A short post on the varieties within feminism

There seems to be common misconceptions among many online communities about what various branches within feminism mean. I’m sure most can agree on what they all have in common, in that feminism entails believing that women are oppressed for being women and we ought to bring that oppression to an end. The main disagreement feminists would have with how I have just defined it would be the extent of that oppression and preferring a more toned down phrasing to better reflect their own beliefs.

When it comes to branches within feminism, these are meant to distinguish specific strains based on what feminists believe to be the source of that oppression (e.g. male sexual dominance or ignorant individuals), and how best to solve it (e.g. restructuring society or reforming it). This is more specific than feminism as a whole, but is still quite vague so even within various branches one can find vastly different opinions when it comes to more specific issues (this is especially true within radical feminism).

It’s when we get down to specific issues where the misconceptions seem to rise; likely due to the fact that in many communities discussion is centered on specific political issues such as pornography, trans rights, etc. So it seems likely that people will notice trends in the stances various feminists make, and separate them based on those rather than why they have the stance that they do. But the why is what’s important. Liberal feminists can be anti-pornography and “gender critical” just as radical feminists can be. Similarly a radical feminist can be neither of those. What makes one a liberal or a radical feminist isn’t whether they hold positions that are commonly associated with a particular branch, but the analysis they used in order to reach their stance, stemming from the core beliefs described in the previous paragraph and the basic framework it provides.

Anime: Why I Want to Like It, But Usually Can’t

PART 1: Introduction

I love cartoons.  Pretty much all of my favorite shows are cartoons, or animated series if you prefer, most of them admittedly meant for children.  If you enjoy cartoons, then you cannot escape the phenomenon of anime.  This is especially true as an adult fan of cartoons, since anime is particularly good at marketing itself toward adults and the industry is invested in making more adult-oriented media (as well as adult media, so to speak, but I will not tackle that here).

As most readers will no doubt know, anime is a style of animation that has its origins in Japan.  Indeed, I have heard it argued that all anime is Japanese, and that anything made outside of Japan does not qualify even if the artistic style is identical.  Personally, I think the word describes more of a style than a country of origin, and thus South Korean anime and American anime and so forth are allowed to be called anime, and they probably are called anime by most fans of the genre, and they certainly are categorized that way by Netflix and other platforms that host these series.  However, it is difficult to escape the essential Japanese character of the vast majority of anime.  We will return to that shortly.  Anyone who likes cartoons needs to address the issue of anime’s existence because it has been extremely influential even in animated series that are not explicitly anime.  One only needs to look at the monumentally successful Teen Titans (2003) or the more recent She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (2017) to see the influence of anime even in American comic book superhero cartoons.  Even if you don’t like anime and don’t watch it, it is already here, and its influence and appeal is reflected in the shows that North American animators are creating today—animators who, no doubt, are probably mostly fans of anime themselves.

First, I want to describe what I like about anime.  In short, I like the animation.  Anime is a victim of budgeting just like any other kind of animated work, and it is obvious that some are not at the artistic quality of others.  Nevertheless, anime, in general, is quite well-animated.  As the younger folks are saying, it is very “AESTHETIC”, for lack of another, equally succinct explanation.  If every frame was a painting in Kubric’s films, then some high budget anime productions seem to have taken that notion literally.  Anime can be gorgeously drawn.  I’m not a huge fan of the characteristic way in which human faces are drawn in anime style, but I can understand what makes it compelling to fans in the same way that I can understand why characters in classic Disney films were drawn in the characteristically Disney way of animating them (e.g., “Disney eyes”, etc.).  As I understand it, this style is influenced by kawaii culture, the Japanese fascination with a certain kind of cuteness.  Most anime characters are, first and foremost, drawn to be cute and youthful.  How much more beautiful can animation be, then, when a gorgeous aesthetic of landscapes and settings and carefully drawn scenery and objects are mixed with a cast of cute, youthful, beautiful characters with surreal and exaggerated eyes (and ubiquitous bangs, since, apparently, anime characters ALWAYS have bangs/fringes as if foreheads are anathema to anime aesthetic)?  I think the character animation is an acquired taste, but they are almost always dressed well with nary a hair out of place, just like any Disney princess or prince.

Where I think anime fails is in its narrative execution, not in its visual aesthetics.  Anime seems to suffer from a collection of eccentric tropes that are unceremoniously wedged into nearly every production.  This alone isn’t contemptuous, for surely this can be found in plenty of media.  For example, if you have seen one American 80s action film, you just may have seen them all.  Police procedurals are mostly the same as well except for an occasional gimmick to add an interesting twist (e.g., the medical examiner is a zombie!, or the Devil himself is the detective’s partner!, etc.).  What makes anime unique is that these tropes do not seem to be genre-specific, being found in equal number and emphasis in a cyberpunk epic as in a romantic drama or a high school comedy.  What’s worse still is that many of these tropes are not just “problematic”, but can actually be quite disturbing.  (Well, to me, at least.)  I find that anime plots, narratives, and characters tend to suffer greatly under the weight of these ubiquitous tropes, and the creators of anime seem to be quite willing to throw out an otherwise great aesthetic experience in service to these quirky characterizations and arcs.  Indeed, it seems that most anime is only enjoyable to a person who would enjoy these idiosyncrasies, as if the anime industry itself is devoted to a very specific kind of fan service to the detriment of creating better, more compelling, more interesting art.

To that last point, I suspect that most within the anime community are also aware of this phenomenon, and some may even celebrate it.  Anime seems to be a slave to otaku culture, the community of die-hard anime fans that seem to particularly enjoy these tropes and reward their inclusion in anime-styled media with their financial support and praise.  Again, I do not think this is necessarily a recipe for disaster.  Anime is not the only genre that is heavily invested in fan service.  However, most successful media try to find a medium between fan service and mass appeal.  Art under capitalism is, after all, out to make a buck, and the greater appeal, the better.  Anime seems to have an opposite goal in mind: to make the audience comfortable with its small bag of tricks.  Rather than changing itself to reach a greater audience, it expects the audience to become familiar with its tropes and come to acquire a taste for them.  Perhaps the strategy isn’t a terrible one given the success of anime both within Japan and outside of it.

In the following section, I am going to dissect a specific anime that I tried very hard to enjoy recently and put into context just what these tropes are, why I think they are unsuccessful (unless you have just come to appreciate them for their own sake), and why I think they are even somewhat pernicious to the point that appreciation of anime makes the otaku community suspect in my eyes (and thus turns me off from the style as a whole).  I believe it is a good example of what’s “wrong” with anime and why I, speaking for myself, find it difficult to enjoy.

PART 2: The Anatomy of Violet Evergarden

Violet Evergarden is the titular character of an anime produced this past year in Japan for Netflix.  Needless to say, there will be spoilers, but I also want to confess that I never managed to finish the series’ thirteen-episode run.  I made it to the fifth episode, a little more than a third of the way through the show, and it is at that point that I stopped to write this review/critique.  This is one of those shows that reveals the past of the characters as the narrative drives forward, so I am still left to speculate on some things at this point.  Feel free to criticize me for not even bothering to finish the show I’m criticizing, but at the risk of sounding arrogant, I believe I’ve seen enough to get my point across concerning what I find unappealing about the show, and about anime more broadly.

First, the pros about the show.  As I have come to expect from anime, it’s beautifully drawn and the universe it creates it fairly compelling.  The show takes place in the fictional Germanic kingdom (or colony) of Leidenschaftlich and a fictional era from about the early 20th century from the looks of it.  Automobiles seem like a new invention, as are typewriters, and the wardrobe is a steampunkesque/WWI era mix of Victorian frills and bustles and petticoats.  The setting evokes simultaneously a western European (mountains, woods, and fields), Japanese (rice paddies), and tropical (palm trees) landscape, making itself nowhere in particular, but able to feel nostalgic to just about anyone.  Details about Violet are vague, but she has mechanized prosthetic arms after losing them fighting in a war.  What we learn about her by episode 5 is that she was apparently kidnapped by an army officer’s brother and given to him to use as a weapon.  Why she is treated with such inhumanity when she is ostensibly a teenage girl is not explained by episode 5, nor why she seems to lack any sense of emotion, nor why she seems to be utterly obedient to her master, so to speak.  Why would she be considered a weapon at all?  Is she a supernatural being?  Is she an immortal fairy?  Is this why she looks 15 years old and everyone thinks she’s a child?  Is this why her commanding officer treated her “like a dog” and “like a tool” as it is said?  Whatever the case, her commanding officer/master dies and she is left to carry on in a post-war world that is reconstructing itself.  She lands a job at the company of her dead master’s friend.  It is a company that specializes in writing letters for clients using auto memories dolls: women who put to paper the true thoughts and feelings of the client, taking dictation but also adding their own insight into what the client truly means to express.  All of these auto memories dolls are young women, they all wear unique uniforms (which, if I may nitpick, means that they aren’t uniforms) to look presentable—or sexy?—to the clients.  Violet, being unable to feel emotions and whose personality is uncompromisingly candid and matter-of-fact, predictably finds this task particularly challenging.  She takes everyone at their word and has little understanding of their emotional states because she is—as I assume we are led to believe—some kind of quasi-supernatural 15-year-old blonde killing machine who feels nothing but loyalty to her master for reasons never explained.  She takes the job because she wants to understand what her master meant when he said that he loved her just before he died.  The other characters are mostly understood in relation to Violet, each of them having their own little moments of appreciating her quirks, and finding that her forthright nature and courageous (or robotic) honesty actually helps them with their problems.  They also seem to admire her for her persistence and loyalty and sense of duty.

The tropes we’re dealing with in this one underline a serious problem I find in anime: sexism and specifically the sexualization of young women.  Anime seems broadly interested in this artistic goal with many of their tropes to the point that in the past I have stated, perhaps unfairly, that I suspect most hardcore anime fans of having a paraphilia for young girls.  (Some anime fans do by their own admission, and so it is not totally unfair for me to say that anime tends to cater to them, even if I may adopt a graciously charitable position and say that producers of anime don’t intend to appeal to hebephiles or pedophiles or whatever you wish to call them.)  Violet is literally a mindless slave from the beginning who is the property of an older man, barring of course any later reveal that she’s a 900 year old elf girl or something.  (I don’t say that glibly either, for in anime this is a believable plot twist that one might encounter.)  She is dressed by her new boss as a porcelain doll, a fact that is stated explicitly by several of the characters, and of course her job title is that she is an auto memories doll, a very doll by name.  To say that she is objectified would not be contentious or some kind of feminist talking point: she literally is objectified as a doll after being objectified as a toy soldier/slave.  The other young female characters face a similar treatment, but I don’t even need to discuss them to get the point across.

There are a lot of tropes in anime that are part of a Japanese cultural milieu.  Some of these are strange only in that they are unfamiliar.  For example, I find the Japanese concept of romance very foreign: the stilted, awkward way characters tend to undermine their own affections for the sake of their public image.  No doubt this resonates better with Japanese audiences and their own idealizations of love and romance and courtship.  Those Western audiences that have come to accept these idealizations may also appreciate it.  However, Violet Evergarden and its sexualization and objectification of young girls is beyond a cultural misunderstanding for me.  Perhaps this is a natural consequence of idealizing youthfulness and cuteness in anime character design, but it is a feature of anime that I find difficult to look beyond.  One moment you’re enjoying the aesthetic experience, forgiving the awkward dialogue and the other eccentric, silly tropes (like girls with cat ears) that abound in anime, but then you hit that part that makes your skin crawl.  You ask yourself, “Am I supposed to find this romantic that this girl, this child, has the subtext of being a seen as a sex doll to the men around her?”  Or perhaps you see one of the many schoolgirls that find their way into anime and think, “Why do teenagers in miniskirts and bikinis need to be surrounded by perverted older men in situations that are meant to be comical?  What is funny about men predating upon high school students?  Why does the audience need multiple scenes shown through the ‘male gaze’ with bikini shots and upskirt shots and closeups of unrealistically bouncing breasts on teenage girls with enormous eyes?”

As for Violet Evergarden herself, her story is pure schmaltz even when you can ignore, for the moment, the fact that she went from being a dehumanized slavegirl to a slightly less dehumanized “auto memories doll” in a set of scenes that emphasized the various curves of her body and the wind lifting her skirts to reveal more of her legs to the adult men around her while she meekly did their bidding without complaint.  Instead of finding her a tragic victim, we are meant to be moved at how much this treatment of her touches the people around her.  Isn’t she marvelous, this double amputee slavegirl who seems to be devoid of emotion, because she told me a truth I didn’t want to hear?  Her character only seems human and compelling if we are meant to be horrified by the way people around her are treating her and read her lack of emotion as some kind of post-traumatic coping mechanism, or if she responded to her own treatment appropriately instead of displaying a grotesque kind of Stockholm Syndrome for which is impossible to suspend disbelief.  How can anyone find Violet admirable unless they think that this is somehow appropriate?  Are young women best when they are property with no real thoughts or feelings of their own who are put on display for the enjoyment of, and in service to, the people around her?  The fact that her master claims to have loved her and that the characters around her find her charming because her honesty and obedience is supposed to resonate with me?  Thanks, I hate it.

Maybe I’m missing something.  Maybe I’m supposed to be horrified.  Maybe this is a witty parody, a cogent social commentary, a reflection of anime culture that is meant to mock it somehow.  But I doubt that.  It’s a male otaku fantasy.  Violet Evergarden is the doll they wish to possess, a presumably underage girl who barely eats (this is indeed a plot point for her, I am not assuming this), obeys every command, has no thoughts and feelings of her own other than a pathetic devotion to a man who literally owned her as his property and got her arms blown off to protect himself in battle and whom she seems to love not just in spite of this, but because of this, and one who will listen to your every emotional diatribe without adding any of her own, since she has none to offer.  To top it off, she’s dressed like a Victorian serving wench just for your enjoyment along with the other girls of the show, and she’ll never talk back to you with sarcasm or laugh at your failings.  When you tell her to jump, she will say, “How high, sir?”  Does anyone consider this a compelling character beyond those who would pine for her as the girl of their perverse, emotionally stunted dreams?

After five episodes, there is no growth.  True to her role of being an object, the characters around Violet show growth, but she shows none.  Dolls do not grow, after all.  They remain the same.  If Violet had an arc of her own, then the otaku fantasy would be crushed.  She would be a real person, and that would be unforgivable to the trope.  The only thing compelling about Violet Evergarden to me is the case study in how appealing to what can only be a patriarchal, pseudo-pedophilic male fantasy results in a failed narrative, a failed heroine, and a bad taste in one’s mouth despite the gorgeous animation.  As a bunch of still images with no dialogue or plot, Violet Evergarden would be an aesthetic masterpiece.  So why should it be used to service such unappealing and frankly disturbing tropes that can’t even be charitably said to offer an interesting plot?  It can do so much better, and I am left both disappointed and disheartened by the prevalence of these chilling themes I have found in so much anime.  When I try to give anime a chance, I get more of the same, and sometimes even worse than I could have expected.

PART 3: Conclusion

Anime can be rehabilitated, and anime masterpieces have been made that do not service otaku fantasies nor remain culturally insular to the essence of Japan.  Inasmuch as anime-inspired cartoons in the West can be what I call “anime-adjacent” or anime in their own right, anime can be made to be international and universal.  The problem with anime is, in my opinion, the problem of its fandom and the commitment to fan service and tired tropes.  Why does Lucy from Elfen Lied need to have cat ear-like appendages coming out of her head when it doesn’t serve the plot, and why does she have to have an alternate personality that shows her as cute and innocent?  It ruined the series for me, and it was hard to look past it, and the series would have been better without this obvious fan service to every otaku who drools over mindlessly cute catgirls to imagine them as their literal dehumanized pets.  Why did Kagome from Inu Yasha have to wander around medieval Japan in the miniskirt and top of a Japanese middle school girl’s uniform?  It didn’t make sense other than to make her look different from the cookie-cutter faces of the other anime girls around her, for which I suppose I am grateful, but all it did was offer fodder for jokes about perverted men ogling her legs and backside (and sometimes even groping her).  If Violet Evergarden had to be some kind of tragic slave-doll who is the victim of her circumstances in her own story, why can’t that have been explored in a way that humanizes her instead of continuing her dehumanization in the narrative to serve an otaku male fantasy?  There have been so many anime series that I almost enjoyed were it not for the tired tropes that work toward a consistent sexualization of cute, underage anime girls, and that isn’t even counting the other seemingly pointless tropes that may have Japanese cultural significance that I just will never understand.

One might argue that anime isn’t obligated to appeal to me, but if that’s the case, then I conclude with this: why do we accept that it has to appeal to them, then?  Should anime be the refuge of the perverted and predatory, and should its producers be committed to feeding them a steady diet of this, or are we allowed to offer a criticism that encourages them to look beyond the otaku masses and toward the vast audiences awaiting the anime aesthetic experience?  I think they can do better.  I hope they do better.  I want to enjoy anime someday.


Is ‘Zwarte Piet’ Racist? Yes. Yes, very much

The conclusion already spelled out in the title, hopefully, shouldn’t come to a surprise to basically any person that doesn’t live in a place that has Dutch as an officially recognized language. As a Dutchman though, it’d be an understatement to say that voicing said conclusion over here would be met with serious skepticism and resistance.

As it’s December the 5th and people in the Netherlands, followed by Belgium, will be celebrating Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas), and the Zwarte Piet “debate” has been in full swing, I found it timely to touch on this topic myself and hopefully also inform people wanting to get to grips with the issue.

Sinterklaas en Zwarte Piet

From the picture book ‘Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht’ (‘Saint Nicholas and his knave’), 1850

Who is Zwarte Piet?

Zwarte Piet (Also known as ‘Black Pete’ or ‘Black Peter’ in English) is in the lowlands generally known as the personal servant(s) of Saint Nicholas, whom assist him in providing gifts to good children (and, slightly earlier on, punish bad children) in a celebration that’s not dissimilar from Christmas in other places. Though originally the Saint only had a single servant, today there is no one ‘Zwarte Piet’. There are dozens of Pieten, often identified by their designated functions; you have your navigation Piet, gift-wrapping Piet, singing Piet, and so forth. The Piet characters often are clownish in demeanor & don bright colourful renaissance era-like attire, and are quite commonly depicted in popular media as being acrobatic.

But the most important thing to note is how the character is portrayed physically. Aside from the aforementioned attire, people playing the character(s) do/did so by covering their entire face in black face-paint, and donning red lipstick, big golden earrings, and a black curly wig. Again I hope that no-one from the outside world has trouble understanding what’d be the issue with that, but in case there is any confusion let it be known that this practice is a particularly egregious modern-day example of blackface. Blackface (to grossly simplify here) roughly refers to the practice mostly done by fair-skinned people, where they among other things cover their face in black makeup in order to physically depict black people, which historically is done with the intent of or at minimum has the effect of denigrating mainly people of African descent by playing an offensive caricature. It is usually on these grounds one can find someone objecting to the practice of playing Zwarte Piet.

Pointing out that the practice is an instance of blackface is often met with resistance and counter-objections. I hope to address a few common ones here, and especially one I have seen not-too-infrequently from at least my late childhood on.

The Childhood Story

To my experience the most popular way of explaining away Zwarte Pieten having black faces goes something like this: Though not naturally dark-skinned, the faces of Zwarte Pieten are black as they are covered with soot, for they climb through chimneys all day to deliver children presents, similar to Santa Claus. I’ve been told this tale as a kid, and though I tentatively accepted the explanation given at the time I think even 7-8 year old me had some lingering questions, such as ‘What’s with the red lipstick?’ or ‘What about the black curly hair?’. Even upon only a moment’s reflection the story told doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny.

It’s worth noting that this kind of explanation when aimed at kids wasn’t actually an attempt at a real factual explanation of why things are that way, rather it seeks to explain things in the way the just-so stories told by parents to children asking questions like ‘Where does the Easter Bunny keep all their eggs?’ seek to explain. And yet, I know of instances where people in order to soothe concerns about racial sensitivity will use the childhood story to explain away the questionable aspects of the practice of playing Zwarte Piet. But as I already just suggested, the childhood story is merely a post-hoc explanation of the character’s appearance and isn’t a genuine account of the actual evolution of the practice; the story is to the best of my knowledge completely ahistorical.

Nevertheless, if the pro-Piet person genuinely believes that is the actual explanation behind the current-day practice, they should surely be amendable to getting rid of the lipstick, earrings and wigs, and rather than cleanly covering the entire face in black paint make them appear more like how real people working with chimneys looked like. Surely that’d be more in line with the story told, and this is also exactly what a significant number of people protesting Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands propose as an alternative. And yet even this extremely moderate attempt at reforming the character is strangely enough far from met with acceptance from those inclined to preserve it. It is rather met with mockery and sentiments along the lines of the proposal being ‘political correctness run amok’, which leads me to investigating the next popular retort.

‘Won’t somebody please think of the children?’

Another common reply is that kids don’t care about whether the character is considered offensive or not; it’s just uppity adults that make a ruckus. But it’s hard to see how that’s an effective response that thoroughly engages with the implications of the criticism that playing the Zwarte Piet character is racially insensitive, which if true presumably gives us good reason in favour of either altering or abolishing the practice altogether. Also note that counter-objection cuts both ways; if children don’t care either way, what’d be the trouble in altering or doing away with the practice? I sure wouldn’t have cared that much as a kid, and I also doubt kids today have that much of a passionate commitment to keeping the Piet the way it is like many of their parents do. Assuming we did away with the practice entirely starting the next Sinterklaasfeest, I’m going to bet that even 5 years from now the kids of then will care approximately 0% about the fact that we abandoned some old dated tradition. It is in fact the parents, not the children, that make a big deal about preserving Zwarte Piet.

A related yet mutually contradictory reply is that anti-Zwarte Piet protesters are in fact ‘Ruining Sinterklaas for kids’ by opposing Zwarte Piet. Now they can mean two different things by this: Sometimes it refers to the way how opponents of the practice of playing Zwarte Piet go about protesting the practice, but sometimes proponents also seem to just mean the fact that the current Piet will be in some way altered itself constitutes ‘ruining the magic’ for children. I will first focus on the latter as it’s the easiest to dispense with, mainly as we’ve already established kids probably don’t intensely care about the status of Zwarte Piet. Those who are of the age that they still believe in the Saint and the like might get curious as to the sudden change were it to be implemented, but I seriously question whether they’d be inconsolable over it. I suspect there is a degree of projection going on on the side of pro-Zwarte Piet parents and other guardian figures when it comes to the question of the plight of the children.

As to the former, it depends. I’ve heard proponents allege that they’ve seen protesters go around shaming even children who are indifferent about the controversy to their faces. Now I have no idea if that is actually true or a gross exaggeration, but if it’s true then yes, such people are obviously misguided in doing so. Children from age 3-11 who passively accept the practice inculcated by their guardian figures can hardly be seen as morally culpable for said acceptance to any significant degree. The target of rebuke should obviously be the guardian figures and other people who themselves actively are trying to hold on to the practice, and who have an effect on what children will see as appropriate and participate in.

But generally speaking, those marginal exceptions of reprehensible conduct aside, I think common ways of opposing Zwarte Piet are very much acceptable. Online rebuke, plastering ‘Zwarte Piet is racisme’ stickers and posters, public protests, even ones that might be perceived as “disruptive” protests (As all protests that are in any way effective will invariably be regarded as) are completely legitimate and permissible tactics. As the argument discussed in the paragraph directly above targets unacceptable means, it evidently doesn’t apply to the means I’ve sketched out here. If one is inclined to say that even the tactics I described (Even if they target the right people in terms of rebuke, and even though the methods of protest ostensibly don’t involve any sort of serious rights-violations) are somehow impermissible as well, I very much invite them to explain why they feel that way, for I do not see it. On that note I’ll be moving on to the last common argument that I think is prominent and serious enough to dignify with a thorough response.

‘Traditions are Sacred’

The last resort for the proponent to make the practice beyond reproach is to appeal to the fact that it’s a long-running tradition. They’ll seemingly selectively adopt a naive kind of cultural relativism where we need to accept any and every cultural practice and to criticize certain customs constitutes an unacceptable level of disrespect for a given group’s traditions, regardless of the contents of the tradition in question. I have even in one instance heard a person bite the bullet and give the example of bull fighting in Spain as a tradition that we should respect in spite of our own attitudes. This I repeat is a very naive way of looking at things, and treats our “dislike” of in this case bull fighting as something akin to personal tastes without cognitive content, rather than serious ethical objections to what’s to my mind an obvious case of needless animal cruelty.

Let’s do a little thought experiment: Let’s say it were to be found out that every leap year for the past century people in Canada secretly have had a tradition where they ritually killed off and cooked up all their first-born. Evidently it’d be a long-standing tradition that’s been practiced for generations, and it might well be significant to the participants and part of their culture, and yet I think it’s fair to say that any even remotely plausible moral theory would allow for at the very least serious repudiation of the practice. Of course that’s a very extreme example, but it’s just to demonstrate that something being labeled a “tradition” doesn’t by that fact make it beyond criticism. And at any rate, even though the practice of playing Zwarte Piet doesn’t involve infanticide, I think it’s also fair to say that it’s problematic enough to also be subject to criticism. Again people are free to respond if they disagree with the last sentence, but as it stands I’m pretty confident in my claim that a tradition being racist (even if it doesn’t involve murder) is sufficient grounds for objecting to said tradition.

Lastly, in the Netherlands at least there’s been a substantial increase in xenophobic sentiment in recent years, in particular directed toward Turkish and Moroccan citizens. And I know from firsthand experience that at least some of the people inclined to make the tradition argument above also love to call the cultures and traditions of Turks and Moroccans “backwards, barbaric, and misogynistic” compared to ‘our’ “enlightened, secular, and tolerant” society. And of course that’s just a load of xenophobic rubbish, but it does show that at least a number of the people making the tradition argument actually in some scenarios agree with my assessment that “tradition” isn’t necessarily above criticism (Though for all the wrong reasons), so this means those people either are being inconsistent or are being dishonest in arguing that.

Anyhow, in concluding thoughts: I believe it’s fair to say the idea that the practice of playing Zwarte Piet is racially insensitive holds, and that none of the popular counter-arguments assessed here serve as much in the way of powerful objections to people imploring to abandon the practice.

The Intersection of Intersex and Trans Issues

The Intersex Issue is a big theme in sex/gender ontology discussions because intersex conditions often throw a wrench in the easily-classifiable-sex-binary enterprise.  Intersex conditions are medical conditions that make someone difficult to classify as either biogentically “male” or “female” by the usual metrics of chromosome karyotype, genital morphology, gonadal tissue, and perhaps sex hormone profile for those later in life.  An intersex person can, for example, have a “male” karyotype of XY and have female sex organs and produce enough estrogens and other hormones to develop female secondary sex characteristics.  Such intersex people can live a relatively normal life (for lack of a better term) as long as they can outwardly pass for one or the other typical sexual anatomy and body morphology.  However, some intersex people have conditions render them not merely as having anatomies incongruent with the expectations of genetics or other features, but as individuals who don’t fit easily into one category or the other.  Some may have ambiguous genitalia—genital morphology that is something “in between” a penis and scrotum on the one hand and a vulva on the other.  In some extremely rare cases, intersex people can have both.  They can also have all kinds of karyotypes beyond XX and XY, and genetic chimera are individuals who have some cells with one karyotype and other cells with another.  Intersex conditions are relatively common in the scheme of things, perhaps as much as 1 in 1000 people.  Any time you’re in a shopping mall, the statistics suggest that you’re probably shopping with a few people with some kind of intersex condition.  They may not even be aware of their condition themselves.

The Intersex Issue seems like a huge win for those espousing ontologies of sex and gender that are not binary and not contingent upon things such as genital morphology, karyotype, or hormone profile.  If things aren’t so cut and dry, then it demonstrates that society has been perfectly fine all along accepting XY folks as women and people with pseudo-vulvas and gynemastia (female breast tissue) and XXY karyotypes as men, so what’s the big deal with allowing unambiguously male people to live as women and unambiguously female people to live as men and either to live as another gender category altogether (i.e., a nonbinary gender identity)?  What’s the point of hanging onto something that was never true in the first place? And by something that was never true in the first place, I mean specifically that certain anatomical and genetic features necessarily force you into a specific sexed/gendered existence along a reproductively male/female binary.

Despite how compelling the Intersex Issue is in supporting ontologies of sex and gender that allow for the consideration of trans men as being unequivocally men and trans women as being unequivocally women, there seem to be people still taking issue with this.  In my time observing arguments between Twitter mutuals and TERFs, I’ve noticed a particular person often shows up whenever the discussion of the ontology of sex and gender moves to the Intersex Issue. This person claims to be intersex and uses this as a cudgel: “I’m intersex.  Don’t use my issues to support your ‘transgenderism’.  You are appropriating my struggle.”  The only thing being appropriated here is left-wing language, but I’m not writing this to “own” this person in particular.  TERFs are just trolls.  I’m writing this for the victims of their abuse and those still on the fence who might be compelled by such a response.  I want to say that I wholeheartedly disagree with such a take, even though the take is obviously given in bad faith anyway and is just meant as a “gotcha” to silence trans women seeking to justify their view of gender by using the Intersex Issue as a point of discussion.

Being intersex and being trans are not mutually exclusive issues because intersex trans women exist (and intersex nonbinary people and trans men, for that matter).  Someone can be intersex and desire not to live as the gender assigned to them.  They may still have to see a psychologist and an endocrinologist, have to undergo surgeries and hormone replacement therapy, and have to struggle with convincing some people that they are a gender that may not line up with certain aspects of their body morphologies that defy gendered expectations of how they “should” look or sound.

So what do intersex people need?  They need unique medical care.  They need the freedom to live as they feel suits them best.  They need a society that recognizes them so that they can receive this medical care and have the legal right to be who they are without discrimination.  They also need a society that is more welcoming of them and compassionate, a society full of people who accept them so that they don’t feel like foreigners in their own lands, some kind of sex/gender outcasts looked upon with amusement, suspicion, or even hatred.  If this sounds remarkably like the things transgender folks needs, it’s because it is.  Intersex folks may not have the exact same struggle with gender and sex that transgender people have, but they can have broadly similar needs.  It’s not hard to imagine why the TERFs of Twitter can only seem to find one token intersex person to agree with them: anyone who has ever dealt with intersex conditions and the dysphoria often associated with at least some of them would obviously sympathize with any trans person!

So to that token Twitter rando and all the people who tag them into every conversation in order to score some rhetorical points over the trans women they abuse, no, you are not allowed to speak for intersex people.  Intersex issues intersect with trans issues, and this is especially true when you consider that lots of intersex people are also trans (and some trans people may be intersex without knowing it).  The struggles of intersex people, trans people—and yes, intersex trans people too—cannot be dismissed so easily by people who are just looking to score rhetorical points in their profoundly disturbing and malevolent quest to hurt trans women in any way they can.

Don’t appropriate the struggle of intersex folks to give yourself ammunition to spew your venom at trans women.

A Plain Jane Theory of Sex Differances, Or: Jonesing for Some Sexy Oppression

In this scene, Jane Clare Jones, our star bigot, our astro-TERF attempts to Clarefy sex and sex-based oppression. I, a brainless rube, become confused, certainly on account of my brainlessness, and ask for further Clarefication. Jones obliges, to little effect. Our brainless rube is just too brainless.

Roll cameras! Action!

Skip the dinner and small talk: Jones wants to begin with sex. A little forward for my liking, but let’s role with it. Sex is not just “a very complex mix of chromosomes, hormones, and genitals.”[1] It has much more to do with “gametes and reproductive function.” It’s true! Sex is the system of categorisation we use to understand whether two individuals can productively copulate to produce viable offspring. XY/XX, testosterone/estradiol, penis/vagina, sperm/egg, nurturing mother/deadbeat dad. Sex is a binary. It is . . . wait, Sex isn’t a binary? “THAT IS NOT A FUCKING BINARY,” says Jones.

Okay, so what’s a binary? “A binary,” she says, “is a conceptual hierarchy which is formed by taking a term with a dominant positive value and creating a subordinate value by negating the privileged qualities of the dominant term.” Male/female (sex, that is) is not a binary. Masculine/Feminine (sex(?), that is) is a binary. Glad we Clared that up. Oh no, wait, I sexed it. Masculine/Feminine is gender. Okay, got it. Gender is the “ur-binary, to the extent that ALL of the binary pairs which structure Western thought . . . are gendered.” Sex, on the other hand, is not a binary because it is a “natural difference.” Apparently we in the West didn’t realise this at first because our thought “is so thoroughly gendered that [we] are incapable of thinking the difference ‘male/female’ without thinking it’s (sic) cultural hierarchisation . . .”

Good, good. Now that we know that sex is just a difference between individuals on account of their reproductive function and that there is no hierarchy granted on those grounds, we know what the cause of women’s oppression is: it is the cultural hierarchy of masculine over feminine, of man over woman. So trans women, as women, are oppressed just like cis women, for both are tokens of the same cultural type. They wear their hair long, care needlessly about their figure, read romance novels instead of build motors, and all the other things that women do that are not predicated on their reproductive function. To solve this oppression, then, we need  . . . Huh? What? Oh no: I’ve gone and gendered it up again. “You are committed to an ideology,” she says, “that means you can’t recognise . . . that female people are oppressed qua female people—that is, on the basis of their sex.” Now I’m confused.

I’m Jonesing for a Clarefication here! She obliges: “Male people commit violence . . . because of the structure of patriarchal gender.” Yeah, so men think women are weak and passive and emotional and irrational, and that these characteristics are worse, so they abuse and rape them, they pay them less, they don’t grant them political power, and so on. I got that. So when do we get to the sex? Jones says that “women are oppressed on the basis of their sex.” Okay . . . I realise that reproductive function sets women back in their careers because of child-bearing, and financially in other ways because feminine hygiene products cost money, but what about all the more heinous stuff? Women are raped. Women are catcalled and harassed. These are truly terrible. Trans women get raped too. Quite frequently. They get catcalled and harassed. But they can’t bear children. Rape and harassment have little to do with reproductive function. They are cultural signifiers of power. Cis women don’t have that power. Neither do trans women. Both are oppressed. Now, there are certainly avenues of oppression that cis women face that trans women don’t. Absolutely. But there are likewise avenues of oppression that trans women face that cis women don’t. Trans women face much higher rates of unemployment and underemployment. They live shorter lives. They have more difficulty accessing medical care and have higher rates of disease as a result.

“Stop it with your baseless hierarchy of suffering lady!” Oh no, I’ve made her angry! “You think playing people’s wounds off against each other is going to get us somewhere good, you dangerous idiot???” Wow, okay, rude. I didn’t know I was being dangerous. All suffering is important. I just wanted to know, Dr. Jones, how cis women are oppressed on account of their sex when all of the major threats arise from their gender. I mean, trans men, though female, often don’t face the same threats that cis women, or even trans women, do. So please, Clarefy. Please.

Here we go: Trans women, she says, “are male people who are performing femininity in a way that violates the first rule of patriarchal masculinity.” Uh, sure. But I’m a fairly gracile man. I wear nail polish and sew. I’ve never been catcalled. Not even once. Nor raped. That’s not even a common thing for more effeminate men than me, or at least not nearly as common as it is for cis women or trans women. And why do these two explanations, that trans women don’t live up to the masculine standard, and that cis women have a female reproductive role, happen to explain the same phenomena? What are the chances of that?! Especially since many men don’t have x-ray vision and can’t see that trans women happen to have testes and a Y-chromosome. Like, I know men are attentive and discerning, but I didn’t know we could see hidden, invisible things!

So is that all? Is there nothing else? No? Okay. OKAY!!

Gender and sex are inextricably bound. They are not coextensive; they vary. But they are nevertheless joined like weights by a string, one heavier and one lighter. They shift around with time but at different rates. And yet no one can control either. They both stand independent of us to a large extent. Neither can just be wished away.

But what that means then is that trans women are women. They may differ from cis women in some ways of course: this, after all, is what the “trans” signifies. But their oppression is women’s oppression. Their oppression can be ameliorated by abolishing gender. And what that means is that we don’t demonise them, we don’t add further avenues to their intersection. We accept them and listen to them and support them as we ought to accept and listen and support cis women. But as our support for black women differs from white, disabled women differs from abled, lesbian women differs from straight, so too must our support for trans women differ from cis. Jones, in her infinite smugness, just doesn’t get that.


(Do I get a Prince?)

That’s a wrap! Good job, everyone; let’s get this to the cutting room.



[1] All quotations are from Jane Clare Jones, https://janeclarejones.com/2018/11/20/burble-burble-intersex-burble-social-construct-burble-burble-trans-women-are-women-sally-hines-on-womans-hour/

Remembrance in the Menexenus

Plato was not a member of the Greatest Generation, the generation that fought two great wars, the generation of Pericles and Themistocles, Thucydides and Nicias, nor even of Socrates. But he’s old enough to remember them. He knows from his youth what Athens was like at its peak, fortified and overflowing with wealth and prestige. But by the time he reached adulthood, the Delian league had evaporated, Sparta had torn down the long walls and dismantled Athens’ ships. His home was a mere shadow of what it once was. And Athenians paid the price, including wealthy aristocrats like Plato. By all accounts, they were a lesser generation. They weren’t as bold or just or wealthy. They didn’t have the prestige that their fathers commanded. They were sorely lacking in resources and in opportunity. And they had to struggle with all this in the shadow of the Greatest Generation that preceded them.

We too, as I write, are faced with the same. And today we are asked to Remember. We are asked to remember the sacrifices of that Greatest Generation in its battle against tyrannical forces abroad so that we might grow and live in free and prosperous nations. Our forefathers failed. Plato’s forefathers so too.

So how shall we Remember? What, truly, do we owe to the Greatest Generation? In Plato’s Menexenus, he gives us an answer.

The Menexenus consists of two major sections: an introductory conversation between Socrates and Menexenus, then Aspasia’s speech. Aspasia’s speech takes up the bulk of the dialogue and can itself be broken into two, separated by the words of the war dead themselves. That Aspasia’s speech has these two parts is important for understanding its point and Plato’s. It is the ironic contrast between them that gives the speech its force.

Socrates begins the dialogue thus: “Whence comes Menexenus?” Menexenus gives an answer—the Council Chamber—but this is not the only place whence Menexenus comes. He comes also from Athens, and from Athens’ brave ancestors. The first part of Aspasia’s speech concerns the former; the second part the latter. She begins with a history of Athens from the Persian Wars through the Peloponnesian War to the war against Corinth that the speech is memorialising. The major thread is easy to see: Athens was a powerful and noble polis who fought for the freedom of the Greeks first against barbarians, second against Greeks. Freedom is the object, no matter the enemy. Sometimes the tree of Liberty need be watered and all that. But so far so passé. Plato means to provoke with Aspasia’s speech. He does that in the second part, with the speech of the war dead.

These war dead are of Plato’s generation. They live in the shadow of their fathers who fought in the Peloponnesian War, and their grandfathers who fought the Persians. They begin by addressing their sons: “Sons,” they say, “our present condition shows that you are born of courageous fathers.”[1] This is no hyperbole. But their virtue has a reason. It is from their own virtue that they mean to exhort their sons, their fathers, and their city to virtue. They say that they “believe that no one who brings disrepute on his own family truly lives at all,” for “he has no friends, man or god, on Earth or below it.”[2] They continue:

You must remember our words and do everything in partnership with valor, without which all possessions and all actions are shameful and base . . . When sundered from the noble and just, even knowledge most certainly cannot be wisdom but seems rogue and villainous. Endeavour, therefore, for all time from the first to the last to surpass–most fervently, in merit and in worth–we who came before. And if you fail, if we stand above you, ennobled and great, our victory is truly our most shameful defeat. But if you overcome, this defeat is then our joyous victory.[3]

The condition for virtue, for success in the universe, is to make one’s progeny better, to hand off the reins of one’s country and one’s name to someone better, stronger, smarter. Failure is disaster: it is profound, universal loneliness, lacking friends among man and god while one lives or after one has died. This sentiment is repeated in Plato with some frequency, such as in the Lysis with regards to friendship, and the Gorgias on the responsibilities of political leaders. But here, it takes a different, more sombre tone. For as the war dead go on to say while consoling their fathers and mothers still living, “That mortal man has everything in his life turn out as he wishes is no easy feat.”[4] One’s success is all but beyond effect. For all a man’s best efforts, for all his toil and his pain, he may never accomplish anything of any value whatever.

And as Plato’s generation makes clear, exactly this happened in the history of Athens. The Greatest Generation of Athens was powerless to stop the decline of their city and the welfare of their children. And so too was the fate of these men being memorialised by Aspasia’s speech. The decline and fall of Athens was imminent and unavoidable. The present condition of Athens reveals something quite different than that Athenians were sons of courageous men. The war dead themselves must believe themselves to be shameful. They have not improved their city; they have been conquered by it and left it debased and wicked. Athens’ great heroes have all been failures.

So we return once again: what, truly, do we owe those men who fought and sacrificed for our city? What is the purpose of our Remembrance? Now we return to the first part of Aspasia’s speech. For as it stands, Aspasia has demonstrated the courage of the Athenian war dead and revoked it at once. We stand then at a crossroads. Is the Greatest Generation truly great, virtuous, courageous, or are they debased and corrupt? Truly, they are both. As Aspasia shows at the beginning, the Greatest Generation fought, and died, for what was right. Mistakes they may have made, but for everything to turn out is no easy feat. What makes courage, what makes virtue, is not to succeed: it is to know when and for what to fight. The Athenian Greatest Generation fought the Persians and the Spartans. Our own fought the Nazis. The Corinthian war dead too fought for freedom. And what will we do—will we fight Republicans?

So what do we owe to the Greatest Generation, these brave men who fought but failed to preserve our freedom? We owe them forgiveness—forgiveness for their vices and their inadequacies. We owe them the knowledge that despite their failures, they still have friends amongst gods and men.


Works Cited

[1] Plato, Menexenus, 246d. All translations are my own.

[2] Ibidem

[3] Ibidem, 246d-247a

[4] Ibidem, 247d

An Introduction to Abhidharma Metaphysics

The Abhidharma school of Indian Buddhism represents one of the earliest attempts to form a complete, coherent philosophical system based on the teachings of the Buddha. Abhidharma metaphysics rests on mereological reductionism: the claim that wholes are reducible to their parts. On the Abhidharma view, a composite object like a table is nothing more than its parts arranged table-wise. The “table” is a convenient designator based on our shared interests and social conventions. Crucially, for Abhidharma Buddhists, this also extended to the self. The self, rather than being an enduring substance, is reducible to a bundle of momentary mental states (Carpenter, 2).

Based on this principle of reductionism, Abhidharma went on to develop the Doctrine of Two Truths. A statement is “conventionally true” is if it is based on our commonsense view of the world, and leads to successful practice in daily life. Thus, it is conventionally true that macro objects such as tables and chairs exist. A statement is “ultimately true” if it corresponds to the facts as they are, independent of any human conventions. According to the Abhidharma view, the only statements that can be considered ultimately true are statements about ontological simples: entities that cannot be further broken down into parts. The tendency to think that statements involving composite objects like tables are ultimately true arises when we project our interests and conventions on to the world.

The primary opponents of the Abhidharma Buddhists were philosophers of the Nyāya orthodox tradition, about which I have written before. Nyāya philosophers were unflinching commonsense realists. They held that wholes existed over and above their parts. The word “table” is not merely a convenient designator or a projection of our interests on to the world, it is a real object that cannot be reduced to its parts. Nyāya held that there are simple substances and composite substances. Simple substances are self-existent and eternal. Composite substances depend on simple substances for their existence, but cannot be reduced to them. They possess qualities that are numerically distinct from the qualities of their component parts.

There are some obvious difficulties with the view that wholes exist in addition to their parts, and Abhidharma philosophers were quick to point this out. If the table exists in addition to its parts, it would follow that whenever we look at a table, we are looking at two different entities – the component parts and the (whole) table. How can two different objects share the same location in space? Nyāya philosophers responded by stating that wholes are connected to parts by the relation of inherence. In Nyāya metaphysics, inherence is an ontological primitive, a category that cannot be further analyzed in terms of something else. To put it very crudely, inherence functioned as a kind of metaphysical glue in the Nyāya system. The inherence relation is what connects qualities to substances. The quality redness inheres in a red rose. Similarly, the inherence relation also connects wholes with their parts. In this case, the whole – the table – inheres in its component parts.

At this point in the debate, the standard Abhidharma move was to ask how exactly wholes are related to their parts. Do wholes inhere wholly or partially in their parts? If wholes are real and not reducible to their parts, but nonetheless inhere only partially in their parts, it would mean that there is a further ontological division at play. We now have three different kinds of entities. The parts of the table, the parts of the whole that inhere in the parts of the table, and the whole. Now, what is the relation between the whole and the parts of the whole that inhere in the parts of the table? Does the whole inhere wholly or partially in the second set of parts? If it is the former, then the second set of parts becomes redundant, for the whole could simply inhere wholly in the first set of parts (that is, the parts of the table). If the whole inheres partially in the second set of parts, then we will have to introduce yet another whole-part distinction, and there is an obvious infinite regress looming.

The Nyāya school held that wholes inhere wholly in their component parts. They drew an analogy with universals to make the illustration clear. Just as the universal cowness inheres in every individual cow, the table inheres wholly in every one of its individual parts.

Abhidharma philosophers rasied a second set of difficulties for Nyāya. Consider a piece of cloth woven from different threads. According to the Nyāya view, the cloth is a substance that is not merely reducible to the threads. But now let us suppose I cannot see the whole cloth. Let us suppose most of the cloth is obscured from my view, and I only see a single thread. In this case, we would not say that I have seen the cloth. I am not even aware that there is a cloth – I think there is just a single thread. But if the Nyāya view is correct, then the cloth (the whole) inheres in every single thread, so when I see the thread, I should see the cloth as well. But since I don’t, it follows that the Nyāya view is incorrect.

Now consider a piece cloth woven from both red and black threads. Since the cloth is a separate substance, and since composite substances possess qualities numerically distinct from their component parts, the cloth must have its own color. But is the color of the cloth red or black? Nyāya responded that the color of the cloth is neither red nor black, but a distinct “variegated” color (Siderits, 111). But this only multiplies difficulties. If the cloth is wholly present in its parts, and it possesses its own variegated color, why do I not see the variegated color when I look at its component parts? When I look at the red threads, all I see is red, and when I look at the black threads, all I see is black. I do not see the variegated color in the component parts and yet, if the whole inheres wholly in its parts, I should.

Finally, if the whole is a distinct substance over and above its parts, the weight of the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts. But we do not observe this when we weigh composite substances. This is highly mysterious on the Nyāya view. But these problems are all avoided if we simply accept that wholes are reducible to their parts.

Abhidharma is a broad tradition that encompasses numerous sub-schools. Two of the most prominent ones are Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika. While both sub-schools agree that everything is reducible to ontological simples, they disagree on the number and nature of these simples. The Vaibhāṣika school is fairly liberal in its postulation of simples, while Sautrāntika is conservative. Moreover, Vaibhāṣika treats simples as bearers of an intrinsic nature. According to Vaibhāṣika atomists, an earth atom, for instance, is a simple substance that possesses the intrinsic nature of solidity. The Sautrāntika school rejected the concept of “substance” entirely. There are numerous reasons for this (most of them epistemological, that I will cover in a subsequent essay), but roughly, it came down to this: We have no evidence of substances/bearers, only qualities. Further, there is no need to posit substances, because everything that needs to be explained can be explained without them. For Sautrāntika philosophers, an earth atom is not a substance that is the bearer of an intrinsic nature “solidity” – rather, it is simply a particular instance of solidity. Thus, in Sautrāntika metaphysics, there are no substances or inherence relations, there are simply quality-particulars. This position is similar to what contemporary metaphysicians call trope theory.

The term “reductionism” is often cause for confusion when used in relation to Abhidharma Buddhism. It must be emphasized that the kind of reductionism relevant here is mereological reductionism. Abhidharma Buddhists were not reductionists in the sense of believing that consciousness could be reduced to material states of the brain. All Abhidharma schools held that among the different kinds of ontological simples, some were irreducibly mental, as opposed to physical.

Apart from mereological reductionism, the other key aspects of Abhidharma metaphysics are nominalism and atheism. I have covered the Buddhist approach to nominalism in a previous essay, so I will not go over it here. When it comes to atheism, it is important to recognize that Abhidharma Buddhists (like all Buddhists) were only atheistic in a narrow sense. They rejected the existence of an eternal, omnipotent creator of the universe. This did not mean that they were naturalists or that they rejected deities altogether. They believed in many gods, but these gods were not very different from human beings apart from being extraordinarily powerful. Venerating the gods was a means of obtaining temporary benefits in this life or a good rebirth, but the gods could offer no help with the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice: liberation from the cycle of rebirth. The gods themselves, being unenlightened beings, were stuck in the cycle of rebirth. To attain liberation one must seek refuge in the Buddha, the teacher of gods and men.

Works Cited:

Carpenter, Amber. Indian Buddhist Philosophy. Routledge, 2014. Print.

Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction. Ashgate, 2007. Print.

Śrīharṣa’s Master Argument Against Difference

The Advaita Vedānta tradition is one of the most popular and influential Indian philosophical systems. The best translation of the Sanskrit word advaita is “non-dual.” The thesis of Advaita is that reality is at bottom non-dual, that is, devoid of multiplicity. Advaita recognizes that our everyday experience presents us with of a plurality of objects, but maintains that the belief that plurality and difference are fundamental features of the world is mistaken. The ultimate nature of reality is undifferentiated Being. Not being something, but Being itself – Pure Being. The phenomenal world, in which we experience Being as separate beings is not ultimately real. It is constructed by avidya – ignorance of the true nature of reality. We are beings alienated from Being, and true liberation lies in ending this alienation.

One of the reasons offered by Advaitins for accepting these claims is that they form the most plausible and coherent interpretation of the Upaniṣads – scriptures accepted as being a reliable source of knowledge. But this will hardly convince someone who does not already acknowledge the authority of the Upaniṣads. Here, the strategy of Advaita philosophers has typically been to go on the offensive and argue that the very notion of “difference” or “separateness” is in some sense conceptually incoherent. The arguments for this claim were first formally compiled by the 5th century philosopher Maṇḍana Miśra. Subsequent philosophers in the Advaita tradition further developed, defended and extended these arguments. In this essay, I will briefly go over the master argument against difference presented by the twelfth century philosopher Śrīharṣa in his magnum opus, Khaṇḍanakhaṇḍakhādya (“The Sweets of Refutation”).

Śrīharṣa begins his inquiry by asking what “difference” really is. He identifies four possible answers to this question:

  1. Difference is the intrinsic nature of objects.
  2. Difference consists in the presence of distinct properties in objects.
  3. Difference consists in the mutual non-existence of properties in objects.
  4. Difference is a special property of objects.

Śrīharṣa considers each option in turn, and finds them all untenable.

The claim that difference is the intrinsic nature of objects is rejected because difference is necessarily relational. To state that bare difference is the nature of X is to utter something meaningless. At best, we can say that difference-from-Y is the intrinsic nature of X. However, this raises another problem. To describe the intrinsic nature of X is to describe what X is in and of itself, independent of anything else.  In contrast, the very notion “difference-from-Y” indicates a dependence on Y. We have arrived at a contradiction: if X has an intrinsic nature that is parasitic on the nature of Y, then it follows that X doesn’t really have an intrinsic nature.

Śrīharṣa offers a subsidiary argument to drive home the implausibility of the view that that difference is the intrinsic nature of an object. Consider a blue object and a yellow object. An object that is blue by its very nature does not depend on the yellowness of the other object. Even if all the yellow objects in the world were to disappear, the blue object would still be blue. But this could not be the case if difference-from-yellow-objects was the intrinsic nature of the blue object.

According to the second definition of difference, X is different Y if distinct properties are present in X and Y. X and Y can be any two objects, but we may use Śrīharṣa’s example: A pot is different from a cloth because the property potness is present in the pot, while the property clothness is present in the cloth. But this raises an obvious question: what makes potness different from clothness? The answer cannot be (1) – that is, that difference is the very nature of potness and clothness – because that view has already been refuted. If we answered the question with (2), then we would end up saying that what makes potness different from clothness is that potness is itself possesses a property that clothness does not. We would have to maintain that potness-ness is present in potness, and clothness-ness is present in cloth-ness. Even if we ignore the oddness of properties being present in other properties, we can raise another question: What makes potness-ness different from clothness-ness? This series of questions could go on indefinitely, generating an infinite regress. Hence, this option is unsatisfactory.

Śrīharṣa considers the possibility that difference consists in the mutual non-existence of properties in objects. According to this view, what makes a pot different from a cloth is the absence of potness in the cloth, and the absence of clothness in the pot. But much like before, this raises the question of what makes potness different from clothness. It cannot be (1) or (2), because they have already been refuted. If we bring up (3) here, we would have to say that what makes potness different from clothness is the absence of potness-ness in clothness, and the absence of clothness-ness in potness. At this point, much like before, we could ask what makes potness-ness different from clothness-ness. Once again, we are left with an infinite regress.

This brings us to the final option: that difference is a special property of an object. According to this view, difference-from-Y is itself an attribute of X. But if difference-from-Y is an attribute of X, then difference-from-Y is not X itself, but something different from X. This entitles us to ask what makes the attribute difference-from-Y different from X. It cannot be (1), (2) or (3), so it must be (4). This would mean that it must be another attribute that makes difference-from-Y different from X. But then this attribute itself would be different from both X and difference-from-Y, which simply raises the same question. One more, we see an infinite regress looming.

Having rejected all four possibilities, Śrīharṣa concludes that the very notion of difference is incoherent, and so it cannot be a true feature of the world. A typical reaction to Śrīharṣa’s arguments is that there must be something wrong with them – indeed, something obviously wrong with them. But it isn’t necessarily straightforward to identify what exactly it is. One could question whether Śrīharṣa really has considered all the possible options, whether some of these options really lead to an infinite regress, and finally, whether an infinite regress is something to be worried about. Philosophers from rival traditions adopted all these approaches. Śrīharṣa and his successors anticipated and responded to a number of these objections. They also modified and extended the arguments against difference to more specific cases, to show that differentiating cause and effect, moments in time, and subject and object, were all impossible. For a thorough examination of Śrīharṣa’s critique of difference, Phyllis Granoff’s Philosophy and Argument in Late Vedānta is a good place to start.

Buddhist Apoha Nominalism

The Problem of Universals is one the oldest subjects of debate in Indian philosophy. Realists about universals believe that universals exist in addition to concrete particulars, while nominalists deny the existence of universals. The Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā schools were vocal defenders of realism. Nyāya philosophers believed in universals for a number of reasons:

  • Universals explain how different objects share common characteristics. Cow A and Cow B differ from each other in various ways, and yet we recognize that they’re both cows. The Nyāya explanation for this is that what Cow A and Cow B have in common is the universal “cowness” that inheres in both.
  • Universals fix the meanings of words. The word “cow” doesn’t just refer to a particular cow, but cows in general. How can a word refer to many different objects at once? The Nyāya solution is that the word “cow” refers to a particular qualified by the universal cowness, which is present in all individual cows.
  • Universals are a solution to the Problem of Induction, first raised by the Cārvāka empiricists. Nyāya philosophers viewed the laws of nature as relations between universals. Our knowledge of these universals and the relations between them justifies inductive generalizations, and consequently, inferences such as the presence of fire from the presence of smoke.

Buddhists were the best-known nominalists in the Indian philosophical tradition. The Buddhist hostility towards universals is perhaps best expressed by Paṇḍita Aśoka (9th century): “One can clearly see five fingers in one’s own hand. One who commits himself to a sixth general entity fingerhood, side by side with the five fingers, might as well postulate horns on top of his head.”¹

In this post, I will briefly go over how Buddhists responded to the first two reasons for believing in universals provided by the Nyāya school. The Buddhist defense of induction will have to be the subject of a separate essay.

The form of nominalism Buddhists advocated is called apoha, the Sanskrit word for “exclusion.” The first precise statement of apoha nominalism can be found in the works of Dignāga (6th century). Dignāga claimed that the word “cow” simply means “not non-cow.” Since there is obviously no universal “not cow-ness” present in every object that is not a cow, this semantic view doesn’t commit us to the existence of universals. Every cow is a unique particular distinct from all other objects. We simply overlook the mutual differences between cows and group them together based on how they’re different from non-cows.  Thus, it’s not because cows share something in common that we call them by the same name. Rather, we think all cows share something in common because we have learned to call them by the same name.

There are some objections that immediately spring to mind, and Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā philosophers brought them up repeatedly in their criticisms of apoha nominalism. First, how does saying that “cow” means “not non-cow” provide a solution to the problem of universals? “Not non-cow” involves a double negation, so to say “cow” means “not non-cow” is just to say “cow” means “cow.” This leads us right back to where we started, and just as before, it seems that we need to posit a universal cowness. Second, how can we focus on cows’ common differences from non-cows unless we already know how to tell what a cow is in the first place? Once again, we seem to have gone in a circle, and apoha seems to presuppose precisely what it was supposed to explain.

Dignāga’s successors responded to the first objection by drawing distinctions between different kinds of negation. Consider the statement: “This is not impolite.” Now, at first glance it might seem like this just translates to “This is polite,” because of the double negation involved in “not impolite.” But this is not necessarily the case. The statement could be about something to which the very category of politeness does not apply, in which case “not impolite” is distinct from “polite.” Thus, “not non-cow” can mean something genuinely different from “cow.”

To understand how Buddhists responded to the second charge of circularity, it helps to look at another Buddhist view. Buddhists were mereological reductionists: they did not believe that wholes were anything over and above their parts. So, a table, for instance, is nothing more than its parts arranged table-wise. The “table” is just a conceptual fiction: a convenient designator we use because of our shared interests and social conventions. It is conceivable, for instance, that someone who has never seen or heard of tables before will not see a table, just pieces of wood put together in seemingly random fashion. The idea that the table is ultimately real arises when we project our interests on to the world. How is any of this relevant to the question of universals? Buddhist philosophers argued that something similar goes on when we fall under the impression that all cows share a common cowness. We overlook the differences between individual cows because they satisfy some of our desires – for example, the desire for milk – that non-cows don’t. We then project our interests on to the world, mistakenly concluding that cowness is a real thing.

This may not seem like a very satisfactory response. It just pushes the problem back a step. How do all these particulars satisfy the same desire if they don’t share something in common? In this case, it seems like the cows really do share something: the ability to satisfy our desire for milk. Dharmakīrti (7th century) responded to this by using the example of fever-reducing herbs. He pointed out that there are many different herbs that reduce fevers. But it would be foolish to conclude from this that there exists a universal “fever-reducing-ness.” Each of these herbs is different, and they don’t reduce fevers in the same way, or use the same mechanisms to do so. We group them together under a single category only because of our subjective interest in reducing fevers. Dharmakīrti’s claim is that the same is true of everything. Each particular serves our interests in a manner that’s utterly distinct from everything else in the world. And so once again, there is no need to posit universals.

But there are still some lingering worries here. While we may accept that in the case of the herbs there is no universal fever-reducing-ness, does the same response work for simple substances such as elementary particles? Assuming for the sake of argument that an electron is an elementary particle, surely all electrons share something in common. Doesn’t the ability to bring about similar effects require a shared capacity – in this case, the same set of causal powers? One possible response to this line of argument, formulated by the philosopher Kamalaśīla (8th century), is to adopt what we would recognize as a Humean view of causation. Kamalaśīla rejected the notion of causal powers entirely, and like Hume, stated that there is nothing more to causation than constant conjunctions of events. Once again, talk of “causal powers” is just a convenient way of speaking about certain correlations that we never fail to observe.

This is obviously a very brief sketch of apoha nominalism. There is much more to say, particularly on the subtle differences between different versions of apoha defended by different Buddhist philosophers. Thisis a good place to start for further reading.


[1] From the translation in Apoha: Buddhist Nominalism and Human Cognition, edited by Mark Siderits, Tom Tillemans and Arindam Chakrabarti (2011).

Nyāya Substance Dualism

In an earlier post, I went over an argument for the existence of God that was formulated by philosophers in the Nyāya tradition. Here my aim is to provide a brief summary of some Nyāya arguments for substance dualism, the view that mental and physical substances are radically distinct.

The categories of substance and quality were fundamental to Nyāya metaphysics. A substance is the concrete substratum in which qualities inhere. An apple, for instance, is a substance, and redness is a quality that inheres in it. Substances can be complex and made up of parts (like an apple) or simple and indivisible (like an atom).

Nyāya held that in addition to physical substances, there are non-physical ones. Our individual soul – that is, our Self – is a non-physical substance. Like atoms, individual souls are simple and indivisible, and hence eternal (since destroying an object is the same as breaking it up into its constituent parts, and simple substances do not have any constituent parts). Consciousness, and different conscious states like desires and memories, are qualities that inhere in the substantial Self.

The primary philosophical adversaries of Nyāya belonged to two different camps. The first was Cārvāka, which claimed that only physical substances exist, that the mind does not exist apart from the body, and that the self is reducible to the totality of the body and all its functions. The other was Buddhism, which rejects physicalism but denies the existence of the substantial Self. Buddhism replaces the idea of the Self with a stream of momentary causally connected mental states. Nyāya was engaged in a protracted series of debates with both Cārvāka and Buddhism. Versions of the arguments I summarize in this essay were developed and defended by Nyāya thinkers such as Vātsyāyana (5th century), Uddyotakara (7th century) and Udayana (10th century), among others.

Against Physicalism

Nyāya came up with a number of arguments against physicalism. The one I focus on here has interesting similarities to arguments found in contemporary debates within the philosophy of mind. It can be stated like this¹:

(P1) All bodily qualities are either externally perceptible or imperceptible.

(P2) No phenomenal qualities are externally perceptible or imperceptible.

(C) Therefore, no phenomenal qualities are bodily qualities.

The argument is deductively valid, so let us examine the premises. As the term suggests, externally perceptible bodily qualities are features of the body that can be directly perceived by external agents. Color is an example of an externally perceptible quality. Everyone who can see me can see that the color of my body is brown. An imperceptible quality is a feature of the body that cannot be directly perceived, but can be inferred through observation and analysis. Weight was a common example used in Nyāya texts. You cannot directly perceive my weight, but if I stand on a weighing scale, you can know my weight by looking at the number displayed by the scale. P1 states that all physical qualities are exhausted by these two categories.

Let us movie on to P2. Phenomenal qualities are the features of conscious experience: the subjective, first person what-it-is-likeness to have an experience. The experience of color, pleasure, pain, desire, and memory are all examples of phenomenal qualities. P2 draws on the intuition that phenomenal qualities are essentially private.

To say that phenomenal qualities are not externally perceptible is to say that I cannot immediately know what it is like for you to have an experience. I have direct access to externally perceptible qualities of your body like color, but I don’t have direct access to your phenomenal qualities. I may be able to infer based on your behavior that you are in pain, but I don’t experience your pain in the immediate, first person manner that you do. The contemporary American philosopher Thomas Nagel made a similar point in his classic paper What Is it Like to Be a Bat? We may be able to observe how bats behave, and how their organs, brain and nervous system work, but we can’t know what it feels like, from the inside, to be a bat. Only a bat knows what it is like to be a bat.

If phenomenal qualities aren’t externally perceptible, perhaps they are imperceptible qualities like weight. But this is extremely implausible. Phenomenal qualities are not externally perceptible, but they’re clearly internally perceptible. The whole point is that I have direct perceptive access to phenomenal qualities – my conscious experiences are given to me in a basic and immediate fashion. Even if I don’t know that my experiences are veridical, I always know what the features of my own experience are. Thus, phenomenal qualities are not imperceptible.

Since phenomenal qualities are neither externally perceptible nor imperceptible, they are not physical qualities. If physicalism is the thesis that only physical substances and their qualities exist, and the above argument is sound, we must conclude that physicalism is false.

Against No-Self Theory

The above argument by itself does not get us to the kind of substance dualism that Nyāya favored. Buddhists, after all, are anti-physicalists, but they do not believe that the Self is an enduring substance that persists through time. Instead, Buddhists view a person as nothing more than a series of sequential causally connected momentary mental states. The 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, and more recently, the British philosopher Derek Parfit, came to roughly the same conclusion.

Again, the Nyāya canon has several arguments against the Buddhist no-Self theory, but I will touch on just two of them here. The first of these is that the Self is necessary to explain the first person experience of recollection or recognition. The intuition here is something like this: If I notice a tree and recognize that it is the same tree I saw a few days ago, there has to be a subject that was present both during the first experience and the second one for recollection to occur. Similarly, if the desire to eat a banana arises in my mind at t2 because I remember that I previously enjoyed eating a banana at t1, there has to be a subject that existed during the initial experience that occurred at t1, and persisted through time until the recollection at t2. Without the Self – a substance that endures through these different points in time – the experience of memory is a mystery.

The Buddhist response was that causal connections between momentary mental states could explain the phenomenon of memory. If the mental state at t1 is causally connected to the mental state at t2, that’s all that’s needed for the mental state at t2 to recall the experience at t1. The Nyāya rejoinder was that causal connections were not sufficient to account for how a mental event can be experienced as a memory. When I recognize a tree I saw few days ago, it isn’t just that an image of the previously perceived tree pops into my mind. Rather, my experience is of the form: “This tree that I see now is the same tree I saw yesterday.” In other words, my present experience after seeing the tree involves my recognition of the previous experience as belonging to myself. Similarly, my current desire to eat a banana is based on my recognition of the previous enjoyable experience of eating a banana as belonging to myself. One person does not experience the memory of another, and in much the same way, one mental state cannot remember the content of another. So a single entity that persists through time must exist.

The second argument for the Self takes for granted what we might call the unity of perception. Our perceptions aren’t a chaotic disjointed bundle despite the fact that they arise through different sense organs. There’s a certain unity and coherence to them. In particular, Nyāya philosophers drew attention to mental events that are characterized by cross-modal recognition. An example would be: “The table that I see now is the same table I am touching.” We have experiences that arise through different channels (in this case, my eye and my hand), but there must be something that ties these experiences together and synthesizes them to give rise to a unified cognitive event. In other words, the Buddhist no-Self theory might be able to explain the independent experiences of sight and touch, but for the object of both experiences to be recognized as one and the same, there must something else to which both experiences belong, and which integrates the experiences to give rise to the unified perception of the object. Again, it seems we must admit the existence of the Self.

Needless to say, all these arguments were (and remain) controversial. The debates between Buddhist and Nyāya philosophers got extremely complex over time. They involved increasingly fine-grained analyses of the phenomenology of recollection/recognition, and increasingly technical discussions on the metaphysics of causation. Similar debates took place between other orthodox Indian schools of thought that believed in the Self (Mīmāṃsā, Vedānta, etc.) and their Buddhist no-Self rivals. A good place to start for further reading on this subject would be the collection of essays in Hindu and Buddhist Ideas in Dialogue: Self and No-Self.


[1] The argument I’ve presented here is based on Kisor Kumar Chakrabarti’s formulation in Classical Indian Philosophy of Mind: The Nyāya Dualist Tradition.

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