When Not to Use Inclusive Language

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In a summary section before a reading on Plato in her Voices of Ancient Philosophy, Julia Annas has the following sentence about Plato (p.235):

He always avoids writing from authority in his own person, since it is important to him that the reader think about ideas for herself rather than accept them on the writer's authority.

Did Plato really expect women to be reading his dialogues? I kind of doubt it. If not, this sentence seems as bad as "If anyone is a misogynist, she might have a hard time accepting women as equal to men." Plato might have thought it would be within the realm of possibility that women would read his work, but it might also be within the realm of possibility that a woman could be a misogynist. It's not as bad as, "Anyone considering having an abortion really ought to think through his reasons for doing so before acting rashly", but it still seems to me to be the wrong sort of place for inclusive language. It's when the speaker genuinely intends to include people who are female that alternating, inclusive, or whatever sort of device meant not to sound exclusively male is appropriate.

4 Comments

While I do see your point, it seems to me that in this case you are overly critical because the point of the sentence is not so much concerning who Plato thought his readers might be, but more about Plato's style in putting his views across in his writings. I do agree that it does read a little awkwardly but that could also be because we often do not think about using inclusive language in our communication and often non-inclusive language doesn't necessarily mean the intention of the writer/speaker is non-inclusive.

But the abortion example shows that using a masculine pronoun in some cases just sounds ridiculous, and the thought of Plato considering a generic reader who turns out to be female is at least in that general direction.

Likely true about Plato and women...although I should note that there were a couple of women who, famously, were members of the Academy and so it may have been that there were women, even back then, reading the dialogues (with Plato's knowledge of such a thing happening).

I was under the impression that the Stoics' welcoming of women into the Stoa was pretty much unprecedented. It would still strike me as odd to think that Plato would be thinking of women when thinking of generic readers of his dialogues, and the sentence as constructed seems to be getting into his intentions.

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