Feminist epistemology

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

4. Implications

If feminist critiques are taken seriously, then epistemologists cannot assume that ‘reason is alike in all men’; nor can they represent knowers as mere place-holders in an infinitely replicable process, whose minds convert information, mechanically and indifferently, into knowledge. Many of the dichotomies around which western philosophy has been built are pulled apart under feminist scrutiny. Feminists have shown that such hierarchically ordered pairs as reason/emotion, mind/body, abstract/concrete, objective/subjective, theory/praxis, universal/particular – and of course male/female – with their persistent veneration of the first and devaluation of the second term, have sustained conceptions of knowledge and subjectivity that are neither dictated by natural necessity, nor exhaustive of the available options. Knowledge is as much body-dependent as it is mind-dependent; fostered as much by well-schooled emotions as by a well-honed reason; at once subjective and objective; its universal and abstract claims are only as good as their concrete and particular manifestations allow. Working across the territory opened out by the revealed instability of these dichotomies, feminists have resituated knowledge-constructing practices within human lives. They have reclaimed testimony as a source of knowledge as valuable (and as fallible) as perception and memory (see Testimony); and have challenged the divide that is often thought to separate ‘knowing how’, ‘folk wisdom’, and narrative knowledge from ‘knowledge properly so called’. Feminists have demonstrated the effectiveness of dialogic, negotiated epistemic deliberation and the integrity of local knowledge, contrasted with monologic or reductive pronouncements and projects designed to affirm the unity of science. Feminists are not alone in articulating these challenges: neo-pragmatists, deconstructionists and hermeneuticists, naturalistic epistemologists, Marxists, narrative theorists and reassessors of relativism, to mention only a few, often make good scholarly allies (see Cognitive pluralism; Epistemic relativism). But few of their projects are explicitly gender-sensitive to the extent that feminist inquiry has to be: hence feminist voices cannot simply speak in chorus with these other voices. Theirs are distinctive, and often necessarily dissident, speaking parts.

None the less, most late-twentieth-century feminists resist affirming simplistic, across-the-board alignments, say of men with objectivist, distanced, positivistic, scientific methods and women with subjectivist, connected, interpretive, non-scientific methods. Nor do they opt for an essentialism that would identify quantitative methodologies as male, qualitative ones as female; positivism as male, interpretation as female. Few would endorse a wholesale science-bashing that smacks more of ideological excess than of a genuine quest for knowledge. Even feminists who are wary of the oppressive effects of scientific and other authoritative knowledge rely upon its (intermittent) successes. Yet feminists are also convinced, on good evidence across a range of disciplines and areas of inquiry, that feminist research makes a difference. Hence questions about ‘method’, which are central to feminist epistemological debates become, in effect, questions about what difference feminism makes, and how. Its answers come from as many directions as there are epistemic practices. They are not reducible to a single, closed set of ideals and principles, for the era of theoretical and methodological monotheism has passed. But they provide nodal points for ongoing deliberation and active engagement with social and material issues.

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

Related Articles