Stanley Fish v. Feminist Theory & Cognitive Neuroscience


The connection is a matter of conjecture, but three things are not:

1.  Stanley Fish’s remark in the NY Times about how boring the run-up to the elections is turning out to be.  And his comment:

 It’s often been said that once a woman or an African-American wins the presidency, the obstacles attached to gender and race will just fade away. They already have. I’m not saying that no one will vote against Obama because he’s black; but everyone gets voted against for something, and now that we have gotten quite used to Obama, voting against him because he’s black will be just another ordinary exercise of prejudice, not a special or particularly notable one.

Let’s leave aside the extraordinary idea that the obstacles have faded and look at the claim that follows.  Since “everyone gets voted against for something,” a racist vote against Obama is just par for the course? What is so very hard to understand about the effects of racism or sexism? Voting against someone because you do not like the way they stare into the camera is very different from participating in a prejudice that ends up with a group of people most of whom are disadvantaged in comparison with those who escape the prejudice.

2. Feminist standpoint theory holds that those who live as a subordinate group can understand the world in ways not accessible to the normal understanding of the subordinating person. 

3.  Cognitive neuroscience has explored the many ways in which our capacities to, for example, move through a complex environment are grounded in neural connections almost all of which are below our awareness.  This morning I was thinking of an old example of Elizabeth Anscombe’s:  Someone is coming down a stair and stumbles at the end; they say, “O, I thought there was another step” even though no such thought would have occurred to them.  What this captures is the way that our bodies can embodied expectations of which we are usually unaware, but which it seems right to count as expectations about the environment.

So here’s the conjectured connection:  a lot of us have a knowledge of the effects of living as objects of prejudice and we have a deep bodily-based sense of it.  The expectations are often ones that feminists may spend a lot of effort to bring out and understand.  But the understanding itself is so hard to communicate  because it is a matter of connections that are often part of our quite fundamental ways of coping with our environment. 

The chances of Stanley Fish’s getting it are not that great unless he makes more of an effort than he seems to have done so far.  But we’ve tried to help here and here.