Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Names in Philosophical Examples

The most notorious men in philosophy used to be Smith and Jones. For example:

Smith, who works in the country, has promised his wife to be in the city at four o'clock. It is now shortly before half past three, and Smith is seated at a small table in the country airport.... (Lehrer & Taylor 1965)

... suppose that Jones has been charged with Smith's murder and has been placed on trial.... (Donnellan 1966)

Suppose, for example, both that Smith is to-day legally (morally) obligated to pay Jones $500.00 and that a week from to-day Smith will murder Jones.... (Castaneda 1967-1968).

Concerning such a man we can make many successful predictions about his future actions like: "Smith will never accept a bribe, corrupt the innocent, commit murder or theft...." (Grant 1952)

In the 1980s and 1990s, the culture of philosophy changed, and first names became more standard for these types of examples. Also, a wider range of names were used, though my impression is that "Alice" and "Bob" were common favorites:

Al wishes to show Bob how much he appreciates his philosophical help over the years and he believes that an excellent way of doing this is to send Bob an autographed copy of his new book.... (Mele 1988).

Suppose that none of three women, Alice, Beth, and Carla, has a special relationship with any of the others, and accordingly, none has special responsibilities to any of the others. (Scheffler 1999)

To many, John has always seemed a model husband. He almost invariably shows great sensitivity to his wife's needs, and he willingly goes out of his way to meet them. (Railton 1984)

"Smith" and "Jones" were always assumed to be male. In contrast, by the 1980s, philosophy was opening to a mix of male and female example protagonists.

But there's one thing "Smith", "Jones", "Alice", and "Bob" all have in common. They are bland. Bland, here, is not entirely a good thing. "Bland" is culturally relative. By choosing these names, 20th century philosophers were conveying certain ethnic expectations to their readers -- that their readers, too, will find these names bland, that they will think of people with these names as "like us". The hypothetical worlds of 20th century Anglophone philosophy were worlds populated almost entirely by Bob Smiths and Alice Joneses. Someone with a name like "Rasheed" might understandably find this somewhat alienating. Does he really belong in bed with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, "considering the possibilities"?

Also, if you do see these names as vanilla -- vanilla after vanilla gets a bit boring, don't you think? Even just on aesthetic grounds, why not mix it up?

Recently, philosophers have begun drawing their names from a broader ethnic range. But still, few of us regularly mix Chinese, Indian, and Arabic names into our examples.

Some care is warranted. If "Smith" commits a murder, that's one thing. If one "arbitrarily" picks "Jamal" as the name of the murderer, that's a bit different. One could try to go against the grain, making "Gertrude" the murderer and "Jamal" the aging florist, but that can seem forced and cartoonish, if done too often. My wife enjoys psychoanalyzing my name choices: Why is "Juliet" my racist and "Kaipeng" my Stoic?

One approach might be to find some list of the most popular names in the world and draw randomly from it. I kind of like that idea. It will generate a lot of "Mohammad", "Qian", and "Aadhya" -- possibly a refreshing change, if done properly.

But one probably needn't aim for total global egalitarianism in name choice. If a Swedish philosopher uses a representative mix of Swedish names, well, there's something fun about that. I wouldn't want to insist that she always use "Maria" and "Fatima" instead. And maybe for me, as a Californian, I could sample Californian names -- as long as I don't pretend that California is populated only by white, non-immigrant, native English speakers.

If you're lucky enough to teach at a large, diverse university like my own, a wonderful source of diverse names might be your own student rosters. Sorting names randomly from my largest recent class, these 25 pop out near the top: Rainita, Acenee, Desiree, Rani, Marisa, Guadalupe, Vanseaka, Cameron, Joseph, Christian, Ibrahim, Christina, Jasmine, Marie, Jennifer, Stephen, Philip, Hsin En, Timothy, Elio, Ivan, Deyanira, Izamar, Danielle, and Dennis Yoon. What a wonderful set of names! California's future philosophers, I hope.

Hey, you go do it some other way if you want. I'm not insisting. Maybe in a few days I'll think this is a totally stupid idea and I won't even do it this way myself. But if you do stick with Bob Smith and Alice Jones, could you least do it ironically?

[image source]


Tim said...

This is a comment from a teaching point of view: While teaching logic I once talked about a Gustav who doesn’t accept modus ponens. By chance I noticed that one student, well, wasn’t that happy with my name choice because his name was Gustav and apparently he felt that the example was about him. In contrast, no Alice and no Bob thinks that an example using their names is about them. Since then I’m wary with uncommon names when teaching. For my logic notes and exercises I now almost exclusively use names of former TAs; that’s not a perfect solution, but it ensures at least some diversity (male/female, names associated with different backgrounds).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, good point. One does want to be careful about that. I'm not sure that your student "Bob" would be entirely indifferent to your use of his name as a placeholder, but probably he'd find that a little more familiar than Gustav would.

This is one possible advantage of explicit randomness from a master list. By being plain about that as the origin of your name choice, you reduce concerns that you've insulted someone by choosing their name supposedly arbitrarily but in fact non-accidentally.

Carl Johnson said...

For a question on a logic test, I like the idea of choosing randomly from a list of popular names, but for a paper, I prefer the simplicity that comes from alphabetical names: Alma, Bogdan, Cheng, Devadatta…

robotaholic said...

Why not use "person A, person C, or professor X, Charles Xavier lol...or a full name so that there is low probably you'd guess 3 random names in the proper order which happen to correspond to a student's name?

Anonymous said...

I'm a fan of Charles Travis' 'SId' and 'Pia'.

Teresa said...

I have used names from TV shows, movies and novels, usually ones that feature a diverse group of characters. The Wire is great for this and also a great source of examples.

Unknown said...

In philosophy are Settings primary to the protagonist, deuteragonist and tritagonist...

David Duffy said...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

David -- Ha! I wonder if Alice and Bob in philosophy traces back to cryptography, then.

Carrie Figdor said...

One of the really delightful aspects of Uriah Kriegel's book The Sources of Intentionality is that he used so many different multicultural non-bland names throughout the book. I don't think he used the same name twice (across different examples). It was so refreshing!