While many feminists have criticized the notion that science can, or should, be objective, Evelyn Fox Keller accepts the need for a different kind of scientific objectivity (Matthews 1993, p. 207). This summary will trace Keller’s notion about the dualistic character of Western thought. It will explain the way this dualism is both reflected in scientific ideas about objectivity, and operates in the creation of the modern, Western individual (Matthews 1993, p.207). I will emphasize Keller’s arguments about the way the individual’s experience of masculine and feminine has both constructed, and been constructed by, science (Matthews 1993, p.207). I will also outline the way science can become one possible avenue/discourse/institution for the reconstruction of Western thought, through the inclusion of the Other.
Increasing representation of women in scientific fields has not solved the problem of women’s association with nature and emotion, and they way it has been defined in opposition to a rational and detached male (Keller 1987, p.80). As Keller (1997, p. 80) points out, 31 percent of the scientific workforce in America was occupied by women in 1986. Nevertheless she argues that women’s nature is still seen as alien to science and there is still the assumption that their nature encourages women to do a different kind of science (Keller 1989, p. 80). Whilst it is true that women in Asia, for example, are generally more involved in the health and behavioural sciences, their lack of participation in the physical sciences cannot be explained by biological essentialist assumptions about women’s nature (Ng Choon Sim 1994, p.284).
Feminists have made several responses to the underlying ideas in science. Bleier (1991, p.251) has criticized the idea that biology determines difference, that is, the unequal relationship between the sexes. The biological determinist approach ignores both the sex/gender distinction and a cross-cultural perspective that accounts for difference between men and women of a variety of races and class positions (Keller 1987, p. 81). Furthermore, scientists like Keller (1987, p.81) have begun to question both the assumptions science makes about a single truth, and the notion that the laws of nature are universal. Keller’s lived experiences with motherhood, feminism and psychoanalysis caused her to reevaluate the usefulness of traditional scientific accounts of objectivity and truth.
Keller (1987, p.78) asserts that the history of Western thought has consciously and unconsciously been based on the idea that the mind and the body are split. Knowledge and objectivity have developed around the notion that the subject (or the knower) must distance themselves from all that is feminine. Keller parallels the construction of objectivity in science with a psychoanalytic account of the development of the ‘masculine self’. Her argument relies strongly on the notion that the creation of an individual masculine identity requires separation from, and rejection of, the Other (Matthews 1993, p.208-211). Matthews agues that smaller differences between observer and observed exist both in African societies and in the behaviour/minds/actions of Western women. Many feminists claim that a reintegration of self/other and subject/object is necessary, if inequalities between men and women are to be further deconstructed (Matthews 1993, p.211).
Whether or not the origin of the dualism in Western science is seen to emerge out of the male’s construction of his own identity, it is evident that Western science is historically (and continues to be) organized around dualisms such as mind/body and reason/emotion. It can be argued that dualism operating within both science and ‘selfhood’ reinforce one another, and combine to justify the self’s relationship to the Other. Keller (1987, p.80) argues that the embeddedness of cultural ideas about the way men and women are has shaped science, and that, simultaneously, the authority of science has shaped cultural ideas about men and women (Keller 1987, p. 80).
Matthews (1993, p. 208) discusses several feminist responses to the notion of scientific objectivity. She rejects the pessimistic notion of some relativist feminists, that objectivity is impossible to achieve. Matthews praises integrationist feminists, such as Keller, for their capacity to acknowledge a new way of thinking rationally and 'doing' science. Keller argues for an objectivity that uses a less dualistic relationship of subject to object (Matthews 1993, p.211). McClintock (1995, p.214) expands upon the notion of the relationship of the observer to the observed, when she asserts that all objects have a communicative capacity. In this notion, an object presents its possibilities to human beings. This way of thinking is in contrast with both, ideas about knowledge in Western thought, and the general scientific notion that the human subject autonomously creates and objectively knows (Matthews 1993, p. 213). Keller’s account of objectivity also differs from traditional science, in that it recognizes that knowing does involve subjectivity (internal experience), that is; feelings, values, emotions and intuition (Matthews 1993, p. 224).
Pluralist feminists have responded to the notion of objectivity by arguing that there are no real feminine or masculine characteristics, and no ‘essentialised’ identities (Matthews 1993, p.214). By acknowledging the claims of all individuals, Matthews (1993, p. 220) argues that pluralism cannot prove feminism is better than male supremacy. She argues that pluralism unrealistically works with the notion that knowledges are mutually enriching. Although pluralism has a very restrictive understanding of power and knowledge, pluralist accounts are important in that they recognize that the position of women is occupied by class and race, as well as gender (Matthews 1993, p. 222).
Whilst it may seem that integrationists are arguing that women are essentially more relational in construction of their individual psychology, Matthews (1993, p. 213) defends the integrationist position by stating that Keller is not intending to separate male and female perspectives, or essentialise them. Bleier sums up Matthew’s view of Keller:
“One may indeed value the characteristics in our Western societies that are associated with femaleness – and, indeed, need to celebrate them, since they seem to be the only force standing in the way of our society’s plunge into self-destruction – but we need not justify them as natural, biological or innate” (Bleier 1991, p. 254).
Keller and Bleier both recognize that males and females do not necessarily fit into the masculine or feminine correspondences in which they are generally associated. Nevertheless, they understand that feminists have effectively used these correspondences to further the value accorded to women.
New definitions of objectivity may provide the basis for theoretical developments and alternative possibilities for the individual, in the construction of his or her identity. Keller is recognizing that science is one area in which the oppositional nature of categories such as male/female, mind/body, culture/nature can be transformed, and in effect, influence the oppositional construction of Western thought (Matthews 1993, p.220). Nevertheless, theorists must remember that such oppositions are unique to Western culture, and an understanding of them may not provide an understanding of the way inequality was constructed in pre-capitalist Western and non-Western societies.
In conclusion, Keller argues that bringing together characteristics that are generally unassociated; rationality/emotion and mind/body would affect science positively. Perhaps then, technology and science will include perspectives about knowing that are not as destructive to the Other, and indeed, to nature. Keller’s assertions provide the basis for an alternative objectivity that is more friendly to the needs and thoughts of women. Perhaps such a move in scientific thought could encourage the individual to manifest itself more in relation to, and not at the expense of, the Other (Matthews 1993, p. 213).