Talia Mae Bettcher is a Professor of Philosophy at California State University, Los Angeles where she serves as Chair. She is currently working on a monograph entitled Reality Mare: Philosophical Reflections on Transphobia, Trans Feminism, and the Politics of Personhood. Some of her articles include “Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers: Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion” (Hypatia, summer 2007), “Trapped in the Wrong Theory: Re-Thinking Trans Oppression and Resistance (Signs, winter 2014), and “When Selves Have Sex: What the Phenomenology of Trans Sexuality Can Teach about Sexual Orientation” (Journal of Homosexuality, April 2014). She is also guest editor (with Susan Stryker) of “Trans/Feminisms”, the forthcoming special double issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly (April 2016).
Other “Worldly” Philosophy
Talia Mae Bettcher
Although I theorize at the intersections of philosophy and trans studies, for me the former must serve the latter. Trans studies–still young, fragile, and in search of institutional support– is a crucial intervention in the historical relegation of trans* people to mere curious objects of investigation. Theories about trans* people have advanced the careers of non-trans* scholars for decades, while they’ve had serious consequences in the lives of trans* people. Academically-validated views about trans* people matter in terms of how we’re perceived, if/how we gain access to medical resources, to what degree interventions in transphobic violence are taken seriously. That’s why trans studies, characterized by the coming to academic voice of trans* people, is absolutely critical.
In aiming to contribute to trans studies, however, I’ve come to wonder about the nature of my contribution: Is it philosophical? How? The question arises, I suppose, because I remain a professional philosopher, and because there was something that originally seduced me, something I fell in love with called ‘philosophy.’ To ask “Is what I’m doing philosophy, and if so, why?” isn’t to ask the traditional, perplexing meta-philosophical question “What is Philosophy?” Nor is it to ask “Yes, but is it philosophy?” of my own work in trans studies– a question that often gets asked of diverse practitioners in what Kristie Dotson has aptly called a culture of justification.
The question, for me, has been formed in the crucible of multi- and interdisciplinary trans studies itself. For example, I’ve found myself submitting work to journals that have nothing to do with philosophy. Doing so has made me think about what I’m doing, my methodology and its limitations. Thinking about such things is usually not required when speaking to other philosophers, of course. But they’re really good things to think about – they bring out into the open that which is merely presupposed.
My own reply, admittedly provisional and idiosyncratic, starts with some key features that’re in the ballpark of a characterization of philosophy (or at least the philosophy I fell in love with). It ends, however, with a departure. This might suggest a way in which my work is only partly philosophical. Or perhaps it suggests the kind of hybrid one might expect at the intersection of philosophy and something else. Or maybe it just suggests another way of being philosophical, an “other-worldly” way.
Philosophy’s often characterized by ‘depth.’ If a sociologist, a psychologist, and philosopher (Is the beginning of a joke?) all put their minds to investigate sex work, say, one would feel disappointed if the philosopher didn’t have something especially deep to say. To be sure, not all philosophy’s deep. But depth’s often considered a desideratum. And even those philosophers who aim to deflate “the deep” are nonetheless concerned with the deep, if only to make it go away. Philosophy also has an important relation to common sense and the everyday which runs in two directions. On the one hand, philosophy is thought to challenge everyday assumptions about the world. It’s not the only discipline that does that, but perhaps it’s supposed to do it in a deeper way. On the other hand, philosophy seems uniquely beholden to common sense. Most traditional philosophical investigation doesn’t use data (except those investigations that piggy-back on other disciplines). All philosophers have to go on is argumentation, the literature, and intuitions about what makes sense in the world. If philosophy has any grounding at all, it must surely be thanks to the latter. Finally, philosophy has the unique reputation of asking questions far too difficult to answer. It’s characterized by an intractable kind of perplexity. Getting deep leads to getting lost. Sometimes it leads to drowning.
So far so good. But it’s also thought the philosophical questions themselves bring the perplexity. Consider Graham Priest’s account of philosophy which, as Dotson notes, is primarily negative or critical in nature: The positive answers arise only as a consequence of the philosopher’s endless questions, and they serve the mere role of making a negative assessment of a rival theory weightier.
The perplexity that vexes me, however, wasn’t revealed by the questions of some philosopher. My entire life has already been saturated with perplexity. As a trans woman, my life and experiences haven’t conformed to the common sense that’s been accepted for much of my life. What on earth could it mean to say that I’m a woman, I’ve wondered? And why does so much appear to hinge on it? How do I make sense, for example, of having my genitals grabbed in the middle of Santa Monica Boulevard by someone who wanted to prove I was really a man? Where’s the theory that explains that and the subsequent shattering of the reality that left me reeling?
To be sure, there have been theories to draw on. There’re always theories to draw on. “Trans* phenomena,” it seems, demand explanation, demand theory. But what we want from a theory depends on who we are, what “side” of the theory we’re on. To some, the theory may simply do the work of explaining a curious phenomenon. But from the perspective of trans* people, there’re many things we could want from it – validation, access to resources, an account of oppression/resistance. And one of the deepest, most personal questions, it seems to me, is simply this: “What the fuck is going on here?” How on earth do I make sense of my life as a trans* person?
While “WTF”, as I shall call it, is admittedly vague, I do think it’s very deep. It arises for many people, trans* people, for example, whose lives don’t jive with common sense. One of the things that makes it decidedly philosophical is its arising from such a personal place, from its growing from and then shaping one’s life. Philosophy, yes. But perhaps in that “homiest” sense. What drives it isn’t the desire for a new puzzle, but the desire for an answer and if not an answer, then at least some provisional, partial illumination.
For my own part, when I’ve turned to the few trans-affirmative theories, I’ve found myself dissatisfied – dissatisfied not merely because they’ve not met the standards of critical investigation, but because at a very basic level, they’ve seemed not to answer “WTF.” For this reason, among others, I decided to abandon my other philosophical research, devoting my efforts to trans studies alone. “I’m a smart woman,” I thought to myself. “I’ve been trained to think deeply and rigorously. I have a Ph.D. Why not try to figure out what the fuck is going on for myself?” That’s what I’ve been trying to do.
But philosophy needs to connect with reality in some way and the everyday world I started with was too disorientating. So I needed another world as a starting point. That’s why my experiences living in some of the trans* subcultures of Los Angeles have been so important to my philosophizing (never mind to my well-being!). And it’s one of the reasons why María Lugones’ notion of multiple worlds has become so crucial to the way I’ve come to philosophize.
Philosophizing from other worlds raises important methodological questions. When philosophers analyze concepts, for instance, they often rely on linguistic intuitions. What happens when we perform such an analysis from a subcultural space that has a different common sense, different linguistic intuitions? Furthermore, inhabiting a subcultural space allows one to perceive a dominant common sense in a more penetrating way. One can better see the taken-for-granted from a place where it’s not taken for granted. Indeed, one can better see the underpinnings of one’s own cultural home by contrast. I think this deserves to be called a kind of philosophical insight of the most critical variety. And because that insight is shaped by the specifics of one’s cultural location, it also has the good fortune of clipping the wings of pretensions to the universal. Nice.
Beyond that, one’s experiences of a world, one’s intuitions, one’s insights, are surely partially derived from one’s journeys, one’s engagements. For me, working with other trans* people on specific, local needs, in struggling against transphobia, has ensured that the things I care about, the things I look for and attend to, primarily concern lived realities. I like to think this means my attempts to illuminate are geared towards social challenges, and that consequently they have some actual traction there. After all, those disorienting conditions giving rise to the quest for illumination are precisely the same conditions giving rise to the need for resistant action. If the philosophy doesn’t connect with the latter, it’s simply not a philosophy I want to practice. Sometimes philosophy’s not about amusement. Sometimes it’s about survival. That’s how I understand philosophy, at any rate – philosophy as a contribution to something worth struggling for.
Dotson, Kristie. 2012. “How is this Paper Philosophy?” Comparative Philosophy 3 (1): 3-29.
Lugones, María. 2003. Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple
Oppressions, Rowman and Littlefield: New York.
Priest, Graham. 2006. “What is Philosophy?” Philosophy 81 (316): 189-207.
 I am grateful to Kristie Dotson whose own work has helped me think more deeply about meta-philosophical issues.