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What Kind of Category is ‘Sex’?

Stella Sandford
Wednesday, February 26, 2020, 5:30 pm – 7:00 pm

This paper examines the nature of the categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ as classificatory groupings, via an examination of this question in Aristotle’s zoology and metaphysics. Tracing the use of Aristotle’s logical categories of ‘genus’ and ‘species’ in his zoological works and contrasting this with the use of the terms in contemporary taxonomy, the paper shows that ‘male’ and ‘female’ are, in a significant sense, unclassifiable categories. Although Aristotle has no generic concept of ‘sex’ at his disposal, the paper shows how many English translations of his works introduce ‘sex’ as if in answer to the question of the nature of the categories of male and female. The paper then argues that the generic concept of sex covers over the problem of the classification of male and female in both Aristotle and contemporary biology (including botany, mycology and bacteriology), by introducing a classificatory genus (‘sex’) that does not in fact explain anything but rather (precisely in its trans-specific generality) needs explaining.


Stella Sandford is Professor in the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University, London, UK. She is the author of Plato and Sex (Polity, 2010), How to Read Beauvoir (Granta/Norton, 2006) and The Metaphysics of Love: Gender and Transcendence in Levinas (Athlone/Continuum, 2000). She is co-editor (with Mandy Merck) of Further Adventures of the Dialectic of Sex: Critical Essays on Shulamith Firestone (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and (with Peter Osborne) Philosophies of Race and Ethnicity (Continuum, 2002) and edited, with an Introduction, Étienne Balibar's Identity and Difference: John Locke and the Invention of Consciousness, Verso 2013. Her recent work has been in critical philosophy of race, especially in relation to Kant and philosophical readings of psychoanalysis. She is currently holds a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship, for a project on ‘Sex Difference in Natural History’.