Peter Westmoreland used his 2014 Rothman Faculty Summer Fellowship to support
the writing of a long journal article entitled, “Giving
Philosophy a Hand: Left and Right in Swordplay, Brains, and Lived Experience,” which will be submitted for publication in 2015.
Westmoreland’s research questions the normative belief that left-and right-handed
people are mirror-images of one another. Current scientific research into
handedness has been shaped by the assumption of symmetry. Instead of focusing
on how handedness is experienced everyday by left and right handers, neuro-science
has looked for the difference in the brain. Philosophers, despite interest in
the body as a center of experience, have not pursued any kind of robust
analysis of the experience of handedness. In order to correct these omissions,
Westmoreland argues that left-and right-handers embody their handedness
differently because their experiences of the world are different – they develop
different kinds of skills, styles, and preferences.
As noted by Westmoreland, scientific research on handedness has primarily focused on goal-oriented function, or which hand functions more skillfully. And, this question is also pursued in terms of brain causation – by using brain-scanning technology, neuro-scientists are able to determine which parts of the brain are firing when left-and right-handers do things. So, it is determined that certain parts of the brain are utilized when the left is used and vice versa. But the question of how handedness is experienced is not broached. In this regard, Westmoreland proposes that philosophy can contribute an experiential analysis to contemporary scientific research.
The experience of handedness, Westmoreland argues, is dextronormative. In other words, the frequency of right-handers helps to determine how left-handedness is experienced. For example, the symmetry of right and left-handed student desks assumes left-right handed persons do the same things in similar ways. This indicates that the left-handed persons often have to learn how to do things like right-handers. However, left-handers do not write as right-handers do, and thus are not accommodated by mirror-image desks. Consequently, left-handedness is frequently masked by in-built favoritism for right-handers who happen to be among the statistical majority.
In order to find a possible solution, Westmoreland proposes a new model based on asymmetry. As an example, left-handed fencers tend to be better than right-handed ones. The reason is not necessarily because right-handers are unfamiliar with left-handed fencers. Rather, left-handed fencers attack at different angles and they strike at certain parts of the body more effectively. In other words, their left-handedness allows them to develop certain skills and styles more effectively than right-handers. This suggests that left-handers even have different body orientations and thus their experience of the world is not the same. A model of asymmetry focused the development of skills and styles raises the importance of handedness as lived experience.
With the support of the 2014 Rothman Faculty Summer Fellowship, Westmoreland has raised some interesting questions about distributive justice and the assumptions of scientific research. If the world is organized in favor of right-handers and the experience of bodily symmetry is untenable, then how do we restructure our world of objects in a way that is fair? Moreover, Westmoreland’s focus on experience rather than function questions the assumption of bodily symmetry in contemporary scientific research on handedness. His project highlights the kind of contributions philosophy can make to scientific research, as well as reorient our conceptualizations of space and the body.
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