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The neurofeminist

3:AM: One of the fascinating things you’ve been part of is to reread the philosophical canon from a feminist perspective. In 2000 you edited the book Feminist interpretations of David Hume. This kind of locks together in exemplary form two of your passions – philosophy of mind and feminist philosophy. In that book there is talk of a double rereading. So through this new feminist lens Hume is reread to introduce new themes into the Hume scholarship and also reread to abandon the negative anti-constructivist image of traditional Hume scholarship. Can you say something about what a feminist perspective brings to Hume that the male gaze failed to see?

AJJ: One of the things I tried to do in my essay in that book is to question some of the values we bring to discussions of historical philosophers, and most especially Hume. As a group we are very inclined to think that logical purity is a strong philosophical ideal and that each philosopher struggles to be logically very pure. I doubt that many people would actually put it that way, but in fact just suggest, as I was doing in the 1990s, that Hume might knowingly be inconsistent, and the look of stark disapproval and even distaste you get is instructive.

That part of my work connects with a major theme in much feminist thought; it consists in rejecting a picture of the pure thinker that we get perhaps from Descartes, even though Descartes himself did not think the ultra-rational picture fitted many human minds.

Another feminist theme comes in when we try to see what constructive resources Hume has, if they are not in his mind. Here we get an emphasis on community. I think it was Annette Baier who introduced this theme into Hume studies; Jacqueline Taylor has really expanded it in important and original ways.

3:AM: You’ve edited a new book with a sensational title: Neurofeminism. This is an exciting area that combines neuroscience and feminism I believe. This is also a very serious domain where politics and science unavoidably mix. One of the issues that immediately strikes me is how lots of neuroscience studies in the past have inadvertently bolstered some pretty sexist and reactionary views about gender. Is this one of the motivations for doing this work, to find out if bad gender politics really is endorsed by science?

AKJ: I suspect the attitudes behind the essays are different on just this topic. I think it is particularly easy to read some of neuroscience as giving us a nearly revolutionary misconception of how to study the mind by people with an often sexist agenda, whether explicit or not. I tried to discourage such general indictment of neuroscience, because I think there is much in it that supports a very constructive and even Wittgensteinian-therapeutic project. Bad gender politics is endorsed in parts of the subject matter of almost every field, it can seem, with a few possible exceptions such as mathematics. Even there it is very worrying when that field can seem to work to keep itself pure in some ways, by excluding along the lines of race and gender. Having said that, I notice that the AMA (mathematics) is much more officially conscious of gender representation that the APA has so far been. In any case, I would say that the book falls very short of condemning neuroscience for being sexist. There are a number of cases, though, of bad science that are discussed. Some of it is pretty shocking. When I tell my psychology friends about how Simon Baron Cohen’s work looks after Giordana Grossi and Cordelia Fine have examined it, they are pretty dismayed. He is often said to be the world’s leading researcher on autism, and they have good arguments for saying his empirical work falls short of his conclusions. Other discussions, for example the papers by my co-editors, are more about bad interpretations of science, rather than faulty science itself.

3:AM: So what are you finding out through this new approach? Are the sexist interpretations of neuroscience just showing that the science is as sensitive to preconditions as everywhere else? Can you give some examples of the kinds of thing you and others have been looking at?

AJJ: I do think we should be loathed to take neuroscientists addressing questions of gender as characteristic of science. Gender is an immensely complicated phenomenon. Really, the wonder is that any scientist would be willing to speak so decisively about it, as unfortunately a number have. There have been some fine recent critiques of science and gender, which I’ll mention at the end of the interview. One topic that is address by Lloyd in my bibliography concerns gendered biases in evolutionary interpretations.

3:AM: In the collection you have a chapter where you ask whether ‘seeing’ is a social phenomenon. You link this to recent findings about human cognition that doubts whether human cognitive capacity is as relevant to what we do and think as is generally held to be. Can you say why feminist concerns are directly brought into view when this philosophical question is addressed?

AJJ: One of the questions that most interests me is the extent to which the intellectual excellence – or even competence – that our species is capable of is fundamentally social. Are we isolatable rational beings, or should we think of ourselves as inextricably social? So the worry is not really about human cognitive capacity, but about that of those who either are in practice or in theory isolated individuals. It is in fact quite stunning, I think, to find that much of the embodied movement in philosophy has left out the role of society or assigned it an ancillary role. Sue Campbell, who sadly recently died, is a notable exception. It has been a very important part of feminist philosophy to challenge the pervasive thesis that the human beings are at their best operating on their own and thinking purely rationally; equally, feminist thought is rich in its explorations of the role of the community in the creation of the individual.

There is also what I think of as a group of theorists in England, many of whom I do not know well, who pay a lot of attention to the role of the social in the constitution of the individual. Dan Hutto may be the best known, though I think I have learned most from Rupert Read, who is at East Anglia.

3:AM: So if our self-knowledge is as gappy as our seeing, so Alva Noe’s natural way of thinking about seeing as being like a photograph is no longer tenable, then I think you conclude that even seeing has a political dimension. You write, ‘arguing that we can understand perceptual reports as more like public performances than like reports on internal experiences goes on the ‘analytic’ side of project the project of providing a socially embodied theory of cognition. It prepares us, though, for the realization that our conception of vision can disguise many ways in which vision has a political dimension.’ Can you unpack this some more for us?

AJJ: I am unfortunately one of those people who loses things that are in plain sight. I found this all so puzzling. Don’t we just open our eyes and see what is before us. It was enlightening for me to read Noe criticising the natural tendency to view vision as giving us photographs, which is what I had been doing.

Noe emphasises our grasp of sensory-motor contingencies, but I think we also need to realise that we are taught to see things, where the teaching may look like simple labelling, but it is also highly evaluative. For example, I am embarrassed to admit that I was taught to see and evaluate different races of people in different ways. That seems to me a sadly effective way to teach racism; one does not look at members of other races in the same way as one looks at those of one’s own. I was honestly very shocked when my son asked me if I had noticed how beautiful African Americans are. I hadn’t, and felt pretty bad about that.

We may also be selective in what we teach children to see. I pretty much completely lack the categories for distinguishing among parts of a car engine; not so my brother, who had to take one apart before he could apply for a license. We now know that in selecting between what girls and boys see and do, we generally give boys a major head start on the ability to recognise rotations of objects, a skill that makes a difference on important tests of one’s intelligence.

3:AM: So pragmatically, what should we do to achieve change? If the whole social environment is sexist, then science will continue to appear to endorse sexism, won’t it? It does seem bleak.

AJJ: I have to say that I’ve found in cognitive neuroscience a great deal that has helped me make sense of my life and experience in a way other theories have not. I’ve also lived through enough to see major transformations in what the deliverances of science have been. So I have a perhaps simple but strong faith that nature will take its revenge when we get it very wrong in our theories. Nonetheless, there are many steps between nature’s objections and change, as we see today with issues about climate change. It is very important that the US regains a sense of the importance of evidence over ideology. On a more local level, it is also very important that in higher education, we start to value less the sheer exercise of power and value more the ability to create supportive, respectful communities.

3:AM: An arresting moment in the introduction to another new book of essays you have edited, Keeping the World in Mind, is when you are discussing the problem of representative theories of mind. Although alternatives that downplay or eradicate such a view of the mind are available you say, ‘this alternative is unavailable to me. I have worked closely with neuroscientists and neuropsychologists; the idea that we cannot learn a great deal from such researches about human cognition seems to have many more counterexamples than one would want to count.’

AJJ: I think this precise comment is absent from the present manuscript, but the spirit of it is there. I think just about all of the “embodied mind” theorists are immensely uncomfortable with neurosciences use of “representation.” One example is Noe’s heavy reliance on sensory-motor contingencies. In contrast, there has recently been a great deal of discussion among vision scientists about the role the brain plays in enabling us to see a stable world of objects when the input into the visual systems is a succession of fleeting, changing states. They cannot all be right, and perhaps none so far are, but it really should not all be written off. In fact, my colleague, Haluk Ogmen, has developed an important account which has the implication that the space of objects we construct is Einsteinian, not Newtonian. I think philosophers should not be missing out on such views.

3:AM: Of course a the place of women in philosophy has been discussed widely recently. What are your impressions and experiences and what can and should be done?

AJJ: Interestingly in her 3:AM interview Pat Churchland recounts that when she started, she and Paul resolved that they would not write anything together, since then she would be seen as just his adjunct, as it were. She says that things are much better now, but in my experience that and other problems remain. I am right now dealing with some people who insist that a man in engineering I work closely with on a center we created together is my superior and I am merely his assistant. In fact, a few years ago an anonymous letter from some people obviously in my department was sent to him to warn him off involving me in a project that I in fact created. People seem to be uncertain about whether a woman can do science, and dead certain that a female philosopher has no place in that world.

I could recount a host of other insults, some quite large and some small, and the very worst of it all is that it accomplishes just about nothing, saps one’s strength and weakens one’s morale. This is happening to women in philosophy across the country. When I recently felt I was being done substantial harm, I hired a lawyer. I have since learned I know a number of successful women who have finally gone the same route. The American History Association’s 2005 report on the Status of Women notes that among senior women in their field:

“There is more than enough resignation, bitterness, disillusionment, and discouragement to warrant a more serious and extensive consideration of gender in the profession than we were able to carry out in this survey. … The profession as a whole should be concerned that so many successful women feel they have suffered from gender discrimination. Female talent is being squandered in fights over large and small issues that could be ameliorated by the attentiveness of administrators, department chairs, and colleagues, and the establishment of more transparent institutional procedures.”

And history is supposed to be much better than philosophy. As numerous studies are pointing out, we badly need administrators who will not accept what can amount to a prolonged harassment of women.

3:AM: And finally, have you been influenced by fiction – novels, films and the like – in your work?

AJJ: I am certainly a reader, in the sense that there is always a novel I am in the process of reading. I think that the novels I’ve read have encouraged my skepticism that philosophers are very good at describing “folk psychology.” Novels also often present very different views of women; women in novels occupied roles of power in the business world for sometime before that was very realistic. And for me some science fiction writers were influential. Clifford Simak played with ontological categories in a way that was quite fascinating, and certainly reinforced my own doubts about the use of sorts as essential for much at all.

3:AM: And finally finally, could you recommend five great books for the feminists here at 3:AM wanting to get more on your area of work (discounting your own books of course, which everyone will be out buying straight after reading this!.

AJJ: Cordelia Fine: Delusions of Gender. I think this book is a must read if one wants to see how biology and gender relate. Elizabeth Lloyd: The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution, is a very fine study of bias in the use of evolutionary theory. Helen Longino’s Studying Human Behavior: How Scientists Investigate Aggression and Sexuality is not out yet, but I expect to learn a great deal from it. Philippa Foot: Natural Goodness, she was so gifted at seeing important questions. Lorraine Code has many more recent books, but for me a particularly mind-changing one was: What Can She Know?: Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge?

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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