Today someone told me : "You're not a girl, so you can't understand girls problems".

What kind of fallacy/sophism is this ?

  • 1
    There is a missing premise : "if you understand girl's problems, then you are a girl". Nov 30 '16 at 12:15
  • Suppose your description of the girl's problems is the same as the the girl's description. You can't understand girl's problems because you're not a girl and hence, your understanding is flawed. But your understanding is the same as her understanding, and if your understanding is flawed, then her understanding (equal to yours) is also flawed or she is not a girl. QED.
    – Red Banana
    Nov 30 '16 at 17:10
  • Now supposing your understanding could be the same of any girl, the same effect also applies and hence, there are no girls. But imagine how it would be to be at the top making cash money? Go and tour all around the world, tell stories about all the young girls which will not exist and hence, this awesome Prodigy's song would have to be changed.
    – Red Banana
    Nov 30 '16 at 17:19
  • This is analogous to Is it a fallacy to say that a sane person cannot apply rational thought to the motivations of the insane? with the insane replaced by girls. The closest named fallacy is perhaps Pasnau's "content fallacy", conflating the content of mind with its state, non-girl mind can still contain and reason about "girls' problems". But in contexts where "understanding" plausibly requires intimate acquaintance this may not be a fallacy.
    – Conifold
    Nov 30 '16 at 19:44
  • 1
    Context dependent arguments are not meant to be generalized, and they can not be without sacrificing plausibility. I would not consider something like "men can not "understand" how it feels to be pregnant" necessarily fallacious, although it is hard to come up with a valid generality that it instantiates.
    – Conifold
    Dec 1 '16 at 0:34

This most basically a 'genetic fallacy': judging data based on its source rather than its content.

In particular, this is out-group stereotyping. Other common forms of genetic fallacy are appeals to authority or tradition and ad hominem attacks on the speaker's reliability.

As is common, here it is part of a 'Bulverism': where one diagnoses someone's inability to understand, instead of indicating where the misunderstanding lies, insinuating there must be misunderstanding, without identifying any.

There is a particular obnoxious angle derived from identity politics here in that we have the automatic assumption that women have adequate empathy for men to weigh in on all of their problems, but men lack that same ability when it comes to women.


Good question, but there is no logical fallacy involved. The sentence is capable of being true or false, not in virtue of logic, but in virtue of facts. And, with the best of intention and without neat-picking, I tend to think it is very likely to be true - if you have not wondered why a certain beautiful woman goes out with a certain ugly man who is not only unattractive but also repugnant, you are not old enough.

Setting aside edge cases for the moment, let's consider the following statements:

No man understands girls' problems.
No man has sexual desire for men.
No dead person is bothered by pain.

The reason I think this question interesting is that it eventually asks what the word "understand" means: what does a person feel when he understands a situation?

When an object-word is understood, the listener's mind forms a mental image similar to the one which that word expresses. If that word is "fragrant" but the listener has no sense of smell, the listener will not understand it - i.e. he will not associate a noise with an olfactory sensation.

To understand how a steam engine works, a series of percepts are necessary, and mental images are the ultimate results.

It follows that mental images - feelings, sensations, desires, etc. - are most likely the ultimate results of understanding.

To understand another person's problem presupposes common feelings, and common feelings are the ultimate results. If a person has no sense of smell, he will never be offended by BO and will not understand why BO is a huge problem in the office. It follows that, if a person has no sense of smell, his opinion on BO is much less weighty than that of a person who can smell.

Similarly, the mother will never understand why the son is so attracted to a certain woman while the father virtually agrees with the son on every aspect. It follows that a mother's opinion on the son's girlfriend should not be taken seriously.

It follows that men's opinions on issues particular to women are very likely to be less credible than women's own opinions.

Being unable to understand does not necessarily imply lacking concerns for the sufferings of others. Civilized western men's attitudes towards women are nothing but admirable.

Being able to understand does not automatically imply compassion. An evil man is capable of exploiting your vulnerabilities for his sadistic pleasure; he may justify it by some karma yoga philosophy, which only reminds you of the kind of fine phrases used by a 20th-century saint to excuse himself for sleeping next to naked young girls.

  • Even if the deduction is likely to be correct, this is a logical fallacy. Relating to men's behaviors in relationships, for instance, or to qualities that are attractive in men and not in women is a set of "girls' problems" that gay men have direct experience of. So diagnosing the lack of understanding of all such problems by sex alone is still fallacious. Logic does not work on statistics.
    – user9166
    Dec 1 '16 at 0:04
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – user9166
    Dec 1 '16 at 16:19

Whether the proposition is fallacious or sophistic depends upon the utterer's epistemological presuppositions. If a [naive?] realist, then Jobermark's answer will suffice. If, however, the speaker is [for instance] an anti-Kantian/enlightenment-universalist Herderian neo-pragmatist/historicist (a historical forebear of contemporary "post-truth" culture and its fetish with identity politics), your interlocutor is essentially/merely telling you that you lack the cognitive/emotional/historical equipment to occupy the logical space occupied by women, you lack the hardware necessary to run the software, so to speak. (Have a look at Rorty's Feminism and Pragmatism, at p. 202 of his Philosophical Papers, Volume 3, Truth and Progress, which, while not directly on point, expands upon this answer.)

I understand @Jobermark's point, both in response to my original entry and in response to Chen’s entry. However, I do not believe he grasps the thrust of my, and possibly Chen’s, argument. I mentioned Rorty's Feminism and Pragmatism, at p. 202 of his Philosophical Papers. What follows is a quotation from the first page of that essay, followed by an entry quoting Dewey, from the same essay at p. 216:

“When two women ascended to the Supreme Court of Minnesota, Catherine MacKinnon asked, “Will they use the tools of law as women, for all women?” She continued as follows:

I think that the real feminist issue is not whether biological males or biological females hold positions of power, although it is utterly essential that women be there. And I am not saying that viewpoints have genitals. My issue is what our identifications are, what our loyalties are, who our community is, to whom we are accountable. If it seems as if this is not very concrete, I think it is because we have no idea what women as women would have to say. I’m evoking for women a role that we have yet to make, in the name of a voice that, unsilenced,might say something that has never been heard. “ [ McKinnon, Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 77].

“Urging judges to “use the tools of law as women, for all women” alarms universalist philosophers. These are the philosophers who think that moral theory should come up with principles which mention no group smaller that “persons” or “human beings” or “rational agents.” Such philosophers would be happier if MacKinnon talked less about accountability to women as women and more about an ideal Minnesota, or an ideal America, one in which all human beings would be treated impartially. Universalists would prefer to think of feminism as Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe de Gouges did, as a matter of rights which are already recognizable and describable, although not yet granted. This describability, they feel, makes MacKinnon’s hope for a voice saying something never heard before unnecessary, overly dramatic, hyperbolic.” Universalist philosophers assume, with Kant, that all the logical space necessary for moral deliberation is now available — that all important truths about right and wrong can not only be stated, but be made plausible, in language already to hand. I take MacKinnon to be siding with historicists like G. W. F. Hegel and John Dewey, and to be saying that moral progress depends upon expanding this space.”

And quoting Dewey:

“Women have as yet made little contribution to philosophy, but when women who are not mere students of other persons’ philosophy set out to write it, we cannot conceive that it will be the same in viewpoint or tenor as that composed from the standpoint of the different masculine experience of things. Institutions, customs of life, breed certain systematized predilections and aversions. The wise man reads historic philosophies to detect in them intellectual formulations of men’s habitual purposes and cultivated wants, not to gain insight into the ultimate nature of things or information about the make-up of reality. As far as what is loosely called reality figures in philosophies, we may be sure that it signifies those selected aspects of the world which are chosen because they lend themselves to the support of men’s judgment of the worth-while life, and hence are most highly prized. In philosophy, “reality” is a term of value or choice.” (John Dewey, “Philosophy and Democracy,” in Middle Works 11:145)

Thus, it is conceivable that there are differences though not necessarily innate/intrinsic/essential differences, between the categories male and female which in fact impact how each experiences (or causally interacts with) the world/their environment - and if either their epistemological presuppositions AND/OR their ontological commitments differ, it is problematic to say that a logical fallacy is NECESSARILY committed by suggesting that a man’, understanding of a woman’s problem differs from a woman’s understanding of the problem.

  • This has an element of psychological essentialism that makes it weak. Some problem a girl has that she considers a "girls' problem" may be met by someone who is, say gay, or of a servant class, or otherwise aligns with her mentality. They might understand it just as well as any woman who fails to share such alignment. So then the reason to fail to understand any given problem is probably not attributable entirely to sex. This is likely to be true, but it is not logically true. Politics is not logic, and sensible arguments are not necessarily logically valid.
    – user9166
    Nov 30 '16 at 21:53
  • I am not arguing that the "anti-Kantian/enlightenment-universalist Herderian neo-pragmatist/historicist" is correct in his "anti-Kantian/enlightenment-universalist Herderian neo-pragmatist/historicist"ism, but only that whether he is guilty of a categorical ad hominemic "genetic fallacy," depends upon his epistemological presuppositions.
    – gonzo
    Dec 1 '16 at 1:54
  • Since you solicited my thoughts, gonzo: are you saying that, assuming the claimant believes the essentialism that jobermark points out, then there's no fallacy? Then it seems you're making a weak claim of internal consistency by offloading the fallacy on to the epistemic position. I won't pretend to be well-read here but again, since you asked for my opinion, you seem to be saying: "we can interpret the position as valid if we evaluated it from an invalid i.e. fallacious epistemology".
    – commando
    Dec 4 '16 at 17:49
  • 1
    "What I am up to?" Really? Anyway... There are parts of being a bad we can understand. We do not need to totally understand what it is like to be a bat in order to say anything about a bat's life. The statement remains too broad. We cannot know what aspects of being a bat are relevant to any given one of a bat's problems. So ruling out our understanding any of them is not valid. There is a quantification problem. There are bat problems I cannot understand (existential) does not mean Given a bat problem I cannot understand it (general).
    – user9166
    Dec 7 '16 at 18:22
  • 1
    There is only one 'what it is like to be a bat' There are many 'problems a bat has'. I am done reiterating the obvious.
    – user9166
    Dec 7 '16 at 18:30

It's a fallacy. I don't understand the user who says it's not.

Although I'm not sure what it's labeled. It might be the genetic fallacy or perhaps a kind of false appeal to authority.

This person is basically making questionable assumptions and implying they're factual: That if you are a girl, then you would understand "girls problems". Not that you would have these problems, or experience them, and not that you would understand your own specific problems as a girl, but that you would understand "girls problems." Nor is this given as a kind of probability (based on, say, the idea of familiarity with problem is more likely to give you understanding of it). No, you're not told that you may not but that you simply "can't".

Before I proceed, I should note that this fallacy is quite common in its more general form. For instance, does your doctor have to be a smoker to understand your problems as a smoker? Do you have to be disabled to understand a disabled person's problems? Could a Muslim scholar possibly know more about Jewish people's problems than your average Jewish person? For a researcher to write a paper on homeless children, does it require that she have been homeless as a child herself?

But I don't think the mere experiencing of some issue, or familiarity with it, for instance me as a man being exposed to messages in the media about what a man should act like (e.g. not talk about feeling, etc) somehow makes me actually understand these problems. If so, then I would refuse to read a book written by a female psychologist who tries to help men understand their problems better. But I would read such a book if her claim to "understanding" is based on actual authority and expertise, having studied and conducted quality research the issue (there are other criteria too, but let's not get into that).

In my view, it is also fallacious to talk about "girls problems" as if all girls shared the same ones. While there are naturally some similarities, there is also a lot of variation. Just as a black man in Manhattan has experience and understanding of racism that is likely different in important ways from a black man living in Freetown (Sierra Leone). In fact, what is more surprising to me is how often very similar people living in similar situation seem to have different perception and understanding of what seems to me to be the same problem.

I like to end on a lighter note. It's not (generally) a crime to commit a fallacy. :) Sometimes people say one thing, mean another, and what we actually perceive is yet another thing. Language is not exact and people (myself included) are not very careful with what they say. It may be that the person here had none of this in mind and was just reacting to what may have been an unsympathetic comment. You're probably thinking, "Some lighter note...the guy ends by accusing me!" No, I'm just saying that whenever we analyze a fallacy based on a single comment, it's limited. We need context to truly understand the tone and intention. But as it stands, it can serve as an exercise in logic. It'd be fun to analyze political statements (which are much more carefully worded) and it's shocking how much fallacy is out there.

  • You got the conditional backwards. I think you meant to take the contrapositive of OP's statement.
    – Era
    Dec 1 '16 at 16:21
  • Ah, yes, that's true, the person was suggesting (if we consider the contrapositive) that if OP DID understand girls problems then he'd be a girl, not the opposite (only girls understand girl problems) which I was trying to say is false. Thanks.
    – Jlente
    Dec 1 '16 at 21:37

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