Gender Nominalism

Thanks to Caitlyn Jenner’s appearance in Vanity Fair, the issue of gender identity has become a mainstream topic. While I will not address the specific subject of Caitlyn Jenner, I will discuss the matter of gender nominalism and competition. This will, however, require some small amount of groundwork.

One of the classic problems in philosophy is the problem of universals. Put a bit roughly, the problem is determining in virtue of what (if anything) a particular a is of the type F. To use a concrete example, the question would be “in virtue of what is Morris a cat?” Philosophers tend to split into two main camps when answering this question. One camp, the nominalists, embrace nominalism. Put a bit simply, this is the view that what makes a particular a an F is that we name it an F. For example, what makes Morris a cat is that we call (or name) him a cat.

The other camp, the realists, take the view that there is a metaphysical reality underlying a being of the type F. Put another way, it is not just a matter of naming or calling something an F that makes it an F. In terms of what makes a be of the type F, different realist philosophers give different answers. Plato famously claimed that it is the Form of F that makes individual F things F. Or, to use an example, it is the Form of Beauty that makes all the beautiful things beautiful. And, presumably, the Form of ugly that makes the ugly things ugly. Others, such as myself, accept these odd things called tropes (not to be confused with the tropes of film and literature) that serve a similar function.

While realists believe in the reality of some categories, they generally accept that there are some categories that are not grounded in features of objective reality. As such, most realists do accept that the nominalists are right about some categories. To use an easy example, being a Democrat (or Republican) is not grounded in metaphysics, but is a social construct—the political party is made up and membership is a matter of social convention rather than metaphysical reality. Or, put another way, there is presumably no Form of Democrat (or Republican).

When it comes to sorting out sex and gender, the matter is rather complicated and involves (or can involve) four or more factors.  One is the anatomy (plumbing) of the person, which might (or might not) correspond to the second, which is the genetic makeup of the person (XX, XY, XYY, etc.). The third factor is the person’s own claimed gender identity which might (or might not) correspond to the fourth, which is the gender identity assigned by other people.

While anatomy and physiology are adjustable (via chemicals and surgery), they are objective features of reality—while a person can choose to alter her anatomy, merely changing how one designates one’s sex does not change the physical features. While a complete genetic conversion (XX to XY or vice versa) is not yet possible, it is probably just a matter of time. However, even when genetics can be changed on demand, a person’s genetic makeup is still an objective feature of reality—a person cannot (yet) change his genes merely by claiming a change in designation.

Gender is, perhaps, quite another matter. Like many people, I used to use the terms “sex” and “gender” interchangeably—I still recall (running) race entry forms using one or the other and everyone seemed to know what was meant. However, while I eventually learned that the two are not the same—a person might have one biological sex and a different gender. While familiar with the science fiction idea of a multitude of genders, I eventually became aware that this was now a thing in the actual world.

Obviously, if gender is taken as the same as sex (which is set by anatomy or genetics), then gender would be an objective feature of reality and not subject to change merely by a change in labeling (or naming). However, gender has been largely (or even entirely) split from biological sex (anatomy or genetics) and is typically cast in terms of being a social construct. This view can be labeled as “gender nominalism.” By this I mean that gender is not an objective feature of reality, like anatomy, but a matter of naming, like being a Republican or Democrat.

Some thinkers have cast gender as being constructed by society as a whole, while others contend that individuals have lesser or greater ability to construct their own gender identities. People can place whatever gender label they wish upon themselves, but there is still the question of the role of others in that gender identity. The question is, then, to what degree can individuals construct their own gender identities? There is also the moral question about whether or not others are morally required to accept such gender self-identification. These matters are part of the broader challenge of identity in terms of who defines one’s identity (and what aspects) and to what degree are people morally obligated to accept these assignments (or declarations of identity).

My own view is to go with the obvious: people are free to self-declare whatever gender they wish, just as they are free to make any other claim of identity that is a social construct (which is a polite term for “made up”). So, a person could declare that he is a straight, Republican, Rotarian, fundamentalist, Christian, man. Another person could declare that she is a lesbian, Republican, Masonite, Jewish woman. And so on. But, of course, there is the matter of getting others to recognize that identity. For example, if a person identifies as a Republican, yet believes in climate change, argues for abortion rights, endorses same-sex marriage, supports Obama, favors tax increases, supports education spending, endorse the minimum wage, and is pro-environment, then other Republicans could rightly question the person’s Republican identity and claim that that person is a RINO (Republican in Name Only). As another example, a biological male could declare identity as a woman, yet still dress like a man, act like a man, date women, and exhibit no behavior that is associated with being a woman. In this case, other women might (rightly?) accuse her of being a WINO (Woman in Name Only).

In cases in which self-identification has no meaningful consequences for other people, it certainly makes sense for people to freely self-identify. In such cases, claiming to be F makes the person F, and what other people believe should have no impact on that person being F. That said, people might still dispute a person’s claim. For example, if someone self-identifies as a Trekkie, yet knows little about Star Trek, others might point out that this self-identification is in error. However, since this has no meaningful consequences, the person has every right to insist on being a Trekkie, though doing so might suggest that he is about as smart as a tribble.

In cases in which self-identification does have meaningful consequences for others, then there would seem to be moral grounds (based on the principle of harm) to allow restrictions on such self-identification. For example, if a relatively fast male runner wanted to self-identify as a woman so “she” could qualify for the Olympics, then it would seem reasonable to prevent that from happening. After all, “she” would bump a qualified (actual) woman off the team, which would be wrong. Because of the potential for such harms, it would be absurd to accept that everyone is obligated to accept the self-identification of others.

The flip side of this is that others should not have an automatic right to deny the self-identification of others. As a general rule, the principle of harm would seem to apply here as well—the others would have the right to impose in cases in which there is actual harm and the person would have the right to refuse the forced identity of others when doing so would inflict wrongful harm. The practical challenge is, clearly enough, working out the ethics of specific cases.


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  1. Doesn’t the very concept of a RINO show that there is a difference between thinking something is a social construct and being a nominalist about something? A RINO is someone who is a Republican in name only. If nominalism about Republicans is true, then such a person simply is a Republican, and there is nothing else for those “true” Republicans to complain about. Even if ideology isn’t required to be a Republican, which, legally, is true, since all you need to do is sign a voter registration card to be one, it’s still not true that having the name is what makes someone a Republican. Signing the card and submitting it legally is what makes someone a Republican. The social facts that constitute someone’s being a Republican are therefore not just the fact of having a name assigned. So it’s not the same thing to consider something a social construction and to be a nominalist about that thing.

  2. s. wallerstein

    I don’t see why I should accept the self-identification of others.

    Let’s say that John says that he is a great poet. I may not agree. I may not even consider what he writes to be poetry.

    Let’s say Jill says that she is an agreeable person. I may not consider her to be agreeable.

    Let’s say that Jack says that his basic motives are helping others and making this a better world. I may consider that his real motives are getting people to admire him and getting funding from well-intentioned, but naive others.

    Now if Bruce or Caitlyn Jenner wants people to consider her/him as a woman, that’s his/her right, but I see no ethical reason for me to go along with his/her self-identification.

    That I don’t necessarily go along with her self-identification in no way justifies my discriminating against him/her or insulting him/her or marginating him/her and it seems that ordinary politeness and decency dictate that when around him/her I treat him/her as she/he wants to be treated insofar as that is possible (I let him/her use the lady’s bathroom in my mansion, etc.), but that has nothing to do with how I really see /himher.

  3. Gender Nominalism | Drinking Hemlock - pingback on June 10, 2015 at 4:26 pm
  4. Jeremy Pierce,

    Drawing a distinction between a legal process and simple naming nominalism is certainly reasonable. As you note, a person cannot simply say “I am a Republican” and be a registered voter. However, it could be argued that the naming process of nominalism need not be restricted to simple, literal naming. That is, there can be a naming ritual that is conducted to get others to accept the application of the name. So, as you note, a person can name herself a Republican but would need to go through the ritual of the card to get others to accept her Republican identity.

    This could be countered by arguing that the social facts have some sort of realism that precludes the nominalist label from applying. One avenue might be found in Hobbes-he argued for the existence of political bodies. So, we could accept a form of social realism as distinct from metaphysical realism. So, being a Republican could be a real made-up property within a social made up reality. That is, an unreal real.

  5. s.wallerstein,

    That is certainly a reasonable point. While a case could be made against not discriminating against people, there does not seem to be a prima facie moral obligation to accept a person’s self identification. Using your example, if you simply refuse to accept that Caitlyn is a woman, but do nothing to harm her, then it would seem to be rather difficult to argue you have engaged in immoral behavior.

    Some might argue that your refusal to accept her self-identification harms her, but cashing out the harm would seem problematic. Going with your example, if you refuse to accept that John is a poet, but otherwise do not insult/discriminate/etc. him, then it seems hard to specify what harm you have done him. Now, if someone can specify the harm done solely by not accepting the identification, then a case could be made about the immorality of refusal. Someone could, of course, argue that a refusal to accept a self-identification would unavoidably lead to harms. For example, it could be argued that by refusing to accept that Caitlyn is a woman, one would be marginalizing her, insulting her, and being rude to her.

  6. An outlaw had embossed on his tombstone: Be who you are, because if you ain’t who you are, you are are who you ain’t.

    For universals Plato thought of the principles of Beauty; the Good, etc. Today we are more apt to think in terms of energy; forces; mathematics or numbers. Universals could be thought as the principles which create qualities.

    If the one force, manifesting as positive, vibrated into a negative force: Eve, or Adam’s rib, (rib means vibration; two could evolve into additional forces. If the pattern was five forces, which appears to be the case; five elements; five senses; five extensions of the human form, etc. It would not be unlikely that there would be an evolution into five gender identifications.

    It is especially problematic when the gender identification does not correspond to the physical form. If we are dealing with forces not choices, little that is given is a choice.

    Whatever the case,regular women today want to be defined by more than come-hider outfits and nail polish. They also want to be perceived as having the ability to change a tire or fly an airplane, if they so desire.

  7. I’ve never been comfortable with metaphysical realism or nominalism. I’ve long been persuaded by Popper’s ideas about first, second and third worlds where even fictional things have real features and you can be right or wrong when discussing them. For instance, you would be wrong if you claim that a unicorn has no horn. I also like Searle’s theory of social reality. If the social convention for transgendered people is to call them by the gender with which they identify, then they are the gender with which they identify and I am wrong if I call them something different.

  8. s. wallerstein


    Calling people by what social convention dictates is, in general, a good idea. However, if social convention dictates that I call a 45 year old shoe shine person a “boy”, it’s not a good idea.

    In the case of transgender people, they’ve been screwed over enough so as that I’m not going to add to their misery and thus, I’ll call them what they want.

    However, my point isn’t what I call Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner or even how I treat him/her (I let him/her use the lady’s room), but how I consider him/her and I don’t consider him/her to be a woman.

    I’m not sure what I consider Bruce/Caitlyn to be nor am I sure what I consider myself to be nor do I think that fixing what I am or what you are is particularly fruitful. We’re a mess, we’re in flux, etc. As Sartre, among others points out, we’re never X in the sense that a stone is a stone.

    In the case of Bruce/Caitlyn I see his/her transformation, not as a great liberating gesture, but as one more instance of a culture where everything can be bought, even a new gender. Wouldn’t the money wasted on his/her transformation have been better invested in helping poor women, maybe pregnant ones, since the U.S. has a worse infant mortality than, surprise, Cuba (where supposedly nothing works)?

    I have nothing against Bruce/Caitlyn putting on a dress, high heels and lipstick, by the way.

  9. In cases in which self-identification has no meaningful consequences for other people, it certainly makes sense for people to freely self-identify. In such cases, claiming to be F makes the person F, and what other people believe should have no impact on that person being F.”

    Is this some kind of appeal to algebra?

    You know…When people working in the field of what their institution labels as philosophy, employ algebra to make a point, I’m sure some are convinced.

    The people who are most upset by Jenner are women. They’re upset for Jenner undermining something. Is that something the female subject or the female object? It’s the object. And in my opinion, this crisis takes them away from their inauthentic objectification and closer to their authentic subjectivity.

    Men in advertising are depicted as subjects, experientially enjoying the pleasures of their subjectivity….They drive loud cars over desert landscapes; their pleasures are for their pleasure alone. Women in advertising; the orgasmic Febreeze mom, who is fulfilled by delivering “conditioned” clothing to her family, and by extension in this performance; to society……..She is an object; the mom; mom as object, not subject…..Men do not even know what fabric conditioner is…….

    The Jenner crisis I believe will liberate women, by plucking the flowers from their chains, not in order that they endure their life without fantasy, but that they see their chains, and break them.

  10. JMRC,

    I’m not quite sure what you mean. My claim is just that if a person self-identifying has no meaningful effect for others, then the others would seem to have no right to deny the person’ self-identification. In the case of algebra, it would seem that would have some sort of meaningful impact.

  11. In any of these cases, identifying as A while not meeting the criteria for A is a disrespect for objective reality. One might, at first, think “what’s the harm?” — and understandably so. But, let’s say that the problem is in using the term “experienced” (similar to the “trekkie” example, but a bit broader in scope). Now, let’s say that someone says that they are an “experienced” Half Life player. I invite them over, we play together, and they’re awful. So, whatever feeling of “experience” they may have, it was his not at all demonstrable. Now, the thought is “what’s the harm?” — because it’s just a game, right? But, then, that term “experienced” is also used to describe other things. Let’s say that this same person now goes to the firing range and checks out a gun to use. The person there asks them if they know what they’re doing, and they say: “Yeah, I’m experienced.” So, they check out the gun and then accidentally shoot themselves or another person because, as before, their understanding of the term “experienced” is not in accordance with reality.

    Now, in terms of the word “trekkie” nothing so severe might ever happen. Someone could claim to be a “trekkie” and never accidentally set their phaser to “kill” rather than “stun” and end up hurting someone (mostly because those phasers are just toys). But, what if the problem is not with the use of that specific term, but with the individual’s ability to accurately assimilate (not in a Borg way) objective reality and convert it into abstract thought? What if that basic, fundamental ability is what’s being impaired and this is a symptom of that rather than just their misuse of a single word?

    While one might argue yet again: “what is the harm?” — but, this is actually a severe problem. Every action, every thought, and every feeling a person has is filtered through the mind before being expressed, so when that mind is incapable of processing things correctly, it affects everything that they are and everything that they do. In regards to who they are, that might not affect others as directly. But, in terms of what they do, it absolutely will. One can see this demonstrated in the fact that it was not enough for these trans individuals to call themselves the sex that they are not or to see themselves that way, but now they are trying to force others to give them the same liberties as that other sex, to allow them into bathrooms, locker rooms (which have communal showers), and sports teams, of that sex…without actually being that sex, themselves. So, this was not some idle idea that simply sat in their minds. It was not some momentary misuse of a term. Because if they simply mistook themselves for the other sex, with complete disregard for the definitions of the terms, it would have stopped there. But, it didn’t. There are places that now allow individuals to change their sex/gender on formal documentation, despite the fact that a full sex change is not possible (nor may it ever truly be due to the ubiquity of sex differences in male and female bodies) and gender is hardly what people are wanting to be indicated on medical forms. People are being condemned if they use the phrase “pregnant woman” or “pregnant mother” instead of “pregnant person” — because, as trans advocates argue, “men” can get pregnant too (I put that in quotes because “man” is defined as “an adult human male” and males are incapable of pregnancy, by definition). Women at the Women’s March in Washington DC were being harassed and called “transphobic” and “intolerant” for having signs that referenced female biology — because, according to trans advocates, males can be women too, and they don’t have vaginas or ovaries or uteruses, etc.

    What we can see from this is that it is not some isolated incident. As in symptoms in medicine, someone may indeed cough and not have a cold, or sneeze and not have allergies. But, when someone won’t stop coughing (or, in this case, improperly distinguishing things in reality), there is clearly something wrong. Indeed, since our minds developed for the specific purpose of containing an abstraction of reality and reasoning with it so as to ensure our prosperity and survival, this sort of behavior must be questioned extensively. After all, what about cross-sex hormone use or extensive surgery is contributing to a person’s survival? Given the fact that pubertal blockers and subsequent cross-sex hormones will render a person infertile, and the surgeries can debilitate a person’s ability to have procreative sex or attain orgasm, what exactly is being helped here? An idea? An idea that does not correspond to reality which is being treated as having more veracity than objective reality itself? Left alone, meanwhile, more than 80% of children are proven to grow out of cross gender identifying — no damaging cross-sex hormones, no mastectomies, no breast implants, no extensive genital surgeries, no constant attempts to ‘pass’ — just a normal life.

    Nothing about improperly perceiving reality is adaptive, and imposing that inability to reason properly upon other people, under threat of legal action, of being labeled as “transphobic,” being boycotted, or called “hateful,” just encourages that same inaccurate thinking to occur in other people. — And, that inescapably harms others. It damages an individual’s integrity, their ability to perceive the world, and their mental health, when they are pressured to say things or do things (as trans advocacy would request of us) which we know, from our own perceptions to be false. This is because we are creating a de facto action of self-doubt by seeing someone as a male and then being forced, under threat of punishment, to treat them as female. We are betraying our own perceptions. That hurts us.

    So, while I do think that someone is free to act and call themselves whomever they wish behind closed doors, whence subjecting others to that or making requests upon them to be called certain things or treated in certain ways, it is not a harmless, subjective matter anymore. To that end, males can claim that they relate to women or identify with women all they want, but when that comes to be a statement of becoming one, of being one, of knowing for sure that they understand a reality which they don’t have the physiology to make any claim of, that is where any legitimacy stops.

    The truth is, objective reality is important. It is the reality that we all share, it is the only common ground that we can all meet upon. So, when that is discarded, it impacts us all. That domain must be enforced, for the best of all of us. Subjective truth has its validity, but only in a subjective sense. Taken beyond that realm, it is as inappropriate as trying to light a common match underwater.

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