A Tale of Two Trans Women (Part 12.1): Mind/Matter

“[Sex] is neither matter nor mind, but partakes of both these things and yet cannot be described as a mixture of them. It is forged through our relations with others…To feel one’s own flesh, or to act as witness to another’s, is to unsettle the question of subject and object, of material and phantasmatic, in the service of a more livable embodiment.”–Gayle Salamon

In previous installments of this series, it was established that our bodies, as accessed by us through the mediation of norms, or power relations, that constitute the body and sexual schemas, are neither reducible to the material, nor are they simply purely mental phenomenona. In order to make better sense of how our bodies can occupy this apparent metaphysical middle ground, it is important to examine the history and the development of such ideas as idealism and the “metaphysics of substance” (as Judith Butler would call it).

Our analysis starts with Plato and his allegory of the cave. According to Plato, through Socrates’ narrative, most humans are in a position of knowing the world only indirectly:

“Imagine this: People live under the earth in a cavelike dwelling. Stretching a long way up toward the daylight is its entrance, toward which the entire cave is gathered. The people have been in this dwelling since childhood, shackled by the legs and neck.Thus they stay in the same place so that there is only one thing for them to look that: whatever they encounter in front of their faces. But because they are shackled, they are unable to turn their heads around.

“Some light, of course, is allowed them, namely from a fire that casts its glow toward them from behind them, being above and at some distance. Between the fire and those who are shackled [i.e., behind their backs] there runs a walkway at a certain height. Imagine that a low wall has been built the length of the walkway, like the low curtain that puppeteers put up, over which they show their puppets.

“So now imagine that all along this low wall people are carrying all sorts of things that reach up higher than the wall: statues and other carvings made of stone or wood and many other artifacts that people have made. As you would expect, some are talking to each other [as they walk along] and some are silent.”

“So now, I replied, watch the process whereby the prisoners are set free from their chains and, along with that, cured of their lack of insight, and likewise consider what kind of lack of insight must be if the following were to happen to those who were chained.

“Whenever any of them was unchained and was forced to stand up suddenly, to turn around, to walk, and to look up toward the light, in each case the person would be able to do this only with pain and because of the flickering brightness would be unable to look at those things whose shadows he previously saw.

“It would obviously take some getting accustomed, I think, if it should be a matter of taking into one’s eyes that which is up there outside the cave, in the light of the sun.

“And in this process of acclimitization he would first and most easily be able to look at (1) shadows and after that (2) the images of people and the rest of things as they are reflected in water.

“Later, however, he would be able to view (3) the things themselves [the beings, instead of the dim reflections]. But within the range of such things, he might well contemplate what there is in the heavenly dome, and this dome itself, more easily during the night by looking at the light of the stars and the moon, [more easily, that is to say,] than by looking at the sun and its glare during the day.”

What Plato is getting at in this story is that we often start out in a state of ignorance that many remain in their whole lives. This state of ignorance can be said to be induced by all kinds of factors (culture, lack of experience, lack of education, or what have you). However, some of us are capable of escaping, and though it can be a long and difficult process, we can begin to achieve a certain kind of clarity that allows us to perceive things as they truly are.

In Buddhist philosophy, desire leads to suffering, and suffering can have an obscuring effect on human perception. However, the practice of mindfulness–especially in the form of mindfulness meditation–can help us perceive things as they really are by helping us overcome our desires and the suffering that can result. Once that is achieved, we can be in an “enlightened” state where we can better understand concepts like interdependence and impermanence from a more experiential (rather than abstract) point of view.

However, Platonism and Buddhism do differ quite significantly from the perspectives of Butler and Salamon that have been under consideration. For them, since culture is what produces the structures that lead us to perceive and understand ourselves–including our bodies, or desires, and our sense of self–there is no position from which we can come to know these things independent of culture. In other words, there is no escaping the cave and there is no true enlightenment; there are only differences in perspective.

This position has led to the charge that they are idealists. However, it should be pointed out that questioning metaphysics, much less a metaphysics of substance, does not necessarily entail (metaphysical, or ontological) idealism. In philosophy, idealism can have several different uses. However, the uses that we are primarily concerned with are the following:


  1. something mental (the mind, spirit, reason, will) is the ultimate foundation of all reality, or even exhaustive of reality, and
  2. although the existence of something independent of the mind is conceded, everything that we can know about this mind-independent “reality” is held to be so permeated by the creative, formative, or constructive activities of the mind (of some kind or other) that all claims to knowledge must be considered, in some sense, to be a form of self-knowledge.

In this installment, I will defend Butler and Salamon against the charge of idealism (though they have adequately defended themselves among their circles; however, confusions and misunderstandings of their positions still exist), primarily in the first sense, though some will be said about the second sense as well.

David Hume argued that the self is an illusion, and that rather than being a thing that exists in itself, it is really a product of (social) convention. Being an empiricist, Hume believed that the only source of knowledge that can be had must necessarily originate in the senses, he concluded through introspection that since he couldn’t observe a persistent unitary self, there was no rational justification for belief in one. And since our experiences are heavily influenced by expectations, emotional states, and pre-conceived notions that we learn from our social environment, the source of our sense of self is those social environments rather than an experience-independent metaphysical reality.

Does this kind of a position necessarily entail a commitment to metaphysical idealism? Though it is most certainly idealism in the (epistemological) second sense, one can make similar moves that Thomas Hobbes (a materialist) and John Locke (who was also an empiricist like Hume, but was a substance dualist unlike Hume and Hobbes) made by taking an agnostic position on the matter:

“I shall not at present meddle with the physical consideration of the mind; or trouble myself to examine, wherein its essence consists, or by what motions of our spirits, or alterations of our bodies, we come to have any sensation by our organs, or any ideas in our understandings; and whether those ideas do in their formation, any, or all of them, depend on matter or no [emphasis added]: These are speculations, which, however curious and entertaining, I shall decline”

Comparing Locke to Hobbes, it has been said they share certain important points in common:

“Though his description of these processes differs in some interesting ways from the model Hobbes proposes, in the end both Hobbes and Locke share the view (1) that whatever we can know depends on our having ideas which must be somehow based in sensation, (2) that there must be some external cause (Hobbes) or some source of affection (Locke) which gives rise to sensory ideas, yet (3) ultimately we are ignorant about the real constitution of these causes and these sources. What we know is the content and structure of our own ideas (epistemological idealism), although we have no reason to deny the existence of external objects (thus to assert ontological idealism) and even assume that in some regards external objects resemble our ideas of them (in the case of primary qualities).”

Locke further argues that a metaphysics of substance is beyond the cognitive capabilities of humans, but is rather something that God reserves for Himself because he sees no reason why humans should have the same capabilities. In fact, Locke goes so far as to argue that even if our capacities were magnified, we would still be unable to know things as they are because our cognition differs from that of God’s in a way that goes beyond a mere difference in degree. Stated differently, we are just not the kinds of things that can know things in themselves.

Hume, on the other hand, didn’t rely on any theistic presuppositions regarding our cognitive capabilities. In response to certain problems with Locke’s view posed by Berkely who tried to make the case that if we can only interact with experiences, then the whole of our conception of objects is constituted and caused by experience itself (in other words, to be is to be perceived; Granted, this type of position rested on an absolute perceiver, i.e., God, to ground reality in a more stable state), Hume relied more on skepticism–the idea that knowledge of the world is impossible (or at least improbable). However, he also seems to concede that being a consistent skeptic isn’t practical, or even possible, as we have a natural psychological disposition to believe in the idea of mind-independent objects (though it is hard to see at this point how he is able to resist metaphysical conclusions as the idea of bundle theory posits that things such as the self are constructions–which seems to suggest someone, or something, is doing the constructing independent of construction itself).

One of the things that Hume brought into question was the notion of causation. He argued that causal events are inferred rather than observed. What does that mean exactly? When we make observations, what we are doing is perceiving phenomena that correlate with each other. For example, event B follows event A. Sometimes we insert non-observational notions into our interpretations of events that correlate with each other. So instead of B merely following A, A causes B.

Note that causation requires more than just mere correlation. Otherwise, we could infer causation from just about anything that happens to correlate with something else (take the famous example of inferring that increased ice cream consumption causes increases in the murder rate; instead of increased ice cream consumption being correlated with murder rates that both happen to be related in increased average temperatures during the summer).

Denying causation can seem really counterintuitive, and this is what sets Hume apart from Berkely (other than the notion of a divine, absolute perceiver) and from Hobbes and Locke who believed that our perceptions were ultimately caused by something, but we cannot know what that something really is. For example, if we imagine a pair of billiard balls, we don’t normally think of ball A and ball B being merely correlated when we see them come into contact and ricochet off of each other. This kind of interaction seems intuitively, if not obviously, causal. However, Hume would likely point out that it only seems that way after years of being conditioned (by nature or nurture) to infer causes from correlated events. We have what seems to be a natural, psychological disposition to infer causality (rather than arriving at it rationally, or deductively) and if we were just to focus on what we could strictly observe, then we cannot infer causation as that would be an inductive inference that assumes, rather than proves, causation (Hume is known for articulating certain problems of induction and other philosophers since have pointed out other problems of induction–a complete analysis of which is beyond the scope of this particular blog post but will be covered at a later time; suffice it to say that Hume and others have established that inductive inference is not rationally justified, i.e., we have to make certain leaps in logic if we want to use it).

At this point in the history of philosophy, it looked like the empiricists, especially Hume, had succeeded in bringing the whole study of metaphysics into serious doubt, thus ushering in a period of crisis in philosophy up until Kant published his Critique of Pure Reason. So far, it seems that epistemological idealism is unrelated to metaphysical idealism, thus Salamon and Butler can easily escape metaphysical idealism. However, we shall later see what Kant has to say about mind and the metaphysics of substance.



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