Philosophy and Trans Activism: First Impressions

These are just some initial observations and partially-formed thoughts regarding support for trans activism in current philosophical work.¹ There are more specific issues and questions I hope to write about (once I’ve had the chance to do a bit more research) but, tentatively:


  • (so far, based on my incomplete(!) examination of the literature) For the most part, it is assumed that any definition of “woman” must include trans women, and the argument proceeds from there. When this is not simply assumed, the case is made using some combination of 1. biological sex is a spectrum and/or socially constructed, 2. gender (≠ biological sex) is good and/or important so should not be abolished, and 3. the gender self-identification of trans women should be accepted as authoritative (b/c standpoint theory, feminist epistemology)
  • There is general (implicit or explicit) suspicion regarding all things ‘objective,’ ‘scientific,’ ‘factual,’ etc, as well as a tendency toward (what are, in my opinion) false dichotomies. This is especially apparent in discussions about concepts and about the goals of philosophy. Concepts that fail to apply in even just a few cases are often quickly dismissed as useless/inaccurate or morally objectionable (“exclusionary”).  Philosophy as an imperfect, but still worthwhile, process of discovery concerned, in some sense, with an objective reality is rejected in favour of a kind of apologetic process that can be used to justify and defend what we have already decided should be the case. Again, though, this is just my initial impression.
  • This is, more or less, an extension of the last point, but, consistent with the suspicion surrounding objectivity, the line between claims about individual, subjective perceptions, and some sort of collective experience (am trying to avoid using “objective”) is often unclear. Additionally, this ‘principle of suspicion’ is inconsistently applied (probably because it would be rather difficult to apply consistently), and the way it is applied seems like it might have more to do with the cultural association of certain terms with “objectivity” than with how/where objectivity as a concept (under that name or any other) is actually being used.
  • Words are often used in confusing and imprecise ways. Sometimes I get the impression that ambiguity is being used in an intentionally self-protective way, especially when controversial claims are being made, but I can’t know what an author’s motives are in any particular case, so this is just speculation. In general, there is a lot of equivocation both within and between works (e.g. on words like “sex,” “gender,” “violence,” etc.), and words that have changed in meaning over time are frequently interpreted anachronistically (e.g. “lesbian”).


These ideas are works in progress; respectful engagement from any perspective is welcome. I’d especially love to hear from any of the authors.


¹For a critical perspective, see Kathleen Stock’s writing on the subject. The observations here are informed primarily by the work of Talia Mae Bettcher Miranda Fricker, Rachel McKinnon, and Lori Watson, as well as entries in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Talia Mae Bettcher, Heidi Grasswick, and Mari Mikkola. Feel free to contact me for more information about sources.

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