Lorraine Code. Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies. Editor: Kathy Davis, Mary Evans, Judith Lorber. 2006. Sage Publication.
Concentrating on interconnections between gender and epistemology, particularly in the Anglo-American world since the beginning of second-wave feminism, this chapter traces a history of departures from a view of epistemology as an a priori normative inquiry which could fulfill its mandate only by producing apolitical, impersonal, experience-remote analyses of necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge ‘in general.’Feminist epistemologists have demonstrated how a gender-sensitive, avowedly political inquiry can produce knowledge good of its kind and epistemic standards stringent enough to enable knowers to participate intelligently in the world, both physical and human. Moving through the early taxonomy of feminist empiricism, standpoint theoryand postmodernism to the multiple directions feminist epistemology has subsequently taken, the chapter concludes by outlining the promise of new conceptual frameworks generated out of such modes of inquiry as agential realism, situated knowledges, naturalized epistemology, ecological thinking, and the complex questions posed by epistemologies of ignorance.
The gender question in epistemology arises urgently, if often tacitly, with respect to how women know and are known, who claims to know them and why, what conception of ‘the knowing subject’ informs and inflects the operative conception of knowledge through which claims by and about women are adjudicated, and how knowledge is situated, formally and morally-politically. Although in mainstream Anglo-American philosophy the sex/gender of the knower is accorded no epistemological significance, feminists have shown how the gender question is always implicated, even if not explicitly, with hierarchies of power and privilege that structure social orders according to asymmetrical attributions of credibility, cognitive authority, and expertise; hierarchies whose effects in patriarchal societies are to consign women (and other Others) to positions of the unknown, unknowing, and unknowable.
Analyzing the state of play in epistemology in the early twenty-first century, Rae Langton (2000) shows how feminist inquiry has revealed that in matters of knowledge, women get left out, or get hurt. Normative, regulative conceptions of what counts as knowledge and who is a legitimate knower generate a social imaginary where there is no legitimate space for women to claim cognitive authority, credibility, or acknowledgement. The universal pretensions of the story of knowledge told by and about men mask its partiality in both senses of the word, thus rendering women’s lives invisible. Nor is this erasure merely a sin of omission to be expiated by ‘letting women in’: received conceptions of knowledge hurt women, for the ideal objectivity at their center also objectifies women. Langton writes, ‘Objectification is a process of projection supplemented by force, whose result is that women are made subordinate… women really come to have at least some of the qualities that are projected onto them’ (2000: 140). Her conclusion that ignorance masquerading as knowledge of women’s lives, experiences, and situations harms women amounts, emblematically, to a diagnosis of the effects of the androcentricity feminists have exposed at the core of mainstream epistemology ever since they began deconstructing its gender-neutral posture.
Epistemology’s professed gender-neutrality is continuous with its commitment to determining a priori, necessary, and sufficient conditions for ‘knowledge in general’ and refuting skepticism, thus sustaining claims to apolitical universality. Knowledge worthy of the name is conceived as a rational, intellectual product whose validity holds across ‘contingent’ details of gender, racial and ethnic identity, class, age, sexual orientation, and the particularities of affect, situation, and materiality. Hence the very idea of a feminist epistemology was long dismissed as oxymoronic and outrageous. In contrast to explicitly gender-focused feminist inquiry in moral and political philosophy which developed into an impressive body of critical-constructive inquiry in the 1960s and 1970s, gender issues in epistemology were late additions to the feminist agenda. Suggestions that gendered interventions could be required in epistemology, philosophy of science, and even logic were dismissed as preposterous manifestations of ideological excess. Knowledge, science, and logic, by definition, stood secure as guardians of objectivity and truth, protected from the vagaries of gender politics. To preserve its objective, impartial detachment, orthodox epistemology eschewed any idea of taking subjectivity into account.
Unsettling the Assumptions
In the early 1980s, Lorraine Code’s article ‘Is the Sex of the Knower Epis-mologically Significant?’ (1981), Sandra Harding and Merrill Hintikka’s landmark text Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science (1983), and Alison Jaggar’s Feminist Politics and Human Nature with its chapter on epistemology (1983) began to unsettle these sedimented assumptions. Feminists moved the question ‘whose knowledge are we talking about?’ to a central place in epistemology, where it interrogated the patterns of authority and expertise, incredulity, acknowledgement, and advocacy that enable or constrain epistemic agency in Western societies. Feminist epistemologists have analyzed women’s circumscribed access to cognitive authority, shown how the credibility accorded to testimony varies with the gender of the testifier and the social standing of those prepared to confer or withhold acknowledgement, and demonstrated how experiential evidence is devalued, in contrast to scientifically credentialed, putatively objective knowledge, abstracted from people’s desires, circumstances, and social-political positioning.
Since the early 1980s, feminist epistemologists have produced work so meticulous, sophisticated, and varied as to disrupt most of the fundamental presuppositions of traditional theories of knowledge, expanding the scope of critical investigation well beyond their formal constraints. Having established the epistemological significance of the sex of the knower, they have moved to expose the androcentricity of the epistemological project in its received forms. Androcentricity—the principal, overarching charge—implies deriving from and being relevant principally to men’s experiences. Without, implausibly, charging men ‘in general’ with conspiring to ensure the hegemony of ‘their’ knowledge while suppressing ‘women’s ways of knowing,’ feminists have exposed a remarkable congruence between evolving ideals and values of ideal (i.e., White, educated, propertied, heterosexual) masculinity throughout Western cultural, philosophical, and social history since pre-Socratic times, and values constitutive of the highest forms of rationality and most authoritative forms of knowledge (Bordo, 1987; Keller, 1985; Lloyd, 1984). The psycho-social norms affluent White male children are nurtured to embody are the very ones to equip them for a life of detached, objective, putatively knowledgeable control in a public world of work and deliberation. Regulative epistemological ideals—even such apparently incontestable ideals as objectivity, autonomy, and impartiality—affirm the value of these traits. The androcentricity of orthodox theories of knowledge derives from these ideals, distilled from abstract conceptions of the experiences of this group of privileged men. But orthodox epistemologies are not generically man-made, nor have all men participated equally in their making. Thus, androcentricity alone is too crude a charge, for theories of knowledge perpetuate power-privilege asymmetries as much according to interconnected racial, class, religious, ethnic, age, physical ability, and other differentials as to any uni-vocal sex/gender system. Hence, a viable successor epistemology must simultaneously address diverse subjectivities and embodied positionings, and pose critical questions about knowledge ‘in general.’ Indeed, in feminist and other post-colonial critiques, the very idea of ‘knowledge in general’ is drained of content.
Post-positivist theories of knowledge have, nonetheless, represented themselves as apolitical on principle. Working with formal conceptions of knowledge, remote from the experiences, practices, and situations of ‘real knowers’ (the phrase is Alcoff’s, 1996) of any gender, they have maintained a dispassionate distance from the knowledge-producing activities they purport to explain and adjudicate. This disinterested stance promises a maximally objective approach, protected from vested interest, subjective idiosyncrasy, and specificities of ideology, circumstance, and place. Unsurprisingly, such a stance offers real, embodied, situated knowers minimal guidance for understanding, evaluating, negotiating, and interpreting how the diverse, quotidian effects of established knowledge or the complexities of ordinary, or specialized, epistemic negotiations and quandaries shape their everyday lives. Orthodox epistemology presupposes a standardized knower who is everyone and no one (yet whose experiences and assumptions are strikingly congruent with those of privileged White men), and abstract, formal models of knowledge that do not travel well into the situations and problems where real people need to know. Yet while claiming to transcend the everyday, epistemology is neither self-contained within philosophy nor isolated from people’s lives. In their trickle-down effects in institutions of knowledge production and secular settings, theories of knowledge—and the knowledge they legitimate, the knowers to whom they accord epistemic authority, and the exclusions they enact—are shaped by and shape a dominant social-political imaginary of mastery and control. Thus, they participate in the structural ordering of societies and communities according to uneven distributions of authority and expertise, power and privilege.
The epistemologies of modernity, which evolved from the intellectual achievements of the Enlightenment with a later infusion of positivist-empiricist principles, coalesce around ideals of objectivity and value-neutrality, where objectivity requires a detached, neutral approach to subject matters existing in publicly observable spaces, separated from knowers/ observers and making no claims on them. Value-neutrality elaborates this detachment: bona fide knowers have no vested interest in the objects of knowledge; no reason to seek knowledge other than the pursuit of ‘pure’ inquiry. These ideals are best suited to regulate the knowledge-making of people so well situated, materially and otherwise, as to believe in the possibility of a ‘view from nowhere’ (Nagel, 1986)—of performing what Donna Haraway (1991: 189) calls ‘the god-trick’—thereby escaping the constraints of location within specific bodies, the messiness of material circumstances, the vagaries of affect, and the responsibilities of sociality. In affluent societies, such beliefs are possible mainly for White, able-bodied, educated, men who are neither too young nor too old, and whose wives take charge of everyday encumbrances: hence the androcentricity and the racial, cultural, historical, class, and other ‘centricities’ of Anglo-American epistemology.
Ideal knowers are neutral spectators, and objects of knowledge are separate from them, inert items which yield observationally verifiable knowledge. Each knower is separately accountable to the evidence, while the assumption is that his knowledge is replicable by anyone in identical circumstances. Knowers are substitutable for one another: each can act as a ‘surrogate knower,’ can put himself in anyone else’s place and know just what he would know (La Caze, 2002; Scheman, 1991: 181). Objectivity and value-neutrality presuppose a homogeneous ‘human nature,’ separately realized in each self-sufficient knower. In the name of autonomy, they discredit communal deliberations in which knowledge is negotiated and established, and erase connections between knowledge and power. The implication is that if knowers cannot see ‘from nowhere,’ from an observation position that could be anywhere and everywhere, they cannot produce reliable knowledge. Resistance to deviating from a ‘normal’ (meaning male-derived) medical model in studying women’s symptoms as they experience and report them is but one pertinent example. It exposes a conviction that ‘special interest groups’ cannot be objective; their experiences and circumstances cannot yield knowledge. So long as women—or Blacks, gays, indigenous people, the working classes, the disabled, the elderly—are thus designated, their concerns will not figure on epistemological or political agendas with those of the dominant. Their lives will not count as worth knowing nor the injustices in their situations worth addressing.
For these epistemologies, knowledge enables its possessors to predict, manipulate, and control their situations, both animate and inanimate, both human and more-than-human. Where the fact/value distinction regulates inquiry, the belief prevails that because value judgments (e.g., ‘sexual harassment is humiliating,’ ‘abortion is wrong’) cannot be verified empirically; they reduce to expressions of feeling, which must be prevented from distorting ‘the facts.’ Research cannot legitimately be inspired, governed, or justified by such values as feminist, anti-racist, or gay and lesbian advocacy commitments. These prohibitions sustain the ‘myth of the neutral man,’ presumed capable of representing everyone’s interests objectively, and of knowing women and other Others better than they know themselves. By contrast, women and other Others produce only partial, subjectively interested knowledge. Within this conceptual frame, epistemological projects perpetuate assumptions about what counts as knowledge and whose knowledge merits acknowledgement, thereby confirming the very presuppositions around which their theories of knowledge are constructed.
In what follows I show, first in some readings of the history of philosophy and then of the gender-saturated character of scientific ideals, methods, and practice, how deconstructing the conceptual underpinnings of the ideals of reason, knowledge, and objectivity exposes their androcentricity. From the historical discussion, I proceed to delineate the contours of an early philosophy-of-science-derived taxonomy for feminist epistemologies, before explaining how feminists have ceased to work strictly within its categories.
With reference to the regulative concepts and character ideals that have shaped the dominant epistemic imaginary, feminist analyses of epistemological androcentricity owe a significant debt to three theorists who, in the 1980s, exposed the historical and cultural specificity of such putatively perennial ideals as reason and rationality, objectivity, and knowledge itself. Genevieve Lloyd’s The Man of Reason (1984), Evelyn Fox Keller’s Reflections on Gender and Science (1985), and Susan Bordo’s The Flight to Objectivity (1987) created conceptual possibilities literally unimaginable in Anglo-American philosophy before these analyses appeared in print.
In a meticulous rereading of canonical texts of Western philosophy from the pre-Socratics to Simone de Beauvoir, Lloyd discerns a striking coincidence, through historical variations, between definitions, symbolisms, and ideals of masculinity and of Reason. Reason is not something people simply come across in the world. It is symbolically, metaphorically constituted all the way down: its constitution in association with ideal masculinity demarcates a rational domain inaccessible, or accessible only with difficulty, to people whose traits, possibilities, and attributes do not coincide with those of ideal White masculinity. The conceptual-symbolic dichotomies such alignments generate—mind/body, reason/emotion, objective/subjective, abstract/concrete are typical samples—align descriptively and evaluatively with a male/female dichotomy to underwrite the symbolism that represents masculinity as a regulative character ideal, defined in stark contrast to and repudiation of ‘the feminine.’ Universally valid knowledge is claimed as a product of rational endeavor, uncontaminated by opinion, emotion, or particularity, which are associated with (stereotypical) femininity. Rational knowledge, as Langton (2000) suggests, excludes women and thereby hurts them.
Keller’s and Bordo’s 1980s analyses are more psycho-social than symbolic, yet their engagement with the gendered conceptual apparatus of Western philosophy is continuous with Lloyd’s. For Bordo, Cartesian objectivism derives from a seventeenth-century ‘flight from the feminine,’ testifying to a conviction that the epistemological task, both practical and theoretical, was to tame the chaos of ‘the female universe’ (see also Bordo, 1999). Only from a stance of self-controlled objectivity conceptualized as masculine, and removed from the particularities of time, place, idiosyncrasy, embodiment, and a fortiori from the object itself, could a knower achieve this project. Indebted to object-relations theory, Bordo reads the requirements of objectivism as strategies to dispel a pervasive (masculine) anxiety produced by separation from the mother and, derivatively, from ‘reality.’
For Keller, too, conceptions of rationality, objectivity, and a will to dominate nature inform an ideal of masculinity and contribute to institutionalizing a ‘normal science’ adapted to the traits of (male) practitioners. Her respect for scientific achievements and methods is palpable; yet she too discerns alignments between dominant conceptions of reason, masculinity, knowledge, and scientific practice, as clearly in the philosophy of Plato and Bacon as in the exclusions effected by twentieth-century science. In an equivalently path-breaking text for feminist inquiry, Keller reads the scientific establishment’s failure to accord timely recognition to geneticist Barbara McClintock (who ultimately was awarded a Nobel Prize) as occasioned by McClintock’s divergent (from the masculine norm) scientific style (Keller, 1983). These works count among the texts—and producers of the contexts—which, at a conceptual level, explicitly or implicitly made feminist epistemology possible.
Cognizant of a range of conceptual possibilities generated out of these analyses, feminists have worked within and against received epistemologies, drawing on those of their resources that withstand critical scrutiny while contesting their exclusionary, oppressive, and harmful effects. Feminist epistemology requires more radical transformations than the old ‘add women and stir’ adage can offer. Few epistemologists seek to achieve feminist ends simply by introducing women into the population of accredited knowers and adding ‘women’s issues’ to the subject matter of epistemology, leaving sedimented conceptions of reason and knowledge unchallenged. Yet most resist positing essentialized ‘women’s ways of knowing’ which run parallel to, but do not disturb, the entrenched epistemic imaginary. No longer constructing idealized accounts of what abstract knowers should do, feminists ground normative conclusions in the demands faced by real, embodied, specifically located knowers endeavoring to construct knowledge that can serve people well in real-world (and/or real scientific/social scientific) circumstances.
Because of physical science’s eminence in the Western world as the declared site of the best, most sophisticated knowledge humankind has achieved, with methods more reliable than any hitherto known, it is no surprise that the formative analyses of gender and epistemology came from philosophy of science. Yet the scope of feminist epistemology is broader than and different from that of feminist philosophy of science, although commitments to common causes allow for innovative cross-fertilizations.
Among the most influential works of the 1980s was Sandra Harding’s The Science Question in Feminism. Starting from philosophy of science, Harding (1986; 1993) proposed a taxonomy for differentiating among feminist approaches to questions of knowledge and science. She discerned three strands of inquiry, labeling them feminist empiricism, feminist standpoint theory, and feminist postmodernism. The ordering marked degrees of radicality, with empiricism remaining closest to traditional theories of scientific knowledge and postmodernism departing most sharply from them, challenging them at their roots. This taxonomy has been superseded as feminists have realized that neither science projects nor epistemologies of everyday life can be summed up so neatly and as the postmodern import of the entire project has been variously conceived. Yet because these categories characterized so much critical debate in the late 1980s and the 1990s, I begin with a sketch of empiricism and standpoint theory, separately and in their overlapping commitments, and continue by showing how postmodernism in its multiple modalities both differs from and concurs with them. The point to remember, however, is that many feminist and post-colonial knowledge projects do not fit neatly into these categories, separately or combined.
Despite differences in their political stances and points of origin, standpoint and empiricist feminism do not diverge from one another as sharply as their distinct titles suggest. Empiricists for whom strong objectivity is a regulative ideal are closer to standpoint theorists than the seemingly stark divisions between the categories suggest, and standpoint theorists are often realists in ways close to those that mark empiricist projects. Moreover, all three feminist epistemologies are postmodern to varying degrees in rejecting such fundamental tenets of the Enlightenment project as belief in a universal, homogeneous human nature, in universal conceptions of knowledge, reason, and morality, and in the need to transcend the specificities of lives and situations.
Consistently with traditional empiricist principles, feminist empiricists such as Helen Longino (1990; 2002) and Lynn Hankinson Nelson (1990; Nelson and Nelson, 2003) hold that knowledge requires a basis in empirical evidence. Otherwise, it cannot enable people to move capably about the physical world and engage effectively with diverse social, political, and ‘natural’ situations. Such claims pertain to everyday knowledge and to scientific and other academic knowledge across the disciplines. Feminists part company, however, with classical empiricists’ requirement that evidence must come from ideal observation conditions where knowers figure as self-reliant, neutral information-processors whose access to ‘the evidence’ is assured by their simply encountering it. Such knowers are separate and interchangeable, since specificities of their bodily and subjective locations are erased for analytic purposes. A model of evidence as self-announcing, and knowers as individually, uniformly ready to receive it (knowledge as found, not made), which feminist empiricists contest, dominates classical empiricist claims about everyday knowledge, and natural and social scientific knowledge.
Although, ex hypothesi, post-positivist empiricism discounts historical, gendered, locational cognitive differences as biases or aberrations—individual errors to be eradicated and thence disregarded in formal justification—feminist empiricists argue that knowledge is indelibly shaped by its creators: it bears the marks of their gendered and other epistemic locations. Despite its alleged empirical-experiential grounding, traditional empiricism presupposes an abstract conception of experience, where differences are homogenized under one dominant conception of knowledge and knowers. In practice, this conception again mirrors and replicates the lives and experiences its (usually White, prosperous, educated male) creators are positioned to consider exemplary.
Producing secular and scientific knowledge that is neither androcentered nor tainted by racism, classism, sexism, or other oppressive-exclusionary biases is the goal of feminist empiricists. They reaffirm science’s impressive achievements in the laboratory and in everyday lives, enabling many human beings to live knowledgeably and well. But their guiding claim is that a rigorous yet unabashedly value-laden empiricism (i.e., informed by feminist values) can produce more adequate knowledge than one whose practitioners are ignorant of the epistemic effects of their specificity, especially of their complicity in sustaining a hierarchical sex/gender system. It can enable inquirers to see, and work to explicate, evidence that slips through the conceptual grids non-feminists rely on. Investigators thus become as accountable to epistemic communities as to the evidence, and details of subjectivity, epistemic location, and interests are likewise opened to empirical scrutiny and count among conditions for the possibility of knowledge. The idea is that politically informed inquiry generates ‘strong objectivity,’ more objective than an objectivity whose self-definition bypasses the circumstances of its own possibility (Harding, 1991; 1993). Objectivity is enhanced by feminist-informed cognizance (and racial, class, and other ‘difference’-sensitive awareness) of the effects of subjective positioning for achieving good observations and deriving sound conclusions. Components of knowers’ epistemic locations thus require analyses as rigorous as the evaluations of the knowledge claims he/she/they advance(s).
The leading neo-empiricist feminist epistemologies of the 1990s eschew enclosed, uni-linear conceptions of accountability (from observer to evidence), to move toward socially located theories of knowledge, frequently derived from philosophy of science. Longino’s contextual empiricism advances a view of science as social knowledge, examining background assumptions for their constitutive part in knowledge production and evaluation (1990; 2002). She emphasizes the contribution of critical social reception in making knowledge possible, declaring people’s relation to a cognitive community as significant as their relation to the objects and content of knowledge (2002: 122-123). Neither scientific nor secular inquiry, then, is presumed value-free, as classical empiricists insist: cultural and social values form the background assumptions, embedded in communal wisdom, from which inquiry is generated. These assumptions require critical scrutiny at the level where they shape conceptualizations of research projects, hypotheses that guide and regulate inquiry, and taken-for-granted beliefs about what counts as evidence and what merely as irrelevant aberration. Diverse background assumptions, Longino shows, can produce radically different readings of ‘the same’ natural phenomena. Yet paradoxically, background assumptions are often invisible to those whose thinking they shape, so that internal investigations may fail to expose them. Hence the need for critical ‘outsider’ voices to sustain community standards of respect for evidence, accountable cognitive agency, and reliably collaborative knowledge-seeking. Objectivity becomes an explicitly social achievement.
Nelson, whose naturalized empiricism elaborates W. V. O. Quine’s conception of knowledge as consisting of webs of belief, eschews classical empiricism’s concentration on evaluating monologic knowledge claims formally structured as ‘S knows that p’ or multiples thereof, to propose a conception of beliefs embedded in theories, evolving holistically as the theories are tested against new evidence, and introduced into diverse contexts (Nelson, 1990; Nelson and Nelson, 2003). She commends Quine’s ‘naturalistic epistemology’ for its turn toward studying real human knowledge-making as contrasted with idealized, stylized knowledge claims, while moving beyond Quine to expose gender, race, and class-insensitivities embedded in received theories of social science, including the scientific psychology which, for Quine, is where human cognitive activity should be studied. Longino and Nelson engage in critical social-cultural rereadings of background assumptions or webs of belief that perpetuate the androcentricity both of scientific ideology and of more secular epistemologies of everyday life.
Feminist empiricists of the 1990s thus shifted attention from exclusive concentration on knowledge itself to questions about who knows, and how. Yet empiricists pose these questions at a different level from theorists who avow a Marxist and/or postmodern influence. Even for feminist empiricists who reject abstract individualism, the new knowing subject often emerges as separate and relatively self-contained, capable of formulating knowledge claims monologically and independently, even while presenting them for communal critique. The community emphasis redistributes burdens of evidence-gathering and proof, and reconfigures patterns of accountability to transform epistemic practice. But even feminist empiricists like Nelson, for whom agents of knowledge are not individuals but communities, pay scant attention to how knowing subjects and communities are themselves socially/communally produced within power-saturated structures of domination and subordination.
Standpoint theorists part company with feminist empiricists in their refusal of individualism and their focus on power as it infuses knowledge production throughout the social-material world. Not even a rigorously feminist empiricism, they argue, offers sufficiently radical analyses of the historical-material circumstances that produce experience, knowledge, and subjectivity. Constructing an analogy between women’s epistemic position under patriarchy and the proletarian economic position under capitalism, they argue that just as capitalist ideology represents proletarian subordination to the bourgeoisie as natural, so patriarchal ideology represents women’s subordination to men as natural. Just as Marxists take material-historical experiences of proletarian lives as their starting point, so feminist standpoint theorists start from women’s experiences in material-historical circumstances where power is distributed according to a hierarchical sex/gender system, with men occupying the positions of epistemic, and other, privilege. Nancy Hartsock (1983), Dorothy Smith (1987; 1990), Hilary Rose (1983; 1994), Patricia Hill Collins (1990), and Sandra Harding (1991) were the principal articulators of feminist standpoint epistemology in the 1980s and 1990s.
A feminist standpoint must not be confused with a ‘women’s standpoint,’ theirs simply by virtue of their femaleness, nor is it an interchangeable perspective which any woman (or feminist man) could occupy by deciding to do so. It is a hard-won product of consciousness-raising and social-political engagement that exposes the false presuppositions of the ‘myth of the neutral man’ on which domination and subordination rely. Just as the purpose of Marxist consciousness-raising was to enable the proletariat to understand that their subordination was not caused by defects in their ‘nature’ and to demonstrate the contingency of the social order represented as natural, so the purpose of feminist consciousness-raising is to enable women to recognize their experiences of oppression as oppressive, not natural, to understand them as artifacts of a social order designed to ensure masculine supremacy. The goal is to empower women to recognize the validity of their experiences, in defiance of a long history of men speaking for and about women and claiming to know them better than women could know themselves. Yet the aim is not to substitute a new tyranny of experientialism, where experiential reports are inviolable and closed to critical analysis, but to create space where experiences can be interpreted and debated in open, democratic processes of feminist-informed collectivity and solidarity.
Standpoint theorists contend that the detailed, strategic knowledge the oppressed acquire of the workings of the social order just to function within it can become a resource for undermining that order. Their project is not to aggregate women around a unified or representative standpoint, but to acknowledge women’s diverse material, domestic, intellectual, and professional labor as knowledgeable practices, and their marginalized experiences as affording an epistemic privilege unavailable to those whose lives are so replete with material goods and social-political authority that they need not understand the structures that make them possible: they can remain ignorant. Haraway puts it well: ‘There is no single feminist standpoint because our maps require too many dimensions for that metaphor to ground our visions. But the feminist standpoint theorists’ goal of an epistemology and politics of engaged, accountable positioning remains eminently potent’ (1991: 196).
Standpoint theorists eschew goals of determining necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge in order to establish its starting points and testing grounds in women’s experiences. Empiricism—feminist or otherwise—cannot offer sufficiently radical analyses of the structural factors shaping women’s practices and consciousness in the everyday world, where authoritative knowledge derives from the experiences of the dominant. Locating investigators on the same plane as the investigated, bringing their social, material, political, racial, economic, and sexual situations—the power and privilege that naturalize hierarchical arrangements—as sharply into focus as traditional ‘objects of knowledge,’ standpoint theorists contest epistemic neutrality. They expose patterns of dominance and subordination in which knowledge is produced and legitimated, showing that even allegedly disinterested empirical science demands scrutiny for the forces that produce both its successes and its failures. Thus, they aim to achieve transformative understandings of social structures that devalue women’s labor and accord its practitioners minimal social-political authority, especially within the privileged structures of such professions as law, medicine, academia, and the corporate world.
Feminist Postmodernist Epistemologies
Most feminist epistemologies could be labeled postmodern if only because of the critical distance they variously take from the regulative conceptions of knowledge and subjectivity constitutive of the epistemologies of modernity. Postmodern feminists who explicitly own the label tend to take a more radical stance vis-à-vis knowledge and subjectivity than feminist empiricists or standpoint theorists, but separating them should not blur the connections among them. Indebted to psychoanalytic and literary theory and ‘continental’ philosophy in its various modalities, feminist postmodernists highlight the opaque, often contradictory aspects of subjectivity, while concentrating on the effects of embodiment—of bodily specificity—and on differences, especially corporeal, as they inflect and are inflected by material, racial, class, sexual, and other politics of difference.
Their flavor is apparent in Kathleen Lennon and Margaret Whitford’s Knowing the Difference (1994): the editors characterize the postmodernism of the essays in the volume as entailing a ‘recognition that all of our interactions with reality are mediated by conceptual frameworks or discourses… themselves… historically and socially situated… [and that] fragmentation and contradictions are inevitable and we will not necessarily be able to overcome them’ (1994: 5; see also Hekman, 1990). Yet the tensions these contradictions enact generate the very energies feminist epistemologists need to negotiate the complexities of situations where objective, well-established facts are required to contest oppression, together with a measure of strategic skepticism to guard against a too-easy closure that could block attention to differences. Such projects often require both affirming politically informed identities and allegiances and remaining wary of the tendencies of identity politics and political categories to impose hard-edged structures when events and circumstances require openness to critical-transformative intervention. Many postmodern feminists work from a conviction that knowledge and power interpenetrate, so knowledge can only ever be partial, again in two senses of the word: it is always incomplete, and it comes from and speaks to particular interests and social groups.
With respect to power, feminists have engaged, ambivalently, with Michel Foucault, and especially his view of the ‘micro-physics’ of power permeating the social order as capillaries run imperceptibly through human bodies (Barrett, 1991; Foucault, 1980). Power, thus, is not owned by individual agents: it is exercised in social practices and legitimated within disciplinary mechanisms of surveillance, regulation, and classification. It is as productive as it is negative or repressive: it produces discourses, pleasures, meanings, subversive resistance. Such analyses make room for explaining how the sexual control of women’s bodies is ubiquitously experienced and enacted, even when it comes from nowhere in particular. They show how ‘subjugated knowledges’ such as women have to acquire can infiltrate the gaps and interstices of allegedly seamless epistemic positions. Yet some feminists charge Foucault with ignoring macro-structures of power whose effects for women are palpable in global labor practices; others for advancing no viable conception of agency, just when women and other Others are claiming an agency from which they have long been excluded (Hartsock, 1990).
Women’s experiences—their erasure, integrity, veracity—figure centrally in standpoint and postmodern projects: feminist research and activism recognize how women’s experiences are consigned to invisibility throughout Western history in malestream thought and action. But feminists also insist that experience rarely ‘speaks for itself,’ and experiences are rarely unmediated, as classical empiricist rhetoric implies: hence, standpoint theorists’ emphasis on consciousness-raising. Even the most vivid private experience often requires interpretive negotiation to expose its patterns of embedded-ness in larger social structures and to enable experiencers and interpreters to understand how it is mediated by biographical and social-cultural location (Scott, 1992). Postmodern emphasis on subjectivity’s instability and opacity moves these issues to a level where the contestability of experience and of identity claims invoked to ground it has to be balanced against feminist commitments to take women’s experiences seriously. Feminists thus tread a perilous path between a tyranny of authoritarian expertise that discounts the veracity of women’s experiences and those of other marginalized, oppressed people and a tyranny of ‘experientialism’ that shields first-person experiential claims from critical-interpretive challenge or can yield only what Sonia Kruks calls ‘an epistemology of provenance’ where ‘knowledge arises from an experiential basis… so fundamentally group-specific that others, who are outside the group and who lack its immediate experiences, cannot share that knowledge’ (2001: 109). Feminist social scientists are particularly aware of these issues (see, for example, di Leonardo, 1991); feminist biographers and biologists have to develop an interpretive sensitivity to discern and contest the effects of mechanisms of power even in seemingly straightforward observations and experiential reports.
Since the mid-1990s, in philosophy of science and elsewhere, feminist epistemology has resisted containment in the categories set out in Harding’s 1986 taxonomy, although many researchers continue to draw on the theoretical resources and research practices empiricist, standpoint, and postmodern feminists make available, while rarely claiming exclusive allegiance to one position. Often in reciprocally instructive dialogue with philosophers of science, feminist epistemologists who do not concentrate on gender in the natural sciences are engaged in interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary projects where epistemological assumptions are unearthed and analyzed locally within such specific domains and practices as social science, law, medicine, moral deliberation, and policy-making.
Moving away from philosophy of science does not amount to rejecting scientific findings. Many domains I have mentioned—notably law and medicine—are crucially reliant on state-of-the-art science, and feminists in these areas may be as conversant with feminist philosophy of science as with the epistemology specifically pertinent to their own research and practice. Others turn to literature and cultural production as sites of knowledge-making that interrogate the complacency of mainstream assumptions about knowledge, power and privilege, sexuality and gender, racial and ethnic categories, and social class, age and disability. Their findings often illuminate issues in quite different feminist domains. To cite one extra-scientific example, Patricia Williams’s mappings of the lived effects of systemic racism produce knowledge specific to a professional Black woman’s (local) experiences in the urban, northern United States, which is translatable by analogy to racism and issues of epistemic accountability in other situations (1991; 1997). Producing natural histories of human beings in their myriad everyday epistemic activities, both professional and private, and in institutions of knowledge production, these multilayered, multi-directional projects also naturalize epistemology. They challenge the boundaries traditionally delineated with reference to physical science and modeled on scientific method to show that knowledge issues run through and shape human lives in ways no monologic, disinterested theory could address (Hubbard, 1990; Stanley, 1992).
Haraway’s ‘Situated Knowledges’ (1991), whose influence cannot be overestimated, is a centerpiece of these inquiries. It offers feminist successor epistemologies a particularly effective interpretive tool. Haraway argues for the political necessity of maintaining a commitment to objectivity—to learning to see well—while recognizing the implausibility of assuming everyone could see in the very same way. That, she says, is ‘the god-trick of seeing everything from nowhere’ or the imaginary of neutral, replicable knowers facing infinitely replicable objects of knowledge. ‘Seeing well,’ she contends, does not just happen: it is cognizant of its particularity and the accountability requirements specific to its location, and aware of ‘the critical and interpretive core of all knowledge.’ Embodied knowers engage with objects in the world, whose agency and unpredictability unsettle any hope of perfect knowledge and control, nor do these embodied knowers comprise a homogeneous group. In ecofeminist philosophy, Haraway finds one place where feminists recognize that ‘we are not in charge of the world’ (1991: 191,199), a thought she pursues with increased sophistication and subtlety in Modest Witness (1997). Haraway’s ‘seeing well’ preserves an empiricist-realist belief in a world independent of knowers, about which they can be right or wrong. Her emphasis on situatedness and materiality accords with standpoint theorists’ and postmodern critiques of the unified, perfectly knowable subject and object of the Enlightenment legacy, even as her work exceeds the confines of those categories.
An equally powerful recognition that ‘we are not in charge of the world’ comes from Karen Barad’s ‘agential realism’ (1996; 2002) which, like Haraway’s work but starting from physics, moves beyond realism-versus-constructivism to develop an account of intra-actions from which subjects and objects are constituted. Agential realism claims recognition for the agency of material entities and of human discursive practices: the phenomena it knows are not mere representations of a passive nature awaiting a disinterested knower, but specific intra-actions of the human and non-human, material and discursive, natural and cultural. It incorporates a call for accountability, provides a viable alternative to essentialism, and offers enlarged conceptions of human and material agency.
Although it is not grounded in physical science, Lorraine Code’s position is residually empiricist in acknowledging the physical, material, and social world’s resistance to casual restructuring or intervention. Emphasizing the specificity of epistemic agents and cognitive circumstances, the position claims affinities, also, with standpoint theory and postmodernism. Arguing that persons are ‘second persons’ whose achieved subjectivity is interactive, dialogic, deliberative, it accords knowing other people exemplary status, analogous to the status traditionally accorded knowing middle-sized material objects. Responsive knowledge of/about people is less reductive, more adequate to the heterogeneous constructive-negotiative-interpretive features of everyday evidence-gathering than standard empiricism. Endorsing a methodological pluralism indebted to Foucault’s work on ‘local knowledges,’ and wary of homogenizing people, artifacts, material objects, and events as ‘objects’ of knowledge, under a unified model; it resists assuming that ‘one size fits all’ to work by analogy and dis-analogy, from situation to situation. Hence its pluralism. Contesting a too-exclusive (traditional) focus on perception and memory as sources of knowledge, this approach redirects attention to testimony and the multiple patterns of incredulity that acknowledge or dismiss it according to whose it is, who is speaking, within power-infused structures of authority and expertise (Code, 1987; 1991; 1995; 2006).
In her most recent work, Code locates these patterns in an ecological model of knowledge and subjectivity, in a (naturalized) understanding of cognitive interdependence and the radical interdependence of human lives and the natural-social world (Code, 2006). Both commendatory and critical of Quinean ‘naturalized epistemology,’ she applauds its shift from idealized abstraction and a priori analysis toward studying real epistemic practices, while contesting the idea that natural science alone produces knowledge worthy of the name, thus allowing scientists to evade questions about how they select ‘the natural,’ how laboratory specimens, behaviors, and findings translate into more ordinary epistemic moments, how items are isolated for controlled study or results achieved, analyzed, and circulated. Although ‘ecological naturalism’ locates this project within a naturalistic frame, it moves outside the laboratory to diverse knowers, circumstances, institutions, and places where knowledge is constructed and evaluated. Ecology talk functions metaphorically and literally in this project, signaling engagement in naturalist-materialist analyses of practices specific to institutions of knowledge-production and everyday lives, exposing inequalities implicated in standards of judgment, authority, and expertise, thereby working toward democratic, responsible epistemic communities. ‘Situation’ and place are constitutive, if not determinative, of how problems are defined, evidence recognized, read, and interpreted, and epistemic agency exercised: thus, situation and place are not merely context or backdrop. Their constraining and enabling factors need to be charted in concert with investigations of the knowledge produced there.
Moving to a different interaction with twentieth-century epistemology, Linda Alcoff’s Real Knowing investigates the promise of coherentist epistemology for feminist projects (1996; 2003). Juxtaposing such central mainstream analytic figures as Hilary Putnam, Richard Rorty, and Donald Davidson with the ‘continental’ philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Michel Foucault, Alcoff turns to historical conceptions of truth, arguing that ‘histori-cizing’ truth neither renders it irrational nor prompts a descent into unreason. In Gadamerian hermeneutic interpretation and his conception of experience as meaningful, and thus open to interpretation at its most basic level, Alcoff finds an immanent metaphysics or ontology of truth which ‘poses an interaction between knower and known out of which truth is produced… immanent to the domain of lived reality rather than completely transcendental to any human practice or context.’ Situating Gadamer’s engagement with questions of knowledge, Alcoff argues that he offers a way of conceptualizing the locatedness of knowers ‘not as a detriment but as a necessary condition for knowledge’ (1996: 66, 79). Her reading of Foucault goes beyond relationships between power and knowledge to address his archaeological and genealogical methods as exposing the limits and constitutive forces shaping human knowledge. The positions she analyzes contribute to a larger project of immanent critique and to standards of evaluation based in demonstrable coherence. Working within texts and practices, she contends that epistemologists must always, self-reflexively, question the legitimacy of their claims to know or to speak for others, or about real-world events.
New Directions: A Sampling
In the new millennium, some feminist epistemologists have turned away from standpoint and/or postmodern theory toward pragmatism, realism, pluralism: positions as critical of the (imagined) excesses of postmodernism and the limitations of standpoint theory as indebted to them, and creative in proposing new directions. Three examples will convey a sense of how these lines of thought are developing. Some US feminists find in John Dewey’s pragmatism a valuable resource, particularly because he accords centrality to practices and practical activities in his philosophy of experience, represents theory and practice as intertwined in science and in everyday knowledge, and sees in common sense a way of overcoming dualisms that plague philosophy. Feminists are drawn to this focus on practices and on the differences they make in the real world, as well as to pragmatist claims for the social nature of knowledge and justification. Yet, in Lisa Heldke’s words, they are mindful of Dewey’s failure to see the everyday activities of women’s work as practices worthy of analysis (2002: 255).
Starting from Dewey’s theory of inquiry, yet moving creatively beyond it, Shannon Sullivan develops a conception of ‘transactional knowing,’ where bodies are in ongoing transactions with one another and with the physical and social world; experience is neither incontestably given nor foundational but open to reflective interpretation in which no one position or perspective claims privilege (2001: esp. ch. 6). She names her position a pragmatist-feminist standpoint theory for which knowing is a mode of experimental investigation. Knowers investigate problematic situations with the goal of developing solutions capable of effecting changes in their lives and the world, both human and more than human.
Critical of postmodernism’s excessive distrust of identity politics, Paula Moya develops ‘a postpositivist realist position’: a theoretical ‘pragmatism’ for which objectivity is ‘a theory-dependent, socially realizable goal’ (2001: 444). She charges postmodern contestations of identity politics and objectivity with failing to empower Chicana and other ‘difference’ feminists to name and claim the oppressions they experience, consequent upon their marginalized identities, and to address the factuality of physical-material objects and events that sustain their specific forms of oppression. Cognizant of needing to avoid a dogmatism that solidifies and essentializes identities and conceptions of reality, she argues for the political cogency of a position capable of grounding ‘the complex and variable experiences of the women who take on the identity Chicana within the concrete historical and material conditions they inhabit’ (p. 479). It is rooted in specificities of US Chicana lives, yet translatable by analogy and dis-analogy across diverse circumstances where social identities are causally linked to, yet not determinative of the experiences, and thus the knowledge, of any knower(s).
Feminists drawn to pragmatism as it informs and underpins ethical-political situations have enlisted its resources to show that realism in feminist epistemology need not escalate into dogmatism, nor identity claims into essentialism. Their views are partially compatible with Miranda Fricker’s claims for a pluralism ‘capable of honouring the everyday insight (whose feminist theoretical expression originates in standpoint theory) that social differences give rise to differences in the perspectives in which the world is viewed, and that power can be an influence in whose perspectives seem rational’ (2000: 160). These are some of the creative, innovative ways feminist epistemologists address the gender question in the early twenty-first century.
A different inspiration for twenty-first century feminist inquiry comes from projects that show how a ‘politics of unknowing’ fosters and condones ignorance, thereby preserving the temptations and illusions a god’s-eye view still offers. According to Charles Mills, White Western society is founded on a Racial Contract which ‘prescribes…an inverted epistemology, an epistemology of ignorance… [which produces] the ironic outcome that whites will be unable to understand the world they themselves have made’ (1997: 18). This idea has opened the way for exploring the implications of an epistemology of ignorance, capable of exposing the exclusions and silencings effected by the pretensions and presuppositions of hegemonic epistemologies.
Comparable unknowings characterize ‘the epistemology of the closet’ which, for Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, simultaneously gives ‘an overarching consistency to gay culture and identity’ throughout the twentieth century, and is ‘the defining structure for gay oppression’ (1990: 68, 71). Kosofsky Sedgwick analyzes the liberatory promise and the dangers of coming out, where oppositions between gay and straight as different, clearly defined, and readily knowable ‘natural kinds’ are assumed, while the conceptual apparatus for thinking about homo/heterosexual definitions is markedly impoverished. In consequence, an impasse paralyzes debates between ‘minoritizing and universalizing views of homosexual definition.’ It attests to stark asymmetries of gender and to heterosexist oppression. Kosofsky Sedgwick warns against the damage a too-swift move toward an artificially achieved congruity would enact in a still-fragile, incoherent political and private situation.
These changes make space for analyses of ignorance, willed or inadvertent, as productive of the exclusions and harms Langton (2000) names: ignorance that allows, condones, and legitimates the perceptions of the ‘arrogant eye,’ characterized by Marilyn Frye as that of the arrogant perceiver who ‘coerces the objects of his perception into satisfying the conditions his perception imposes’ (1983: 67). Contesting the power ofthat eye, with the innumerable ‘unseeings,’ harms and misconceptions its deliverances have generated in Western societies, is a guiding motivation of feminist inquiry into the gendering of epistemology and the knowledge it has to interrogate.