Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry

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Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry
Homosexuality (Ruse).jpg
Author Michael Ruse
Country United States
Language English
Subject Homosexuality
Publisher Basil Blackwell
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 299 (first edition)
384 (1990 edition)
ISBN 978-0631175537

Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry is a 1988 book by the philosopher Michael Ruse, in which the author discusses different theories of homosexuality, evaluates the moral status of homosexual behavior, and argues in favor of gay rights.

The book received both positive and negative reviews. Some reviewers praised it for Ruse's comprehensive treatment of his subject, careful discussion of theories about homosexuality, and use of philosophy to support gay rights. However, Ruse's treatment of psychoanalysis and sociobiology, and his use of historical evidence to discuss homosexuality in past societies, were criticized, and commentators noted that some of Ruse's comments about homosexuality could be considered insensitive. Some reviewers suggested that Ruse's arguments and conclusions about homosexuality were influenced by his personal reaction to the AIDS epidemic.


Ruse aims to provide a detailed philosophical analysis of homosexuality in order to "uncover the foundational suppositions which lead people to such different conclusions" about the subject, arguing that the spread of AIDS makes rethinking sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular an urgent task. He defines a homosexual as a "person whose erotic yearnings and fantasies are directed toward his/her own sex and whose activities are influenced by such yearnings and fantasies". Ruse defends attempts to explain homosexuality against the objection that they might harm gay people, arguing that while they could have harmful consequences they also have the potential to do good.[1] He rejects social constructionist views of sexual orientation,[2] and defends the value of hormonal studies, summarizing the research and arguing that the studies have no necessary bias against homosexuality.[3] Ruse discusses sociobiological theories, concluding that despite objections to them, they are scientific and potentially helpful in understanding homosexuality.[4]

Ruse defends Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, against the charge that his theories are untestable, finding the philosopher Adolf Grünbaum's arguments, made in The Foundations of Psychoanalysis (1984), against the philosopher Karl Popper's view that psychoanalytic theories are pseudo-scientific because they can never be falsified to be decisive. He is also unconvinced by the philosopher Roger Scruton's criticism of Freud in Sexual Desire (1986). Whereas Scruton argues that genuine science does not involve metaphor, Ruse finds that "metaphor runs rampant through science from physics to sociology".[5]

Discussing ethical issues, Ruse distinguishes between involuntary inclination and willful behavior, arguing that while a homosexual orientation is morally blameless, this is not necessarily true of homosexual behavior.[6] He criticizes ethical arguments that appeal to scientific claims about the naturalness or unnaturalness of homosexuality,[6] for example the views of the Greek philosopher Plato, according to whom homosexual behavior did not occur in animals. Ruse finds this claim to be mistaken.[7]

Publication history[edit]

Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry was first published in hardcover 1988 by Basil Blackwell.[8] The book was republished in paperback in 1990.[9]


Mainstream media[edit]

Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry received positive reviews from James Michael MacLeod in Library Journal and the biologist Douglas J. Futuyma in the Los Angeles Times.[10][11]

MacLeod credited Ruse with providing a detailed survey of current research in medicine and the behavioral sciences relevant to homosexuality and "a comprehensive analysis of issues relating to homosexuality in both men and women." He concluded that the book was a welcome addition to the literature on homosexuality.[10] Futuyma wrote that Ruse helped to provide the kind of objective discussion of sexual orientation that had previously been lacking. He credited Ruse with carefully discussing various theories of homosexuality, concluding that Ruse rightly took a more skeptical view of evolutionary explanations of homosexuality in the book than he had in his previous writings. He expressed agreement with Ruse's skepticism about hormonal explanations of homosexuality and the psychoanalytic theories, and also with Ruse's view that a person's sexual orientation is not a choice, that homosexuality is not unnatural, and that both neo-Kantian and utilitarian ethical theories must support gay rights. However, he noted that while Ruse's book was easy to read and avoided philosophical jargon, it was not always graceful in style, and suggested that gay readers might find some of Ruse's comments about homosexuality insensitive.[11]

Scientific and academic journals[edit]

Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry received a positive review from Christopher Badcock in the British Journal of Sociology,[12] a mixed review from Paul Bloom and the philosopher Edward Stein in The American Scholar,[13] and negative reviews from Jim Sait in Social Alternatives and the cultural historian George Rousseau in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences.[14][15] The book was also reviewed by Ken Plummer in Theory, Culture & Society.[16] Ruse discussed his work in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science.[17]

Badcock called the book "excellent" and praised Ruse's comprehensiveness.[12] Bloom and Stein wrote that Ruse's ethical arguments were interesting and that his discussion of the various theories of homosexuality was clear, intelligent, and innovative. However, they criticized Ruse for failing to acknowledge that it is a mistake to focus only on the origins of homosexuality, and relied upon an implicit understanding of homosexuality rather than try to evaluate various views of the topic. They criticized Ruse's discussion of social constructionism, writing that Ruse considered only the most extreme form and quickly dismissed it, and found Ruse to be guilty of inconsistency, noting that while Ruse at one stage suggested that there "is no objective criterion for being gay" he often disregarded that view. They found Ruse's discussion of bisexuality unsatisfactory and inaccurate. They also criticized Ruse's treatment of sociobiology, arguing that he failed to recognized the shortcomings of sociobiological theories, including their failure to explain bisexuality. They criticized the amount of space Ruse devoted to discussing psychoanalytic theories, arguing that their lack of empirical support meant that the attention was undeserved. They concluded that Ruse's work is far from a definitive discussion of its subject and is "best viewed as a first attempt at addressing a range of deep and complex issues."[13]

Sait credited Ruse with outlining the limitations of psychoanalytic, hormonal, and sociobiological theories of homosexuality, but accused Ruse of having "personal biases towards" psychoanalytic and sociobiological theories. He criticized Ruse for relying uncritically on Greek Homosexuality (1978) and other publications by the classicist Kenneth Dover in his discussion of Greek homosexuality. He found Ruse's discussion of the question of whether homosexuality is a sickness or a disease confusing, and suggested that Ruse's attempt at detached philosophical analysis was compromised by Ruse's personal reaction to the AIDS epidemic. He also suggested that Ruse's "explicit and implicit" definitions of homosexuality weakened his discussion of the social aspects of homosexuality. He criticized Ruse for using a "primarily sexual" definition of homosexuality that ignored emotional and other ties between homosexuals, and for writing about homosexuality as though all homosexuals were men, ignoring lesbians and their experience. Nevertheless, he considered Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry useful for combating arguments and theories used to stigmatize homosexuals and applauded Ruse's philosophical support for gay rights.[14]

Rousseau wrote that, like several other recent works about homosexuality, Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry was "more socially rather than scientifically grounded" and that Ruse was not "willing (or equipped) to address the question about etiology." He also wrote that too many of Ruse's positions are "taken with AIDS peering at the reader in the face", and questioned both the extent of Ruse's compassion for homosexuals and the ability of philosophy to help homosexuals. He maintained that Ruse's conclusions "neither advance the theoretical debate about homosexuality nor propose any practical solutions to the homosexual crisis." While granting that the work "abounds with information" and had "noble" objectives, he argued that Ruse had an "impoverished" view of homosexuality that frustrated those objectives, and that Ruse neglected the role love and shame play in the lives of homosexuals. He wrote that while Ruse challenged the idea that homosexuality is a mental illness, he did so "without acknowledging that these views had already been debated in the 1950s". He suggested that Ruse made comments about homosexuality that could be interpreted as expressing the desire to eliminate it, describing this as "outrageous". He agreed with Ruse's conclusion that there should be no discrimination in favor of homosexuals, but nevertheless found Ruse's arguments for that conclusion offensive.[15]

Ruse discussed his reasons for writing the book, attributing his interest in homosexuality to having grown up in the United Kingdom at a time when homosexuality was illegal, to his engagements in debate over sociobiology since the 1970s, and to the fact that "no one else seemed to be writing on the subject". He wrote that he had mixed feelings about the process of writing the book, and that it had been rendered in "many respects ... dated and redundant" by the philosopher Timothy F. Murphy's Gay Science (1997).[17]

Evaluations in books[edit]

The classicist David M. Halperin, writing in One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1990), criticized Ruse for not mentioning the research of Ron Langevin, which in Halperin's view discredited the hypothesis that homosexuality is caused by hormone levels.[18] The economist Richard Posner, writing in Sex and Reason (1992), praised Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry for Ruse's care in evaluating rival theories of homosexuality.[19]

Stein, writing in The Mismeasure of Desire (1999), criticized Ruse for his definition of a "homosexual", arguing that it is vague and does not explain whether someone who only rarely wants to have sex with a person of the same sex is "homosexual", or whether wanting to have sex with a person of the opposite sex would disqualify a person from being "homosexual". He argued that Ruse's definition is wide enough to be a candidate for playing a role in explanation in the sciences and the social sciences, but that its wideness does not prove that sexual orientations are non-arbitrary groups ("natural kinds"). He rejected Ruse's suggestion that defining sexual orientation in terms of sexual feelings rather than sexual behavior shows that social constructionism is false. He observed that while Ruse refers to the work of the historian John Boswell to support his case that there were people in periods from that Ancient Greece to that of the Renaissance who were recognized as having a homosexual orientation, such evidence can be interpreted differently. He rejected Ruse's defense of sexual orientation research, arguing that the ethical implications of a research program must be considered in deciding whether the program is worth pursuing.[20]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Ruse 1988, pp. x, 18–20.
  2. ^ Ruse 1988, pp. 15–18.
  3. ^ Ruse 1988, pp. 84–129.
  4. ^ Ruse 1988, pp. 148–149.
  5. ^ Ruse 1988, pp. 30–31.
  6. ^ a b Ruse 1988, pp. 176–202.
  7. ^ Ruse 1988, p. 189.
  8. ^ Ruse 1988, p. iv.
  9. ^ Ruse 1990, p. iv.
  10. ^ a b MacLeod 1988, p. 85.
  11. ^ a b Futuyma 1988.
  12. ^ a b Badcock 1989, p. 711.
  13. ^ a b Bloom & Stein 1991, pp. 315–320.
  14. ^ a b Sait 1989, pp. 71–72.
  15. ^ a b Rousseau 1990, pp. 225–241.
  16. ^ Plummer 1991, pp. 175–179.
  17. ^ a b Ruse 2000, pp. 487–493.
  18. ^ Halperin 1990, pp. 49, 170.
  19. ^ Posner 1992, p. 101.
  20. ^ Stein 1999, pp. 78, 105, 105, 113, 338, 350, 352.


  • Badcock, Christopher (1989). "Homosexuality (Book)". British Journal of Sociology. 40 (4).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Bloom, Paul; Stein, Edward (1991). "Reasoning why". The American Scholar. 60 (2).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • MacLeod, James Michael (1988). "Male Homosexuality/Homosexuality (Book)". Library Journal. 113 (12).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Plummer, Ken (1991). "Homosexuality, Which Homosexuality? Essays from the International Scientific Conference on Lesbian and Gay Studies/Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry/The Construction of Homosexuality (Book)". Theory, Culture & Society. 8 (1).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Rousseau, G. S. (1990). "Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry/Gay Identity: The Self Under Ban/Sexual Moralities in France 1780-1980: New Ideas on the Family, Divorce, and Homosexuality... (Book)". Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. 26 (3).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Ruse, Michael (2000). "Gay Science (Book Review)". British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. 51 (3).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Sait, Jim (1989). "Homosexuality". Social Alternatives. 8 (1).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
Online articles