A Middlesex University (UK) resource by Stephanie Delgado
of State University of New York at New Paltz (USA)

Science: the case for imagination: Mary Wollstonecraft and Julienne Ford

by Stephanie Delgado

Since the dawn of man, human nature has been marked with a need to ask questions, to enquire about the surrounding world, try to make sense of our existence, and offer some theories about the nature of our lives. Even before this curiosity was given a language or a name, it had already begun to separate the race of men from animals. It is this inquisitive nature that has led to the dawning of the notions of reason and logic--the very values that distinguish us from what we deem lesser life forms. Our solution to the problems and queries posed by our innate curiosity has been to create the world of science. At its most basic form, science is an examination of the world, with hopes for possible theories, if not actual answers, to some of the mysteries of life. Science attempts to satisfy our curiosity, and the reason and logic we have created to attempt to solve some of our queries have been an essential part of the scientific method. As this inquisitiveness has been applied to the world surrounding us, it had also been applied to the idea of science itself. Our curiosity has led us to not only examine the world, but to further examine how and why we examine the world. Through these examinations, many solutions and theories have been set forth that offer some views about the actual nature of science, including the views expressed by John Locke, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Julienne Ford. Although all of these views offer differing accounts, it is necessary to take them all into consideration when forming one's own view of science. Having taken some of these ideas into consideration, it is my belief that science is a personal quest for meaning, much like religion, that offers a different, subjective conclusion for each individual that undertakes this journey.

Before examining some sociologists' views about the nature of science, it is necessary to understand some basic technical aspects of science itself. In using science to gain information, most commonly the scientific method comes into play. The scientific method objectively attempts to test out educated guesses, or hypotheses, through objective procedures aimed at achieving reproducible results. The steps to the scientific method generally begin with curious observation and continue to the formation of a problem, the gathering and evaluation of evidence, and then a formation of a hypothesis, a suggested solution to the problem or prediction of behaviour. The method then proceeds to challenge this hypothesis and eventually reach a conclusion. Based on the data collected, one may interpret the results, make the appropriate calculations, and determine if the hypothesis was correct or not. Following this conclusion, a theory may be formed as to what can be expected in further experimentation (Edmund, N.W. 2000/2006). This is much like trial and error, as a hypothesis cannot be either validated or invalidated without the performance of certain procedures. And although the procedures themselves usually appear to be straightforward and objective throughout, The conclusions and theories formed usually rely on the subjective vision and responses of the person conducting the experiments.

However objective one may attempt to be through execution of the scientific method, at its core, it is subjective in nature. Firstly, it begins with observation, an act which itself relies on the eyes of the observer. Any conclusions or theories drawn from these observations will be subjective responses as they are coloured in the light of the observer's eyes. The data must always be filtered through the person collecting it, and in most cases,

"people use 'semi-intuitive' logic resulting from their base of experiences, thinking skills, and knowledge" (Edmund, N.W. 2000/2006))
This statement is a testament to the fact that even while employing the scientific method a person may not completely detach himself or herself from his/her own associations, intuitions or experiences. In addition, throughout the employment of the scientific method, there are often non-logical methods used, either purposefully or inadvertently. These non-logical methods include

"chance, accidental discovery, fortunate occurrences, unanticipated novelty, effective surprise, and serendipity'[and] result from habits, emotions, trial and error, arbitrariness, haste, frustration, closed mindedness, experimentation, unreasoned opinions, risk taking, intuitive pure guess, etc." (Edmund, N.W. 2000/2006))

In these ways, through observation itself, and also through personal attachment and other non-logical procedures, the very nature of science remains subjective, despite all attempts to make it strictly objective. It is this subjectivity that I believe comes to satisfy the curiosity we feel along with our personal need for answers.

On the contrary, John Locke suggests that we acquire knowledge through observation, much like the scientific method. However, he proposes that we must completely remove ourselves from these observations and remain detached from all passions. According to Locke,

"we must reason carefully about sense data so as to build up sure knowledge that is not distorted by fantasy or passion" (Roberts, A. 1997, p 53)

Locke warns against forming personal associations with objective sensory data. He suggests that

"truth is when the way that you have joined together simple ideas in your head, matches the way that the things they represent are joined together outside your head. Falsehood lies is asserting that things relate in the outside world in a way they do not" (Roberts, A. 1997, p 54)

Furthermore, he asserts that most errors in the world are caused by

"the constant din of education, custom or party drives false associations into our minds and blinds us to plain reason" (Locke J. 1690, quoted Roberts, A. 1997, p 55).
Locke's position is in direct contradiction to what I have previously stated. Locke wants us to refrain from making associations in our minds, but it is the act of making associations that makes us seek knowledge in the first place. For few people would seek knowledge were in not for their innate curiosity, and to satisfy that curiosity is a personal task. Once we gain knowledge, we cannot help but associate it with what we know in order to put it into a context which we can understand and make sense of, and also find personal relevance. Without these associations, knowledge would be almost useless for we would not know what to do with it. In my opinion, the main flaw in Locke's reasoning is the assumption that one can remove one's self completely from his/her observations, that this level of total detachment is possible. I believe that our observations are always subjective, whether we realize it or not. No matter how much one attempts to detach one's self from an observation, it is always based on that person's own personal response, and is therefore subjective by nature.

In contrast to Locke, Mary Wollstonecraft suggests that science stems from imagination, and that it is not necessary for us to separate ourselves from our passions and fantasies. She suggests that

"although reason should control out passion, we should let passion unfold our reason. The two must work together, passion or fantasy as the driving force, reason as the controller" (Roberts, A. 1997, p 53)
" Wollstonecraft says that we were given passions in order that 'by struggling with them' we can gain a kind of knowledge that other animals do not have. 'Experience' whispers to us that this is the case. This is something we learn, not something we just have. It is the wisdom of creation, she says later, 'that the passions should unfold our reason" (Roberts, A. 1997, p 60).
This idea supports the notion I have made about allowing one's personal subjectivity to aid them in the quest for knowledge. Wollstonecraft goes on to discuss the importance of making mistakes as a learning mechanism in the process of gaining knowledge. The idea of embracing our mistakes in the learning process is crucial to the trial and error nature of the scientific method. For it is only after we make several attempts and failures that we can gain knowledge, and this knowledge gained will always be subjective since it is based on out personal experiences.

Finally, Julienne Ford suggests that we acquire scientific knowledge by creating fairy tales in our minds and later testing their accuracy. She arrives at this notion by first challenging the blind acceptance of scientific theory. As she states,

"when 'scientific conclusions' are made available to us in a language we can follow, we accept them, for they have the authority of reason about them. In our common-sense culture, as in science itself, there is a respect for the disinterested pursuit of truth, that is for the pursuit of knowledge through reason". (Ford, J. 1975, p 32).
According to this statement, we usually tend to accept the conclusions drawn from scientists because they command a certain level of respect as they are reached through reason. However, Ford later goes on to say that
" science must transcend common sense, yet common sense is the ultimate check on science" (Ford, J. 1975, p 32).
This suggests that we are all governed by our own common sense, which is what we must use to determine the validity of such so-called 'reasonable' conclusions. Although this common sense may be 'common' to all people, it is by no means the same for everyone. It is largely dependent on individual thought, and therefore, it once again falls into the realm of subjectivity, as every person's sensory experiences are different, and these experiences yield different types of common sense.

Ford goes on to suggest an alternative to merely accepting the conclusions drawn by others, one which offers a much more subjective approach to gaining knowledge. She proposes that

"it is through imagination and only through imagination that we mortals may transcend the worlds of taken-for-granted-thoughts-already-thought" (Ford, J. 1975, p 74).
The imagination of which she speaks consists of the concoction of fairy tales.
"She tells us that fairies are ideas, and a fairy tale is a 'connection of ideas in the form of an explanatory story, or theory'" (Roberts, A. 1997, p 105).
Of the three accounts I have mentioned, Ford's proposed theory is the closest to my own personal opinion about the nature of science. It adheres to the conventions of the scientific method, but it is also much more subjective and allows for more of a personal account.

The concoction of fairy tales that Ford suggests is quite similar in nature to the forming of hypotheses and subsequent theories. You create a fairy tale, a hypothesis, basically a guess as to what the possible outcome might be, then test it out through the scientific method to see if your guess was correct. Although the methods of testing may remain objective, the hypotheses formed, or fairy tales as Ford would call them, are all subjective in nature. Unlike Locke, Ford does not try to deny the necessary attachment one must have to one's ideas, for as I have stated, it is impossible to separate one's self from one's observations as Locke has suggested. Ford admits that

"we do not use out eyes and ears, our fingers, noses, tongues and brains (and central nervous systems) to make straightforward copies of an independently existing outside world. On the contrary, it is only because we use our eyes and ears, our fingers, noses, tongues, and brains (and hearts) in certain habitual ways, that the outside world seems to be as it is" (Ford, J. 1975, p 19-20)
From this subjective observation of the world, a fairy (or idea, or hypothesis) is born, and subsequently, a fairy tale (or conclusion or theory) is composed.

Having taken the ideas set forth by each of these thinkers into much consideration, I firmly stand by my view that science remains a personal quest for knowledge. While I admit that a large part of the processes of gaining knowledge can include objective activities, the interpretation of the data collected is always dependent upon the personal experience of the collector of this data. This subjectivity is what makes the quest for knowledge so appealing, for people will more willingly seek answers if they can believe that every answer they gain is their own, and that their truths can be relevant to them and be integrated into their lives and personal experiences in any way they see fit.


Edmund, N.W. 2005, The Scientific Method Today, available at http://www.scientificmethod.com/ (accessed 1 December, 2005).

Ford, J. 1975, Paradigms and Fairy Tales: An Introduction to the Science of Meanings, Volume 1, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Locke, J. 1690, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Roberts, A. 1997, Social Science History Six Essays for Budding Theorists, All Saints Bookshop, Middlesex University. Available on the web at http://studymore.org.uk/sshhome.htm

Essay copyright Stephanie Delgado 2006

Study links outside this site
Picture introduction to this site
Andrew Roberts' web Study Guide
Top of Page Take a Break - Read a Poem
Click coloured words to go where you want

Andrew Roberts likes to hear from users:
To contact him, please use the Communication Form

home page for social
science home page to Andrew Roberts'
web site the ABC Study Guide home page