Cover image for Knowing Otherwise: Race, Gender, and Implicit Understanding By Alexis Shotwell

Knowing Otherwise

Race, Gender, and Implicit Understanding

Alexis Shotwell


$33.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03764-6

Available as an e-book

208 pages
6" × 9"

Knowing Otherwise

Race, Gender, and Implicit Understanding

Alexis Shotwell

“With its original interpretations of the importance of tacit knowledge to race and (trans)gender, Knowing Otherwise makes a significant contribution to social and political philosophy, epistemology, and especially feminist philosophy and critical philosophy of race. This book examines implicit knowledge to show how affective, emotional, and bodily understandings can contribute to political transformation. Shotwell convincingly demonstrates how the unspoken, and perhaps the unspeakable, frames the explicit knowledge that undergirds political activity.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Prejudice is often not a conscious attitude: because of ingrained habits in relating to the world, one may act in prejudiced ways toward others without explicitly understanding the meaning of one’s actions. Similarly, one may know how to do certain things, like ride a bicycle, without being able to articulate in words what that knowledge is. These are examples of what Alexis Shotwell discusses in Knowing Otherwise as phenomena of “implicit understanding.” Presenting a systematic analysis of this concept, she highlights how this kind of understanding may be used to ground positive political and social change, such as combating racism in its less overt and more deep-rooted forms.

Shotwell begins by distinguishing four basic types of implicit understanding: nonpropositional, skill-based, or practical knowledge; embodied knowledge; potentially propositional knowledge; and affective knowledge. She then develops the notion of a racialized and gendered “common sense,” drawing on Gramsci and critical race theorists, and clarifies the idea of embodied knowledge by showing how it operates in the realm of aesthetics. She also examines the role that both negative affects, like shame, and positive affects, like sympathy, can play in moving us away from racism and toward political solidarity and social justice. Finally, Shotwell looks at the politicized experience of one’s body in feminist and transgender theories of liberation in order to elucidate the role of situated sensuous knowledge in bringing about social change and political transformation.

“With its original interpretations of the importance of tacit knowledge to race and (trans)gender, Knowing Otherwise makes a significant contribution to social and political philosophy, epistemology, and especially feminist philosophy and critical philosophy of race. This book examines implicit knowledge to show how affective, emotional, and bodily understandings can contribute to political transformation. Shotwell convincingly demonstrates how the unspoken, and perhaps the unspeakable, frames the explicit knowledge that undergirds political activity.”
“Exploring sensuous knowing that resists explicit formalization but is crucial to the possibility of a critical grasp of the world and the possibility of change, Alexis Shotwell investigates socially embedded, bodily, affective praxis that both registers and opens up truly ‘knowing otherwise.’ Looking for sites of rupture of settled feeling and common sense, she explores the workings of shame that can move subjects beyond ineffective antiracist and antisexist guilt and asks how transformative social change may yet be possible. Her grasp of intersectional feminist philosophy, critical theory in the Marxist tradition, critical race theory, trans cultures and scholarship, philosophical approaches informed by Buddhist thought, and aesthetic theory after Kant is deep and creative. Knowing Otherwise is a wonderful, thoughtful, moving book.”
“Alexis Shotwell’s Knowing Otherwise draws on eclectic literatures and ideas across political theory, cultural studies, aesthetics, and feminist and critical race theory to expand our vision of epistemology. Outlining the various forms of nonpropositional knowledge, she takes up their possibilities for personal and political transformation. Many of us have long been dissatisfied with philosophy’s emphasis on the spoken word but lacked a framework for grasping how extralinguistic knowledge can really be understood—and especially for grasping its political import. Shotwell fills this gap.
“This is a courageous and ambitious book, and anyone who can meaningfully connect the likes of John Searle and Michael Polanyi with Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, Audre Lorde, and Avery Gordon deserves to be named Young Philosopher of the Year. The writing is clear as a bell, while the argument is profoundly heterodox and original. Shotwell shatters conventional thinking about forms of knowledge without sacrificing nuance and while remaining true to her radical political intuitions. This is honest and attentive philosophy, rich at the level of example and responsible to political practice. It will be useful to analytic epistemologists, cognitive scientists, political theorists, feminist and critical race scholars, and anyone wanting to understand how knowing otherwise shapes participation in race and gender politics.”
“Western philosophy has mostly been reluctant to acknowledge what many Eastern philosophers have found obvious, which is that bodily experience can constitute a source of radical insight. The suggestion that the body thinks has roots in Marxist thinking and in the work of some feminists, but Alexis Shotwell’s engaging exploration, defense, and illustration of this idea goes well beyond any previous consideration in European and North American philosophy. Knowing Otherwise will certainly benefit philosophers and will provide philosophical strength and inspiration to activists for social justice.”
“In Knowing Otherwise, Alexis Shotwell intervenes at the overlap of epistemology and social, political, moral, and anti-oppression philosophy to present a sustained consideration of how implicit understanding shapes possibilities for both oppressing and acting against oppression. . . . [The book] stands out for its adamant awareness of claims in a remarkable array of fields of scholarship, within epistemology and without. It bridges and brings into conversation theorists across diverse traditions. . . . The style of the text is natural and intellectually honest as Shotwell starts conversations among these diverse thinkers, then shows how such conversations helped generate her analysis. . . . One of the accomplishments of the book will be in granting theorists and moral, social, and political philosophers not positioned as epistemologists more access to questions of how knowledge conditions, motivates, and sustains action toward justice.”
“Alexis Shotwell’s book presents a complex account of the workings of our minds that are largely or even completely outside our awareness.”

Alexis Shotwell is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada.




Part 1: Mapping Implicit Understanding

1. Theories of Implicit Understanding

2. Racialized Common Sense

3. An Aesthetics of Sensuousness

Part 2: Navigating Transformations

4. Negative Affect and Whiteness

5. Enacting Solidarity

6. A Knowing That Resided in My Bones



Even though humans are more committed to language than other animals, we use more than words in every aspect of engagement with our lives. We are intricately and intimately connected with others and with the world, and most of these connections happen alongside, beneath, and in other spheres than the words we say and the propositions we formulate. We know how to say some things, and how to make claims and test them. This sort of knowledge—propositional knowledge—has been often understood as the only form of knowledge worth thinking about. We also know otherwise—we understand things that cannot be or are not spoken, and we may suspect that this form of understanding is important. In this book, I attend to this second form of knowing, which I call “implicit understanding.” I argue that various forms of knowing otherwise than propositionally are vital to current possibilities for flourishing, expressing dignity, and acting.

I have two main aims: first to delineate the differences and the connections among four sorts of implicit understanding, and second to show how they are crucial to personal and political transformation. Indeed, it is often at points of transition that the work of implicit understanding is most palpable—when people shift their gender enactment, when they take up new political orientations, when they aim to create new social relations. Consider Dorothy Allison’s narrative of feminist transformation: “When feminism exploded in my life, it gave me a vision of the world totally different from everything I had ever assumed or hoped” (1994, 167). Here, feminism offered a vision of the world that was new in two ways: it shifted an already present framework of presuppositions and provided different possibilities for future hope. Accounts of political transformation often highlight the new information and understanding involved in an individual’s change. As Allison’s narrative suggests, they can also create a changed context for one’s assumptions and hopes. When this happens, political transformation takes root in something deeper than what one can say, offering new expressive possibilities. Such possibilities speak to the implicitly political frameworks of understanding.

It is important to think about this form of understanding. Every story I know about queerness and coming out, about gender and transitioning, about coming to political consciousness of racial formation and one’s own place in it, of struggle for economic justice, of coming to crip pride, unfolds a complex web of understanding. In that web, conceptual knowledge changes—the information one has and one’s ability to speak about it shifts, and people learn facts and figures they didn’t know. But that changed propositional knowledge is thoroughly enmeshed with other forms of understanding—feeling, somatic experience, skills and competencies, presuppositions and common sense. Thinking about the always socially situated work of striving to create the conditions for complex flourishing requires a thick understanding of these aspects of our experience.

As I will show, there is wider range of such thinking than one might expect. This is true even within the discipline of philosophy, often seen (with reason) as most unfriendly to pushing the boundaries of propositionality and rationality narrowly construed. I am uneasily situated in relation to this discipline, sutured to philosophical topics and approaches by my interest in epistemology and political theory. I believe that it is possible to put people concerned about social justice in conversation with philosophers for the mutual aid of all concerned. This work is directed toward thinkers who are interested in knowledge—mostly philosophers—and also toward people looking to change the world—mostly social justice activists—(not mutually exclusive categories) because I believe that we need to consider implicit understanding far more deeply and synthetically from both directions.

Some Preliminary Definitions

“Propositionality” here names claim-making activity; to put something propositionally is to put it in a linguistically intelligible form that could be evaluated as true or false. “Implicit understanding” names our background, taken-for-granted understanding of being in the world: The implicit is what provides the conditions for things to make sense to us. The implicit provides the framework through which it is possible to form propositions and also to evaluate them as true or false, and is thus instrumentally important. Implicit understanding is also non-instrumentally important. It not only helps provide the conditions for propositional work, it also occupies its own epistemic and political terrain, and in itself is vital to flourishing. That is, living well involves substantial implicit content, perhaps unspeakable but central to the felt experience of manifesting dignity, joy, and contingent freedoms. While there is reason to consider implicit understanding a form of knowledge, it may not be verifiable in the same way as propositional knowledge. In what follows I will for the most part use “implicit understanding” as an umbrella term, though at various points I will also use “knowledge” out of respect for specific texts’ use of the term. As I explain below, my primary analytic attempts to avoid a split between what we can and cannot say in a coherent sentence. Rather, I begin from the stance that this split is inadequate to our epistemic and ethical experience of knowing. Implicit understanding is both epistemically and politically salient, and I inquire into this twined salience. Notice, then, that I am trying to shift the terms of a conversation about the difference between propositional and nonpropositional knowledge in order to understand the ways these categories are themselves inadequate. Rather, I believe that they at least interpenetrate and may be co-constituted in ways that are most visible when we concern ourselves with the political.

I distinguish among four different sorts of implicit understanding: practical, skill-based knowledge; somatic or bodily knowing; potentially propositional but currently implicit knowledge; and affective or emotional understanding. In the chapters to follow I will situate each more thoroughly in relation to some key theorists; let the following stand as a gestural key to what I will discuss in more detail. Although I distinguish the differences among these four kinds of understanding, I don’t think it is possible to think about them as though they were not intimately and necessarily connected.

First, skill-based “know-how,” developed through practice. Skills, like being able to knit a sweater, or being able to swim, are “known” only insofar as one has the ability to exercise them. A person can tell me many things about how to swim, but I will not know how to do it unless I actually acquire the understanding of moving in particular ways in water. Losing the ability to swim means, over time, losing the knowledge of how to swim. Many examples of this sort of knowledge relate to things that you could say about them; knowing how to swim, or how to pound a nail effectively, for example, are skills that can be improved by someone who is good at them saying things to us about how to do them better (“Maybe if you turn your head less when you take a breath your stroke will be smoother” or “Hold the hammer farther back along the handle”).

A second sort of implicit understanding, connected to the first, is knowledge people have at the intersection of their bodily and conceptual systems. What does it mean to feel good in one’s body? To have a body image? To shake hands in a way that conveys friendliness, confidence, or aggression? This sort of somatic knowledge is bodily and social, and thus it is always political. Being gendered, for example, is intensely somatic while also complexly social and relational; feeling like a girl, a boy, or some genders we don’t have words for involves our corporeal sensorium and also a social uptake of our bodily ways of being in the world. While it might be tempting to think of bodily knowledge as somehow pre-social, pure, or free from enculturation, it is more precise to see how our felt experience of embodiment constellates social worlds with material realities.

A third species of implicit knowing is knowledge that could be put into words but is not, now, in that form. Moreover, “now” is always shifting; what stands as implicit sometimes moves under the surface of propositional knowledge and can be brought into explicitness. There is always a great deal that could be said but is not—and perhaps has never been—put into words. Other propositions have become foundationally assumed to the extent that we rely on them without conceptual consideration. Potentially propositional knowledge stands as commonsense; it provides the foundation from which we reason, or is heuristically unspoken. In sometimes benign and sometimes troubling ways, this form of understanding goes without saying or is contingently unspeakable. When it carries political judgment, the difficulty attached to drawing potentially propositional, commonsense knowledge into conceptual thought may restrict people’s perceptions and actions.

Finally, the category of affect and feeling can be understood as a kind of implicit understanding, not fully or generally propositional or considered a kind of knowledge. “Affect” is increasingly coming to name a previously under-theorized dimension of racial formation, queerness, gendered norms, and class delineations. I understand affect and its relations—emotions and sensibilities, among other labels—to name nonpropositional but energetic and moving feelings that texture and tone our experience. Sometimes these feelings have conventionally accessible labels like “happy” or “sad” and sometimes they are inchoate and slippery, suffusing or torquing our experience in ways that may be overwhelming and inexpressible.

Again, these four facets of implicit understanding are always experienced in co-constituting relation with one another. We will not have affect without bodily being, both social and skillful, and feeling may point to or be the nascent form of something that could be put into words—and the same can be said for any configuration of implicit understanding in which we prioritize one of these four. Still, it is important to delineate the differences among these in order to understand more completely ways of knowing too often rendered useless, irrelevant, or beneath reason. Even theorists who attend to one or the other of these other forms of knowledge collapse many forms of implicit understanding into the sort they examine. Doing this preserves a binary relationship between propositional knowledge (knowledge proper, we might say) and everything else—which is then rendered extra-epistemic.

Consider a relatively simple, concrete example: an out-of-true bike wheel, so warped that it hinders bicycle riding—the rim runs against the brake pad, and therefore the bike can’t move. What are the epistemic issues involved in fixing this wheel? In what way, if any, is this wheel political? Skilled knowledge is clearly present here. Knowing how to true a bike wheel is a learned capacity. The mechanics who taught me how to do this, along with the books I’ve read about building wheels and truing warped wheels, all explained in words and propositions aspects of the process, and their words shaped my practices. Actually working on wheels and learning how to apply those words opened a different sort of knowing relation with wheels. At a certain (not very high) level of skill, truing bike wheels is a skill that is rendered in words only imperfectly and approximately. The proof of having the knowledge is exercising it and creating a successfully trued wheel, perhaps reliably and repeatedly. Socially situated embodiment is also complexly involved. I was raised as a girl and live as a woman in a social world that does not habituate girls and women to handle tools and know our own strength in their use. This aspect of gendering was obvious to me when I worked as a volunteer mechanic teaching people how to fix their own bikes in a bike tool co-op. I noticed that being able to teach a skill (like truing a wheel) to women in particular depended on creating new bodily ways of being, which involved pushing back on a weight of history that assumed that girl children and women adults didn’t need to use wrenches. I am generalizing, of course; not all girls and women are raised to be incompetent with tools—people like me, the eldest child of a maker and fixer sort of father, may be given more room to shape our bodies and identities around these competencies. Having an orientation toward the world such that the skills of truing a wheel come reasonably easily depends greatly on the social world in which one dwells, creating habits and tendencies that intersect with skills and know-how.

Aspects of this political-epistemic situation could be put into words. Teaching someone how to true a wheel involves evoking both the know-how and the socially situated bodily knowledge involved in the work—one might give some directions that help develop the skill (“You can think of this spoke like a screw, see? It tightens when you turn it in this direction”) or the habitus (“Yeah, sometimes it’s hard to feel confident about how far to turn the spoke wrench. You can just fiddle with it”). There are other sorts of commonsense understanding involved, too—assumptions about whether it’s worth fixing a broken wheel, about what sort of people are able to learn how to do this work, about whether it’s demeaning to get one’s hands dirty in working. There are also various implicit contents to the material situation of the bike’s wheel. In the shop where I volunteered, there were two main groups of people who came in to use the free services and cheap tool time: bike hipsters with a do-it-yourself aesthetic, often committed to bicycling with an equal mix of style and environmentalism; and noncitizens, barred from getting driver’s licenses and therefore dependant on bike transport to get around. These groups shared economic reasons for fixing their own bikes, perhaps along with other sorts of joys in biking and fixing bikes. Thinking about what was going without saying in that space reveals an array of potentially propositional knowledge, some of it quite salient to the fact of the out-of-true wheel. But almost all that understanding goes without saying in ways that could be brought into propositional consciousness. Much what is unspoken or unspeakable is also political, such as the differences between undocumented and documented people and their reasons for riding bikes. Finally, there is affective content to the broken wheel and its fixing. It is frustrating to not be able to ride one’s bike, and it’s hard to learn how to true a wheel. It is satisfying and empowering to be able to do this sort of work, and it’s a joy to be able to ride again. So: frustration, irritation, confusion, competence, confidence, happiness, joy—and more. In this situation, not much of the affective content is clearly tied to propositional knowledge (as it might be in a statement like “something felt fishy,” where “feeling fishy” signals a way of knowing). Still, the feeling involved is important to the possibilities for truing the wheel or interacting with it in other ways.

To move from reasonably simple objects of knowledge to something more involved, like discovering feminism, underlines the salience of implicit understanding in all its complexity. One way to think about political transformation is epistemological; we gain access to new knowledge about things, new standards for justification, or different practices of knowing. Of all the things feminist theory has given philosophy, feminist epistemology is one of the most significant. Interventions in traditional epistemology have come from feminist scientists and feminist philosophers of science who argue that the production of knowledge is intimately tied to the position of knowers within social and political networks. They examine the production of knowledge as a situated and invested category in scientific practice and society more generally.1 Feminist epistemologists offer compelling arguments against any conception of an isolated knower whose knowledge is fungible, discrete, and infallible. Rather, they give an account of a situated knower whose standpoint is achieved, whose knowledge is connected to a network of social relations, and whose very being is co-constituted with others.2 The quality of knowledge changes with the position of the knower, and there are some things knowable only from particular knowledge positions.3 There turn out to be many “ingredients” in knowledge, a great number of which are explicitly disallowed by more traditional or conventional theories of knowledge.

Among the ingredients implied but under-theorized even in feminist epistemology is the category of implicit understanding I have been exploring: the unspoken and unspeakable frameworks of our propositional, claim-making activity. Our epistemic resources are thus impoverished, particularly if we are looking for epistemic accounts that can help address the relationship between knowledge and political change. I propose that the implicit is a crucial yet under-interrogated element in knowledge. We do not have an adequate epistemology without an account of how the implicit is at play in the construction and verification of knowledge. The epistemic salience of implicit understanding becomes particularly clear, as I will show, when we examine racial and gender formation with an eye toward the epistemic work involved in stabilizing them as political categories.

For something to be unspoken, perhaps unspeakable, is for it to be inaccessible in a significant way—and not only to conventional Western philosophy. Often pride of place is given to knowledge we can evaluate as true or false and that we can put in the form of a proposition. This is the case even when intuitions and “gut feelings” are seen as important to our decisions and actions. It matters, for example, whether racism—and race itself—as an ideological construction is significantly unspoken and unspeakable. I will argue that racialization, racism, and racial formation involve significant implicit understandings; the nonpropositional is important to forming the background of “race.” Similarly, the norms through which gender is formed and enforced can be seen as implicit in several of the modes I laid out above. Implicit understanding helps produce our experience of knowing as a coherent one. It might play an especially crucial role when our understandings are challenged, when they shift or change. While it is clearly important to social justice work to change laws, how people speak, and what gets said, such transformations rely on implicit frameworks of understanding and may also create new constellations of tacit knowing.

I situate the concept of “the implicit” within a polythetic field of overlapping terms, uses, and meanings. The theoretical field of “implicit understanding” is not unmarked terrain or new territory. Rather, this is an already multiply mapped topography. In more and less explicit ways, thinking about the implicit is woven through thinking about almost anything. Where the implicit appears explicitly, it tends to be thoroughly enmeshed in the specific context of its production. The various “maps” of the field, then, are drawn with varied materials, interpreted by diverse legends, and read by focusing on differently salient aspects of the landscape. The area treated by one outline might exceed the area of another in some ways but fall short of its mapping in others. To think about several such mappings together is to construct a palimpsest by addition—layering many images of a potential field on top of one another such that some lines are reinforced across iterations, others shifted and blurred by near matches, and others marked off by singularity. Like any map, these are made for a purpose.

In the palimpsest I create, the implicit may be visible primarily at sites of a certain rupture in habitual activity, or points of breakdown in our conception of our selves. When our own self-conception reveals itself as contradictory or—as in some moments of strong emotion or unpremeditated reaction—as simply unexpected, there is the possibility of “seeing” our implicit understanding. Likewise, the experience of one person’s network of understanding catching on another person’s could produce a revealing disjuncture. And this disjuncture could be the product of, and productive of, joy as much as discomfort. Take another bicycle example, this one from Terri Elliott’s essay “Making Strange What Had Appeared Familiar.” Elliott imagines that she has inherited a one-speed Schwinn with a bent rim, low air in its tires, and a too-high seat. In her words: “But it’s my first bike. I balance precariously, I struggle up hills, I think to myself, ‘So this is biking, huh? Maybe roller-skating will be more fun.’ Then a friend of the family visits with a beautiful new ten-speed that’s just my size. She lets me try it, and I’m amazed at how fast I can go—so effortlessly” (1994, 431). In this example, Elliott’s original bicycle provides a framework for understanding what it is to ride a bike, and the friend’s bike shifts that understanding through offering the opportunity for a different practice. Dorothy Allison’s account of discovering feminism indicates that the “explosion” of feminism offers a more complex account of this kind of political transformation. Feminism—figured as an explicit knowledge, a set of practices, transformed social relations, and more—enabled her to move from a web of implicit understanding that systematically derogated the possibilities for a positive lesbian identity, to a worldview that gave her material and psychological resources for flourishing within that identity.

My stakes here are personal, philosophical and political, including a wish to begin to address my own role in inequitable distributions of resources, attention, and possibility. The trajectory that brings me to this reading of implicit knowledge begins with my experience as an undergraduate philosophy major and the frameworks of apprehension active in that discipline. It was assumed that we were all working and thinking in terms of at least potentially clear truths. Within reason, philosophy students are expected to encounter texts on an equal footing, able to obtain a measure of objectivity. Perhaps because of this assumption, I could see some places where those suppositions broke down—particularly around the anomalies of a deeply gendered gender-neutrality.

My experiences of conceptual breakdowns were in many ways perfectly generic: noticing professors who regularly called on men in a philosophy classroom by name but who routinely failed to call on women, got our names wrong, or expressed gratified surprise when one of us would provide a competent response to a question. My own feminist transformation was not a product simply of the conceptual content of an introductory feminist theory course. It was also a result of the experience of finding myself in the contradictory identity terrain inhabited by an undergraduate woman in a philosophy department. Because I took delight in studying philosophy, I had a particular stubbornness about staying in the discipline; the pleasure involved in the work gave me a kind of entitlement to the field. That entitlement was the condition for being indignant about the sexism endemic to philosophy as a discipline. But other sites of my experience did not provoke such indignation. There are levels of implicitness, some moving into explicit consciousness, some becoming a background, and others occluded. For example, it was very easy for me to be white in my undergraduate philosophy department.

The fact that my gender was noticeable to me yet my whiteness remained unnoticeable indicates the manifestation of a network of implicit understanding, expressed along interwoven and twisting axes of race and gender. My class position, as someone able and expected to go to university, functioned as a root condition of possibility, the hinges on which axes of race and gender turned. Given that condition of possibility, my enjoyment in studying philosophy and my resistance to the constraints of being a woman undergraduate in a philosophy department together highlighted something about the place of gender in philosophy. That is, gender is assumed to be out of place, or inappropriately placed, when it appears in the philosophical framework. Since “woman” is the primary gender formation marked as gendered, to be a woman doing philosophy is to illuminate implicit understandings about gender. Similarly, race and ethnicity are often supposed to be nonphilosophical categories in ways that naturalize whiteness. The smooth functioning of whiteness and class privilege in my own experience indicates one function of implicit understanding: to facilitate the assumption of sometimes harmful norms in ways that perpetuate them. If classist, racist, and sexist practices implicitly define a field, being comfortable in that field involves deploying and benefiting from those practices. The implicit is significant even—perhaps especially—when it remains implicit.

The intersection of inarticulate frameworks of understanding with systems of power, then, is sometimes visible in the exercise of dominative privilege. While implicit understanding always moves in relation to power, thinking about the implicit as it manifests in “unconscious” prejudice, for example, highlights the relevance of having an account of the inarticulate for doing anti-oppression work. Theorists of race and ethnicity have used the notion of a “racial common sense” to get at the idea that there are substantial inarticulate, and possibly inarticulable, elements of racial formation. Understanding common sense as an implicit ground of self-formation provides resources for more adequate theorizing of this realm, and also a potential approach for shifting implicit understanding and introducing new ways of being. Therefore, implicit understanding can create the conditions for political transformation, but it can also block such transformation.

I am thinking, for example, of a guest lecture I gave to a class on whiteness (the fourth chapter of this book came out of this lecture). I talked about negative affect and whiteness, outlining why many antiracist activists argue that white guilt is an ineffective yet frequently invoked root for action. Midway through, I paused to invite questions, and a student in the back of the class put up her hand and said, “You mean, kind of like this class.” Taken aback, I asked her to elaborate. She did, saying several things that connected with what I’d been arguing, and giving what seemed to be an accurate account of some of what had happened in the classroom space. She offered a coherent account of the challenges she had encountered when talking about race and whiteness during that term. Along with this conceptual account, several forms of implicit understanding came into focus. The student was, it seemed, rendering some of what for her had remained temporarily unspoken in the classroom, and she was talking with emotion about her feeling. There was an affective dimension for the rest of us, as well: I experienced panic, worry about whether the professor in whose class I was lecturing was feeling attacked, relief that a student was unpacking some of the subtext implied in talking about white guilt, fear that I would botch my response, and more. Though I cannot be sure, it seemed to me that others in the room were experiencing an affective shock—everyone suddenly seemed more awake and focused. The host professor later confided that she felt a lot of fear at this moment, based on past interactions with the students in the class.

These feelings don’t in themselves constitute understanding. Seen in the context of a matrix of implicit understanding shot through with propositional knowledge, though, we can see how affect might be important to the epistemic situation. If the purpose of that class was, as it was titled, “Theorizing Whiteness,” it matters if having a feeling, like guilt about whiteness, attaches to panic about discussing the topic evoking that feeling. Depending on one’s political perspective, these feelings, including the ways they might show up through embodied understanding and including the previously unspeakable knowledge they might disclose, can enable or block the process of coming to conceptual understanding.

The student, then, was drawing attention to some affective and presuppositional aspects of the learning situation, and in a significant way intensifying and manifesting some of the implicit understanding I was gesturing toward in my discussion. At the same time, there were other things that remained implicit in her question in troubling ways, contributing to the stabilization of harmful classification. For example, though the class composition seemed to be unusually diverse by race and ethnicity, her question posited a white subject experiencing white guilt. This is an example of implicit understanding’s regressive political and personal significance. Discursive situations that carry political content are always freighted with an affective, embodied, and unspoken charge. And implicit understandings of race and ethnicity, of disability, of class, of fatness, or of gender variance, for example, often work against transformations of those categories. The assumptions my questioner made, the class’s affective shock, my response, and a complex network of other features of that experience, could work toward some kind of antiracist transformation. More often, though, I think such experiences evoke a kind of frozen response that short-circuits this kind of political change.

So, in this example, if talking about whiteness brings up panic in white people, who then shy away from talking about race, there is an immediate way that exploring or changing racialized propositional knowledge might be impossible. In particular, people who benefit from or are not targeted by racial inequity are usually not open to hearing and understanding information about the injustices that accompany racial formation. More important, though, is the epistemically salient weight of nonpropositional content attached to whiteness. Consider the difference between reading a quantitative study depicting statistics about white people feeling aversive toward people of color and encountering this feeling in person; consider the difference between hearing someone talk about the fear and shame that might be brought up for white people in talking about whiteness and feeling that fear and shame oneself. Studying theory or supposedly empirical results of studies will only indirectly point toward or approximate the web of understanding abstracted in such scholarship.4 As I will argue in more detail below, feelings, implicit prejudices, and bodily responses constitute a significant part of racial formation itself. Insofar as political transformation of racialization is desired, these implicit dimensions are important.

This book is a product of feminist philosophy. It can be understood as an attempt to read key sites of racial and gender formation through a feminist lens and using the resources of feminist philosophy. Gender is salient throughout as I attempt to engage and resist what Tina Chanter has identified as a theoretical impasse, in which feminist theory permits race, class, and gender only to “play second fiddle to gender, which will continue to operate as if it were neutral with regard to these secondary, derivative, differences while it in fact retains the middle-class privilege of white heteronormativity.” At the same time, as Chanter argues, this problem is replicated in race theory, which at times “has allowed the concept of race to remain at the center of its analyses. Feminist theory thereby continues to marginalize the experience of its racialized others, just as race theory continues to marginalize its gendered others.” Further, as Chanter puts it: “In efforts to take seriously the fact that gender has relied upon an inarticulate, indeterminate notion of race, or race has a repressed gendered history, theorists have rendered determinate those racialized or gendered histories that have been left indeterminate. . . . Yet corrective analyses systematically encounter the problem of reinventing new forms of marginalization in the very attempt to redress hegemonic relations” (2006, 87–88). I have, no doubt, fallen prey to these and other pitfalls in my attempt to render legible the concept of politically salient implicit understanding, using methodologies and examples from critical race and gender studies. By attending to precisely the inarticulate and indeterminate aspects of political epistemologies, however, I believe it is possible to work against the center-margin logic that Chanter critiques.

I argue that the implicit is central to the project of creating political consciousness in a transformative mode. Without being able to think and talk, to feel and move through various forms of implicit understanding, we are not able to work explicitly with and on our implicit, affective, tacit, and embodied experience of the world. If such work is central to the political transformations individuals experience, it is equally central to broader political change. In part 1, I attempt to create a useful map, in the form of a palimpsest, of some theories of implicit knowledge. In chapter 1, I offer some theoretical resources for thinking about implicit understanding through a fuller account of philosophers who have given various account of such knowing. In chapter 2, I draw on that palimpsest to think about racialization and commonsense gender formation, working through Wahneema Lubiano’s and Antonio Gramsci’s writing on common sense. I argue that racial and gender formations are to a significant degree inarticulate and potentially inarticulable, and thus that we need an account of the inarticulate to address these categories. I use the map of the first chapter as a resource, altering and redrawing it in relation to the terrain I encounter in thinking about “race” and “gender.” In chapter 3, I examine the socially mediated conditions for transformative understanding, re-situating Bourdieu’s notion of socially mediated embodiment in a philosophical history of aesthetics and politics—a history that stretches from eighteenth-century theories of art to current theories of protest and social change.

The second part of this book grounds and extends the philosophical method of part 1 to explore why implicit understanding matters. The accounts I draw on in part 2 act as correctives, affirmations, and supplements to the concerns and methods presented by the more traditional philosophers discussed in part 1. In chapter 4, I weave together themes from chapters 2 and 3 (on racialized common sense and on socially situated embodied experience) to consider feeling bad about whiteness. I argue that while antiracist activists and theorists often critique the utility of white guilt, there is good reason to talk about the affect of shame as a politically viable route to antiracist transformation. In chapter 5, I expand my discussion to look at solidarity as a complex individual and collective stance and action. I am specifically interested in the solidarity white people might be able to extend to racialized “others.” In chapter 6, I extend my inquiry into normalized common sense and embodied sociality. I consider theorists writing on transsexual and transgender theories of embodied understanding, and argue for a kind of socially situated knowledge practice.

The task of the second half of the book, then, is to look for sites where implicit understanding’s effects and calls are particularly visible, starting from them in order to talk about the political and epistemic salience of implicit understanding. Chapter 4, on shaming, is interested in how affect might offer a politically transformative experience of implicit understanding. Chapter 5, on solidarity, is an example of how potentially propositional understanding can block one’s political aspirations, and how a non-reductive affective stance can deploy what Gadamer thinks of as an openness to the space of a question—in this case, a deep ethical relationship with difference. And the final chapter engages how transformations of our embodied knowledge have to do with our political and social world, and how such transformation motivates political change. That is, while part 2 moves topically from issues in race and ethnicity to issues in transgender liberation, it is also topically focused on three of the four areas of implicit understanding I have just laid out; chapters in that section can be read either under the rubric of a race/gender analysis or as a typology and grounded explication of several sorts of interlinked implicit knowing.

Most books are in some way still images of moving objects, and this is particularly the case for intellectual areas in formation. Given more time, I would engage here with the developing fields that speak to affective and somatic cognition (Protevi 2009; Gallagher 2005; Noë 2009), the uses of pragmatism (Sullivan 2001), and the significance of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work on phenomenology and embodiment (Merleau-Ponty 1962; Weiss 1999). I believe there will be much more work on implicit understanding, and hope here to offer some contributions to currently under-theorized areas of that work. Knowing Otherwise dwells at the intersection of several areas of interest, presenting multiple points of attachment and grappling with the frictions that follow from disciplinary crossing. It is written for people who are interested in thinking about race and racism, who find themselves infatuated with unlikely philosophers, who suspect that attending to nonpropositional ways of understanding might help us know the world differently, who want to understand the sensuous import of how race and gender are braided together. As such, I hope the book will spark questions, perhaps more than it resolves, and open space for working with our political and philosophical presuppositions.