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One Sex, Two Sex, Aristotelian Sex: APS’15 talk

I have of late found myself turning to Aristotle’s biological works to think more carefully about Aristotle’s conception of nature, because I think it is there that the strongest challenge to my reading of physis as the internal principle by which things move from within themselves to fulfill themselves is found.

In the biology, the male semen seems to impose its form on the female menses, suggesting that at the microcosmic level of natural generation, form is imposed on material, external principles master what needs forming.  But as I investigate Aristotle’s biology, I have come to learn that material in Aristotle might not be what we’ve thought it was.

On Saturday, April 11, 2015 at 11 AM at the Ancient Philosophy Society meeting at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, I am presenting a paper (part of my current book project) that focuses on the strange and evasive role of vital heat in Aristotle’s biology.  I argue that the complexities of vital heat might tell us something about whether Aristotle has a one-sex or two-sex model of sexual difference and that his model might also recast our understanding of Aristotelian material.

Models of Sexual Difference


Thomas Laqueur makes the bold claim in Making Sex: Body and Gender From the Greeks to Freud that the one-sex model was pervasive pretty much culturally and temporally until the Renaissance.

Thus the old model, in which men and women were arrayed according to their degree of metaphysical perfection, their vital heat, along an axis whose telos was male, gave way by the late eighteenth century to a new model of radical dimorphism, of biological divergence.  5-6

[T]he corporeal theatrics of a world where at least two genders correspond to but one sex, where the boundaries between male and female are of degree and not of kind, and where the reproductive organs are but one sign among many of the body’s place in a cosmic and cultural order that transcends biology.  My purpose is to give an account, based largely on medical and philosophical literature, of how the one-sex body was imagined; to stake out a claim that the one-sex/one-flesh model dominated thinking about sexual difference from classical antiquity to the end of the seventeenth century… 25

The one-sex model that Laqueur argues is everywhere accepted in antiquity maintains that the male is the true sex and femaleness is measured as distance from maleness–inversion, lack, what have you (or what have you not).  The male achieves the end, perfection and the female does not.  Aristotle provides a difficult and strange challenge to this view since he drives the male and female apart as the efficient and the material cause, but these difficulties do not cause Laqueur to veer from his course but to double down by asserting that the male has this capacity which makes him male and the female does not.  Maintaining the one sex model while also seeming to maintain a profound difference between the male and female principle in Aristotle, Laqueur argues that for Aristotle, the male principle moves the menses through intellection and not by physical contact (54-55).  In order to maintain the one sex model in which the female is female by being not-male, incapable of animating, Laqueur must make material opposed to the formal by a lack, by an inability to do what form does rather than an ability to do what material does.

But thinking about the opposition as a lack or a measure of separation becomes something of a conundrum: if the difference between male and female is understood on the one-sex model it appears to be a difference of degree, of distance from a center.  The one-sex model allows for this difference of degree and then seems to make the difference between material and formal a difference of degree.  When it is difference of degree, then the difference is not a formal difference.  Indeed, the difference between form and material then seems not to be a formal difference but one of degree.  When it is a difference of degree, it seems that material and form are less different or more intermingled and influencing one another than we tend to suppose.

The two-sex model seems to allow for true sexual difference, yet it ends up making the female and the male, the material and the formal principles, wholly other.  While it appears to allow for true difference, it involves a hidden dependence of the superior principle on the subordinate one, as Luce Irigaray has shown (this is the argument that runs throughout The Speculum of the Other Woman).  Upending that hierarchy by exposing the fluidity of the poles of difference, moves the two-sex model where material and formal principles are wholly other into the one-sex model where there is a difference of degree that shows the interpenetration, if I may, of these principles.

irigaray speculum


The one-sex model, which seems to deny difference, might reveal a unity and fluidity between these positions, as Brooke Holmes has argued.  My argument is that if the feminine principle is the material principle and sexual difference is a material difference — that is the difference between form and matter is one of degree, a fluid difference, then it would seem that the formal principle is rooted in and reliant upon the material principle.  The two-sex model (which makes the difference between sexes a difference of kind) seems to slide into a one-sex model (which makes the difference one of degree) because the absolute difference isn’t as absolutely different as it appears, following Irigaray, and the nondifference of the one-sex isn’t as clearly privileging the formal because the difference it articulates is one of degree.

Vital Heat and the One-Sex Model

My argument focuses on the way that Aristotle discusses vital heat and its role in generation.  Briefly, I’m interested in the perplexities of vital heat: semen forms from vital heat and it is that residue which is capable of prompting the capacity to form vital heat in the offspring.  Blood, fat and nourishment are other residues at various degrees of vital heat.  Aristotle gives an account of how the offspring is formed, but how that offspring becomes capable of conjuring up sufficient vital heat in another is never explained.  That this will be the case is not a given because even the body designated male can fail to produce semen, which is to say it can fail to concoct the material to the degree where it can also concoct in another to the stage where it can concoct in another if it is using that heat for some other purpose, such as making fat which it might be doing if it has too much nutriment.  All this to say that the same body can both make and fail to make semen if the other nutriments are not in the proper proportion, a proportion which would be proper if one had the right kind and degree of heat.

The passage that is of most interest to me is at Generation of Animals II.3:

Now it is true that the faculty of all kinds of soul seems to have a connexion with a matter different from and more divine than the so-called elements; but as one soul differs from another in honour and dishonour, so also the nature of the corresponding matter. All have in their semen that which causes it to be productive; I mean what is called vital heat [θερμόν]. This is not fire nor any such force, but it is the breath [πνεῦμα] included in the semen [σπέρματι] and the foam-like, and the natural principle in the breath [πνεύματι φύσις], being analogous to the element of the stars [τῷ τῶν ἂστρων στοιχείῳ]. Hence, whereas fire generates no animal and we do not find any living thing forming in either solids or liquids under the influence of fire, the heat of the sun [τοῦ ἡλίου θερμότης] and that of animals does generate them. Not only is this true of the heat that works through the semen [διὰ τοῦ σπέρματος], but whatever other residue of the animal nature there may be, this also has still a vital principle [ζωτικὴν ἀρχήν] in it. From such considerations it is clear that the heat [θερμότης] in animals neither is fire nor derives its origin from fire.

What seems important here is that vital heat is not the same thing as elemental fire.  Of course, things are never quite so straightforward, and scholars have pointed out the many ways that Aristotle talks about fire in living things in his corpus, sometimes seeming to refer to elemental fire and sometimes not as in this passage above.  In any case, it seems pretty clear that vital heat, the process whereby the semen animates the offspring, is also what makes us angry and our food into blood.  The difference between the male and female seems to be that less heat is required to maintain certain capacities than to generate them, which shows that there is a difference of degree within vital heat–one degree in forming nourishment out of blood and a greater degree in forming semen out of nourishment.  The female can do the first but not the second.  If the female has this nutritive heat, then she does have vital heat, just not as much as is needed for animating.  Yes, this is still situating the female principle below the male principle, but what comes of this account is that the difference between the material maternal and the formal paternal principles is not of kind but of degrees of heat.

So, Material Questions

I’m hoping to think more about what this account of vital heat might tell us about material.  First, I think that it is worth noting that we tend to think of “true difference” as formal difference, difference in kind.  This is somewhat ironic, since we are pursuing true difference for the sake of elevating the feminine principle, material.  In this pursuit, we seem to measure the difference as true or only in degree, where it is true if it is a formal difference.  On the other hand, we are degrading material when we say it isn’t true difference because it is only of degree.  Where then are we left if the difference between matter and form is itself one of degrees of vital heat, that is, a material difference?  Where then are we left if the difference between the masculine and the feminine isn’t a formal one?  Initially, it seems that that means we are in the one sex model, the masculine is true because formal while the feminine aspires toward form.  But what if the difference we have here is what we might call a feminine one, a material one?  Is the feminine principle, material, degrees of heat, the difference that forms the distinction between the feminine and the masculine?

Second, material does not look quite so much like what we expect material to look like.  The difficult thing about talking about material is that trying to talk about it in any way differently from the we have always talked about it requires already being able to talk about it differently from the way we’ve always talked about it.  It seems close to impossible to get from here to there without already being there.  To challenge the ways we think about material in Aristotle requires distinguishing material from, well, material, and in this move, we say material in Aristotle isn’t non-form, but rather that it is formal, and therefore, better because not as much like material.  This seems especially a problem in Aristotle who is generally treated to be the source of the profound distinction between material (stuff, completely unformed, needing something outside of itself to give it shape and meaning) and form (the shape, the source of meaning that makes material show up).  If menses is the material, its distinction from semen in terms of degrees of vital heat makes semen form from a material distinction.  But what does this show us about material?  Are we still saying it is forceful only because it could become form?  Or is it rather that form might not be so special if it is only distinct from material because of some power that is itself material?  Does this account also use the language that assumes a great divide and hierarchy between form and material to challenge that divide and hierarchy?

I think vital heat might do some work for us in thinking through these questions because of its connection to the elemental and the animate at once.  Vital heat is not an on / off switch that makes the residue male or not, but rather a matter of degrees that can fail and be affected by other material.  On these terms, material, which in some places it looks like Aristotle is trying his darnedest to keep from having a crucial explanatory role in generation specifically and change more generally, comes to have a vital role.  In this vital role, material doesn’t look like the material we thought we knew.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Is not all sexist bickering brushed aside by the simple fact that in conception the male sperm brings half of his DNA to the female egg where half of her DNA is kept and the two are united and become one, a fresh new combination?

    April 19, 2015
  2. Sexism turns out to be much more complicated than something that contemporary science can solve. Two thoughts: first, today people still argue that sperm are active and the egg is passive so that even conception is about men extending into the world and women just receiving. It turns out that the egg has a role in designating which sperm it accepts so even this view is not supported by science.

    Second, what I’m trying to think through here is how Aristotle’s account works in a way that challenges the prevailing metaphysical view that holds form and activity on one side against material and passivity, a binary that lends itself to a gendered division that privileges what it sees as active and dismisses what appears as passive. Even if we aren’t aware of it, we might hold conceptions of the world that make us see the world in hierarchical binaries, binaries that map onto gender and thus have consequences for how we think the relations between male and female, men and women.

    Thanks for reading.

    April 19, 2015
  3. Contemporary science need not be seen as suggesting male activity and female passivity, nor male form and activity and female material and passivity. It’s only a practical biological solution for the sperm to come to the egg, for it’s in the womb that the zygote will mature into a ready-to-be-born infant. Though I’ve read of certain fish where the male and female do this dance in the water to synchronize their readiness, so at the same moment they expell their sperm and eggs into the water and conception occurs in this external mixing. Sometimes, even (this is funny), a weaker male will join their dance on the sidelines, and when they expell their eggs and sperm into the water it will rush right through the mess and expell his sperm into the water too, so as to have a chance at reproducing. I don’t think nature is sexist. What would be the point?

    April 20, 2015

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