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.