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The neurofeminist

Anne Jaap Jacobson interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Anne Jaap Jacobson is the neurofeminist philosofunskster whose mind is setting fire to the boys’ club and putting the academy straight whilst doing edgy work in the philosophy of mind. Nuns have called her a ‘wicked girl’ but she’s one of the crazy-gang of experimental philosophers looking at bigotry, bias, cognitive neuroscience, naturalism, worrying about traditional philosophical approaches and wondering how to do things better. She’s considered Hume from a feminist perspective, brings a cross-disciplinary jive to the philosophical party and doesn’t think looking is like being given pictures. Her mind is a hive of ideas even though she worries that women are having to face too much resignation, bitterness, disillusionment and discouragement in philosophy and everywhere. Which makes her a seminal figure, and bodaciously groovy.

3:AM Are you surprised that you have become a philosopher? What is it that you find satisfying about the work you do and why do you think people should take philosophers seriously?

Anne Jaap Jacobson: To adapt an approach from Monty Python I’d like to answer these questions in two different voices. The objective voice would say that I was involved in philosophy very early. I was brought up as a Roman Catholic, which is in some ways a very philosophical religion, but possibly independently of that I was often puzzled by why things were said or done in certain ways. My father was a career naval officer and by the time I was four or five, I had lived in a number of different places, and encountered lots of different ways of doing things. That may have led me to wonder at a quite early age about a lot of things. Perhaps all children do that, but I seemed to find many unsatisfactory answers. At the same time, I found out quickly that there were limits to the questions that were acceptable. And there were limits on who could ask such questions. (Memory here of a nun storming down an aisle shouting, “Wicked girl” at me. I had asked if there were any proofs for the existence of God.) I also became increasingly aware that the Thomistic philosophy I was later steeped in was largely medieval science. So in my sophomore year of college, I left religious schools for Berkeley. A Jesuit had warned me that all I would see would be sin and all I would hear was error, a remark not entirely without merit. I responded that I preferred to hear honest error than lies in the name of truth. The ensuing discussion employed an unfortunate quantitative view of excellence that can go along with authoritarian approaches to knowledge. For example, I criticised Jacques Maritain for conflating existential and Thomistic senses of “being,” but it was quickly pointed out that Maritain would have read a whole shelf of books on the topic, so I wasn’t in a position to criticise him. Philosophy at Berkeley was very different, and many of my classes were superb. Among my professors were Stroud, Searle, and Pears. David Pears became a life-long friend. He was strongly in favour of my going to Somerville College in Oxford for graduate work, and I am sure his support was a big help in my getting accepted there. Pears’ approach, and indeed Oxford philosophy at that time, strongly encouraged thinking for oneself and discouraged reading lists. After all, modern moral philosophy and a whole lot more might rest on a mistake. Trying to find foundational mistakes is great fun.

In a different and more subjective voice, I would say that I was brought up at a time when few people thought a woman would have a career outside of marriage. My academic decisions were certainly not made with a view to establishing a career, even when I was in Oxford. One of my Oxford philosophy tutors later told me she regretted that she didn’t see her role as one of showing us what was needed to advance professionally. A huge part of my early academic life seems in retrospect quite accidental. Something else was happening to philosophy in the early 70s that led me to feel some disenchanted with it. I was extremely surprised to rediscover recently Hilary Putnam’s review of Gareth Evans’ posthumous book and to see his remark, “One thing a review cannot convey is the relentless technicality of the book. … It is a book addressed to Evans’s fellow specialists, and only to them. Philosophy, as Evans pictures it, is as esoteric as quantum mechanics.” I am not sure this is the exact complaint I had at the time about philosophy, though Gareth was certainly a looming presence at that time. In any case, I was certainly feeling less and less interested in a lot of it. I had always thought that one of the most interesting and indeed delightful questions one can ask is, “Should we be thinking about things in this way at all?” while in my experience that question was becoming for many a mark of one’s not having the essential ability to compare and contrast the standard views. I do not want to insist that making such comparisons is a bad thing, but it is not what is most engaging for me. So I dropped out for a while, which was certainly not a wise career move. That may, however, have led eventually what I now find an exciting and immensely rewarding area of philosophy. Roughly put, we have the task of understanding a very new picture of human nature that is emerging in large part from cognitive neuroscience. How to coordinate that field’s approaches with ordinary ways of thinking of ourselves is by no means obvious. For example, many people working in philosophy of mind think of the mind or brain as containing a lot of mental representations with meaning or other language-like properties. I think instead that discipline actually posits little in way of content in the head and has so the capacity to help us see how deeply social we are.

3:AM: You’re becoming known as a leading philosopher in the area of the cognitive sciences and of feminism. Many of the people you write and engage with are part of the experimental philosophy crew. So firstly, what do you make of the experimental philosophy movement and when did you start burning your armchair to the indie noise of Josh Knobe?

AJJ: I am a great fan of experimental philosophy. I think it has given me a set of regulatory principles more than a set of theses I’ve adopted. The regulatory principles include something like, “Do not think introspection is the great guide to truth,” which seems to me very profoundly true, and also a great challenge to a lot of philosophy. Nonetheless, philosophy’s recent engagement with empirical approaches to cognition really begins earlier than what is called “experimental philosophy.” For me an engagement with what is called cognitive science started in the fairly early 1990s, shortly after I moved to the University of Houston. Before that I had been at Rutgers, when amazingly bright people were engaged in a project that seemed to me intellectually indigestible. I could not get it into my mind. That might be called ‘the computational-representational understanding of the mind,’ to borrow a phrase from Thagard.

At Houston, I met a group of a number of exceptionally intelligent people who came from a number of the disciplines involved in cognitive science. We had a chance to get some funding to put together a more formal group, and we did so. I came to feel much more at home in this group than I had before. And of course I was continually learning a great deal. Our vision science group is first class and work like that of Bruno Breitmeyer, which is mapping visual consciousness, is very exciting for a host of disciplines. I do think there are strong reasons for thinking that cognitive neuroscience is giving us a radically revised picture of the human mind, and one that philosophy is in danger of missing out on. For one thing, as I mentioned before, philosophers tend to think of the science of the mind as positing semantic contents in the mind. I think the picture is actually quite different; the mind samples the world, as opposed to having states that refer to it. This is a very ancient idea that comes from Aristotle.

3:AM: You are part of the Implicit Bias and Philosophy Research Project alongside other philosophers such as Eric Schwitzgebel, Eduard Machery and Sally Haslanger, to name but a few of the 3:AM-ers amongst them. It’s an impressive array of philosophical talent and it’s a very serious project, isn’t it? Could you say something about what this is all about and what is being investigated?

AJJ: The workshop, which is really Jenny Saul’s wonderful idea, can be seen as responding mainly to the following problem: many people would sincerely describe themselves as not bigoted, and even as opposed to biased practices. At the same time, they may, for example, make unfair evaluations that disadvantage people in certain racial or gender categories. Or indeed, other categories of discrimination: age, disability, sexual orientation, class and so on. We can think of this discrepancy between self-assessment and actual practices as being a matter of having implicit biases. In broad terms, the workshop has brought together researchers from a variety of disciples to ask about what implicit biases are and how they can be rooted out or at least diminished. The specific questions being raised are important. For example, when and how are such biases acquired? What is the moral status of a harmful action when the agent is unaware of the bias being acted upon? Or what exactly are the psychic and neural pathways responsible. Can individuals increase control of their actions?

3:AM: So there’s a growing literature about the possible causes of the biases you are investigating. Some of these seem to have ‘bleak implications’, to use Machery’s term, for feminism and equality in that some of the evidence points to biases in, say sexism, surviving explicit and sincere statements of anti-bias. I’m thinking of studies by Gendler and her ‘Alief’ thesis and Schwitzgebel’s gulf between occurrent judgements and dispositional beliefs. Is that right? Can you say something about what the studies are beginning to show?

AJJ: Your question brings up two sorts of concern for me. One is about the ontology underlying the approach orthodox philosophy of mind encourages. The other, in some ways related to the first, is the highly individualistic nature of the enquiry in much of both philosophy and psychology. If we move away from these views, problems may be less difficult. As a result, I am hopeful that the problems are less intractable than they seem. To take the latter point first. A great deal of attention is focused on how to change the individual who has implicit biases. But reading some recent work by Read Montague reminded me that in many of the areas where we worry about the effects of implicit bias, there is almost no accountability for making biased decisions. For example, John Dovidio has brought to our attention to problems people of colour have in receiving health care as good as that given to white people. Are decisions about pain medication and interventions in heart problems tracked by medical boards and examined? It seems that if they were, the discriminatory practices might have a shorter life, as Montague in effect points out. That is, when we have more public accountability, people behave better.

I heard a story from an African American hospital administrator in Houston about how her daughter always wanted to be an engineer. The daughter went to a community college for the first two years of her college career to save money. When she arrived at a Texas state university, one of her teachers announced that since she started in a community college, he was going to see to it that she failed out asap. And apparently he kept this up during her first semester. In fact, I spent some effort to find his name, so I could write to his chair and dean, all the while STEM faculty at my place expressed skepticism about whether anyone was going to get worked up over such things. That may be true, but what if it were not? What if more attention were paid to the kind of community universities should encourage? This is, of course, tricky since, as Jules Holroyd has reminded me, blaming and shaming may well not help improve behaviour, so a little imagination is needed. The National Science Foundation has a major program – the Advance program – that is funding approaches to change the climate for women in science and engineering departments. There are many fruitful approaches being investigated.

I’m very inclined to worry about the philosophical approaches, for two reasons. One is that we need to have basic terms in our theories be the sort that support generalisations. That’s at least part of what it is for them to be natural kind terms. But it may well be that we’ll need to turn to cognitive neuroscience to get the sort of natural kinds we need. Here again, one might look at what is emerging from fMRI explorations of implicit bias. It looks, for example, as though we can identify part of the brain responsible for overriding the evaluative reactions that often seem to underlay biased judgment. If that is so, that is really an important result of the research, since we can then look at what sets this part off. And there are intriguing suggestions. The fact that in their experiment expertise protected against bias tells us the extent to which one part of the brain can moderate the effects of biased reactions. Perhaps once we discover how biased our reactions have been, we can learn to create more just situations. Another worry I have about standard philosophical approaches is that they very often incorporate the easy idea that the content of beliefs has some causal power. As William Ramsey pointed out some time ago, philosophers have concentrated on how content can be found in the brain, and hardly at all on how it could do what it is supposed to do. This continues today with theories of concepts. I’m very inclined to agree with Machery that the philosophical project of assigning truth-conditions is irrelevant to the psychological sciences. But there are still worse problems. The computations of cognitive neuroscience are increasingly neural computations. There is a very big problem with fitting content into this picture. The problem is close to one raised by Kim: the causal work is done at the neural level, and content looks like an objectionable extra cause. In fact, I think the problem is worse than that. What brings in content in most philosophical accounts is just irrelevant to the neural story.

3:AM: So now we turn to your own ideas. In your paper ‘Dennett’s Dangerous Ideas:ediel science. Elements of a critique of Cognitivism’ you begin with the blunt statement, ‘Human beings do sometimes believe false generalisations about themselves… we have, or may have, false beliefs about our psychology.’ You give a thorough tour of the geography of this terrain. A key thinker for you, in that he helps set the terms of the discussion, is Steven Stich who claims that we may well not have beliefs and desires. Could you say something about how someone might think such a thing?

AJJ: We talk about beliefs and desires a lot, and it seems bizarre to say that that is all wrong. One sensible thing one might mean, though, is that beliefs and desires are not the natural kinds that we need for a deeper understanding of how the mind works. I do not think, as eliminativists are inclined to do, that we can simply give up such ways of talking. Our moral and prudential language is tied to our psychological ascriptions. I have tentatively distinguished between synthetic and analytic approaches, where the synthetic approach attempts to capture the phenomenology. The analytic approach looks more to the scientific explanations in a possible quite different language. I think we can expected there to be corrections in either direction.

3:AM: OK, so then you argue that there is a mistake at the very heart of recent philosophy of mind. You think this is a mistake inherited from eighteenth century thought and has been transplanted into the work of philosophers such as Dennett and Fodor. So first can you tell us about this error?

AJJ: Let me explain how my views have become enlarged, though not really changed. I thought for some time that I simply could not do philosophy of mind. I first encountered it in the taxonomies of Gilbert Ryle and Tony Kenny. Ryle was in fact my over-all BPhil supervisor at Oxford. Rather to my horror, I realised that, as it were, I was failing to grasp what it was to go on in the same way. It was completely eluding me. At that time, I was doing a lot of work on causation, and so I reckoned that I’d better stick to metaphysics and epistemology, which seemed to me more tractable. I now think that one problem was that mental terms were being assumed to have some unity that I now believe they do not. Though it seems wrong to say that Ryle thought beliefs were natural kinds, they at least could be the subject of a unified account.

My next encounter with philosophy of mind was at Rutgers in Jerry Fodor’s wonderful seminars. I was plagued by the same problem, however. In some deep way I could not grasp why one would want to think like that. At the same time, Dennett gave a talk at Rutgers and then later at University of Houston. It seemed all very clever, but utterly unbelievable. So I started to ask “why would one want to think this way,” partly in the hope that I would actually understand what everyone else seemed to find easy and attractive, but even more in the expectation that I’d come on to some fundamental flaw. While I was at Rutgers, I came to think that explanations of beliefs, actions and emotions in terms of reasons were not causal explanations, which was my first movement away from Fodor and Dennett. Conversations with Gavin Lawrence and Rosalind Hursthouse were very helpful to me at the time. “Why would you want to think like that” seemed an unpromising approach in a paper, so it turned into the more argumentative “why it is wrong to think like that.” I think that in fact Rupert Read contributed the title of the paper. And the error was to think that ordinary explanations of human behavior aim to be causal explanations.

3:AM: So how does this error infect Dennett and Fodor? They are not always on the same page regarding details but you say that they have both been contaminated. For people not in the know, it may be useful for you to say a little about the central theories of these two giants so we get the hang of what you’re arguing clear.

AJJ: At the time I wrote that paper, I was concerned with identifying two at least very questionable ideas that Dennett and Fodor appear to share, at least as we look at their views about what ordinary explanations of actions, emotions and beliefs actually mean. One is that we can read the ontology presupposed by such explanations off of logical form. The second is that such explanations are causal explanations. Thus, someone who says that Mary is angry because Sally lied believes that Mary has an internal state that caused the emotion and the internal state is a propositional attitude. That is, an internal that has or realises the content “Sally lied.” Of course, Dennet’s interpretation of what is really going on – in such explanations we are adopting a stance – moderates the position, but from my point of view, that difference is not a huge one. That is, I do not think such explanations are about causal interactions among such states.

I did have what was for me a quite remarkable experience in trying to understand mental representations in 1999. I decided to use some search engines to try to find all the uses of “mental representation” in philosophical and scientific literature. I also searched for any cognate of “represents” that seemed connected to the mind or the brain. I thought that if I went through them the penny would finally drop and I’d get why people were finding the term so useful and even illuminating. That did not happen. Rather, as I recount in a 2003 paper, I saw that outside of philosophy people were generally not using “represents” as a term fitting in with concepts like “reference,” “content” and “truth condition.” Rather, representations were samples of the world gotten into the head. Thus what I found was an alternative conception of representation, and indeed one I was very familiar with, since it occurs In Thomistic philosophy. This was very stunning.

Around that time I went to a lecture about perception in the monkey. The researcher pointed to a pattern on an fMRI scan and said, “This is the movement of the banana in the monkey’s brain.” Just what this might convey when taken literally and how it could change our ways of doing some philosophy of mind is the topic of Keeping the World in Mind. I’ve called these alternative representations “Aristotelian representations.”

3:AM: I take it that your paper ‘Empathy, primitive Reactions and the modularity of Emotion’ which examines the scope of Fodor’s claim about cognitive inpenetrability is part of your general skepticism about his approach? Is this right? Can you say something about what this issue is and why it matters.

AJJ: For me the most important part of the paper is its discussion of Aristotelian representations, and how starting with them gives one a way of theorising that challenges more standard views at a number of points. In empathising with someone, we may pick up their emotions. We get states that are not about their anger; rather, we get angry.

3:AM: So you propose looking at the issues from a different angle. It involves looking again at the supposition that psychological concepts name states with causal properties, and I think you suggest that there are elements of Anscombe’s account of intentionality that are helpful here. It seems that you’re working in similar terrain to that of those writing in the recent book on Anscombe’s Intention by Ford, Hornsby and Stoutland whereby Anscombe’s thinking is distanced from Davidson’s. Is that right? Can you say something about your arguments here?

AJJ: Of course, I was a student of Anscombe’s when I read and then reread and reread Intention. I have thought more and more that she was much less interested in instilling theses than she was in getting one to be able to do uncluttered philosophy. By that I mean she strongly emphasised not saying anything one did not really believe. This left her tutorials, sometimes three hours long, full of deep silences.

I have trouble reading a lot that has been written about Anscombe, with the exception of Candace Vogler’s work, which is not in that volume. One problem is that some people write without much appreciation of the fact that she really did not think an act was intentional just in case it has prior intentions. On this her work is completely clear, and very different indeed from Davidson’s. Another thing is that I suspect her thought is much more observational and unsystematic than many have found it. After all, she did not think that psychological terms were natural kind terms; her generalisations may be more correctly read as less strict than they seem. Indeed, the farther one moves from what she actually says in order to provide an explanatory framework, the more difficult it is to bring her work and the framework together.

I’m thinking here in part of McDowell’s paper in the collection. He does try to put together a systematic account of knowledge without observation, but in pulling in things from different parts of her work he ends up with something that may not be hers at all. To put it very briefly, he starts with the simple reading that Anscombe’s work encourages: if something is known without observation, one does not infer its existence from the existence of a sensation. He takes it that such a non-inferential account will get her in trouble with sense perception, when clearly one knows with observation, but not with making inferences. He then brings in passages from other work of hers to provide an answer in terms of primary and secondary qualities. However, there are ways around the perception problem that seem more Anscombean. For example, with sense perception there is an answer to the question “How do you know?” that is arguably lacking with the position of limbs. (Mind you, I don’t know what John would say in response.)

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 26th, 2012.