Philosophy

The in(human) gaze and robotic carers

Google search “robot carers” and you’ll find extremely hyped up articles and think pieces on either how robot carers are just another way of dying even more miserably or how robot carers are saving the elderly from the lives of loneliness and nothing much in between. Not much nuance. Neither is right, of course. Robot carers shouldn’t be dismissed at first hand as the end of human connections and neither should they be overhyped as the flawless substitutes for human care.

I think they can be useful and practical and even preferable to a human carer in some cases while they cannot (and most likely never will) substitute human care and connection in other aspects. The human gaze is my reason for thinking that.

But first let me say a little about the Inhuman Gaze conference, which provoked me to think about robot care givers. The conference took place last week (6th – 9th June) in Paris. It was a diverse and multidisciplinary conference that brought together philosophers, neuroscientists, psychiatrists (scholars and practitioners alike) with the common theme of the inhuman gaze. Over the four days, speakers presented their philosophical arguments, empirical studies and clinical case studies, each from their own perspective, what the human/inhuman gaze is and its implication for the sense of self. I, myself, presented my argument for why other’s gaze (human or otherwise) is a crucial constituent to “self”. I looked at solitary confinement as an example. In solitary confinement (complete isolation or significantly reduced intersubjective contact), prisoners suffer from negative physical and psychological effects including confusion, hallucination and gradual loss of sense of self. The longer (and more intense) the solitary confinement goes, the more the pronounced the negative effects, leading to gradual loss of sense of self.

The reason for gradual loss of self in the absence of contact with others, Bakhtin would insist, is that the self is dependent on others for its existence. The self is never a self-contained and self-sustaining entity. It simply cannot exist outside the web of relations with others. Self-narrative requires not only having something to narrate but also having someone to narrate it to. To be able to conceptualize my self as a meaningful whole, which is fundamental to self-individuation and self-understanding, I need an additional, external perspective – an other.  The coherent self is put under threat in solitary confinement as it is deprived of the “other”, which is imperative for its existence. The gaze of another, even when uncaring, is an affirmation of my existence.

So, what is an inhuman gaze? A gaze from non-human objects: like the gaze of a wall in a solitary confinement? The gaze of a CCTV camera (although there often is a human at the other end of a CCTV camera)? or a gaze from a human but one that is objectifying and dehumanizing? For example, the gaze from a physician who’s performing an illegal organ harvesting where the physician treats the body that she’s operating on like an inanimate object? Let’s assume an inhuman gaze is the gaze of non-human objects for now. Because the distinctiveness of the human gaze (sympathizing, caring, objectifying or humanizing) is important to the point that I am trying to make. The human gaze, unlike the inhuman gaze, is crucial to self-affirmation.

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From Channel 4’s sci-fi robot series Humans

Robot caregivers and the human gaze…

Neither the extreme alarmist nor the uncritical enthusiast help elucidate the pitfalls and potential benefits of robot caregiving. Whether robotic caregiving is a revelation or a doom depends on the type of care one needs. Roughly speaking, we can categorize care that robots can provide into two general categories. First one is physical or mechanical care – for example., fetching medicine or changing elderly patients into incontinence wear. The second one, on the other hand is companionship (to elderly people or children) where the aim might be to provide emotional support.

Now, robotic care might be well suited for the physical or mechanical type of care. In fact, some people might prefer a robot dealing with such physical task as incontinence care or any similar task that they are no longer able to perform themselves. Such care, when provided by a human, might be embarrassing and humiliating for some people. Not only is the human gaze capable of deep understanding and sympathy but also the potential to humiliate and intimidate. The robotic gaze, on the other hand, having no intrinsic values, is not judgemental. So, in the case of physical and mechanical care, the absence of the human gaze does not necessarily result in a significant negative effect. In fact, it might be desirable when we are in a vulnerable position where we feel we might be humiliated.

On the contrary, if companionship and emotional support are the types of care that we are looking for, the value and judgement free robotic gaze will simply not do. We are profoundly social, dynamic and embodied beings who continually strive to attribute meaning and value to the world. If we are to ascribe an ‘essence of the human condition’, it is that that our being in the world is thoroughly interdependent with the existence of others and context where we continually move and negotiate between different positions. True companionship and emotional connection requires intrinsic recognition of emotions, suffering, happiness, and the like. A proper emotional and ethical relation to the other (and the acceptance of genuine responsibility) requires the presence of a loving and value-positing consciousness, and not a value-free, objectifying gaze.

True human companionship and emotional support cannot be programmed into a robot no matter how advanced our technologies can become, for companionship and emotional connection require sense-making and a value-positing consciousness. Sense-making is an active, dynamic and partly open undertaking – and therefore a never-ending process – not a matter of producing and perceiving mappings of reality which can then be codified into a software.  The human gaze affords mutual understanding of what being a human is like. Recognition of emotions, suffering, etc., requires recognition of otherness based on mutual understanding. The human gaze recognizes an ‘other’ human gaze. As Hans Jonas has put it succinctly in ‘The Phenomenon of Life’, “only life can know life … only humans can know happiness and unhappiness.” 

 

 

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A foetus is not a person

As the referendum on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland fast approaches, misinformation and misunderstanding (both deliberate and unintentional) continue to circulate on a massive scale, both on social media platforms and on the forest of posters that line every road and street. The rhetorical weapons used by the Vote No campaign are subtle and powerful. Consequently, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from mere propaganda, and sound argument from mere rhetoric.

Unsurprisingly, the stakes are high. For those seeking to remove the Eighth Amendment, the basic right to bodily autonomy for women and girls is at stake. For those seeking to maintain the status quo, the power to control, limit and punish women and girls – the basic aims of misogyny – seem to be slipping away. Emotions run high.

One clearly fallacious argumentative strategy used by the Vote No campaign is the use of various “slippery slope” arguments. For example, they argue that if abortion is legalized, then it will lead to terminations of all pregnancies with life limiting conditions; or that if abortion up to 12 weeks is legalized, then there is no guarantee that it won’t be extended to 20 weeks, or to 9 months, or indeed lead to the legalisation of infanticide.

There are a number of problems with these arguments. First, they are empirical, causal arguments: they tell us that if such-and-such state of affairs comes about, then a certain effect will follow. But we should only believe such arguments on the basis of empirical evidence: in particular, only if the relevant kind of state of affairs really has led to the relevant sort of effect in the past. And this evidence simply does not exist: there is no evidence that once the termination of pregnancy under certain circumstances is legalised in a jurisdiction, the effects claimed in the various slippery slope arguments come about.

Moreover, the first example above – that if abortion is legalized, then it will lead to terminations of all pregnancies with life limiting conditions – assumes that the only purpose of abortion is to terminate pregnancies with life limiting conditions. How does termination of pregnancies for reasons other than life limiting conditions fare based on this logic? A foetus’s life limiting conditions is not the sole reason for abortion, and prohibiting abortion in general in order to prevent termination of pregnancies with life limiting conditions makes no sense, since not all terminations are due to life limiting conditions of the foetus.

Furthermore – and this cannot be emphasised enough – abortion happens whether it is legal or not. So criminalizing abortion does not solve any problems – it simply creates more misery and suffering. Criminalizing abortion deprives women and girls of access to safe and legal abortion, and forces them to seek other unsafe means of terminating unwanted pregnancies.

This is an important point: the effect of legalising abortion is not to allow access to abortion where there was none, but rather to make abortion safe.

Finally, voting no to repeal the Eighth Amendment is actively deciding to take away a woman’s right to autonomy over her body. Since legalizing abortion is giving women the right to decide for themselves, neutrality is an expression of satisfaction with the status quo – which currently either forces women either to travel to seek termination, to go through the procedure illegally and unsafely, or forces (using the power of the State) women to carry pregnancy to full term.

Personhood: The Western Christian View vs dialogical views

Arguments about how Irish society’s most vulnerable (working class women, women of colour) are most affected by the lack of safe and legal abortion, or how the criminalizing of abortion in Ireland deprives women of their reproductive rights, are ongoing and familiar within the abortion debate.

What we want to address here is the (mis)conception (which is the basis of some anti-abortion arguments) that a foetus is a person with a right to life equivalent to that of a fully-fledged adult. This follows from the argument that life begins at conception, and that life guarantees personhood. It is a consequence of this line of thinking that as soon as conception occurs, there exist two independent lives (the foetus and the pregnant woman) with equal rights.

Even if we grant that life begins at conception, the idea of equating of life with personhood is a wholly misguided one, which has its roots in the Western Christian notion of a soul. A person, according to this doctrine, is a totally autonomous, self-contained entity that exists independent of others. This view is generally known as “individualistic” and to a large extent attributed to the 17th-century French philosopher, René Descartes. This conception of selfhood is not only problematic but on a closer inspection fails to provide logical support for the argument that a foetus is a person. A foetus is clearly not a totally autonomous and self-sufficient entity, and therefore cannot be granted personhood.

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Alternatively, dialogical perspectives of selfhood provide a radically different view of personhood – one that views other people as imperative pillars of the self. According to dialogical perspectives, which stand in sharp contrast to the individualistic notion of personhood, we need and rely on others in order to construct and sustain our sense of self. We are inextricably inseparable from those around us, and continually develop and change through intersubjective interaction with others. Our self-knowledge comes from others and continually develops through our daily intersubjective interactions with others and our environment. As the Russian intellectual Mikhail Bakhtin put it:

“Within my own consciousness, my “I” has no beginning and no end. The only way I know of my birth is through accounts I have of it from others; and I shall never know my death, because my “self” will be alive only so long as I have consciousness – what is called my death will not be known by me, but once again by others. While the birth and death of others appear to be irreversibly real.”

Without others, the very core of our existence is threatened and solitary confinement is a grim and harrowing example of this. With the view of a person as a process (rather than an entity) continually developing and changing and interdependent with others, we might then grant a foetus some status of personhood but one that is not on a par with a fully-fledged adult and, furthermore, one that is entirely dependent on others (the pregnant woman or girl to be specific) for its existence and identity.

The idea of a continually changing self (which is dependent on others for its existence) can be troubling, especially since it seems to remove the apparent total autonomy that we typically take for granted, especially within individualistic cultures.

In non-individualistic cultures – where others are seen as pivotal constituents of the self, communal values are prior to individual ones, and we are before I am (or as the Kenyan-born philosopher John Mbiti put it ‘I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am’) – the collective comes before the individual. Responsibility, for example, is distributed among every member of the community, and not something that is left up to individual parents.

In Ethiopia, for example, where I grew up, the manifestation of the sentiment ‘the collective before the individual’ can be seen in the values placed around abortion and child-rearing. While less emphasis is put on the status of the foetus (and the decision mainly left up to the grown adult – the pregnant woman or girl –  who is not equated with a foetus) more emphasis is put on the responsibility of each member of the community in raising a child. If, for example, an adult sees a school child skipping school, responsibility to advise that child and send them back to school is assumed. Members of that community are active participants in the upbringing of all children. This is in stark contrast to more individualistic cultures, where people make it their business to monitor pregnant bodies during pregnancy and (in the Irish case) force women or girls to carry pregnancy to full term, but take little or no responsibility for a baby when it has been born.

Coming back our point about abortion and the implication of the idea of personhood as a process that continually develops with complete dependence on others (gradually becoming less dependent) is that the foetus, being the early stage of the process, in not a person similar to that of a fully-fledged adult.

The response that is often raised by the anti-abortionists to this is that “when does a foetus become a person?”, “at what point does transformation from foetus to a person occur?”

This unfortunately is an ill-framed and irrelevant question, philosophically speaking. Personhood is a process that develops over time through intersubjective dialogical relationships with others. Not an all-or-nothing entity that either exists or doesn’t. Not something you have or don’t have. Looking for a specific time when a foetus becomes a person is therefore misguided.

The anti-abortion argument that a foetus has a right to life in the same sense that a pregnant woman or girl has then lies on philosophically erroneous conceptions of personhood. Given that personhood is a process of continual development that is sustained in interaction with others, it is a mistake to think that the foetus (which is considerably less developed and immensely dependent on the pregnant women) is a person in the same way – and to the same degree – that the pregnant woman or girl is.

This blogpost is co-written by Abeba Birhane, Cognitive Science PhD candidate at University College Dublin and Dr. Daniel Deasy, Lecturer in Philosophy at University College Dublin.

Resources – on automated systems and bias

Last updated: 20/07/2018

If you are a data scientist, a software developer, or in the social and human sciences with interest in digital humanities, then you’re no stranger to the ongoing discussions on how algorithms embed and perpetuate human biases. Ethical considerations and critical engagement are urgently needed.

I have keenly been following these discussions for a while and this post is an attempt to put together the articles, books, book reviews, videos, interviews, twitter threads and so on., that I’ve come across, in one place so they can be used as resources.

This list is by no means exhaustive and as we are becoming more and more aware of the catastrophic consequences of these technologies, more and more pieces/articles/journal papers are being written about it on a daily basis. I plan to update this site regularly. Also, if you think there are relevant material that I have not included, please leave them as a comment and I will add them.

Books

Weapons of math destruction: how big data increases inequality and threatens democracy by Cathy O’Neil. A great number of the article on the list below are written by O’Neil. She is also active on Twitter regularly posting links and interesting critical insights on everything to do with mathematical models and bias. Here is my own review of O’Neil’s book with plenty of relevant links itself and here for another excellent review of O’Neil’s book.

Algorithms of oppressionAlgorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce – below is an excerpt from Nobel’s book:

Run a Google search for “black girls”—what will you find? “Big Booty” and other sexually explicit terms are likely to come up as top search terms. But, if you type in “white girls,” the results are radically different. The suggested porn sites and un-moderated discussions about “why black women are so sassy” or “why black women are so angry” presents a disturbing portrait of black womanhood in modern society.
In Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble challenges the idea that search engines like Google offer an equal playing field for all forms of ideas, identities, and activities. Data discrimination is a real social problem; Noble argues that the combination of private interests in promoting certain sites, along with the monopoly status of a relatively small number of Internet search engines, leads to a biased set of search algorithms that privilege whiteness and discriminate against people of color, specifically women of color.

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Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. This book is concerned with the workings of the human mind and how computer science can help human decision making.  Here is a post by Artem Kaznatcheev on Computational Kindness which might give you a glimpse of the some of the issues that book covers. Here is a long interview with Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths and a TED Talk with Tom Griffiths on The Computer Science of Human Decision Making.

The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information by Frank Pasquale. You can read the introduction and conclusion chapters of his book here And here is a good review of Pasquale’s book. You can follow his twitter stream here.

Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech by Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Technically wrongHere is a synopsis:  A revealing look at how tech industry bias and blind spots get baked into digital products—and harm us all.

Buying groceries, tracking our health, finding a date: whatever we want to do, odds are that we can now do it online. But few of us ask why all these digital products are designed the way they are. It’s time we change that. Many of the services we rely on are full of oversights, biases, and downright ethical nightmares: Chatbots that harass women. Signup forms that fail anyone who’s not straight. Social media sites that send peppy messages about dead relatives. Algorithms that put more black people behind bars.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher takes an unflinching look at the values, processes, and assumptions that lead to these and other problems. Technically Wrong demystifies the tech industry, leaving those of us on the other side of the screen better prepared to make informed choices about the services we use—and demand more from the companies behind them.

Paula Boddington, Oxford academic and author of Towards a Code of Ethics for Artificial Intelligence, recommends the five best books on Ethics for Artificial Intelligence. Here is the full interview with Nigel Warburton, published on December 1, 2017.

Automating inequality“Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor” by Virginia Eubanks is being published and will be released on January 23, 2018. Here is an excerpt from Danah Boyd’s blog:

“Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor” is a deeply researched accounting of how algorithmic tools are integrated into services for welfare, homelessness, and child protection. Eubanks goes deep with the people and families who are targets of these systems, telling their stories and experiences in rich detail. Further, drawing on interviews with social services clients and service providers alongside the information provided by technology vendors and government officials, Eubanks offers a clear portrait of just how algorithmic systems actually play out on the ground, despite all of the hope that goes into their implementation.

The Big Data AgendaThe Big Data Agenda: Data Ethics and Critical Data Studies by Annika Richterich PDF available through the link here.

“This book highlights that the capacity for gathering, analysing, and utilising vast amounts of digital (user) data raises significant ethical issues. Annika Richterich provides a systematic contemporary overview of the field of critical data studies that reflects on practices of digital data collection and analysis. The book assesses in detail one big data research area: biomedical studies, focused on epidemiological surveillance. Specific case studies explore how big data have been used in academic work.

The Big Data Agenda concludes that the use of big data in research urgently needs to be considered from the vantage point of ethics and social justice. Drawing upon discourse ethics and critical data studies, Richterich argues that entanglements between big data research and technology/ internet corporations have emerged. In consequence, more opportunities for discussing and negotiating emerging research practices and their implications for societal values are needed.”

 

Re-Engineering HumanityRe-Engineering Humanity by professor Evan Selinger and Brett Frischmann

Every day, new warnings emerge about artificial intelligence rebelling against us. All the while, a more immediate dilemma flies under the radar. Have forces been unleashed that are thrusting humanity down an ill-advised path, one that’s increasingly making us behave like simple machines? In this wide-reaching, interdisciplinary book, Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger examine what’s happening to our lives as society embraces big data, predictive analytics, and smart environments.

OutnumberedOutnumbered: From Facebook and Google to Fake News and Filter-bubbles – The Algorithms That Control Our Lives (featuring Cambridge Analytica) by David Sumpter.

A review from Financial Times, here.

 

 

 

 

TED Talks, podcasts, and interviews 

The era of blind faith in big data must end TED Talk by Cathy O’Neil, April, 2017

Machine intelligence makes human morals more important November 11, 2017. In this TED Talk, Zeynep Tufekci emphasizes the importance of human values and ethics in the age of machine intelligence and algorithmic decision making.

We’re building an artificial intelligence-powered dystopia, one click at a time, another thought provoking TED Talk from techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci.

How I’m fighting bias in algorthims TED Talk – MIT Researcher Joy Buolamwini, November 2016

AI, Ain’t I A Woman? Joy Buolamwini

Data is the new gold, who are the new thieves? TED Talk – Tijmen Schep 2016

O’Neil’s interview with Politics Weekly podcast (starts 30mins in) July 5, 2017. O’Neil calls for public awareness on how algorithms are used, often without our knowledge, in job interviews, for example., and explains why we should question and interrogate these algorithms which are often presented to us as authoritative.

A short interview with Frank Pasquale on his book Black Box Society May 12, 2016. Pasquale emphasizes the opaqueness of algorithms and argues on why we should demand transparency.

A 2 minutes video, a prototype example, of algorithms being used in recruitment. A working example of the kind of dangerous AI used for recruiting that experts such as O’Neil constantly warn against. This post provides a critical analysis of why such endeavors are futile and dangerous. Here’s another related video on how facial recognition technology will go mainstream in 2018. In fact, such technology has gone mainstream in China. Here is a short video where a BBC reporter experimented with the world’s largest surveillance system.

Tom Chatfield on Critical Thinking October 2, 2017 In this philosophically themed podcast, Chatfield discusses issues such as “how new digital realities interact with old human biases” with Dave Edmonds.

When algorithms discriminate: Robotics, AI and ethics November 18, 2017. Stephen Roberts, professor of computer science at the University of Oxford, discusses the threats and promises of artificial intelligence and machine learning with Al Jazeera.

Here is a series of talks, from the ABC Boyer Lectures, hosted by Professor Genevieve Bell. The series is called Fast, Smart and Connected: What is it to be Human, and Australian, in a Digital World? The issues discussed include “How to build our digital future.”

Websites

Social Cooling is a term that refers to a gradual long term negative side effects of living in an digital society where our digital activities are tracked and recorded. Such awareness of potentially being scored by algorithms leads to a gradual behaviour change: self-censorship and self-surveillance. Here is a piece on what looks like social cooling in action. The website itself has plenty of resources that can aid critical thinking and touches up on big philosophical, economical and societal questions in relation to data and privacy.

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www.socialcooling.com

For those interested in critical thinking, data and models Calling Bullshit offers various resources and tools for spotting and calling bullshit. This website, developed for a course entitled ‘Calling Bullshit’, is a great place to explore and learn about all things “data reasoning for the digital age”.

Another important website that is worth a mention here is Algorithmic Justice League where you can report algorithm bias, participate in testing software for inclusive training set, or where you can simply donate and contribute raising awareness about existing bias in coded systems. More on AI face misclassification and accountability by Joy Buolamwini here. With a somewhat similar aim is the Data Harm Record website – a running record of harms that have been caused by uses of big data.

fast.ai a project that aims to increase diversity in the field of deep learning and make deep learning accessible and inclusive to all. Critical Algorithm Studies: a Reading List – a great website with links to plenty of material on critical literature on algorithms as social concerns. Here is the Social Media Collective Reading List where you’ll find further material on Digital Divide/ Digital Inclusion and Metaphors of Data.

The AI Now Institute at New York University is an interdisciplinary research center dedicated to understanding the social implications of artificial intelligence. Data & Society is a research institute focused on the social and cultural issues arising from data-centric technological developments.  FAT/ML is a website on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency in Machine Learning with plenty of resources and events, run by a community of researchers.

ConceptNet Numberbatch 17.04: better, less-stereotyped word vectors This is not a website but a blogpost. I am putting it here with other websites as the author offers some solution to reducing biases when building algorithms for natural language understanding beyond simply stating that such algorithms are biased.

Auditing Algorithms – a useful website for those teaching/interested in accountability in automated systems. The site includes films festivals, videos, etc,.

The Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence – a cross-disciplinary course that investigates the implications of emerging technologies, with an emphasis on the development and deployment of Artificial Intelligence.

Biology/genetics  – (Digital phrenology?) 

It is difficult to draw a line and put certain articles under the category of “social”, “biological”, “political”, or other as the boundaries between these categories are blurred and most of the themes are somehow all interlinked. Nonetheless, I think the following articles can loosely be described as dealing with biological/genetics/personality material. Furthermore, towards the end of this post, I have also thematized some articles under the category of “political”.

In a recent preprint paper “Deep Neural Networks Can Detect Sexual Orientation From Faces” (here are the Gurdian and the Economist reportings) Yilun Wang and Michal Kosinski calmed that their deep neural network can be trained to discern individuals’ sexual orientations from their photographs. The paper has attracted and continues to attract a massive attentions and has generated numerous responses, outrages and discussion. Here is an in-depth analysis from Calling Bullshit and here for a detailed technical assessment and here for a comprehensive and eloquent response from Greggor Mattson. Here is another response and another one here from a data scientist’s perspective and another recent response from O’Neil here. If you only want to read just one response, I highly recommend reading Mattson’s. There have been been plenty of discussions and threads on Twitter – here and here are a couple of examples. It is worth noting that Kosinski, one of the authors of the above paper, is listed as one of the the advisers for a company called Faception, an Israeli security firm that promises clients to deploy “facial personality profiling” to catch pedophiles and terrorists among others.

Do algorithms reveal sexual orientation or just expose our stereotypes? by @blaiseaguera et al., is the latest (January 11, 2018) response to the above Wang and Kosinski “gaydar” paper. In this critical analysis, @blaiseaguera et al., argue that much of the ensuing scrutiny of Wang and Kosinski work has focused on ethics, implicitly assuming that the science is valid. However, on a closer inspection, et al., find that the science doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either.

When advanced technologies in genetics and face recognition are applied with the assumption that “technology is neutral”, the consequences are often catastrophic and dangerous. These two pieces, Sci-fi crime drama with a strong black lead and Traces of Crime: How New York’s DNA Techniques Became Tainted provide some in-depth analysis of such.

Physiognomy’s New Clothes this is a comprehensive and eloquent piece and well worth your time. Physiognomy, the practice of using people’s outer appearance to infer inner character is a practice that is now discredited and discarded as phrenology. However, this piece illustrates how such practice is alive and well in the era of big data and machine learning. Here is more on the Wu and Zhang paper that the Physignomy’s New Clothes authors cover in the above piece. Further examples of digital phrenology can be found here and here here.

General articles on various automated systems and bias, discrimination, unfairness, ethical concerns, etc., listed in order of publication dates starting from the latest.

Frank Pasquale testifies (video, written testimony) Before the United States House of Representatives Committee on  Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection in relation to “Algorithms: How Companies’ Decisions About Data and Content Impact Consumers”. Here for more written testimony on Algorithmic Transparency from the Electronic Privacy Information Center – November 29, 2017.
ProPublica

Image Courtesy of ProPublica

There’s software used across the country to predict future criminals. And it’s biased against blacks. May 23, 2016 The company that sells this program (Northpointe) has responded to the criticisms here. Northpointe asserts that a software program it sells that predicts the likelihood a person will commit future crimes is equally fair to black and white defendants. Following such response, Jeff Larson and Julia Angwin has written another response (Technical Response to Northpointe) re-examined the data. They argue that they have considered the company’s criticisms, and stand by their conclusions.

Politics

Algorithmic processes and politics might seem far removed from each other. However, if anything, the recent political climate is indicative of how algorithms can be computational tools for political agendas. Here and here are exemplar twitter threads that highlight particular Twitter accounts used as tools for political agenda. The articles below are, in some way or another, related to algorithms in the political arena.

Forum Q&A: Philip Howard on Computational Propaganda’s Challenge to Democracy July 25, 2017. “Computational propaganda, or the use of algorithms and automated social media accounts to influence politics and the flow of information, is an emerging challenge to democracy in the digital age. Using automated social media accounts called bots (or, when networked, botnets), a wide array of actors including authoritarian governments and terrorist organizations are able to manipulate public opinion by amplifying or repressing different forms of political content, disinformation, and hate speech.”

For a more scholarly read

 

 

 

Afrofeminist epistemology and dialogism: a synthesis (work in progress)

Embodied, enactive and dialogical approaches to cognitive science radically depart from traditional Western thought in the manner with which they deal with life, mind and the person. The former can be characterised as emphasising interdependence, relationships, and connectedness with attempts to understanding organisms in their milieu. Acknowledgements of complexities and ambiguities of reality form the starting points for epistemological claims.  The latter, on the other hand, tends to strive for certainty and logical coherence in an attempt to establish stable and relatively fixed epistemological generalisations. Individuals, which often are perceived as independent discreet entities, are taken as the primary subjects of knowledge and the units of analysis.

Collins’s proposed black feminist epistemology, hereafter “Afrofeminist epistemology”, opposes the traditional Western approach to epistemology as well as the largely Positivist scientific view inherited from it.  As such, it is worth drawing attention to the similarities between Black feminist thought and dialogical approaches to the cognitive sciences. In what follows I seek to reveal a striking convergence of themes between these two schools of thought. In so doing, I intend to illustrate that the two traditions – cognitive sciences, especially the dialogical approach to epistemology, and Afrofeminist epistemology, particularly, the type proposed by Patricia Hill Collins (2002) – can inform one another through dialogue.

General characterization of classic Western approach to epistemology and the Cartesian inheritance

The classic Western approach to epistemology tends to be monological; meaning it tends to focus on individuals and their cognition and behaviour. When relationships and interactions enter the equation, individuals and their relations are often portrayed as distinct entities that can be neatly separated. Dichotomous thinking — subject versus object, emotion versus reason – persists within this tradition. Ethical and moral values and questions are often treated as clearly separable from “objective scientific work” and as something that the scientist need not contaminate her “objective” work with. In its desire for absolute rationality, Western thought wishes to cleave thought from emotion, cultural influence and ethical dimensions. Cognition, evaluation and emotions are treated as if they are entities that shouldn’t be contaminated. Abstract and intellectual thinking are regarded as the most trustworthy forms of understanding and rationality is fetishized.

In the classic Western epistemological tradition, abstract reasoning is taken to be the highest cognitive goal, and certainty as a necessary component for knowledge.  Since the ultimate goal is to arrive at timeless, universally applicable laws, establishing certainty is pivotal for laying the foundations. Although there are historical antecedents leading up to and contributing towards what is generally regarded as Western tradition – in particular, Plato in his dialogues Meno and Phaedo – Descartes represents the pinnacle of Western thought (Gardiner 1998, Toulmin 1992). The subject as autonomous and self-sustaining entity or a Cartesian cogito, which we have inherited from Cartesian thinking, remains prevalent in most current Western philosophy as well as in the background assumptions of the human sciences. The way the individual self is taken as the unquestioned origin of knowledge of the world and others is a legacy of this tradition (Linell 2009).

Black feminist criticism of dominant approach and the proposed alternative

Contrary to the classic Western epistemological tradition, in Afrofeminist epistemology ethical and moral values and questions are inseparable from our enquires into knowledge. Similarly, knowledge claims and knowledge validation processes are not independent of the interests and values of those who define what knowledge is, what is important and worthy of study, and what the criteria for epistemological justification are (Collins 2002). Such definitions and criteria are guarded fiercely by the institutions and individuals who act as the ‘gatekeepers’ of the classic Western epistemological tradition. This traditional Western epistemology, Collins points out, predominantly represents Western, elite, and white, male interests and values. In fact, a brief review of the history of Western philosophical canon reveals that knowledge production processes and the criteria for knowledge claims have predominantly been set by elite, white, Western men.

Scholars like Karen Warren (2009) have cogently argued that the history of classical Western philosophy has, for centuries, almost exclusively consisted of elite, white, Western European men giving the illusion that Western white men are the epitome of intellectual achievement. Women’s voices and perspectives were diminished, ignored, and systematically excluded from the canon. In her ‘recovery project’, Warren finds that women philosophers nonetheless have made important contributions throughout the history of philosophy and that you find them when you go looking for them. This, to a great extent, remains the case not only in philosophy, but also in much of the rest of the academic tradition. A brief look at any philosophy curricula would reveal that white European male philosophers and their views remain dominant and definitive.

Traditional approaches taken as the “normal” and “acceptable” ways to theorise and generalise about people’s lived experiences means that any other approaches to theorising about groups of people that are not aligned with canonical intellectual currents (often white European male) are dismissed as “anomalies”. For Collins, it is indisputable that different people experience reality differently and that all social thought somewhat reflects the realities and interests of its creators. Political criteria influence knowledge production and validation processes in one way or another.  Collins asserts, in studying Black women’s realities, the typical perspectives on offer have either identified black women with the oppressor, in which case Black women lack an independent interpretation of their own realities, or have characterised Black women as less human than the oppressor, in which case Black women lack the capacity to articulate their own standpoint. While in the first perspective independent Black women’s realities are seen as not their own, in the latter, it is seen as inferior. For that reason, the traditional epistemology is inadequate to capture and account for the lived experiences of black women – hence Collins’ proposal for an Afrocentric feminist epistemology which is grounded in black women’s values and lived experiences.

Black women’s lived experiences are different in important ways. The kind of relationships Black women have, and the kind of work they engage in are notable examples that demonstrate the differing realities and lived experiences. Intuitive knowledge, what Collins calls wisdom, is crucial to the everyday lives and survival of black women. While wisdom and intuitions, as opposed to abstract intellectualizing, might be excluded as irrelevant, and at best, less credible as far as the traditional epistemologies are concerned, they are highly valued within black communities:

“The distinction between knowledge and wisdom, and the use of experience as the cutting edge dividing them, has been key to Black women’s survival. … knowledge without wisdom is adequate for the powerful, but wisdom is essential to the survival of the subordinate.” (Collins 1989, p. 759)

The desire for complete objectivity and universally generalisable theories in the dominant Western tradition has led to a focus on abstract analysis of the nature of concepts like ‘knowledge’ and ‘justification’, with little to no grounding of complex lived experience. Its portrayal of reason and rationality in direct contrast with emotions – the former to arrive at pure, objective knowledge –  has led to dichotomous thinking, thus blinding us to continuities and complementarities. Consequently, “reason” has been privileged over emotions. This in turn has impeded emotional and bodily knowledge, what Foucault (1980) calls ‘subjugated knowledge’ often expressed through music, drama, etc., as less important. However, ‘subjugated knowledge’ is crucial and is part of a way of life and survival for black communities. Such knowledge, grounded in concrete experiences and recognised through connectedness, dialogues and relationships, is what is of real value for Black women.

That knowledge claims should be grounded in concrete, lived experience rather than abstract intellectualising is crucial to Collins’s Afrocentric feminist epistemology. Collins’s Afrocentric epistemology prioritizes wisdom over knowledge and has, at its core, black women’s experiences of race and gender oppression. Black women have shared experience of oppression, imperialism, colonialism, slavery, and apartheid as well as roots in the core African value system prior to colonization. The roots of Afrocentric epistemology can be traced back to African-based oral traditions. As such, dialogues occupy an important place. Dialogues, so far as the Afrocentric epistemology is concerned, are an essential method for assessing knowledge claims.

This Afrocentric epistemology, grounded in the lived experience of black women, that employs dialogues as a way of validating knowledge claims, stands in a stark contrast with that of the Eurocentric epistemology. Connectedness rather than separation is an essential component of the knowledge validation process. Individuals are not detached observers of stories or folktales, but rather active participants, listeners and speakers and part of the story. Dialogues explore and capture the fundamentally interactive connected nature of people and relationships.

Ethical claims lie at the heart of an Afrocentric feminist epistemology, in contrast to the classical Western epistemology that considers ethical issues as separate from and independent of ‘objective scientific investigations’. Afrocentric feminist epistemology is about employing emotions, wisdom, ethics and reason as interconnected and equally essential components in assessing knowledge claims with reference to a particular set of historical conditions.

Dialogical criticism to dominant approach and its alternative

The dialogical approach to cognitive science – inspired by Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin’s (1895 – 1975) thinking and further developed by dialogists such as Per Linell (2009) – objects to the dominant Western epistemological approach. Dialogical theories which have roots in the Bakhtin Circle, a 20th century school of Russian thought, have had a massive influence on social theory, philosophy and psychology. At the centre of dialogical theories lies the view that linguistic production, the notion of self-hood, and knowledge are essentially dialogic. Dialogical approaches are concerned with conceptualizing and theorizing human-sense making and they do so based on a set of assumptions some of which stand in stark opposition to traditional Western philosophy and science. These assumptions include: individual selves cannot be assumed to exist as agents and thinkers before they begin to interact with others and the world; our sense-makings are not separable from our historical antecedents and current cultural and societal norms and value systems. The interrelation between self, others and the environment are there from the start in the infant’s life and the awareness of self and others co-develop over time; they are two sides of the same process. Classical Western philosophy and science has tried to reduce the world to rational individual subjects in attempt to establish stable universals. The origin of knowledge of the world and of others is the discreet individual person. So far as dialogical approaches go, most traditional Western epistemological approaches are rooted in Cartesian individualism and are monological – meaning, that they only encompass individuals and their cognition and environments. Groups and societies are nothing but ensembles of individuals:

“Individuals alone think, speak, carry responsibilities, and other individuals at most have a casual impact on their activities and stances.” (Linell 2009, p. 44)

Dialogism[1], in contrast, insists that interdependencies, co-dependencies, and relationships between the individual and the world are most fundamental components in understanding the nature of selves and furthermore, of knowledge. The term intersubjectivity captures this concept well:

“The term “intersubjectivity”—or what Hannah Arendt calls “the subjective in-between”—shifts our emphasis away from notions of the person, the self, or the subject as having a stable character and abiding essence, and invites us to explore the subtle negotiations and alterations of subjective experience as we interact with one another, intervocally or dialogically (in conversation or confrontation), intercorporeally (in dancing, moving, fighting, or competing), and introceptively (in getting what we call a sense of the other’s intentions, frame of mind, or worldview).”  (Jackson 2002, p. 5)

Cultures and societies are typically conceived as objective, stable structures so far as Western epistemologies go. Dialogism by contrast conceives cultures and societies as dynamic, living and partly open, with tensions, internal struggles and conflicts between majorities and minorities and different value systems. “Knowledge is necessarily constructed and continually negotiated (a) in situ and in sociocultural traditions, and (b) in dialogue with others; individuals are never completely autonomous1 as sense-makers.” (Linell 2009, p. 46) The individual is not a separate, discrete, fixed and stable entity that stands independent from others, but rather one that is always in dynamical interactions with and interdependent with others. Knowledge claims and knowledge validation processes need therefore to reflect these continual tensions and dynamic interactions.

Concluding remarks: drawing similarities between dialogical approaches and Afrofeminist epistemology

So, what are the implications, if any, of drawing these commonalities between Afrofeminist epistemology and dialogical approaches to epistemology, and their common refutation of traditional Western epistemology? Collins has described Afrofeminist and Western epistemological grounds as competing and at times irreconcilable:

“Those Black feminists who develop knowledge claims that both epistemologies can accommodate may have found a route to the elusive goal of generating so called objective generalizations that can stand as universal truths.”  (Collins 1989, p.773)  

The synthesis and incorporation of dialogism with Afrofeminist epistemology is, in a sense, not the discovery of that elusive finding into “objective generalization” or “universal truths” that satisfy both epistemologies. Rather such synthesis, I argue, is a means towards epistemological approaches that aspire to embed Afrofeminist values and dialogical epistemological underpinnings to our understandings of personhood and knowledge. Such epistemological approaches acknowledge that knowledge claims, knowledge validation processes and any scientific endeavours in general are value-laden and cannot be considered independent of underlying values and interests. A move towards epistemological approaches that acknowledge the role of the scientist/theorist which Barad (2007) captures concisely:

“A performative understanding of scientific practices, for example, takes account of the fact that knowing does not come from standing at a distance and representing but rather from a direct material engagement with the world.”   (Barad 2007, p. 49)

Connectedness and relationships rather than disinterested, disembodied, and detached Cartesian individuals form a central component of analysis. Great emphasis is placed on extensive dialogues and not to become a detached observer of stories. In so doing, individual expressiveness, emotions, the capacity for empathy and the fact that ideas cannot be divorced from those who create and share them need to be key factor for this epistemology. Such is an epistemological approach that aspires to embed Afrofeminist values and dialogical underpinnings.

Knowledge is specific to time and place and is not rooted in the individual person but in relationships between people. Individuals exist in a web of relations and co-dependently of one other, negotiating meanings and values through dialogues. As Bakhtin, pioneer of dialogism has emphasized, we are essentially dialogical beings, and it is only through dialogues with others that we come to realise and sustain a coherent – albeit continually changing –  sense of self. Reality is messy, ambiguous, and complex. Any epistemological approach that takes the person as fully autonomous, fixed, and a self-sufficient agent whose actions are guided by pure rationality fail to recognise the complexities and ambiguities of reality, time and context-bound nature of knowledge. At the core of this proposed Afrofeminist/dialogical approach to epistemology is an attempt to bring values as important constituent factor to the dialogical, intersubjective embodied, in a constant flux person and the epistemologies that drive from it.

[1] It is important to note that individuals do not disappear in dialogism, rather, the individual is a social being who is interdependent with others, “not an autonomous subject or a Cartesian cogito.” (Linell 2009)

Bibliography

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. duke university Press.

Collins, P. H. (1989). The social construction of black feminist thought. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society14(4), 745-773.

Collins, P. H. (2002). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1980). Language, counter-memory, practice: Selected essays and interviews. Cornell University Press.

Gardiner, M. (1998). The incomparable monster of solipsism: Bakhtin and Merleau-Ponty. Bakhtin and the human sciences. Sage, London, 128-144.

Jackson, M. (2012). Lifeworlds: Essays in existential anthropology. University of Chicago Press.

Linell, P. (2009). Rethinking language, mind, and world dialogically. IAP.

Toulmin, S. E., & Toulmin, S. (1992). Cosmopolis: The hidden agenda of modernity. University of Chicago Press.

Warren, K. (Ed.). (2009). An unconventional history of Western philosophy: conversations between men and women philosophers. Rowman & Littlefield.

 

The Scope of Existential Anthropology – Jackson

Such a beautifully written passage which compels you to reflect, wonder, and think …

Like other human sciences, anthropology has drawn inspiration from many disciplines and sought to build its identity through association with them. But the positivism that anthropology hoped to derive from the natural sciences proved to be as elusive as the authenticity it sought from the humanities. Moreover, though lip service was paid to the models and methods of biology, ecology, psychology, fluid mechanics, structural linguistics, topology, quantum mechanics, mathematics, economics, and general systems theory, anthropologists seldom deployed these analytically or systematically. Rather, they were adopted as images and metaphors. Thus, society was said to function like a living organism, regulate energy like a machine, to be structured like language, organized like a corporation, comparable to a person, or open to interpretation like a text.

Jackson. M (2013) Lifeworlds: Essays in Existential Anthropology. (Chapter 1, The Scope of Existential Anthropology, p.3) 

Western philosophy has historically seen only what its “illusions” permitted it to see

Warren“Philosophy’s attachment to its illusions of gender neutrality functioned like Narcissus’s self-perception of himself when he looked at his image in the lake: he saw only what he wanted to see. Analogously, canonical Western philosophy has historically seen only what its “illusions” permitted it to see.” Karen Warren, 2009. 

When the issue of the absence of women and underrepresented groups in philosophy, or any other male-dominated discipline in general, is brought to attention, the reason for women’s absence is often attributed to the individuals themselves. ‘There aren’t many women in philosophy because it is not a subject that most women are attracted to’ or that ‘the Western philosophical canon almost exclusively consists of white males because there simply weren’t other voices’ or that ‘women didn’t write or take part in the philosophical debates of their times’. This simply is not true. As far as Western philosophy  (I presume as well as other domains) is concerned, one would find that women’s voices were systematically excluded or ignored from the canon. This is evident as when you go looking for them, you find voices and perspectives that have been diminished in important ways. This is in fact what Warren did in her “recovery project”. She rediscovered names, lives, texts, and perspectives of women philosophers from the 16th B.C.E. on. She then went beyond recovery, to an “inclusion project”: a gender inclusive account of the history of Western philosophy. The result, an anthology (An Unconventional History of Western Philosophy: Conversation Between Men and Women Philosophers) of the history of Western philosophy that accounts works of both women and men philosophers.

In this distinctive work, the first book in any language to include women philosophers among their historical male counterparts, Warren pairs women philosophers with canonical male contemporaries. Primary texts of “philosopher pairs” address topics or positions that when taken together, constitute a conversation. This project dissolves the add-women-and-stir-philosophy problem – a pertinent problem that arises when attempts are made to add women philosophers whose claims, positions, and methodologies are in conflict to that of the canon, creating what might seem “more like an explosion than a mixture”. The common practice is to avoid this attempt to integrate the works of women philosophers into the canon all together and develop a distinct “women’s philosophy or philosophy by women”. Examples of such include, ecofeminist philosophy, feminist ethics, feminist epistemology, and feminist philosophy of science. Warren, in this exceptional anthology, successfully manages to integrate the works of women philosophers into the canon whilst avoiding the add-women-and-stir-philosophy problem.

Given that there are material that are inclusive of both women and men, any curricula that fails to include women philosophers is outdated and inaccurate. At least, that’s Warren’s position. Now, whether the availability of material that have recovered and included the works of excluded and ignored women has had any significant impact on any philosophy curricula is another question.

The absence of women and underrepresented groups is not news to many, especially to those in philosophy. The exclusion of women from mainstream collections is indisputable. Take a look at these three randomly selected common textbooks/anthologies used in (political) philosophy: 1) A History of Modern Political Thought by Ian Hampsher Monk, 2) Political Thinkers: From Socrates to the Present by David Boucher & Paul Kelly, and 3) Western Philosophy: An Anthology by John Cottingham. Of these three (~600 pages long) anthologies, you’d find only one women philosopher mentioned (in Cottingham) – Judith Jarvis Thomson. And the philosophical work included in this anthology, unsurprisingly, is one that deals with abortion and rights.

This is depressing indeed but nonetheless, a poignant indicator that “rediscovery” and “inclusion” projects carried by the likes of Warren are of crucial importance in the long and slow journey towards fair representations in philosophy.

Solitary confinement deprives dialogicity and therefore deprives a coherent sense of self

Solitary confinement NYTI recently came across this extremely powerful and disturbing 3 minutes video of solitary confinement. Given my dialogically informed perspective, it made me reflect (as well as initiate conversations with others ;-)) on the concepts of self, other, and world. Solitary confinement, which is the absence of dialogical relationship with others, seems to have a devastating effect on one’s sense of self and this video is an unerring illustration.

Solitary confinement is the complete isolation of prisoners from others or significantly reduced intersubjective contact with others or technically speaking, physical isolation for 22 to 24 hours per day. Solitary confinement is often referred as “Administrative segregation” in prisons. It is a common practice across the globe. In the US alone there are 80,000 to 100,000 inmates held in solitary confinements everyday. Similarly in Canada, “On any given day, there are 850 offenders (about 5.6% of the prison population) in solitary confinement. Some of these inmates have been isolated for more than four months. Many are young. Many have serious mental health problems.”

I don’t think there can be much disagreement regarding the disturbed state of most of the prisoners in the video. Solitary confinement deprives us of intersubjective contact with others which is imperative for constructing and sustaining our sense of self. Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens have described the prisoner in isolated cells as “buried alive” and subjected to “immense amount of torture and agony” through a “slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain”. Looking at solitary confinement from a phenomenological perspective, Gallagher (2014), has identified a long list of substantial negative health effects associated with solitary confinement:

“anxiety, fatigue, confusion, paranoia, depression, hallucinations, headaches, insomnia, trembling, apathy, stomach and muscle pains, oversensitivity to stimuli, feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, withdrawal, isolation, rage, anger, and aggression, difficulty in concentrating, dizziness, distortion of the sense of time, severe boredom, and impaired memory.”

Solitary confinement can alter or eradicate sense of self. “The person subjected to solitary confinement risks losing her self and disappearing into a non-existence”. Nonetheless, such effects of solitary confinement are often understated perhaps due to our individualistic perception of self and our tendency to underestimate the importance of others as constituents of self. In fact, as Foucault in Discipline and Punish reminds us, the original purposes of solitary confinement, was as a positive instrument for reform. Solitary confinements were thought to rehabilitate the prisoner as a social and moral individual through reflection in isolation – a way for the prisoner to reflect on their crimes and return into his inner ‘true’ self. Given time to introspect in a solitary confinement, the prisoner was expected to turn their thoughts inward, repent their crimes, and eventually return to society as a morally cleansed citizen.

“Thrown into solitude, the convict reflects. Placed alone in the presence of his crime, he learns to hate it, and, if his soul is not yet blunted by evil, it is in isolation that remorse will come to assail him”

(Tocqueville in Foucault 1979: 237)

At the centre of this viewpoint is an underlying assumption which views the individual as something that exists and is capable of reasoning and functioning in isolation from others – a notion of the individual that is self-sufficient and self-contained where the necessarily interrelatedness of self, other, and world is overlooked. For philosophers such as Gardiner, this individualistic notion of the self is something we have adopted from the Western Christian notion of the soul through Cartesian-inspired philosophies. Contrary to this notion of solitary (which is built upon individualistic assumptions) as a means to come back to the inner self, deprived from contact and interaction with others, the very core of our existence is threatened.

‘‘Just as the body is formed initially in the mother’s womb (body), a person’s consciousness awakens wrapped in another consciousness … Individuality is created by and through others and the Other is part of the self.”

(Bakhtin, 1990)

Coming back to my brief musing, the fact that our sense of self seems to erode when we are deprived of interaction with others reinforces the Bakhtinian dialogical viewpoint that self and others co-develop and are two sides of the same coin. It is through our dialogical and embodied interactions with others that we are able to form and sustain a sense of coherent self. Others are essentially involved at all social and individual lived experiences. Through our encounters with others, we are able to evaluate and assess our own existence. Depriving the person of ‘others’ by subjecting them to solitary confinement, denies that essential additioal external perspective, the means by which a coherent self-image is maintained and the person risks losing the ‘self’ and disappearing into a non-existence.

Black feminist epistemology – Collins

ghana-unityShould experiences of Black women be the grounds for knowledge claims when studying and theorising about Black women? I imagine many would say yes, however, as Patricia Hill Collins points out, that hasn’t been the case. We often have two inadequate perspectives on offer for studying consciousness of an oppressed group. Either these groups identify with the oppressor, in which case they lack an independent interpretation of their own oppression, or they are seen as less human than their oppressors, in which case they lack the capacity to articulate their own standpoint. In the first case, independent consciousness is seen not as their own, while in the latter, consciousness of the oppressed group is seen as inferior. In ‘The social construction of black feminist thought’ Collins argues for the need for an alternative epistemological stance that reflects Black women’s standpoints.

Collins rejects both perspectives and asserts that Black women have been neither passive victims nor willing complies of, what she calls, the dominant ‘Eurocentric masculinist epistemology’. She traces its origins in Western elite white male structures of knowledge foundation, where Black women’s experiences with work, family, motherhood, and sexual politics have routinely been distorted or excluded from traditional academic discourse and from what counts as valid knowledge. This exclusion from the mainstream epistemology has led to what Collins calls ‘subjugated knowledge’ – expressions of experience through other forms such as music and dance.

For Collins, as for many feminist standpoint theorists, ‘all social thought reflects the interest and standpoint of its creator’ and political criteria influence the knowledge validation process. Knowledge is evaluated by a community of experts that represent the standpoint of the groups from which they originate. Credibility is thereby maintained as defined by the group from where the basic knowledge is drawn. This  alienates alternative standpoints as anomalies. Since Western structures of knowledge foundation have been controlled mainly by elite white men*, the dominant epistemologies reflect interests and views of that group while other views are systematically distorted.

This dominant, white male controlled knowledge validation process, which Collins closely associates with positivist** epistemology, suppresses Black feminist thought on the grounds that it is not credible research – for new knowledge claims must be consistent with existing bodies of knowledge that the dominant group accepts true. Thoughts that challenge the inferiority of Black women are unlikely to be generated. Such thoughts reveal the white male controlled academic community’s inadequacies and its lack of familiarity with Black women’s reality. Expressing an independent Black feminist consciousness, therefore, becomes problematic, as it is a threat to the established interpretation of reality.

Black women who achieve academic credentials face pressure from multiple sides. They must navigate between two conflicting epistemologies – representing white male interest on the one hand, and Black female interest on the other. These scholars must constantly translate and move back and forth between these two frameworks. Those who accept such institutional assumptions are rewarded, but often at a personal cost and those that challenge such assumptions face the risk of being ostracized.

Given that ‘reality is experienced differently by different groups’ is at the heart of Collins’s argument, it is no surprise that she rejects positivism as an appropriate epistemological framework to study Black women’s experience. Positivist approaches, in their strive to produce objective generalizations, fail to acknowledge that researchers have values, experiences, and emotions. She asserts, “genuine science is unattainable unless all human characteristics, except rationality, are eliminated from the research process”. I am sympathetic to Collins’s position on positivism. The very idea of “genuine science”, not only whether it is attainable, is questionable – well, at least as far as humans are the centre of enquiry. In its desire to be objective and value-free, science often makes the scientist invisible. As ideal as this may sound, it is an unobtainable utopia. There is no such thing as ‘a view from nowhere’ and science and scientists are not immune from this. The methods the scientist chooses to investigate certain phenomena (and by implication those she chooses to ignore) and the way research questions are framed, for example, affect the kind of knowledge produced. Instead of making the scientist invisible and attempt to eliminate human characteristics from the research process, science might be better-off acknowledging that science is a human endeavour. As such, passions, values, and situatedness in certain historical and cultural discourse, among many other factors, are likely to play a role in our findings. That doesn’t mean that our findings are simply invalid or flawed rather, we need to be mindful of these factors and underlying assumptions.

Since the traditional epistemological stance is not helpful in articulating Black women’s consciousness, Collins proposes an alternative way of producing and validating knowledge claims consistent with Black women’s criteria – based on the lived experiences of Black women. Black women’s lived experiences, for Collins, are more credible and believable than those who merely read or think about such experiences. These experiences that Black women share and pass on become a collective wisdom and form the basis for Black women’s standpoint. These knowledge claims rest in the women themselves and not a higher authority. Collins mentions institutional support, such as the Black church, for articulating these lived experiences. 

It seems reasonable to view Black women’s concern as more of an experiential one and less of an intellectual endeavour that could be contemplated from afar, given that Black women do live and experience oppression on a daily basis. However, given that institutions such as the church have their own values and ethical agendas, those that refuse to conform to those values and ethical guidelines are likely to be excluded and discriminated against. The obvious example is ideologies in opposition to LGBTQI people.

Collins puts forward dialogues as a method for assessing knowledge claims. Emphasis needs to be placed on extensive dialogues in communities rather than thought in isolation. For Collins, connectedness rather than separation is an essential component of the knowledge validation process. I think, Bakhtin would further agree that the fact that dialogues are missing from the modernist conception of the self reflects the lingering Cartesian residues in our modernist epistemologies. In its desire for epistemological certitude and logical coherence to establish absolute certainty, Western metaphysics roots knowledge in the solitary subject contemplating an external world in a purely cognitive manner as a disembodied observer at the expense of embodied dialogism. It is by adopting a dialogical world view that we are able to assess and evaluate our own existence and construct a coherent self-image. The lack of dialogues in our modernist epistemologies and by extension the metaphysical assumptions of positivist epistemologies further support Collins’s criticism of positivism.

Finally, Collins identifies three key groups that women scholars who want to develop Black feminist thought need to assure in order to be credible. They must be personal advocates for and be willing to engage about their findings with ordinary Black women, they must also be accepted by Black women scholars, and they must be prepared to confront Eurocentric masculinist political and epistemological requirements. There arises a dilemma as the criteria of one groups’ credibility may not necessarily transfer to another. A dilemma, I imagine many Black women in academia experience. 

*Collins makes a careful qualification that it is not necessarily individual men that benefit from such institutional structures.  

**Collins emphasises that neither all positivist aspects are bad nor all non-positivist frameworks automatically better.

Bakhtin, Merleau-Ponty, and the Cartesian subject

 

MC-Escher

M. C. Escher. Bond of Union, 1956

To what extent are the modernist conceptions of the subject Cartesian? What of our sciences, especially the human sciences and knowledge that emerges from them? And how can we overcome these lingering Cartesian residues? Gardiner in ”The incomparable monster of solipsism’: Bakhtin and Merleau-Ponty’ explores these questions (and more). This post is an attempt to provide a brief review of this paper. 

The subject, at least as far as Western metaphysics goes, is narcissist for it is shadowed by the Cartesian view which yields to a total self-determinism and total-self-grounding, Gardiner argues. Our capacities for abstract thinking are privileged at the expense of embodied dialogism. The production of knowledge according to Western metaphysics is rooted in the solitary subject contemplating an external world in a purely cognitive manner as a disembodied observer. The locus of classical modernity, is captured by the overwhelming desire for epistemological certitude and logical coherence in the desire to establish absolute certainty. In attempting to establish this lucidity and certainty; complex, multivalent and ambiguous reality is substituted with crystalline logic and conceptual rigour. Our obsession to transcribe the world into pure algorithmic language, as if the external world presents itself as a collection of inert facts, according to Gardiner, is the epitome of Cartesianism. Merleau-Ponty describes this as “A nightmare to which there is no awakening“.

It is however, important to note that the status of the human sciences has evolved considerably over the course of the enlightenment and since Popper, falsifiablity and not certitude and coherence is the hallmark of science. Descartes, with emphasis on doubt stands at the beginning of this tradition and as Ian Shapiro would argue, the locus classicus of modernity is in fact doubt, skepticism, and falsifiability. 

Nonetheless, Gardiner reminds us that the Cartesian perspective, not only remains central, but also poses a threat to dialogical values and what they espouse. By seeing the world as a projection of cognitive capacities, we leave no room for recognizing otherness. Not only is the body alien to this physical subject, other selves are equally mysterious that can have no authentically dialogical relationship. It is by adopting a dialogical world view that we are able to capture the interactive nature of bodies and selves as they co-exist within a shared life world. Gardiner asserts that Bakhtin and Merleau-Ponty are in agreement that modern Western thought, Platonism being the archetypal example, is dominated by perspectives that have rejected the validity of the body and it’s lived experience in favour of theoretical constructions. The utilitarian character of modern science and technology and abstract idealist philosophy reflects this. The tradition in which arguments are framed and debated in the philosophy of mind where philosophical zombies and Martian c-fibres often take centre stage, illustrates this further. 

This privileging of purely cognitive abilities results in tendencies in equating the self to subjective mental processes. This comes at a price of the viewing the subject as something abstract that dispassionately contemplates the world from afar. The Bakhtinian dialogical perspectives strongly oppose such formulations of the subject. Bakhtin insists that relation to the other requires presence of value positing consciousness and not a disinterested, objectifying gaze. Without the interactive context connecting self, other, and world, the subject slips into solipsism and loses ground for its Being and become empty.

Similarly, for Merleau-Ponty, the world is always in a Heraclitian flux, constantly transforming and becoming — not static and self-contained. Nor is our relation with others a purely cognitive affair. World and body exist in a relation of overlapping.  My senses reach out to the world and respond to it, actively engaging with it. They shape and configure it just as the world at the same time reaches deep into my sensory Being. The perceptual system is not a mere mechanical apparatus that only serves representational thinking to produce refined concepts and ideas but is radically intertwined with the world itself. Self perception, according to Merleau-Ponty, is not merely cognitive but it is also corporal. As I experience the world around me, I am simultaneously an entity in the world. I can hear myself speaking.

The world is presented to me in a deformed manner. My perspective are skewed by the precise situation I occupy at a particular point in time/space, by the idiosyncrasies of my psychosocial and historical context of my existence. Since I am thrown into the world lacking intrinsic significance and I have to make the world meaningful, I am condemned to make continual value judgments and generate meanings. I can never possess the totality of the world through intellectual grasps of my environment, thus my knowledge of the experiential world is always constrained and one sided. As meaning of the world for each of us is constructed from a vantage point of our uniquely embodied viewpoint, no two individuals experience the world precisely the same way.  Encounter with other selves is necessary to gain a more complete perspective on the world. I am never my own light to myself. It is through encounter with another self that I gain access to an external viewpoint through which I am able to visualize myself as a meaningful whole, a gestalt.

Gardiner argues this is how we can escape solipsism – through an apprehension of oneself in the mirror of the other, a vantage point that enables one to evaluate and assess his/her own existence and construct a coherent self-image. To be able to conceptualize myself as a meaningful whole, which is fundamental to self-individuation and self-understanding, I need additional, external perspective. By looking through the other’s soul, I vivify my exterior and make it part of the plastic pictorial world.

We need a philosophy that understands nature as a dynamic, living organism that is ‘pregnant with potentials’. As embodied subjects, we are intertwined with the world, bound up with the dynamic cycles and processes of growth and change.  Insofar as our minds are incarnate and our bodies necessarily partake the physical and biological natural processes, there is an overlap of spirit and matter, subject and object, nature and culture. No break in the circuit; impossible to say where nature ends and subject begins. The self is dynamic, embodied, and creative entity that strives to attribute meaning and value to the world. We are forced to make certain choices and value judgments by Being-in-the-World to transform the world as it is given into a-world-for-me. In making the world a meaningful place, the subject actively engages with and alters its lived environment. I and other co-mingle in the ongoing event of Being. The self, as Bakhtin points out, is ‘unfinalizable’ –  continually re-authored as circumstances change.

Gardiner concludes that both Merleau-Ponty and Bakhtin object to the ‘Primacy of intellectual objectivism’ taken as the model of intelligibility which forms Western philosophy from which our sciences emerge. Such objectification of the world in modernist paradigms represents a retreat from lived experience. Genuinely participative thinking and active engaging requires an engaged, embodied relation to the other and to the world at large. Our capacity for abstract cognition and representational thinking is incapable of grasping the linkage between myself and the other within the fabric of everyday social life. Hence the solipsistic consequences of subjectivistic idealism. As Bakhtin’s ‘carnal hermeneutics’ – the dialogical character of human embodiment – emphasizes, the incarnated self can only be affirmed through its relation with the other. The body is not something self-sufficient: it needs the others’ recognition and form giving activity.