A Philosopher's Blog

Gender Nominalism

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 10, 2015


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. ajmacdonaldjr said, on June 10, 2015 at 10:50 am

  2. TJB said, on June 11, 2015 at 8:27 pm

    Mike, can you explain nominalism? It seems to be a rather technical term.

    • WTP said, on June 11, 2015 at 8:58 pm

      Heh. Yes, what is “nominalism”? First you pick a rabbit hole…

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 12, 2015 at 11:11 am

      One way to look at it is in terms of the grouping problem: in virtue of what are all cats cats? A realist (such as Plato) would say that there is a feature (or features) of reality that objectively groups cats into the class of cats. A nominalist would deny the existence of such a feature. The most basic form of nominalism is that what all cats have in common is that we call (name) them cats.

      I can link a copy of my dissertation on the problem of universals if you want to work off some purgatory time reading it. 🙂

      • WTP said, on June 12, 2015 at 1:06 pm

        I think we can use a better example than “cats”. Think Polar Bear vs. Grizzly Bear or Florida Panther vs. Cougar vs. Mountain Lion.

  3. WTP said, on June 11, 2015 at 10:30 pm

    Well I gotta give you some credit here, Mike. In questioning whether or not TJ was making a joke here, I actually read the first four paragraphs. I was even more lothe to than usual given that I was quite tired of hearing about BJ even before this latest mental breakdown, but I digress. You might want to sit down…

    The first four paragraphs here are the nut of where modern software meets philosophy. What is an X? Extension vs. composition. I would be greatly interested in discussing such if we could avoid the pop-philosophy and emotional subject matter and instead focus on something boring as in what makes someone a customer or is an El Camino a truck or a car? In what context do these labels matter and in what do they not? If an animal such as a worker bee cannot survive on its own, is the entirety of the hive an animal? Where is the line between a bacteria that must live in another animals’ intestinal tract for that animal to survive, yet that same bacteria elsewhere in the body is a killer. Yes, I’m technically straying from nominalism exactly, but really who is to say?

    Though somewhat to the gender thing, I suspect chymerism may play a role in some of these cases. But for the most part, based on what I’ve read by the few sane psychologists (ok, one sane psychologist…I’d have to find him again) this is a software not a hardware problem. That’s JMNSHO and highly influenced by a meta analysis if the analysis, but WTH.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 12, 2015 at 11:30 am

      The El Camino does provide an interesting case. It has features of both a car and a truck, yet is “legally” a truck. Since vehicle classifications do affect things, this does matter. On the one hand, our legal classifications of vehicles is made up. On the other hand, they should have some connection to actual features of vehicles.

      Interesting question about individual identity and colonial organisms. I’ve spoken with a biologist who thinks that humans should be classified as colonial organisms, since (as you mentioned) all sorts of microorganisms are part of our systems. There is currently some interesting science about how these organism impact our psychological states (“my bacteria make me sad”).

      Interesting point about the software issue (software female, male hardware?).

      • WTP said, on June 12, 2015 at 1:08 pm

        My point about software/hardware was more along the lines of male hardware/buggy AI software.

      • WTP said, on June 12, 2015 at 1:20 pm

        Eh…forgot to add about the El Camino…As you state the machine (or an abstract concept of a machine which we refer to as an El Camino) is “legally” a truck, but this is likely due to other legal ramifications and such of a complex and byzantine legal system. I’m more interested in how people interact with the machine. Do they treat it more like a truck, more like a car, are they more frustrated with its lack of “car-ness” or with it’s lack of “truck-ness” in meeting their needs? It filled a small niche for several decades but never was as popular as pick-up trucks nor station wagons. Once pick-ups became more similar to SUV’s (which didn’t exist in the days of the El Camino) and thus more comfortable for non-work purposes, the market for El Caminos, and (collateral damage) station wagons, dried up. In that sense, I would say it was right to classify it as a truck.

        But there are probably hundreds of other aspects that may not have been relevant to the market but were relevant to the customer experience on a lesser level. Think of the designers who looked to improve old features or add new ones to the El Camino line. Some features got ruled in, others out, because the designers and marketers were skating this truck/car line. And as a result, the addition/removal/ignoring of those features moved the El Camino more to one side or the other of that imaginary line.

    • WTP said, on June 16, 2015 at 11:45 am

      Better yet, at what point does the movie “Red Dawn” cease to be the movie “Red Dawn”?


  4. TJB said, on June 12, 2015 at 10:51 am

    Actually, I read the following in Wikipedia and was hoping Mike could boil it down a bit.

    Take a geometric object like a square. What does nominalism have to say about it?

    Nominalism is a metaphysical view in philosophy according to which general or abstract terms and predicates exist, while universals or abstract objects, which are sometimes thought to correspond to these terms, do not exist.[1] There are at least two main versions of nominalism. One version denies the existence of universals – things that can be instantiated or exemplified by many particular things (e.g., strength, humanity). The other version specifically denies the existence of abstract objects – objects that do not exist in space and time.[2]

    Most nominalists have held that only physical particulars in space and time are real, and that universals exist only post res, that is, subsequent to particular things.[3] However, some versions of nominalism hold that some particulars are abstract entities (e.g., numbers), while others are concrete entities – entities that do exist in space and time (e.g., thrones, couches, bananas).

    Nominalism is primarily a position on the problem of universals, which dates back at least to Plato, and is opposed to realism – the view that universals do exist over and above particulars. However, the name “nominalism” emerged from debates in medieval philosophy with Roscellinus.

    The term ‘nominalism’ stems from the Latin nomen, “name.” For example, John Stuart Mill once wrote, that “there is nothing general except names”. In philosophy of law, nominalism finds its application in what is called constitutional nominalism.[4]

    • WTP said, on June 12, 2015 at 11:15 am

      The other version specifically denies the existence of abstract objects

      Yes. The question of one-ness. What is one of anything? No two “real” things are exactly alike so how can you define the limits of either “one” of them. And if you can’t even have “one” of something, of what use is classifying it for any useful purpose?…and hence the rabbit hole. Could spin this into quantum physics and such, and on and on and on…and thus solipsism, possibly leading to narcissism, possibly leading to nihilism, and on and on..

      And yet everything communicated here was built on the premise that “one” and “zero” have distinct meanings. But if this were truly so, we wouldn’t need checksums, ECC’s, whathaveyous. But you get the point. Assuming there is such a thing as a point. What’s the use?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 12, 2015 at 11:18 am

      While it depends on which nominalist you asked, the “standard” nominalist would say that it being a square is due to it “falling under” the predicate “square” or being in the class of “square” things. One stock criticism is the argument that the nominalist has it backwards: being in the class of squares does not make a square a square. Rather, it is being a square that makes it a member of that class.

      Or, put very crudely, a square is a square because we call it a square.

      Believe it or not, people used to stab each other over this issue, back in the middle ages.

    • WTP said, on June 13, 2015 at 10:04 pm

      TJ, I the subject hasn’t specifically come up recently, but I was under the presumption that you are a software developer. Do I have that right or did I read something wrong between the lines a while back?

      • TJB said, on June 13, 2015 at 11:21 pm

        I’m a materials scientist. The only coding I do is in Python and Mathematica.

        • WTP said, on June 14, 2015 at 8:50 am

          Ah, it was the Python thing. So my somewhat vague sw references were just polluting the void. And thus regarding this specific topic you haven’t had the pleasure of spending hours in meetings arguing what abstract functionality belongs to what abstract concept based on its meta-name. Lucky you.

  5. TJB said, on June 12, 2015 at 10:55 am

    What would a nominalist say about the following (from Wikipedia):

    “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” is a frequently referenced part of William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet seems to argue that it does not matter that Romeo is from her rival’s house of Montague, that is, that he is named “Montague.” The reference is often used to imply that the names of things do not affect what they really are.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 12, 2015 at 11:20 am

      A sophisticated nominalist would speak in terms of class memberships, resemblances or concepts and deny that nominalism is mere naming. Those who criticize nominalism argue that it cannot do the work it claims it does and the reality of qualities apart from predicates, concepts and class membership need to be accepted.

      • WTP said, on June 13, 2015 at 3:34 pm

        I’m curious about the adjectives here. Is “sophisticated nominalist” meant to imply that there is a level of nominalism that is significantly superior to garden variety nominalism and thus the true form of nominalism that should be taken seriously? Are “those who criticize nominalism” criticizing even these “sophisticates”, or are they simply picking at the low hanging fruit of silly nominalism? Is this comparing apples and oranges?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 16, 2015 at 3:53 pm

          Like with most theories, there are simple and “sophisticated” versions. Sophisticated nominalism is marked by complexity and are usually built to respond to objections against other forms.

  6. ronster12012 said, on June 13, 2015 at 11:19 am

    Not quite gender nominalism but race nominalism is the current case of NAACP official Rachel Dolezal who says she is black but her parents disagree. So is she or isn’t she? She says she “doesn’t give two shits what anyone thinks” and is black but not necessarily african-american. Is she just a wigger or a fraudster or mentally ill or does she have a right to be whatever she says she is? Is it immoral to not accept her self assessment?

  7. TJB said, on June 13, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    The left is eating itself. What happens to affirmative action when everyone starts to self identify as a minority?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 16, 2015 at 3:51 pm

      The obesity epidemic means that it will take a long time for the left to eat itself. I’m not too worried, since there has been only one case-so, the “threat level” is certainly microscopic. But, you do raise a reasonable point of concern: what happens to all the race-based programs/scholarships/etc. if people can just self-declare race? Why not claim all races (and genders) and take all the scholarships?

      • TJB said, on June 16, 2015 at 10:15 pm

        Mike, if a white person self identifies as black and gains acceptance to a university is there any consequence?

        Isn’t this basically how Elizabeth Warren got a position at Harvard Law school?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 17, 2015 at 1:03 pm

          Excellent point. While it is claimed by some that race is purely a social construct, it is a construct that has clear consequences. If a person uses race identity to “exploit” the system, that would seem to be denying someone who is “really” of that race that benefit. Looked at one way, that would seem unfair-like a person claiming to be older to win the Master’s trophy in running when she is only 25. Looked at another way, if people are serious that race is a social construct, then sorting out fairness becomes problematic-if there is no race, then there is no wrong way to declare one’s race.

  8. TJB said, on June 14, 2015 at 10:04 am

    Actually, this might be the right place to mention that in our ordinary world two things are never identical, but in the atomic and subatomic world things are in fact identical.

    Thus every hydrogen atom is exactly the same as every other hydrogen atom. Every electron is identical to every other electron.

    This is actually a profound difference between classical and quantum physics.

  9. ajmacdonaldjr said, on June 15, 2015 at 11:02 pm

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 17, 2015 at 1:08 pm

      The university is in the wrong. While the police should take serious threats seriously, a university does not have the moral right to impose its codes on the expression of students outside of the university. And even then, restrictions should be very limited and serve a clear legitimate purpose. For example, not allowing students to randomly scream out obscenities during a class seems fine.

      I support a very broad view of free speech-if someone is not committing a real harm, then she should be free to express her views.

  10. Glen Wallace said, on June 16, 2015 at 11:27 pm

    Let me posit a whole new theory: ‘Realistic Conceivablism’ If you you can conceive ‘it’, that ‘it’ already exists metaphysically. Universals are only a function of the human tendency to use any particular as a measure of other particulars — but that human practice still has found a ‘universal’ that already exists. The more a particular is used as a measure the more it can be classified as a universal. But that act of measuring itself creates a connection between the particular and the ‘universal’ that is also metaphysically real. While there is such a thing as a perfect square, there is no such thing as a perfect chair. I don’t think there is just one pure form chair in existence. The function of a chair is built into its identity. Many different people have multiple different concepts about what a chair is in terms of the angle and height of the back and legs of the chair. It is instead the shared conception of the function of something supporting ones seat against gravity on four elevated corners while having the capability to support one’s back to the near vertical position combined with everyone having their own memories such an object that achieves that function that gives a chair its universal form that any individual uses as a universal form to measure other chairs. There may be an infinite number of metaphysical forms, therefore everything doesn’t necessarily have a name. We already have a name for a ‘square’ but no name for a square that had all its corners rounded.

    As support for my position that everything conceivable already exists metaphysically I would argue that their existence is necessary for thought to occur at all in the first place and not have to be constantly immersed in the ‘booming buzzing confusion.’ The physical world we are navigating through is a multitude cacophony of stimuli in a constant state of flux, that without a belief in metaphysical universals, there would be no way to make any sense of it. There needs to be a belief in a connection through time and space between particulars that would not be possible had those universals not already existed to interject into the mind of the navigator.

    • WTP said, on June 17, 2015 at 9:08 am

      I would argue that their existence is necessary for thought to occur at all in the first place and not have to be constantly immersed in the ‘booming buzzing confusion.’

      It is worth noting that quite often the purpose of going down such a thought path is to distract from the actual argument. While quite often it is necessary to discern the difference and ponder of a thing on which one may sit which has a back and only three legs is still a chair and not a stool, if it is one’s job to mop the floor beneath such is a very moot point.

      Also, while a universalist’s dismissal of categorization can be seen, or is even paraded, as a sign of intelligence, I need look no further than my dog to find a creature who views most things in the world as a universal concept. Stuff is either “eat”/”don’t eat”, “place to defecate”/”not a place to defecate”, “mountable”/”not mount worthy”.

    • WTP said, on June 17, 2015 at 9:19 am

      Past fail…the above, Eddie Murphy in 1984, “White Like Me”

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