by Miroslav Imbrišević
Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought.
–Shakespeare, Henry IV
Making Language Better
If we can improve our language, by making concepts (roughly: the meaning of words) more precise or by naming something so far unnamed, we should do so. This is what motivates “conceptual engineering,” a relatively new branch of philosophy. 
The engineers of language and thought don’t just restrict themselves to making words more precise, they also want to make them “better.” The latter is called ‘conceptual ethics’. It’s not just about what words mean; it’s about what words should mean.
Conceptual engineering has been taken up by some feminist philosophers. A central concept in feminist philosophy is ‘woman’. Ordinarily it means “adult human female,” but some feminists would like to include transwomen under the term ‘woman’. This view is now widely accepted in academic feminism. If you dare to question this, you will be considered “transphobic,” as Kathleen Stock, a philosophy professor at the University of Sussex, has experienced.
Subsuming transwomen under the class ‘women’ doesn’t makes the term more precise, nor does it name a new phenomenon. We do have names to refer to people who are not happy with their biological make-up. Formerly we called them ‘transsexuals’, now they are ‘trans people’ (‘transwomen’ or ‘transmen’). For these feminist philosophers, conceptual engineering has a moral/political aim. In this case, to minimise the exclusion of trans people in society. This is a worthy aim, but it is difficult to achieve it by changing the meaning of words.
By including transwomen under the umbrella ‘woman’, these well-meaning philosophers suggest that there is no real difference between the type of women in expressions like ‘young women’, ‘German women’, ‘married women’, ‘happy women’, ‘single women’, ‘tall women’ and ‘transwomen’ (or ‘trans women’). They are all women. The aim here is to shape reality; to change how we view the world.
Natural Kinds and Social Kinds
The class of women – by which I mean, adult human females – can be understood as a natural kind; that is, as something that is part of nature. There is a material, biological reality to it. The class of transwomen, on the other hand, is a social kind; that is, something we find in society. It is a notion that is socially constructed. We invented it. It relies on the idea that some people have a gender identity which can be in conflict with their sex. Male-bodied persons wish they were female or believe that they are female, and many want to express this through their gender presentation, which might include body modification. The natural kind term ‘woman’ refers to a material reality (sex), the social kind term ‘transwoman’ refers to a psychological reality (attempting to disregard your sexed body). For this reason, the expression ‘gender dysphoria’ is misleading. It should be called ‘sex dysphoria’ instead. So, the term ‘gender dysphoria’ may need to be “re-engineered.”
The social category ‘woman’ has a biological foundation: women, understood as a natural kind. The social kind supervenes upon the natural kind; that is, the social category has an underlying material basis: being of the female sex. There is nothing similar with respect to being a transwoman. In this case, one social kind (transwoman) supervenes on another social kind (woman). Transwomen, in this sense, represent a kind of supervenience squared; a supervenience of supervenience. And because the concept ‘transwoman’ is free-floating, without a tether (a female sexed body), there is a fundamental difference between women and transwomen.
Take the concept of marriage. We now accept that same-sex attracted people can get married. Our linguistic (and legal) practice has changed and with it the concept of marriage. But ‘marriage’ is a social kind term, something we created by agreement, and we can extend/alter its meaning through further agreement. Contrast this with the concepts: ‘tiger’, ‘water’ or ‘woman’. These three are natural kind terms and their concepts are not open to radical revision through our linguistic practice, because they are tied to how things actually are in the world. There are facts about tigers which we cannot alter. For example, we cannot simply decree that it would be good to class lions among the tigers. Admittedly, they have something in common: they are both big cats, but ‘tiger’ and ‘lion’ are distinct concepts, as tigers and lions are distinct species.
Sometimes we get the facts about a concept wrong. We used to think that whales and dolphins were fish, but now we know that they are mammals. Our conceptions of whales and dolphins are now more precise. Similarly, we may in future find out more about the endocrinology of women and men, which will make our concepts ‘women’ and ‘men’ more precise. But we will not find out that biological males who self-identify as women are female, because we would be confusing social kinds with natural kinds. These biological males may outwardly present as stereotypical women or have some body modifications done, but this does not make them into a woman, if what we mean is an adult human female. To put it differently, the direction of fit for concepts like ‘tiger’, ‘water’ or ‘woman’ is from world to mind. Contrastingly, the direction of fit for concepts like ‘marriage’, ‘game’ or ‘good manners’ is from mind to world. What we think about marriage over time will determine and constitute what marriage is.
Humans and mammals in general, come in two reproductive classes or “shapes”: female and male (known as sexual dimorphism). This is a fact of nature, independent of the societies we live in. The slogan “transwomen are women” equates a social kind with a natural kind, which is a category mistake.
Alternatively, if the term ‘woman’ in the above slogan referred exclusively to the social role females stereotypically play, then it would be expressing something trivial: transwomen play, or attempt to play, the same – stereotypical – social role as many women. Does this make them into women?
Trans activists and their supporters in feminist philosophy deny that there is such a clear-cut dichotomy between the male and female of the species. For their political purposes it would be ‘better’ if people believed that ‘sex is a spectrum’ or that ‘sex is socially constructed’. People with ‘sexual development disorders’ (DSD) are roped in to support the thesis. The reasoning goes something like this: biological sex is not a clear-cut criterion for determining who is a woman, because there are intersex people, who don’t fall neatly into the male/female binary. From this ‘refutation’ of the biological basis for being a woman, trans activists conclude that transwomen belong in the class ‘women’. But this reasoning is faulty. The existence of intersex people doesn’t prove that you can be a woman without being of the female sex. It also doesn’t prove that there is a third sex (or many more sexes); being trans would then be another (fourth?) ‘sex’ which is beyond the binary.
Intersex people are being used by trans activists for their propaganda purposes. They claim that it is a common condition, and this has been uncritically perpetuated by many organisations and in the media. The original source for these claims is Anne Fausto-Sterling, who stated that 1.7% of the population are intersex. But being intersex is only one of the many conditions within the DSD range. You can only arrive at this high a figure if you (wrongly) assume that all people who have DSDs are like intersex people. But most people with DSDs do fall into the female/male dichotomy. According to Leonard Sax ‘the true prevalence of intersex is seen to be about 0.018%, almost 100 times lower than Fausto-Sterling’s estimate of 1.7%’ (see also here).
Sally Haslanger’s Account
There are several accounts, attempting to include transwomen under the concept of ‘woman’. Let’s look at one prominent one. Sally Haslanger proposes that someone is a woman, if they are systematically subordinated in certain respects (economic, political, legal, social, etc.), and if they are targeted “for this treatment by observed or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of a female’s biological role in reproduction.” Conversely, you are a “man” if you are systematically privileged along some dimension (economic, political, legal, social, etc.), and if you are targeted “for this treatment by observed or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of a male’s biological role in reproduction.”
Haslanger’s definition of ‘woman’ is metonymical. It focuses on one consequence of being female: experiencing oppression. But it isn’t that one consequence of being a woman that makes you a woman. Being a woman precedes or underlies the consequence of oppression. And Haslanger admits that the discrimination women suffer is based on being perceived to have a certain body. So, it isn’t the oppression that makes you a woman, but rather, the target of that oppression: having a female body.
If transwomen are perceived to have a female body and face discrimination because of this, then they are women for Haslanger. Under this concept the Queen of England and other women who don’t experience discrimination would not be women. And men who are not privileged wouldn’t be men. But let’s leave this aside.
The discrimination transwomen experience, based on their perceived/imagined body, isn’t uniform. Those who “pass” as women will face some of the same oppression as women, but those who don’t pass (or don’t wish to pass) experience a different form of discrimination. They are treated (oppressed, discriminated against, mocked) differently, based on being (perceived to be) male-bodied. So, the metonymical understanding of ‘woman’ is limited to those who pass. This means that only some transwomen are women.
Those who don’t pass or don’t wish to pass as women are perceived to be male-bodied. They are not systematically privileged as men, but systematically discriminated against because of their male bodies. So, on Haslanger’s account they are neither men nor women. That is an odd side-effect of trying to be inclusive.
Three Types of Conceptual Engineering
There appear to be three ways we can engineer a concept. We can do it from scratch (e.g. ‘sexual harassment’, ‘gaslighting’, or ‘mansplaining’); we can change the meaning of an existing term: ‘woman’ (through expansion, limitation, clarification, etc.); and we can alter parts of an existing term. An example for the third way of engineering is the expression ‘sex assigned at birth’. The term ‘assigned’ suggests an arbitrariness of the process and/or that newborns come with a fully formed gender identity, which has not been correctly recognised. But all of this is misleading. Sex is normally observed and registered at birth by medically qualified people. And this is a fairly reliable process. Sex is not “assigned.”
Conceptual engineers distinguish between semantic amelioration (improving informational content) and epistemic amelioration (improving our knowledge or grasp of reality). The first way of engineering, creating new concepts like ‘gaslighting’, is often successful in both respects. The second way of engineering, improving the concept ‘woman’, aims for a semantic amelioration for the benefit of transwomen, but not necessarily for women. As an epistemic amelioration it fails, because it erases the difference between sex and gender. The third way, changing part of a phrase as in ‘sex assigned at birth’, fails semantically and epistemically. The same holds for the terms ‘cis woman’ and ‘non-trans woman’.
At first glance, it may appear that the law is also changing the meaning of words. Someone who is biologically male can be legally recognised as a woman. The law permits that the sex on the birth certificate (and other documents) be changed to “female.” But the law (here in the UK) does not actually engage in conceptual engineering. In this context, it doesn’t change the meaning of words, it merely changes the legal status of a person. The law cannot make a man into a woman, but it can prescribe that (for the purposes of the law) it will treat a biological male as if he were a biological female. This is known as a legal fiction, an ancient device going back to Roman law. In practice this means that the law (or a court) allows statements to be made, which are strictly-speaking false, and everyone involved knows this. Lawyers aren’t worried about this because fictio legis neminem laedit: a legal fiction doesn’t injure anyone. 
The law creates legal fictions when novel circumstances or societal change may lead to pressure to fit new phenomena into a pre-existing framework, because it is presumed that this will result in some social benefit and it would accord with the purposes of the law. Here, we have some overlap in purpose between legal fictions and conceptual engineering for moral/political change. However, there is an important difference. The law is open about treating biological males as if they were women or female, whereas the conceptual crusaders want to effect a change in the way we think and in the way we view the world.  They want us to believe that a transwoman is a woman, in the same way that a tall woman is a woman.
Two Types of Woman
The trans-friendly feminist wants people (but particularly women) to accept that the concept ‘woman’ has two sub-sets: women and transwomen. This is odd (a paradox?), because women become a sub-set of their own class. The conceptual engineers use a little trick to hide the paradox: they re-label the recalcitrant sub-set ‘woman’ by giving it a prefix. The class ‘woman’ then consists of the sub-sets ‘cis women’ and ‘trans women’ (also popular among the crusaders is the pairing: ‘non-trans women’ and ‘trans women’).
The re-engineering of the term ‘woman’ has had a ripple effect on other concepts, as well as giving rise to new expressions. The meaning of the term ‘lesbian’ has (allegedly) changed, once again introducing two sub-sets into the definition. Now a lesbian is: a female or a transwoman who is sexually attracted to cis women and transwomen. The ‘and’ conjoining cis women and transwomen in the dependent clause is significant. It suggests that lesbians are naturally attracted to trans “lesbians.” If we replaced the ‘and’ with ‘or’, it would at least give lesbians the freedom to choose.
This new understanding of the concept ‘lesbian’ has given rise to a neologism: the “cotton ceiling” (invented by the trans porn actress and activist Drew DeVeaux). This metaphor alludes to the “glass ceiling” of old and to women’s cotton underwear. Transwomen find it hard to convince lesbians (i.e. same-sex attracted females) that they should also be attracted to transwomen, particularly if they retain their male genitalia. So-called “trans lesbians” are frustrated by not being able to break through the cotton ceiling. There is wide agreement that the glass ceiling needs to be broken, but the cotton ceiling is designed (engineered) to make lesbians feel guilty for their alleged moral failings. Just like the glass ceiling needs to be broken, so does the cotton ceiling. (Note the echoes of the incel movement here.) In this example, there is also a normative element (a value judgement) engineered into the concept, in addition to the semantic and epistemic elements: i.e. You are a bad lesbian, if you don’t want to help trans lesbians to break the cotton ceiling.
Finding a solution to the problem of the “cotton ceiling” has required further conceptual engineering in the form of new coinages. Many transwomen retain their male genitalia and often refer to their penis as a “lady dick” or a “girl dick.” This is supposed to help them in their struggles with the “cotton ceiling.” 
There is no doubt that coining the term ‘sexual harassment’ in the 1970’s has helped women to articulate their oppression. Using the terms ‘lady dick’ or ‘girl dick’ may make some “trans lesbians” feel better about themselves, but it is at the same time a form of gaslighting (another useful coinage to counter hermeneutical injustice) of lesbians. It suggests to them that they should not just be attracted to females but also to transwomen. Note that the conceptual ethics at work favours the perspective of “trans lesbians” to the detriment of lesbians. It suggests to the latter that they are wronging “lesbians with penises,” if they don’t find them attractive.
But let’s look at it from a different perspective. If you don’t accept that transwomen are women, but are trans-identified males instead, then the thought of having sex with a “trans lesbian” would mean to have intimate relations with the opposite sex. And, politically, it would mean that you are having sex with your oppressor. (Another problem for Haslanger?) Why should lesbians agree to this?
Some transmen who give birth wish to be recorded as the father of the child on the birth certificate. The meaning of the term ‘father’ would then include: ‘person giving birth to a child’. This would have seemingly paradoxical consequences: The birth-giver would be ‘father’ (legally) and ‘mother’ (biologically) at the same time. This would make the concepts of ‘father’ and ‘mother’ less precise and might actually cause confusion. So far, British and French courts are resisting these attempts at conceptual engineering.
Some transwomen claim to experience period pains. They describe their symptoms as being moody and wanting chocolate. This is a re-conceptualisation of the term ‘period pain’. The experience may be real enough for them, but it is a non-veridical experience. It doesn’t map onto reality, which involves shedding the lining of your uterus. This is also metonymical in that it takes certain symptoms to be the cause of the experience.
There is a Price to be Paid
You would think that the conceptual engineers in philosophy would give us an ungendered reality. But what we actually get is a transgendered reality. And some gender-critical feminists would argue that if you dig deeper, you’ll find a male perspective underneath the transgendered reality. Breaking through the “cotton ceiling,” for example, evokes images of sexual violence.
The feminist conceptual re-engineering of the word ‘woman’ fails women. It doesn’t consider how such engineering infringes the rights of women (for example in the contexts of sport or prison), and it doesn’t consider the ripple effects this will have on other concepts.  The law is a much better – and proven – driving force for change in society. Think of the abolition of slavery, giving women equal rights, the de-criminalisation of homosexuality, introducing same-sex marriage, etc. Admittedly, the law is often slow to recognise the necessity for societal change, but good things take time and deliberation.
Some feminist philosophers, in their enthusiasm for improving concepts, have overlooked that language is a network of interconnected terms. The lesson is: if you want to tinker with language, you need to look at all related concepts, and you need to consider the impact this will have on people. The conceptual crusaders in academia (and trans activists) will not have to pay the price for their tinkering. It is female athletes, women prisoners, and candidates for female-only shortlists who will bear the brunt of making concepts “better.”
As a playful exercise, let me try a bit of conceptual re-engineering myself. I would suggest that a “transman” is a male who is transitioning (or has transitioned) to being a “woman,” either in appearance and/or self-identifying as such. The converse would apply to the term ‘transwoman’. A transman would then fall within the extension of ‘man’, and a ‘transwoman’ would come within the extension of ‘woman’. The advantage of my re-conceptualisation is that it is more coherent, more precise, and it is less likely to cause cognitive dissonance – conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours – among language users. Now the slogan ‘transwomen are women’ would actually (literally) be true. But, most importantly, my terms don’t cause the kind of ripple effects that would stretch related concepts to breaking point (like ‘lesbian’ or the invention of the ‘lady-dick’, etc.). Wishing you all happy engineering!
 The German-born philosopher Rudolf Carnap is considered to be an early exponent – or perhaps further back: Socrates?
 But if people start to believe the legal fiction (transwomen are women), this may harm or disadvantage others: women.
 The exemptions in UK legislation with regard to trans people confirm the legal fiction. If there were no difference between women and transwomen, we wouldn’t need exemptions. For this reason, trans activists want to abolish the exemptions. It may actually be useful if the law stated clearly, in every instance, that it had created a legal fiction. This would stop people from believing that the fiction is true: for example, that you can change your sex.
 Recently Joanna Harper has coined the term ‘cement ceiling’ in response to World Rugby’s ban on transwomen athletes at the elite level: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/26/sports/olympics/world-rugby-transgender-women.html?smid=em-share ; Harper’s expression suggests that World Rugby want to exclude transwomen from the sport altogether, but this is misleading.
 There is another ripple effect when it comes to statistics. Many police forces in Britain have succumbed to conceptual engineering. They record sexual crimes (like rape) in accord with the gender self-identification of the perpetrator, regardless of whether they have a Gender Recognition Certificate or not. This will distort statistics – more ‘females’ will be sex offenders. But language is also affected. Contrary to the definition of rape in English law (non-consensual penetration with a penis), a ‘woman’ could then rape another woman.
49 responses to “Feminism, Conceptual Engineering, and Trans Identity”
In some ways, it’s a fairly intellectually primitive debate, in terms of the fact that while sex is a binary, people are a spectrum. This conflict goes back to an earlier point I’d made, about how our culture treats ideals as absolute. So rather than accepting that society has diverse perspectives and aspirational ideals, the assumption becomes that there must be some monocultural uniformism, in which everyone tries to impose their ideals on everyone else.
It might be more useful to explain sexual ambiguity in terms of the fact we all have multitudes of attractions, projections, desires, impulses, wants, needs etc. and have to sort among them, to where we can develop some sense of center, among all those many desires pulling us in different directions. We can’t have our cake and eat it too. We can’t take both paths at the fork in the road. Not every acorn gets to be an oak tree. So we mix and match and hope for the best. Heart and head.
So we do need to apply some judgement to our desires. This is reflected in society as well, as culture and civics are about providing guidelines to the multitude of social impulses. Though when they become too constrained, the underlaying pressures cause cracks in the system. We constantly seek order and seek to transcend any order that imposes on our desires. There are no easy answers, or we would not have evolved complex thought processes.
[…] philosopher Miroslav Imbrišević has a post at The Electric Agora on language and the concept of […]
The author is to be commended for such a well-written piece about what amounts to a very controversial topic. Like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, individuals can say a word means what they want it to mean, but language is a collective process that is inherently conservative but at the same time radically progressive in that old established words, like “woman” resist deliberate changes whereas new words and new meanings come into existence all the time. George Orwell, in 1984 demonstrated how political propaganda can totally reverse the meaning of basic words such as “democracy” and “freedom” without triggering cognitive dissonance, by the application of relentless repetition. I doubt that this deliberate attempt to change the meaning of “woman” will succeed. The “Me Too” Movement had a strikingly powerful effect on our discourse, whereas the epistemological justice movement, which was basically confronting the same subject from the point of view of academic philosophy, had a feeble effect, in comparison. The problem with so much of modern philosophy, and I don’t include the author’s exemplary piece in this, is that it’s fine parsing of concepts makes it harder, not easier, to understand important issues, such as, gender, authority, and status. The professional hazard of philosophy is hubris – thinking we can change the reality of human society by perfecting, or pointing out the misuse of concepts. It’s a continuing conversation, and we ultimately don’t know it’s outcome. I go with William of Occam here.
Thank you Charles!
Excellent article with descriptions of how the language is being corrupted to further this agenda and the lies of “gender is a spectrum” revealed to mistakenly attribute intersex people to transgenderism (which have nothing in common).
Personalities may be a spectrum but sex is binary and immutable.
I just got done responding to a right-wing conspiracy theorist’s comment elsewhere, and coming to this article, I’m surprised at how much of this attempted conceptual re-engineering sounds awfully like a kind of inverted conspiracy theory. Apparently non-trans feminists, lesbians unattracted to transwomen with penises, women who refuse to be ‘cis’ anything – ‘they’re all against us!’ – speakers of the common language have conspired to deny trans-activists the power of self-identity, which should be absolute!
Well, no; that’s not actually how the world works.
I especially like your distinction about how such conceptual re-engineering seeks to change the world, and how the law actually does change the world. The law sometimes makes mistakes, but claims of right, and complaints of harm, usually prevail, however slowly. One reason to trust the social compact it that change comes lawfully, after much consideration (and politics), and not swiftly through garbled arguments or intimidation.
“…even during this period, when discussions of language and thought were about as respectable as discussions of ﬂying saucers, the position was enjoying a revival in folk theories of politically correct speech. Terms like senior citizens, hearing impaired, and learning disabled were assiduously used instead of terms like old, deaf, and dumb. Interestingly, academicians – even while rejecting the hypothesis in their work – joined others in our culture in behaving as though they believed that language could shape thought.”
[Gentner and Goldin-Meadow 2003 Whither Whorf]
The ‘inverted conspiracy theory’ is an interesting idea. The worrying aspect is the intimidation which follows, if you dare question the dogma.
There is a very niftily simple and concrete way to rebut the idea that the concept of ‘woman’ is being changed (from ‘adult human female’ to something else more ‘inclusive’).
Pose this scenario: if a transwoman asks us directions to the *women*’s place, and we point them to the ‘*adult human female*’ space, do they quickly return saying that was not what they meant? No. So we immediately know they meant the old definition after all ‒ their definition exactly matches the standard AHF one, for practical societal purposes.
They have a dilemma. If they accept AHF as right, then they accept that the meaning has *not* changed after all ‒ there never was any definition problem. But on the other hand, if they say AHF was the wrong meaning, then they want to go somewhere else: they have their places, and women have theirs ‒ there never was any contention problem. The first horn of the dilemma admits that they do not have a valid claim to women’s spaces because they do not qualify by the definition. The second horn admits they do not get access to women’s space either because they are not even claiming to.
[…] Feminism, Conceptual Engineering, and Trans Identity […]
“The reasoning goes something like this: biological sex is not a clear-cut criterion for determining who is a woman, because there are intersex people, who don’t fall neatly into the male/female binary. From this ‘refutation’ of the biological basis for being a woman, trans activists conclude that transwomen belong in the class ‘women’. But this reasoning is faulty.”
This is not how I’ve understood the argument against the idea that sex is ‘reducible’ solely to a natural kind. It’s part of the argument, but only part of it.
The other part runs like this: when determining the sufficient conditions for sex categories, we have (at least) three possible markers: production of gametes, chromosomes, and sex organs. All of these are, we might say, facts of the person, but we socially choose – really, on grounds that are basically arbitrary – which of these is the sufficient condition to be a particular sex. Intersex people are invoked precisely because they are often people either for whom one of these markers (usually sex organs) are ambiguous and require a medical ‘judgment call’ (is that a clitoris or penis?); OR the three criteria do not align with each other (maybe the chromosomes say female but the gonads say male). It isn’t that “there are intersex people, so there can’t be a sex binary!” but rather “intersex people are the most obvious cases where the social element of sex determination is made evident.”
“The class ‘woman’ then consists of the sub-sets ‘cis women’ and ‘trans women’ (also popular among the crusaders is the pairing: ‘non-trans women’ and ‘trans women’).”
One thing that bugs me about the ‘cis’ language is worth noting, even though it is ancillary to your piece. To say that women can be ‘trans women’ or ‘cis women’ seems in a subtle way to concede a point that seems precisely at issue. That is, ‘cis woman’ is basically saying ‘a woman whose gender and sex lines up in EXPECTED or NORMAL ways.” Seriously, try to articulate what ‘cis’ means without appeal to some idea like NORMAL or EXPECTED. In my experience, it can’t be done, or can only be done after a lot of hemming and hawing to find dodgy words that basically mean the same thing.
But folks who use this language and make distinctions between ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ are often precisely the people who deny that we should use any language that references anything about what is typical, normal, or expected by sex. The fact that ultimately, this doesn’t seem doable – to the extent that ‘cis’ essentially means ‘normal alignment of sex and gender’ should maybe tell us something. NOT that trans woman is an invalid category, but at very least, that we all sort of acknowledge (even when we try to use words that obscure the point) that there is some acknowledged (real or imagined) statistical norm that we all refer to when talking about sex and even its interaction with gender.
“The term ‘assigned’ suggests an arbitrariness of the process and/or that newborns come with a fully formed gender identity, which has not been correctly recognised. But all of this is misleading. Sex is normally observed and registered at birth by medically qualified people. And this is a fairly reliable process. Sex is not “assigned.””
I really, really hate to go here. But I think you are vastly oversimplifying. You seem to be equating “judged by qualified medical professionals” with “obviously not socially constructed” or even worse, “obviously discoveries of some natural property that is biologically real.” Should I go through some of the categories that medical professionals have assigned people that we have come to recognize were bullshit categories? I can list a few off the top of my head: negroid, Alpine, having Aspergers Syndrome, dullard, hysterical…
I know, I know. Sex is different. While dullard and Aspergers are clearly of recent origin and are not cross-cultural, sex determinations have existed since the dawn of recorded time and are pretty cross cultural. Agreed, but irrelevant.
The point I am making here is that “is normally observed and registered… by medically qualified professionals” could have, at one time, be said about ALL of the bullshit categories I list above. And per, say, eugenics, we now can go back and see that all the categories the best scientists all thought were diagnoses of natural kinds – surely not social constructions! – were, well, social constructions we collectively fooled ourself into thinking were anything but. And that just tells us that it isn’t as simple as “diagnosed by medical professionals so must be natural rather than socially constructed kinds” assumes what history reminds us not to assume.
This is ridiculous. Mammals come in two reproductive classes, with a miniscule number of aberrant cases. These are observed at birth and recorded with over 90% accuracy. This entire controversy is a political game being played by a tiny number of activists who unfortunately have been able to con a number of institutions into playing along for “niceness “ sake. It’s absolute rot, and I suspect everyone knows it.
Conceptual engineering … I guess the expression itself is an example of “conceptual engineering”, in the sense that “engineering” here doesn’t mean what it means when we’re talking about cars, computers, household appliances and the Nike Air shoe.
But let’s take it seriously. Normally, when an engineer engineers something and his company brings it to the market, some conditions have to be fulfilled. The thing should work, it should be safe to use and its use shouldn’t have unintended and unwanted consequences – you don’t want your vacuum cleaner to put the house on fire when you leave it unattended for a moment. Usually – and certainly in the US – these things come with a manual that warns the users: “beware, this pot can get very hot when you put in on the stove to boil water”, “don’t use this handgun to drive nails into wood”, etc.
Sometimes, products are engineered to be harmless. Most of the knives in my kitchen drawer can barely cut through butter; on the other hand they also can’t cut my fingers. And sometimes laws simply forbid some people to use certain products, no matter how well-engineered they may be. Where I live, you have to be 18 to drive a car. If Johnson & Johnson wants to sell a new pill on the market, it has to do thorough research and produce 1000s of pages that explain what happens to people who swallow the pill (“pregnant women shouldn’t take it”, etc.).
Although the details may vary from country to country, this is very reasonable. Just like it’s reasonable that people sue companies if they weren’t sufficiently warned, or if normal use of the product had unintended consequences.
Perhaps it’s time that these “conceptual engineers” in philosophy departments respect some safety standards too?
After all, it’s not impossible some of their ideas will have detrimental effects if they get out of the engineering workshop (“academia”, in this case) into the real world. It’s a nice exercise in the workshop to call adult females “ciswomen” and classify them as a subspecies of a larger group (“women”) that has males in it. But is it safe to use in the real world? Does it have unintended and unwanted consequences? Now that you ask it: where *are* those 1000s of pages that explain what the consequences may be when the idea escapes from the workshop? Opinions on which consequences are desirable or unwanted may differ, but certainly we have the right to know what the consequence are?
Note that the developer of a new pill *itself* has to produce these 1000s of pages; it can’t market the pill and wait for others to do the evaluation. Perhaps it would be nice if “conceptual engineers” were obliged to do the same work before they let their ideas loose in the “marketplace of ideas”.
Of course, I’m only joking.
Good analogy. That’s what I was trying to convey.
The sexual identity issue does exist in a larger social movement, where every possible identity is to be treated as its own, atomized cult and the issues causing this problem go far deeper, philosophically, than the various social conflicts arising as political movements. So no matter how conceptually shallow these issues seem, their raw emotional basis will continue to power them, unless some of the deeper issues are addressed.
For one thing, so long as we have a society that concentrates attention on the individual above society, as opposed to seeing them as two sides of the same coin, nodes and networks, these people will insist their particular individuality is as valid as anyone else and to be held up as an ideal.
I could offer up other ways our cultural assumptions need examination, but just pointing out, this issue is symptom, not cause.
There are two different concerns here: whether the category is wrong in some way, and whether a particular instance has been wrongly placed in a category. A question of the rule in general, and a question of a particular application of the rule.
The ‘assigned at birth’ locution is, as MI suggests, used (prima facie) to call particular application into question ‒ the second concern. Trans mythology is not really rejecting the categories of female and male ‒ it cannot, it depends on them: transwoman does not mean anything if woman (and female and male) does not.
Yes, there are several lines of attack on the biological tether of the concept ‘woman’. I haven’t presented all of them. The one you mention is the ‘social construction of biological sex’. Trans activists want to kick the biological foundation from under the concept ‘woman’. The aim is to make both concepts (women and transwomen) free-floating, supervening on nothing. Only if they could get rid of the foundation of the concept ‘woman’, would the slogan ‘Transwomen are women’ be true, because then they would both be merely playing the social role of ‘woman’; and for transwomen this often means the stereotypical role of ‘woman’. Haslanger, to her credit, understood that there is a link between the social role and the biology of women. But this link is a thorn in the side of trans activists.
Another line of attack is that there are exceptions (intersex people), and by inflating the numbers, trans activists believe that it makes their case stronger. Here, exceptions don’t disprove sexual dimorphism. To use an analogy, the occurrence of dusk and dawn doesn’t mean that we have to give up the view that daylight is the criterion for ‘day’ and darkness the criterion for ‘night’. Equally, a total eclipse of the sun doesn’t mean that darkness is a feature of the term ‘day’; it is merely an exception, an extraordinary event. But note that the exceptional character of intersex people is different, it is not a third category, instead it is this: something in either category (male/female) didn’t go according to plan.
That is a good point. But when trans activists refer to ‘cis’ women it often has a dismissive flavour: how conventional! The other pairing: ‘trans women’ and ‘non-trans women’ is even more interesting. It suggests that the default is ‘trans women’, rather than women. And this continues a long – male – tradition of promoting the view that women are lacking (made from a rib), that they are inferior to men. The culmination of this is the view that transwomen are the better ‘women’, after all they have penises (recall Freud). This is the ultimate form of gaslighting.
Think of water and the advances in chemistry: H2O. Does the discovery of the chemical formula mean that water is socially constructed? Water is a natural kind, and we could discover many more properties of water in future, as our scientific knowledge increases. It’s the same for men and women, something I hinted at when I said: ‘we may in future find out more about the endocrinology of women and men, which will make our concepts ‘women’ and ‘men’ more precise.’ You are conflating scientific advances which make our concepts (of natural kinds) more precise with contingent determinations about social kinds: ‘the direction of fit for concepts like ‘tiger’, ‘water’ or ‘woman’ is from world to mind. Contrastingly, the direction of fit for concepts like ‘marriage’, ‘game’ or ‘good manners’ is from mind to world – these are socially constructed. What we think about marriage over time will determine and constitute what marriage is.’
“… Breaking through the “cotton ceiling,” for example, evokes images of sexual violence…”
Yes, it’s all rhetoric now. What a crazy nightmare all this is!
I did not enjoy reading your piece, Miroslav, not because of what you are arguing (which seems very sensible and nuanced) but simply because of the depressing nature of the subject matter.
I find it particularly depressing that many of the extreme positions involved were originally developed and are still being pursued in university settings. Universities and academics used to be widely respected. But that seems *so* long ago now. Another world.
Yes, it is depressing. The university used to be a place of freedom (of thought) – to a great extent, but in some disciplines, you will not just be shunned, but hounded out if you don’t toe the ‘party line’. But we also encounter such intolerance outside of academia: Hollywood. This will be the topic of my next essay.
The problem with bringing intersex into the discussion is that in a way intersex conditions depend on their first being a world with sexual dimorphism in it. These conditions are perfectly well understood in medical/biological terms involving chromosomes, hormones, and so on. They are exceedingly rare deviations from the norm, but you need the norm in the first place to talk about deviations from it.
This is not the case with Gender Identity. It has no foundation in the biological world at all. It can not be related to evolution, or chemistry, or neural circuitry, or anything. If we go down this strange path then it’s not clear how any biological classification can survive. How many fingers and toes do people have? Must be on a spectrum because some people are born with fewer than five or have extra ones, right? How do you even talk about Human beings? Are we to take Otherkin seriously? And why in the world then doesn’t it apply to a concept like race then?
In fact, it’s not so simple. It’s because Doctor’s in the past made many arbitrary assignments that we have learned to not do this and look for other forms of confirmation. Newborns do in fact undergo blood tests to make sure which sex they are of and whether there are any abnormalities. I mean, if we were bad at this how the hell would animal husbandry exist?
Furthermore, if you examine the examples you listed, they are much more like Gender Identity than like biological sex. They all involve people’s cultural assumptions, or else reify complex behaviour as a simple category.
Charles, it is indeed true that language is a collective process, and as such, we can’t just declare unilaterally means what WE want it to mean. But since language is indeed a collective process – one without a central director – it is equally true that there will be times where a word’s traditional meaning becomes contested and may start to drift, and when that happens, we again can’t make that uniform declaration of “Stop!”
I think that is what is happening, for instance, with the word ‘racism.’ There is a traditional meaning and a new meaning gaining popular steam. We can – each of us – SAY which definition WE want the word to mean (or what WE will mean when WE use it). But we cant – or rather, it will be futile if we – just hold up our hands, muster a strong argument, and single-handedly stop the new meaning from gaining steam.
I doubt that is quite what is happening with “woman.” It seems that by in large, people do and probably always will equate the word with a ‘natural kind,’ the way Miroslav equates it. But that is not always the way language works, where everyone just perennially agrees on one meaning. Time and culture will tell.
“Trans activists want to kick the biological foundation from under the concept ‘woman’.”
That may be what some of them think they are doing with the argument I outlined. But I worry that either they or you or both may be misunderstanding (or downplaying) the subtlety of the argument. The argument is not that there are no biological foundations, or that the biology is not foundational. The idea is that the biological foundations are still part of the social construction. That is, there are certain biological markers that an individual has (gamete production, sex organs, etc), and we both/either (a) choose which ones to give salience to when determining sex, when others were possible; and/or (b) in certain cases, it is quite evident that we make judgment calls when the biological markers are hard to decipher (whether x is a penis or clitoris).
So the idea is that even if there are very real biological markers, that doesn’t remove the ‘social construction’ element. Again, that may be the feminists using this argument that are misunderstanding the subtlety of it (I’d not be surprised at that). But it is worth clarifying.
I’m not sure you are seeing why I used the analogy, and what it was I WASN’T trying to do with the analogy. My analogy was only supposed to show that it has been the case quite often in medical history that “diagnosed and categorized by a qualified medical doctor” simply was not – nowhere close to – sufficient to indicate that the diagnosis picked out something real, a natural kind. that is a step i think Miroslav moves on too quickly. Medical doctors can (and historically have) thought that what they were doing was diagnosing and categorizing into natural kind when it turns out that they were engaged in an entirely different practice.
” This entire controversy is a political game being played by a tiny number of activists who unfortunately have been able to con a number of institutions into playing along for “niceness “ sake.”
Okay, that is a point against something I did not intend with my analogy. But I will still speak to it. I agree if the point is that the conclusion of their “social constrution” argument is too hasty. I am of the Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty school when it comes to social constructions: that a category is socially constructed means less than some advocates think it means, and properly understood, ALL categories humans use are social constructions. That means that “x is a social construction” isn’t an invitation – as some take it – to say that we can remake x any way we feel like doing.
“It’s because Doctor’s in the past made many arbitrary assignments that we have learned to not do this and look for other forms of confirmation.”
I think this is presentism hubris. We got it wrong before, and in fact got it wrong every time we tried to get it right. But this time, it really is different! We have learned not to get it wrong! The eugenicists thought they’d reached that point, too, and they were as convinced by their zeal as we are by ours. But this time, we REALLY won’t get it wrong anymore!
And, mind you, I am NOT saying that this is an argument for why sex is a bullshit category. I am only using this as a way to point out that Miroslav goes from “is diagnosed by a qualified doctor” to “is a diagnosis of a real natural kind” is belied by, well, everything we know about the history of medicine. I suppose he COULD argue the point, but he did not and he probably needs to.
I think your last paragraph is a pretty obvious mischaracterization of his point. He was not suggesting that the medical diagnosis is what makes it a natural kind.
He was not suggesting that the medical diagnosis is what makes it a natural kind.”
“The term ‘assigned’ suggests an arbitrariness of the process and/or that newborns come with a fully formed gender identity, which has not been correctly recognised. But all of this is misleading. Sex is normally observed and registered at birth by medically qualified people. And this is a fairly reliable process. Sex is not “assigned.””
As I read it, he if saying that a good indicator that sex is not assigned – that the classification is more found then made – is that the categorization is made by medical professionals. THAT is what I’m saying that medical and scientific history tells us is too fast a leap.
Not how I read it at all. And Miroslav has indicated that my characterization of what he said is correct.
Also, check your email!
Just did. Thanks.
I’m one of those people who says that there are no such things as natural kinds. Nevertheless, I have to disagree with you here.
That the categorization is made by medical professionals is a given. But that was not the point. Rather, the point (as I see it) was that this categorization of a “fairly reliable process”. So the professionals are not making it up out of whole cloth, else it would not be “fairly reliable”. There is some basis in reality to the categorization that they are making.
Massimo doesn’t think there are natural kinds either. Did you see the dialogue I did with him on it? The trans issue came up as well.
Kevin, as Dan indicated, this is a misunderstanding. Nobody is disputing that the medical profession, like anyone else, sometimes make mistakes. And sometimes they get things horribly wrong. A recent example from the UK: giving children puberty blockers without due care [https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/dec/03/puberty-blockers-ruling-curbing-trans-rights-or-a-victory-for-common-sense-]. It is usually medically trained people who, as agents of the state, have the authority to ascertain and record the sex of a newborn. But we mustn’t get hung up on them being medical experts, even little children can identify who is a man/boy and who is a woman/girl. Birth certificates and passports are fairly recent inventions, men and women have been mating for a long time, correctly recognising the other sex. Our recognising it, doesn’t make it into a social kind. It’s the other way round; because it it a social kind, we can recognise it. See also the post by Harrison Ainsworth and my post from December 21, 2020 at 6:18 pm.
“Think of water and the advances in chemistry: H2O. Does the discovery of the chemical formula mean that water is socially constructed?:
Well, this gets admittedly murky because pace Luckmann and Berger’s idea of the ‘social construction of reality,’ yes, it does. Even if we are identifying and categorizing around natural properties of H2O, the very fact that we are choosing some – rather than other – criteria to categorize around relative to our human purposes for the categories means that yes, we are socially construting those categories. It doesn’t mean that the water itself, of course, is socially constructed; it’s not like we create the water by constructing it. But what the water signifies to us by way of how it should be categorized is a construction.
Keep in mind that I have said in a few comments now that I am of the Stanley Fish/Richard Rorty school on this where I think folks on both sides of the debate exaggerate what it means to say that sex is a social construct. Why? Because if every category, for reasons I mention above, is a social construct, it can’t be a criticism of x to say that it is a social construct. Because that would be tantamount to a criticism that x is a category. As I like to say, the idea of a noun is a social construct too; nothing follows from that about how we should treat nouns when we speak,
“You are conflating scientific advances which make our concepts (of natural kinds) more precise with contingent determinations about social kinds.”
Well, then, I am simply at a loss as to how we identify anything sans contingent labels and categories that are, yes, socially constructed. Or how scientific discoveries proceed other than by being thoroughly couched in, expressed by, and saturated in socially constructed concepts and verbiage.
It may seem like a minor or even trivial point. (And I say as much above; not much follows from saying that ‘x category is socially constructed and it can’t be any other way.” ) But it IS important for this discussion about sex, at very least if you have any hope of understanding the actual (rather than the strawman) opposition to the idea that sex categories are natural kinds.
Thanks for the link. I’m watching right now (getting near the end).
I agree with a lot (but not all) of Massimo’s view on this.
My reason for objecting to natural kinds, is that we cannot understand human cognition unless we understand the importance of our role in carving up the world into kinds.
We all participate in sharing the meaning of “woman” and “man” , whereas new meanings of scientific terms are shared by a closed circle until, years later, they become part of general knowledge. I’m not sure I buy the mind to world, world to mind model because the participation seems to be circular – we learn and assimilate cultural conceptions, but the actual division of labour in particular environments can influence our conceptions and change cultural bias; those conceptions can lead to reconstruction of the environment and to further divisions of labour, and round and round it goes. It seems to me to be a dynamic kind of participation that happens at different population and time scales – scientific specialists can be a small group of people whereas the number of people who use the terms “woman” and “man” is everybody on Earth. Because of cumulative knowledge and cultural exchange the meaning of “woman” and “man” has become richer over time, but they are basic terms that resist any deliberate attempts at change. I think Orwell’s 1984 is relevant here, because he talks about “Newspeak” which I think was supposed to be a language deliberately created to make it impossible to think contrary to the party line. Why on Earth should academic specialists be in charge of engineering the meaning of such basic words in the first place. Pure hubris!
Sure you could go radical sceptic on all biology. And like with all such positions you are stuck with the fact that it doesn’t solve anything, doesn’t help the Gender Identity argument, and most of all doesn’t explain how biologists, doctors, agriculturists, farmers, and so on, actually can deal with biological sex in a consistent and coherent way.
In particular, this does nothing for the Gender Identity crowd, as the same scepticism can be used against them.
I don’t know about the US but in the UK the sex of a child is not just the recorded opinion of the lead obstetrician. The test that confirm the sex would have to be wrong about an awful lot of genetics, biochemistry and endocrinology. You may as well argue that maybe the Earth is flat because wasn’t Ptolemy wrong about epicycles?
As I said, trans ideology is not uniform in nature. There are several lines of attack, some compatible with each other, some mutually exclusive. The claim that biological sex is socially constructed is one such approach. It is designed to show that we cannot define ‘woman’ because not ALL women have ALL the biological markers of the female sex. They attempt to exploit the cluster character of these markers, i.e. there is more than one. But we can say that ONLY women have most or all of these markers. Is it subtle? Well, it’s a clever move, because a lot of people fall for it: If we cannot define, what a woman is, then anyone can be a ‘woman’ – even men.
But we still need a definition, trans activists realise, which will make transwomen into ‘women’. The answer is that being a woman is a psychological state (i.e. your ‘gender identity’). It’s your innermost sense about your gender (not your SEX), a psychological state, irrespective of your sexed body. But note that they have to refer to the sexed body, even if it is ex negativo. A lot of these types of argument suffer from circularity.
Then there is the issue of ‘gender identity’ – is there such a thing? Many people deny this. More here: https://theelectricagora.com/2019/12/22/more-than-a-feeling-rock-stars-heroines-and-transwomen/
There is no subtlety involved in rejecting the idea that mammals come in two reproductive classes, with an insignificant number of aberrant cases. Stupidity perhaps or ideological capture, but not subtlety.
This really chimed with some thoughts I’ve been having about the use of ‘transmisogyny’ . Transmisandry makes more sense as the prejudice transwomen encounter is because they are male.