No sooner had I returned from Paris, jet-lagged to deliver a difficult two and a half hour lecture on the mathematics of Marx's labor theory of value than March Madness hit. I am sure my American readers will understand that as a resident of Chapel Hill, I am required by city ordinances to be a fan of the UNC Chapel Hill basketball team, and to root, secondarily, for Duke in all circumstances in which they are not playing UNC. This, plus two weeks of accumulated mail, has kept me from my principal responsibility, viz. this blog. Herewith a first effort to catch up. K. Reader posted the following comment to my Parable of the Butcher and the Analytic Philosopher:
"I am an avid reader of your blog. As a non-native speaker I am fascinated by your use of "he" and "she". Are there any rules? I like the fact that the butcher is "she" and the philosopher "he" - at least in this post."
There are no rules, but perhaps I can tell a story to explain my own practice. Forty years ago, I was running a small interdisciplinary left-wing undergraduate major that I had started called Social Thought and Political Economy. I created a Freshman/Sophomore course called "Introduction to Social Theory" as a general background for students interested in the major. One day, as I was lecturing, some students challenged my constant and exclusive use of the masculine pronoun. I thought about their criticism, and decided they were right. What to do? I could, of course, studiously avoid the singular for the plural ["If people choose to disobey the law, they may risk prosecution" rather than "If a person chooses to disobey the law, he may risk prosecution."] But that is clumsy. And I am constitutionally unable to use the singular in the first part of a sentence and the plural in the second part ["If a person chooses to disobey the law, they may risk prosecution."] So, after some reflection, I decided simply to alternate masculine and feminine pronouns unless the subject dictated one or the other [I did not refer to Marx as "she" half the time.] This is not hard once you get used to it, and it solved the problem nicely. Over time, I have backed off from rigid alternation, but I continue to mix them up. The butcher in my parable just came out female. It could as easily have been the other way about.