Review of Scrutinizing Feminist Epistemology

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In the case of feminist standpoint theory, too, critical reaction within feminist circles was powerfully transforming. Feminist critics observed that there could not be a single standpoint of women, since women are differently situated by other social positions, such as race, class, and sexual orientation--a point stressed by black feminist standpoint theorists, feminist empiricists, and feminist postmodernists alike (Collins 1990; Longino 1989; Lugones and Spelman 1986). These debates led to a consensus on two points concerning any viable version of standpoint epistemology (Wylie 2003, 28). First, it rejected “essentialism,” which entails a rejection of any claims that women or feminists do or ought to think alike. Second, it rejected the attribution of “automatic epistemic privilege” to any particular standpoint. The two-pronged feminist consensus is lost on Klee and Pinnick, who represent standpoint epistemologists as asserting a blanket epistemic privilege on behalf of women, femininity, or feminists.
A closer reading of recent texts articulating feminist standpoint theory exhibits four major patterns of qualification to claims of epistemic privilege on behalf of marginalized standpoints. First, contrary to Klee’s charge, standpoint theory limits the scope of its claims. Its purpose is to generate knowledge that is useful to marginalized people in identifying their problems in social-structural terms and in overcoming them (Harding 1993, 56; Hartsock 1998, 236). Today's standpoint theorists make no claim that the standpoint of the marginalized is privileged for generating knowledge of physics and chemistry.
Second, the critical advantage of standpoint epistemology lies in its “logic of discovery,” (Harding 1993, 56) not in affording an alternative, supposedly superior logic of justification or privileged access to the truth. “Marginalized lives provide the scientific problems and the research agendas--not the solutions--for standpoint theories” (Harding 1993, 62) (emphasis mine). If one’s aim is to produce knowledge that is useful to the marginalized in overcoming their systematic disadvantages, one ought to frame one’s research questions, devise one’s theoretical classifications, and so forth, with this aim in mind. For example, one should classify social phenomena in terms of their impact on the interests of the disadvantaged. Similarly, Hartsock (1998, 236–7, 240) emphasizes that views of the social world generated from the perspective of dominant interests are not false, but partial. The marginalized have contact with different aspects of social reality--aspects that are more revealing of the ways the status quo is unjust. Hartsock’s focus on which truths to investigate rather than on questions of the truth or falsehood of beliefs located in different social standpoints shows that she sees the critical advantages of standpoint epistemology to lie in the logic of discovery, not the logic of justification. Thus, feminist standpoint theorists, no less than feminist empiricists, respect the context of discovery/context of justification distinction, contrary to Pinnick’s suggestion that it leads to dishonest politicized research on a par with Shockley’s eugenics (22).
Third, the feminist standpoint is an achieved perspective, not to be identified with whatever women, or feminists, actually think, nor with thinking in a “feminine” way (Harding 1993, 58–59; Hartsock 1998, 236–7). It requires a pooling of experiences among the marginalized about their problems, reflection on how the social order puts people who occupy the same structural position into similar predicaments, and consideration of how collective action can change this social order. The experiences the marginalized have about their lives have the potential to be worked up into theories that are better able to overcome their systematic disadvantages. Research aiming to help them overcome their problems should start from their lives, but privileged researchers, including feminist academics, theorize from this starting point too. Pinnick’s charge (23), that Harding claims a privilege for feminist researchers on the ground that they are marginalized, is thus a plain misreading of her text. So is her claim (27) that Harding believes that “marginalized persons should take the place of present scientists in the ranks and at the cutting edge of science.” Anyone, including men, can start their research by sensitively engaging the problems of the marginalized, by, for instance, “learning to listen attentively to marginalized people” (Harding 1993, 62, 67, 68). Doing so will better equip them to think about “certain aspects of the social order,” including “gender systems” (Harding 1993, 60, 58), not all aspects of the universe.
Fourth, to the extent that any epistemic advantage is credited to the experiences of the marginalized, it is both contingent and limited in scope. One of the great contributions of feminist epistemology is its stress on the ways knowledge is socially situated, in that people’s experiences of the world are conditioned by their social roles and status, often described in terms of their parochial interests and values, and so forth. Given this socially shaped diversity of representations, it makes sense to investigate, in a naturalistic way, how it can be used as a resource for theorizing. In the most recent articulation of standpoint theory, the project is not to identify one epistemically privileged social perspective, but to identifying the contingent and local advantages different perspectives have with respect to representing certain aspects of the social world that are relevant for answering particular questions. This reminds us that certain positions of marginality may contingently afford better access to certain aspects of the world than privileged positions do--that we can learn from those less advantaged than ourselves, because of experiences they have had qua disadvantaged (Wylie 2003). Incorporating their experiences of the social world into our representations of it makes our representations more objective, in the sense of more complete, less partial.
Given all of these qualifications on the scope and nature of feminist standpoint theory's claim to epistemic privilege, which have been prominently featured in recent feminist writings, it is no wonder that Klee finds himself arguing, not with named feminists and quotations from their texts, but overwhelmingly with an imaginary feminist interlocutor. Pinnick does somewhat better, in quoting Harding’s work. But her chronic tendency to overstate the scope of Harding’s claims on behalf of the epistemic advantages of a feminist standpoint, her confusion between the thoughts of marginalized people and theorizing from a marginalized standpoint, and her misattribution of Harding’s claims about the context of discovery to the context of justification, fatally undermine her reading of Harding’s work. The charge of tribalism against feminist epistemology beats a horse killed long ago by feminist epistemologists themselves.
(c) Self-defeating Conservatism
Meera Nanda criticizes Longino’s epistemology, and feminist postmodernism, for self-defeating conservatism: uncritically valuing actual women's, “feminine,” and local nonwestern experiences and values, even when, as in India, they embody the very ideologies that oppress women and low caste Dalits (157, 160-5). In contrast with the other critiques of feminist epistemology in SFE, Nanda’s paper makes a positive and brilliant contribution to philosophical understanding. She argues that Western Enlightenment values, materialist science, and American pragmatism, far from reinforcing sexism and colonialism when imported into India, constituted a liberating philosophy for India's Dalits (untouchables) and women. She describes how Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a Dalit intellectual of the first half of the last century, launched a powerful liberation movement for India's Dalits, based on a synthesis of Deweyan pragmatism and Buddhism. Ambedkar saw that the ideology of caste was rationalized by holistic metaphysical views, according to which matter was informed by divine spirit. To undermine the caste system, Ambedkar used materialist science to undermine holism, and pragmatism to call caste traditions into question by subjecting them to scientific critique. The need to criticize specifically caste ideology (not just class, for example) came from Dalits’ experiences of oppression under this system (179). But the tools of liberation were found in theories drawn from the West. Ambedkar’s liberation movement inspired one million Dalits to convert to Buddhism as a means of escape from the Hindu caste system. Nanda forcefully argues that, in India today, “modern science is the standpoint of the oppressed” (181).
This is the kind of bracing philosophy that makes one’s heart race: fresh, compelling, on a topic of great significance that, being unfamiliar to its audience, is truly enlightening. It is, as she suggests herself, a stunning illustration of how standpoint epistemology can actually achieve liberatory effects. It also demonstrates how science can be dedicated to the service of emancipation without degenerating into propaganda and political correctness--pace Haack, Koertge, and Almeder. Yet she casts her story as a critique of feminist epistemology! How could this be? Nanda rests her critique on three claims: that feminist epistemologists are committed to the view that Western science is inherently colonialist and sexist (157), that the experience and values of the oppressed are to be accepted uncritically, even if they have internalized dominant oppressive ideologies (160), and that “social and cultural values themselves are conceptualized as cultural givens and beyond the pale of rational criticism and reasoned change” (160-1). She criticizes Longino, in particular, for upholding feminist epistemic values such as holism, ontological heterogeneity, incorporation of local values into science, and rejecting consistency with established scientific claims--values which, in India, serve to reinforce caste and sexist oppression (164-5).
These claims about feminist epistemology are, to put the point mildly, howlers. Feminist epistemology aims, not to bash Western science, but to improve it (Lloyd 1997). It is based on confidence that scientifically rigorous empirical inquiry can be a liberatory tool, if we direct it to answer the questions arising from the predicaments of the marginalized, in ways they can use to overcome their marginalization. Far from accepting local values as uncriticized givens, feminist epistemologists, especially standpoint theorists, are centrally committed to testing established values against the experience of the oppressed of having these values manifested in their lives. As a feminist epistemologist, I have long advanced the fundamental pragmatist point that empirical and moral inquiry work in tandem, and in particular that facts can be used to criticize values (Anderson 1991; Anderson 1998; Anderson 2004). This has also been a central theme of Lynn Nelson’s work (1990). As we have seen above, standpoint epistemology, too, does not simply accept whatever beliefs and values the oppressed happen to have. Standpoint theorists hold that a marginalized standpoint is achieved, not given, forged from collective discussion and resistance to oppression, some of which is turned inward in self-criticism.
Nanda’s criticisms of Longino also grossly misrepresent her views. It is true that Longino has defended feminist deployments of certain epistemic values, such as novelty (breaking with established scientific theories) and ontological heterogeneity, that, as Nanda shows, reinforce oppression in the Indian context. But she explicitly rejects the idea that they can be justified because they express a specifically “feminine” way of knowing (Longino 1994, 475). Nor are they valid simply because they are the local standards of an epistemic community. That they are local standards is descriptive, not normative. Longino stresses that there is nothing inherently feminist in these values. Other epistemic communities may adopt them for other reasons; and feminists may reject them if, in the context they are investigating, they do not serve the feminist interest in revealing the ways the gender system operates. Thus, these standards are provisional and subject to criticism and revision in light of deeper feminist goals (Longino 1994, 481).
In other words, Longino’s defense of these values is contextual and contingent, as befits her naturalistic--that is, pragmatist--approach to moral epistemology:
[T]he arguments we can give for [traditional scientific values or alternative epistemic values] will be context-limited in their validity. I do not. . .want to claim that the virtues or criteria I've discussed have fixed and absolute socio-political meanings. . . .[H]eterogeneity could, in a context other than our own, fail to be a theoretical virtue with liberatory potential. . . . [T]hese standards--like the aspirations that ground them--are provisional and subject to modification as a consequence of interaction with other communities as well as with the world a community seeks to know (Longino 1997, 54).
A more concise summary of Nanda’s own position would be hard to come by. Why, then, does Nanda insist on representing Longino as her enemy?
(d) Cynicism
Pinnick, Koertge, Haack, Almeder, and Nanda claim that feminist epistemologists are cynics, who believe that the pursuit of truth is impossible, and that those who profess to pursue truth are engaged in a sham, pursuing power politics under the guise of disinterested research. Their reasoning for this charge is based on two modes of argument invoked by feminist epistemologists: underdetermination arguments, such as Longino’s, and postmodernist arguments. Let us consider each in turn.
Pinnick and Koertge are troubled by the supposed implications of underdetermination arguments. Pinnick complains that feminists are trying to show that “admitted logical gaps in scientific reason must be filled by noncognitive, sociopolitical, that is, arational, causal explainers” (25). Koertge claims that feminists use underdetermination to “argue that the scientific search for explanatory understanding is not only quixotic but immoral” and that “science has no deserved epistemic authority” (225). “Then they rely on historical case studies that allegedly show the content of scientific results to be permanently tainted with the ideological biases of scientists and those in power” (225).
Pinnick and Koertge get their modalities wrong. Feminists do not argue that logical gaps in scientific reason must be filled by sociopolitical causal explainers. They argue that the fact that a theory has passed accepted tests of evidential confirmation in the context of justification cannot be used to rule out the possibility that sociopolitical values have influenced the content of science, via their influence on choices made in the context of discovery. Even the fact that the evidence plus supposedly purely cognitive values, such as simplicity and reductionism, uniquely supports a particular theory among all of the currently live options is not sufficient to rule out this possibility. For, as Longino shows, other cognitive values, such as a preference for complexity of relationship and ontological heterogeneity, could have been chosen, and there may be political grounds for preferring one set of cognitive values rather than the other (Longino 1997, 54). These are possibilities, not necessities. Whether they are realized in any actual instance requires careful empirical investigation.
Similarly, feminists do not argue that the content of science is permanently tainted with ideological biases of the powerful. They argue for the possibility and legitimacy of doing science as a feminist. That is, they defend the pursuit of empirical inquiry, in a way that rigorously adheres to the highest standards of evidential warrant, with the aim of discovering knowledge that is useful to women in liberating them from sexism. This is not cynicism or science-bashing; it is a positive affirmation of the potential of science to generate knowledge that serves the interests of the less powerful. In defending feminist science, feminists are demanding a seat at the science table, not trying to destroy it.
Pinnick and Koertge also manifest a shocking cynicism about sociopolitical values in assuming that any revelation of sociopolitical value influence on science “taints” it with “arationality.” This could be true only if sociopolitical values are not open to rational revision in light of argument and evidence. Few moral philosophers, even those of a noncognitivist bent, believe this. Moreover, this is not the general view among feminist epistemologists. Due to the usual disjunct between moral philosophers and philosophers of science, few feminist philosophers of science have closely considered the metaethical question. But those who have tend to regard moral inquiry as of a piece with scientific inquiry, and so as equally subject to rational discourse (Anderson 1998; Anderson 2004; Campbell 1998; Jaggar 2000; Nelson 1990). I know no feminist epistemologist, indeed no feminist at all, who regards sociopolitical values as closed to rational argument.
Koertge appears to project her own fears of the implications of value-laden science onto feminists when she claims that they use underdetermination arguments to strip science of its epistemic authority. She quotes no feminist who uses such arguments to this effect. Longino and Nelson, the two most prominent feminist advocates of underdetermination arguments, are science advocates who provide accounts of how science can be objective. To provide such an account is a way of recognizing the epistemic authority of properly conducted science.
Haack, Almeder, and Nanda aim their fire at feminist postmodernists. According to Almeder, they claim that “the pursuit of truth is a snare” (194). Nanda says that they “reduce the worldview, the methods, and the content of modern science to a sword that the powerful wield against the powerless” (157). Haack accuses them of a series of fallacies, based on a confusion of the features of what passes for truth with truth itself (240):
[W]hat is accepted as known fact is often enough no such thing, therefore the concept of known fact is ideological humbug; one’s judgment of the worth of evidence depends on one’s background beliefs, therefore there are no objective standards of evidential quality; science isn't sacred, therefore it must be a kind of confidence trick (235).
All of their claims suffer from a serious defect: they cite and quote virtually no feminist postmodernists to support their claims. Almeder cites no feminist postmodernists at all. Haack refers only to Ruth Bleier, who is a biologist, not an epistemologist, in an undocumented quote that I could not trace to its original source, and which could easily be given a less cynical interpretation than Haack ascribes to it (240). Nanda names Sandra Harding as her sole representative of specifically feminist postmodernism. (She also attacks Longino, as discussed above, but Longino is no postmodernist.) She quotes Harding as saying that “the very methods and content of science are ‘deeply and completely. . . co-constructed’ by the modern West's Eurocentrism and patriarchy” (157, inner quote Harding’s, outer quote Nanda’s). This is a misquotation. On the page cited, Harding says that modern science is “deeply and completely constituted” by “local resources.” Far from drawing a cynical conclusion from this, on the same page she says:
[N]ot all claims that sciences or science studies make are equally accurate. . . . Of course modern sciences are much more powerful and accurate in many respects than the sciences and technologies of other cultures (Harding 1998, 54).
Nanda also says: “Harding believes that a ‘woman scientist is a contradiction in terms’” (182n5, outer quote Nanda’s, inner quote Harding’s). Turning to Harding’s text, we find that the quoted words were posed as the question “Is a Woman Scientist a Contradiction in Terms?,” functioning as a heading for a discussion of the history of discrimination against women in science! It is plainly intended to describe and ridicule the sexist thinking of the male scientists who were practicing that discrimination (Harding 1986, 59). This is pretty much all the direct evidence SFE presents for the claim that feminist postmodernists are guilty of dismissing the pursuit of truth as a sham.
But doesn't everyone already know that feminist postmodernists are a bunch of science-bashing cynics? No doubt, much of the rhetoric of postmodernism is corrosive, and in the hands of people who know nothing about science, the results are frankly embarrassing, as the Sokal hoax demonstrated. But in the hands of someone who really knows and appreciates science--for example, Donna Haraway, who knows more science, and has a vastly richer and subtler appreciation of both its achievements and its limitations than all of the editors of SFE combined-- the results of applying postmodernist techniques of rhetorical analysis are highly illuminating. Postmodernism is not a monolith. Harding is a postmodernist, but believes in objectivity and even “accuracy,” as we see in the quote above. Haraway’s view of science is, at bottom, a combination of fallibilism, nominalism, antirealism, and the disunity of science. These are all respectable if highly contested positions in the philosophy of science. Haraway’s position is not so far from that of philosophers such as Ian Hacking and John Dupré, but we do not see the latter being demonized. Western Civilization will not be destroyed, scientific progress will not come to a screeching halt, universities will not be corrupted into propaganda machines, if their views turn out to be true.
To the extent that they are true--and in certain domains of inquiry, such as primatology, Haraway has made a strong case that they are (Haraway 1989)--her techniques of literary analysis of scientific narratives should be welcome in the toolbox of any competent practitioner of science studies. These techniques reveal the presence of choice in scientific representations, highlighting both the contingency and the constraints imposed on sense-making representations by the choices of narrative genre and metaphor that scientists make. Anyone who has sat around a table discussing with scientists how to design an empirical study to investigate certain questions, as I have, and as Haraway has, cannot fail to be impressed by the vast number and range of choices that are made in the context of discovery, choices that are only loosely constrained by what is already known, and further choices made in the attempt to find meaningful patterns in the data that have been gathered. To highlight such choices, their contingency, and the constraints they impose on our scientific representations, is not remotely to charge scientists with propaganda, dishonesty or even error, but simply to point out that we are contributing something to the process of finding meaning in natural phenomena.
Haraway’s project is to make us accept responsibility for those choices. This is not an attack on science. But it is an attack on a certain image of science. Galileo said in The Assayer, “I have read the book of nature, and it is written in the language of mathematics.” Haraway is attacking Galileo’s image of the scientist, innocently reading a book--or, to borrow Haack’s metaphor, solving a crossword puzzle--authored by nature herself, in her own native language. And she does so, properly, in the name of epistemic responsibility (Haraway 1991). To deny that we have had some hand in composing the book is an attempt to escape responsibility for the implications of the choices we made in constructing our own representations of nature. To expose our hand is not to cynically debunk science, not to claim that our representations are unconstrained by the world, not to claim that we can make them however we like, just to satisfy our political interests.
Let us, following Haraway, consider the implications of the rhetorical choices made by the editors and several contributors in SFE. One of their leading implicit metaphors is the Science Wars, sometimes cast as the Cold War (15-16, 156, 185, 195-6, 229). The Cold War was an occasion for demonizing enemies within, for casting politically progressive Americans loyal to democracy and liberty as Communists and subversives. Some of the contributors to SFE seem to need enemies within, too. Feminist epistemologists are their fantasy of an academic fifth column. It is said that the first casualty of war is the truth. This is abundantly confirmed by SFE.
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