Elisha Cohn responds to Kate Flint

The question of pedagogy seems deeply important, especially considering that many of the scientists whose work The Outward Mind considers were not members of the university elite, but middle or working class people who sometimes addressed their work to popular audiences with explicitly pedagogical aims. John Tyndall, for instance, appealed to ideas of the beautiful to make scientific ideas appealing in texts like “Scientific Fragments for Unscientific People.” And to speak more directly to your question about gendered beliefs about the nervous system in the context of pedagogy, I thought immediately of John Ruskin’s 1865 lectures on physics at a girl’s school, “The Ethics of the Dust.” Physics instruction was supposed to teach young girls to derive ethical lessons about social responsibility from the process of crystallization. Just as crystals were formed by the cooperation of atoms, each with its own “quiet and ceaseless energy,” societies should be ideally composed through the collaboration of vital individuals. This message of subtle but never-ending, selfless exertion resonates (in a very different key) with some of Ruskin’s other, more infamous pronouncements on the gendering of thought and action. So, how was materialism socially distributed? After all, The Picture of Dorian Gray—the capstone of The Outward Mind—turns on the fatal effects not only of Lord Henry’s materialist teachings on Dorian, but Dorian’s poisoning of Sybil Vane’s intuitionist, unconscious art. Even in a novel that so fully refracts contemporary thinking about the scientific basis of mind, the social consequences of living the theory remain profoundly vexed.

%d bloggers like this: