Feminist epistemology

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

2. Feminism and empiricism

The relationship between feminism and empiricism, both classical and post-positivist, has been uneasy. Feminists have to work with empirical evidence if they are to move knowledgeably about the physical world and engage effectively with the social, political and ‘natural’ realities that sustain hierarchical social structures. Yet, classical and many contemporary versions of empiricism are constructed around assumptions that are inimical to feminist emancipatory projects (see Empiricism). They are as androcentered as the liberal moral-political theories that they inform (see Liberalism). A woman can claim space within them only in so far as she is prepared and able to be ‘more like a man’ – that is to say, a privileged, able-bodied white man.

It is with the abstract individualism of empiricist orthodoxy, and its residues within everyday conceptions of knowledge in Anglo-American societies, that many feminists take issue. Individualist assumptions yield a picture of knowers as interchangeable in their autonomous epistemic projects, where they are at once sceptical of testimony and unswayed by emotion. Such knowers are ‘individuals’ in their place-holder status as units of analysis, yet they are never individuated. Correlatively, knowledge is objective, universally valid, available impartially and indiscriminately to everyone in identical observation conditions; and observation often reduces to simple, atomic givens, reportable in discrete propositions of the form ‘S knows that p’ (‘Sara knows that it is raining’). The apolitical character of such utterances, together with their paradigm (and often foundational) status in theories of knowledge, generates an assumption that all knowledge claims worthy of the title will be equivalently apolitical; and that propositional knowledge alone merits the (honorific) title ‘knowledge’.

Yet many classical versions of empiricism and their latter-day analogues come apart around a paradox: for all their alleged grounding in experience, that experience is itself an abstraction. Orthodox empiricists are not equipped, conceptually or theoretically, to deal with real, idiosyncratic, specifically located experiences. Historical, gendered, locational differences reduce to bias, aberration, errors, to be eradicated and thence discounted in justificatory procedures. When empiricist claims are upheld within social-political structures that deploy a rhetoric of formal equality, yet depend upon structural inequalities to maintain themselves (as do liberal, capitalist societies), the elusiveness of their democratic egalitarianism is apparent. None the less, committed to eradicating uneven distributions of epistemic power and privilege – where gendered unevenness always intersects with the unevenness of race, class, ethnicity and other disprivileged locations – feminists have drawn, albeit critically and selectively, on the resources of many of these same theories to enlist them in transformative and emancipatory projects.

For feminist empiricists, then, the goal of inquiry, both secular and scientific, is to produce knowledge that is neither androcentric nor marked by sexist, racist, classist or other biases. They contend that an unabashedly value-laden yet rigorous empiricism can yield more adequate knowledge than methods whose practitioners are ignorant of their specificity, and of their complicity in a sex/gender system, can yield. Objectivity, in these feminist projects, is disconnected from the universalist assumptions on which analyses of knowledge ‘in general’ depend, and reconfigured around a requirement to take the subjectivity of the inquirers as seriously into account as the objects of inquiry. Thus for feminist empiricists, investigators cannot function as anonymous, isolated and silent spectators. They become answerable for their interventions and epistemic negotiations, as much to the epistemic community as to the evidence; and details about an inquirer’s epistemic location and interests are likewise subject to empirical scrutiny. The central idea is that politically-informed inquiry fosters a better empiricism, and what Sandra Harding (1991) calls a ‘strong objectivity’ that is more objective than an objectivity that defines itself by bypassing the conditions of its own possibility.

According to Lynn Nelson (1990), Quinean empiricism demands neither the stark individualism nor the theory-neutrality of the classical theories; hence it lends itself to feminist reconstructions in which communities, not individuals, are knowers and knowledge claims are entangled in and shaped by webs of belief, testable always against (communal) experience (see Quine, W.V. §2). For Nelson, communities are knowers in a strong sense, for which ‘individual’ experience and knowledge are possible only within a community. The point recalls Wittgenstein’s private language argument: it amounts to a contention that there could be no knowledge, no appropriately justified beliefs, without communal standards of justification and critique (see Private language argument). In a radical rereading of Quinean ‘naturalized’ epistemology, Nelson finds a rich resource for feminist successor epistemology projects (see Naturalized epistemology). Departing from preoccupations with determining whether knowledge is possible, naturalized epistemologies start from an assumption that people can and do have knowledge. Appealing to scientific psychology, they abandon transcendence to examine how people actually know, individually and socially. Yet because they adhere to principles of empirical objectivity and retain a realist commitment to ‘the evidence’, they are effective in producing reliable knowledge of the physical and social world. For Nelson, the value of these inquiries for feminist epistemologies depends on their being ‘socialized’ to focus on questions about how knowledge is made and adjudicated in gender-inflected social groups. Lorraine Code argues that it also depends on their taking an appropriately critical stance towards residues of a positivistic orthodoxy that informs much of present-day cognitive psychology, with the individualistic, tacitly masculine conception of ‘human nature’ it often presupposes. Jane Duran (1991) contests that conception by advocating a justificatory approach that is both naturalized and gynocentric, appealing to ‘essentially feminine’ principles. Object relations theory, psychoanalysis read through French feminist theory, and cognitive science will inform its studies of how gendered knowers are psychologically produced and reproduced, she maintains.

In the contextual empiricism that Helen Longino (1990) elaborates, evidential reasoning is context-dependent, and data count as evidence only in relation to background assumptions and hypotheses. Knowledge construction is a thoroughly social practice; hence acknowledging the constitutive role of values and ideology in inquiry does not require an indiscriminate tolerance of individual subjective preferences. Objectivity is ensured by high standards of social criticism, which all epistemic products must satisfy. Such criticism can unmask androcentricity and other ‘centricities’ even in ‘good’ science and inquiry, even from an admittedly interested position that is at once open to scrutiny and rigorously committed to working within the limits and multiple possibilities of empirical evidence.

Lorraine Code’s position is residually empiricist in its realism. Yet it departs from canonical versions of empiricism in its conception of socially constructed and interactive subjectivities, located and enacted within uneven structures of power and privilege; and in situating issues of responsibility firmly within epistemological inquiry. Here the monologic individualism of post-positivist theories gives way to a picture of situated, socially embedded knowers conducting epistemic negotiations across the multiply configured rhetorical spaces of the social-political world. Code proposes that knowing other people is as exemplary an epistemic activity as knowing medium-sized physical objects, and that testimony is as crucial a source of knowledge as perception and memory. She advocates an ecologically modelled epistemology that draws on narrative analyses to position human knowing within interconnected systems of social, natural and other environmental relations.

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

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