Vulva stones?

The essay entitled, “How the Vulva Stone Became a Brachiopod” in Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Lying Stones of Marrakech [1] intrigued me. No, not for prurient reasons. My interest was stimulated by the references to the British philosopher, Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626). As a philosopher who lived at end of the Renaissance, Bacon detailed a new system of logic in his work Novum Organum Scientiacum (New Instrument of Science). [2] I am not interested in his system, per se in this post. Rather I am interested in Gould’s description of Bacon’s ideas about the barriers to knowledge.

The fact that Bacon did not describe physical (sensory) limitations such as poor resolution of scientific instruments of his day, but instead addressed psychological limitations, surprised me quite a bit. Bacon recognized that in addition to the limitations of the human sensory equipment (eyes, ears, touch, etc.), the manner of processing by the brain must be taken into account. From Gould, “[Bacon] … understood that the realm of conceptual hang-ups extended far beyond the abstract logic of Aristotelian reason into our interior world of fears, hopes, needs, feelings, and the structural limits of mental machinery.” [3]

Bacon’s barriers

Bacon had four categories of barriers, which he called idols:

  • Idols of the cave – idiosyncrasies of an individual.
    • Surely everyone has a phobia or other barrier that prevents absorption of a concept.
  • Idols of the marketplace – limitations of language itself.
  • Idols of the theater – barriers from older systems of thought.
    • Most of us have heard the phrase, “Think outside of the box.” Freedom from established thought patterns can improve the chances of solving a problem.
  • Idols of the tribe – barriers imposed by our ‘human nature’; the tribe, Gould explains, is “our tribe of Homo sapiens.

Limitations of language

My prevailing thought reading about these barriers, was how much progress can be made and has been made by those who extend mankind’s language. I’m not just talking about adding words to society’s vocabulary. I am talking about changing language in such a way that a concept that could not be expressed previously, could make its way into a new configuration of the language, and therefore be a subject for discussion. On the leading edge of this effort are the artists. One can see how much the mid-20th century avante-guard artist and so-called ‘degenerate art’ [4] added to the way the rest of us think. It stimulated thinking. Probably one of the reasons the Nazis banned ‘degenerate art’ was to discourage free and independent thinking. It is much harder to manage a group of independent thinkers that it would be if everyone thought the same thing. Diversity is good for society. For example, if one lemming would speak up, the rest might reconsider bungee-less cliff jumping.


I include many of those at the higher end of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), including Aspies, with artists as other-thinkers. While I cannot imagine the extreme effort needed by those with ASD to be able to cope with mainstream society at-large, society ultimately gains by accepting those with alternate views of and approaches to reality, or at least acknowledging that there is a possibility of an alternate view.  Acceptance can lead to an expanded depth of language for the marketplace and can ultimately lower this barrier to knowledge; put more positively, acceptance may lead us to a greater wealth of knowledge.

[1] Gould, Stephen J. The Lying Stones o f Marrakech. New York: Harmony Books, 2000. Print.

[3] Gould, Stephen J. The Lying Stones o f Marrakech. New York: Harmony Books, 2000. Print. Pg54

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