Two Suspicious Concepts
Philosophical questions get answered when we develop concepts that provide novel access to reality. This is how what started as profound philosophical questions about matter became routine questions in chemistry. Intractable medieval disputes over political legitimacy became routine exercises of democratic politics.
However, ‘routine’ does not mean easy, as chemistry majors and campaign managers can surely attest. So we should be suspicious of concepts that make answering philosophical questions a bit too easy. Maybe they don’t give us novel access to reality. Maybe they just provide the spurious appearance of an answer.
I’m starting a list…
The philosophical concept of ‘person’ developed in the Christian theology of the Trinity (three natures, one person) and the Incarnation (one person, two natures). It entered modern philosophy in a psychologized version with Locke:
“…(A) thinking intelligent being that has reason and reflection…that can consider itself the same in different times and places.”
Locke treats the concept as applying to kinds.
The following claim I take to be uncontroversial:
(O) Our existence conditions, the ‘what-it-is-to-be-me,’ are the existence conditions of a kind of organism.
It is normative for the kind of organism we are to think, reason, consider itself the same in different times and places, etc.
That is, human beings are persons.
Those of us who cannot think, reason…etc., do not fail to be human beings, just to be fully-functioning ones. So we don’t fail to be persons, just to be fully-functioning ones.
Some philosophers, Mary Ann Warren for instance, have revised Locke’s concept of ‘person’ to designate a sort of status human organisms can achieve, like being a sorority sister. Thus human beings are persons only if they have the capacity to think, etc. – and not if they don’t.
(Does anyone know where this conceptual revision is ever argued for?)
Philosophers like Peter Singer go even further and change ‘person’ from a status into an odd sort of kind itself. The what-it-is-to-be-me isn’t ‘human being’; it’s actually ‘person.’ On this view a human organism is born, develops mentally until it can think, reason, etc. At this point something comes into existence: a person. When a human organism ages and loses its cognitive capacities, that curious entity – up to then co-located with the organism somehow and using it to get around – goes out of existence.
How is this not Platonism? How does a philosopher who believes such a thing get to look down on a pious Christian (an adherent to a “deviant” and retrograde tradition according to Singer) who thinks the soul is ‘infused’ into the body?
The concept of ‘person’ in contemporary philosophy makes reaching certain conclusions easier than it should be.
I propose avoiding it.
Great effort has been expended to construct a concept of ‘gender’ different from the sex of an organism. (There is one already, but it’s a grammatical distinction unhelpful here.)
What could ‘gender’ be as opposed to sex? Three possibilities:
a) A social construction by which boys are supposed to (just for instance) wear pants and play with guns, girls to wear dresses and play with dolls.
This is superficial. It doesn’t really rise to a philosophical issue. Such social constructions can change overnight – and have.
b) A deeper social construction by which fundamental social roles and sentiments are different among males and females.
Now it’s very likely true that such fundamental roles have a conventional, not just a biological, element: We’re convention-making organisms after all.
But those conventions must be as old as behaviorally-modern humans (50-80,000 years), since they evidently precede the human departure from Africa. This is sufficient time for those conventional facts to have become realized in our genes, to have become organic facts themselves. So on this account ‘gender’ is not a concept independent of ‘sex,’ but tied to it by natural necessity.
Furthermore, there is no longer any modal Archimedean Point where we can imagine our having been different. The counterfactuals are over the modal horizon: the organisms in those counterfactuals would not be us.
c) A psychological phenomenon: our gender identity is our “deeply held sense of [our] gender.” (GLAAD) And that sense may part company with our organic sex.
What is the phenomenology of (3)? What is this ‘deeply held sense of…gender’?
In examining my own case, I find myself at a loss. I just don’t know what ‘feeling male’ is like (or female either).
My predicament is like Hume’s baffled response to Locke on personal identity.
“There are some philosophers, who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call our Self…For my part, whenever I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other…I never can catch myself at any time without a perception and never can observe any thing but the perception.”
I have no ‘sense of gender’ or ‘internal experience of gender identity.’ Nor am I ‘intimately conscious of what [I] call [my] Sex.’
I have no Dude Qualia, none at all.
Some people deny this. They claim to have this feeling: “I have been born into the wrong body.”
But if (O) is uncontroversial, who is the ‘I’ who has been born into the wrong body?
At this point the gender theorist turns Platonist too. There is some ineffable ‘I’ whose existence conditions are not those of an organism, but is somehow connected to one.
I propose avoiding this concept too.
Next candidate for the list: ‘Idea’.
Anybody have additions to my list?