Monthly Archives: October 2015

Transgender//Transrace—Dolezal, Destabilization and the four Quadrants

“It’s not a costume. I don’t know spiritually and metaphysically how this goes, but I do know that from my earliest memories I have awareness and connection with the black experience.” Rachel Dolezal – Vanity Fair, July 19th.

This past summer, the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal, was outed by her parents as having attempted to ‘pass’ as black. Modifications of her hair, skin appearance and speech pattern have all been mentioned. After the media storm, she lost her position and suffered much public humiliation. Born in 1977 in Montana, to a family whose heritage, Dolezal was shown, after genealogical testing, to have only have Czech, German, Swedish and Dutch ancestors in the last four centuries. Her parents adopted several black children who she was raised with as her siblings and she attended the HBCU Howard University. However, even one of her brothers has referred to what she did as ‘black-face’, and whilst at Howard University she sued the establishment for discrimination against her—as white. The predominant view in the media was that she had been deceitful and benefitted from co-opting a disenfranchised identity. As her Vanity Fair interviewer Allison Samuels put it quite potently, “this was a new type of white woman: bold and brazen enough to claim ownership over a painful and complicated history she wasn’t born into.”

Not long before, the transgender icon, Caitlyn Jenner, graced the cover of Vanity Fair in what was perceived to be a watershed moment in the mainstream acceptance of the trans narrative. Not too unsurprisingly, questions were raised over why one trans (gender) was deemed legitimate but the other  trans (racial) was not. Rogers Brubaker’s paper, tries to elucidate the arguments that appeared on all sides of the question. His is a survey paper, explicitly written “as an intellectual opportunity rather than a political provocation.” (p.2)

He starts off by elaborating the contemporary context in which such a debate could arise, which he describes as being characterized by:

(1) A “massive destabilization of long taken-for-granted categorical frameworks” (p. 2) linked in many ways to the theories of social construction which our seminar is built on. Such a destabilization leads to the overthrow of traditional binaries and the emergence of ’superdiversities’. However, “challenges to prevailing categorical frameworks have been less dramatic in the domain of race and ethnicity,” than in sex and gender.

(2) The enlargement of the space for choice. Individualism and choice is a central tenet of Western Modernity—especially in the struggle for many women’s rights. The vocabulary and logic of choice is becoming a part of our official and unofficial interactions with both gender and race (think job applications/yes means yes legislation/tinder/pgp’s, etc.).

(3) The increased policing of identity claims. With social categories destabilized, and the ideology of choice reinforced, there arise “concerns about unregulated, fraudulent, opportunistic, exploitative, unnatural, or otherwise illegitimate identity claims.” (p. 8) These include claims that transgender women are not really women since they do not “have the history of being born and located in this culture as a woman.” (Raymond 1979) Germaine Greer, an established feminist author has sparked controversy just this week by saying that she did not consider transwomen to be women. Applied to the idea of race, this policing has taken historical form through brutal policing of the boundaries of acceptable ‘whiteness’.

From this discussion emerge two contrasting visions of identity. One where there is a pre-existing essence that one obeys and adapts one’s body until the world responds to them as they see themselves. “This is notably the case for many transgender people.  In this mode of trans discourse, one’s basic identity is not chosen, but given.” (p. 9) This somewhat essentialist definition is used both to ‘justify’ and ‘challenge’ such disruptions of social categories. A potential conundrum from this vision would be the thus ascribed ‘black’ individual who has ‘african ancestry’ but doesn’t know it. (p. 10) A second vision of identity would be closer tied to choice and involves having no set essence but rather is selected or created.

Into this context, where such themes were already hotly debated, came the case of Rachel Dolezal. Without taking an explicit position, Brubaker’s work is in drawing up clear analytical distinctions between the various stand-points that appeared in the aftermath of the scandal. Positions one and three assume a parallel between the categories of race and gender and thus apply a syllogism to judge the validity of both Jenner and Dolezal’s claims at once. Positions two and four assume a difference between the categories of race and gender.

Position one states that both race and gender are essentialist and therefore Jenner is not a woman and Dolezal is not black. By assuming that Dolezal’s being black was patently absurd, conservatives sought to prove that Jenner’s trans identity was similarly wrong. By refusing to be defined by “newcomers to the category” (p. 13) radical feminists like Burkett refuse to recognize transwomen as being women in the same sense. The comparison to race is thus made and the syllogism elaborated before it was even made flesh by Dolezal: The “I was born in the wrong body” rhetoric favored by other trans people … is just as offensive, reducing us to our collective breasts and vaginas. Imagine the reaction if a young white man suddenly declared that he was trapped in the wrong body and, after using chemicals to change his skin pigmentation and crocheting his hair into twists, expected to be embraced by the black community.” (p. 13)

Position two states that race is essential but gender is voluntary, thus Jenner is a woman but Dolezal is not black. This was most popular in liberal circles and goes in two ways. “While gender voluntarist boundary work at the frontier between quadrants 1 and 2  (A) presumed the illegitimacy of Dolezal’s change of race, and sought to explain the legitimacy of Jenner or others changing their gender, racial essentialist boundary work at the frontier between quadrants 2 and 3 (B) presumed the legitimacy of changing one’s gender, and sought to explain the illegitimacy of Dolezal’s change of race.” An example of A would be Khadija White who states “To conflate trans folks with Dolezal gives credence to the deepest, most malicious lie there is about transgender identity and queer sexuality – that they are deceitful.” An example of B would be Jody Armour who states “Michael Brown couldn’t be transracial, when you walk into prisons and jail cells, you see cellblocks brimming with bodies that are conspicuously black. Those black bodies had no choice in how they were perceived.” In brief, Dolezal optionally wore ‘blackness’ whilst transwomen ‘are’ women. One was chosen and illegitimate, the other genuine.

Position three states that both identity segments are voluntary and therefore Jenner is a woman and Dolezal is black. UPenn Political Scientist Adolph Reed Jr suggests that we should consider the possibility of the trans-race category since the arguments against Dolezal refer to biology in a troubling way that echoes racial essentialism. Furthermore, we cannot “know that Dolezal may not sense that she is ‘really’ black in the same, involuntary way that many transgender people feel that they are ‘really’ transgender?” (p. 15)

Position four states the inverse of position two and thus Jenner is not a woman but Dolezal is black. Unlike position two, very few commentators occupied this space, despite the  “widely shared sense that differences of sex and gender are deeper and more fundamental than those of race.” (p. 15)

The conclusion of Brubaker’s survey paper is that the Dolezal affair triggered “a large-scale exercise in vernacular comparative sociology” that was sadly “subordinated to efforts to validate or invalidate the identities claimed by Jenner and Dolezal.” (p.21) But ultimately, the support for his second position suggests that though gender identity seems “more deeply bound up with…socially defined sex categories” than race is with what Haslanger would call ‘color’, “gender identity is at the same time more autonomous from the socially classified sexed body than racial identity is from the socially classified racial body”. (p.22) Popularly, at least, one can be trans-gendered but not trans-racial.

Melissa Moschella: Rethinking the moral permissibility of gamete donation

In this article, Moschella’s argues against the dominant philosophical view that there is nothing morally wrong with gamete donation—a view which rests on the following two premises:

  1. Parental obligations are triggered primarily by playing a causal role (as agent cause) in procreation, not by genetic ties.
  2. Parental obligations are transferable—that is, there is no moral wrong being done by the genetic parents as long as they transfer their responsibilities to someone else who can fulfill the child’s needs.

Moschella attempts to disprove both these premises. She shows that genetics—not procreative causation—is the primary cause of parental obligations, and that these obligations are not transferrable, even to competent individuals who are not the genetic parents.

Moschella gives the following definition for genetic parent:

“A is a genetic parent of B if (i) A passes on genetic information to B, (ii) A’s physical genome is passed on to B, and (iii) A’s physical genome was reshuffled once (usually mixed with the genome of a different individual) to constitute B.” (423)

Her first premise assumes an animalist account of human identity. This means that she considers personal identity a biological property of human beings. The main relevant implication of this is that a person has a single, continuous identity from conception to death. That is, “continued existence of the same human organism is a necessary and sufficient condition for continuity of identity.” (424) This is important because it means that a genetic parent’s ties to its child are also continuous.

Next, Moschella argues in favor of her second premise—that forming personal relationships with people causes one to have special obligations—which she calls personal obligations—to those people. By Moschella’s definition, a personal relationship is “a relationship in which the parties relate as unique and irreplaceable individuals, not merely fulfilling a function which anyone with the relevant competencies could fulfill.” (426) She provides the following two examples to explain the difference between personal and non-personal relationships on page 426:

  1. My relationship with a bank teller as such, for instance, is not personal insofar as it is not based on any unique characteristics of that person, and any other equally competent teller (or a well-functioning automatic teller machine) could meet my needs equally well.
  2. My relationship with a friend is personal insofar as it is based on unique personal characteristics proper to that person, which means that there are things that person, and only that person, can ‘‘do’’ for me.

The main point of this distinction is that personal relationships create personal obligations—ones that are not transferrable—while they do also create non-personal obligations. For example, a professor does not have a personal obligation to proctor a test himself. This obligation is transferable to any other competent professor. On the other hand, a professor does have a personal obligation to meet with his advisees. He cannot merely direct them to other qualified and competent professors for advice because that obligation is based on certain unique qualities that only that professor has. Personal relationships give rise to personal obligations because they are based on unique characteristics, so “there are things that person, and only that person, can ‘‘do’’ for me” (426)

Moschella proceeds to argue that there is a personal relationship between a child and its genetic parents, and that this personal relationship comes with certain personal obligations. This relationship is personal because it is based on unique characteristics. The genetic parents are unique in that they are the biological causes of the child. Additionally, the permanence of this relationship makes it an important identity-constituting characteristic for the child because “Not to be related to my genetic parents in this regard is, simply, not to be me—indeed, it is not to exist at all.” (430)

According to Moschella, the presence of a unique personal relationship inherently gives rise to personal obligations, but what is the importance and extent of these obligations? To figure this out, we must think about how children are personally dependent on their genetic parents. In other words, what are the things that only genetic parents can do for a child? Moschella claims that knowing and loving their children as the genetic parents and letting their children know and love them is something that only genetic parents can do. While others may be able to love them, this cannot replace the unique love that comes from the genetic parents.

Why is this unique love so important? Because children do not miss being loved by someone with which they do not have a personal relationship. They do miss being loved by people who they have personal relationships with. Children always have a permanent personal relationship with their genetic parents. Thus, the love of genetic parents is irreplaceable—just as a friend’s love would be irreplaceable—but the personal relationship that makes a genetic parent’s love irreplaceable is non-contingent. In order to be able to provide their children with love and receive love in return, the child and parent must know each other well. Thus, spending a lot of time with the child is essential for fulfilling this obligation.

There are exceptions to this rule. For example, in cases where the parents are not competent enough to raise the child, they may transfer that obligation. However, the obligation of love does not transfer. Instead, the parents must be able to tell the child that they gave him up because of their love for him. Since the obligation is to the child, the circumstances must be such that the child accepts and agrees with this explanation at all points later in his or her life.

This exception, however, never applies to gamete donations because genetic parents are creating the child with the intention of giving it up to someone else. In other words, the child is not being created and then given up for its own well-being out of love. Rather, it is created with the specific intention of being given up for ulterior gain—whether it be monetary gain or helping an infertile couple have a child. Additionally, the creation of a child cannot be done for the benefit of that child because there is no child to benefit before its creation. Creation of a child can only be intended as a benefit for someone else—treatment which is incompatible with love. Thus, gamete donation is inherently immoral because it involves genetic parents creating a child without the intention of fulfilling their personal obligation of loving it and allowing it to love them.

Social Construction: Myth and Reality

In this chapter, Haslanger argues that feminists and race theorists ought to employ a form of social construction “that is compatible with important forms of realism, an objectivism about kinds, and naturalism” (183). According to Haslanger, this form of social construction best serves the goal of locating “the (often obscure) mechanisms of injustice and the levers for social change” (184). In defending these claims, she covers much of the same ground we have already covered in the course: the distinctions between sex/gender and color/race, social kinds, natural kinds, etc. I think it is most interesting to analyze this chapter in light of our recent discussions of cyborgs and feminist metaphysics.

On page 198, Haslanger defends her “critical realist” stance by arguing in favor of a version of realism. She presents an anti-realist error theory of race, according to which statements involving race are all false, because no races exist. She writes that “on the face of it, this is not a happy result, for if we are going to understand the effects of slavery and long-standing racism in this country we need to have the resources to describe its systematic effects on racial groups.”

This seems like a good example of a feminist philosopher introducing contextual values into metaphysical debate and theory choice. In light of Monday’s discussion, what do we think of this move? Are Haslanger’s political views interfering with what should be a value-free analysis, or is this a healthy case of contextual values supplementing constitutive values, rather than replacing them?

Haslanger’s overall project in this chapter is to establish metaphysical theory that is conducive to the promotion of justice – to changing the world. However, the theory she defends seems rather conservative in light of Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. Can a metaphysics committed to realism, objectivism, and naturalism succeed in undermining oppressive social structures? Or must we radically re-envision the boundaries of reality in order to effect social change? Does Haslanger or Haraway better serve the feminist cause?

Finally, I still don’t think that we adequately addressed Tim’s concerns about how a metaphysical theory might lead to concrete change in the real world. Hypothetically, Haslanger’s ideas might have an impact if most academic philosophers adopted them. Thinkers from other disciplines might then take notice and incorporate these ideas into their own work. Perhaps these thinkers and their followers might then engage in a “long march through the institutions” in order to effect political, economic, and social change. Is this a plausible scenario? To me, it seems highly unlikely. Is Haslanger kidding herself when she claims to have an interest in social change? Should she stop philosophizing and start protesting, or perhaps run for office?

Family, Ancestry, and Self: What Is the Moral Significance of Biological Ties?

Haslanger frames this chapter as a response to David Velleman’s claim “that it is morally wrong to bring a child into existence with the intention that the child will not have contact with one or both biological parents.” An alternative formulation of this claim would be: “Other things being equal, children should be raised by their biological parents.” (158)

Although Velleman primarily has in mind those who conceive children using anonymous donor egg or sperm, his argument has implications for those who adopt children who will not be acquainted with their biological parents.

Velleman wants to challenge what he calls “a new ideology of the family” according to which children raised away from their biological parents can still have families “in the only sense that matters, or at least in a sense that is good enough” (159).

Haslanger rejects Velleman’s view, claiming that families lacking biological ties can be just as good as those with them.

Velleman’s argument runs as follows:

P1: Acquaintance with one’s biological relatives is a basic good, because in coming to know and define themselves, most people rely on their acquaintance with people who are like them by virtue of being their biological relatives.

P2: People who adopt or create children by donor conception already know (or should know) that their children will be disadvantaged by the lack of this basic good.

C: It is morally wrong (or problematic) to adopt or create children by donor conception.

In support of P1, Velleman identifies two ways in which biological ties help us come to know and define ourselves:

  1. They provide a special kind of self-knowledge based on “intuitive and unanalyzable resemblances.” (168)
  2. They provide access to a narrative within which our actions have meaning.

Haslanger rejects P1 on multiple grounds. First, even if most people do construct their identities through biological acquaintances, it does not follow that this is a good way to define ourselves, or the only good way. She cites empirical evidence that adopted children are able to establish strong personal identities despite their lack of acquaintance with biological relatives.

Second, she questions the claim that biological relatives are essential to self-knowledge. We can learn just as much about ourselves through our encounters with friends, fictional characters, public figures, and custodial families. A focus on similarities to family members can even obscure more important aspects of our identities.

Finally, she argues that since all formulations of personal narratives are speculative, these narratives can just as readily be created independently of biological ties.

Haslanger concludes with a critique of the “natural nuclear family” and bionormativity. She argues that these dominant ideologies are not natural or inevitable, and that, like gender, they may be “implicated in structures and forms of life that are unjust” (180). She concludes that parents have an obligation to provide their children with a route to healthy identity-formation, but that this need not be the dominant route consistent with bionormativity. We may even have a moral obligation to resist the conception of the “natural nuclear family.”

Questions and Comments:

In his defense of biological ties, does Vellener limit himself by focusing on issues of personal identity? Are there other reasons why a child might benefit from being raised by his or her biological parents?

Which definition of “basic good” in figure 5.1 do you think is the most accurate or useful? How much force does Vellener’s argument lose if an acquaintance with one’s biological ties cannot be considered a “basic good?”

Can this debate be settled independently of biology, psychology, anthropology, and social science? Might these issues of healthy human development be fully empirical, as Haslanger suggests on page 164?

Finally, I had a WTF moment on page 179, where Haslanger suggests that the centrality of mother-child relations might be explained by the need of infants to breast-feed. Surely the bond between mother and child is established throughout the entire process of conception, gestation, and delivery, and rests on more than mere convenience!

Doing Ontology and Doing Justice: What Feminist Philosophy Can Teach Us About Meta-Metaphysics


Feminist philosophers challenge structures and systems that support oppression, especially on the basis of gender, both in wider social and political spheres and also within philosophy itself. However, metaphysics has not been so open to feminist insights, because metaphysicians view themselves as being “in the business of elucidating the fundamental structure of reality that grounds everything else” (Mikkola 2). Accordingly, metaphysics should be a value-neutral business, with no room for feminist concerns about oppression and injustice. While some practical values (ie simplicity, accuracy) are necessary, social values and morals “displace attention to evidence and valid reasoning and hence interfere with the discovery of truth” (4). Thus, they can play no role in metaphysical justification or theory choice.

Against this view, Mikkola argues that feminist philosophy “not only makes a difference to the details and content of our ontological theories; doing so makes a difference to our ontological theory choice… [and] provides methodological tools with which we can regiment ontological theories in helpful ways” (2-3).   Metaphysics does not merely list truths, but organizes them based on their significance. Yet, significance is influenced by our interests and goals, and therefore opens the door for the interaction of social, normative values and evidential concerns in metaphysical theory justification (cooperative model of justification).

  • How exactly should we understand significance? Someone might push back by arguing that meeting supposedly value-neutral criteria, like simplicity, is enough to satisfy significance, and can be met without social/moral values. Do even these criteria include implicit social values?
  • How might significance change in relation to deductive/inductive/a priori/a posteriori reasoning?
  • If we include morals in metaphysical reasoning, but then some of those morals rely on metaphysical conclusions, wouldn’t this be circular reasoning? Would that circularity be problematic or not? Does it still reveal significant things about the world?


Feminist Philosophy in Metaphysics: Grounding

Mikkola uses grounding as an example of how feminist philosophy can legitimately and substantially affect a supposedly value-neutral area of metaphysics.

Grounding in metaphysics is:

  • “a non-causal (or a metaphysical) explanatory dependence relation that is asymmetric, irreflexive, and transitive” (6)
  • layered structure of reality – “a relation between (more) fundamental entities and derivative entities” without reduction or supervenience (6)
  • central to metaphysics, asking “what grounds what, ‘thereby limning the structure of reality” (6)
  • is important for social ontology – the motivations for grounding in pure & applied case seems analogous (7) (is this valid move?)
examples: because, in virtue of, explained by, derives from
  • from Haslanger: “S is a woman in virtue of being systematically socially subordinated, where observed or imaged evidence of a female’s biological role in reproduction ‘marks’ one as a target for this kind of treatment” (8) (Interestingly, Mikkola is rephrasing Haslanger’s original formation, which included no grounding relation. Does this change the meaning?)

However, in order for grounding to be valuable in the explanation of social facts, it must have certain restrictions on how it can be used in line with the cooperative model theory.


Potential Problems with Grounding: Fundamentality

  • Relative Fundamentality: one fact is more fundamental than another iff the one explains the other, but not vice versa (9)
  • Absolute Fundamentality: a fact is fundamental iff it is not explained by any other fact (9)
  • Socially ontology does not deal with fundamental facts (is this true?) & it is hard to compare the degrees of fundamentality on each side of the grounding relation. Which direction is the grounding going? How do feedback loops make this hard to determine?


Rejecting Fundamentality: FUND and BECAUSE

FUND: grounding facts are fundamental

  • This leads to the collapse problem, because facts that ground a fundamental fact must themselves be fundamental. We lose the layered structure of reality.
BECAUSE: If F because Y, then (the fact that F because Y) because Y
  • Grounding facts can themselves be grounded in fundamentalia
  • Upward but not downward necessitation: given ‘F because Y’, then necessarily (Y –> F) but not necessarily (F –> Y)
  • Example: paper counts as money (explanandum) because Y (explanans), where Y is some fundamental fact (ie appropriate acceptance-dependence obtains) (13)
  • This works in social ontology if we accept it as being contextual, ie. given of social frameworks & conventions, the explanans necessitates the explanandum (12)
    • Does this contextualization radically change the meaning of the grounding? In relation to non-social metaphysics?
    • Is the upward-necessitation mind independent or dependent? Is this problematic?
  • Is explanatoriness missing from BECAUSE? Should explanatoriness be important or necessary? BECAUSE only tells us that Y necessitates F, what else is needed? DeRosset argues that explanation is exhausted by BECAUSE (a deflationist strategy), but Mikkola maintains that such an explanation may still not be good enough, while also rejecting EXPLANATORINESS.
    • What explanations count as adequate and illuminating? This depends on significance, our background interests, and is where feminist philosophy comes in. Are adequate and illuminating still too vague, though?
  • Methodology of Grounding: what counts for evidence of C as opposed to its converse? According to Mikkola, none of these options give satisfactory explanations.
    • Intuitive Evidence
    • Methodological Evidence
    • Explanatory Science

The takeaway: “applying the justice model of theory choice to deRosset’s regimentation of grounding shows that it fails to do justice to social phenomena… we must modify BECAUSE so that this justificatory burden is satisfied” (18) But does this mean BECAUSE must be modified for other uses, when not talking about obviously social phenomena?


Rejecting Fundamentality: Grounding as Superinternal

Grounding both is and is not fundamental, which brings danger of infinite regress. Through superinternality, Bennett argues fundamentality does not have to be part of grounding. Grounding is superinternal, in that it is “a relation where ‘the intrinsic nature of only one relata – or, better, one side of the relation – guarantees not only that the relation holds, but also that the other relatum(a) exists and has the intrinsic nature it does” (18). In other words, “all grounding facts are grounded in their first relatum(a)” (19). As a result, the regress is not vicious, because each step is based on the same grounds, and the ontology of the grounding doesn’t expand. Furthermore, superinternality is thin, so there is no need to posit a regress of relationships between facts.

Why is this not helpful for social ontological cases? It relies on intrinsic natures, which is not acceptable grounds for social facts. For example, if you want to ground the term woman, relying on intrinsic features only reinforces gender roles and stereotypes (think ch1 of Haslanger). If, as many believe, metaphysics requires a uniform conception of grounding, then this account is unacceptable given its problems with social ontology. The problem of working out a conception of grounding that satisfies social ontology has been seen to support skepticism that there is a single grounding, instead of various distinct relations. However, if there are different groundings for different domains in ontology, will the arguments from social ontology hold in other domains? If not, why should metaphysicians in other domains care about the feminist arguments? Should they even consider grounding in social ontology grounding, if there are admittedly different relations in different domains? Does, as Mikkola argues, grounding in social ontology still explain something new about the world? If so, then it is just one example how feminist philosophy can be relevant, even is such supposedly ‘value-neutral’ matters as theory selection in metaphysics.

The Debunking Project and Feminism in Metaphysics

Haslanger’s conception of a “debunking” project arises from a critique of Hacking’s notions of object construction and idea construction.
Debunking: “[The] project of challenging the purported truth conditions for the application of a concept”.

Hacking’s definition of a social construct:
1. X need not have existed , or need not be at all as it is. X, or X as it is at present, is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable.
2. X is quite bad as it is.
3. We would be much better off if X were done away with, or at least radically transformed. (Hacking 1999 , p. 6)
Condition (O): “(0) In the present state of aff airs, X is taken for granted, X appears to be inevitable” (Hacking 1999 , p. 12

“Especially important to Hacking is the distinction between constructing ideas (which includes concepts, categories, classifi cations, etc.) and constructing objects. (Note that Hacking’s understanding of “objects” is broad and includes: people, states, conditions, practices, actions, behavior, classes, experiences, relations, material objects, substances [i.e., stuff s], unobservables, and fundamental particles (Hacking 1999 , p. 22).)”
Hacking believes that if an “object” or an “idea” is to be considered a social construct it must satisfy condition (O). Hacking also holds that social constructions are formed causally, that there is a historical contingency leading up to the existence of every social construct.

Haslanger goes after Hackings conception of idea constructivism as follows:

Hacking sets up an exchange between two positions: the idea constructionist and the idea determinist. The idea constructionist holds that “with respect to a domain D, (a) the contingency of our understanding of D; (b) nominalism about kinds in D , or more precisely, a denial that the domain D has an inherent structure; and (c) an explanation of the stability of our understanding of D in external rather than internal terms.” The (c) condition refers to the idea-constructionist’s view that an alternative scientific/social theory completely different, yet just as “useful” as our own, is possible.

The idea determinist, on the other hand, holds “that the domain D has an inherent structure, that our understanding of D is in some sense inevitable because the inherent structure of D causally determines how to understand it, and that our understanding of D is stable because the stable structure of the world sustains it” The idea determinist is concerned with what our theories are about while the idea constructionist is concerned with the dynamics of classification. Haslanger finds Hacking incomplete and claims that the discussion about social construction must be about the contextual or constitutive norms that form the basis of justification for our classification scheme(s).

Discursive Construction and the Debunking Project:

Hackings conception of discursive construction and its implications:

“Something is discursively constructed just in case it is (to a significant extent) the way it is because of what is attributed to it or how it is classified. (Haslanger 2012 [1995] , p. 99)”

Haslanger believes Hacking’s conception of discursive construction is too narrow. One of Haslanger’s primary critiques of Hacking is his emphasis on cognitive aspects of social construction. Hacking characterizes object construction as a process that primarily works with and on ideas within a respective social matrix. Haslanger isn’t satisfied with Hackings “social matrix” and mentions the need for “a way of thinking about “object construction” or better, the formation of social kinds, that acknowledges the causal impact of classification, but also gives due weight to the unintended and unconceptualized impact of practices.”

By putting less emphasis on psychological aspects we position ourselves in such a way that allows us to see different and perhaps more fundamental sources of construction outside of a purely conceptual and linguistic discourse.

The result of Haslanger’s critique is the debunking project.

The project involves a two dimensional investigation of a social kinds. “One dimension represents the degree to which explicit classification is a causal factor in bringing about the features that make for membership in the kind (as opposed to the features being an unintended byproduct of social practices); the other dimension represents the degree to which the kind in question is defined by “identification” with the social position.”
Haslangers definition of a thick social position: social positions that entail a broad range of norms, expectations, obligations, entitlements, and so on.

“One might argue that (“thick”) widowhood is a social construct, where the point is that it is wrong to see widows as the social kind consisting of women whose husbands have died, and who for some reason or other come to be poor, childless, and filthy. Rather, the claim would be that the (“thick”) condition of widows as poor, childless, and so on, is something that “we”—our institutions and practices—have created. Thanks to the formation and employment of appropriate categories our concept of widowhood, in this case, is revealed to be more robustly social than previously thought. That’s what the debunking project is all about.

Haslanger proposes the following filter for any category we might think up in hopes of “debunking” it:
Is the classification useful politically and/or theoretically useful, and (2) should we take the theoretical classification C to capture the commitments of ordinary discourse?

Semantic Externalism:
Debunking constructionist rely on a species of semantic externalism. Haslanger believes that scientist and social theorist are epistemically positioned in a way that gives them the authority to define social categories. Haslanger also mentions that, given the nature of the theoretical work at hand, it is ultimately a judgment call whether or not we choose to accept the social theorist’s/scientist’s definition. How about that?

Feminsim in Metaphysics

Haslanger brings up a lot different and interesting feminist literature in this chapter of which I will merely provide examples of. Given the structure and aim of her argument within the chapter, I think this is an effective approach. Ultimately Haslanger decides that feminist metaphysics is in fact possible. She mentions that any sort of feminist theorizing doesn’t necessarily attribute women with a privileged view of reality, it merely recognizes that women are unjustly treated and proceeds in the hopes of diminishing that unjust treatment. Haslanger also concludes, perhaps in stark contrast to Haraway, that one need not be an anti-realist about objective types in order to foster radical feminists doubts about ontological realism.
Some interesting quotes from the chapter:

Must a “gynocentric” perspective capture the experiences of all or most women? And if not all women have access to a “gynocentric” perspective, do efforts to describe such a perspective rely on problematic normative stereotypes about how women should be?

“Theorizing entirely from a gynocentric perspective would not be warranted unless there were grounds for privileging agynocentric perspective on the issue. Perhaps for this reason, this genre of feministcritique has been more effective in revealing the limitations of mainstream views than in defending gynocentric ontologies.”

Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto”

“Blasphemy protects one from the moral majority within, while still insisting on the need for community” (291)


“An ironic dream of a common language for women in the integrated circuit”

First published in 1985, Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” represents a reaction against feminist attempts at establishing solidarity through essential criteria of the “female” or “feminine experience.” Rather than defending the female standpoint as epistemologically equal or even superior to the male—some feminists had tried to claim a privileged epistemic standpoint for “woman” as the more “natural” gender—Haraway advocates doing away with the roles altogether. The result, however, is not a post-gender world so much as a realm of transgressed boundaries. In what approaches a thesis statement, she writes, “This chapter is an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction” (292). The agent of this boundary confusion, in Haraway’s plan, is the cyborg: “… creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted.”


Some Key Definitions:

Cyborg: “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction”

Social Reality: “lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction”


Why the Cyborg?

In Haraway’s socialist-feminist vision, concepts of labor and of individuation and gender formation “depend on the plot of original unity out of which difference must be produced and enlisted in a drama of escalating domination of woman/nature” (292). In other words, capitalism and patriarchy are deeply symbiotic. The very concept of personal identity is dependent on vicious, dichotomous constructs that place man over woman and human over nature. Therefore, the oppression of women and nature are intimately connected. The strength of the cyborg lies in its ability to transgress the boundaries of both distinctions simultaneously.

In Haslanger’s terms, the category of “woman” is discursively constructed, meaning “it is the way it is, to some substantial extent, because of what is attributed (and/or self-attributed) to it” (Haslanger 88). Haslanger notes that this kind of construction involves a sort of “feedback loop” by which entities are assigned categories and then respond to them while simultaneously being formed by them. The Cyborg, in Haraway’s vision, would collapse the feedback loop by collapsing the distinction between what is natural and what is constructed. She writes, “Nature and culture are reworked; the one can no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation by the other” (293).


Three Crucial Boundary Breakdowns

  • Human & Animal
  • Animal/Human (organism) & Machine
  • Physical & Non-Physical

As for the first boundary, that between human and animal, Haraway insists that it has been dissolved by advances in biological science and evolutionary theory. The political consequences, she notes, have been borne out by the animal rights movement.

The second “leaky distinction” is that between organism and machine—the no-man’s-land of the Cyborg. Early machines, Haraway notes, could only mimic the agency and liveliness of living, breathing organisms. They could mimic genuine authorship while remaining resolutely artifacts. She writes, “They were not man, an author himself, but only a caricature of that masculinist reproductive dream. To think they were otherwise was paranoid. Now we are not so sure” (293). Robots with personal agency remained, for many years, the province of science fiction (see Asimov’s I, Robot, Kubrick’s 2001, or the recent film Ex Machina). However, recent advances in medical technology and artificial intelligence have started to blur the lines between wo/man and machine. The relentless juggernaut of technological progress gives us reason to believe that such distinctions will soon be a thing of the past.

The third boundary is that between the physical and non-physical. Haraway’s point in this section is less clear to me, but it seems to have something to do with the invisibility of technology and its ubiquity in our everyday lives—e.g. microelectronic devices and electromagnetic waves. She writes, “Our best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals, electromagnetic waves, a section of a spectrum, and these machines are eminently portable, mobile… People are nowhere near so fluid, being both material and opaque. Cyborgs are ether, quintessence” (294). It is the fluidity of the Cyborg as a social category that makes it so liberating. It is ethereal and ubiquitous and hard to pin down.


Where do we go from here?

The ultimate goal of Haraway’s “ironic political myth” is to liberate individuals from the oppressive, dichotomous social identities that have been constructed for them. To use Haslanger’s terminology, the category of “woman” or “female” is strongly pragmatically constructed. Haraway writes:

There is nothing about being ‘female’ that naturally binds women. There is not even such a state as ‘being’ female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices. Gender, race, or class consciousness is an achievement forced on us by the terrible historical experience of the contradictory social realities of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism. And who counts as ‘us’ in my own rhetoric? Which identities are available to ground such a potent political myth called ‘us’, and what could motivate enlistment in this collectivity? (295)

The answer to the problem of solidarity in a post-identity politics is what Haraway calls affinity—an amorphous category without any essential criteria for membership, composed of individuals who choose to share an “oppositional consciousness” and speak from an ironic standpoint that is not embedded in social categories. The tendency toward affinity and oppositional consciousness, Haraway explains, was “born of the skills for reading webs of power by those refused stable membership in the social categories of race, sex, or class” (296). The archetypal case of an affinity group is, somewhat counter-intuitively, “women of color”. Haraway explains that there is no essential criterion for identifying as a woman of color. In fact, the group is defined by a “conscious appropriation of negation.” Chicana or black women, for example, are doubly disqualified from having any justifiable standpoint from which to make claims about the world. The category “woman,” Haraway argues, traditionally negated (or excluded) all non-white women, while the category of black/chicano negated all non-black/chicano people, as well as all black/chicano women. Thus, “women of color” stand “at the bottom of a cascade of negative identities” (296). They are defined by what they are not. Therefore, their only option is to use this negative identity to their advantage by refusing to be categorized or naturalized at all. This is the same ironic standpoint achieved by the cyborg.


The Politics of Negative Identity

Haraway notes, “Taxonomies of feminism produce epistemologies to police deviation from official women’s experience” (297). Inevitably, a politics of identity excludes those who do not fit the accepted criteria for knowers of that category (e.g. women of color). The solution, therefore, is to provide no taxonomy and abandon all claims to an organic or natural standpoint. Haraway asks, however, “What kind of politics could embrace partial, contradictory, permanently unclosed constructions of personal and collective selves and still be faithful, effective — and, ironically, socialist-feminist?” (297). The answer is Cyborg politics.

The power of the Cyborg myth lies in its status as a chimera of human and machine. Note, however, that the chimera is not simply the sum of its parts, but something more. A griffin is not afforded the same ontological status as a lion or an eagle; it is not part of the same conceptual scheme, but exists outside of nature. Likewise, the cyborg is a supernatural entity. It does not fit squarely into the conceptual scheme of male/white/hetero/etc dominance. It is a chimeric, non-reductive, liberating identity. This refusal to be naturalized or categorized is the source of its resilience: “These cyborgs are the people who refuse to disappear on cue, no matter how many times a ‘western’ commentator remarks on the sad passing of another primitive, another organic group done in by ‘Western’ technology, by writing” (313).

It is Haraway’s belief that socialist feminists have been guilty of “producing essentialist theory that suppressed women’s particularity and contradictory interests” through “unreflective participation in the logics, languages, and practices of white humanism and through searching for a single ground of domination to secure our revolutionary voice” (300). The only way forward for feminists in this post-modern age is to abandon the quixotic quest for solidarity through essentialized identities. The category of Man—and it’s complementary category Woman—are “the embodiment of Western logos” and the sooner we leave them behind the sooner we can build a truly inclusive epistemological and sociological system. As Haraway puts it, “Some differences are playful; some are poles of world historical systems of domination. ‘Epistemology’ is about knowing the difference” (300).



Is this a post-gender world?

Haraway’s Critique of MacKinnon

Where does this leave personal identity?
Haraway: “The cyborg is also the awful apocalyptic telos of the ‘West’s’ escalating dominations of abstract individuation, an ultimate self untied at last from all dependency, a man in space” (292).

For Haraway, are all social distinctions strongly pragmatically constructed?

Haraway seems primarily concerned with the political effectiveness of her cyborg strategy; however, it is difficult to tell how serious she is about some of her more fanciful epistemological and ontological points. To what extent do you find “A Cyborg Manifesto” to be a philosophically sound text, as opposed to simply a new political strategy?