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Feminist Epistemology: Stalking an Un-dead Horse
Noretta Koertge
Indiana University, Bloomington


Feminist epistemology consists of theories of knowledge created by women, about women's modes of knowing, for the purpose of liberating women. By any reasonable standard it should have expired in 1994. Working independently, Gross and Leavitt in Higher Superstition, Sommers in Who Stole Feminism? as well as Patai and Koertge in Professing Feminism each identified fatal flaws in the feminist epistemological program. More detailed analyses appeared in Feminist Epistemology: For and Against, a special issue of The Monist, edited by Haack. The simple bottom line of all these critiques is succinctly expressed by Pinnick in a 1994 issue of Philosophy of Science: "[N]o feminist epistemology is worthy of the name, because such an epistemology fails to escape well-known vicissitudes of epistemic relativism... The central thesis of this article is that feminist epistemology should not be taken seriously."
There is a long history of cogent criticisms of feminist epistemology--recall, for example, Radcliffe-Richards' beautifully argued book, The Skeptical Feminist which appeared in 1981. And at a symposium in 1980, where Harding and Hartsock were already decrying Bacon's alleged rape metaphors, I vigorously criticized their "standpoint" epistemology: "One final polemical remark: If it really could be shown that patriarchal thinking not only played a crucial role in the Scientific Revolution but is also necessary for carrying out scientific inquiry as we know it, that would constitute the strongest argument for patriarchy that I can think of! I continue to believe that science--even white, upperclass, male-dominated science--is one of the most important allies of oppressed people."
There is also a long history of evasions of these criticisms. In his defense of Bacon, Soble describes the widespread textual errors and mis-readings that have accumulated in feminist glosses on the scientific revolution despite repeated corrections from critics. Although in their temperate defense of feminist epistemology, "No Rush to Judgment", Nelson and Nelson at least cite Haack's influential address to the American Philosophical Association , they do not attempt to rebut her arguments. Much more typical are apodictic conversation-stoppers like the following remark from Longino: "...it is hard to see how one could be for or against feminist epistemology except insofar as one is for or against feminism."
But whatever its cognitive deficits, feminist epistemology is sociologically very successful. (To give just one indication--the program for a recent conference on Gender and Science lists 90 speakers.) So for me the most pressing question is to understand how feminist epistemology functions within educational institutions today and why it is viable. Is this just the latest example of Gresham's Law at work in the humanities whereby simplistic bad ideas drive out the more complex good ones, or is something more unusual going on? Feminist epistemology is but one of literally dozens of new specialties which have recently sprung up in American universities. These "para-disciplines" as I call them are no longer confined to Women's Studies programs. One can find them offered as alternatives or "correctives" within regular university departments. Thus we find books, journals, conferences and college courses devoted not only to Feminist Epistemology, but also Black Epistemology and Queer Epistemology. There is Lesbian Ethics and Feminist Morality, Feminist Aesthetics and Feminist Musicology.
Para-disciplinary initiatives are even taking root within the sciences. Psychology of Women, Black Psychology and Biology of Women have now been joined by Feminist Economics and Feminist Geography. Opposition to the most central methods and tools of science is fostered in the para-disciplines of Ethnomathematics, Afrocentric Science, and Feminist Methodology. We thus are faced with a profusion of new academic specialties which not only claim to complement traditional scholarship but also to replace or "re-invent" it in radical ways. How did so many of these oppositional subjects get established so quickly? Here I will briefly discuss only two of the contributing factors, academic separatism and the ethos of affirmative action.
In describing the emergence of new species, one mechanism invoked by evolutionary biologists is the "founder effect". Since small samples are generally unrepresentative of the whole population, if a small group of organisms should become geographically isolated from the rest, as the small group inbreeds the idiosyncrasies of the founders become dominant and a new species may emerge in a relatively short time. This is exactly the situation which obtained in Women's Studies programs. As we describe in detail in Professing Feminism, there was in the beginning a deliberate attempt to isolate feminist scholarship from the rest of the academy. Some authors would cite only women in their footnotes; since men were thought to be biased, only women were considered competent to referee articles for publication; men were sometimes even excluded from attending conferences and were rarely invited to speak. The policy of restricting participation in allegedly academic discussions to people of the appropriate "identity" was sometimes also used to filter out people on the basis of race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. By severely limiting the influence of outside commentary and by aggressively promoting each other's work, the seminal (ovular?) works within these various alternative disciplines quickly gained the trappings of scholarly success. To be blunt, how can one deny tenure to someone whose book receives rave reviews in (feminist) journals and whose book jacket sports blurbs from (feminist) professors at Berkeley, Columbia or MIT? So it is easy to understand how feminist and other para-disciplines got off to a roaring start, but it remains a puzzle as to how they have become so widely accepted as part of ordinary disciplinary offerings, even by critics who find their substantive claims unpersuasive. To answer this question we need to look at the interaction between the ethos of affirmative action and the formation of these alternative disciplines
Women and minorities have always tended to cluster within certain academic specialties--women are more likely to be pediatricians than surgeons, harpists rather than percussionists, ethicists instead of logicians. Some of the clustering follows gender stereotypes, so, for example, a disproportionate number of women study child development, sociology of the family, botany, etc. In other cases, the patterning is probably best explained in terms of mentoring chains and role models. One thinks, for example, of the extraordinary number of female primatologists and the famous women in x-ray crystallography such as Dame Kathleen Lonsdale and Rosalind Franklin. One purpose of second wave feminism in general and university affirmative action plans in particular was not just to increase the number of women professors, but also to expand the range of disciplinary possibilities by breaking down the stereotypes that women naturally belonged in "soft" fields.
However, one major result of these political initiatives in the university has been the creation of new "pink collar" ghettos! Feminist activists, as we saw above, have practiced deliberate segregation. But in addition, anyone who begrudges the initiatives to bring more women or minorities into the university might also be happy to see "them" shoved off into an academic ghetto where "they" won't interfere with business as usual. And the middle-of-the-road, well-meaning, guilty liberal white male has uncritically promoted the new para-disciplines, mainly from afar so as not to compete with the women and minorities who "own" these new fields. What is the effect on young women and minorities of this strange synchrony of support? I will illustrate my concern with two incidents that have come to my attention recently (I have changed identifying details):
A young woman finishing a dissertation on the foundations of statistics opined that perhaps she should do an independent reading course on feminist epistemology. When I remarked, "Oh, I didn't know you were interested in studying those issues," she replied that she wasn't really, but thought that since she was a woman applying for a job in Philosophy Departments, people would expect her to be able to teach such things. I recommended that she stick to her own research interests and not try to second-guess the market, but upon glancing through the Jobs in Philosophy afterwards and noting all of the interest in Feminist Philosophy, I wondered if I had given her good strategic advice. (Note that as long as only (or mostly) women do Feminist Studies, then by recruiting in such a field, it will almost always turn out that the very best candidate really is a woman. By applying affirmative action criteria to fields, one no longer need apply then to individual candidates!)
A second example came to my attention during a job search for a philosopher of biology. We received an application from an African American male who had completed a PhD at a good school working with one of the leaders in the field, but whose publications all dealt with African philosophy. "I was advised that it would be easier for me to publish quickly in African philosophy," he wrote, "but I really want to get back into philosophy of science" and sure enough, one of his letters of recommendation (from a person in no position to judge the quality of his dissertation) happily took credit for the applicant's switching fields.
These cautionary tales exhibit the pressures on women and minority students to choose academic areas that are supposedly "appropriate" to their "identities". So much for expanding career possibilities and so much for providing new role models in a diversity of academic specialties! Para-disciplines, as I have defined them, are not intended just to introduce new perspectives on or vital additions to the traditional disciplines. Rather, they stand in explicit and wholesale opposition to the received approaches. So, for example, the history of women in science need not be a para-discipline according to my definition. Learning about the careers of "forgotten" women scientists or African American scientists can certainly add an important dimension to our understanding of scientific institutions as well as social perceptions of science. Such a history may chide science for not being as open to all talented people as Merton's norms would suggest, but unless one starts redefining "scientist" to include mid-wives, herbalists and scullery maids (as some would have us do), the history of women in science does not detract from our understanding of science, but enriches it. Feminist epistemology, on the other hand, stands in a sharply antithetical relationship to the core values of science. A dramatic way of summarizing the conflict is to look at feminist commentary on standard accounts of scientific norms.
Let me begin with what is intended to be a non-cotroversial summary of the "received view" of scientific ideals. Talcott Parsons lists four basic norms of scientific knowledge:
a) Logical clarity or precision
b) Logical consistency among claims
c) Generality of principles
d) Empirical validity
To foster the search for this kind of knowledge, Robert Merton noted that scientific institutions need to promote:
a) Organized skepticism
b) "Universalism" (scientific contributions should not be judged on the basis of the race, religion, national origin, etc. of the scientist)
c) Disinterestedness (science should not serve a particular social/political agenda)
d) Communality (scientific results should be freely shared)
Although the credibility of science relies heavily on institutional features, such as peer review and the cross-checking of experimental results, it also depends strongly on the personal integrity of individual scientists. A complex of such traits can be summed up under the norm of objectivity:
a) Data reported and the conclusions drawn should ideally be completely independent from the personal preferences or idiosyncrasies of the individual scientist.
b) A good method for removing subjective elements from scientific findings is to detach one's own feelings or wishes from the process of scientific inquiry.
c) Although intuition and Fingerspitzengefühl play an essential role in the process of scientific discovery, they should have no effect on the acceptance of scientific results. Thus, while individual or local points of view may be very important in suggesting scientific strategies, the knowledge obtained eventually applies everywhere.
d) A high value is also placed on the individual scientist's curiosity and intellectual fascination with discovery and puzzle solving. (These traits are intimately connected with objectivity because ideally the only answers which scientists find pleasing are correct ones!)
Now it is quite appropriate and reasonable for feminist scholars to point out various ways in which the actual practice of science sometimes fails to live up to these norms. For example, medical or psychological theories have sometimes not been adequately tested on female subjects and hence may lack the empirical validity and generality prescribed by Parsons. And despite the Mertonian norms of universalism and communality, women scientists sometimes find that their work is not taken as seriously as that of comparable male colleagues and they may not be included in informal communication networks.
It could also be argued that, given that no one can be perfectly objective, as long as science is done primarily by males, male perspectives might indeed influence to some extent the direction of scientific research. Science itself would benefit from the input of women (and others) who might not only bring in new heuristically valuable points of view, but could also provide additional sources of critical scrutiny. Science can only be improved by such exhortations to live up to its own ideals. However, when we turn to radical feminist critiques of science based on feminist epistemology, we find a repudiation of the ideals themselves. Here is an overview of their opposition to the traditional norms:
None of Parson's norms are acceptable: Logic is a patriarchal device for browbeating non-linear thinking; since all knowledge is contextual, the search for generality is a form of imperialism; empirical validity must be tempered by moral and political appraisals.
Communality of a non-hierarchical sort is acceptable, but the rest of Merton's norms must go: A humane community would be based on trust, not skepticism; universalism should be replaced by standpoint theory which says that reports are always to be understood as a product of the culture, gender, ethnicity, class of the observer who made them; no activity can be or should be disinterested. Quite the contrary, a commitment to correct political and social goals is to be encouraged.
Although the term "objectivity" is sometimes retained by radical feminists, the values now denoted by it are antithetical to the traditional meaning: Observers should always remain emotionally connected to what they are studying; the richness of subjective experience should not be stripped away in the vain search for a lowest common denominator of objectivity; intuition should not play second-fiddle to abstract, cold rationality/objectivity; knowledge is always perspectival and tied to local context and the attempt to find an objective or "God's eye" point of view always ends up privileging the powerful. Thus the playful curiosity so characteristic of so-called "pure" science must be replaced by an attitude of caring and commitment.
As I remarked at the beginning of this paper, as a philosophical system the various tenets of feminist epistemology have been decisively discredited. Nevertheless, it is having a growing influence on science education. At Indiana University, for example, one required textbook for future science teachers is Women's Ways of Knowing, winner of a distinguished publication award from the Association of Women in Psychology, a book which argues that girls and women are more comfortable with a "connected" style of learning as opposed to the "separated" style preferred by men--and scientists! The empirical evidence for these alleged differences is very weak--for one thing, the authors did not include any males in their study, but even if it were true that some little girls (or little boys) were uncomfortable with the sort of reasoning required to do science, I would draw quite a different conclusion from feminist epistemologists and educators, namely that these children should expand their cognitive repetoires, not that science should abandon its modes of reasoning.
There are many ways of thinking about and learning about the world--some are antithetical to science. But even within science, we talk about algebraists vs. geometers, "lumpers" vs. "splitters", those who are good at synthesis vs. those who delight in details. A primary purpose of education at any level is to help students become better thinkers, more sophisticated, more critical and more self-conscious about their methods of inquiry and belief formation. What a pity, if in the name of liberating women, feminists should now encourage women and members of various ethnic groups toêmfortably within the habits of thought which conform to traditional gender and cultural stereotypes. One of the joys of liberal education in either the arts or sciences is the challenge to learn how to think differently. How patronizing to tell young women that the ways of logic, statistics, and mathematics are not women's ways--that all they need to do is to stay connected.