Feminist philosophy of science: ‘standpoint’ and knowledge

Abstract

Feminist philosophy of science has been criticized on several counts. On the one hand, it is claimed that it results in relativism of the worst sort since the political commitment to feminism is prima facie incompatible with scientific objectivity. On the other hand, when critics acknowledge that there may be some value in work that feminists have done, they comment that there is nothing particularly feminist about their accounts. I argue that both criticisms can be addressed through a better understanding of the current work in feminist epistemology. I offer an examination of standpoint theory as an illustration. Harding and Wylie have suggested ways in which the objectivity question can be addressed. These two accounts together with a third approach, ‘model-based objectivity’, indicate there is a clear sense in which we can understand how a standpoint theory both contributes to a better understanding of scientific knowledge and can provide a feminist epistemology.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Although it is not always clear what critics mean when they accuse feminists of being social constructivist, since the term itself is used in many different ways. The sense which is most problematic would be one in which it is claimed that the world itself, or at least parts of it, is constructed. Hacking (2000) is an excellent source for exploring its ambiguities and misuses and argues there is much confusion about ‘constructivism’ as a result of conflating the construction of concepts with the construction of reality. ‘Relativism’ is similarly confusing, since there are many varieties. There is some agreement that an epistemological relativism leads to skepticism and thus undermines the possibility of knowledge, but even this position is not unanimous. Other forms of relativism (sociological relativism or cultural relativism) are sometimes thought to be less problematic.

  2. 2.

    An example is Koertge (1980), ‘But a new epistemology? One that is an improvement over the one that underlies all of modern science? Frankly, I am dubious’ (p 356).

  3. 3.

    Kitcher’s (2001) engagement with Helen Longino’s work, Rouse’s (1996) discussion of Haraway’s ideas, and Lacey’s (1999) consideration of feminist strategies as an alternative to materialist strategies are some examples of the broader reach of feminist epistemology. Also, I am not claiming that feminist epistemology is the only source of insight into the role of values in science. One example of recent work in this area is Machamer and Wolters (eds) (2004).

  4. 4.

    As with most philosophies of science that take the role of the social in the production of scientific knowledge seriously, the emphasis is on social values not the values of individual scientists.

  5. 5.

    But then it is not even clear that it is correct to claim that postmodernists embrace relativism, as they frequently reject the presuppositions that lead to the relativist/absolutist divide. Rorty (1979) and Haraway (1991) both make this point.

  6. 6.

    Another alternative might be a hermeneutic approach.

  7. 7.

    Although this may depend on what is meant by ‘feminist.’ So, for instance, Alison Wylie’s understanding of standpoint theory might be described as a feminist empiricist version of standpoint theory.

  8. 8.

    This is not always clear in the work of standpoint theorists. One value of Hekman’s (1997) critique has been that subsequent explications of standpoint have clarified this point (Harding 1997; Wylie 2004).

  9. 9.

    The appeal to consciousness-raising reflects standpoint theory’s roots in the feminist political movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

  10. 10.

    ‘Traditional ... insiders’ are in ‘no position’ to ‘notice the specific anomalies’ because they do not experience them as anomalies.

  11. 11.

    There is no one complete accounting of the sorts of values that potentially play a role in science. There is some consensus around a distinction between cognitive/non-cognitive, epistemic/non-epistemic, or sometimes epistemic/social values. I have used something like the latter distinction but have done little to analyze it, something that is a pressing need. But there are other distinctions that are made that seem related to those above and yet do not map onto them exactly. So, for instance, Longino (1990, 2001) distinguishes between constitutive and contextual values. This distinction is supposed to cut across the cognitive/non-cognitive distinction and allow for the possibility of contextual values, which might include social values, playing cognitive roles. Solomon (2001) makes a distinction between theoretical virtues and empirical virtues of theories. This too would seem to be an effort to re-organize the distinction. As Machamer and Wolters (2004) put it in their introduction, ‘But as soon as we turn to inquiring into the kinds of values there are a veritable plethora of confusions and unclarities greets us. Just think of cognitive, epistemic, truth preserving, social, cultural, political, emotional, personal, individual, subjective, economic, ..., and the notorious family values’ (p 2).

  12. 12.

    This account is first developed in Harding (1991).

  13. 13.

    Notice that she is not saying that strong objectivity is achieved when any particular standpoint is adopted. The question of whether the standpoint produces better knowledge remains to be judged.

  14. 14.

    That this is a legitimate sort of question to ask has been affirmed by the work of Kitcher and Longino to which I have already referred.

  15. 15.

    I am using the idea of bootstrapping in the spirit of Glymour’s (1980) account. It is a non-foundationalist approach that allows for a recalibration of both theory and evidence, each in light of the other. I am deliberating evoking the spirit, if not necessarily the details of the account. All three of the accounts of objectivity discussed in this paper are consistent with this spirit in that they are non-foundationalist.

  16. 16.

    Wylie is identifying two aspects of objectivity here. Recent work on objectivity parses the meaning of the term in a variety of different ways (Lloyd 1995; Douglas 2004; Janack 2002). All have listed more varieties of objectivity, but I would argue that most of the distinctions they make could be grouped into these broader categories that Wylie uses.

  17. 17.

    For example, we use Newtonian physics, which is less accurate, rather than Einsteinian physics for many calculations because the less accurate but simpler calculations are pragmatically adequate.

  18. 18.

    Taking the ordinary actions of ‘everyday/everynight’ life, as Smith puts it, and understanding the way in which they are shaped by social factors is one of the key features that standpoint theory provides. ‘The household work process that I analyze and the defensive strategies that Stanko studies are activities that most women learn to take for granted, activities that are normally only partly conscious, learned without explicit attention’ (DeVault 1999, p 64).

  19. 19.

    In order to explicate ‘model-based objectivity,’ I will be using an understanding of ‘model’ akin to Cartwright’s (1999). According to Cartwright, theories do not represent the world directly and models do not constitute theories. ‘There are not theories, on the one hand, that represent and phenomena on the other hand, that get represented (though perhaps only more less accurately). Rather, ... models mediate between theory and the world’ (1999, p 179). Models might be physical, scale models, mathematical, conceptual, representations, analogies, drawings, or even narratives. Other similar understandings of ‘model’ include Giere (2004), Morrison (1999), and Bailer-Jones (2002a, b, 2003). A model-theoretic account is not the same as the ‘semantic view’ of theories on which models are formal or mathematical, however the semantic view is a kind of model-theoretic account (i.e., van Fraassen 1980).

  20. 20.

    As Morrison puts it ‘models have a rather hybrid nature (neither theory nor simple descriptions of the world) ... they are able to mediate between the theory and the world and intervene in both domains’ (1999, pp 44–45).

  21. 21.

    It is with trepidation that I use ‘construct’ here. Let me just be clear that I am not claiming that we construct the world. The scientific objects are not intended to be isomorphic with objects in the world on this account, but are a means through which we can know those objects. It is the model that is constructed and the scientific objects are part of the model.

  22. 22.

    Giere refers to ‘principles’ as directing model construction in this way (2004).

  23. 23.

    The latter is Longino’s distinction, but some version of this distinction is either made by or assumed by most who address the issue of values and science, including, among others, Solomon (2001), Lacey (1999), and Kitcher (2001). As I have noted above, Harding and Wylie also implicitly make use of the distinction.

  24. 24.

    But to say that the knowledge is ‘for woman’ is misleading since it suggests that all women have the same interests. As noted above standpoint theory must recognize diversity. Interests may need to be locally identified. The question of how broadly interests are shared is an empirical one.

  25. 25.

    The name of the town is a pseudonym however the shantytown (Alto do Cruziero) is referred to by its actual name.

  26. 26.

    She attributes this view to Sara Ruddick.

  27. 27.

    Rescues are only a first stage. Organizing a crèche and distribution of food were thought of as longer term solutions, however, these measures failed to eliminate the problem as well.

  28. 28.

    Whether the bond is fundamentally cultural or only partially shaped by culture need not be specified for the purposes of the discussion. The main point is that a model that treats the bond as purely natural will be inadequate to the goal.

  29. 29.

    Notice that what is being explained by the account is not the individual deaths of the infants. What is being explained is the high rate of infant mortality in this population. The alternative models both have to capture the physiological factors that are relevant. Scheper-Hughes preferred model incorporates key cultural elements as well. The model is not better because it is more detailed. It is better because the details are causally relevant to explaining the rate of infant mortality.

  30. 30.

    For example, religion plays such a role. The women interpret Christ’s death on the cross as an example of how some must die so that others live.

  31. 31.

    The account also can explain the ‘greater objectivity’ of the physical sciences. This objectivity rests in the greater agreement about goals and interests in relation to the physical world. The success of Western science and its adoption throughout the world is based in a value agreement about what we want to do with the world. Lacey (1999) refers to this as adopting ‘materialist strategies’ and considers whether there might be other strategies that could be equally successful under different values and interests.

  32. 32.

    I have supported the idea that this is a better way to think of philosophical ‘positions’ elsewhere In the context of rethinking the realism/antirealism debate in science, I advocate that these ‘positions’ be seen as attitudes or stances that are adopted locally by particular scientists for particular purposes (Crasnow 2000).

  33. 33.

    Bailer-Jones (2002a) discusses the increase in the prevalence of modeling as a way of doing science. Hands-on techniques in teaching are discussed in a variety of sources. Howes (2002) includes these among other methods in her book.

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Correspondence to Sharon Crasnow.

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Crasnow, S. Feminist philosophy of science: ‘standpoint’ and knowledge. Sci & Educ 17, 1089–1110 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-006-9069-z

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Keywords

  • Feminist epistemology
  • Feminist philosophy of science
  • Standpoint theory
  • Objectivity
  • Relativism
  • Models