Part 1: Responding to Transgender Philosophers – “Talia Mae Bettcher”

I recently read some work of a transgender philosopher, one who goes by the name Talia Mae Bettcher. In his essay entitled Trans-Identities and First-Person Authority , Bettcher challenges the definitional account of a woman or term ‘woman’. I’d like to respond to him.

This will be Part 1 in a series of posts toward some transgender philosophers and their ideas.

Bettcher writes:

In analyzing the semantic content of gender terms such as “woman,” a first move is to follow the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “woman” as “adult, female, human being.” Here, “female” grounds the concept of woman in physical sex, leaving the exact meaning of “female” unspecified. The term “female,” however, is hard to determine. The OED defines it as “belonging to the sex which bears offspring” (as opposed to “belonging to the sex which begets offspring”). Yet a person who cannot bear offspring can still belong to the female sex. On the basis of what criterion does this person “belong to the sex which generally bears offspring”?

The answer rests with the distinction between and doctrine of potency and act. Let me explain.

Females, in being female, have a potential to bear offspring. But that doesn’t mean that every female can exercise their potential to bring forth a child. For example, sometimes injury, disease or immaturity prevents a female from being able to exercise their potential. Yet even in these cases of barrenness, these persons do not lose their femaleness, because they’re still the kind of thing that can bear offspring – their bodies point to that end. To bear children, they’d need to mature or perhaps have their natural, reproductive function restored through some sort of medicine or medical procedure.

In contrast, no male has that potential: Our inability to bear offspring isn’t a consequence of disease or injury, nor is it a consequence of developmental immaturity. Instead, our inability to bear children is grounded in the absence of that potential – it’s not in our nature to do so as males. We are not the kind of thing that can bear offspring.  Our reproductive potentials are pointed toward the production of sperm, and that is a function that no female has, nor could a female ever have it, for that potential is not a part of their nature.

To read more about potency and act, see the work of Edward Feser. Feser develops the ideas better than I do here. Please read it. For a defense of grounding sex in sexual function, see here and here.

Bettcher continues:

Harold Garfinkel calls the everyday, pre-theoretical conception of sex the natural attitude and those who hold it, normals. In this view, there are two naturally mutually exclusive, exhaustive, and invariant sexes, and membership within a sex is determined by genitalia. Presumably, genitalia and other aspects of the reproductive system are taken together without criterial distinction. In reality, however, while features such as genitalia, karyotype, and gonads generally coincide, it is unclear what to do in cases in which the features conflict. Which feature determines sex membership?

Sex is inferred from the presence of gentalia because gentalia is an extremely reliable indicator of sex. In those few cases of deformation or disease, where there seems to be a mixed bag of physical sex characteristics, determination of sex can be difficult or even unattainable. But I’m unsure why this would anything more than an epistemological roadblock to the determination of the sex for a very, very small group of people. If it is, the author needs to state why.

Even experts do not agree how to define sex. For example, Joan Roughgarden writes, “among animals that reproduce sexually there is near-universal binary between very small (sperm) and large (egg), so that male and female can be defined biologically as the production of small and large gametes, respectively.” Obviously this is a deflationary view, restricting binarism to gamete size, reducing sex to the sheer production of one or the other gamete. By contrast, genitalia, gonads, and kary- otype all contribute to the determination of sex in Anne Fausto-Sterling’s proposal of five sexes. So it seems there are hard cases, and no meditation on the concept of “female” will yield a definitive answer. Instead, it seems there are different discursive practices (legal, medical, scientific, everyday) in which the criteria for sex determination vary.

Hmm, OK. Experts disagree on the definition of sex. So what? Experts also disagree on the definition of species and even on the definition of life and death itself. Experts also disagree on the definition of goodness, and so on. But that is not grounds to think that these things don’t exist, nor is it grounds to think that they don’t have a knowable nature.

I’m unsure where the argument here is, to be frank.

Anyways, he writes:

One problem for a definitional account of “woman” is that the term “sex” does not itself seem very easy to define. A second problem is that this definitional account omits the cultural role of woman, and the conceptions and practices related to that role. We can imagine a world where the cultural roles normally assigned on the basis of sex are inverted: females dress “like men,” males dress “like women”; stereotypical traits and behaviors are assigned to each group. Here, it isn’t clear how to apply the terms “man” and “woman.” Does physical sex or cultural role determine category membership? If this is a hard case (I believe it is), then cultural roles (and related practices and conceptions) must somehow be connected to the semantic content of gender terms like “woman.”

But why should such definitional accounts of a “woman” or woman-ness include more robust, cultural understandings? I don’t see why they always should. In fact, I think that they shouldn’t always include that. Here’s why.

Some definitional accounts are intended to capture the core or essence of woman or woman-ness, that which precedes culture and social contingencies. And we should be concerned with that core or essence because it is important to understand what women are apart from culture, and also what unites them as a kind and differentiates them from anything else. The Greeks taught us that these accounts constitute knowledge, and knowledge is still a good thing.

In any case, we could say that males dress like “like women” and females dress “like men”, but here we are often using a different understanding of men and women, one that is contextualized to a particular time and culture. This use taps into our cultural connotations of men and women and narrows the extension of the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ to something based upon sex and our cultural expressions of each sex within a certain time and place.

For example, in an utterance such as “males dress like women these days”, the term ‘woman’ might have a restricted extension to adult females in Southwest United States in 1950 while connoting whatever attire adult females were expected to wear within that culture and time. The utterer does not mean to refer to all adult females, such as those in Asia and Africa, but just those adult females who are local and within the confines of his culture. But in other contexts, if we use the term ‘women’ to say something such as ‘women are two-breasted’ or ‘women have the capacity to bear offspring’, then the extension of the term ‘women’ is all adult females regardless of time, place and culture.

Nothing about this account seems to be unclear, nor does it challenge the more basic, definitional account of a woman or the term “woman”. This account only gives us good reason to think that language is complex and that terms can be used with narrower extensions and have varying connotations for speakers in different times, cultures and contexts. Language can be confusing. That’s not a new revelation.

So while I grant that some uses of the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’ can involve culture, there are still other uses that do not. In fact, it seems to me that the most basic and shared conception of men and women is one that has nothing to do with culture and is restricted to sex. Bettcher seems to miss this fact, thinking that we mean or refer to the same thing each time we use the terms ‘men’ or ‘women’. But we don’t. That should be obvious.

I submit that the definitional account remains unscathed by this philosopher.


    • Why would I turn to Gagnon for matters concerning potency and act? Or any of the other relevant philosophical matters here?

  1. Crazy me. I thought the identifying markers that determine gender were the arrangement of chromosomes. You can put a plaid skirt on a Scot and he’s still a he. You can put a pant suit and tie on a Gucci model and a simple blood test will still confirm she is a she. The problem isn’t in how we identify or define gender – that is established in biology. No, the problem is disordered, mis-wired brains. It’s also called mental illness. But in this touchy-feely age one can expect some blow back for pointing that out. I think this derailment was birthed with the 1980s campaign – ‘you’re okay – I’m okay’.

    • You probably wouldn’t because you don’t seem to care much about truth, but for those who wish to reason according to the Truth, Feser is a Thomist/Aristotelian therefore he never suggests a role for Scripture in his philosophical epistemology. In point of fact he can’t or else he wouldn’t be what he is.

      As you’re surely aware epistemology, metaphysics and ethics are not independent of one another but influence each other. Thus because Feser’s epistemology begins in the intellectual sewer of unaided, allegedly autonomous human reason we may confidently conclude his metaphysic is also inevitably crap.

      Again not that you care, but some of your readers may.

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