It’s very common to hear people nowadays say that there are two related aspects of humans with regards to perhaps something we could call “dimorphism”, or typology associated with form and reproductive characteristics; “sex” and “gender”.

I have started to consider that this commonplace belief is an example of a certain idea - an idea which is buttressed quite a bit by modern cognitive science - which is that humans do not understand things as well as they think they do. And it’s very common to believe in a simple, mental world-image, merely because you obtain it via osmosis from your social community, or because someone provides a simple argument for it, or because you trust in the authority of the person who said it.

Once you start picking apart the notion of gender into two subaspects - anatomical form or “sex”, and a mental essence or social self-conceptualization also known as “gender” - I feel this propels one down a rabbit hole of skepticism, about those categories in their turn.

How can anyone know that there is such a thing as “sex”?

It’s difficult to give a definition of any object, outside of the scope of a human mind, which cradled the very concept of that object. Isn’t it?

In other words, it might be easy to observe the definition of “sex” provided by a human - but to then claim that this definition is non-arbitrary, that it merely describes a thing that already exists in the world, prior to humans arbitrarily categorizing it, seems much harder. A human has to ability to throw together a few definitional properties. Outside of the human, is there anything external “holding things together”, though? (Even just the ability to observe that each individual human body is an instance of the general class of human bodies; we might say instead each thing is it’s own distinct class of thing; there is no grouping).

This is an idea I have been grappling with.

Buddhists especially are emphatic on the idea that outside of the human mind, everything exists much less than we think it does, things lack the inherent existence we perceive on an illusory level as human observers. Matter is mostly empty space; and at the subatomic level questions have been raised about to what extent linear or absolute time even exists. It defies the human imagination to consider what can even be described about the “world totality” absent of a human cogniser. All fundamental categories transcendentally melt. We have no idea if time exists, if absolute size (big or small) exists, and most especially if “objects” exist. Objects are a human invention. Outside of human categorisation, we might first be inclined to say “there are just atoms, the atoms don’t know they are part of a book.” Then we would catch ourselves and realize we haven’t gone far enough: just like gender, just like sex, just like books, atoms are also a mental construct. We keep burrowing down to the bottom of reality: at the bottom, what’s the most fundamentally existing thing it’s all made of, to backpropagate up through the whole system? Now the answer is string theory, multidimensional vibrating strings and quantum mechanical principles which defy intuitive human understanding.

I find this critique devastating and a paradox because it’s clear that we haven’t gone far enough in almost trivially pointing out that gender doesn’t have the inherent existence it was formerly considered to because it’s just a social construct; rather it seems that basically everything is a social construct, including sex, the supposed “objective” counterpart to gender which we now realize is another illusion. How can you define sex objectively? All we can say is there are certain structural patterns that emerge in the biological systems of our bodies.

I can’t formulate my question perfectly because I’m still trying to develop what it is I’m trying to get at but I’m pretty sure the assertion that there is the widely established distinction between sex and gender is more of a rhetoric in vogue in our time rather than something deeply proven. I think I’m getting at a kind of nihilistic paradox which forces you to go back to reconsider that even if something doesn’t exist as much as we thought it does, it still must exist in some way, otherwise we’re left at the pointless conclusion that basically nothing exists. I think Wittgenstein discussed a similar idea in “On Uncertainty”, this tendency for people to assume some proposition is a default truth in the absence of some other held notion lacking firm proof; the counterargument is the opposite notion is equally uncertain.

I think some thought experiments can show us that sex is more of a mental construction than we realize. If I am to objectively define myself as a particular sex, how can I definitively claim I am of that sex? Does it really have a fixed boundary? Is it my genitals that define my sex? There may be many aspects to having a supposed sex. Yet, why is it necessary to lump those things together into a supposed one thing?

Anyway, I can’t sum this up into a strong question or thesis except this:

How can anything be said to exist, as a concept? How do we get from the realisation that in the objective world outside the human mind, we cannot conceive of anything but an amorphous, beyond-temporal flux of space, matter and energy - to the identification of recurrent patterns in matter, to the assertion on a conceptual level of any “thing”?

Is it possible that things exist in different ways? When we take a measurement of something with a device, we think this is a peep at the “objective” world. But even this I’m starting to question.

I’m trying to get at the idea that there are different kinds of existence, different characteristics and perhaps this can apply to the question of if there is any such thing as “gender”.

Because, if anyone takes it upon themselves to define gender, where do they start from? It’s very odd trying to define something which you don’t know what it is in the first place, why a definition is motivated anyway.

Thank you

  • 1
    But is the notion of a "mental construct" also a mental construct, or something fundamentally real? If you admit one thing as fundamentally real, then why not admit other things as well? Such as atoms, cement blocks, cats, other people, sex, or gender. Here's what I'd say is the right way to talk about these things: the part is real and so is the whole, which is an arrangement of parts. Atoms are real, and so are chairs, and so are protons, etc.. When we say a "chair" we're talking about a certain kind of pattern that atoms may be arranged in.
    – causative
    Commented Jan 31, 2022 at 23:51
  • 1
    Existence is a very tricky word having different connotations and interpretations, and generally speaking there're two types of existences, one is linguistic by social convention such as gender and sex, another is metaphysical which can have wildly different judgements according to agent's will which ultimately depends on said agent's metaphysical position regarding ontic existence of said substance or notions... Commented Feb 1, 2022 at 5:23
  • 1
    Because it exists in someone's head, and there's nothing to do about it. Trying to force someone not to think of elephants, will cause him to think more of them. Trying to force someone to remove the concept of gender will actually enforce it. The more you dissect and analyze its shape, the more you give it of existence in your own mind.
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented Feb 1, 2022 at 7:28
  • There was a similar question recently, you might find it relevant: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/89153/… Commented Feb 1, 2022 at 21:07
  • "All fundamental categories transcendentally melt" - OMG, "Thanks. I needed that" ha ha! It's turtles all the way... Well, there is really only one turtle, and we made it up in our heads. When we realize that fact, we are left with "no ground under our feet", as Chogyam Trungpa said. People find that very scary.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 14:40

3 Answers 3


Any category --not just sex or gender --exists because people find it useful or functional or otherwise significant. The majority of people in the world are content to accept commonly used categories as given. Philosophers are the people who question the categories as given, and make up their own.

There are times in the larger world, where the categories and their boundaries shift in the popular imagination. Sex and gender are undergoing just such a shift currently. But nearly any category can be interrogated, and nearly every border is fuzzy when viewed at a close enough scale.

This process is called "skepticism," and the disorientation you feel is called "aporia." It is dizzying to first learn that the conceptual foundations you thought of as solid and firm have nothing at their roots. Some philosophers prefer to maintain this state of skepticism, while others choose to push through it towards the creation of new categories and new ways of organizing experience.

  • I sometimes wish that everyone would occasionally experience aporia, it would make the world more sane. There is lots of research showing that psychoactive drugs can dramatically relieve depression, trauma and so on. Sometimes humans grip their concepts a little too tightly.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 14:23

TL;DR Bill Clinton once said, "It depends on what the meaning of is is."

Among other things, the answer to the question,

"How can anything, such as..., be said to exist?"

depends on what it means to exist. What do you think it means to exist? Would you moreover consider some things more real than others? Therefore some things ("space", "time", fungible building blocks, like "calories") exist more than others ("arachnid", "insect", "male", "female").

Likewise, to

"How can anyone know that there is such a thing as...?"

how do you define "there is a" (a kind of compound verb)? If nothing is really there except "There" (or "space", "time", fungibles), then special distinctions ("male", "female") indeed are not (fundamentally) there.

Also, out of curiosity, would you consider "to be there" (or being there) any different from "to be as"? For example, (to be as) such a thing as a spider (or even a circle) is? The modern linguistic preference (and imaginative premise at the head of every argument), "to be is to be there" (where?) seems to defeat the ancient preference "to be as" (what?).


"How can anyone know that there is such a thing as “sex”?"

It's simple, because of reproduction that mixes genes. Even external fertilisation in a synthetic womb, would be biologically, sexual reproduction.

"We have no idea if time exists, if absolute size (big or small) exists, and most especially if “objects” exist. Objects are a human invention."

Saying everything is an illusion doesn't make a positive statement, it just redefines illusion. Similarly here, you have implicitly redefined knowledge. You have a definition in mind, probably unexamined, then go to the world and find it unworkable.

Wittgenstein would point to how we actually use the word knowledge, it's role in modes of life. Not what we want it to mean, in a mental world of perfect abstractions, but instead how we actually use the word. You should read what Wittgenstein says about defining the word 'game'.

Language isn't mathematics. We don't require perfect sharp boundaries for each word. The meaning may have a clear centre but fuzzy edges. Or overlap in imprecise ways with other words, say depending on context. Discourses may change those contexts, like the increasing divergence made between sex and gender. We often get word meanings from examples, or prototypical cases, or infer them from behaviour like intonation.

Gender is culture. Sex evolved, it developed by degrees, related to specific contexts. These are examples of emergent properties.

Have a look at some related discussions

And see if you can narrow down what you're asking.

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    It reminds me of what Humpty Dumpty said about words. We define words, but they are just made up stuff. Convenient, not absolute. Culture is accidentally made up stuff. We don't have to enshrine or worship unintended, unthought past events.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 14:47
  • @ScottRowe: xkcd.com/1860
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 12:42
  • Yes. Someone I know said, "communication is what I hear, not what you say." I think he meant that it is the sender's responsibility to ensure that they were understood. It's a round trip, not a one-way broadcast.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 14:59

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