Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Book Review: The Flight From Woman by Karl Stern

The Flight From Woman by Karl Stern

Two forms of knowing are commonly contrasted. On one hand is scientific, rational, discursive knowledge, the sort represented by the classical syllogism "All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal." On the other hand is intuitive or poetic knowledge, the sort represented by the "lightbulb" moment when an idea becomes crystal clear instantly. Scientific knowledge breaks down a thing into its parts and sees how it is put together from an objective viewpoint. Intuition takes in the thing as it is and immediately grasps one or more characteristics of the thing. The first knowing is typically considered masculine and the second feminine. Which is not to say that discursive reasoning is only done by men and intuition is only done by women. But that is how they are stereotypically identified. In the modern era, credit for "real" knowledge is given almost exclusively to discursive reasoning (especially for its basis in mathematics, a field with unquestioned objectivity). Intuition is considered unreliable and suspect.

Karl Stern argues in this book that the divide between the two is a fairly recent development in human history, starting from Descartes's distinction between the material (res extensa or extended things) and the spiritual (res cogitans or thinking things). Cartesians see the divide as unbridgeable and that the res extensa is the mathematically verifiable, sure knowledge. Stern gives a thorough examination of Descartes' writings and his life to show both that Descartes would probably disagree with his followers and that he gives poetic knowledge the same certainty even if it is subject to different criteria of estimation. Stern gives an extensive psychological analysis of Descartes that is informative and persuasive.

Stern examines the lives and the writings of many other famous figures after Descartes (Goethe, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Ibsen, and Sartre) to develop his theme further, namely that the divide between the two forms of knowing leads to problems. Those figures all have challenging interactions with women in their lives (sometimes mothers, sometimes wives and lovers, sometimes others) that have an impact on their work. By the time of Sartre, intuitive knowledge of things is a thing that leaves him with nausea.

Stern ultimately concludes that the conflict and the evaluation is false. Rather than being opposite or irreconcilable ways of knowing, Stern sees reason and intuition as complementary. They can come to the same truth in different ways and can fill in the weaknesses of each other. Intuition can grasp things that are beyond the scope of scientific reason, beyond the merely quantifiable. And they have equal validity (even if they do not share the same process of validation). Stern agrees that the rational/mathematical inclination is stronger in men and the intuitive inclination is stronger in women. But both sexes are capable of both ways of knowing and merely focusing on one way of knowing is limiting, if not harmful to the knower. Integrating the two is a way to greater personal harmony and happiness.

Stern writes from a psychoanalytical and phenomenological perspective. Thus his writing is sometimes technical. Keep a dictionary nearby. Also, he is well read in western literature and thought which also required occasional research on my part (I know about Faust and Don Juan but Ahasver and Hedda Gabler are new to me). The effort is well worth the rewarding insights found in this book.

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