A Tale of Two Trans Women (Part 2): Language-games

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein 

In the field of Cognitive Neuroscience, there is an idea known as the mental lexicon—“a store of information about words that includes semantic information (the words’ meanings), syntactic information (how words are combined to form sentences) and the details of those word forms (their spellings and sound patterns).” Recall in Part 1 when it was explained that knowledge of the world is organized around a mental web (network) of cognitive schemes: models, representations and frameworks that give meaning and structure to our experiences. The mental lexicon can be considered a critical part of the neurological basis for the mental web of innate structures Kant and Piaget argued for, and are the basis for our respective individual constructions of reality.

The mental lexicon is organized around four principles that help the brain process the spoken or written word into its meaning. The principle we will consider is the fourth. The fourth principle is the semantic relationships between words. “…[W]ords related in meaning must somehow be organized together in the brain, such that activation of the representation of one word also activates words that are related in meaning.” After being processed by the mental lexicon, the language inputs activate the conceptual system resulting in the generation of concepts, i.e., abstract ideas.

Trust me—there is a point to covering all of this science stuff first. What is important to understand is that our comprehension of the world is mediated by a complex process that is active in its construction. It is also important to understand that each person’s processing and construction are unique (as was argued in Part 1).

Do you remember Katy? Some people believe that even though Katy is a transgender woman, she is still “biologically male”, despite her protests to the contrary. Who is right?

On the one hand, Katy does have “male genitalia” and XY chromosomes, but she also has female-typical levels of estrogen and testosterone, and has developed breasts. Central to resolving this question is the notion of meaning.

Many of us intuitively believe in inherent meaning, the idea that words and statements have meanings that are essential, or necessary. In other words, there is an objective set of necessary criteria that constitute a “biological male”, and all must be present in order for one to be “biologically male”. However, there is a fatal problem with this view. What we ultimately decide on as necessary is partially determined by an element of choice (or preference).

What if instead of viewing meaning as inherent, we abandoned the idea in favor of something different? What might a word’s meaning be if not a set of necessary and sufficient conditions? Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that the meanings of words and statements are functions of their use. In other words, in order to understand the meaning of a word, or a statement, you need to understand how it is being used.

In his work Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein introduced and developed the concept of language-games. Think of a paradigm case of a game: chess. In order for a player to play chess successfully, she must first understand the rules of the game, have an ability to identify patterns and anticipate the moves of her opponent. Like playing chess successfully, effective communication requires an understanding of how words are being used by being able to understand general rules, recognize patterns in communication, and anticipate what fellow communicators intend to convey by reading context clues.

Wittgenstein illustrates how this works with a simple example:

“Let us imagine a language …The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones; there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, and that in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words ‘block’, ‘pillar’, ‘slab’, ‘beam’. A calls them out; –B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. — Conceive of this as a complete primitive language.”

Before Wittgenstein, the traditional thinking was that language corresponds with reality and in order for concepts to be meaningful, they must be clearly defined. However, the notion of the language-game challenges this thinking. Rather than having to be clearly defined by a complete set of necessary and sufficient conditions in order to be meaningful, concepts have meaning by virtue of their relations to each other–what Wittgenstein called family resemblance (compare that to the mental lexicon discussed earlier).

Now let’s shift back to Katy. Is she a “biological male”? The answer to that question is determined by how we use the term. Those who assert she is are playing a particular language-game. A trans-exclusionary radical feminist (or TERF) might concede that she is a woman, but at the same time will still assert that she is “biologically male” in an attempt to invalidate her experiences without being too overt about it. In other words, even though Katy is a woman, she still has qualities that connote an element of ‘maleness’ that differentiates her from cisgender women in a way that makes her less of a woman. This is done by appealing to certain biological ‘facts’. According to the TERF’s language-game, being assigned male at birth due to having a penis makes one a “biological male”.

The good news for Katy is that’s not the only way to play.


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