The Metaphysics of Gender

The Metaphysics of Gender

The Metaphysics of Gender

The Metaphysics of Gender


The Metaphysics of Gender is a book about gender essentialism: What it is and why it might be true. It opens with the question: What is gender essentialism? The first chapter distinguishes between essentialism about kinds of individuals (e.g. women and men as groups) and essentialism aboutindividuals (e.g. you and me). Successive chapters introduce the ingredients for a theory of gender essentialism about individuals, called uniessentialism. Gender uniessentialism claims that a social individual's gender is uniessential to that individual. It is modeled on Aristotle's essentialism in which the form or essence ofan individual is the principle of unity of that individual. For example, the form or essence of an artifact, like a house, is what unifies the material parts of the house into a new individual (over and above a sum of parts). Since an individual's gender is a social role (or set of social norms),the kind of unity in question is not the unity of material parts, as it is in the artifact example. Instead, the central claim of gender uniessentialism is that an individual's gender provides that individual with a principle of normative unity - a principle that orders and organizes all of thatindividual's other social roles. An important ingredient in gender uniessentialism concerns exactly which individuals are at issue - human organisms, persons, or social individuals? The Metaphysics of Gender argues that a social individual's gender is uniessential to it. Gender uniessentialism expresses the centrality of gender inour lived experiences and explores the social normativity of gender in a way that is useful for feminist theory and politics.


The only dependable test for gender is the truth of a
person’s life, the lives we live each day.

—(Jennifer Finney Boylan, “The XY Games,”
New York Times, 8/03/08)

While working on this book, I have had occasion to try to explain its topic to friends, family, and acquaintances. I would ask whether they thought they would be the same person or individual if they were a different gender. All the people I spoke with thought that they would not be the same person if they were a different gender; the world, it seems, is filled with gender essentialists. Indeed, my interlocutors often had difficulty understanding why someone would write a book on a question that had an obvious answer. They may have also had doubts about my authorial competence once I explained that I had difficulty understanding the question much less answering it. This book is simply my attempt to articulate what they understand already. What does it mean to think that gender is essential to an individual, and why might it be true—at least for one understanding of gender, one interpretation of essentialism, and one kind of individual?

I have also on occasion explained or presented my research to colleagues in philosophy and in feminism/gender studies; they have, predictably, reacted very differently. I rarely find a professional colleague who thinks the question about his or her gender has an obvious and easy answer. And even when the . . .

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