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Against Originality

The following is a series of excerpts from Dr. Julia Rose Lewis’s dissertation on the philosophy of science of Dr. Paul Grobstein.  Julia Rose Lewis met Paul Grobstein in 2008 when she took his Philosophy of Science course at Bryn Mawr College.  She was one of the K-12 Teachers Summer Science Institute assistants the following summer.  Grobstein taught and Lewis took: Mental Health and the Brain, Stories of Evolution Evolution of Stories, Neurobiology and Behavior, and the Senior Seminar: Biology in Society.  He supervised her thesis, Parsing Cancer Metaphors, for her degree in Biology and Chemistry.  Since then, she has authored four poetry collections: High Erratic Ecology, The Hen Wife, Phenomenology of the Feral, and Strays with James Miller.  Her dissertation was titled: Against Originality: what is lost without discourse between poetry and philosophy of science?  She took her PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from Cardiff University, Cardiff Wales, UK.  She is director of Communications at Serendip.

Dear reader, you are cordially invited to attend to the extraordinary life and death of the white rabbit with reference to Alice in Wonderland, Alba (the green fluorescent rabbit), and philosopher of science Paul Grobstein.  The white rabbit is a cute furry mammalian vehicle for a complex metaphorical discussion of abstract philosophical theories.  I will follow the white rabbits down into C.P. Snow’s gulf between the humanities and the natural sciences.  I have coined two phrases: Alice in Wonderland Philosophy and Through the Looking Glass Poetics to describe the path of the crossing the divide between the humanities and natural sciences.  Alice in Wonderland Philosophy is approaching the arts and humanities from training and qualifications in the natural sciences, and symmetrically Through the Looking Glass Poetics is approaching the natural sciences from training and qualifications in the arts and humanities.  My reading of the philosophy of science of Paul Grobstein demonstrates Alice in Wonderland Philosophy.  I intend to present the reader with a grounding in the development of my exploration of the gulf between the humanities and natural sciences through transdisciplinary research and establish a framework for interpreting transdisciplinary texts in the following sections.  


At the heart of this section is the argument that what is significant about my dissertation is not its originality, but the progressive alterations it makes to existing transdisciplinary writing.  Here I am telling a story about the development of my thinking regarding biology, chemistry, philosophy, writing, and transdisciplinarity in order to argue that my creative and critical work originate in Alice in Wonderland Philosophy and the philosophy-biology of Paul Grobstein.  Richard Rorty argues that: we can learn about the processes that mediated between those ancestors and ourselves only by constructing a narrative, telling a story about how their social practices gradually mutated into ours.  To reiterate this point about intellectual development in his words instead of Rorty’s and illustrate the convergence of their views, Grobstein writes: the basic idea here is that because of how the brain is organized all the things we experience (including perceptions, understandings, and aspirations) are inevitably "stories", i.e. one of a variety of ways to make sense of the world and ourselves that are grounded in unexamined (and hence challengeable) presumptions of which we are unaware.  Rorty and Grobstein argue that lived experience summarized and analyzed in stories is what grounds the ways in which humans interpret the world, where experience is part of the origins of our intellectual work.  For Rorty, Grobstein, (and for me), originality is not an absolute; rather it is relational and dependent upon published work: writing is only original with respect to the writing that has come before it.  What is original about my work is the novel connections I make between science, philosophy of science, and poetry.  


Grobstein taught that in order to engage people with diverse skill sets in science, the ways in which one wrote about scientific problems must be attuned to the audience, with careful deployment of terminology and the use of appealing metaphors to explicate abstract theory.  Transdisciplinary discussions can be unsettling because they call into question methodologies and theories that are often taken for granted as a part of a biologist’s training.  The scientist is asked to doubt themselves, their methodology and their teachers, so that their world becomes as foreign as Wonderland.  He and Dalke reflected that: through writing (among other activities), we can learn to work with—perhaps even eventually to alter—formulations of knowledge that are both explicit and implicit to interrogate explanatory frameworks we usually rely on without awareness that we are doing so.  The type of writing they are referring to could be literary, scientific or transdisciplinary; they are describing writing as a way of learning.  This characterization of writing as a part of doing science foregrounds the inclusion of practitioners with diverse skill sets, and it backgrounds technical training as that which can be acquired if and when required by research.  He was equally interested in the results of scientific research as well as how they were communicated, understood, and absorbed into general knowledge.  Grobstein argues that: science ought not to be defined by laboratories or white coats, nor by knowing certain things (or having a skill at memorizing), nor by compulsive information gathering, the use of mathematical tools, or logical rigor. It is instead nothing more (or less) than the dynamic combination of curiosity and skepticism that fuels virtually all productive inquiry, and is inherent in all humans from the time they are born.  This characterization of science foregrounds the inclusion of practitioners with diverse skill sets and backgrounds technical training as that which can be acquired if and when required by research.  Grobstein advocates for great breadth, not only in the people practicing science, but also regarding the questions that science concerns itself with, answering questions about the lived experience of the investigators.  This philosophy of science aims to utilize diversity and subjectivity in the investigator as a positive feature of its methodology.  This is the tradition in which my own creative and critical work originates; this is my history as well as my future.  


Grobstein’s story of science as a story explicitly seeks to transcend the culture and nature binary in favor of scientific practice that can engage humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences at all levels.  This is a transdisciplinary methodology that acknowledges the subjectivity present in all human inquiry.  His modification of traditional scientific method alters the terminology of each step as well as adding a fourth step: ‘hypothesis’ is replaced with summary of observations; ‘experiment’ with new observations, and ‘conclusion’ with implications.  The implications are either that the summary still works or that the summary needs replacement, and in the latter event, the additional step comes into play.  Indeed, Toni Weller illustrates the appeal of this alternative scientific method in her essay, ‘A Continuation of Paul Grobstein's Theory of Science as Story Telling and Story Revising: A Discussion of its Relevance to History,’ where she discusses the implications of the crack.  The crack is defined as the researcher’s cultural background, personal temperament, and individual creativity, all of which influence their creation of a new replacement summary of observations for the phenomena under examination.  Weller writes: the concept of the crack, of subjectivity, of context affecting interpretation, whether in historical or scientific method, all support the idea that there is more than one story of human culture, none of which is constrained by disciplinary boundaries or scholarly communities, which seems to be the very point Grobstein is trying to make.  This crack is Grobstein’s way of incorporating culture into the natural sciences at the methodological level; culture in this story of science is always part of the practice of science.  That diversity enriches culture in general and the culture of science in particular is Grobstein’s argument.  He writes: the greater the diversity embraced the more meaningful and less wrong the stories become, and the more effectively science can contribute to human culture, both by its products and as a cultural nexus.  This crack creates a positive role for the lived experience of the scientist in the process of research. 


Grobstein’s crack opens up a space for humanities-based scholars and social scientists to interface with scientists; where scientists can utilize analysis from these disciplines in the creation of new summaries of observation.  The crack locates the theories of artists, neurobiologists, neurologists, philosophers of mind, writers, psychologists, and psychiatrists inside the scientific method, specifically with respect to discussions of personal temperament and individual creativity.  Grobstein utilized the crack as a transdisciplinary opening for exploring the applications of his neurobiology research into the nature of spatial representations, and the origins, organization, regulation, and significance of unpredictability in neuronal function and behavior.  He particularly delighted in introducing students to the Harvard Law of Animal Behavior: under carefully controlled experimental circumstances, an animal will behave as it damned well pleases.  The Harvard Law of Animal Behavior addresses behavioral variability in animals utilized for scientific experiments and functions as a concrete starting point for considering experimental design, interpretation of results, limitations of animal-based experiments, and the implications of variability beyond the laboratory.  Grobstein found that the conclusions he reached from his traditional laboratory research functioned as new observations with implications for the currently accepted summaries of observations with respect to mental health, education, and pragmatism.


Adopting Paul Grobstein’s philosophy of science has allowed me to participate more fully in both poetry and science, and consequently I intend to follow his story of science as a story down the rabbit hole that is otherwise known as my doctoral dissertation.  What I have gained from Grobstein’s philosophy of science is the capacity to reflect on my lived experiences utilizing a fuller range of human knowledge, without fracturing these thoughts along disciplinary lines.  His applied neurobiology was his lens for viewing the world and his pedagogy was oriented towards the impact as opposed to the content of the subject.  He would reject the notion that philosophy of science is a humanist inquiry into a discipline of the natural sciences, instead arguing that philosophy of science is a part of science as much as it is a part of society, or a discourse within the humanities.  In order to apply Grobstein’s insights about transdisciplinary work to poetry, I will use the term, Through the Looking Glass Poetics, in order to highlight the complementary nature of my work.  Through the Looking Glass Poetics is the practice of approaching the natural sciences from the starting point of the arts and humanities: it is the exact opposite of Alice in Wonderland Philosophy.  The origin of the thinking and the direction in which thought traverses disciplinary boundaries provides valuable context.  Grobstein’s crack is the domain of experience of the poet, the summation of their lived experience, and therefore the reservoir for the vehicle of the metaphors they will employ in their poetry.  This is not to suggest privileging a purely biographical interpretation of poetry; rather, I am suggesting a close attention to the disciplinary domains that may have engaged the poet under discussion.  


The disciplinary origins of the words I employ in my poetry reflect my intellectual history as I refuse to waste the discourses in which I was originally trained: biology, chemistry, philosophy of science.  At the heart of my dissertation lies the question: what is lost without discourse between philosophy of science and poetry?  The wording of my research question evolved from Anne Carson’s 2002 collection of essays reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan, Economy of the Unlost. The first sense of the verb to waste asks: what is lost when terminology is used without care or thought or meaningful purpose?  The second sense of the verb asks: what is lost when words become weaker and less present to us?  Scientific discourse ought to be present in poetry in order to reflect the many ways in which this research has affected our experience of the world.  So to answer the question: our lived experience of the world is liable to be wasted when scientific terminology is wasted.  Practitioners of Alice Wonderland Philosophy and Through the Looking Glass Poetics create a discourse between philosophy of science and poetry.  This is a place where scientific terminology and figurative language are gathered together into transdisciplinary research.  In the prologue and the epilogue, Carson poses a second question immediately after the first.  She writes: What exactly is lost to us when words are wasted?  And where is the human store to which such goods are gathered?  Transdisciplinary research is what is lost when words are wasted, when their infinite potential combinations and the implications of those combinations are not explored.  These wasted words are gathered in the human cognitive unconscious, in memory for a time, and in the old literature of all disciplines.  It is the nature of compost piles to bring together unlike elements and, with time, energy and oxygen, to turn them into a rich nutritious starting material for growing something new.  I can think of no better metaphor for transdisciplinary work than this gathering together of disparate intellectual goods; indeed, I believe that it is the human store of which Carson writes.  


I will now turn to the final section of my dissertation in creative and critical writing, Phenomenology of the Feral which is identical with my first full length collection published by Knives Forks Spoons Press in 2017 and takes the same title.  The dominant poetic or transdisciplinary form of the poems is haibun ranging in length from one haiku with accompanying prose paragraph to multiple pages of haiku and prose combinations.  The first section of the collection, Zeroing Event, was published by Zarf Poetry in 2016 as a pamphlet under the same name.  Zeroing Event refers most extensively to grief and the absence of the white rabbit.  The remaining three sections appear in order as: Phenomenology of the Feral, Breathing Underwater, Summer of the Gummy Bears.  Throughout each section the metaphors build on one another, becoming more complex and capable of conveying more abstract scientific theory.  Phenomenology of the Feral challenges established categories between animal and food, animal and human, animal and art, and between art and science; the poems are constantly calling into question the reader’s lived experience of the world.  


In his review of Phenomenology of the Feral and Miscellaneous for Tentacular, Anthony John considers Grobstein’s presence in my poetry in particular and the transdisciplinary influences on my work in general.  He discusses how my poetry is relevant to philosophy of science and how philosophy of science is relevant to poetry.  John’s discussion is unusual because it is a hybrid interview-review.  He attended my reading with Noel Macken at ‘Capital Letters: Poetry in Dialogue’ (CapLet) at the National Maritime Museum on March 2nd, 2019.  CapLet has an unusual format that foregrounds audience involvement; it is part poetry reading and part seminar, meaning that John was able to listen to me speak about my work and ask questions of me directly.  He used my responses to his questions at the event as quoted material within his review with my permission.  


John is the only reviewer to draw explicit attention to the way Grobstein’s philosophy of science continues to influence my creative writing; indeed he brings our names closer together than they have been since my time at Bryn Mawr College.  In referring to the poem, ‘When in Doubt, Throw Grobstein on the Table,’ he notes that the last line is more than a simple statement about amphibian anatomy, although Grobstein did spend a significant amount of his career researching frog neuroanatomy.  


When in doubt, throw Grobstein on the table. 


I found some toads on the farm in the shade of the boxes filled with fake flowers to scare the horses.  The toads scared the horses more, movement is sharper in black and white.  Some were crushed to death when the horses shopped dirty and toppled the jumps.  Charlie was the first toad I rescued who 


turned into a Charlotte

was gravid and was released 

nearby a river. 


This was fair play for toads. 


- 12/2008


I saw some toads in the wash stall, looking for a bath in moist stone and concrete enclosure.  We say that we bathe horses, but with a hose, it more closely resembles a shower.  We shower together when the water pressure is good.  


Prozac code-named Zach

mascot of the slippery 

brain sodality


he was not ever 

slippery but leaping all 

about the table


never to leave he

was ever the perfect pet 

he stopped peeing me


he chased flies crickets 

on computer screen and we 

flipped him upside down


he let us perch him

on model horses on a 

gentle rat also


Interpretative fallacy: what is sex a metaphor for?


- 9/2009


I wonder sometimes, what did he do to make himself so big?  He who was so anxious.  


Mack the Big Mac sized

the terrified defensive

or depressed captive 


My horse was on daily dewormer pellets and empty Strongid C buckets piled up in my living room.  These were the green plastic buckets I used for storing and transporting the toads to their new home.  The sides to steep and slippery there was no need for a lid or fear of carbon dioxide build up inside.  They always survived my driving. 




I braked for some toads (not goats) who hoped the driveway at night.  


Chipotle also 

Chip for tortillas salsa

cheese burritos 


be good depression 

food light-headed lingerer

he dried up, and died


Paul Grobstein was the man who taught me how to tell the difference between a frog and a toad.  Toads have a parotid gland, most frogs do not have this third bump behind the ears behind the eyes.  Frogs will not pee on you when you kiss them. Toads are cuter, more mammalian. 


3/21/1946 - 6/28/2011


When I describe my former thesis supervisor as ‘the man who taught me how to tell the difference between a frog and a toad,’ I am referring to what he taught me about transdisciplinary work in his seminar on the role of science in society.  The frog, for me, refers to philosophy of science and the toad refers to poetry, by way of an allusion to Marianne Moore’s ‘Poetry’ in which she crafts the image of imaginary gardens with real toads in them.  I understand Moore to be advocating for the presence of the abstract, theoretical, or unfamiliar elements as well as the concrete, familiar, and particular belong within poetry.  Moore is arguing that there is a tension between the gardens and the toads, and furthermore that this tension is what constitutes poetry.  She is foregrounding the notion of traversing a gap in her definition of poetry; my thesis simply explores one particular type of gap between poetry and other discourses.  I learned how to write poetry through studying philosophy of science and will continue to read and write one through the other.  


In Phenomenology of the Feral, I have sought to create a field of discourse where no words are wasted.  John states that even my use of repetition is not merely reusing the same diction; rather it is creating a series of different meanings and associations with the same animals at different locations throughout the collection.  I repeatedly introduce the reader to the white rabbit, dogs, and octopuses, among others, in order to show these creatures in multiple contexts.  These animals are neither images, nor sidekicks to the humans; they are intended to exist throughout the poems as subjects in their own right.  John states: the more you read Julia Rose Lewis’s enigmatic poems, the more complex they become. The relations between the words change as the words are repeated or are ordered differently, and new meanings are brought forth. But each meaning is accompanied by a new ambiguity as well as clarity. You find yourself falling a vertiginous distance.  He exactly hits upon my intention for my poetry to act on the reader as the white rabbit from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland acted upon Alice. I want my work to lead them to fall down the rabbit hole.  I consider my poetry to be an example of Alice in Wonderland Philosophy; it is the work of someone with training in the natural sciences entering into a bidirectional exchange with the humanities.  Alice in Wonderland Philosophy and Through the Looking Glass Poetics are what is lost to us when the words of philosophy of science in poetry and the words of poetry in philosophy of science are wasted.    


Phenomenology of the Feral makes novel connections between poetry and science to more fully reflect the lived experience of the reader.  I employ Alice in Wonderland Philosophy and Through the Looking Glass Poetics to present philosophy of science and poetry in dialogue.  I began this dissertation with the question: what is lost without discourse between poetry and philosophy of science?  Rephrasing the question again to ask who is lost to us when words are wasted implies a return to the English language tradition of the haibun being associated with death.  The ‘who’ in this formulation of the query refers to the authors of philosophy of science or poetry; they are the authors of the words.  In this sense, the loss of Grobstein is what I am trying not to waste in Phenomenology of the Feral; it is a meditation on grief that continues for years afterward. I intend for the collection to express an ongoing sense of loss and to use that sense of loss to create by means of writing towards the dead and refusing to relinquish the student-teacher relationship.  The haibun form, through its Japanese language history as a collaborative process between student and teacher, facilitates my continued meaningful exchange of ideas with the body of Grobstein’s intellectual work.  The process of grieving, for me, is metaphorical in structure; I am trying to carry over the person that I lost, not to waste their experience of the world or their words.  By continuing to think through Grobstein’s applied neurobiology and philosophy of science, I am carrying his ideas beyond his own lived experience.  My creative writing demonstrates the relevance of philosophy of science for contemporary poetry and its readers.