Jordan Peterson and the Pronoun Imperative

Jordan Peterson is a tenured psychologist at the University of Toronto. He recently acquired some fame and notoriety for his public comments regarding some progressive gender ideologies and the use personal pronouns (See here, here and here). Peterson denied recognition for the “right” of other people to choose the personal pronouns that he is use when speaking to or about them, particularly if those pronouns are not part of Standard English or are loaded with ideology contrary to his own. Some members of the cultural left were unsettled by Peterson’s public claim, though I argue that Peterson’s stance, or something like it, is defensible.

First things first: It needs to be understood that personal pronouns within Standard English communicate ideas about sex. We know this because sex was used to make sense of our use of the personal pronouns within books about English grammar well into the mid-20th century. We also know this because we are competent English users—we know that when we discover the sex of an infant, adult person or non-human animal, we then refer to this person or animal as him, or her. That’s a fact. Other times, we might use personal pronouns to personify inanimate objects, but that is just to treat these objects as if they had a sex. It is thus not a counterexample to what I said. Hence, the norm is that these pronouns communicate ideas of sex.

We also know that the linguistic norm in Standard English for personal pronouns does not include the idea of gender identity disassociated from sex. Despite the obsession with transgender ideology in popular Western culture today, the concept of gender identity is a relatively recent addition to the academic lexicon and it is a very recent addition to the lexicon of popular culture, probably only within the last several years. Consequently, this notion of gender identity is far too new to have been included within our linguistic norms. Thus, if English speakers today use those personal pronouns on the basis of gender identity, then they are deviating from the linguistic norm, not practicing it.

So what is my point? Well, my first point is that Peterson is not breaking a linguistic norm in his refusal to use pronouns that are contrary to the sex of the referent. In fact, only those people who use these pronouns differently deviate from a linguistic norm. Hence, there is no “misgendering” with the normal use of these pronouns, for these pronouns do not refer to gender in the first place. My second point is that the vast majority of transgender people are clearly either sexed males or sexed females; hence, referring to members of this majority with personal pronouns that conform to their sex is not factually wrong, no matter which gender identity these members might hold. Thus, Peterson is neither linguistically wrong nor factually wrong in those cases.*

Critics might rebut that Peterson is morally or politically wrong for not using those pronouns, for he refuses to recognize transgender people for who they take themselves to be. Yet, so long as these people accept that Peterson’s pronoun use conforms to their sex, he is innocent of their charge. I say this because his pronoun use only communicates mutually accepted ideas about their sex, not those contentious ideas about their gender identity. Thus, this critic’s rebuttal is wrong, though it does help raise a suspicion of mine. Let me explain.

I suspect that the “real concern” for these progressivists is that they want gender identity to be a sufficient condition for manhood, womanhood or whatever else—they want recognition for who they take themselves to be, regardless of sex. And then, from this, it will be argued that language about men and women should be inclusive of transgender identities, including the use of the personal pronouns. Hence, the heart of this debate is not the use of language, but the public understanding of womanhood, manhood, or whatever else. In other words, I suspect that their preferred use of those pronouns is a means to reinforce and further embed the idea that, say, some biological males who have fathered children still qualify for womanhood (Bruce Jenner, I’m looking at you, buddy).

How do I respond to this “real concern”? Firstly, I remind my readers that personal pronouns are properly used to communicate ideas about sex, not womanhood or manhood. Thus, any change in the use of the personal pronouns can be resisted on that basis. Secondly, the proper understanding of manhood and womanhood is still an active metaphysical debate between progressivists and, well, everyone else. Hence, if progressivists demand that their conception of womanhood and manhood is recognized and used within the speech of all others, then they are, in fact, demanding everyone else to recognize and utilize their progressivist understanding of manhood and womanhood. That’s the ideological load to which Peterson objects, and with good reason, for it infringes on free expression and demands that some people act insincerly and untruthfully, which is to demand them to act badly.

It is this demand that journalist Chris Selley fails to consider when he asks, “[W]hat kind of jerk refuses to refer to someone as a he, she or they would like? They’re human beings, not issues.” How obtuse! Allow me to enlighten Selley and those who think like him: I reckon that it is the kind of “jerk” who is committed to being sincere and only saying that which he believes to be true, because sincerity and truthfulness are virtues. I also reckon that it is the kind of “jerk” who is concerned about the public and popular idea of manhood and womanhood, not just because truth matters, but also because ideas have consequences that can penetrate every aspect of life, as Richard M. Weaver once aptly reminded us. That’s kind of important stuff. It’s really important, actually.

So if some transgender persons and their allies do not understand why Peterson, or other people, might align with the pursuit of these virtues rather than the competing sentiments and feelings of “respect”, or why some people might prefer to pursue truth, or why some people concern ourselves with the proper public and popular ideas of manhood and womanhood, then the gulf between traditionalists and these other progressivists is tragically deeper than I thought. Whatever they understand, Peterson is on good grounds, as I have argued here. I thus conclude with a suggestion: If progressivists want to change our speech, then they should first change our minds. There is no amount of whining, complaining and legislation that will do this for them.


*The only cases that might create some uncertainty here are those involving intersex people, for their sex can be unclear. As interesting as these cases are, the Peterson issue pertains to transgender and non-binary gender identities, so intersex persons and pronoun uses are a topic for a different blog post.*

49 Comments

  1. I am no linguist, so I can’t rely on any expertise in this matter. But a little bit of reflection on the premise that is central to your argument raises serious worries about it. The key premise in your argument here, and your support for that premise, seems to be:

    “It needs to be understood that personal pronouns within Standard English communicate ideas about sex. We know this because sex was used to make sense of our use of the personal pronouns within books about English grammar well into the mid-20th century. We also know this because we are competent English users—we know that when we discover the sex of an infant, adult person or non-human animal, we then refer to this person or animal as him, or her.”

    This claim that personal pronouns, in their proper usage, communicate ideas about sex has much evidence against it. Much of this evidence should be all too familiar to a Catholic novice, let alone a Catholic hulk. The Church is, for example, frequently referred to as “her.” God is frequently referred to as “He.” Satan is also referred to as “he.” Angels are frequently referred to as “he.” Ships are frequently referred to as “she” as are automobiles and many other inanimate objects. Clearly, none of these uses communicate ideas about biological sex concepts, as you claim, since none of them are biological entities. By your reasoning, these must be mistaken or improper uses of the personal pronoun. The fact that these uses date back to periods well before “leftist” or “academic” usages influenced common use casts serious doubt on this key premise, without which, your argument doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

    You might claim that these uses are derivative of, and thus dependent upon, the common uses of these pronouns, all of which do “communicate ideas about sex.” That would render some force to your argument, albeit only enough to say that the use of personal pronouns to convey gender identity adopts non-standard English usage rather than flouting proper English altogether. So let’s consider this variation on your key premise and see if it is plausible.

    If the primary or standard usage of personal pronouns in English were to communicate ideas about sex, then we could substitute ideas about sex for each personal pronoun use without distorting the meaning of each use. But if we can substitute ideas about gender identity while capturing the meaning equally well, or better, then the claim that the common uses of pronouns communicate ideas about sex will be mistaken. To test this, consider the following claims.

    1. “He was a great President.” (Speaking of Ronald Reagan)

    2. “She is a great Catholic.” (Speaking of Mother Teresa of Calcutta)

    3. “He is a moral monster.” (Speaking of Charles Manson)

    Let’s substitute ideas of sex for each of these.

    1S. “That human being with a penis and testicles was a great President.”

    2S. “That human being with a vagina and ovaries was a great Catholic.”

    3S. “That human being with a penis and testicles was a moral monster.”

    Now let’s substitute idea of gender identify for each of these.

    1GI. “That human being who fulfilled traditionally masculine social roles was a great President.”

    2GI. “That human being who fulfilled traditionally feminine social roles was a great Catholic.”

    3GI. “That human being who fulfilled traditionally masculine social roles was a moral monster.”

    For each of these examples, which do you believe more accurately conveys the accepted meaning of the personal pronoun being used?

    Again, I am no expert on such matters but am, I think, a “competent English user” and not one who has been heavily influenced by any “leftist” ideology. It is pretty clear to me that 1GI and 2GI do a better job of conveying the meaning of 1 and 2 than 1S and 2S do. I’m not so sure about 3. But 3GI is at least as plausible as 3S at conveying the meaning of 3. We could repeat this exercise with an infinite set of examples but there is no need.

    Doesn’t this show that conventional personal pronoun usage is far more gendered, and much less sexed, than your argument can withstand? If not, just how do you account for both the many non-sexed uses of personal pronouns in common English language usage? How do you account for gendered substitutions for personal pronouns better conveying the meaning of common uses personal pronouns than sexed substitutions?

    • I believe defining gender identity by which traditional social role someone holds would seem to bring disagreement from both sides of this debate.

      “It is pretty clear to me that 1GI and 2GI do a better job of conveying the meaning of 1 and 2 than 1S and 2S do.”

      So you are saying that it is pretty clear to you that proscribing a personal pronoun based on the traditional social role they hold does a better job then proscribing based on sex, or what they wish to proscribe upon themselves?

      So a female, who also identifies as a woman, who holds a traditional masculine social role, like say a politician, soldier, breadwinner, what-have-you, should be proscribed the personal pronoun’s ‘he’, ‘him’, or be assumed to qualify being identified as a man?

      • Sorry, Billy, but I was not offering a positive account of the conventional meaning of personal pronouns. I just pointing out the Catholic Hulk’s account is mistaken for the reasons given. My gendered substations were not meant to be fully accurate, they were meant to both clearly gendered rather than sexed in a way that, none the less, doesn’t beg the question against Catholic Hulk’s conservative understanding of gender. So none of the reasons you offer here are germane to the discussion. Thus, they do nothing to demonstrate weakness in my argument.

      • “I was not offering a positive account of the conventional meaning of personal pronouns.”

        I never meant to say that you were. I do realise my last question especially does respond to words you never wrote. My apologies.

    • Hi, Scott.

      Think of what I said as a weak generalization, one given to exceptions.

      When we speak of inanimate objects as he or she, we personify or sexify them. That’s just to speak as if they had a sex. We often use this device to enliven our speech or writing, or to speak as if these objects possess certain traits typical of males or females. This does not challenge what I said about pronouns: Sex is still a sufficient condition for the use of such personal pronouns (e.g,. he and she) and it is still the norm that we use those pronouns based upon sex, particularly when talking to or about persons.

      Why God is spoken of in such terms has a similar defense. For example, it might be said that the masculine traits of God are thus emphasized, or perhaps his father-like role or relation to us, though apologists differ on this. What matters here is that we only speak as if God had a sex, which is a presumption well known to Christians. This is just a linguistic device, nothing more.

      In regards to your substitution argument, I reject the idea. Firstly, I said that it communicates ideas of sex, not that it communicates ideas about penises and vaginas. Kindergarteners correctly use these pronouns based upon their ideas of sex well before they know what penises, vaginas, ovaries, testicles are. So while the correct reference of the pronoun ‘she’ will have vaginas and ovaries (barring disease, deformity or injury), that doesn’t suggest that that’s the meaning of that pronoun.

      Secondly, we sometimes distribute pronouns ‘he’ or ‘she’ well before we have information about the gender identity, roles or traits of a particular person. For example, when I learned that my newborn neice is a girl, I used feminine pronouns. I didn’t stop to ponder about her particular gender identity, traits or roles. Likewise is true of my dog. Likewise is true for just about everyone I meet. I’m not doing anything wrong here–it is entirely appropriate. So I don’t think that gender identity captures this use well, for it is not even considered.

      In fact, your substituted sentences don’t even make use of gender identity! Your sentences are about gendered social roles, which has nothing to do with gender identity. Here is what a correct substitution would look like:

      1. He went to the store.

      Translates into:

      2. That person who self-identifies as a male went to the store.

      You and I both know that whatever we mean by 1, it is not 2.

      • Three questions:

        1. If your account of the meaning of personal pronouns is a weak generalization that is prone to exceptions, why the screed against people who think transgendered persons are just such an exception to traditional usage? Once we read your analysis as a weak generalization, it looses the force necessary to draw the rather strong conclusion that you do. Methinks you just gave up the ghost.

        2. How can you claim sex isn’t about penises and vaginas but the, in your original post, claim we learn the sex of persons when they are infants? You can’t fall back on Angra Mainyu’s suggestion about gendered minds below since we clearly don’t discover the character of a person’s mind in infancy. On what other basis could we determine sex in infancy if not by their sex organs?

        3. I think you have built a straw figure if you think that the “leftists” you are attacking don’t think that talk of gendered social roles isn’t talk of gender. I believe the standard formulation of the claim you are criticizing in the main post is that “gender is socially constructed.” While an individual chooses which social roles to take on and, thus, chooses their gender, no individual invents genders themselves. To characterize your opposition as you suggest here is to seriously distort their view. So, if you are arguing against people who believe gender is an individual rather than a social construct, who in the world are you arguing against?

      • Hi, Scott.

        Regarding your first question, I didn’t say that the generalization is “prone” to exceptions—I said that it had some. These exceptions are few, usually involving personification or sexification. In these cases we only speak or write as if the object had a particular sex. Our linguistic conventions allow for that for the purpose of livening our speech and emphasizing masculine or feminine qualities. Our conventions do not allow for someone to take the pronoun of a sex contrary to his own.

        In any case, Peterson’s opponents are not looking for an exception—they’re speaking as if it were a rule that Peterson is breaking. Had they simply said, “I know it is not the linguistic norm, but I’d like you to use feminine pronouns with Caitlyn Jenner”, then I’d be much more receptive. But that was not the pair approach. Would I follow through with their request? Probably not, for I suspect that their end goal is to alter the public conception of womanhood and manhood into something false and inimical to my worldview, which is a motivation entirely apart and unlike the motivation for personification.

        Regarding your second question, you asked how I can say that sex is not about penises and vaginas. In response, I say that you’re not accurately reflecting what I said. I claimed these pronouns communicate ideas about sex and not ideas about penises and vaginas. I did not speak of sex itself. Let me explain: As a norm, persons of the female sex have vaginas and ovaries and that males have penises and testicles, true. We can and often do use these organs as indicators for a specific sex, but that’s not to suggest that the semantic content of these pronouns carry that same information. For example, small children can use and understand these pronouns competently without knowing what penises, vaginas, ovaries and testicles are; hence, it cannot be that the semantic content of these pronouns carry that information for them. Similarly, scientists probably know a lot more about biological sex than I do, but that doesn’t change the semantic content of the pronouns between us. These scientists just have more knowledge about the referent—it is expansive of the referent, not necessarily expansive of the semantic content.

        So what is shared amongst everyone who understands and uses these pronouns competently? Probably some vague idea of sexed persons who are male or female. And so what are males and females? There is no clear consensus on what makes us males or females, nor is there a consensus about that which what differentiates us (chromosomes? Sex organs? Sexual functions? Potencies for sperm or egg production?), but that’s not relevant here. What matters here is the understanding that gender identity is NOT considered a determinate in relation to our status as sexed males or females. Heck, transgender activists admit that much when they distinguish and disassociate the person’s sex from his gender identity. From that point, my conclusion follows once we see that personal pronouns are assigned upon sex, however vague our shared understanding of sex might be.

        You also also asked me how I can infer the sex of an infant from his genitals if sex is not about penises and vaginas. As I said before, you misinterpreted me. I only declared that the pronouns communicate ideas about sex and not ideas about penises and vaginas. I was speaking about pronouns, not sex or sexed bodies themselves. But to answer your question, upon seeing an infant’s penis or vagina, we can reliably infer his or her sex. Why? Well, because these organs are reliable indicators of sex. There’s no mystery there—males have penises and females have vaginas. That’s a norm of human nature.

        You then state:

        “I think you have built a straw figure if you think that the “leftists” you are attacking don’t think that talk of gendered social roles isn’t talk of gender. I believe the standard formulation of the claim you are criticizing in the main post is that “gender is socially constructed.” While an individual chooses which social roles to take on and, thus, chooses their gender, no individual invents genders themselves. To characterize your opposition as you suggest here is to seriously distort their view. So, if you are arguing against people who believe gender is an individual rather than a social construct, who in the world are you arguing against?”

        We are talking about gender identity, not gender. The relevant progressivists want to apply pronouns based upon gender identity. We are not speaking about gender itself. Hence, there is no straw man. Instead, I think you’re not understanding the subject of this debate.

      • Don’t be a bad sport, Catholic Hulk. You said “given to,” I said “prone to” and wasn’t quoting. If you seriously think that I attributed something to you that you didn’t mean to convey, I can’t trust that this conversation can be any more productive than it already has been.

        But I’ll continue to be a good sport and think about the substance of your response. Your semantic account, though I am struggling to make sense of it in a coherent way, could all be true and still not establish that the conventional English meaning of personal pronouns communicates ideas about sex rather than ideas about gender. So, in the interest of time, I’ll set that bit aside for the moment. Let’s focus on your distinction between gender and gender identity.

        The idea that we could talk about gender identity without talking about gender is very puzzling to me. To talk about gender identity without talking about gender would mean the two concepts are distinct. Gender identity is, according to those “leftist” you are attacking, a person’s self conception as male, female, both, neither, other. Notice that the two components of that definition are simply self conception and gender. So just how do you suppose we can talk about the self-conception of one’s gender without talking about gender? That would be like saying “I am talking about self-esteem but not saying anything at all about esteem” or “I am talking about the essential characteristics of the maple tree in my front yard but saying nothing about maple trees.” How is this possible?

        But, you know, you may be right about me misunderstanding the subject of this debate. I thought the debate was about whether or not it was reasonable to expect people to use the pronoun associated with the gender you identify with and whether or not it was reasonable to refuse to do so. You are arguing that the first conjunct is false and that the second conjunct is true. I have been arguing that your reasons for thinking the first conjunct is false are not cogent (as it turns out, I agree with you on the second conjunct). This is because your argument rests on the claims that it is not reasonable to expect people to flaunt the conventional English meanings of personal pronouns and that the the conventional meanings of those personal pronouns are sexed, not gendered. I tried to show that the gendered meanings of personal pronouns makes more sense out of our conventional usage. You objected at two points. First, you claimed my sexed meanings were incorrect because they relied on sex organs to determine sex (egads!). You then objected that gender identity is not about gender and, without providing any reason to think this is so or even an explicit explanation of the distinction you draw between the two, suggest that if I don’t agree with you about this I must be misunderstanding the debate. What did I miss?

        Whatever I have missed, that little recount was helpful. Let me grant your account of sex and the ideas about which that our personal pronouns communicate and grant your gender identity account. The translations of your preferred example become:

        1: He went to the store.

        1S: That human being that is male (i.e., adheres to our shared but vague conception of maleness) went to the store.

        1GI: That human being that self-identifies as a male went to the store.

        There is something I don’t understand here. What do you think “male” means in 1GI? Does it mean the same thing as “male” in 1S? Surely not, since that would collapse the distinction between 1S and 1GI to the point that it clearly couldn’t substantiate your position in the broader debate. But you also claim male isn’t a gender since that would make 1GI about gender and you emphatically claim that we are talking about gender identity and not gender.

        So, I confess, I don’t understand your position in the debate. I had been assuming the accepted distinctions between sex, gender, and gender identity but you continue to protest the distinction between gender and gender identity. What do you think gender is? How is it different from gender identity? Until these questions are answered, I can’t even figure out if your position is coherent, let alone true.

  2. Catholic Hulk,

    When I sent my previous reply to your post, I hadn’t seen your reply to Scott. In light of that, I conclude that my interpretation that in context, by “sex” you meant “the sexual organs”, was not correct. However, my other point remains: in the scenario S1, Chris is a woman in a sexually male body. While reality isn’t like that, I think the key issue is not what sort of organs or even what sort of chromosomes a person has, but what kind of mind he or she has.
    Now, if there were no such thing as a male or a female mind, then the difference between men and women would be about organs or something else (whatever that is) but not about minds, and so transgender people (and left-wingers) would be mistaken about whether they’re men or women. But as long as there is such thing as a male or a female mind, then I would suggest (though that would require more discussion than S1) that what matters is the mind, and more specifically, the part of the mind that is characteristically different between females and males, in normal cases. That would be what makes a person a woman or a man (there might be cases in which the mind is somewhere in between, and in such cases, it might be indeterminate unless male or female traits are preponderant).
    We use other cues (like how people look, or their sexual organs, etc.) to ascertain whether a person is female or male, and in the vast majority of cases, the sexual organs do correspond with the mind, but that might not always be the case. In that context, intuitive self-identification might sometimes be mistaken, and sometimes correct. Or not. I don’t know. But the matter is not as clear-cut as either side seems to present it, it seems to me.
    Catholic Hulk,

    When I sent my previous reply to your post, I hadn’t seen your reply to Scott. In light of that, I conclude that my interpretation that in context, by “sex” you meant “the sexual organs”, was not correct. However, my other point remains: in the scenario S1, Chris is a woman in a sexualy male body. While reality isn’t like that, I think the key issue is not what sort of organs or even what sort of chromosomes a person has, but what kind of mind he or she has.
    Now, if there were no such thing as a male or a female mind, then the difference between men and women would be about organs or something else (whatever that is) but not about minds, and so transgender people (and left-wingers) would be mistaken about whether they’re men or women. But as long as there is such thing as a male or a female mind, then I would suggest (though that would require more discussion than S1) that what matters is the mind, and more specifically, the part of the mind that is characteristically different between females and males, in normal cases. That would be what makes a person a woman or a man (there might be cases in which the mind is somewhere in between, and in such cases, it might be indeterminate unless male or female traits are preponderant).
    We use other cues (like how people look, or their sexual organs, etc.) to ascertain whether a person is female or male, and in the vast majority of cases, the sexual organs do correspond with the mind, but that might not always be the case. In that context, intuitive self-identification might sometimes be mistaken, and sometimes correct. Or not. I don’t know. But the matter is not as clear-cut as either side seems to present it, it seems to me.

  3. Catholic Hulk,

    I see the previous comment I sent didn’t get posted. The scenario S1 I’m talking about is a counterfactual scenario, which surely doesn’t obtain (and it may well be metaphysically impossible), but is consistent and seems to have no problem as a scenario intended to partially study the concept. I’ll send the relevant part of the post again:

    Scenario S1: “When we look at nearly other animals, like cats, dogs, horses, spiders, dolphins, etc., we see that males and females behave differently in some characteristic ways. It turns out that this isn’t because of differences in the brain, but because for each species, there are two different kinds of souls, which gives them minds with different behaviors. So, sexually female horses normally have souls of type (HORSE,1) (just to give them a name, etc.), and male horses have souls of type (HORSE, 2), etc. That is what results in different behavior, at least normally. There might be a few (very infrequent; less than 1 in a million times) in which a sexual male ends up with a souls of type (whatever the species, 1), or vice versa, and behave in the way that is according to their souls, minus the difference that would result from finding themselves in a different body than normal.
    As it happens, the same can be said about human behavior: human females normally have souls of type (HUMAN,1), and males of type (HUMAN,2), and that explains the characteristic sexual differences in behavior – those that are not the result of different cultures, that is; there are some of those as well.
    Now, there is a person, Chris, who has male sexual organs but a (HUMAN,1) type of soul”.

    In S1, is Chris a man, or a woman in a male body?

    In my assessment – i.e., using the words as I understand them -, she is a woman in a male body.
    Now, of course I don’t believe S1 obtains, but no matter, there is the question of what would happen if a person has (for example) XY chromosomes, male sexual organs, but a female mind (including some part of the brain corresponding to the specifically female mental traits, even if the rest of the brain is male-like). Would she be a woman, or would he be a man?
    In my assessment, she’d be a woman. I’d like to ask what your assessment is, in that scenario.

    • Hi, Angra.

      I hate to get bogged down in metaphysics unless I can see a clear trajectory to the crux of this blog post. What about your point threatens to undermine or falsify a claim in my blog post? I can allow for disagreement about what makes a man or a woman. The point would remain that these pronouns are assigned upon sex, that is, whether a person is a sexed male or female. Which is a different question from whether they are man or a woman (as any transgender advocate will tell you).

      But a brief note: In regards to your metaphysics, my own sense would be that it is impossible for a female soul to have a male body or a male soul to have a female body. Souls structure the body. Together, they form the person. Hence, if the body is female, then so is the soul. Likewise, for males. In those cases where the DNA physically matches the DNA of men but the persons *appears* to have female genitialia or female secondary organs, then I’m unsure which sex the person is. If those organs were functional (say, the person could naturally produce eggs and bear children), then I’d throw my money on this person being a woman.

      • Hi Catholic Hulk,

        I wasn’t trying to engage in metaphysics, but in conceptual analysis. I don’t believe in souls – whether of the Aristotelian-Thomistic sort, or the Cartesian sort, or any other sort -, and I believe S1 is metaphysically impossible. But S1 comes with its own metaphysics – false metaphysics, but not unproblematic when it comes to conceptual analysis of “woman”, or for that matter, the relevant pronouns (more below).
        For that matter, I think it’s metaphysically impossible that water be H2SO4, but there is nothing conceptually problematic about a claim that water is H2SO4, and a scenario in which scientists got it wrong and water is H2SO4 is legitimate if one is analyzing the term “water”.

        Regarding the pronouns, I said that in S1, “she is a woman in a male body”; I didn’t say that “he” is a woman in a male body.
        In my assessment, those pronouns are usually assigned to a person depending on whether the person is a man or a woman, at least if the person is an adult; in children, they’re assigned on the basis of whether the person is a boy or a girl. If it is the case – a matter I haven’t taken a stance on – that whether a person is a man or a woman is a different matter from whether a person is male or female (in the case of adults; I wasn’t talking about children), then the pronouns in my assessment, in ordinary usage, are assigned in accordance to the former (again, in adults), rather than the latter; S1 is also used in that context.

        In practice, I choose how to use the pronouns using cues about whether a person is a man or a woman, like the way their face or body looks even if I don’t have direct info about their sexual organs, or their sexual organs if I do, but that seems to be because the way a person looks is a generally reliable indicator of whether that person is a man or a woman, and what sexual organs they have is an even more reliable indicator.

        In brief, your claim about pronouns is in conflict with my intuitive assessment on the matter, so either one of us is mistaken, or else more than one usage of those pronouns is common enough to be considered correct, and different people use those pronouns differently without error (in practice, in nearly all cases the two ways of using the pronouns would coincide, so communication normally wouldn’t break down even if people don’t mean the same).
        By the way, in S1, which one would be in your assessment the correct description of Chris:
        a. She’s a woman in a male body.
        b. He’s a woman in a male body.
        c. He’s a man.
        d. Other (please clarify).

      • Hi, Angra.

        I’m not too sure what you think conceptual analysis is. Likewise, I don’t know what you think it means to be conceptually problematic. Hence, it is hard for me to participate.

        I’m also unsure where or how my claims about pronouns conflict with your intuition. A quick glance at what you described about using indicators to assign pronouns seems consistent with what I said. In fact, I often do the same thing, more or less. Where we might differ is what we think we’re analyzing, or maybe how the pronouns are supposed to be assigned.

        In regards to the unfortunate case of Chris, I remain largely silent. Given my background understanding, the whole thing is senseless. It’s like envisioning prime ministers as prime numbers. Is 2 a him or a her? Is that prime minister a 5? Is he even? Is 2 a competent leader? Gibberish.

      • Catholic Hulk,

        I’m constructing a hypothetical scenario in order to assess how we would apply a certain term or terms (like “he”, “she”, “man”, “woman”) in the scenario in question. That’s a means of analyzing the concepts involved (i.e., the concept of “man”, “woman”, etc.), even if that is not intended to find necessary and sufficient conditions for proper usage (a notoriously difficult task). What I’m doing is pretty much standard.
        If – say – somewhere were to claim that “X is a man” means “X has a penis”, I would show that this claim is incorrect by presenting a scenario in which a man does not have a penis (e.g., because the penis was surgically removed).
        Here, what I’m doing is constructing a hypothetical scenario to probe the meaning of words like “man”, “woman”, and also “he”, and “she”.
        My intuitive application of “she” in the scenario conflicts your claims about meaning. And yes, using indicators to assign pronouns seems consistent with what I said. We do the same in that regard. But that’s not the issue.

        As for your “gibberish” assessment, you’re mistaken, but I’m not sure why you don’t understand the scenario. My scenario S1 is like the scenario in which scientists got it wrong and water is H2SO4. It’s not like the scenario in which the prime minister is a prime number. One cannot imagine (whether as actual or not) a scenario in which the prime minister is a prime number. At least, by my understanding of “prime number” and logic, that does not make sense. On the other hand, it’s possible to imagine that, say, water is H2SO4 – say, scientists got it wrong.

        The point is that a scenario may well be metaphysically impossible (in the usual, Kripkean sense of metaphysical possibility, i.e., when the scenario is considered as counterfactual), and still conceptually coherent (i.e., the meaning of the words plus logic doesn’t give us a contradiction) and imaginable; we can use such scenarios to do conceptual analysis (see above for a more detailed explanation), and I’m doing just that.

        Even if you’re a Thomist (or whatever your metaphysics are, but so far, I’m guessing probably a Thomist) you should be able to grasp the scenario without a difficulty, since it’s not conceptually problematic. A conceptually problematic scenario would be one like the prime minister being a prime number. More precisely, using my own intuitive grasp of the concepts of “prime minister” and “prime number” (and logic, if needed), I cannot make sense of the scenario.

        If you still can’t understand it, I can try to come up with a different scenario, but the one I offered is proper and yet it looks like gibberish to you, so I’m not sure whether other scenarios will fare any better.

        I admit I’m puzzled by your thinking that the scenario is gibberish. Perhaps, the word “soul” is causing trouble? But it should not be, since there are different concepts of “soul”, and the scenario is specific enough as far as I can tell. Still, I will try a modified scenario that does not use the word “soul”, in case that’s the difficulty.

        Scenario S2: “When we look at nearly other animals, like cats, dogs, horses, spiders, dolphins, etc., we see that males and females behave differently in some characteristic ways. It turns out that this isn’t because of differences in the brain, but because for each species, there are two different kinds of some non-physical thing, let’s say the “spirit” to give the immaterial thing a name.
        So, sexually female horses normally have spirits of type (HORSE,1) (just to give them a name, etc.), and male horses have spirits of type (HORSE, 2), etc. That is what results in different behavior, at least normally. There might be a few (very infrequent; less than 1 in a million times) in which a sexual male ends up with a spirit of type (whatever the species, 1), or vice versa, and behave in the way that is according to their spirit, minus the difference that would result from finding themselves in a different body than normal.
        As it happens, the same can be said about human behavior: human females normally have spirits of type (HUMAN,1), and males of type (HUMAN,2), and that explains the characteristic sexual differences in behavior – those that are not the result of different cultures, that is; there are some of those as well.
        Now, there is a person, Chris, who has male sexual organs but a (HUMAN,1) type of spirit”.

        In S1, is Chris a man, or a woman in a male body? Is it proper to use the pronoun “he”, or the pronoun “she”.

        In my assessment – i.e., using the words as I understand them -, she is a woman in a male body. I would like to ask the following question: In S2, which one would be in your assessment the correct description of Chris:
        a. She’s a woman in a male body.
        b. He’s a woman in a male body.
        c. He’s a man.
        d. Other (please clarify).

        If you have a difficulty with the word “spirit” as well, then no problem. Instead, let’s call whatever makes the difference in behavior “non-physical thingy”, and the scenario remains the same in all relevant respects. If you think that “non-physical” is problematic as well, then please pick your choice of terminology.

  4. “[W]hat kind of jerk demands that others to refer to someone as a he, she or they would like? They’re human beings, not issues.”

  5. Hi, Scott. This is a continuation of our talk.

    The “semantic account”is not tough to understand. I only said that the pronouns communicate ideas about sex, not penises and vaginas. When you think of sex, being a learned person, lots of ideas are connoted. For example, you might think of penises, breasts, sperm function, XY or whatever else. However, these ideas are not necessarily expansive of the semantic content of these pronouns. You could just be learning more about the referent of those pronouns, not what those pronouns are understood to mean for English users. As I said, schoolchildren know how to use and understand these pronouns well before they knew what penises or vaginas were; hence, it cannot be that penises and vaginas are part of the semantic content of those pronouns, at least not for those schoolchildren. So then what is semantic content is shared amongst English users? I answer that it is probably some vague notion of sexed persons, those who are males or females.

    Moving on, you’re free to talk about gender as much you want, but it is not the relevant topic. The relevant topic is gender identity, for that is used to help make sense of trans persons claims to womanhood, manhood or whatever else. The concern is with whether gender identity, a concept distinct from gender, warrants the use of those pronouns linguistically, factually, morally or politically.

    You write:

    “But, you know, you may be right about me misunderstanding the subject of this debate. I thought the debate was about whether or not it was reasonable to expect people to use the pronoun associated with the gender you identify with and whether or not it was reasonable to refuse to do so.”

    Actually, that’s not what you thought. We can see that with your initial substituted sentences in your first reply. You totally and utterly misunderstood what gender identity is, speaking about feminine social roles and whatnot, which is totally distinct from gender identity. Your “gendered meaning personal pronouns” were about stereotypical roles of the sexes, not self-perception or self- identification of being a man, woman, or whatever.

    You write:

    “1: He went to the store.

    1S: That human being that is male (i.e., adheres to our shared but vague conception of maleness) went to the store.

    1GI: That human being that self-identifies as a male went to the store.”

    There is something I don’t understand here. What do you think “male” means in 1GI? Does it mean the same thing as “male” in 1S? Surely not, since that would collapse the distinction between 1S and 1GI to the point that it clearly couldn’t substantiate your position in the broader debate. But you also claim male isn’t a gender since that would make 1GI about gender and you emphatically claim that we are talking about gender identity and not gender.”

    Yes, Scott, good eye! What transgender persons mean when they speak about having a male gender identity while being sexed females or what they mean when they speak about having female gender identity while being a sexed male is mysterious. A similar point has been made here:
    http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2015/07/15401/

    So to answer your question, I don’t know what ‘male’ means in that sentence. That’s not to admit fault on my part, but to suggest mystery about what these trans persons are saying. Frankly, I find it senseless. Apart from sex, I can’t make sense of what it is to say, “I identify as a man.”

  6. CH,

    You write “Apart from sex, I can’t make sense of what it is to say, “I identify as a man.””

    Agreed. Here’s an attempt to diagnosis the confusion here.

    Transgendered persons often report “feeling like a man/women/neither.” I take it, then, that they aim to ground their identity claims on their experience of certain kinds of phenomenal states.

    I deny that there is anything it’s like to be a man/women/neither, at least in a way that is available to introspection. Although I can introspectively grasp what it’s like to be angry, sad, or anxious, I can’t introspectively grasp what it’s like to be a man. Even if we grant that there is are unique phenomenal properties associated with male mental states, since I’ve always been a man I have no means by which to distinguish “masculine” phenomenal properties from “non-masculine” phenomenal properties. I lack the comparison class I’d need to draw any genuine distinctions between sexed mental states.

    Perhaps, then, the reason you and I cannot make sense of claims to identify as male or female is because such claims are used to report that one’s mental states have phenomenal properties that cannot be introspectively identified.

    • Hi, Diogenes.

      Okay, but propositions still say something. So what is being said if their identification as a male is made apart from sex? if there is nothing that can make sense of it, then what on earth are they asking me to accept?

      • CH,

        To clarify the above: one possibility is that the utterance “I identify as a man” is intended to express the proposition “I feel like a man.” Since there are no introspectively identifiable
        mental states with explicitly male phenomenal properties, such a proposition can’t be expressed and the utterance is thus nonsense.

        Another possibility, on the assumption that there are no introspectively identifiable
        mental states with explicitly male phenomenal properties, is that the utterance “I identify as a man” does not express a proposition at all. Instead, it expresses attitudes of approval toward traditionally masculine traits and interests; namely “Hooray for blazers,sports, stoic detachment , breadwinning…” Call this view identity emotivism.

      • Haha. Well. I don’t know how to respond to that. I’m unsure why that should prompt any change in the way I use pronouns. 🙂

      • I’m not advocating that you–or anyone else–modify pronoun usage. I’m just trying to see if I can make sense of utterances likes “I identify as a man.” Although I largely reject the theory of gender that informs bien pensant discourse on transgenderism, I am confident that when people claim to be the opposite sex, they’re not claiming to have the sex organs of the opposite sex. This raises the interesting question of what it is they are trying to express with such claims.

  7. Hi, Angra.

    Firstly, I have no clue what you think conceivability is. And why doesn’t it entail possibility? Does it give evidence for possibility?

    It’s interesting that you find the whole prime minister/prime number thing to be senseless and conceptually problematic, since it is a typical example of a proposition that is strictly logically possible but metaphysically impossible in virtue of the clash of ontological categories. If that’s true, I wonder why the prime minster case is understood to be senseless but not the H20 case, or even the idea of a person with a female soul and a male body. I wonder what leads you to this judgement. You said that it is possible to “imagine” that scientists could have gotten the composition of H20 wrong. But why is it not likewise possible to imagine that we misunderstood the ontological conditions of numbers or prime ministers? Can’t we “imagine” a misunderstanding and then conceive that prime ministers can be prime numbers? If not, why?

    Is it that you understand the nature or definition of prime ministers and prime numbers, that is, you know what they are, which then leads you to the conclusion that the idea of a prime minister who is a number is senseless or conceptually problematic? If you think water without hydrogen is conceivable, is that just because you suppress knowledge that water is, by nature, composed of hydrogen, or is it that our knowledge that water is composed of hydrogen is a posteriori and the former, perhaps, not? I’m also wondering whether your idea of sense or conceviability is derivative of your knowledge of essences, natures, definitions, or essential properties, and so you believe that the female soul/male body thing is conceivable only because you do not hold the same ideas about the nature, essence or essential properties of females or male souls/bodies.

    For me, when I hear ‘body’, I immediately think of form as essentially constitutive of it. Body is essentially constituted by form and matter. Human persons are essentially constituted by a human form (soul) and matter. As a matter of nature or essence, sexed male body exists only in virtue of a male soul. By necessity of our nature, human persons exist only with a male soul and male body, or a female soul and a female body. Women are just those with female souls and bodies and men are those with male souls and bodies. Thus, when you propose some hypothetical about a person with a female soul and male body, I can’t make sense of it. Given what I know about bodies and souls, this is impossible. I can’t answer whether Chris is a man, woman or female or male, because, given my background knowledge, the conditions you described in your hypothetical situation point to different conclusions and absurdities.

    Now, you’re free to alter the conception of a soul. You can also alter the conception of bodies, too. However, if you do that, we are not engaging my conceptions of souls, bodies, men and women; and so I’m unsure what relevance this would have to my blog post.

    • Oh, and Angra, forgive me if that last post sounded scattered and poorly written. I’m in a rush and I’m distracted with life’s duties. In a nut shell: I’m curious about what you think conceivability and imagination offers this discussion. What do you think conceivability and imagination are? I’m curious what you think they derive from, if anything? I’m also really, really curious why the prime minister example is senseless, or whatever else, but not the water/H20 thing? Or the body/souls thing?

      When I think about whether I can “imagine” scientists are wrong about the composition of water, I don’t find this line of thought useful. For even if I could “imagine it”, it seems that I could do so only if I suppress or do not fully appreciate the nature of water. So what would that give me, aside from reason to depreciate the utility of my human imagination?

  8. Catholic Hulk,

    I don’t have a theory on conceivability on offer. It clearly doesn’t entail metaphysical possibility in the sense in which I’m using “possibility”, namely the Kripkean sense I mentioned (i.e., the sense mainly addressed in “Naming and Necessity”). It’s conceivable that water is a simple substance (e.g., scientists got it all wrong and there is no H2O), but it’s not possible (some philosophers would disagree with that, but at least as most of us use the words).

    But this is getting unnecessarily complicated. It should be intuitively clear that my scenario is proper when it comes to testing claims about the meaning of terms like “he”, “she”, “woman”, etc. – whether you agree with my linguistic intuitions on the matter or not. As for the relevance to your blog post, in the blog post you make some semantic claims. I’m challenging them by means of a hypothetical scenario in which my linguistic intuitions conflict with it, and I’m guessing other people’s intuitions would conflict as well. But this should be clear by now.

    With regard to the prime minister/prime number claim, I can introduce 3 different kinds of impossibility to see if that helps (though again, this shouldn’t be that hard; it’s actually not relevant to your post; the scenario was relevant).

    1. Type 1 impossibility: a statement type-1 impossible iff it entails a contradiction using only logic, when we preserve only the meaning of the connectives and quantifiers and replace the rest for letters.
    For example, a statement of the form A&¬A is impossible in this sense (e.g., “Joe is married and it’s not the case that Joe is married”).
    On the other hand, “Joe is a married bachelor” is not type-1 impossible.

    2. Type 1 impossibility: a statement type-2 impossible iff it entails a contradiction when we keep the meaning of the connectives and quantifiers and the words in it.
    For example, “Joe is a married bachelor” is type-2 impossible. Also, every type-1 impossible statement is also type-2 impossible.
    For example, “Water is not H2O”, “Water is H2SO4”, etc., aren’t type-2 impossible.
    In my assessment, “The prime minister is a prime number” is type-2 impossible. But nothing in my example hinges on that. Let’s say I’m mistaken and “The prime minister is a prime number” is not type-2 impossible. Then, my assessment in scenario S1 (or S2) remains unaffected.

    3. Type 3 impossibility: Kripkean metaphysical impossibility.
    Examples of that are all statements that are type-2 impossible, but also statements like “Water is H2SO4”, “There is some water over there, but it’s not composed of H2O”, etc.

    You ask: “You said that it is possible to “imagine” that scientists could have gotten the composition of H20 wrong. But why is it not likewise possible to imagine that we misunderstood the ontological conditions of numbers or prime ministers?”
    It’s not about ontological conditions. I can tell, using my intuitive grasp of the meaning of the words and logic alone, that it’s not the case that the prime minister is a prime number. On the other hand, I cannot tell on the basis of my intuitive grasp of the meaning of the words and logic alone that it’s not the case that scientists got it wrong.

    But no matter, that my scenario is proper (even if you disagree about my judgment about Chris) should be clear intuitively. It does not require that I find differences between it and the case of the prime minister (I found one because you asked me to, but I don’t see any relevance in going further in this direction).

    “Can’t we “imagine” a misunderstanding and then conceive that prime ministers can be prime numbers? If not, why?”
    In the sense that one can imagine that one got a logical proof wrong (for example), sure. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I was thinking of a coherent conceivability constraint. But you might say you don’t understand what I mean by that. I would say that the difference I’m making should be clear by now, but no matter, you actually said the prime minister scenario was gibberish. I agree. On the other hand, again, S1 is not gibberish. If you don’t understand it because of the word “soul”, then I’d say it should be clear that S2 is not gibberish. I will try again below, avoiding also the use of “body”.

    “I’m also wondering whether your idea of sense or conceivability is derivative of your knowledge of essences, natures, definitions, or essential properties, and so you believe that the female soul/male body thing is conceivable only because you do not hold the same ideas about the nature, essence or essential properties of females or male souls/bodies.”
    No, it’s not derivative of any of that. I’m going by my intuitive grasp of the term. It’s more or less frequent in philosophy blogs, in my experience. No matter, I can work around that (see my next post).

    “For me, when I hear ‘body’, I immediately think of form as essentially constitutive of it. Body is essentially constituted by form and matter. Human persons are essentially constituted by a human form (soul) and matter. As a matter of nature or essence, sexed male body exists only in virtue of a male soul. ”
    That sounds Thomistic (am I getting that right?). But I’m just using “body” in the usual sense of the word in English. I don’t believe Thomism is true, but that’s not the issue when it comes to raising a scenario in order to assess the meaning of the words.
    Still, if the word “body” is also problematic to you, I can find a way around that (but again, I’m pretty this shouldn’t be this hard; S1 and S2 are run-of-the-mill scenarios). I’ll write another post, without using the words “soul” or “body”, since those aren’t important (it’s just terminology).

    “Now, you’re free to alter the conception of a soul. You can also alter the conception of bodies, too. However, if you do that, we are not engaging my conceptions of souls, bodies, men and women; and so I’m unsure what relevance this would have to my blog post.”
    With regard to “body”, I’m actually using the usual English sense of the term. With regard to souls, there are many meanings I think, but that’s not important; whether we call it a soul or a non-physical thingy or whatever. In my next post, I will try to work around your problems with the words “soul” and “body”, but if that does not work, maybe we’ll just have to leave it at that (I would still disagree with your post, but maybe it’s a case in which we have no way to discuss the matter).

    • Hi, Angra.

      If you don’t have a theory or understanding of conceivability, then I do t know what you’re asking me to do when you’re talking about conceiving your scenarios. It does not seem much different from imagination; and if it isn’t, I’m sure which sort of conceptual or modal knowledge this offers, particularly since our imaginations our mind-dependent and concepts or things are not.

      Because of this aforementioned limitation, I’m afraid it is not “intuitively clear” that your scenario challenges what I said in any way. Your understanding of the concepts or natures of bodies, souls, man and women are not my own. In fact, we seem to have some strongly different ideas about them; and so what is “clear” to you is absurd to me. More importantly, I suspect the reason that it is “clear” to you is because of what you do not know or do not appreciate about the nature of bodies, souls, men, and women.

      You write that you can “grasp” using the meaning of words and logic alone that the prime minister/prime number example is contradictory. Pray tell, which meaning is that? There’s nothing within the ordinary meaning of those words that is contradictory. If you feel differently, I’d love to hear why. Instead, as I said, we have prior understandings that human persons are not the sort of things that can be prime numbers, and vice versa, given their ontological categories or natures. This is the understanding given by Laura Garcia in her chapter on the ontological argument in the book “readings in the philosophy of religion” edited by Kelly Clark (see page: 27) and Englebretsen’s book “Exploring Topics in the History and Philosophy of Logic”.

      I also wonder if the latent meaning of the words “prime minister” and “prime number” is derivative of your understanding of the nature of their referents (prime ministers and prime numbers). Despite what you say, I don’t agree that this is just your “intuitive grasp of the terms” since concepts, thoughts and things are always prior to terms and words. There’s nothing within the ordinary meaning of the term “number” that itself disqualifies being a prime minister. Background ideas about the nature of persons and numbers come into play here, but this is knowledge about the things themselves, not strictly found within the meaning of the terms.

      What is the ordinary concept of “body” you’d like me to use?

      • Sorry, my first paragraph should read this:

        If you don’t have a theory or understanding of conceivability, then I don’t know what you’re asking me to do when you’re talking about conceiving your scenarios. It does not seem much different from imagination; and if it isn’t, then I’m unsure which sort of conceptual knowledge or modal knowledge this offers, particularly since our imaginations our mind-dependent and correct concepts and concrete things themselves are not.

      • Yeah, I’m about ready to punch my automatic editor in the face.

        *since our imaginations ARE mind-dependent and correct concepts and concrete things themselves are not*

      • In my experience, conceivability is usually considered a roughly good intuitive guide to metaphysical possibility, and “conceivable” is not the same as “imaginable” (e.g., I can conceive of a scenario where there are 1000000000 people, but I can’t imagine so many even roughly). Given your response, it seems you would reject conceivability as an intuitive guide to possibility, since you would ask for a theory. That’s unusual in my experience, but perhaps not for Thomists (after all, Thomists are a small minority of the philosophers I’ve talked to).
        Regardless, I wasn’t arguing for possibility, so not a problem.
        As for conceptual knowledge, at least usually, conceivable scenarios also seem to work as a means of testing semantic claims, so they can give us semantic knowledge. But since you reject that without a theory of conceivability, I will point out that counterfactual scenarios are generally a good way of testing semantic claims, and there is no good reason to think that my scenario is not useful for that purpose. Metaphysical possibility (in the Kripkean sense) does not seem to matter. For example, if someone claims that “X is water” means “X is composed of H2O”, one way of testing the claim would be to say something like (I’m simplifying, but more or less) “suppose that scientists are wrong and the liquid stuff that fills oceans, rivers, that we drink, etc., is a simple substance (as many philosophers believed in the past). In that scenario, is the liquid we drink, that fills oceans, etc., not water?”
        Clearly, the intuitive answer is “no”, i.e., that is water, so it’s not the case that “X is water” means “X is composed of H2O”.
        I don’t need any theory of conceivability, possibility, etc., to do that. It’s a run of the mill procedure to test semantic claims. I’m doing the same when I’m testing the claim about the pronouns “he” and “she”.
        I get you reject my scenarios, so I guess there is no room for progress. I’m just surprised. I will ask you a question: how would you go about testing semantic claims?

        In my experience, conceivability is usually considered a roughly good intuitive guide to metaphysical possibility, and “conceivable” is not the same as “imaginable” (e.g., I can conceive of a scenario where there are 1000000000 people, but I can’t imagine so many even roughly). Given your response, it seems you would reject conceivability as an intuitive guide to possibility, since you would ask for a theory. That’s unusual in my experience, but perhaps not for Thomists (after all, Thomists are a small minority of the philosophers I’ve talked to) – I’m still not sure you’re a Thomist, but you seem to be one so far.

        In any case, I wasn’t arguing for possibility, so not a problem.
        As for conceptual knowledge, at least usually, conceivable scenarios also seem to work as a means of testing semantic claims, so they can give us semantic knowledge. But since you reject that without a theory of conceivability, I will point out that counterfactual scenarios are generally a good way of testing semantic claims, and there is no good reason to think that my scenario is not useful for that purpose. Metaphysical possibility (in the Kripkean sense) does not seem to matter. For example, if someone claims that “X is water” means “X is composed of H2O”, one way of testing the claim would be to say something like (I’m simplifying, but more or less) “suppose that scientists are wrong and the liquid stuff that fills oceans, rivers, that we drink, etc., is a simple substance (as many philosophers believed in the past). In that scenario, is the liquid we drink, that fills oceans, etc., not water?”
        Clearly, the intuitive answer is “no”, i.e., that is water, so it’s not the case that “X is water” means “X is composed of H2O”.
        I don’t need any theory of conceivability, possibility, etc., to do that. It’s a run of the mill procedure to test semantic claims. I’m doing the same when I’m testing the claim about the pronouns “he” and “she”.

        As for your claim about mind-dependence, there are different ways in which people seem to construe “mind-dependence”, so I remain silent on that claim. But the procedure I’m using for testing semantic claims is usual, in my experience. I get you reject my scenarios, so I guess there is no room for progress. I’m just surprised. I would like to ask you a question: how would you go about testing semantic claims?

  9. Catholic Hulk,

    Here’s my third modified scenario S3. In order to discuss it, I think it’s better if we leave aside the issues of conceivability, etc., and just try to understand the scenario. We can discuss those issues in a different post, though this shouldn’t be required for the scenario to do its job. I will avoid the use of the words “body” and “soul”. If you still don’t consider the scenario relevant to your post and/or you take no stance on whether it’s relevant and/or you think it’s gibberish, please let me know why.

    Scenario S3:


    When we look at nearly other animals, like cats, dogs, horses, spiders, dolphins, etc., we see that males and females behave differently in some characteristic ways.
    It turns out that this isn’t because of differences in the brain or some other physical difference, but because for each species, there are two different kinds of non-physical things, which gives them minds with different behaviors.
    So, sexually female horses normally have a non-physical thing that we may call (purely to give it a name; please pick another name if you don’t like this one) (Non-physical thing, HORSE, 1), and male horses have a different non-physical thing, which we may call (Non-physical thing, HORSE, 2).
    The differences in behavior (and in the minds) of normal male and female horses are due to the fact that the former have a (Non-physical thing, HORSE, 2), and the latter a (Non-physical thing, HORSE, 1).
    That is what results in different behavior (and in minds) in other species too, at least normally. For example, female cats normally have a (Non-physical thing, CAT, 1), and male cats a (Non-physical thing, CAT, 2), and so on.
    The same applies to humans, in the normal case.
    Now, there is a person, Chris, who has XY chromosomes, normally functional male sexual organs (i.e., a penis, testicles), and the physical appearance of a normal human male, etc., but a (Non-physical thing, HUMAN, 1), which is the non physical thing that human females normally have. He does not have a (Non-physical thing, HUMAN, 2), which is the kind of non-physical thing that human males normally have. As a result of having a (Non-physical thing, HUMAN, 1), Chris’s mind is like the mind of a normal human female, in terms of predispositions, desires, feelings, or whatever the differences between human male and female minds are.

    I would like to ask you the following questions about Chris (I will give my answers too).
    Assuming S3 is actual, then:

    a. Is Chris a woman?
    b. [Only if the answer to a. is affirmative] Would it be correct (in ordinary English) to say that she is a woman, or that he is a woman?
    c. Is Chris a man?

    My answers are:
    a. Yes.
    b. It would be correct to say that she is a woman.
    c. No.

    • Hi, Angra.

      Let’s see if I can write this in a more careful way so that my automatic editor doesn’t betray me again.

      Firstly, when you write that these respective properties are “normally” had by females, or males, do you mean to speak of statistical norms or Aristotelian norms (think Aristotelian categoricals). And does “normal” functioning male sexual organs mean that Chris produces semen and sperm?

      Secondly, how the heck do you want me to answer your question well without knowing what sort of mysterious thing Chris has that is “normally” of females?

      You answer that Chris is a man. But why? Is it that you give priority to the “mind” concerning the identity of the person? Why do you consider the function of the reproductive organs to determine the status of womanhood?

      • Sorry, I meant to ask: Why do you NOT consider the function of the reproduction organs to determine Chris’ status?

  10. Catholic Hulk,

    First, I meant to use “normally” in the usual sense of the English word, at least when it comes to animals, plants, etc.
    If that’s not good enough for you, I’m not sure how to get around that. I can work around some words, but at some point, the exclusions will likely prevent me from even challenging your claims. I will try again in my next post (scenario S4, designed to work around the exclusion of “normal”, “normally”, etc.). But doing so complicates the scenarios needlessly.

    Second, the question is clear to me. I’m puzzled by your not understanding it.

    Third, actually, I answer that Chris is a woman, and that “she” is the correct pronoun. S3, like the other scenarios, are meant to shed some light on the meaning of words like “man”, “woman”, “he”, “she”, etc. The idea is precisely to use one’s own intuitive grasp of the terms as a competent speaker of them, and then make an assessment. One does not need to have a theory about why the terms are applied that way – and that would be very difficult to have indeed.
    So, in short, I just read the scenario, and say, “Okay, so she’s a woman”; my question is what do you say, but you don’t say anything. I find that puzzling. As I mentioned before, I’d like to ask how you go about testing semantic claims.
    Now, I’m going to write S4, but it will take me some time to come up with a good scenario that works around all of your exclusions of words, and it will be rather long. But I don’t see why you’re rejecting my scenarios.

    Fourth, as for your question: “Why do you NOT consider the function of the reproduction organs to determine Chris’ status?”, my answer should be clear by now, but just in case: I read the scenario, and I immediately classify Chris as a woman, I’m predisposed to use the pronoun “she”, etc.; that tells me something about the meaning of the words “woman”, “man”, “she”, etc., at least as I use them. If I’m using the words unusually, then I have failed to grasp the meaning properly. But I don’t see any good reasons to think that I’m unusual in that regard.

    • Hi, Angra.

      If you’re not going to specify which sense of ‘normal’ you’re using in that description, then I’m afraid I can’t answer, since I just don’t know what you’re saying. Despite what you seem to think, the word ‘normal’ can mean a few things. For example, the sentence, “it is not normal for human ears to hear below 3 Hz” could refer to a statistical norm, or it could refer to norm about human nature. Those two senses of ‘normal’ are radically different–you see that, right? If there’s an ordinary sense in English for the word ‘normal’ in this context, I’m not aware of it.

      So why am I rejecting your scenarios? Well, they’re bad philosophy, to be frank. You have not offered an account of conceivability despite the fact that you want me to do “conceive”. I have no idea what you expect me to do, nor am I aware of what sort of knowledge it offers us. In addition, you say that your intent of this mysterious activity of “conceiving” is to shed light on the meaning of words like “he”, “she” , “man” and “woman”, but that light can be had by consulting a dictionary. Instead, what you’re really looking for is light about womanhood, which is distinct from the meaning of the word ‘woman’.

      What I’m interested in is why you inferred that Chris is a woman from your scenarios. What about Chris’ “mind” prompts you to consider Chris a woman despite the fact that Chris is said to have a male body with functioning male parts? Your answer to this question doesn’t shed light on how we use the word ‘woman’, but it does shed light on what you think womanness is. We can see that by considering someone who disagrees with you. Suppose someone believes that Chris’ male reproductive functions qualifies Chris as a man, not a woman. Your disagreement with your opponent isnt about the meaning of the word ‘woman’ and ‘man’, for that is an issue determined by a collective of English users. Your issue is about the nature of womanhood or manhood itself.

      My blog post dodges this problem. I only note that the word ‘he’ and ‘she’ refer to sexed males and females respectively. That’s affirmed in how we use the pronouns from within our own species whose minds we can’t access (newborns and the profoundly delayed) and other species (dogs, say). It’s also affirmed in the grammar books I mentioned. What we do here is look for the primary sexual organs and infer a sex. It’s a reliable measure to determine sex, though not infallible. So what is sex? That’s a tricky question, but whatever it is, we can at least say that it is not gender identity, for trans persons themselves admit that gender identity and sex are distinct and can be disassociated. Hence, since we only use those pronouns to designate sex, there is no linguistic norm requiring us to apply it to them. I then go on to argue that there is no political or moral basis to apply to to them either, but meh!

      • Catholic Hulk,

        While “normal” has more than one meaning, I said when it comes to animals, plants, etc. For example, if we say that a plant failed to develop normally because it was infected by a virus.
        Regarding ears, while there might be debate about what normal in “it is not normal for human ears to hear below 3 Hz” refers to, I think there is one clear enough usage in the sense I’m talking about.
        As for the claim that my scenarios are bad philosophy, I’m going to be frank too: your rejection of my scenarios is bad philosophy. The scenarios are okay.

        Also, I already explained why an account of conceivability is not required. I don’t even need to use the term “conceivability” or make any claims about it in order to raise counterfactual scenarios to challenge your semantic claim.
        I don’t base my scenarios on any claims about any allegedly mysterious “conceiving”: As I already pointed out, all I need is to construct a run of the mill counterfactual scenario which obviously makes sense, and ask you and readers to make an assessment. You have refused to do so, but that doesn’t make the scenarios any less proper.

        As for a dictionary is not a good place to go. It gives you an approximation, but that’s definitely not a means to settle matters like this. I’ve been addressing your questions even though you haven’t addressed most of mine. Could you please let me know how would you go about testing semantic claims?

        Now, you ask: “What I’m interested in is why you inferred that Chris is a woman from your scenarios. What about Chris’ “mind” prompts you to consider Chris a woman despite the fact that Chris is said to have a male body with functioning male parts?”
        I don’t have a full theory on the meaning of “woman”, or “male”. I just read the scenario, and reckon intuitively that she’s a woman.
        As for whether Chris is male, it’s not so clear, or rather, I think there is more than one potential meaning involved: Chris has male sexual organs, but a female mind. However, that’s speculation about how I assess the matter.

        “Your answer to this question doesn’t shed light on how we use the word ‘woman’, but it does shed light on what you think womanness is.”
        Not quite. It surely sheds light on how I use “woman”, and if more people were to apply it the same way, on how people in general use the word “woman”. On the other hand, it doesn’t shed light on what I think womanness is; I could speculate on that, though. But that speculation is neither required nor a substitute for the intuitive assessment.

        You say: ” We can see that by considering someone who disagrees with you. Suppose someone believes that Chris’ male reproductive functions qualifies Chris as a man, not a woman. Your disagreement with your opponent isnt about the meaning of the word ‘woman’ and ‘man’, for that is an issue determined by a collective of English users. Your issue is about the nature of womanhood or manhood itself.”
        I disagree. If someone were to say that Chris is a man, then the main options seem to be:
        a. My opponent and I use the words “man” and “woman” differently. One of us hasn’t fully grasped the ordinary meaning of them.
        b. My opponent and I use the words “man” and “woman” differently. Both of us grasp a common ordinary meaning, but more than one usage is common. Communication usually doesn’t break down because the referents of the different-meaning “man”, “woman”, etc., overlap almost entirely in the actual world. But sometimes, they do not. In this case, we do not actually disagree about whether Chris is a woman or a man, but talk past each other – though we may well disagree about what “woman” and “man” mean.
        c. My opponent and I use the words in the same manner, but one of us is being irrational, perhaps placing a metaphysical theory above clear judgments on the matter, or irrational for some other reason.
        d. My opponent and I use the words in the same manner, and both of us are being rational, but we have different views about other issues that underpin our different judgments.

        As for the collective of English users, actually the meaning of words is determined by usage. What you’re saying (i.e., “Your issue is about the nature of womanhood or manhood itself”) might be compatible with 3. or 4., but as long as the usage is the same, then there seems to be no way in the scenarios I gave (at least the first 3; I constructed S4 just as a last resort given your replies, but it’s not as good) that I would properly say Chris is a man and not a woman, given the way I use the words “man” and “woman”, even under any extra metaphysical assumptions (that do not contradict the scenarios) that you might add.

        “My blog post dodges this problem. I only note that the word ‘he’ and ‘she’ refer to sexed males and females respectively.”
        You claim that, but the problem I raise remains, for the following reasons:

        1. You also claim that “the vast majority of transgender people are clearly either sexed males or sexed females”. Well, if that is so (a matter on which I take no stance, since “male” and “female” are somewhat ambiguous and the ambiguity seems to matter in this context), it’s not so clear whether they’re men or women, and if they’re women, the proper pronoun is “she”, as I understand the words (in the ordinary sense). If “man” and “male” (in adult humans), and “woman” and “female” mean different things and someone can be a male woman or a female man (a matter on which I’ve taken no stance), then the proper usage of pronouns is “she” and “he” respectively.

        2. In fact, you make the following claim about sex: “In other words, I suspect that their preferred use of those pronouns is a means to reinforce and further embed the idea that, say, some biological males who have fathered children still qualify for womanhood (Bruce Jenner, I’m looking at you, buddy).”
        But then, you’re claiming that “sex” tracks sexual organs, or something like that. But then, the Chris scenario is relevant, since it shows – if my usage of the pronouns in the scenario holds – that under your usage of “biological males”, Chris is a biological male but a woman; further, she is a woman.

        “That’s a tricky question, but whatever it is, we can at least say that it is not gender identity, for trans persons themselves admit that gender identity and sex are distinct and can be disassociated. ”
        I agree it’s not gender identity, since a person can be mistaken in a belief that he is a woman, or that she is a man. But on the other hand, as my scenarios show, at least some of us (and I bet most of us; I see no reason to think I’m unusual) understand the words in a way that doesn’t have to match what you seem to call “biological sex”.

        Moreover, you say “Firstly, I remind my readers that personal pronouns are properly used to communicate ideas about sex, not womanhood or manhood. Thus, any change in the use of the personal pronouns can be resisted on that basis. ”
        Well, I disagree with that, and that’s one of the reasons for my scenarios. I say that assuming womanhood and femaleness (or manhood and maleness) can come apart in adult humans (a matter on which I take no stance), then pronouns are properly applied in line with womanhood (or manhood).

        So, that’s a disagreement about the meaning of the words, and raising counterfactual scenarios to test your semantic claim is a proper way to go.

      • Hi, Angra.

        Regarding the talk about normality, I was speaking about your sentences regarding those organs and such men and women “normally” have. There’s multiple sense of ‘normal’ that can be used here, as my ear example showed, so I need you to specify. If you’re just going to repeat yourself again by telling me that the use of the word ‘normal’ is clear enough, despite my stated confusion, then, well, I don’t know what to tell you.

        Regarding conceivability, I suspect you’re merely blanketing it, not ridding it. You’re asking readers, or me, to assess. Okay, assess what? And how? Well, your scenarios involve thinking about the modalities and conditions of manhood and womanhood, and what is sufficient to be men or women. And how do we do that? Intuit? How’s that any different than your conceiving scenario? I doubt you can answer that well.

        Despite your denial, dictionaries are a great resource to consult, if you’re looking for how words are used and what they mean in the language. That’s actually what dictionaries are for. In contrast, your thought experiments are aimed toward digging deep into the concept, thought or nature of womanhood and manhood themselves, which is apart from how we use the word ‘woman’ and ‘man’ in English. But you can’t seem to tell the difference.

        For example, from your scenarios, you concluded that Chris is a woman. But this is not a proposition about words. For example, this is not to say that, in English, the word ‘woman’ would be predicated to Chris by English users. Instead, it is to say that Chris is, in fact, a woman. So when I tell you that your conclusion doesn’t shed light on how English users use the word ‘woman’, I’m right! It doesn’t! Your conclusion is not about English language use. Your conclusion is that Chris is, in fact, a woman, which is not to say anything about English language use.

        Moving on, I asked you why you judged Chris to be a woman. You responded that you don’t have a full theory on the meaning of the word ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Well, that’s great, Angra, but I didn’t ask you a question about your competency in some linguistic concern. I didn’t ask you about words. I asked you why you judged Chris to be a woman. You the added that you read the scenario and intuited it. Again, that’s nice. But I didn’t ask how you judged Chris to be a woman. I asked why. You didn’t answer.

        I gave a scenario about your opponent disagreeing with you. It was aimed to show that the subject at hand is not about words. You deny my what I said, offering two scenarios (scenario A and B) that involve differences regarding word use. Sadly, though, you didn’t address my point. You changed the subject. My proposed scenario is that your opponent is disagrees with the proposition you expressed (Chris is a woman). This is not a false disagreement, a sort of confusion of words or meanings. It is a real disagreement about the truth of your proposition. Hence, A and B miss the point. You also offered option C and D, but C is irrelevant, since the irrationality changes nothing. He’d just be unjustified in his judgement that Chris is a man; it wouldn’t show that the disagreement is not about the nature of manhood and womanhood. Lastly, D is something I’d likely endorse consistently. Thus, none of your options (A, B, C or D ) rebut me.

        Regarding pronouns. First, it is a fact that most trans persons are either sexed males or sexed females. The only other option is that they are mostly intersex, which is false. Secondly, pronouns are assigned upon sex. I backed that up with argument. It accounts for why we can just look at a penis on an infant and then use the pronoun ‘he’. We didn’t and don’t now consult gender identity. The concept of gender identity came well after pronoun use was solidified in English; hence, it can’t be that our pronouns refer to it.

        Now, You might disagree that pronouns are assigned on the basis of sex, but you have not addressed my arguments for thinking it. That has been reported in books on grammar and it accounts for how we use it with animals and infants, the mentally feeble, and so forth. we don’t think, “ah, he has a functioning penis, so I’ll just use ‘he’ until I see that he has a feminine mind”. That’s absurd. Heck the idea of a female brain/mind and whatnot didn’t come about until just recently, and so that cannot be a part of how pronouns are used in conventional English. Rather than entertain that, we should stick to what we knew when these pronouns were being formed and for a long time after they were solidified–sex.

      • Catholic Hulk,

        That seems to repeat points I’ve already addressed. I’ll leave them aside; readers can make their own conclusions. But when I ask readers to assess whether Chris is a man or a woman, etc., I’m not asking them to do any theorizing. In fact, they needn’t be philosophers. I’m just asking them to apply the terms as they grasp it.
        But since you reject the usual procedure of testing semantic claims by presenting hypothetical counterfactual scenarios, I’ll just leave it at that.

        As for your other points, you claim: ” First, it is a fact that most trans persons are either sexed males or sexed females. The only other option is that they are mostly intersex, which is false. ”
        That is not clear to me. It may well be that a significant percentage have – for example – male sexual organs but female brains/minds. If so, would they be sexed males or females?
        If the answer is “males” (which I neither claim nor deny; the word “sexed” seems relevantly ambiguous in this context), then sure, they’re sexed males, in that sense of “sexed” – though I don’t think that’s the only common meaning of the word “sexed” in this context. But if so, then they’re still women, even if sexed males.

        “Secondly, pronouns are assigned upon sex.”
        I would say that in that case, a person with male sexual organs but a female brains/mind is a female, since the correct pronoun would be “she”.

        “I backed that up with argument. It accounts for why we can just look at a penis on an infant and then use the pronoun ‘he’.”
        I already replied that we can and often do use these organs as indicators for a specific sex, but that’s not to suggest that the semantic content of these pronouns carry that same information.

        “We didn’t and don’t now consult gender identity.”
        Of course we don’t. But that’s neither here nor there.
        When boys look at their bodies and see no penises (because they were castrated, their sexual organs modified to look like vaginas, were given female hormones, etc., and no one told them), and still know they’re boys, there is something else going on. And the same may be happening when Jenner – or someone else with a penis – claims to be a woman.

        “The concept of gender identity came well after pronoun use was solidified in English; hence, it can’t be that our pronouns refer to it.”
        That’s not a good argument. For example, the concept of being composed of hydrogen and oxygen came well after the use of the word “water” was solidified in English, yet “water” does refer to the stuff composed of H2O. And that’s aside from the fact that the meaning of words change over time.
        Bad arguments aside, it’s true that the pronouns do not refer to the concept of gender identity (well, the pronouns do not refer to a concept, but that aside), as I already argued.
        There are people who claimed to be a woman, then a man, then a woman. It’s very improbable she had a female brain/mind that changed into a male one and back to a female one (testosterone in adulthood can effect some changes in the brain, but probably much of it has already been formed earlier in life). She was mistaken when she thought she was a man. So, clearly, the pronouns don’t refer to gender identity.
        But I already made that argument. You’re replying to me as if I held that the pronouns refer to gender identity, whereas I say they refer to female and male minds. A person may be mistaken in their identification.

        “Now, You might disagree that pronouns are assigned on the basis of sex, but you have not addressed my arguments for thinking it.”
        First, whether I disagree or not depends on how you use the concept of “sex”. If the mind is male but the sexual organs female, is the sex male or female? I don’t think the word “sex” is unambiguous in this context.
        Second, assuming you use “sex” in a way that depends on the sexual organs, then sure, I made my own argument against it, by presenting counterfactual scenarios. The fact that you reject the method of testing the semantic claims doesn’t make the method any less proper.

        Third, I have addressed your arguments, but let’s go into more detail:

        “That has been reported in books on grammar and it accounts for how we use it with animals and infants, the mentally feeble, and so forth. we don’t think, “ah, he has a functioning penis, so I’ll just use ‘he’ until I see that he has a feminine mind”.”

        That misconstrues my position. People usually aren’t thinking “I’ll just use ‘he’ until I see he has a feminine mind” (and I said “female”, not “feminine”, but whatever). But for that matter, they don’t see “Ah, he has a beard and looks like a man, so I’ll just use ‘he’ until I see that he has a vagina”. But upon learning she has a vagina (her aspect notwithstanding), they’ll be willing to change and use “she”, because while beards and looks when clothed are a generally reliable indicator of manhood and womanhood, penises and vaginas are much more reliable still, and so in case of conflict, it makes perfect sense to follow the latter, barring even better evidence. But that doesn’t mean that when people are making that assessment, they’re thinking that they’re using it provisionally.

        Now, as for animals and infants, and the mentally ill, then I would say the same: male sexual organs are excellent predictors of male brains/minds, and the same for females. So, of course it makes sense. Now, if a non-human animal has a penis but a female mind, should that be called a “she” or a “he”? Well, chances are people wouldn’t know about the mind, but assuming they did, I would say “she”.

        Regarding grammar books, actually, they do not say that the pronouns track femaleness and maleness in sexual organs over femaleness and maleness in minds. In fact, the people who wrote those books surely didn’t even consider those possibilities, and the books were not in the business of even attempting to weigh in on the matter.

        “That’s absurd. Heck the idea of a female brain/mind and whatnot didn’t come about until just recently, and so that cannot be a part of how pronouns are used in conventional English.”
        Actually, the idea that males and females have different minds is ancient – certainly far older than English -, and there is no good reason to think the meaning of the terms is not about that. In fact, it’s clear to me that I use the terms like that; I suggest that readers make their own assessments (I asked you to do so as well, but you didn’t accept the counterfactual scenarios).
        But that aside, of course the meaning of words often change over time. I don’t know that they did in this case, but even if the idea that males and females have different minds were not ancient, it would not be at all absurd to posit that it’s what the pronouns track. In fact, the counterfactual scenarios would still support that – in my usage, and the usages of others as I have observed.

        “Rather than entertain that, we should stick to what we knew when these pronouns were being formed and for a long time after they were solidified–sex.”
        Maybe they do track sex; it depends on what you mean by “sex”. But in any case, the part that you don’t seem to get is that I am sticking to what I knew. I’m using the pronouns just as before. I got the idea that they track minds by thinking about how I intuitively apply the terms to different hypothetical scenarios. I’m not changing the way I use them. At all.

  11. Catholic Hulk,

    Given your previous objections, I’m at this point not optimistic (more to the point: I suspect that you will raise some other objection I find puzzling), but still, I would ask you if you could consider scenario S4:

    “When we look at nearly other animals, like cats, dogs, horses, spiders, dolphins, etc., we see that males and females behave differently in some characteristic or typical ways (so, “typically female” behavior here is just what we have observed in at least nearly all cases. In particular, those are the behaviors that biologists usually say are the ways females and males behave, etc.).
    The reason for the typical behavioral differences that we observe between males and females of each species is not a difference in the brain or some other physical difference, but because for each species, there are two different kinds of non-physical things, which gives them minds with different behaviors.
    So, sexually female horses that behave in the way that we see as typical of female horses have a non-physical thing that we may call (purely to give it a name; please pick another name if you don’t like this one) (Non-physical thing, HORSE, 1), and male horses that behave in the way that we see as typical of male horses have a different non-physical thing, which we may call (Non-physical thing, HORSE, 2).
    That is what results in different behavior (and in minds) in other species too. For example, female cats that behave in ways we classify as typically female have a (Non-physical thing, CAT, 1), and male cats a (Non-physical thing, CAT, 2), and so on.
    The same applies to humans; i.e., the differences in behavior are due to the (Non-physical thing, HUMAN, 1) and (Non-physical thing, HUMAN, 2).
    Now, there is a person, Chris, who has XY chromosomes, functional male sexual organs (i.e., a penis, testicles; his organs produce sperm cells, semen, etc.), and a physical appearance usually associated with men. As a result, English speakers (at least, those not involved in activism involving gender and stuff) classify Chris as a man if they see Chris.
    At it happens, Chris has (Non-physical thing, HUMAN, 1). He does not have a (Non-physical thing, HUMAN, 2). As a result of having a (Non-physical thing, HUMAN, 1), Chris’s mind is like the mind of a human female in the way that is characteristic or typical, in terms of predispositions, desires, feelings, or whatever the differences between human male and female minds are.”

    I would like to ask you the following questions:

    a. Is Chris a woman, a man, or neither?
    b. [only if you answered “a woman”] Is it correct (in ordinary English) to say that she is a woman, or that he is a woman?

    My answers are:
    a. She’s a woman.
    b. As my answer to a. indicates, I think it’s correct in ordinary English to say that she’s a woman.

    To be clear, I hold that it’s correct to say that she’s a woman when talking about Chris, the person in counterfactual scenario S4. This is not a claim that it would be correct for the counterfactual people in the counterfactual scenario S4 to say that Chris is a woman, or to refer to her as “she”. After all, they do not know about (Non-physical thing, HUMAN, 1); what would be correct depends on the info available to them. But what the counterfactual people in the counterfactual scenario should do is not the issue, but rather, whether Chris is a man or a woman, and whether it would be correct for us (or anyone else reading this) to say “She’s a woman”, “He is a woman”, “He is a man”, etc.

  12. Regarding Angra’s scenarios, my intuitions tell me Chris is a man who behaves like a woman. I don’t see how someone could think Chris is a woman–it would be like saying red is blue. At least that’s how it would strike me. Maybe this is because the non-physical thing in the scenarios are posited only to ground behavioral differences. But the problem with this is that behaving like a woman doesn’t make one a woman.

  13. ML,

    As I see it, saying that Chris is a man would be like saying that red is blue. Perhaps, you and I simply do not have the same concepts of “man” and “woman”. When a person learns to use a word, they learn by examples of paradigmatic cases. But even if you and I learned with the same paradigmatic cases (which we didn’t, but let’s say we did to simplify), we may end up with different concepts, but with a vastly overlapping referent. We might be miscommunicating here.

  14. Catholic Hulk and ML,

    While the scenarios I presented are not dependent on any theory about the meaning of the terms, if I were to speculate about the meaning of “man”, and “woman”, I would say (also, by reflecting on my usage of the words on a number of counterfactual scenarios) that those words track minds as long as there are differences between female and male minds. On the other hand, if – as many people on the left believe – there is no such thing as a male mind or a female mind, then the concepts have fall back conditions, and they track something else instead. In that case, transgender people are all mistaken. But then again, I think it’s very improbable that there are no female and male minds, and I don’t know what percentage of transgender people are mistaken, from a low percentage to all (at least some are mistaken, given how a few people go from believing they’re women to men to women again, etc., but that might be a small percentage. Or not).

    Regarding Jenner, going by my intuitive grasp of the terms, if Jenner’s mind is a male mind (or more precisely, oif the part of the mind that is associated with female or male predispositions, behavior, etc., is a male mind), or at least mostly a male mind, then he is a man. On the other hand, if Jenner’s mind is a female mind, then she is a woman, even if she has male sexual and reproductive organs. If Jenner’s mind is somewhere in between, maybe there is no fact of the matter, or maybe more info would be needed (and I would have to say that a female mind would require that the relevant structure of the brain are also like those of normal females, but that’s not a required claim; whatever causes the differences between female and male minds will do).

    It might be, however, that some other people use the words “man” and “woman” differently. How the majority of English speakers use them is relevant, because meaning is determined by usage, though a majority isn’t always decisive. For example, if 40% of English speakers use the terms as I do, and 60% with a second meaning (or the other way around), then both usages would count as correct.
    Also, it seems to me that we should count Native English speakers, so I don’t count, but then again, for a number of reasons, I’d be extremely surprised if I were mistaken due to an error while learning English as a second language. That doesn’t seem to be the issue.

  15. Catholic Hulk and ML,

    Let me elaborate a little on how I see the matter, to prevent potential misunderstandings. Take Catholic Hulk’s example, Jenner.
    Now, Jenner has functional male sexual and reproductive organs, which gives a lot of evidence supporting the hypothesis that he is a man, since nearly all people with functional male sexual and reproductive organs are men. Lacking any other piece of evidence, I would conclude he’s a man.
    However, there is also evidence that counts against the hypothesis that he’s a man, and supports instead the hypothesis that she’s a woman, such as:

    1. Jenner reports that she’s a woman.
    Now, Jenner does have privileged epistemic access to Jenner’s internal mental states. This is not exclusively a matter of conscious introspective access (though there is that too), but the fact that a person has plenty of knowledge about their own mind that other people do not have. As a result, it might be that Jenner’s own classification as a woman is the result of her intuitive assessment of the matter and categorization, based on her observations of behavior in other people.
    Granted, Jenner might also be mistaken; there are other potential causes of this assessment, so it’s not a decisive matter as far as I can tell, but I can’t just dismiss evidence for self-reports, especially in light of other pieces of evidence, such as.

    2. Some psychological and neurological does indicate that there are some specific behavioral dispositions and even brain structures that are like those of females, in the case of at least some people with male sexual and reproductive organs who identify as women. Now, this sort of research is in its infancy, and there are objections, conflicting interpretations, etc., so the questions of whether (some, many, most, a few?) people with male sexual and reproductive organs who identify as women actually have female minds, or minds more female than male but something in between, etc., remain open as far as I can tell. These are complicated matters for future research in psychology and neurology. My impression is that to some extent, ideological bias seems to be making such research and discussion even more difficult than it would otherwise be – though evidence will probably win out in the end, regardless of where it leads. But it might take a lot of time.

    3. Some further evidence that knowledge of one’s own mind is used for the classification can be found in other cases too. For example, consider the case ML brought up in a previous reply to me (thread: http://rightlyconsidered.org/2016/09/09/transgenderisms-can-of-worms-age-race-and-species/ ), namely Pinker’s example of some boys who were castrated and raised as girls, Pinker: “All of them showed male patterns of rough-and-tumble play and had typically male attitudes and interests. More than half of them spontaneously declared they were boys, one when he was just five years old.”
    But how did those boys realized they were boys? (at least, the over 50% of them who did realize).
    It’s not because of their sexual organs, or because what their parents said, or how they treated them. It may well be that it was at least in part due to their minds (i.e., they saw the difference between the behavior of girls and boys, they intuitively grasped mental differences, and on that basis, they intuitively classified themselves as boys, using their own grasp of the words “girl” and “boy”), though it’s also a possibility that there were visible physical cues present – though the low levels of testosterone after birth due to castration very probably made any of those differences less pronounced -, so it’s a difficult matter to assess.

    In addition to the psychological and neurological questions, there are questions about semantics, i.e., about the meaning of words like “man”, “woman”, “male”, “female”, “he”, “she”, etc. I don’t have a full theory on the meaning of those words, and I don’t think anyone has a fully correct theory that provides any significant insight (though some approximations may be available); I think it’s extremely difficult (if possible at all) to come up with detailed sufficient and necessary conditions that hold in any counterfactual scenario. However, some knowledge can be gained by means of assessing a number of hypothetical scenarios.

    In my assessment, at least as I use the words, the question of whether Jenner is a man or a woman hinges on whether he has a male mind, or she has a female mind. But I don’t know which one it is. If there were no such thing as a female or a male mind, then I would say he’s a man. But as I mentioned, I think it’s very probable that just as there are male and female sexual and reproductive organs and other secondary non-mental characteristics, there are also female and male brains and minds (curiously, many people on the left deny that there are male brains and female brains, or (more directly) male and female minds, whereas they hold that Jenner is a woman; if I agreed with them on the issues of minds and brains, I would conclude that Jenner is a man, so I would disagree with them on that other point).

    Now, it seems (given ML’s reply) that ML may use the words in a different fashion. But I’ve seen assessments similar mine too.
    There may be a difference in the meaning of words like “man”, “woman”, etc., when used by some people vs. when used by others. If so and both usages are common, then maybe neither side is misusing the words, even if one or both have wrong theories about what the words mean and/or about the ontology of sex, gender, etc. Alternatively, some people on either side (or both) are biased because of their ideology, and are not applying the words properly.
    These are difficult matters, and complicating them further is the hostility so frequently coming from both left and right when someone says something that fails to line up with their own ideological commitments.

  16. I think Angra Mainyu’s last post is quite valuable, and moves us forward (BTW blog proprietors it would be useful to have numbering or times on posts so we could refer back).

    In that post, s/he appears to concede that gender ideology really does not make sense unless we impose an additional, hard-to-observe layer of biological essentialism on top of the readily observable biological difference between the physical sexes “men” (XY) and “women” (XX). This extra layer of biological essentialism posits that there is a “male mind” that is sometimes found in XX physical women, which does not correspond to their observable biological sex, and a “female mind” sometimes found in XY men.

    I think it’s very conceptually problematic, in numerous ways, to posit this extra layer of biological essentialism. It strikes me as a mystification, and one that is likely to constrain the freedom of both men and women to explore the full range of social roles available to them as physical males and females. There’s little evidence for it; Angra Mainyu relies heavily on self-reports and behavioral reports, but we know that both men and women are capable of a wide variety of behaviors and attitudes that do not fit the social stereotypes that may be contingently associated with their physical sex. Ascribing an essentialist biological difference to such behavioral differentiation in fact reinforces the damaging effects of social stereotypes — e.g. a boy who wants to learn ballet and glitter or dresses must be “really” a woman in some essentialist way, rather than a male who has non-stereotypical behavior, and may be encouraged to get physically harmful and damaging quasi-medical treatments.

    Further, to the extent that the physical sexes really do differ deeply in their experiences and life situation, members of each physical sex may be encouraged to fantasize that they are “actually” a member of the other sex in ways that can be harmful to themselves or others. Bruce Jenner does not strike me as similar to other women his age that I have known, but instead strikes me as acting out a very male fantasy of exoticized womanhood. One might hypothesize that male to female transsexuals are likely to have more male behavioral patterns, including the far higher levels of physical/sexual aggression characteristic of males, that may make it dangerous to permit them access to segregated female spaces. etc.

    • Anonymous,

      Let me clarify I’m not conceding anything. Rather, I’m expressing a view I already had.
      Also, I’m not sure what you mean by “biological essentialism”, but it’s not particularly difficult to observe male and female minds – not more than observing minds, anyway. It’s harder than observing sexual organs, or secondary sexual characteristics for sure. But The fact is that we observe female and male differentiated behavior (and so minds, and brains) in pretty much any other species of animals with two sexes; in particular, we observe that in pretty much all mammals, including other primates. Now, humans evolved from some of those animals with female and male minds (and brains). It’s extremely improbable that those differences would just go away in humans. While human brains are different and changed in many ways, it would require a lot of selective pressure to get rid of the differences between male and female brains during evolution. That pressure simply wasn’t there, because pre-human societies also showed – like human societies, like other primate societies – differences between male and female behavior, so at best, the pressure was to change those differences as other social conditions changed, not to eliminate them. I would be extremely surprising if there were no female or male minds/brains.

      That said, studying brains to find differences is pretty hard work. It’s even more difficult when there are social conditions that work against doing research in much of the world, as researchers risk being condemned as sexists or whatever. Research will continue, though, even if hampered to some extent – if anything, researchers in China will probably not be similarly hampered. But regardless of the pace of the research, that the differences are there is again extremely probable (Christian and Muslims usually agree that there are mental differences, even if they usually do so on other grounds, i.e., not due to evolutionary and psychological considerations; more on the latter below).

      Apart from evolutionary considerations, there are clear indications of different behavior observed across different societies. An obvious difference is that males are overall more prone to taking risks, to break rules and to use violence – all things evolution also lead us to expect. Granted, some people claim those are the results of social conditions. But it seems extremely improbable, especially given the cross-culturality of such differences. And those are just some examples. Even the brief quote from Pinker that ML brought up in the other thread shows such differences in behaviors (and so in minds, and of course in brains; but that differences in minds require differences in brains is a side issue here; what matters is the differences in minds).

      To be clear, there is nothing in what I said about constraining the full range of social roles available to people, regardless of sex or gender. I’m not remotely suggesting that, say, if males are more prone to use violence or take risks, then females should be excluded from the military. If a female wants to be in the military and can do the job as required (which can be determined by objective standards), then there is no good reason to say that she should not. No matter what the differences turn out to be, I’m in no way implying or suggesting that people who do not conform to the norm – whether transgender people or, say, people who aren’t transgender and whose mind and body are generally a match, but with a few (not so many) characteristics of the opposite sex. Whatever floats their boats is my policy.

      Also, there is nothing in what I said about whether males and females are capable of a wide range of behaviors. It’s one thing to be more predisposed to engage in some behavior or another. It’s a very different one not being capable of engaging in the behavior one is less predisposed to doing. We may consider Pinker’s quote on that again: “All of them showed male patterns of rough-and-tumble play and had typically male attitudes and interests. More than half of them spontaneously declared they were boys, one when he was just five years old.””.
      There is such thing as “male patterns of rough-and-tumble play and had typically male attitudes and interests”. This is not to say that females are not capable of engaging in such activities. It’s not even the case that they’re never interested in them; but interests do seem to vary, and again it would be extremely surprising if they didn’t.
      There is pretty good evidence of sex-based differences in minds (including the evidence resulting from evolutionary considerations), but the evidence in transgender cases is, on the other hand, sketchy at this point.

      I do not at all believe that because a boy wants to learn ballet, he must really be a woman; the differences between the minds of males and females are probably many and generally more subtle than that. That someone wants to learn ballet would be extremely poor evidence (negligible) that the person is a woman, once one factors in that the person in question has male sexual organs. Self-reports are much better, because they may well involve an intuitive assessment of behavioral cues, on the basis of which an assignment of gender is made. But they’re still not decisive on the basis of the available evidence.

      Regarding Jenner, I have to admit I’ve only read about them. Perhaps, if I had more direct info I could reach a conclusion. Or perhaps not. But it’s not the issue; I considered Jenner’s case just because Catholic Hulk brought it up so it was handy, but the issue at hand is present generally in the case of transgender people.

  17. Interesting discussion!

    I don’t have time to comment point-by-point, but I’d like to leave some quick, tentative thoughts:

    – Suppose X is born without a brain, thus without a mind–does X have a sex? If the doctor said “X is a boy (or a girl)”, is the doctor misusing “boy” or “girl”? To my mind, he isn’t–he’s using “boy” or “girl” in a completely natural way.

    – A related scenario–even before X’s brain/mind develops, doctors can tell what X’s sex *is*. It seems perfectly natural to say “X is a boy (or a girl)” in this case, and it seems downright confused to say “X will be a boy (or a girl)”.

    – The concept of sex seems to have no necessary connection with anything mental–the concept even applies to mindless organisms, such as plants. Rather, the concept seems tied to anatomical differences, specifically anatomical differences relevant to reproduction. This explains why we can apply to concept to plants. And since, when we apply the concept to humans, we are presumably applying the same concept (and not another concept using the same word), we can conclude that human sex has no necessary connection with anything mental.

    – No one would classify the brain as a sexual organ, just as no one would classify the brain as a digestive organ, but everyone knows the reproductive organs are sexual organs. This is surprising if sex is grounded in the brain, but it is unsurprising if sex is grounded in reproductive capacities.

    – Why would transgenders feel compelled to get sex change operations if the reproductive organs had no crucial importance to sex? It seems even transgenders intuitively sense that sex has a vital connection to the reproductive organs.

    • ML,

      In re: Your scenarios, let me first point out that I didn’t take a stance on the meaning of the word “sex” – or rather, I said it was ambiguous in this context. I was talking about the pronouns “he” and “she” and the words “man” and “woman”, in their ordinary senses.

      “– Suppose X is born without a brain, thus without a mind–does X have a sex? If the doctor said “X is a boy (or a girl)”, is the doctor misusing “boy” or “girl”? To my mind, he isn’t–he’s using “boy” or “girl” in a completely natural way.”
      X may still have sexual organs, so in one of the senses of sex, they do (I think “sex” has more than one usage, and the different usages are relevant in this context).
      As for the second question, that’s an good one. I’m undecided between the following alternatives, though I lean towards 2.:

      1. That’s neither a boy nor a girl, in the most common sense of the words since it has no mind, though he’s not actually misusing the terms, since “boy” or “girl” does not entail having a brain (“entail” using only logic and the meaning of the words.
      2. That’s neither a boy nor a girl, in the most common sense of the words since it has no mind. But in context, it’s clear the doctor (unless she believes that minds are based on souls, etc.) means something else in that context.
      3. That is a boy or a girl. There is such thing as fall back conditions: for example, I think a person with a female mind is a woman, but if it turns out (improbably) that there is no such thing as a female or a male mind, then I would say that a person with functional female sexual and reproductive organs is a woman. Maybe a similar phenomenon (even if not the same) is happening here: without a difference in the mind, what makes it a boy or a girl is the sexual organs.

      “– A related scenario–even before X’s brain/mind develops, doctors can tell what X’s sex *is*. It seems perfectly natural to say “X is a boy (or a girl)” in this case, and it seems downright confused to say “X will be a boy (or a girl)”.”
      Yes, they do have a sex in a common sense. My arguments were not about the word “sex”, which I think has more than one meaning.

      “– The concept of sex seems to have no necessary connection with anything mental–the concept even applies to mindless organisms, such as plants. ”
      There seems to be more than one concept of “sex”, and sure, a common one applies to plants. But “woman” or “man” don’t.

      “Rather, the concept seems tied to anatomical differences, specifically anatomical differences relevant to reproduction. This explains why we can apply to concept to plants. And since, when we apply the concept to humans, we are presumably applying the same concept (and not another concept using the same word), we can conclude that human sex has no necessary connection with anything mental.”
      As I said, I think there likely is more than one concept involved. Moreover, concepts sometimes (I think very often) have fall back conditions. But in any case, this is not part of what I was arguing for. I was talking about “he”, “she”, “woman”, and “man” (and to some extent “boy” and “girl”, so the other one is an interesting example).

      That said, I will argue that the concept of sex (while not the focus of my previous arguments) also has no necessary connection with any reproductive capacity, or sexual organs. For example, consider the case of the castrated boys in Pinker’s book. They do not have male sexual organs (though they had them in their early stages, but no longer), and they do not have – and never did have – any reproductive capacity.

      “– No one would classify the brain as a sexual organ, just as no one would classify the brain as a digestive organ, but everyone knows the reproductive organs are sexual organs. This is surprising if sex is grounded in the brain, but it is unsurprising if sex is grounded in reproductive capacities.”
      Actually, I wouldn’t classify all of the reproductive organs as sexual organs. Rather, I would say some reproductive organs (e.g., penis, vagina) are sexual organs, but others (e.g., uterus) aren’t.
      That aside, I would not classify the brain as a sexual organ, either, though it is surely involved in sex.

      “– Why would transgenders feel compelled to get sex change operations if the reproductive organs had no crucial importance to sex? It seems even transgenders intuitively sense that sex has a vital connection to the reproductive organs.”
      Those who want that seem to do so (usually) because they feel they got the wrong anatomy. It’s what you would expect if someone, say, has a female mind but male sexual organs. But the evidence from the behavior of transgender people actually supports that the concepts “woman” and “man” track minds, at least as they intuitively understand them (even if they got the wrong theory). Usually, they claim (even before surgery, or even if they don’t want surgery) that they are a man or a woman, and even that they realized they were a woman/man, not following the sexual organs classification that you describe.
      Many also make claims along the lines of being a woman in the body of a man, etc.
      If the concept of sex, as you say, is grounded in reproductive capacities – and I think one such concept seems related to that, or to means of reproduction -, and “man” and “woman” track sex in that sense, then it would be difficult to make sense of those statements. What do you think they mean when they make such claims?

  18. I don’t see how the castrated boys in Pinker’s book have no reproductive capacity–they do, it’s just that the capacity is frustrated due to surgery. By contrast, rocks don’t have any reproductive capacity.

    In any case, it occurs to me that perhaps the following scenario may make your semantic point more easily than the Chris scenario: in the film “The Hot Chick”, Rob Schneider’s character switches bodies with Rachel McAdams’ character. Watching the film, it seems perfectly natural to use “he” when referring to Schneider’s character, even though he’s in a woman’s body.

    I’m not sure what to make of this scenario, but right now I suspect the usage of “he” in this unusual scenario is still tied to the fact that Schneider’s character is originally (pre-body-switch) male.

    (I apologize for the lack of thoroughness in my reply, I lack time for more detailed replies. Rest assured, I am reflecting on the points you raise.)

  19. ML,

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply; I’ve been thinking about your points too.
    Regarding the boys, I’m not sure I get how you’re using “capacity”. Is it something like “potential”?

    If I’m getting that right, maybe the following example will be of interest:

    Source:
    https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16934-girl-with-y-chromosome-sheds-light-on-maleness/

    So, she’s a 7 year old girl, with normal female sexual organs as far as scientists can tell, except for the fact that her chromosomes are XY, and of course that is also the case of the cells in her sexual organs.
    It’s not yet clear whether her ovaries will manage to produce viable eggs, but they might. Given that she has female hormones and so far she seems to have developed as a normal girl, it’s extremely probable that she’s got a female mind too – so, the test I suggest would say she’s a girl. I would also say she’s female.

    Wouldn’t you say she’s both female and a girl (assuming she behaves like a normal girl) regardless of whether she ends up having female reproductive capacity?

    Moreover, if I’m getting the way you’re using “capacity” right, then it seems to me the embryo that became her had male reproductive capacity, which was frustrated by a mutation in a gene that prevented normal development – which would have been male. We can consider a hypothetical scenario in which a similar embryo is treated with some future tech, and eventually a male develops (sexually, mentally, etc.).

    On the other hand, I guess you might instead say that she has female reproductive capacity, frustrated by having XY chromosomes. The term “capacity” seems to be ambiguous, and I’m not sure how you’re using it.

    Regarding the movie, I haven’t seen it, but that sounds like a good example. Maybe fiction is a better source of examples, as you suggest.
    On that note, I think the following 2 examples from “Star Trek” might be of interest (neither of the characters has any capacity for sexual reproduction, in any sense of “capacity” one might think of; also, they have no “original” bodies).

    1. The Doctor (from “Voyager”).
    http://memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/Emergency_Medical_Holographic_program

    2. Rayna Kapec (from the original Star Trek series)
    http://memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/Rayna_Kape

    I would refer to the former as “he” and the latter as “she”. Further, I’d say he’s a man, and she’s a woman. Even if they’re not biologically human, they’re psychologically (mostly) human.

    • I’d like to add some details in regard to the Doctor from “Star Trek: Voyager”

      1. He’s an AI, so he has no male brain. But he does seem to have a male mind, because he was designed to be psychologically like his creator – a man.
      2. In one episode, he mentions having a son (after being for decades on a planet), but it’s not explained how that happened. However, that was almost certainly due to adoption or something like that. It is clear that he cannot reproduce sexually, since he has no reproductive organs.

  20. If we’re talking about the history of the English language, I think it’s important to note that “they/them” were used as gender-neutral singular pronouns until the 19th century.

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