The Wit and Wisdom of Cornellians

The right of Big Red Bears to babble shall not be infringed

The Wit and Wisdom of Cornellians

The right of Big Red Bears to babble shall not be infringed

Judging the Past from the Present

Until last night I resented learning about dead white men such as Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton who I had been taught to think of as misogynists and rapists. After all, I ate up everything Sandra Harding wrote. Harding (1986), wrote about Francis Bacon in The Science Question in Feminism published by Cornell University Press:

In a passage address to his monarch, Bacon uses bold sexual imagery to explain key features of the experimental method as the inquisition of nature: ‘For you have but to follow and as it were hound nature in her wanderings, and you will be able when you like to lead and drive her afterward to the same place again….those holes and corners, when the inquisition of truth is his whole object—as your majesty has shown in your own example’. It might not be immediately obvious to the modern reader that this is Bacon’s way of explaining the necessity of aggressive and controlled experiments in order to make the results of research replicable!…There does, however, appear to be reason to be concerned about the intellectual, moral, and political structures of modern science when we think about how, from its very beginning, misogynous and defensive gender politics and the abstraction we think of as scientific method have provided resources for each other. The severe hypotheses through controlled manipulations of nature, and the necessity of such controlled manipulations if experiments are to be repeatable, are here formulated by the father of scientific method in clearly sexist metaphors. Both nature and inquiry appear conceptualized in ways modeled on rape and torture—on men’s most violent and misogynous relationships to women—and this modeling is advanced as a reason to value science. It is certainly difficult to imagine women as an enthusiastic audience for these interpretations of the new science.

In a book entitled, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives, also published by Cornell University Press, Harding (1991) put it this way:

Bacon appealed to rape metaphors to persuade his audience that the experimental method is a good thing.

Harding (1986), also called out Isaac Newton in The Science Question in Feminism:

[A] consistent analysis would lead to the conclusion that understanding nature as a woman indifferent to or even welcoming rape was equally fundamental to the interpretations of these new conceptions of nature and inquiry. Presumably these metaphors, too, had fruitful pragmatic, methodological, and metaphysical consequences for science. In that case, why is it not as illuminating and honest to refer to Newton’s laws as ‘Newton’s rape manual’ as it is to call them ‘Newton’ Mechanics’?

But what is a woman? For a feminist critique of science to make sense, we really have to know what a woman is.

If Francis Bacon lived today, perhaps he would have identified as a trans woman with tendencies towards S & M. Perhaps Isaac Newton with his flowing hair and having been unmarried would have identified as a drag queen. Perhaps these two scientists, because they died hundreds of years too soon, suffered from not realizing their true intersectionality and victimhood and should be pitied.

Although I never felt the need to go back to the original texts such as Bacon’s Novum Organum or Newton’s Principia Mathematica, I will read them searching for clues of the true identities of these two scientists.



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