Since ancient times there has been a debate between those who believe that “Man is the measure of all things, of things which are, that they are, and things which are not, that they are not” and those who believe that there is such a thing as objective truth outside of human subjectivity. It is a key debate because if man really is the measure of all things then there can be no question of there being a God who transcends me, no question of there being moral rules that come from outside me and ultimately no reality that I don’t choose to judge as existing. Everything becomes a matter of taste. No-one can show that Beethoven is objectively better than Beyoncé, which makes music a subject not worth studying. It is all simply a matter of preference just the same as my disliking spinach, but you wanting to eat it every day.
It is strange that this debate is still active, because there has been a word since ancient times for those who believe that all is relative and that there is no objective truth. They are called sophists. The argument always collapses into a form of solipsism, whereby the doubting sophist cannot tell for sure even whether other people exist. If I am the measure of all truth and if I determine what exists and what does not, then does it even make sense to say that you have an existence outside of me.
No-one actually could live this way. We assume in going about our daily lives that there is an objectively existing world and people in it. We assume that truth is determined by reality, not by subjective opinion. Yet despite the fact that it contradicts everything we experience, the sophist’s argument keeps reappearing.
The latest reappearance is the idea that someone’s being a man or a woman is something that they can determine by themselves rather than something that is determined by an external, objective and shared reality.
One of the key insights of the twentieth century, that ought to have finally killed off any last strains of sophism, was the idea that the language that we use is determined by a community of language users rather than by a subjective individual conversing with himself. How do I learn words like “girl” and “boy”, “man” and “woman?” When I’m a child someone points out that this person is a man and that person is a woman. Gradually I learn to make the distinction. If I make a mistake I’m corrected. The same process goes for every word I learn and also for the words that turn them into sentences. Without this process I would be mute. So it cannot be me and me alone that is the measure of the words that I speak. Without other people determining the correctness of my vocabulary I would not even be able even to utter so complex a sentence as “man is the measure of all things” let alone say it in Greek.
But how do we determine who is a boy and who is a girl. There is a simple method that has been used since time began. When a baby is born we look. After that we might ask a parent whether their baby is a boy or a girl. Subsequently we judge by appearance. This works in nearly all cases.
It is of course possible for a man to pretend to be a woman and for a woman to pretend to be a man. This occasionally happened in times of war, when a few women were desperate to take part as soldiers. Some of them might cut their hair, bind their breasts and wear male clothing. Sometimes they went for years without being caught. But there was something that could determine whether they were pretending or not pretending. There was an objective truth of the matter. Sometimes such a soldier was injured and on the operating table it became clear that here was a woman not a man. The method of determining this was much the same as when the person was born.
But what was this soldier feeling. Did the soldier feel like a woman or like a man? The mistake is to suppose that it matters what she felt like. This once more is to suppose that “man is the measure of all things.” When I see a grassy field in springtime I may say that it is green. If someone else says that it is red, I tell them that they have misunderstood the word “red”. But what if what they see is different from what I see? It doesn’t matter. So long as we all use green in the same way, to describe grass and lettuce and such like, it matters not all what we sense. So long as we each say that a post box is red it doesn’t matter if you see it as “blue” and I see it as “yellow.” The usage of the word is not determined by subjectivity, it is determined by the community of language users who do not have access to each other’s subjective inner experiences.
But this goes for all words. It is literally senseless to suppose that there is one word for how I feel, which might differ from how I am. This is a distinction without difference. To apply the same distinction across the whole of our language would mean that we couldn’t even speak to each other. Once this is understood then the debate about girls who want to be boys and boys who want to be girls, simply collapses. What we are is determined by the public community of language users, not by private feelings unavailable to that community.
No person can know what it feels to be like another person. We can imagine what it would be like to be an Ancient Greek, but we can’t know how such a person felt. Likewise I might think that I feel like a man feels, but I have no idea whatsoever how he does feel. How then can I suppose that I am correct in my judgment that I feel like a man, when I simply don’t know how he or anyone else actually does feel.
The mistake is to suppose that the use of words like “man” and “woman” has anything to do with how people feel. This is pure sophistry. The meaning of words like “man” and “woman” is determined in exactly the same way as words like “rock”, “drop” and “floor”. Whether or not I drop the rock on the floor is verifiable by the community. To suppose that it is subjective is to suppose that these words have no meaning.
We determine that there are cows in a field by looking. If we make a mistake and they are really bulls, then this is either because we don’t understand the word “cow” or because we are not very observant. It matters not at all what the cow or the bull feels. We have no idea whether this particular cow has always wanted to be a bull and has felt that it inhabited the wrong body. Moreover we are uninterested. It is not this that determines how we use the word “cow.”
Are we to suppose then that in all of the animal kingdom we can determine these matters objectively, except in the case of human beings? At what point in our evolution did the ability to choose whether we were men or women evolve?
I’m afraid the method by which we use the words “man” and “woman” are exactly the same as the method by which we use the words “cow” and “bull” each of these words is grounded in a reality that cannot change. It no more matters that a man thinks he is a woman than that he thinks he is a bull. The reality is that man is not the measure of these things. Reality is the measure.
You can, of course, put a man who is pretending to be a woman into a woman’s prison, but this will have much the same effect as putting a bull into a field with cows. There is a reason why sometimes it makes sense to have fields where there are only cows and where bulls are not allowed. It doesn’t matter one little bit what the bull feels. It doesn’t matter even if he mistakenly thinks that he is a cow. He is not a cow. You will get a shock if you try to milk him. No matter what you try, you simply cannot turn a bull into a cow. It doesn’t matter what you cut off or attempt to add. He won’t give you any milk or any calves. This inability is not accidental, it is not a matter of choice, it is something that was determined when we came into existence. I can no more choose what I am than I can choose whether a stone falls when I drop it.
This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog: https://www.effiedeans.com/2018/10/separating-cows-from-bulls.html