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Abstract

We outline the perspective of ‘critical neuroscience’: a stance of informed critique pertaining to neuroscientific methods, research practices, concepts, discursive effects, formative backstories and societal impacts. We bring together work from various disciplines with the aim to engage neuroscience practitioners as well as decision-makers, stakeholders and the public. Critical neuroscience is a critical stance towards the entirety of the ‘Neuro complex’ in its present guise, including its broader impacts on scholarship, academia and the wider society. The text is a programmatic outline tracing major lines of influence and theoretical backgrounds. It is an invitation to neuroscientists and critical scholars from different fields to engage in collaborative reflection on the present and future of human neuroscience.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Updated and extended version of Chapter 1 in Critical Neuroscience: A Handbook of the Social and Cultural Contexts of Neuroscience, 2011, Wiley. We reproduce the material here with kind permission of the publisher, Wiley-Blackwell.

  2. 2.

    The more descriptive portions of this agenda overlap in part with the careful and competent work that Nikolas Rose and Joelle Abi-Rached have done in their seminal study Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind (Princeton UP 2013).

  3. 3.

    How these postmodernist tendencies might have rendered explanations that invoke ‘social influences’ less common and less valued in STS is helpfully discussed by Forman (2010).

  4. 4.

    This goal would take as a premise that the brain and nervous system are nested in the body and environment from the outset and that their functions can only be understood in terms of the social and cultural environment (Choudhury and Gold 2011). For the more general background to this perspective, see Protevi (2009).

  5. 5.

    This might be one reason why critique of scientific and medical malpractice and corporate influence has recently been more a business of journalists, popular writers and non-academic intellectuals than of professional STS practitioners (recent examples: Fine 2010; Greenberg 2010; Watters 2010).

  6. 6.

    We refer here to the puzzlingly moderate final remarks in Nikolas Rose’s The Politics of Life Itself (and echoed again throughout Rose and Abi-Rached 2013). Rose’s proclamation of neutrality at the end of that work is surprising in face of the many blatantly critique-worthy developments he had charted so rigorously throughout his book.

  7. 7.

    Here critical neuroscience preserves what could be called historical solidarity with the project of critical theory: the similarity lies in the attempt to move beyond sporadic interventions towards a theoretically integrated account of an assumed system of normative assumptions, interpretive patterns and material conditions that jointly stabilise, on the scale of society or significant segments of it, a tacitly pathological status quo. The term ‘theory’ in critical theory is no accident (Geuss 1981; Honneth 2009).

  8. 8.

    Take for example the UK Foresight Project’s definition of ‘well-being’: ‘Mental well-being, […], is a dynamic state that refers to an individual’s ability to develop their potential, work productively and creatively, build strong and positive relationships with others and contribute to their community’ (Beddington et al. 2008, 1057).

  9. 9.

    Besides Cooter and Stein’s (2010) refreshingly explicit political positioning, we have been inspired by the rigorous critical and scholarly stance of historical of economics Philip Mirowski. Especially his paradigm historiography of cybernetic’s influence on contemporary economics (2002) would deserve a separate discussion, as there is much overlap with the formative developments that have led to the present-day shape and impacts of the neuro-cognitive sciences.

  10. 10.

    We take up Honneth’s notion in a rather loose manner, divorcing it from the specific context of a theory of rationality implicit in approaches to ‘critique’ from a Frankfurt School perspective.

  11. 11.

    The most optimistic voice in this area has been German sociologist Ulrich Beck (see, e.g. Beck 1997).

  12. 12.

    Since we first wrote this chapter, Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard have done excellent work on the prospects and pitfalls as well as conceptual and practical backgrounds of interdisciplinary cooperation between neuroscience and the humanities and social sciences. They also helpfully focus on the issue of experimentation (see Fitzgerald and Callard 2015).

  13. 13.

    We use the notion of a ‘brain fact’ analogously to Ludwik Fleck’s conceptualisation of a scientific fact in his seminal study Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact (see Fleck 1935/1979). On the looping journeys of scientific facts in the context of neuroscience see also Dumit (2004).

  14. 14.

    This is an example of how neuroscience itself can be used to subvert its own assumptions and demonstrate the contingencies of categories and methodologies it employs, a move we have called ‘experimental irony’. Margulies (2012) illustrates the power of this strategy of critique ‘from inside’ through a review of the famous study by Bennett et al. (2009) that used a dead Atlantic salmon in an fMRI scanner to highlight the high possibility of red herrings in brain imaging research.

  15. 15.

    Of course, philosophy—as a specialised domain of philosophy of science—also contributes directly to the methodological reflection, analysis and critique of neuroscientific research practice (see, e.g. Klein 2010; Haueis 2014).

  16. 16.

    This is one of the areas where the situation has changed to a notable extent since we first articulated the programme of critical neuroscience, and since the first version of this chapter was published in 2012. In this respect, then, we have seen a considerable gain in self-reflective awareness as part of neuroscience’s professional outlook. It is much harder to get methodologically suspect studies published these days then it was, say, 10 or 15 years ago, although many problems still remain. Stelzer et al. (2014) review a lot of the work that has been published around and after the time our first critical neuroscience publications were written.

  17. 17.

    In their landmark comparative article, Henrich et al. (2010) use the acronym WEIRD to denote the White, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic societies that behavioural science researchers take to be ‘standard subjects’, in spite of the considerable heterogeneity across populations taken to be groups, and in spite of the fact that so called WEIRD populations are frequently unusual or outliers.

  18. 18.

    Besides the increasingly prevalent understanding of ‘biosociality’ as a fertile perspective in various fields (Meloni et al. 2016), we also consider the more critical perspective of ‘biocapital’ as highly relevant here. Where the concept of biosociality operates on a fairly broad and neutral plane, ‘biocapital’ hints at the quite direct—and often problematic—economic appropriation of biological materials, biological knowledge and biology-informed ethical outlooks (see Sunder Rajan 2006; Cooper 2008).

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Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Max Stadler and Saskia K. Nagel for important contributions to the development of the ideas expressed here. We also thank Allan Young, Lutz Fricke, Jan-Christoph Heilinger, John Protevi and the editors of this volume.

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Slaby, J., Choudhury, S. (2018). Proposal for a Critical Neuroscience. In: Meloni, M., Cromby, J., Fitzgerald, D., Lloyd, S. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Biology and Society. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-52879-7_15

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