Friday, February 27, 2009

Two Modalities

Renoir, Conversation

"In the fact that human beings exist in two modalities--masculine and feminine--one can, (to my mind one should), find a clear and original confirmation of the thesis that man has need of others in order to perfect himself. Any genuine fulfillment or development of the human person can not be achieved without adequate sexual interaction." -Cormac Burke, Man and Values

In a previous post, we discussed the relationship between man's existence and man's material, bodily self. Here, we'd like to describe the effect of the material self on sexual identity. Cormac Burke describes the root of the human existence in two modalities , male and female. His word choice, modality, (defined in the Oxford American Dictionary as "a particular form of sensory perception"), points to the essence of our human interaction, as dependent on the physical. We are rational beings, yes, but rooted in our material world.

Man's essential physical characteristic demands that we examine our physical same-ness and differences. If we are so physical, then the physical world holds significance for us! We observe that, in general, man exists as male and female, each with a distinct set of sexual characteristics. (We note the primary sex characteristics and the secondary sex characteristics.) It seems these physical differences serve a function, namely (at least) the facilitation of reproduction. From this observation, we can conclude that distinct maleness and femaleness characteristics, within the narrow category of physical reproduction, are necessary for the propagation of the species. Humanity's survival depends on the existence and distinctness of these two modalities. Even extraordinary means of reproduction, such as artificial insemination, generally work off a model of reproduction based off the male-female sexual interaction.

We posit that maleness and femaleness is not just significant to humanity on a macro, species level. Just as Aristotle proposes that the polity is necessary for the development of the individual virtuous man, we propose that sex differences, embodied in distinct maleness and femaleness, are a necessary social ingredient for the development of the individual. We will address the particular nature of these sex differences, and why man needs both modalities in a future post- for now, we concern ourselves with the dangers of divorcing ourselves from our biological realities.

Man is a social animal. He needs other humans. The question remains, however, why does the individual need to be manifest one sex or the other? We can imagine a world (let's call it Trumbull) where we relate to each other with varying degrees of relational androgyny, where as long as our physical sexual characteristics exist distinct, we, as a species, exist. (In this occasion, we take androgyny to mean the absence of particular male or female characteristic in a male or female, respectively.) The distinction is that in Trumbull, man exists but man does not flourish. For while Trumbullites see male and female sex differences as only relevant to biological reproduction, and not relevant to how they ought to act, Trumbullites miss what their sex differences have to offer them. For example, if the virtue of motherliness, which is typically associated with womanhood, becomes the norm in Trumbull for both men and women, Trumbullites will lose the full conception of what it means to "mother." We are not, here, trying to determine man's capacity to function as well as woman in the role of motherhood. What we concern ourselves with is the obscuration of the root of the virtue, and the divorce between virtue's origin and practice.

Burke comments, "The human person cannot develop adequately - that is, become fully human - within a framework of purely masculine or purely feminine values (a society itself may be excessively masculinized or excessively feminized)." Virginia Woolf adds, "It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only?" The turn away from sex differences opens up a world of possibilities- a world that is distinctly non-human, because it has lost aspects of our humanity (aspects such as motherliness). Femaleness and maleness have roots in biology. Yes, gender roles may have social foundations, but they are not entirely social constructs. They are constructions upon a foundation. If we divorce our biological sexual characteristics from our persons, and label maleness and femaleness as constructions, out-dated and fit for recycling, we have yielded to the lure of dualism and have robbed ourselves of the opportunity to flourish as human beings.


  1. That was a delightful read. If I were entitled to make a comment (which I'm not, but I do so regardless), I would have to ask what the normative picture is for the origin of a virtue like "motherhood". To put the question in broader terms, where does Burke get his concept of the fulfilled human life? Presumably from an account of the beata vita that implied a sense of fulfillment that no other account provides. Might I suggest that addressing notions of fulfillment might be a good place to pause for a moment before resuming the campaign

  2. It's interesting that Woolf says in that quote that "two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world." Here it seems like she might be suggesting that only multiple sexes--perhaps even more than two--are necessary in order to reflect the diversity of the world. It's interesting to reflect on whether the importance of embodiment in shaping our identities requires a recognition of only two types of bodies, or whether embodiment shapes us in a range of different ways that lead not to sameness, but rather multiplicity (in terms of sex, gender, ethnicity, and other ways in which our bodies shapes our selves). I look forward to hearing you connect your conception of embodiment with the idea that sex must be considered in terms of a binary. Thanks for writing!

  3. Vincent: No need to worry, your comments are absolutely appreciated.

    Although we don't presume a comprehensive understanding of Cormac Burke's conception of the beata vita, we assume this much- the "good life" comes from a pursuit of truth. I refer you to his chapter, "Conditions for Fulfillment," from his book, "Man and Values- A Personalist Anthropology." ( In this chapter, he posits, " be oneself, a self worth loving, one has to love values worth more than oneself."

    The narrowness of our subject does not allow us to dwell solely on the fulfilled life (although it is certainly a worthy endeavor!). We plan to breach the subject as it pertains to relational man. We see the embodiment of man's devotion to Truth in the action of virtue.

    Concerning motherliness: this virtue is more sex-specific than most virtues. To trace its origin, we must visit the definition of virtue, defined as a habit or permanent disposition that inclines one toward the fulfillment of his natural end, (the "good" which embodies truth). We'd rather not begin a debate over truth, so here we'll take inherent traits as an indication of the essence of things, which point toward the "end."

    CG: When we read Woolf's quote, it is in context with her proposal that men alone and women alone cannot function. It is very interesting that you read her quote as suggestive of a movement beyond the typical sex binary. Her reference to the embodiment of diversity in the partnership of the two sexes, male and female, certainly opens doors for the discussion of other expressions of diversity. We will keep the potential movement toward multiplicity in mind as we continue to discuss the roles of ambiguity and androgyny in our interpersonal relationships. Thank you!