In this fourth part of the series in review of Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, I will focus on the origin and culture-shifting consequences of the modern disjunction between the biologically determined concept of sex and the socially determined concept of gender. In the first essay I pointed out that Trueman wrote the book to explain “how and why a particular statement has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful: “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” (Trueman, p. 19). The radical disjunction* between sex and gender is at the heart of this issue. If you accept it you will find transgenderism “coherent and meaningful.” If you reject it, you will find transgenderism incoherent and absurd.
The Anti-Essentialism of the Nineteenth Century
The disjunction between sex and gender was not articulated clearly until the publication of Simone de Beauvoir, Le Deuxième sexe in 1949 (English: The Second Sex, 1953). But the disjunction did not arise from nowhere. It roots extend back into the nineteenth century. For it was in this century that the Western mind all but abandoned the search for timeless truths and unchanging reality. Early in the century the philosopher Hegel argued that all beings, including God, are evolving through time toward absolute freedom. Becoming replaced being as the fundamental category by which to understand the world. In his theory of evolution, Darwin historicized biology by postulating a historical chain of continuity connecting all living things through time. Marx asserted that human beings create themselves by their own labor out of the raw materials found in nature. And at the end of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche claimed that human beings can mold and shape themselves into a form that pleases them without regard to any external norms. By the end of that century, then, the idea that human beings possess a nature or an essence that defines what they are and how they should behave no longer made sense to many cultural leaders.
For those under the spell of the modern understanding of the self—which to some degree is nearly all Westerners—the concept of human nature is obscure. When we think of human nature today we think of a set of desires and needs that characterizes most human beings, or the physical, chemical, and organic laws that determine the species of Homo sapiens, or a person’s particular character, “their nature.” But what the nineteenth century destroyed was something different; it was the belief that there is a design plan, a created form, a goal, an essence, or a soul—it goes by many names—that gives unity, form, and life to human beings. In the older understanding, since human nature originates from the mind of God and serves as an ideal model for the human creature, it possesses a normative status. That is to say, there is a way human beings are supposed to live according to the divine intention, and this divine intention can be discerned through reason. The idea that human beings are created according to a good and rational design plan is closely allied with the more general idea that there is a moral law that is built into nature.
Existentialism and The Second Sex
Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) and her associate Jean-Paul Sartre (1929-1980) inherited the anti-essentialism developed in the nineteenth century. Sartre is most famous for his articulation of a distinctive philosophy of Existentialism. Perhaps the central assumption of Existentialism is that human beings, though they find themselves existing in the world apart from their free choices, are not born with a nature, an essence that determines what they are, who they should be, and how they should live. They must instead create their own essence through their choices and the projects on which they choose to work. De Beauvoir was an existentialist philosopher in her own right and wrote many works explaining and defending Existentialism. But she is most famous for her initiation of the second wave of the feminist movement.
The second volume of her book The Second Sex (1949), begins with this famous line: “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman” (Quoted in Trueman, p. 256). One is born a biological female but womanhood is a socially constructed identity that differs from culture to culture and from century to century. In this pregnant sentence we can see the distinction between sex and gender. But de Beauvoir is not content merely to describe this socially constructed feminine identity. Applying the tradition of Rousseau and Marx to the position of women in society, she views male dominated society as oppressive, ever imposing male myths and interests on women. In dialogue with Freud, she affirms the decisive impact of the inner psychic life on what it means to be human and a woman:
“It is not the body-object described by scientists that exists concretely but the body lived by the subject. The female is a woman, insofar as she feels herself as such…Nature does not define woman: it is she who defines herself by reclaiming nature for herself in her affectivity” (Quoted in Truman, p. 256).
De Beauvoir’s criticisms of the ways womanhood has been constructed by male dominated societies are rather straightforward extensions of Rousseau’s criticisms of society’s corrupting influence on the individual. But implicit in her sentence, “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman,” is the more radical and innovative view that biology is also a tyrant constricting women’s possibilities for freedom and happiness. Technology, proposes de Beauvoir, is the way to escape the grip of biology: birth control, abortion, and artificial insemination. As far as I know de Beauvoir did not envision gender reassignment through hormone therapy and surgery. But her radical disjunction between sex and gender opened that door and others ran through it. Trueman summarizes her thesis in this way:
“The body is something to be overcome; its authority is to be rejected; biology is to be transcended by the use of technology; who or what woman really is is not her chromosomes or her physiology; rather it is something that she becomes, either as an act of free choice or because society coerces her into conformity with its expectations” (p. 259).
If you have read all four of my essays in dialogue with Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, you will understand why I have been driven to the conclusion that the assertion, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” (Trueman, p. 19) can be received as “coherent and meaningful” only by those who have thoroughly accepted the radical disjunction between sex and gender. In its radical form the disjunction between sex and gender views biological sex merely as external, objective, and determinate whereas gender is internal, subjective, and indeterminate. The two are completely incommensurable.
Moreover, I am convinced that the only justification for accepting the radical disjunction* between sex and gender is the prior rejection of the belief that human beings have a nature or an essence. And, implicit in the rejection of human nature is rejection of God as the creator of human beings and the giver of the moral law. The very idea of God becomes irrelevant to human life. It should come as no surprise that the original architects of anti-essentialism and the radical disjunction between sex and gender—Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre, and de Beauvoir—were all atheists who self-consciously developed their philosophies as projects exploring atheism’s implications for human existence in a world without God. This fact alone should give believers in God and creation great pause.
*It is important to take note of the word “radical” in the term radical disjunction. There are undeniable differences in the social roles women have played in different cultures and different eras. But this observation cannot ground the radical disjunction under discussion.