Saturday, 6 October 2018

Separating the cows from the bulls


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.

18 comments:

  1. We may take it, then, that Effie concurs with Plato's use of Protagoras as a sort of Aunt Sally to represent a certain relativism.

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    1. This being the case, it would be helpful to know what precisely Ia the Greek word rendered as 'things'.

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    2. Is it, for example, 'ontai'? (Alas! My keyboard cannot handle the Greek alphabet.)

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    3. A lot would depend on this. It would also be helpful to know what Greek word is rendered as 'measure'.

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  2. "πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον ἐστὶν ἄνθρωπος, τῶν μὲν ὄντων ὡς ἔστιν, τῶν δὲ οὐκ ὄντων ὡς οὐκ ἔστιν"

    "Of all things the measure is man: of those that are, that they are; and of those that are not, that they are not."

    Thing = χρῆμα

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    1. Thank you! This is even more interesting than I had supposed. I shall need to mull over this.

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    2. Looking at the various uses if 'chrema', I can't help concluding that 'thing' is an inadequate, and potentially misreading, rendering of the word.

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    3. I've been browsing through concordances. It's plainbthat the chief sense of 'chremata' is 'utensilia'. This is so from Hesiod onwards. Plato is, I fear, being a bit naughty hear. If Protagoras is guilty of anything, it is pragmatism (stricto sensu), and certainly *not* relativism.

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    4. Protagoras is arguing that conscious, rational beings must test their perceptions of reality. Plato is letting us know that everything is as he has decided, sitting in his study.
      I know which approach I favour.

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    5. How do we determine the nature of reality?
      One approach is to carry out rigorous investigation, supplemented by reasoned and well-informed discussion.
      Another approach is to make a blockbusting assertion, supplemented by repeated banging of the table.
      Win on points to Protagoras, I think.

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  3. I was once involved in a pretty substantive contractual litigation, in the summing up the "Judge" said that the law is the law and it must be interpreted as such.

    In this case there was a written agreement on the specifics of employment status of a group of individuals. They were classed as X and they signed contracts saying they were X. They were also compensated differently and treated differently as a result. This was all based on the determination that both groups said and signed documents they were X at the start of the engagement.

    There was at a later date a change of strategy in the company and they decided they did not need X types any more. The basis of their status was reviewed and it was agreed by our side and previously by these others that they were X and therefore legally they were not entitled to notice to severe the contracts.

    In court I had to give evidence to my understanding of their status among 100 other aspects of what they did. I said they were X , when challenged by the other lawyer he said how can you prove it. I said I believed this to be the case based on how they were treated and its confirmed as they also said they were X. So both parties agreed on this and acted accordingly with zero ambiguity...

    On summing up the judge said that these people were in fact Y...they were not X.

    Despite them saying they were X at the outset and the company agreeing this ..It was not the case in the eyes of the law.

    You and I can agree that from now and for evermore this pen is a fork but it does not change the facts that it is in fact a pen and always will be.

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    1. One possibility is that they were in fact (quite possibly without realizing this) bearing the indicia of Y. However, without adequate details it's impossible to do more than guess.

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    2. There were obviously aspects of what they did that made them Y. The interesting part of the argument was that despite both sides of the argument contractually agreeing between them that they were X.

      That was not enough.

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    3. They may have been in psychological agreement, without, however, having fulfilled the criteria that would have made them Y in the eyes if the Law.

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    4. Exactly that, what annoyed me the most was that the people involved accepted the positive side of their initial status(less tax, higher pay and paid by the hour not a salary). Then when the down side came along after nearly 3 years they complained....Human nature to want exceptionalism in everything.

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    5. The moral of this is that we need to improve the standards of legal drafting.

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  4. I have no oar in this gender discussion, I barely understand it if I am actually being honest. If I want to be known as a man or a woman I should be free to do that, however society needs to also be free to make its own general decision on who is what.

    We cannot IMO have society being driven by the individual ... that way you cannot have society. Society in itself is a consensus of a way of living together. It must in some way be democratic or open to other views but there still needs to be some standards, in the end if agreement cannot be reached then that is why we have courts to decide.

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    1. That is why the Law requires solemn declarations, underwritten if need be by pertinent endorsement from appropriately-qualified professionals. If an individual wishes to change their status in a way that will require others to adopt particular modes of conduct in respect of them, they should be required to do so by a procedure accorded consensualitu by force of Law.

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