Man-woman: the original difference

The purpose of this short reflection is mainly to ask a basic question: does the man-woman difference have anything to do with philosophy or is it only of concern to the human sciences on the one hand and theology on the other?

We can certainly reply that the difference is a philosophical question if we can show that it is not exclusively a biological factor, or a simple historical-cultural construct. It is in fact rooted in the constitutive make-up of the human being who in substance exists as either man or woman. We cannot adopt an abstract dualistic attitude that tries to separate the spiritual from the corporeal dimension of the person. The latter is integrally marked by sexual difference through which the body is that of a man or of a woman. Reflection on this difference is not a chapter apart from that of philosophy. It should, to be realistic, traverse the entire body of anthropology which cannot make declarations without taking into account that this basic fact is inseparable from human existence in the world.

The initial question concerning the philosophical interpretation of difference thus becomes a question on how we can articulate, on the same level, the unity of identical human nature and the duality of separate sexes. The difference is certainly ‘original’, as we mentioned before, because it is inseparable from existence, but, on the other hand, it is not at all ontological. It involves two beings who share the same humanity. This presents us with the paradox of a reality, i.e. humanity, which is ‘one’ and ‘two’ at the same time.

It is a quandary with ancient roots that has characterised thinking throughout the ages, at least in the western philosophical tradition. It asks how it is possible to reconcile unity and multiplicity without the relationship between them immediately becoming a hierarchical subordination between entities that, in being different, cannot have identical value. In other words, the question is that of the relation between the subject and the other who asks to be recognised for him/herself without being reduced to a model of which he/she would be a deformed copy.

Historically, as we know, women were considered to be poor copies of men, as men were regarded to be the prototype of humanity. This vision did not give justice either to women, who were thought to be inferior, or to men, who became prisoners of a loneliness that excluded any true reciprocal relational nature. The unity of human nature should therefore remain the starting point for any anthropological reflection. However, we need to become aware that it is intrinsically dual and that therefore any affirmation concerning the person is in reality about two persons, man and woman, who have the exact same dignity, and one cannot be reduced to the other.

When we state the question in these terms, it is evident that neither of the two can constitute the model of humanity to which the other should conform. On the contrary, humanity is as it is precisely because it is concretely incarnated in the separate living experience of each of the two. In this way, we have the basics for a deeper and non-reductive understanding of the man-woman relationship. It is in shared human identity that the possibility of a relationship is built, one that is capable of involving the whole person. At the same time, because of difference, each of the two can receive enrichment from the other that would be otherwise inaccessible.

As we said at the beginning, this is only an introductory reflection that does not claim to be a philosophical treatise on the topic of the difference between the sexes. It is simply intended to place foundations that will make way for further studies that will not allow reductive and partial perspectives to express the human reality - identical yet different - of man and woman.

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