Thinking Nominalism, Living Pragmatism

Nobody really wants the sloppy, childlike relativism that some self-proclaimed ‘post-Modernists’ espouse – even they don’t want it, since it would make their proclamations and espousals nonsensical. But relativism is not all one thing, it’s available in various types and to varying degrees. Dealing with any relativism in a useful manner requires considerable thought, caution, and care.

It is one of the most difficult concepts to get our minds around, that the world we know is only known through the concepts our minds generate (or that are communicated to us by others). Since these concepts are generally constructed via some linguistic or otherwise systematized communication processes, it follows that our ‘knowledge’ of the world is really largely a knowledge of what we say about the world. Even if I kick a rock (ala Sam Johnson), this experience will only make sense through my signifying response to it in a given context. Even expressions like ‘ow!’ or ‘ouch!’ can be seen to be some responsive effort to make sense of the experience; i.e., announcement that a painful event/sensation has occurred.

We’ve all had the experience of feeling some tiny sting on our arms; we slap at it reflexively. What is it? I pull my hand away, and there on the palm is a flattened body with broken wings, and I say, ‘oh, a bug.’ But if I pull my hand away and there is no flattened body on it, there still arises some thought in mind, such as ‘oh, probably a bug.’ And it is probably a bug, but that doesn’t matter – more important is recognizing that whatever it was, I have made sense of it by interpreting it and expressing this interpretation. And if it never happens again, and I never find any further evidence that it was a bug, yet a bug it will be in my memory.

I confess that I am something of a classical (i.e., traditional or Medieval) Nominalist – I’m sometimes unsure that we know anything ‘out there’ at all, except that it exists (but I’m also something of a Pragmatist, so this doesn’t really cause me any loss of sleep). But one doesn’t have to go so far as Nominalism to see that any claim we can make of the world beyond ourselves is thoroughly mediated by the system of the language by which we make the claim, and thoroughly dependent on context – not only the context of the particular world in which we speak, but the the context of the language we speak itself, and all the social reality that requires we admit.

Nominalism is a position taken regarding the problematic relationship between universals and particulars. This relationship can only be worked through in language.

It should be noted that there are certainly signifying practices other than language; but there can be no experience with reality that does not engage – and hence is not mediated by – signifying practices. (An infant reaching for the mother’s breast is signifying something, and reaching for what signifies to it.) Whether infants have ‘concepts’ seems irrelevant, or badly phrased. That an infant responds to the world reliant on persistence of objects hardly means that it has a concept of persistence of objects. This seems to beggar the very concept of a concept.

One of the questions inadvertently raised here is whether knowledge is to be equated with the hoary Positivist standard of Justified True Belief; because an infant certainly has no belief to be justified. – the truth of the breast is the immediate presence of the breast, and the justification of that is satisfaction of hunger. But the infant surely does not ‘believe’ this in any way  he or she can articulate, but merely reaches for the breast. Yet infants surely know, in a meaningful way, the breast – and the success or failure to get satisfaction from it – and intimately.

I’m not sure that the notion of knowledge being reducible to Justified True Belief, makes any sense outside of language, since analysis of a ‘justified true belief’ requires formulation into claims in a language system.

I noted parenthetically that my Nominalist position (concerning universals) did not cause me loss of sleep because I am also something of a Pragmatist. In pragmatism, knowledge need not be equitable to JTB. Reliability, as ground for responding to the world, often seems to have a stronger claim.

I earlier used the term “signifying” exactly to avoid getting into a technical distinctions between signifying systems. But I will introduce one technical term which may be of use here, which is that of Charles Sanders Peirce: interpretant. The interpretant to a sign is primarily composed of responses to the sign, which may be conceptualization or may be some form of action or speech-act, or some inner sensation. If we think in terms of signification and how various organisms respond to signs, we can avoid the dangers of ascribing language to an infant, and still have a means of addressing how they interact with their environment and each other in significant ways. And we can also avoid the trap of conceiving of our entire existence as somehow fundamentally linguistic. We are the language speaking animal, but we have other non-linguistic significant interactions with each other and the environment.

Pragmatism is a post-Idealist philosophy (Peirce was taught to recite Kant’s First Critique – in German! – at an early age; Dewey was an avowed Hegelian until WWI). Idealism makes a claim, actually similar to that of Logical Positivism, that knowledge is primarily or wholly the result of theory construction, and thus must be articulated linguistically. * Pragmatism begins with the recognition that this cannot be the case.

So the question may come down to whether what we know needs be communicated in language, or whether some other form of signification can be rich enough to inform our responses to the world.

But that does not mean we can be free of signification all together. The sting on the arm is a sign; what I say of it is an attempt to understand its significance, as response to it. If (assuming the scenario that I cannot see or find the bug or bug-parts) I come down with symptoms (signs) of malaria, that will enrich the signification of my response, and will also point to (sign) the species of bug that stung me. None of this need be predicated on the understanding that there is an inherent ‘bugness’ (some universal bug-hood) in the bug, the theory of which I must be familiar with before I form a proposition concerning it. And that is what I see as the real issue here.

—–
* This falls into the Nominalist trap: if all knowledge is theoretical, and all theories concern universals, and all existent entities are individuals, then the most we can say we know is our own theories, since individuals are not universals, but universals need to be constructed to account for them.. Unless, that is, we allow that knowledge is not all one thing and that there is not only one way of knowing. I’m glad that my doctor has a theory of malaria that can be relied on should I come down with it, so I can get properly treated. But I know I was stung, and what that felt like, without any theory to account for it. The interpretation of it is, however inevitable, as making sense of the matter, and certainly necessary if I become sick and need to articulate to a doctor what I think happened.

 

The phenomenology of whose mind? vier (zwei)

Notes on reading Hegel: the impossibility of reading Hegel (2):

(In the years since writing my dissertation on Paul DeMan, which required a reading of Hegel, I have tried a number of times to write a critical reading of The Phenomenology of Mind, but have always run into a number of obstacles, which I thought I should share, just writing them out as they occur to me.)

3. Every element of the dialectic in the Phenomenology eventually will be discovered to engage every other element of the dialectic.

Consider this in terms of Kojeve’s Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The main charge that is most frequently placed against this reading of Hegel’s text is that Kojeve makes the mistake of reading the entire Phenomenology as a meditation on the “Master/Slave” dialectic which appears about mid-way of Hegel’s text. This has Kojeve’s problem precisely backward. What I believe really happened was that the Marxist-influenced Kojeve was attempting to guide his student’s reading of the Phenomenology to begin with the “Master/Slave” dialectic, to persuade them to read the Phenomenology with social issues arising from the problems of material productivity foremost in their minds.

Unfortunately, in order to read the “Master/Slave” dialectic in any depth, Kojeve found it necessary to give a reading of the entire Phenomenology, in order to make sense of the implications of the “Master/Slave” dialectic. That would be because the issue comes down to a problem of subjectivity both per se and inter alia. That means there is no point in clarifying the nature of the subjectivity of the “Slave,” the important realization of this particular moment of that particular dialectic, unless one has an adequate conception of what Hegel means by subjectivity itself – and this is not revealed until the final page of the Phenomenology, it is the subjectivity of absolute knowledge, wherein the subject discovers itself in – and only truly in – all that it knows. (The subjectivity of the “Slave” is important moving towards this, because the “Slave” comes to know the necessity of productivity, the value of service to others, and the social positions these necessitate; but the “Master” doesn’t even really know the “Slave.”) So there is no effective way of giving a close reading of Hegel’s text on the “Master/Slave” dialectic, without first, and again at last, reading the whole of the Phenomenology.

4. In order to fully understand the Phenomenology, one has to have a pretty good working knowledge of virtually the history of Western philosophy up until Hegel’s time, at least as well as Hegel himself knew it. (Knowledge of the history of Western literature and rhetoric up to Hegel’s time helps as well.)

Consider the following sentences:

“Thus we say of a thing,’it is white, and also cubical, and also tart,’ and so on. But so far as it is white it is not cubical, and so far as it is cubical and also white it is not tart, and so on.”

This is Hegel; but although there is no reference to Aristotle, it is actually clearly lifted from Aristotle’s writing on the differences between properties of an entity essential to it and those accidental. And so we should really expect these sentences to appear in a discussion of the nature of the properties of an entity; but that’s not Hegel is discussing here at all. Here is the larger context from Hegel’s text:

“Now, on this mode of perception arising, consciousness is at the same time aware that it reflects itself also into itself, and that, in perceiving, the opposite moment to the ‘also’ crops up. This moment, however, is the unity of the thing itself, a unity which excludes distinction from itself. It is consequently this unity which consciousness has to take upon itself; for the thing as such is the substance of many different and independent properties. Thus we say of a thing,’it is white, and also cubical, and also tart,’ and so on. But so far as it is white it is not cubical, and so far as it is cubical and also white it is not tart, and so on. Putt6ing these properties into a ‘one’ belongs solely to consciousness, which, therefore, has to avoid letting them coincide and be one (i.e. one and the same property) in the thing. For that purpose it introduces the idea of ‘in-so-far’ to meet this difficulty; and by this means it keeps the qualities apart, and preserves the thing in the sense of the ‘also.'”

What Hegel is doing here is taking Kant, applying him to Aristotle, and coming up with Locke. And since we know Hegel is no great fan of Locke, we know this is not the end of the process getting described here. But what Hegel has so far accomplished, is an account of Aristotelian metaphysics, Kantian epistemology, and Lockean grammar. But this would not be noticed by anyone who has not read Aristotle, Locke and Kant. In fact what Hegel is really thinking here is incomprehensible unless one admits that Hegel holds effectively (by going to the root of Locke’s theory of language), that Kant comes before Locke, who then initiates Aristotle’s metaphysics. This is, of course, an abuse of history; but it would make entire sense to someone disciplined in viewing history panoramically: in the interplay of the dialectic, old ideas become new again, and new ideas spring from ancient ground.

5. Finally, I need to remark the grammatical difficulty of the Phenomenology, by whioch I do not mean Hegel’s occasionally difficult German, but his grammar seen in the widest perspective, as a grammar unconstrained by any deference to audience expectations.

In the above example, concerning Hegel’s use of Kant, Aristotle, and Locke, it must be admitted that within Hegel’s discourse, there is absolutely no immediate indication that Kant, Aristotle, or Locke are the philosophers whose ideas Hegel is putting into play. A reader comfortably familiar with these philosophers, will recognize their ideas. But Hegel isn’t going to acknowledge this, and the reader lacking that familiarity will likely get completely lost in reading this.

But consider the matter in a less historical, more purely grammatical issue here. “Putting these properties into a ‘one’ belongs solely to consciousness, which therefore, has to avoid letting them coincide and be one (i.e. one and the same property) in the thing. This does not follow grammatically from the previous two sentences, which concerned an object (in the epistemological sense), to which the “properties” are said to belong as predication, which saying thus makes this epistemological object a logical subject. (‘I am thinking about X – thus my epistemological object – which is then the logical subject of the claim “X has property Y” as its predication.’) This should make the epistemological object a grammatical subject as well. Yet in the presently considered sentence, the grammatical subject is an act – “putting these properties”… no, wait, it is “consciousness,” “which therefore has to avoid” … well, could it be a collective formed by the properties to “be ‘one'”?.. no, it’s a single entity, “one and the same property” … well, in any event, it is certainly no longer the object.

Hegel knows what an epistemological object is; and certainly the author of The Science of Logic knows what a logical subject is. He just doesn’t seem so interested in what a grammatical subject might be.

Let us go back to the main concern of the passage under consideration. Hegel doesn’t mention Aristotle, Locke or Kant, because he doesn’t see any reason to. He is simply writing down his thinking on the matter as it presents itself to him, fully confident that, as he has grasp of the entire narrative, the discourse will thus set itself to paper, clear to any who understand what the discourse concerns.

Unfortunately, the only reader who could possibly know absolutely what this discourse concerns is Hegel himself. This is not the language of a discourse addressed to others, but only to one’s self. It is the language of thought, not public address. Hegel is thinking to himself, and he happens to be writing while he does.

As most theorists of composition now agree, every writer addresses an ideal audience, which audience determines the rhetorical strategies of the discourse. Hegel’s ideal audience – is Hegel.

Unfortunately, since his rhetorical strategies are directed at himself, and one’s self makes an audience very easy to please, a great many of the simple grammatical necessities that rhetoric demands sooner or later simply dissolve. Thought is then allowed to go its own course, free of social expectations or constraint. A reader either will find some way to think with such a writer, or will abandon the effort.

If one really does have a sense of what Hegel is thinking, and knows what Hegel knows, The Phenomenology of Mind is surprisingly easy to follow. If a reader is not anywhere near this fortunate, the text is impossible.

——

 

Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit, edited by Allan Bloom, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Human sciences as probabilistic explanation

The thrust of this article is very simple: the explanations we find in the human sciences are nothing like the claims of causal certainty we frequently find in the natural sciences.

‘Sue hit Joe,’ the story goes, ‘because he insulted her.’

If the audience to this sentence knows both Sue and Joe, that may be the end of it, since their personalities are presumed to be understood. Yet greater explanation may be desirable, especially if there are aspects to the personalities of Sue or Joe of which those who know them are unaware.

Let’s enrich our narrative, with different scenarios.

‘Sue hit Joe, because he called her an ugly bitch.’ (Two variations in background: the general consensus is that Sue’s not attractive, or the general consensus is that she is.)

‘Sue hit Joe, because he called her a feminist dyke’ (including evident variations in background).

‘Sue hit Joe, because he called her a cockteaser.’ Let’s pause here, because the background variations to this rely less on general consensus or social fact concerning the two, and more on their internal motivations and personal boundaries. Joe might have said what he did because he’s contemptuous of Sue; or because he’s sexually frustrated in his longings for her. But Sue may be lashing out because she has unadmitted desires for Joe. She may also have personal gestures that are not flirtational, but may be seen as such by others, and strong personal boundaries; and she is motivated in lashing out to protect those boundaries.

But let’s go back to the ‘feminist dyke’ example. Joe’s insult hinges on the pejorative nature of the word ‘dyke;’ but there are social and personal facts the insult references: either Sue is a feminist or she is not; either she is a lesbian, or she is not. That seems cut and dried. But now the context demands to be opened up. In what situation did Joe insult Sue? Are they students at the prom? Are they in a barroom after a few drinks? Are they at a feminist political rally? Are they at a gay-lesbian rights rally? If so, are there camera’s recording them (enlarging their audience and providing them with a public stage)? Now they need not be presumed to know each other. They might be engaged in differing political signifying practices – Sue isn’t simply lashing out, she is making a statement.

A court would determine whether Joe’s provocative speech warranted physical assault in response. However, possible explanations of the event are now beginning to multiply, possibly beyond our powers to merge them into a single narrative. Was Joe drunk when he decided to attend a rally concerning a cause he was hostile to? Was Sue? did either of them recently break up with a loved one? Had either suffered a death in the family; the loss of a job? What if one or both of them happen to be in the military?

Remember: if we’re talking about a political rally, especially one attended by the media, we’re talking about a possibly national social context, getting interpreted by millions of people with differing political, social, cultural motivations. (Perhaps even economic: Newspaper editor: ‘Did Joe bleed?’ Reporter: ‘No.’ Editor: ‘Then it goes to page 2.’)

But let’s stretch out the time-line of our narrative and see how the explanations fares. One act does not follow immediately after another. that gives the participants time to think over their responses; time enough to doubt the impulse of those responses:

‘Joe said something about feminist lesbians; later, Sue hit him.’

Now we have the narrative, but it’s explanatory force is considerably weakened – it all depends on how we interpret ‘later.’ If ‘moment later,’ then Sue’s response is almost immediate; if four day’s later, then Sue has probably been simmering in her anger and might be expected to have reconsidered her response; if four days later, perhaps Sue’s thinking has become pathological, since she hasn’t used any of that time to reconsider different possible responses.

But let’s go back to the original narrative, and change its presuppositions:

‘Sue hit Joe, because she was drunk.’ Now we no longer bother with Joe’s behavior, but decide to explain Sue’s in the light of her possible drinking habits (and if the court sends her to rehab, that’s exactly the explanation the therapist will be concerned with).

I start here because it’s important to recognize that the way a social science discusses any behavior has to do with the focus of attention the science presumes. Psychologists researching alcoholic behaviors, or sociologists studying the increasing likelihood of violence from people who are inebriated, aren’t really going to be that interested in any presumed provocation for the behavior – which is not to say that they will be uninterested: for instance assume, for the moment, that Sue and Joe are related, in a family with a history of alcoholism and/or abuse. Then the provocation will take on increased importance – especially when brought before the legal system.

We should consider, then, that different social sciences having differently focused interests will develop different explanations for the same behavior. A researcher in political science may note whether at a rally, either Joe or Sue had been drinking, but only as an aside. The study will concern the volatile nature of personal confrontations over political issues, and the implications of the media broadcast of these conflicts for the coming election. A sociologist might be more concerned with the ways in which Sue and Joe identify with their different social groups, and why these groups come into conflict. And so on.

This ‘same behavior, different explanations’ phenomenon we find in the social sciences actually enriches the value these sciences have for us. Human behavior is extraordinarily complex, and understanding it cannot be reduced to ‘unified theory of everything,’ without doing injustice to the individuals and groups involved.

But therein lies the weakness of the social sciences, because, as sciences, they need to come up with generalized explanations, even within their specialized focus. Usually this takes the form of statistical analysis and probability predictions derived from these: ‘60% of women named Sue will behave violently, when a man named Joe utters words perceived as insulting, under conditions X, Y, Z.’ The problem with this is, what about the other 40% of women named Sue? Are they now to be held under suspicion, that meetings with any Joe might lead to violence? (The danger of any human science, as predictive of behavior – injustice to the individual. We are not all of a stamp. Otherwise there would have been no change throughout history.)

Unlike the natural sciences – where, at least at macro-levels, event B follows event A with complete regularity, as long as all subjects remain of the exact same class under exactly the same conditions – the social sciences can, at best, give us ‘rules of thumb.’ But these have importance, insofar as such ‘rules of thumb’ inform the intuitions that guide our judgments, and can provide us with a picture of ourselves -almost as broad, as deep, as variable and complex, as we humans actually are.

Justice in the court of rhetoric

The court of rhetoric has two jurisdictions. The first is that of public discourse, and anyone is invited to the jury. The other is that of those trained to rhetorical analysis. That sounds as if the trained critic of rhetoric ought to be considered the ‘Supreme Court” of the whole domain, or at least, one might say, ‘the final court of appeal’. But in fact the matter is the other way around; the public decides what rhetoric is persuasive by their active responses to it – by being persuaded by it. The critic has largely an advisory role. The critic clarifies the claims, discovers the fallacies, weighs the epistemic ground of the rhetoric – the unstated assumptions, the evidence provided for the claims, the implications of tropes and innuendos and their possible consequences.

A number of problems recur in the court of rhetoric, which explains why many people, from fascistic censors to philosophers, mistrust or even hate it. The principle of these, as I have discussed before, is that rhetoric, to be properly judged as successful, is not to be judged on whether its claims are right or wrong; in order to understand rhetoric as rhetoric, the principle determination of successful rhetoric is whether it works or not – whether it persuades its intended audience. So rhetoric arguing for ethically repugnant positions may be considered successful, if in fact it wins over its audience. Nobody’s really happy with that (except the successful rhetorician), but it is true nonetheless – how could it be otherwise? Rhetoric is a tool, not a strict form of communication; its whole reason for existence is getting others to do what one wants – whether voting a certain way, buying a certain product, or simply experiencing certain feelings leading to certain acts or behavioral responses. There is no logic to the statement “I love you,” but its rhetorical value is clear; and lovers have been relying on it for many centuries. What does the statement communicate? Maybe that the utterer loves the audience; but maybe not. That judgment awaits on consequences.

That is another problem for the court of rhetoric: Rhetorical analysis and criticism, like any analysis, is directed towards the past – towards what has been said and what has unfolded as consequence to the success or failure of this. But rhetoric in practice is always directed towards the future – to hoped for events, behaviors, and consequences. That makes it difficult to adjudge a rhetorical usage successful or not until it has actually proved successful (or not). What a critic of rhetoric can achieve, concerning a current rhetoric practice, is determine the strength of its claims, the assumptions it depends on, the nature of its tropes and implications, the possible consequences of accepting these.

Yet this leads to another problem. The court of rhetoric does not have the same standard of judgment as that of logic. Logic judges much like a criminal court – the judgment is supposedly decided as absolute – “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The court of rhetoric, like civil procedure courts, decides on the standard of, “the weight of the evidence.” This is actually a just premise, because claimants before the court of rhetoric have opposing beliefs, not simply opposing interests. It would be unjust to one who actually believes in a position morally repugnant to others to assert that ‘no reasonable person would believe that, therefore they are lying.’ Of course they believe it – humans believe in a lot of objectionable, even repugnant things. They aren’t lying; they believe in what they are saying; the question then is whether their claims are weaker or stronger than counter-claims by those who believe otherwise.

To an absolutist mode of thought, trained in logic, that is really hard to comprehend. Yet the court of rhetoric can not function otherwise without itself committing injustice – otherwise it becomes mere tool to a censor’s agenda.

Yet a strong and well-informed critic of rhetoric ought to be able to demonstrate when ethically questionable rhetorical claims are also weak rhetorical claims, because what is ethically questionable often relies on prior claims that are inadequately supported. Donald Trump’s claim that most Mexican immigrants are involved in criminal behavior, or that American Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks, can be easily undercut through reference to statistics in the first instance, or reliable reports by those on scene in the second. So these are weak claims before the court of rhetoric. Yet Trump’s rhetoric resonates with a small percentage of the population riddled with fears of differing ethnic groups and differing religions. This must not only be acknowledged, but addressed. Simply saying that what Trump says is ‘untrue’ or ‘unjust’ misses the complexity of what is going on (and frankly does injustice to his presumed audience). Also, it sets up opponents of Trump with a blind side: First, we lose sight of the appeal he has for his audience, and thus will find it more difficult to understand that audience and find some way to appeal them with a countering rhetoric.  Then, if we think the issue is Trump’s being ‘wrong,’ or simply lying, this may lull us into believing that all we need do is dismiss what he says. But in the public arena, this amounts to ignoring what he says. That means that his potential audience have only what he says to rely on, to feel some comfort in their already held fears and beliefs. That means that Trump’s essentially weak claims will appear stronger to his audience than they actually are. The danger is if Trump’s rhetoric begins persuading a potential audience without adequate response. Then, as has happened all too often in the past, weak rhetorical claims could prove successful.

Which should remind us that the judgments made in the court of rhetoric actually have profound practical consequences. The chief of these is that its determinations contribute to a stronger rhetoric in response to ethically questionable claims. It’s not enough to say that Trump is ‘wrong;’ one has to win over his audience, or at least his potential audience. And that requires a stronger rhetoric than Trump himself deploys, supplementary to any logical or other reasonable arguments we make against what he has to say. (Clinton’s suggestion, that Trump’s remarks on Muslims would be used for recruitment to ISIS, while not strictly true when made, was actually a clever rhetorical move – which since has been somewhat validated.)

As with courts of civil law, and unlike criminal courts or that of logic (which chop between the black-and-white of true-or-false), the court of rhetoric must adjudicate cases on a grey scale. That is because opposing interests are rarely easy to decide between, especially if grounded in beliefs truly held by the opponents; and because rhetoric triggers a host of responses – emotional, social, cultural – that are not reducible to ‘reasonably held’ positions.*

The art of persuasion – its theory, its practice, its criticism – is not about what is wrong or right or true or false, and never about some ‘view from nowhere’ or what some god might want us to be – and certainly not about what world we might prefer to live in. It is about the world as it is, and about people as they are. That understandably frustrates us; but the world is by nature a disappointment.

—–

*Part of the reason for having a careful study of rhetoric is that it clears some of the ground for further study of human psychology and of social and cultural relationships.

Collective fiction-making as reality

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players”
– Shakespeare

What we call ‘reality’ is largely a function of collective fiction-making – communal story-telling that functions as explanation of experience, re-assuring us that our responses to events are appropriate and shared among those within our culture. Consider:

General scenario: A car passes another car at a much faster speed, and swerves close to the second car, which has two people in it, persons M and N.

Possible responses:

Variant 1:
Ma: “That drunk driver nearly hit us! Gosh, what a fright!”
Na: “It was terrifying! I’ll call the police!”

Variant 2:
Mb: “Ah, a drunk driver! I’ve a good mind to step on the gas and give chase! what fun that would be!”
Nb: “It was thrilling! I was so afraid this ride would be dull!”

Variant 3:
Mc: “You’re being here makes me nervous1 We almost got hit back there!”
Nc: “I hate riding with you! One drunk driver, and you nearly lose control!”

Fortunately for us, each couple is made up of two people who are on the same wavelength as to how they perceive the experience *. As we can see, the persons in each couple are participating in the construction of the narrative of the event, the story they will tell of it to others following the event. All three versions will have a dose of the truth in them; yet all three versions will effectively be fiction.

One reason for this should be obvious. Each story will be colored by the emotional responses of the participants to the even. ‘Objectively,’ as seen by, say, a falcon gliding overhead (who doesn’t give a damn), the event is not ‘frightening;’ it is not ‘thrilling;’ and it certainly indicates nothing about the couple in second car. The event as a fact is simply that one car drove close to the second car, at a speed exceeding that of the second car.

Now, by this time, my reader may be lulled into believing that the driver of the first car was drunk. This assumption was made by all three variant couples. This is completely consistent with what the couples know of expected behavior on the road – seen in experience with previous drivers, but also seen in films and television.

Indeed, couple Ma and Na discover the identity of the driver of the first car and lodge suit against him.

Unfortunately for them, the police did catch up to the first car’s driver at the local hospital emergency room. Police are trained to write their reports as ‘objectively’ (lacking opinion) as much as possible. And the police report shows that the driver in question a) passed a breathalyzer test with exactly zero alcohol content; b) was a professional race-course driver who knew exactly how safely he could pass beside the second car; c) was transporting his pregnant wife to the hospital to give birth.

It should be noted that ‘drunk,’ before the law, is a legal term with a measured definition. If the driver of the first car had blown a breathalyzer test of 0.7, he would still not be legally ‘drunk’ in most states.

Yet if the cops had asked him to “walk a straight line” and he had failed to do so, he would still have been considered ‘drunk’ according to common usage, in most states, and this would have been prosecutable.

Are we getting a sense of what’s going on here? The story is never the case of ‘what actually happened.’ It is always an amalgam of emotional responses, assumed interpretation of behavior, common cultural assumptions, and legal definition.

We don’t know what this ‘reality’ is. In order to act, we must assume a construct that is primarily fictitious, but we must assume it to be real, in order to act. It is a ‘Catch 22’ that we are always confronted with, and must live through – and assume the cost and consequences.

—–
* Imagine how much more difficult this discussion would be, if the participants were not on the same ‘wave-length’:

M: “Ah, a drunk driver! I’ve a good mind to step on the gas and give chase! what fun that would be!”
N: “It was terrifying! I’ll call the police!”
M: “It was thrilling! I was so afraid this ride would be dull!”
N: “I hate riding with you! One drunk driver, and you nearly lose control!”

– Now, there’s an unhappy family!

Ethics, theory, and intuition

Are thoughts good or bad? Do they necessitate ethical (or unethical) behaviors and practices?

Both as a Buddhist and a Pragmatist, I don’t believe we ‘own’ our thoughts at all. Thoughts are generated by electrochemical activity in the brain, responding to previous experiences. There is no reason to claim them as ‘mine,’ any more than I can claim that what I see is somehow generated by my eyes. The sun rises, the sun sets – have I control over seeing this? Thoughts about neighbors, or employment, or politics – is any of this ‘me’?

“Me’ is just an existential convenience; thus any thought ‘me’ entertains is simply that fiction re-investing itself in its own existence.

Problems arise when people think they own their thoughts, and that such ownership requires action. What a waste of time!

There are no ‘good’ thoughts, and none ‘bad.’ There are physiological responses that demand ‘I’ respond to ‘my’ thoughts, and there is recognition that all thought is, on one level or other, simply what passes through a brain too enamored of itself and needing practice to learn otherwise.

(Also, as someone who has written a bit of fiction as a hobby, I should note that good fiction writers need to think unthinkable thoughts, if they are to get to the truth of their characters. Dostoyevsky wrote brilliantly – from the inside – of murders, as did Poe. Neither committed murder, as far as I know. They didn’t have to – they knew their fictions were just that. All our thoughts are fictions, sometimes useful to act upon, sometimes not. It is misguided to believe otherwise.)

Most of our ethical responses do not derive from well-thought out ethical theories, direct reasoning of right and wrong. This might be an ideal, but it is not the human animal as we have known it through history. One can imagine an Aquinas, or a Kant, or a Confucius pondering an ethical choice carefully before deciding on the proper action to take; but most of us rely on what we often call ‘gut-feelings’ – or, more reflectively, our intuitions.

There is a mainstream theory in contemporary philosophy that intuitions just are beliefs – thoughts occurring as linguistic units that we hold to be justified. It should be noted that if this is so, then intuitions can be stated as propositions for analysis; and that as statements they can be used for theory construction; thus intuition and theory would be co-dependent. But this is actually an over-sophistication of common experience.

Most people do not experience intuitions as thoughts, but as feelings. Often these feelings are quite vague and difficult to articulate. I walk into a room filled with strangers, and feel uncomfortable, leaving as quickly and as gracefully as I may. Why? ‘I don’t know, those people were just not my type.’ Can this be stated as a belief? possibly, but how meaningfully? to what end? Can background beliefs be uncovered? Also possibly; but those beliefs are not the intuition, they merely condition it as response.

The conditioning of our intuition by belief, by converse with others, by reading or other interaction with cultural experience (art, the sciences, media), is by no means a trivial matter that we can leisurely cast aside. Our intuitions are not “instincts,” as they are sometimes called, arising from biological necessity. They develop as responses during maturation among elders and peers. They keep us aligned with, connected with, the unstated (but viscerally experienced) feelings of others.

But this conditioning raises important questions; after all, how do we wrestle with ethical responses guided by conditioned intuitions that may be misguided? And what can we do when the conditioning fails, for whatever reason, and we cannot respond properly by intuition?

So I do think there’s a place for ethical theory. Having experienced a highly dysfunctional upbringing, I’m not so keen on trusting to sympathy for assuring ethical responses. There is certainly a pathology to be found among those who do not feel the sympathies that drive much ethical behavior. Unfortunately, in a society as diverse and fragmented as our own, such pathologies are quite wide-spread, even among the brightest. Some suffering this, recognizing their deficiency, may develop or learn appropriate responses through theory, which thus provides a kind of therapy. And there is some value in it as propadeutic, helping condition the feelings that we rely on in our actual behavior. And without a healthy public discussion on ethics, some would be left dependent on indoctrination – or on blind obedience to law. Theory of ethics may have limited value, but thinking about ethics is generally a useful endeavor, as long as one doesn’t obsess on it. And any ethical behavior ought to be reasonably explained, if only post-hoc, in order to provide guidance for future behavior, by further conditioning the intuitions – the feelings – that finally drive all our behaviors.

Nonetheless: I remember I had read about Maimonides as a great ethical thinker; so I was surprised to discover, on reading the passages on ethics in Guide of the Perplexed, fairly common sense instruction to ‘be good,’ ‘act charitably,’ ‘don’t envy others,’ and like calls to heed the instructions of one’s elders. At first I was disappointed; but on reflection I realized that the richest wisdom is often the simplest and most commonplace. Much sound ethical instruction, however phrased, amounts to ‘be good;’ and that’s probably as it should be. Ethics is about what we do together, not esoteric schema that we talk about.

—–

Now, for future discussion, I note that I’ve surfaced a problem without providing resolution, and it’s important, so I’ll repeat it: “how do we wrestle with ethical responses guided by conditioned intuitions that may be misguided?” In other words, what do we do when the society around us – that raises us and guides us, and gives us the bearings by which we navigate our lives – just happens to be wrong?  And how do we do this, how do we change our minds?  It’s a difficult question for any theorist of a social-determinist bent. I have suggested possible answers before (it’s one of the reason I’m a ‘compatibilist’ on the ‘free will/determinist’ debate). But the various conflicts involved – between socialization and individuation, between necessary acceptance of communal norms and equally necessary transgressions, between collective interests, humanistic interests, and social justice – are extraordinarily complex, and attempts to articulate them sometimes feel like trying to catch the wind….

In the chilly hours and minutes of uncertainty
I want to be in the warm hold of your loving mind

To feel you all around me
And to take your hand along the sand
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind

When sundown pales the sky
I want to hide a while behind your smile
And everywhere I’d look your eyes I’d find

For me to love you now
Would be the sweetest thing, it’s what’d make me sing
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind

When rain has hung the leaves with tears
I want you near to kill my fears
To help me to leave all my blues behind

For standing in your heart
Is where I want to be and long to be
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind

– Donovan Leitch

The problem of ‘the Problem of Evil’

“The problem of evil, in the sense in which I am using this phrase, is essentially a logical problem: it sets the theist the task of clarifying and if possible reconciling the several beliefs which he holds. It is not a scientific problem that might be solved by further discoveries…” -J. L. Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence.”

J. L. Mackie was a professional philosopher and committed atheist who spent some of his career working arguments out of what is known as the Problem of Evil *. Theologians oft wring their hands over it, and that some atheists (especially so-called New Atheists) use it to confront theists with a challenge not easily or comfortably resolvable in the Christian tradition, from whence it originates. The Problem arises out of a conflict of two Christian beliefs: that god is all-powerful and all-good, and that the material universe (supposedly of god’s creation) is filled with evil – filled with sufferings and temptations, hardships, pain. This is an ancient Christian understanding of evil in the material universe following the Fall from Eden. It is unfortunately completely devoid of identifiable significance; or rather, as floating signifier **, it can be made to have any significance rhetorically useful in a given context. For instance, religious teleology: “You are here to confront the evils of your nature;” “you are here to confront the evils of the threatening natural world;” “the internet could be invented to challenge you with the evils of temptation” – etc., etc.

The trouble is, this is a universe that I don’t see myself living in. There is nothing evil about anybody’s getting cancer, or a sudden down-pour washing away this season’s crops, or a meteor falling on some city. These events are results of natural processes, and we deal with them as best we may, because survival – not ‘salvation’ – requires we must. Asserting there is evil in such events, certainly may rhetorically ramp up religious paranoia among some more superstitious Christians, requiring rhetorical re-assurance of divine mercy from wiser, more liberally minded theologians, priests, etc. The work of logical analysis would be to reveal the incoherence and paradoxes involved such an understanding of evil – and this seems to have been Mackie’s intent.

There’s nothing wrong in that – if one doesn’t mind spending a great deal of effort on a non-existent Problem in order to challenge those who won’t learn from the effort anyway. But is there another way to deal with the issue?  But why deal with it at all.  Why not just say, ‘this makes no sense,’ and be done with it?

I started blogging in an effort to find a place for my own secular Buddhism in the New Atheism movement, but eventually lost interest in New Atheism, although I remain sympathetic to the more thoughtful participants. The benefit of my year as a secular Buddhist New Atheist was that I was able to clarify my own beliefs, with which I am now quite comfortable – but being comfortable, I find the ‘god debate’ somewhat tiresome now.

Philosophically, as to the logic of the god debate, the point of origin for me was George H. Smith’s Atheism: the Case against God, presenting the strictly logical arguments against belief; the end point was Kai Nielsen’s Atheism and Philosophy, which presents the case that the very idea of god is simply incoherent, and cannot survive sustained argumentation. Notably, neither of these texts invoke science or scientific methodology (although Smith does make the demand for some evidence to support beliefs that are historically – and quite obviously – only assertions). The rational basis of theistic belief is fundamentally flawed, much of it spurious, regardless of empirical research or evidence.

But the problem is, none of this matters to ‘true believers’ (so we should hardly be surprised when they discard any empirical evidence to their beliefs). As I discovered reading theist responses to atheist arguments, religious belief is not really a matter of reasoning. Its foundations are first, foremost, and overwhelmingly emotional. It may be a simple, vague, intuition of ‘something out there;’ an undeniable pathology of needing paternal guidance; a profound sense that some spiritual ‘other’ lovingly follows one around, invested in one’s success in life, forgiving any perceived transgression. But whatever it else is, it is emotional yearning, emotional fulfillment, emotional satisfaction, that rational argument can never reach. It is love; and one can no more argue against it than persuade a teen-ager that her idealized first relationship is a tissue of rhetoric and fantasized future happiness (conditioned on her willing loss of virginity, of course).

I confess I tried feeling such love for a long time – but I never did. The year before I adopted what I would call the truth of the non-theistic tradition of Buddhism, I went to a priest for confession (having a history as a Catholic). I spoke admiringly of Thomas Aquinas – upon which the priest shook his head sadly, saying “you love wisdom more than god.” He gave me absolution, but warned that I perilously close to unbelief. He was right, on both counts: I love wisdom; I never really believed in god.

To return to our starting point: My problem here is that I no longer recognize the Christian universe Mackie is attempting to confront; I don’t live there. The ‘radical evil’ that Kant and other philosophers write about is comprehensible once one recognizes that it arises out of unbridled desire – this is completely in keeping with the Buddhist understanding of suffering arising from the ‘self.’ But the Christian notion that ‘evil’ is signifier for horrendous experiences of every kind – human, natural, real, imagined – requires some basis in an amorphic metaphysics is entirely alien to me. While I sympathize Mackie’s project, it really seems to miss the point. The Christians’ worry over the Problem of Evil arises from fear, and their commitment to god arises from loneliness, longing, and hope. This makes the question a matter for psychology, not logic. Fearing the ‘evil’ all around us, or trusting in a loving god’s mercy to save us from this, are clearly drawn from deeper feelings than logic can reach.

For me, the universe is simply what is, just as it is. There is no inherent good or evil to it; there is no ‘wrongness’ or misfortune. The only meaningful sense of ‘evil’ for me lies in the harm we do to ourselves or others. Such is properly addressed by either ethics, psychology, or collectively in politics.

It’s not a matter of choice, but of epistemic conditioning. I try not to let my emotions govern my beliefs – and I don’t believe that they should. We should always try to look at the universe just as it presents itself, and learn to live with that.

——

*See the Stanford Encyclopedia discussion, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evil/

** I should remark, for readers unfamiliar with the term, that ‘floating signifier’ is a term of art in semiotics for “a signifier with a vague, highly variable, unspecifiable or non-existent signified” (David Chandler, Semiotics: the Basics, Routledge, 2002 ).

Mackie, J. L. “Evil and Omnipotence,” in Mind, New Series, Vol. 64, No. 254. (Apr., 1955). http://www.ditext.com/mackie/evil.html

Smith, George H. Atheism: The Case Against God. Nash, 1974.

Nielsen, Kai. Atheism & Philosophy. Prometheus Books, 2005.

 

Sex, gender, politics – a brief inquiry (note 3)

What could it possibly mean to for someone, born with a penis, to claim, ‘I feel I should have a vagina’? Because that’s the bottom line; in order to convince me that a male ‘should have’ been born female (or vice-verse), I need to be persuaded that the person, having a penis, knows what it feels like to have a vagina (or, again, vice-verse), without having one, and this now appears to be beyond comprehension.

I am not a backward thinker; I have long supported gay/lesbian rights, and advocated justice for those who feel the need to adopt differing gender signifiers in their behaviors. But justice does not demand that I dumb myself down and put my brain on hold. The only thing we know of the opposite sex is gender – and gender is a social construct. Otherwise, we need to assume that physical sensations of the opposite sex can be experienced so directly and concretely – without actually living in such a body – that a person could recognize the comfort level of so living in that body as to be able to claim the need to live in it.

As I write that, I’m aware that the articulation verges on the incoherent. This is all nonsense; this was precisely the wrong turn for the transgender community to make. They are rhetorically relying on American embarrassment over discussing any sexual issue in depth, to put forward a claim with no recognizable ontological, epistemological, biological, or even psychological foundation. This is fantasy. This is, profoundly, exactly the wrong direction for the transgender community to take, in defining the real rights that justice demands for them.

(As to the recent issue concerning restrooms in Texas – if we, as some other countries do, had unisex public toilets, this wouldn’t be an issue. “What fools these mortals be!”)

The question is whether trans-gender identification (a social-psychological phenomenon) translates easily into trans-sexual identification (which would be a physiological-neurological phenomenon), and without better evidence and argument than we have had so far, I don’t see how this is possible. I emphasize the genitalia, because a truly trans-sexual identification would seem to hinge on the ability of a person to know, or at least have a very good idea, what it would actually be like to have the genitalia of the opposite sex.

There are important historical issues to keep in mind here. First, trans-gender identification has been around as long as cultural records can reach – in every culture that has kept records on such matters. So there is no arguing a real phenomenon there, and so arguing for the rights of the trans-gender identifiers is no great leap of conscience.

However, the move towards trans-sexual identification is a most recent phenomenon, and hinges on the odd conjunction of three apposite trends in the 20th century – the inherited legacy of equating gender and sex, which was widely distributed through common culture, making the distinction between the two a point of argument; the development of medical technology that allowed genital reconstruction and hormonal realignment; and certain theories in genetics that seemed to promise that not only sex but gender identification could be found to be genetically pre-determined. (Again, an important backdrop to all of this has been the long-standing American embarrassment over public discussion of sexual matters at all.) The efforts to derive sound argument and a coherent understanding of trans-sexualism from these intersections have largely failed, I think, and so the demand for its legitimation largely reduces to clamor about feelings and social conflicts that are more easily resolved when redirected back toward the rights of trans-gender individuals. In other words, the trans-sexual arguments actually over-complicate the discussion, and not, I suggest, to the benefit of the individuals involved – except of course when they can gather enough social pressure on certain institutions and persons of influence to make themselves annoying. But while that may win some small gains, I suggest it does them no good in the long run, since it only means that the real issues involved remain unspoken.

Let me clarify the point as simply as possible: I can well imagine arguing, politically or before the law, for the right of self-determination for those who feel, however impelled, a need to adopt the accoutrements and behavior of the opposite gender. I can’t quite imagine arguing on behalf of someone who, say, born with a penis, claims that he ought to have a vagina (or vice-versa), since there is no way for that person to know what that be like without actually having said genitals.

(Hermaphrodites are actually beside the point; they are the result of genetic or physiological dysfunction during maturation, and so have their own unique experiences.)

—–

But let’s consider this in relation to a similar, possibly related, phenomenon:

“Body integrity identity disorder (BIID, also referred to as amputee identity disorder) is a psychological disorder in which an otherwise healthy individual feels that they are meant to be disabled. (….) BIID is typically accompanied by the desire to amputate one or more healthy limbs. It also includes the desire for other forms of disability, as in the case of a woman who intentionally blinded herself. BIID can be associated with apotemnophilia, sexual arousal based on the image of one’s self as an amputee. The cause of BIID is unknown. One hypothesis states that it results from a neurological failing of the brain’s inner body mapping function (located in the right parietal lobe) to incorporate the affected limb in its understanding of the body’s physical form.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_integrity_identity_disorder *

1. BIID is recognized as a disorder because it generates unhappiness and may lead to self-mutilation. It also appears to involve a neurological dysfunction, although the research is incomplete. AS a disorder, it is one surgeons appear unwilling to cater to; it is a historical problem why it is surgeons became willing to cater to trans-sexualism, assuming that it also may be a similar disorder. (But of course, trans-sexuals are making the further claim that it isn’t a disorder at all.)

2. Let us imagine a case of BIID, wherein the afflicted person claims, not only that, say, his right leg is not his own, but that the right leg of a certain woman actually belongs to him. Should we try to convince her to surrender her leg via transplant? (Well, obviously that’s not what trans-sexuals are arguing – or are they? Not claiming a specific person’s genitalia, but certainly claiming right to possession of similar genitalia to those already existent for others.) Less extremely, should we allow cosmetic surgery to the man’s leg so that it appears in every way similar to the leg of the woman in question? That may be worth doing to resolve the man’s unhappiness; but it doesn’t mean that his BIID is not still a serious disorder.

3. But trans-sexuals are not simply expressing the sensation that their genitals-of-birth are ‘inappropriate.’ They are claiming that the genitals of the opposite sex are appropriate to them. This is where coherency falls apart. How could they possibly know that? Genitals are not just attractive things dangling in theoretical space; they are rich with a whole host of sensations and physiological responses. These sensations and responses one must know – not simply imagine – in order to claim the right of possession. A woman claims she should have a penis instead of her vagina. Which penis? the blood-engorged erect in copulation? the shriveled in the chill wind? The irritated with pressure from the bladder needing to urinate? The one accidentally caught in a hastily closed zipper?

4. We don’t know if there might be some genetic causality to BIID. But let’s allow the claim that there is some for gender identification. That only means that gender identity is a predisposition towards adopting certain socially constructed behaviors. It is not a determination of sexual being – that determination is given over to the XX and XY chromosomes. And the genetics of that are quite clear.

5. The medical technology of cosmetic surgery is a luxury. It can be used to alleviate psychic pain in certain cases, yes; but it neither arises from, nor generates, any rights.

—–
* See also Gordon Cornwall’s fascinating discussion at: http://phantomself.org/amputation-desire-biidxenomelia-and-the-human-experience-of-self/

—–

After composing the above, it occurred to me that the most important film on this subject happens to be one of the worst films ever made – “Glen or Glenda,” written and directed by the master of bad cinema, Ed Wood. Promising to be an exploitation film about the then new trans-sexual surgery conducted in Sweden, it is really a boldly auto-biographical revelation of Wood’s own trans-gender transvestism – despite being a heterosexual who had served in the Marines during WWII.

Important, because it makes concrete this distinction between the trans-sexual and the trans-gender – and also because, in its own (frankly hilarious) inept way, reveals the real pain that people suffering such identity confusion have long experienced in this culture. (Wood, alas, eventually drank himself to death.)

How can a film so amusingly bad nonetheless score such crucial points? That’s an aesthetic issue. For now, let us give Wood his due, and admit that he put his finger directly on the real problem here: Trans-gender identification and trans-sexualism are not equatable. The suffering of each is no doubt real; but they are not the same, and confusing the two may do more harm than good, politically (and possibly psychologically as well).

Sex, gender, politics – a brief inquiry (note 2)

Let’s try to simplify matters concerning differences between trans-gender identification and trans-sexuality (they are not the same thing), in order to reveal their real complexity.

Biologically, the difference between female and male reduces to genetics – XX and XY – and there is no escaping that. We can change the physiognomy but that doesn’t change the genetics.

There may be genetic factors that we don’t understand as yet, but admitting this, are there genetic factors that lead certain males to want to adopt the cultural signifiers of the (socially determined classification) ‘woman’ (and females with like feeling to be ‘men’)? Such a claim could only be made if we accept primary tenets of Socio-biology/ Evolutionary Psychology; but such tenets include presumption that gender arises from evolutionary needs for sexual selection for procreation, and trans-sexuals are not reproductive.

We can conceive of a re-write of Socio-Biology and Ev-Psych and related genetic inquiries, but at the cost that these would probably read very ‘post-modern’ mythification and mystification of the basic science (and Socio-Biology and Ev-Psych already have some of this problem, anyway, IMO).

Is there really some genetic component to the desire to play with dolls? Do we really want to go down that path?

No one is saying that a person should not pursue his/her desires or beliefs. But to insist on a biological component every time someone gets a bee in their bonnet about wanting to change themselves or the world to bend to those beliefs/desires, is simply fatuous.

Does this have anything to do with sexual preferences as having a possible genetic component? I don’t know. Frankly, I’m not sure it matters. The insistence that sexual preference had genetic components was rhetorically useful at some point, since it was clear (and remains so) that there is little recourse for change in preference, whether genetically originated or no. But I hope we are beyond that, or should be.

This indirectly leads to a question that needs to be raised, even if so touchy, it is rarely (ever?) raised in public discourse on such issues: As posed on the cover of Vanity Fair, ‘post-op’ trans-sexual Caitlyn Jenner’s semiosis promises viewers of the pose, of sexual desirability as a woman. So the question is fair to ask of viewers, defenders and protestors alike – ‘would you have sex with this woman?’ And a fairly correlate question then must also be asked: ‘Would you have had sex with Jenner as a man?’ Finally, let’s extrapolate those questions further – ‘would you consider marriage with Jenner now? Would you have considered marriage with Jenner then?’ These questions, to be meaningful, should be asked of male viewers of the pose; female answers to the questions would be interesting, but have limited value (since Jenner is clearly appealing to male audiences).

Is sexual attraction a matter of gender? Is romantic love?

CAUTION: What we know as (engendered) ‘romantic love’ has a history; it originated in the early Renaissance, not existing in the West previously (although similar cultural phenomena are to be found in India, China, and Japan of the same era).

Murky waters, indeed.

Sex, gender, politics – a brief inquiry (note 1)

Do our genes determine our social identity?

Before commenting directly, I remark that, thinking on this, I was reminded of two books – almost forgotten today, but each in its way important at the time of publication.

The first is The Dialectic of Sex, by Shulamith Firestone, described briefly by the Wiki article on Firestone:

“In The Dialectic of Sex, Firestone synthesized the ideas of Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, and Simone de Beauvoir into a radical feminist theory of politics.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shulamith_Firestone (paraphrasing Jennifer Rich)

But it was actually more radical than the listed influences suggest, because Firestone had what we would now call a ‘trans-humanist’ faith in the capacity of our new technologies to literally alter human evolution. The ‘cybernetic’ future Firestone sees for us will eliminate the necessity for work, the problems of poverty, the desire for national identities, etc., etc. Finally, technology will eliminate the need for sexual reproduction.

“The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction: children would be born to both sexes equally, or independently of either, however one chooses to look at it; the dependence of the child on the mother (and vice versa) would give way to a greatly shortened dependence on a small group of others in general (…).”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dialectic_of_Sex

It is going little further along these lines of thought to envisioning a world where we can choose our own sexual identity, not through surgery and hormonal supplements, but through manipulation of our genes; we are already on the borders of choosing the sex of our children, according to some.

The point being that, one side or another, there seems to be an urge toward utopia or perhaps perhaps a return to Eden. Sorting through these matters requires us to be wary of such urges.

The other book coming to mind was John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Like_Me ), the report of a white journalist who traveled the South after having his skin treated medically to assume the color of black man. The important lesson his book revealed is that color alone has such profound cultural effect on social responses, that the biological issues are strictly irrelevant to them – which suggests that efforts to define ‘race’ biologically may be merely efforts to find some inherent reality to differences that don’t exist. (But this doesn’t bode well for someone who ‘feels’ they were ‘born black,’ when their genetic history is decidedly European.)

‘Everywhere he went, “the criterion is nothing but the color of skin. My experience proved that. [Whites] judged me by no other quality. My skin was dark. That was sufficient reason for them to deny me those rights and freedoms without which life loses its significance and becomes a matter of little more than animal survival.”‘
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/16/AR2007031602173.html

This certainly seems to validate group identity with socialization, not ‘natural born’ attributes, and that’s important. Is there any genetic component to such identities, or are they merely a matter a happenstance and circumstance?

Who ever asked to be ‘born this way’? (This ‘way’ being any way one chooses to consider.) And are we ever really trapped in it?

Very murky waters, frankly….

But let’s consider a recent feminist response – largely negative – to the recent popularization of ‘post-op’ trans-sexual Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce):

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/opinion/sunday/what-makes-a-woman.html :

“I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women — our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes. Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side — people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination — are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us. That’s the kind of nonsense that was used to repress women for centuries. But the desire to support people like Ms. Jenner and their journey toward their truest selves has strangely and unwittingly brought it back.”

What is making Elinor Burkett angry? Because the undertone (not far from the surface of her text) is anger bordering on outrage; why?

Burkett has a specified anger that triggers a generalized anger. She tries to sublimate the specific into the general, because (I suspect) she doesn’t want to come out and say that Jenner should not have the opportunity for self-determination. But it’s apparent that Burkett is angry with Jenner; Jenner has had an opportunity granted exactly because, as male, Jenner enjoyed privilege most women are denied. Jenner’s opportunity to appear female on the cover of Vanity Fair, in a stereotypical pose media has constructed for starlets and models, arises from Jenner’s history as having been male.

A side issue worth noting here: surgical construction of vaginas in trans-males has proven very successful and relatively routine. Phalloplasty, on the other hand, requires extensive re-surgery addressing almost inevitable complications, and prosthetic implants to mimic erection; 25% result in long-term serious complications. It’s almost as if the physiology has been arranged to permit greater opportunity to trans-males than trans-females. Even the surgical effort to provide such opportunity seems weighted in favor of men. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phalloplasty )

I mention that, because although this happens by chance through evolution of the species interacting with an imperfect surgical technology, it does – seemingly – shade the issue in favor of Burkett’s argument.

Moving back to that argument, let’s supplement it by rephrasing Jenner’s feelings: Suppose Bruce Jenner had never expressed an interest in ‘being a woman’? Suppose he simply said, “well, I really want to look like that model on the cover of Cosmo; I feel I was really born to have big breasts, painted nails and dolls to play with; oh, and throw in a vagina for good measure, I just hate standing up to pee.” Would we be as sympathetic with such expressions?

But consider those dolls; feminists have long insisted that the gender differences in child’s play are largely, if not wholly, the effect of nurture – why shouldn’t girls play with toy fire-trucks? (because their parents buy them dolls). So if a boy expresses the desire to play with dolls, could this really be an expression of having been born ‘female in a male body’? Or it’s just wanting to play with dolls, and then the child grows up being convinced by the surrounding culture that this means he needs to be female?

That’s why I remarked the murkiness of the waters on such issues. For the sake of compassion and political ethics, we want the matter to be clean and decisive; but it’s not. And Burkett is quite right to raise the issue, whether the trans community, by re-affirming stereotypes, may be setting back the cause of justice for women.

Finally, it must be admitted: There is NO united front in the efforts to achieve sexual and gender rights and identities. What we do with that is another question.