Ameliorating the concepts

Jon Pike talks about conceptual engineering and That Word:

There is a growing approach in philosophy called “conceptual engineering”. It’s a cool name for an interesting project. Indeed, one of my colleagues at the Open University is heavily involved as a conceptual engineer. They look at our concepts and see if they are doing good work — if they are functioning well. If not, then we should try to improve them (“ameliorate” is the key term). The chief thinker behind this is Sally Haslanger; the title of her main work Resisting Reality: Social Constructions and Social Critique gives you a flavour of what she is up to.

So far, the term (and concept) “female” has seemed relatively immune from such attempts. The term “female” is straightforward. It’s generally accepted as an ordinary scientific and biological term. You can see that it is unambiguously a sex term rather than a gender term by realising that it applies across species: we don’t have woman squirrels, but we do have female squirrels.

It’s a good thing that we have some fixed and simple terms that apply to regular and important features of the world. It enables us to describe those features of the world in straightforward ways. To have the term “female” is a help in describing features of the world that matter — sexed features. That there are such features of the world seems to me important, and obvious. You only need to look at the work of Caroline Criado-Perez to see why, and the emergence of organisations like Sex Matters is part of a political move to focus on those features of the world where, well, sex matters.

The word is useful, we need it, so let’s not re-engineer it so that it means something else.

Creasy, and others, want to decouple “female” from the reality of biological sex. That project I find intellectually disturbing. It’s lots of other things — I think it’s politically damaging to the party we both support, I think it’s an affront to women, and I think it radically distorts the discussion. In policy, I think a redefinition of “female” would be disastrous, most obviously in health care. In the words of Keir Starmer, it generates more heat than light.

The affront to women is particularly…noticeable, in my view. It’s very affrontful. It’s an absolute classic of the “Well women don’t matter much so…” school of thought.

But my concern is in some ways quite narrow. I write about sport, and sex categorisation in sport. Here, it is obvious that sex matters. I have to be able to refer to biological sex in order to do my job. Creasy, then, is blunting the tools — the words — that I need. I argue for this claim: it is unfair for people with male advantage to compete in female sport. I try to give reasons for that view, to argue for it with governing bodies, to work out ways to apply it to sport policy. Whether people agree or disagree with that substantive view, this is legitimate academic work. In order to do it, I have to use a term to refer to biological sex. If Creasy succeeds, I will have to reorder my position. I will have to say that “it is unfair for people with advantages accruing from Homeostatic Property Cluster One to compete in sport designated for people with Homeostatic Property Cluster Two” or something similar. If we reached that point, there would be a loss to public debate. It would become obscure and technical.

Not to mention just way too goddam much trouble. If we have to use nine words instead of one to name women we won’t be able to name women at all, because any time we try people will just walk away.

11 Responses to “Ameliorating the concepts”

Leave a Comment

Subscribe without commenting