Feminism and Science
The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science
Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science
The intrusion, advance, spread, import, insinuation—word choice is important here, exposing world views, projecting fears—of feminist thought into just about every aspect of contemporary cultural life is by now entirely general. Literature, philosophy, sociology, history, economics, law, even linguistics and theology, are engulfed in fierce and multisided debates over the relevance of gender difference, gender interest, and gender prejudice to this or that issue or to the shape of the enterprise overall. But nowhere has the reaction to efforts to move such concerns to the center of attention stirred deeper disquiet than in that last redoubt of impersonal reason, natural science. Sexing science, or even scientists, makes everyone, even those most passionate to accomplish it, extremely nervous.
The worry is, of course, that the autonomy of science, its freedom, vigor, authority, and effectiveness, will be undermined by the subjection of it to a moral and political program—the social empowerment of women—external to its purposes. A physicist determining the spin of a particle, a neurologist tracing the circuitry of vision, or an evolutionist isolating the mechanisms of phyletic change is likely to find such pronouncements as “a sexist society should be expected to develop a sexist science” or “science…is not sexless; she is a man, a father and infected too” to be silly at best, lunatic at worst, and in either case deeply threatening to the centuries of long struggle to examine the workings of nature free of the distortions of wish and prejudice.1 Objectivity—logic, method, knowledge, truth—is what science is about; the rest is romance and special pleading.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending upon where one’s loyalties lie (and both unfortunately and fortunately if, as is increasingly the case, one’s loyalties are divided), this radical contrast, inherited from the ancients, between “knowledge” (episteme) and “opinion” (doxa) has been breaking down, not merely as between “science” and “non-science,” but, more fatefully, within “science” itself, for at least thirty years. Thomas Kuhn’s enormously influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, first published in 1962, with its reconceptualization of scientific change as consisting in an episodic succession of professional dominant thought frames rather than a step-by-step advance toward reality, truth, and the cloudless vision, is usually considered the watershed work. But since Kuhn’s book appeared, there have arisen, one hard upon the next, a series of even more headlong revisionisms. In the sociology of science there has been a so-called strong program, determined to examine science as through and through a social and cultural phenomenon, like capitalism, the papacy, astrology, football, or easel painting. In the history of science there has been a stress on “who is to be master,” in which power struggles among research groups, institutional interests, organizational imperatives, disciplinary elites, professional reputations, and policy concerns are seen as shaping the evolution of scientific thought. In philosophy there has been “antifoundationalism,” the rejection of fixed “methods,” permanent “principles,” and inherent “essences” in favor of multiple perspectives, intellectual genres, language games, rhetorical styles, and practical outcomes. Pluralism, contingency, pragmatism, maneuver. If…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.