Lipstick Signification and Written Flirtation: Gendering Metaphor in Locke’s “The Abuse of Words”*

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This paper investigates the twofold nature of the philosophical renunciation of figurative language and the feminine. I begin by examining the claims of feminist philosopher Phyllis Rooney, who echoes the familiar observation that reason has conventionally been linked to masculinity, while unreason has been linked to femininity. Rooney’s innovative move is to expose this link by highlighting how the reason/unreason dichotomy has been constructed through “sex metaphors” in prominent philosophical works. A “sex metaphor” refers to some aspect of a “male-female dynamic,” such as a voyeuristic act, a sexual act, or a marriage relationship. Rooney aptly draws upon John Locke’s chapter “The Abuse of Words” to illustrate how the use of a sex metaphor can suggest that femininity is emblematic of unreason and hence, works to justify the expulsion of femininity from philosophy. However, as Rooney later acknowledges, Locke not only utilizes a sex metaphor in “The Abuse of Words,” he also genders the linguistic mechanism of metaphor itself. Locke’s curious comparison of woman with figurative language calls for a thorough analysis of the role of gender in Locke’s semiotic theory. What follows is an attempt to expose the chain of association that allows Locke to imagine he can connect up metaphor with femininity and expel each from philosophy as perpetrators of an “Abuse of Words.”

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