It is difficult these days to avoid becoming familiar with popular disputes surrounding gender. Particularly contentious are questions regarding the ontology of the concepts of woman and man.

On one side of this debate is a group of skeptics who argue that these concepts are contingent - mere social constructs. On the other side of the debate are a group of people who argue that the concepts are necessary - that they possess an essence that is either eternal or somehow natural to the universe.

The whole debate makes me think of Plato’s “Republic” with the skeptics playing the part of Thrasymacus. Thrasymacus, of course, argues that “justice” is a contingent social construct and is, consequently, reducible to power, while Socrates argues that it is something real and eternal, albeit undefinable. This comparison raises the question of whether it is possible to admit, with the skeptics, that such concepts are social constructions, while simultaneously salvaging their necessity.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Is it possible to have a necessary social construct?

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    Funny how people never ask "what is a man ?"
    – armand
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 23:03
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    No one argues that the concept is necessary, and only a few Catholic scholastic holdouts claim that the concept is essential or eternal. Saying that a woman is an adult human female is no more essentialist than saying that a sow is an adult female pig. It's just what the word means and has meant since the world evolved as part of the English language. Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 2:04
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    @armand, people do, in fact, ask "what is a man". However the question hasn't had the same political urgency because men haven't been given special carveouts in law and custom that women can take advantage of by changing their gender. Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 2:06
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    @DavidGudeman speechless…
    – J Kusin
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 3:46
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    I am asking for philosophical arguments. If one asks the question “What do you think?” in a classroom or at a conference, one is always ultimately asking for an argument, although one may begin by stating one’s conclusion/opinion. The question is not even about the concept of a woman, in the end. It’s about teleology. Perhaps the production of a woman (or justice) are best conceived in terms of ends at which nature aims. There is some work lately in biology which is increasingly tending in this direction. Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 12:51

1 Answer 1


I voted down because I don't think it has much to do with "the nature of the universe" really.

I'm not a gender essentialist, and will refer to anyone however they choose, but the idea that feminine males - boys who can't kick a football and don't like woodwork - male nurses - are all female, including those making no claims to be female, is no better than calling them "sissies", and is damaging for everyone.

If you think gender exists - and I do - then it is a way of presenting yourself to self and other, and many people don't have a choice to act the way they do, the freedom necessary not to e.g. work in care but to drive a truck.

Doesn't 'gender' - meaning a progressive discourse on it not gendered language per se - have much more to do with language and the way we act toward each other when someone says "I am / you are a man" - rather than when we express ourselves intersubjectively to say "women do these things" etc.

JUDITH BUTLER questions the belief that certain gendered behaviors are natural, illustrating the ways that one's learned performance of gendered behavior (what we commonly associate with femininity and masculinity) is an act of sorts, a performance, one that is imposed upon us by normative heterosexuality... belief (in stable identities and gender differences) is, in fact, compelled "by social sanction and taboo"... gender... does not really exist.

The point isn't to propagate stereotypes (women do these things - a funny misreading really) but "to expose the heterosexual matrix and to displace the effect of its necessity"

So think of "woman" as a way of performing a role or behaviour that is typically attributed to men or women, perhaps analogous to how our roles (our work e.g.) can be authentically or inauthenticity fulfilled

My sense of who I am is constituted by an ongoing process of choosing, pulling together, and consolidating the roles, projects, and meanings that matter to me and that are made available by the sociohistorical situation I find myself in. On this view, the story I create for myself is held together by the narrative unity and cohesion that I give to it.

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    The question at issue is whether the universe, if it was rolled back and restarted from the Big Bang (or whatever), would necessarily produce women. Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 22:58
  • i don't hate women @MichaelKurak
    – user66760
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 23:04
  • Which logic do you have in mind? Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 2:04
  • i don't know, i am not very acquainted with philosophy @MichaelKurak i suppose that contradictions emerge and we should neither ignore nor submit to them.
    – user66760
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 2:08
  • i am sorry if you cannot see that calling someone a "girl" or "woman" based on what they like is homophobic, sexist and anti trans. maybe you should have gone to a different school @MichaelKurak idk
    – user66760
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 3:00

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