Review of Scrutinizing Feminist Epistemology



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2. Perspective
We turn now to a subtler criterion for judging a critique of a research program: perspective. A good critique should illuminate the basis of its disagreement with the research program in question by getting critical distance on its own position in the debate. This requires that one make explicit one’s own presuppositions, why one carves up the field of possibilities in the way that one does, why the rival research program might not accept that way of carving the field of possibilities, and why one’s own way should be accepted. The critics of feminist epistemology in SFE often lack perspective: they don’t see why feminist scholars are making the choices they do, and how these choices might make sense against an alternative understanding of the range of possibilities. I’ll illustrate this point by considering Koertge’s critique of feminist science studies and Almeder’s critique of “radical equity feminism.”
(a) Feminist Science Studies
Koertge argues that feminist case studies that purport to show the influence of gender ideology on science are based on faulty methodology. She does make explicit her own methodology: if there is a sufficient “scientific” reason for a scientist to accept a hypothesis, then there is no reason to invoke political reasons to explain why he did so (54, 58-9, 63). She complains that feminist historians of science violate this criterion, and so produce shoddy history of science.
Koertge does not seem to notice that her methodology has been hotly contested within science studies, and gone down to ringing defeat. Koertge is engaged in the project of rationally reconstructing scientific theories--showing that they are justified, by the evidence available at the time the theories were advanced, in conjunction with criteria of sound scientific reasoning that are accepted today. From an historical point of view, this methodology is anachronistic. The historian wants to understand the causal factors operating on the advocates of scientific theories at the time they were developed. Rational reconstruction should not be confused with real history. We can see why by considering Koertge’s three applications of her methodology.
Koertge considers Elizabeth Potter’s (2001) account of the role of gender politics in Boyle’s theory of gases. Potter argues that, in Boyle’s day, the available data underdetermined the choice between Boyle’s mechanistic theory of gases, which admitted the possibility of a vacuum, and Linus’ hylozooic theory of gases, which denied this possibility on the ground that nature “abhors” a vacuum. Radicals invoked hylozooism to support their egalitarian class and gender politics. Boyle opposed the radicals and so resisted the animistic metaphysics used to underwrite their politics, counterposing his mechanistic theory to it. Koertge challenges Potter’s account, on the ground that Boyle had purely scientific reasons for opposing Linus’ theory: in ascribing emotions and desires to nature, it did not meet Boyle’s standard of intelligibility. Given that scientific criteria were sufficient to explain Boyle’s theoretical choice, Potter has no justification for dragging in political grounds to explain it (58).
Koertge’s rational reconstruction of Boyle’s reasoning is anachronistic. It supposes that a norm of sound scientific reasoning advanced today--namely, that one should not reject a scientific hypothesis because one objects to its political implications--was accepted by Boyle. Boyle did not observe this norm. He rejected hylozooism because he thought it led to heathenism and idolatry (Potter 2001, 119–20). Moreover, the clear distinctions we see today between mind and matter (a distinction that underwrites the accusation of unintelligibility against hylozoism, which ascribed intentions to nature), science and religion, science and politics, facts and values, science and magic, were blurred in Boyle’s day. Boyle shared with the hylozooists the assumption that the study of nature will reveal one’s duties and goals in life (Potter 2001, 118–9). Given this premise, it is not unreasonable to reject a scientific theory on the ground that it leads one morally astray, as judged by an independent source of knowledge about how to live (in Boyle’s case, the Bible), when there is an alternative available that is equally supported by the evidence and has moral implications congruent with that source.
Koertge also considers Londa Schiebinger’s explanation of why Linneaus named mammals “mammals.” According to Schiebinger (1993), Linneaus’ choice was underdetermined by the evidence, since mammals have other characteristics in common besides mammary glands--for instance, hair on their bodies, and “hollow” ears. Indeed, the decision to focus on breasts as the distinguishing characteristic of mammals is odd, since male mammals lack them, and stallions even lack teats. Schiebinger connects Linneaus’ choice to his gender politics. At the time, privileged women across Europe were sending their babies to lower class wet-nurses. This practice was controversial, not just for health reasons (the death rate among wet-nursed infants was high) but for political reasons as well: ensuring that women stay at home nursing their own babies was explicitly tied to keeping them out of politics. Linneaus was a leader in the movement against wet-nursing. Schiebinger argues that Linneaus chose to highlight breasts as the defining characteristic of mammals in part because this naturalized and so legitimated the political norm that mothers nurse their own babies.
Against this, Koertge advances an alternative “scientific” explanation of why Linneaus chose mammary glands as the defining characteristic of mammals. Scientific nomenclature should highlight scientifically important features of the phenomena being classified. The source of an animals’ food in infancy is obviously biologically important; possession of hair or hollow ears was not obviously biologically important at the time. Since a purely scientific reason for the nomenclature is sufficient to explain Linneaus’ choice, Koertge says, there is no need to invoke political reasons to explain it (54).
Koertge’s argument cannot fly. Schiebinger (1993, 392) observes that defining mammals as “suckling ones” would equally well call attention to their food in infancy, and have the added advantage of including all members of the class, not just the female ones, in the defining characteristic. But it would not be so politically salient as “mammals,” since it would only naturalize the norm that babies should feed from some woman's breast, not that every mother should breast-feed her own infant. More importantly, Koertge’s standard for scientifically sound nomenclature, that it highlight scientifically important features, was neither advanced nor observed in Linneaus’ day (Schiebinger 1993, 391–2). Linneaus, for the most part, observed a norm of conservatism in nomenclature, carrying over the long-accepted Aristotelian terms for the different classes of animals. These terms did not necessarily track features with obvious biological significance. For example, the class of worms, Vermes, was named after the red-brown color of the earthworm, although worms come in many colors (Schiebinger 1993, 384). Linneaus’ broke tradition in the nomenclature for animal classes only in the case of mammals (which, in the Aristotelian system, were Quadrupedia). Koertge’s rational reconstruction of Linneaus’ nomenclature fails to track the historical practice she claims to explain.
Koertge similarly misses the boat in her critique of Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body (2000). Fausto-Sterling argues that the biological division of humans into two sexes is anatomically and developmentally unjustified, because it fails to account for intersexed individuals. She also criticizes sexually dimorphic classifications of entities other than individual animals, such as the division of steroids into male and female hormones. Such classifications reinforce the Procrustean bed of dualistic sex assignment, even though their biological justification is weak: all humans produce both estrogen and testosterone, which perform numerous functions having nothing to do with sex or reproduction. Koertge triumphantly objects that distinguishing male from female hormones was scientifically justified, because they were first respectively isolated from men’s and women's urine (63).
This is a howler presented as a drubbing. Instead of refuting feminist science studies, it illustrates one of its main points: that there is no clear line between scientific and cultural ideas. “Men” and “women” are cultural classifications, imported into science in the context of discovery and not necessarily eliminated in the context of justification, even though they are freighted with political significance--exactly as feminist proponents of underdetermination arguments, such as Longino, Nelson, and Harding, have long argued. As Fausto-Sterling (2000, 116) puts the point, "scientists do not simply read nature to find truths to apply in the social world. Instead, they use truths from our social relationships to structure, read, and interpret the natural." In failing to contend with this basic point of feminist science studies, Koertge unwittingly begs the question against her opponents.
Koertge might have noticed her own slip had she applied the same methodology to feminist science studies that she applies to the scientists in their case studies. Instead, she applies a contrary methodology: if there is an irrational way to get the same conclusions that feminist science studies draws from its case studies, accuse the feminist scholars of using that method. Thus, she complains that Schiebinger’s technique of linking Linneaus’ classifications to gender politics proves too much, because one could always read gender ideology into any classification (51-2, 54). Koertge’s accusation is unjust on many levels. It is not true that one can plausibly find gender ideology in any classification: try reading it into “quadruped” or “hollow-eared.” Moreover, Linneaus’ focus on mammary glands is gendered on its face. This is not a case of imaginatively projecting gender onto unsexed objects, such as bowls and pens. Finally, Schiebinger is manifestly not playing a simple parlor game of word associations, in which one “wins” as soon as one concocts a speculative gendered meaning behind any classification. She meticulously documents Linneaus’ actual historical involvement in the gender politics of breast-feeding.
Koertge’s irrationalist explanatory methodology for feminist science studies disregards empirical evidence, just as rational reconstruction does. Her asymmetry of explanatory methodologies for science and feminist science studies is also unjustified. Indeed, it is unfathomable, except as an illicit strategy to yield the foregone conclusions that science is free of gender ideology and feminist science critics are all wrong. How ironic, then, that SFE accuses feminist epistemologists of corrupting science to guarantee conclusions reached in advance of a fair assessment of the evidence.
(b) “Radical Equity Feminism”
Almeder divides feminism into two branches: “conservative equity feminism” and “radical equity feminism.” Both branches of feminism, he says, share a common goal: ensuring that males and females have equal access to the traits, skills, and opportunities that confer advantage in society, and do not suffer discrimination in the rewards they can reap from exercising these traits and skills (183). But they disagree about the necessary means to this goal. Conservative equity feminists argue that capitalist democracies can and will achieve it. Radical equity feminists argue that this goal cannot be achieved without changing “biology, some gender roles, or the system of political economy” (188). Almeder argues that the vast majority of academic feminists are “radical equity feminists” (197-8n2) and that they should be faulted for dogmatically insisting on their own ideology, regardless of the evidence (185), and for refusing to engage “conservative equity feminists” such as Christina Hoff Sommers, in debate (191).
Almeder observes that academic feminists themselves do not draw his distinction between “conservative” and “radical” equity feminism. He is sure this is because radical equity feminists want to shut conservative equity feminists out of debate. A more plausible explanation is that this taxonomy is not an intellectually serious way to represent the range of feminist thought. It is largely irrelevant. The vast majority of research in women's studies is in fields such as anthropology, literature, history, psychology, sociology, medicine and public health. It is neither necessary nor helpful for researchers asking questions in these fields to take a stand on “conservative” versus “radical” equity feminism.[2] Almeder’s classification does have prima facie relevance for the small part of women's studies devoted to “grand theory” in political philosophy. But his 1970s taxonomy, which compresses Marxist, socialist, and “radical” feminism (Firestone!) into the catch-all “radical equity feminism,” is obsolete. It ignores the academy-wide demise of Marxism since the end of the Cold War, the decline of grand theory since the 1980s, the increasing engagement of feminist theory with issues of race, ethnicity, religion, multiculturalism, and international human rights, and the rise of postmodernist feminism, which dramatically shifted feminist theory away from political economy and biological sex differences, toward issues of cultural representation, gender identity, and sexuality.
Even when we focus on issues that his political economy framework should be able to handle, Almeder’s argument, that there is no issue of concern to feminists that cannot and will not be solved within the confines of capitalist democracy, is breathtakingly naive. Consider, for example, the feminization of poverty. Almeder claims that, since women are a majority, they should be able to vote in whatever economic policies of gender equity they like (186). Robert Nozick once argued that capitalism has little to fear from democracy, since it is easier for the top 50% to bribe the next 1% to join them, than it is for the bottom 50% to swing the middle 1% to their side. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to consider how Nozick’s argument can be applied to class differences among women, to see why the feminization of poverty is such a stubborn issue in capitalist democracies.
Almeder’s definition of “conservative equity feminism” also suffers from critical ambiguities. He contrasts “conservative equity feminism” with radical feminists, who want to change “some gender roles” (188), so presumably the conservative feminists want to keep current gender roles intact. Yet he leaves open the possibility that conservative feminists “would not require the institution of the biological family or anything like the classical nuclear family” (187), and could embrace a gender-equitable division of domestic and child-care labor, with male and female partners “working and sharing child-care equally” (198n6). This sounds an awful lot like a radical revision of “some gender roles.” Is his point that he still envisions such revisions happening within a framework of normative heterosexuality (198n6)? Then his claim that “conservative equity feminism” accommodates the concerns of the mainstream National Organization of Women (187) is false, since NOW strongly endorses gay and lesbian rights to marriage. His account of the political economy of “conservative equity feminism” is equally slippery. Sometimes he suggests a narrowly meritocratic view of economic distribution, in which men and women have equal access to opportunities to develop merit, but must accept whatever the market rewards for their merit, in contrast with “equal distribution” (185). Other times he suggests that his view is compatible with a property system that provides “publicly funded birth control and abortion,” “employer-funded maternity leaves,” and even full compensation to women for the costs of having children (186-7). This sounds an awful lot like Scandinavian social democracy, which is called “socialism” in the U.S. If Almeder wants to call this “capitalism,” because it still leaves the ownership of the means of production in private hands, and limit “radical equity feminism” just to those who want the comprehensive abolition of private property, then I wonder whether there are any “radical equity feminists” left in the post-Cold War world. Comprehensive state ownership and control of the economy is not an issue on the agenda of any significant feminist writing today.
Almeder’s division of feminists into “conservative” and “radical” is analytically useless. Why then, does he insist on it? Because he casts the Science Wars as an ideological continuation of the Cold War, with “academic feminists” playing the role of communist subversives. During the Cold War, the United States deployed a similarly slippery dichotomy between capitalism and communism in an effort to force Third World countries to take sides. The ambiguity was deliberate. While seeming to offer Third World countries the possibility of substantial redistributive and regulatory policies, such as those found in the Western European social democracies, in practice those who joined the “capitalist” side were subjected to asymmetrical trade regulations, undemocratic IMF control of their economic policies, forced abolition of social safety nets, and grievously burdensome debt payments. No wonder poor countries sought a third way in the nonaligned movement. The capitalist/communist dichotomy was never an intellectually serious way to divide the field of possibilities. It was a bludgeon used to force poor countries into political alignment with one or the other side. Almeder similarly uses the dichotomy between conservative and radical equity feminists as a bludgeon to force academic feminists to take sides. No wonder they, too, prefer not to engage this “debate,” as Almeder complains. There is no debating with a bludgeon. This of course does not mean that academic feminists ignore feminist advocates of capitalist democracy. John Stuart Mill and John Rawls arguably fit that bill, and are canonical figures in feminist political theory reading lists.
3. Normative Consistency
A sound critique of a field of work should apply the same normative standards to itself that it applies to the field it criticizes. SFE articulates several standards of acceptable work: (a) avoiding gross error; (b) avoiding tribalism; (c) avoiding cynicism; (d) avoiding political correctness; (e) civility. Let us consider how SFE measures up against its own normative standards.
(a) Avoiding gross error
Munévar articulates a strong standard of error avoidance: if one can find enough gross errors in a work, even if on incidental matters, it is so incompetent that its other theses aren't even worthy of serious consideration (142). He applies this standard to Sandra Harding’s work, convicting her of numerous blunders--not knowing that the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously, not knowing that the library of Alexandria was destroyed long before the 17th c. scientific revolution in Europe, confusing the Dark Ages with the Middle Ages, being snookered by a hoaxer claim that a West African tribe had advanced astronomical knowledge centuries ago, and so forth. These are, indeed, embarrassing errors, albeit not critical to Harding’s epistemology. Munévar concludes that her work is so substandard that it should be dismissed without seeing if anything worthwhile can be salvaged from it.
What if we applied the same standard to SFE? We have seen that SFE itself is riddled with gross blunders. The bulk of the book consists of flat misreadings of the work of feminist epistemologists that cannot withstand the simplest tests of consistency with what feminist epistemologists say. “The reader’s embarrassment grows, with each amazing example” says Munévar of Harding (143)--a sentiment that neatly captures my own reaction to SFE. By Munévar’s standard, then, SFE itself should be dismissed out of hand.
Most feminists reject Munévar’s standard. Errors should be avoided, of course. But sometimes even seriously flawed work can be instructive. Gilligan’s research is a case in point. Many feminists, including myself, reject its main theses and methodology. Despite these flaws, Gilligan has made several important contributions: revealing the androcentrism of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development; launching a rich research program in moral philosophy on the ethics of care; inspiring naturalized approaches to moral epistemology (Jaggar 2000, 460). Harding’s work is another. Contrary to Munévar’s claim (154), Harding does not set the gold standard in feminist epistemology. That standard is set, as it is in the philosophy of science generally, by those doing original first-order research on science itself. Harding’s work overwhelmingly consists of commentary on and synthesis of what the first-order researchers are doing. People who do this work do not always have full command of the underlying science. Yet her work has been invaluable in setting agendas for feminist research, synthesizing trends, and bringing important first-order research to the attention of scholars working in the field.
Munévar’s standard is motivated more by the desire to make a quick kill of a young research program than to learn anything. The feminist approach is more fruitful. Consider, for example, Soble’s critique of Keller’s idea of dynamic objectivity as manifested in Barbara McClintock’s “feeling for the organism.” Soble’s critique is unusual in SFE for actually offering a close reading of a feminist text that seriously considers alternative interpretations of particular passages. (Crasnow offers the only other case). Yet even he rushes to judgment in concluding that Keller’s notion of dynamic objectivity is either empty, trivial, absurd, or, if interpreted intelligibly, not novel, and in any event not testable (88-9). There are ways to develop her elusive idea into a substantive, interesting, testable hypothesis. For example, Sarah Hrdy (1986), the distinguished feminist primatologist, has raised some highly interesting questions, along lines similar to Keller’s, concerning the epistemic fruitfulness of cultivating empathy for the primates under study. (Lest one think Hrdy is beating a tribalist drum, it’s worth noting that, strongly counter to feminist stereotype, she's a hard-core sociobiologist.)
Applying the feminist standard (of being open to learning even from flawed work) to the object of my review, I do not dismiss SFE out of hand, even though it commits one blunder after another, oblivious to its own gross incompetence in interpreting feminist epistemology. Nanda’s essay, in particular, is well worth rescuing from its own grievous errors. Crasnow’s and Kourany’s essays are models of respectful, intellectually serious critical scholarship, instructively read together (for they take opposite sides on the proper role of realism in the philosophy of science), and worthy of a more dignified venue than SFE.
(b) Avoiding tribalism
SFE tells us that it’s wrong to think that all women think alike. But apparently SFE thinks it’s ok to think that all feminist epistemologists think alike. Munévar infers from Harding’s case alone that all work by feminist epistemologists is shoddy (154). Klee and Almeder go on for pages about how feminist epistemologists must think, without even bothering to link their speculations to any particular feminist text. SFE tells us that feminist epistemologists are a bunch of cynical, tribalist, politically correct traitors to truth.
(c) Avoiding cynicism
SFE tells us that it is wrong to be cynical about the project of advancing knowledge. Yet Pinnick and Koertge appear to be cynics about the project of advancing our moral knowledge. Science isn't an “arational” power struggle, but apparently ethics is. More importantly, SFE manifests a crude cynicism about feminist epistemology that turns out to be intellectually crippling. If one begins with a cynical premise, it’s hard to work up enough charity toward the research program to think oneself out of it by engaging with the texts.
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