Feminists never bought the idea of a mind set free from its body

#1
https://aeon.co/essays/feminists-never-b...m-its-body

EXCERPT: . . . It’s easy to roll our eyes at such outré displays of entitlement, seemingly endemic in the Silicon Valley set. Beyond Serge Faguet, ‘transhumanist’ true believers awaiting their version of the rapture include the entrepreneur Elon Musk, the Googler Ray Kurzweil and the philosopher Nick Bostrom. Their transhumanist ideal resembles a late-capitalist rendering of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man: an individual super-human, armed with a wealth of cognitive and physical enhancements, elevated to a state of unassailable strength and power, devoid of all dependency, and, often enough, endowed with the ability to reproduce without the inconvenience of women. As they describe it, ‘immortality’ sounds like nothing so much as manspreading into the future.

What’s most instructive about transhumanism, though, isn’t what it exposes about the hubris of rich white men. It’s the fact that it represents a paradigm case of what happens when a particular cast of mind, made from the sediment of centuries of philosophy, gets taken to its logical extreme. Since Plato, generations of philosophers have been gripped by a fear of the body and the desire to transcend it – a wish that works hand-in-hand with a fear of women, and a desire to control them. [...] With the advent of modernity and the Enlightenment, this wish to detach from the material became a self-consciously scientific and rational enterprise. Spiritual transcendence wasn’t the point: the aim instead was to attain a vantage that offered an unimpeded vista on the natural world.

No wonder feminist thinkers have been so skeptical about attempts to raise ‘rationality’ above all else. The concept of reason itself is built on a profoundly gendered blueprint. But a surprising rapprochement might be in sight: between feminists who criticise the mind/matter split, and certain philosophers and scientists who are now trying to put them back together. Fresh theories and findings about human cognition suggest that those feminised zones of physicality, emotion and desire not only affect the way we think, but are the very constituents of thought itself. So while some might yet hanker for an escape from our failing flesh, the best we can hope for is what the American biologist and feminist theorist Donna Haraway calls ‘staying with the trouble’: not flight and transcendence, but remaining with our messy bodies, and transgressing them.

[...] The American philosopher Martha Nussbaum extends a version of Simone de Beauvoir’s analysis in her book "Political Emotions" (2013). Drawing on child and developmental psychology, Nussbaum says that the human condition is framed by an awareness of vulnerability on the one hand, and the desire to change and control our reality on the other. This inescapable bind creates a universal impulse towards narcissism and disgust, she says. We feel disgust at our own mortal and fleshly nature, and at any reminders of our finitude and fragility as creatures. So we subordinate others in order to project onto them all the qualities that we wish to deny in ourselves – that they are base, animal, Other – while we imagine ourselves as transcending to the realm of the mighty, truly Human.

Armed with these arguments, feminists appear to face a stark choice. They can argue that women should be allowed to ascend from their denigrated state to the domain of the fully free and rational human [...] Just as men are not defined by their bodies, nor should we be. Alternatively, a feminist might reject this standard of humanity as hopelessly tainted and patriarchal, and suggest instead that we embrace the particularity of ‘female’ qualities. [...] Yet both camps fall into the trap of thinking that the body is somehow primeval and immutable – a substrate, a ‘given’ that can’t be changed or questioned.

In the 1980s, this presumption helped to push feminism’s focus towards gender, the set of social roles and practices that women are encouraged to perform, as distinct from their biological sex. The partition of women’s condition into sex and gender gave activists a way to demonstrate the effects of social norms and to wrest authority away from ‘the natural’. This strategy was undeniably transformative, but it also came at a cost. [...] it meant that if some area of the relations between men and women was to be transformed – childrearing, the workplace, sexuality – feminists had to accuse gender, not sex, as the underlying cause of the problem. In this way, we transformed an anxiety about a determinism of nature into an equally untenable claim about the determinism of culture.

Meanwhile, as feminists turned their attention away from the life sciences, deeming them suspect beyond redemption, biologists and evolutionary psychologists continued to expand their influence and capture the attention of the public and policymakers. Sex became the ‘Achilles’ heel’ of feminism, as the American biologist and feminist theorist Anne Fausto-Sterling wrote in 2005: "We relegated it to the domain of biology and medicine, and biologists and medical scientists have spent the past 30 years expanding it into arenas we firmly believed to belong to our ally gender. Hormones, we learn (once more), cause naturally more assertive men to reach the top in the workplace. Rape is a behaviour that can be changed only with the greatest difficulty because it is wired somehow into men’s brains. The relative size of eggs and sperm dictate that men are naturally polygamous and women naturally monogamous. And more."

In other words, a feminist suspicion of instrumental scientific reasoning about the body – especially the sexed body – was totally understandable, but somewhat shortsighted.

In the face of this ‘oil spill of sex’, Fausto-Sterling thought that feminists face a different sort of choice. Either they can push back against each claim about the causal role of the biological body. Or they can grapple with the reality of a body made up of cells and nerves and tissues, but still look critically at how bodies absorb and are inscribed by culture – how physiology and society, nature and nurture, are constantly co-creating each other, to the point where it doesn’t make sense to look at either of them in isolation.

[...] Computational thinking remains dominant within cognitive science and philosophy of mind. But new frontiers are opening up that view the body as something more than just a brain-carrying robot. In doing so, they have created the potential for alliances with feminist thinkers influenced by the likes of Fausto-Sterling. Within a broad church that can be called – not uncontentiously – embodied cognition, a growing number of psychologists, scientists and theorists are approaching mental life as something that is not just contingent on, but constituted by, the state of our bodies.

[...] It takes only a small leap to see the political potential of embodied cognition for feminists seeking a path out of the quagmire of sex and gender – or indeed any other critical social theorists keen to overthrow falsely naturalised and unjust hierarchies. Embodied cognition allows us to recognise the agency of biology without ceding the significance of power or politics. In her essay ‘Throwing Like a Girl’ (1980), the American philosopher Iris Marion Young cites empirical research suggesting that women playing sport are more likely than men to perceive a ball to be coming at them, aggressively, rather than towards them; they also tend not to trust their bodies, and to experience their limbs as awkward encumbrances rather than tools to help them realise their aims. Drawing on the work of de Beauvoir, Young suggests that female bodily experience is often rooted ‘in the fact that feminine existence experiences the body as a mere thing – a fragile thing, which must be picked up and coaxed into movement, a thing that exists as looked at and acted upon.’ But Young denies that this state of affairs is in any way natural, or that it flows from something intrinsic to female biology; instead, she says, such feelings are byproducts of how women learn to live in their bodies. One therefore doesn’t need some essential definition of ‘female’ to accept that embodiment matters, and to see how it shapes and can be shaped by culture.

[...] While computationalism has dominated mainstream psychology for decades, this countercurrent of emotional and embodied approaches on the mind has continued to pulse beneath the surface. [...] One of the most recent, and increasingly influential, strands of the embodied picture concerns the role of expectations in shaping our experience. Rather than building up a picture of the world from the ‘bottom up’ using sensory data, a growing body of work in cognitive science indicates that we often construct the world by creating models that allow us to predict it from the ‘top down’. [...] These models are born of feedback loops as well as sifting out information that does not conform to our predictions. For that reason, we also tend to act in a way that ensures our sense-data matches what we expect.

[...] All this talk of expectations and affordances leads to a potentially troublesome consequence: cognition can no longer be cleaved apart neatly from politics. If I am black, my prediction of what a police officer might afford me is likely to be very different to that of my white friend, as well as eliciting very different felt responses and perceptions. Undoing such expectations (which it might well be reasonable for me to hold) is not just a matter of changing my beliefs, but of modifying longstanding embodied reactions. Similarly, as a woman, I might not expect a dark and deserted street to afford me walking down it at night, while my male partner might feel entirely at ease in that space. The fact that I feel myself to be vulnerable, in a very visceral way, means that I will avoid putting myself in that position, and so my predictions will be tacitly reinforced. The embodied world, as each of us encounters it, is a product of such self-reinforcing causal loops.

Does embodied cognition get us feminists any closer to a recipe for women’s emancipation – one that avoids an unappetising choice between the unmoored human universal on the one hand, and an essentialist concept of ‘the female’ on the other? There are certainly hints of what a more malleable and creative feminist biopolitics might look like.... (MORE - details)
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#2
Quote:Feminists never bought the idea of a mind set free from its body

Well, of course not.

'Feminism' is a current of post-sixties cultural-political thought that tries to make "gender" into the central and fundamental consideration in thinking about anything, the conceptual lens through which any conceivable subject must be perceived and understood. So before any question can even be considered from a feminist perspective, it must be "gendered" (their word).

What's more, the female gender is their primary focus. So everything must be "gendered" from what they take to be the female point of view. (Leaving aside for a moment whether there is such a thing, what that idea suggests about essentialism, let alone why a female perspective should be privileged.)

Since femaleness seems to be most obviously a function of possessing female bodies, feminists have always been attracted to philosophies of embodiment. Their whole feminist worldview kind of presupposes it and revolves around it.

Having said that, I think that embodied cognition in cognitive science is a valuable hypothesis, very possibly true and well worth further exploration.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Embodied_cognition

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/embodied-cognition

The SEP formulates the "embodiment thesis" this way:

"Embodiment thesis: Many features of cognition are embodied in that they are deeply dependent upon characteristics of the physical body of an agent, such that the agent's beyond-the-brain body plays a significant causal role, or a physically constitutive role, in that agent's cognitive processing."

In other words, adherents of this view of cognitive science don't imagine the mind in grand spiritual isolation from the body, but rather see the brain and body as parts of a single brain-body biological organism or system.

So it's easy to see why feminist "philosophers" picked up on this idea as something that could provide them with intellectual justification for their feminist theses, that they already held for very different reasons.
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#3
(Jun 8, 2019 06:24 AM)C C Wrote: [...] While computationalism has dominated mainstream psychology for decades, this countercurrent of emotional and embodied approaches on the mind has continued to pulse beneath the surface. [...] One of the most recent, and increasingly influential, strands of the embodied picture concerns the role of expectations in shaping our experience. Rather than building up a picture of the world from the ‘bottom up’ using sensory data, a growing body of work in cognitive science indicates that we often construct the world by creating models that allow us to predict it from the ‘top down’. [...] These models are born of feedback loops as well as sifting out information that does not conform to our predictions. For that reason, we also tend to act in a way that ensures our sense-data matches what we expect.

[...] All this talk of expectations and affordances leads to a potentially troublesome consequence: cognition can no longer be cleaved apart neatly from politics. If I am black, my prediction of what a police officer might afford me is likely to be very different to that of my white friend, as well as eliciting very different felt responses and perceptions. Undoing such expectations (which it might well be reasonable for me to hold) is not just a matter of changing my beliefs, but of modifying longstanding embodied reactions. Similarly, as a woman, I might not expect a dark and deserted street to afford me walking down it at night, while my male partner might feel entirely at ease in that space. The fact that I feel myself to be vulnerable, in a very visceral way, means that I will avoid putting myself in that position, and so my predictions will be tacitly reinforced. The embodied world, as each of us encounters it, is a product of such self-reinforcing causal loops.

Does embodied cognition get us feminists any closer to a recipe for women’s emancipation – one that avoids an unappetising choice between the unmoored human universal on the one hand, and an essentialist concept of ‘the female’ on the other? There are certainly hints of what a more malleable and creative feminist biopolitics might look like.... (MORE - details)

Do you think that feminism has inspired a great deal of change over the decades? It is a given that physical traits fit into the embodiment idea and shapes our expectations, but should we should put much emphasis on it? I agree that modification is needed but I don't think we could reach that given a large amount of personal prejudices.
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#4
(Jun 10, 2019 02:22 PM)Ostronomos Wrote: Do you think that feminism has inspired a great deal of change over the decades? It is a given that physical traits fit into the embodiment idea and shapes our expectations, but should we should put much emphasis on it? I agree that modification is needed but I don't think we could reach that given a large amount of personal prejudices.


There's no single feminist ideology currently and historically, but literally scores of formulations and differing sub-classifications of movements. Some crossing over into allegiances with suspect political orientations or unsound pseudosciences. A lived, informal, or non-abstract promotion of sexuality equality is probably subsisting in the realm of everyday behavior/routine, but it paradoxically couldn't be articulated and defined in detail without outputting yet another categorized doctrine thereafter posited as regulating it.

Technologically reshaping the human body and hybridizing it with machines actually is an aspect of transhumanism, so it seems ironic that the article concludes on that note. Which in the context of embodied cognition would change the sensibilities one had in the original, unaltered, or former body.

That we already have limited, surgical and chemical body changing at least modestly undermines the pervasive slash deliberate patriarchal conspiracy element and the war on such that the most passionate feminist ideologies subscribe to. I mean, why would a privileged male want to discard that status and become a member of the "enslaved" sex? Or the vice-versa of a once female now male thus joining the male establishment and acquiring its privileges, which is essentially validating such an unbalanced tradition? (At least in an ideal world, setting aside any bigotry against trans-people.) The radical feminists pejoratively labeled "TERFs" seem to roundaboutly if not directly be conscious of the inconsistency or where such trends are going, but are denounced by other feminists and social-justice critics.

Embodied cognition will tend toward if not entail relativism, since the "felt responses, perceptions, and perspectives" of an individual are mutable according to the type of body one has. Brigid Hains has realized the latter in contrast to George Lakoff, below, who reflexively didn't even take into account[*] how male/female bodies differ, much less animals and the modified humans of the future who in some instances won't even be humanoid. ([*] Or Lakoff didn't need to explore that at the time of that interview.) He does, however, recognize that our concepts or "formerly abstract but now concrete" apparatus for understanding would be contingent -- the product of human body organization -- rather than being globally independent of us (the Platonic tradition).

So a potential virtue of the old, so-called "disembodied" mishmash of functionalism, computational thought, and scheme-oriented view of "mind" they want to discard is that the latter could be converted (sci-fi wise) to a transferable information structure that arguably encouraged a stable or objective POV; and universally applicable conception of cognition, regardless of the varying vessels it was downloaded into.

- - -

George Lakoff: What we conclude is that mathematics as we know it is a product of the human body and brain; it is not part of the objective structure of the universe - this or any other. [And similarly other ideas, systems.] It is important to know that we create mathematics and to understand just what mechanisms of the embodied mind make mathematics possible. It gives us a more realistic appreciation of our role in the universe. We, with our physical bodies and brains, are the source of reason, the source of mathematics, the source of ideas. We are not mere vehicles for disembodied concepts, disembodied reason, and disembodied mathematics floating out there in the universe. That makes each embodied human being (the only kind) infinitely valuable - a source not a vessel. It makes bodies infinitely valuable - the source of all concepts, reason, and mathematics. --Philosophy In The Flesh ... Edge 51, Feb 1999
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