I am not going to make claims about the nature of women (hence the strange punctuation in the title), and I will say a little about why not at the end of this post. Instead, I am going to talk about what it means to have beliefs about “the nature” (of women or men or whatever).
There is an enormous body of philosophical literature, going back thousands of years, about the nature of entities. My goal here is not to enter into this ancient debate. Rather, I want to clarify the term as it is used in Catharine MacKinnon and Sally Haslanger’s definition of objectification, which I call enforced reconstruction.
Recall that Sally Haslanger interprets Catharine MacKinnon as holding that an objectifier represents and treats the objectified as
“having by nature properties [the objectifier] desires” and “has the power to force [the objectified] to have these properties (and sometimes exercises this power).”
So what meaning does the notion of “nature” add to these sentences?
- Women are ____ by their nature.
- It is in the nature of women to ____.
At root the conception of “nature” that Haslanger and MacKinnon have in mind is simple.
The nature of an entity is what is essential to it, and an entity’s “natural properties” are just those properties without which it would either not be what it is or would not be a well-formed or well-functioning individual of the type of entity that it is.
Our knowledge of the nature of an entity guides us in figuring out what we should do when we encounter it. Such knowledge also informs our moral, aesthetic and functional evaluations of individuals.
That men’s beliefs about women are often beliefs about the nature of women is important, and here’s why.
Consider that there is commonly held belief that women are naturally submissive.
Full Stop. This is only an example. I do not believe that women are naturally submissive.
In fact, it is an undeniable fact that there are many, many women who do not act submissively.
This fact could be taken as a reason to change the beliefs that women are submissive. If I just so happen to think that all women are submissive because all of the women that I have ever seen have acted submissively, then my reaction to meeting a women who does not act submissively should be to change my mind about the submissiveness of women.
But if I think that it is in the nature of women to be submissive, then my reaction to meeting a women who does not exhibit this trait will be to attribute a defect to that individual woman. I do not, in this latter case, revise my views about the nature of women; rather, I infer from my beliefs about the nature of women that this woman is not a good woman. This, of course, is bullshit.
We must watch out for this sort of belief – in others, yes, but also – especially – in ourselves. They are very common, and they may be held in good faith by people who do not intend to have sexist beliefs.
I don’t think it’s possible to really justify a belief about the nature of women or indeed people in general. So I am an agnostic about the nature of people. We can’t know what our nature is. This is why I will not make any positive claims about the nature of women (or anyone else). But what I will do is criticize claims made by others about the nature of women.
Work hard to avoid making beliefs that operate this way. In one sense it is fairly easy to do this. Just make sure that you hold your beliefs about people open to being revised. When you encounter an individual who doesn’t fit your beliefs about what people are like, let that individual change your beliefs about what people are like. Don’t let yourself think that an individual is defective, weird, or bad just because they don’t fit your preconceived notions about what people are like.
But in another sense, it is very difficult to do this. It is very easy for us to let our beliefs about what people are like solidify into a beliefs about the nature of people.
1 Haslanger, Sally. “On Being Objective and Being Objectified,” A Mind of One’s Own, ed., L Antony and C. Witt. (Boulder: Westview, 1993) 85-125. Page 111; MacKinnon, Catharine. Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1989). Page 122.