hintikka and Hintikka ; Hornsby As Haslanger a and others have noted, however, the claims regarding male and female thinking on which this line of thought depends are not well supported.

Other objections to individualism do not depend upon contentious psychological claims about differences between women and men. Instead, they suggest that the real problem with individualism is its failure to appreciate the importance of the social. The social world is, naturally, an important area of concern when discussing politics and power relations. Understanding how people come to dominate one another, and exactly how this domination functions, are important projects for feminists.

So, many feminists suggest, a philosophy of language that is appropriate to understanding communicative interactions in the social world could be a valuable tool for feminists. However, they insist that the individualism of philosophy of language as it is now prevents it from serving this function Hornsby The general charge that philosophy of language pays little attention to the social world is not one that all feminists would agree with.

Nonetheless, one might well suggest that philosophers of language have generally attended only to aspects of the social world that are not of particular interest to feminists. Andrea Nye criticizes mainstream philosophy of language on roughly these grounds, arguing that work on radical translation has not been sufficiently sensitive to political concerns for the notion of radical translation, see the section on Meaning and Truth in the entry on Donald Davidson. Nye Things have changed a great deal in recent years, and it is now widely accepted that philosophy of language has something to offer feminists, and even though less widely that feminists have something to offer philosophy of language.

Feminist philosophy of language is now becoming a well-established area of the larger field, with several substantial positive research programmes.


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It has now, however, evolved well beyond those beginnings. According to Langton , pornography helps to bring about rape by perlocutionarily and illocutionarily silencing women. Following Austin, Langton distinguishes between locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts. A locutionary act is, roughly, the act of uttering words that have particular meanings; a perlocutionary act is, roughly, the act of uttering words that have a particular effect; and an illocutionary act is the act done in uttering the words. The locutionary act she performed was simply the utterance of a sentence with a particular meaning.

This act had many perlocutionary effects: it made it possible for her to get a British passport, it made her feel slightly disturbed at having expressed such monarchist sentiments, and it made her wonder whether a republic, should it succeed the Queen, would count as an heir. The illocutionary act she performed was that of becoming a British citizen.

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Langton proposes that there are forms of silencing corresponding to each of these sorts of speech act. A person is locutionarily silenced if she is prevented from speaking, or intimidated into not speaking. A person is illocutionarily silenced if she is unable to carry out the acts that she intends to carry out in speaking. A person is perlocutionarily silenced when her speech cannot have its intended effects. Langton is particularly concerned with the role that perlocutionary and illocutionary silencing may play in rape.

Her attempted refusal to have sex is illocutionarily silenced if it is not even recognized as a refusal. For an exploration of the role of conventions in this illocutionary silencing, see Wyatt This means, she argues, that pornography illocutionarily and perlocutionarily silences women. And this silencing is an important one, as it results in rape. This example can also help us to see that some elements of individualism may be indispensable to feminism for more arguments to this effect, see Antony In order to understand what has gone wrong in the illocutionary silencing described above, one needs to understand that the woman intended to be refusing sex.

The feminist critique of language: a reader

In order to understand what has gone wrong in the perlocutionary silencing example, one needs to understand that the woman intended her refusal to bring it about that she did not have sex. More generally, not being understood properly is an important element of life in a subordinate position, as many feminists have noted.

In order to make sense of not being understood properly, one needs to attend to what the speaker intended and how the audience understood the speaker , and how these things differ. To do this, one needs to look at individual states of mind. These discussions have inspired a now substantial literature. Below, we give some very non-comprehensive pointers to this literature.

This use of speech act theory was one of the first developments of feminist philosophy of language to gain mainstream currency, and it has become widely taught and studied. Recently, however, sharply critical feminist voices have started to emerge. Separately, and for different reasons, Nancy Bauer and Lorna Finlayson , have both argued that the feminist literature on speech acts and pornography is deeply misguided. Bauer objects on several grounds. She thinks it is misguided to treat pornography as speech, and she like other critics noted above argues that pornography should not be seen as authoritative.

This is part of a broader critique, for Bauer, of both analytic philosophy in general, and widespread understandings of Austin. She suggests that the feminist foray into speech act theory was entirely unnecessary, and also that the focus on pornography was misguided.

But there have also been very substantial developments broadening and building upon the feminist use of speech theory—extending it to issues like racist speech, and hate speech more generally. McGowan a argues for the existence of a different sort of silencing due to pornography; and in her b she argues that speech may be counted not just as silencing or subordinating, but also as oppressing.

Moreover, she suggests that oppressive speech is likely to be a very widespread phenomenon. These ideas are developed further in McGowan , which takes as its focus racist speech, and in Simpson Maitra also applies ideas from feminist work on subordinating speech to racist speech. Langton also turns her attention to hate speech more broadly, including in her This paper is also notable for its focus on the role of pragmatics in shaping attitudes other than belief.

Although she draws on Langton and Hornsby, she abandons their focus on illocution and perlocution, focussing instead simply on performative force. She assumes the classical distinction between sex and gender, where sex is supposed to refer to biological or anatomical properties distinguishing males from females although as she argues, this distinction is flexible and permeated by social and political factors too , and gender is supposed to refer to social or cultural factors distinguishing men from women see the entry on feminist perspectives on sex and gender.

S is a woman iff def S is systematically subordinated along some dimension economic, political, legal, social, etc. Therefore, to characterize being a woman in terms of being subordinated, as Haslanger does, might not be politically useful for the aims of feminism. However, the different traits that are assigned to men or to women are heavily context-dependent and flexible, and it is possible to revise both the assignment of traits and the norms and expectations involving them, in virtue of many kinds of factors, including moral and political considerations.

X is a woman is true in a context C iff X is human and relevantly similar according to the standards at work in C to most of those possessing all of the biological markers of female sex. Saul argues that at first sight, this view seems to give the right results, since it would classify trans women as women in most contexts where, say, self-identifying as a woman is what is deemed relevant, but on further reflection, she argues, the view can give unwanted results. In response to this worry, E.

Diaz-Leon has argued that we can understand the contextualist view in a way that avoids this objection. In particular, she argues, we can understand the relevant standards of similarity at work in each context as those criteria that are the most politically useful, given the aims and purposes that are morally salient in that context. As Jenkins argues, trans women who do not pass as cis women that is, those women who were assigned female at birth do not occupy a position of subordination in virtue of their perceived or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of a female biological role in reproduction, since they are not presumed to have a female biological role in reproduction given that they do not pass as cis women.

For example, Saray Ayala and Nadya Vasilyeva provide an account of biological sex in terms of extended, flexible biological features, where which features count for being male or female can change from context to context, depending on our aims and purposes, and where those extended biological features can be taken to incorporate features of the environment, artificial bodily features, and so on. In addition, Jennifer McKitrick has argued that an account of gender in terms of dispositions to behave in certain ways can be politically useful, and can capture the aims of trans women.

As we saw in the previous section, Haslanger b brought attention to the need for revisionary or ameliorative approaches in feminist philosophy, as opposed to purely conceptual or descriptive approaches, which focus on the concept we have or the objective type that we actually track. As suggested above, the notion of an ameliorative project in philosophy is not new, but in our view the impetus that this methodological approach in philosophy has experienced recently owes much to the centrality that this notion has played in recent developments in philosophy of gender and race over the last two decades.

As ameliorative projects are becoming more common in mainstream analytic philosophy, they have given rise to a careful examination of the methodological foundations and the metaphysical, semantic and epistemic aspects of the ameliorative approach, as well as its moral and political implications. Alexis Burgess and David Plunkett a,b have usefully surveyed these and related issues pertaining to ameliorative projects in philosophy, and have coined a new label: conceptual ethics.

They intend this new term to refer to the philosophical reflection about the terms and concepts that we ought to use in different areas, given our best normative reasoning, as well as the methodological and philosophical issues to which these projects give rise. Examples include the nature of the values and normative considerations that should guide our choice of terms and concepts, as well as semantic questions about the nature and possibility of conceptual change and conceptual revision, among many others.

One of the advantages of having this new label is that discussions on these normative issues about our talk and thought that were formerly scattered can now be more unified and more systematic.

Another term that is becoming prominent in this area is that of conceptual engineering , which is supposed to refer to ameliorative projects that aim to revise our current concepts and engineer new concepts that can better serve our main purposes. Several philosophers have recently argued that we could understand many traditional debates in philosophy as debates in conceptual ethics or conceptual engineering see for instance Floridi and Plunkett London: Routledge, pp.

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