Anti-Essentialism about Gender: Realist, Constructionist, or Error Theoretical?

  • Abstract:

    Whilst rejecting the global constructionism often suggested by their continental cousins, analytic philosophers have largely accepted local constructionism about gender and racial identities, distinguishing between epistemic and metaphysical, causal and constitutive constructionisms. However, some philosophers, not least Antony Appiah and Naomi Zack, have urged that we treat race in error theoretic terms. Further, philosophers such as Philip Kitcher and Robin Andreasen have revived the idea of biological realism about race. It is this tripartite taxonomy that I propose to use to help to clarify the claims of the anti-essentialist theories of gender. Anti-essentialism unites such thinkers as Judith Butler, Naomi Zack, Cressida Heyes, Natalie Stoljar and Julia Kristeva, who claim that there is no essence to the category ‘woman’. A question: where does the anti-essentialist fall on the tripartite division generated by analytic philosophy over recent decades? Linda Alcoff and Ron Mallon, suggest that (at least some) anti-essentialists are error theorists, but it is often assumed that anti-essentialists are constructionist of one sort or another – partly because anti-essentialism is often conflated with an opposition to biological essentialism. In this paper I will argue that anti-essentialist positions do not always fall neatly into the categories provided by the tripartite taxonomy, but that the distinctions made by analytic philosophers about social constructionism can help us to understand exactly what is being claimed by anti-essentialists. Draing a distinction between structuralist anti-essentialists and anti-structuralist anti-essentialists, I consider the possibility of a biological realist structuralist position, suggesting that whilst the position is available, no actual anti-essentialist would defend such a position. I then show that most structuralists are not purely constructionists about gender, but that they combine realism and constructionism in ways that are helpfully enlightened using the distinctions made by analytic philosophers about local constructionism. Finally I demonstrate that anti-structuralists are not error theorists.