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Cartesian-Inspired Gender Confusions Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Thursday, 05 December 2013

In August, California’s governor signed a bill stipulating that: “A pupil shall be permitted to participate in sex-segregated school programs and activities, including athletic teams and competitions, and use facilities consistent with his or her gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on the pupil’s records.”

The federal government is also considering a law that goes by the acronym ENDA, which would make it illegal for any organization to “discriminate against any individual . . . because of such individual’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity” – “gender identity” defined (if you’re wondering) as “the gender-related identity, appearance, or mannerisms or other gender-related characteristics of an individual, with or without regard to the individual’s sex at birth.”

In other words, if as a woman you would prefer to have a female nurse help you get dressed or bathe you in the hospital, and the hospital happens to have a male nurse who identifies as “female,” then it would be violating the law to refuse to assign that male nurse to you, regardless of your personal wishes.  His “rights” must be protected. Yours, as a “gender-identifying woman” and hospital patient, not so much.

There are of course good things about prohibiting certain forms of discrimination (and of course all forms of violence) against those who engage in what used to be called “cross-dressing” (and still is by many of the people who engage in it). As Thomas Aquinas suggests, trying to enforce laws against all behaviors we consider “immoral” would bring more disorder than justice.

Then again, on the matter of gender, we seem to have allowed ourselves to become a bit, well, confused.  And I can’t help but think that some of this confusion stems from the mind-body dualism that was infused into the culture with the philosophy of René Descartes. 

John Paul II saw more clearly than most how so many of the pathologies of modern culture could be traced ultimately to mistaken notions of the human person: man as nothing more than a materialist economic being (as in Marxism), or man as nothing more than a rational maximizer of self-interest (as for some contemporary laissez-faire capitalists), or man as a product of instinctual evolutionary forces (as for some proponents of Darwinian Theory).  None of these theories is totally false; the question is whether any of them provide a totally accurate and complete account of the human person. 

So too with our current confusions about “gender.”  Not only do they rely on an incomplete picture of the human person as essentially individualistic and radically autonomous from others. They’re also based on a Cartesian confusion about the fundamental unity between “body” and “spirit.”

The result is, one finds on the one side those who will claim that “gender” is reducible to body parts.  Male parts means you’re a boy.  Female parts means you’re a girl.  Just ask the delivery room nurse. 

                                                                                                   [Photo by Ulric Collette]

The most common reply to this view is to point to the existence of hermaphrodites who have both male and female body parts.  What do we say about them?   And what about men or women who tragically lose their “distinctively” male or female body parts?  Do we say to a man who has had his testes blown off serving in Afghanistan that he is less of a man, or to a woman who has lost her breasts to a radical mastectomy that she is less of a woman?  That seems wrong in the same way it seems wrong to say that a soldier returning from war without his legs or arms is somehow less of a human being.  Our “humanness” is bodily, but also transcends the bodily in important ways as well. 

You could check the chromosomes, but is what it means to be a man or woman really reducible to this little marker?

Some respond to these challenges by insisting that the body has nothing whatsoever to do with gender — that gender is nothing more than a cultural construction. The only question for such people then is who gets to do the “constructing.”  Shouldn’t we allow individuals the freedom to “construct their own gender identities,” rather than having our current “culturally-constructed” gender roles imposed upon them?

There is something to be said for this view given that a certain number of our social expectations surrounding gender roles are socially constructed.  When Roman soldiers and Scotsmen wore short skirts, no one complained — certainly not the way my boss would if I showed up in a skirt.  (Full disclosure: Don’t worry.) But is everything about gender thus “constructed”

This is a topic on which I’ll have more to say in the future.  But for now I merely want to point out how “Cartesian” our current debate is: one side insisting that the body alone determines gender, the other insisting that gender is entirely a construction of the mind, with the body having no bearing on the matter whatsoever.  If I think I’m a man, I’m a man.  If I think I’m a woman, I’m a woman.  But is the relationship between the mind and the body really so incidental, so accidental, and so utterly without meaning as both sides seem to suppose? 

There are of course those in our society who treat patients scheduled for major surgery as though they were nothing but “meat machines,” a collection of material “parts,” and who ignore the spiritual and emotional dimensions of the whole human person.  Others respond to this problem by engaging in so-called “holistic” therapies that claim to put the emphasis on the “spiritual,” while often having little or no proper grounding in the crucial wisdom the empirical sciences reveal about the true nature of the human body.  

Doesn’t wisdom suggest that both sides are missing something?

It’s worth giving this question further thought.

Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Mack Hall, December 05, 2013
Edmund Campion prepared in advance of his capture his "Campion's Brag", a statement of his mission and beliefs, in case imprisonment, torture, and deprivation compromised his ability to defend himself in court. Perhaps we all need to keep a copy of the Nicene Creed with us.
written by Christopher Manion, December 05, 2013
One need go no further than Marx's Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach.

For Aristotle, "All men by nature desire to know." [MET. I, 1.] That is the ground floor of philosophy. Truth exists. Man by nature seeks it.

For Marx, nature doesn't exist. And neither does truth.

"Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world [created by God]... the point is to change it."

"Male and female He created them."

The point is, to change it.

After all, "Ye shall be as gods."
written by spudnik, December 05, 2013
There is a great hypocrisy at work here. When it comes to abortion or same-sex "marriage" we are instructed that religious or spiritual considerations are irrelevant and impermissible. Yet insisting that one's gender can be completely independent of one's biology is an inherently metaphysical claim.
written by WSquared, December 05, 2013
Thank you for this, Professor Smith!
written by Chris in Maryland, December 05, 2013
Christopher M:


You have identified the malicious code: "the point is to change...."
written by william manley, December 05, 2013
When I read posts like this, it just makes me appreciate Pope Francis' focus on poverty even more. Helping the poor....that's the Catholic thing.
written by Jack,CT, December 05, 2013
@william manley,
I could not agree more!
The Article above is a fair one and
exspresses "both" sides of the topic
also is worthy of reading as I walked
away learning a great deal.

My concern is not Prof Smith or his
way of articulation,it is other authors
that spew hatred.

That said: I see how our Holy Father is
teaching charity of the heart and love
some continue to push issues that you
will see only well, here.

I leave the issues of "Idenity" to the
Medical Proffesion and not theologions.
I simply feel that those who struggle
with these issues need compassion and
I feel we dilute our views on religion
when we focus on these issues to the
extent we do.
I find it curious when 50,000 babys
die every 24 hours fron needless
starvation an diseases eradicated here
in the west a century ago,we are so
focused on "Gender Confusion",a issue
that seems to be rare.

I understand the response that I will
recieve "Read or not it is your choice".

So to conclude if it were up to me
I would prefer Prof Smith and his
approach over say well anyway,lol
BUT,One is generous!
The Poor,the abused the fact that 2/3 of
our world live on 2$/day/woman and girls
rights in Asia or perhaps female castration!
Well I guess I am asking for a greater

written by Guest, December 06, 2013
Jack and William ,

I could not disagree with you more.

The professionals who deal with these issues are not influenced by moral truth but relativism. They are deconstructing society. The false notion that the only thing that matters is material poverty is not only reductionist but ignores Scripture, the magisterium, and reason.
written by maineman, December 06, 2013
As a mental health professional with 30 years of experience, I can tell you that this is a very real and very serious problem. In the past we described such problems as gender identity disorders, meaning they were seen as symptomatic of a serious disturbance, potentially reflective of profound identity disorder or even psychosis.

The new approach is to validate the delusion of discontinuity between the body and the self. I recently saw a teen whose mother believes he was driven to suicidality by a psychiatrist that "honored" his confusion and began preparing him for sex reassignment surgery.

What we are seeing, then, is essentially a shared psychosis, formerly a rare phenomenon in which a dependent individual joins in the delusions of a dominant one, say a wife with a psychotic or otherwise psychiatrically impaired husband.

Only in this case, parents, mental health professionals, teachers, and others are supporting the delusion that there really is such a state of being as "transgendered."

This is child abuse by any standard, so sitting by and acting as though caring for the poor will somehow pass muster while the most innocent among us are being harmed and the fabric of the culture torn apart is not just naive but irresponsible.
written by Howard, December 06, 2013
For years we have been fed a steady diet of science fiction and fantasy designed to lead us to this kind of conclusion. The examples from science fiction are the most annoying, because in one episode they will mouth the dogma of materialism and deny that there is any kind of a soul, and in the next episode they will show one of the characters having his or her soul downloaded into a computer (which is now "really" that character) or into the body of another character.

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