Unraveling the tapestry of gender ascriptions

In their recent paper “Telling Gender: The Pragmatics and Ethics of Gender Ascriptions” 1, the philosophers Quill Kukla and Mark Lance (well known in the philosophy of language as authors of the 2009 essential book Yo! And Lo! The Pragmatic Topography of the Space of Reasons) 2 embark on a journey into the heart of gender ascriptions, dissecting the intricacies of why and how people assign gender and why it holds such significance. Being one of the authors a transgender himself, no stone is left unturned as they argue that these ascriptions, whether verbalized declarations of gender or the use of gendered pronouns, go beyond being mere truth claims, contrarily to the theses of mainstream contemporary queer philosophy. Instead, these ascriptions are formidable players in the grand theater of social space organization, influencing autonomy, bodily agency, and self-determination within the social fabric. The authors boldly discard the notion that gender ascriptions are mere tools for accuracy or cushioning fragile feelings. Instead, they assert that these linguistic maneuvers (what linguists and philosophers of language call “speech acts”) operate not as “declaratives”, but as “exercitives”, shaping not the facts, but the very norms governing how individuals should be treated within society. The paper takes a deep dive into the ethical repercussions of gender ascriptions, highlighting their pivotal role in restructuring social spaces and underscoring the critical need to respect individuals’ self-ascriptions of gender.

gender ascriptions
Photo: Alexander Grey / Unsplash

Ethical and pragmatic dimensions of gender

Crucially, the authors divorce their examination of gender ascriptions from metaphysical debates about the essence of gender, focusing resolutely on ethical and pragmatic dimensions. They argue that these socially potent speech acts deserve unique ethical scrutiny, irrespective of one’s stance on the metaphysics of gender. The authors invite us to imagine a hypothetical village with strict kinship relations and no tradition of regular adoption, where a child survives an accident that claims both biological parents. Taken in by another family and raised as their own, the child faces a social dilemma when the village questions her relationship. Despite empirical agreement on the facts, the debate centers on the uptake and narrative interpretation of the relationship rather than objective reality. The child asserts her parents’ legitimacy, emphasizing the importance of social recognition and normative space over empirical claims.

The authors extend this analogy to gender ascriptions, positing that gender labels function similarly. They argue that gender ascriptions are not declarative claims about empirical facts but social negotiations defining how individuals are positioned within normative spaces. Comparing gender ascriptions to calling someone a friend, the authors contend that these linguistic acts shape expectations, roles, and interactions, impacting various aspects of life. They emphasize the socially potent nature of gender ascriptions, suggesting that these labels insert individuals into normative spaces and hold them accountable to societal expectations, irrespective of metaphysical debates about gender. The authors advocate for a nuanced understanding of gender ascriptions, acknowledging their complex role in shaping social reality while cautioning against their potential for obfuscation and misrepresentation. Comparing gender ascriptions to the act of labeling someone a friend (or, as in the first example, an adopted child), the authors argue that these linguistic acts wield considerable influence. These labels, like signposts, guide expectations, roles, and interactions, casting a ripple effect across various aspects of life. The authors underline the social potency inherent in gender ascriptions, asserting that these labels thrust individuals into normative spaces, tethering them to societal expectations regardless of metaphysical debates about gender. While advocating for nuanced comprehension, they issue a cautious warning about the potential for obfuscation and misrepresentation within these linguistic maneuvers.

Gender ascriptions, social positioning vs objective truth

Hence, gender identity would be more about social positioning than objective truth, and so the authors contend that assessing the appropriateness of gender ascriptions should pivot on the speaker’s authority to place someone within a social position and the ethical acceptability of the ensuing reorganization of social space. Distinguishing between first-, second-, and third-person gender ascriptions, the analysis unveils them as distinct speech acts, each wielding varying entitlements and performative effects.

First-person gender ascriptions, akin to assertive declarations like “I am a man,” are portrayed as claims to a social position, requesting recognition within gendered norms. The paper champions the right to self-determination and bodily agency, advocating for individuals’ control over their placement within social spaces and norms. Introducing the concept of “agential identities,” the paper underscores that first-person gender ascriptions claim these identities, demanding or requesting the bestowal of social identities. Positioned as structurally first-personal speech acts, the emphasis is on their pragmatic nature, differentiating them from traditional truth claims. The authors align with the view that these first-person gender ascriptions are avowals, expressions of identity immune from straightforward contradiction. The ethical and political importance of respecting these avowals is grounded in the right to self-determination rather than the accuracy of factual claims.

Venturing into second-person gender ascriptions, the paper emphasizes their role in constituting social identity through recognition and uptake. Exploring the authority required for second-person gender ascriptions, the authors argue that typically, only a first-person gender ascription can authorize such claims. It highlights the absence of clear institutional standards for gender credentials and suggests that second-person ascriptions challenging first-person gender identifications are rarely justified. The burden of proof is placed on those seeking to overrule someone’s chosen gender, emphasizing the importance of autonomy, bodily self-determination, and the potential harm in denying self-positioning, so that second-person gender denials are usually inappropriate and morally indefensible.

The exploration extends to the pragmatic and ethical dimensions of third-person gender ascriptions, spotlighting their role in shaping social space. Unlike first-person gender ascriptions where individuals claim their own gender, third-person ascriptions involve one person telling another about someone else’s gender. The speech act aims to petition others to give social recognition to the gendered identity of the person discussed. The evaluation of such acts must consider the backdrop of the individual’s first-personal gender ascriptions.

Acknowledging that third-person ascriptions or denials can lack the interpersonal aggression seen in second-person cases, the paper emphasizes their primary engagement with someone else. If a person claims a gender, and another individual asserts or denies it to a third party, they are influencing social recognition and uptake for the person in question. The article underscores the ethical considerations in making such assertions, especially when the individual has not explicitly made a first-person ascription. For example, navigating the pragmatic differences between saying “Sam is a man” and “Sam takes himself to be a man,” the paper delves into the latter’s emphasis on a psychological description and the potential for reasonable debate about Sam’s self-identification. Addressing challenges in cases involving babies and cognitively disabled individuals, the authors advocate also for provisional and gentle third-person gender ascriptions.

The naturalistic fallacy

In a captivating conclusion, the article raises a thought-provoking puzzle: if second- and third-person gender attributions without first-person endorsement are not entitled, why do they have a social impact? The paper suggests that gender ascriptions work through constitutive misrecognition, where the normative effects are smuggled in under the guise of descriptive language. This pragmatic enactment of the naturalistic fallacy is woven into the grammar and ideology of gender, leading to a systematic ambiguity between describing social reality and constituting normatively articulated social positions. The authors passionately argue for a reconsideration of these practices and a recognition of the substantial impact of apparently descriptive gender ascriptions on individuals’ self-determination.

Lastly, the authors draw an interesting parallel between gender and race ascriptions. According to them, neither are fundamentally declarative truth claims whose appropriateness depends on how they correspond with some stable set of empirical facts. Rather, both are normative moves that attempt to claim social space or place someone within that space. Likewise, both should be basically assessed on ethical and pragmatic grounds: Was this speech act properly entitled, and should this normative move be made? If first-person race ascriptions should not be given prima facie, nearly indefeasible deference the way gender ascriptions should, this would not be because they are less likely to be true, but because giving them recognition would more likely do some ethical harm, or because their entitlement conditions are different. This argument, however, help raising to the authors the possible objection that perhaps not all first-person gender ascriptions are equal in terms of the harms that might be caused to different people, what would make the appropriateness of each ascription something to be decided case by case, rather than by a universal rule.


  1. Kukla, Q. & Lance, M., (2023) Telling Gender: The Pragmatics and Ethics of Gender Ascriptions Ergo an Open Access Journal of Philosophy doi: 10.3998/ergo.2911
  2. Kukla, R., and M. Lance, (2009). ‘Yo!’ and ‘Lo!’: The Pragmatic Topography of the Space of Reasons. Harvard University Press.

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  • Both racial identity and sexual identity are biological traits, but the former is easier to determine than the latter, as it is automatically inherited from both parents. Mrs. Dolezal pretended to be black but she is undoubtedly white because both of her parents are white. Sexual identity lies in the brain structure that “is probably configured in the womb through hormonal exposure” (F. de Waal, ‘Different’, 2022).

    • Hi Rawani,

      Since the explicit point of our paper is that we don’t care what gender is and are focusing on linguistic ascriptions quite independently of the nature of gender, I wonder what the relevance of this comment is? We are quite intent in not giving a theory of gender in the paper and argue that the nature of gender is completely irrelevant to our point.


      • Hi Quill,

        As I see it, empirical knowledge is required in order to reach sound ethical conclusions. For example, many transphobes hold the false idea that human sexual identity is determined by the type of gametes that the person produces. As De Waal and many other scientists indicate, the most likely empirical truth is that human sexual identity is a biological trait that hormones configure in the brain structure of the fetus.

  • Hi Rawandi:
    As a sort of vague generalization, sure, empirical knowledge is required to draw ethical conclusions. But a couple things: first, there simply is nothing remotely approximating a scientific consensus on what gender is – or race either for that matter – or even if there is such a thing. And more importantly, as Quill says, we made an argument about the function of gendered speech that does not depend on this particular empirical fact, whatever the fact actually is. (Surely you don’t think that every ethical claim depends on every empirical fact.) Now we might be wrong, but you’d have to actually engage with the argument to show that. As it stands, this is just a change of subject.

    • Hi Marc:

      “Race”, understood in a non-racist way, as mere human phenotypic variety resulting from the isolation of populations on different continents is an undeniable evolutionary fact. That’s why you only need to look at a photo of teenage Rachel Dolezal, with her white skin and blonde hair, to instantly realize that she is not telling the truth when she claims to be black. It is not rational to remain “agnostic” regarding Dolezal’s race.

      Experts in human sexuality mostly agree that sexual identity does not depend on gametes but on the brain structure with which one is born. Therefore, it also makes no sense to remain “agnostic” about the existence of sexual identity.

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