Saturday, December 12, 2009

On generic masculine language

Returning to Freud for a moment, one thing that stands out from his writing is the sexist language; e.g., "according to them, man is wholly good", and so on. This isn't surprising. He was writing in 1929, and everyone wrote like this. It was always "man", always "he" or "his", etc. Though I've always avoided this myself, my take on it used to be that it was primarily a quirk of the language, and I admit that I felt that people often read too much into it (I believe the sexist language I'm sure I used, if only to myself, was that people overreacted). In certain instances, perhaps I wasn't wrong. It might not be worth getting too upset about the generic "he" in a lot of older writing (not that it's up to me to decide, which is why I've never much argued the point). But I guess it depends on what the writing is about. In Freud, as in Nietzsche, it's the inquiry into origins and the bold claims about human nature that drives the point home, finally, so that I can see it better. Perhaps it helps that I come to their writings late, already believing in a female-centered view of human cultural development, and already interested in exploring what has been left out of the dominant historical narratives (namely, women). For not only do they use the masculine generic pronouns, not only does "man" stand in for "human", but in the context of these claims, we are told about the actions of men, who among other things have wives and, possibly, mothers. Wives and mothers who apparently have little agency of their own. They are certainly not interesting, except insofar as they can be seen to have had effects, probably negative effects, on men.

I have elsewhere already criticized Freud and Nietzsche for their near-exclusive focus on men in this regard. In that post, I noted that it seems that Marx and Engels come off much better in their work on origins. And yet, they certainly do not get a free pass. In another post, I observed that a reason we're only lately getting around to some decent understanding of such areas as childhood development is because science has for so long been the province of men, and science and philosophy have privileged the adult, male standpoint. History, too. Men did things, and that was that. It is my belief that we need to focus more on women, and gender, if we hope to understand anything about how we got here, and if we hope to find better ways to live.


Jacob Russell said...

Given the similar questions that come up in dealing with O'Connor, what for you is the critical distinction between how you would judge a philosophical work and a novel, poem or story? Or is there?

Richard said...

That's a good question, Jacob. I think with philosophy I straddle the line, wanting to read it for what it's telling me, as if it were science or history, and wanting also to read it for the texture and style of the presentation. The two modes at times get in the way of each other. I'm not sure if that answers your question!