Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Philosophy: Women, Science and Truth in Nature

Her name was Hypatia and she lived, taught and published in Alexandria at the Platonist school from approximately AD 370 – 415. If the practice of western philosophy (φιλοσοφία) as we know it is from the Greek philo meaning lover and sophia meaning wisdom, then Hypatia might have been Sophia herself. One of her contemporaries wrote, “There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time.”

I had Hypatia on my mind this past weekend as I prepared for a Young Women and Girls in Science event sponsored by SUNY ESF’s Northern Forest Institute. I was asked to talk about the intersection of science and the humanities and more specifically, why the study of science is incomplete without the study of philosophy. Not least among the reasons why, is that the western scientific tradition comes from the western philosophical tradition and before knowledge splintered into specializations and narrow silos of information, there was unbounded curiosity and conversation. This style of conversation became the dialectic or discussion model that some of us are trying to move back towards as a method of inquiry, interdisciplinary learning and teaching.

So I thought I’d begin to introduce young women and girls who might be thinking about a career in the sciences, to this question of why scientists should care what philosophers think. It seemed that the best way to do this would be by talking about a philosopher who happens to be a woman and who is as often cited as a mathematician and an astronomer as for her progressive attitudes on sex, or what currently falls within the realm of identity politics. So if taking on the question of what philosophy could possibly have to do with science wasn’t enough, I’d planned to head straight towards what identity politics has to do with science.

Talking with young women and girls about why philosophy matters to science made me think about why women and girls matter to science. In other words, why should we care that women and girls enter into the sciences? Why, for that matter, should we care that any particular group is represented in any public/professional area? In the case of science the answer is somewhat heretical (and I’m mindful here that Hypatia met her unspeakable demise for such acts…). Science is not objective; in its entirety it is not the pure and objective pursuit of extracting truth from the physical world.

As the philosopher Cornel West puts it truth “is a way of life, as opposed to a set of propositions that correspond to a set of things in the world.” Well, that’s all well and good for the humanities but science isn’t subject to the complicated dynamics of culture, perspective, subjectivity and the human condition generally – or is it? As philosopher and scientist Hypatia cautioned “Men will fight for superstition as quickly as for the living truth — even more so, since a superstition is intangible, you can’t get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.”

The scientific method is bookended by the philosophical method. Empirical data collection doesn’t emerge in a vacuum but first a mind (not exhumed from, but as one part of the sensual human condition) has to be drawn to an inquiry, has to draw the parameters of that inquiry based on the desire to discover one thing or another about the physical world. These elements of drawing towards and of desire have no relationship to the type of objectivity that science is premised upon. (I’ll leave politics and capitalism as drivers of science for another post…) Even the most basic scientific discovery has to be interpreted, given meaning and brought about in language and often through metaphor.

All of which brings us again into the philosophical domain including ethics, emphasis, coercion, manipulation, bias and on and on. Every discipline including science, which in contrast with West’s earlier assertion, understands truth and fact as discoverable aspects of the world through its method, is a discipline brought about in the context of the human condition and the human condition is the concern of philosophers.

I understand truth to be something that is emergent and as the philosopher Richard Rorty suggested, it is created in the swamp of the human condition or in the lifework of a people rather than discovered whole in an objective state. Moreover, as soon as we begin pointing out truth with certainty and locating it within particular disciplinary or societal boundaries, then we invoke a universal style of truth that can’t be extracted from dynamics of power and ultimately (at least ultimately as history shows us) hegemony.

Philosophy (or at least some of its more recent work) has become about recognizing the amorphous nature of nature and navigating it for – as a conservation biologist colleague of mine so beautifully states, for “meaning and purpose” rather than mining it for truth and certainty. This leaves us on very unstable ground wherein all of these issues (including scientific issues) seem endlessly unstable. It is not, I believe, a matter of firming up that ground but rather of entering the landscape differently, recognizing that stability is (as Foucault would say) a chimera and the only truth that we can hope to achieve is subject to culture, identity and perspective.

If these ideas are useful at all I hope it is because they bring us closer to answering the question of why philosophy and women matter a great deal to science and why science as our most exacting tool of understanding the physical world, should be important to all of us. I hope it also seeds the ground for more conversation around these topics …

Portrait of Hypatia by Elbert Hubbard, 1908

Marianne is a philosopher living, writing and teaching in the Adirondacks.

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My work at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry lies along the philosophical intersections of nature, culture, science and ethics in the Adirondack Park, NY. I lead the Environmental Philosophy Program at ESF’s Newcomb Campus located on the 15,000-acre Huntington Wildlife Forest (HWF). Here I am responsible for the design and facilitation of rich conversations aimed at a variety of audiences, across disciplines. Initiatives in this program are intended to bridge humanities content with HWF-specific field knowledge and experience in order to understand the impacts of the relationship between scientific research and the regional land-use policy it advances. 




2 Responses

  1. Cris Winters says:
  2. Marianne Patinelli-Dubay says: