July 14, 2003

Ontologizing without a License

Kieran Healy is surprised that there are readers of the Volokh Conspiracy whose primary identity is not human but male--who seem to believe that they have more in common with he-canaries and bull-buffaloes than with humans of the female gender...

Crooked Timber: Identity and Essence: ...I can understand how being male is more fundamental to his identity than being 40 or an economist, but he also seems to say that it's the essential thing about him. Hes a man first, "not a human who happens to be a man." Can he really mean this? What if he had to choose one property or the other? Would he really prefer to be a male non-human than a non-male human? Say, a fine, strapping male canary rather than a woman? Maybe Im misreading his view. Or maybe my he-canary vs woman preference ranking is not widely shared...

Let's all to pledge to Kieran that if we are ever faced with the choice of uploading his consciousness into a he-canary or a she-human body, we will choose the second.

Posted by DeLong at July 14, 2003 03:00 PM | TrackBack


> Let's all to pledge to Kieran that if we are ever faced with
> the choice of uploading his consciousness into a he-
> canary or a she-human body, we will choose the second.
Isn't that the plot of every Jack Chalker novel?

Posted by: Cosma on July 14, 2003 03:33 PM

You might be interested in the interaction between Caribs and Arawaks at the time of European discovery. Captured Arawak females were kept for breeding, and the boys removed young to be brought up as Caribs with a different language and customs. This may have been extreme, but it is not unprecedented - and the precedents don't all seem to be derivative but at least some have different independent origins.

Anyhow, the point is that the identification does indeed make sense in contexts like that. Only Caribs are real people, and saying Arawak male is ipso facto nonsense (or nearly - any wild specimens were eaten when caught).

Posted by: P.M.Lawrence on July 14, 2003 04:16 PM

Whereas you're the Holy Roman Emperor? But if you are, Prof. DeLong, then you are neither holy, roman, nor an emperor. Oh, this is so confusing!

Posted by: James R MacLean on July 14, 2003 06:07 PM

I have no reason to want to defend Eugene's essentialist correspondent, but if I read him correctly he is *not* saying that being make is a more fundamental fact about him than being human, but that it is more fundamental than his age, profession, or fertility.

"I happen to be 40 years old, happen to be an economist, and happen to be fertile, but I AM a man. I am not a human who happens to be a man. Being male is fundamental to who I am in a deeper way than any of these other characteristics."

"These other characteristics" must surely mean age, profession, and fertility status, not species.

He's saying, then, that he'd still be himself if he grew older, or became a lawyer, or became infertile, but that he would be another person if he became a woman. Well, that may not be right, but it certainly isn't silly. Consider, for example, that most transgender people take new names, and a name is a central symbol of identity.

Posted by: Mark Kleiman on July 14, 2003 06:08 PM

I once heard the argument that whenever Darren on Bewitched turned into an animal, it was a male animal. But when you think about it, how could they tell? (as Dorothy Parker said).
There is a species of fish where if the male dies, the lead female changes sex.
The word "cannibal" comes from the Carib.

Posted by: John Isbell on July 14, 2003 07:23 PM

While the Holy Roman Empire may well have been neither Holy, Roman, nor an Empire, and no Holy Roman Emperor could be described as "Roman", some of them were probably Holy, and all of them were, well, Emperors. In fact, they were *the* Emperor, as far as Europe was concerned.

And good call on the Jack Chalker...

Posted by: John on July 14, 2003 10:30 PM

Yes, it seems a bit too much assertion may have been read into the original statement by the male in question. He seems only to be saying that being male is essential to who he is, ranking it higher in importance than economist or in his 4th decade. I can't detect any effort to rank being male against being human, certainly not ranking it higher than human. I think he is in a different discussion than Kieran - not an unusual happenstance in many a discussion.

Posted by: K Harris on July 15, 2003 06:06 AM

Those of you who think the guy merely meant that he was more male than econonomist have to explain the sentence, "I am not a human who happens to be a man," which certainly seems to be an indication that he sees himself as more male than human.

Posted by: rea on July 15, 2003 07:07 AM

My only suggestion is, don't put that on a grant application.

The grantor might consider that a predisposition to research bias.

Plus it sounds real dumb.

Posted by: northernLights on July 15, 2003 04:04 PM

Let's see now "Holy Roman Emperor".

Hey, I think that might work very well! I see many big time bucks coming your way soon!

Posted by: northernLights on July 15, 2003 04:13 PM
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