Spinoza, the 17th century philosopher wrote in his Political Treatise (Chapter XI):

"If by nature women were equal to men, and were equally distinguished by force of character and ability, in which human power and therefore human right chiefly consist; surely among nations so many and different some would be found, where both sexes rule alike, and others, where men are ruled by women, and so brought up, that they can make less use of their abilities. And since this is nowhere the case, one may assert with perfect propriety, that women have not by nature equal right with men"

His argument seems to me inductive, and as such - flawed since it derives from finitely number of cases a universal conclusion. However, some can argue that inductive reasoning is perfectly adequate. In which case: (1) what other flaw - possibly logical, if any, does his argument embed? (2) And, in general: when might inductive reasoning be adequate, if at all, in matters concerning human sciences?

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    I do not think Spinoza is using the word "equal" in the same sense as commonly understood by modern ears. Perhaps it is my own bias, but I do not get the sense that he means "not equal" in the sense that one is less or worse than the other. Feel free to move this to the comments section
    – Michael J.
    Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 18:22
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    // , Jordan, do you mean to ask, by at least part of this question, whether Spinoza's argument relies on inductive reasoning, and whether that makes it flawed? Commented Dec 3, 2015 at 18:37
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    @NathanBasanese, yes - the question in part seeks to clarify whether Spinoza's argument indeed relies on inductive reasoning and whether it is at least one of the sources turning it flawed.
    – Jordan S
    Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 6:36

5 Answers 5


Spinoza's central problem here, is that it's a circular argument. He is essentially saying, that if women were equal, they'd be equal; as they are not, they must be not.

Now the effective way out of his circle is to gather evidence, that women are not equal. However, he had no access to the myriad societies in both past and future where this was not the case, in post-suffrage nations. There was no Merkel, no Meier. He clearly chose to ignore Elizabeth I to provide any sought-after counterexamples. But lack of evidence aside, he ignored a possible common cause and focused on the irrelevance of gender.

What he could have noted (if he was a zoologist), is that in terms of average physical height, female humans are smaller among their local region. This would support an inductive premise (and one, it turns out, is much more accurate), that smaller humans do not "rule" alike, and "can make less use of their abilities". He could have reflected on how behavior and social mores can change, radically so, affecting political power– but he did not.

Inductive reasoning is perfectly adequate, as long as the evidence provided to support the conclusions is actually relevant and doesn't leave out common causes.

Edit: Updating broken link.

  • Interestingly, there are various non-human species where the females are generally larger than the males (off the top of my head, certain birds of prey).
    – JAB
    Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 19:50
  • @JAB In fact, I believe that on the whole, females are usually the larger of the two sexes, at least in species that exhibit sexual dimorphism. Extreme examples of this are not uncommon; see the angler fish, or the famous cases of the black widow or praying mantis.
    – KRyan
    Commented Dec 3, 2015 at 0:30
  • Well, I don't think that political leaders on average are somewhat larger in size than average humans. It's more due to mental capabilities. Say, it's more due to determination. That even seems to be true, but who knows, maybe women just are not trained for that.
    – rus9384
    Commented Jan 22, 2019 at 8:44
  • @rus9384 You appear to be making a circular argument. It “seems to be true that politicians have more determination, therefore politicians have their status by virtue of their determination, therefore women don’t commonly have determination because they aren’t widely represented in politics”. Presumably you mean to argue some other way than this, because as it stands that’s an invalid argument even before we address the premises.
    – Ryder
    Commented Mar 16, 2019 at 7:53
  • @Ryder No, it's not circular. It's more like "rich get richer".
    – rus9384
    Commented Mar 16, 2019 at 23:15

There is an assumption here that "force of character and ability" is the only trait of a human which leads to their position as a ruler. As long as this assumption is true, his argument is valid. However, it has never been true. The environment individuals are raised in has a substantial effect on whether they will be a ruler or not. For instance, countries which historically have been ruled by a king will tend to select men for rule, for there is no other way to have a king (rather than a queen).

These environmental concerns are particularly woe-some because Spinoza's argument itself is one such environmental selector encouraging the environment to select only men for rule. Thus, not only does his argument depend on a faulty assumption, it bootstraps itself in a circular loop, reinforcing the premise (when revisited) with the conclusion.

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    "Force of character and ability" in this instance refers to a very general statement. It doesn't mean that you're powerful or tall or able to apply physical force. Ability means ability to rule, and force of character refers to the ability to get others to allow you to rule. Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 18:04
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    @GorchestopherH it does imply an intrinsic attribute, however, which explicitly excludes any environmental effects which may play a part. That exclusion of environment is where the assumption falls apart.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 18:21
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    He states that if all things began equal "equal by nature" that there should have arose societies with gender leadership roles reversed. These societies would have favored Queens instead of Kings, etc. Hence, the loop began somewhere, opposite gendered loops should exist. However, his reasoning may be flawed because one "may have" required physical prowess to rule primitive man, but one no longer requires this power to rule modern man. As it is now, your answer does not answer the question. Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 18:31
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    @GorchestopherH If you start going back that far historically, we start to run into issues similar to those quantum mechanics has with spontaneous symmetry breaking. The "first" society which develops a concept of a ruler requires symmetry breaking to either have a male ruler or a female ruler. From that point on, there is more than just "nature" in the mix, there is also the existing ruled culture. To make Spinoza's argument work around this symmetry breaking, we must presume that new states develop independently from existing ones, which is a really hard claim to defend.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 19:36
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    Assume there are 10 seed societies, each beginning with no leaders. In each of the 10 a leader arises. These are Spinoza's conditions of nature. No societal influence on leadership, no dynasty, no tribal preference. Only what your genetic makeup has awarded you. Spinoza postulates that if women are equally equipped to lead, there should be some societies with female leaders, even one. One flaw in his logic could be that a sufficient quantity of seed societies did not exist. One flaw could be that leadership requirements in seed societies differ from modern ones. Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 21:17

if by nature women were equal to men

He's not being clear what he means by nature - it could be many things, including on average that women are smaller than men, or slighter.

He's also using the plural: men and women; so it's likely he means on average - and this itself has several meanings: does he mean most frequently? And this doesn't rule out exceptions and differences that one will ordinarily see in even a small sample; or say in literature, for example Shakespeare's heroines: Portia who outwitted all the men that she came upon whilst still conforming to the mores of her society, or the fiercely imperial Volumnia who brought up all her sons to be warriors.

Then again, he is focusing not in all dimensions of character and force; but only that which is brought to bear on power and force; and this I suspect is what he means by right - not rights in our sense.

He does note differences - but again it is left unexplicit, saying only 'nations ... so different'

And he allows for the possibility of radical differences:

Where men are ruled by women, and so brought up, that they can make less use of their abilities

Though, it appears to his own eye that this doesn't obtain; and he does note a critique feminism has brought to attention in Western societies - that lack of opportunity to develop abilities, means abilities do not bloom or flower, and so may wither.

A lot hinges, I think on what the word right means to Spinoza.

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    How was this accepted so fast? "Nature" is not an ambiguous term in this case. Nature refers to "state of being without intervention", as in, "born that way". Equal means "the same" in this context meaning "equally apt to leadership by force of character and ability". This isn't a vague statement at all. Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 17:52
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    And Spinoza is famous for his 'Deus sive Natura' which has a great deal of compression; and if he can be compressed there, then why not here? Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 18:09
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    You're combining sentences. He is saying if all influencing variables were removed other than the base state of humanity, there should be societies that developed with male, female, or equal leadership. Those societies could then possibly curtail abilities of the non-ruling sex. Force does not always equal physical might. Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 18:21
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    The question is asking for flaws within the realm of his inductive reasoning, not for general flaws in his Ethics. Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 18:54
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    I don't recall mentioning that close reading wasn't required. The question asks for flaws in his deductive reasoning given the provided statement. Your answer, explains your interpretation of his statements, which you conclude could mean anything, which does not address the question. Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 20:48

At a less apologetic level, the math is just bad -- in a way that it is still bad when used by both feminists and traditionalists whenever they speak of women and power. (Sorry, you cannot ask a gender question on the Internet, and expect to escape the MRA point-of-view.)

The observation lacks the notion of distribution. The top end of any distribution with a wider standard deviation is going to lie above the top end of the narrower one, at some point, even if the mean of the thinner one is higher.

So it is ambiguous whether rulership is a relevant measure of the overall power of a group in a society. More generally, it is deceptive to stratify one's observations within social classes.

When they differ, the sexes differ far more in standard deviation than in mean. And it is almost always the women who are clustered closer together.

There are more male geniuses and more male morons. More men are large and strong, but more boys die before reaching adulthood (so they are never large) and more men develop terminal illnesses at younger ages (so they are in other ways less strong). Both ends of most measurable spectrums contain more men, with women "more average, on average" across the board, and surviving women better off on average in those respects where one tail or the other of the distribution involves death.

So it is with the distribution of power. Women may exert more power over other people's behavior, even in societies where men rule. This can be seen in our own society in the ratio of sexes in prison, and the overall trend that the kinds of crimes we punish most harshly are those it is less natural for women to commit, even though the laws are historically written by men, and often explicitly try to favor them.

We look at gender relations from the viewpoint of the working class and those above, by habit, and completely exclude that class that serves primarily as cannon-fodder or beast of burden, never has the benefit of social protections (including marriage), and expects violence as a matter of course. That class simply contains more men.

At the same time, in cultures where parents or leaders approved marriages, women were married upward in class, on average, and entered their husband's social class. If unmarried women retain the class of their birth, and a reasonable fraction of married women enter a higher social class, women can be subordinate in every social stratum, and still better off on average, by being very under-represented in the bottom tier of the society.


As far as I know Spinoza was a rationalist and a deductivist. It is therefore surprising to find in his text such seemingly inductive empirical argument.

Activating the principle of charity, one could avoid reading his argument in an anti-feminist fashion. For example, we could claim that Spinoza points to state of affairs and contends that the way things are is not improper; only if a counterexample is found, it would turn improper.

Nonetheless, there is a problem in such charitable reading: why would he choose to formulate his argument using the phrase 'by nature' if all he aimed at is describing some social reality which is allegedly taken by him as tentative? As @MoziburUllah pointed out - Spinoza's 'nature' could mean many things. The charitable reading I suggested assumes that Spinoza did not equate 'nature' with 'intrinsic eternal attribute' but rather with 'the way things have been thus far'...

Regrading your general query - "when might inductive reasoning be adequate, if at all, in matters concerning human sciences?" - I think social scientists cannot but do with inductive reasoning: statistics and experimental probabilities play major role in their inquiries. The point to be stressed in this context concerns for example some state of affairs A that its experimental probability P converges or even amounts to 1. In such cases I think it would be inadequate to infer based on the calculated probability that A is an eternal state of affairs or some sort of 'law of nature'. This scenario is related to what is known as 'The Problem of Induction' expressed explicitly by David Hume.


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