Are Sex and Gender Natural Kinds? A Wittgensteinian Investigation

Laura Nelson
21 min readJun 19, 2021
Wikimedia Commons

“I’ll teach you differences!” — Ludwig Wittgenstein, quoting William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 1, Scene 4

Ever since the eponymous Time article of 2014, much has been said about the “transgender tipping point,” the emergence of trans women and trans men as a critical part of the LGBTQ constellation and their place in the discourse about culture, society, and politics. Unfortunately, “the discourse” has of late been, at best, a mixed bag for us trans people. While trans people have become far more visible, they have also met harsh resistance to their claim that their gender assigned at birth does not reflect their true gender.

This resistance comes not only from religious and cultural conservatives but from gender-critical feminists as well. The rhetoric from these otherwise quite antagonistic groups has ranged from dismissive to angry. However, it often centers around a common argumentative theme: that “transgender ideologues” confuse sex and gender, view “male” and “female” as social constructions when they are natural kinds, and draw the unwarranted and unethical conclusion that an act of will can alter their identity.

This theme is not just an airy, academic bit of navel-gazing. It has dire consequences for trans people worldwide, especially in the U.K. and U.S.A. At present, 33 American states have had bills introduced in their legislatures that aim to curb transgender rights; Arkansas has passed a law outlawing gender-affirming treatment to transgender youth, the consequences of which will be psychologically devastating for them and their families. The cruelty of such legislation seems to be less an unintended side-effect but its goal.

Insofar as the cruelty gets a rationale from this common argumentative theme, the argument demands sustained, rational criticism. While I am under no illusions that the critique that follows will change minds and thus incrementally eliminate the cruelty, it is worth pursuing since it will further expose the irrational contempt for transgender people that the common argumentative theme rationalizes.

(Understanding the argument, however, will involve an extended detour into the philosophy of language and metaphysics. I will return to the way in which these subdisciplines…

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Laura Nelson

Writer, philosopher, information technologist,guitarist, neurotic, polite radical, avid and indiscriminate reader, Episcopalian, trans woman.