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The Naturalized Female Intellect

  • Lorraine Daston (a1)

Naturalization confers authority on beliefs, conventions, and claims, but what kind of authority? Because the meaning of nature has a history, so does that of naturalization:naturalization is not the same tactic when marshaled in, say, eighteenth-century France and in late nineteenth-century Britain. Although the authority of nature may be invoked in both cases, the import of that authority depends crucially on whether nature is understood normatively or descriptively, within the framework of the natural laws of jurisprudence or within that of the natural laws of mechanics. During the early modern period, the denotative center of gravity of the word “nature” shifted dramatically. Writings about the female intellect are particularly well suited to reflect and focus these changes for three reasons: first, as with so many aspects of gender identity, what was distinctively female about women's way of thinking was usually alleged to be part and parcel of their “nature”; second, thepolitical and social implications of the female intellect were debated heatedly and in unprecedented detail, particularly in France; and third, the actual content of beliefs about what traits sex the intellect as female remained relatively constant during this period, despite sharp differences of opinion over their putative “natural” causes. The female intellect was naturalized not once but repeatedly, and therein lies its value for a history of naturalization.

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