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Philosophy’s No-Go Zone

An MIT professor describes the outraged reaction from fellow philosophers when he argued that a woman is an adult human female.

· 19 min read
Philosophy’s No-Go Zone
Photo by Giammarco Boscaro / Unsplash

A staple of Philosophy 101 is René Descartes’s Meditations, in which the 17th century Frenchman devotes himself to the “general demolition” of his own opinions. In a couple of pages, he succeeds in demolishing his conviction that he has “hands or eyes.” This is the ethos of philosophy—question claims that we ordinarily take for granted and can’t imagine denying. Nothing is off the table. Weak-minded scientists may conform their conclusions to the prevailing orthodoxy, but at least clear-eyed philosophers will remain unbowed.

Alas, that isn’t true. When the (then junior) philosopher Rebecca Tuvel published a paper on “transracialism” in 2017, there was a huge firestorm. More recently, the UK philosopher Kathleen Stock resigned from Sussex University in 2021 after three years of harassment. Both times, fellow philosophers turned up waving pitchforks. Both times, the heresies concerned transgender issues (although Tuvel had compounded her felony by connecting them to race).

These very public cancellations, in philosophy and elsewhere, understandably grab all the attention. But they aren’t particularly frequent, which gives the impression that academic life chugs along as it should for long periods between outbreaks of intolerance. This essay is about why that impression is wrong. A kind of philosophical cold war prevails during peacetime, stifling debate and memory-holing inconvenient views. I cannot speak for other disciplines, but the fact that this happens in philosophy, with its traditional encouragement of gadflies and skeptics, bodes ill for the academy in general.

I began to take a serious interest in the philosophy of sex and gender in 2018, though it is a topic that is usually pursued by those working in feminist philosophy. I soon discovered lots of low hanging fruit. Take, for example, the question, What is a woman? That isn’t just the title of conservative provocateur Matt Walsh’s 2022 documentary. It’s a question asked by Simone de Beauvoir in her feminist classic, The Second Sex, more than 70 years ago.

You might think that Beauvoir’s question has an easy answer—women are the mature, post-pubertal, females of our species. (Likewise, men are the mature males, and girls and boys are the immature or juvenile females and males.) A woman, Matt Walsh’s wife Alissa says at the end of the film, is an adult human female. The joke is that the people Walsh interviews are unable to give this obvious answer. For instance, Professor Patrick Grzanka, Chair of the Interdisciplinary Program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, tells Walsh that a woman is “a person who identifies as a woman.” This is (as Walsh points out) circular, in the sense that the explanation uses the word “woman”; but the real problem is that Grzanka’s answer is plainly false. A woman with severe dementia doesn’t “identify as” anything.

Perhaps it is not surprising that gender studies academics disagree with Alissa Walsh. But I was surprised to learn that most feminist philosophers are also convinced that Mrs. Walsh is wrong. To be a woman, according to them, is to occupy a certain kind of role in society, or to have a certain kind of “gender identity,” or to appear and behave in some sufficiently womanly way, or something else along these lines. A philosophy paper defending the view that to be a woman is to be an adult human female was begging to be written, and so I wrote one.

Publishing a paper requires going through the process of “peer review”—anonymous referees write reports, and the journal editor uses these to guide their decision. I have written (and read) numerous such reports myself. If one journal rejects the paper, you move on to another. But this time around was, in my experience, unique: I received bizarre reports from referees, including one that said my paper was “inadequate” and “ill-informed,” without mentioning anything I had written or argued. (Referee reports are not supposed to be like this.) Eventually—perhaps because there were no more hostile referees left to review the paper—it was published in a good generalist journal, Philosophical Studies.

I gave six different arguments for the hypothesis that women are adult human females—in philosopher’s argot, “S is a woman if, and only if, S is an adult human female”—as well as responding to arguments on the other side. To give you the flavor: One of my arguments is that the hypothesis that women are adult human females (AHF) correctly predicts the outcome in cases of “gender role reversal”:

In 2010, the French director Eléonore Pourriat made a short film, Majorité Opprimée (Oppressed Majority), in which the males push children in strollers and are sexually harassed and assaulted by the females, who jog brazenly through the streets shirtless. Evidently the point was not that males would have been women if society had been completely different. As the New York Times (correctly) puts it, “the parent doing the chores is a man, and all the gender roles are reversed, creating a world in which men confront what it would be like to face the daily indignities, compromises and risks that women often face.” This is exactly as predicted by AHF: in the fictional world of the film, the occupants of the female gender roles are adult human males.

A philosopher at Yale, Robin Dembroff, swiftly wrote a reply to my article, which also appeared in Philosophical Studies. Even by the pugilistic standards of philosophy, the frenzy of punches was magnificent:

The content of and logical connections within Byrne’s argument are often unclear and contain internal inconsistencies … Byrne’s arguments … simply disregard or ignore the testimony and scholarship of all those whose language use conflicts with Byrne’s claim, not least of which includes trans and queer persons, persons with intersex variations, and scholars who specialize in gender and sexuality … Byrne ignores the historicity of Western gender categories, and uses cherry-picked quotations to undermine the legitimacy of queer communities and non-Western cultures with nonbinary genders … Byrne’s paper fundamentally is an unscholarly attempt to vindicate a political slogan that is currently being used to undermine civic rights and respect for trans persons.

At one point, it looked like my numerous blunders were the excusable result of my ignorance: “One might be able to forgive this philosophically naive framing from a newcomer to philosophical thinking about gender.” Unfortunately, Dembroff made it quite clear that I could not be forgiven. Speculations about my sinister motives in writing such a bigoted screed were also included. The long-time editor-in-chief of Philosophical Studies resigned, partly because he thought Dembroff’s paper contained “unprofessional personal attacks,” which should have been removed before publication. I wrote a reply to Dembroff, which Philosophical Studies rejected. The Journal of Controversial Ideas arrived to save me. It had recently been started by (among others) the philosopher Peter Singer, and my reply appeared in the first issue, in 2021. (I had a subsequent productive exchange with a pseudonymous philosopher in that journal, which modelled how these debates can be conducted professionally.)

Having waded through countless books on gender, an idea for my own attempt began to take shape. Without assuming any knowledge of philosophy on the reader’s part, I would sort out the fundamental questions about sex and gender once and for all. What is a woman? What is gender identity? What is the true self? Is sex binary? What is sex? Sex sells! Along the way, I would correct the many mistakes and omissions in philosophy and gender studies, not to mention mistakes on the Internet.

A new career as an admired public intellectual beckoned. I envisaged a kind of Steven-Pinkerish book—serious writing for a popular educated audience, but with something to interest specialists, and plenty of references and notes for those wishing to dive deeper.

My taste for stirring up controversy only goes so far, however, and I did not plan to touch hot potatoes such as medical care for gender dysphoric youth, women’s sports, sex-segregation in prisons, gender self-identification, etc. Despite this, one publisher I approached wrote, “I’d like to say it wouldn’t be radioactive, but I think it might still be.”

That publisher did not offer me a contract, but Oxford University Press (OUP) did, and we settled on Trouble with Gender as the title. I had published with OUP before, and was pleased with the process. I was told by an editor that the book “promises to be an important one,” and that OUP would promote it for a general readership. Armed with the contract, I started to write a draft in 2021.

Meanwhile, Holly Lawford-Smith, a philosopher at the University of Melbourne in Australia (and now a Quillette columnist), was completing her own book for OUP, Gender-Critical Feminism. Unlike me, Lawford-Smith has plunged headfirst into transgender-related political and social controversies, racking up an impressive list of deplatformings and protests. When I learned that Lawford-Smith was battling with OUP over revisions, I felt a little alarmed for my own book. Lawford-Smith’s use of “male” was apparently problematic, and OUP even objected to a sentence alleging that a leading feminist philosopher had made a “mistake.” (Philosophers accuse their colleagues of much more than “mistakes” in the pages of Oxford University Press books!) I wrote to OUP asking if some sample claims were likely to raise red flags, such as “Women are adult human females,” and “Mammals, and so humans, do not change sex.” I received a cautiously worded reply about sentences needing to be judged “in context.”

Worse for Lawford-Smith was to come. By July, her book manuscript had already been reviewed and revised, and was now in production, at the copyediting stage. Normally authors relax at this point, since all the main hoops have been jumped through. However, OUP decided to halt the process, so that the (single) chapter on transgender issues could be reviewed by a “neutral medical expert”—an “expert” who turned out to be far from neutral. Lawford-Smith spent ages composing a lengthy response to the expert’s review, explaining why the main complaints were baseless, and by November of 2021 everything was back on course. There was one change, though: OUP reclassified the book from “trade” (intended for a general audience, and accessibly priced) to “academic,” over Lawford-Smith’s protests.

That month, while beavering away on Trouble with Gender, I received an invitation to contribute a chapter on pronouns for the Oxford Handbook of Applied Philosophy of Language. The format, I was told, is “very flexible,” and that “it would be wonderful” if I could find time to write the chapter. As it happened, I had been thinking about pronouns for my book, and taking some time out to research the topic more thoroughly seemed like a good idea, so I accepted.

There are more than 1,000 Oxford Handbooks (published by OUP), including the intriguingly titled Oxford Handbook of Superdiversity, mostly bought by libraries. (Superdiversity will set you back $175 in hardcover.) An invited handbook chapter on one’s CV is not as valuable as a peer-reviewed paper in a journal, but academics accept these invitations because publication is practically guaranteed. The bar for an acceptable chapter is not particularly high, and the reviewing process is usually cursory.

The handbook had two editors, Ernie Lepore, a respected senior philosopher, and Luvell Anderson, a philosopher about whom I knew little. (It’s worth mentioning that Lepore’s friends would hardly describe him as “woke.”) I wrote to Lepore, “Just to be clear on the assignment. This is an entry about issues like: whether (or why) we should call Demi Lovato ‘they’, or Elliot Page ‘he’; whether we should call everyone ‘they,’ etc.? … Obviously I’ll try to keep it respectful but I should warn you in advance that any balanced and frank discussion of this topic is bound to annoy some people. (I won’t be offended if you want to reconsider.)” Lepore replied, “All systems go. Thank you for agreeing to this.”

He, She Or Hen? Sweden’s New Gender-Neutral Pronoun
The latest edition of the official dictionary of the Swedish language contains a new pronoun among its 13,000 new words — hen, to go along with he (han) and she (hon).

As I worked on the chapter, I realized that the topic was richer than I had initially thought. I consulted with philosophers, feminists, linguists, and trans people. I ended up with a lengthy draft of more than 14,000 words, covering a range of issues from “they” for non-binary people to compelled speech. For instance, I addressed the feasibility of reforming English by adding an “epicene” third-person singular pronoun suitable for anyone, a proposal that has been intermittently and fruitlessly made since the 19th century. The Swedes tried it with hen, with limited success:

Given the dismal failure to introduce an epicene English pronoun, the minor incursion of hen into Swedish, and the fact that mastery of [she/he] pronouns will be needed in the future to understand the enormous past stock of English books, movies, and other media, it is unrealistic to expect that she and he could be marginalized, let alone driven to extinction. In this case, changing the world is easier than changing the word.

Pronouns are particularly interesting in the transgender context, because on the standard view in the linguistics literature, using “he” for a person takes for granted—or “presupposes,” as the linguists say—that the person is male. Referring to the trans man Elliot Page (formerly the actor Ellen Page) as “he” is therefore a kind of courtesy, given that Page has not literally changed sex. Not that there’s anything wrong with being courteous! I was not suggesting that the Iron Laws of English demand that Page be “misgendered,” or anything of the sort.

After I had submitted the first draft early in 2022, I tweeted out a link to it. Anyone acquainted with philosophy Twitter can predict the reaction. For instance, “goblin poster, PhD” (the doctorate is a nice touch) opined, “This is a profoundly embarrassing paper.” Luvell Anderson, the aforementioned second editor of the Handbook of Applied Philosophy of Language, reacted to a tweet mentioning that my chapter was “forthcoming,” tweeting back, “that ‘forthcoming’ is news to us…#nah.” Quill Kukla, a professor at Georgetown with a reputation as philosophy’s Witchfinder General (and a contributor to the handbook), gleefully approved. She also retweeted a philosophy graduate student’s tweet, applauding the news that my chapter was “publicly rejected by the editors on Twitter.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect. (Lepore, it turned out, only learned about his co-editor’s behavior much later.) What normally happens with invited handbook chapters is that the editor or one referee gives comments, and revisions are made at the author’s discretion. Even if the first draft is awful, every effort is made to allow the author to fix things up. On the other hand, one of the editors had just broadcast that my chapter would not be published, so a climb-down would be embarrassing. I also learned that another contributor to the handbook, a senior woman philosopher, had said she would withdraw her chapter if mine was published.

While waiting for a verdict on the pronouns chapter, I continued to work on my book, and submitted a draft, totalling just over 100,000 words, to OUP in April 2022. It conformed closely to the initial proposal, both in style and substance. Many sentences from the proposal had ended up in the book. “Happy to revisit anything,” I wrote in an email, referring to adjustments I had made (mostly small choices of wording) in response to earlier comments from OUP. “Not final version” and “draft” appeared in red at the top of the first page. Following the usual protocol, I was expecting to revise the manuscript—perhaps heavily—in the light of comments from anonymous reviewers.

The imminent publication of Holly Lawford-Smith’s Gender-Critical Feminism was announced that same month, and almost immediately no less than two petitions of complaint appeared, one from the OUP USA Guild (the union representing the New York staff of OUP), and the other from “members of the international scholarly community” with some connection to OUP. The latter petition expressed the scholars’ “profound disappointment” at OUP’s forthcoming publication of Lawford-Smith’s book, and suggested various “measures the press could undertake to offset the harm done by the publication of this work.” OUP needed to confess to a mortal sin and repent. None of the scholars had read the book that they so confidently denounced (since no copy of the book was available for them to read), but this is a mere detail.

OUP stood firm, reaffirming its “commitment to publishing a breadth of views and perspectives to inspire academic debate.” Good for them—although it is hard to see how any other action could have been in their interests, given that the book was then being printed. Gender-Critical Feminism became available in May 2022; mysteriously, the book (unlike every other comparable work in feminist philosophy published by OUP) has never appeared in electronic form on Oxford Scholarship Online.

In June 2022, I heard back from the editors of the Handbook of Applied Philosophy of Language. My chapter would not be appearing in it after all; no revisions allowed. (Revisions would plainly not have satisfied the senior philosopher who threatened a boycott.) Lepore apologized, and I could hardly blame him—I have taken the primrose path of least resistance myself before. Subsequently, a replacement chapter on pronouns was commissioned. This turned out to be a fine piece in many respects, but (unlike mine) it ignored any feminist heretics, who didn’t even make an appearance in the bibliography.

The conclusions of the new chapter were congenial to the prevailing ideology in feminist philosophy. “He” for Elliot Page is not a simple courtesy, but just as correct as “he” for Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is because, according to the authors, “he” does not presuppose that the person is male; rather (simplifying a bit), “he” presupposes that the person is a man. And, according to the authors—as if no one had ever dreamed of denying it—Elliot Page is a man. Never mind whether this is correct; what was disappointing was the pretense that it is beyond dispute. In science, authors should be required “to reveal rather than hide controversies, for example to accurately describe well-argued alternatives to views promoted”; the same goes for philosophy.

“I have what I think is a lovely graphic for the book—assuming that isn’t cancelled as well,” I wrote in an email to OUP about the pronoun fiasco. (The graphic artist was the multiply-canceled Nina Paley.) I meant that humorously, but I should not have tempted fate.

A couple of weeks later, I heard that OUP would not be publishing Trouble with Gender either, for the sole reason that “the book does not treat the subject in a sufficiently serious and respectful way.” No errors in the manuscript were identified and, as with the pronouns chapter, no revisions were allowed. The (unsubstantiated) allegation of unseriousness was particularly galling, since the draft had 16,000 words of endnotes and a massive bibliography. To excuse the large number of citations, I had earlier written to OUP, “a persistent criticism of people not hewing to the party line is that we haven’t ‘read the literature,’ so it’s probably a good idea if I demonstrate that I have in fact read the literature.” Beaten down by the hours I had wasted trying to resolve issues with my handbook contribution, I offered no resistance. OUP clearly did not want to publish the book under any circumstances.

I had no contract for the pronouns chapter (a reflection of the casual way these assignments are often treated). That was unfortunate, since OUP’s standard contract for handbook chapters makes no provision for submissions to be rejected without allowing revisions. But I did have a book contract, which I hadn’t bothered to read. Luckily for OUP, it contained a clause saying that the work had to be “fit for publication,” a conveniently elastic phrase which was not further explained.

Is there anything left to cancel? Yes! Lawford-Smith had another book in the works, Sex Matters, a collection of essays on gender-critical feminism, which OUP had kept under review for more than a year. Shortly after OUP nixed my book, Sex Matters was next, this time on the (patently specious) ground that it was “too similar” to the author’s Gender-Critical Feminism. In the space of a month, one invited chapter and two contracted books were gone. Had OUP been spooked by the pre-publication protests against Gender-Critical Feminism, and had this played a role in the cancellation of Trouble with Gender and Sex Matters? It’s hard to know for sure—it’s also hard to avoid speculating.

Although I had given up on OUP, Lawford-Smith persevered, enlisting the help of the UK’s Free Speech Union. Under pressure, OUP reversed course, and Sex Matters is slated to come out in July of this year—albeit priced at a hefty £60, twice the price of Gender-Critical Feminism. Publishing a book under these odd circumstances may well be an ignominious first in the Press’s more-than-four-hundred-year history. Predictably, Twitter is rumbling with discontent, with one “feminist sociologist” and OUP author creatively complaining that Lawford-Smith “supports fascist causes.”

I now had to find another home for Trouble with Gender. Publishers often commission reviews of a manuscript from (anonymous) experts in the relevant field, and I had to go through that time-consuming process yet again. It was also rather risky, since—as by now you are well aware—the experts in the philosophy of sex and gender tend to brook no dissent. Responding to the (hopeful) publisher’s question, “Will it make for an outstanding book in your view, or simply a work of average quality?”, one expert wrote: “Neither. It is of extremely poor quality.” Another question: “What would you highlight as the ONE feature about this book that might make you recommend it over other titles available?” “None. It shouldn’t be published.” Lastly: “Is there anything superfluous that could be left out?” “Everything—see above.”

Of course, there is nothing wrong with harsh criticism; I have doled out plenty of that myself. Maybe my book deserves it. But a reviewer is expected to give reasons for her verdict—that helps both the author and the publisher. If I had made, as the reviewer said, “sweeping claims” that are “often false,” or had “seriously misunderstood” arguments on the other side, it would be a simple matter to give examples. But the reviewer supplied none: not a single quotation, page number, or chapter reference. From my experience publishing in this particular area of philosophy, this lack of engagement was par for the course. In fact, I found the reviewer’s hyperbolic report reassuring: if I had made mistakes, at least they were not easy to identify.

You can put away the world’s smallest violin. Polity, a well-regarded academic press in the UK, agreed to take the book on. They had recently published the smash hit The Case Against the Sexual Revolution by the “reactionary feminist” Louise Perry, as well as taking some heat for another book, Karen Ingala Smith’s Defending Women’s Spaces. Trouble with Gender (subtitle: Sex Facts, Gender Fictions, with Paley’s graphic as the cover art) should be out in the UK in October, and later in the United States.

And although chapters for handbooks are rarely suitable for academic journals, the Journal of Controversial Ideas came to my rescue once again, and “Pronoun Problems” will appear in the next issue, around the end of April. The JCI is free to read, so you can decide for yourself whether my contribution warranted all the fuss.

What is disturbing about this affair is that it illustrates how a small vocal clique can bend an academic discipline to its will, relying on the unwillingness of the majority to push back. Academics—as is sometimes observed—are selected for conformity. (I used to think that philosophy was an exception to this rule, but not anymore.) Brazen unprofessionalism is permitted, even encouraged—provided it’s from those with the “correct” opinions. Junior academics and graduate students soon learn what they are not allowed to say.

In the present moment, sex and gender are of great political and social interest. Philosophers pride themselves on being able to ferret out and rebut nonsense, and these topics provide an inexhaustible supply. Moreover, philosophers are keen on promoting “public philosophy,” bringing the subject to the great unwashed. The discussion of sex and gender should have been philosophy’s finest hour, with our profession contributing to the wider conversation, airing its disagreements for all to see. Instead, the discipline has been slowly suffocated by an intolerant minority, driving it closer to irrelevance.

Finally, let’s return to Descartes. He infamously believed in an impassable gulf between ourselves and animals. We are immaterial thinking things, somehow harnessed to our human brains and bodies. Non-human animals are just fancy bits of biological clockwork, “natural automata,” with no minds at all, let alone immaterial ones. Charles Darwin, on the other hand, wrote in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (second edition, 1874), that “the lower animals, like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery,” and that “the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.” Where Descartes saw discontinuity, Darwin saw us as intelligent naked apes, continuous with our animal cousins.

As Helen Joyce points out in her book Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, “In the simplistic version of the new creed that has hardened into social-justice orthodoxy, gender … is innate and ineffable: something like a sexed soul.” Descartes did not think there are sexed souls, but he did think there are souls. The new creed does not take animals to be natural automata, but it does find a gulf between the brutes and us: no non-human animal has a sexed soul. And as to sex, maybe non-human animals unproblematically come in female and male varieties, but as far as humans are concerned—as my old sparring partner Robin Dembroff puts it—the notion that female and male are “universal, stable and discrete categories … is false.” To think otherwise is to be “ignorant of the history and sociology of sex categorization.”

This opposition between “Cartesianism” and “Darwinism” raises profound questions about ourselves, and our place in the natural world. These are philosophical questions. Philosophers (and publishers) need to tolerate those with sacrilegious answers.

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