The Crisis of Masculinity in a Postmodern Age

This article, The Crisis of Masculinity in a Postmodern Age is one that ought to be read by those who are seeking to define and understand masculinity.

Paul Maxwell of writes,

Our initial definition of masculinity will be this:

Masculinity is a man’s maximization of his potential for competence.

There are three simple elements to this definition — maximization, potential, and competence. They make sense of one another in reverse order.

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The Crisis of Masculinity in a

Postmodern Age

Leftism and conservatism have locked horns over masculinity. Leftism resists the marginalization of men who may not fit the masculine norm — decrying “machismo” and applauding male feminists. Conservatism, conversely, pushes conformity with traditional gender norms, calling effeminate men to behavioral modification.

Leftism is Postmodernism, Conservatism is Realism

At the heart of this conflict lies a philosophical difference of perspective — leftism drawing upon Postmodernism, and conservatism upon Realism. Postmodernism emphasizes the subjectivity of truth. The postmodernist looks for the power grab at the heart of every truth claim. In this perspective, the notion of “objective truth” is a way for a majority culture to enforce ideological hegemony upon the marginalized, thereby extending their circumference of influence. In plotting the autobiographical skew of all data, postmodernists often defer the certainty of truth with a suspicion of personal agenda.

Realism, on the other hand, seeks to maximize the amount of assumptions speakers can reasonably take for granted. Unlike the postmodern who, situated firmly in a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” conflates the credibility of a truth claim with the moral scrutability of the speaker, the realist seeks to take as much for granted as possible for the sake of progressing rational conversation.

“For postmodernists, right speech is equalizing speech, whereas for realists, right speech is accurate speech.”

For the postmodern, speech at its best is always a creative, constructive act which rectifies power imbalances, whereas for the realist, speech is always a referential act. Consequently, for postmodernists, right speech is equalizing speech, whereas for realists, right speech is accurate speech.

The weakness of postmodernism is that it’s not a workable philosophy. It fails to account for the phenomena of linguistic success — that is, for the fact that communication regularly realizes the interests of speakers in the minds of listeners. The notion that truly objective speech is always obscured by the speaker’s agenda is betrayed by the commonality of communicative success among speakers.

“A crucial question at the heart of the leftist/conservative divide is: ‘Is there such a thing as masculinity?’ If so, what is it? And how is that not femininity?”

The weakness of realism is that it fails to take seriously the value of autobiographical data — the role of personal narrative and the history of ideas in shaping the concepts we employ in order to make truth claims. This comes into play especially with ideas that can become very complex and abstract, such as masculinity. At the heart of the disagreement between Postmodernism and Realism — and consequently, between leftism and conservatism — is the question: “Is there such a thing as masculinity? If so, what is it? And how do we know?”

Critical Realism Is A Middle Way

The middle ground between Postmodernism and Realism is a position which takes the strengths of both approaches and discards the weaknesses. This position would configure the certainty with which an object of knowledge can be known in a way that values both the Postmodern sensitivity to autobiography and the Realist insistence upon accuracy. Philosophers have called this approach Critical Realism.

The postmodern sensitivity to autobiography manifests itself as a criterion for truth, which is authenticity to oneself — this is why postmodernists have capitalized upon this concept of “my truth.” The realist insistence upon accuracy manifests itself as a different criterion for truth: conformity to a norm — this is why realists have capitalized upon Ben Shapiro’s slogan “Facts don’t care about your feelings.”

“As cooperative concepts, authenticity can become more than unfiltered expressivism, and conformity can more than the bald erasure of individuality.”

Authenticity and conformity would, in a critical realist configuration of truth, be cast not as competitive concepts, but rather as cooperative concepts. As cooperative concepts, authenticity is conceived not as unfiltered expressivism, but as creative empiricism — an active shaping of one’s experience that is accountable to objective reality. Likewise, conformity is not conceived as a bald erasure of individuality, but rather a conformity of oneself to a worthwhile and reasonable ideal.

A Singular Definition of Masculinity

A critical realist definition of masculinity would therefore need to be more than a singular definition — it would need to be a single complex of concepts that accounts for the unity and diversity of male experience. The best definition of masculinity will maintain the ideality of the concept and individuality of each man. In order to do this, we must first supply a single definition of masculinity, and thereafter unpack the complexity which makes this definition both suitable to reality and workable for all men.

Our initial definition of masculinity will be this:

Masculinity is a man’s maximization of his potential for competence.

There are three simple elements to this definition — maximization, potential, and competence. They make sense of one another in reverse order.


Competence is the foundational content here — competence refers to one’s ability to overcome obstacles in the pursuit of a particular goal compared to other men pursuing that goal. An undergraduate student may be very competent in Calculus 101 at his local junior college, and utterly incompetent in a calculus course at MIT. In both scenarios, his ability to overcome obstacles is an intersection of his proximate peer context and his mathematical ability, both cultivated and innate. The obstacles before him are not merely mathematical, but competitive with regard to his peers, performative with regard to his professor, and transformative with regard to himself. His competence is measured by his fixed capacity to produce calculations, combined with the production expected from him by his competitors, evaluators, and self.


Potential, from the Latin potentia, refers to the ceiling of competence each individual has. This potential is both fixed and flexible. A paralytic man will never run a 4-minute mile, but he may find a way to strengthen his muscles over which he has mechanical control. The better I get at basketball, the higher the ceiling of my competence grows — even if that ceiling has a set growth cap beneath LeBron James.

It is here that the variegation of men, from individual to individual, finds its metaphysical home in our definition of masculinity — it is in potential that Postmodernism and Realism make meaningful contact. Not every man has the same potential for competence. Fixed and flexible ceilings for potential are the conceptual space in which male diversity must be accounted for.


Maximization refers to the intentional elevation of one’s flexible ceiling for potential through the pursuit of competence. Here, the rubber meets the road of masculinity. Competency is to some degree an abstract concept, and every man has some sort of potential. But maximization is always a choice. Maximization, then, is the proper domain of responsibility — it is the hinge upon which the futures “Great Man” and “Wasted Potential” both turn.

The obvious weakness of this definition for masculinity is that it could be copied and pasted onto a definition for “Femininty.” This is true. This is also why masculinity cannot merely have a singular definition, but requires a singular complex to account for the phenomenon that we call “masculinity.”

A Complex Definition of Masculinity

We must now explain how this definition really works itself out in a complex and diverse landscape that accounts for every man everywhere. In order to do this, we must elucidate the three aspects of masculinity which make our singular definition possible. These aspects are, so to speak, what’s “under the hood” of masculinity in every sense, in a way that both constrains and takes into account the postmodern leftist and the realist conservative.   

The three aspects of masculinity are: Maleness, Manliness, and Manhood.


Maleness is biological masculinity — this is, most basically, a man’s XY chromosome. In the biological aspect, a man’s maximization of his potential for competence manifests itself as the pursuit of the highest attainable strength, speed, shelter, sexual and hunting prowess, and other body-oriented skills that are base and elemental. These are the least sophisticated and most straightforward competencies. This isn’t to say that one cannot pursue them in a profoundly sophisticated manner, but rather that all other competencies rely upon and presuppose the basic maximization of the ability to overcome the highest number of physical obstacles.

Maleness is fixed. There is nothing refutable about the distinctiveness of male biology from female biology. In this regard, maleness is the irreducible and crude evidence that the human species is divided along a single line — and not only are men men, but they likewise are not women.

The distinction between maleness and femaleness — and its foundational role for masculinity — is what enables masculinity and femininity to have the same formal definition, while differentiating materially. That is: masculinity is a man’s maximization of his potential for competence, and femininity a woman’s maximization of her potential for competence. A man’s competencies are composed basically of a male genotype, from which the manly phenotype emerges — a woman’s competencies are composed basically of a female genotype, from which a female phenotype emerges.

Masculinity and femininity can be in definition materially opposite, while nevertheless formally identical. In other words, the formula are the same — the maximization of one's potential for competence — but the variables are all different: male in one, female in the other, starting from different places, and operating along parallel, but distinct trajectories.


Manliness is cultural masculinity — this is a man’s ability to ascend a social hierarchy and to overcome more abstract obstacles related to social wellbeing and belonging. These competencies are fundamentally creative — such as critical thinking, problem solving, and meta-analysis. If maleness is the masculine genotype, manliness is the masculine phenotype — the aspect of masculinity which traverses the fixed biological with the socially constructed.

Manliness is the sophisticated abstraction of maleness that verifies the legitimacy of male competencies and quantify their utility. Manliness is the set of games employed to test, cultivate, and operationalize the brute competencies of maleness. Therefore, while strength lies properly within the domain of maleness, culturally defined manliness may measure to what degree that strength can be consistently integrated with other competencies in the form of labor, combat, or provision.

“Yes, manliness is a social construct, but so is a meatball — and culinary laws have been attuned through tradition over time to the fixed palates of human biology.”

Maleness supplies the ingredient competencies, and manliness the constructed and prepared recipe. Here, leftists ought to see the analogy: Yes, manliness is a social construct, but so is a meatball — and culinary laws have been attuned through tradition over time to the fixed palates of human biology. In like fashion, manliness is “relative” in a sense — its customs vary from culture to culture — but it remains accountable to fixed, immutable physical realities (which is still to say nothing of their metaphysical counterparts).

It is in this domain of manliness that the conservative criterion for truth — conformity — is established.

As a side note, we can distinguish between two kinds of manliness — fraternal manliness and paternal manliness. These are two ways of looking at the same competencies. Fraternal manliness measures competencies relative to other men, whereas paternal manliness measures the utility of a man’s competencies in the domain of his responsibility for his family and community. If we take the competency of hand-to-hand combat, for example — with regard to other men, a man’s ability to fight with his hands is a base incentivization for other men not to disrespect him too severely (fraternal manliness), while this same skill is a direct means of securing physical security for his family (paternal manliness).


Manhood is individual masculinity — this is a man’s making manliness his own. It is in his manhood that a man makes games for himself which maximize the competencies of maleness and manliness. These higher competencies are soft relational skills such as sympathy, empathy, humility, and self-confidence, as well as therapeutic skills such as emotional fluency, goal-setting, and recovery from failure.  

It is in this domain that a man may also filter out aspects of manliness ideals which are counterproductive to his manhood ideals. For example, a man may have made himself very strong through physical training (maleness) and winning physical confrontations (manliness), but this may be diagnostic of a baseline aggression that compromises his ability to be at peace with himself and with his family.

A man may therefore seek to increase the sophistication of his strength (maleness) and physical confidence (manliness) by seeking emotional security. By doing this, he learns that in the same way maleness competencies do not scale to manliness competencies (if you are strong but dumb, or weak but smart, you will lack a degree of respect and confidence), so also manliness competencies do not scale to manhood competencies — protecting and providing for one’s family, and winning competitive matches with peers, do not directly translate into being a good husband, father, friend, or person.

It is also in the domain of manhood that the Postmodern criterion for truthfulness — authenticity — is established. It is distinctly individual.

Manhood, Leftism, and Conservatism

Here is where leftists and conservatives both take a wrong turn. Leftists decry the violence that restrictive conceptions of manhood do to “marginalized” male-types, due to the fact that manhood is always rooted in a culturally constructed conception of manliness. Conservatives cling to manliness, but fail to see that it is a highly individual, culturally relative concept which, while rooted in biology, is not straightforwardly unilateral in a simple sense. Leftists take all cultural constructs to be arbitrary, and conservatives justify the value of cultural constructs by reducing manhood to manliness — by exhausting individual masculinity with cultural masculinity.

In summary:

Masculinity is a man’s maximization of his potential for competence in the domain of his maleness (his genotype), manliness (his phenotype), and manhood (his psychology).

“This critical realist configuration of masculinity enables men to call themselves to standards, while retaining the right to reject misappropriations of maleness and manliness to their manhood.”

This definition satisfies the Postmodern concern for the relevance of each man’s autobiographical data to the abstract definition of masculinity and the Realist concern for the objectivity of masculinity as an ideal toward which men ought to strive, and often fail. This critical realist configuration of masculinity enables men to call themselves to higher physical, cultural, and psychological standards, while retaining the right (and duty) to reject misappropriations of maleness or manliness to the final goal of masculinity: to optimally configure one’s manhood for oneself in a way that is both true to oneself in a Postmodern sense and true to the world in a Realist sense.