Beyond the Hypatia Affair: Philosophers Blocking the Way of Inquiry

Beyond the Hypatia Affair: Philosophers Blocking the Way of Inquiry

Spencer Case
Spencer Case
11 min read

Upon this first, and in one sense this sole, rule of reason, that in order to learn you must desire to learn, and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to think, there follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: Do not block the way of inquiry.
~American Philosopher Charles S. Peirce

Philosophers are notorious for their willingness to consider questions that ordinary people find silly, such as whether or not we have knowledge of the material world. Recently, however, some philosophers having been trying to take hard questions about gender identity off the table. This camp remains a minority, but an energized and noisy minority that seems to be enjoying cultural ascendance and a sense of empowerment.

We caught a glimpse of this in 2017 with the “Hypatia Affair.” To recap, an untenured philosopher named Rebecca Tuvel wrote a paper arguing that if it’s possible to transition from one gender to another, then interracial transition is possible, too. Its appearance in the flagship feminist philosophy journal Hypatia incensed many on the academic Left. Over 800 people, including two members of Tuvel’s dissertation committee, signed a petition mischaracterizing her article and demanding that it be retracted. Hypatia’s board of associate editors responded by posting an apology on Facebook for the “harm” that Tuvel’s article had supposedly caused.

Most academic philosophers rallied around Tuvel, who was also subject to online harassment. Possibly because of this response, her paper was never retracted. Shortly after the incident, Oliver Traldi wrote in Quillette that the Hypatia affair represented a “line in the sand” for academic philosophy, meaning that trends would begin to move in the opposite direction. In my own Quillette piece, I worried that the faction that wanted to silence Tuvel would grow in strength. Recent developments confirm that, unfortunately, the field is galloping over that line in the sand.

In April of this year, Richard Marshall interviewed philosopher Holly Lawford-Smith for 3 AM Magazine, which has the contrarian slogan, “Whatever it is, we’re against it.” During the interview, Lawford-Smith expressed skepticism of the idea that self-identification alone determines gender identity. Shortly after the interview appeared online, the editors capitulated to the demands of activists, who again included philosophers, and removed it from the website. Marshall, who had conducted interviews for 3 AM for two nearly decades, departed in protest and started his own blog, 3:16 AM, where you can find his interview with Lawford-Smith.

The activists can claim a partial victory in this round, since the article was removed from 3 AM, but didn’t disappear altogether. The petition to retract Tuvel’s article argued that it failed to meet scholarly standards. Here that rationale doesn’t apply, since 3 AM is a public venue. Hence, it seems that suppressing a dissenting view was the real concern. It could be argued that the Hypatia affair is more serious since, in that case, the threatened article was a piece of scholarship. On the other hand, more people read public pieces than academic ones, so policing non-scholarly platforms might be more impactful.

Fast forward to June, when a widely circulated open letter by “t philosopher,” an anonymous philosophy graduate student, appeared at Medium. The author says that she is a trans woman, and that she feels compelled to change career paths because academic philosophy is unbearably transphobic: “I am leaving academia ONLY because of TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) — so called “gender critical feminists” —and those who amplify their voices.” She adds, “In sharing my pain and anger at being forced out of a career that I once loved, I hope to stir some of you to greater action.”

What kind of action? t philosopher’s recommendations include the following:

  1. If you are a journal editor or a referee, do not publish or recommend for publication transphobic articles. Do not entertain submissions that question the legitimacy of trans people. Do not entertain submissions that question what rights trans people are due. Do not entertain submissions about trans people that do not take great care to amplify trans voices and understand the trans experience.
  2. Do not invite conference speakers who are transphobic. Do not accept conference submissions that question the legitimacy of trans people. Make it clear that these are not welcome at your conference in your call for papers.

These are bold demands from a soon-to-be-departed graduate student! Nevertheless, Justin Weinberg, who runs the influential Daily Nous philosophy blog, wants us to seriously consider them. In his discussion of t philosopher’s open letter, Weinberg acknowledges that “transphobia” is difficult to define and rejects no-platforming. Otherwise his analysis is sympathetic to t philosopher.

Weinberg admonishes his readers to empathize with t philosopher and gives his own list of recommendations to make the field more trans-inclusive, such as: “Provide explicit statements of support for trans persons in venues in which trans-exclusionary work appears” and “If you are providing an academic platform for trans-exclusionary works, also provide one for trans philosophers or trans-inclusive philosophers.” Weinberg, like t philosopher, endorses the negative term “trans-exclusionary” to describe the views of self-described “gender critical” feminists like Holly Lawford-Smith and Kathleen Stock. He writes:

After all, it is not writings about gender norms in general that’s at issue. What t philosopher and similarly-minded people are focusing on is work that, for example, seeks to either exclude the kind “trans women” from the kind “women,” or exclude trans women from spaces typically reserved for women. It is all about excluding trans women.

Weinberg’s reasoning can be extended. For example, some philosophers defend views that imply that severely cognitively disabled humans don’t count as moral persons. Exclusion from personhood is more clearly dehumanizing than exclusion from any gender category, since it’s usually thought that personhood determines moral status. By contrast, nobody but the most extreme sexist thinks being a man or a woman makes a difference to moral status. So perhaps we should label these views “disabled-exclusionary” and take other steps to discourage their dissemination.

Episodes like the 3 AM incident and the circulation of t philosopher’s essay prompted 12 philosophers to attach their names to an open letter published at Inside Higher Ed in July. The signatories include ethicists Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan, the two best-known co-founders of the soon-to-be launched Journal of Controversial Ideas, which will allow academics to publish their work anonymously to avoid political backlash. The signatories wrote that measures to suppress dissenting views about gender identity “violate the fundamental academic commitment to free inquiry” and set a bad precedent.

This anodyne statement generated a vitriolic backlash.1 A few days after it appeared, Inside Higher Ed published a response by Mark Lance, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University. Lance compared debates about whether or not trans women are really women to debates about whether Native Americans have souls and moral worth (the Puritan Cotton Mather seems to have doubted this). According to Lance, “To produce arguments, in this [contemporary] context—that trans women are not women, or trans lesbians are not lesbians—is not just a view we can easily reject as confused and offensive. It is complicity with systemic violence and active encouragement of oppression.” He concludes:

It is not permissible to debate the lives of people who are oppressed and murdered. Those who treat this like an intellectual game should not be engaged with. They should be told to [unprintable here]—just as I hope we would respond to Cotton Mather. Every time. [brackets in original]

The signatories he criticizes don’t see themselves as encouraging oppression, however, or denying that trans people have the same moral standing as anyone else. Their letter even affirms the right of trans people to “live free of harassment and abuse.” So the comparison with Mather at his moral nadir is unwarranted.

A more even-tempered response, another open letter, appeared at the American Philosophical Association blog August 7, 2019. The 33 signatories deny that a climate of fear surrounds the topic of gender identity. They write:

As feminist philosophers who have, variously, argued for, researched, engaged with, and taught these views, we are well-positioned to claim that there is no established orthodoxy about gender in academic philosophy. There continues to be much lively disagreement on matters of gender without accusations of transphobia.

We might fairly ask if feminist philosophers are really in the best position to authoritatively declare that there are no orthodoxies about gender in philosophy. If orthodoxies about gender beset feminist philosophy in particular, then they might be the last to know. What the signatories say next, at the letter’s conclusion, qualifies their commitment to open inquiry almost to the point of nullifying it:

We do, however, think it is important, when exercising our academic freedom, that we consider how our views may impact others. Academic responsibility requires us to consider differences of power and vulnerability in speaking of and to others and the effects of our words in reinforcing structures of oppression. There are many diverse, contentious views about gender and gender identity that can be–and are–engaged with in ways that do not call into question the integrity and sincerity of trans people nor the validity of their own understanding of who they are.  We should conduct our research freely and responsibly, without treating other people’s lives as though they are abstract thought experiments. [emphasis added]

The italicized portion gives the game away. The signatories know that the acceptability of views contrary to the self-understandings of trans people is the sole issue that motivated the letter to which they are responding. It’s as if someone said, in response to concerns that Copernican views about the solar system were being suppressed, that there is no orthodoxy in astronomy—after all, you’re free to defend any view consistent with geocentric cosmology.

Mormon Sunday school teachers used to encourage obedience with a parable. Allegedly, a tethered goat will move as far away from the post as it can, so that the rope remains taut and never touches the ground. If only the goat would relax, the story goes, it could be content in the space it was given, which contains all the grass it needs. The moral is supposed to be that you can be happy within the church’s strictures, but the analogy backfires—who wants to be a goat on a rope in the first place?*

These feminist philosophers are a good deal more like Mormon Sunday school teachers than they realize. They seem to be saying: “We’ve given you enough intellectual space in which to dwell, and plenty of grass to munch on (in the form of trans-inclusive feminist views to consider). Now be a good goat and don’t strain at the end of the rope.”

Have they got good reason for wanting to rein in philosophical inquiry, though? Two basic arguments for suppressing anti-trans views are in the air. The first is that they’re so obviously false as to warrant immediate dismissal. The second is that questioning the identities of trans people causes, or perhaps constitutes, so much harm that it’s morally wrong to do. Often these arguments are not clearly distinguished. Lance’s piece, for instance, seems to be making both arguments simultaneously.

In response to the first argument, it seems that much about gender identity remains philosophically unsettled, as Alex Byrne’s work on gender identity in Arc Digital shows. It’s easier in science than in philosophy to determine when a view has been definitively refuted. Views thought to have been consigned to the scrap heap of intellectual history, like moral intuitionism, sometimes make unexpected comebacks. In philosophy, disagreements persist for centuries, and it’s not uncommon for philosophers to claim that their rivals’ views are not only wrong, but absurd.

In light of this, a philosopher claiming that a philosophical position has been definitively refuted, in the face of adamant disagreement from his peers, has a high burden of proof to meet. The trans-inclusive philosophers haven’t come close to meeting it as far as I can tell. Any argument for suppressing “trans-exclusionary” views within academic philosophy will therefore have to be made on the basis of their hatefulness or harmfulness, not their falsity.

The harm argument can be disaggregated into several distinct claims:

  1. Anti-trans arguments will lead to the adoption of oppressive policies.
  2. Anti-trans arguments are psychologically damaging to trans-people, who feel dehumanized by them.
  3. Giving anti-trans arguments constitutes a kind of “dignitary harm” against trans people.
  4. Anti-trans arguments inspire violence against trans people.

In response to 1), we should point out that virtually all moral discourse comes with this risk. Consider how important it is for people to have the correct views on our obligations to the poor, the moral status of animals, abortion, and issues of war and peace. Arguing for the wrong position on any of these topics could lead to disastrously bad policies being adopted. We don’t think that most moral and political discourse should cease for this reason.

A further concern is that we aren’t going to be in a position to know what policies are likely to be harmful or unjust until we’ve carefully inquired into each of these issues. Terminating a debate in progress in order to avoid promoting bad policy is question-begging. The debates surrounding the nature of gender identity, and the social, moral and political issues related to it, are debates that remain in progress, no less than debates over any of these issues.

As for 2), we might wonder whether it’s really true that trans people generally are deeply affected by philosophical arguments. Do ordinary trans people (i.e., non-academics) care much about arguments advanced and defended at scholarly conferences they are never likely to attend and in journals they will never read? Moreover, while every interlocutor deserves an initial presumption of good faith, we shouldn’t be naive about the possibility that some activists might exaggerate their anguish for rhetorical purposes.

As a thought experiment, suppose that some other group produced similar evidence that arguments against their convictions harmed them in the same way. Should we be willing to suspend critical examination of their commitments for that reason? For instance, should we stop criticizing Christianity because some Christians sincerely claim that this psychologically harms them? We wouldn’t, and shouldn’t do this. (“But Christians aren’t a systematically oppressed group!” Okay, then make them Pakistani Christians.)

It’s not uncommon to hear language that suggests anti-trans discourse constitutes harm—and perhaps even violence—against trans people—for instance, that certain expressions “invalidate,” “delegitimize,” or “erase” trans people. I find it hard to see how any kind of discourse can constitute harm, let alone violence, against any group apart from how it affects people psychologically. Calling arguments “harmful” or “violent” are plausibly examples of what I’ve called “concept inflation.”

This leaves us with claim 4), the claim that anti-trans arguments provoke violence against trans people. We need good evidence that scholarly discussions of gender identity really are inspiring violence, instead of the usual boredom. And again we should consider other cases. Suppose a rash of eco-terrorist (or, if you like, anti-abortion) bombings rocked the nation, and that the perpetrators mentioned well-regarded academic articles to justify their actions. Would this justify suppressing those articles, or the views they advanced, in teaching and scholarship? Certainly not.

A different claim, made by Robin Dembroff and others, is that gender critical philosophers don’t deserve platforms because they don’t adequately engage with the work of feminist philosophers who reject their arguments. Even if that were true, it wouldn’t apply to non-scholarly contexts, like Lawford-Smith’s 3 AM interview. Furthermore, the level of vitriol on display makes it hard to believe that any amount of engagement with other scholarship could make gender critical views seem acceptable to critics.

So it seems to me that the best arguments for suppressing “trans-exclusionary” views are unsatisfactory, and that they over-generalize to impugn huge swaths of moral and political discourse. The stakes here are higher than they might initially seem. If some faction of philosophers are able to declare an issue decided—over screams of dissent from other philosophers—then we can expect others to follow the same playbook. We are better off resisting now, before it becomes a precedent and we are all a little more like tethered goats.2


1 Another hostile response, which I won’t discuss here, was the open letter of three anonymous philosophers, “Recognizing Gender Critical Feminism as Anti-Trans Activism,” which appeared on Daily Nous on August 6, 2019.
2 As I have been finalizing this essay, more examples of intellectual policing and silencing dissent on gender identity have come to my attention. Kathleen Stock, one of the best known gender critical feminist philosophers, writes that a post at the blog of the Institute of Art and Ideas, to which she contributed, was taken down. The post consisted in 200-word statements on the transgender rights movement from several philosophers. She surmises that this was due to agitation from her opponents, who were unhappy with the inclusion of herself and Lawford-Smith.

* I’ve heard from a number of Mormon readers that they don’t remember this analogy being used in Sunday school. I remember hearing it, but it seems not to have been used very widely, or officially disseminated. Nonetheless, I find the analogy apt for my purposes here.


Spencer Case

Spencer Case is a writer and philosophy lecturer for the University of Colorado Boulder living in Wuhan, China. He is the host of Micro-Digressions: A Philosophy Podcast.