Category Archives: philosophy

Foucault’s spiritual exercises

Here is Michel Foucault’s definition of “spirituality”:

… I think we could call “spirituality” the search, practice, and experience through which the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself in order to have access to the truth. We will call “spirituality” then the set of these researches, practices, and experiences, which may be purifications, ascetic exercises, renunciations, conversions of looking, modifications of existence, etc., which are, not for knowledge but for the subject, for the subject’s very being, the price to be paid for access to the truth. Let’s say that spirituality, as it appears in the West at least, has three characteristics.

[1] Spirituality postulates that the truth is never given to the subject by right. … It postulates that for the subject to have right of access to the truth he must be changed, transformed, shifted, and become, to some extent and up to a certain point, other than himself. … It follows that from this point of view there can be no truth without a conversion or a transformation of the subject.

[2] Eros [the subject’s attraction to the truth, or the truth’s movement to the subject] and askesis [labor] are, I think, the two major forms in Western spirituality for conceptualizing the modalities by which the subject must be transformed in order finally to become capable of truth.

[3] The truth enlightens the subject; the truth gives beatitude to the subject; the truth gives the subject tranquility of the soul. In short, in the truth and in access to the truth, there is something that fulfills the subject himself, which fulfills or transfigures his very being.

Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, Lectures at the College de France 1981-2, translated by Graham Burchell (Palgrave, 2005), pp. 15-16

Foucault distinguishes spirituality from philosophy: “the form of thought that asks what it is that enables the subject to have access to the truth and which attempts to determine the conditions and limits of the subject’s access to the truth” (p. 15).

Although philosophy and spirituality are different, all the Greek and Roman philosophers–except (Foucault thinks) Aristotle–believed that a person could not have access to the truth without first being transformed into a better self. Therefore, all the classical philosophers argued for spirituality, as defined above. More than that, they combined their philosophical arguments with spiritual instruction, because they saw the two as inseparable.

One of the main topics that a self was supposed to understand was justice. To understand justice required improving oneself. In turn, learning about justice made a person better. “Consequently, taking care of oneself and being concerned with justice amount to the same thing” (p. 72, here interpreting Plato).

These presuppositions of ancient philosophy and spirituality contrast with two prevalent modern traditions. First:

  • Science is that set of methods and institutions (such as labs, PhD programs, and peer-review) that allow us to know nature without having to improve the self first. A scientist “can recognize the truth and have access to it in himself and solely through his activity of knowing, without anything else being demanded of him and without him having to change or alter his being as subject” (p. 17). In turn, science generates knowledge that may not improve anyone spiritually. Nature is precisely the realm that is independent of our spiritual condition. If some scientists prepare themselves mentally to do their jobs or gain tranquility from what they discover about nature, those are incidental facts about them as people. Spiritual preparation may not be necessary, and it certainly isn’t sufficient. Science is about methods, techniques, instruments, rules, and norms that prevent the self from influencing knowledge. And science pursues truth without flinching even when the results are morally problematic.

I would add another tradition as a contrast with ancient spirituality, although I am not sure Foucault would agree:

  • Liberalism is the political tradition that seeks to base good government on well-designed institutions (rights, checks-and-balances, elections and other mechanisms of accountability) so that good government need not depend on the moral excellence of either leaders or the people. Good institutional design is a more secure basis for justice than human excellence. Further, in a well-designed polity, we can leave people alone in their private lives instead of badgering them to transform themselves. Thus liberalism is compatible with freedom as autonomy and with diverse understandings of the good life.

According to Foucault, classical spiritual traditions lived on in Christianity. Spirituality ran into trouble with the rise of scholasticism, which made the study of God into a kind of science. Drawing on Aristotle, medieval scholastics provided methods for understanding God and nature that did not depend upon spiritual self-improvement. They left methods of self-improvement to non-scholars, a division that continues today.

I struggle to decide where Foucault stands himself. Does he give detailed lectures about Greco-Roman spiritual traditions because he believes that modern science and governance are bad and he wants us to return to a better way? Does he describe these Hellenistic traditions dispassionately, as a contribution to truth that may not improve us or himself? (In other words, is he a scientist of the past?) Or does he seek to liberate us from spirituality and science by demonstrating the historical contingency of both? If we shed spirituality and science, what are we left with?

I don’t know, but I enjoy the moments in the lectures when Foucault interacts with his audience. For instance, here he demonstrates concern:

[Is there] another room you can use? Yes? And are those people there because they cannot get into the other room or because they prefer to be there? I am sorry that the conditions are so bad, I can do nothing about it and as far as possible I would like to avoid you suffering too much. Okay, earlier, while talking about these techniques of the self and their existence prior to Platonic reflection on the epimeleia heautou [care of oneself], it came to mind, and I forgot to mention it to you, that there is a text … (p. 65)

And here he is playing with his audience:

I was saying that it seemed to me that at a certain moment … the link was broken, definitively I think, between access to the truth, which becomes the autonomous development of knowledge (connaissance), and the requirement of the subject’s trans- formation of himself and of his being. When I say “I think it was definitively broken,” I don’t need to tell you that I don’t believe any such thing, and that what is interesting is precisely that the links were not broken abruptly as if by the slice of a knife (pp. 25-6).

Foucault respected and learned from his colleague Pierre Hadot, a great scholar of Hellenistic thought. Hadot emphasized that the Hellenistic thinkers did not write systematic treatises. They were teachers who worked with students or other audiences in concrete circumstances.

Philosophy in antiquity was a spiritual exercise. … Whether we have to do with dialogues as in the case of Plato, class notes as in the case of Aristotle, treatises like those of Plotinus, or commentaries like those of Proclus, a philosopher’s works cannot be interpreted without taking into consideration the concrete situation which gave birth to them. They are the products of a philosophical school, in the most concrete sense of the term, in which a master forms his disciples, trying to guide them to self-transformation and -realization. Thus, the written work is a reflection of pedagogical, pyschagogic, and methodological preoccupations.

Although every written work is a monologue, the philosophical work is always implicitly a dialogue. The dimension of the possible interlocutor is always present within it. This explains the incoherencies and contradictions which modern historians discover with astonishment in the works of ancient philosophers.

Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, translated by Michael Chase (Blackwell 1995), pp. 104-5

Foucault’s concrete situation was rather unusual. As a holder of a chair in the College de France, he was required only to conduct his own research and report the results annually in a series of lectures–free, public, and uncredited. Because he was an academic superstar, he gave these lectures to a packed lecture hall and overflow areas, with ranks of tape-recorders piled on the desk before him. The audience could not literally discuss with him, but he could address them in a dialogic way.

Here is Foucault’s description of Epictetus:

unlike Seneca, [Epictetus] is a teacher by profession [and] he really does have a school. He opens a school which is called “school” and in which he has students. And, of course, among his students there are a number, no doubt a considerable number, of young people who come to be trained. … It should not be thought that the care of the self, as principal axis of the art of life, was reserved for adults. But alongside this, intertwined with this training of young people, we can say that in Epictetus’s school there is also what could be called, employing an unjust metaphor no doubt, an open shop: an open shop for adults. And in fact adults come to his school to hear his teaching for one day, for a few days or for some time. Here also, in the social world evoked in the Discourses, you see, for example, a town inspector passing through, a sort of tax procurer if you like. He is an Epicurean who comes to consult Epictetus and ask him questions. There is a man sent to Rome by his town who, passing through Asia Minor to Rome, stops to ask Epictetus questions and get advice on how he can best accomplish his mission. Moreover, Epictetus by no means disregards this clientele, or these adult interlocutors, since he advises his own students, young people therefore, to find prominent people in their town and to shake them up a bit by saying: Tell me then, how do you live? Do you really take proper care of yourselves? (p. 90)

I think Foucault’s own role is similar. And that makes him–not a scientist of history–but a practitioner and provider of spiritual exercises.

See also Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); does focusing philosophy on how to live broaden or narrow it?;  Hannah Arendt and philosophy as a way of life; Kieran Setiya on midlife: reviving philosophy as a way of life; science, UFOs, and the diminishment of humankind; notes on the social role of science: 1. the example of fetal ultrasounds.

the pivotal significance of reparations for the American left

About one in four Americans supports reparations for slavery. There is a racial split on that question, with up to three in four African Americans–but only 15% of whites–in favor.

If you think that justice demands reparations, you should support them. You might not make reparations your main criterion for choosing candidates in a given political contest, because you might vote on other grounds, but you should endorse proposals that you believe are just.

Here I want to address a different issue. I’ll offer an explanation (not a justification or a critique) of the importance of reparations in the mentality of left-leaning Americans.

I think that many Americans on the left are torn between two political positions, each coherent on its own but in tension with the other:

1. A strong version of New Deal/Great Society liberalism and/or social democracy, in which the nation-state intervenes assertively in the economy to promote equity and environmental sustainability. This stance is compatible with enthusiastic support for voting and democratic processes. It requires a lot of trust in the state and a willingness to entrust state actors with the ability to, for example, investigate how much wealth (not just annual income) you have, which schools your kids will attend, and which health treatments will be paid for, given data about your body.

Martin Luther King, Jr., provides a classic statement of this view when he recalls the launch of the Great Society: “A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings.”

2. A deep suspicion of the United States government as white-supremacist, patriarchal, and colonialist: as a continuous entity that has played a leading role in genocide, enslavement, and apartheid, in part because those policies have sometimes been popular among the white majority of the country.

It’s debatable what positive program follows from the second position, but in practice, it can mean support for local initiatives, nonprofits, women- and minority-owned businesses, and autonomy at the neighborhood level. Malcolm X provides a classic text for this view:

The white man, the white man is too intelligent to let someone else come and gain control of the economy of his community. But you will let anybody come in and control the economy of your community, control the housing, control the education, control the jobs, control the businesses, under the pretext that you want to integrate. 

… we haven’t had sense enough to set up stores and control the businesses of our community. … But the political and economic philosophy of black nationalism…the economic philosophy of black nationalism shows our people the importance of setting up these little stores, and developing them and expanding them into larger operations. Woolworth didn’t start out big like they are today; they started out with a dime store, and expanded, and expanded, and expanded until today they are all over the country and all over the world and they getting some of everybody’s money. …

So our people not only have to be reeducated to the importance of supporting black business, but the black man himself has to be made aware of the importance of going into business. And once you and I go into business, we own and operate at least the businesses in our community. 

Note that this position is compatible with certain forms of libertarian thought but not with social democracy.

It is not embarrassing to be drawn to two incompatible views. The social world is complicated, and there are good reasons in favor of many positions. However, when you feel the pull of two incompatible ideas, a deciding factor becomes very important.

Reparations play that role for the American left. If the United States government were to pay reparations, that would tilt many left-leaning people from the second position to the first: from Malcolm to Martin, if those labels are helpful. The impact would be especially strong if Congress and the president decided to pay reparations of their own volition–not by grudgingly negotiating with a social movement–and if the payment were substantial.

The underlying theory here is similar to Homer-Dixon et al (2020). An ideology is a complex system that consists of numerous ideas with logical links among them. It cannot be described adequately by placing it on one left/right spectrum, nor even several such continua at once. It is not a point in logical space but a structure of ideas.

In complex systems, we frequently see multiple equilibria, and specific nodes have surprisingly large impact because of their location. A single node can tilt the system from one equilibrium to another.

My conjecture is that reparations plays such a role in the system of the ideology of the American left. Left-leaning people may not rate it as the most important issue. They may not even endorse it whole-heartedly. But it (perhaps uniquely) can tilt them from a libertarian equilibrium to a social-democratic equilibrium.

This is an empirical conjecture for which I do not have data. To test it, we would have to explore the epistemic network of left-leaning Americans, either by analyzing large bodies of text or by surveying individuals about their ideas and perceived connections among their ideas.

See also: on Hillary Clinton and Julius Jones of #blacklivesmatter; ideologies and complex systems; and unveiling a systems map for k-12 civic education (for a methodological analog).

science, UFOs, and the diminishment of humankind

The apparently intentional release of Navy videos showing strange flying objects has prompted discussion of UFOs in respectable places like Vox and Bloomberg. I don’t take the news very seriously, although I do agree that the videos are interesting artifacts and people should be able to explore all intelligible hypotheses about them, including ones that involve visitors from other planets. There should be no UFO taboo.

I’m thinking instead about the moral significance of the hypothesis of alien visitors and how that fits into the history of science. What aliens think about us would be entirely contingent on them. They might admire us, condescend kindly to us, ignore us, or view us as food. From our perspective, their stance would be entirely random. Even if the first group of alien visitors happened to be disarmingly appreciative, the next batch might decide to spray us like a nest of termites. Whatever we happen to think of ourselves as a species would have no relationship to what they think of us. Their attitude would depend entirely on what kind of creatures they were. Arrogant technocrats? Intergalactic manatees, browsing peacefully through space without a hint of aggression? Simply hungry?

Most human beings have believed in gods or a god of some kind. Our theories of the divine have varied; by no means all divinities have been seen as perfect or even as particularly good. But a common thread is their interest in us. Whether they are prone to fall in love with some of us, or give us laws, or sacrifice their only-begotten Son to save us, they seem to care about people. Although one style of religious rhetoric reminds us to be humble, trembling in the sight of a just God, a simultaneous implication is that the divine has turned its face to us and cares what we do. Therefore, most religions–Buddhism perhaps offering an important exception–have emphasized the importance of human beings even as they have compared us to something better.

Many scientists are also religious, yet science can be seen as a break with the elements of religion that tend to build us up. It investigates nature as a domain without purpose, in which each event occurs because of the events before it–not in order to accomplish any independent end. Facts are distinct from values, and only hypotheses about facts are testable. We are part of nature, determined by efficient causes that could be understood without any reference to values. Science presumes that nature exists independent of our intelligence and seeks to purge human subjectivity from our understanding of nature.

In all these ways, science tends to diminish the human. In 1963, Hannah Arendt wrote: “To understand physical reality seems to demand not only the renunciation of an anthropocentric or geocentric world view, but also a radical elimination of all anthropomorphic elements and principles.” It therefore undermines the idea “that man [sic] is the highest being we know of.” The idea of superiority is “alien to the scientist, to whom man is no more than a special case of organic life and to whom man’s habitat — the earth, together with earthbound laws — is no more than a special borderline case of absolute, universal laws, that is, laws that rule the immensity of the universe.”

She had in mind at least several epochal events that were recent when she wrote. Physicists had discovered laws and processes that allowed them to build weapons that could destroy human life on earth. Computers had begun to “supplant and enlarge human brain power.” And human beings had left the earth and taken pictures of it.

She was also concerned that physics had revealed truths about nature that were deeply counterintuitive, thus severing the traditional link between ordinary experience and the refined experiences achieved with scientific instruments and methods. However, the “the lost contact between the world of the senses and appearances and the physical world” had been restored in the most horrible way, when the insights of theoretical physics had enabled massive terrestrial explosions.

Arendt doesn’t mention the Shoah in this essay. For her teacher, Heidegger, Auschwitz demonstrated the evil of technology and what we might call a scientific view of the world. But that was itself an evil theory, since the cause of the Holocaust was actually Nazism, with which Heidegger was complicit. Arendt carries forward some of his deepest ideas about science and nature but avoids or evades this particular application of his theory.

She considers the idea that our quest for truth dignifies us–that science boosts our stature by making us the great discoverers. However, she says,

man, insofar as he is a scientist, does not care about his own stature in the universe or about his position on the evolutionary ladder of animal life; this ‘carelessness’ is his pride and his glory. The simple fact that physicists split the atom without any hesitations the very moment they knew how to do it, although they realized full well the enormous destructive potentialities of their operation, demonstrates that the scientist qua scientist does not even care about the survival of the human race on earth or, for that matter, about the survival of the planet itself. 

For her, space travel does not show that human beings can expand our knowledge and escape our limitations. It rather exemplifies the way we have turned everything we experience into products of our science:

The astronaut, shot into outer space and imprisoned in his instrument-ridden capsule where each actual physical encounter with his surroundings would spell immediate death, might well be taken as the symbolic incarnation of Heisenberg’s man — the man who will be the less likely ever to meet anything but himself and man-made things the more ardently he wishes to eliminate all anthropocentric considerations from his encounter with the non-human world around him.

It can certainly be argued that the progress of science makes us humble in a good way. We are part of nature, not uniquely valuable but deeply integrated and interdependent. Therefore, we should start treating our natural environment with more respect. The problem, however, is that science demonstrates its success even as it avoids any intrinsic values, including the value of nature or human beings. The “should” in the sentence, “We should start treating …” makes no sense for science.

Arendt thought that space travel would bring the end of our respect for ourselves, because we would be able to view ourselves explicitly and literally as science has always implicitly understood us.  “If we look down from this point upon what is going on on earth and upon the various activities of men …, then these activities will indeed appear to ourselves as no more than ‘overt behavior,’ which we can study with the same methods we use to study the behavior of rats.” Technology will no longer appear “as the result of a conscious human effort to extend man’s material powers, but rather as a large-scale biological process” (quoting Bohr). If our technology is destroying the environment that sustains us, science will explain why that outcome is biologically determined without supplying any reason for us to stop it.

I would suggest that space travel did not reorient us as much as Arendt expected, partly because it has proven rather disappointing. No colonies on Mars 57 years after her essay. But the thought-experiment that aliens are flying around our earth–and the argument that we ought to study them scientifically–this captures the moment when “the stature of man would not simply be lowered by all standards we know of, but have been destroyed.”

See also: notes on the social role of science: 1. the example of fetal ultrasounds; is science republican (with a little r)?nature includes our inner livessome thoughts on natural lawis all truth scientific truth?; and the laughter of the gods.

ideologies and complex systems

A recent paper entitled “A Complex Systems Approach to the Study of Ideology”* presents a theory much like the one I have begun to develop in a series of posts on this blog and other work.

The authors write,

If we construe ideologies as complex systems, we have (at least) two levels of systems embedded in each other. At the individual level, the elements are ideas, beliefs, and values, whose interactions give rise to a person’s understanding of society, which in turn guides individual political behavior. At the group level, the elements are individual minds whose interactions give rise to discourses and power dynamics, which in turn guide collective action and societal change. We thus conceive of an ideological system as a network of minds, where minds are networks of concepts.

Fig 1 illustrates their model. Compare a diagram of the ideas held by my undergraduate class some years ago (with each student’s ideas in a different color):

The authors of “A Complex Systems Approach” also diagram the ideology of the Tea Party Movement, using the qualitative analysis in a well-known article by Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin as their material.

Their diagram of the Tea Party is not heavily documented, but it demonstrates a payoff of their method. A paradox about the Tea Party is that they were powerful opponents of Obamacare yet passionate defenders of Medicare. The authors of “A Complex Systems Approach” explain this pattern by arguing that “representations of social programs are connected on one hand with representations of the self as a hard worker contributing to society and, hence, deserving of the government check …, but on other hand with the highly negative representations of government, spending, and taxation common to conservative ideologies.”

Each idea and link in the Tea Party ideology is consistent enough in its own way, and the overall system generates a combination of policy positions that only seem inconsistent if you try to place the whole ideology on one linear spectrum from pro- to anti-welfare. As a network of ideas, the ideology is as well structured as many others are. This is not an endorsement, since some of the specific nodes in the Tea Party’s network are objectionable by my lights. But a complex systems model offers a more refined analysis.

The word “complex” is used loosely and in various ways, but the authors of “A Complex Systems Approach” mean systems that exhibit “emergence, nonlinearity (disproportionality of cause and effect), path dependency, and multiple equilibria.” In the Tea Party ideology, for example, resentment of groups perceived as undeserving (which, in turn, is a racialized perception) has a powerful effect because of its location in the whole network. The Tea Party can land in several places (libertarian or #MAGA) that reflect multiple equilibria.

I find it intuitive that our ideas are structured and that the structures matter apart from the lists of individual ideas we hold. I acknowledge that we are not necessarily conscious of the whole structures of our own thought. Self-consciousness requires critical introspection and/or interaction with other people, and it is always partial.

However, I do believe we are conscious of portions of the network at any given time–not just the individual ideas, but the connections among them. Much of our discourse is about mini-structures of ideas, e.g., “I think this because of that.” Methods that reveal structures of ideas and links are alternatives to the family of methodologies that use latent variables to “explain” lists of specific beliefs, as in Moral Foundations Theory. I believe that such methods assume rather than demonstrate that human beings are driven by a few unconscious psychological traits. Although such explanations offer some insight, they should be combined with methods that allow us to see how people and groups build more complex structures. This is why I am excited to see this new paper and the work that underlies it.

* Homer-Dixon, Thomas, Jonathan Leader Maynard, Matto Mildenberger, Manjana Milkoreit, Steven J. Mock, Stephen Quilley, Tobias Schröder, & Paul Thagard. “A Complex Systems Approach to the Study of Ideology: Cognitive-Affective Structures and the Dynamics of Belief Systems.” Journal of Social and Political Psychology [Online], 1.1 (2013): 337-363. Web. 4 May. 2020. I had been previously influenced by Thagard’s work although I have not made the detailed study of it that it deserves.

See also: judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view; from I to we: an outline of a theory; an alternative to Moral Foundations Theory; etc. `

notes on the social role of science: 1. the example of fetal ultrasounds

We reflect on–and we argue about–the point at which human beings become persons with rights, how (if at all) gender relates to biological differences, the degree to which people are interdependent versus free, the rights of disabled persons, and the roles of mothers and other parents.

Meanwhile, we are surrounded and supported by tools and technologies that obtain data and information to guide decisions and judgments. Methods for obtaining and analyzing data have high prestige. But methods for reflecting on moral and metaphysical issues attract widespread skepticism, except among people who are deeply committed to particular moral/metaphysical views (often, religions).

In this context, we have a tool–fetal ultrasound imagining–that purports to peer into the womb and provide data about the developing organism, including its viability and its genitalia, as well as the prospective mother’s health. People may suspect that this scientific tool will shed light on personhood, sex, disability, and motherhood, not to mention such specifically contested questions as abortion and gender attribution.

The tool is used in specific, culturally resonant ways. Often prospective parents go into the medical facility together. The prospective mother is prepared and treated as a patient–in a blue gown, and so on. The room where the procedure is conducted is private, separated by a closed door from the waiting room. A large, precise, moving image appears on a screen. The parent or parents are asked whether they want to know whether the child is/will be a boy or a girl, which determines whether they are shown the genital area. At least some pregnant women report that the image compels everyone’s attention to the fetus and negates the woman, since she is literally made invisible (Barad 1998). Prospective parents of “normal” or “healthy” children are congratulated and offered good wishes. They can take still photos or even videos home with them.

If we ask “What is a fetal ultrasound session?” (as Clifford Geertz asked, “What is a Balinese cockfight?“) we might consider several answers:

  1. “A fetal ultrasound (sonogram) is an imaging technique that uses sound waves to produce images of a fetus in the uterus. Fetal ultrasound images can help your health care provider evaluate your baby’s growth and development and monitor your pregnancy. In some cases, fetal ultrasound is used to evaluate possible problems or help confirm a diagnosis” (The Mayo Clinic). Note: “your baby” as a description of the object. Not “the baby,” not “the fetus,” not “you.”
  2. An apparatus that uses a piezoelectric transducer, a crystal that both receives and produces ultrasound waves in complex interactions with the mother, the fetus, the computer, the video screen, and the viewers (Barad 1998).
  3. A “bonding scan” also known as a “recreational” or keepsake” ultrasound, meant to produce pictures or videos to save and share with friends and family or even with the child later on (per LiveScience.com, which does not endorse such uses).
  4. An application of SONAR technology, invented to detect and destroy enemy submarines (Barad 1998)
  5. One of the events to expect when you are expecting. A moment to anticipate, celebrate, and share.
  6. A ritual that encourages prospective parent(s) to: 1. bond as couples and begin bonding with their child, with whom they will form a nuclear family, 2. bring the fetus to term because is already moving and kicking, 3. avoid behaviors, such as alcohol consumption, that might harm the fetus, 4. encourage them to begin to begin thinking and talking about it as a “boy” or a “girl,” who will have an appropriate name, pronouns, etc., 5. allow them to announce the pregnancy to a larger audience, thus enhancing their social capital, 6. reinforce the authority of credentialed medical professionals in white coats, and 7. produce revenue for the clinic.

Karen Barad wrote a brilliant 1998 article* that explored much of this terrain. I would respectfully dissent from part of her analysis, only because I am trying to work out a view that better fits my sense of the problematic power of science.

Inter alia, Barad raises epistemological doubts about the image that we see on the screen. We are not “peer[ing] innocently at the fetus,” but using an elaborate apparatus that produces an image as a result of complex interactions that can be changed by altering the apparatus. It is a mistake to think that the referent, when we talk about this image, is “the fetus.” The referent is a “phenomenon that is constituted by the inter-action of the apparatus and the object.” Barad cites Niels Bohr’s epistemology in opposition to the older, “Newtonian framework” in which observation was the “benign facilitator of discovery, a transparent and undistorting lens passively gazing at the world.”

I completely agree that looking inside the torso of a pregnant woman is not innocent or automatically benign. Whether to do it, how to design the procedure and the larger event, and what conclusions to draw are moral and political choices that should be critically assessed. Fetal ultrasound could be banned, discouraged, publicly funded, or required. The image could be seen only by a professional who would give written results to the pregnant woman alone. Or it could be done only by the pregnant woman, who would decide whether to share any information with anyone, including a physician. It could be re-designed so that the woman was depicted in the image along with the fetus, or in many other ways.

A fetal ultrasound event is a social phenomenon that reflects and reproduces power. There is a risk that it will block critical deliberation about issues like abortion and gender by claiming to present natural facts just as they are. To quote Bruno Latour, science can “render ordinary political life impotent through the threat of an incontestable nature” (Latour, 2004, p. 10).

Yet I do believe that we are looking at the fetus. In fact, it is precisely because the technology allows us to actually peer into the woman’s body that it is invasive.

When you see a car coming down the road, you may not actually look at the object that matters. Your brain interprets a reflection on the back of your retina, which may reflect the image on a convex mirror, which distorts reality by showing objects smaller than they would appear if seen directly. But you’d better not pull out into the road if there’s a car coming. The mirror is an excellent device for looking around corners, which is why we use it.

We are in a world of tools that we use effectively for a variety of reasons. In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein encourages us to see representations as tools that we can use for many purposes. A blueprint can provide instructions to a builder or ideas for a heist, or it can decorate a wall. There is nothing tricky about its metaphysical status. A picture does nothing mysterious inside us that needs analysis (Philosophical Investigations, 188). Whether the visual experience of an image is authentic is not an interesting question (190). The question is what uses we make of an object, including using it to represent a different object. For instance, to see a painting as a portrait of someone is to use it in a certain way. “Now when I say, ‘We consider a portrait to be human’ – when and for how long do we do this? Whenever we see it at all (and don’t see it as something else)” (199).

Likewise, when we are presented with a moving image from inside a pregnant woman, we can see it as a person, or as a boy, or as a fetus, or as a medical problem. Science has no legitimate right to tell us which way to see it. However, the ritual of a fetal sonogram event–conducted by people in white coats with scientific degrees–probably does determine how we will see it. The ultrasound technology really works; the question is whether and how we should use it.

Sources: Karen Barad, “Getting Real: Technoscientific Practices and the Materialization of Reality,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 10, no. 2 (1998): 87-91; Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2004); Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, German text (1953), my translations.

See also: what does a Balinese cockfight have to do with public policy analysis?; issues in the philosophy of social science; science, democracy, and civic life; is science republican (with a little r)?; nature includes our inner lives; some thoughts on natural law; is all truth scientific truth?; decoding institutions; media literacy and the social discovery of reality