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Faculty fellow uses philosophical methods to identify gaps in understanding gender identity

photo of Briggs

Ray Briggs

Apr 27 2020

In a forthcoming book co-written with B.R. George of Carnegie Mellon University, Philosophy Professor Ray Briggs interrogates the philosophical assumptions contained within the category of “gender identity.” They examine the impact of those assumptions – both positive and negative – on the lived experience of trans and gender non-conforming people. Briggs argues that designating gender identity as the primary arbiter of the validity of one’s identity constitutes an act of “hermeneutical injustice,” limiting the interpretive possibilities for individuals trying to understand and act upon their own feelings. Briggs recently shared their work with Faculty Research Fellows in a talk titled “All the Feels.”

Drawing upon their training in philosophy, Briggs examines the diagnostic criteria of gender dysphoria in children outlined in the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, using Boolean logic and conceptual analysis. They note that the majority of the diagnostic criteria concern cultural practices, focusing, for example, on a child’s preferred mode of play or affective behaviors, whereas fewer address the subjective experiences of the child, such as their self-image or feelings about their bodies. Briggs argues that this standard evaluates gender identity in relation to a constellation of highly variable concepts of stereotyped behavior at the expense of one’s self-knowledge. 

Rather than defining a checklist of “symptoms,” Briggs and George examine the intentional attitudes of individuals toward their gender, their relation to external gender markers and gendered objects, as well as their feelings toward themselves and the outside world.

 
The DSM standards, they argue furthermore, provide a poor interpretive framework for understanding the experiences of individuals who may, for example, feel uncomfortable fulfilling the expectations of their assigned gender while simultaneously feeling comfortable in their assigned identity or, as another example, may reject their assigned gender identity while maintaining interests and behaviors “appropriate” to their assigned gender. 
 
As a solution to these shortcomings within the category of gender identity, Briggs and George propose an alternative, which they have dubbed “gender feels.” If gender identity is understood to be a single feature of an individual that dictates their unified relationship to biology, gender categories, and social norms, gender feels, in contrast, are varied, encompassing a range of objects, practices and attitudes to the many facets of gender.  Rather than defining a checklist of “symptoms,” Briggs and George examine the intentional attitudes of individuals toward their gender, their relation to external gender markers and gendered objects, as well as their feelings toward themselves and the outside world, creating a framework that better explains a range of identity, behavior and relationships vis-à-vis gender.
 
The talk, as well as the forthcoming book, What Even Is Gender?, present new models that greatly enhance our understanding of the many meanings associated with the category of gender.   

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.