Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Gay Abe - A Paradigm Shift

C.A. Tripp's recently published book, in which he asserts that Abraham Lincoln was gay, has stirred up much discussion. The Weekly Standard can't possibly believe it, and hired a frustrated rival to write up a hatchet job. Andrew Sullivan responds (and blogs repeatedly). There's quite an interesting issue there about how much evidence is required to "prove" that a historical figure was homosexual. Some of us will read Tripp's work and see a slam-dunk. Others would continue to dismiss it even if shown the stained sheets and the DNA results linking Lincoln and one of his "longtime companions". How can that be?

The answer, I think, lies in Thomas Kuhn, the famous philosopher of science who wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he articulated a theory of science as being embedded in tradition. The scientific community operates within a received and established paradigm for understanding the world. When anomalies arise that the paradigm has trouble explaining, the community generally resists giving up the paradigm, until a sufficient crisis gives rise to a new paradigm that eventually supplants the old. The community undergoes a paradigm shift over time as some people are converted to the new paradigm, while stubborn holdouts eventually die off. His classic example is that of the Ptolemaic theory of the universe revolving around the earth, which was only slowly supplanted by the Copernican heliocentric model. The Ptolemists went through increasing gyrations to keep their model consistent with planetary observations. Note that Copernicus' theory, while clearly simpler, was not clearly better at explaining the phenomena (at least until Kepler later improved it). The choice of which theory is "better" cannot be proven in any objective context. There is a largely unacknowledged amount of aesthetics involved. The competing paradigms are ultimately "incommensurable". As Kuhn says, "The competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proof."

And so it is with Lincoln being gay (or Michelangelo or Shakespeare or whoever). I was struck reading Andrew Sullivan's defense about the arguments he made, often ending with "sound familiar?" or "ring a bell?". Yes. To me. And to Andrew, and to others who share (or at least truly understand) the coming out experience. But not necessarily to others who don't share that life experience or sensibility.

Kuhn uses the word "conversion" to talk about scientists accepting a new paradigm, suggesting the analogy with religious conversion. "Paradigm shift" and "conversion" are both words I find very appropriate to describe the process of "coming out". There was an "Aha!" moment when the lightbulb went on, and I looked back and suddenly understood earlier life experiences in a whole new way. It was a revelation. Why hadn't somebody told me I was gay sooner? It seemed so obvious in retrospect. Conversion is exactly the right word for such an experience. While I can remember how I used to think, post-conversion it is simply no longer possible to think that way. The new way of seeing the world is clearly right, and everything is reinterpreted in the new light.

The coming out "paradigm shift" is the lens which provides a window into fellow homosexuals (our "gaydar"). I was keenly aware of this when studying Michelangelo in college, and coming to my own realization that he was gay. It was obvious to me. And yet it was dismissed by my professor - oh no, that was merely the Neo-Platonism of the time. Sheesh. Read the sonnets! His love for Vittoria Colonna was Platonic, his love for Tommaso Cavalieri was more. He loved her virtue and his physical beauty. It may be that Michelangelo's feelings for the handsome Roman knight were never physically acted on, but that doesn't deny the truth of what those feelings were. And I can recognize them clearly, because of my own experiences before coming out -- loving women in a certain way but without that physical element, craving the company of men without fully understanding why. As I learned of Michelangelo's life, there was that lightbulb-flash of recognition.

Can it be proved? No. The best we can do is to try to persuade others that this theory is a "better" explanation. As a cultural paradigm shift takes hold, in which more people are aware and sensitive to the gay experience (after all, even savvy straight people can acquire a "queer eye"), more people will recognize the better explanation for the facts. And they'll wonder how they could have ever thought differently.


Andrewdb said...

Kuhn was probably the most important book I read in college (and it was on the "recommended" list for a math class - not even a required reading.)

The biggest idea he has is that the new paradigm replaces the old when the old beleivers die off. That is so very true in so many areas of life!

Second, the concept of "conversion" has been commented upon by others. A blogging rabbi whose name I forget talks about coming out as a similar event to a religious "born again" conversion - new freinds, new beleifs, etc.

am-maryland said...

I am always suprised by the singular devotion of social scientists for Thomas Kuhn. I think that your discussion of Abe Lincoln's homosexuality shows implicitly that Kuhn's work is really more applicable to social science model-making than than natural science theorizing. In the social sciences, there is no fixed reference point that is empirically testable for any set of concepts, whereas natural scientists are always constrained by an external measure-- independent reality. (Footnote: The old dictum-- Truman (or FDR?) wished for a one-handed economist, so that the economist couldn't say "on the other hand"...Simillarly, while religious figures can wish away contradictory data by attributing the data to the Devil (or to blaspheming humans), scientists ultimately have to work with the data they get.)

Tom Chatt said...

Responding to am_maryland's comment above, I think you are selling Kuhn short. I think the difference between the social sciences and the natural sciences is not one of kind, but merely one of degree. It can be easier to see the tradition-embedded nature of the "softer" sciences, but it's just as true of the "hard" ones. That's why Ptolemy vs Copernicus is the classic example. In the face of "hard" observations, people could (and did) still cling to the Ptolemaic theory. For some people, no amount of evidence could have convinced them otherwise. It really comes down to choosing which theory is more "simple" or "elegant" or "better", and those are ultimately tradition-embedded decisions. Objectivity is a delusion.

tasmith said...

am-maryland is right on point.

Two points:

The specific point first. I don't think you understand physics very well. If you did, you would understand that any person who in fact tries to operationalize your view and apply the Ptolemical or Platonic Models to actually chart a course for a planetary spacecraft would undoubtedly fail, whereas using the Standard Model, success could be assured. Also, despite your claims to the contrary, a model which assumes that the universe rotates around the Earth is just plain wrong when compared to the Standard Model. For your information, the earth also is not flat, notwithstanding the protestations of the Flat Earth Society or the fact that a Flat Earth Model could probably get you from New York City to Washington D.C.

With respect to your general point that objectivity is a "delusion" (sic), I can only say that if you truly consider this to be true, then there is no logical or discursive way to prove to you otherwise. Much like the fundamentalist Christian who refuses to be swayed by logic, reason, or evidence that the universe is more than 10,000 years old and much like theologians of all stripes (and some humanists) who equate reasoning by metaphor, analogy, and words with scientific reasoning, there is no rational way to adjudicate disputes with those who maintain non-empirical and primitive belief systems, even if those views are disguised as a sophisticated postmodernism and receive (purported) meta-theoretical backing.

Regards, A reader.

Edward L. said...

I have no opinion on the Lincoln business per se, but I think skepticism is warranted regarding a lot of these historical "outings." It sometimes seems like every famous person in history, from Jesus to Hitler to Yasser Arafat to Tom Cruise, has been claimed to be gay at least once.

There's also the important matter of cultural context. Society in the 19 century was very sex-segregated, & people tended to form v. close friendships with members of their own sex as a result; this may look "gay" from our POV but wasn't necessarily viewed that way at the time. Plus there are changes in language and other forms of expression to consider. If a man in 1840's America writes in his diary "My intercourse with Mr. Jones was most delightful," he's probably not talking about sex.

I haven't read either, but it would be interesting to do a comparison of Tripp's "gay Lincoln" book with Machtan's recent "gay Hitler" book & see how they hold up as scholarship.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering-What if Monica had been Joshua:-) ??

Nancy-Glacier said...

This is all very heavy for 4th of July reading. Reading the comments takes me back to those wonderful discussions we used to have in the dorm my first year of college (some 52 years ago). Could anyone have been as smart as we felt in those wee hours trying to figure out the meaning of the universe? I’m not taking away anything from the obvious intelligence of those who commented; but, the bottom line is----does it really matter if Abe was gay or straight? Either way he accomplished wonderful things. I suppose the only reason it might be relevant is because of the narrow-mindedness of a hopefully -diminishing portion of our population.
Congratulations, Tom, you’ve made people think?