So, you should read RS for the new post up on the incoherence of TERF philosophy and/or ideology, it’s well done. But I want to single out and emphasize one particular bit. HJ Hornbeck excerpts a Medium article credited to a number of folks1 and proceeds to challenge it on a number of points. While I don’t have more than a few quibbles with what HJ wrote, HJ acknowledges that there is much more that could be challenged than was covered in the Reprobate Spreadsheet analysis. This is a place where a bit more of that challenging will happen.
Here, I want to emphasize a point that HJ made briefly that I believe could use more attention, add a couple of points original to me, and then allow you to get more from HJ’s original analysis. Here is the section I wish to reanalyze, a smaller portion of HJ’s first excerpt2:
the view that the category of ‘woman’ is correctly defined as ‘adult human female’. Biological essentialism is a position about whether certain traits of women are biologically produced by sex category membership. Womanhood itself is not a genetic ‘trait’ and no-one on either side of the dispute thinks it is conceivably biologically produced in the way that, arguably, emotional intelligence or maternal instinct is supposed to be.
HJ already points out that
You cannot square “we are not biological essentialists” with “women, definitionally, are adult human females.”
though they do try by putting forth what I believe to be a definition of biological essentialism (hereafter BEm, because whew, that gets tiresome) that is in my view erroneous, strangely idiosyncratic, and slippery, in a manner that appears unintentionally deceptive. Look again at the excerpt. It begins to slip awry, and deceptively so, when it defines BEm wrongly. BEm is not a position that relates only to “certain traits of women”. It can, of course, relate to “certain traits of space aliens” or “certain traits of dolphins” or “certain traits of members of the genus homo“. The point here is that by defining BEm in the manner that the authors do, they put the classification of women qua women outside of the possibility of consideration. It’s likely (I’m not up on all the current feminist philosophy) even fair to restrict the definition in feminist philosophy to human beings and exclude dolphins or space aliens, even if other disciplines might be concerned with how perceptions of biological determinism affect their own areas of research. But feminist philosophy certainly concerns itself with essentialisms other than those affecting how we perceive the etiology of women’s traits, and even defining BEm as regarding “certain traits of members of homo sapiens” or “certain traits of persons” would allow us to question whether or not womanhood is assigned based on biological essentialist (hereafter, BEt) criteria.
It is odd, then, that the excerpt even attempts to defend its authors’ definitions of women and womanhood as non-BEt. But accepting that they do, bizarrely, go ahead and attempt a defense, one would like to see a coherent one that at least makes a logical case that the authors should not be seen as biological essentialists unless and until some successful rebuttal is mounted. This is not what is presented.
But one matter further before we get there. BEm, remember, is not only absent when not regarding certain traits of women, but also occurs only where those traits are ascribed by the biological essentialist to those situations where an eligible trait is:
biologically produced by sex category membership
But this, too, is incoherent. Biological mechanisms do not operate differently depending on how human knowledge categorizes them. This is particularly important because categorization can and does affect acculturation and other social learning. Unstated in their definition of biological essentialism is that BEm is an alternative to cultural determinism and cultural essentialism (another topic is whether the authors have used biological essentialism throughout when in fact it would be more accurate to speak sometimes of biological essentialism and sometimes of biological determinism).
Cultural essentialism and biological essentialism are opposing theses, and their tension is often articulated in abbreviated form as “the nature versus nurture debate”. For most of us “nature versus nurture” is no longer an interesting debate. Those qualities that can be assigned wholly to one have most likely been so assigned. For the remainder of examinable qualities or traits, then, the relevant question isn’t likely to be, “How do we pin down this trait entirely to a biological etiology or entirely to a cultural one,” but rather, “how do the biological differences between individuals (or subgroups) combine with social and cultural differences between individuals (or subgroups) to produce this trait?” To say that an individual is engaging in essentialism, then, is to assert that on the question of the etiology of a trait where an answer isn’t clearly all biological (to the limits of our investigatory resolution) or all cultural (same), the individual in question has diverged from the interactive model to argue that the trait is determined by a process where the contributions of either culture or biology are functionally insignificant. Veering away from unspecified essentialism, BEm is the position that the functionally insignificant factor is culture, and all significant etiological processes are thus biological.
Anthropologically, the data are in: womanhood is determined differently in different cultural contexts over time, but in all cases the cultural mechanisms determining membership in the category “woman” and other culturally analogous categories reference biological facts in significant part. Those biological facts have, obviously, biological origins, but since they are given different meaning in different contexts, we can confidently state that those biological facts are not the entirely of significant factors determining womanhood.
This is not in dispute. Yet the authors of this paper assert that
‘woman’ is correctly defined as ‘adult human female’.
This is clearly a deviation from the interactive model toward a model where culture is functionally insignificant. This is classic BEm. It could hardly be clearer. Despite this, the authors then (almost immediately!) assert:
Womanhood itself is not a genetic ‘trait’ and no-one on either side of the dispute thinks it is conceivably biologically produced in the way that, arguably, emotional intelligence or maternal instinct is supposed to be.
BEm says nothing about genetics per se. The authors aren’t discussing genetic determinism or genetic essentialism. They chose to discuss biological essentialism, which is a larger category that includes but is not limited to genetic essentialism3. Under BEm, all biological etiological mechanisms are equally validly contained within its structures.
Having said that, the more glaringly bizarre inclusion is this:
no-one … thinks it is … biologically produced in the way that, arguably, emotional intelligence or maternal instinct is supposed to be. [emphasis mine]
Why not eye color? Why not tibia length? While “supposed to be” creates ambiguity here as to whether the authors believe it is (near) certain that emotional intelligence or maternal instinct are biologically determined – supposed by whom? is the relevant question – the authors clearly at least leave open the possibility that emotional intelligence is determined without significant contribution from cultural and social factors.
Make no mistake: even in its minimal form this is a position so divorced from reality it can only be called delusional. The definition of emotional intelligence is this:
the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.
As a thought experiment, imagine a child washed up on a remote island growing to adulthood entirely alone. Are we to believe that this child would be equally skilled at expressing emotion as the child having grown up without language or anyone to whom one might express that emotion as the child would have been growing up with language in a social context? Are we to believe that the isolated child develops “the capacity … to handle interpersonal relationships” to the same degree as a biologically identical child growing up in a social setting even though the isolated child has never once had an interpersonal relationship after some arbitrary age where it is at least conceivable that such a hypothetical child could find food independently – perhaps somewhere in the 3 to 5 year range?
This assertion, that emotional intelligence is arguably produced without significant contribution from cultural and social learning, is so horrendously outside the possibilities as even non-experts might understand them with but a moment’s thought that the mere use of emotional intelligence as a supposedly-illustrative example of things that might be biologically determined shows a huge, a drastic bias towards openness to biological essentialism.
Before we continue, I want to make absolutely clear the nature of my objection: the authors earlier used “emotional intelligence” as a possible example of something biologically determined. After that use but before the quote I’m objecting to here, they add:
All of us reject this view as stated, though at least one of us acknowledges the possibility of more minimally described hard-wired sexed behaviours across a population.
My objection, then, isn’t to the authors arguing that emotional intelligence truly is biologically determined. Rather it is to what they actually said:
no-one … thinks it is … biologically produced in the way that, arguably, emotional intelligence or maternal instinct is supposed to be.
In this quotation of the identical words, I have shifted my emphasis. Here I want to bring your attention to the use of “arguably”, because it is not arguable that emotional intelligence is biologically determined. That opinion is nonsense, and flies in the face of what we know about the capacity of emotional intelligence to change with treatment for certain disorders negatively correlated with emotional intelligence, formal education on cultural norms of emotional expression and interpersonal relationships, as well as less formal learning. Though I believe that the authors have made some major errors here, don’t mistake the critique of this statement for a false assertion that the authors believe in a BEt account of EI’s etiology. It is bad enough that they mistake this outrageous position as “arguable”.
I could conclude here, but I would be remiss not to point out that by defining BEm as characteristic of positions on the etiology of women’s traits, the authors here claiming non-BEt status are asserting that no position on the origin, development, persistence, or mutability of traits associated with individuals or groups belonging to those they categorize as men could ever justify categorizing them as biological essentialists. Yet after their definition of woman, the most damaging essentialism in which they engage may not even be their essentialism in relation to women. It may very well be that second only to how they define men and women the most damaging essentialism they practice is in relation to those they categorize as men. But in their definition of BEm, examination of these positions is forbidden to have any relevance to whether or not the authors practice essentialism.
This double standard must be challenged. As much as these authors and their ideological fellow travelers may assert that trans people are only concerned with the treatment of MtF trans women and the limits of acceptable womanhood and femininity, it is trans activism’s antagonists themselves that make it plain they have no interest in the treatment of FtM trans persons and the relevant limits of acceptable manhood and masculinity. A broad or narrow definition of manhood interests them not at all, nor do the potential ramifications of such definitions.
As near as I can tell, the arguments that they make against social and/or legal self-identification of gender apply only to MtF people. The arguments are stated in such a way as to focus entirely on hypothetical examples of male persons in space they would like to see designated female-only. There are no counter-examples about the dangers of female persons accessing space that might be designated male-only. And yet the authors conclude that such social and legal policies must be prohibited in their entirety, not limited in such a way that female persons can freely use them but male persons cannot. But if the coercive power of the state is to be brought to bear against anyone, that use of power must have a justification. In this case, the authors argue that state power should be brought to bear against those who use public restrooms to which the authors believe those persons have no appropriate claim to access. Validation of the use of state power without justification is an invitation to tyranny. Why, then, do the authors feel satisfied, having made the case for using coercive state power against MtF trans women only, arguing for a policy which would bring state punishments upon those persons whose behaviors the authors have never even attempted to argue deserve such punishment?
It is in fundamental errors like these that the authors show biases that I consider far more dangerous than the world prioritizing self-determination4 that I advocate.
1: Primary authorship credit appears to go to Dr. Kathleen Stock, but the on-line publishing format is less than clear given that Stock alone is given the website byline, but when the full list of six authors is presented, it is ordered alphabetically with Stock placed last. The authorship list as given on medium.com:
Sophie Allen, Jane Clare Jones, Holly Lawford-Smith, Mary Leng, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, and Kathleen Stock
2: There is additional context which I’ve chosen to omit. The full omitted paragraph is this one:
‘Biological essentialism’ is standardly used in feminist philosophy to refer to a position which thinks that certain cognitive abilities (e.g. emotional intelligence, lack of spatial reasoning), instincts (e.g. maternal instincts, a drive for monogamy), social preferences (e.g. for domesticity, for family life) and dispositions to certain behaviours (e.g. kindness, passivity) are causally produced across a population of human females in virtue of their biological sex category membership.
This suffers from the same deficiency with respect to the phrase
in virtue of their biological sex category membership
as the quoted passage suffers from in the phrase
certain traits … are biologically produced by sex category membership
Further, the same problem exists with respect to
across a population of human females
as exists in the portion I quote that reads
whether certain traits of women
I believe it’s clear that their definition differs from standard definitions of BEm – yes, even in feminist philosophy – in specifying that BEm can only be applied to female humans. I do think it’s fair to assert that feminist philosophy focuses more frequently on BEm as applied to sex than as applied to race or some other topics. I also think it’s fair to assert that feminist philosophy focuses more on BEm as applied to women and/or human females than men and/or human males. But these are not definitional issues, these are investigatory patterns demonstrating the interests of feminist philosophers.
Moreover, I did not quote the first-occurring paragraph in the main body of this post because it seems to be, forgive me, rank bullshit. Nowhere in the Medium.com article do the authors assert that their intended audience is limited to trained feminist philosophers. Nowhere do the authors assert that they are responding only to the critiques of trained feminist philosophers. The closest they come is to say that
While there have been a number of comment pieces in national media by philosophers challenging gender-critical and radical feminism, we have yet to see in these a compelling argument against our position. Rather than respond to these pieces individually, we would like to highlight some of the common misunderstandings and fallacious arguments that we take to be problematic in these responses.
I am careful to note that they are responding to “comment pieces in national media by philosophers”, but this isn’t the same as limiting the discussion to feminist philosophers. MOREOVER, just because you’re a trained X, doesn’t mean that you will use the professional nomenclature with academic precision in a popular venue. If you’re not writing for professional philosophers, then you have to use the language that non-philosophers will understand. In law, “reasonably foreseeable” has a certain definition. But if I wrote a popular op/ed and used the phrase “reasonably foreseeable” it’s unlikely that the majority of my readers would understand me to be using the specific, technical definition found in the law of liability. Thus, even though in the majority of cases in which I use “reasonably foreseeable” I might very well intend the technical, legal definition, it does not follow that any of my writing in popular periodicals would necessarily use the term that way. In fact, despite my membership in a particular group, my audience is far more determinative of how I use a word or phrase than my training. I wish to be understood. I know something about how my audience understands a word or phrase. I know that my audience has no telepathic or other means of divining my intent apart from my words. Therefore I choose my words according to how they will be understood.
Given all this, we can be certain that the definition of a phrase used in an argument that feminist philosophers would like to critique depends on the definition of that phrase as used in the original argument, not as used in feminist philosophy journals. Unless and until the authors quote a specific user of the phrase biological essentialism and find that person to be writing in a specific context that obviously limits available interpretations to those defined by feminist philosophy, the definitions of feminist philosophy are irrelevant.
This is all particularly disconcerting since the authors have been taken to mean something other than they intend at various times. One of these authors, defining womanhood as such an author does, might use “woman” in a way that conflicts with the lived facts of social reality in any number of areas around the globe, but is entirely consistent given their idiosyncratic definition. For instance, depending on the definition of “female”, it would be perfectly consistent (and true!) to say that all women have the capacity to get pregnant from penis-in-vagina sexual intercourse, if one’s definition of “woman” is “adult female human”.
The authors experience some frustration with others interpreting their statements about women to be in contradiction of reality (or to be otherwise problematic), when using their own specific definition of woman such a contradiction (or problem) does not exist. Given this, it seems particularly egregious that they do not either state, “We intend this article to be critical only of other feminist philosophers,” or open their definition up to include what their rhetorical opponents actually use the term biological essentialism to mean. It’s for damn sure that none of those rhetorical opponents think that biological essentialism can only be applied to female humans.
So why do these authors pretend that this is somehow the relevant definition when responding to those opponents? I honestly don’t know. They should know that it is literally impossible that all their critics are using biological essentialism consistent with how they define the term in this article. It strikes me as patently dishonest, then, to assert a definition unique to feminist philosophy as the standard by which a term’s use in discussion with non-philosophers is to be understood.
There are reasons why the authors might not want to quote specific criticisms by specific critics, but so long as they wish to lump all their critics and all those criticisms together, then any rebuttal aimed at those who use the term biological essentialism in popular periodicals must address what is meant by all of them. Indeed, without specific examples, any rebuttal must address what even a single use might reasonably be interpreted to mean by its intended audience. Anything less is certainly not “[d]oing better in arguments about sex, gender, and trans rights”.
3: This could be seen as an equivocation fallacy, but I read this document as intended to be rhetorically persuasive rather than logically conclusive. If they aren’t using their equivocation in the context of a logical argument that given some premise or premises we must accept some conclusion or conclusions as true, then this isn’t a fallacy.
4: Please note that I said, “prioritizing” and not “deferring absolutely to”. Prioritizing is a relative term, and I certainly prioritize self-determination more than these authors on at least some relevant issues. Obviously it’s possible that on some issue I haven’t discussed one or more authors prioritize self-determination more than I would, and in no case does that mean that the party more highly prioritizing self-determination has taken an extreme or absurdist position that what one decides to do is always acceptable so long as one has decided it for oneself.