Why Trans and Queer Theory is Skewed and Unrealistic
A deep dive into why academic theories are biased because of the structure that produced them.
Today, I want to talk about what I think is the most important reason why a lot of the theory about trans and LGBT people is often skewed and unrealistic. I think it’s a problem we need to remedy, because the trans conversation is currently being driven to a significant extent by theory that is not well grounded in reality, and this is not helpful for improving understanding about trans people and trans issues.
So why is this happening? I think it is actually rooted in the environment in which these theories originated. Many popular theories about LGBT people, the nature of gender and so on ultimately have their origins in the academic humanities, particularly philosophy, gender studies, and other related fields. As I have often said before, I believe there is some kind of imbalance in many of these fields, in that certain worldviews and assumptions are currently too dominant, to the exclusion of other useful perspectives. I am not saying that the currently dominant views are always wrong or worthless, but more diversity would be needed to produce a more complete and balanced picture of the truth.
I think this imbalance of perspectives, the superficial cause of the skew in the theories, can be traced to an even more fundamental cause. That would be the split of science away from philosophy. Historically, the roots of what we would consider science today was part of philosophy, called ‘natural philosophy’. But by the 19th century, the scientific method had become very well developed, which meant that scientific inquiry became a specialized pursuit, with its own epistemology, its own defined methods of acquiring knowledge and its own standards of required proof for validation of hypotheses. This meant that it no longer fitted well within the broader and more open field of philosophy, therefore the split.
Don’t get me wrong, I have always been a big fan of the scientific method, and its arrival had been responsible for many key advancements that we now take for granted. However, the divorce of science and philosophy has gradually produced a skew within philosophy, in that it has moved further and further away from empiricism, objectivity and logical reasoning with each generation. It looks like philosophy is missing a particular perspective because it has been taken away by the split with science. As one might expect, the continued absence of an important perspective has led philosophy to grow further and further skewed in the opposite direction. The split has had many important downstream effects. For example, one might lament the lack of great liberal (as opposed to criticalist, structuralist or postmodernist) political philosophers in recent decades. However, if you look at the historical cannon of liberal philosophers, many of them were actually committed empirical thinkers. The same kind of thinker would be more likely to be found in the sciences, or even in economics departments, than in philosophy today. In other words, the kind of minds who came up with the classical liberal cannon probably wouldn’t be doing philosophy at all today, because their interests would have brought them to other fields of study in the first place.
Which brings me onto the next problem. In the age we live in, academia is highly specialized, and knowledge is highly compartmentalized. This is actually a relatively new development if we look at it in the timeframe of the entirety of Western history. And I think its downsides are just beginning to be realized. One major problem with this specialization is that those who work with one perspective are often missing another. Therefore, not only has philosophy grown to put less and less emphasis on empiricism and objectivity, those working in philosophy are also unlikely to interact too much with ideas from the sciences, the new home of empiricism and objectivity.
There has been much talk about the need for ‘multidisciplinary’ intellectual work, but the real ‘multidisciplinary’ intellectual, i.e. one that is well versed in all the subjects that used to be considered part of the unified category of philosophy in classical European culture, is a rare thing today. There is at least a good reason that such an intellectual would be rare: to specialize in one field of study itself would already take about a decade (if we count undergraduate plus postgraduate study). To then study the other fields probably wouldn’t take as long, because the common foundations of academic training would already be there, but I would estimate that it would still take until at least 35, even for a very dedicated and very talented individual. And most people probably couldn’t afford to stay at school full time until 35 or older, even if they wanted to! I actually have a proposed solution for this problem: the few individuals with the talent and interest to do this should be identified early on (perhaps in high school), and they should be given the opportunity to undergo this kind of training, like how there are scholarships for doctors who want to pursue an MD/PhD combined course of study, which is very costly in both time and monetary terms, but very useful for society. I think society would benefit much from having an adequate number of truly ‘multidisciplinary’ intellectuals, because it would prevent individual fields of study from skewing further and further away from each other.
Anyway, let’s return to theories about trans and LGBT people. In the current highly specialized academic landscape, these topics mostly belong with philosophy, sociology and other parts of the humanities. The sciences (physics, chemistry etc.) usually don’t find this a relevant topic, so there isn’t even much in terms of ‘counter-argument’ theories to what is being offered in the humanities. The exception is clinical medicine, but even there, the amount of attention devoted to trans and LGBT issues is less than what is available in the humanities. This, I think, explains why much of the theory currently out there about trans people is not really empirical, that is, not really based in observable, objective reality. This really frustrates me, as someone who believes in moving towards a more empirical understanding of trans people and trans issues.