a philosophy blog


Notes on:
Sylviane Agacinski, Parity of the Sexes.

Arguing for a little less historicism:

Perhaps we would then discover a dissymmetry so profound that it would finally prohibit thinking of one sex beginning from the other. Because we must ask ourselves—and I believe that this is the book’s main intuition—if men and women speak of the same thing when they speak of sex or the sexes. If this suspicion could be verified, that would mean that there is no shared measure between the masculine and the feminine and that what is called sexual difference is to be considered an irreducible ontological duality, impossible to reconcile or synthesize.

Commenting on the uncertainty of paternity:

Thus, paternity is never the masculine equivalent of maternity, no more than maternity is the feminine equivalent of paternity. Sexual difference designates nothing other than this absence of equivalence, even if other differences also exist on many levels of sexual life. It prevents us from considering man and woman to be interchangeable.

Agacinski comments on philosophy’s historical contempt for sex and generation as a serious starting point:

A philosophy of finitude, on the other hand, must rethink generation and consider how, for humanity, it is the source of ethics and constitutes a proof of time and transcendence.


“Time,” in the historicist’s sense, is bounded by history and contingency; “transcendence” is meaningful and purposive human behavior, arcing, as it were, out of the morass of history and contingency. Specifically: we are men or women, but we are not bound by that to have no inkling of each other. Nevertheless, we do start from the assumption that we are one or the other—and only through an effort of the imagination do we attempt to transcend our isolation. If it sometimes seems we can partake of both, this is as much welcome as cause for concern. Welcome, because it can have the beneficial consequences which are commonly, and with the best intentions, touted; a worry, because it too easily leads us into an unreality that can blind us to truths about our situation: that it is a predicament to be overcome.

When I, a man, claim some understanding of the experience of a woman, what am I saying? At best I am saying that I can imagine her situation and the contingencies she inhabits. I inhabit mine, and because I can sympathize with myself, I can with her. I would wish that others do as much for me. But I do not imagine my own contingencies as others must. My relationship to my experience is much more intimate than that. It is first nature to me. My experience of hers is virtual—at best, never quite. Even if nature has not made us so different from each that there is no deeply shared commonality,* even when I experience and react to pain “for all the world” as she does, there is still a significant difference. We may each feel a pin prick. But we do not feel it in quite the same way. It is characterized for me before it reaches my consciousness by the type of being I am. I am a male being. The moral task for me is to transcend that state. The only tool I have is imagination. It would be to rob her of a separate integrity to presume that I am interchangeable with her even on this, let alone, any more sophisticated level. And it would be to inflate my capacity and deny my limitations.**

When a man gestures in the direction of empathy for a woman or vice versa and the gesture is appreciated, we must be careful not to expect more to have happened than what did. An effort of kindness was made. It is good that we can be kind to each other without fully understanding each other. There would be no tenderness in the world if understanding was a prerequisite. One gestures sometimes when words fail us.

Moral gestures, then, are what we can expect and even demand of each other.

*While important, an ethics content to operate at this level, viz, on the basis of an inflated sense of commonality, is stunted. It is perhaps understandable that much ethics, preoccupied as it is with just getting a modicum of decency out of people, should be so fixated on talk of equality of this or that sort as though equality was a golden primordial state we have been led astray from. But “equality of opportunity” or “equal consideration of interests” and such are formulaic concepts that quickly lose moral application after the first time they are repeated. They create an artificial mire for endless analysis. There was a time and a context when “all men are equal” meant something that was not dismissible as hot air. But it was very brief. To think that it would have fared better if it had been articulated as “all human beings are equal” is a mistake.

**And nothing said here addresses traditional problems of intersubjective experience (e.g., “other minds”). That is a layer of opacity on top (or below) the one I am addressing. Thomas Nagel famously asked about “what it is like to be a bat”; as a man, I may inquire into “what it is like to be a woman,” suggesting the possibility of an answer is at least as problematic.


Technological reproduction outside the body is an extension of the natural masculine model of procreation.

… human sociability has been woven from interdependence and alliance between sexes and generations.

There is danger in eliminating mutual dependence, in assuming that its only function is reproductive and not the creation of societies. Homophobia and heterocentrism can be combated in other ways than through insisting on the “equality of couples”.

…it is the conjunction of fanatical individualism and biotechnological temptations. [Both are especially male temptations.]

While the first feminism, an offshoot of Simone de Beauvoir’s analyses in The Second Sex, relied principally on the equalization of rights and conditions, and demanded the right to indifference with regard to the sexual identity of individuals, parity requires the rethinking of this difference.

… the will to share power between women and men can only be legitimate if we admit that sex is neither a social nor a cultural trait, nor an ethnic one, that it is not the common characteristic of some ‘community’—like a language, a religion, or a territory—but, rather, that it is a universal differential trait. That is, humankind does not exist outside this double form, masculine and feminine.

Isn’t the other sex, for each, the closest face of the stranger?

Posted by luno in parity, philosophy and sex, sex differences (Wednesday August 9, 2006 at 1:37 pm)

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