The debate about gender pronouns is framed as both a political and a scientific issue. It raises questions of practice and theory that go well beyond the niceties of grammar. I think everyone agrees on this point, even if they disagree about how the questions should be answered and the issue resolved.
As I pointed out in my last post, however, it seems to me that the parties to this dispute sometimes talk past each other because they haven't distinguished as rigorously between sense and reference as Frege suggested we do. Of course, they can be forgiven for not observing a late-nineteenth-century analytical distinction that isn't even much used by professional philosophers today. In this post I want to get even more technical, so let me apologize in advance. It's a bit "inside Basbøll", if you will.
In his "Notes on the Theory Reference" (From a Logical Point of View, p. 131ff), the American philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine said that "the notion of ontological commitment belongs to the theory of reference." A theory, he explained, presupposes the existence of certain kinds of objects and these presuppositions just are its "ontological commitments." He also proposed to "give a good sense to a bad word" by defining "ideology" as a constraint on the ideas that can be expressed in a theory. Importantly, he pointed out that "the ontology of a theory stands in no simple correspondence to its ideology." Just because we know what sorts of things a theory is about, we don't necessarily know what knowledge claims it is able to express about them.
In my view, sense is to "ideological commitment" what Quine says reference is to "ontological commitment". While Quine used rather abstract theories of mathematics as examples, we can easily imagine how this insight could be applied to theories in the social sciences, which are certainly often ideologically "committed". There are many different social theories, many of which share the same ontology while affording the theorist resources to express very different ideas. In fact, at a very general level we could argue that all social theories are "about" the same "things", namely: people. But what they believe can (and should) be meaningfully said about those people is very different.
I put "things" in quotation marks because, in my view, we should, properly speaking, say that the human or social sciences are about people in the same sense that the natural sciences are about things. People and things are, in my opinion, ontologically distinct. In fact, as we will soon see, they are radically distinct from the point of view of ontology and reference. But bear with me just a little longer.
Social theories can differ ontologically depending on what they mean by "people", "person", "human being", etc. This actually maps neatly onto the distinctly political question of what "inalienable rights" people (and not other things or creatures) are supposed to have. We can imagine two theories that both claim to be about "people" (and not other things) but, on closer examination, we might discover that they construe the essential "being" of people different. There would then be talk of different "social ontologies". The ideal "charter of human rights" implied by these theories would, presumably, protect "the people" from the violence of the state in different ways.
The clash between people like Jordan Peterson and people like Mary Bryson is a great example. Both are, indeed, people, and, though we will see that this is worth not taking for granted, I think both would grant the other's "humanity" or "personhood" in an everyday sense. Interestingly, however, both feel that their very essence is being threatened by the other's rhetoric, and this rhetoric, I want to say, implies a "theory". We can say, then, that they don't recognize themselves in the ontology that the other seems to propose.
But do notice the different ways in which this plays out. Bryson thinks Peterson's "cisnormative" view of gender "erases" the possibility of non-binary persons. There is no room for the non-binary person in Peterson's ontology, Bryson thinks. Peterson, meanwhile, thinks that Bryson's theory fails to recognize the necessity of free expression. Bryson thinks people are essentially identities we might say, and the "right to be human" is therefore the right to be who you are. Peterson, on the other hand, thinks that people become who they are; they are not pregiven identities. He is therefore concerned to defend the right to express yourself as you choose, not the right to choose what others say about you. Bryson is worried about the threat of other people's expressions to your identity, who you are. Peterson is worried about the threat of not being able to express yourself, and therefore not being able to become yourself. It's a fundamental difference of temperament.
And, if I'm right, it's an ontological disagreement. Bryson seems to think we are who we are and need to be left alone to be that. Peterson (perhaps unsurprisingly as a clinical psychologist) thinks we've all still got a lot of work to do to become what we're capable of being. It would be interesting to see them debate the issue at that level. But that, of course, assumes that the parties could agree even to this way of describing their differences, which I don't think they could. I think Peterson would say that Bryson's position is ontologically incoherent and ideologically regressive. Bryson, thinks Peterson, doesn't care what Peterson is talking about but is concerned to prevent him from expressing his ideas.
In my opinion the problem cannot be solved as long as it is framed in terms of ontology, i.e., "the ontology of the social", "the nature of the self", psychological essentialism (my characterization of Bryson's position) vs. existential psychology (my characterisation of Peterson's position). The problem is this: the very idea of social ontology is nonsense. The social is not grounded in being but in becoming. The material world puts constraints on what we can become and this constraint is what we call "nature". Our theories about nature do have an ontology, but our social practices do not.
What about "people"? Didn't I say that people are the "things" of our social theories? Yes, and that's precisely why we shouldn't have social theories. The very idea is incoherent. We do not need to understand social ontologies but, as I have slowly come to understand, social "ethnopathies"*, which are not "what we think we are" but "what we feel ourselves becoming". Ontology, remember, is part of our theory of reference; indeed, it determines the proper referents of a theory and the theory of reference is a meta-theory in that sense. If there is not such thing as social ontology there is also no way of constructing social theory because there can be no system of social reference.
The strong view of this is that we can't actually, properly speaking, refer to people. This no doubt sounds very mystical. I don't think we should refer to people at all. I don't think we can. We can only refer to the bodies that people live through, their "natural avatar" if you will. What we can do with people is to defer to them. We can, in that sense, respect them. In fact, I would say that we demonstrate our own humanity towards another human being, not by identifying them as human, but by deferring to their own humanity.
This idea of deference might seem to throw in with Bryson. Isn't using someone's preferred pronoun simply an act of deference? Yes and no. I agree with Peterson that such deference is rendered impossible when it is mandated by law. We cannot be compelled to defer. That's just not how it works. If I use "they" to refer to you in the third person out of respect for the law (or fear of the consequences of breaking it) then I'm not, at the end of the day, showing you any respect at all. I have to feel my deference as a deference to your fundamental humanity, not as one more thing to fear the state for.
Let me conclude with what Kierkegaard might call an "unscientifc postscript" or "poetical experiment":
The meta-theory (the theory beyond the theory) of reference and ontology is, as Quine attests, a philosophical one. I would argue that the infra-practice (the practice beneath the practice) of deference and ethnopathy is a poetical one. Just as we cannot settle philosophical questions by invoking science, we shouldn't settle poetical questions with politics. (I'll return to this point: the pronoun activists are trying to accomplish with a policy what needs to be done with a poem. The only way to coin new words legitimately is with poetry.) A few years ago, I tried to transpose Quine's ideas to this end. I can now be even more precise.
Taking any practice, one poetically interesting handle we can get on its governance is its ethnopathy* [i.e., who is involved in the practice?]. But we can also govern through its realisability (to give a good sense to a vague word): what realities can be contained by it? The ethnopathy of a practice stands in no simple correspondence to its realisability.
The sentiment of ethnopathic commitment belongs to the practice of deference. For to say that a given essential qualification applies to subjects [people] of a given ilk is to say simply that the open sentence which follows the qualifier is just of all subjects of that ilk and none not of that ilk.
I realise that this might at first seem to be utter nonsense. But trust me when I say it is just very, very precise. And I think we're entering an age where this sort of precision may become very, very important.
*The notion of "ethnopathy" is not my coinage. I've heard it used both on the left and the right, both in a neutral descriptive sense ("the feelings of a group") and in a pejorative diagnostic sense (the constitutive malevolence, or ill-feeling, or antipathy, or even pathology of one group towards another). I have previously contrasted ontology simply with ethnicity. But I think this is too narrow, as the gender identity discussion shows. Ethnopathy is the feeling that individuals have for a group that is constitutive of that group. Ethnicity, on this view, is just one kind of ethnopathy. I recently noticed (see the footnote to this post) the word in the work of Daniel Bar-Tal on "intractable conflicts". I think that's very fitting.