On the Amelioration of “Women”


Social constructionist analysis of kind terms such as ‘women’ are often criticized as counterintuitive. In response, Haslanger (2012) claims that such charges are moot once the distinctions between different types of philosophical analyses and their corresponding concepts are in place. I argue that even with the said distinctions, the Haslangerian definition of ‘women’ is problematic. Drawing on recent discussions on contextualism (Diaz-Leon 2016; Saul 2012), metalinguistic negotiation (Burgess and Plunkett 2013; Plunkett and Sundell 2013; Thomasson 2017), and the crucial role solidarity plays in politically significant terms (Barnes 2016), I claim that Haslanger’s replies would lead to consequences contrary to the stated goal of her project. Moreover, I offer a new proposal that takes seriously the aim of ameliorating ‘women.’ My account draws on a dynamic understanding of solidarity based on feminist reconceptualization (Allen 1999; Lugones 2003, and Weir 2013) and makes recourse to Mikkola’s (2016) model of trait/norm covariance. Based on the vision that a proper ameliorative analysis in the positive moment should be forward-looking to enhance our coordination in a more just society, my construal elucidates what ‘women’ can and ought to be.

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  1. 1.

    Besides social constructionism, identity-based accounts, such as Bettcher (2009) and Jenkins (2016), also launch powerful arguments questioning the assumed naturalness of women.

  2. 2.

    I use single quotation marks to indicate the term and small caps to indicate the concept. The term ‘women’ has as its extension the category women, i.e., the set of all and only women; its intension is the concept WOMEN. Throughout this paper, I assume what Haslanger offers is a theory of women/‘women’/WOMEN.

  3. 3.

    This is my paraphrase after Haslanger (2012), 376.

  4. 4.

    As far as I know, this is first identified by Saul (2006).

  5. 5.

    For example, Jackson holds that the alternative to descriptive analysis is stipulated change of meaning, which is utterly uninteresting: “If I say that what I mean——never mind what others mean——by a free action is one such that the agent would have done otherwise if he or she had chosen to, then the existence of free actions so conceived will be secured, and so will the compatibility of free action with determinism [. . .] I have turned interesting philosophical debates into easy exercises in deductions from stipulative definitions together with accepted facts.” (Jackson 1998: 31) This conception of philosophy is also evident in the famous Wittgenstein quote— “[p]hilosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. [. . .] It leaves everything as it is.” (Wittgenstein 1953: 124)

  6. 6.

    Saul provides several such cases; see Saul 2006: 130. Other examples are abundant in existing media and our day-to-day lives.

  7. 7.

    Due to the attested messy practice, Saul even makes the radical suggestion that “there are no ordinary gender concept” of women (Saul 2006: 133).

  8. 8.

    Here is Saul’s (2012) definition of ‘women’: “X is a woman” is true in a context C iff X is human and relevantly similar (according to the standards S at work in C) to most of those possessing all of the biological markers of female sex (201).

  9. 9.

    For example, there are scenarios where biological features matter, and there are cases where self-identification rules. For her discussion of how the contextualist definition can somewhat explain cases involving intersex people and trans women, see Saul (2012: 201–203).

  10. 10.

    Here is Karen Bennett (2009) on verbal dispute: “[E]ach side ought to acknowledge that there is a plausibly charitable interpretation of the language associated with the other side’s position which will make that position come out as true.” (51)

  11. 11.

    Metalinguistic negotiations refer to “[D]isputes wherein the speakers’ metalinguistic use of a term does not simply involve exchanging factual information about language, but rather negotiating its appropriate use” (Burgess and Plunkett 2013: 15).

  12. 12.

    Note that disputants involved in such a negotiation may agree on all the known facts, including how the term is actually used, and they may even come to realize that they are using the term in different ways. See Thomasson (2017: 12).

  13. 13.

    Here is Plunkett (2015): “A metalinguistic negotiation is a metalinguistic dispute that concerns a normative issue about what a word should mean, or, similarly, about how it should be used, rather than the descriptive issue about what it does mean” (emphasis mine).

  14. 14.

    An anonymous referee points out that one might think contextualism can also be understood in normative terms. For example, Diaz-Leon (2016) has argued that in any given context, what determines the referent of a term partly depends on political and moral considerations, especially how the subject of the utterance should be treated. Disagreements on who counts as women are also normative given this version of contextualism. While this may suggest that one need not embrace metalinguistic negotiation to rescue NA, my main point that NA leads to consequences that are normative in nature remains. I therefore conclude that Haslanger’s RA cannot be coherently maintained.

  15. 15.

    See Haslanger (2012: 226–7), as well as Saul (2006: 137–8).

  16. 16.

    A key example of how naming, i.e., having a term carved out in language and though, is crucial can be found in Fricker’s (2007) discussion of hermeneutic injustice. The phenomena of sexual harassment have of course existed long before the introduction of the term into our linguistic and conceptual repertoire, but it is only after the coinage that people have a way to anchor their various thoughts and begin serious conversations and take important legal action to address the issue.

  17. 17.

    See also Saul (2006: 136–7). For recent work on implicit bias, see Brownstein and Saul (2016).

  18. 18.

    I am not, however, committed to the specifics of Mikkola’s account, including the argument that feminists should abandon the sex/gender distinction and the deflationist stance that there is no need to elucidate a thick notion of “woman.” I use the trait/norm covariance model because it provides useful theoretical tools to clarify my point.

  19. 19.

    Reflective solidarity is a form of solidarity founded on ties created by dissent. It refers to “the exclusion of exclusion: we are connected through our struggle against those who threaten, denigrate, and silence us” (Dean 1996: 31).

  20. 20.

    Though Blum focus specifically on race-related solidarity, his main points seem to be applicable more generally.

  21. 21.

    Iris Young argues in Justice and the Politics of Difference that social group membership is determined not by satisfying some objective criteria, but is explained as a function of (i) a subjective affirmation of affinity with a group; (ii) the affirmation of the affinity by existing members of the group, and (iii) acknowledgment of membership by people identifying with other groups (Young 1990: 172).

  22. 22.

    Haslanger (2012: 226–7). See also footnote 15.

  23. 23.

    Cf. Barnes (2020: 712–3) and Dembroff (2018).

  24. 24.

    Naomi Scheman explains that solidarity produced through identification with shapes identity. For instance, in the era of AIDS, lesbian identities are reshaped through solidarity with gay men. She also holds that “[r]esistance is connected to solidarity, which is a matter of with, rather than as” (Scheman 1997: 147; my emphasis).

  25. 25.

    According to Haslanger (2020), an ideology is “a cultural techne” gone wrong, where “cultural techne” is “a set of social meanings […] that provides tools for interpreting and responding to each other and the world around us, and does so in ways that facilitate (better or worse) forms of coordination.” Defective cultural techne, or ideologies, may “organize us in unjust ways” (232).

  26. 26.

    Women of different class, race, sexual orientation, ability, and religion, etc. may be associated with different trait/norm covariance, so intersectionality matters. The general point holds that we should put an end to the devaluation of women.

  27. 27.

    My account has a contextual element but is distinct from Diaz-Leon’s (2016) contextualism, according to which factors in the utterance-based context of use determine the meaning of “woman.” I discuss Diaz-Leon’s view in fuller details in (Chen forthcoming). On the other hand, my proposal bears some resemblance to Barnes’ (2016) analysis of disability, since we both highlights political commitments. Yet my account allows for more flexibility, as Barnes identifies disability by “rigidifying on the actual, present rules for making solidarity judgments” (52; my emphasis).

  28. 28.

    In an earlier version of this paper, I considered the possibility of leaving Haslanger’s hierarchical account as it is, but supplementing it with a fine-grained taxonomy of people based on their attitudes towards the ameliorative analysis. There would be, for example, the activists, the allies, and the deniers, as well as the ignorant, the indifferent, etc. We then engineer specific action plans to win the hearts and minds of these various groups, so that they all come to support social reform. Due to an anonymous reviewer’s constructive criticism, however, I came to see that this proposal has serious limitations. First, drawing such a classification easily leads to symbolization and discrimination and thus may backfire and exacerbate existing disagreements. Second, this strategy does not address the exclusion problem and does not seem to offer any conceptual resources that can do so. In contrast, my present, solidarity-based account not only tackles the exclusion problem but retains the fundamental point that radical social transformation calls for the support and contribution from each and every individual.


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Many thanks to Duen-Min Deng, AF Gruenewald, Kok-Young Lee, Hsuan-Chih Lin, Chun-Pin Yen, audiences at the Pacific APA, Kyoto University, Chung Cheng University, Chengchi University, and Academia Sinica for helpful feedback on earlier versions of this paper. I am particularly grateful to Sally Haslanger for the insightful comments, discussions and encouragement. I thank the anonymous referees for constructive criticisms and suggestions.


Support for this work was provided by the Taiwanese Ministry of Science and Technology under Grant 109–2410-H-001-095-MY2.

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Chen, HY. On the Amelioration of “Women”. Philosophia (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-020-00308-0

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  • Amelioration
  • Gender
  • Social construction
  • Solidarity
  • Trait/norm covariance