Feminist philosophy of science: ‘standpoint’ and knowledge


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  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.


  1. Bailer-Jones DM (2002a) Scientists’ thoughts on scientific models. Perspectives on Science 10(3):275–301

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Bailer-Jones DM (2002b) Models, metaphors, and analogies. In: Machamer P, Silberstein M (eds) Blackwell guide to philosophy of science. Blackwell, Oxford, pp 108–127

    Google Scholar 

  3. Bailer-Jones DM (2003) When scientific models represent. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 17(1):59–74

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Cartwright N (1999) The dappled world. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  5. Clough S (2003) Beyond epistemology: a pragmatist approach to feminist science studies. Rowen and Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, MD

    Google Scholar 

  6. Coleman I (2004) The payoff from women’s rights. Foreign Affairs 83(i3):80

    Google Scholar 

  7. Collins PH (1986) Learning from the outsider within: the sociological significance of black feminist thought. Social Problems 33(special theory issue):S14–S32 (reprinted in Harding 2004)

  8. Crasnow SL (2000) How natural can ontology be? Philosophy of Science 67(1):114–132

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Daston L, Galison PL (1992) The image of objectivity. Representations 40(special issue: seeing science):81–128

  10. DeVault ML (1999) Liberating method: feminism and social research. Temple University Press, Philadephia, PA

    Google Scholar 

  11. Douglas H (2004) The irreducible complexity of objectivity. Synthese 138(3):453–473

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Giere RN (2004) How models are used to represent reality. Philosophy of Science 71:742–752

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Glymour C (1980) Theory and evidence. Princeton University Press, Princeton

    Google Scholar 

  14. Hacking I (2000) The social construction of what? Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA

    Google Scholar 

  15. Haraway DJ (1991) Simians, cyborgs, and women: the reinvention of nature. Routledge, New York

    Google Scholar 

  16. Harding SG (1986) The science question in feminism. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY

    Google Scholar 

  17. Harding SG (1997) Comment on Hekman’s “truth and method: feminist standpoint theory revisited”: whose standpoint needs the regimes of truth and reality? Signs 22(21):382–391

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Harding SG (1991) Whose science? Whose knowledge? Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY

    Google Scholar 

  19. Harding SG (1992) Rethinking standpoint epistemology. In: Alcoff L, Potter E (eds) Feminist epistemologies. Routledge, New York (Reprinted in Harding 2004)

  20. Harding SG (ed) (2004) The feminist standpoint theory reader. Routledge, New York, NY

    Google Scholar 

  21. Hekman SJ (1997) Truth and method: feminist standpoint theory revisited. Signs 22(21):341–365

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Hesse-Biber SN, Yaiser ML (eds) (2003) Feminist perspectives on social research. Oxford University Press, New York, NY

    Google Scholar 

  23. Howes EV (2002) Connecting girls and science: constructivism, feminism, and science education reform. Teachers College Press, New York, NY

    Google Scholar 

  24. Janack M (2002) Dilemmas of objectivity. Social Epistemology 16(3):267–281

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Kitcher PS (2001) Science, truth, and democracy. Oxford University Press, New York, NY

    Google Scholar 

  26. Koertge N (1980) Methodology, ideology and feminist critiques of Science. Philosophy of Science 2:346–359

    Google Scholar 

  27. Kuhn TS (1977) The essential tension. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL

    Google Scholar 

  28. Lacey H (1999) Is science value free? Values and scientific understanding. Routledge, New York, NY

    Google Scholar 

  29. Lewontin RC (2002) The politics of science. The New York Review of Books 49(8):28–32

    Google Scholar 

  30. Longino HE (1987) Can there be a feminist science? Hypatia 2(3):51–64

    Google Scholar 

  31. Longino HE (1990) Science as social knowledge. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ

    Google Scholar 

  32. Longino HE (2002) The fate of knowledge. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ

    Google Scholar 

  33. Lloyd EA (1995) Objectivity and the double standard for feminist epistemologies. Synthese 104:351–381

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Machamer PK, Wolters G (2004) Science, values, and objectivity. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA

    Google Scholar 

  35. Morrison MC (1999) Models as autonomous agents. In: Morgan MS, Morrison MC (eds) Models as mediators. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  36. Narayan U (1989) The project of feminist epistemology. In: Jaggar AM, Bordo SR (eds) Gender/Body/Knowledge: feminist reconstructions of being and knowing, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ

    Google Scholar 

  37. Pinnick CL (2005) The failed feminist challenge to “fundamental epistemology”. Science and Education 14(2):103–116

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Reinharz S (1992) Feminist methods in social research. Oxford University Press, New York, NY

    Google Scholar 

  39. Rorty R (1979) Philosophy and the mirror of nature. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ

    Google Scholar 

  40. Rouse J (1996) Feminism and the social construction of scientific knowledge. In: Nelson LH, Nelson J (eds) Feminism, science, and the philosophy of science. Kluwer, Dordrecht

    Google Scholar 

  41. Scheper-Hughes N (1992) Death without weeping: the violence of everyday life in Brazil. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA

    Google Scholar 

  42. Schultz TP (2002) Why governments should invest more to educate girls. World Development 30(2):207–225

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Solomon M (2001) Social empiricism. MIT Press (Bradford Books), Cambridge, MA

    Google Scholar 

  44. Van Fraassen BC (1980) The scientific image. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  45. Van Fraassen BC (2002) The empirical stance. Yale University, New Haven, CT

    Google Scholar 

  46. Wylie A (1992) Reasoning about ourselves: feminist methodology in the social sciences. In: Harvey ED, Okruhlik K (eds) Women and reason. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI

    Google Scholar 

  47. Wylie A (1998) Feminism and social science. In: Craig E (ed) Routledge encyclopedia of philosophy. Routledge, London

    Google Scholar 

  48. Wylie A (2004) Why standpoint matters. In: Harding S (ed) The feminist standpoint reader. Routledge, New York

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sharon Crasnow.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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

Download citation


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