Nagel on sexual perversion (Part 2 of 3): methodological issues

In a previous post, I laid out the argument of Nagel’s 1969 paper, “Sexual Perversion.” In this post, I want to offer up some criticisms and some general observations on the argument I laid out. As I indicated last time, I find Nagel’s paper a mixed bag. Some of what it says is astute and provocative, but on the whole, I don’t think it offers a successful analysis of “sexual perversion.”

Contrary to my initial expectations, I’ve had to divide my commentary on Nagel’s piece into two separate posts. This is the first of two, focused on the first few pages of Nagel’s paper. My comments here are mostly methodological.  The first set concerns the presuppositions of conceptual analysis as an activity, and how it (adversely) affects Nagel’s analysis of “sexual perversion.” The second set concerns the substance of Nagel’s opening moves, and in particular the claims that he takes to be obvious starting points of the analysis. A third set concerns Nagel’s hunger-sex analogy.

Conceptual analysis and the analysis of ‘sexual perversion’

Nagel starts out by telling us that that there’s “something to be learned from the fact that we possess a concept of sexual perversion” (p. 39). This platitude-like claim strikes me as highly ambiguous and highly problematic. For one thing, it’s not clear who “we” are: Nagel pays no attention at all to cultural or any other significant sort of demographic variation. In any case, he doesn’t seem fazed by the fact that his findings often diverge from what “we” might plausibly be said to think. In other words, he ignores the fact that even if we have the same concept, we might have radically different conceptions of it—radically different from what he takes to have learned by our “possessing” the concept. At some point, this radical variation might well entail that we don’t possess a univocal concept of sexual perversion at all, in which case, the whole exercise seems to collapse like a conceptual house of cards.

Second, he doesn’t tell us what is to be learned by the sheer fact of concept-possession, and it obviously doesn’t follow that if ‘we’ have a concept, then unpacking the concept gives us a truth-tracking account of the phenomenon to which the concept refers.  Once we ‘unpack’ a concept, we need a further argument to show that the content we’ve unpacked tracks the truth. Nagel gives us nothing of the sort, but writes as though what he’s saying does track the truth—except when, on an ad hoc basis, he wants to express tentativeness about a given claim.

Third, Nagel pays virtually no attention to the fact that sexual perversion is part of a network of related concepts, and that analysis of the analysandum requires analysis of some of those other conceptsBack in the day, conceptual analysis required the identification of the genus and differentia of the analysandum. That approach may no longer be au courant (and may not have been in 1969), but it has the merit of clarifying how concepts relate to one another (and identifying the ones that do). Nagel makes a gesture at analyzing sexual perversion as a species of perversion–that’s the point of the hunger-sex analogy discussed belowbut it’s only a gesture, and not a particularly successful of informative one. More importantly, Nagel tries to offer an analysis of “sexual perversion” that leans heavily on the assumption that fetishes are perversions but offers no analysis of a fetish (cf. what he says about shoe fetishes, p. 39). That turns out to be a vexed issue.

Nagel’s platitudes about perversion

Now, to the second set of methodological issues—what Nagel takes for granted.

First, it’s both interesting and relevant that Nagel’s platitudes are no longer platitudinous. That they’re not suggests that they were never platitudes in the first place, and suggests, as well, that it won’t do simply to lay out a list of platitudes and insist that that’s what they are. Nagel fails to grant the possibility of disagreement about his platitudes, and in so doing, practically guarantees that his analysis will end up begging the question. A list of platitudes either has to be argued for or described as stipulative. If it’s argued-for, and the arguments are disputable (as they will likely be), the list can’t be that platitudinous. On the other hand, if the list is stipulative, the analysis that follows will lack normative force against those who reject the stipulations. Nagel’s platitudes are purely stipulative, but he (problematically) treats them as though they were self-evidently true. They may be true, but they’re not self-evident.

My hunch is that Nagel’s list of candidate perversions is taken almost verbatim from a textbook of abnormal psychology– omitting homosexuality, which would have appeared as a “paraphilia” in most textbooks of abnormal psychology circa 1969. Though he cites no such textbook, I find it striking that Nagel’s list of perversions corresponds almost verbatim to the list of paraphilias one typically finds in such textbooks, down to the use of the same textbook terminology, along with philosophically souped-up accounts of the paraphilias themselves. I noticed this because I happen, coincidentally, to be taking a course on psychopathology, and reading the second edition of Beidel, Bulik, and Stanley’s textbook, Abnormal Psychology: the similarities between Nagel’s list and the textbook one are obvious. The same thing is true of the section on paraphilias in DSM 5: Nagel’s list of perversions parallels the list there. (I’m assuming that the language of abnormal psychology has been relevantly consistent since 1969.)

The interesting (and somewhat absurd) thing here concerns the treatment of inanimate objects as objects of sexual desire. In 1969, Nagel was willing to treat all sexual interaction with inanimate objects as fetishistic and perverted, and was willing to regard that judgment as a foundational platitude for the analysis. Fast-forward to the present, and DSM 5’s “diagnostic criteria” for “fetishistic disorder (302.81)” make an ad hoc exception for “devices specifically designed for the purposes of tactile genital stimulation (e.g., vibrator)” (DSM 5, p. 700). Strictly speaking, this implies that if you use a vibrator for six months, you’re normal, but if you hump a pillow for six months, you have a “pillow-specified fetishistic disorder.” (Six months is the DSM-approved cut-off for a fetish.)

To state the obvious: DSM 5’s so-called “diagnostic criteria” fail to come to grips with the fact that in the current socio-economic environment, you can “specifically design” anything “for purposes of tactile genital stimulation,” and thereby evade the diagnostic criteria for having a fetishistic disorder essentially by fiat. As long as the inanimate object that you’re having sex with has specifically been designed for that purpose, commmodified, marketed, and consumed by lots of other people—you’re OK. If not, you’re a sexual weirdo. I’m not a Marxist, but I find it amusing that under American capitalism, something ceases to be a psychiatric disorder once you commodify it and develop a market for it; if there’s no market for it, you’re on your own, and it becomes a fetish. So Lenin was wrong: it’s ad hocracy, not imperialism, that’s the highest stage of capitalism.

It’s also worth noting that Nagel arguably omits some platitudes, so that he ends up with an analysis of ‘sexual perversion’ that seems to flout what many people would regard as platitudes about the concept’s relation to preference and judgment. For one thing, we don’t learn until the very end of the paper that he doesn’t take all sexual perversions to be immoral when voluntarily acted on. In fact, he thinks that when faced between the option of acting on a perversion or abstaining from sex, perversion can be preferable to abstinence. This is to treat abstinence itself as a kind of Super Perversion. Since Nagel seems to regard masturbation as perhaps a mild perversion, perhaps he means that masturbation, though perverse, is to be preferred to abstinence, which is really perverse. But he doesn’t argue for that, and doesn’t say it, either. It’s entirely consistent with his view to say that if your choices are bestiality or abstinence, you should choose bestiality. More charitably, it’s consistent with his view to say that if your choices are casual sex or abstinence, it’s obvious that you should opt for casual sex. But what’s obvious is that that preference-ordering is not obvious—a platitude that never makes it into the analysis.

If we’re going to make stipulations at the outset, wouldn’t it make sense to stipulate that if x is a perversion, then either pro tanto x ought not to be indulged in, or x ought not to be indulged in, full stop? The convoluted coda with which Nagel ends the paper flouts any intelligible idea of an analysis that intends to explicate sexual perversion by way of moral or psychological platitudes about it. If anything is a platitude about “sexual perversion,” it’s that a person with an inclination for one ought to do what he or she can to avoid indulging it.

The hunger-sex analogy

To show that sexuality has a complex psychological structure, Nagel offers an interesting analysis of the structure of hunger. His main point is that if we can identify clear cases of gastronomical perversions, that shows that hunger is more than a simple biological drive, and something similar applies, mutatis mutandis, to sexuality. On the whole, I agree with his claims, but some of what he says misfires, and he seems to underestimate how much work is being done by the “mutatis mutandis” in the previous sentence. Consider this claim, offered in passing:

Hunger and eating, like sex, serve a biological function and also play a significant role in our inner lives. Note that there is little temptation to describe as perverted an appetite for substances that are not nourishing: we should probably not consider someone appetites perverted if he liked to eat paper, sand, wood, or cotton. Those are merely rather odd and very unhealthy tastes; they lack the psychological complexity that we expect of perversions. (Coprophilia, being already a sexual perversion, may be disregarded.) (p. 41)

This passage isn’t central to Nagel’s analysis, but the obvious handwaving involved draws attention to Nagel’s propensity for authoritative-sounding handwaving, and doesn’t inspire confidence in the claims he tosses off in a similarly authoritative tone of voice.

Contrary to Nagel, there is a strong temptation to describe as perverted an appetite for substances that are not nourishing. At Nicomachean Ethics VII.5, Aristotle famously pairs sexual and gastronomical perversions, describing them both as “bestial,” and acknowledging (presciently) that many such conditions are psychiatric diseases with a biological etiology.  More recently, in her book Falling into the Fire, the psychiatrist Caroline Montross discusses the case of a woman who commits self-injury by swallowing sharp-edged household objects (e.g., nails, light bulbs, a steak knife). It’s obvious that the compulsion in question is both perverted and psychologically complex. Puzzlingly, Nagel brings up gastronomical perversions, but doesn’t discuss the most obvious cases—anorexia, bulimia, etc. I get the sense that he doesn’t discuss them because they seem too “biological” to fit his account. But that, in turn, suggests that the account is itself defective.

Nagel asserts in passing that “we” tend to prefer that our food be passive and controllable, claiming that “the only animals we eat live are helpless mollusks” (p. 41). But an obvious competing explanation for the general tendency may be biological rather than psychological: it’s not that we want (for psychological reasons) that our food be passive in our mouths, but that (for biological reasons) we don’t want a living thing to injure us while it’s inside us. It’s true that we can’t eat cows, chicken, or sheep while they’ve alive, but that commonsense fact doesn’t really support the psychological point Nagel is making. Anyway, mollusks aside, people do eat insects, frogs, octupi, and fish that are alive; those facts don’t easily fit his analysis, but he doesn’t mention them.

I don’t understand the parenthetical at the end of the quoted passage. Nagel is discussing gastronomical perversions. Coprophilia is not a gastronomical perversion, so it’s unclear why it would come up. Coprophagia is a gastronomical perversion, but it seems an obvious counter-example to what Nagel is saying about gastronomical perversions. Is Nagel conflating coprophilia with coprophagia? Or is he suggesting that coprophagia is just an instance of coprophilia, so that an analysis of coprophagia can be given via an analysis of coprophagia? In the first case, Nagel’s claim would just rest on a simple error, but I doubt that’s the right explanation. In the second case, Nagel’s claim is both under-argued and ad hoc. Why is every instance of coprophagia coprophilic in the sexual sense? It’s not obvious. In any case, why can’t corophagia be simultaneously a gastronomic and a sexual perversion? No matter how we slice it (so to speak), it seems to me that coprophagia is an obvious, straightforward counter-example to Nagel’s claim that gastronomical perversions are not essentially related to the biological function of eating.

The underlying issue here is that Nagel wants to decouple sex from its biological basis, partly because he wants to distinguish his view of sexuality from the orthodox Catholic one that makes procreation central. He doesn’t offer much of an argument against the Catholic-type view, but more importantly, he doesn’t see the non sequitur involved in decoupling sex from procreation, and then concluding that it ought to be decoupled from biology altogether. Sex may be a complex psychological appetite, but if so, it’s a bio-psychological one, and we need to keep both the biological and the psychological features of the appetite in mind. Incidentally, despite my own rejection of the Catholic view, I find what Nagel (elliptically) says against it irritatingly obtuse and tendentious:

The fact that sexual desire is a feeling about other persons may encourage a pious view of its psychological content—that it is properly the expression of some other attitude, like love, and that when it occurs by itself it is incomplete or subhuman….But sexual desire is complicated enough without having to be linked to anything else as a condition for phenomenological analysis. Sex may serve various functions—economic, social, altruistic—but it also has its own content as a relation between persons. (p. 42)

Nagel’s ironic use of the word “pious” poisons the well. Though his real target is sex-as-aiming-at-procreation, he manages to make sex-as-expressive-of-love a collateral damage of his clumsy attack on it. It’s obviously a non-sequitur to say that because sex is complicated, it cannot possibly be more complicated than the complications Nagel intends to discuss in a single journal article. The last sentence begs the question: Nagel dismisses without argument the possibility that love is a privileged part of “the psychological content” of sexual desire.

In my next post, I’ll discuss Nagel’s claims regarding “the psychological content” of sexual desire.

6 thoughts on “Nagel on sexual perversion (Part 2 of 3): methodological issues

  1. I read the Nagel piece rather quickly, but had (in unarticulated form) some of the criticisms you articulate.

    You are right that Nagel simply misses that one of the central “platitudes” of the concept SEXUAL PERVERSION is that one has a defeasible duty (and therefore very strong moral reason, with genuine normative force) not to do things that are sexually perverted. In effect, he has provided the rudiments of an account of something a bit different: of what it is to have motivations and perform actions that are radically at odds with the basic *psychological* (not biological) function of sex (for creatures like us). This proto-account (which is an abstraction from the ordinary concept) is explanatorily helpful, but not quite what is advertised. (It is helpful substantively, not just formally or schematically: I think Nagel gets it right that sex, for creatures like us, has a distinctive sort of interpersonal, motivational function that would put us in a certain relationship of mutual recognition, concern, respect, etc. However, I’d start with what is involved, motivationally and behaviorally, in being pair-bonding mammals. The language of mutual recognition, and layers of recognizing being recognized, captures some important information, but is vague because it does not specify what needs to be recognized and responded to if sex is to do its psychological work in us well. “Nice boobs” may not cut it, but “I deeply understand your deepest concerns, insecurities, fears, values, goals, and conception of the kind of person you want to be” is probably not necessary.)

    I also agree that Nagel would have done well to first consider the concept of something (an appetite, a practice, etc.) being perverted (or perverted by someone engaged in it). The kind of functional characterization of sexual perversion* (sexual perversion with the moral upshot bracketed) that I just glossed indicates the functional direction that I think such an account/analysis should go in. (Alternatively, one might simply speak of processes and evolutionary, biological, or psychological “norms” that “apply to” it. This is not wrong, I just suspect that the deeper account is in terms of natural ends and characteristic means of the various sorts.)

    All in all, I’d say Nagel was groping in the right direction. I wonder how much follow-up there has been on these promising ideas in the philosophical literature.


    • To respond to the last point first: As it happens, I just did a Philosopher’s Index search on the phrase “sexual perversion,” and got 22 results (or rather, 21, excluding Nagel’s own paper). Of these, I’d say that maybe 9 are directly relevant; others are historical discussions (of Kant, Plato, Simone de Beauvoir, de Sade, etc.) Here’s what seem to me the most prima facie promising:

      Igor Primoratz, “Sexual Perversion,” American Philosophical Quarterly 34.2 (April 1997).
      Graham Priest, “Sexual Perversion,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 75.3 (September 1997).
      Kristie Miller, “On the Concept of Sexual Perversion,” Phil Quarterly 60.241 (October 2010)
      Robert Gray, “Sex and Sexual Perversion,” J Phil 75 (April 1978)
      Robert Solomon, “Sexual Paradigms,” J Phil 71 (June 1974)
      Rockney Jacobsen, “Arousal and the Ends of Desire,” Phil and Phen Research 53.3 (September 1993)

      Roger Scruton has some interesting comments on Nagel in particular in his book, Sexual Desire.

      I was going to discuss this in the next installment, but since you mention it, I’ll say it now. You say:

      I think Nagel gets it right that sex, for creatures like us, has a distinctive sort of interpersonal, motivational function that would put us in a certain relationship of mutual recognition, concern, respect, etc.

      The problem, though, is that there is a mismatch between Nagel’s “phenomenological” approach to the subject, and the preceding conclusion. “Phenomenology” is really just a hifallutin word for “analytically sophisticated introspective description.” Suppose that I introspect and describe what I see “there.” What I see is that my sexuality involves a distinctive sort of interpersonal relation that involves mutual recognition, etc.

      OK, but what exactly does that prove–about, say, you or anyone else? There just seems like an obvious is-ought gap here. There’s no way to get normativity out of a description of my introspective life–unless the person giving the description assumes that there is something normative about being like him. It’s as though someone began an analysis of “sexual perversion” by saying,

      OK, let’s assume that I’m perfectly normal. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s describe how I conceive of sex. Here’s the description. OK, now that we’ve got that straight, well, clearly: any deviations from that are perversions.

      That just seems hopeless as an approach to the topic. Any successful follow-up on Nagel would have to find a way out of the phenomenological circle.


      • Yes, phenomenological evidence is at best weak evidence in favor of this “functional” hypothesis (and maybe Nagel’s hypothesis is not precisely this, but rather simply the idea that relevant sorts of norms apply whether this is cashed out in functional terms or not). I’d put it out there as an intuitively plausible hypothesis (and presumably my own first-personal, introspective evidence for/against would not be the only evidence for/against that goes into making the hypothesis intuitively appealing). Establishing this hypothesis as the best explanation for the relevant sorts of norms (and their content – that is what is specifically at issue, here) would take quite a lot more.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. And thanks for digging up those references for my lazy ass, Irfan. If I have time to read more, I’ll probably take a look at the 1993 PPR piece. I don’t know the author, but Anglo-American philosophy has gotten so much better over the past several decades that I think something fairly recent in a very top journal like this is the way to go…


    • No problem–I actually didn’t do any extra work to dig those references up–I printed them out a week ago because a student of mine is doing a senior thesis on BDSM, and just happened to have them in front of me when I saw your comment. Just in time for Valentine’s Day and “Fifty Shades of Gray”!


  3. Pingback: Nagel on sexual perversion (part 3 of 3): phenomenology, normativity, and verification | Policy of Truth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s