Single bright female. Philosopher Mary Hesse centre row, left. Image courtesy of University of Bristol Library, Special Collections


The lady vanishes

The history of ideas still struggles to remember the names of notable women philosophers. Mary Hesse is a salient example

by Ann-Sophie Barwich + BIO

Single bright female. Philosopher Mary Hesse centre row, left. Image courtesy of University of Bristol Library, Special Collections

What was the name of the female scientist who pioneered the mRNA research behind the success of recent COVID-19 vaccines? Who was that 16th-century catholic nun from whom René Descartes stole the evil demon thought experiment that secured his place in public memory as the father of modern philosophy? I doubt you remember either woman. Their names appeared recently in newspapers, on social media, and within academia. But recalling them is difficult. Seldom have women thinkers been more acknowledged and lauded than today. But how many of their names have we retained in our memory?

The mechanisms of collective forgetting are fascinating and important. Our practice of writing genealogies determines who gets remembered, and who doesn’t. It is also haphazard. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, if our lines of transmission remain co-opted by strategic omissions, the selective erasure of names will continue.

Many names that have faded from history were women’s. That’s no coincidence. Women aren’t just missing. They have been made absent, as the historian David Noble argued in A World Without Women (1992). The overwhelming absence of women in intellectual history is constructed. And we won’t prevent the fading of women from future history simply with an occasional reminder about the existence of a few remarkable individuals throughout the ages. What really causes our collective forgetting is the stepwise removal of their names from ongoing conversation.

For centuries, women scholars have routinely appeared isolated during their lifetimes. Old black-and-white photographs of academic meetings typically show that one exceptional woman sitting rather awkwardly among many men. Stil, this isolation is not the kind that would soon lead to their disappearance from collective memory.

The story of Mary Hesse shows how quickly even well-known women from our recent past can vanish from the collective memory of their peers. The first time I encountered Hesse was in grad school thanks to a brief and dismissive aside in Paul Feyerabend’s landmark book Against Method (1975):

This position, which is a natural consequence of the arguments presented above, is frequently attacked – not by counter-arguments, which would be easy to answer, but by rhetorical questions. ‘If any metaphysics goes,’ writes Dr Hesse in her review of an earlier essay of mine, ‘then the question arises why we do not go back and exploit the objective criticism of modern science available in Aristotelianism, or indeed in Voodoo?’ – and she insinuates that a criticism of this kind would be altogether laughable. Her insinuation, unfortunately, assumes a great deal of ignorance in her readers.

Hesse came across as a bit conservative in this portrayal. I did not think much of it at the time, or of her for that matter. Despite Feyerabend’s counterintuitive belief that there are no restrictions about what can pass as scientific research, he is idolised as a maverick in the philosophy of science. He is known widely even outside the field. Against Method feels like an enthralling missile directed at ossified ideas about logic and inference at the heart of theories about scientific rationality. ‘Anything goes!’ Feyerabend’s battle cry echoes. I was seduced by his rebel yells at first.

Mary Hesse by Peter Mennim. © and courtesy the artist

Later, I learned about the real Mary Hesse when I read her work. It took a moment to put two and two together that these two doctors Hesse were the same person. The two images did not quite fit. She wasn’t a random scholar writing pompously for imbeciles, and she certainly was not a stickler for some intellectual status quo.

Hesse’s book was ahead of its time. It also is out of print today

Hesse was renowned as a philosopher of science during her lifetime. Her educational background in the sciences backed her philosophical interest in understanding how science and scientific reasoning really work. After an undergraduate degree in mathematics at Imperial College London, Hesse completed her PhD in electron microscopy before going on to study history and philosophy of science at University College London, where she obtained a master’s degree and later taught the subject. In 1960, she first became a lecturer and then a professor at the newly established Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, where she later retired and died.

A position at Cambridge sounds prestigious today. However, such an appearance of prestige should not distract from the fact that academia remained a difficult place to navigate for women thinkers at the time. The philosopher Margareta Hallberg, who conducted several interviews with Hesse, noted:

Interestingly, when [Hesse] applied for the post in the HPS Department, two women were shortlisted, Mary Hesse and Marjorie [Grene], a philosopher of ideas, who was also trained in biology. Having two women shortlisted for a philosophy of science position at Cambridge was extremely unusual and surprising; in my interviews with Hesse, she has commented that ‘this indicated the novelty and the relatively low standing of the subject in Cambridge’.

Hesse’s time at university was difficult: ‘Mary was shut out from college life by the mere fact that she was a woman,’ the historian Sir Richard Evans recalled in her Times obituary. There’s a photograph taken at the Ninth Symposium of the Colston Research Society in Bristol in 1957, featuring 42 physicists and philosophers – all men, apart from Hesse.

Toward the end of her career, she began vanishing from public forums. Rumour has it that a tangible air of disappointment accompanied this retreat. She increasingly spent time cultivating her garden while engaging less and less in intellectual showmanship. Late in life, she found herself struggling when she began recognising the effects of Alzheimer’s. Hesse left her field a range of notable works: Forces and Fields (1961), Revolutions and Reconstructions in the Philosophy of Science (1980) and, co-authored with Michael Arbib, The Construction of Reality (1986). The most prominent is an elegantly analytic book concerning the role of metaphors in scientific thinking: Models and Analogies in Science (1963).

Hesse’s book was ahead of its time. It also is out of print today. Meanwhile, Thomas Kuhn’s ridiculously popular The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), published just one year prior to her Models and Analogies, has been repeatedly reissued and enjoys the status of being a classic in the field. I think it should have been the other way around. This is not simply a statement of taste or personal preference. It is an argument from history with its mechanism of collective memory and forgetting.

Hesse was different. Her ideas present a refreshing departure from her contemporaries’ single-minded infatuation with the logic and justification of scientific knowledge and the idea that the rationality of philosophers ruled the foundation of science. This is also the view against which Feyerabend had railed. It’s therefore a shame he did not recognise the genuinely novel aspects in Hesse’s thinking. Was his dismissive antagonism trapped in his desire to break from tradition? Or possibly a kind of self-protective vanity that led him to be dismissive of critics?

Indeed, Hesse’s philosophical ideas about science were remarkably modern. She is often described as a ‘moderate’ between the ‘conservative’ scholars of logical positivism and ‘radical’ philosophers such as Feyerabend or Kuhn in the historical literature. This presents a remarkable misapprehension concerning the novelty of her ideas. Instead of obsessing over the justification of scientific knowledge, she highlighted the need to think about its generation. How do scientists develop their ideas about the world and come to discover new things? Hesse considered the use of metaphors and analogies in scientific models. Metaphors were analysed as a conceptual tool, and one might say a cognitive scaffold, to redescribe the nature of a scientific object by comparing the properties of a metaphor with its target phenomenon.

Consider the analogy between billiard balls and gas molecules. The positive part of the analogy is the properties we know from billiard balls with which we can also describe gas molecules. Of course, there also is a negative analogy since some properties of billiard balls certainly do not apply to gas molecules. Meanwhile, Hesse was explicitly concerned with the importance of neutral analogy: those properties of billiard balls that may or may not apply to gas molecules. Metaphors in their neutral analogies, she recognised, act as a cognitive tool for learning about the yet unknown dimensions of scientific phenomena. Hesse did not refer to metaphors as cognitive tools herself. This is admittedly modern terminology. Yet Hesse notably engaged with the cognitive conditions involved in creating scientific knowledge. At the same time, she was classically philosophical in style. Models and Analogies is partly written as a Platonic dialogue between two scientists of different persuasion: a Campbellian (from Norman Robert Campbell, who argued for the crucial role of models in scientific thinking) and a Duhemian (from Pierre Duhem, who favoured the logic of scientific theories as the principal characteristic of the special status of scientific knowledge).

They had accidentally discovered her works and were surprised by Hesse’s rigour, wit and modern appeal

For Hesse, metaphors were not passive representations of things but constituted conceptual tools actively shaping scientific thought: ‘It is still unfortunately necessary to argue that metaphor is more than a literary device and that it has cognitive implications whose nature is a proper subject of philosophic discussion.’ The cognitive power of metaphors, in her view, resided in their capacity to create similarity. The use of metaphors is an act of co-creating, not discovering, similarities between a metaphor and its physical target system. Such an act of metaphorical co-creation is inevitably shaped by cultural context:

These are not private to individual language-users but are largely common to a given language community and are presupposed by speakers who intend to be understood in that community.

Meanwhile, Hesse’s emphasis on the foundational cognitive role of conceptual tools in scientific reasoning was notably not anti-realist:

They may, of course, turn out not to be true, but that is an occupational hazard of any explanation or prediction. They will, however, be rational, because rationality consists just in the continuous adaptation of our language to our continually expanding world, and metaphor is one of the chief means by which this is accomplished.

These ideas have never been more timely. Contemporary philosophers of science highlight the practices involved in the generation of scientific knowledge, especially the role of models and cognitive strategies such as metaphors. Yet Hesse does not feature as prominently in these conversations as one would expect or hope. In fact, a few (predominantly women) scholars recently posted on social media how they had accidentally discovered her works and were surprised and enchanted by Hesse’s rigour, wit and especially her modern appeal. They soon confessed that they had never heard of her before.

Hesse died not long ago – in 2016. Yet she is hardly known these days. Despite having been a prominent figure for her contemporaries, her intellectual legacy has been sliding into obscurity in far less than a lifetime. If that’s not a dire warning to modern women about the enduring mechanisms of collective forgetting, I don’t know what is. So how did this happen?

I revisited my first encounter with Hesse in Feyerabend’s book, the one I’ve quoted above. It now read differently to me.

Hesse had dared to challenge the man. She asked, quite legitimately, why specific metaphysical frameworks, considered outdated today, have not been used more productively in conversation with the views advanced by modern science. It’s a good question. Hesse had challenged Feyerabend as a scholar with a tricky intellectual question. Personally, I think there’s a strong argument to be made to include knowledge from Voodoo practices into modern studies of consciousness and its material substrates. However, Feyerabend did not make such an argument. He did not engage in eye-to-eye combat. Instead, he discredited the woman’s question with rhetoric. By asserting that she assumed ignorance on the side of her readers, he was insinuating that only an ignorant person would possibly consider her question a significant challenge. At second glance, the paragraph reads like a lot of prickly posturing.

I went looking for traces of Hesse in later works. But she was notable by her absence. Consider Wesley Salmon’s Causality and Explanation (1998), a widely cited classic in the philosophy of science. It covers key thinkers in the history of the field to set the stage for Salmon’s own views. Salmon’s book further cemented the selection of thinkers as the collective memory in the field. Salmon failed to mention Hesse. She wasn’t deemed an important enough figure. Or take Bas van Fraassen’s Scientific Representation (2008), an influential book that analyses how scientists use representations such as images and various other conceptual tools – such as metaphors and analogies. Again, we find no mention of Hesse.

Likewise, Adam Toon’s Models as Make-Believe (2012) analysed how strategies known from fictional contexts apply to scientific reasoning. Even though Toon graduated at Hesse’s former department at Cambridge, and both scholars shared an explicit interest in comparing literary strategies with scientific reasoning, Hesse finds no mention here either. Now, it’s never just one instance of forgetting, and then just another. These omissions accumulate until they reach a threshold of collective amnesia that’s almost irreversible in its consequence. Imagine publishing a research paper entitled ‘Models and Analogies in Science’ in a respected journal of the field today without mentioning or even citing Hesse’s work. Seems bizarre after what you just read, right? Yet such a paper (by yet another author) was published in 2000, having passed peer review. The collective memory that should be the backbone of scholarship had failed.

Seemingly separate works by women philosophers of science are bound by an invisible thread

Hesse is no solitary figure in the story of collective forgetting either. When browsing lists and collections dedicated to highlighting notable women in philosophy, we soon find a bizarre bias emerging. Despite women excelling in the philosophy of science, one quickly gets the impression that women thinkers in the history of philosophy must have worked almost exclusively on topics in ethics and feminism. Looking at the women routinely vanishing to the margins of my field, a question began to form in my mind: when conceived of as a lineage of women thinkers, what would the philosophy of science have looked like today? A compelling observation starts to take shape.

Philosophy of science and ‘how it does things’ may have looked surprisingly different. Seemingly separate works by women philosophers of science are bound by an invisible thread: the idea that philosophers should look more closely at the generation of knowledge in science, instead of partaking in excessive exercises of argumentative justification. Take Marjorie Grene, a founder of the philosophy of biology (who was mentioned earlier as Hesse’s competitor for the lectureship at Cambridge). Grene, like Hesse, thought that philosophers should look at the generation of knowledge in tandem with the advancements of science: ‘There is no philosophia perennis’ (ie, context-free theorising about the origin of knowledge as metaphysical speculation). Grene looked at answers to traditionally philosophical questions with knowledge from biology, specifically genetics.

Patricia Churchland has followed a similar path by demonstrating that neuroscience’s new insights into the brain now invite us to revisit and even overthrow our prescientific philosophical intuitions about the mind. Such revolutionary methodology was further implemented in philosophical practice. Nancy Nersessian drew on theories in cognitive science to empirically study the conceptual strategies that real scientists employ in practice. Jutta Schickore found that these strategies and decisions were historically closely tied to the emergence of writing scientifically. What Schickore called ‘methods discourse’ provides the foundation for engaging with scientific writing as a cognitive process and, like Hesse’s metaphors, to think about it as a cognitive tool in the generation of scientific knowledge. From this perspective, Hesse becomes part of a much larger story.

This is not alternative history in the sense of alternative facts. These works exist and, when actively tied together, offer a richer outlook of what philosophy of science has been, could have been and further can be when brought together. Genealogical lineages shape the kinds of problems and ideas we recognise as representative of a field, and which we do not. But historical linearity is an artefact. The use of historical figures and lineages can never be more than shortcuts to point at one’s own understanding and field of vision. But when the shortcuts bypass all the women, they begin to look like deliberate detours.