René Descartes, like many great philosophers, was bettered by a woman. He popularly coined the phrase “I think, therefore I am”. A devoted Christian, he had a view of the way the world was (philosophers generally use the term metaphysics) that asserted a separation of the mind/soul and body. On the one hand, bodies had a physical presence and operated in the material world. The mind existed elsewhere, unaffected by the physical (immaterial) and not existing in physical space. This view was, in retrospect, undoubtedly influenced by Descartes’ Christian ethic. Descartes was by no means the first man to assume such a disconnection between the mind and the body. Plato had similar ideas, picturing a realm of immutable “forms” (concepts, bodies) of which the physical world contained only imperfect copies (a tree in the world was a “shadow” of the ideal tree). Aristotle said that the forms themselves existed within the material bodies, and the body was an attempt to express those forms. He extended this to trees, animals, and humans alike. The “form” of the “ideal” tree was stored in the tree, and the tree attempted to reach that ideal form.

This underlying assumption about metaphysics undergirded much of our philosophy, and still appears regularly. If you ask a person on the street about the relationship between the mind and the body, you may get some answers that echo this dualism, and particularly, the “Cartesian” (Descartes’) dualism of the soul and the body. You may hear people talk about a consciousness separate from the physical world, a viewpoint or a soul or a mind that can reason about the world separate from it. Our Judeo-Christian backgrounds influence this.

So, how was Descartes bettered by a woman? Elisabeth of Bohemia corresponded extensively with Descartes. As he bumbled through his philosophy, she cut right to the point in one of her letters:

“Given that the soul of a human being is only a thinking substance [immaterial], how can it affect the bodily [material] spirits, in order to bring about voluntary actions?”

Elisabeth of Bohemia in a 1643 letter to Descartes

What Elisabeth is getting here is that it seems impossible for something that is not-physical to affect the physical without touching it and therefore dualism seems to not work. I could go through Descartes response here, but it’s honestly a load of bunkum, and dualism never recovered. There aren’t many philosophers advocating for dualism today, but the idea is pernicious.

So, what was Elisabeth getting at, Metaphysically?

I have to say that I would find it easier to concede matter and extension to the soul than to concede that an immaterial thing could move and be moved by a body.

Elisabeth of Bohemia in another 1643 letter to Descartes

What Elisabeth is suggesting is now generally known by philosophers as “Physicalism”—the belief that the physical world is all that is. Physicalism is a metaphysics that resolves the mind-body problem, as outlined by Elisabeth, by asserting that ideas, meaning, even the “soul” or mind of humans, are physical things.

Princess Elisabeth: Princess Elisabeth:

But what is the point of this discussion? Why am I bringing up this incredible philosopher in a discussion about Feminism? Who really cares about dunking on dead Frenchmen?

The question I want to ask here is: What kind of metaphysics is Holly Lawford-Smith representing in her writing about Feminism?

Holly’s Metaphysics

Holly is incredibly clear: she doesn’t like dualism. At multiple points in her essays and in her book she states what is now widely accepted: that dualism is problematic and has been disproven. But is Holly a “physicalist”? Is Holly something different? To get a sense of what Holly is all about we can examine some of her writing:

Murray complains in his new book The Madness of Crowds about the ‘new metaphysics’ of the identity politics era. In a sense he’s right: it’s ‘new’ compared to what we’d settled on prior, which was a materialism (or in the philosophy of mind, physicalism) grounded in the hard sciences. Few people believe in souls anymore; the sensible forms of dualism that persist today are about consciousness, and the ‘hard problem’ of why there is something that it’s like to be me (or you). Most progressives, at least, reject the idea of ‘natures’ today, at least in the sense that there are significant differences between people in terms of their rational capacities, and that these differences make them fit for different positions in the social hierarchy. But in another sense, Murray is wrong: this metaphysics of gendered souls (Plato) or gendered natures (Aristotle) or gender identities (the more common term today) is thousands of years old, and had been largely discredited. Most of us would reject the hierarchies of Plato or Aristotle today; in modern day New Zealand and Australia we are egalitarian. We acknowledge that women reproduce, without thinking that women are the ‘reproductive classes’ whose job it is to produce future privileged men and run the households of the men who they produce them with. Souls and natures stratify people into social roles. If gender identities don’t do this, then they’re inert, and we wouldn’t expect to see people defending them so vociferously. But if they do, why should we accept them?

Holly Lawford-Smith in her essay “What is a woman?”

So we have a pretty clear picture here, that Holly strongly rejects dualism. It seems that Holly is against the idea of things having “natures” or specifically-typed “souls”. But also, Holly seems to suggest that “women reproduce”. So, it seems like there is some essential quality of women that Holly is referring to here. We’ll return to this later, but let’s have a look at other things Holly says:

… so many people these days seem to believe that they have somehow been assigned the wrong gender, insisting that, even though their bodies are unambiguously male or female, what they really are is different from what their bodies say they are. What I would like to understand is what this claim, which is a claim about identity and not just preference, is based on. When I, a biological male, self-identify as a woman, what I am claiming is not that I wish I were a woman and that I would very much like people to treat me as one. Rather, what I am claiming is that I am a woman, and that precisely because I am, I have a right to be recognized and treated as one. But my body is a male body, so what exactly is it that I think makes me a woman? From our discussion so far it would seem that it is not enough to feel like a woman, for one thing because it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a biological male to know how women feel, and for another because it seems rather unlikely that there really is such a thing as “feeling like a woman”. So it seems to me that we can only make sense of that claim if we think that there is some sort of female essence that is present in women, including trans women, but not present in men, a bit like the traditional ‘soul’ that is believed to exist independent of the body, except that now that soul is seen as gendered. It is a revival of the old Cartesian dualism, which is problematic in its own right. But even if that does not trouble us, can we say anything more about that gendered soul, except that it is female or male? If so, are we doing more here than unduly essentialising certain social norms and expectations? And if not, if being a man and being a woman is a basic quality that cannot be analysed any further, how do we recognize it? Is it something directly intuited? I know I am a woman, I might say. But how do I know?

Holly Lawford-Smith in her series of letters titled “What does it mean to be a man or a woman?”

We get a bit deeper here, here are a list of Holly’s beliefs as stated in these two quotes that we’ll examine:

  1. There are bodies that are “unambiguously” male or female
  2. It may be impossible for a male to know how women feel
  3. Claiming a person is a woman requires them to think there is some kind of essence of womanhood, separate from the body
  4. A person claiming they are a woman in a separate sense to their body’s “maleness” or “femaleness” is a revival of Cartesian dualism
  5. Gender identity stratifies people into social classes
  6. We acknowledge women reproduce but that is a separate concept to the idea of women as “reproductive classes”

Examining Holly’s Metaphysical Claims

1) There are bodies that are “unambiguously” male or female

This seems like a scientific claim, but we don’t really need to discuss that to question this statement. What’s interesting in a physicalist account of metaphysics is to ask, what kind of thing are the labels we apply to things?

We can ask, of any specific physical object that we label, how is this label “attached” to that thing? Say we apply the label “rock” to something, we can then ask, why are we calling that thing a rock? The answer might be that it is a mineral making up part of earth’s crust, and the question then is, why is that class of things called a rock? How are those concepts “attached” together? In a purely physicalist account, those attachments must be material. Where is this attachment, physically manifested? Where can I go to examine this attachment? The answer is, I can’t.

Under the physicalist account, the word “male” is a conception of the mind, and the mind is a physical thing. The term “male” exists only as a series of neural firings associating a word with certain qualities in the world. There is no ur-maleness (no primaeval maleness), no male “nature” that exists without humanity. “Male” is something we constructed and which we relate to particular bodies. “Male” isn’t attached to the atoms that make up a body, those atoms have no fundamental “maleness”.

So it’d seem that in order to attach “maleness” to a particular body in an objective and immutable way, Holly would need to have some kind of Aristolean, Dualist account of the qualities of bodies. But, Holly rejects Dualism.

2) It may be impossible for a male to know how women feel

I’m really excited by this statement because it allows me to bring up one of my favourite philosophical thought experiments, that is also related to Physicalism.

Imagine for a moment a person raised in a room where everything is black and white. Colour doesn’t exist in this room. From birth, the person in this room is educated in everything science knows about colour, and specifically the colour red. They read about the wavelengths of light, people’s accounts of seeing red, how they feel when they see red, the symbolism, the neurons that fire, everything. Then, one day, they step out of the room, and they see the colour red for the first time.

The question is, does this person learn anything the first time they see red?

This thought experiment is commonly known as “Mary’s Room” and it was proposed by Frank Jackson as an argument against physicalism. Frank’s conclusion was that there are some properties in the world that aren’t explained by the physical, and that yes, this person stepping out of the room and seeing red would experience something that they hadn’t learned in the room. I think the parallels between this and the idea that there’s something about being a woman that it is impossible for non-women to learn are clear.

While Holly might not be making this argument, many TERFs do believe there is something fundamental about the experience of being raised to be a woman (0-18) that is not transferable and is also critical to participating in feminism. If Holly believes that it is impossible for certain experiences to be represented or accessed in the physical world, it’d seem like Holly is making a strong argument against Physicalism.

There’s also evidence that trans women don’t necessarily need to “feel like a woman” to be a woman. Julia Serano, in her book “Whipping Girl”, discusses this:

Speaking for myself, I can honestly say that I never “felt like a woman” before my transition. Even as a preteen struggling with the inexplicable and persistent desire to be female, I understood how problematic that popular cliché was. After all, how can anyone know what it’s like to “feel like a woman” or “feel like a man” when we can never really know how anybody else feels on the inside?

Julia Serano, Whipping Girl, pg. 216

So it seems that “feeling like a woman” isn’t necessary for someone to be trans. While Holly’s criticism may be true for some trans people, it doesn’t seem to address an “essential” aspect of trans-ness.

3) Claiming a person is a woman requires them to think there is some kind of essence of womanhood, separate from the body

I don’t think this follows. Someone can say they are a woman and acknowledge that their saying so is determined by their physical mind. Plenty of trans people acknowledge that they are a product of their environment, and don’t necessarily think they have a woman’s “soul”. In fact, in my experience more trans people are irreligious than the general population. Trans people have many different accounts of why they are the gender that they are.

I think a cutting question is what makes any woman feel like they are a woman, and if their response is that they “just are” a woman, that doesn’t contradict the fact that they feel like they “just are” a woman. And, if they have this feeling, is it separate from the physical world? In what sense is this feeling separate from the feeling trans women often have, that they “just are” women?

4) A person claiming they are a woman in a separate sense to their body’s “maleness” or “femaleness” is a revival of Cartesian dualism

This again revives the question of what kind of thing a physicalist would consider “maleness”, is. There are various arguments physicalists make about “meaning” that I won’t go into here, but many consider linguistic meaning to be possible in their physicalist world.

Dualism isn’t implied by someone’s claim that they are a woman any more than a claim someone makes about being male, or female, or any number of other attributes. Those claims may exist in the physical world without recourse to an immaterial mind or a soul.

6) Gender identity stratifies people into social classes

If there is some objective, immutable, immaterial “form” of “gender identity” this may be true. But again, Holly rejects Dualism. We must therefore accept that “gender identity” exists in the physical world and is physically changeable in it—and therefore doesn’t necessarily stratify people into social classes, or indeed have any necessary qualities.

7) We acknowledge women reproduce but that is a separate concept to the idea of women as “reproductive classes”

Holly is creating two different sorts of ideas here. The first is that “women reproduce”. Holly clearly sees this as a truth of the world. Then, there is the idea that women are “reproductive” which to Holly is definitively untrue. What are the differences between these two ideas?

If the idea that women are “reproductive” is mutable, that suggests there are certain qualities of “women” that are mutable. If there are certain ideas that aren’t mutable about women, how is this immutability achieved under a pure Physicalist account? Additionally, are new qualities of women (gametes) as proposed by Holly in other places (which I’ve talked about at length) always immutably assigned to “women”, and how was this achieved for this term when gametes weren’t discovered until 1827?

Conclusions about Holly’s Metaphysics

I think it’s clear from this analysis that Holly’s metaphysics are confused. Holly seems to be making extremely strong claims that Dualism is false, damaging and outmoded, but it isn’t clear that Holly is making a claim for Physicalism. In fact, given Holly’s idea about the immutable nature of “women” as a “sex-based” category, it’d be hard to argue that Holly doesn’t believe in a realm of immutable meanings that exist in a non-physical space. What’s confusing is that Holly is asserting that she has access to some pure conception of what a “woman” is, without recourse to a realm of immutable, Platonic, forms, but is simultaneously claiming that many other claims about what women can be, are objectively false.


What’s clear from Holly’s writing is that essences are a big problem:

So it seems to me that we can only make sense of that claim if we think that there is some sort of female essence that is present in women, including trans women, but not present in men, a bit like the traditional ‘soul’ that is believed to exist independent of the body, except that now that soul is seen as gendered. It is a revival of the old Cartesian dualism, which is problematic in its own right.

Holly Lawford-Smith in her series of letters titled “What does it mean to be a man or a woman?”

When we examine Holly’s book “Gender-Critical Feminism” we can get a deeper view of how she conceives of breaking down the patriarchy and the regressive essences attached to women.

It is something physical, namely male and female biological difference, that these ideas are applied to, but it is the ideas themselves, and the social incentives (threats and sanctions) that create women’s oppression. This broad picture allows us to capture the basic point that many feminists have made, including that gender is a role hierarchy, or that gender is a system of dominance and subordination; it allows us to say more about how these ideas are socially and culturally transmitted (e.g. through the family unit, through the media); and it allows us to ask questions about whose interests this system serves (e.g. men’s, because it positions men as superior and it secures women’s service for them).

“Gender-Critical Feminism” pg. 37

So we get the idea here that “women’s oppression” is immutably attached to “female biological difference”. Holly presumably believes that feminism can address the “ideas applied to” women, but that trans women can’t be included in this feminism because the oppression is itself immutably attached to women—its essence is that it is sex-based, based on “female biological difference”. The question then is if feminism will fight this oppression, how can it if it is immutably attached to “biological difference”?

However, what we do definitely know is that applying essences to things is a return to that regressive Dualism that Holly condemns. So what does Holly see as the ideal future for women?

The law should protect female people until such a time as it doesn’t need to, because there are no significant differences in outcome between female people and male people. We need data about female people in order to track this difference, and know when the difference has disappeared.

Holly Lawford-Smith in her essay “What is a woman?”

So it’d seem Holly is making two interesting claims when viewed side by side. The first is that women’s oppression is intrinsically tied to their “biological difference”, and the second is that in an ideal future, women’s “biological difference” won’t matter, and women won’t be oppressed on that basis. The attachment of oppression to women on the basis of their sex is simultaneously immutable, but not.

But, at least we know that essences are a regressive return to Dualism.

HLS Tweeting about the "essence" of lesbianism Holly tweeting in response to a UN statement that “trans lesbians are lesbians too”


In the end, TERFs tend to have a very confused view of metaphysics. Some think that woman is an immutable quality, preceding the birth certificate, the assignment by the doctor, and the socialisation. Others think womanhood is about the size of your gametes, or your reproductive capacity. Some consider it a physical, biological fact of the world, or an essence attached to a person. What we may need to consider before we answer the question “What is a woman?” is, what type of thing do we think “woman” is? If one thing is certain it is that in the end, we will decide together, and the decision will be contested.