Feminist epistemology

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P020-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 05, 2022, from

1. Epistemologies of privilege

Feminist epistemologies, like many other post-Enlightenment, post-colonial epistemological projects, have grown out of critical interrogations of the universalistic presumptions of the theories of knowledge of the Western philosophical tradition. Sceptical about the very possibility of developing a theory of knowledge ‘in general’, whose claims to universal validity are premised on its abstraction from the specificities of human circumstances, feminist epistemologists have insisted on the constitutive part that epistemic location plays in the making and evaluating of knowledge claims. Many of the best-established post-positivist and neo-rationalist theories of knowledge – together with the conceptions of reason, epistemic agency, objectivity, experience and knowledge itself that comprise their core – tacitly draw their conceptual and theoretical apparatus from an idealized view of the knowledge produced and validated by the (male) occupants of the dominant social, political and economic positions in white Western societies. The consequent distribution of epistemic authority perpetuates a hierarchical order in which women and other ‘others’ occupy the least authoritative positions. Eschewing traditional a priori approaches with their normative goal of determining what an ideal knower ought to do, feminists are producing critical and self-critical analyses of what variously embodied, historically and materially ‘situated’ knowers (in Donna Haraway’s (1991) phrase) actually do, deriving normative conclusions from critical-constructive readings of epistemic practice.

The dominant epistemologies of modernity, as they have developed out of the Enlightenment with a later infusion of positivist-empiricist principles, have defined themselves around ideals of objectivity and value-neutrality. Ideal objectivity, in post-positivist times, has come to mean a detached, neutral and disinterested approach to a subject matter that exists in a publicly observable space, separate from knowers/observers and making no personal claims on them. Value-neutrality elaborates this disinterested aspect to insist that knowers must have no vested interest in the object of knowledge and are responsible only to the evidence. Such ideals are best suited to govern evaluations of the knowledge claims of persons whose situations allow them to assume that theirs is a ‘view from nowhere’, that through the autonomous exercise of their reason they can transcend particularity and contingency and the accidents of gendered embodiment. Such persons have usually tended, within the social arrangements of affluent Western societies, to be white and male, though the specificity of their identity and circumstances are usually effaced in their self-presentation as ‘representative’ human subjects.

Ideals of Reason, both in theories of knowledge, and in their trickle-down effects in everyday discourse, have been consistent even across centuries of historical variation in yielding a regulative conception of rationality in which, as Genevieve Lloyd ([1984] 1993) has shown, traits, values and activities commonly associated with ‘the feminine’ are systematically suppressed. Analogously, feminists such as Evelyn Fox Keller (1985) and Susan Bordo (1987) have shown that the psychosocial characteristics that affluent, white, male children in such societies have commonly been nurtured to embody have been just those that prepare them for a lifetime of detached, objective control in everyday and scientific knowledge-seeking, and in a public world of work and deliberation. Instrumental reason and a science-derived ideal of knowledge have shaped conceptions of good epistemic practice, with consequences that are often exclusionary not just of women’s knowledge, but of the knowledgeable activities of other marginalized people. The point is not that women and other ‘others’ cannot emulate the ideal, but rather (as Lloyd has shown) that the symbolisms out of which the ideal acquires its (historically mutable) content work simultaneously to validate the knowledge and epistemic status of would-be knowers whose socio-culturally fostered character traits coincide with the ideal, and to suppress those whose subjectivities are differently produced. In short, feminist genealogies and deconstructions of these ideals have shown that, despite their proclaimed neutrality, they derive from, naturalize and normalize the experiences and social positions of privileged European men and their (male) descendants.

No simple taxonomy of feminist epistemologies classified as distinct or self-contained categories could present an accurate, state-of-the-art picture of these ongoing projects. Yet certain strands run through them, sometimes separately but usually intertwined. Here I elaborate the principal features of an empiricist strand in feminist theories of knowledge, of standpoint positions, and of genealogical and interpretive practices (see Feminism and social science; Gender and science §§1–2, 6).

Citing this article:
Code, Lorraine. Epistemologies of privilege. Feminist epistemology, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P020-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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