How things actually are in the world

The philosopher Miroslav Imbrišević has a post at The Electric Agora on language and the concept of “women.”

Conceptual engineering has been taken up by some feminist philosophers. A central concept in feminist philosophy is ‘woman’. Ordinarily it means “adult human female,” but some feminists would like to include transwomen under the term ‘woman’. This view is now widely accepted in academic feminism. If you dare to question this, you will be considered “transphobic,” as Kathleen Stock, a philosophy professor at the University of Sussex, has experienced.

But the rest of us are still struggling to understand how any feminist can think it’s feminist to include male people in the concept “woman” on the grounds that they are trans women.

By including transwomen under the umbrella ‘woman’, these well-meaning philosophers suggest that there is no real difference between the type of women in expressions like ‘young women’, ‘German women’, ‘married women’, ‘happy women’, ‘single women’, ‘tall women’ and ‘transwomen’ (or ‘trans women’). They are all women. The aim here is to shape reality; to change how we view the world.

The class of women – by which I mean, adult human females – can be understood as a natural kind; that is, as something that is part of nature.  There is a material, biological reality to it. The class of transwomen, on the other hand, is a social kind; that is, something we find in society. It is a notion that is socially constructed. We invented it. It relies on the idea that some people have a gender identity which can be in conflict with their sex. Male-bodied persons wish they were female or believe that they are female, and many want to express this through their gender presentation, which might include body modification. The natural kind term ‘woman’ refers to a material reality (sex), the social kind term ‘transwoman’ refers to a psychological reality (attempting to disregard your sexed body).

And the issue here is that wishing you were a something you’re not is not necessarily the same as being that something. It can be, in some cases, where desire and will can make you into the wished-for something. You can wish you were kinder and become kinder by working at it. You can wish you were more educated and get there by buckling down to the studies. But wishing you were a gibbon or Saturn or Chomolungma isn’t going to make you those things.

The social category ‘woman’ has a biological foundation: women, understood as a natural kind. The social kind supervenes upon the natural kind; that is, the social category has an underlying material basis: being of the female sex. There is nothing similar with respect to being a transwoman. In this case, one social kind (transwoman) supervenes on another social kind (woman). Transwomen, in this sense, represent a kind of supervenience squared; a supervenience of supervenience. And because the concept ‘transwoman’ is free-floating, without a tether (a female sexed body), there is a fundamental difference between women and transwomen.

Take the concept of marriage. We now accept that same-sex attracted people can get married. Our linguistic (and legal) practice has changed and with it the concept of marriage. But ‘marriage’ is a social kind term, something we created by agreement, and we can extend/alter its meaning through further agreement. Contrast this with the concepts: ‘tiger’, ‘water’ or ‘woman’. These three are natural kind terms and their concepts are not open to radical revision through our linguistic practice, because they are tied to how things actually are in the world. There are facts about tigers which we cannot alter. For example, we cannot simply decree that it would be good to class lions among the tigers. Admittedly, they have something in common: they are both big cats, but ‘tiger’ and ‘lion’ are distinct concepts, as tigers and lions are distinct species.

Because they are tied to how things actually are in the world.


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