“Genital Preferences” and Other Bullshit Lies They Told You

I have been staying out of this debate for a while mostly because I just wasn’t really interested in entertaining even more nonsensical bullshit surrounding me and my trans sisters. It seems like everyone feels like they should get to have an opinion on who we date, who would like to do date us, and why they date us. Very rarely does cisnormative discourse engage the transgender perspective in good faith on the matter, so I thought it was nothing more than a waste of my time. Now that I am single again, I definitely feel more like expressing my opinion on the topic because dating is hard enough for anyone, but it’s a nightmare if everyone perceives you with both fascination and horror at the same time. In their horror, our would-be partners often site “genital preferences” as a really lame excuse for excluding us from consideration and why said exclusion is not transphobic.

You may notice that I have angry and sarcastic tone. That is because I am angry, and I am angry because this debate is still happening. But most of all, I am angry because it’s going to keep happening because we don’t matter to cisnormative society. Since I know I am going to be misconstrued by every defensive transphobe who comes across this site, I should explicitly state what I am not saying. I’ll even number and italicize to make it easier for everyone:

  1. I am not saying everyone should be attracted to transgender women.
    • Instead, I am saying people shouldn’t reject us for bullshit reasons.
  2. I am not saying that people can just choose their sexual orientation.
    • Instead, I am saying is that “genital preferences” are not a sufficient condition for being a sexual orientation.
  3. I am not saying that people never have good reasons to have an averse reaction to a certain kind of genital (for example, sexual assault survivor’s being triggered by the sight of a penis have very good reasons for feeling the way they do).
    • Instead, I am saying that equivocating trauma with disgust is really transphobic since most who cite genital preferences do not experience that kind of trauma and this minimizes actual sexual trauma.

I will support my thesis using the following argument:

  1. Most who appeal to “genital preferences” in order to exclude transgender women from consideration often do so without any actual knowledge of the genital morphology of any particular transgender woman.
  2. The appeal to genital preferences objectifies transgender women as it reduces them to their body parts and strips them of their humanity.
  3. Conclusion: If someone makes an appeal to “genital preferences”, they are most likely doing so from a position of ignorance that disrespects the humanity of transgender people.

Before I defend the argument, I need to be clear by what I mean when I use the term “genital preferences”. I use this term in the way that it is typically used in popular discourse. Here are a few examples:

“Saying that genital preferences are transphobic is homophobic.”

“Genital preferences are a kind of sexual preference that doesn’t need to be justified.”

“The suggestion that genital preferences are transphobic is coercive.”

“You arguing that we should question, or even reconsider, our genital preferences sounds an awful lot like conversion therapy.”

There is a common thread that ties all of these uses together: sexual orientation. In other words, genital preferences are practically synonymous with sexual orientation and one’s sex, one’s gender, is reducible to their genitals. Though it isn’t explicitly stated, the underlying assumptions—whether conscious or unconscious—are that transgender women aren’t really women, gender is reducible to sex, and one’s sexual attraction to another is primarily constituted by a preference for one’s genitalia. The rest of my argument will be centered around deconstructing the use of this term.

Many who exclude transgender women from consideration by appeal to genital preference often do so without any actual knowledge of the genital morphology of any particular transgender woman. Though some may be acting on reliable sources of information (such as the transgender woman herself), the way the rule is applied is almost always in broad brushstrokes, i.e., since transgender women are born with penises, all of them are treated as if they have penises regardless of whether or not they actually do.

This perception of transgender women and the attitudes that tend to accompany it reduce them to their body parts. As a result, our humanity is stripped away and the only thing that cisnormativity can see is a body that provokes both fascination and horror. What’s worse, if a conventionally attractive transgender woman were to not disclose her status, this would likely not happen to her (at least not in the same way).

This leads to the next point: people form attractions to others primarily on the basis of things other than genitalia. When a woman is seen, she is desired for her beauty, and hopefully other things such as her wit, her talents, her values, etc. Genitalia are among the last things to be considered, yet we want to give them so much weight when considering the desirability of transgender women. In other words, cisnormativity applies a double standard.

However, the get-out-of jail free card that reduces sexuality to mere genital preferences still comes up when these points are made. As mentioned earlier, genitals don’t typically play a role in the initial stages of attraction. When sitting at a bar, I can find another woman attractive without having any idea whether or not she has a penis or a vagina. The thought never crosses my mind, and it doesn’t cross most people’s minds until it is particularly relevant.

The only time it does, unfortunately, is when I know or suspect she is transgender. For me, genitals are not an issue, but due to social conditioning, my mind can’t help but bring that to my attention before her genital configuration is even relevant. Even though I have a transgender body, I still implicitly objectify other transgender women. If I struggle with this, imagine how it is for cisgender people.

The examples of the objectification of transgender individuals are innumerable. In their paper “Beyond Inclusion: Thinking Toward a Transfeminist Methodology”, Austin H. Johnson evaluates the treatment of transgender in sociology. As part of their research, they did a content analysis of the literature published in the journal Gender & Society, and in the book series Advances in Gender Research.

They found the following when they focused on objectification:

“The objectification of transgender people within the articles and chapters analyzed here was widespread…the articles and chapters analyzed here frequently objectified transgender people in a variety of ways…One form of transgender objectification in social research is the reduction of transgender people to their hormone or genital status (emphasis added)…”

Thus, it is clear that even fore experts who are supposed to be impartial can’t help but be partial in their views of transgender people. What’s worse, Johnson found practically opposite results when the research considered cisgender subjects.

What about reducing sexual orientation to “genital preferences” specifically? This idea relies on a few key assumptions, which are

  • One’s genitalia defines one’s sex
  • Sexual orientation is attraction to members of a particular sex (or sexes)
  • Sex and gender are distinct categories
  • One has no control over their sexual orientation as it is innate and immutable

Let’s begin with the first assumption: one’s genitalia define’s one’s sex. This, of course, relies on a controversial conception of sex. In her article “Sex Redefined”, Claire Ainsworth summarizes the historical development of, and current issues within, the study of sexual biology. One important point is that biologists tend to not define sex on any single parameter. Sex has become a bit of a cluster concept where genitals, secondary sex characteristics, chromosomal makeup, hormone concentrations, gender identity, etc. and no one parameter rules the roost. Since these parameters exist in nature along a spectrum, it is incredibly difficult to justify a view where one’s genitals is what defines one’s sex. Therefore, it is both possible and natural for a female to have a penis or for a male to have a vagina.

Since the first assumption is easily challenged, it’s easy to see how the second assumption is also easily challenged. Notice that we don’t have to deny that sexual orientation is attraction to members of a particular sex. Rather, since sex is not defineable by one’s genitalia, the content of the second assumption can radically differ (again, a female can have a penis and a male can have a vagina).

The third assumption is a little more challenging to topple, but it is doable. Take the following argument:

  1. If it is the case that sex is defined by gendered terms only, sex is reducible to gender.
  2. It is the case that sex is defined by gendered terms only.
  3. Conclusion: Therefore, sex is reducible to gender.

Premise 1 basically asserts that if there isn’t anything more to sex than gender, then there is nothing that sex has that isn’t already possessed by gender and is thus reducible to it. In order for it to be reasonable to consider them distinct categories, we would have to show that sex has an essential property that isn’t already had by gender. Ainsworth’s article can be said to be arguing that this essential property has eluded biologists, otherwise research wouldn’t be on its current trajectory toward viewing sex as multifaceted and continuous rather than singular and binary.

In her work “Gender Trouble”, Judith Butler makes the argument that sex, gender, and desire are the result of cultural constructions of identity. Rather than thinking of sex as prior to gender, she argues that gender is prior to sex. In order for heteronormativity to legitimize itself, and delegitimize non-normative identities, it grounds itself in the “natural”, and as a result, it is given what Butler calls an appearance of substance:

“Gender can denote a unity of experience, of sex, gender, and desire, only when sex can be understood in some sense to necessitate gender—where gender is a psychic and/or cultural designation of the self—and desire—where desire is heterosexual and therefore differentiates itself through an oppositional relation to that other gender it desires. The internal coherence or unity of either gender, man or woman, thereby requires both a stable and oppositional heterosexuality. That institutional heterosexuality both requires and produces the univocity of each of the gendered terms that constitute the limit of gendered possibilities within an oppositional, binary gender system. This conception of gender presupposes not only a causal relation among sex, gender, and desire, but suggests as well that desire reflects or expresses gender and that gender reflects or expresses desire. The metaphysical unity of the three is assumed to be truly known and expressed in a differentiating desire for an oppositional gender—that is, in a form of oppositional heterosexuality. Whether as a naturalistic paradigm which establishes a causal continuity among sex, gender, and desire, or as an authentic-expressive paradigm in which some true self is said to be revealed simultaneously or successively in sex, gender, and desire, here ‘the old dream of symmetry,’ as Irigaray has called it, is presupposed, reified, and rationalized.”

In an attempt to establish heteronormativity as “natural”, we created natural categories such as male and female and the scientific community has has run with it. Of course, biologists have arrived at a lot of fruitful results with such a model. That much is not disputed. However, what is still controversial is whether or not it is the most useful model. For example, conceiving of sex in terms of gender doesn’t cause us to lose out on much of anything, especially if gendered terms perfectly capture what research has already arrived at or will continue to arrive at. In fact, moving in that direction has yielded better research since the stumbling blocks of a binary view have already begun to be removed.

What of the last assumption: One has no control over their sexual orientation as it is innate and immutable? Casting doubt on the other assumptions does not necessarily imply that one’s orientation can be chosen. I consider myself a gender anti-essentialist (or anti-naturalist). However, I also recognize that I don’t have any choice regarding how I feel about myself in my body, nor the kind of gendered persons I am attracted to. Even though cultural norms have shaped who I am, the fact that they have shaped me, and will continue to shape me, is entirely outside of my control. Also, most of the mental activity of my mind that generates my thoughts, feelings and perceptions is largely outside of my conscious control as well.

So what are we left with here? On the one hand, we don’t have much control over our desires and on the other, sex is a bullshit idea. Recall earlier that for biologists, sex is a cluster concept. I want to interrogate this notion even further by examining what exactly that means.

Let’s begin by revisiting Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work on Language Games. According to Wittgenstein, a word cannot be defined by a set of necessary and sufficient conditions as there are always borderline cases, or exceptions to the rule. Rather, what we can do is examine a paradigm case and judge other cases on the basis of their resemblance to the paradigm case. What defines a word is it’s “family resemblance” to other words in a cluster of concepts and meanings, and what ultimately determines a words meaning is how it is used in context.

In Cognitive Neuroscience,the mental lexicon is also illustrative of this point:

“…[The mental lexicon] is 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 spelling and sound patterns).”

The mental lexicon is organized around four principles that help the brain process the spoken or written word into its meaning. Our focus will be on the fourth: 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.”

Take the word “dog”. Our concept of “dog” can be considered a cluster of other concepts like “fur”, “legs”, “barking”, “wet nose”, “sweet”, “cute”, etc. organized into a coherent mental unit called a cognitive schema. When the word “dog” is used, not only does it activate the schema dog in the nervous system, but it also activates other schemas that share concepts in common. For example, “dog” can also activate “cat” because they both have fur, four legs, etc.

The mental architecture that results is a complex web of words, concepts and meanings that reference one another. Therefore, the meaning of a word is determined in reference to other words, concepts in meaning contained in the web.

To see this in action consider the case of artificial intelligence and machine language learning:

“In the past few years, the ability of programs such as Google Translate to interpret language has improved dramatically. These gains have been thanks to new machine learning techniques and the availability of vast amounts of online text data, on which the algorithms can be trained.

“However, as machines are getting closer to acquiring human-like language abilities, they are also absorbing the deeply ingrained biases concealed within the patterns of language use, the latest research reveals.

“Joanna Bryson, a computer scientist at the University of Bath and a co-author, said: ‘A lot of people are saying this is showing that AI is prejudiced. No. This is showing we’re prejudiced and that AI is learning it.’

“The [program’s] approach [to learning language], which is already used in web search and machine translation, works by building up a mathematical representation of language, in which the meaning of a word is distilled into a series of numbers (known as a word vector) based on which other words most frequently appear alongside it. Perhaps surprisingly, this purely statistical approach appears to capture the rich cultural and social context of what a word means in the way that a dictionary definition would be incapable of.”

Stated differently, implicit bias, the unconscious prejudices and thought processes that underly decision making, can emerge from patterns of language use based on how certain uses of language relate to each other in context.

Researchers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that the structure of our cluster concepts are organized around our experiences of living in a body and that higher levels of abstraction contain within them more basic and concrete (typically physical and cultural) concepts. These results are consistent with Piagetian and neo-Piagetian theories of cognitive development. In particular, Robbie Case has argued that our knowledge of the world is constructed from our interactions with it and the basic architecture that characterizes their form are what he called central conceptual structures:

“These structures are defined as networks of semantic nodes and relations that represent children’s core knowledge in a domain and that can be applied to the full range of tasks that the domain entails. Major transformations are hypothesized to take place in these structures as children enter each new stage of their development. Once formed, the new structures are hypothesized to exert a powerful influence on all subsequent knowledge acquisition. The process by which they exert this effect is believed to be a dynamic one, in which general conceptual insights and more specific task understandings become reciprocally coupled, each exerting a bootstrapping effect on the other.”

In the earliest stages of development, the central conceptual structures are sensorimotor-based and as the child ages, these conceptual structures enable the development of more abstract concepts as children encounter new situations that call for such abstract thinking and problem solving.

There are two important takeaways for our consideration of sex as a cluster concept:

  1. Our concept of sex is constituted by a whole host of more basic related concepts, many of which are non-scientific, that are physical and cultural at their most basic.
  2. The organization of our conceptual structures and language use leads to implicit understandings of lived experiences that are mixed in with our experiences of desire conceived as sexual orientation.

Therefore, even though sexual orientation is generally non-voluntary and immutable, it does not mean specific components within these cluster concepts associated with sexual orientation cannot be critically examined and subject to change, “genital preferences” being one of them, as one’s sex is reducible to gender, but not reducible to one’s anatomy.

If genital preferences can’t explain why transgender women are perceived as “undesirable” by so many, what could be the actual basis for people’s aversions to their bodies? An examination of “trans panic” is particularly useful here. Trans panic occurs when a (almost always male) person murders a transgender woman out of a kind of panic, rage, or other experience that provokes extremely violent behavior. When asked about this phenomenon, gender/queer theorist Judith Butler explained that murder is a kind of assertion of one’s power and dominance. In a way, the killer is reassuring himself of his own power. Since transgender women are perceived as having rejected masculinity, the men who murder them often act from a place of feeling that their power that comes from their sense of their masculinity is being threatened as the existence of a transgender woman suggests to them that masculinity may not be inherent to their existence as men.

The murders these men commit are often extremely brutal and the insight that Butler provides is especially illuminating:

“Perhaps the man who drives over the trans woman time and again cannot quite make her dead enough. At a certain point, she is already dead, but he is not finished killing her. Why? It is because he wants to obliterate any trace of his own relation to that living person, obliterating a part of himself and living person at the same time. But also establishing his absolute power, and his own masculinity as the site of that power. Perhaps he is rebuilding his gender as he continues to try to take apart and efface that trans woman who never deserved to die. He is seeking as well to establish a world in which no one like her exists.”

If men murder transgender women from a place of feeling threatened, where exactly does this feeling come from? Butler hints that the man’s perceived relation to the transgender woman plays an explanatory role, so I will explore that further starting with an analysis of abjection.

Abjection can be defined as “the state of being cast off”. According to psychoanalysis and critical theory, it is how people primarily define themselves by creating boundaries between themselves and “the other”. It is the act of defining one’s self by what one is not.

One of the most influential writers on this phenomonenon is Julia Kristeva. In her work Powers of Horror, she describes abjection as a kind of horror one feels when confronted with the reality of living in a body, or a breakdown in the distinction between subject and object, of self and other.

In other words, the abject is that which is “not me”. When we mature, we reject things we once experienced as parts of ourselves cast them off from our sense of self. For Kristeva, abjection is the disturbance of identity, systems, and order. What does this mean for these men who kill transgender women?

Toxic masculinity is an unhealthy performance of masculinity that is a result of the abjection of primarily one thing: the feminine. Of course, any kind of masculinity is going to contrast itself against femininity, but toxic masculinity takes it quite a bit further. Homosexuality is perceived as a kind of manifestation of femininity within men. As our general cultural understandings of gender still have it, heterosexuality is strongly associated with masculinity and femininity (especially masculinity). In other words, “real men” are attracted to women, not other men. Men are also supposed to be masculine and a toxic conception of masculinity leaves no room for any hinted associations with the feminine.

Attraction to transgender women can be seen as a threat to either one or both aspects of the masculine cluster concept. Since transgender women were born with penises, and many people still perceive them as male, these men experience a kind of horror when they feel an attraction to transgender women. They fear that such an attraction suggests that they are homosexual, or that they might have other associations with femininity that they are too uncomfortable to confront. Even if they might not perceive themselves as possibly being homosexual, they typically worry that others, especially their friends and family, might. This provokes an experience of horror that some of these men act on in extremely brutal ways.

Of course, most people who reject transgender women don’t do so maliciously. They may experience some degree of horror, but they often keep it to themselves.  However, some feel compelled to make a more public point to others about how they do not perceive transgender women as desirable as a kind of self assurance of their own self concept. When they do this, they reinforce traditional associations within the cluster concepts of sex, gender and desire that at best promote systemic oppression and at worst provoke some people to react violently to transgender women.

In summary, an appeal to “genital preferences” is not an adequate defense for someone’s communicating to others how undesirable transgender women are since sex is wholly explained in gendered terms and genitals are but one aspect in the overall cluster concepts of sex, gender and desire. To be clear, no one is ever obligated to date a transgender woman, but we can still call them out when they decide to tell us and the rest of the world how unfuckable we are. To assert otherwise is to objectify transgender women which promotes transphobia. And that, my friends, is why “genital preferences” as popularly conceived are transphobic.


Living in a Body

According to current cultural convention, our genders are determined by our bodies. This is a view that has recently come under heavy scrutiny, especially by the scientific community, and for good reasons. Many of my friends would agree that gender has no basis in the body, but is rather a psychosocial phenomenon. However, I depart from my friends and would like to convince you that that the body is fundamental to gender.

First, it is helpful to understand what we mean when we talk about the body. Most would consider it material. However, I would argue that the body is not merely material, and that the experience of living in a body is just as important as its materiality. According to psychoanalysis, the ego (self) is primarily based in a model of the body, a body image. This body image is our perceptual access to, and experience of, our flesh.

How does gender fit into this picture? According to transgender theorist, Gayle Salamon, phenomenology provides us with a useful way of making sense of our bodies:

“Phenomenology is that branch of philosophy concerned with the way in which things in the world give themselves to consciousness and with the structures through which we experience that givenness…It is that endeavor to see the familiar with new eyes — that phenomenological principle of holding in abeyance what we know about any object, situation, or person in order to see it freshly and more precisely — that offers itself as an incitement to reinterrogate that which we think we know about gender and thus to radically open up the traditional categories through which it is understood.”

A consequence of the phenomenological perspective is that there is no view from nowhere–no truly objective view–of the body, and that each individual person is the primary authority on their embodied existence. When it comes to gender, Salamon writes, “…phenomenology offers an expansive conception of the body in which it is more than merely its materiality, emphasizing the importance of how one feels in and senses with and inhabits one’s body…In this phenomenological view gender and sex can be understood as delivered to the subject through a felt sense rather than determined by the external contours of the body, thus circumventing a view of sex or gender that understands either to be a matter of bodily morphology as given.”

A common objection to this claim is that phenomenology essentially collapses into idealism, which precludes any material basis for the body. This objection, however, is based on a few distinctions, some of which we will cover here. First is the realism and idealism distinction. Realism consists of the following claims:

  1. There is a mind-independent world. In other words, it’s existence is not dependent on any subject’s perception of it.
  2. We can have knowledge of this world through the mind’s representation of it. 

According to idealism:

  1. Something mental is the ultimate foundation of all reality, or even exhaustive of reality. In other words, reality is dependent on a subject.
  2. Our knowledge of this reality is not representational, since there is nothing external that our knowledge represents or corresponds to. Therefore, it is subjective.

Based on these definitions, it’s hard to argue how phenomenology doesn’t entail idealism. The phenomenologist can either bite the bullet and concede that knowledge of the world is purely subjective, or she can respond to this criticism by contesting a more fundamental distinction: the object-subject distinction.

So let’s get to bottom of this distinction:

  1. Subject: a person, or self; the subject of experience.
  2. Object: a thing external to the subject, which can be perceived by the subject and is thus its object. 

Let’s assume realism for a moment in order to see how it works out in practice. Though we can perceive the world through mental representation, it is necessarily the case that each perspective is exactly that, a perspective that can represent only on aspect of the world, and not the whole of it.

The phenomenologist embraces the ambiguity that necessarily follows. This ambiguity is best illustrated by sexuality:

“There is something enabling in this philosophy of ambiguity; it is precisely the ambiguity attending sexuality that can become the means for understanding bodies, lives, and especially relationality outside the domains of male or female.”

Based on our body image (which is largely conditioned by our norms and values), the boundary that separates us as subjects from objects, or the world, is our skin. However, we know from some research that we can incorporate external objects into this image. Thus, objects can become part of the subject. How is this possible? The proposed explanation is known as transposition, from the root word transpose, which has multiple uses including the following:

  1. An act, process, or instance of transposing or being transposed, which is changing the relative place or normal order.
  2. A mathematical interchange of two letters or symbols.

Therefore, transposition is the process of changing from the position of being the object of perception to centering perception itself by becoming part of the subject. This can happen both in the long run, and in real time within what is known in neuroscience as peripersonal space(though peripersonal space is not the only site of ambiguity):

“The binding of visual information available outside the body with tactile information arising, by definition, on the body, allows the representation of the space lying in between, which is often the theater of our interactions with objects. The representation of this intermediate space has become known as ‘peripersonal space’.”

Salamon describes transposition in relation to the sexual schema (which includes both the body and peripersonal space):

“…[P]roprioception emphasizes the relation between one part of my body and another part, the assemblage that constitutes my felt sense of my body as a whole…Transposition describes a slightly different phenomenon, a sense of self that is not additive or cumulative, but a function that emphasizes a shifting from one mode of being or bodily inhabitation to another, involving something like a substitution…In the desiring look, the eye that comes to rest on an object finds there a still point, an anchor that grounds vision itself and transforms it so that what is, factually speaking, a blurring upheaval in the visual field is sensed as an unremarkable shift to focus through this process of transposition…When I reach for [a desired person], I do not feel my arm but an intensification of both the proximity and the absence of the one for whom I am reaching. My sensation can in some sense feel itself to be located in that other…My body is the vehicle that puts me into compelling and sometimes heady proximity to the objects of my desire in this way, and, in the case of sexual desire, my body comes alive through being intentionally directed toward another.”

In short, embodiment is neither found in the subject or the object, but occupies the ambiguous space in between. How is this so?

Recall the Buddhist idea of interdependence, which is the idea that a thing’s existence depends on a set of causes and conditions. These causes and conditions are constituted by the relations a thing has to everything else. Take Hume’s Bundle theory as an example, which posits that objects are merely a collection, or bundle, of properties that have no underlying essence or identity. To better imagine this, suppose you had an ice cream cone. According to bundle theory, you cannot imagine or perceive an ice cream cone without its properties. After all, what is an ice cream cone without its shape, its color, its texture, its flavor, etc.? If you were to strip all those properties away, you would have nothing left. Thus, the existence of the ice cream cone is constituted by its relations, or its causes and conditions. Thus, our perceptions are relational as opposed to being grounded in either subject or object, including our perceptions of the body.

“If the physical body can be thought as a discrete and bounded entity, capable of being distinctly set apart from the ground that is its world, this identification is less a matter of disconnection or differentiation and more a product of relation. A body becomes so by virtue of its interaction with what surrounds it, not because it is composed of a stuff that is radically foreign to its surroundings.”

Therefore, realism must contend with this apparent contradiction between subject, object and their relationship to each other. Does idealism fair any better? First, let us consider an argument for idealism:

  1.  All we have access to in perception are the contents of our own experience.
  2. The only epistemic basis for claims about the external world are our perceptual experiences.
  3. Therefore, The only reality we can meaningfully speak of is that of perceptual experience.

We will critique the first premise: All we have access to in perception are the contents of our own experience.

It seems that we have to accept (1) and (2), which necessarily means we must endorse the conclusion. However, we can avoid the conclusion by denying (1). What basis do we have for doing that?

Contained in this premise are assumptions regarding the contents of experience. Idealism, like realism, implicitly assumes the object-subject distinction as well as the real-ideal distinction. It does not consider a third alternative, the ambiguous space between subject and object. Since we have already found both theoretical and empirical reasons for this third alternative, we can safely deny (1).

Where do we go from here? How do we make sense of a reality that is neither real nor ideal? What does this mean for our notions of meaning and truth? As explained earlier, even if we assumed realism, we have to deal with perception’s inability to capture the whole of reality. We are left with the ominous threat of nihilism and the anxiety it accompanies. Salamon provides us some reassurance:

“This is an account of…’truth’ that refuses to give primacy to either the perceiver who registers perceptions of the world or the world as a material fact over and against our perceptions of it…This failure of perception to account for the totality of a thing is, of course, true of any object in the world toward which perception might be intended. Every object is shot through with an infinite number of possible appearances which no single act of perception can encompass and no series of perceptions can exhaust. Even a perception in which we have all faith, which seems to deliver a truth about the object, cannot encompass the reality of that object because ‘reality’ does not belong definitely to any particular perception…Yet perception is not impoverished by its inability to deliver the ‘whole’ of any object; perception always gives us something less than this whole but also something more through the multitude of connections it makes between the perceiver and the thing perceived…perception is not a passive activity whose aim is to capture a quantifiable measurement of the world through recording and measuring the qualia of any particular object within it. Perception produces our relations with other objects and subjects, and these relations are, finally, the location of the object’s meaning. The perceptual truth of the object becomes the creation of its meaning, a meaning that is produced rather than found.”

Therefore, when there is an apparent tension between my anatomy and my felt sense of my body, my felt sense is the only meaningful determinant of my gender. It wouldn’t matter if scientific consensus contradicted me, and it doesn’t matter now what anyone thinks the materiality of my body suggests.

At this point, it is worth reiterating a few points about binary distinctions. The sorites paradox presents a challenge not just to the pursuit of non-vague language, it also threatens foundationalist views of logic and, by extension, knowledge. Philosophers have done various things to address these challenges including denying that logic applies to the paradox. However, they have not come without their own challenges.

For example, in order to argue that logic doesn’t apply, some have argued that there is no actual problem once we are able to eliminate vagueness in our language, thus saving classical logic, which relies on the binary truth values: True and False (hence classical logic being referred to as bivalent). Unfortunately, the endeavor to eliminate vagueness hasn’t produced satisfactory results and has largely been abandoned.  As it turns out, vagueness is inherent in our thought as well as in our language.

Other philosophers have appealed to multi-valent (or many-valued) logics. For example, instead of a binary system only using the values True and False, we can use a three-valued system using True, Indeterminate and False. However, a trivalent logic leads to the same problems.

What about a “fuzzy logic” that has infinite values where instead of a binary of truth values we have a spectrum of values? That doesn’t work either because it’s not exactly clear why we need to accept degrees of truth outside of solving these particular problems and whatever degree of truth we assign is going to involve an element of choice (or subjective judgment). By this point we should be perfectly aware that we cannot objectively determine whether or not a statement is 1/2 true, 1/3 true, 1/4 true, etc. Even if we accept that degrees of truth solves this set of problems, it leads to its own set of problems.

These problems of vagueness in semantics and logic resemble the problem of ambiguity in embodiment, though there are significant differences between vagueness and ambiguity. For example, ambiguity implies that there is more than one feasible interpretation. On the other hand, vagueness arises in the presence of borderline cases.

Thus, not only is it the case that our lived experience emerges from ambiguity, there is no clear border, or boundary, delimiting the two poles we call object and subject, suggesting that the whole of reality is beyond our perceptual grasp. We must, therefore, become comfortable with our own little piece of it, and that is what my transition–my my efforts to be present in my body–has always been about.

Toxic Masculinity Almost Killed Me

CW: mentions of violence, sexual assault, and suicide.

Gentlemen, we really need to talk. I know it often seems like we on the left (especially us feminists) give you a hard time for being male. I’ll admit that there is some justification for that perception. I’ll admit that sometimes you are treated unfairly and you are not given the proper amount of respect and charity that you deserve. However, there is also a basis for criticizing some of the ways masculinity is performed, and I want to show you how using my own personal experience with a thing we feminists often call toxic masculinity.

Before I do, it’s worth noting the adjective “toxic” and what we mean by it. An adjective, as you all know, is a word denoting an attribute placed before a noun in order to modify it. This means that masculinity and toxic masculinity are not the same thing. Yes, they share masculinity in common, but red velvet cake and chocolate cake are significantly different in ways that matter even though they are still both cake. So when we talk about toxic masculinity, we are not saying that masculinity as a whole is toxic, though I will acknowledge that some feminists do think that and even though I can understand why they think that, I certainly do not agree with them.

In order to illustrate what I mean by toxic masculinity as opposed to mere masculinity it is helpful to use the example of mass shooters, who are overwhelmingly male. When discussing the perpetrators of these heinous acts, many people will focus on traits such as mental health. It is more intuitive to think that mental health would play a causal role, but that still does not explain why these shooters are almost always male. Mental health is arguably just as much of an issue for women (if not more so since we often experience more trauma) as it is for men, yet women just aren’t shooting up public spaces to nearly the same degree. If mental health were really the main causal factor, it would stand to reason that women would also be engaging in this behavior, but that is not what we see. So why the focus on mental health if our intuitions can be so easily challenged upon further inspection?

When I witnessed the videos taken by the students being shot at by the Parkland shooter, I was immediately brought back to the moment I witnessed a man brutally shoot a woman in cold blood–especially when I saw the blurred images of bloody corpses on the classroom floors. I later made the following observations:

  1.  We can have an extremely averse reaction (assuming we haven’t already become too numb) to seeing the carnage of wounded/dead bodies.
  2.  We quickly try to frame mass shooters as psychotic, crazy or deranged.

But why? There is a common contributing factor for both (1) and (2), but let’s focus on (2) for now. Why focus on mental status rather than on other traits shooters tend to share in common like being male? It’s the same reason we are averse to gore and other things that remind us of unpleasant realities like death; it is the same reason why racism, xenophobia, nationalism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. are part of our reality; it’s why this kid thought shooting up a school was something worth doing: abjection.

Abjection can be defined as “the state of being cast off”. In psychoanalysis and critical theory, it’s how people primarily define themselves by creating boundaries between themselves and “the other”.

One of the most influential writers on this concept was Julia Kristeva. In her work Powers of Horror, she describes abjection as a kind of horror one feels when one is confronted with the reality of living in a body, or a breakdown in the distinction between subject and object, of self and other.

In other words, the abject is that which is “not me”. When we mature, we experience things we once considered part of ourselves be rejected. They are abjected from our sense of self or self concept. According to Kristeva, abjection is the disturbance of identity, systems, and order.

Now consider (1). The sight of the bloodied corpses stirs a horror within by forcing us to confront our mortality. Many of us reject, or resist, the idea that our bodies will all become inanimate corpses that will decay to dust. Thus, the corpse is the abject.

Now consider (2). Rather than focusing on the gender of the shooter, we focus on his mental status. Of course, mental health can, and often does, play a contributing role, but it is far more complicated than that. So much so that mental health is not found to play a significant role, yet we latch onto it anyway as an explanation because it makes it easy for us to abject, to define ourselves by what we are not. We look at Nikolas Cruz and in dealing with our horror, we say “that boy is deranged, he is insane, he is pyschotic, he is mentally ill, he is not me”.

Abjection in this case gets us off of the hook. It gets us a get-out of-jail-free card from examining how unhealthy expressions of masculinity and the presence and accessibility of guns, i.e., our values, norms and social systems, were factors.

Toxic masculinity, as I like to define it, is an unhealthy performance of masculinity that results through the abjection of primarily one thing: the feminine. Of course, any kind of masculinity is going to contrast itself against femininity, but toxic masculinity takes it quite a bit further than that. For example, emotionality is often associated with the feminine (as opposed to rationality which is often associated with the masculine), but a healthy masculinity does give room to emotion and emotional expression while toxic masculinity represses it. There are other things about the feminine that toxic masculinity goes further out of its way to reject, but emotional repression is its most toxic part.

To see how, I want to focus now on myself and my own performance of toxic masculinity as a transgender woman. Growing up, I learned very quickly that the feminine was forbidden, that crying was a sign of weakness I better learn to stop doing and that in order to be respected, I had to project toughness. My friends today say that I am what’s called a “high femme”–an especially feminine person–who doesn’t have a masculine bone in her body. However, I was relatively successful (or at least successful enough to convince myself and others that I was more masculine and less feminine than I actually was) performing masculinity when I was younger. Of course, “successful” is a relative term.

My performance of masculinity made me an emotional zombie. The only kind of emotions I could express (“safely” or otherwise) were related to anger and aggression. This almost killed me. I became extremely depressed and anxious. I was socially isolated and I had a tenuous connection with reality. It was as if I were hopelessly alone in a world that wasn’t real.

As feminine as I was, I still engaged in toxic behaviors. I talked about other women in distasteful and disrespectful ways, I felt a sense of entitlement to other people’s time and energy, and I was resentful of other people’s apparent success and happiness. In other words, I was a bit of a dick.

This all affected me so negatively that I became very suicidal several times in my life–I just couldn’t take it anymore. One of these periods of my life occurred around the time I was in El Salvador serving a church mission. It happened in a very poor, rural town as the sun was setting. I was purchasing water from a vendor when I heard what sounded like the firecrackers the local kids played with, but this felt different. These noises were louder, and immediately after the first four cracks, I heard screaming and then I saw people running.

I turned around and visually witnessed the final two cracks of the fire-spit bullets directed at a young woman. The shooter was a young man who couldn’t be any older than I was (which was 20 years old at the time). I saw him, I saw her body lying in a pool of blood, and I froze. It was as if it wasn’t actually happening; that I was watching it as if it were a movie–an experience that was a magnification of my typical experience. I didn’t process it for a while, but once I started to, I began to experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and it made my struggle with anxiety and depression much more difficult.

I eventually got help for my PTSD and the experience barely affects me these days, though the Parkland shooting did take me back. I mention this experience because it is a demonstration of how toxic masculinity almost killed me both as a subject and as an object of said masculinity.

Since transitioning, I have embraced my femininity and have made a lot of progress in overcoming the damage that I suffered before, though I still have some work to do. Now, as a trans woman, rather than worrying about my own performance, I feel that I need to worry about the performance of (straight) men. For example, as a bisexual person, I am attracted to both men and women. I would like to date men, but I don’t because I don’t feel safe enough.

Of course, I could be overestimating the risks involved, but I know that because of abjection, straight men have an especially hard time with the notion of dating a trans woman. Yes, there are good straight men who are perfectly comfortable with dating a trans woman. However, what I and other trans women have to worry about is something called trans panic.

Because of toxic masculinity and its abjection of the feminine, straight men when confronted with the notion of being attracted to and/or dating a trans woman often fear the implications (e.g., they worry that it might mean that they are gay or that their friends will think they are gay), a disturbance in their identity, which leads them to feel horror manifested as shame and disgust. This shame and disgust, these “powers of horror”, are what get us beaten, raped and (often brutally) murdered.

I believe toxic masculinity definitely plays a significant role, especially when coupled with the prevalence and accessibility of guns, in many of these shootings. It leads many men and boys to engage in unhealthy, sometimes violent, behaviors resulting from the fact that they never learned productive, healthy ways to manage their emotions.

It is instructive to note that a lot of these shooters have a prior history of this kind of behavior. For example, there is evidence suggesting that Cruz was abusive to women, as is often the case with many of these perpetrators. Women are also especially more prone to being murdered by their partners, and are five times more likely to be murdered when their partner owns a gun.

However, I am optimistic that these toxically masculine men are becoming less common as men are now more than ever given permission to accept their feminine sides and accept that their performance of masculinity can permit emotionality. Don’t get me wrong, I do acknowledge that there are already plenty of examples of healthy masculinity out there, it’s just that I have reason to believe that their numbers can and are growing, and as a result, I think I can start to feel a bit safer.

The Philosophy and Psychology of Fashion (Part 2)

When looking at one’s self from the mirror, the perspective that one is given is that of someone looking from the outside. However, unlike when looking at another person, the reaction that one might have is the thought “that is me?” Notice the inflection that denotes a question as represented by particular punctuation. The ‘?’ signifies more than just a mere question.

A signifier is a sign’s physical form (think of a word printed on paper)  and is distinct from its meaning, or the signified. For example, the word “duck” printed on paper is a sign that causes us to think of our own mental representation, or concept, of what a duck is. Of course, the signified doesn’t have to necessarily correspond to things in the world. (I dare you to not think of a pink elephant!)

The image we see when we look at ourselves in the mirror, i.e., from the outside, is a kind of signifier. Reflecting on what it feels like to look at one’s self in the mirror and ask “that is me?” makes it apparent that what we see in the mirror signifies something that seems to differ from the way we feel inside. It can be a kind of idealization of who we are–an ideal self. (Note that “ideal” does not necessarily mean morally perfect, or desirable. It is more accurate to say that it acts more as a model to organize one’s self around, whether for good or bad.)

It was previously explained that through language, or a set of signifiers, children progress from the instinctually driven phase of the semiotic to the goal-directed and intentional phase of the symbolic, which Lacan called the mirror stage, as it is the achievement of symbolic thought, of mental representation, that ushers in the awareness of one’s self.

Thus, the image we see looking back at us does not match what we feel from the inside. We feel a kind of incongruence–an incongruence between the signifier and the signified, the object and its concept, the real and the ideal. Where does this felt sense come from?

To answer that question, we need to think about what motivates us. An intuitive notion of motivation is that we act for reasons. After all, it seems like our actions are goal-directed as opposed to being random or driven by instinct. For the longest time, philosophers have debated about the kinds of reasons that have the force to drive action. Some believe that this force comes from inner desires. David Hume famously expressed that reason is the “slave of the passions”, meaning that reason does not sit in the driver’s seat of action. Rather, it serves as a guide.

Those who thought that reason was, or ought to be, in the drivers seat of rational decision making asserted that reasons must be external. Therefore, being rational requires doing certain things, regardless of whether or not we want to do them. However, folks who advocated this view failed to explain how these kinds of reasons can have any kind of influence on action whatsoever if being motivated to do something isn’t a requirement for doing it. What’s worse, how on Earth could moral realism–the belief that at least somethings are morally required, morally permissible, or morally impermissible all the time, everywhere, and for everyone–be feasible?

Immanuel Kant addressed this issue by arguing that being sensitive and responsive to moral reasons is built into the structure of the mind. In other words, part of what it means to be a person is to be able to recognize, be motivated by, and act on moral reasons. Lacan’s position was that the formation of the psyche, or mind, begins before the child is even born, and through the constant signification of norms and values, the self emerges.

Like Kant, Simon Critchleyargued that moral values are critical to the kinds of things we are, and the morality we structure ourselves around produces a sense of a coherent self. Thus, to be human is to be value driven. For Critchley, the kind of thing that we are is a moral subject that is both generating morality from within and is at the same time being created by it in a kind of feedback loop. Why? Because if a moral demand is to be placed on a subject, that subject must already exist in order to recognize and approve of the demand, and those demands must come form other subjects who are also created by and create said values simultaneously. Stated differently, we are constituted by the values we create via our actions which include our words, gestures and expressions–one of those expressions being the way we dress.

Therefore, fashion is a way of embodying our values. It is important for the realization of our sense of self in the pursuit of our ideal selves. Given the conclusion, it would also stand to reason that a part of caring for one’s self is caring for one’s own presentation.

The Philosophy and Psychology of Fashion (Part 1)

The “mirror stage” is a period in our development when we can (figuratively or literally) look at ourselves in the mirror and realize that the person staring back at us is us. It is when our awareness of ourselves, our sense of self, emerges and remains with us–typically for the rest of our lives. However, this mirror stage doesn’t begin until around 18-24 months of age, so what was life like before?

Jacques Lacan  (1901-1981) was one of the great psychoanalysts who popularized the idea of the mirror stage. Before the mirror stage, the ego (or self) has not yet emerged, so the child is not able to see herself as an individual separate from the rest of the world. She is, in a sense, one and whole with the world around her. But then, as the child acquires language, she begins to use symbols to communicate her needs and desires.

Developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) pointed out that the language that is initially directed externally to elicit action from more competent others in order to satisfy the child’s needs begins to turn inward when those others are not always readily available, and so an internally directed, private speech develops. Through private speech, she begins to talk to herself in a way that helps her develop symbolic thought–mental representations–not merely of things in the world, but also of herself.

It is at this point that the ego and the id begin their dance with one another in her psyche. The ego promises a sense of a more unified subjectivity while the id continues to exist in the shadows, striving to drive the child to act through raw instinct.

For Lacan, our true selves lie beneath what our egos project to ourselves and to the world. We may consider our stream of consciousness to flow in an organized and fluid manner, but when we really take the time to just observe, the stream of consciousness is a tangled, disorderly mess of loosely connected (and sometimes conflicting) thoughts, feelings, and impulses. What contributes to the concealment of this chaos is viewing ourselves from the outside.

What we see in the mirror, for example, doesn’t always give us a picture of the way we feel ourselves to be from the inside. One of the ways we use to convey to the world our sense of our inner selves is through our dress. Fashion can be seen as a mode of being, an expression of who we are on the inside for the whole world to see. Of course, not everyone is going to be true to themselves in their expression. Sometimes people conform to cultural ideals that don’t necessarily ring true to who they are inside. And sometimes Society, through norms and expectations, will regulate what is and what isn’t acceptable expression.

Lacan referred to the realm we exist in as subjects as the symbolic. Before the child acquires language, she is continuous with the world but as she transitions into the symbolic realm, she becomes separated and cut off from it. The instincts and drives that once directed her movements become repressed. The distinction that emerges is what Lacan called the small other and the big other. The world at large is the big other while the self is the small other constituted by the norms, values, customs, etc. of the big other. Later, the child begins to recognize her primary caretaker as another small other much like, yet separate from, herself. In a sense, the child is not only cut off from the rest of the world, but also from other people.

If Lacan is right, then our sense of self is merely imaginary or inauthentic, and we are hopelessly alone in the universe. We can try to reach out to others with our outward expressions, but we can never communicate to others what truly lies beneath. Thus, fashion is a vain attempt at communicating an authentic self to others.

Fellow psychoanalyst and philosopher Julia Kristeva (1941) believes there is a way to overcome the symbolic and its repression. Think of the time before an infant can put together complete sentences, or even words. She attempts to mobilize and vocalize, but the noises, e.g., the “goos” and the “gagas”, are unintelligible and her movements are chaotically instinctual, i.e., they are before meaning, before intention. Once the child enters the realm of the symbolic, she is in a world of meanings and those mobile patterns become goal oriented. Kristeva acknowledges Lacan’s notion of the symbolic, but she posits another of her own she calls the semiotic.

The semiotic is essentially the expression of that authentic mode of being that Lacan denied was truly expressible. It is a kind of pre-meaning that makes it possible to communicate an authentic self to the rest of the world, and she believes that it was expressed at its best through poetry and other forms of artistic expression. For the sake of argument, we will consider fashion such a form of artistic expression.

If Kristeva is correct, fashion and other forms of presentation are actually very important for reaching out to the world and establishing meaningful connections with others, though there are a couple of major problems with her ideas.

The first problem concerns the idea that there is a self that is imaginary and a “real” essence that it conceals. Kristeva, like Lacan, appears to want to have her cake and eat it, too. If it is the case that one enters and remains in the realm of the symbolic (meaning), then one’s only access to what is real is mediated through the filter of these “imaginary” representations. Also, what sense does it make to speak of repressed drives if we are always experiencing and talking about them from from the position of being repressed individuals? How does it make sense to say with any certainty that there is both a real and and an imaginary self when the only self we have access to is the imaginary one?

The semiotic necessarily depends on the symbolic for its function. After all, there is no pre-meaning, or meaning making, without there being a meaning in the first place. These criticisms were articulated by Judith Butler (1956) in her works Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter. For Butler, there is no “real” apart from the “imaginary”, there is no semiotic without the symbolic, and the norms of the big other do not just repress drives, they also generate them.

In conclusion, it is in fact possible to use fashion and other modes of expression to communicate to and bond with others. It has value and contributes to the richness of our culture and the functioning of our societies. Exactly how it can do this isn’t fully understood, but a lot of work has been done that is beginning to paint a beautiful picture for us.

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.


What is Power?

What is power? Like most concepts, it is something that seems intuitively obvious at first blush, but like most things, it’s a little more complicated than it might initially appear. One might believe that power is the ability of someone to do something according to their will, i.e., the power to do something they want to do. In philosophy, this is considered a kind of action-theoretical view of power. Another view is the power-over view wherein power is defined in terms of the ability to have power over someone else, i.e., the ability of A to get B to do something that B would not do otherwise. Of course, it is plausible that both views of power can be useful in certain contexts. One doesn’t have to just endorse a single conception at the exclusion of the other and may even be just two ways of talking about the same thing. For example, both can be seen as action-theoretical with power-over being a derivative form of power-to.

These may be useful and intuitive notions of power, but what do we really mean when we talk about power in more of a social context? For example, I have previously argued that patriarchy is a systemic form of power. What would it mean for power to be systemic? Rather than viewing power in terms of an individual being able to constrain and/or compel another, a systemic view of power could view things in terms of structures that determine the possibilities for individual actions. Of course, this is still compatible with action-theoretical accounts of power–after all, it can still be conceived as reducible to individual actions in many relevant ways–but it does put those accounts in a larger social context.

Indeed, many individualists can get on board with the idea that patriarchy is a kind of social system that establishes what are more or less possible, or probable, courses of action for individual actors to take. For instance, an individualist feminist could argue from this perspective that women are generally disadvantaged by implicit biases against women that lead employers (potential or otherwise) to unconsciously believe that women are less fit for certain job roles, even when things like experience and education are controlled for.

It was previously mentioned that not only is the self a social construction, but so are our sexualities as well as our bodies. However, what was not explained is exactly how that social construction comes about. Construction is a concept that describes a process, or a doing of sorts. In other words, social construction can be described in power-to and power-over terms. Of course, this doesn’t fully account for how power constructs humans, including their flesh and their desires (more on that specifically will be addressed at a later time).

Constitutive views of power take the systemic notions just described to another level in a way that makes power not reducible to individual actors or actions, thus differentiating them from action-theoretical perspectives. These views stipulate that instead of power merely determining what actions are possible for individual actors, power constitutes said actors and the social context they act in, and is manifested by the exercise of one’s will over others. In the context of feminist discourse, patriarchy constitutes gendered subjects, their actions, and their social contexts. It is manifested by phenomena like misogyny.

Recall the Buddhist concept of interdependence and Hume’s bundle theory. According to these ideas, what we are is a set of properties and relations. In other words, we are constituted by our relations to other people and things in the world around us. If we take these notions seriously, then the constitutive view of power is much more plausible than it might initially seem.

Philosopher Michel Foucault put it this way:

“[Power is] the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization; as the processes which, through ceaseless struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses them;…thus forming a chain or system.”

There is an important point in this that needs special emphasis. Power doesn’t just impose limits on people. In other words, it isn’t merely regulative. As the term “constitutive” suggests, power is also generative, or productive. In other words, it produces subjects and the categories they fall into. Such categories within the contemporary cultural context that subjects find themselves in are often framed in binary terms such as “male” or “female”, “man” or “woman”, “masculine” or “feminine”, “heterosexual” or “homosexual”, etc. Of course, culture doesn’t just produce binary categories. It also produces categories such as “non-binary” and “bisexual” (though those categories are defined by reference to certain binaries).

What is even more important to understand is that even though dominant culture imposes social sanctions on non-normative identities (transgender identities, for example), it nevertheless produces them. For instance, though homosexual people were (and still are to an extent) culturally unintelligible, the category “homosexual” is still a conceptually intelligible category (though not culturally intelligible; yes, there is a difference) that also provides intelligibility to the category “heterosexual”. In other words, not only does culture produce non-normative identities, those same identities are not accidents, but are features it relies on. They are necessary for normative identities to exist. In other words, they are interdependent.