Metadiscursive Technology: Distinctions, Continua, Phase Spaces

In an earlier post I discussed the notion of metadiscursive technology: we use concepts to make sense of the world and do things in it, and bits of metadiscursive technology are the concepts that help us understand how we do this. In this post I’d like to talk about three ways of carving up possibilities (three categories of ways to draw categories): distinctions, spectra or continua, and phase spaces. I’ll be drawing on examples having to do primarily with gender and sexuality, since they’re pretty easy to understand but also surprisingly complicated.

But I should briefly say two things, before I get into the examples. First, this post is a little meta (getting meta is another important philosophical activity). I’m going to be talking about ways of categorizing possibilities. People usually adopt ways of categorizing things without thinking about which way to use; they just use a way. But I’m going to talking about these ways as objects. If you like you can call the different ways models, or schemes, or theories. Personally I prefer “model” because it seems natural for there to be lots of different models that are useful for different contexts. People are more likely to think that with theories and schemes, one of them has to be better than the rest. Second, I am no expert on gender and sexuality. I owe some thanks to @zaranosaur for constructive feedback. Obviously any remaining problems are my responsibility. If I’ve spoken wrongly here, or missed something important, I hope some charitable soul will correct me and I will strive to own any mistakes I make, and to learn gracefully.

First, the distinction is one of the most important tools a philosopher has. A distinction is a contrast between two or more categories in a space of relevant possibilities, or a contrast between two ways of categorizing. For example, one might distinguish between men and women, or between people who are gay and people who are straight. Both of these distinctions help us carve up spaces of possibilities—here the space of genders, or the space of sexual preferences. (As a side note, though, “sexual preference” may be a bad label because while sex is an important part of being gay or straight, it is not the only part and it may be misleading or problematic to make it seem like the most important part.) One might also distinguish between the space of gender and the space of sexual preference. For example, if we’re trying to figure out who is sending mysterious love notes to Vijay, we might (problematically) consider several women who know him. But since not everyone is straight, we should distinguish between the gender of potential admirers and their sexual preferences. Those are different ways of dividing the space of possible admirers, and we should probably consider both if we want to determine the identity of Vijay’s secret admirer.

Figure 1.

Figure 1. Three distinctions. The third distinguishes between the first distinction and the second.

A dichotomy is a special kind of distinction that divides the entire space of relevant possibilities into two non-overlapping categories. A distinction may only partially divide the space of possibilities, or may not be exclusive. For example, the distinction between gay and straight partially divides the possibilities for sexual preferences. But it’s problematic to think of the gay/straight distinction as a dichotomy, because there are other possibilities for sexual preference. Some people are bisexual, and are neither gay nor straight. Or, instead of distinguishing between gay and straight people, we could have distinguished between people who are attracted to men and people who are attracted to women. That’s also a distinction that’s not a dichotomy, but this time it’s because there are people who fit both descriptions, not because there are people who fit neither. If we wanted we could think of sexual preference as a trichotomy, which is like a dichotomy but with three categories instead of two.

Figure 2.

Figure 2. Two examples of distinctions that are not dichotomies. (A) The gay-straight distinction is not a dichotomy because there is a third possibility. This situation might be represented as a trichotomy. (B) This is not a dichotomy because there is a non-empty intersection between the categories.

However, many people like to think of sexual preference as a continuum or a spectrum, with attraction to same-gendered partners on one pole and attraction to other-gendered partners on the other. On the continuum model of sexual preference, people are not simply gay or bi or straight, but can be anywhere on a continuous scale from very gay to very straight, with people who are very bi falling nearer the middle.

Figure 3.

Figure 3. A continuum, rendered in doge for easy consumption.

Sometimes, especially when it comes to the politics of gender and sexuality, people like to say that dichotomies are terrible and that we should think of things as continua. Sometimes that’s a very helpful thing to say. But continua aren’t the be-all, end-all of discursive technologies for categorization; sometimes things are more complicated, and sometimes continua aren’t inclusive enough. For example, in addition to the variation captured by the continuum in Figure 3, there are people who identify as asexual, and do not experience sexual attraction to men or women. That possibility is not represented on the continuum above. However, since many asexual people do still experience romantic attraction, we may find it worthwhile to revise our understanding of sexual preference (perhaps there’s an important distinction to be made! I leave it as an exercise to the reader).

Moreover, a continuum only varies along one dimension. That is, a continuum is only the appropriate discursive technology if the relevant possibilities can be placed in order, along a single line. If placing things in a single line doesn’t help you with what you’re doing, you may need to consider more than one dimension of variation. To capture multiple dimensions of variation, you need what I call a phase space by loose analogy with a notion from math and physics (in this post I’ll ignore worthwhile complications of the phase-space framework, like attractors). Phase spaces are also tools for making sense of a space of possibilities, but are more complex than distinctions or continua because they simultaneously incorporate multiple dimensions. For example, think of Vijay and his secret admirer. We said above that we needed to take into account two factors: the sexual preference of his admirer, and their gender. We can’t explain preference or gender in terms of the other, so we can construct a phase space that takes those factors into account. If we keep the assumptions that sexual preference is a spectrum, and that we can distinguish between men and women, it might look like this.

Figure 4.

Figure 4. A simple Vijay-fancier model. This is a phase space composed of a continuum and a distinction. The bluer areas indicate regions more likely to contain Vijay’s secret admirer.

There are some well-known contexts where people play with simple phase spaces. For example, people sometimes talk of the political spectrum from conservative to liberal, but sometimes economic and social dimensions are distinguished as here. There’s also a two-dimensional model for categorizing Scotch whisky. Blogger Jonathon Owen proposes a two-dimensional phase space for understanding linguistic prescriptivism and descriptivism. All of these phase spaces are constructed of orthogonal continua, like a Cartesian plane. Those are the easiest to visualize, but phase spaces can be constructed of any number of independent dimensions. The philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith defends a three-dimensional model of populations where one corner of the phase space represents the populations most amenable to Darwinian description. And the space of colors is often represented as non-Cartesian three-dimensional space (see here for a discussion).

For an example of a more complex phase space, we can consider the fact that gender identification does not always agree with biological sex. We could represent that situation by constructing two distinctions in different dimensions, like so:

Figure 5.

Figure 5. Sex and gender as a phase space composed of two orthogonal distinctions.

And if we wanted to highlight more of the relations between these categories, we might look at Monica Helms’ four-dimensional model, which separates gender expression, gender identity, gender presentation, and sexual attraction as independent dimensions. These are fairly good models for some relations between sex and gender, but they’re both incomplete. The simple model in Figure 5 represents gender and sex as simple categories, which can be a problematic idealization. First off, there is biological sex—male vs. female—but there are also bodies that do not quite fit into either category. For example, there is a great variety conditions such as Klinefelter syndrome, XXYY syndrome, various forms of hermaphroditism and others that complicate categorization by biological sex (these papers by Anne Fausto-Sterling are a little old but include a concise discussion of some intersexual variation and Western history). So the distinction between female and male is not a dichotomy. Maybe we could imagine the female-male space as a continuum, but given the variety of non-binary conditions it might pay sometimes to have a more complex view of sex. If we’re interested in genetics, we could plot number of X chromosomes and number of Y chromosomes independently, but if we’re interested in manifestations, complications, and other factors we may find it more helpful to categorize the variety some other way.

Second, the gender distinction between men and women is also not a dichotomy; there are other gender identities that people adopt. The model above accommodates cisgendered and transgendered identities. But there are other trans* identities, including agender, gender fluid, genderqueer, and more (this fact was reported in even the most uninspiring news outlets recently because of Facebook. There are a few glossaries floating around now, including this one). Some of these gender identities involve combinations of femininity and masculinity; some involve refusal to identify either as a woman or a man; some involve opposition to the gender binary altogether; some adopt different binaries. Given the richness of identities here, their variation cannot be completely captured by plotting them along a continuum between femininity and masculinity. Rather, it might be better to plot femininity and masculinity as separate dimensions, and discomfort with traditional gender categories as a third. But femininity and masculinity are complex constructs, each traditionally bringing together numerous features including social and familial roles, power dynamics, tastes and interests, &c. Depending on what kinds of variation we’re interested in, we might find it useful to distinguish several of these as well. So inclusive schemes for categorizing sex and gender involve making many, many distinctions that track many more than three independent dimensions. Perhaps the space could be represented more compactly by identifying a small number of dimensions and locating the various categories and their regions of overlap within that space, but that task would be the work of an expert who knows more than I do about trans* identities.

Now recall our simple phase-space model of Vijay’s potential admirers, the Vijay-fancier model. That model relied on the assumption that we could treat gender as a dichotomy. That might be a safe assumption under some circumstances—perhaps all of the people who might have written the notes to Vijay are transgendered or cisgendered. Nevertheless, we could strive to be more inclusive of other trans* people and replace the man/woman dichotomy in the model with a more complex categorization of gender. However, the continuum conception of sexual preference also presupposes a gender dichotomy, so we might also want to revise that dimension of the Vijay-fancier model. A model like that would be a very serious piece of conceptual technology. And as I hope is evident, the activity of categorization need not be restrictive or oppressive. By engaging earnestly with variation and maintaining an open mind about the choice of models for categorization, the activity can be legitimating to those who might normally feel left out. Perhaps particularly with gender, sex, and sexuality, a refusal to think openly about categories often cedes too much ground to traditional (in these cases, also oppressive) models of categorization.

I don’t mean to suggest that phase spaces are always best and distinctions or dichotomies always worse. Different technologies are suited to different tasks. If you’ve misplaced your glasses and you’re trying to find them, you might distinguish between places you’ve been since you last had them and places you haven’t been, and only look in the places that belong to the first category. If you’re not entirely sure which places belong to which category, then you might complicate the way you think about the situation. For example, you might order places along a spectrum according to how confident you are that you’ve been there since you last had your glasses. You might think of the situation in more complicated terms—as a phase space—if there are other factors. For example, if you think someone might have taken your glasses (with either good or bad intentions).

I trust these examples show that doing things with concepts—even just distinguishing between related categories—can get really complicated really quickly. It often pays to use the simplest model that suits your present purpose, as with the case where you’re looking for your glasses. This is why I say that the distinction is one of the philosopher’s most important metadiscursive tools, even though it’s the simplest technology I discussed here. Even math and logic, where clarity is prized very highly, are full of conceptual complications. Consider the distinction between the integers and the real numbers, or between cardinals and ordinals. In logic there are many different logical systems, and logicians must learn to categorize rules and proofs across those different systems. The philosopher Mark Wilson (disclosure: one of my academic advisors) has written extensive discussions of the conceptual complexities in math and physics. He populates his writing with vivid metaphors like atlases and Riemann surfaces to help his readers make intuitive sense of these structures (There is an unwieldy but excellent book, though Robert Brandom [disclosure: my supervisor] has a fairly compact overview). It’s an important philosophical skill to learn how to comfortably handle this kind of conceptual complexity. A lot of the work of professional philosophers involves sorting through complicated spaces of possibility and devising ways to make sense of them. But complications like these arise in every subject and in many aspects of everyday life. Perhaps sometime soon you’ll find yourself puzzled by how to draw categories, and you might ask yourself: Have I made the right distinctions? Have I inappropriately assumed dichotomies? How many independent dimensions of variation are relevant to my purposes? Am I using the best conceptual model I can? Then you’ll be availing yourself of metadiscursive technologies.


EDIT: While I strove to avoid ‘splainer vibes, &c. in this post, I now feel a more strenuous qualification is called for. Especially since in the end it’s a rather dispassionate and decentering treatment of some extremely sensitive issues, and nobody likes a scumbag analytic philosopher. I’m a straight, well-educated, American cis man, so I’ve got no shortage of privilege to check. As I tried to make clear throughout the post, there’s nothing about sex/gender/preference that I say first or best; I try to be a well-informed citizen and ally but I’m not an expert on these issues.

There are two reasons I used these examples, anyway. First, in the years since I started making these points about metadiscursive technology in conversations with colleagues, these examples always came easily to mind. I think they’re good illustrations of my main points, and I’ve tried not to say anything wrong or insensitive. Second, I didn’t think it’d be dismissive to use facts about the complexity of gender and sex in order to make a different point (though of course thinking doesn’t make it so). I had three reasons for thinking this. For one, my discussion on this blog isn’t hijacking anyone else’s conversation-in-progress. Next, while I’m a pluralist about models I claim that the less complex models have the twin vices of empirical inadequacy and social/political insensitivity. When I made a small apology for simple models in appropriate situations, I did not reach back for the sex and gender examples. And last, I hoped that using these examples in an unrelated context was an appropriate act as an ally, who can’t speak from first-hand experience. You’re not much of an ally if you’re so afraid of saying the wrong thing that you don’t even try to do your part to normalize inclusive talk and thought about marginalized identities. Anyway, those are my reasons and I earnestly hope they’re good enough.

Philosophy as Logical Anthropology

This is the last part of my wee methodological mini-manifesto. In the first part, I claimed that philosophy isn’t all about argument. In the second part, I argued that the method of philosophy, insofar as there is such a thing, is the method of inquiry. This time I am going to talk about one thing that some philosophers do, and what I do.

Part of my dissertation is on what people sometimes call the “metaphysics” of cognition. In that part, I’m trying to figure out what sort of a thing cognition is. Is it stuff, like brains? Or activities, like hearing and deciding? Or is cognition like a program on a computer? And whatever it is, what precisely makes it cognition and not something similar, but that isn’t cognition (like a dead brain, or what a microphone does, or like your web browser)? But I think of my work as a kind of “critical metaphysics” in the Kantian tradition. One of the better-known doctrines in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is what he calls the “Copernican revolution in philosophy.” He claims that metaphysical knowledge, such as it is, is not really about the ultimate structure of reality, but the structure of our own concepts. So metaphysical claims about space and time are not really facts about the world, truly and independently of us, but facts about the basic ways we organize our own experience. I don’t think Kant is totally right about all of that (I’m not an idealist in quite the way he is), but that’s mostly how I think of what I do. My work won’t tell us what cognition really is, but if I’m right I’ll have learned something about how cognitive scientists think about the world, and what we learn from their research (after Sellars: how it is that their bailiwick fits into the countryside of science and understanding).

Click for more illustrations of unusual words by The Project Twins.

Gotta make knowledge somehow.

I think of what I do as a sort of logical anthropology. (The expression is a little awkward, but I took to it. Besides, I recently discovered that “philosophical anthropology” is already taken by a continental research program, and “rational anthropology,” well… it just sounds too “post-Enlightenment atheist” to me.) Sociologists and anthropologists are interested in describing various human practices and social structures, perhaps especially with an eye toward making comparisons across different communities, or attending to power dynamics and forms of organization and so on. What philosophers (some of them) do is examine human practices with an eye toward their rationality. For example, epistemologists are interested in characterizing and evaluating our evidential practices in general, philosophers of science are interested in scientific practices like explanation and theory-construction, philosophers of action and ethicists are interested in various features of our deliberative practices and practices of evaluating actions and holding people responsible. So like anthropologists, these philosophers are interested in human practices. But unlike most anthropologists, the philosophers are not interested primarily in things like power dynamics or the diversity of cultural practices (though they’re interesting)—philosophers are especially interested in practices that involve reasoning, and whether and why these practices make sense.

(My view here turns out, predictably, to have been anticipated somewhat. For example, the idea of logical anthropology has some affinity with George Graham and Terry Horgan’s notion of “ideological inquiry,” and Katrin Flikschuh’s notion of “philosophical field work.” But my view differs from these others on some details, and was worked out independently with different aims and different cases in mind. Nevertheless, I suspect all three views spring from the same post-Kantian place. I guess it’s the Zeitgeist. Sorry, journal access is required to read the linked articles.)

I think that logical anthropology is important, but when I talk about my project (which I think is similar, insofar as it is logical anthropology, to a lot of other philosophical projects) I get criticism from two sides. The first side is what might be described as the side of analytic metaphysics (or “speculative” metaphysics of the kind Kant didn’t like). I was once asked by some philosophers, “Why bother figuring out what scientists think cognition is? Why not just figure out what it really is?” More generally, one might suppose that it is a better use of time to figure out how things really are, rather than what experts who aren’t trained in philosophy seem to think but don’t tend to say out loud. After all, reconstructing what is implicit in scientific (or other) practices and making it explicit seems to be a roundabout way of figuring out how things really are, and the scientists might not be right, anyway.

There is a weaker reply and a stronger reply to these worries. The weaker reply is that science is an expensive and complicated enterprise, involving a lot of money and time and effort and a lot of people and technology. Similarly, we humans are deeply invested in our everyday practical and epistemic practices. Surely, given that we spend so much time and energy on these things, there should be some interest in being clear about how they work and what their presuppositions are. But this reply doesn’t vindicate logical anthropology as a way of doing metaphysics, or learning about how the world is (rather than how we do things). The stronger reply is that the scientific enterprise is our best effort to figure out how the world is, and that our everyday practices of learning and inferring and acting reflect the priorities and limitations we actually live with. Doing logical anthropology is a good way to learn about the world while taking advantage of our existing knowledge, and avoiding the philosopher’s temptation to simplify and generalize too much. Logical anthropology isn’t a roundabout route to understanding; it’s a route that takes seriously the fact that we can learn by examining practices that have already emerged to learn about the things we philosophers might want to learn about.

Click for more illustrations of unusual words by The Project Twins.


Philosophers should be vigilant against ultracrepidarianism, or giving opinions when we don’t know what we’re talking about. I think there is always at least a worry that when you don’t pay enough attention to what people are actually doing, and then you criticize them, you find they are doing a poor job of what you wish they were doing instead of a good job of what they mean to be doing.

The second direction I get criticism from is experimental philosophy. Experimental philosophers collect data, often from surveys that catalogue intuitions, in order to answer philosophical questions while avoiding the ideological prejudices of philosophers (who are trained in very particular ways, and who tend to be overwhelmingly white, male, and cisgendered to boot). Experimental philosophers ask, “If you’re so interested in what scientists think, why not ask them and collect data? Why go through this rigmarole of rational reconstruction?” The reason to go through the rigmarole, I think, is that people are often not self-conscious about the details of their practice. For example, the English you speak has an intricate grammar, but if asked you’d be hard-pressed to be clear about what its rules are. I don’t particularly mean when to use ‘who’ versus ‘whom’ (most modern speakers always use ‘who’), but e.g. when is it natural to use ‘do’ (or ‘did’ or ‘doing,’ &c.) in a sentence? In this and other matters, competent speakers follow complicated rules of which they’re unaware. Similar considerations apply to epistemology and decision-making, and to a host of other practices in which we participate regularly. I talk to scientists whenever I can, and I think it is fantastic that philosophers of science are starting to attach themselves to laboratories in order to observe the messy details of science being made. My own research involves reading between the lines in a lot of articles by scientists. And while surveys and direct questioning may sometimes get us the answers we’re looking for in logical anthropology, they often won’t.

To be clear, I don’t refrain from trusting scientists’ views on what they do because I think they are stupid (I don’t). It’s just not their job to do what I do. Epistemologists who study experience don’t have to think laypeople are stupid for knowing things based on experience but not having an epistemological theory, and philosophers of action don’t have to think laypeople are stupid for acting without having a theory of action. Linguists and philosophers of language don’t think that most people are stupid for not being able to describe the syntax of their own language, or for not having a theory of meaning. It’s enough for scientists that they can just do science, and talk about it with their similarly-trained peers, and sometimes explain it in simple terms to the public. I’m interested in saying clearly what scientists do, and explaining it to other inquirers. (That is, if I may, I’m interested in making it explicit.) And sometimes logical anthropology is important because making things explicit allows us to see that something is amiss, and criticize the practices we describe.

Sometimes I think this criticism is entirely appropriate, and it’s not always ultracrepidarian of philosophers to criticize scientists. For example, I think there is something rotten in the state of consciousness science (though the same goes for a lot of philosophy of consciousness). Even science that is mostly in good shape requires conceptual maintenance to run smoothly. Biologists with different specializations often mean different things by “gene,” and even the concept of concept is complicated and troubled, so that researchers talk past each other and stumble into false disagreements. But the best of these philosophers’ criticisms of science take logical anthropology as their starting point. That is, they begin by paying attention to the practices of sciences, and then inquire as to whether the practices make sense by the lights of the scientists themselves. These projects don’t involve speculating about how world is independently of what scientists do and think, and they also aren’t made by soliciting the opinions of scientists. The kind of useful criticism offered here is based on attention to how scientists go about their business.

But I don’t want to claim that philosophy, or logical anthropology, or critical metaphysics has to result in criticism in order to be valuable. Edouard Machery argues in his book Doing without Concepts (I linked to the précis above) that cognitive scientists investigate at least three different kinds of cognitive structure that are all called “concepts,” that the result is confusion and false disagreement, and that we’d be better off using three different words instead. But suppose things were different, and cognitive scientists didn’t get confused about this. Maybe the scientists avoid confusion without knowing how they do it. Or maybe although the researchers who investigate concepts can keep everything straight, researchers in other areas get confused when they hear about research on concepts. It would still be worthwhile, I think, for philosophers to investigate and describe the practices of those scientists, either in order to explain their practices to others or in order to learn something about the rational organization of scientific institutions, or perhaps for some other reason.

While not all philosophers are engaged in kinds of logical anthropology, I think that a lot of us do something like this (although I think few of us think of our work this way). I think it’s a valuable kind of research for philosophers to do—our training makes us suited to it, and not a lot of other researchers do work like this, and it reveals an interesting dimension of human activity that, sometimes, allows us to better understand what we do, and why it does or doesn’t make sense given the world that we live in. At any rate, this I how I think of my own work and its value. And, I suppose, trying to describe logical anthropology as a philosophical project is itself a kind of logical anthropology of philosophy. The main goal I have with Explicit Content is to say clearly what I think philosophers do, in order to explain it to non-philosophers and to induce discussion about whether our practices are good ones (and, of course, whether I’ve even gotten it right in the first place). I think we’ll be better off for some explicit discussion of these things, so I hope you readers will let me know what you think.