The conceptualization of categories and boundaries has become an overwhelming preoccupation of mine since being introduced to science in a mechanical universe, specifically in regards to the borders surrounding ideas about gender. I have found myself becoming hyper aware of the use of categories and definitions, not just within scientific discussions, but simply within every day speech, and this trend in language is interesting to me, because from I am being led to believe that this trend is related to a mechanical understanding of the world, that binaries and categories are inevitable when it comes to understanding the world mechanically. I am particularly interested in what it is about a mechanical universe that causes solid boundaries to arise and propagate, specifically related to the boundaries between the genders. How is it that fluid movement between concepts was replaced by solid definitions and highly specialized language, which itself creates narrow categories? Is there any legitimacy to unclear boundaries in a mechanical universe, or do clear and concise categories serve a particular purpose that no other mechanism could fulfill? In order to explore these questions, I will be looking at three texts specifically: “A Review of the Recent Literature on the Psychology of Sex” by Helen Thompson Woolley and “The Paradox of Feminist Primatology: The Goddess’s Discipline?” by Linda Marie Fedigan. I chose these texts because they investigate the boundary of gender in relationship to a mechanical universe, and I feel will help me to grapple with this emergence of categories in modern science that spilled over into modern culture. I believe an exploration of how categories emerged from mechanical science will shed some light on binary thinking and gendered ideas which are pervasive in a modern world, and that these questions play a larger role in the way which scientists, and a larger public, have been taught to think. Our language has begun to reflect our mechanical thinking.

First, it would probably be best to explore what exactly I mean when I am discussing the categorization of language into definitions and binaries which I find frequently in our discussions of a mechanical universe. While I am not focusing upon this text, Nature’s Body by Londa Schiebinger very clearly discusses the emergence of new categories of plants, animals, and people during the eighteenth century, mapping the way which nature was narrowed from the broad concept of everything around us into neat boxes. Furthermore, nature became gendered in the discussion of civilization, where civilization was male while the natural world was female. The categories of race and gender are central to Shiebinger’s argument about the hijacking of the natural world by naturalists in an attempt to organize nature and enforce order over nature. The ideas that race and gender are separate boundaries seems to have arisen from these sentiments, with clear distinctions between different “types” of humans being the “natural” outcome to a world which functions as a machine, different parts serve different purposes, with completely different constructions. However, this categorization, at first, would seem to be working in opposition to mechanical philosophy, especially since the mechanistic explanation of the human mind was so difficult for many early mechanical philosophers to overcome. Descartes himself even endorsed a sort of dualism when it came to mechanical philosophy, believing that a mechanical view of the mind would not work. However, there seems to be an emerging pattern in a more deterministic view of the human condition in later mechanical philosophy, and thus the categories of race and gender, and more binary approaches would make sense in a mechanical world if the human condition is predetermined.

We seem to have come to a point where the existence of clear categories concerning the human experience seem to have cropped up within scientific thinking, which leads us to come of the questions which I posed within my introduction. Jumping right into the ideas about the boundaries between the genders, specifically how does gendered language in science (and beyond) arise from a mechanical world view and seep into our everyday subconscious perceptions of the world? This question of the way which language has been categorized has popped out at me in two very different ways. The first is the prevalence of definitions within the way that we speak and think. Definitions seem to have become an integral part of the modern experience of the world, even the concept of modernity has contentious yet solid definitions surrounding it, influencing the way which we speak about things. However, it is this idea of gendered language as a boundary and barrier which I have found to be the most interesting, because gendered language is something which so many of us use without even realizing it, and it greatly affects the way which we think.

Linda Fedigan discusses how gendered language has started to show up and hinder thought within scientific language, becoming a strong tool for feminist critiques of science, especially since clear and precise language is something which is of great importance to scientific endeavors.[1] It is especially problematic since most people do not recognize the implications of the gendered language which they use, with Fedigan using the example of the “passive” egg and the “active” sperm, creating implications regarding gender which most people would not even notice.[2] Is this gendered language inevitable from a world with clear borders between genders, and is it a direct result of mechanical thinking? Language is one of the major mechanisms through which we experience the world, and when it becomes categorized, it fundamentally puts a lens in front of everything which we experience. Exploring the way language has been affected by a mechanical approach to the world, would not only be interesting, but it seems as though it would be fundamental to understanding the human experience and its relationship to scientific inquiry.

We live in a world filled with definitions and boundaries. Clear categories are how most people organize their lives, creating clean boxes within which they experience the world, creating a comforting boundary between them and the outside. These seem to results of a mechanized outlook, so is there any validity to removing our comforting categories and returning to a world of fluidity between concepts, a world where is experience is not based upon prejudices which arise from definitions and language, but instead exist within a purer experience of the world? Thinking about a world with more fluid boundaries completely changes the game of science, allowing for less rigid definitions and possibly a more creative approach to the questions which “hard” and “soft” sciences ask. However, maybe these boundaries are not as solid and rigid as, at first glance, I have been working under the assumption of, but instead have some fluidity. Within “A Review of the Recent Literature on the Psychology of Sex” Helen Thompson Woolley is exploring the different ways which scientists are exploring the boundaries of the mind and body of girls and boys, trying to argue for a clear boundary between the sexes within their minds. While it is true that Woolley is working to discredit much, if not all, of this research, especially in the case of gender preference to color[3], as a woman working in her field, she seems not to have been taken seriously. However, even apart from her clear dismissal of definitive boundaries between the minds of the sexes, at the end of her piece, she does expose the fluidity of these definitions and categories. By working to explain how in mainstream psychology the reluctance for women to receive higher education has shifted from them not possessing the mental capacity to the idea that higher education would destroy the reproductive abilities of women.[4] This, I believe, shows that this boundaries are not completely rigid, but instead can change over time, so maybe the question isn’t is there a use for fluid boundaries, but how do we work to make the appearance of fluidity more apparent in order to destroy some of the binary thinking surrounding the genders in science.

With all of the questioning which I have done about boundaries within science as a result of mechanical thinking, it would seem that I am advocating for a world without boundaries or categories. There are certain aspects of life that do need boundaries, especially to aid thinking, because a world without boundaries would be incredibly difficult to understand. There are obviously clear differences between plants and animals, between rocks and living creatures, between the earth and the stars. Having categories which separate things, allows us to explore differences and not become overwhelmed by the vastness of a world without borders. However, what I am hoping to call into question is the overwhelming use of definitions and categories which the modern world employs, boxes which place humans into separate categories and create divides which may not exist scientifically. While there are differences in sexes, to what degree do the reproductive organs on a human influence the mind or physical capability of that person? By creating clear divides in gender, we become gendered in our thinking, which becomes reflective in our speech. For most people, the default pronoun is male, rather than gender ambiguous. Why? How does thinking like that change outcomes in science? These questions should be questions which historians of science are interested in investigating. The biases which we bring to the table change not only the way which we perform science, but the types of questions which we are asking. When do categories become detrimental rather than beneficial to scientific inquiry? Mechanical philosophy was concerned with looking at the machine that drives nature, breaking the world into parts. This sort of thinking does have its place, but it would also seem that maybe things are more complicated than mechanism can really account for. Even the act of posing these questions takes steps to deconstruct some of the borders which have been implemented in discussions of science, which, to me, seems to be the duty of a historian of science.

[1] Linda Fedigan. “The Paradox of Feminist Primatology: The Goddess’ Discipline?” in Angela Creager, Elizabeth Lunbeck and Londa Schibinger’s eds. Feminism in Twentieth-Century Science, Technology and Medicine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001): 55

[2] Ibid., 55

[3] Helen Thompson Woolley. “A Review of the Recent Literature on the Psychology of Sex”. Psychological Bulletin 7 (1910): 337

[4] Helen Thompson Woolley. “A Review of the Recent Literature on the Psychology of Sex”. Psychological Bulletin 7 (1910): 342