The Gould (I) Files #1

Posted on February 22, 2019 by

What’s the ‘I’ for you may ask? 

It’s Friday. TGIF.

This is the first post of what I hope to be a series tracking my access to archived work by Stephen Jay Gould at the Stanford Special Collections & University Archives. Up to this point my experience with archived and unpublished work in any special collections is limited. Alright, actually it’s non-existent. I’m sure philosophers with an eye towards history have ventured down this path. And let me tell you after just a brief walk through the room where material is viewed (located on the second level of Cecil H. Green Library at Stanford), a glimpse of what’s available is enough to make a philosophical heart flutter. In fact, let me take you through my first few moments. Thanks to Gould, I experienced a little refresher on the wonder and darn great smell of old books that I had forgotten for far too long.

With so much available online from journal articles to google previews to Amazon purchases, I’m almost ashamed to admit that I have not stepped foot into a real-life library for a very long time. At least not since I actively sought out a quiet place to study during my office-less undergraduate life. After hearing through the grapevine that Gould’s work was available at Stanford, a quick online search revealed that while Gould spent much of his career at Harvard, Stanford Libraries committed to digitizing and cross-linking all of his work (see the news site). Intrigued with this information I walked over to the Cecil H. Green Library. Upon opening the doors, I was presented with a grand staircase framed by archways and topped with ornate-looking chandeliers. After fumbling through the locked turnstile with my ID card, I climbed the staircase, but did not head to special collections first. 

If your philosophical interests began or are strongly associated with time spent in a library, I strongly recommend returning to your roots, so to speak. As I wandered through, an encased, early translated edition of Aristotle’s work (among many other beautiful old-looking artifacts) immediately caught my attention, but then I spotted a sign indicating “the stacks” entrance was in front of me. Now perhaps this because I am Canadian or because I have only been in three different Canadian university libraries (URegina, Western, and UCalgary), but I’ve never really caught on to references of “the stacks” in movies. I always envisioned that with which I was familiar: grey or black metal shelving of regular size and rows of them plainly organized with some reading nooks here and there. While the Green Library has that sort of thing too, entering the door to the west stacks offered a completely different visual. With extremely low ceilings, a center winding staircase, and a heck of a lot of sprinklers on standby the industrial style of immense storage spanning floors was like nothing I’ve seen before. IMG_3872

As I ran my hands along the books and motion-sensor lights automatically flickered marking my path, I seriously took a second. This little experience granted to me, at least in part, depended on Gould’s decision for Stanford to house his collection. Ah, the little contingencies of life. With that reinvigorated feeling, I proceeded to pester special collections here and there for a few days until I finally figured out how to request the offsite boxes of folders through the website. At first, I thought the five-boxes-at-a-time rule wouldn’t be enough. Soon though I realized it took over a week to sort through the first batch. Only like….seven HUNDRED more to go!

Gould’s collection contains books, papers, artifacts, and correspondence, etc. in such impressive volume that an initial glance at the catalogue key is overwhelming and exciting all at the same time. And while I hear that cataloguing is not complete, the 270 page pdf catalogue key indicates a physical description of the collection. There are 790 boxes each filled with folders containing so much that I’ve often wondered whether a lifetime would serve the goal of comprehensiveness. Let’s not forget the 160 videotapes, 271 cassettes (where’s my Walkman at these days?), and more. While it was a learning curve to figure out how to search special collections and the available folders, as well as how to request these folders, I think Gould would chuckle at the role of chance involved for any researcher requesting boxes: sorting through to find what you’re looking for while stumbling on little gems can be infuriatingly amazing.

Infuriating because anyone who likes to have a certain level of comprehensive control will be completely blocked—it not only feels impossible to view and read everything (I mean maybe you could if you spent your entire life only investigating this collection), but the descriptions of “series,” i.e. groups of boxes, are relatively general (of course) with small descriptions on many, but not every single box. Notably the summaries of the different series are incredibly helpful and foster a mad respect for librarians doing this work. However, my neurotic tendencies in this process compel me to look in every single folder in front of me. While having previously identified potential folders of interest, I can’t help but look at every single thing in every single folder in one box. Every. Single. Piece. Of. Paper. And keep in mind there can be up to 20 folders in one box!  And typewriter-super-thin-paper from the old days. Remember I said infuriatingly amazing though: it’s amazing because when a gem is stumbled upon after all that, it’s hard to contain yourself in such a quiet room. Let’s take a minute on that environment.

Not only is the room a must-be quiet zone, food and water is strictly prohibited, and any backpacks, books, or items other than a laptop, phone, and charging cables are to be stored in keyed lockers outside the main door. Automatic blinds cover the very large arched windows when the sun starts to shine in. The ceiling must be something like 40 feet up. Let me tell you that after eight hours in that environment intensely sorting through folders of papers, manuscripts, and artifacts, I sometimes walk out in a daze. It’s kind of like a casino—there are no clocks, the sun is kept out to some degree, time passes fast, and I often feel like I’m gambling. Bets are made on folders that turn out with no luck, however, the contents of some are enough to keep you going: just like gunning for the big one after a series of small wins on a slot machine.

I’ll close this post with a few identified themes of interest. These are how I’ve been organizing my findings. While I cannot say much about the specific folder contents for now—copyright permissions and all that jazz—what I can say, in my own opinion developed so far, is that Gould wrote what he wanted to write. And he fought to have his voice heard in an unaltered way that was true to his original intentions across a variety of topics. Alas, a lesson we could all take to heart. 

And so, what follows is my strategy of attack as it were. While I’m sure these themes will shift and change over time, they are, at the very least, a starting point.

On Individuality
This is of course a topic of interest for me. In the StructureGould does write about individuality, but it is within the levels of selection context. 

On Science and the Public
Science suspicion and public engagement with science were topics with which Gould addressed both in writing and through his willingness to, for example, answer tons of fan mail. More on this to come in later posts.

On Politics
Gould was very active concerning topics near and dear to him that not only included, for example, the relationship of science and evidence-based public policy, as well as speaking against creation-science in the classroom, but he also wrote in a way that was inspired by counteracting social injustices. The pdf catalogue key indicates he often wrote letters to prominent political figures. There are photos there too. More on this to come.

On Contingency, Chance, Stochasticity, and Probability
This is a big one. There is so much controversy much already common knowledge of course with e.g. Conway Morris and Dennett, but sorting through what Gould thought about randomness and its relationship to these other concepts is one driving forefront of my search. I still have Chance, Stochasticity, and Probability as a separate theme to attack from Contingency. I hope to later develop why I’ve done that. Generally, so far, I think it’s safe to say that Gould was critical of tendencies toward reductionism, hierarchies, and dichotomized thinking, which resonates through his work beyond evolutionary stuff.

On Gould as Something Like an Anti-Realist
I’ve found a lot of evidence that seems to suggest Gould was something like an anti-realist concerning boundaries in nature, objective realities, and the limited tendencies of human thought. I’m looking forward to sharing my findings on this one and how he thought of himself in relation to philosophy/philosophers.

On Diversity
To idealize and abstract away from variation and diverse details is something I think Gould, while seeing the usefulness of it sometimes, often criticized. He instead advocated for embracing diversity in nature, science, and disciplinary-driven approaches, in politically-charged contexts, and even in his experience with cancer as a disease.

On Uniting the Humanities and Sciences
Gould’s writing style and attention to history and literature reads like butter. No wonder Wonderful Life was so popular as a publicly-geared piece of scientific writing. Gould’s love of fiction, of historical characters, and collaborations with artists and photographers speaks to his love for crossing disciplinary boundaries. 

So, here’s to the long haul then. Time to go fill up that cup of coffee and get to work.


Posted in: Philosophy