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Feminist theory after sex and gender: The nature-nurture complex in contemporary feminism reconsidered in light of the Developmental Systems Theory approach to the philosophy of biology

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - FEMSAG (Feminist theory after sex and gender: The nature-nurture complex in contemporary feminism reconsidered in light of the Developmental Systems Theory approach to the philosophy of biology)

Reporting period: 2017-07-01 to 2019-06-30

Feminist Theory After Sex and Gender (FEMSAG) is a research action that aims to develop philosophical tools to clarify and refine the foundational concepts of “nature” and “nurture”, such as they bear (either implicitly or explicitly) on current understandings of gender and sexuality both in the narrow domain of academic gender studies as well as in the public domain of gender- and sexuality-related law- and policy-making. The nature vs. nurture issue as it relates to gender and sexuality arises in the context of attempts to identify the causal bases of sex differences in cognition, emotion, behaviour and interests, as well as in positioning in social, cultural, economic and political life. Typically, “nature” has come to serve as a rubric for putatively biological factors, such as selective pressures during evolutionary histories, genetic constraints and drivers on developmental trajectories, types and levels of hormones, and brain structure and function. Conversely, “nurture” typically subsumes all factors acting in a given organism’s physical and social environments to incline its bodily, mental and behavioural development in a certain direction. This supposition of two sets of causal factors conjointly giving rise to extant sex differences among human subjects continues to inflect contemporary gender theory and politics, even as they also often find themselves contesting it.

FEMSAG engages with the most cutting-edge developments in feminist thought (and gender studies more broadly) concerning the concepts of nature (or “sex”), nurture (or “gender”) and of a putative relation between the two with a view to enhance the conceptual framework in terms of which new policies and reforms concerning gender- and sexuality-related issues have to be projected. Such issues may include male (sexual) aggression against women, female underrepresentation in key societal and professional domains, and current controversies over how best to promote sexual and gender health and justice for trans people and otherwise gender non-conforming populations.
"During this reporting period, I have been working on the three scholarly work packages (WPs) of the project.

WP2 addresses foundational issues going into the project, such as the question of the relation between feminist theory and philosophical naturalism as well as foundational concepts such as ""matter"" and ""materiality"". It now consists of two papers, both of them taking up the contribution from feminist theorist and science scholar Karen Barad, both of which are currently in review for publication in peer-reviewed journals. The two papers grew out of one conference presentation held at the annual meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, held at the University of Pennsylvania at State College in October, 2018. The claim defended in the first of these papers is that Barad's quantum-mechanical account of the place of humanity in the larger system of nature enters into conflict with fundamental tenets of Darwinian evolutionary theory, which in most accounts philosophical naturalism is acknowledged as a non-negotiable constraint on philosophical theorising. In the second of these papers, Wittgenstein's critique of representationalist accounts of language is applied to prominent modes of language use in the context of the so-called ""material turn"" in feminist theory, of which Barad is again a significant (and highly influential) example. It is shown that prolific references to ""matter"", ""material"" and ""materiality"" in this area is confused and risks obfuscation of issues that should be kept distinct. At an earlier stage of the project, this WP also included a paper on the contribution by Elizabeth Grosz's rereading of Darwin to the naturalist turn in feminist theory. This was workshopped at the 12th annual conference of philoSOPHIA: A Society for Continental Feminism, held at the University of Richmond, Virginia. This material has been rescheduled to WP4, and will be the subject of a non-technical written contribution as part of the outreach program of the project.

WP1 is one of the two scholarly wps in this project to address more specific nature-nurture issues, focusing on feminist responses to current developments in the neuroscience of sex difference. The scholarly paper making up this WP has been workshopped on two occasions: first at SLSA – Out of Mind,the 32nd annual meeting of Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts, co-organized by The University of Waterloo, York University, OCAD University and Rochester Institute of Technology in Toronto November 15-18, 2018; then at the BIAS In AI and Neuroscience transdisciplinary conference, held at the University of Radboud, Nijmegen, June 17-19, 2019. in the paper, I argue that the debate between cognitivists and enactivists over the role properly ascribed to representations in the functioning of the brain during cognitive tasks and emotional episodes might potentially shed light on what is at stake in the debate about sex differences in brain and behaviour. This could have the productive consequence of neutralising the nature-nurture deadlock that has compromised this debate for decades.

WP3 is the other of the two more specifically oriented wps of the project, devoted to the phenomenology of gender and sexuality, which is to say, the exploration of how gender and sexuality is lived from an embodied, first-personal point of view. The particular issue raised in this paper is the extent to which the embodied phenomenology developed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) may advance our understanding of trans lives and embodiments, or if those experiences are rather a significant challenge to fundamental assumptions built into that phenomenology. In the paper, I vote for the second of these possibilities. A first version of the paper was presented at the 43rd meeting of the International Merleau-Ponty Circle, held at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, November 8-10, 2018."
"As for the nature-nurture issue in feminist theory and gender studies more broadly, there is little consensus among gender studies scholars as to how to conceptualize it, although most would agree that it forms a foundational issue in the field. Like the question of what amounts to a good, worthwhile life in philosophical ethics, the nature-nurture issue has the air about it of being a perennial quandary that keeps returning in ever-new guises and through ever-new fissures in the conceptual apparatus through which we try to make sense of and come to terms with the nature of gender and sexuality. There is therefore no definitive state of the art in these matters in the same way as one might speak of a state of the art when it comes to the understanding of, for instance, the etiology of certain diseases and how best to treat or counteract them. FEMSAG picks up on a specific strand of contemporary feminist thought that has been designated as a “naturalist"" or ""material"" turn in feminist theory, as showcased in the work of Karen Barad and others (WP2). It seeks to develop the implications of taking a naturalist stance to the nature-nurture issues that have marked feminist discourse and gender studies more broadly for decades, in the hope that this will yield some conceptual clarifications that might be seen as useful both in theory and practice."