The metaphysics of gender

I recently listened to this talk by John Finley titled The Metaphysics of Gender: A Thomistic Approach. Below are my notes of this. I skip the introductory remarks and follow the four-section division of the talk. Note that by “gender” here we do not mean the psychological or social construct introduced by modern feminists. Rather, by “gender” we mean the biological distinction between male and female. Some have come to refer to this as “sex” but in the introduction John notes that both terms have ambiguity and so he just picked one. By-and-large parentheses represent my own thoughts, but this is not always the case. And finally, the times for each of the sections are written next to each of their headings.

Aquinas’s position (8:56-20:30)

A man is a male human being and a woman is a female human being. Male and female are distinguished by their mode of generation: the male is that which can generate in another, while the female is that which can generate in itself. Whatever meanings man and woman could have, they need be connected to these meanings.

So, then, what is the connection between male or female on the one hand, and being human on the other? It does not affect that one has a human nature: one’s gender does not elevate or detract from one’s being a human being. Perhaps, it’s better to say that gender affects how one participates in human nature. “It might be better to say that men and women share human nature equally but differently, according to their respective generative abilities. In an analogous way, being blue-eyed and being brown-eyed pertain equally but differently to the human power of vision.” Nevertheless, gender must be a more significant personal attribute than eye-color, since it involves distinct organs, activities, and purposes. It is also more uniform than other less significant attributes, which appear more sporadically throughout the human population.

Thomas has two classifications of accidents: (1) a logical classification (in terms of genus, species, etc.) in The Disputed Questions on the Soul and (2) a metaphysical classification (as arising from form and matter) in On Being and Essence:

On the logical classification there are three sorts of accidents: proper accidents (eg. risibility in humans) result from the principles of the species and so characterise all members, inseparable accidents (eg. masculine and feminine) result from the principles of the individual through permanent causation and so characterise that member in a lasting fashion, and separable accidents (eg. sitting and walking) flow from the principles of the individual through temporary causation and so only characterise that member at particular times. The main focus here is the inseparable accidents, however it’s not clear what other examples of such accidents there are. Aquinas gives examples like eye color, bone structure, and natural temperament, but as noted above these seem less significant than gender. A question arises as to which principles of the individual (soul, or body, or both) bring these accidents about. This is addressed by his metaphysical classification in On Being and Essence.

Regarding the metaphysical classification, we note that the whole substance is the true subject of all accidents, but since humans are composed of two principles (form and matter) certain accidents flow more from form and others more from matter. Thomas describes four kinds of accident (two following from form primarily, and two following from matter primarily). First, of those following from form, rational activities — understanding and willing — occur entirely in the soul and have no share in matter (though there is a measure of dependence on the physical sense organs). “Other accidents following from form, like sensation, do have a share in matter since they properly reside in the composite substance. The soul, that is, originates powers of sensation but it can’t sense on its own.” “Moving downward, accidents following from matter will always have some relation to form since matter on its own is pure potency, uncharacterized by any feature.” So, in the third case, some accidents following from matter relate to a particular kind of form. For Aquinas, masculine and feminine are accidents that follow from matter but precisely in relation to an animal form. So when the animal dies, and the animal form is separated from the body, it is no longer gendered in a univocal way. Finally, “other accidents following from matter relate to a more general form, as one’s skin color occurs through matter’s relation to the form of some elemental mixture. The color thus remains even after the person has died.”

Combining the two accounts, Aquinas takes gender to be an inseparable accident following from one’s matter in direct relation to one’s substantial form as an animal. This helps us distinguish it from other inseparable accidents, as they would follow from one’s matter in direct relation to some form other than one’s animal substantial form. It seems that gender is the only example of this special class of inseparable accident we have, and so it is in this sense a metaphysically unique feature.

“Now, if being male or female relates necessarily to the form of an animal why does Thomas assigns gender’s origin to matter?” He gives two reasons:

First, for both Aristotle and Thomas, the male and female roles in generation are active and passive respectively. The male semen contains the formal principle of generation whereas the female seminal fluid contains the material principle, such that when the two come together a human is generated. Insofar as every act of generation is directed toward producing one’s likeness and since the male is more active is the generative act, the act naturally tends toward a male offspring, and a female results from an accidental alteration in the male semen. Since gender is determined by the manner in which the seminal matter has been affected, it is seen to follow from matter as opposed to form. Aquinas agrees that one’s reproductive power — as all powers — arise because of the soul, but the difference in gender is owed to a defect in the matter of the female (since the male, insofar as he is more active, has the more reproductive power more perfectly).

Second, for both Aristotle and Thomas since form is what makes matter to be a certain kind or species, a difference in form must result in a difference in species. Thus differences applying to individuals of the same species must be differences originating from matter.

Note that genders origination from matter does not mean that it has no bearing on the soul. “While the soul in its own right is not gendered, just as the soul on its own possesses no sensation, presumably the soul of a male can be derivatively considered a male soul and the same in the case of the female, since the soul’s identity is marked by it’s being the soul of a male or female body. One’s gender then, as following from the principles of the individual, characterizes the person as a whole.”

Brief evaluation of Thomas’s account (20:31-23:15)

Thomas’s logical classification of gender as an inseparable accident makes sense insofar as gender doesn’t apply to the species as a whole, but individual members. “Moreover, current biology’s understanding of genetic systems, chromosomal patterns, gonadal structures, and sexual organs affirms that the principles of the individual exercise permanent causation in their originating one gender or another.” In spite of this, the fact that gender seems to be in a class of its own — separate from other accidents — calls for further inquiry. And this inquiry would have to focus on Aquinas’s metaphysical account of gender arising from matter in relation to a specific form.

It’s not totally clear what it means for an accident to follow from the matter in relation to a specific form. If this is taken to mean simply that the accident flows from the principles of the individual as such, then it is well-taken since evidently, one gender is not a characteristic of the species. This would still leave open, however, which of the individual’s principles is at work here (soul, matter, or both). But Aquinas, in saying that the female gender arises from an accidental alteration of the semen, answers this second question. “That is, he holds not just that gender stems from the principles of the individual, but also that being male or female stems concretely from the side of one’s matter, rather than one’s substantial form or soul.”

Now, current biology, of course, has shown that the female reproductive abilities are not imperfect versions of the male ones. Man and woman, respectively, do not supply the active formal principle of generation and the passive material principle of generation. That a man’s production of semen and a woman’s ovulation each supply distinct elements of the offspring’s genetic material reveals that, in this capacity, the two are co-contributors to the offspring. Since man and woman do not relate generatively as perfect to imperfect it is not the case that any given act of generation seeks the male. As contemporary science shows, the male and female are equally intended at the biological level. So Thomas’s empirical reason for attributing gender to matter — the first reason I mentioned earlier — is no longer tenable.

This leaves us with the question of whether the second reason given still works. Is it true that gender must arise from the matter and not the form because the form cannot account for something that arises from the individual?

A revised account (23:16-36:42)

The aim here is to argue that the Thomistic principles suggest that gender flows more from substantial form than from matter, that is more from the soul than the body.

As both Aristotle and Aquinas saw, male and female are of a different category to black and white. The former are tied up with the essential teleos of the human being and contain the substance’s essence within their definitions, whereas the latter are not and do not. “The presence of an organ indicates a particular configuration of matter for the sake of one of the soul’s powers, which in turn flows from the essence of the soul. The soul itself arranges material structures as organs so that they might fittingly serve as means through which the soul’s various powers can operate effectively.” As Thomas says in The Disputed Questions on the Soul, “the soul constitutes diverse parts in the body even as it fits them for diverse operations.”

To unpack this we might say that like the vegetative powers the reproductive powers slowly manifest as the being matures, and as the soul actualizes and shapes the individual it constitutes these powers in particular organs within the body. Just like the sensory powers, if the soul were to leave the body so too would the generative powers. Unlike the sensory powers, however, not all humans share the same set of generative powers (instead we have something like a 50/50 split across the population).

The generative powers of man and woman should be considered, strictly speaking, co-generative, since they possess a two-fold formal object distinguished hierarchically. As “generative” they possess the same ultimate object, namely procreation of another human being. While as “co-” their proximate objects differ by way of offering distinct sexual organs and activities yet in relation with each other. The ultimate object of the co-generative powers points to the unity of nature shared by man and woman since another of the same species, whether male or female, is generated. The proximate object of the co-generative powers points to the distinction within human nature as found in either man or woman, albeit only at the level of the reproductive capacities.

Since the reproductive powers are two distinct co-generative — as opposed to one at varying levels of perfection — it seems clear that they must be accounted for by the substantial form of the individual. Of course, since the generative powers intrinsically depend on organs they would this should not be thought of as an attempt to separate the soul from the body, but rather to highlight the soul’s role in constituting the powers in the body. Thus we provisionally include gender in those accidents that stem from the soul and have a share in matter, as with the senses. In order to develop this account further, we address three objections.

The first objection is that modern biology seems to support Aquinas’s position that gender is better attributed to matter than soul. This is because modern biology teaches us that gender is intimately connected with various genetic networks, especially the chromosomal patterns XY or XX found in the zygote. But this does not so much entail that gender differentiation arises from matter primarily as show us more clearly how intimately related substantial form and matter relate to one another in the constitution of a human being. Any becoming of a substance requires appropriately disposed matter; after all, the being is generated by the actualization of potencies in the matter. But it is the resultant form (the actuality) that primarily characterizes the being the is generated.

The second objection comes from the second argument given by Aquinas above, that difference in form constitutes difference in species. Since men and women clearly share the same species, their difference must, therefore, arise from matter. Moreover, the notion of an individual brings forth — for Thomists at least — thoughts of matter insofar as it is the principle of individuation. But we must make a distinction between a universal form and a particular form. Aquinas grants that when a soul is commensurated to a particular body (that is, when they mutually limit one another so as to constitute an individual) in a sense it takes on additional characteristics, an obvious example being individuation even after separation from the body at death. It is inevitable that gender is of the form, since matter does not configure itself into particular organs (being indeterminate between any such configurations) it must be the soul that does so in and through matter “for the sake of the particular powers that work through those organs.”

The position I have argued affirms the notion that particular souls are essentially commensurated to particular bodies, but claims that within this commensuration gender begins at the level of the soul and is received into the corresponding matter accordingly designated by the genetic pattern.

As to the concern about this introducing a distinction between two species of human, we can say two things. Rather than being an additional power that future determines the essence of the individual, gender concerns the maintenance of the essence that the other powers constitute. “As oriented towards the species itself, [the generative powers] cannot in themselves constitute new species.” Second, as noted above gender is a co-generative power which differentiates it from the other powers given by the soul insofar as they are independent in some sense. They exclude each other in definition (“four-legged” excludes “winged”) or in fact (“scaled” excludes “feathered”). Gender’s nature, however, presupposes “one like itself” and so depends on and includes its contrary both in fact and in definition. Male is defined in terms of female and vice versa through the co-generative relation. The reproductive powers are not merely distinct as one sense is distinct from another, but as mutually dependent powers contributing to a single action (ie. generation). They are not to be understood as characterizing distinct species, then, but rather as integral parts of the same species considered at the reproductive level. (This is a consequence of us being social animals: humans are not wholly intelligible in terms of an individual, but require that that individual be understood in the context of some community. This reoccurs again at the higher level with powers that enable us to rationally cooperate, which are a consequence of us being political animals.)

The third objection takes issue with the description of co-generative powers. Why could we not accept that there is one generative power manifested in different ways, depending on the body to which the soul is united? This would entail that gender differentiation stems from matter as opposed to form. Note that this is much like Aquinas’s view insofar as he sees one power actualized to differing levels of perfection. Now in some sense, the objector is right, namely insofar as both generative powers have the same ultimate object. Because of this, they can be naturally grouped together, just as the various sensory powers can be naturally grouped together. But insofar as the generative powers have distinct proximate objects (their organs and activities), they can be distinguished. Interestingly, even in the woman, we see multiple generative powers in a single being: powers for generation, support, and nourishment of the offspring all of which are required for procreation (since the ultimate object of generative powers is a human and not merely a clump of flesh). Since there are really distinct generative powers, their distinction must arise from the substantial form and not the matter.

In order to affirm that a numerically single (that is, really identical) power to be differentiated only by matter, we would need to accept Aquinas’s account which, as we’ve seen, is falsified by modern biology. Otherwise, we’d need a “generic power” had by both male and female, which would need to be an abstract power or a power that includes both. But the first alternative is incoherent in Thomistic metaphysics (and even in much of modern metaphysics), and the second would involve an entire set of the person’s powers being denied and frustrated merely in virtue of them being an individual human. This “opposes Thomas’s thought and the majority of human experience.”

Being male or female, therefore, follows principally from one’s soul in relation to that soul’s correspondingly disposed matter.

Three ramifications (36:43-43:41)

The first concerns “gender’s status in relation to the person.” Gender is closely related to the person but is different from other such attributes. Other attributes (like free will, reason, soul, body, growth, and sensation) are understood when the human essence is abstracted from individuals and reproduction is like this. But it differs that when considered in itself the essence includes both male and female, but when it comes to exist there is a split into the co-generative powers. “The human essence in itself includes male and female; only a consideration of that essence as actually existent entails male or female.”

Turn, then, back to the metaphysical classification given above. We’ve seen that reproduction, like sensation, falls into the second category of those accidents which follow from form that have a share in matter. But given the differences between reproduction and sensation, there must be a real distinction within this category. The difference is between those accidents which flow from the nature itself, and those accidents which flow from the nature as it exists in this or that individual.

And in this sense, one’s gender is not as close to one’s fundamental humanity as are the other powers of the soul. Being man or woman — you might say — is more proper to the human individual than to the human individual. As Thomas would put it being gendered at all is proper to human nature, but being a man or a woman is proper to this instance of human nature, this soul and this matter.

All of the other accidents that flow primarily from the soul characterize the whole species, and so we call them the proper accidents (or properties), like sensation and risibility. But gender differs from the other individual accidents insofar as it characterizes one’s structure, abilities, and purpose. Insofar as the gender so characterises an individual we might say that it is “the primary attribute of the existing person”, not as something that constitutes the person (since this is given by the soul and matter), but as that which is most truly proper to individual person (so, in this sense, it’s like a property at the individual level).

The second concerns “gender’s status to the human essence or nature.” Man and woman are not distinct species of human nature, but nor are they merely individuals of human nature. It is good, therefore, to introduce some notions that can describe the genders with regards to their human nature. Man and woman are principles of the nature, they’re parts of it, they are ways of it existing or ways of a soul incarnating in a body, and they are relational as mutually fulfilling complements. “Thomas compares male and female to odd and even in the numerical realm.” But even this misses out the relational nature of humanity.

The third concerns “gender in its specifically human meaning as the intersection of eros and generation.” A slight modification of the Aristotelian definition of male and female is, “the male is what co-generates in another, the female is what co-generates in itself.” There’s nothing peculiar to humans here; we are gendered because we are animal. But human gender has richer meaning than non-human gender insofar as the procreative activity is integrally marked by rational choice.

By nature the generative act is a human act, and not just the act of a human. Thus, what is distinctively human in gender comes to light most manifestly in the “co-” dimension of the co-generative relationship to the extent that deliberation, choice, and love are integral moments within human sexual activity, which thus transcends merely instinctual limitations.

The distinctive human dimension of all this is one of the reasons that it is considered problematic if the human generative act occurs without proper mutual consent, since it “presents a co-generative act with the co- aspect as distinctively human. Since the entire act is co-generative, if one aspect lacks distinctively human structure, so does the whole.” That the co- aspect is human and therefore higher than mere biological generation, it elevates the generative aspect which is primarily animal. The biological tendency becomes subsumed into a conscious intention in love.

Further, as Thomas points out, generating another like oneself in the case of a human involves continued rational and affective dimensions beyond those of the sexual sphere, since the mature human only comes to be after an extensive period of support, nourishment, training, education, and love.

Beyond metaphysics (43:42-46:55)

Here we comment on some things beyond the metaphysical question but which depends on the metaphysical answer, namely issues in the psychological, social, and ethical realms. There are two putative objections that might be raised from modern concerns against the claim that gender stems from the soul. First is the issue of sex-reassignment surgery, second is the reality of intersex persons.

With regards to the first, if in fact sex-reassignment surgery actually changed one’s sex/gender then it would constitute a concern. However, even if such surgery can change the outward appearance of an organ it nonetheless leaves the patient sterile. So rather than say that one’s gender has changed it is more accurate to say that it has to some degree been lost (or blocked).

With regards to the second, just as with sensation defects and abnormalities are possible so too with gender. This arises from the fact that gender (like the senses) arises from the soul working in and through matter. “Aside from the assistance of medical technologies in such cases, it’s crucial to recall that one’s gender, though integral to the person, is neither the defining nor the most important aspect of the person.” To quote Thomas on the place of gender in human life:

Among animals there is a vital activity nobler than generation to which their life is principally directed. Therefore the masculine sex is not in continual union with the feminine in perfect animals, but only at the time of coition, so that we may consider that through coition male and female are made one. But [humans are] further ordered to a nobler vital activity, which is to understand. Therefore there had to be a greater reason for the distinction of these two forces in [them], so that the female should be produced separately from the male and yet they might be fleshly joined as one for the work of generation.

In commenting on this, John closes with:

The ultimate telos of a human being involving the flourishing of a life suffused with knowledge and love reminds us that relationality and fruitfulness occur in realms higher than the physical. If, with Aristophanes in the Symposium, one were tempted to picture the human being simply as a longing half, the passage just quoted offers a larger view. In his own way, Thomas calls to mind Socrates’ and Diotima’s assent to the beautiful.

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