Biased Evaluative Descriptions

Journal of the American Philosophical Association:1-18 (forthcoming)
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This paper identifies a type of linguistic phenomenon new to feminist philosophy of language: biased evaluative descriptions. Biased evaluative descriptions (BEDs) are descriptions whose well-intended positive surface meanings are inflected with implicitly biased content. Biased evaluative descriptions are characterized by three main features: (i) they have roots in implicit bias or benevolent sexism, (ii) their application is counterfactually unstable across dominant and subordinate social groups, and (iii) they encode stereotypes. After giving several different kinds of examples of biased evaluative descriptions, I distinguish them from similar linguistic concepts, including backhanded compliments, slurs, insults, epithets, pejoratives, and dog-whistles. I suggest that the framework of traditional Gricean implicature cannot account for BEDs. I discuss some challenges to the distinctiveness and evaluability of BEDs, including intersectional social identities. I conclude by discussing the social significance and moral status of BEDs. Identifying BEDs is important for a variety of social contexts, from the very general and broad (political speeches) to the very particular and small (bias in academic hiring).

Author's Profile

Sara Bernstein
University of Notre Dame


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