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Scholz On Feminism: Waves Or Themes?

February 21, 2017 Leave a comment

There are often considered to be, depending on who you talk to of course, three waves of feminism (with a fourth potentially being entered into as we speak). Although Scholz doesn’t particularly like the delineation of feminism into waves (preferring themes instead), let us begin nonetheless with a cursory look at them before moving onto the terminology she does like.

Wave One

This wave stems from a post-Enlightenment era (seventeenth to twentieth centuries) where interest in liberty became prominent, and while interest in women’s rights existed prior to this time, there was a greater movement toward social change in the 1700’s due to the greater philosophical milieu. Scholz states that the abolitionist movement in the United States furthered the feminist cause there by providing forums and rhetoric for public discussions on the role of women in society, she states:  “… the first wave focused on women gaining status as human beings with full civil, intellectual, social, economic, and legal rights…” (p. 6) . It is here that what is typically called the “first wave” of feminism began. It is important to note that the feminist thought of this time is largely located to the United States with some influence from France and runs roughly until 1960,  there was an apparent ebb of feminist thought leading up to the 60’s which became reinvigorated and became known as “second wave” feminism.

Wave Two

This wave was spurred by “civil rights activism as well as student and union uprisings” (p. 7) and came to look at different forms of oppression, namely that women’s bodies are “sites of domination, stereotyping, violence…” (p. 7). It was in this wave that women came to unite, under their shared experiences of oppression, to form a political force for positive social change. Women would no longer be excluded from the public sphere, they would be involved in discussions about what to do with their own bodies including all forms of reproductive rights (abortion, birth, contraception, and honest, medically reliable information about such), and to remove the stigma around these issues, even celebrating them. More than this, violence against women, domestic abuse and rape was openly discussed, defined and argued.

Wave Three

This wave began in the early nineties roughly and problematizes many issues of the second wave by moving away from unity to celebrate diversity, “not only in identity but subjectivity and thought itself.” (p. 7) Scholz notes this wave finds oppression in thought, language, and culture often using mainstream and alternative cultural theories to challenge dominant thought. This is part of what makes third wave so problematic for some, in that it doesn’t address such obvious concerns as the second wave, but rather challenges “the very structures of consciousness [that] have been colonized by oppression” (p. 7) . There is also much disagreement about the topics, issues and methodologies to use (perhaps stemming from the great philosophical milieu of postmodernism that we find ourselves in) by feminists in the third wave, or even on the use of “theory” as too “totalizing or universalizing” instead choosing PoMo terms like “narratives” to unsettle taken for granted metaphysical categories like “woman”. (p. 107)


Before we move forward we should state that Scholz does find the waves approach helpful insofar as it “indicates a project not yet completed” (p. 6), but she also believes it fails to cover the origins of feminist thought or “feminist praxis” (that is practice distinguished from theory).

The thematic approach is another way to think about the waves of feminism. In this approach, the metaphorical waves are concentric circles rather than generational moments. Consider, for instance, that economic and legal inequalities based on gender are often most visible forms of oppression of women. If we think addressing these as analogous to the first circle formed when a raindrop hits the pond, we could see that there will likely be many reverberations, some more predictable than others, and all reliant on each other. But there will also likely be countless other raindrops all over the pond. The concentric circles of all these drops blend and merge. (Scholz, 2010, p. 8)

To Scholz then the first wave focuses on efforts to obtain legal rights and formal equality, the second wave expands on these goals by elaborating on and providing a wider analysis of oppression and how this affects identity and agency. The third wave moves to the structures of consciousness and language to see how oppression is fluent there and how it might be fought. (p. 8)

She offers a few justifications as to why the thematic model should be preferred:

(1): She states that a chronological model misconstrues the history of feminism as linear and singular, rather than pluralistic, multiple, and varied. To Scholz there are many schools of thought within feminism, approaches too, a global feminism is diluted when looked at generationally.

(2): Generational models seem to be class and race based, as in they trace the history of white, middle class feminism, Scholz sees it as a mistake to disregard the anti-racism movements that helped open doors for feminism (and feminists). “Women of all nationalities, social classes, races, and ehtnicities, have been engaged in the struggle for gender justice.” (p. 8)

(3): The wave or generational model seems to assume that as one wave ends, so do the problems of that wave, and with the solutions of the previous wave in toe, we move cleanly onto the next issue. The example Scholz uses is that of legal rights, every wave aims to maintain (and potentially improve) achieved legal rights

(4): The wave model can, according to Schulz privilege a particular view of feminism and its history. “The chronological waves most likely resemble the development of feminism in the United States and Western Europe. Other feminists, other feminisms, other movements around the globe would certainly order things differently – or even point out that so many of the issues pertaining to separate waves must be tackled simultaneously.” (p. 9)

(5): Finally Scholze states that thinking in terms of waves promotes a misleading idea about progress, an assumption she (and many PoMo’s) feels needs to be challenged:

… part of the project of feminism in general is to continually critique itself. At least part of that is a recognition that some of the causes we fight for or the arguments we make may actually be counterproductive for the overall feminist movement, exclusive of some women, or otherwise fail to account for some of the needs of some women. (Scholz, 2010, p. 9)

She does note however that this isn’t to say feminism hasn’t made significant advances or that the situation for women isn’t improving.


Scholz. S.J. (2010). Feminism. London, England. One World Productions.

Categories: Uncategorized

Notes on Mensch’s Book: ‘Knowing and Being- A Postmodern Reversal’ -Pt 1: (Post)Modernity And The Self.

This book. Boy, has it been a challenge for me. Partly because I’m very rusty, partly because it’s working in a field that I have not extensively studied. That said, let us try to muddle through it anyway. Firstly I might start with Mensch’s deconstruction and analysis of modernism.

For Mensch, the case for modernity sits largely with Descartes, to the point that Mensch thinks Cartesian principles are so ingrained in modern thought so as to be a bias for modern thinkers. The analysis of modernity lies in how it is prescriptive, not descriptive. From Descartes to Kant to Marx it applies rules for how things are and should be and anything that sits outside of this prescription has no meaning. More than this, and problematically Mensch would say, it draws its prescriptive norms from the subject. With each new attempt, and failure, at drawing such norms from the subject Mensch sees a problem with “the project itself, in the very attempt to explain the world in terms of subjective performance.” (p.2)

Where we might like to start is with Enlightenment thought, particularly with Descartes in which we are shown a brief look at Cartesian doubt:

In the first Meditation, he [Descartes] considers the possibilities that everything we now sense and experience is actually a dream and that “an evil spirit, not less clever and deceitful than powerful” prevents us from realizing this (…). To banish this enchanter Descartes searches for something absolutely certain, something he cannot doubt. He finds the “I” or subject of the “I think”. Even if we doubt every object of this subject’s thought, we cannot doubt the subject itself. It becomes ens certissimum, the being whose certainty is such that it can stand as a norm, a standard against which to judge all other claims to knowledge. (Mensch, 1996, p.2)

Mensch moves next Kant with his attempt to ground certainty on the self through his synthesizing subject:

For Kant, the self is such a ground through its synthesis. (…)  Synthesis is its action of connecting perception with perception so that, through their ordering, we have an extended experience of some object – an object shows itself as one and the same in different perceptions. Given that the syntheses yield the experience of an object, judgements that embody their rules naturally apply to this object. “A priori” certain (certain “before” experience) naturally attaches to them. In Kant’s words, it is inherent in our “assuming that the object must conform to our knowledge,” the conditions of such knowledge being those of synthesis (…). (Mensch, 1996, p.3)

To Mensch both Descartes’ and Kant’s work have a major fault, which lies with the subject as the basis for normativity. With Descartes the problem becomes: if all objects of attention can be doubted, but the “attending self” cannot be, we could ask how this works.  The subject being appealed to is not an object (like other objects), but rather something that thinks about and directs itself to objects:

As such, Descartes attempt to turn it [the subject] into a “thinking thing” – an entity whose perception can stand as the norm for the perception of other objects – is highly problematical. To the point that we cannot doubt it, it escapes any characterization that could give it some objective content. (Emphasis mine, Mensch, 1996, p.3)

Part of this has to do with the modern notion of the self, which is problematic for Mensch due to the idea of the self being a continuous thing, a unity, when in it is not clear that it is so, and if it is not so, if there are a multitude of ‘self’s’, how could it possibly be the grounding for normativity?

The same criticism is leveled at Kant, when the author asks if we can have certainty about the synthesizing subject, he would say we do not. The reason we do not is because the synthesizing subject is not a result of such synthesis as applied to objects, as he states it is what connects perception, what Mensch calls “the uncombined combiner” (p. 4), a noumenal subject, that is, a subject that is unknown and beyond our experience.

Postmodern Reversal of the Self

Mensch’s view of the self, which he borrows from Aristotle, is that of an openness to the world, as opposed to a definite thing. Mind is defined by its action, that before it thinks, before it grasps an object, it has no existence:

It is “potentially identical with the objects of its thought,” indeed, this potentiality is its openness. But, he adds, it “is actually nothing until it thinks”. This means that it has no inherent content, that all such content is derived from the objects it thinks. This is why the attempt to grasp it as an object is bound to fail. Objects have definite content. A subject, however, has content only in its temporary identity with what is not itself, that is, what it is transparent or open to. (Mensch, 1996, p.4)

It is the self’s adaptability, its openness to the world, that makes it appear to support every normative structure from “the Kantian to the Freudian” (p. 4), but Mensch argues it is the last place we should look for said normativity. It is open to norms, takes them on as it is shaped by its environment, as such it is the world itself that becomes the grounding for the subject, not the other way around. “Rather than being something that in its singularity yields universal norms, subjectivity is pluralized by the situations it finds itself in.” (p. 5)

From this reversal Mensch notes that it is in fact time that becomes the basis for content for the subject. With the world as its grounding, time acts as the unifying connector for the series of subjective processes of the self. To Mensch time itself has no content, as such it exhibits every kind of content: “it’s moments are empty containers – or rather, placeholders – of possible contents.” (p. 5) This conclusions however opens us up to a perplexing relativism:

If we really hold that subjectivity is temporality, then the implication is that it has as many forms as time has. This means we can speak of subjectivity as sheer nowness, as temporal flowing, as the forms of objective synthesis, as our being-there in and through other persons, and even as the unidirectional flow of objective causality (the flow that allows us to suppose that our own inner relations are subject to causal laws). (Mensch, 1996, p.5)

To Mensch there are different forms of subjectivity, exhibited in different actions such as when solving a mathematical equation versus playing in a musical ensemble.

And it is here I might leave it, as Mensch goes on further to tie time to the subject, comparing his notions back to Kant. This is all well and good, and might support his argument further, but space and your interest is limited.

Look, I’m not sure I really grasp this stuff, its convoluted and difficult and may require many readings. Give it a chance and do some of your own research, I’ll attempt to muddle through it further at a later date.


Mensch, J.R. (1996). Knowing and Being- A Postmodern Reversal. University Parl, PA. The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Categories: Philosophy, Postmodernism

Notes on Victor Reppert’s Book: ‘C.S. Lewis’ Dangerous Idea’- Pt1: Criticisms of Naturalism.

April 18, 2016 6 comments

Reppert’s book focuses primarily on naturalism, using various rationalistic¹ arguments against such in an attempt to promote theistic conceptions of the mind, and the world (namely, that God, as defined by Christianity exists). I want to generally share some notes on this today, firstly we might want to see how Reppert defines and treats naturalism:

Naturalism is the view that the natural world is all there is and that there are no supernatural beings. Whatever takes place in the universe takes place through natural processes and not as a result of supernatural causation. The most popular kind of naturalism is known as materialism or physicalism. Materialism maintains that the basic substances of the physical world are pieces of matter, and physicalism maintains that those pieces of matter are properly understood by the discipline of physics. (Reppert, 2003, p.46-7)

He notes that there might be some slight differences in naturalism and materialism (relating to the status of non-matter linguistic structures such as propositions for example), but argues for the sake of his purposes that anything counts as naturalistic if it:

… posits a closed “basic level of analysis,” and if all other levels have the characteristics they have in virtue of those the basic level has. If the base level is mechanistic but is not composed of matter, then we would have naturalism without materialism. If we have a basic level that is composed of matter but it is not to be described by physicalism (I’m not sure how that’s possible), then we have materialism without physicalism. However, if the argument that I am proposing works against physicalism, it will work against nonphysicalist forms of naturalism as well. (Reppert, 2003, p. 47)

He continues by way of example, and as a bridge to his argument, how a purely physical universe, defined by science as starting with the big bang, containing material substances that act without purpose (being based on the laws of the universe) come together, guided by evolution, to further propagate the species. Reppert states that the issue for him likes in our brains, which use “rational inference”, but if they are created and driven by evolution, as they seemingly are on a physicalist’s worldview, they must also be explained at the most basic level of analysis. But, he asks, the most basic level of analysis is physics, and rational inference does not operate at this level, and thus we have our first problem with explanations proposed by physicalism.

Here he turns to secular philosophers Keith Parsons and Daniel Dennett to try and tease out what exactly is meant by the term “most basic level of analysis”. Parsons states that to explain material bodies, we can look at more fundamental bodies to explain them, and even more fundamental bodies to explain them. But, the problem is we must hit a rock bottom, or fundamental explanation (if we want to avoid absurdities like an infinite regress). Parsons doesn’t see this as a problem at all:

At present, rock bottom would be the powers and liabilities of such entities as quarks and electrons… to say that there is no explanation why a quark, given that it is a fundamental particle, has the powers and liabilities it possess, seems tantamount to saying that there is no explanation of why a quark is a quark. Surely, anything with different powers and liabilities would not be a quark. (Parsons, 1989, p. 91-2 quoted in Reppert, 2003, p. 48)

With this Reppert has shown that fundamental explanations within physicalist philosophy are flawed, that is, flawed in the sense that under the physicalist view we have properties (rational inference for example) that need explanation, that currently do not have one. To Reppert naturalistic explanations are fundamentally “nonpurposive” ones:

For if some purposive or intentional explanation can be given and no further analysis can be given in nonpurposive and nonrational terms, then reason must be viewed as a fundamental cause in the universe, and this strikes me as a huge concession to position such as theism, idealism and pantheism, which maintain that reasons are fundamental to the universe.(Reppert, 2003, p. 51)

More than just nonpurposive, naturalistic explanations at the most basic level occur either out of natural necessity or chance (p. 87), which problematizes the question of rational inference even more. Do we have free will under such a system? Could we? How can we make purposive, rational decisions when at our most fundamental level we are a closed system, based on random physics?

… it is my contention that a consistent physicalism leads to the conclusion that there are no mental states with propositional content, and if such states were to exist they would be epiphenonmenal, that is, without any causal efficacy. What is more, there is certainly the possibility that what is conducive to discovering the truth might not be conducive to survival and vice versa. We night survive better not knowing the truth but by believing just those falsehoods that would be most conducive to survival. (Reppert, 2003, p. 89)

Citing Dennett the author asks what purpose could there possibly be in a physicalist view of the world, one in which rational inference seems unlikely or is at the very least, problematic? To quote Dennett:

Darwin explains a world of final causes and teleological laws with a principle that is independent of “meaning” or “purpose”. [Evolutionary theory] assumes a world that is absurd in the existentialist’s sense of the term: not ludicrous or pointless, and this assumption is a necessary condition for any non-question-begging account of purpose. (Dennett, 1976, p.171 quoted in Reppert, 2003, p.49)

Reppert states that under the physicalist view the only “purpose” one can speak of is that of the function of something, and a Darwinian one at that, for example the function of the heart is to pump blood. More than this, to Reppert “meaning” and “reasoning” must also have similar explanations, that is in the final analysis the explanation must be mechanistic and nonpurposive (and as we’ve seen, borne out of physical necessity or chance).

Reppert has more to say on naturalism, materialism and physicalism, but for now, lest you become bored, let us leave it here for today. If you’re looking for a quick response to some of this, check out my blog on Nielsen’s naturalism, here).


Reppert, V. (2003). C.S Lewis’ Dangerous Idea. Downers Grove IL.  Intervarsity Press.

1: That is, the use of reason as a grounding for knowledge rather than, say, experience.

Notes On Nicholas Rescher’s ‘A System Of Pragmatic Idealism, Vol. II’: Values – Rationality And Cultivation Hierarchies.

February 24, 2015 Leave a comment

Rescher’s ultimate goal in this work is to outline the significance of values and evaluation in his overall theme of philosophical idealism, but more than this he focuses on values because of their centrality to understanding, both of ourselves and the world we live in.

[His book] It’s key thesis – which is argued pragmatically from various angles and points of departure – is that rationality as such and in general is bound up with the theory and practice of rational evaluation. A rational being must view in the light of this rationality not only its beliefs but it’s values as well. Valuation is an inherent part of the life of reason – moral evaluation included. For such a perspective to make sense it must show that value is not merely a matter of taste… Evaluation must be acknowledged in its objective, rational mode as dealing with facts of the matter (albeit evaluative rather than descriptive facts). (Rescher, 1993, Introduction)

And it’s in this section that the focus of this particular blog will be, after all the ‘subject/object split’ has been a problem for philosophers for centuries, made even more problematic when we move from the realism of simply coming to know what exists external to us (which has its own problems), to the axiological nature of ‘what values should be interpreted from what exists?’ Rescher’s project aims at discovering how one might go about combining two seemingly in-congruent positions, (1) the claim to objective (one might assume this to mean transcendent, or perhaps absolute) values and valuation, and (2) the subjective versions of such. But, how can a theory of rationality, especially regarding something as seemingly relative as values, claim to be transcendent to the subject perceiving such? What is a value, but what we make it to be, based on our specific cultural, historical epoch (as Foucault might say, see here and here)?

Rescher begins broadly with rationality, which he describes as the “intelligent pursuit of appropriate objectives – of proceeding in what we do with cogent reasons.” (p.3) As such to him rationality has two aspects, and its in these differences that we can see the germ of how one might separate the relativism of the subjects particular valuation from the overall process of valuation that applies to us all.

  1.  The personal/private/particular: to Rescher at this level of rationality what is rational or not turns on what is so for the agent, “duly considering his or her own personal situation and circumstances” (p. 3). More than this however this level also relies on a host of other subjective rules, such as: “the agent’s idiosyncratic information, experience, opportunities, capabilities, talents, objectives, aspirations, needs and wants.” (p.3) Inclusive in the list Rescher notes is not just the outward situational aspects but also the inner states related to a specific persons psychology or physiology.
  2. The impersonal/public/universal: this level relies on advisable standards that are “person indifferent and objectively cogent for anyone in those circumstances to proceed in a ‘rationally appropriate’ way…” (p.3) These standards fall at the highest level of abstraction, being general and unrestricted, meaning that what is rational for one person to do, would also be rational for anyone in the same position,

Rescher states this standard of rationality to be relatively trivial in nature, and that moreover this is how rationality is standardly conceived, but what exactly does it mean to be rational?

For a belief, action or evaluation to qualify as rational, the agent must (in theory at least) be in a position to give a “proper account” of it on whose basis others can see that “it is only right and proper” to resolve the issue in that way.” (Rescher, 1993, p.3)

To Rescher a rational act is such that a detached, intelligent observer could observe the facts of the matter (of someone else s particular choice) and be in a position to see that action as the rational thing to do even if they do not value the particular observed choice. To Rescher circumstances differ but the standards of rationality do not, and it’s in the very nature of rationality that this pertains: “It lies in the very meaning of the concept of rationality as such that if something is indeed the ‘rational thing to do’, then it must be possible in principle for anyone to recognize the rational sense of it once enough information is secured.” (p. 3) Moreover, the matter of good reasons and cogent grounds for action or belief is not something subjective, but rather is such that good reasons are good reasons for everyone, and thus objective.

It is important to note that just because there are standards of rationality, does not mean there is only one rational thing to do in a given situation, Rescher speaks of a rational resolution rather than the rational resolution to a given problem, meaning there might be a number of significantly reasonable options for a subject given a particular choice or situation.

Rescher recognizes all too well that the circumstantiality of reason contains “an unavoidable element of person relativity.” (p.4)

Our concrete rational commitments are indeed universal, but only circumstantially universal in a way that makes room for the variation of times, places, and the thousands of details of each individual and situation. (Rescher, 1993, p.4)

This speaks to the fact that what is rational for one to do or think hinges on the particulars of how one might be circumstanced, which will differ from person to person. Specifically Rescher notes that the subject acts rationally only when ones actions are subsumed under a universal principle of rationality that holds for everyone. (p.5)

This might seem to cloud the issue somewhat, after all, how can we have a standard of rationality that caters to the relativity of the subject, but which also pertains to us all? Moreover how can this standard have any meaning at all in light of such? Rescher answers this via his “cultivation hierarchies” in which he breaks rationality up into different “intermediate levels, or strata” of consideration in which the basic principles of rationality are broken up into general rational guidelines that eventually get more specific in nature, finally ending the particulars, which I will now share with you:

Display 1.1 Stratification Levels of the Norms of Rationality

  1. Characterizing aims of rationality. Rationality calls for the intelligent pursuit of appropriate objectives.

  2. Defining principles of rationality. The basic principles that delineate and specify rationality’s requirements. (For cognitive rationality, for example, the project at issue turns on the pursuit of truth and the achievement of correct answers to questions. It seeks “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”) These principles provide our criteria for assessing acceptability and adequacy of rational norms and standards of rational procedure.

  3. Governing norms and standards of rationality. Standards for appraising the “rules of the game” governing the rational transaction of affairs. (For cognitive rationality these norms are afforded by desiderata such as coherence, consistency, and simplicity.) These norms provide our criteria for assessing the acceptability and adequacy of our rules and practical procedures.

  4. Rules of rational procedure. Rules for the rational resolution of choices. (In the cognitive case, rules like modus ponens in deductive inference or trend extrapolation in inductive reference.) These rules constitute our criteria for assessing the rational acceptability and adequacy of particular resolutions.

  5. Rationally warranted rulings. Resolutions with respect to particular issues arising in particular concrete cases, such as: “Do (or accept) X in the existing circumstances.” (Rescher, 1993, p.8)

More simply Rescher notes it takes the format, (1): governing “finalities” (or governing principles), (2): implementing policies (guiding norms, desiderata etc), (3): methods of procedure (operating rules), (4): specific rulings. (p.8) As such from here we can use the example of medicine:

  1. Finalities (defining principles). “Maintaining health,” “curing illness and disease ” “restoring and maintaining normal bodily functioning,” “removing painful symptoms.” (Note that if these things are not at issue, then medicine is not at issue. An enterprise not concerned with any of these, whatever it may be, is not medicine.)

  2. Implementing norms, standards and criteria. “How is one to assess ‘health’?” “How is one to construe satisfactory ‘normality’?” “How is one to identify a ‘symptom’?” “Just what constitutes an ‘illness’?” (Note that for the Greeks, unlike ourselves, the idea of an illness without subject-experienced symptoms was scarcely conceivable. At this level there is already some room for variation.)

  3.  Rules and procedures. The modus operandi of medical practices – surgery or chiropractic treatment, drugs or psychotherapy, and the like. (These of course differ drastically from age to age and culture to culture.)

  4. Rationally warranted rulings. The specific interventions, prescriptions, and medical measures adopted in particular cases. (“Take two aspirin and get some rest.”) (Rescher, 1993, p.9)

Rescher notes that his strata start at the most abstract levels of uniformity and fixity, and that as we move down to the level of particular cases we gain more and more concrete detail, and with this detail brings variation.

Thus while the top-level is itself absolute and constant, there is “slack” at each step down the ladder, leaving (appropriate) room for an increasingly large element of variability and differentiation. (Rescher, 1993, p.9)

This might be enough for today’s purposes, that is to simply outline his basic thesis (and I say basic because we have barely begun to touch on it). In the next series I can delve deeper into what exactly his theory means and how he might defend it.


Rescher, N. (1993). A System Of Pragmatic Idealism, Volume II. The Validity of Values, a Normative Theory of Evaluative Rationality. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press.

Differentiation: Maintaining The Self In Relation: Sex – Part 3.

October 28, 2014 Leave a comment

Schnarch attempts in his work here to deny the old adage: “save the beauty in sex for marriage” (p. 71), he is attempting to expand awareness of the beauty of sex, by looking at our sexual potential, that is he wants to “take a deeply sex-positive stance by examining a superficially sex-positive philosophy.” (p. 71) He states that saying the above adage is like saying that the beauty of sex is in sex, as if you could extract it with the one you marry if only you have love and technical proficiency, and likewise destroy it if you share it with the wrong person.

Here’s my point: there’s no beauty in sexthe beauty is in people. You can’t save the beauty in sex, you have to put it in. We all develop inner beauty to varying degrees. Sex becomes beautiful when we bring our personal beauty to it. The issue isn’t simply who your partner is, whether you’re in love, or how good you can do it. It’s who you are. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 71)

Schnarch states that some of the problem comes from a common view of sexuality that we accept that make it difficult to live the above, that is: we often confuse genital prime with sexual prime. To Schnarch this mistakes a part for the whole, in that sexual prime has something to do body development, but sexual prime also has something to do with who you are as a person and that’s the authors point about needing to inject the beauty into sex: “if you’re interested in sex with intimacy there isn’t a seventeen-year-old alive who can keep up with a healthy sixty-year-old!” (p. 76) He asks us to meditate on that point, if intimacy is about disclosing yourself through sex, people who are more open to letting themselves be known are more likely to have more profound sexual experiences. A seventeen-year-old is going to get more erections and have shorter refractory periods than their older counterparts, but they are still establishing their masculinity states Schnarch, they are still developing emotionally. Think of that sixty-year-old, who has more “personhood”, that through the successes and failures of life know themselves, they may not like and accept everything about themselves but they’re on the path, Schnarch says they bring more “self” to sex, and the “differentiation to disclose themselves, unvarnished.” (p. 77)

Schnarch criticizes certain models of sex such as the reductionist “hormonal model” of sex by stating that hormones never determine when you have sex, who you have it with and what it means to you, and moreover he asks:

If our models for human sexual response have no component for intimacy or salience, how do we talk about sex having “meaning” without it sounding like conservative proselytizing or religious moralizing? If we can’t show our kids the dynamics of sexual desire or eroticism, how do we explain the sexual advantages of age and maturity? (Schnarch, 2009, p. 78)

Schnarch also criticizes what he calls the “piece of meat” model of sex, that is we have become fixated on as he states “tight buns”, and “flawless skin” as the “height of sexual attraction” (p. 79), we worship youth as the essence of eroticism, although he notes there’s no use in simply letting your body go as a response to this model, rather we could also focus on the emotional development that comes with increased sexual intimacy. But, with all this criticism what model does Schnarch himself employ? This he calls the “quantum model”, but what is it? The analogy Schnarch uses is to that of quantum physics and quantum theory which essentially studies “dynamic variables that specify a system’s behavior”, but more than that Schnarch’s quantum model offers a multilevel view of sexual functioning.

At its most basic, the quantum model explains how you function sexually – what’s required to make your genitals “work” and reach orgasm. But its real strength is helping people go beyond utilitarian genital function. At the limits of their sexual potential, humans are capable of bringing “high meaning” to sex and integrating sexuality and spirituality in mutually enhancing ways. In short the quantum model is easy to learn, and many people have used it to resolve sexual dysfunctions and explore their sexual potential. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 81)

Schnarch explains his thesis by starting with the physical dimensions, that is what physically happens to you during sexual stimulation, and is arguably the easy part during sex:

When your body detects sexual stimulation, it responds. The key is when your body detects it. When you are sufficiently aroused, your genitals respond. Become more aroused and your body reaches orgasm. At their simplest biological level, genital response and orgasm reflexes occur whenever sufficient stimulation has occurred.  (Schnarch, 2009, p. 81)

Schnarch asks us to imagine that your body has two “response thresholds” that is two sexual trigger points, (1): one for arousal (genital response) and (2): one for orgasm. When your body exceeds its physiological threshold for arousal your body reacts by preparing for sex (vaginal lubrication in women and an erection in men), when your level of arousal exceeds your orgasm threshold, you reach orgasm, Schnarch states that reaching orgasm and arousal thresholds are dubbed “normal sexual functioning”.

Of course this isn’t the entire spectrum of human sexuality for Schnarch, as he states some 400,000 years ago our species underwent some extraordinary changes, in that women stopped going into “heat” and started menstruating, meaning they had year round sexual desire, this led to men and women staying together longer, and led to the rise of families, societies and most important for us here today: the neocortex evolved. This opened up new avenues and problems for human sexuality, human sex and sexuality took on a mental aspect as well as a physical one, with humans being able to emotionally connect during intercourse, and desire a specific partner rather than simply responding to sexual tension.

But when our ancestors traded hormonally programmed regularity for the ability to bring meaning to sex, we became more susceptible to sexual dysfunctions and “inhibited sexual desire”. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 83)

We use our neocortex for self-awareness, thus making intimacy possible, but it can also drive us crazy as Schnarch says “spectatoring” ourselves and our performance during sex. Thusly our neocortex has become integral to our sexual functioning, the meanings we perceive during sex can determine how your body functions and how satisfying that functioning is. Schnarch states his quantum model takes into account the mental and physical aspects of sex by realizing that we are biologically based creatures that can bring meaning to sex, our feelings he says can have a bigger effect on arousal than can physical touch hence why his model attempts to look at the physical aspects of sex only after he’s addressed the mental.

We need a new mental picture of what constitutes sexual responsiveness. The total sexual stimulation you require to reach either your arousal or orgasm threshold stimulation is made up of sensory (mostly touch) stimulation you’re receiving from your partner plus your feelings and thoughts – feelings and thoughts about what you’re doing, whom you’re doing it with, and what it implies to you. Total stimulation is therefore more than friction of mucous membranes (as it is in more primitive species) and more friction plus fantasy. So to restate what we said earlier: when the combined stimulation of sensation plus feelings and thoughts reaches your threshold for arousal, or orgasm, the response you expect occurs. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 83)


Schnarch, D. (2009). Passionate Marriage. New York, New York. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Differentiation: Maintaining The Self In Relation – Part 2.

September 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Now that we have looked at some of Schnarch’s ideas regarding sex, intimacy and relationships lets turn our focus toward his main thesis, that is: differentiation. But, what is it?

The polishing process in marriage is what I referred to earlier as differentiation. In a nutshell, differentiation is the process by which we become more uniquely ourselves by maintaining ourselves in relationship with those we love. It’s the process of grinding off our rough edges through the normal abrasions of long-term relationships. Differentiation is the key to not holding grudges and recovering quickly form arguments, to tolerating intense intimacy and maintaining your priorities in the midst of daily life. It lets you expand your sexual relationship and rekindle desire and passion in marriages that have grown cold. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 51)

Of course Schnarch’s thesis applies to almost anybody, in the sense that it applies to any person in relation to another person, he simply couches his terms in marriage. To Schnarch well-differentiated people can agree without feeling like they’re “losing themselves”,  similarly they can also disagree without feeling “alienated and embittered” (p. 56), they can “stay connected with people who disagree with them and still ‘know who they are’. They don’t have to leave the situation to hold onto their sense of self.” (p. 56) He states that a lack of differentiation can come from many sources (most notably the level of differentiation you learned from the family unit you come from), such as the perception of what he calls “fusion fantasies” that is the illusion we have that our partners are supposed to be as part of us, like one organism operating under the control of a single mind. This “emotional fusion” is the opposite of differentiation, in which he describes it as an “invisible-but-tenacious emotional connection” (p. 57), and here he states is an important lesson, differentiation is not simply a lack of connection, it is of a different kind, in which you can “stay in connection without being consumed by the other person” (p. 56), it is a ‘higher-order’ process that balances connection and autonomy. A lack of differentiation states Schnarch alienates us from those we love; emotional fusion is also a tricky problem to solve as popular culture has adopted it as the default position to be in, thus leading to us to think we’re not connected at any sign of an issue thereby forcing us to retreat in defense: “But the deeper truth is that we have to move away to counterbalance the tremendous impact we feel our spouse has on us. Or, unable to turn away, we turn ourselves over to the connection, but it feels engulfing.” (p. 57) It’s important to note that differentiation isn’t about alienating yourself either, Shnarch states differentiated people have strong emotional bonds, that is they “don’t require physical distance, infrequent contact or totally consuming careers to maintain their separate identities or moderate their reactivity to others” (p. 64), it is more about the ability to choose which contacts they will indulge in, out of deep liking, not compulsion. Going further Schnarch presses this point stating that those who urge for space within a relationship, are not highly differentiated people, that although defining boundaries is an important early step in differentiation, it is done so within the relationship “(that is close proximity and restricted space)” (p. 67). On the other side Schnarch states poorly differentiated people try to “keep the door open”, or “bolt as increasing importance of the relationship makes them feel like they’re being locked up.” (p. 67) Working on being able to maintain your sense of self in an intense emotional relationship is what develops your own level of differentiation.

Differentiation is the ability to maintain your sense of self when your partner is away or when you are not in a primary love relationship. You value contact, but you don’t fall apart when you’re done. Differentiation is different from similar sounding concepts. It’s entirely different from “individualism”, which is an egocentric attempt to set ourselves apart from others. Unlike “rugged individualists” who can’t sustain a relationship, differentiated folks welcome and maintain intimate connection. Highly differentiated people also behave differently than the terms autonomy and independence suggest. They can be heedful of their impact on others and take their partners needs and priorities into account. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 67)

Schnarch states that having a solid core of beliefs and values allows the differentiated self to be solid yet permeable, this way if your partner tries to mould or manipulate you, you can retain your identity, or as you choose, incorporate new information as you see fit. Schnarch is quick to note however that this can be a slow process, out of “soul-searching deliberation” , not simply as a response to the pressures posed by others. One might wonder if this is only an intellectual exercise that divorces feeling from thought, connection from relationship, Schnarch says no: “Differentiation doesn’t involve any lack of feelings or emotions…” (p. 68), it simply means that you form bonds that do not involve being swept up in such, that you don’t get caught up in your partners emotions, you can subjectively and objectively evaluate your and your partners feelings, in short: you feel, but you are not defined by your feelings. Nor is this differentiation selfish, you do not put yourself ahead of anyone, you can if you choose allow yourself to be as emotionally influenced by your partner as you want, but it is this expression of autonomy, that is an expression of differentiation. It is more about the awareness that your partner is their own person (complete with their own genetic, historical, culture familial experiences which shape who they are), and their wants and needs are just as important as yours, you allow yourself to see merit in their positions even if they aren’t congruent with yours, and even in circumstances where they conflict.  Schnarch calls this “mutuality”: “Differentiation is they key to mutuality; as a perspective, a mind-set, it offers a solution to the central struggle of any long-term relationship” going forward with your own self-development while being concerned with your partners happiness and well-being.”  (Schnarch, 2009, p. 68) (See how this touches on other philosophers thoughts here, and here). Finally Schnarch states two important principles we can look at here:

First, we emerge from our family of origin at about the highest level of differentiation our parents achieved. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 69)

The author states our level of differentiation is established during our adolescent years and can remain at that level for life.

In the process of regulating their own emotions, poorly differentiated parents pressure their children for togetherness or distance, which stops children from developing their ability to think, feel, and act for themselves. They learn to conduct themselves only in reaction to others. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 69)

How do we escape this conditioning? Schnarch states it isn’t easy, and that we can raise our level of differentiation through concentrated effort (like therapy), or through crisis (as commonly occurs through marriage, family, friendship and career). Mostly our level of differentiation stays as it is  generation to generation, and usually only changes when a family member is motivated to do so. This view too differs from the popular one that our spouse is our supposed to be our savior, pulling us out of our woes, or your family’s grasp.

Second, we always pick a martial partner who’s at the same level of differentiation as we are. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 69)

To Schnarch if one partner is disproportionately differentiated to the other, the relationship generally ends, sometimes one is only a half-step further along their path than the other (he accentuates that they’re only a half-step). Thus we need to give up the illusion that we might be so much further along than our partners or so much more healthy, moreover Schnarch states three things are implicated when you think/argue this way:

  • You have about the same tolerance for intimacy, although you may express it differently.

  • You and your spouse make splendid sparring partners because you have roughly the same level of differentiation.

  • Assume you are emotional “equals” even if you’d like to believe otherwise. If you want to discover important but difficult truths hidden in your marriage, stop assuming you’re more differentiated than your partner. Look at things from the view that you’re at the same level and you’ll soon see the trade-offs in your relationship. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 69)

As Schnarch states becoming differentiated is the most loving thing you can do in your lifetime, for those you love and yourself. This process however is not easy, as he says no-one ever wants to differentiate, and you’ll probably do it for the same reasons everyone else does: “differentiating eventually becomes less painful than other alternatives.” (p. 74) Don’t’ expect the process to be pain-free, as love can be both beautiful and painful, so too can differentiation. The reward is, at a high level of differentiation you will be able to tolerate, enjoy and see the meaning in the pains and joys of love.


Schnarch, D. (2009). Passionate Marriage. New York, New York. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Differentiation: Maintaining The Self In Relation: Primer – Part 1.

August 13, 2014 2 comments

Schnarch has some interesting ideas regarding marriage, intimacy and relationships that I intend to share here, to him society generally has distorted our view of sexuality, love, relationships, communication and intimacy. For example we have taken an idea about intimacy, namely that our partner accepts and validates us, and convinced ourselves that this is the totality of what intimacy has to offer, thus placing the burden of being accepted and validated exclusively on our partners. He states that sociologists have suggested we crave “intimate union”, but Schnarch disagrees in that he believes something else is going on, in that we appear to crave intimacy but what we actually are searching for is someone to make us feel “acceptable and worthwhile” (p. 39).

We’ve assigned the label “intimacy” to what we want (validation and reciprocal disclosure) and developed pop psychologies that give it to us – while keeping true intimacy away. We’ve distorted what intimacy is, how it really feels, how much we really want it, and how best to get it. Once we realize that intimacy is not always soothing and often makes us feel insecure, it is clear why we back away from it. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 39)

Similarly Schnarch states we do something similar with communication, in that we expect to be understood the way we want and be answered with the response we want, he wants however to shift the focus away from making our partners do the impossible task of fulfilling our thoughts, desires and projections (they are not mind readers, they can only accidentally get your expectations right), and to turn the compass inwards, to look at ourselves as the source of our validation, or at least able to structure intimacy in a way that our partners aid us in a “self-validating” intimacy. Thus in turn reflectively enhancing your relationships net intimacy and sexual connection.

This goes too for sex in which Schnarch believes we have rooted sex and sexuality in a “biological hunger”, much like the desire for food, and thus low sexual functioning is labelled “sexual anorexia”, a sexual “eating disorder”. This places couples under an enormous amount of pressure to fulfill their partners and perhaps even their own expectations about sex and sexuality,  after all how messed up would you be if you didn’t want to eat? The same is thought of sex.

We don’t realize that seeing sex as a “drive” makes us focus on relieving sexual tension rather than wanting our partner. It may be true that the more tension (“horny”) people feel, the more they tend to seek relief – but if that’s the only reason you think your partner wants to be with you it tends to kill sex and intimacy in marriage. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 41)

Thinking of sex as a biological drive states Schnarch sets us up to believe we’re supposed to know how to have, enjoy and appreciate sex, and it also makes us think we should want it all the time, but this does not take into account the mental aspects of sex and sexuality:

Until couples go beyond viewing sex as a biological drive, they presume sexual behavior is a good measure of sexual desire and orgasm always involves high arousal and satisfaction. Common experiences of married couples disprove both assumptions.(Schnarch, 2009, p. 41)

Just what alternative view should we have of sex? Schnarch does offer some insights here (p. 75), but perhaps we can look at that later. In our next post we will begin to discuss Schnarch’s interesting and complicated differentiation thesis.


Schnarch, D. (2009). Passionate Marriage. New York, New York. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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