(T)horny Platonists

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From Bryan Van Norden:

There is a funny story about a recent publication of mine.  The Chinese translation of my essay, "Why Are Platonists So Horny? What Murdoch’s 'The Nice and the Good' Can Teach Us" just came out.  However, my hard-working translator mistakenly rendered "horny" in my original title (sèmí 色迷) as "thorny" (jíshǒu 棘手)! I told the translator, and he said that he will fix the mistake, so in case it is changed soon online, a screenshot of the original is copied below.

In addition, if you are curious, here are links to the original English essay and the Chinese translation.

Selected readings

Update: The Chinese translation has already been revised, with "horny" (hàosè 好色) replacing "thorny" (jíshǒu 棘手).


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 4:50 am

    I am probably demonstrating both my Britishness and my age, but I found Professor van Norden's citation of Iris Murdoch as bare "Murdoch" in the title of his article very confusing, and perhaps a tad disrespectful. Within the body of an academic paper, it is, of course, completely normal to refer to other authors merely by surname regardless of sex, but in the context of the title of a paper, I (and perhaps for others of my generation and nationality) expect female authors to be referred to as <Given name> <Surname> rather than just <Surname>, the latter invariably suggesting a male author. So, "Agatha Christie" rather than "Christie", "Iris Murdoch" rather than "Murdoch" and so on.

    In the present case, I initially interpreted "Murdoch" as referring to the (male) newspaper publisher of that name, and only when I searched for and read Professor van Norden's original article did I realise that he was referring to Iris Murdoch. With the benefit of hindsight, I now see that Iris Murdoch is also mentioned in the Chinese text, but failed to spot that at first glance.

  2. David Marjanović said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 7:09 am

    the latter invariably suggesting a male author

    Maybe Van Norden consciously tried to avoid that.

    I must say, though, that I've never been taught this convention either. It reminds me of the 1950s paper by "Theodore H. Eaton, Jr., and Peggy Lou Stewart"…

  3. Bryan W Van Norden said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 7:24 am

    I think an interesting question is how to translate "horny" into Chinese. "Horny" in English is colloquial and vulgar but not (to my ear) obscene. My translator changed 棘手 to 好色, but I'm not sure that is the best translation. One Chinese friend suggested 发骚, another suggested 闷骚 ("because you are talking about Platonists," they said), and one online search suggested 色迷迷. — Bryan

  4. Bryan W Van Norden said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 9:41 am

    >>I am probably demonstrating both my Britishness and my age…


  5. Terry K. said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 10:09 am

    Seems to me that if the identity of the person named isn't obvious from just the last name, then the full name should be used on first mention, regardless of the gender of the person referred to. I don't think, though, a full name is necessary in a headline (though it might sometimes be advisable); one can get that from the article.

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 10:20 am

    Terry K.: I agree. In some contexts, maybe one could expect pretty much all readers to know which Murdoch wrote The Nice and the Good, but that would have to be a pretty specialized context to work in Chinese.

    David Marjanović:

    I must say, though, that I've never been taught this convention either. It reminds me of the 1950s paper by "Theodore H. Eaton, Jr., and Peggy Lou Stewart"…

    Because it wasn't "Ted Eaton and Margaret L. Stewart"? "Peggy Lou" might have been her legal name for all I know. If not, I imagine it was her preference, but I don't know whether any men published under nicknames at the time in whatever field that was.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 10:28 am

    Bill || William Jefferson Clinton

    Jimmy || James Earl Carter, Jr.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 10:42 am

    I don't know that "Murdoch's" adds any value to the subhed. Googling suggests there aren't multiple works of roughly equivalent prominence or salience titled "The Nice and the Good," so there's no need to disambiguate there. In a generic context in 21st century English, bare "Murdoch" generally means Rupert unless otherwise specified. Rupert seems a bit unlikely in this context, but that by itself doesn't mean Iris is the immediately obvious fallback default Murdoch, unless you already happen to know that "The Nice and the Good" is the title of one of her novels. But that means the "Murdoch's" adds no information for you, unless perhaps you had half-forgotten that book and the mention jogs your memory.

    Now, if this piece had appeared as an article in a hard-copy academic journal where in context (because of the journal's focus) anyone mentioned by name in a title was likely to be a philosopher, a novelist, or a novelist interested in philosophical themes, bare "Murdoch" might have been sufficient to evoke Iris as the default, but standalone pieces on the internet lack that sort of context. So I think the better choices would have been "Iris Murdoch's" or no authorial identification at all in the subhed.

    I am aware of the older norm (maybe it lingered longer in the UK) that Philip Taylor adverts to, but I do not think he can reasonably expect most 21st century writers to adhere to it, so he will be consistently led into confusion if he interprets new texts on the tacit assumption that the writers are adhering to that convention. There are certainly instances where a female writer is the most prominent bearer of a surname. To stick to 20th-century British examples, unspecified Woolf (absent contrary context) is likely to be Virginia and unspecified Anscombe is likely to be Elizabeth (or G.E.M., if you prefer). "Mrs. Woolf" or "Miss Anscombe"* would add a certain old-fashioned note of politeness (although no doubt some would reframe it as patronizing and thus offensive), but probably not be necessary for disambiguation.

    *Consider e.g. Erik Stenius' 1967 article titled "Miss Anscombe's Retractation," which consistently refers to her with the gendered honorific while referring to Ludwig Wittgenstein as bare "Wittgenstein," an asymmetry that essentially no one at the time would have found bothersome.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 11:03 am

    The 1960 Eaton & Stewart paper David M. mentions is very formal in how it refers to third parties. I.e., from the introduction "A slab of shale obtained in 1955 by Mr. Russell R. Camp from a Pennsylvanian lagoon-deposit in Anderson County, Kansas, has yielded in the laboratory a skeleton of the small amphibian Hesperoherpeton garnettense Peabody (1958). … The specimen was discovered in the slab by Miss Sharon K. Moriarty, and was further cleaned by the authors. Mr. Merton C. Bowman assisted with the illustrations. We are indebted to Dr. Robert W. Wilson for critical comments."*

    Given that, I would wager a modest amount that "Peggy Lou Stewart" was the second-named author's full legal name. Eaton was a professor (born 1907); let's assume that Stewart was grad student born let's say 1935. "Margaret" was the 8th most popular name for U.S. girls born that year, but in addition to the subset of those Margarets who were known in practice as Peggy, "Peggy" was itself the 36th-most-common name.

    *By contrast, here's some asymmetry in the acknowledgements section of a scientific "Information CIrcular" put out by a federal agency in the late 1940's: "Dr. R.E. Brewer [NB my grandfather] and W.L. Ruckes, Bureau of Mines, and Dr. John O'Brochta and Miss Edith Sullivan, Koppers Co, Inc., assisted the author in editing the report. The illustrations were prepared by members of the Graphic Services Section, Bureau of Mines, under the supervision of Louis F. Perry." So if you were female you got an honorific just because; if you were a male you got no honorific unless you had a doctorate.

  10. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 12:05 pm

    There is an old practice in mystery novels of referring to male detectives by surname and female ones by forename, such as Elizabeth George's (Thomas) Lynley and Barbara (Havers), or Peter Robinson's (Alan) Banks and Annie (Cabbot). The exceptions are found in the recent novels of Ian Rankin and Michael Connelly, with (Siobhan) Clarke and (Renée) Ballard, respectively.

  11. Topher Cooper said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 12:44 pm

    Terry K. "if the identity of the person named isn't obvious from just the last name, then the full name should be used on first mention."

    Years ago I wrote a long letter to Physics World. When I received requested corrections most of it concerned the apparent style requirement that first mention of an individual required a full name — without the "isn't obvious from just the last name" exception. I accepted the requirement that "Newton" in "Newton's laws of motion", "Galileo" (actually a first name), "Michelson and Morley" in "the Michelson and Morley experiments", and other names appearing in the name of experiments, laws, principles etc. needed to be expanded to their full names, but it did seem odd.

  12. Topher Cooper said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 12:59 pm

    The speculative fiction writer Anne McCaffrey was once compiling a collection of her short stories under the working title of "Get of the Unicorn" (for those who are not native English speakers, "get" is here a somewhat archaic term, surviving in the field of animal breeding, meaning "progeny"). Some typist, who apparently did not recognize the usage, "corrected" it in the publisher's contract as "Get Off the Unicorn". When this was presented to the author with apologies and a guarantee that it would be revised, she decided to let it stand and added to her selection of stories and her introductory notes material that would (kinda) tie it together into a theme, and it was published (and was very popular, with multiple printings) under the "revised" title.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 1:22 pm

    I am mildly disappointed that Prof. Van Norden's article does not employ the lexemes "horny" or "horniness" anywhere in its text, although I suppose I can see the marketing upside of having the title be in a more colloquial register than the body of piece. But perhaps if the translator had needed to deal with the same word in context in running prose he would not have bollixed it up in the title?

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 1:31 pm

    Almost 40 years ago, I was told by some German boys around my own (teenaged) age that the German idiom "[ein] Bock zu haben" (more or less "to have [a] goat") was equivalent to the English idiom "to be horny," which seemed perfectly plausible. But now that I go back to check that it appears that either they were putting me on or (perhaps even more plausibly) they misunderstood the considerably narrower scope of the English idiom, putting them at risk of potential embarrassment if they used it in conversation with L1 Anglophones. Bonus fact is that at least according to this explanation the German idiom has an eggcornish reanalysis, swapping in the normal German word "Bock" for the Romany-via-Rotwelsch "bokh" ("hunger"). A proper Platonist could no doubt riff for a while on how sexual desire and hunger-for-food are similar or dissimilar at the level of the Forms. https://www.thelocal.de/20190926/german-phrase-of-the-day-bock-haben/

  15. Haamu said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 1:48 pm

    @Bryan — The title you chose is fine. There seem to be some assumptions in this thread about what a title should be or do that aren't universally shared: that it shouldn't be ambiguous; that it should be as concise as possible; that it shouldn't raise questions that require consulting the essay itself (a truly puzzling requirement); that it should conform to gender norms from the previous century; that it should satisfy different rules of "respect" than the underlying text; that it should somehow be cognizant of all future contexts in which it might be published; and so on.

    I had no problem with your reference, but then, I'm an atypical data point. Not six feet behind me is a row of eleven Murdochs, including a first of The Nice and the Good, with others scattered about the house. I can't take credit for this. My wife is a Murdoch fan and a collector. And no, that sentence isn't hard to disambiguate: if Rupert has authored a single named work, I'm not aware of it.

    I would also say that "Platonists" was a pretty good clue.

    Finally, "disrespectful" needs a comment. There are different kinds of respect, and they can sometimes work at cross-purposes. To insist that a woman needs a first name or an honorific (or both) is to show her a form of social respect while simultaneously denying her access to one of the highest levels of professional or cultural respect, where one becomes known simply by one's last name. I thought your usage was profoundly respectful.

  16. David Marjanović said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 1:56 pm

    "Peggy Lou" might have been her legal name for all I know.

    That's a possibility that hadn't occurred to me.

    Bill || William Jefferson Clinton

    Jimmy || James Earl Carter, Jr.

    Yes, but 20 and 40 years later, after a noticeable cultural break. Eisenhower did campaign as "Ike", but he wasn't called that in the media or on the ballot and wouldn't have published under that name.

    The 1960 Eaton & Stewart paper David M. mentions

    Thanks for finding the paper! I do seem to have misinterpreted it.

    "get" is here a somewhat archaic term, surviving in the field of animal breeding, meaning "progeny"

    And in the field of polemic: "Stupid git!"

    "[ein] Bock zu haben"

    That's widespread in Germany (note the northern zu for dazu), but I've never encountered it with ein. It means feeling like doing something; there's no sexual connotation.

    The phrase simply substitutes standard Lust, which doesn't often have a sexual connotation, by Bock.


    Oh, finally it makes sense!

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 3:08 pm

    I think Haamu is correct that referring to someone (regardless of sex) by surname alone can be extremely respectful, in a context where it presupposes that no further specification is necessary because they are the most prominent bearer of that surname in the history of the world (or at least in some relevant subfield of human endeavor that is evident from context). But referring to someone by surname alone can in many other contexts be either neutral or disrespectful or, at a minimum, a mode of reference used by a superior talking to or about an inferior rather than vice versa. So all these different possibilities may indeed work at cross-purposes. If one pauses and thinks about it for a moment, it is overwhelmingly plausible that the use here is neutral-to-respectful, but that doesn't guarantee it will make that first impression on a casual reader who doesn't have a first edition of the work in question at hand.

    I continue to think that an equivalent subtitle of the form "What We Can Learn from Joyce's Ulysses" would strike me a bit funny because the "Joyce's" seems so gratuitous. On the other hand, maybe it's different for scholarly works rather than literary ones, because looking for a random example at the bookshelf to my right I determine I would have no problem with "Gordon's [An] Introduction to Old Norse" without further specifying the Gordon. But that may be because, pragmatically, it seems plausible that there might be multiple books with that title but be unlikely that more than one of them would be written by someone named Gordon. So "whichever Gordon actually wrote an Old Norse textbook" might in that context be just as informative as "E.V. Gordon" (not a household name in other circles) would be.

    Iris Murdoch was "Miss Murdoch" when reviewed in the New York Times as recently as 1990, although that may well just reflect an unusually old-fashioned house style, so you would need to trawl the archives of a wider range of high-toned publications to see how late in the day they were holding to that usage.

  18. Alexander Browne said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 4:43 pm

    > Iris Murdoch was "Miss Murdoch" when reviewed in the New York Times as recently as 1990, although that may well just reflect an unusually old-fashioned house style

    The NYT always uses honorifics, so she would be "Ms. Murdoch" in a current NYT article. I looked at other reviews in that 1990 issue, and the male authors are all Mr. Surname.

  19. Topher Cooper said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 5:03 pm

    CORRECTION: I previously mentioned a letter of mine once published in "Physics World" which is the member magazine of the (International) "Institute of Physics". The letter actually was published (as intended) in Physics World, the member magazine of the "American Institute of Physics" a distinct organization. Sorry about that — I had just received the Physics World email when I wrote the above note, and it slipped in.

  20. Terry Hunt said,

    December 3, 2021 @ 7:20 am

    @Topher Cooper – Re Anne McCaffrey and "get": as you likely know but others may not, the term would have come naturally to Anne since in addition to being a writer she was also a horse-breeder (for which she was best known among her neighbors in Connemara) and potato farmer (as she sometimes described herself to strangers).

  21. Anthony said,

    December 3, 2021 @ 8:29 am

    About sexual desire and hunger, here's Diogenes: "If only it were so easy to soothe hunger by rubbing an empty belly."

  22. Mike Grubb said,

    December 3, 2021 @ 9:29 am

    @J.W. Brewer:
    "Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
    We are not now that strength which in old days
    Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
    One equal temper of heroic hearts,
    Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
    To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

    What can we learn from Ulysses? ;-)

  23. Andreas Johansson said,

    December 6, 2021 @ 2:47 am

    I continue to think that an equivalent subtitle of the form "What We Can Learn from Joyce's Ulysses" would strike me a bit funny because the "Joyce's" seems so gratuitous.

    If you dropped the "Joyce's", and I had no further context, I'd probably assume you were referring to Homer's.

  24. Philip Taylor said,

    December 6, 2021 @ 5:14 am

    I had much the same reaction, Andreas, but then realised to my intense mortification that Homer didn't actually write Ulysses, he wrote the Odyssey (Ὀδύσσεια).

  25. Andreas Johansson said,

    December 6, 2021 @ 6:26 am

    He did, but there's nothing in "What We Can Learn from Ulysses" that tells me that the last word is the title of a work; asking what we can learn from Ulysses, the mythological/literary character, makes perfect sense.

    ("What We Can Learn from Ulysses" would undoubtedly steer my thoughts in a Joycean direction.)

  26. Phil H said,

    December 7, 2021 @ 10:20 pm

    I’m pretty happy with 好色 as the translation for horny in this context. In particular, it feels like it had the right tone: not overly condemnatory, light and flexible enough to fit the various kinds of fleshy weakness alluded to in the essay.

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