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In the seventeenth century, Henry Oldenburg, secretary of the new English Royal Society, wrote the society sought “to raise a Masculine Philosophy . . . whereby the Mind of man may be ennobled by the knowledge of solid truths.” [1]  A founding member, Thomas Sprat, hoped that through the society’s efforts “The beautiful bosom of nature will be exposed to our view.  We shall enter its garden and taste its fruits, and satisfy ourselves with its plenty.”[2]  Fulfillment comes through using and even consuming the other.     Oldenburg’s use of the term “solid truth” reflects his concern with clear and distinct boundaries.  Linear logocentric reasoning was regarded, and rightly so, as a masculine quality.  Far less accurately, women were regarded as unable to engage in such reasoning at high levels of excellence.  This attitude persists to the present day.

But this one-sidedly masculine ideal does not describe science as it is actually practiced.  Discovery by humans does not work that way.  What is left out are the feminine dimensions. Science is no more exclusively masculine than nurturance is exclusively feminine.

Tacit and focal knowledge

We return to the work of Michael Polanyi.  His analysis of scientific reasoning undermined the simplistic concept of perfectly impersonal ‘objective’ knowledge, that unfortunately still lingers into the present.  Polanyi argued this ideal was a false ideal, one that strictly speaking is impossible.

Using many examples from the physical sciences, Polanyi argued the gages, dials, and other measuring devices that give us supposedly impersonal readings, have to be understood to be used.  They do not speak for themselves.  Understanding them requires competence, and competence is personal in a very intimate way.  Experience matters and enables us to embody it below the levels of our conscious attention.  It is tacit knowledge as with using a bicycle, an example I described in my previous chapter.

One of Polanyi’s favorite examples was using a probe. The information we get from a probe does not arise automatically. If we did not expand our selves’ experiential boundary to include the probe as a part of ourselves, rather than just holding it as an external object, we could not use it.  Practice, experience, and skill yield increasing results.  This is why a blind person can tell so much more from using a cane than can the rest of us. We all experience the same phenomena when driving a car. The vibrations of the steering wheel disappear from our explicit awareness while we “feel” the pavement.  It seems as if we are sensually in contact with the road.

To account for these phenomena, Polanyi distinguished between subsidiary and focal awareness. When my focal awareness is on the probe’s tip, I am subsidiarily aware of its feel in my hand, but I am not explicitly conscious of it. As soon as I shift my focal awareness to my hand, I lose touch with the meaning I receive from the probe’s tip. “Focal” and “subsidiary” are mutually exclusive forms of awareness. [3]   Thinking back to when I was learning to drive.  I initially felt overwhelmed by sense data from everywhere but the pavement.  Today in most cases I barely notice these sensations.

Tacit knowledge is practical knowledge gained experientially, rather than theoretical knowledge gained at one remove.  Someone could write a formula or complex directions for interpreting the movements of a probe or riding a bicycle, but those directions would be useless, like expecting someone to drive a car after reading a driving manual.   When using a tool Polanyi describes our need to “extend our body to include [the object] – so that we come to dwell in it.” This is bodily knowledge, rooted in our physicality as beings of the earth.   Evelyn Fox Keller also emphasizes the bodily character of this knowledge, arguing this process is “a primarily erotic.”[4] The detached masculine ideal of knowledge is immersed within and dependent upon practical experiential knowledge.

Neuroscience has progressed remarkably since Polanyi’s time, and supports his argument that our explicit knowledge is always tacitly rooted.  As Alva Noë puts it “What governs the character of our experience . . . is not the neural activity in our brains on its own: it is rather our ongoing dynamic relation to objects…”[5] Practical tacit knowledge is primary.

This is one dimension of the feminine’s irreducible role in science. There is another.

Discovery and the feminine

What is sometimes called the “psychology of discovery” is different from the processes of measuring and analyzing so central to evaluating the reliability of our hypotheses.  If we define the calculative and evaluative kinds of awareness our society so values and rewards as “normal” and “rational,” discovery arises from “abnormal” and “a-rational” states of consciousness, states often described as intuitive and feminine.

Measurement, experiment, prediction, and logic are ways of exploring and delineating boundaries, which is why they can be so easily symbolized as ‘masculine.’ But what we have loosely termed the “scientific method” does not generate hypotheses, it tests them.  Its tools are very good at locating errors.  Humanity has never possessed anything better. But science would come to a standstill if it depended only on its logocentric masculine methodologies to study the world. Without testable hypotheses to examine, science goes nowhere.

Discovery arises through intuiting a possibility or reality not yet explicitly grasped. Intuition manifests through sudden insights, strong hunches, images, and “feelings” that serve as guides even when the person having these experiences cannot initially offer a rational argument to back them up.  Scientific methods then help us better grasp it ourselves and demonstrate them to others.

By going beyond the most explicit meaning of the data immediately in front of us, and identifying or at least hinting at a subtle pattern or otherwise hidden meaning, intuition is the major source for new scientific hypotheses that open up new areas of investigation or re-ordering what we already thought we knew. Linda Jean Shepherd observes “As discriminative functions, both thinking and feeling are rational. . . . but rather than relying on a set of rules, the feeling function makes judgments that are situational and contextual.”[6] I take many of the following examples from Shepherd’s excellent discussion of intuition’s central role in science and engineering.

Albert Einstein was perhaps the best known advocate for intuition’s central role in scientific discovery.  He observed, “There is no logical way to the discovery of these elementary laws.  There is only the way of intuition.”   Regarding the genesis of one of his discoveries, Einstein explained “It [the optics of motion] occurred to me by intuition.  And music is the driving force behind this intuition.  My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six.  My new discovery is the result of music.”

Einstein also observed “The state of mind that enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of the religious worshipper or the lover; the daily effort comes from no deliberate effort or program, but straight from the heart.”[7]  The compatibility of Einstein’s description with Leonardo DaVinci’s approach to knowledge discussed earlier is more than suggestive.  In our terms, these are feminine approaches.

We may or may not see Einstein’s like again, but on this point he was not unique.  Consider Friedrich August Kekule’s sudden grasp of the solution to one of the most vexing scientific puzzles of his time: the structure of benzene.  Kekule was dozing in front of his fireplace and dreamed of a snake biting its tail.  Shepherd writes “He awoke ‘as if by the flash of lightning’ understanding the ring structure of benzene, a problem that had long eluded chemists.” Kekule later urged his fellow chemists to “learn to dream.”[8]

There are many other important examples.  Niels Bohr dreamed of atoms as organized in a way analogous to a planetary system.  The result was the “Bohr Model” of atomic structure and a Nobel Prize.[9]  In 1869 Dimitri Mendeleev developed the periodic table used to this day for organizing the different elements. More than simply a chart, gaps in his table accurately predicted where yet to be discovered elements would be located.   Mendeleev reportedly dreamed of the table.[10]  Biologist Ana Moore made crucial breakthroughs in building organic molecules.  Described by co-workers as a “wizard, magician, and miracle worker,” Moore says she “dreams solutions to knotty problems in her sleep, or they occur to her unbidden in the shower.”[11]

The Copernican Revolution is arguably the greatest scientific discovery of all time.  Once we grasped that the earth went around the sun rather than the sun circling the earth, science’s importance for acquiring reliable knowledge of the material world was obvious to all.  It was hardly obvious at the time.

Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo were able to make this epochal discovery because amid a welter of seemingly contradictory facts, including many that appeared to invalidate their argument, they were able to grasp what was most central.  Amid many patterns they intuited the ones that mattered most, judging that the evidence appearing to point to an earth-centered universe was secondary, misleading, and in time would be explained from a heliocentric perspective.  As it eventually was.

Galileo wrote[12]

“.. . . the experiences which overtly contradict the annual movement [of the earth around the sun] are indeed so much greater in their apparent force that, I repeat, there is no limit to my astonishment when I reflect that Aristarchus and Copernicus were able to make reason so conquer sense that, in defiance of the latter, the former became mistress of their belief.”

A final exam[le is the case of Barbara McClintock, who received the Nobel Prize for her discovery that genetic elements can move in orderly ways from one chromosome to another. McClintock’s discovery came from her long study of corn, about which she observed [13]

“No two plants are exactly alike.  They’re all different, and as a consequence you have to know that difference. . . . I start with the seedling, and I don’t want to leave it.  I don’t feel I really know the story if I don’t watch the plant all the way along.  So I know every plant in the field.  I know them intimately, and I find it a great pleasure to know them.”

McClintock’s connection with her subjects of study did not stop with corn.  Keller writes of her “account of a breakthough in one particularly recalcitrant piece of cytological analysis. . . . ‘I found that the more I worked with them, the bigger and bigger [the chromosomes] got, and that when I was really working with them I wasn’t outside, I was down there.  I was part of the system.  I was right down there with them and everything got big.  I was even able to see the internal parts of the chromosomes – actually everything was there.  It surprised me because I actually felt as if I was right down there and these were my friends. . . . As you look at these things, they become part of you.  And you forget yourself.”[14]

A significant aspect of intuitive reasoning is that it is often pictorial, and can even take the form of a story.  Many of the previous examples demonstrate this characteristic. I think this similarity with poetic and mythic thinking I described in chapter two is not accidental.  Reading about McClintock’s friendly chromosomes or Kekule’s snakes brings us closer to a mythic description of the world than it does to a formal laboratory report, yet these reports depended on them.

Dreams, intuitions, metaphors, all these are feminine in my sense of the term.  All blur boundaries.  All point to what the experiencer is not yet able to be put into words about the world.  All are in harmony with DaVinci’s observation that “Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” They are the insights of mythos communicating about the physical world.

When skillfully employed, what we loosely call the ‘scientific method’ enables us to test and develop our understanding of these insights.  If they pass these tests, they will be more convincing to others, and it is through convincing competent critical others that science grows.  Theories are evaluated by measurement, predictive power, logic and related values because these methodologies are so persuasive.[15]  But as we have seen, the theories themselves do not originate that way.

Physicist Freeman Dyson wrote of his friend, Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman: “Dick just wrote down the solution out of his head without ever writing down the equations.  He had a physical picture of the way things happen, and the picture gave him the solutions directly with a minimum of calculation. . . . The calculation . . . using orthodox theory, took me several months of work and several hundred sheets of paper.  Dick could get the same answer, calculating on a blackboard, in half an hour.”[16] Feynman, who was well acquainted with Einstein’s work, observed that in his opinion, Einstein’s creativity declined in later years because “he stopped thinking in concrete physical images and became a manipulator of equations.” [17] Einstein and DaVinci alike were particularly gifted at thinking in images.[18]

Einstein, McClintock, and Feynman are Nobel Laureates, recipients of the scientific community’s highest award.  Think also of the gap between the evidence for Copernicus’s argument at the time he made it, and the confidence with which he made it. Any model of science and rationality that does not take examples such as these into consideration is irrational, for it deliberately ignores crucial information provided by science’s most competent practitioners.  From its origins to McClintock and Feynman and beyond, we see that doing good science requires intuitive openness and a highly disciplined ability to ground those intuitions in reasoned argument and evidence, to verify we understood them and to show others who have not had these intuitions the case for them.

The feminine side of science opens itself up to insight, and the masculine side steps back to evaluate our understanding of that insight.  It is a dance, and both partners need to know their parts.



[1] Brian Easlea, Witch Hunting, Magic and the New Philosophy, (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980), p.  70.

[2] Quoted in Ducat, op. cit. p. 82.

[3] Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-critical Philosophy, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).

[4] Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1967), 16.  Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science., 125.

[5] Alva Noë, Out of Our Heads, op. cit., 59.

[6] Linda Jean Shepherd, Lifting the Veil: The Feminine Face of Science, (Boston: Shambhala, 1993).

[7] Shepherd, Veil, 214.

[8] Shepherd, Lifting the Veil p. 218.

[9] Shepherd, Lifting the Veil p. 218.

[10] Shepherd, Lifting the Veil p. 219.

[11] Janine M. Benyus, Biomimicry, (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), pp. 76-7.

[12] Quoted in Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche, (Penguin: New York, 2007), p. 9.

[13] Quoted in Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), p. 164.  See also Midgley, Wisdom, Information and Wonder, pp. 38-44.

[14] Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections op. cit., 164-5.

[15] By creative scientists I refer to those whose develop path breaking theories in Thomas Kuhn’s sense, as distinguished from what he termed “normal science” practiced by scientists who explore the implications of a theory they provisionally take for granted. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed.(Chicago: University of Chicago, 1996).

[16] Shepherd, Lifting the Veil p. 215.

[17] Shepherd, Lifting the Veil, 215.

[18] Stefan Klein, Leonardo’s Legacy, How Da Vinci Reimagined the World, (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2010). 218.