What is it like to be a bat? And is there a difference between the consciousness of male and female bats? Thomas Nagel didn’t ask that second question. All of us only have our own experience of the world. So, comparing consciousness across any lines is difficult, though, not impossible, writes Sophie-Grace Chappell.
“What is it like,” a man might ask, “to be a woman?”
“Well, what is it like,” a woman might retort, “to be a man?”
What-is-it-like questions are always intriguing. And, some might add, impossible to answer. If a woman could say what it is like to be a man (or vice versa), that would mean that she could occupy his very viewpoint on the world. It would mean that his consciousness, his subjective viewpoint, could turn into her consciousness.
But how could that happen? My “subjective viewpoint” is not a literal viewpoint, like the summit of Arthur’s Seat, that I can occupy, or vacate to let you occupy. Nor is consciousness like a virtual-reality headset that anyone can wear. I can’t just hand over to you the eye-goggles and the ear-phones of my experience, so that you can experience as directly as I do what it is like to be me.
But even if my consciousness was like a virtual-reality headset that you could just put on, what would you get by wearing it? You wouldn’t get my experience. You’d get your experience of my experience. But when you asked “what it was like to be me”, that evidently wasn’t what you were after.
Despite this line of objection, we should keep hold of an important truth that philosophy often obscures. At least sometimes others’ consciousnesses, their mental lives, are known to us just by observation. Since at least Descartes’s time, most philosophers have taken for granted “the privacy of the mental”. But sometimes mental states are as public as anything else. When you hit your thumb with the hammer I see, directly, that you’re in pain. When the cabinet minister staggers out of Downing Street I see, directly, that he’s blind drunk. When the school bully humiliates the shy pupil in front of the whole class, her anguished embarrassment is not private, as most of her previous mental states were. Being shy, she is a specialist in hiding. But that is precisely her torment as she faces the bully’s jeers: this mental state of hers is public, directly visible to everyone. In these cases and many others, the mental isn’t private at all; not at least if “private” means “unobservable”. Despite Descartes, when we ask what-is-it-like questions, our questions needn’t always be unanswerable; or even hard to answer.
One well-known source for what-it-is-like questions is Thomas Nagel’s classic paper “What is it like to be a bat?” (Philosophical Review 83.4, October 1974, pp.435-450). Nagel thinks that it is obviously true that there is something it is like to be a bat; there are facts about what it is like to be a bat; bats have consciousness, just as we do. But bats and humans have very different kinds of consciousness. So, for example, echolocation plays for bats roughly the function that sight plays for human beings. But even though they are functionally analogous, it seems obvious that there must be differences between the subjective experiences of seeing and echolocating. It is a fact that bat consciousness is very different from human consciousness, just as it is a fact that bat bodies are very different from human bodies. But how do the facts about consciousness relate to the facts about bodies? Nagel thinks that this is rather a deep philosophical mystery: a mystery that we might also call “the mind-body problem”. On the one hand, we can’t easily explain how if at all the two kinds of fact are connected. On the other hand, neither can we just deny the existence of either kind of fact. The mind-body problem leaves us scratching our heads. Perhaps it even should leave us that way.
Nagel thinks that it is obviously true that there is something it is like to be a bat; there are facts about what it is like to be a bat; bats have consciousness, just as we do.
Alongside “What is it like to be a bat?”, we might equally ask the two questions I began with: “What is it like to be a man?” and “What is it like to be a woman?” Is there anything that it is distinctively like to be a man or a woman, as there is something that it is distinctively like to be a bat, or a human (or a dog, or a llama, etc.)? At the level of our consciousness, is there “a man’s world” and “a woman’s world”? Are there two separate realms of consciousness here, each with its own particular flavour?
Sex is distinct from gender; I’ll explain how in a moment. So this question also can be divided in two. We can ask whether there is anything it is distinctively like to be female or male (a question about sex). And we can ask whether there is anything it is distinctively like to be feminine or masculine (a question about gender).
I think the answer to both these questions is “Obviously yes”. Why yes? And why obviously?
There is something it is distinctively like to be male or female, because a crucial—and overwhelmingly obvious—aspect of what it is like to be human is bodiliness. Our consciousness of our own bodies is fundamental to nearly all the rest of our consciousness. (There are “out of body experiences”, apparently; but they are exceptional.) The form of our bodies, and our awareness of our bodies from “inside them”, is an essential condition of the form of our phenomenology: what it is like to be human is, in key part, what it is like to have a human body. (Notice how this point can help us with Nagel’s initial question “What it is like to be a bat?”, and also with Nagel’s further question how facts about bodies relate to facts about consciousness. Notice too how it can’t help us with those two questions.)
But male and female bodies differ, and in distinctive ways. As male and female they are typically differently shaped, e.g. in genitalia, in having or lacking breasts, in distribution of body-fat and body-hair, in size, and in musculature. They are subject to different sensibilities: females feel the cold more, males are less good at coping with sleep-deprivation. They are affected by different hormonal secretions, and on different timescales, and these different hormones have different effects on their moods and their inclinations. Very crudely, females (or most of them within a certain age-range) experience the menstrual cycle, while males (same caveat) experience… testosterone. Male and female bodies even smell different (I gather this is related to the hormonal differences).
There is something it is distinctively like to be male or female, because a crucial—and overwhelmingly obvious—aspect of what it is like to be human is bodiliness.
In the case of the sex distinction, male/female, what matters is the physical; in the case of the gender distinction, masculine/feminine, what matters is the political. Male and female consciousnesses differ because male and female bodies differ; but masculine and feminine consciousnesses differ because male and female political roles have differed. So there is something it is distinctively like to be masculine or feminine, because a crucial—and overwhelmingly obvious—aspect of what it is like to be human is political life.
I mean this in a broad sense of “political”. Wherever there are humans, there are power-relations. One foundation of these power-relations is the management of expectation. The task of predicting the behaviour of other humans (whether groups or individuals) is intractably huge. We reduce this task to manageable proportions via conventions and taboos, expectations and reliances, contracts and understandings, traditions and rules: from this fact, over time, grows ideology.
Central to many of these conventions, etc., is the profiling of other humans. One obvious way to profile them is by their biological sex (actual or perceived). From this fact, over time, grows the ideology of gender: we build up a story about what kind of social and communal role follows from membership of either biological sex.
Our concepts of “masculine” and “feminine” are, precisely, stories of this kind. That such stories can and do encode not only power-relations but also oppression, and that this has been their function throughout history, is obvious from the beginning of our culture.
“But hang on,” some people might object at this point, “consciousness is just subjective awareness of the world! What does politics have to do with whether consciousness is gendered?” The answer is that this objection attributes a false—and ideologically-driven—unworldly purity to consciousness. The philosophy of mind is not, pace so many of its contemporary exponents, an ethically neutral or ideologically innocent study. The philosophy of mind is a part of “human science”; politics has everything to do with it. So when Karl Marx coined the phrase “class consciousness” (Klassenbewusstsein), this use of “consciousness” was not a mere homophony. We humans are both physical and political beings: our political condition shapes our awareness of the world as surely as our physical condition.
I remember visiting Bulgaria before the end of communism and being forcibly struck by the difference in people’s body-language from how people held themselves in England: the bowed shoulders, the refusal to meet each other’s eyes, the way even a walk across a railway-station concourse was a kind of furtive sidle, and of course the constant sideways and backwards vigilance for the police—whose body-language was completely different from everyone else’s: it was the strutting, shameless, crotch-first body-language of the cock of the walk, the school bully again. It sounds clichéd to say that when you live under a tyranny you are constantly watching your back; but it is the literal truth. The reality of ubiquitous surveillance charges your whole experience with a sense of vulnerability, exposure, nakedness.
Consciousness is not a bloodless abstraction: it is, among other things, politically charged. Neither is oppression a mere abstraction: for the oppressed, it shapes every aspect of how they see their environment, the obstacles and the affordances, the threats and the opportunities, in their way. To transpose a remark of Wittgenstein’s (Tractatus 6.43), the world of the oppressed person is a different world from the world of the free person.
In sum, then: consciousness is gendered, and obviously gendered, because the political realities of what it is like to be masculine, and what it is like to be feminine, are distinctively different. Moreover, consciousness is sexed too, and obviously sexed, because the physical realities of what it is like to be male, and what it is like to be female, are distinctively different. And that is why the answer to our two questions is not just “Yes”, but “Obviously yes.”
Wherever there are humans, there are power-relations.
At this point I predict that I will face two objections: one (so to speak) from the right, and the other from the left. The right-wing objection will be about what I have just said about masculine/ feminine and political oppression. It will be: “You can’t argue that gender is oppressive now by pointing out that it was oppressive then!” The left-wing objection, by contrast, will be about what I said earlier about male/ female and physical difference, and it will be: “Wow, innate differences between males and females on the basis of their bodies? What a sexist you are.”
To the objection from the right, my answer is that gender is an ideology that oppresses people in our society. The objection is quite right to draw our attention to the fact of historical change: a fact that is always relevant when thinking about politics, but all too apt to go missing when we are doing philosophy, even when that philosophy is ethics. It is even easier for the possibility of change over time to go missing when we are doing philosophy of mind.
People don’t always manage to notice that ethics is a study that is conditioned by history and politics. Even when they do notice that, they are still (as I said before) very prone to make the mistaken assumption that, in contrast to ethics, philosophy of mind is an apolitical study. Our inquiries into a question like “Is consciousness gendered?” can easily be undermined by this mistake. There isn’t a timeless fact of the matter that answers this question: gender is ideological and political, and ideologies and politics change. So even if consciousness is in fact always gendered, there are different ways for it to be gendered, corresponding to those different political and ideological possibilities. And since ideology is not always equally bad or harmful—since some ideology, indeed, is not harmful at all—it becomes possible for us to ask the question what a benign ideology of gender might look like. Are there ways of keeping the, or a, masculine/ feminine distinction in our society that are not harmful, that are perhaps even positively beneficial? Yes, I think so. But here I just note this possibility; I won’t try and explore it any further.
I turn to the objection from the left. This is the objection that it is sexist to say, as I have said, that consciousness is not only gendered, but also sexed, because there are physical differences between males and females. My answer is: Not at all, provided we notice that the male/ female distinction is not the only axis of physical difference that we might observe among human bodies. As well as distinguishing human bodies as male/ female, we can also distinguish them as old/ young, well/ ill, fat/ thin, strong/ weak, able-bodied/ disabled, and in many other ways as well. If my question had been “Is human consciousness modified by health/ illness?”, my answer to that too would have been “Yes, obviously”. If it had been “Is consciousness modified by age?”, the same again. And likewise too for fat/ thin, strong/ weak, and all sorts of other bodily distinctions that we might draw as well.
In all of these respects I am simply following out the logic of my own argument. I started by saying that a crucial determinant of human consciousness or subjectivity is our experience of our own bodiliness: what it is like to be a human being is determined, in key part, by what it is like to have a human body. But there are many different kinds of human body. For very many of the particular kinds of human being that we distinguish by reference to their bodies, what it is like to be a human being of that kind has a distinctive nature, determined by reference to the kind of body in question. Now one of the distinctions we make about human bodies is, of course, male/ female. But only one. What prompts the allegation of sexism here is the perception that I have said that the male/ female distinction is the single key distinction that we make among human bodies. But I haven’t said that. I didn’t say that at any point; and what I have just said is an explicit denial of it.
So is consciousness gendered, differentiated by the masculine/feminine distinction? Yes it is; and consciousness is sexed too, differentiated by the male/ female distinction. But it is also differentiated in lots of other ways by lots of other distinctions. Which of these distinctions we decide to treat as more or less important is not settled by biology. It is settled by us.
There isn’t a timeless fact of the matter that answers this question: gender is ideological and political, and ideologies and politics change.
As a postscript: there is another distinction that you might expect me to make here, at least if you happen to know a bit about me personally. This is the cis/ trans distinction, the distinction between those who are transgender and those who are not. We have been asking whether consciousness is gendered. What about whether it is transgendered? Is there, in other words, anything that it’s specifically and distinctively like to be transgender?
As a trans woman, my answer is “Yes, there most certainly is”. To be transgender is to stand in a very distinctive relation both to the masculine/ feminine divide, and to the male/ female divide. As I experience it, it is to find myself at odds with both those classifications. My own story is about finding myself classified both as masculine and as male when what feels right and natural to me, and what I want for myself, is to be classified on the other side of both distinctions—as feminine, and as female. This is certainly a story about finding, among many other things, that my consciousness has a particular and distinctive quality that clearly isn’t there in other people’s consciousness—except when they too are transgender.
There are other possible transgender stories. (Even for trans women; trans men and gender-non-affirming people are moving in other directions again.) For instance, someone might care only about moving from male to female, and reject the masculine/feminine distinction altogether (i.e. she might regard it as bad ideology that should just be abolished). Or she might care only about moving from masculine to feminine, and reject the male/female distinction more or less altogether (i.e. she might regard it as unimportant biology that should not be foregrounded in the way we organise society or think about ourselves). But that, at any rate, is how it is for some trans women, including me. We think—and it is central to our consciousness to think—that both the male/ female and the masculine/ feminine distinctions are capable of being given positive and non-harmful political expressions. And we think that we ourselves would do better on the other side of both distinctions from where we started out.
On the whole, people (including transgender people) are demonstrably correct in their judgements about what would be better for them. And we live in a society where everyone is supposed to have a wide latitude of freedom to choose what they think is better for them even when they aren’t correct. So it is hard to see why anyone would struggle to allow transgender people the same simple right of self-determination that cisgender people take for granted.
However—welcome to the UK, 2022.
Join the conversation