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.

11 thoughts on “Stanley Fish v. Feminist Theory & Cognitive Neuroscience

  1. Obama’s ethnicity is not the issue. The fact that he’s black is totally inconsequential to me. I wouldn’t vote for him because he’s a liberal.

  2. It would be great to keep to the topics of the post. It is not about liberals v. conservatives.

  3. Re: Stanley Fish, I still, almost, cannot believe he said that. Almost. And people have critisized the racism of working class white Americans! Ha!

  4. I know it’s not about Liberals vs Conservatives. It’s about manufacturing reasons to “psychologically blackmail” people to vote for him so that they won’t be accused of being racist. The problem is that some will vote for him for this reason and not be capable of withstanding the peer pressure to reason out the thought process on their own. I would imagine that this tactic would fall right in line with the “Feminist Theory” as you all must adapt measures to win by wiles as opposed to strength. Both physical and strength of character.

  5. Oh those wiles can be SO strong though. Look how they’ve managed to suck you in and wrap you up in their tentacles so well that you can’t escape, davisotheapes. You want to let go of this conversation in which you are the clear loser, but you just can’t.

  6. OK, time to take a stronger line on this. No more comments unless they’re *genuinely* relevant!

  7. This post was meant to be about how difficult it is to acquire knowledge of prejudice directed against a group if one is a member of the oppressor group.

    The idea that there is knowledge that is difficult or impossible to articulate is actually a philosophically problematic idea and I’m exploring it in fact in recent work. The problem is that such knowledge does not look like a skill or ability (knowing how), but if it is a low level unconceptualized matter, there it is difficult to see how it can count as factual knowledge (knowing that).

    I think the Anscombe case I cited above may be important; that is, it may be that ‘our’ use of mentalistic terms may outstrip what is ‘allowed’ in formal philosophy.

  8. David, your last comment was removed. You will not be able to comment here for a week.

  9. jj, could you categorize it as a “habit,” in the pragmatist sense? That may not work for the Anscombe case, but it may work for cases of prejudice/racism.

  10. E – interesting suggestion. I was unaware until I googled for a tiny bit that the pragmatist notion of habit has quite a role in some social theories. Here’s what one source said:

    The routinization of human behavior—habit—is the potent force
    behind socialization. And indeed, the word “habit” is widely used in precisely this sense:
    as a kind of automatic, unreflective undertaking that is rationality’s diametrical opposite.
    To function habitually, then, is to function unthinkingly, irrationally.

    This is from:, of whose reliability I have little idea, actually.

    If that’s what you meant, I think I had something a bit different in mind. Maybe a simpler example is this: we have recognitional capacities that are difficult to impossible to describe in terms of rules and facts. And they are impressive; I think human recognition of words still outdoes voice recognition technology, for example. Some of it can be retrieved and expressed as propositional knowledge; e.g., I might be able to tell you about the characteristics of the Australian pronounciation of “good day” without using anything like that in hearing an Australian.

    In fact, it’s usually impossible to teach the recognition skills (as far as I know) except through experience.

    So my thought was really that maybe it can be so hard for a member of the subordinating group to understand prejudice’s effects because the understanding of those effects requires experience of them. And we might miss this because we can articulate some of it as propositional knowledge. So we wonder how they fail to get those propositions in their heads.

    The comparison to recognition, though, makes it look more like a skill. Perhaps that’s all right.

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