A perverse Case of the Contingent a priori: On the Logic of Emasculating Language

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A Perverse Case of the Contingent A Priori:

On the Logic of Emasculating Language1

(A Reply to Dawkins and Dummett)
Adèle Mercier
Dept. of Philosohy, Queen's University

Kingston, Canada K7L 3N6

I present several arguments which together or separately, and among other things, provide what I take to be a definitive argument against the use of so-called sex-neutral masculine language. The main title presents, in elevated language, a simple (perverse) idea --some might say small, and I am happy to agree-- that is the essential keystone of masculine language and the essential reason behind its current remise-en-question. The subtitle plays on deep structure to convey the idea that this paper has both semantic interests and deontic concerns. In the sense of any paper with an 'ought' in it, it is, among other things, an advocacy paper.

Part I: Double Standards and the Contingent A Priori focuses on the use of the word 'man'. Part II: The Masculine Language Loop examines how the pernicious a priori --the masculine language virus-- infects our pronominal system, and our attitudes.

PART I: Double standards and the contingent a priori

A statement is said to be contingent when it could fail to be true were the world relevantly different than it actually is. A truth is said to be knowable a priori when we can know it prior to experiencing the world as it actually is. A notorious candidate for a statement expressing a contingent a priori truth is: I am here now. Mere knowledge of language will suffice to convince you that this statement, whenever uttered, expresses a truth. You need no experience of the world to know that it is true. You may lack knowledge of who or what I am, where we are, or when. Still, you know that when I say that I am here now, I speak the truth.

Contingent a priori statements are a headache for philosophers. They're not supposed to be! How could something be contingent, and therefore possibly otherwise were the world other than it is, yet known to be the case without experience of the world as it actually is?

Michael Dummett, for one, has argued that the fact that Kripke's views on reference and modality imply the existence of contingent a priori truths shows that something must be wrong with those views.2 I argue here that Dummett's views on word preference and sex-neutrality imply the existence of contingent a priori truths and so that something must be wrong with those views.

This paper is not about contingent a priori statements in general, but about a particular and perverse case of the contingent a priori that infects our language daily. I argue that allegedly sex-neutral masculine language is not sex-neutral, for it builds contingent existential generalizations about male persons into the very fabric of the language.

I focus in Part I on the sex-neutral use of the word 'man' (whose usage has recently been defended by Dummett). But the argument generalizes fully to pronouns and to other masculine language that serves sex-neutral and sex-specific double duty, as Part II aims to show.

Women are men too

Ever since I discovered The Selfish Gene, I have been an avid admirer of Richard Dawkins. What prompts me to write this article is a worrisome development not in Dawkins ideas about genetics but in his attitudes about language, specifically about what he himself was at one time prepared to call "the masculine bias in our language." The idea and the fact, if it is one, that women are somehow excluded by some deep feature of English, have added new, can we say, memetic dimensions to the battle of the sexes.3 While some men and women struggle against "the masculine language meme", resistence to them escalates every day more fiercely.

Thus we have Dawkins in 1982:4

I wish I had had the courage to instruct the computer to feminize personal pronouns at random throughout the text. This is not only because I admire the current awareness of the masculine bias in our language. Whenever I write I have a particular imaginary reader in mind [...] and at least half my imaginary readers are, like at least half my friends, female. Unfortunately it is still true in English that the unexpectedness of a feminine pronoun, where a neutral meaning is intended, seriously distracts the attention of most readers, of either sex. [...] With regret, therefore, I have followed the standard convention in this book.

And Dawkins in 1986:5
I am distressed to find that some women friends (fortunately not many) treat the use of the impersonal masculine pronoun as if it showed intention to exclude them. If there were any excluding to be done (happily there isn't) I think I would sooner exclude men, but when I once tentatively tried referring to my abstract reader as 'she', a feminist denounced me for patronizing condescension: I ought to say 'he-or-she', and 'his-or-her'. That is easy to do if you don't care about language, but then if you don't care about language you don't deserve readers of either sex. Here, I have returned to the normal conventions of English pronouns. I may refer to the 'reader' as 'he', but I no more think of my readers as specifically male than a French speaker thinks of a table as female.
Finally, in 1993, amid an otherwise warm eulogy of the great Maynard Smith's phrasemaking abilities (who is celebrated among numerous innovations for his abbreviation of Homo sapiens as 'chaps'), we come upon Dawkins suddenly venomous:

The pompous high priests of 'political correctness' don't like this kind of verbal informality. Maynard Smith is too big a man to go along with their puritanical emasculation of language (and if my use of 'emasculation' gives offence to somebody, what a pity).6

Since I was naively of the opinion that the battle of words was just regrets away from victory, I am grateful to Dawkins for shaking me from my doxastic blunder.

What I am distressed to find is Dawkins, aware of what offends and why (or so he was ten years ago), carrying on the offence. Why is it not enough that some of his friends feel excluded by his pronouns? Surely those women who don't wouldn't mind not being referred to by 'he'. Are women who feel excluded just hystericals that we can tut-tut and dismiss? Or have those who don't, simply inherited too many memes from our brave ancestresses who so dutifully put up with quite a lot of nonsense indeed?

What I am distressed to find is someone with Dawkins' manifest respect for women displaying such resistance to an issue which, for all we know, may well be of consequence for women, as some (fortunately quite a few) feel. And for such flimsy reason as to rob readers of a momentary distraction as a few feminine pronouns go by? (Who's puritanical?!) The plain fact that language (like its speakers themselves) is in constant evolution is proof enough of the ease with which people have always managed to overcome initial momentary distractions.

What's going on here?

Notice that there has been, as far as I know, no work whatsoever from the conservative camp showing that "the feminist case" against masculine language is wrong. Even Dummett in his recent Grammar and Style,7 in the chapter on "Ideological Usages", agrees that the facts he cites do not disprove the feminists' contention, but just that the feminist case needs "far firmer grounds before we should think of inflicting damage on what has come down to us from the past." The present article proposes to provide a good chunk of the required firm grounds.

Let me first pause a moment to reflect on just "what has come down to us from the past." What has come down to us from the past is at least a history of sexism. If you disagree with me about this, stop reading: my discussion is intended for those who are concerned about sexism --hence admit its existence-- but reluctant to see it in the language. It is intended specifically for those, like Dawkins, who "would hate to think" that such considerations "impinged on how [they] use [their] native language".8

Yet if there is any sense in which language "is a mirror of the mind," then what has come down to us from the past is at least in that sense a language that mirrors the history of this sexism.

The conservative side has simply ridden the wave of the status quo in resisting linguistic change in the absence of some definitive proof of its utter necessity. But the sexism of the status quo makes the prima facie case fall squarely on the feminist side.

An argument from patrimony: What has come down to us from the past

What has come down to us from the past, the past state of the language which Dummett would sooner protect from damage than the women claiming injury from its current (and eventual) state, are lovely phrases like:

Man is the measure of all things.

God made man in his own image.

The proper study of mankind is man.
I find Dummett's argument here nothing short of amazing. Suppose feminists had their way, he argues, and the word 'man' ceased to be used to refer to both men and women. (Dummett makes a big deal out of the fact that "no adequate substitute has been proposed." I hereby propose 'human': see below.) Though we could use 'humans' from now on, "that would not restore our ability to read such passages as they were meant." "A generation would grow up ignorant that 'man' had any other use; its members would then misinterpret passages like those cited."

Now, I don't know about you, dear reader, but I have to make at least an effort to read the above phrases "as they were meant" if they were meant to include women. (If God made women in his own image, it seems to me either women should look more like men, or we should say 'God made women in her own image.') Indeed, Dummett himself feels the need to cite a later passage in Genesis ("male and female he created them") to disambiguate the former.

The reason retrieving a sex-neutral meaning out of 'man' is costly today is that the word had undergone a meaning shift since the bygone days of Old English, when the prevailing sense of 'mann' was indeed human and 'wer' was the word in use for male humans. Dummett appears to blame feminists for the fact that 'man' no longer comfortably applies to both men and women. But this shift began in English way before anyone was even imagining feminism. It began with the demise of 'wer', which 'man' moved in to replace. 'Man' evolved into an ambiguous term (and our problems began) because nothing moved in to fill the slot that the shift of 'man' should have left vacant. Conservative prescriptivists like Dummett only compound the problem. For they are impotent to undo the first half of this change (they are not striving to resurrect the defunct 'wer'), but are intent on interrupting in mid-stream the organic process of lexical replacement currently on-going. They want to freeze the language in its current state of unfinished business.

Dummett notes as proof that the Biblical passages cited were not intended to confine the application of 'man' to males, that "they were translated from languages in which there is one word for 'human being' in general, and a distinct one for 'male human being'." Now, the fact is that when these passages were translated long ago, they were rightly translated using 'man', because the originals featured words (like 'homo') that unambiguously meant 'human being', and that's what 'man' unambiguously meant at the time. Precisely because 'man' has undergone a semantic shift since then, 'man' is no longer the appropriate translation for words unambiguously meaning 'human being'. 'Human being' (or some such) is the contemporary front-runner for that job. To translate 'homo' as 'man' today is to commit the same sort of mistake as would be committed by translating (the presuppositionally unproblematic):

Malgré ses problèmes avec Xanthippe, Socrate était de tendance plutôt gaie.
as (the presuppositionally deviant):
Despite his problems with Xanthippe, Socrates had rather gay tendencies.

Dummett worries that if feminists have their way, it will have a "retrospective effect" of making it more difficult for us to recover the intended meanings of past liturgical passages. But if feminists had their way, if 'human' were used as a translation for 'homo' and 'man' reserved for 'vir', the translations into English would be isomorphic to the original passages, and less information would be lost. It is precisely because English makes an ambiguous use of 'man' that the original unambiguous meanings are difficult to recover now, let alone what it will be like in the future.

The choice we face then is twofold. We can leave things as they are and let future generations forever wonder about the ambiguity, forcing them to go back to Latin and Greek to figure out what the English phrases mean, in the meantime generating more and more ambiguous sentences for future generations to wonder about (without benefit of disambiguation support from Latin and Greek). Alternatively, we can disambiguate our sentences from now on, re-translate the revered passages as they should have been translated in the first place, and, bowing to a time slice of English when 'man' was an ambiguous word, put footnotes at the bottom of old translations of Biblical passages explaining then-current usage. Is this really too much of a novelty to handle? Man!

An argument from the lexicon: When is a man too many?

The case against 'man', save for the fact that women have a special interest in it, is not particularly feministic. Take the case of 'bank'. No more innocuous an example of lexical ambiguity can there be. But the innocuousness results, I submit, from the semantic distance between 'bank$$$' and 'bankH2O'. If all banks were located near banks, stylish writers would avoid annoying readers by making precise whether they intended the financial institution or the river's edge. At the very least, the information content of 'I'm going to the bank' would be greatly reduced in such circumstances. And though it's useless to bet on it, we can expect that one of the uses would eventually fade out of existence.

A felicitous illustration of just such a happening is afforded us by the current state of the word 'presently'. North Americans by and large use this word to mean right now; whereas the British use it to mean in a little while. Because 'right now' and 'in a little while' are semantically proximate, precision-conscious English speakers unfamiliar with their audiences use 'presently' at their own risk and peril. ("Don't worry. An ambulance will be called presently.")

Lamentable though it may be, the word now suffers from an ambiguity, and it is only a matter of time before American usage takes over. This has something to do with the fact that Americans, by their sheer numbers, have linguistic clout. But that is not the whole of it. The numbers merely accelerate a process that is completely to be expected given complementary facts about English, namely, the fact that there exists another word, 'present', and various expressions like 'at present' and 'present tense', which don't mean 'in a while' but 'now'. Unfortunately for British usage, the average English speaker does not acquire new words by reading dictionary entries but in context, where meanings must be hypothesized using lexical resources already mastered. And these lexical resources, along with morphological rules forming adverbs with '-ly', naturally yield the American usage. For the British to insist that their highly irregular meaning remain the norm is for them to expect English speakers to be endowed with some sort of cultural memory of English-Past. Natural language doesn't work that way.

In the same way and for like reasons, the word 'man' shouldn't mean (shouldn't be expected to mean) human in contemporary English.9 The fact that in complementary expressions like 'manly', 'manhood', 'gentleman' and 'man and wife' the 'man'-morph makes exclusive reference to maleness, while all other 'man'-words (including 'mankind') are at best ambiguous, puts evolutionary pressure against the inclusive use. The semantic proximity here, indeed the fact that 'man' subsumes women, is too intense for the language to withstand the ambiguity. I'm no Nostradamus, but 'man' is doomed (sex-neutrally speaking).

And though of course lexical transformations take place over a long stretch of time, the fact that (sex-neutral) 'man', though hurting, is still as strong as it is, should itself raise suspicion. Certainly no other lexical evolution has been resisted so defensively and taken on as cause célèbre by Language Academicians. I'm not aware of movements founded to rescue 'presently' from impending misinterpretation by generations of Americans! (To be fair, Dummett does "deplore" North American uses of 'corn'.) But the relative amount of passion devoted at large to the defense of 'man' is surely revealing of deeper concerns.

So what's the fuss if (sex-neutral) 'man' is destined to oblivion anyway? Well, if nothing else, perhaps the future will reveal that feminists, far from being oversensitive whiners, simply have more refined intuitions about relevant areas of the English lexicon, much in the way that poets are more attuned to the interaction of sounds, and linguists more attentive to syntactic structures, than the average lay speaker. (And from a linguist's point of view, Dummett, Dawkins and other self-appointed language mavens, though above average on other counts, very much count as lay speakers.)

An argument from style: When is a woman a man?

Now, anyone genuinely worried about momentarily distracting readers should a fortiori avoid (sex-neutral) 'man', which doesn't merely force a double-take but actually requires appeal to a whole baggage of psychosocial speculation every time it occurs. Every single occurrence forces the question: Does the author intend/Do the circumstances of the discourse warrant the inclusion of women in this particular occurrence?

A good reason why it is largely women who notice (and complain about) this needless bit of hermeneutic hardship in the language is that it is only to women that befalls the question, every single time: Does this particular occasion of use include me? The answer for men is in each instance trivial: yes. Perhaps the latter fact is where Dummett gets his sense that "English speakers have managed without discomfort with a dual use of a single word."

Language users concerned with effective communication who acknowledge women as part of their audience or of their reference should avoid imposing upon them, indeed upon us all, this unnecessary burden. Those whose referential intentions include women have a duty to all their readers, here as with any referential intention, to use words that make their thoughts reasonably explicit. Period.

An argument from ambiguity: When is a man a woman?

I have as yet said nothing of the legitimate cases of miscommunication that directly result from the ambiguity of 'man'. These are of two sorts.

Some cases of miscommunication are due to the interaction of masculine language with sexist assumptions. This sort of miscommunication happens when we ask the question:

Who was the first man to fly westerly across the Atlantic?

and someone infers from the answer:

That was Beryl Markham

(the correct answer), that Beryl Markham was a man (a false but common inference in North America where 'Beryl' is an unusual name.) Note also the oddity of replying to the question with the otherwise appropriate (though formal):

* The first man to fly westerly across the Atlantic was Beryl Markham.1

Or take the old saw:

Man is a rational animal.

This is exactly the sort of sentence likely to get interpreted, by anyone holding the (still-too-popular) view that women, rather than rational, are intuitive and emotional, as stating a fact applicable only to male men.

Other cases of miscommunication needn't depend on sexist assumptions at all. Suppose we ask again:

Who was the first man to fly westerly across the Atlantic?

and we get the reply:

The first man to fly westerly across the Atlantic was Charles Lindberg.

Is the reply mistaken on the grounds that Markham did so before Lindberg? Clearly, someone could produce this reply who knew full well that Beryl Markham was the first person to fly westerly across the Atlantic. If the question were on an exam, say, it would surely be unfair to penalize a student for such an answer: the fault would lie with the teacher for asking (at best) an ambiguous question. The question invites a masculine answer.

An argument from anomaly: When a man is not a man

Now take the case where, sexist assumptions aside, there is an anomaly simply at the level of the language. The questions:

Which property best describes the/every man / most men who discovered fire?

Which property best describes a/any man who makes an important discovery?

can perfectly well be raised (so the story goes) by someone who ignores the sex of the discoverer. So they count, if anything does, as clear cases of sex-indeterminate uses of 'man'.10 It is puzzling then that one cannot answer these questions, on a par with the above (formal) question-answer mode, by saying:

? The/every man who discovered fire was (surely) not a man.

? Most men who discovered fire were (undoubtedly) not men.

? A/any man who makes an important discovery is (likely) not a man.

(said by someone who believes, say, that males as a rule are not very observant). Compare with the following, and much less bewildering:

Which surroundings best describe the bank/every bank you go to?

The/every bank I go to is not near a bank.

(said by someone in Geneva, say), or:
Which surroundings best describe the location of a bank?

A bank is typically not near a bank./Most banks are not near banks.

The only way to restore sense to the anomalous reply is as an "echo-answer", meaning:

The person you are calling "the man who discovered fire" was not a man.

But note the use of 'person' here: I could no more say, except in jest,

? The man you're calling 'the man who discovered fire' is not a man.

? Most men you're calling 'most men who discovered fired' were not men.
Things just get worse from here. Compare the uncontroversially well-formed:

The man who invented ASL was not an American, he was Laurent Clerc.

with the following:

* The man who first discovered fire was not a man, she was Lucy.

There is simply no way to rescue this construction:

* The man who answered the door was not Peter Geach, he was Elizabeth Anscombe.

* The man who answered the door was not Peter Geach, she was Elizabeth Anscombe.
The Keystone: Double standards and the contingent a priori

If the dual use (or homonymy) of 'man' were all there is to it, then the word 'man' would function exactly as does the word 'bank'. And just as we say:

The bank$$$ I went to was not near a bankH2O.

A bank$$$ is not (typically) near a bankH2O.

Most banks$$$ are not near banksH2O.
we ought to be able to say (non-metaphorically) the very unnatural:

? The/every man who discovered fire was (surely) not a man.

? A/any man who discovers fire is (typically) not a man.

? Most/all/some men who discovered fire were not men.
(Note that this is not the same as saying:

The/every/some man who discovered fire was not a man.

which, like
The/every/some bank$$$ I go to is not a bank$$$.
is well-formed but tautologically false.)
Compare with:
The/every person who discovered fire was (surely) not a man.

A/any person who discovers fire is (typically) not a man.

Most/all/some people who discovered fire were not men.
What the above anomalous constructions show is that 'man' as a sex-indeterminate term is a most peculiar one indeed. Let me hammer home its peculiarity.

It is not just that 'man' may be used in a context where the sex of the referent is indeterminate. As the following sentences show, at least sometimes it can only be used when the sex of the referent is indeterminate. Thus it is anomalous to say:

* The/every man who discovered fire was (surely) a woman.

* A/any man who discovers fire is (typically) a sensitive woman.

* Most/all/some men who discovered fire were African women.
The anomaly is revealed by the humor present in the sentence:
The best man for the job is a woman.
Compare with the non-humorous:
The best person for the job is a woman.
These anomalies by themselves would pose no problem if it weren't for the fact that when the sex of the referent is determinately male, we can say (without humor):

The/every man who discovered fire was (surely) a man.

A/any man who discovers fire is (typically) a virile man.

Most/all/some men who discovered fire were African men.

Indeed, part of the problem is that such sentences have almost the flavor of analytic statements. This flavor is not due simply to the identical appearance of the lexical items 'man' and 'man', witness the lack of such an effect with 'bank':

All banks are near banks.

is ambiguous, but on no substitution is it deviant.

Let me illustrate why this poses a problem by means of an example which doesn't pose such a problem.

We have the old word 'person', which applies to any human male or female, and in the plural to any combination thereof, whose sex may or may not be known to the speaker. Here's a new word, 'ferson'. 'Ferson' isdef a word which applies to any human male or female, and in the plural to any combination thereof, whose sex is unknown to the speaker, in the context of utterance. Thus we can say:

The person who first discovered fire was a woman / a man.

The persons who first discovered fire were my mother and father.

The ferson who first discovered fire was observant.

The fersons who first discovered fire were observant.

but we cannot say:

* The ferson who first discovered fire was a woman / a man.

* The fersons who first discovered fire were my mother and father.

because we cannot say such things without revealing our knowledge of the sex of the ferson.

There is nothing wrong with either a sex-indeterminate word like 'person', or with a sex-indeterminate word like 'ferson', in the sense that neither of them is discriminatory towards one sex or the other. But it is a mistake to think that sex-indeterminate 'man' is just like them. If it were like 'ferson', 'man' would be inapplicable when the referent is known by the speaker to be male. But 'man' is clearly applicable in such a context:

* The fersons who first discovered fire were all male.

The men who first discovered fire were all male.

If it were like 'person', 'man' would be applicable when the referent is known by the speaker to be (exclusively) female. But 'man' is not applicable in such a context:

The persons in this convent are all female.

* The men in this convent are all female.
The word 'man' is an unhappy alliance between 'person' and 'ferson'. It purports to apply, like 'person' and 'ferson', to people of all sexes indiscriminately. But this is a misrepresentation.

'Man' behaves like 'ferson' to rule out referents known by the speaker to be (exclusively) female, but reverts to behaving like 'person' to rule in referents known by the speaker to be (exclusively) male. Apparently with 'man', what's good for the goose ain't good for the gander.

It is difficult not to notice that the only case excluded by the use of so-called neutral 'man' is the case where the referent is known to be a woman, or in the plural, a group of women. (One is reminded of old drinking establishments with one entrance for men and another for "Ladies with Escorts", but none for women by themselves.) Is it any wonder that women feel excluded?

This is a linguistic instance of a double standard. Curiously, it is the only such sort of double standard that is readily apparent in the language. Even 'animal' (which is like 'man' is to 'woman' in its subsumption of humans) does not function like that at all. More curious still is the striking resemblance of this linguistic double standard to the sort occurring outside language, the sort all too familiar to women and to observant men. Indeed the resemblance is such that it is difficult to resist seeing it as a linguistic mirror of a social reality.

The semantics of 'person' and 'ferson' are simple. They both denote: men or women or men-and-women. 'Ferson' differs from 'person' only in carrying an implicature that the speaker does not know which it is.11 The implicature in question is non-cancelable, as witnessed by the fact that we cannot say (without violating the implicature):

* The ferson was giving a lecture

(but I don't mean to imply that I don't know the sex of the ferson in question).

This would suggest (if Grice is right that all conversational implicatures are cancelable) that we are not dealing with a conversational, but rather with a conventional implicature.12

'Man', on the other hand, has quite a complicated semantics, much more complicated than we are reflexively aware of, judging from the popularity of the misrepresentation of 'man' as simply having a sex-neutral usage. The semantics of 'man' is disjunctive. It means:

if referent known:  /  {M} or {M & F} and  /  {F}

man =df <

if referent unknown:  /  {M} or {M & F} or {F}

This meaning convention is a strange one indeed. Its weirdness alone raises suspicion.
Applied to a singular referent, equivalent generalizations of this semantic description, presented together, yield an impressive impression of the place of women in contexts of utterance:

if known to speaker then not female

the/a man I saw this morning

all/most men in my class
if female then unknown to speaker

the/a man who produced the oldest Peruvian textile

all/most men who perfected weaving techniques in 300 BC

unknown to speaker unless male
the/a man who came up with the idea

all/most men who drove a Mustang in the 60's


All jesting aside, we are a long way from the naive sentiment that 'man' is simply synonymous with 'person' or with 'human'.

Let us consider to which category of implicature belongs this male or unknown. According to Grice, a conversational implicature exhibits "a high degree of nondetachability". Grice's test for detachability is that it be possible to find another way of saying the same thing "(or approximately the same thing)" which lacks the implicature.13 In the case of 'man', there clearly is such a substitute available in the words 'person' and 'human'.

The first person to set foot on the moon was happy (but I

don't mean to imply that I don't know the sex of the person in

question, indeed she was a woman / he was a man.)

The first human to set foot on the moon was happy (but I don't mean to imply that I don't know the sex of the human in question, indeed she was a woman / he was a man.)

The question of cancelability is interesting. The fact that it is acceptable to say:

The next man to set foot on the moon will be happy (but I don't mean to imply that I don't know the sex of the man in question, indeed he’ll be a man)
shows that the implicative structure of 'man' differs from that of 'ferson'. This, in conjunction with the fact that (at least according to Dawkins and Dummett) it is also acceptable to say:

The next man to set foot on the moon will behappy (but I don't mean to imply that he’ll be a man, indeed I just don't know)

shows that each of the disjuncts in the implicature is separately cancelable. However, the disjunctive implicature as a whole is not cancelable, as witnessed by the deviance of the following attempt to make the referent known and female:

* The next man to set foot on the moon will behappy (but I don't mean

to imply that I don't know the sex of the man in question, indeed

she’ll be a woman).
It appears then that here too we are dealing with a conventional implicature. Indeed, evidence suggests that the constraint against 'man' applied to a known female referent is a deep implicature, part of the semantic core of the word. If it weren't, then the following sentences, where the speaker clearly does not know the referent to be female, would not be deviant:

* Why do you believe that the/every/any man who will set foot on the

moon will not be a man?

* I don't know that the/every/any man who will set foot on the moon will not be a man.
Why do you believe that the/every/any man who will set foot on the moon will be a man/a tall man/a man with a mustache?
VS * Why do you believe that the/every/any man who will set foot on the moon will be a woman/a tall woman/a woman with short hair?

[not as echo-answer]


I don't know that the/every/any man who will set foot on the moon will

be a man/a tall man/a man with a mustache.
VS * I don't know that the/every/any man who will set foot on the moon will be a woman/a tall woman/a woman with short hair.

[not as echo-answer]

where the members of each pair are respectively well-formed and deviant. The implicature male or unknown is not just a superficial function of language use, but a deep fact about the meaning of 'man' in the language.

This double standard is pernicious. Let me illustrate why this is so.

Here's a question:

Where do Mary and Bill live?

Here's an answer for it:


The question subterraneously looks something like this:

WH Mary and Bill live ___________ ?

9 4444444444444444444444 8

with the WH-phrase questioning, in this case, the locative complement. ('Do'-insertion is just a thingumajig we can forget about.) The reason the answer is so short is that it practices ellipsis on all but the blank. A more formal reply would fill in the blank while repeating the subterranean structure:

Mary and Bill live downtown .

A reply of intermediate formality would omit only some of the words:

They live downtown.

Now back to the point. The following question can be asked (or so the story goes at any rate) in a sex-indeterminate way by someone unfamiliar with aviation history. The question as posed respects the conventional implicature of 'man' (since the sex of the questioned element is unknown to the questioner):

Who is the most/an intrepid man in aviation history?

The informal answer to this question:

Beryl Markham.

is just elliptical for the formal answer:
The most/an intrepid man in aviation history is Beryl Markham.
But since the question can only be answered by someone familiar with the who's who of aviation history, a consequence of the reply (courtesy of the conventional implicature of 'man') is the presumption by the audience that the speaker thinks that Beryl Markham is a man and, unless the speaker is not to be trusted, that Beryl Markham must be a man. A speaker who knew Beryl Markham to be a woman wouldn't (under typical circumstances) answer the question that way.

Note the naturalness of continuing the dialogue with an extra speaker saying:

That's funny, I thought it was a woman.

(Note also the naturalness of using 'it' in this context. (!))

The presumption that Beryl Markham is a man follows from the implicature that the questioned element is either male or unknown to the speaker, augmented by the pragmatic assumption that it is not unknown to the speaker. This presumption can be overridden by someone's collateral knowledge that Beryl Markham is in fact a woman. What is overridden in this case is the presumption that the speaker is to be trusted or taken literally. The implicature itself is untouched. Likewise, if the answer had been: Mary Markham, then the collateral knowledge needed to override the presumption could have been deduced from worldly knowledge that men are not usually named Mary. A speaker might take advantage of the fact that the audience can be expected to have such collateral knowledge, and speak loosely or jokingly in answering the question this way.

But there is nevertheless something bordering on the stupid-sounding in the question-answer sequence:

Q: Who is the most/an intrepid man in aviation history?

A: ? Why, Mary Markham, for sure.

And there is even less of a place in discourse for the intermediate answer:
A: * She's Mary Markham.
Just to hammer the point home, consider the following:

Q: Which property best describes the most/some intrepid man

in aviation history?

A: * She's spunky.

or even more absurd:
A: * He's spunky [sex-neutral 'he'],

(and that's no doubt why he's given birth to the even more intrepid

human cannonball Daisy Markham).
The above discourse context demonstrates the perniciousness of the implicature carried by so-called sex-neutral 'man' (as well as by so-called sex-neutral uses of masculine pronouns). What such an implicature does, in any context where the speaker is rightly presumed to speak truly, is to inform the audience a priori, that is, using only its understanding of the resources of the language, of a very contingent fact, wherever it is one, that the person who is the best aviator is male. This is what I'm calling "the perverse contingent a priori". It's less exciting than Kripke's, I admit, but it affects the lives of far more people.

Let me put this point a different way. Suppose I say:

Every man in aviation history was intrepid.
It is a contingent fact (if it is one at all) that any, let alone all, aviators in history were intrepid. It is also a contingent fact that aviation history has not been the exclusive domain of women, that is, that at least one male participated in it. So both what the statement says, and what the statement implicates, if true, are contingently true. Admittedly, what the statement says, namely that every man in aviation history was intrepid, does not convey information that can be known a priori to be true. If true, this fact is discoverable only a posteriori. However, a long as what the statement says is true, something that is not said in the original statement (on the “sex-neutral” reading), namely that at least one aviator is male, can be known to be true without further recourse to experience, using only one’s understanding of the language.14

I have used examples with 'man' to make the point. The point is no different, and equally pernicious, in the case of masculine pronouns bound to sex-neutral quantifiers. In any typical context of utterance, the sentences:

Everyone in this philosophy department should congratulate himself on his good mind.
Every philosopher in this department should congratulate himself on his good mind.

Whoever is in this philosophy department should congratulate himself on his good mind.

by virtue of their language, predispose the audience to believe the very contingent fact that there is at least one male in the philosophy department. (To get a full sense of the perversity of this, just imagine that the language predisposed you a priori to believe that there is at least one female in the philosophy department!) The language predisposes us to see maleness everywhere, even when it is there quite contingently. Indeed, even when it is absurd.

The following is a true story.15 A gynecologist was giving a lecture about his practice in the following terms: "When a patient comes to me for birth control, I always first recommend to him the IUD. I reassure him that insertion will not cause him pain..." This prompted someone in the audience to ask: "Just how many men come to you requesting IUD's and just where do you insert them?" Dummett's example of the absurdity of using 'she' as of common gender ("If an Athenian general had been asked this question, she would have replied...") surely pales by comparison.

It is high time to let go of the illusion that 'man' and his accomplice 'he' are equitable representatives of women.

Humans are people too

It is simply false that English manages "without discomfort" with a dual use of the single word 'man'. Indeed, as the above examples show, it is even false that English manages without discomfort with a single use (the so-called sex-indeterminate use) of 'man', given the latter's thought-provoking semantics.

Of the various anomalies witnessed above, several are the direct result of the use of 'man' in the sex-indeterminate sense. All of these would be precluded by the use of 'human' (alternatively 'person') instead of 'man', when it is the property of humanness or that of personhood, and not that of manhood, which is intended.

This is not to say that such an emasculation of the language would suffice to rid the language of the perverse "contingent a priori". The double standard illustrated above and manifest in 'man' is present in all forms of masculine language doing "sex-neutral" double duty. It is present wherever masculine pronouns are used in allegedly sex-neutral senses. It is present wherever allegedly neutral locutions like 'the professor', 'the mayor', 'the president', 'the patient' bind masculine pronouns. I discuss pronouns in Part II. So let me restrict the present remarks to 'human'.

My proposal that 'human' satisfies Dummett's criteria for a "sensible or dignified replacement" for (so-called sex-indeterminate) 'man' is not without flaw. The strikes against it are of two sorts: the passing and the permanent.

The first sort of complaint will be that the nominalization of the adjective 'human' will make people cringe the first few times they hear it. Well, so what? Most people cringe the first time they hear about sex. It is important to realize that there is nothing fixed about the lexical category to which a word belongs. Words are constantly being reanalyzed into different syntactic classes. English has been nominalizing verbs and adjectives (as well as verbalizing and adjectivizing nouns) since time immemorial. We all speak of malcontents, deaf-mutes, jerks, and of Madonna as a natural, why, we even (all of us eventually without cringing) input, output and access information and nuance it a little so as not to impact the chair of the council too hard. Since 'human', evaluated on worthy criteria, is clearly --or so I hope to have shown-- more dignified than 'man', the only sensible reply to the complaint of unfamiliarity is: This too will pass.

The more permanent drawbacks of 'human' are due to various quirks of syntax. For instance, it requires pluralizing previously singular noun phrases, so

A History of Man on Earth


Man in Space

A History of Humans on Earth


Humans in Space
Unfortunately, pluralization comes at a cost of ruining not only certain rhymes, as in

Man proposes, God disposes

(turning it into the flat 'Humans propose, God disposes') but also of destroying the odd pun, as with Hamlet's

Man delights not me, ...No, nor woman neither

(though maybe heavy stress on WOmen restores it...).16

Can this really be the sort of thing that's in the back of Dummett's mind when he wants "feminists to acknowledge that there is much to set against the change"? That their case is not strong enough "to justify the price they ask us to pay"?17 Disambiguation of the language, a secure sense of inclusion for women when indeed they are included, and the denunciation of a false a priori, ...all for the price of a few puns?! Is it really that important to Dummett that letting feminists have their way will "ruin [an] immortal line spoken by Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot"?!18

Dummett's worries about down-the-line recoverability of the meaning of the Bible and other old texts are undercut by the happy fact that 'man' as a generic singular is a complete syntactic oddity. This is certain to make constructions in which it appears noticeably marked, and to ready the reader for an anachronism (the sort of feeling one gets when one comes across syntactically precious constructions like "Put not your trust in princes..."). Curiously, no count noun other than 'man' enjoys this privilege in English, except for the (very occasional) use of generic singular 'woman', as in the immortal line sung by John Lennon:19

Woman is the nigger of the world.

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