Feminisms

Fashion Emergency!

Feminist theory has recently faced accusations of trendiness, but Marianne Janack and Michelle LaRocque leap to its defence.

As with any political movement, feminism has had a fraught relationship with theory. On the one hand, feminists have recognized the value of a sound theoretical basis for the effectiveness of political action; on the other, they have decried the way abstract theorizing has sometimes taken the place of political action in other progressive social movements. Feminist philosophy in general, and feminist epistemology – theory of knowledge – in particular, have suffered from this strained marriage between theory and action. What, one might ask, do abstract questions about knowledge and rationality have to do with securing greater freedoms for women? While feminist epistemologists have suffered from the accusation of irrelevance from those frustrated with theory and its perceived elitism, they have also been accused of following ‘fashionable’ trends in scholarship by both feminists and non-feminists within the academy. Some feminists fear that following intellectual fashions will lead feminist thinkers farther and farther away from the very real, everyday concerns of non-academic women. On the other hand, non-feminist theorists see the trendiness of some academic feminist theory as an indicator that feminist theory falls short of the criteria for ‘legitimate’ and ‘serious’ philosophy. In this context, Susan Haack’s Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998) is important as it allows for a discussion of the role and nature of feminist theory, a discussion which could dissipate some of the misunderstandings that have arisen with respect to feminist theory in general and feminist epistemology in particular.

In the book, Susan Haack argues against what she takes to be ‘fashionable’ trends amongst contemporary academics. Among those she takes on are feminist epistemologists who, she argues, are misguided in their attempts to make sense of ‘women’s ways of knowing’. Haack contrasts such ‘fashionable’ doctrines with her own more ‘modest’ theory of knowledge. Indeed, one must wonder whether she is conscious of the extent to which she has cast herself as the ‘good girl’ or ‘virtuous woman’ in contrast to her immodest and fashionable sisters. Haack seems, in fact, quite puritanical in her theorizing, calling forth the virtues of the hard, painstaking work that the job of professional philosophy involves. Her metaphors and characterizations of the nature of theory are revealing but, metaphor aside, her arguments against feminist epistemology do not work – and they are inadequate, in part, because they are uncharitable. On reading the Manifesto’s assessment of feminist theorizing, one finds oneself asking whether Haack has really tried to understand the critical insights and motivations behind feminist theories of knowledge.

In her book, Haack launches a three-pronged attack on the whole notion of ‘feminist epistemology’. She claims that it either means (1) an epistemology based on the presumption that there is a specifically ‘feminine’ way of coming to know the world and that ‘women’s ways of knowing’ are different from men’s, which she says is deeply problematic, or (2) it refers to something that is not epistemology, or (3) it refers to something that is not feminist.

In the first case, Haack argues, ‘feminist epistemology’ simply recreates sexist stereotypes that have been found to be harmful to women. Furthermore, she argues, it is not clear that there are any distinctively female ‘ways of knowing.’ She argues that

All any human being has to go on, in figuring out how things are, is his or her sensory and introspective experience, and the explanatory theorizing he or she devises to accommodate it; and differences in cognitive style, like differences in handwriting, seem more individual than genderdetermined. (p.126)

She also claims that the variety of incompatible theories put forth as ‘feminist epistemology’ militates against the claim that there is a distinctively feminine way of knowing the world.

In the second prong of her attack, Haack argues against the thesis that ‘science is social’. She addresses feminist philosophers of science who see scientific inquiry as being informed by and permeated with social factors, such as the predispositions of individual (male) scientists and the larger dominant social value systems. Haack claims that there is a sense in which ‘science is social’:

Does this mean that there is nothing distinctive about natural-scientific inquiry? No. Such inquiry has many striking features. Among them … the engagement, cooperative and competitive, of many persons, within and across generations, in the enterprise of scientific inquiry. The fact that science is, in this sense, a social enterprise, has been an important factor contributing to its epistemological distinction. (pp.106-107.)

But, she argues, any more radical interpretation of the thesis that ‘science is social’ is false. Her arguments emphasize the distinction between ‘warrant’ and ‘acceptance’, insisting that warrant is a matter of “how good or bad the evidence with respect to a proposition is.” (p.108.) So judging the relationship between evidence and a scientific proposition is presumably a process that need not be informed by social values but, rather, is an ‘objective’ process. Legitimate epistemology, according to Haack, is a matter of relying on objective standards in assessing evidence and evaluating scientific theories.

Thirdly and finally, Haack also points out that positions argued for by feminist epistemologists have also found favor with people who could not or would not necessarily consider themselves feminists:

In the modest sense spelled out in the first section of this essay, it is true, and epistemologically significant, that science is social. But there is nothing particularly feminist about this. Peirce, Polanyi, Quine, Popper, come immediately to mind as philosophers neither female nor feminist who have acknowledged, with varying degrees of detail and subtlety, something along those lines. (p.115.)

Haack thus again equates feminist epistemology with the thesis that ‘science is social’ and argues that since nonfeminists have made similar claims, it cannot be a specifically feminist insight.

As we shall see, none of these arguments is successful, and therefore her overall strategy fails to provide adequate reason for either dismissing or abandoning the project of feminist epistemology. Although we will give good reasons for rejecting each of Haack’s three arguments against feminist epistemology, it is noteworthy that her stance towards this feminist project contributes to the failure of her arguments. Haack deems herself an ‘Old Fashioned Feminist’, a feminism that was born in her at the age of 12 as the result of an encounter with prejudice about female abilities. This ‘Old Fashioned Feminism’, Haack argues, emphasizes the common humanity that men and women share and demands equal opportunity where it is unfairly denied on the basis of sex. This ‘Old Fashioned’ stance is contrasted with what Haack terms an ‘Imperialist’ feminism that seeks to encompass not only moral and social theory – where feminist claims might legitimately be applied – but also seeks to appropriate theories of knowledge and philosophy of science too. Haack is uncharitable towards this ‘Imperialist’ feminism, characterizing many contemporary feminists as the kind of demanding women who want too much, overstep their boundaries and go where they are not supposed to go.

Although the claims that ‘science is social’ – in one form or another – can indeed be found in the work of contemporary feminist philosophers of science, few imply that only feminists can have this insight. In fact, some feminists acknowledge a debt to non-feminist philosophers of science whose work has influenced their own. So, while we could agree with Haack that there are others who have held the position that ‘science is social,’ it doesn’t follow that this fact undoes feminist epistemology. Not only has Haack mis-characterized feminist theorists’ stated relation to non-feminist philosophers of science, but also she seems to have missed the point as to what it means to say that ‘science is social’ is a feminist insight.

When feminist philosophers of science say ‘science is social’, they are not merely repeating this claim of nonfeminist philosophers and appropriating the same meaning. The content of a proposition can vary depending upon who is saying it, for what purpose and in what context. The feminist claim that ‘science is social’ is not limited to the abstract statement that social factors influence scientific inquiry. Rather it incorporates sex and gender as an integral component in the evaluation of the scientific enterprise. Haack uses the expression ‘science is social’ as shorthand for a whole host of theories of science. The particular feminist version actually comprises a number of complex, interrelated arguments concerning several areas of concern. These include the low percentages of women engaged in scientific work both in the past and now; the gendered nature of scientific standards in the evaluation of evidence and the acceptance of theories; and the evaluation of the impact of science on women’s lives. These are all specifically feminist projects and to the extent that they presuppose or rely on the insight that ‘science is social’, they give this proposition a specifically feminist twist.

As we’ve already noted, Haack claims that feminist philosophers of science are not doing epistemology, properly conceived. She doesn’t describe in detail her view of an adequate epistemology, though she does refer to the role of assessing and weighing evidence in scientific inquiry. She says it is a bit like doing a crossword puzzle – looking for a good fit between theories and evidence. While one might accept her claim that scientists look for ‘fit’, this does not undo the feminist claim that what is being contested are the standards of evidence themselves. Haack assumes that there are ‘objective’ standards of epistemic warrant that are uninfluenced by factors that could incorporate masculinist bias. But it is notions such as ‘warrant’ itself that feminist theorists have argued must be examined for evidence of gender bias. Haack thus seems to have missed the point of a good deal of feminist scholarship in epistemology and philosophy of science.

Haack is dismissive of ‘women’s ways of knowing.’ Suppose that feminist epistemology – let us, unlike Haack, take the term to make some sense – consists of varied and multiple attempts to promote ‘women’s ways of knowing.’ Haack warns us that this concept, ‘women’s ways of knowing’, dangerously recreates the sexist stereotypes about women against which earlier feminists rightly warned. While it is true that some feminist theorists espouse views of women’s consciousness which could fall prey to patriarchal co-optation, this isn’t a good reason to abandon the term or the project of trying to capture the nature of women’s knowledge and, specifically, of trying to determine the nature of feminist theory. The main insight behind feminist theorizing in the last couple of decades has been the observation that women’s own experiences were often at odds with prevailing ideology about women. ‘Standpoint theory’, in particular, builds on this insight and argues that women, because of their social and political ‘position’, which really just means the sum total of their experiences, have insights not available to men. Haack has little time for standpoint theories, stating that they overlook the fact that oppressed individuals are more likely to have false beliefs because of their subordinate social and political position. But, standpoint theories give priority to the ability each of us has to reflect upon and interpret our lifeexperiences in light of what we’ve been taught by others who may oppress us, what we’ve been taught by others of our own ‘kind,’ and what – to use a controversial and old-fashioned notion – we can know by the ‘light of reason,’ our natural ability to figure things out. A lot of good theorizing by feminists has shown that what women are taught about themselves does indeed differ greatly from their own experiences. It is these contradictions that women find in their lives that have led to feminist theory and are the impetus behind ‘women’s ways of knowing’ among contemporary feminists.

As noted, Haack argues that feminist theorists have replicated the sexist stereotypes of women found in the works of non-feminist, sexist writers. She claims that one can find in the work of many contemporary feminist philosophers the same generalizations about ‘woman’s nature’ that have long been proferred by those who would restrict and limit women. Thus, her claim that much of what is put forth as ‘feminist epistemology’ is not ‘feminist’ at all. Haack’s arguments to this effect have been explained within this article and reveal that either she is not familiar with a great deal of contemporary feminist scholarship or she has failed to understand it. Contemporary feminist philosophers have undertaken the project of theorizing about the nature of knowledge about women. We ask questions that take women to be both the subjects and the objects of theory. Current debates center on deconstructing ‘essentialist’ theories – theories which imply that all women share some sort of unchangeable ‘women’s nature’ – while still making insightful general claims about women. This is epistemology – it concerns the status of theories of knowledge about women – in fact, one might consider this work meta-epistemology. It is also feminist work, in that it attempts to understand and put forth general claims about women that don’t fall prey to the stereotypes found in sexist generalizations. Feminist epistemology, in this sense, not only looks at women as knowers, but as the subject of what is known. This work in the field of feminist scholarship is extensive and merits more in terms of analysis than Haack’s offhand remarks.

Haack is, in part, uncharitable to feminist epistemology because she has narrowly focused on feminist philosophers of science. This is probably due to Haack’s stated belief that the physical sciences give us the most valuable kind of knowledge. But philosophy of science isn’t the only domain in which one finds ‘feminist epistemologists.’ Feminist theorists offer a variety of approaches as to how best to characterize ‘women’s ways of knowing.’ But they all agree that gender/sex makes a difference in an individual’s experiences and resulting perceptions and reflections on those experiences. Saying that gender/sex makes a difference does not commit one to sexist theories based on supposed biological evidence, say, that sex determines character. Nor does it commit one to agreeing theoretically with everyone else who believes that gender/sex is a structuring feature of most people’s lives. It does commit the feminist theorist to trying to come up with the best explanation of the difference that difference makes.

We see in Haack’s Manifesto some of the ways in which traditional philosophers attack feminist theory: with a lack of argument and a lack of charity. The resistance to feminist theory is not just an intellectual resistance; it involves emotional, psychological, social and historical factors that lead philosophers to mischaracterize, misunderstand and sometimes simply ignore the great variety of feminist scholarship produced in the last half of the 20th century. Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to look at the kinds of arguments philosophers such as Haack offer. In doing so, we can show that her arguments fail by her own philosophical standards and that they do little to demonstrate the unworthiness of feminist theory. If we can make a place for feminist theory – feminist epistemology, in particular – then we will more effectively secure the groundwork of theory that could contribute to feminist practices in the lives of non-academic women.

© Dr Marianne Janack and Dr Michelle Larocque 2001

Marianne Janack is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Hamilton College. She teaches courses in epistemology, feminist philosophy, and philosophy of science.

Michelle LaRocque is a Philosophy PhD-turned-medical information coder who continues to pursue interests in feminist philosophy and theories of the self. She lives in upstate New York.

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