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  • Writer's pictureJoia

Today's rhaps is on ... The Very Idea

Updated: Jan 28

In the fall semester of 1982 I wrote a paper on "Emic vs. Etic Approaches to Anthropology" for a graduate course in the Philosophy of Social Science. Emic just means an anthropologist has gone "full native" in attempting to understand the culture under study. Etic means the anthropologist admittedly studies the culture from an outside standpoint—in other words, that the observer always influences the results. Anyway, when the paper was graded and returned to me, my professor had scrawled in the margins of one page, "what, if anything, does this mean?"

Actually that's not the worst thing she ever did to me. The semester before she had given me a B+ in Introduction to Philosophy of Science II, the only B grade I got in grad school. I turned around and signed up for her next course and, well, she did finally give me an A- for the social science one. I figured she saw me as some dumb broad without a science degree. (She had recently come out, post tenure, publishing the wonderful lesbian novel Who Was That Masked Woman? I had hungrily devoured the book as soon as I'd gotten it. I'd had crushes on girls as long as I could remember, but my convoluted theories about being a gay male in a female body did little to assuage my fractured sense of self.)

I did love her vast bank of Popperian knowledge, from her days at London School of Economics, and her wild sense of humor. She explained scientific verification and theory refutation thus: "It's like this. You never really know if someone loves you, but you can always be sure when they don't." My students heard that many times over the next decades.

Back when I was writing my dissertation, this professor heard that I'd included Dostoevsky's Notes From the Underground in a course on Philosophy of Human Nature, and had remembered my college degree in Russian. She asked me to go in on an NSF grant with her, explicating Mendeleev's Periodic Table of Elements. Cool. We didn't get the grant, but I sure was happy to have made it past the dumb broad thing.

One of the books she assigned back in that philosophy of social science class was Peter Winch's The Idea of a Social Science. This turned into a riff for philosophical articles for years to come and you could always find a publication entitled "The Idea of..." or "The Very Idea of..." in an academic journal somewhere. Safe bet newly graduated PhDs are still doing this. I even have a half-written "The Very Idea of a Mental State" myself, based on the dissertation I never wrote. With my Vienna Circle dissertation nearly complete, I came across a copy of Pat Churchland's Neurophilosophy one day in Library Circulation, one of my jobs during those last Indiana years. It basically fell down the book chute right into my lap. I took it to Kinko's and Xeroxed the entire book. My internal fight over the next weeks made me feel like one of those cartoon characters who swallows a live ping pong ball. Dropping the topic dedicated to my beloved and recently deceased advisor would not be easy, but this new area spoke not only to my heart but to my growing sense that all the psychological crap I'd been dished over the years about my erratic behavior was far better suited to cognitive and neurological explanation than to the standard emotional-disorder labels.

I ended up sticking with the original plan and got the degree over with sooner, but later ended my Minnesota Studies article with a nod to these interests, that had the Vienna Circle guys been around, they would be using neuroscience to tear down the latest metaphysical and epistemological silliness just as they used relativity and quantum physics to rough up the armchair theories of their own day.

By that time I was reading psychobiology and neuroendocrinology texts, looking for ways to move seamlessly from cell to sense data without positing mysterious "pineal gland" links, like Descartes, between the physical and psychological realms. We need these distinctions in language to communicate with each other, but when the yins and yangs consistently favor one over the other (as in Western "rational" thought), something has gone badly wrong. Eastern yins and yangs tend to occupy more evenly divided real estate, with dark/light and male/female cocooned together like the far side of the moon and its brighter surface. They are constantly in motion, throughout time, as their morphing topologies dip in and out of the light. Western dichotomies don’t even pretend parallel value: what’s good and sunny and bright and rational and reasonable is always and forever male, amen. What’s bad and dark and damp and irrational is forever female and unknowable and not even necessary to study, much less understand. Fuck it. Literally. As if some mad misogynist Gorgias rose out of the Presocratic choir and crooned:

i. Nothing in the female mind exists.

ii. Even if something existed in the female mind, it could not be known.

iii. Even if what is in the female mind could be known, it could not be communicated.

You can hear Hagar and Xanthippe wailing in the wilderness, with Hypatia and Hildegarde joining in.

The very idea.


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