The Metaphysis of Gender. Not Simply a Woman (or a Man).

Is a metaphysically sound objectivist account of sexed identity possible? Do gender categories exist because we recognize real distinctions in the world or because we agree to use gender terms while according to them categorical force? In this paper, I defend a non-realistic view of gender categories vis-à-vis Sally Haslanger’s recent attempt to argue in favor of a “thin” metaphysical realism of gender categories.

The presentation is divided in two parts. In the first, I present Haslanger’s view, as characterized by the two following theses: (i) there is an objective basis for gender distinction; and (ii) this basis is not the product of discursive effect. In my analysis, particular attention is given to her critique of anti-objectivism in relation to sexual categories and to the so-called “ubiquity of mediation thesis”, i. e., that all of our access to reality is mediated by language and knowledge. In the second part, I show why Haslanger’s approach is inadequate, by showing that sexed entities are neither natural kinds (i.e. common essences which a group may share), nor “objective types” (i.e. unities without an underlying essence). Here is a more detailed layout of my argument.

There is a genuinely metaphysical disagreement about whether our gender classifications capture a natural kind or a social kind. According to the genuine nominalist, the world by itself can’t tell us what gender is and humans create categories of sexual preference and behavior: a person is regarded as a “woman” or “man” because they are induced to believe that humans are either “woman” or “man”. Realists hold that this is not the case: humans are differentiated sexually as the woman/man dichotomy exists in reality. Haslanger is critical of both approaches: according to her, gender is an “objective type” (a group of things that have a certain unity) and a social kind of unity (not discursively constructed). On her approach, there is some non-random or non-arbitrary basis for the gender unity and this unity is not a matter of sharing properties. Haslanger’s idea is that gender as a concept is discursively constructed, but gender by itself is independent of us.

Unfortunaly, Haslanger’s defense of objectivism is given without specifying what precisely is objective about sexual difference, and a conflict – I will suggest – emerges between her realistic view and her social constructionist accounts of gender. More specifically, Haslanger’s account falls short of two defects. It does not adequately capture the fact that each person’s gender identity is unique. Furthermore, it disconnects gender from the fact that criteria for distinguishing sexes differ across times and places. These defects, I argue, may be resolved by thinking of gender as referring to tropes, that is particularized property manifestation can only exist in one location at one time. Womanness, for example, is neither the special way a woman participates in a universal, nor a peculiar quality of a woman, but simply something that a particular person – and that person alone – has. Such a way of thinking about gender allows us to see a woman without identifying common attributes that all women have, or without implying that all women have a common – natural or social – identity and to explain what it is for two tokens (individual instances) to be of the same type in terms of resemblance. As result, I conclude, one’s gender may not be entirely stable and there is no feature of identity or unity itself that all women share.