In Defense of Bacon
The following excerpt was published in A House Built on Sand (1998).
by Alan Soble
"What a man had rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he rejects difficult
things from impatience of research." Francis Bacon, Novum organum, book I, 49.
eminists science critics, in particular Sandra Harding, Carolyn Merchant, and Evelyn Fox Keller, claim that sexist sexual metaphors played an important role in the rise of modern science, and they single out the writings of Francis Bacon.
Science and Rape
In an article printed in the New York Times, Sandra Harding introduced to the paper's readers one of the more shocking ideas to emerge from feminist science studies:
Carolyn Merchant, who wrote a book called "Death of Nature," and Evelyn Keller's collection of papers called "Reflections on Gender & Science" talk about the important role that sexual metaphors played in the development of modern science. They see these notions of dominating mother nature by the good husband scientist. If we put in the most blatant feminist terms used today, we'd talk about marital rape, the husband as scientist forcing nature to his wishes.
Harding asserts elsewhere, too, that sexist metaphors played an important role in the development of science. But here she understates the point by referring to "marital rape" and so does not convey it in the "most blatant feminist terms" because her usual way of making the point is to talk about rape and torture in the same breath, not mentioning marriage. For example, Harding refers to "the rape and torture metaphors in the writing of Sir Francis Bacon and others (e.g., Machiavelli) enthusiastic about the new scientific method" (SQIF, 113). By associating rape metaphors with science, Harding expects the unsavoriness of rape to spill over into science:
Understanding nature as a woman indifferent to or even welcoming rape was fundamental to the interpretation of these new conceptions of nature and inquiry. There does 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 scientific method have provided resources for each other. (SQIF, 113, 116)
I dare not hazard to guess as to how many people read Harding's article in the Times. How many clipped out that scandalous bit of bad publicity for science and put it on the refrigerator, or how many still have some vague idea tying science to rape. But the belief that vicious sexual metaphors were important to science has gained some currency in the academy.
Contemporary Sexual Metaphors
In Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Harding proposes that the "sexist and misogynistic metaphors" that have thus far "infused" science be replaced by positive images of strong, independent women," metaphors based on "womanliness" and female eroticism woman-designed for women," (WSWK, 267, 301). Harding defends her proposal by claiming that "the prevalence of such alternative metaphors" would lead to "less partial and distorted descriptions and explanations" and would "foster the growth of knowledge": "If they were to excite people's imaginations in the way that rape, torture and other misogynistic metaphors have apparently energized generations of male science enthusiasts, there is no doubt that thought would move in new and fruitful directions" (267). What are the misogynistic metaphors that have already "energized" science and that must be replaced? In a footnote, Harding sends us to chapter 2 of WSWK. There we find a section entitled "The Sexual Meaning of Nature and Inquiry" (42-46), which contains merely four examples of metaphors in the writings of two philosophers (Francis Bacon and Paul Feyerabend), one scientist (Richard Feynman), and the unnamed preparers of a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) booklet, "On Being a Scientist."
In the passage from Feynman's Nobel lecture quoted by Harding, the physicist reminisces about a theory in physics as if it were a woman with whom he fell in love, a woman who has become old yet has been a good mother and left many children (WSWK, 43-44; SQIF, 120). Harding incredibly interprets this passage as "thinking of mature women as good for nothing but mothering" (SQIF, 112). From the NAS booklet, Harding quotes: "The laws of nature are not waiting to be plucked like fruit from a tree. They are hidden and unyielding, and the difficulties of grasping them add greatly to the satisfaction of success" (WSWK, 44). Here, says Harding, one can hear "restrained but clear echoes" of sexuality. Perhaps the metaphors used by Feynman and NAS are sexual, but they are hardly misogynistic or vicious, and I wonder why Harding put them on display. These were supposed to be examples of how viciously sexist metaphors "energized" science, but they seem feeble. In fact, about her four examples Harding claims only that in Bacon's writings is there a rape metaphor. But let us examine her treatment of Feyerabend first, for there are significant connections between them.
Harding quotes the closing lines of a critique of Kuhn and Lakatos by Feyerabend, who ends his technical paper with the joke that his view "changes science from a stern and demanding mistress into an attractive and yielding courtesan who tries to anticipate every wish of her lover. Of course, it is up to us to choose either a dragon or a pussy cat for our company. I do not think I need to explain my own preferences" (Feyerabend, 229). Harding's complaint is not that Feyerabend employed a sexual metaphor, for in WSWK Harding condones "alterative" sexual images reflecting "female eroticism woman-designed for women" (267). Rather, Feyerabend's metaphoristhe wrong kind of sexual metaphor. Harding quotes the same passage in her earlier SQIF, giving it as an example of the attribution of gender to scientific inquiry (SQIF, 120).
In her view, this passage conveys, as does Feynman's, a cultural image of "manliness." Whereas Feynman's notion of manliness is "the good husband and father," Feyerabend's notion is "the sexually competitive, locker-room jock" (SQIF, 120). Thus science, in Feyerabend's metaphor, is a sexually passive, accommodating woman, and the scientist and the philosopher of science are the jocks she sexually pleases. I do not see how portraying science as a courtesan implies that the men who visit her, scientists and philosophers, are locker-room jocks. The fancy word courtesan, if it implies anything at all, vaguely alludes to a debonair Hugh Hefner puffing on his pipe, not to a Terry Bradshaw swatting bare male butt with a wet towel. (Should we homogenize men, or think of the philosopher of science as a locker-room jock wannabe?) Harding concludes her brief discussion of Feyerabend in SQIF by claiming that his metaphor, coming strategically at the end of his paper, serves a pernicious purpose. He depicts "science and its theories" as "exploitable women," and the scientist as a masculine, manly man to imply to his (male) audience that his philosophical "proposal should be appreciated because it replicates gender politics" of a sort they find congenial (SQIF, 121). In WSWK, Harding similarly asserts that this metaphor was the way Feyerabend "recommended" his view (43).
This line of thought is not very promising. Some men readers prefer strict to submissive women; would Feyerabend's contrary preference for kittens tend to undermine for them his critique of Kuhn, because it does not match their taste? I agree that a woman reading his paper would probably not empathize with the metaphor, even if they concurred with the critique of Kuhn that preceded it. But they could, if they wished, ignore it as irrelevant to Feyerabend's argumentsat least because the metaphor comes at the end, tacked onto the arguments already made and digested. Had Bacon employed rape metaphors, Harding would be right that "it is difficult to imagine women as an enthusiastic audience" (SQIF, 116). Still, had there been any women in Bacon's audience, they could have disregarded his metaphors and accepted (or rejected) the rest on its own merits. For Harding to assert that the men in Feyerabend's audience would be in part persuaded by this appeal and that Feyerabend thought that he could seduce them with his "conscientious efforts at gender symbolism" (120) insults men and exaggerates the chicanery of philosophy.
Harding on Bacon
According to Harding, vicious sexual metaphors were infused into modern science at its very beginning, were instrumental in its ascent, and eventually became "a substantive part of science" (WSWK, 44). Harding thinks Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was crucial to this process. What she says about Feyerabend, that he hoped his view would "be appreciated because it replicates gender politics" (SQIF, 121), is what she claims about Bacon, although in more extreme terms: "Francis Bacon appealed to rape metaphors to persuade his audience that experimental method is a good thing" (WSWK, 43; see SQIF, 237).
This is a damning criticism. Bacon is not depicted as a negligible Feyerabend making silly jokes about science the prostitute. Rather Harding is claiming that Bacon drew an analogy between the experimental method and rape and tried to gain advantage from it (see SQIF, 116). Imagine the scene that Harding implies. Bacon wants to persuade fellow scholars to study nature systematically by using experimental methods that elicit changes in nature, rather than to study nature by accumulating specimens and observing phenomena passively. So, thinking that his audience found rape desirable, attractive, permissible, or at least that it would be fun, even if despicable, Bacon champions experimentalism by drawing an analogy between it and rape. Bacon says to them: Think of doing science my way as forcing apart with your knees the slender thighs of an unwilling woman, pinning her under the weight of your body as she kicks and screams in your ears, grabbing her poor little jaw roughly with your fist to shut her mouth, and trying to thrust your penis into her dry vagina; that, boys, is what the experimental method is all about.
What did Bacon do or say to deserve such an abusive accusation? Is there any evidence that Bacon's writings contain a rape metaphor? Here is the entire text that Harding offers to support her charge:
For you have but to hound nature in her wanderings, and you will be able when you like to lead and drive her afterwards to the same place again. Neither ought a man to make scruple of entering and penetrating into those holes and corners when the inquisition of truth is his whole object. (WSWK, 43)
I suppose that a man who made no scruple of penetrating holes (and corners?) might be a rapist, but he also might be a foxhunter, a proctologist, or a billiard player. And I suppose that to "hound" nature could be seen as raping her. But the spirited student who storms my office and too often sits down next to me in the cafeteria, hoping for some words of wisdomno more than thatalso is hounding me.
( Alan Soble, "In Defense of Bacon," 1998; from Noretta Koertge, ed., A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 195-198. )
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