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Sally Is a Block of Ice: Revis(it)ing the Figure of Woman in Philosophy
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There is a metaphor made famous in the analytic philosophical literature by John Searle et al.: “Sally is a block of ice.” I met this metaphor first as an undergraduate student in philosophy of language classes. I remember, then, feeling a wordless anxiety for Sally, for the “tone” of this example interrupting, but not interrogated by, the discussion it was recruited to illustrate. Later, I met Sally again, in papers given at philosophy conferences on metaphor in which, each time, this mention of Sally struck me as pointed but not observed.

John Searle claims that to say “Sally is a block of ice” is to mean “Sally is an extremely unemotional and unresponsive person,” But this seems disingenuous, since the color in the metaphor comes from innuendo of a sexual character, the echoes of the Ice Queen, etc. And no doubt this is one reason why Searle would have adopted it, because it introduces the rhetorical color of sexual intrigue into an apparently technical discourse in the philosophy of language.

But in his paper, this metaphor, “Sally is a block of ice,” features along with other metaphors only as an example of the trope. She is there in the text to illustrate Searle’s thesis that metaphor has meaning only because what he calls “speaker’s meaning” and “sentence meaning” are two very different things. On this view, “words have only the meanings they have,” and it is speakers uttering them “in a way that departs from what they actually mean” that allows the metaphor to operate.

Why would the speaker say anything other than what he meant? Why doesn’t he say, “Sally is an extremely unemotional and unresponsive person”? Since the “actual meaning” of language remains unchanged by the use of metaphor in an example of it, the interesting effect of this theory of metaphor is that the speaker can still say that, while he may have said, “Sally is a block of ice,” he didn’t mean it.

Sally Is a Metaphor

“Sally is a block of ice”: this evocative metaphor, this provocative figure, conjures for me the dilemma that women in philosophy have found, seeking a philosophical account of identity for an identity politics while also trying to find a place for themselves in the academy. Sally is a figure haunting the practice of English-speaking philosophy, where women are grudgingly admitted but, as Genevieve Lloyd has pointed out, disadvantaged by “inclusion without recognition of our difference.”

Unless she is frozen on the slab at the morgue, Sally is not obviously a block of ice. But if Sally were a block of ice, if her identity were as a block of ice, and if the copulative form accurately described her in her essence, as “a block of ice,” why would she appear to us in physical form to be a woman?

Between “This is Sally” and “Sally is a block of ice” lies a metaphysics of identity, stemming from the way that certain European languages tolerate the copula form to represent divergent senses, the “to be” of identity and the “to be” of attribution. I’ve written about the impact of this copula form for sexual difference elsewhere (Ferrell 2006). While the copula assigns objects to subjects, it does so in an ambiguous manner. Sometimes we say things such as: “Meg Ryan is Sally in the movie When Harry Met Sally on Channel 7 Sunday night.” Meg Ryan is Sally in the sense that she performs Sally. So, is Sally playing a part, then, when “Sally is a block of ice”?

Judith Butler would likely say she was, her femininity a masquerade (Butler 1990). Is Sally playing a part when “Sally is Sally”? Nietzsche would say so: “[A]round every profound spirit a mask is continually growing” (Nietzsche 1968). Nietzsche incriminated grammar or syntax in the reproduction of metaphysics, claiming philosophers are particularly gullible in this regard: “[T]hey always believe in reason as in a piece of the metaphysical world itself, this backward belief always reappears in them as an all-powerful regression” (ibid., cited in Derrida 1982). Because philosophy believes in its images as truth, and has no more sincere belief than in the...


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