Are there cognitive differences between sexes?

Cheeky peekIn a series of posts, entitled ‘Gender Is Dead, Long Live Gender’, ‘Social by Nature’, and ‘Girl Power’, philosopher Alva Nöe makes some contentious claims about the sexes.  Never one to shy away from controversy, Nöe argues that almost all behavioural or cognitive differences between males and females will not and cannot be explained in terms of underlying psychological or neurobiological processes.  Instead, what will do all the heavy lifting in explaining any such divide is society and the way in which our concepts assume certain differences between the genders.  Such deeply held assumptions in turn structure our lives and our expectations of ourselves, and these expectations turn into self-fulfilling prophecies.  In other words, boys aren’t really better at math and science, our social concepts just assume boys to be better, boys in turn expect themselves to be better, and this leads them in fact to be better.

It’s a long chain of reasoning, one that Nöe never really defends or argues for in a particularly illuminating way.  Indeed, across the three articles, he can’t decide whether or not to include the category of the psychological as something underpinning differences seen in the use of gendered concepts (psychology understood as the place where social concepts do their work), or indeed as something that is part of and explained in terms of sex-differences (psychology as understood as structures and processes like memory and reasoning).  And this vacillation might be one of the reasons that lead him to conclude that most behavioural or cognitive difference between the sexes is explainable only at the level of wide-spread social concepts.

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