In a Wittgensteinian sort of way

(Cross-posted from my Transportation blog)

This weekend the New York Times Styles section ran one of their periodic stories about kids growing up and moving to the suburbs, and changing both themselves and the suburbs in the process. A while back the suburb in question (more of an exurb) was Rosendale, and this time it was Hastings-on-Hudson. This particular article was notable for its sheer number of evocations of the wacky hipster frame, and specifically the description by “futurism consultant” (sorry, I have to put that in quotes) Ari Wallach that Hastings is a village “in a Wittgensteinian sort of way.”

Blogger Kieran Healy responded by posting the “Top Ten Ways that Hastings-on-Hudson might be a Village in a Wittgensteinian Sense.” And of course he’s right that it is a very funny quote, name-dropping a philosopher that hardly anybody has read in the original, in a “Styles” article about real estate trends. I would crack up if I ever found myself saying something like that, and I hope Wallach has enough of a sense of humor to do the same.

What’s funnier to me, as I just realized yesterday morning, is that I have an idea what Wallach was saying, and I agree with him. In fact, on Sunday I was at the Lavender Languages Conference arguing that I am transgender in a Wittgensteinian sort of way. I didn’t use those words; instead I referenced George Lakoff, who got the idea from Wittgenstein via Eleanor Rosch.

I learned about Ludwig Wittgenstein in Philosophy of Language class 22 years ago, but that class was so rich with theories that I couldn’t keep track of them all. So now I’m catching up with the help of Wikipedia, which gives us this quote (Philosophical Investigations 66, 1953) about the idea of “family relationships”:

Consider for example the proceedings that we call ‘games’. I mean board games, card games, ball games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? Don’t say, “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games'”–but look and see whether there is anything common to all. For if you look at them you will not see something common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look! Look for example at board games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear. And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.


I made this Euler diagram (which is not a true Venn diagram, according to the Wikipedian who made this page). Some of the games that Wittgenstein mentions, like Olympic track and field games, are amusing (in the sense of not being boring) and involve competition among players, skill and chance.

Other games fit only some of these criteria. There is no element of luck in chess or tic-tac-toe. There is no competition among players in solitaire or throwing a ball at the wall. There is no skill involved in ring-around-the-rosie. Tic-tac-toe is not “amusing.” Nevertheless, we call these all “games,” and if we tried to say that any of the four were necessary criteria we would exclude some of the games.

Similarly, these cannot be sufficient criteria either. Surgery involves skill, but it is not a game. Weather forecasting involves chance. War involves competition. Theater is amusing. That said, they are often compared to games, and described with game metaphors.

This is a good place to stop. I’ll talk in another blog post about how Hastings might be a village in this way.

The curious incident of the trans feelings

There’s an ugly bit of misinformation going around the Internet, that feelings of gender discomfort always get worse with age.  I discovered it the other day in the comments to a New York Tines “Ethicist”column responding to an older trans person.  The first comment was by a post-transition woman named Zoe Brain: “Gender Dysphoria varies in intensity, and is also progressive.”

It was echoed by another woman, Julie C. from Bala Cynwyd: “Trans is progressive, getting worse as the trans person gets older.”

The other night Natalie Reed tweeted this to me:

Because it WILL keep coming back. And it WILL get harder.

(Update: Natalie Reed was very angry when I tweeted her this post. She said that it’s basic Internet etiquette to ask before using someone’s tweets in a blog post, and that I damaged her ability to trust other trans people who reach out to her for help. Apparently she was under the impression I was asking for advice, not support. I honestly had no idea that some people followed this rule, and no intention of misleading her or abusing her trust.

As soon as Reed complained to me I apologized and removed the references to her from this post. She ignored that and spent an hour subtweeting her misunderstandings about my intentions. After several months with no response, I am restoring the references to her statements.)

The gist of this argument is that even if you’re not one of the “transition or die” trans people, if you don’t transition now you’ll eventually find yourself in that category.  There’s also an idea (which I generally agree with) that if you’re going to transition the earlier the better.  Put the two together, and you get an argument that every trans person should transition as soon as possible.

(I’m still not sure how you get from there to “anyone who doesn’t want to transition must not be trans,” but we can deal with that at some other point.)

For some people, feelings of gender discomfort and the desire to be the other gender definitely do get stronger over time.  I’ve heard this from many trans people, and I don’t want to discount their experiences.  But it’s not necessarily true, and it’s not automatically true.

Again we come back to the principle that no one really knows what’s going on with trans people, and no one will know until we get some kind of representative sample.  Generalizations with “all” and “always” are simply not appropriate.

I personally find that my discomfort with being a man, and my desire to be a woman, are not even perfectly correlated with each other, much less constant over time.  They both have their ups and downs, and I can connect some of those ups and downs to particular circumstances in my life, but not all of them.  Reed is right in that they both keep coming back, even after thirty years or so, but she’s wrong in that on average they haven’t gotten more intense or more frequent.

This is again the problem of negative evidence: we can see that for some trans people it gets harder over time, but we don’t necessarily notice that for other people it doesn’t get harder.  For every person who transitions or commits suicide, or even hangs on in quiet desperation, there may be one, or many, who lead relatively happy lives without transitioning, until they die.  We just don’t know.

What we do know is that there are some people like me, for whom it hasn’t gotten harder.  And that’s the thing about generalizations: they can be invalidated by even one counterexample.