Kealey, Women-as-Job-Perks, and Feminism from First Principles

Readers may have come across this story, in which vice-chancellor at a British university publically advises (male, straight) academics to leer at their female students as ‘a perk’. It has, predictably, sparked outrage from many and defense from many others, and I’m not going to repeat that stuff – partly because, this seems to be the sort of thing where some look at it and intuitively get that this is objectionable, while other people may simply not ‘get it’, and more forceful articulations may remain too intuitive to ‘get across’ effectively to the opposite group.

The same sort of thing applies to most of the media; plenty of people can agree that, yes, people of a certain race are rarely seen in films outside of certain roles and settings, and yes, adverts feature female bodies presented as bodily more often than they do male bodies, and yes, this Kealey fellow speaks as if the only sexual question is between male professors and female students. But so what? People just need to man up and deal with it. And yes, the phrase ‘man up’ is a gendered expression, but people need to man up and deal with that too.

Perhaps a more theoretical argument may be persuasive to some such people; if not, perhaps it might be useful and worth consdering. That is, if we think that these phenomena are not just distasteful but pernicious, we might think it worthwhile to sketch how that relates to something rather like ‘first principles’. And if we find that different people draw the same conclusion from different premises, that’s something worth learning.

Read the rest of this entry »

Is Sex Disgusting? Feminism and Metaphysics

In previous posts I argued a few things about disgust. Firstly, I claimed that the main things that disgust us are things that violate the boundaries between mind (and associated things – form, structure, will, etc.) and matter (and associated things – inertness, homogeneity, etc.) – for instance, seeing someone’s body being taken apart, turned into mere meat, is strongly disgusting.

Secondly, as a consequence of this, we are all latently disgusted by human bodies themselves – because they (or should I say ‘we’?) are a prime example of blurring mind and matter togher. Another person’s body especially – to smell it, to touch it, to feel its hairs and pimples and tubes and membranes and secretions – is always liable to disgust us.

Thirdly, though, society requires that we get past this disgust – people can’t interact much if they all make each other feel sick. And there are two major, and opposed, ways that this happens.

One is the ‘magic’ of appropriateness: by observing the right formulas (what to say, what clothes to wear, what to cover or uncover, which hairs to trim, where to keep our secretions, etc.) we can in public turn ‘banish’ our disgusting bodiliness, and present to people a sanitised image that doesn’t remind them that we are disgusting and oozy.

The other is the ‘miracle’ of sexuality: by some mysterious process, under the right circumstances, what had previously been most disgusting is transmuted into what is most desirbale. Rather than wanting to minimise contact with another person’s body-as-a-body, we now seek to maximise it.

The defect of this analysis, though, is that it presents these two as being separate. But of course there is an overlap: even in public, we present ourselves partly in sexual terms, and even in sex, we make some effot to present a sanitised version of our bodies.

At this point though, we can see that the methods of ‘disgust-management’ become very heavily gendered, and open to political critique.

The most striking thing, of course, is that for women, the ‘overlap’ is made a much bigger deal than for men. On the one hand, the way women are encouraged to present themselves publically is sexualised much more reliably and fully. The are endless decisions about how much to conceal or reveal, how things will flatter the figure, etc.  Men have some of the same stuff going on but to a much less degree. And on the other hand, that public sexualisation is also imported into the bedroom. For instance, there’s much more pressure for women to manage their intimate body hair of various types than there is for men.

Read the rest of this entry »

Disgust and Philosophy of Mind

What is disgust? If happiness tells us that things are good, and surprise that they are unexpected, etc. – what does disgust ‘tell us’?

An interesting thing about disgust is that the primary answer to the question ‘what is disgusting?’ must be ‘we are’. That is, it seems to be a basic fact about disgust that people, those very entities which can feel disgust, are also a source of disgust.

I say this not simply because many of the things that our bodies produce (saliva, sweat, urine, mucus, vomit, etc.) are in fact disgusting, but that it seems that the very fact of being from a person’s body makes things disgusting.

For instance, if I’m sitting on a bus and I notice a smell which, in itself, is neutral, neither pleasant nor unpleasant, I will probably (everything here, of course, is in generalisations) be fairly ok with this if I believe the smell to come from some inorganic source, like the glue that my book is bound with. But if I believe it to come from the person sitting next to me, I’m liable to be disgusted, and to feel specifically as though I have ‘made contact’ with them in too close a way, come to know them too intimately, through this.

Similarly, among the most disgusting things are when those parts of the human body which are not usually visible become visible – when organs spill out of abdomens, when the inside of the rectum is exposed through anal stretching, when we peer up someone’s nose or see a limb amputated. And, speaking at least for myself, if I though that I was seeing only a plastic model, a fake, I would find these things much less disturbing. Part of what repulses us is precisely that we see another person in a way that we don’t want to.

Of course, it must be pretty hard to be something that you find disgusting.

Read the rest of this entry »

In Defense of Robots

They are inherently evil and must be destroyed.

They are inherently evil and must be destroyed.

In the ‘Terminator’ franchise, as well as the ‘Matrix’ franchise, not to mention the film of ‘I, Robot’, the ‘Dune’ books, and ‘2001, a Space Oddessey’, humans invent robots (which I here define as ‘artificial beings with a mental life’) who they then find themselves at war with. The rise to consciousness and thought by robots is a mortal threat to humanity – one or the other must be destroyed.

This isn’t the only presentation of robots that can be seen (or, more often, read). But it’s a recurring theme that strikes me as rather odd and deserving some questions. There are two sorts of unhappiness I have with this motif: firstly, the supposed emnity between humans and robots, and secondly, the way that robots are presented as thinking.

So on the first question, you have to ask – what are we extrapolating from? Have robots ever killed or performed any hostile act against humans? Of course not – none exist, in the sense I’m using the term here. And obviously it’s more exciting for an action film to have hostile forces, but that doesn’t quite seem like a full explanation. Figures of fear have to have emotional resonance, they have to connect to something in the viewer – but if there’s no experiences of fear associated with actual robots, what is this?

Read the rest of this entry »

Walking to the Edge of Consciousness

This post aims to offer new ways of thinking about consciousness, both our own and that of others.

Philosophers often talk of experience in terms of ‘sensations’, but it only takes a little thought to recognise that experience isn’t something put together out of discrete parts: it’s a whole, from which smaller parts can be abstracted. To take vision as the principal form of perception (which many people do), it’s clear that the primitive visual phenomenon is not any ‘little patches of colour’, but the visual field.

The same, it seems to me, is largely true of consciousness in general: for all that it may be convenient to speak of lots of ‘mental states’, lots of ‘thoughts’ and ‘feelings’ co-existing like lego bricks, we can really only distinguish them against the background of the general unity of consciousness.

At any given moment, I have the visual field before me, my body-sense and the various touch-senses across its surface, sounds and smells coming in from around me, possible courses of action stretching out in front of me, short-term memory of the last few minutes behind me, long-term memories informing my awareness of every thing, a mood or moods colouring everything, reflections and imaginations bubbling up on all sides, all as integral components of the single state that is my consciousness.

What this means though is that we may be misleading ourselves when we speak of particular thoughts or feelings as being either ‘conscious’ or ‘unconscious’. They are components of the overall state, and the overall state is conscious – any further question is just about the details of this.

Read the rest of this entry »

Mind-Body Dualism and Torture

I talked a bit yesterday about the recent release of a lot of documentation regarding the American torture system. In this post I want to make a more general point about torture .

Before doing so, I felt it should be emphatically pointed out that ‘ticking bomb scenarios’, and torture as the tragic but necessary last resort to save lives, is fantasy – in particular, the main point of torture in this case was to gain evidence to support the invasion of Iraq, whether or not that evidence was true.

Anyway, the conceptual point that interests me is that I think there is a tendency to think of torture as a temporary thing – unlike, say, amputating a hand, the purely ‘mental’ nature of torture means that although it’s incredibly unpleasant while it’s going on, after it’s finished the victim is basically the same as before.

For some lucky people this will be true, but in general I think this approach is too ‘Cartesian’, too prone to seeing the mind as something floating above and unlike the body. But minds can be cut into and dissected just as much as bodies.

Read the rest of this entry »

Capitalist Philosophy of Mind: Part 1 – Philosophical History

While I wouldn’t call myself a ‘Marxist’, I do identify with the idea of ‘historical materialism’, a term that has been used for Marx’n’Engels’ approach to society. I’m also very interested in philosophy, and so in this post I want to give a historical materialist account of the history of philosophy of mind.

What is ‘historical materialism’? It’s the belief that society forms an inter-connected whole, so that each part reciprocally influences other parts, and moreover that in this web, the dominant influence is had by ‘material’ factors: people’s concrete lived experience. For example, the forms of artistic expression that are widespread in a society will reflect the conditions in which most people live, albeit in complex ways.

This is sometimes mischaracterised as ‘economic determinism’, which is wrong on two counts. Firstly, it’s not (on my understanding) deterministic because it doesn’t claim that each individual’s actions must be the result of their material conditions – merely that the overally statistical averages will.

Secondly, it’s not (on my understanding) purely economic, since things beyond ‘economics’ narrowly-conceived can fall within ‘material conditions’: technology, sexual relations, climate, etc.

So with that hopefully a little cleared up, I want to talk about applying this to philosophy, in particular to dualism/materialism/physicalism in philosophy of mind. (As I use them, metaphysical ‘materialism’ is a different idea to sociological ‘historical materialism’, just as both are different from ‘materialism’ as a graspy, avaricious personality). This first post just runs over the major movements in the history of the subject in recent centuries.

Read the rest of this entry »