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Identities as Embodied Horizons

Co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and presented by Linda Martín Alcoff, Professor of Philosophy, Syracuse University.
by admin Feb 06, 2015
When Aug 04, 2003
from 3:00 PM to 4:00 PM
Where 108 Wartik Building
Contact Name
Contact Phone 814-863-5911
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Linda Martín Alcoff Linda Martín Alcoff

Professor of Philosophy, Syracuse University

Linda Martín Alcoff is Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at Syracuse University. She received her Ph.D. at Brown University in 1987. She works primarily in continental philosophy, epistemology, feminist theory, and philosophy of race. Her books include Feminist Epistemologies, co-edited with Elizabeth Potter (Routledge, 1993); Real Knowing: New Versions of the Coherence Theory of Knowledge (Cornell, 1996);Epistemology: The Big Questions (Blackwell: 1998); Thinking From the Underside of History (Rowman and Littlefield, 2000) co-edited with Eduardo Mendieta; Identities(Blackwell 2003) co-edited with Eduardo Mendieta; and is currently co-editing with Eva Kittay the Blackwell Guide to Feminist PhilosophyVisible Identities: Race, Gender and the Self is forthcoming with Oxford Press. She is also editing the first series of course books in feminist philosophy with Routledge, with several already under contract. She has written over thirty articles on topics concerning Foucault, sexual violence, the politics of knowledge, and gender and race identity.

She has also been very active in the profession, including: as Co-Director of SPEP (Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy) 1996-1999; member, American Philosophical Association (APA) Committee on the Status of Women (1995-1998); Chair, APA Committee on Hispanics (1998-2000); member, Eastern division APA Executive Committee; and currently she is on the Nominating Committee of the APA.

She received an ACLS Fellowship for 1990-1991 and a fellowship from the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University for 1994-1995. In 1995 she was awarded a Laura J. and Douglas Meredith Professorship to recognize outstanding teaching at Syracuse University. She has been a visiting professor at Aarhus University in Denmark, Florida Atlantic University, Brown University, and SUNY Stony Brook.

Identities as Embodied Horizons

In my forthcoming book, I argue that we should be wary of the unscrutinized assumption that the attachment to social identity is innately pathological or politically pernicious, or that social categories of identities necessarily mischaracterize the individual or diminish individual agency. I have suggested that at its core, in its common usage, identity does not entail an ascription of sameness that elides group difference, but it does imply a constitutive relation of the individual to the Other, as well as between self and community, and that the refusal of identity is nothing less than the futile hope of avoiding the Other’s power to name, to characterize, and to judge. However, my intention has been to target only the a priori critiques of identity, those who would reject or view as highly dangerous any and all formulations of identity, and those who assume that in progressive future social identities will by necessity wither away.

Such refusals and preemptive strikes against the work of refiguring identity only delay the difficult theoretical work that needs to be done. In this paper (which is one chapter of the book), my aim is to contribute toward the project of creating a new kind of epistemology and metaphysics of identity that can begin to make sense of how identities work today and thus how they might realistically be transformed in the near future. Although my concern has primarily been with the a priori repudiation of identity, I do not deny that there is an equally troubling danger from the other direction. Where the salience of identity is affirmed, it is sometimes all too easy to then concretize identity’s impact, to assume clear boundaries and an absoluteness to the perspective identity yields, and to decontextualize and dehistorize identity formations. In reality, identities are much more complex than either of these caricatures will allow. 

I would say that the fact that mistakes can be made in formulating how identities figure into power dynamics is not to say that identities do not figure. We need a more precise and realistic articulations of what identities are in order to produce more precise and realistic social theories of oppression and strategies of liberation. 

Rather than attempting a reconstruction of identities in a generic and general sense, my focus will be on contemporary raced and gendered identities. There are too many specific differences in the ways in which various identities are formed, operate, and are lived to warrant general analyses. In this paper, then, my task is to offer a different account of raced and gendered identity, an account that will be applicable to these forms of social identity (and to some aspects of other forms).

Essentially, I will be drawing from phenomenological and hermeneutic accounts of the self to develop a theoretical articulation of raced and sexed identity. Specifically, I will consider the concept of interpretive horizon as discussed by Gadamer and Charles Taylor as a way to understand the effect of social location on the self, what is visible from this location, and thus what the self can know. While important, the sphere of visibility operates only metaphorically in this hermeneutic account; what is seriously lacking is a sustained attention to the body, and thus in the next section I will attempt to supplement the hermeneutic approaches with a phenomenological account, attending especially to the role of vision and visibility. I then summarize what the hermeneutic and phenomenological accounts say concerning the self/other and self/community relationship, relating this to the work of Mead whose account of the social self coordinates well with both approaches. In the concluding section, I will draw out the specific implications of the approach I have developed for conceptualizing race and gender.

August 4, 2003
3:00 p.m.
108 Wartik Building