Gendered Philosophy of Science (and Technology)

The rigidity and persistence of dualistic thinking about gender is also reflected in the equation of science/technology with maleness and nature with femaleness. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Rene Descartes (15961650) are considered the fathers of scientific reasoning, mathematics, and modern philosophy. Feminist philosophers and feminist science studies scholars described how their early writings also helped reify the definition of science as male and nature as female (Bleier, 1991; Bordo, 1986; Keller, 1985; Merchant, 1980; Schiebinger, 1993; Schiebinger, 1999).

Carolyn Merchant (1980) shared many examples of the implicit power dynamics of science (male) over nature (female) reflected by these early thinkers. These ideas may not have led to the gendered split of science over nature, but they arose concurrent with a “new concept of the self as a rational master of the passions housed in a machinelike body,” which began to “replace the concept of the self as an integral part of a close-knit harmony of organic parts united to the cosmos and society” (p. 214). Ultimately, three concepts— mechanistic thought, order, and power—deeply informed Western politics, religion, and science and contributed to the development of science as a domain that increasingly excluded the female (and women themselves).

Susan Bordo (1986) viewed Rene Descartes’s seventeenth-century ideas on objectivity and scientific rationalism through the new lens of developmental psychology, specifically separation and individuation. Bordo suggested that Cartesian objectivism may reflect a sort of separation anxiety resulting from the flight from the feminine occurring as Descartes’s peers moved away from the concept of “the organic female universe of the Middle Ages” (p. 442). Objectivity was to be achieved by transcending the body (nature and the female) and relying on reason alone, which Bordo claimed resulted in a masculinization of thought.

Ruth Bleier (1991) also examined the ways in which seventeenth-century Baconian dualism “elaborated the metaphors of science in sexual and gendered terms, with science as male and nature as female, a mystery to be unveiled and penetrated” (p. 6). Woman was embodied in “the natural, the disordered, the emotional, the irrational,” and man “epitomized objectivity, rationality, culture, and control” (p. 6). Note the similarity to the contents of the gender boxes I outlined earlier.

Bleier (1991) also challenged the notion of scientific objectivity, pointing to another reason that the “difference” research I mentioned earlier is so problematic: “By draping their scientific activities in claims of neutrality, detachment, and objectivity, scientists augment the perceived importance of their views, absolve themselves of social responsibility for the applications of their work, and leave their (unconscious) minds wide open to political and cultural assumptions” (p. 29).

As long as technoscientists cloak themselves in the myth of objectivity, they remain determinedly blind to the ways in which their work, and even the questions they ask, is influenced by cultural assumptions. Figueroa and Harding (2003) similarly questioned whether science could be separated from social influences, citing W.V.O. Quine, who “proposed that scientific and everyday beliefs were linked in networks. How scientists theorized nature’s order and chose to revise their hypotheses when faced with counterevidence depended in part on the ontologies, logics, and epistemologies they brought to their work, largely unconsciously, from their particular cultural contexts” (p. 2).

Feenberg (2003) offers an example of the significance of sociocultural context in the development of the computer keyboard, which appears culturally neutral to Westerners. However, Feenberg explains that if computers had “been invented and developed first in Japan, or any other country with an ideographic language, it is unlikely that keyboards would have been selected as an input device”; the early input devices would more probably have been designed “with graphical or voice inputs” (pp. 242-243). Feenberg shared another example from O-Young Lee, who “argues that the triumph of Japanese microelectronics is rooted in age-old cultural impulses . . . to miniaturize, evident in bonsai, haiku poetry, and other aspects of Japanese culture” (Feenberg, 2003, pp. 242-243).

In her 1986 review of the writings of feminist philosophers and feminist science studies scholars, Sandra Harding identified five themes: issues of equity that influence women’s participation; sexist and racist scientific research; social constructivist ideas that challenge the notion of “pure science”; deconstruction of earlier writings on science, especially examining the use of language; and epistemological analyses. Now, more than twenty years later, Harding has expanded that discourse from feminist standpoint theory, to the concept of strong objectivity, and most recently to considering technoscience in a postcolonial context (Harding, 1998, 2006, 2008). Harding’s (2006) work linking postcolonial studies with feminist science studies reflects the broadly shared assumption among feminist scholars that “our methodological and epistemological choices are always also ethical and political choices” (p. 156) and that “scientific standards, like the scientific claims they claim to justify, are always socially situated” (p. 145).

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