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Which Dualism, Whose Description?

March 15th, 2010 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

“Dualism” is a dirty word.

Whether it refers to bodies and souls, men and women, reason and emotion, gender and sex, binary thinking is no longer in.

The rejection of dualisms takes different forms, depending on which intellectual tradition you’re standing within.  Consider this implicit denial of the dualism of gender and sex by Thomas Lacquer:

The problem is rather that in the imaginative world I am describing there is no “real” sex that in principle grounds and distinguishes in a reductionist fashion two genders. Gender is part of the order of things, and sex, if not entirely conventional, is not solidly corporeal either. Thus the modern way of thinking about these texts, of asking what is happening to sex as the play of genders becomes indistinct, will not work. What we call sex and gender are in the Renaissance bound up in a circle of meanings from which escape to a supposed biological substratum is impossible.

Lacquer eliminates “masculine” and “feminine” as categories of gender by eliminating “men” and “women” as sexual entities.  Both gender and sex, turns out, are culturally constructed.

This happens in phenomenological literature as well, where there is a tradition of attempting to overcome the dualism in Descartes’ epistemology by starting with the body as the center of the epistemological field.  In this tradition (post-Heideggerian as it is), substance ontology is eschewed in favor of phenomenological analyses.

There’s lots of interesting insights to be gleaned from both traditions, I think.  But the claims that dualism has been overcome tend to be a bit premature.  In the feminist tradition, there’s still a tense relationship between the ‘cultural norms’ of gender and sex and the possibility of resistance. Because most feminists eschew the language of body/soul dualisms, it becomes a question of what is resisting force of the cultural norms.

Similarly, in the phenomenological tradition, body-consciousness language has replaced the language of substances.  But while this has its own virtues, it seems to posit multiple modes of existence that the tradition has struggled from its inception to overcome.  The “objective body” as it is studied by science and the “lived body” of our experience remain, for the most part, independent of each other.

To put the problem somewhat cheekily, then, it’s not necessarily a question of dualism or not:  it is a question of which dualism, and whose description.