Neurofeminism and Anne Jaap Jacobson

A fantastic interview with Anne Jaap Jacobson was brought to my attention by Jane Henrici. This engaging, cross-disciplinary interview covers topics in neuroscience,  experimental philosophy, feminist philosophy, and introduces the implicit bias project.

Jacobson is professor of philosophy and electrical and computer engineering at Houston, as well as the Director of the Center for Neuro-Engineering and Cognitive Science there. She is co-editor of the 2012 collection Neurofeminism: Issues at the Intersection of Feminist Theory and Cognitive Science.

The 3:AM Magazine interview opens like this:

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.

Jacobson goes on to discuss her philosophical interests in the area of the cognitive sciences and of feminism. She has particular interest in experimental philosophy (for more on that, see the Wikipedia entry). She says:

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…

Like neuroanthropology, and its reciprocal engagement with neuroscience – both substantive and critical – Jacobson views the cognitive sciences as having much to offer philosphy:

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.

Experimental philosophy and cognitive science come together in the Implicit Bias & Philosophy Project. A fascinating project in itself, I also think it can be related to how anthropology addresses power, race, class, gender, and discrimination. Jacobson expounds upon how many people would sincerely describe themselves as not bigoted, and even as opposed to biased practices. However, she goes on to state that these same people:

[…]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?

Just this sort of discussion came up recently in a Savage Mind’s post Stop the silence, and some suggested reading, particularly in the comments. Discuss White Privilege and David Graeber led a pointed discussion on bias in academia. Bias is not something simply outside the academia, but a part of how we do our daily business, even midst people who might be seemingly more sensitive to how bias work.

Returning to the Jacobson interview, Jacobson turns to a discussion on her new book Neurofeminism: Issues at the Intersection of Feminist Theory and Cognitive Science and how neuroscience studies in the past have unintentionally reinforced sexist and reactionary views about gender.

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.

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.

Further reading by Jacobson includes her paper ‘Dennett’s Dangerous Ideas: elements of a critique of cognitivism’ which she begins frankly with, “Human beings do sometimes believe false generalisations about themselves… we have, or may have, false beliefs about our psychology…” and goes on to expound upon beliefs, desires and the human mind. She also has edited a new volume with a feminist critique of the philosophy of David Hume in which she brings together the philosophy of the mind and feminist philosophy.

Link to the 3:AM Anne Jaap Jacobson interview. Many thanks to Allison Hansell for her efforts in helping to put together this post.

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