Routledge encyclopedia of philosophy /
general editor, Edward Craig.
London ; New York : Routledge, 1998.
10 v.
0415073103 (boxed set : alk. paper)
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London ; New York : Routledge, 1998.
0415073103 (boxed set : alk. paper)
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Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
This item was nominated for the following awards:
Dartmouth Medal, USA, 1999 : Nominated
First Chapter

Chapter One


The philosophy of sexuality, like the philosophy of science, art or law, is the study of the concepts and propositions surrounding its central protagonist, in this case `sex'. Its practitioners focus on conceptual, metaphysical and normative questions.

    Conceptual philosophy of sex analyses the notions of sexual desire, sexual activity and sexual pleasure. What makes a feeling a sexual sensation? Manipulation of and feelings in the genitals are not necessary, since other body parts yield sexual pleasure. What makes an act sexual? A touch on the arm might be a friendly pat, an assault, or sex; physical properties alone do not distinguish them. What is the conceptual link between sexual pleasure and sexual activity? Neither the intention to produce sexual pleasure nor the actual experience of pleasure seems necessary for an act to be sexual. Other conceptual questions have to do not with what makes an act sexual, but with what makes it the type of sexual act it is. How should `rape' be defined? What the conceptual differences are, if any, between obtaining sex through physical force and obtaining it by offering money is an interesting and important issue.

    Metaphysical philosophy of sex discusses ontological and epistemological matters: the place of sexuality in human nature; the relationships among sexuality, emotion and cognition; the meaning of sexuality for the person, the species, the cosmos. What is sex all about, anyway? That sexual desire is a hormone-driven instinct implanted by a god or nature acting in the service of the species, and that it has a profound spiritual dimension, are two -- not necessarily incompatible -- views. Perhaps the significance of sexuality is little different from that of eating, breathing and defecating; maybe, or in addition, sexuality is partially constitutive of moral personality.

    Normative philosophy of sex explores the perennial questions of sexual ethics. In what circumstances is it morally permissible to engage in sexual activity or experience sexual pleasure? With whom? For what purpose? With which body parts? For how long? The historically central answers come from Thomist natural law, Kantian deontology, and utilitarianism. Normative philosophy of sex also addresses legal, social and political issues. Should society steer people in the direction of heterosexuality, marriage, family? May the law regulate sexual conduct by prohibiting prostitution or homosexuality? Normative philosophy of sex includes nonethical value questions as well. What is good sex? What is its contribution to the good life?

    The breadth of the philosophy of sex is shown by the variety of topics it investigates: abortion, contraception, acquaintance rape, pornography, sexual harassment, and objectification, to name a few. The philosophy of sex begins with a picture of a privileged pattern of relationship, in which two adult heterosexuals love each other, are faithful to each other within a formal marriage, and look forward to procreation and family. Philosophy of sex, as the Socratic scrutiny of our sexual practices, beliefs and concepts, challenges this privileged pattern by exploring the virtues, and not only the vices, of adultery, prostitution, homosexuality, group sex, bestiality, masturbation, sadomasochism, incest, paedophilia and casual sex with anonymous strangers. Doing so provides the same illumination about sex that is provided when the philosophies of science, art and law probe the privileged pictures of their own domains.

1 Conceptual analysis

2 Sexual activity

3 Social constructionism

4 The metaphysics of sex

5 Aquinas and natural law

6 Kant's sexual ethics

7 Contemporary Kantians

8 Consent and coercion

9 Utilitarianism

10 Sadomasochism and love

1 Conceptual analysis

The philosophy of sex investigates conceptual, metaphysical and normative questions, although the boundaries between these three are hardly firm. Metaphysical and normative philosophy of sex are well developed, stretching back to Plato and Augustine (see PLATO [sections] 12); sexual ethics has a famous history, and the contemplation of the place of sexuality in human nature is central to Christianity. The analysis of sexual concepts, by contrast, is in its infancy. The subjects of analysis are these core concepts and the logical relationships among them: sexual desire, sensation, pleasure, act, arousal and satisfaction. Derivative sexual concepts, which presuppose an understanding of the core concepts, are also the subject of analysis. Among these are rape, sexual harassment, sexual orientation, sexual perversion, prostitution and pornography (see PORNOGRAPHY).

    Consider adultery. It can be defined as a sexual act that occurs between two persons, at least one of whom is married but not to the other. The definition should also mention, as a necessary condition, willing and knowledgeable consent. Suppose X coerces Y, who is married to Z, into coitus. Y did not commit adultery, because Y did not have the proper frame of mind; Y never intended to commit adultery or engage in intercourse at all. Or suppose X and Y engage in coitus, both believing, on the basis of good evidence (but falsely), that X's spouse Z died years ago; or the unmarried X has good reason to think (but falsely, due to Y's deception) that Y, too, is not married. Has X committed an adulterous sexual act, unwittingly and so, perhaps, not culpably; or is X's lack of mens rea, X's ignorance of the true state of affairs, incompatible with adultery?

    We cannot fully understand the derivative sexual concept `adultery' until we have defined `sexual act'. If X and Y send to each other sexually arousing messages through the Internet, have they engaged in a sexual act (`cybersex')? Is their exchange of messages sexual enough, quantitatively or qualitatively, to be adulterous, if one of them is married? Here we can see the intertwining of conceptual and moral matters. A lack of clarity about `sexual act' allows the exoneration of adultery by a convenient redescription of what occurs between X and Y -- it was only `fooling around', not `real' sex. Another, quite opposite, manoeuvre, is possible. Theologians often define adultery in the spirit of Matthew 5: 28, making a sexual fantasy sufficient, even in the absence of physical contact: X commits adultery if X thinks lustful thoughts about Y.

2 Sexual activity

Our interest in defining `sexual act' is not merely philosophical; it is also practical. Precise definitions of `sexual act' are needed for social scientific studies of sexual behaviour and orientation (to be used in the consideration of questions about, for example, who engages in homosexual acts and whether this correlates with genetics, and how often people engage in sex) and for legislation in the areas of child abuse, rape, harassment and adultery.

    Sexual acts might be defined as those involving sexual body parts. The sexual parts of the body are first catalogued; acts are sexual if and only if they involve contact with one of these parts. `Sexual act', on this view, is logically dependent on `sexual part'. But do we clearly understand `sexual part'? Two people might shake hands briefly, without the act being sexual; they could, alternatively, warmly press their hands together and feel a surge of sexual pleasure. Sometimes, then, the hands are used nonsexually and sometimes they are used sexually. Are the hands a sexual part? Whether the hands are a sexual part depends on the activity in which they are engaged. Hence, instead of an act's being sexual because it involves a sexual body part, a body part is sexual because of the sexual nature of the act in which it is used. We might say that a genital examination is not a sexual act even though the genitals are touched; hence contact with a sexual part is not sufficient for an act to be sexual. But we could also say that not even the genitals are sexual parts in the requisite sense; for in the medical context the genitals are not being treated as sexual parts.

    The morality of sexuality has been understood by some in terms of its procreative function (see [sections]5). Alternatively, the procreative nature of sexual activity might be employed analytically rather than normatively. Sexual acts, on this view, are those having procreative potential in virtue of their biological structure. The principal case of such an act is heterosexual intercourse. This analysis, then, is too narrow, if taken as stating a necessary condition. Here is a more plausible formulation: sexual acts are (1) acts that are procreative in structure and (2) any acts that are the physiological or psychological precursors or concomitants of acts that are sexual by (1). This version casts a wider net, but not wide enough. Masturbation, which is not a procreative act and not often a precursor or concomitant of coitus, turns out not to be a sexual act. Another emendation suggests itself: sexual acts are also (3) acts that bear a close physical resemblance to the acts judged sexual by (1) or (2). This vague condition does not save the proposed analysis. Some sexual perversions (such as fondling shoes) are sexual even though they bear no reasonable resemblance to coitus or its concomitants. This analysis also suggests that homosexual acts, all of which are nonprocreative, are sexual just because they sufficiently resemble heterosexual acts. That seems to be the wrong reason for the right conclusion.

    Another view is that both homosexual and heterosexual acts are sexual in virtue of the type of pleasure or sensation they produce. Thus it seems reasonable to propose that sexual acts are those that produce sexual pleasure (Gray 1978). But if pleasure is the criterion of the sexual, pleasure cannot be the gauge of the nonmoral quality of sex acts. The couple who have lost sexual interest in each other, and who engage in routine coitus from which they derive no pleasure, are still performing a sexual act. We are forbidden, by this analysis, from saying that they engage in sex but that it is (nonmorally) bad sex. Rather, we can say, at most, that they tried to engage in sex, and failed. Furthermore, in this analysis `sexual act' is logically dependent on `sexual pleasure', so we cannot say that sexual pleasure is the pleasure produced by sexual acts. Then how might we distinguish sexual pleasure or sensations from others? This problem also arises for a more complex analysis: sexual acts are those acts that tend to satisfy sexual desire, where sexual desire is taken to be the desire for the pleasure of physical contact (Goldman 1977). `Pleasures of physical contact' might not specify sexual pleasure accurately enough. An additional complication is that a gender difference in the experience and conceptualization of sexual pleasure might exist. Additionally, someone might experience sexual desire yet have no idea what to do as a result of having it, no idea that physical contact, or what kind of physical contact, is the next, but hardly mandatory, step. Sexual desire, as argued by Jerome Shaffer (1978: 186-7), might not be a desire for something or that something at all. What, then, are the features of a desire that make it sexual? Sexual desire is distinguished, on Shaffer's account, by being accompanied by sexual excitement and arousal. We can, in turn, ask what sexual excitement and arousal are, as opposed to other kinds of excitement and arousal. For Shaffer, sexual arousal is `directly sexual in that it involves the sexual parts, viz., the genital areas'. Have we gone full circle?

    Finally, sexual acts might be understood as those involving a sexual intention. But an intention to produce or experience sexual pleasure, for example, might be neither necessary nor sufficient for an act to be sexual. A couple engaging in coitus, both parties intending only that fertilization occur and neither concerned with sexual pleasure, performs a sexual act. Maybe this is not the correct sexual intention. But the intention to procreate is not it: gays and lesbians experience desire and arousal and engage in sex without any procreative intent. Furthermore, intentions are arguably irrelevant in making sexual acts sexual. Rape can be sexual whether the rapist intends to get sexual pleasure from it, to humiliate his victim, or to assert his masculinity. From the fact that in some rapes, rapists intend to degrade their victims, to dominate and exert power over them, it does not follow that the act is not sexual. Indeed, the rapist might have chosen a sexual act quite on purpose as his method to humiliate and degrade. His victim is degraded exactly by the sexual nature of the act endured; the victim experiences a shame that accompanies a forced sexual act but would not accompany sexless assault.

3 Social constructionism

What, then, are sexual acts? Maybe they have no transcultural or ahistorical essence, and the analytic project is doomed. Acts involving the same body parts are sometimes sexual, sometimes not. Some touches and movements are deemed sexual in one culture but not in others; the fragrances, mannerisms and costumes that are sexually arousing vary among places and times. No lowest common denominator exists that makes all sexual acts sexual. Bodily movements acquire meaning -- as sexual, or as something else -- by existing within a culture that attaches meaning to them. There are, then, only variable social definitions of the sexual.

    Such is the view known as social constructionism (or anti-essentialism). As one proponent puts it, `the very meaning and content of sexual arousal' varies so much among genders, classes, and cultures that `there is no abstract and universal category of "the erotic" or "the sexual" applicable without change to all societies' (Padgug 1979: 54; original emphasis). Nancy Hartsock elaborates:

We should understand sexuality not as an essence or set of properties defining an individual, nor as a set of drives and needs (especially genital) of an individual. Rather, we should understand sexuality as culturally and historically defined and constructed. Anything can become eroticized.

(1983: 156)

Hartsock's expression `anything can become eroticized' must mean `anything can be linked to sexual arousal and pleasure'. That might be true; after all, unusual items bring paraphiliacs sexual joy. If so, however, there seems to be a common denominator after all, an essential even if narrow core to the sexual: an unchanging, culturally invariable subjective experience of sexual pleasure.

    The history of sexuality is the history of our discourse about sex, as Michel FOUCAULT might have put it. We create things by using words. There really is no such thing as masturbatory insanity or nymphomania no -- medical condition, no psychological character trait, no underlying pathology. Well, there is, but only because we have picked out some behavioural patterns and made up a word to name them, not because masturbatory insanity and nymphomania have, like the moon, an existence independent of our words, our observations, and our evaluations of it. Social facts, such as the existence of `peasants', `witches' and `yuppies' (Edward Stein's examples), have an odd, plastic, fuzzy nature. Similar considerations apply to `perversion', `philanderer' and `homosexuality'. Thus the title of David Halperin's social constructionist monograph, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1990). It did not exist before the word `homosexual' was coined by Karoly Maria Benkert in 1869.


Copyright © 1998 Routledge. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 1998-12:
The contributors to this ambitious project attempt to cover a wide range of philosophical topics, including a more diverse geographical coverage than is usual in such sources. Moreover, it touches on topics as different as artificial intelligence, totalitarianism, Ayn Rand, Hippocratic medicine, and Gregory of Rimini. The appropriate persons were engaged to treat the several topics, and they have documented their articles in depth. Edward P. Mahoney's article on Cajetan, for example, lists editions, translations, references, and further reading. To make so detailed a source accessible to readers with different levels of knowledge, many entries are preceded by summaries printed in italics. An occasional entry is idiosyncratic, but this is to be expected in so large a project by diverse hands. The printed version is accompanied by a version on CD-ROM that requires Windows (3.1 or higher) to run it. This presents more problems, since the disc can be awkward to network, and despite easy, if slow, installation on a personal computer, it proved difficult to find the icon the database was supposed to create in order to open it. Moreover, the simultaneous display of index, text, and bibliography leaves any one part of the overall screen difficult to read. Routledge has been very ambitious in its efforts and, for the most part, has succeeded. The print version is recommended for all academic libraries, but librarians will want their systems people to test the database for compatibility with local equipment. [The reviewer gratefully acknowledges the assistance and advice of Dennis Des Chene (philosophy, Johns Hopkins Univ.) in preparing this review.] T. M. Izbicki; Johns Hopkins University
Appeared in Library Journal on 1998-09-15:
"In the 1960s, philosophy was fairly sure of its boundaries; in the 1990s it does not have the same confidence," notes General Editor Craig (modern philosophy, Cambridge) in his introduction to this masterly new encyclopedia. This is definitely a work for the 1990s. Of course it has coverage of the standard topics, often by the big names‘e.g., Richard Rorty on "Pragmatism" and Roderick Chisholm on "Commonsensism"‘not to mention coverage of the really big names themselves, from Plato (and Platonism, Early and Middle, Medieval, and Renaissance) to Kant (and Kantian Ethics) to Putnam, Quine, and Rawls. But, fittingly for our times, this encyclopedia ranges broadly, taking in the philosophies of Asia and Africa (there is an interesting entry, for instance, on African Aesthetics), Russia and Latin America, and Islam and Judaism and ranging from "Anti-Semitism" to "Feminist Jurisprudence" (feminist issues receive over 50 pages) to "Poetry" to "Poststructuralism" and "Postcolonialism" to "Resurrection" to "Psychology, Theories of." Altogether there are 2,056 articles by 1300 authors. Entries usually run several pages and are signed, though full background information is given on the editorial board only. Topping off the work is an index containing 78,000 entries. The obvious comparison here is to Macmillan's equally masterly The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which, with a 1967 copyright, was sorely in need of an update. The new work does the job, both in its more adventuresome coverage and in its more accessible language, which will make it easily approachable by students and lay readers today. Think twice before tossing your Macmillan‘it's still a gem‘but definitely consider adding this new set to your collection, particularly where there is a need for a broad-ranging resource on cultural history and issues. You may also wish to consider the full-text CD-ROM (ISBN 0-415-16916-X. $2,995; until October 31, $2,595) or a text/CD-ROM combination (ISBN 0-415-16917-8. $3,495; until October 31, $2,995). Highly recommended for academic libraries and for public libraries where the Macmillan work or other references on cultural history are used heavily.‘Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
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This Dictionary provides - through alphabetically arranged entries - overviews of the various tenets, philosophers, and writers of existentialism, and of those writers/philosophers who seem to existentialists to espouse their philosophy.
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