Peter Steeves

She Knows What You Did Last Summer

Feminist Epistemology, the Scientific Ideal, and a Phenomenologically Founded Interpretation


1. Introduction: A Scientist’s Story

Carl, let us say, is an astrophysicist.  One steamy August night, Carl has a fight with his wife over whether or not she is going to return to school and pursue a degree.  Carl feels she belongs at home, and if she chooses to return to school it will somehow be an indication of her lack of commitment to him.  He storms out of the house and off to the university observatory.  After reaching his office, he straightens up the papers on his desk and sits and stews for a couple of hours.  Then he climbs up to the telescope and angrily shoves a photographic plate into the proper place, sets the tracking computer, and mistakenly punches up a 600 minute exposure rather than a 60 minute exposure.  He calms down, returns home, and when he goes back to the observatory the next evening, develops the photograph to discover that he has captured a trinary star system several thousand light years away—a system which has been theoretically proposed, but never observed.  He writes a paper detailing the tracking unit used, the exact coordinates of the system, the nature of the optical lens, the position of the telescope (geographically), and the date the data was gathered.  In certain circles, other scientists who know Carl hear the story of how he came to make the discovery—of the fight with his wife which drove him to the observatory on just the right evening, and the mistake made in setting the exposure time.  But no one is ever aware of “all” of the details of the story—the fact that Carl shoved the plate in angrily or that he first straightened up his desk before running the experiment or that he stormed out of his house after a fight with his wife, etc.


There are at least three stories being told here (the story in the paper Carl writes, the story Carl’s friends know, and the (fictional construct of a) story including every detail), and the tradition would have us believe that only the first story relates the context of justification while the others relate the context of discovery.  Furthermore, while the narrative of discovery might be historically interesting, it supposedly has nothing to do with epistemology—and nothing to do with science, either.

            Academics in the humanities—especially philosophers—have long been pointing out the impossibility of classical objectivity,  yet the desire for and the myth of objectivity continue to live even in our postmodern age.  When Scientific American had the audacity to run an article on religion entitled “Beyond Physics” in August 1998, it was met with a torrent of mail criticizing the scientific journal for considering matters of faith.  “Science is not a philosophy,” wrote one angry reader, “but an intellectual tool.”  Another reader e-mailed in his testimony that science deals with “truth” and therefore has no room for that which is beyond physics.[1]  The debate was intensely emotional, but this bit of irony seemed lost on the authors angrily taking the editor to task.

            How best to approach the question of science’s value-laden methodology?  The directions are many, including the notion that such a critique of objectivity implies a further critique of the traditional separation of the context of discovery from the context of justification.   In fact, as Lorraine Code suggests, such a separation does not exist and is both a remnant of an old, mistaken way of thinking and a powerful tool which allows current scientific institutions to remain empowered and oppressive to women.

            Code maintains that the tradition is such that “clean, uncluttered analyses are valued more highly than rich, multifaceted, but messy and ambiguous, narratives”[2]; yet we must admit that there is a certain narrative inherent in even the most uncluttered analysis.  Carl, in his published paper, told a story about taking measurements and performing tasks.  The question is, however, why does the narrative stop at this level?  That is, why doesn’t Carl speak of his wife or the way he shoved the plate into the machine?  The traditional answer is that the paper-narrative somehow contains objective facts and thus a justification for the theory, whereas the friends-narrative and the domestic-detail-narrative are subjective interpretations relating the context of the initial discovery. 

            The problems, however, are legion.  If we accept that Carl is always engaged in interpretation—that his subjectivity and perspective are inescapable—then we realize that the paper-narrative is necessarily a value-laden, non-objective description.  Given this, the barrier between context of discovery and context of justification begins to break down.  Carl only thinks that the type of tracking unit he used is more important to his story than the fight with his wife which drove him to the lab (and, consequently, to make the discovery) because the former has all the trappings of a traditional objective fact—it lends itself to repeatability, it seems universal and uninterpreted in a way that a description of the fight with his wife does not, it is about a machine that takes measurements which helps to legitimate the scientific paradigm , etc.[3]  The illusion of this level of objectivity constitutes subject matter for narratives of justification, but if we are “truthful,” we realize the illusion and refuse the distinction between contexts of discovery and justification.  We are still left, though, with difficult questions for an epistemology of science concerning the role of observation, the observer’s identity (especially in terms of sex and gender), the need for scientific autonomy, and the ultimate place of rationality in the overall project.  And such questions have, in fact, interesting feminist answers—answers that, I maintain, could benefit from a phenomenological reading as well.


2. Observation and Epistemology


Code, among others, maintains that a critical examination of observation—the scientist’s mainstay—is necessary for the feminist project and for the understanding of dichotomies such as discovery vs. justification.  That is, when the feminist investigates the nature, the role, and the implications of observation, he or she discovers that there are certain oppressive characteristics of an epistemology based on observation.  The tradition would maintain its institutions are founded on objectivity, naturally-occurring paradigms, and non-sexist/non-(dis)empowering methodologies; however, such assumptions are false, if not plainly and intentionally oppressive to women.  Thus the tradition as a whole—what we today might call “mainstream philosophy”—must take note and find some means of reckoning (which might imply drastically changing) its foundations in the face of inconsistencies and falsehoods made evident by its feminist accusers.

            The nature of observation is supposedly objective.  This means that when one observes, she does so without any preconceived notions, and the product of her observation is a pure one—one that does not depend on her personal traits, as the object is clearly separate from the subject and the act of observation is simply a means of bridging subject and object without any loss of integrity in the “barrier” which forever separates the two.

            This bridge metaphor is itself somewhat telling.   What we observe as an object is dependent on prior social constitution.  This is but one way of cashing out the claim that there is no self/object distinction, and a conservative one at that.  Indeed, it is not so far removed from the Kantian notion that the mind is an active sorter rather than passive observer, for, as Code remarks, “Kant posits ahistorical, universal categories...and conditions of knowability...[yet] prepares the way for analyses of knowledge as construct and for contextualizing epistemic activity....”[4]  If the object is not completely separate from the knower—if, indeed, its very status as an object is dependent on the knower constituting it as such prior to analysis—then observation is surely not objective.  The very nature of observation is to be value-laden, and not with purely universal, Kantian-categorical values, but with social values that reflect the structures of the given culture and tradition.  Thus, the tradition in which “no questions arise as to the influences of prejudgment or emotions on the observational process”[5] cannot ask the relevant questions about the knower, consequently leaving epistemology incomplete and misdirected.  Realizing the nature of observation to be value-laden allows us to pursue a more honest epistemology—not that we have yet said which, if any, of the values assumed prior to observation are “wrong” (i.e., undesirably oppressive); we have merely attempted to recognize their existence.

            The tradition, furthermore, maintains that the role of observation (as a bridge) is to function in a more fancy and theoretical way than seeing, yet is usually reducible to seeing.  Webster’s defines an observation as “a being seen” and, it would seem, vision is the paradigm for observation.  To observe is to see.  We take a look at an exceptionally bright author’s view, and if it is clear we say that we see his particular perspective and think it is an enlightened one.  The typical feminist critique suggests that vision is not the natural paradigm for observation, but rather is a tool to promote the agenda of the tradition.  Seeing suggests distance from what is seen[6]—a distance that necessarily separates, an isolating bridge that can be crossed or remain uncrossed (a nice choice of locale for those traditionally thought to be commitment-phobic).  Furthermore, vision “most readily promotes the illusion of disengagement and objectification” upon which the tradition is built.  Code, too, accepts this view and even moves to add a Foucaultian analysis of power as well. 

            Similarly,  but with a decidedly French twist, Luce Irigaray suggests that men favor vision as the paradigm because their sexual organ is readily seen and is often taken as an object for them, whereas a woman’s sexual organ is always touching itself and only receives pleasure and becomes thematic when it is touched, therefore women favor a tactile paradigm. 

            Inevitably, the role of observation as a seeing seems constructed and limited.  This, coupled with the denial of observation’s value-laden nature, leads to some troublesome implications.

            Women, as a result, are forced to use a value-laden paradigm that does not adequately express their experience and actively works to oppress and keep them from having respect and thus power within the tradition.  Code goes so far as to say that women are “gaslighted,” driven mad “by their incapacity to gain any greater acknowledgment for their knowledge.”[7]  Like the “crazy” person who sees pink elephants everywhere and is frustrated by his inability to convince others, so the frequent dismissal of woman’s “intuitions, arts, and skills” drives women to frustration and madness.  Inevitably, if it is true that she does not accept subject/object duality, the myth of objectivity, and the primacy of vision, then she is doomed to be forgotten by a tradition based on such assumptions—a tradition which has only recently begun to recognize it has any assumptions at all, and which must now move to evaluate these assumptions in a new light.


3. The Return of Sex and Gender


The scientist at his telescope, peering into the hidden distant reality he believes his instrument to be uncovering rather than constructing, brings to mind a scene.  As the scientist looks for knowledge, we too see something of a scene: Carl’s face twisted with anger, his meaty arms threatening to wipe his desk clean in outrage and frustration before settling on tidying it up, his gluttonous eyes consuming the image on the exposed photographic plate resting on his desk the next day.  The story is filled with flesh—with a mostly male body moving through space, acting.  And thus is apparent yet another curious dichotomy: the story of the discovery is the tale of a body, but the story of the justification is the tale of a mind.  The body has acted, set instruments, and gone from home to office (thought of as private to public space, no doubt).  But the mind interprets the discovery and makes of it something worthwhile, something scientific, something objective.

            Can such dichotomy ever be overcome?  Is it not at the heart of narrative (an imagining, not a happening)? of Irigary’s explanation of engendered epistemology (a female body has organs that nearly deterministically shape the life of her mind)? of the whole notion of seeing as a paradigm (seeing, after all, being enabled by organs supposedly acting as a metaphor for understanding)?  Is not the sex/gender dichotomy evident in each dualism as well—evident, even, in the cliché ridden story of Carl, in his outrage, his frustration, his behavior toward his nameless wife?

            Curiously, Moira Gatens suggests that Simone de Beauvoir was, perhaps, the first to ever postulate the sex/gender dichotomy, and yet the French language cannot support the female/feminine distinction as it has only one adjective to “woman” (i.e., “femme”), namely “féminin.”[8]  Without this distinction however, to what does the dichotomy amount?  Furthermore, is it possible that this a valid distinction or is it merely an unhappy circumstance of our language which forces us to think in terms of gender vs. sex?

            It is Gatens’ contention that the sex/gender dichotomy can be generated without the availability of the female/feminine distinction.  Although the distinction of the “female body (anatomy) and the feminine body (social) is peculiar to the English language,” she explains, “[t]his is certainly not to say that French feminists do not make a distinction between biological and social aspects of sexual difference.  However the distinction is not made in terms of another binary polarity...but rather in terms of a middle term, a term that is reducible to neither anatomy nor socialization: that term is morphology.”[9]

            Morphology has to do with the form of the female body as represented in culture.  It is an acknowledgment that even anatomy (a supposed scientific undertaking) is interpretation.  True, there is nothing objective and uninterpreted like biology (to think in terms of sex as a brute fact is to make such a fallacy), but interpretation is interpretation of something and not just “up for grabs” (to think otherwise would be to make the fallacy of positing gender as something purely and merely social).  Morphology allows for the interplay of anatomy and culture without postulating their independence from each other, and this, maintains Gatens, is “a strength of French feminist theory.”[10]

            Ann Oakley, though, is a proponent of the distinction, offering up anthropological evidence to support her conclusion that “sex differences may be ‘natural’...and are genuinely a constant feature of human society...but gender differences have their source in culture, not nature.”[11]  Like Gatens, Jean Grimshaw rejects this notion and argues that it is impossible to find a non-social sense of biology or a non-biological sense of the social.  “The human body,” she suggests, “should not be thought of as an entity which can be understood by a ‘biology’ which is abstracted from the consideration of social phenomena...[rather] there is a dialectical relationship between human biology and human culture.”[12]

            The upshot is a rejection of biological determinism, a rejection of the belief that some practices are more natural than others, and also a rejection of androgyny as a goal where differences are “merely” based on sex and not on gender.  Grimshaw also argues that since sex is not separate from culture, there will always be differences between the male and female psyche, though what this difference is, is not determined.

            Surely, to posit sex as a “pure science”—non-political, neutral, objective, and True—is simply naïve.  As soon as we recognize sex as something to study we bring to it our culture, our perspective, and our political agenda.  And if we attempt to isolate sex from its social context we are, in some sense, misdescribing it.  This much seems clear; but then we open the door for relativism.  Grimshaw tries to avoid this by saying that there is such a thing as sex and it will dictate certain “cultural” distinctions between men and women, but sex is not independent of gender and these differences can themselves differ from culture to culture.  The inevitable problem here is that whether Grimshaw wants to admit it or not, she is still committed to some aspect of sex being independent and determined.  The fact that “a woman has breasts in order to feed her young” is not a matter of simple science and anatomy.  Such a description imports cultural notions, and here Grimshaw’s point is well taken.  But the fact that “sex sets limits for cultural notions of ‘gender’” is supposedly a matter of fact, regardless of how open-ended such cultural limits are.  Some part of sex is bounding gender, and so long as Grimshaw maintains this, she is committed to a fact and to a dichotomy between that-part-of-sex-unaffected-by-culture-and-which-limits-culture and that-part-of-gender-unaffected-by-sex.  It is a meta-sex/gender dichotomy but a dichotomy nonetheless.

            Unless, of course, we celebrate the subjectivity of science rather than lament it.  That is, if the claim that “a woman has breasts in order to feed her young” is said to be unscientific because it imports cultural notions, isn’t this, in fact, assuming the definition of “science” which we are attempting to question?  If science is indeed a cultural phenomenon, then a statement with cultural elements is not necessarily non-scientific.  Rather, what is actually being stated is that such a claim is not scientific, if we mean by science “knowledge gained through an objectively, autonomous, rational investigator.”


4. The Autonomous Rational Knower


Autonomy, long a moral assumption and scientific ideal, is both a friend and an enemy to feminist theory.  Many feminists assert it as the ultimate goal—as a means to empowerment in a male-world and as an end to be desired in itself.  Others criticize autonomy as inappropriate—as a misdescription of humanity in general and another way in which male theory is wrong-headed and oppressive.  This tension is not limited to feminist circles, however, as many traditional, male authors have expressed the inadequacy of autonomy yet the allure of it as well. 

            Ultimately, the search is for a way of gaining power—a power that has been defined and possessed by males.  The archetypal male is isolated, monadical, competing, struggling, and individuated.  Power, in male terms, is achieved by dominating other Egos and maintaining monadical freedom of choice.  Consequently, many feminists accept this as their goal as well.  If they can be given an equal footing from which to compete, if they can make choices concerning their bodies without the male-run state legislating their reproductive options, if they can be given equal respect theoretically and practically, then women will be liberated into true personhood.

            But there is dissension.  Perhaps struggling for autonomy is playing right into the hand of Man.  Not only will such a struggle never be won—rises the complaint—but it is, in fact, foundationally misdirected as it rests on an improper description of the human being.  Thus, such authors as Noddings and Chodorow suggest that women are fundamentally related to others through caring, nurturing, and empathic means.  This more communitarian fact leads them to suggest that women should not strive for a false autonomy, but rather fight to legitimize their own way of being in the world, namely as non-autonomous, non-individualistic, non-monadical Egos.  Emma Goldman, too, writing in 1911, feared the detachment and cold loneliness of autonomy, suggesting that women are merely being dragged down to the same miserable depths as males when they make such autonomy their goal.  “Glorious independence!” writes Goldman.  “A so-called independence which leads only to earning the merest subsistence is not so enticing, not so ideal, that one could expect a woman to sacrifice everything for it.  Our highly praised independence is, after all, but a slow process of dulling and stifling woman’s nature, her love instinct and her mother instinct.”[13]

            At this point, many friends of autonomy are quick to point out that such a description of female “nature” is politically dangerous as it invites others to define “woman.”  That is, if there is no individual Ego, the Ego will be constituted through social relations and thus defined by social norms, terms, etc.  This, they suggest, has been the problem for too many years.  Men have been making women into their vision of women; men have been forcing male desires and goals onto women, and women have even accepted them as their own desires and goals.  Furthermore, Grimshaw goes so far as to suggest that the “indistinctness of persons” leads to yet another kind of epistemological insanity.  Not only might women “feel themselves so ‘connected’ to their husbands that they subordinate any life goals of their own to those of their husbands and try to live through the latter,” but they might actually exhibit a kind of madness, a


severe confusion and the sense that they [might] often [feel] unable to trust their own judgments in any way, or distinguish between appearance and reality...[They would lack] almost any sense of “who they [are],” in a radical way; not just at the level of being ordinarily confused or conflicted about their commitments or priorities, but at the level of being unsure whether there was a “person” there to have such commitments or priorities.[14]


            There are several problems with Grimshaw’s critique.  First, she assumes that a “communitarian feminism” (as we might call the non-monadical theory) will be oppressive in that it would drive the individual insane since she would not be able to choose and feel and act all by herself.  But this fundamental assumption is just what is being questioned.  Grimshaw’s criticism is akin to critiquing Marx’s utopian communistic society by suggesting that the Bill Gateses of the world wouldn’t be happy there: the point is that Bill Gates is a creation of today’s capitalistic society and not a universal type that would exist given any social context.  Similarly, the monadical-individualistic woman frustrated by her communitarian context and thus pushed to insanity would not exist in the communitarian context.  The possibility of her existence is what is being ruled out, the appropriateness of her existence is what is being questioned.

            But we can give an even stronger defense for “communitarian feminism” on phenomenological grounds.  Here we find that it is not just feminism maintaining the relatedness of persons, but some traditional “mainstream” philosophers as well.  Husserl, for instance, suggests that without the Other there is no Ego—that the Ego is always and fundamentally constituted as  a member of a community of Others.  To assert a monadical existence is not only wrong, it is nonsensical, for there is no Ego to be isolated and individuated without first  acknowledging the relatedness to the Other. Thus we may find a way of pulling together the opposing forms of feminism and reducing the tension between them.  Autonomy, we might admit, is necessary for a healthy individual to a certain extent.  Here we are not talking about theoretical autonomy which maintains the monadical existence of individuals, but the psychological autonomy of having a self-identity, maintaining a sense of agency, and exploring one’s own individual strengths and weaknesses—being someone within the group with power.  Such a healthy autonomy requires a non-autonomous theoretical stance as a precondition; i.e., the autonomous Ego is only an Ego inasmuch as it is constituted as a member of a community.  Furthermore, one’s good is completely enmeshed in the good of the Other, thus in promoting one she promotes them both.[15]   This is neither a form of egoism nor a losing of oneself and one’s good to the common will.  Rather it is an acknowledgment that the Ego and the community are bound together in a primary way, and that autonomy on the theoretical level is impossible yet on a practical level is a positive communal  good.

            To return to our main topic, the scientist, too, is part of a community.  And as such, promotes or fails to promote a communal good.  Yet, his realm is considered to be that of knowledge rather than experience—an objective knowledge based on rational thought. 

            Code continues her critique of “phallocentric epistemology” with a focus on the suspect dichotomy of knowledge and experience, and the gender stereotypes which place the former as the realm of men, the latter as the realm of women.  Here she suggests that “knowledge gained from practical (untheorized) experience is commonly regarded as inferior to theoretically derived or theory-confirming knowledge, and theory is elevated above practice.”[16]   Men possess knowledge because they possess rationality, objectivity, and the ability to ponder abstract theory.  Women, due to their lack of these traits, cannot have knowledge.  Since knowledge, by this account, must transcend particular experience, it turns out that “women have access only to experience, hence not to the stuff of which knowledge is made.”[17]   Key to the whole problem is thus the notion of how rationality leads to true knowledge, and consequently “questions about objectivity are still the central issue.”[18] 

            In the end, Code suggests that the knowledge/experience dichotomy is a deliberate means of perpetuating female inequality, and apart from exposing such institutionalized female oppression, we must come to rethink our positions on  subjectivity, cognitive agency, and the way in which knowledge not only enables us to understand, but what it in fact enables us to do.[19]

            Often, Code is quick to condemn the whole of Western philosophy; yet however well such critique sheds light on oppressive trends throughout the history of the tradition, it is often unfair to level such a critique so universally.  Though Code has interesting things to say about ancient Greek sexism,[20] for example, she would be wise to investigate the Platonic notion of logos in some more detail.

            Husserl, again, does a good job of this.  In The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Husserl suggests that reason has become oppressive and meaningless in the modern world.  He proposes that reason—in its earliest Greek conceptions and in its proper mode today—frees individuals to live in the world.  Reason is not figuring things out, but rather learning to live pragmatically in the world.  It is less about predicting than it is about structuring one’s life and society.  Reason, consequently, is social.  It is not an individual project but a communal one, and the goal is thus a rational civilization.[21]   But science, especially after Galileo, has taken up reason as a method and not a goal.  In Husserl’s words, science “dresses up” the lifeworld as “objectively actual and true nature” and thus we “take for true being what is actually a method.”[22]   But “it was not always the case that science understood its demand for rigorously grounded truth in the sense of that sort of objectivity which dominates our positive sciences in respect to method.”[23]

            Reason, for the Greeks and for Husserl, is very much like what Code places in opposition to male-scientific-objective knowledge today.  It is inevitably about getting along well in life—and thus getting along well with each other.  Objectivity is thus necessarily communal.  It is about going around, trying out different perspectives, forging one perspective that attempts to do them all justice, and then never losing site that it is but a perspective.  Alone, trapped with only his one viewpoint and the world given in one profile, the modern male scientist is doomed to a subjectivity of the worst kind—a subjectivity that thinks itself objective.


5. Conclusion: The Scientific Body of Evidence and the Third Culture

Carl would laugh at this.  Doing good science, he would undoubtedly say, has nothing to do with getting along well with others.  In fact, it was only after a particularly nasty fight with his wife that his best “work” was done.  But then, Carl is far from rational.  In a room with only the metal bodies of his technology for company, he conforms to his instruments and attempts to shut his “private” life off.  Does he live well?

            The body of the scientist necessarily modifies to and accommodates the technological bodies of his tools.  He hunches over the work table, squints into the telescope, drapes his brainy body with his white lab coat.  And when the female body attempts to conform, it seems somehow wrong, somehow threatening.   To the female form so contorted and costumed, we react much as we react to the female bodybuilder dressed in her suit of muscles—themselves the product of equipment, tools.  Something is wrong; grotesque, even, not just in the costume but in the body presented as such.  Can we admit it?  Female bodybuilding challenges notions of the naturally sexed body, as does the female scientist—though perhaps we never confessed before the extent to which a stethoscope or an X-ray camera were phallic (both marking a penetration into the body of the patient, they lay open the Other to a new male gaze); we have never admitted that a cyclotron is a comfortingly womb-like place for guys to hang out, contemplating power and the size of their accelerators.

            In The Third Culture, John Brockman chooses twenty-three scientists to represent, in a somewhat ambassadorial way, an emerging “third culture”—an angry, bitter class of scientists wishing to (1) displace those in the humanities (the first culture) whom they see regarded by Western society as the intellectual elite, while at the same time (2) not maintain the air of the traditional scientist (the second culture) who has no contact with the public and thus shares his work only with other scientists.  Each chapter of The Third Culture is devoted to one scientist, and at the end of each chapter, some of the other contributors are given a chance to remark on their “feelings” toward that scientist and his work.  The book has the contributors speaking as disembodied voices—not just in the sense that all written words force us to appresent the body of their author, but because Brockman is a journalist who interviewed each of the scientists for their respective chapters and reconstructed the dialogue into a monologue.  Brockman attempts to clarify:


I have taken the editorial license to create a written narrative from my tapes, but although the participants have read and in some cases edited, the transcriptions of their spoken words, there is no intention that the following chapters in any way represent their writing....I have...[also] written myself (and my questions) out of the text.  Finally, remarks made about other scientists and their work are general in nature and were not made as responses to the text.


A postmodern Ph.D. thesis could be written on the intricacies of the narrative presented in The Third Culture: this is not a collection of written words (yet of course it is); it is a collection of spoken words (yet some authors have edited those words in writing); it is not a dialogue (because each chapter is a continuous exposition in the first person), yet it was a dialogue (since the only reason these scientists are saying what they are saying is because they were asked specific questions that have since been edited out).  The book itself is a claim that community, conversation, and narrative should not play a role in science—it is as if to say that we could make Plato more scientific if we were to just get beyond the Socratic method and edit out those annoying minor characters who keep asking Socrates questions and mindlessly agreeing or disagreeing with him. 

            The term “literary intellectual” is used in the most derogatory of ways throughout the book; it is spat upon the page in disgust over the snootiness of the humanities professor’s love of art and disdain of math.  Brockman writes:


A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s....[The] culture [of the traditional American intellectual], which dismisses science, is often nonempirical.  It uses its own jargon and washes it own laundry....[Early on, it’s members] took to referring to themselves as “the intellectuals,” as though there were no others.  This new definition by the “men of letters” excluded scientists such as the astronomer Edwin Hubble, the mathematician John von Neumann, the cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, and the physicists Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg.[24]


Of the twenty-three modern angry men of letters Brockman collects for his book, only one man is a woman, Lynn Margulis.  Margulis is perhaps most famous for the Gaia hypothesis (the idea that earth itself is alive, that earth is a self-regulating system).  It is clear that there are those who believe Margulis’ theory is too touchy-feely, too much like a literary pursuit.  It is, in effect, girly science.  Such criticism comes from all scientific fields, but especially from the “hard sciences” of physics and chemistry (which brings to mind the question: are researchers in such fields best labeled “hard scientists”?—an interesting label itself, full of double entendre.    Consider P.B. Medawar, who was the first to suggest that “social” sciences suffer from “physics envy”—a wish that they, too, had a hard discipline with corresponding hard data they could proudly show off).

            Stern grandfather figure to evolutionary biologists, George C. Williams chastises Margulis for adopting a “God-is-good” approach in which nature is seen as “ultimately wholesome and worth having...[with] cooperation and things being nice to each other.”[25]  Williams goes on to suggest a “God is evil” approach in which everything is a “bloody mess” of kill or be killed, boasting that “[t]ime will tell, and will show that my approach is more fruitful in generating predictions....”[26]  Perhaps in response to such hazing in the mostly male “third culture” club, Margulis’ chapter in Brockman’s book ends up being entitled “Gaia Is a Tough Bitch.”  The goddess is good, it would seem, only some of the time.

            Is this an appropriate path for Margulis to take given her assumed desire to be taken seriously in modern science?  Einsteinian physics, after all, did not replace Newtonian physics with Albert calling Sir Isaac a “know-nothing bastard.”  Yet, in a certain sense it did, for clearly there is much more than a search for truth at stake in all of this for most physicists.  Power drives science, and ego is one manifestation of power.   Thus, when Einstein bumps Newton up to near the speed of light,  challenges him to whip out a ruler, and demonstrates how Newton’s “space” has shrunk, there is more than a little sexual aggression in the rivalry. 

            In the end, Margulis’ earth-bitch is surely an attempt to announce her arrival, challenge her detractors, and mark her territory in a world in which most of the other players can write their names in the snow unassisted.  Margulis struggles to do the same, but it is interesting to note that it is not just the traditional trappings of objectivity, rationality, and autonomy that she employs.  To become an accepted scientist she must, more importantly, walk the walk and talk the talk.    Toward this end, physicist Lee Smolin provides gossipy anecdotal evidence (which plays a fascinating and important role in The Third Culture) attesting to Margulis’ power:


At a dinner party, I witnessed her defend the Gaia hypothesis against what another biologist present had said in print.  She had the unfortunate person cornered; she was able to quote, word for word from memory, what he’d said, and she was very intent on having him see why it was wrong.[27]


Other scientists have similar stories.  One can almost smell the blood as the simple dinner party turns into a physics feeding frenzy—a kind of nerdy, Roman bit of bread and circus.

            When the Gaia-goddess-Mother metaphor inevitably gets worked out to the point of speaking of all life being born of the body of the earth, the female body once again enters science, awkwardly and uninvited.  And with it come the notions of nurture and love rather than survival of the fittest—it is as if the whole feminine package is inseparable; but this surely tells us as much about our construct of gender as it does about our world.  Margulis, and the majority of feminist scientists working today, face the task of incorporating such stereotypes into science even as they might hope to challenge them in society.  It is, of course, to play into the hand of those in power, to create another tired dichotomy—a manifestation of public and private life that no doubt will be echoed in scientific journals by female authors quick to exclude the context of discovery from their narrative.  Inevitably, the lessons of a feminist epistemology (liberally seasoned by a phenomenological reading) are appropriately transferred to science, but they are lessons that are hard won.  Margulis implicitly admits the absurdity of dichotomies and objectivity—admits, as well, that all writing (even science writing) is autobiography—in her work.  “I’ve been critical of mathematical neo-Darwinism for years,” she confesses;[28] “it never made much sense to me....I remember waking up one day with an epiphanous revelation: I am not a neo-Darwinist!  It recalled an earlier experience, when I realized that I wasn’t a humanistic Jew.”[29] 

            No doubt such mixing of fact and faith would draw more angry letters to the editor.  But in the end Margulis cannot maintain the posture; her discipline would not continue to see her if she did.  The scientist cares neither about Carl the astrophysicist’s wife nor Lynn the biologist’s religious conversions.  Repositioning herself, throwing back the shoulders and pulling in the chest, Margulis stands at attention a few sentences later to announce: “The language of life is not ordinary arithmetic and algebra.”[30]  We lean forward: eager to hear the rest, to learn the truth, to bear witness at the moment of the mention of love or community or...something.  “[T]he language of life,” she continues, “is chemistry.”


[1]Scientific American (December 1998), p. 6.

[2]Lorraine Code.  1991.  What Can She Know?  Ithica: Cornell University Press, p. 169

[3]Cf., e.g., Gaston Bachelard, The Philosophy of No on the use of legitimating measuring devices in science.

[4]Code, p. 114.


[6]Evelyn Fox Keller once went so far as to maintain that this promise of “cool and objective” distance from objects provides “emotional comfort” to men.

[7]Code, p. 217.

[8]Moira Gatens.  1991.  Feminism and Philosophy.   Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 58 and 114.

[9]Gatens, p. 115.


[11]Oakley as quoted in Jean Grimshaw. 1991. Philosophy and Feminist Thinking. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. p. 113.

[12]Grimshaw, pp. 131-2.

[13]Emma Goldman in Ethics: A Feminist Reader. 1992. Eds. Elizabeth Frazer et al. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 154.

[14]Grimshaw, pp. 180 and 177-8.

[15]Cf. my Founding Community (H. Peter Steeves. 1998. Founding Community: A Phenomenological-Ethical Inquiry. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers); Edmund Husserl. 1960. Cartesian Meditations. transl. Dorion Cairns. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff; and Robert Sokolowski. 1985. Moral Action. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[16]Code, p. 243.

[17]Code, p. 223.


[19]Code, p. 263.

[20]Cf., e.g., Code, p. 247.

[21]Edmund Husserl. 1970.  The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, p. 18.

[22]Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, p. 51.

[23]Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, p. 7.

[24]John Brockman. 1995.  The Third Culture. NY: Simon and Schuster, p. 17.

[25]George C. Williams in Brockman, p. 141.


[27]Lee Smolin in Brockman, p. 142.

[28]Does she confess, write, say, or claim this?  How do we label what Brockman has done to the words of his contributors?

[29]Lynn Margulis in Brockman, p. 133.