Sunday, February 11, 2018

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… 
1.  Person
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.
2.  Gender
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. 
That leaves…
      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 SelfFor 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?

Thomas Pyne

Philosophy Department
Sacramento State


  1. Regarding the Trinity I meant to write three persons in one divine nature, of course.
    Silly me.

  2. I hope the Pope doesn't hear about my mistake. I don't want to be taken out as a heretic by a Swiss Guard hit team.

  3. Thank you for sharing your reflection. I agree with you that the concept of gender you present does not seem to help us much to understand reality, as a good philosophical concept should do. I disagree, however, that your analysis does justice to existing analyses of the concept of gender in contemporary philosophy of gender. 

    While your critique appropriately targets the naïve concept of gender, it does not engage with more sophisticated philosophical accounts of gender developed by philosophers like Sally Haslanger, Ásta Sveinsdóttir (from our own Cal State system at San Francisco), Mari Mikkola, Katherine Jenkins, Elisabeth Barnes, Esa Díaz-León, to name but a few. These philosophers have produced a large body of work on the concept of gender and of what it means for a concept to be socially constructed, and these accounts offer a lot more to help us understand reality than the naive concept that your critique engages with.

    For example, that view you present towards the end, of people who say “I have been born into the wrong body”, reflects a simplified view of what transgender people experience, the view popularized in the media. This view often serves as a source of transphobic conclusions, like “transgender people are insane”, for they are presented as talking about a reality that does not exist. To seriously engage with the topic we need to go beyond the media-view. One serious philosophical approach has been developed by another CSU philosopher, Talia Bettcher (working at Cal State Los Angeles). Bettcher's paper “Trapped in the wrong theory” is a great introduction to the complexity of gender identity, in particular in the case of trans people.
    In order to properly engage with what the concept of gender is doing for us, and to properly answer the question of whether it’s helping us understand reality, we need to go beyond the naïve concept of gender. To do otherwise is to miss the fascinating opportunity of learning much more nuanced and complex approaches to this complex concept.

    And by the way, the “I don’t feel/see it, therefore it doesn’t exist” is part of a potentially dangerous rhetoric that takes one, typically majority view as the default, neutral position, and imposes it as the criterion for evaluating experiences of all.  When a white person says “I don’t see race, therefore race doesn’t exist, it’s an invention of people of color”, this person is missing the whole point: some white people don’t see race because their race has never been an obstacle, it’s transparent to them, it’s not an issue from the default position of a white person. Not seeing race, in this case, is not grounds for the conclusion that race is a suspicious, spooky notion created by some groups. Taking cisgender view as the position from which to evaluate transgender experiences is an equally epistemically irreponsible move. To be epistemically responsible means considering the possibility that one's epistemic position might not be the only one, or even the best one - otherwise we can end up with a very distorted view of reality. The fish doesn’t see the water, either - but it doesn't mean water does not exist. 

  4. Hi Saray,

    Thank you for your critical comments. You have identified precisely the problem I’m raising for the concept of ‘gender’: whether it gives us novel access to reality in a way that allows us to answer hitherto unsolved philosophical questions.

    Like you, I am more interested in the social constructionist argument than in the crude Lockean-style psychologistic ‘sense of self’ approach that, you agree, is based on bad metaphysics.

    Realism regarding social constructions is unavoidable, surely. I believe there are professional football teams; the scores in the sports page are not trafficking in fictions.

    But I’m pointing out a dilemma for treating certain concepts as social constructions in order to answer philosophical questions.

    Ephemeral social constructions do not reach deep enough. We could disband the NFL tomorrow and not much would change philosophically.

    The literature on gender you cite treats it as a (b)-type deep social construction. Gender as a deep social construction does provide an answer to the philosophical question. My argument is that it gives us the same answer as the organic answer.

    Hume’s argument is not that “I don’t feel/see it, therefore it doesn’t exist.” He goes on to give argue that he doesn’t feel his Self – and you don’t either – because it doesn’t exist. The self is not an ’impression’ but an ‘idea.’

    For once, Hume’s metaphysics seems right. Our ‘sense’ of our own gender is a belief, not a feeling.

  5. Hi Tom,
    I don't agree with your point that what you call the b-type social construction gives the same answer as the organic one. Reading all that literature on philosophy of gender makes me think there is more to it.
    In relation to the last point, Bettcher in her "Trans identities and the First-person authority" gives a very nice account of gender identity as belief, not as an impression or feeling.

    1. Hi Saray,

      I would be interested in a concept of 'gender' different from the organic concept of sex that (i) accepts assumption (O), (ii) allows an individual's 'gender' to differ from their sex.

      Right now I can't see how it could, given the natural and cultural history of human beings as it actually developed, not as other creatures - much like us - could have developed instead.

      The difference between gender identity-as-feeling and gender-identity-as belief is that beliefs can be false. I do not accept Talia Bettcher's claim that we have first-person authority over any of our beliefs about ourself.

  6. Tom, cool piece, thanks.

    I accept a weaker assumption, implicit in what you say, that philosophy is a breeding ground for the development of concepts that provide novel access to reality. But I don’t accept a stronger claim you appear to make, viz., that philosophical questions get answered. I cannot name a single unproblematic example of such an event. My view is that as long as a question is properly regarded as philosophical, it is because we do not agree on what would constitute an answer to it. That’s why philosophy is fun, and also why it is frustrating. (An earlier version of me may actually have learned this way of thinking from an earlier version of you.)

    I think what really happens is that eventually some explication (in Carnap’s sense) of the term ultimately gains acceptance. This happens for different reasons depending on the intellectual context, but typically because it is made precise enough to generate clearly answerable questions. In science, it is because it has been made susceptible to measurement.

    Whenever this happens, there are always people who will say, correctly, that it doesn’t constitute an answer to the original question. Sometimes this is because it simply disregards some assumption they regard as foundational, as when Darwin’s concept of species disregards the assumption that they are eternal and unchanging or when Shannon’s concept of information disregards the assumption that information is an inherently semantic notion.

    Like you, I think it’s important that people (like you) continue to do this, just as it’s important that people continue to develop the new explication for all it’s worth. The proof is ultimately in the pudding. I'm not very attracted to the idea of saying that an explication is undesirable because it is too easy. I don't think these considerations predict much about how the pudding turns out.

    It’s unfortunate when otherwise sensible people characterize science naively as a process of rational discovery when it is just as much a process by which previous meanings of terms are butchered,prepared and seasoned in the interest of improving our predictive capacities.

    I totally love Locke’s concept of a person. I think it was a brilliant and extremely productive naturalization of the term. But that doesn’t entail that there aren’t others deserving of our attention. I think they are just different productive ways of using the term. Philosophers who argue about which way is the right way ought to be shot (on some as yet to be explicated notion of ‘ought’).

    1. Hi Randy!

      How's your sabbatical?

      Yeah, Locke had his good days and his bad days, and his posing the problem of personal identity was one of his good days indeed

      I don't think he intended it as a status concept, or as a factitious sort of kind.

      But you're right: arguing over which concept of 'person' is the right one, or arguing over the right concept of anything would death to active philosophizing. That's what makes continental philosophy's kind of scholarship: 'Heidegger's Concept of This,' or 'Foucault's Concept of That' seem like such Egyptianism. It only produces mummies.

      My (too-brief) comments about concepts that answer philosophical questions omitted my view that accompanying the concepts is some practice or other that does the answering.

      The concept of 'atom' along with the concepts of atomic weight and valence brought with it the practice of careful measurement, including quantitative measurement of the results of interactions.

  7. Hello Professor Pyne,

    Do you think Hume is in the right to go about his critique of concepts in the way that he does?

    Maybe I've just been infected with a certain disposition, but it seems to me that Hume is going about his critique of concepts wrongly in the same way reductive physicalism goes about wrongly reducing physical entities (and denying their reality).

    What I mean is that the experience of Self would, to me, amount to the compound of experiences through time - not any individual sensation which was perceived in a given experience. In this way, Hume wants to reduce experiences of anything to merely their perceptive moments (and deny their existence if they are not wholly present in the moment).

    The same could apply for gender... I could point to no one experience that struck me with the raw sensation of 'dude' - but the many times I walked through a bathroom door with a symbol for a man, coming home to my girlfriend at the end of the day, or getting together with 'the boys (two of which are girls)' on the weekends to play boardgames I understand by the concept 'dude' when taken as a compound. I haven't studied gender at all though - so I could be speaking to something which is not the same.

    To try take this back as an analogy for the mismatching problem - I don't feel like a millennial. Not, however, because at no moment do I experience that sensation, but because I cannot understand my experiences through the concept when taken together... but I suppose that is just part of being a millennial ;).