The Question of Gender is First and Foremost a Metaphysical Question

It is not hyperbole to say that there is no more controversial a topic to speak or write about in our culture today than that of gender. There seems to be no consensus whatsoever on what gender even is, let alone where it comes from, or what it might mean or represent. To name just a few of the ideas I have come across: gender is no different than biological sex, gender is a cultural construct, gender is self-identity or self-expression, gender is a statistical norm relevant to most people, but perhaps not all,[1] gender is an imposition, gender is an inessential hyper-cultural identity (see Charlotte Witt’s The Metaphysics of Gender), and last, my favorite purely for its simplicity: gender does not exist.

There are of course even more complicating factors at play in these discussions, such as so-called sexual identity, power differentials between the sexes, and oppressive cultural forces. All of these—and more—have roles in any discussion of gender as well, and to pretend as if they did not is both to blind oneself to what is at play here and ultimately impede the search for what is true.

Still, to put it bluntly: it all feels a mess. A mess that, somewhat understandably, many scholars do not want to get anywhere near. Not only is the issue in itself philosophically, theologically, and metaphysically sticky, but then one must face the possible consequences of starting to try and untangle what is at stake in all of this: being labeled a bigot, a misogynist, or perhaps worst of all for intellectuals: being told one is wrong.

Let us start with some meta-questions then: why is this question of gender so metaphysically sticky? Why are we somewhat afraid to go near it? And finally, why does everyone—educated in the discourse or not—seem to have an opinion on it, and likely a strong one, such that one is much more likely to elicit reactions or be told one is wrong when discussing gender rather than say, how Aristotle’s understanding of form develops from Plato?

This last question might be most important—that is, why every single person seems to have a strong opinion when it comes to the gender discourse, as it were. And its answer also helps us respond to the other meta-questions I have just posed. The answer, of course, is that gender runs through our very being in such a way that we can say—at the very least—it touches on every aspect of who (and what) each of us is, and perhaps is even somehow generative of who and what we are. The relationship between gender and personal identity, I think, remains to be fully understood.

But the first step in working out such an understanding is at the very least to recognize that gender—no matter what one thinks it is precisely—touches very close to our self-conception, which in turn means that in some ways it is very difficult to look at. While I may be able abstractly to think of my-self as growing up under different circumstances—a different social class, for example, or perhaps in a different county—it becomes quite difficult to think my-self as not a woman. In a way, the moment I make that leap my-“self” disappears, and the person I am thinking becomes someone else.[2]

It seems to me that if we recognize just how deeply gender affects, or perhaps springs from, our very being, then we begin to understand why discussion of it (whether we are talking about the relationships between the genders, transgender issues or ideologies, or any particular characteristic of men or women) tends to elicit such strong opinions and emotions. As embodied and gendered creatures, we have all thought about gender, perhaps only implicitly, at some point in our lives. And as those same embodied and gendered creatures who have at least implicitly if not outright explicitly thought about what it means to be one’s own gender especially in the face of the other one, we all in one way or another have a legitimate claim to speaking about what gender is or means.

If this is the case, why are we so hesitant to talk about it? Again, the answer lies in our perhaps vague conception about how deep this topic cuts: gender has something to do with our very being. It touches on the deepest parts of us, and seems, at least in one way or another, to have something to do with every aspect of who each of us is. We know this intuitively and therefore it seems to me we also know intuitively that approaching the subject is a bit like approaching holy ground: maybe we should not do it if we are not properly prepared, at the cost of our very lives. Even in our hesitation to speak about the subject, the fact that gender is a mystery (and I mean that word in its realest and fullest sense) shines through.

So where does this leave us? So far it all feels a bit chaotic, with not too much consensus—both within and without the Church—and a lot of potential landmines on which to step. Maybe then the whole thing is better left alone, though I think not, ultimately, and I will argue for this in a moment. However, before I start arguing that position, I would like to outline three overarching positions that I encounter with regard to gender and the discussion about gender in Catholic philosophy and theology, and why I find all three of them insufficient.

The first is what I like to call the “Why are we even talking about this?” approach. It is one that does not often get written about because, well, those who hold it do not think gender should be written about. However, I encounter this a great deal in conversation in academic circles. It more or less goes like this:

It is obvious that there is a binary difference between men and women. Those who deny the difference always end up in self-contradiction—in fact, they violate the rule of non-contradiction and therefore are quite literally ridiculous. To entertain discussion about something so obviously running through all of human nature is to give credence to those who deny the obvious, or try and twist the obvious into something much more complicated. Why give the discussion credibility by engaging in it? And besides, we have much more important things to talk about.

I have some sympathy for this position. Being asked to explain and defend what seems so glaringly obvious is kind of exhausting. How do I maintain the fact that the world actually exists after Descartes has destroyed it in thought without gesturing around and saying “Do you not also see this?” Shouldn’t I be able to take the person who puts the real binary gender distinction into question—in whatever way—and bring him out into the world, and point to men, and point to women, and say, “look: see the difference”?

There are several issues here, some extrinsic and some intrinsic. I am going to address the extrinsic immediately. The problem, is, of course, that the issue is being put into question, however obvious some think it might be or not. Something is happening right now in our culture—and discussing whence and how this question has arisen is worth dedicating time to, but is not my current task—to make the seemingly obvious not obvious. And for that alone, I think we have a task and a duty to think about the issue of gender, however un- or under-prepared we might feel to do so, or however unnecessary we might think the discussion is. If we, as Catholic philosophers and theologians, are given the task of defending creation, as I think we are, then we are also given the task of defending what is true, even if it seems almost ridiculous to do so. We should be willing to look ridiculous to defend what is true.

The second approach is that of defending the binary gender difference through superficial means. I generally call this the “gender-as-characteristics” approach, and it almost always collapses rather swiftly. Its basic outline goes something like this: “There is a difference between men and women and in order to defend it, I am going to list all the stereotypes I know about men vs. women, and my defense of the difference will consist in solely this.” This fails for many reasons, not least because these arguments often run to gender stereotypes held in 1950s middle-class America, which were already destructive to men, women, and families, and represent a strange bourgeoisie ethic of what it means to be “normal” and “successful” that already contains within it a violent and untrue conception of what it means to be human being.

Stereotype- or characteristic-listing in order to defend the reality of a binary gender difference is not only a poor way to mount such a defense, but actually achieves the opposite of what it intends, which is to say that it helps convince people that maybe the difference is not real after all.[3] Once one argues that to be a man, or perhaps more weakly, a typical masculine characteristic, is to be impassive, and to be woman is to be sensitive, someone (and someone you probably know) proves this wrong in his or her incarnate being. That is to say, we all know one or more impassive women, and one or more sensitive men. Or perhaps the argument is even more superficial, in the case of arguing that only women like certain colors, or care about their appearance more than men, and again, we all have specific concrete examples of people we know proving such characteristic-listing wrong. I have known many peacocks in my day.

It is also the case that once we step out of our own time and culture, these lists of characteristics become even more ridiculous looking. Take, for example, the convention of men having short hair, which has varied from culture to culture, or different types of dress being reserved for the different genders, which has also varied greatly. These characteristics or conventions, while perhaps having some purchase at the beginning of any discussion about gender, really do not hold up under scrutiny.

Are we really ready to claim that the groups of characteristics we here-and-now categorize as masculine or feminine are what defines, what has always defined, and what will always define masculinity and femininity throughout history? This is not to say that noticing that men and women can or perhaps generally differ on a characteristic-level in any given culture is not important. In fact, it should be noted as important that even though the characteristics deemed as masculine vs. those deemed as feminine have changed through time and culture, there has, until very recently, been some recognition of different characteristics that are seen as normal for each gender. My point, however, is that if one uses characteristics to defend that there is a real difference between genders, one’s argument will ultimately collapse under the weight of its own superficiality.

Third, we have the “maybe they are right?” approach. This one is pretty straightforward and more or less immediately acquiesces to those who put the binary gender difference into question and perhaps want to do away with it altogether. This approach looks at the arguments some of its proponents have made about the non-sensibility of the gender-as-characteristics argument, or even just the difficulty in saying what gender actually is or means, and says, “maybe it is true that this difference is not so obvious after all, or maybe it is true that most of humanity was wrong for thinking this difference was fairly significant throughout history.” That is to say, maybe they are right. There is rather a large amount of what C.S. Lewis would call “chronological snobbery” here, but even so, we should think about whether humanity has finally reached a point where we realize something we have always taken for granted should be put into question. The problem I have with the “maybe they are right” approach is that it does not at all to take into account either history or the Church’s position. It is rooted in a belief that nature does not really matter after all, which ultimately betrays a very deep nihilism.

I believe all three of these approaches to be wildly insufficient. I find the same problem at root in all three, which is that all three are entirely too hasty. This may seem at first a superficial critique, but hastiness in argument and thought ultimately betrays a desire not to reveal that one is not actually very sure of the position or reality about which one is speaking. In a sense, hastiness is a desire to foreclose against mystery, a refusal to be in aporia.

With regard to the first approach I outlined, there is a refusal to recognize that there may be something to all this discussion, that is, that despite the seeming insanity of putting the binary gender difference into question, that we might be being asked to think about precisely this reality which runs through human nature at what seems to be a very deep—if not the deepest—level more profoundly than ever before. Again, the reasons this call has arisen are many and varied, but it seems irresponsible, and frankly, unphilosophical, to ignore such a call to thinking an integral aspect of human nature and the human experience. Many of the Platonic dialogues begin with someone asking about some reality that first seems obvious—justice, friendship, love, virtue—until someone, often Socrates, asks “yes, but what is it?” and it quickly becomes apparent that the seemingly obvious was never altogether clear and no one is entirely comfortable with his own way of articulating it—even Socrates, depending on which dialogue one is reading.

In fact I am quite sure, in light of the history of thought, we are continually called to think and ask about realities we have never, so to speak, thought about before. This of course means admitting that we have not thought about such things before, which means admitting that we do not know, but also, possibly, we are not entirely sure where to start. And that takes humility—specifically, I think, the humility proper to philosophy. Recognizing what it is we do not know is the beginning of knowledge. A hastiness to foreclose against even asking the questions blocks the path before we begin to walk it.

The second approach, gender-as-characteristics, commits a similar error. In the rush to defend the binary gender difference as real, this approach bypasses the time it may take actually to think about what gender’s reality could mean or reveal and jumps straight to defending the difference in superficial ways in order simply to have something to say. But a hasty defense more often than not turns into self-harm, even if one is “on the right side” or some other superficial platitude. In this case specifically, the hastiness—which is to say, again, a refusal of aporia—leads to making questions about whether gender actually exists or is really a binary look rather plausible. Generally when we are hasty, we are not thoughtful, but simply reactive, and reactionary thought is never all that profound or fruitful.

Last, the “maybe they are right” approach. The hastiness of this approach looks very similar to the first because both refuse to acknowledge that there is a question to be asked. While the first approach more or less argues that the obvious does not need any asking after, this one immediately acquiesces to the view that what was long held to be true is obviously not, and therefore, again, we do not need to ask the question. It is again a refusal of aporia, a desire to close off the question, or the asking of the question too hastily, except in this instance instead of simply asserting the difference’s reality, those who take this approach baldly destroy the difference, or any real significance it may have.

So then, what is the answer? How do we deal with the question of gender and gender difference that seemingly has arisen in an acute way in our time without being too hasty? It seems to me we have to look at what it means to be in aporia, and look to that discipline that is (or at least should be) defined by its relative ease with regard to aporia. That discipline is metaphysics.

I have said above in a couple different ways that those who wish to defend the binary difference often use the adjective of “real” to describe it. “There is a real difference between men and women” is a refrain one often hears, especially when wading into gender-as-characteristics-type arguments. I am not sure what else we can mean by real other than at the level of being itself. I am not saying here that gender has to do immediately or directly with esse, though that may be true.[4]

What I am claiming is that metaphysics—classically conceived as the thinking about the structures of reality or being itself in terms of such categories as form, matter, substance, esse, accidents, etc.—is the discipline broad and deep enough, as well as comfortable enough to sit with its own ignorance (at least for a while)—to handle the question of gender. This is to say (and here finally is the claim): the question of gender is first and foremost a metaphysical question.

There is of course rather a lot implied in this claim. The first implication being that gender is real, that is, it has to do with the very structure and roots of human nature, and is not simply, or primarily, or firstly, a biological reality.[5] Gender—that is, the division of human nature into two which are both alike and different, man and woman—is not a superficial (and therefore unimportant) difference, not simply a social or cultural construct, and certainly not an aggregation of what we currently deem to be “normal.”[6] Rather, gender is an indication of what is going on at the level of being itself, because gender is an expression of being in the incarnate dual-form that is human nature.

This leads to the second implication of gender being first and foremost a metaphysical question, which is that gender reveals something about being itself. I have found that while many are on board, so to speak, with the first claim, not as many agree with this second one, because once we make the claim that gender is revelatory of some aspect of being, it is sometimes difficult to see how this does not entail a division within being itself.

But I think this too quick to say what being looks like,[7] so to speak, and I also think the first claim non-sensical without the second. If the binary gender difference is “real” as many are so fond of saying, then it must have something to do with the very being of human nature, and if that is true, then the phenomenon of the gender difference must be revelatory of some aspect—and I suspect a very important one—of the structure of being itself. It is to this that I believe we are currently being called to think and therefore bring to light. And for this we need metaphysics. But we also need time.

I said earlier that the three approaches to the gender discussion are too hasty, and I think this hastiness comes at least in part as a result of a disbelief that gender does actually have anything to do with the ontological structure of human nature, which is to say, they deny that gender and ontology have anything to do with one another. But this is to deny a strand of thought that goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, who both spent some time musing about the dual nature of human being, though each in his own way leaving the situation quite ambiguous.[8] It would also be to deny reality and the principle that creation is revelatory of being itself, and ultimately God. If this difference is real, it must then have something to do with the structure of reality itself. As we know, reality is always bigger than our ideas about it and therefore in being too hasty in our desire to define and know reality, we almost always close the definition a bit too early, leaving no space for continued revelation.

I recently have taken to comparing our situation with regard to the question of gender to the situation in the early Church with regard to who and what exactly Christ was. Is Christ man or is he God? There were obvious and compelling arguments for both sides, but what is so interesting to me here is that the Church did not resolve this until about three centuries later. And then what she did was affirm what she knew to be true and real, but she did not exactly define the issue, at least in the way we normally think of definition. In fact, she kept the issue open rather than letting us close it in a definition that was far too small. The early Church knew two things for sure:

  1. that Jesus is God, and
  2. that Jesus is man

The question of course was (and still is) what that could possibly mean. The various early Church debates about this are well-known, so I will not rehash them here, but note that we already have an example of what it means for the Church to live in the tension of not knowing something, without an attempt to define hastily, while also recognizing the extreme metaphysical and theological stakes of this tension. The Church knew Christ is God and man, and it took her several hundred years even to begin to comprehend this—and this is precisely the point of so many things about which the Church has her so-called final word: to help us realize that we do not in fact fully comprehend this reality, that mystery is not an empty abyss into which we must avoid stepping, but an overly full light to which we can give ourselves completely.

Please note that I am pointing to the situation in the early Church to help us think about how to think about gender for several reasons. The first is, as I have just said, the Church already has experience with understanding that a reality is important enough to affirm it while simultaneously recognizing her own ignorance in front of it such that she holds it open for us and the world. The second reason, however, is that the question of who Christ is seems to look somewhat similar to this question of gender insofar as both are questions of unity and difference.

Man and woman are both human, and yet there is this division between them that sometimes seems unbridgeable, and yet, despite it all is in fact bridgeable. I do wonder if the Chalcedonian formula (“without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation”) cannot help us think through these issues precisely because there is here a question of unity and difference at the deepest possible level. And I also wonder if it is not a coincidence that many of the early Church Fathers, in trying to think through the relationship between Christ’s two natures, explored the nuptial analogy. But in order to allow ourselves space to think in this direction, we have to take the question of gender seriously—that is to say, that analogous to the question about Christ’s two natures, the question about gender has stakes for how we understand not only being itself, but the very nature of human being. The stakes here are similarly high.

In his First Theological Oration, Gregory of Nazianzus there calls what he is doing not theology but “philosophizing about God” (Oration 27.3). I bring this up not to pit philosophy and theology against one another, but simply to say that I think what he is doing in the Orations—which concerns not only Christ’s dual nature, but also the Trinity—is metaphysics, as I think to be the case with so many of the early Church Fathers. Of course they are also doing theology, but in order to speak about these great and seemingly incomprehensible mysteries, Gregory and his brethren must speculate about the structure of reality and being itself—in fact they must rethink it according to this scandalous phenomenon of God becoming man. So metaphysics and theology have everything to do with each other. What I am saying is we have precedent for dealing with what I have called “sticky” metaphysical issues that we have never before encountered. And that precedent calls for attention, time, and metaphysics.

Metaphysics is not only the study being itself, but it is, I think, more deeply a recognition that reality is much deeper and more expansive than the ideas one has about it. Metaphysics, when practiced properly, is therefore the humility to say, “I do not know, but we should think about it” in the face of things it may be uncomfortable about which to say exactly that. This is what I mean by aporia. Metaphysics is also a recognition of, and even delight in, the questions with which reality—and this includes culture—presents it. Rather than feeling threatened, we can see these very questions as an opportunity to deepen our understanding of reality itself.[9] If then the binary gender difference is real, and we wish to deepen our understanding of this reality—and perhaps in the process learn something not just about the reality of gender, but the meaning of being itself—we need to develop a philosophy of gender, and this philosophy of gender should be metaphysically rooted.

The reader will have noticed I have not written exactly what I understand about where or how gender is ontologically rooted, or what it reveals about the nature of man, or more broadly, being itself. In short: what gender is. And the truth is, I am not entirely sure. There have been fits and starts in the history of philosophy in thinking about this subject,[10] but it seems to me we are now being asked to think it more deeply than ever before. I suspect the reality of gender has something to do with the ontological goodness of difference,[11] but I cannot say too much more at this point. Others are surely further along than I. What I do know is that this discussion needs the following:

  1. a recognition of its importance, philosophically-speaking,
  2. time to understand not only why this question has arisen so acutely in this moment, but also what is at stake in this difference, and
  3. a robust metaphysics to help us begin simply to see the issue with some clarity.

In a certain sense, all three are different calls to see the necessary role of metaphysics in developing a philosophy of gender.

[1] See Jonathan Heaps and Neil Ormerod’s “Statistically Ordered: Gender, Sexual Identity, and the Metaphysics of ‘Normal’” in Theological Studies 80.2, 346–369.

[2] Though I do not think transgender ultimately a real category, I do think it interesting that this could be said of those individuals who think of themselves as transgender—that is to say, trans-identified people do precisely this: identify themselves as “trans”, meaning their identity in some way rests not just on their being self-identified as a man or a woman, but rather a man who was once identified as a woman (i.e., a woman who understands herself to be a man) or a woman who was once identified as a man (i.e., a man who understands himself to be a woman). Additionally, when a trans-identified person does transition, he or she generally leaves his or her name behind (the so-called “dead-name”), and so effectively he or she is in fact trying to become someone different.

[3] It is also the case that transgender ideologues, and those who identify themselves as transgender often run to these very same stereotypes, which also indicates the stereotypes’ ultimate insufficiency and violence.

[4] See D.C. Schindler’s “Perfect Difference: Gender and the Analogy of Being” in Communio 43.2, 194–231, for the beginning of an argument that goes in this direction.

[5] This is not to discount biology’s importance, but we need to understand that biology is always an expression of ontology (and not the other way around).

[6] Again, see: “Statistically Ordered”, cited above.

[7] I find often that those who are worried about dividing being have a very static and reified understanding of what esse is, and how it functions. Esse commune is not a static block of substance, parceled out to creatures who then hold on to it for as long as they can, but a dynamic, vivifying force that is closer to creatures than they are to themselves. If esse commune is the “act of all actualities” as Thomas says, then esse is far more fluid than I think many commentators of Thomas see. For more on this, see my “Thinking the ‘Nothing’ of Being: Ferdinand Ulrich on Transnihilation” in Communio 46.1.

[8] In the Republic and the Statesman, Socrates declares that the guardians should be both men and women, and not treated any differently from each other, though in the Republic, he also wonders about the difference between them, and lands on the one definitive difference being about the sexual act: the man mounts the woman, and the woman brings forth (Republic 454d–e). This may seem an almost throwaway line, but I think not, as I doubt anything in Platonic dialogues is coincidental or beside the point. It seems to me Plato is trying to deal with this fundamental tension and difference running through humanity, and doesn’t quite know what to do with it: on the one hand, the guardians should be treated the same regardless of gender, and on the other hand, there is a difference, even if he’s not sure exactly what he can say about it.

To my mind it gets even more interesting in Aristotle, who, in On the Generation of Animals is dealing with the fundamental tension of the higher order animals needing two (male and female) to generate rather than just one, which would seem to imitate the unmoved mover more closely. Generation is how mortal being participates in the eternity of the unmoved mover (Book II.1), and in order to have generation one must have a female, even though the female (according to Aristotle) is “defective male” (Book II.3). If one reads On the Generation of Animals closely, one sees Aristotle dealing with this “problem” of co-enactment (i.e., male and female being necessary for generation) the entire time. In Book II.5 he goes back to the issue of the necessity of female for the species and even wonders why, when it seems the females have all the material necessary to generate, they even need males. By the end of Generation, one can see Aristotle is not really satisfied with his answer, but sort feels like he must move on, so to speak.

[9] Of course there is also always a risk in these kinds of opportunities, which is confusion about what is true. In pointing to the situation in the early Church, there is also the parallel of most of the early Church being Arian and/or gnostic, and looking back, we see how easily the entire Church could have slipped into that heresy and lost the understanding of the means of salvation. And yet, despite the real danger, the Church did not simply foreclose on the question.

[10] Mostly recently: de Beauvoir, Irigiray, Edith Stein, Prudence Allen, etc.

[11] See my and Adrian J. Walker’s, “The Saving Difference” in Communio 42.1.

Featured Image: Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, 1485; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Rachel Coleman

Rachel Coleman is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Assumption University in Worcester, MA.

Read more by Rachel Coleman

The Eclipse of Sex by the Rise of Gender

Abigail Favale, Director of the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox, reconstructs the history of how collective focus shifted from sex to gender.

Judith Butler