Feminist epistemology

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

3. Standpoints, interpretations, genealogies

Feminist standpoint theorists such as Patricia Hill Collins, Sandra Harding, Nancy Hartsock and Hilary Rose contend that neither orthodox nor feminist empiricists can adequately address the historical and material conditions that produce both epistemic agency and knowledge itself. Because the authoritative, standard-setting knowledge in Western societies is derived from and tested against the social experiences and material circumstances of white, middle-class, educated men, women (like the proletariat of Marxist theory) are oppressed in marginal, underclass epistemic positions. Science as practice has created an esoteric discourse to which few women and non-white men gain ready access. It explains their limited success with ‘scientifically proven facts’ about their natural intellectual inferiority: facts that have been established by a methodology not explicitly designed to oppress, but whose oppressive consequences are manifold. Yet it is possible to transform oppression into epistemic advantage. Just as Marxist inquiry started from within the lives of the proletariat to produce historically-materially located analyses that offered a sharply focused lens through which to inspect the social system as a whole, shorn of its naturalistic ideology, so starting from the diverse and often contradictory lives of women casts a critical frame around taken-for-granted epistemic hierarchies and practices of disempowerment. Collins (1990) claims, for example, that a Black feminist standpoint rooted in the everyday experiences of African-American women resonates with the epistemologies of subordinate groups in a multitude of disparate locations. It ‘makes strange’ the taken-for-granted practices of rejecting concrete experiences and testimony in favour of standardized abstractions, and it values wisdom over knowledge more conventionally (propositionally) conceived. And Rose (1983, 1994) maintains that an epistemology that bypasses the hands-on, affectively engaged labour that attests to a profound knowledge of the nature of things cannot hope to be adequate to the knowledge that enables people to work and live well.

A standpoint is more than merely a perspective, one among many. It is an achieved intellectual and embodied political position, forged out of painstaking analyses of the systems that legitimate oppressive practices, and firmly located in media res. Standpoints are neither guaranteed innocence, nor are they immune from criticism: their affinities with the consciousness-raising practices of the 1970s work to preserve a critical interpretive stance for which even first-person experiential claims have often to be interrogated, albeit responsibly, in mutually respectful debate.

Some critics claim that because there is no single, unified feminist position, standpoint theory obliterates differences and hence fails by its own feminist standards. Others argue that its ‘locatedness’ merely produces a perspective that is as limited as any other. Yet few self-identified standpoint theorists would assume that there can be a single privileged speaking position or one unified epistemic voice. Because they work from within the specificities of women’s lives and are resistant to the reductivism that obliterates lived, practical differences, they take limitation and partial perspective as facts within which epistemologies must be produced, not as obstacles they must seek to overcome. Points of commonality from one material, embodied location to another produce sites of feminist solidarity and opportunities for strategic coalition-building; points of difference confirm the necessity of ongoing critical negotiation.

In the interpretive and genealogical projects of postmodernity, feminists such as Linda Alcoff and Susan Hekman have found critical-constructive tools that work sometimes in concert with empiricist and standpoint theories, sometimes in tension with them. Interpretive strategies, with their origins in Gadamerian hermeneutics, contest any claim to the effect that experience, evidence or texts speak for themselves (see Gadamer, H.-G.). It is philosophy’s task to interpret the cultural-historical prejudgments out of which knowledge necessarily comes into being: prejudgments which are neither pernicious nor escapable, but which have to be confronted if the knowledge that they inform is to be adequate. Hekman (1990), for example, argues that all knowledge is interpretive; and Alcoff (1996) proposes a coherentist, ‘immanent epistemology’ that contrasts with transcendent, observational theories of knowledge in revealing connections between power-infused political issues and epistemic justification.

Genealogical inquiry, with its Nietzschean origins and later Foucauldian elaborations, situates knowledge-production within historically changing structures of power, maintaining the radical contingency of currently hegemonic modes of understanding, legitimating, and establishing knowledge claims (see Genealogy). Some theorists, such as Kathy Ferguson, see a tension between interpretation with its presumed quest for one true original meaning, and genealogy with its commitment to unearthing a multiplicity of meanings which gain hegemonic status through complex power structures and strategies. Again, some self-identified feminist empiricists and/or standpoint theorists resist making common cause with these postmodern projects because they fear that such resistance to totalizing, stabilizing theory initiates a slide into a pernicious form of relativism. Others, such as Haraway, Code and Alcoff, see interpretation and genealogy as mutually informative; they draw on these strategies from within feminist inquiries that resist exclusive alignment with any single category or strand.

In their concentration on the real-world effects of knowledge-making within a community of inquirers, many of these feminist positions demonstrate affinities with the epistemological preoccupations that Charlene Siegfried discerns in the thought of the American pragmatists. Siegfried (1996) shows how feminism and pragmatism might make common cause as social movements inspired by the emancipatory potential of the everyday experiences of real, embodied and active knowers.

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

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