Philosophy Phridays – Feminist Metaphysics

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Philosophy Phridays is a series where each Friday, I go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, click on “random entry,” and then write about whatever comes up. This week’s random entry is Feminist Metaphysics.

Metaphysics, broadly speaking, is the study of what exists, what those existent things are like, and how they came to exist. It is the most fundamental branch of philosophy. It tries to find the answers to the things that are simply background assumptions in all other fields of inquiry such as causation, free will, identity, and substance. To quote the article, “It should thus not come as a surprise that there could be a specifically feminist metaphysics, where the question of prime importance is to what extent the central concepts and categories of metaphysics, in terms of which we make sense of our reality, could be value laden in ways that are particularly gendered.”

In other words, feminist metaphysics is about whether sex and gender are real or simply social constructs (we’ll ignore the question of in what sense social constructs are real for another time). It is about sussing out what are brute facts about the world and what are cultural concepts. Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, it is about figuring out to what extent we are stuck with our current view of the world, and in what ways we can change it.

This is a hugely important topic as it impacts everyone, but especially a bit more than half the population. Metaphysics is also the most difficult subject to make progress in. Sadly, in the general public’s mind, the difficulty outweighs the importance and people outside the field often fail to respect feminist studies (or racial studies).

Two quotes from Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex have, in many ways, shaped the debate. The first is, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” The other is, “He is the Subject, he is the absolute – she is the Other.” The first quote gets to the fact that many (if not most) of our concepts are socially constructed. When talking about sex and gender, we usually split everything in two, male and female, women and men. The feminist metaphysician asks whether these ideas correspond to the ultimate reality, and if so, how. What about intersex people? Are they male or female or should there be a third, or a fourth, sex? Do women need to have female anatomy?

Given those questions, they can ask further questions like what makes a woman a woman. There are many different plausible answers to this, but many have decided that a gender is sometimes an idea and sometimes an object. As an idea it is sort of like a right. Rights don’t exist apart from a certain historical context and society. Neither do women. So a woman is simply a being who performs the role of a woman. As an object, we talk of gender being constructed. It is what it is because of the way it is classified. Think of insects being insects as opposed to mammals or fish. As these ideas are further exposed, we come to see that things could (and probably should) be very different.

Beauvoir’s second quote gets into the relational aspect of gender. For most of human history, women only exist in relation to men. Men are the category and women are the humans who don’t fit that category. In other words, we have not been able to define a woman without reference to men. I think it’s clear how we get to normative views that elevate men and subjugate women.

The reason these questions matter is that before feminism, before people started asking these questions, everyone just assumed that sex and gender distinctions, and everything that flowed from them, were natural. They then used the appeal to nature (even though it’s a fallacy) to say that a patriarchal society is good or right. Feminist metaphysics has disrupted the whole operation. It is no longer clear that sex and gender are natural distinctions and whether they are or not, they are clearly value-laden in a way that they don’t have to be. That’s progress.

This account is so just barely scratching the surface that no mark can be seen without a microscope. There have been, and will be, many books written on the subject. I hope I stated the general ideas fairly, and maybe it peaked your interest. But it’s such a big and important subject, I’m afraid I might not have. This week’s encyclopedia entry says it much better than I ever could.

Haslanger, Sally and Ásta, “Feminist Metaphysics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

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