Critical Neuroscience Meets Medical Humanities

William Viney writes – This is the second of five posts introducing individual papers from a special issue of Medical Humanities, edited by myself, Felicity Callard, and Angela Woods. A more general overview of the special issue can be found here.

Jan Slaby’s paper on the role of critique and collaboration in approaches to neuroscience seeks a more sophisticated understanding of philosophy’s role. Slaby’s work is important because he shows how concepts that are prevalent in the humanities are not necessarily ‘opposed to’ or constructed ‘outside of’ the material realities that are the traditional interests of the natural sciences. Rather than thinking of the work of the humanities and natural sciences as inhabiting intrinsically different epistemologies, Slaby is able to explain why negative critique must remain important within collaborative experimentation, but that this cannot be the only viable avenue for collaboration. The medical humanities, it is argued, can learn much from perspectives formed in ‘critical neuroscience’ and its attempts to understand emerging kinds of technoscientific normativity – the commercial, legal, technological, ideational, and epistemological trends that have come together to create and sustain the current widespread fascination with neuroscientific authority. Despite having made limited practical gains in terms of therapeutic applications, neuroscience has thrived thanks to its power to promise futures that are shored up by speculative venture capital and ‘big science’ solutions. Such a situation demands an analysis that can appreciate both what neuroscientists do and the wider contexts in which the brain, while invoked to naturalise complex behaviours, is recruited to actively shape new forms of subjectivity. Particularly important to this paper is how concepts of risk and probabilistic conceptions of illness have formed around the scientific promise heaped upon neuroscientific research, giving rise the condition of being a ‘patient-in-waiting’ that is restricted by the ways health and agency can be defined by the marketplace. Synoptic and capable of observing the complex, long-term confluence of different factors that have shaped research in the natural sciences, what is crucial is how Slaby manages the resources of a ‘critical neuroscience’ to draw from philosophy as well as diverse arenas of the social sciences. For a limited period only, Jan Slaby’s paper is freely accessible online.

Stacey Smith’s response to Slaby’s paper warns that top-down styles of critique risk “underestimating the complexities of neuroscience because the types of ‘conditions’ to be analysed are almost pre-determined: macrostructures, institutional guidelines, popularisation, public discourse and the bioeconomy.” What, Smith asks, happens to the unexpected, accidental, and optimistic practices that form an integral part of laboratory and clinical outcomes? Smith suggests that the challenge to the medical humanities is to explore methodologies that can affirm these contingencies while retaining a critical stance.

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