Feminist Epistemology

To this post, I am adding this introduction in July 2021. I have returned to some of the ideas of the post, and I see that I left them in a jumble. They may still be that, but I am trying to straighten up a bit.

Beyond this introduction, the post has three parts. Part III takes up more than half of the whole post and consists of my notes on

  1. Elizabeth Anderson, “Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, February 13, 2020. 61 pages.

In Anderson’s article I see – as I note below – ideas that are familiar, thanks to my previous reading of philosophers such as Robin George Collingwood, Mary Midgley, and Robert Pirsig. Henry David Thoreau may not exactly be one of those philosophers, but he is somehow why I came to write this post in the first place.

Here is a table of contents for the whole post:

Anderson discusses the work of Lorraine Code, among many others. Mentioning how babies will look you in the eye, Code argues that the prototypical kind of knowledge is knowledge of other persons. She cites Collingwood, from The Principles of Art, on how properly seeing things means developing such a relation with them as the artist does through painting them. I elaborate on this in Part II, where I also bring in Descartes, as well as the question of femininity and masculinity, already taken up in Part I, whose main subject is Thoreau.

At 89 pages, the edition of Anderson’s article dated August 5, 2015, was much longer than the one that I am using now. I first downloaded the 2015 edition, but did not spend much time with it. I return to the article, inspired by two more articles:

  1. Alice de Montigny, “I Discover Thoreau,” 1992. 3 pages.
  2. Laura Dassow Walls, “Walden as Feminist Manifesto,” 1993. 8 pages.

I have linked the titles above to my own marked-up copies of the articles, which I obtained from JSTOR – both de Montigny’s and Walls’s. Montigny is cited by Walls, whose own article I learned of from yet another:

  1. “Laura Dassow Walls on Henry David Thoreau,” Five Books: The best books on everything.

Seeing this by chance (or by the plan of the Five Books site, where I was looking at another article), I recognized Walls’s name. I had read her biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life (2017), and referred to it in my post of last May (2020) called “Thoreau and Anacreon.”

I. Thoreau and women

Each of the essays by Dassow and de Montigny takes up a passage of Walden:

I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust. How, then, could I have a furnished house? I would rather sit in the open air, for no dust gathers on the grass, unless where man has broken ground.

From North Spectacle Pond in Massachusetts, Alice de Montigny writes as follows of her ex-husband in Texas and of a book, “probably a relic my younger brother rescued on the job at the paper mill”:

The trusted one had unquestionably thrown his daughters and me out the window as if we were three dusty pieces of limestone. I cried myself to sleep.

The next morning before the girls awoke I returned to the Walden passage by the winter window. For the first time in my life I was affording myself a major personal choice: I could surrender to ennui, burying myself forever in domestic busy-work, or I could secure a little free time to toss those limestones and face the vulnerability of new frontiers in friendship. In choosing the latter I decided to meet Mr. Pume [“the bee-keeper, one of the pond area’s secret eccentrics”] and was yet to realize that Henry Thoreau was the enduring friend I would discover.

In “Thoreau and Anacreon,” I took up Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). In publishing the book, Thoreau avoided a conventional path to success, either by ignorance or will. This would seem to be a reason why Walls could write an article called “Walden as Feminist Manifesto.”

In the Five Books interview, Walls says of Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), which I read as a child in West Virginia,

I think it’s perfect that Thoreau’s most obvious inheritor is a woman … he’s not stereotypically masculine. Indeed, he’s very puzzled by his own sense of gender. He knows he’s not like other men, and frets a bit over who he is, and how he is the way he is.

I don’t know that I fretted, exactly; but as a child, I did wonder why other boys knew and cared about professional sports. My father had season tickets to the home games of the Washington football team, but I never took any interest in the team.

Early one summer morning of a later year, when we were in high school, two other boys and I got on a bus that was sitting at the initial terminus of its route in Washington, DC. The bus was going to take us out into Maryland, where we were going to hike along the Potomac River. Meanwhile, the driver came back to talk to us, saying, “Are you ready for football season?” My friends could engage with him, but I had nothing to say, and knew nothing, about a subject supposed to be familiar to all males.

Back in those days, at the dentist’s office once, when I had been taken to sit in the special chair, but it transpired that I would still have to wait a while, I asked if I could have the magazine that I had been reading in the lobby.

Sports Illustrated?” asked the hygienist.

I would never have considered picking that up. “Newsweek,” I replied.

Thoreau and I both then are not like other men, in the eyes of some.

In the Five Books interview on the five best books by or on Thoreau, Walls names a writer whom I took up in my previous post, “Words.” Walls names in particular that writer’s first novel, in which the main characters are two sisters and their aunt:

Marilynne Robinson is another great inheritor. If I could have had ten books, I would add Robinson’s novel Housekeeping [1980] where, again, it’s a woman who takes the Thoreauvian stance, literally setting up housekeeping, like Thoreau, toward the problem of dwelling truly, which means departing from convention.

In [‘Walden as Feminist Manifesto’], I said that women respond most deeply to what Thoreau has done because we recognize that he is liberating. He’s not asking us to keep house for him, he’s devising a whole other relationship to the household. And it’s a relationship that is, yes, a kind of feminist ideal. Some people thought I was nuts …

Thus Laura Dassow Walls.

II. Knowing persons

In “Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science,” Elizabeth Anderson passes along two propositions:

contemporary analytic epistemology’s core model of propositional knowledge implicitly presupposes a male knower … knowledge of other persons rather than of propositions should be taken as a primary model of knowledge.

Anderson attributes these two propositions to Lorraine Code, in What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge (1991). They remind me of Collingwood’s report, in An Autobiography (1939, pages 33–5), that he

parted company with what I called propositional logic … This doctrine was often expressed by calling the proposition the ‘unit of thought.’

Code too would seem to part company with propositional logic. Collingwood explains his own reasons for doing this:

There have always been people who saw that the true ‘unit of thought’ was not the proposition but something more complex in which the proposition served as answer to a question. Not only Bacon and Descartes, but Plato and Kant, come to mind as examples. When Plato described thinking as a ‘dialogue of the soul with itself’, he meant (as we know from his own dialogues) that it was a process of question and answer, and that of these two elements the primacy belongs to the questioning activity, the Socrates within us.

Code does refer to Collingwood in her book, where (on pages 144–5) she begins a section called “Re-visions” by discussing how

Objectivist discussions of vision rarely mention one of its aspects that develops in infancy, is crucial to infant development, and figures prominently in personal relationships. That aspect is direct eye contact between people: a symmetrical act of mutual recognition in which neither need be passive and neither in control … Accounts of knowledge that accorded this visual mode due significance might subvert the traditional subject-object relation …

It is by no means fanciful to imagine such a conception of relations extending from personal relationships to the wider animate and inanimate world. R. G. Collingwood [in The Principles of Art (1938), page 304] describes an artistic seeing that is closer to the personal than to the distanced mode …

… An awareness of the kind Collingwood describes is integral to present-day ecology movements, whose continuity with some aspects of feminist theory is well known.

Code moves on to Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Meanwhile, her quotation of Collingwood, which I elided above, read in its entirety as follows (with Code’s own ellipses):

Seeing … refers not to sensation but to awareness … [it] includes … much that is not visual … an awareness of ‘tactile values’ or the solid shapes of things, their relative distances, and other spatial facts which could be sensuously apprehended only through muscular motion … an awareness of things like warmth and coolness, stillness and noise …. it is a comprehensive awareness … a total imaginative experience.

Collingwood has been describing an activity, which can be done well or badly. He is explaining why the artist would reply as follows to the question, “Why are you painting that subject?” (The bold emphasis is mine.)

One paints a thing in order to see it. People who don’t paint, naturally, won’t believe that; it would be too humiliating to themselves. They like to fancy that everybody, or at least everybody of refinement and taste like themselves, sees just as much as an artist sees, and that the artist only differs in having the technical accomplishment of painting what he [sic] sees. But that is nonsense. You see something in your subject, of course, before you begin to paint it (though how much, even of that, you would see if you weren’t already a painter is a difficult question); and that, no doubt, is what induces you to begin painting; but only a person with experience of painting, and of painting well, can realize how little that is, compared with what you come to see in it as your painting progresses. If you paint badly, of course, that doesn’t happen. Your own daub comes between you and the subject, and you can only see the mess you are making. But a good painter – any good painter will tell you the same – paints things because until he has painted them he doesn’t know what they are like.

Code began with something that even infants engage in, which is looking somebody in the eye; then she moved on to art. This does somehow correspond to Collingwood’s account of art in Speculum Mentis (1924). In “Map of Art” last September, I summarized that account, which itself begins:

That poetry is in a special sense the spiritual kingdom of the child was first divined by Plato; and when the theory of art was seriously taken up again by philosophers of the eighteenth century, they reasserted the same notion …

They seem to have meant that art is the simplest and most primitive, the least sophisticated, of all possible frames of mind … Children and savages are not better artists than grown and civilized men; on the contrary, art like all other forms of activity improves with practice and does not spring into existence full-grown; but children and savages are in a special sense natural artists.

Thus we can do art well or badly; art can be good or bad. Art is also a kind of knowing, or of getting to know. Knowing in general is something we can do well or badly. Epistemology should account for this.

In the paragraph of The Principles of Art from which Code quotes, about how seeing is not mere visual sensation, Collingwood says of the artist, “He does not think that one’s eyes become sharper through the exercise of painting.” Eyesight can be good or bad, but this is not what art is concerned with.

For those of us who have retained all of our senses, I recall some advice: If we lost one of our senses, such as sight or hearing, the others would not become better in compensation; we would have to learn to use them better.

The optometrist can measure sharpness of vision, with an optometer or other such device. Minimal cooperation is required from the patient, who need only look at things.

Seeing is something else. It is an activity, as is painting. By Collingwood’s account in the next paragraph of The Principles of Art:

The two activities are not identical; he [the artist] distinguishes them by the names of ‘painting’ and ‘seeing’ respectively; but they are connected in such a way that, he assures us, each is conditional upon the other. Only a person who paints well can see well; and conversely (as he would tell us with equal confidence if we asked him) only a person who sees well can paint well. There is no question of ‘externalizing’ an inward experience which is complete in itself and by itself. There are two experiences, an inward or imaginative one called seeing and an outward or bodily one called painting, which in the painter’s life are inseparable, and form one single indivisible experience, an experience which may be described as painting imaginatively.

In her Stanford Encyclopedia article on feminist epistemology, Elizabeth Anderson says, citing Willard Van Orman Quine,

epistemology is just another project within science, in which we empirically investigate our practices of inquiry.

This is like saying art criticism is just another project within optometry. I shall come back to this.

In What Can She Know? Code refers again to Collingwood later (on page 173), when she says,

I have suggested that epistemological analyses might have taken their point of departure from knowing other people, deriving conceptions of the nature of knowledge, and of an appropriate subject-object relation, from such knowledge.

A footnote to this passage is,

Collingwood’s theory of historical knowledge as paradigmatic offers another possibility, which I evaluate in my “Collingwood’s Epistemological Individualism,” The Monist (1989).

The Monist article has an endnote clarifying its thesis:

Rorty’s distinction between “edifying” and “systematic” philosophy mirrors Sosa’s “free-spirited”/“serious” distinction in a number of respects.

Code’s thesis itself is,

Collingwood’s individualism makes his philosophy a poorer source of edification for free-spirited philosophers than one might, from its central tenets, expect it to be. It constitutes a good reason why neither free-spirited nor edifying philosophers could – or should – claim Collingwood unequivocally as one of their own.

Are we choosing players for a football game? Possibly Code means to warn against doing this in general, at least in philosophy. Descartes has such a warning, in the sixth and last part of the Discourse on Method:

I have almost never encountered a critic of my views who did not seem to be either less rigorous or less impartial than myself. Nor have I ever observed that any previously unknown truth has been discovered by means of the disputations practiced in the schools. For so long as each side strives for victory, more effort is put into establishing plausibility than in weighing reasons for and against.

(Source: The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume I, translated by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch, Cambridge University Press, 1985.)

A key idea of Collingwood’s autobiography is that you won’t know what a writer is trying to do, unless he [or she] has been successful in doing it:

we cannot fish the problem P out of the hyperuranian lucky-bag, hold it up, and say ‘what did So-and-so think about this?’ … We have to say ‘here is a passage of Leibniz; what is it about?’ … one and the same passage states his solution and serves as evidence of what the problem was. The fact that we can identify his problem is proof that he has solved it; for we only know what the problem was by arguing back from the solution.

Thoreau draws attention to the writer at the beginning of Walden:

I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives.

I happened to quote this also in “Return to Narnia” last May.

In a letter of 1939, Collingwood wrote, “I missed my bus when I took a job at Oxford instead of becoming a professional writer.” I imagine he could have written detective novels. In The Principles of Art, he mentions the pleasure of reading Dorothy Sayers; to illustrate “The Principles of History,” he wrote a short story, “Who Killed John Doe?” (it was published first posthumously in The Idea of History).

One may read Collingwood as Walls does Thoreau, by her account in the Five Books interview:

I think it’s best to understand Walden as, in the best sense of the word, a work of fiction. By that I don’t mean ‘it’s lies.’ It’s a work of art. It’s a kind of turning inward that becomes a turning outward, a question of discovering who he truly is, and what life truly is when it’s not being determined by all the social forces that we’re surrounded with.

I don’t write fiction as such; however, what one writes about anything is bound to leave something out. In describing my relation with sports as a child, I left things out. The reader may imaginatively fill in the gaps; but will you supply what I might have written?

Collingwood himself worked at filling in others’ gaps. He said of his “logic of question and answer,”

The same logic committed me to the view that any one can understand any philosopher’s doctrines if he can grasp the questions which they are intended to answer …

This view makes it a point of honour for any philosopher holding it to take part in the discussion of problems that are not his own problems, and to help in the working-out of philosophies that are not his own philosophy.

That’s from An Autobiography (page 55). His colleagues did not appreciate the help, as Collingwood goes on to explain (page 57):

This power of enjoying and admiring the work of other philosophers, no matter how widely their philosophies differed from mine, was not always pleasing to my colleagues. Some of them it perhaps deceived into thinking I had no serious convictions of my own; others it annoyed, as a cowardly refusal to defend whatever convictions I had.

Descartes expected his readers to come to their own conclusions. This again is from the last part of the Discourse:

even the best minds have no reason to wish to know my principles … For if they are capable of making further progress than I have made, they will be all the more capable of discovering for themselves everything I think I have discovered.

My previous post, already mentioned, is third in a series that started, in December, 2019, with “Sex and Gender.” That post had been provoked by the cancellation of J. K. Rowling for saying, “sex is real.” I had not read Rowling’s books. I went on to acquire and enjoy Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, though without developing a burning desire to read any more in the series.

In July, 2020, I wrote the second post, “Be Sex Binary, We Are Not,” in response to a poorly reasoned blog post in Scientific American by “a doctoral candidate in the Tsien Lab at New York University’s Neuroscience Institute.” That person concluded,

trans people are an indispensable part of our living reality. Transgender humans represent the complexity and diversity that are fundamental features of life, evolution and nature itself. That is a fact.

I don’t know what this can mean. I am also not aware that any other liberation movement has involved such rhetoric. I have lately seen young people accused of being ignorant of past struggles. Born in 1984, Owen Jones is such a person for tweeting,

One of the most important themes in ‘It’s A Sin’ was about gay/bi people and shame – caused by growing up in a society that saw gay/bi people as would-be sexual predators, violators of biological reality, threats to children, immoral, deviants, and generally undesirable.

Somebody called John Cocker replied with a thread:

One of the most important themes in #ItsASin was the fact they were breaking the law.

The fight for gay rights was therefore about achieving equity with straight folk.

We debated anyone, any time, anywhere. We needed to persuade, and for that we needed conversation.

AIDS destroyed an entire generation of gay men.

The only people who cared for us were lesbians, and left wing women.

The same women labelled “bigots” and “transphobes” today.

Gay men like Owen, who wasn’t even born then, harass and name call these women on a daily basis.

When they ask for conversation regarding the impact of gender ideology on their single sex spaces, they are screamed at.

Like Thoreau and his “inheritors,” trans people pursue an unconventional path; or it may be a conventional path, even a stereotypical path, if not a parody of a path, albeit for somebody assigned a different sex at birth.

As I pointed out with Walls’s help in “Thoreau and Anacreon,” Thoreau had to accept that an unconventional book like A Week might not find any buyers. He ridiculed a person for manufacturing what he could, which was baskets, and then getting angry that somebody else was not buying them.

One reason for calling my last post “Words” is the furore over how we ought to use such words as “woman” and “man.”

III. Notes on “Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science”

Elizabeth Anderson starts the SEP article thus:

Feminist epistemology and philosophy of science studies the ways in which gender does and ought to influence our conceptions of knowledge, knowers, and practices of inquiry and justification.

How should we understand the “ought to”? Is feminist epistemology normative, because it tries to tell scientists what to do? Or is it criteriological, in Collingwood’s sense, because it tries to figure out what we all think we ought to be doing? The linguist recognizes the distinction here, implicitly, when noting that speakers can make grammatical errors that both they and the linguist recognize; I discussed this in “A New Kind of Science.”

Anderson continues:

[Feminist epistemology and philosophy of science] identifies how dominant conceptions and practices of knowledge attribution, acquisition, and justification disadvantage women and other subordinated groups, and strives to reform them to serve the interests of these groups.

This suggests an underlying Manichaeism, a belief in an endless struggle among competing forces, as opposed to a conviction that we all benefit when science is done well. That conviction may still exist; let us see.

We are told,

Various feminist epistemologists and philosophers of science argue that dominant knowledge practices disadvantage women by … producing knowledge that is not useful for people in subordinate positions, or that reinforces gender and other social hierarchies. (page 1)

As a pure mathematician, I resist any requirement that knowledge be useful for anything beyond itself. However, we are immediately told,

Feminist epistemologists trace these failures to flawed conceptions of knowledge, knowers, objectivity, and scientific methodology. (page 1)

Presumably these “flawed conceptions” are supposed to be recognizable by everybody as flaws; for, feminist epistemologists also

aim to (1) explain why the entry of women and feminist scholars into different academic disciplines has generated new questions, theories, methods, and findings … (4) defend these developments as epistemic advances.

Here is the key point:

The central concept of feminist epistemology is of situated knowledge: knowledge that reflects the particular perspectives of the knower. (page 2)

The article is given the following outline; I am adding the numbers, which correspond to the sections of the article.

  1. Feminist philosophers explore how gender situates knowing subjects. They have articulated three main approaches to this question –
  2. feminist standpoint theory,
  3. feminist postmodernism, and
  4. feminist empiricism –
  5. which have converged over time. Conceptions of how gender situates knowers also inform feminist approaches to the central problems of the field:
  6. grounding feminist criticisms of science and feminist science,
  7. defining the proper roles of social and political values in inquiry,
  8. evaluating ideals of objectivity, and
  9. reforming practices of epistemic authority and epistemic virtue. (page 2)

I shall be reviewing only sections 1–4 and 7–9.

Section 1: “Situated Knowers”

The article does now seem to accept epistemology properly as a criteriological science. To study knowing as such is to study the criteria whereby it is judged successful or not, by those persons who are doing the knowing; and to understand those criteria, you have to be a knower yourself. We all know at least simple things, but this may lead us to a mistaken generalization, as Collingwood observes in his autobiography (page 25):

The Oxford ‘realists’ talked as if knowing were a simple ‘intuiting’ or a simple ‘apprehending’ of some ‘reality’ …

This doctrine, which was rendered plausible by choosing as examples of knowledge statements like ‘this is a red rose’, ‘my hand is resting on the table’, where familiarity with the mental operations involved has bred not so much contempt as oblivion, was quite incompatible with what I had learned in my ‘laboratory’ of historical thought.

Go to “the south gate of Housesteads,” he suggests (on page 40): it is a ruined Roman fort along Hadrian’s Wall. Learn to “distinguish the various periods of construction here, and explain what purpose the builders of each period had in mind.” Then you can talk more knowledgeably about how knowing comes about, even if all you want to know about is Plato’s Parmenides.

Alternatively, to learn about knowing, be a woman! Anderson says,

The problems of self-knowledge are pressing for feminist theory, because it is committed to theorizing in ways that women can use to improve their lives. This entails that women be able to recognize their lives in feminist accounts of women’s predicament.

Collingwood’s account of his colleagues’ epistemology is a precursor of Anderson’s account. For her,

Mainstream epistemology takes as paradigms of knowledge simple propositional knowledge about matters in principle equally accessible to anyone with basic cognitive and sensory apparatus: “2+2=4”; “grass is green”; “water quenches thirst.” Feminist epistemology does not claim that such knowledge is gendered.

Section 2: “Feminist Standpoint Theory”

A key phrase in this section is epistemic advantage, which would seem to be a technical or polite form of knowing better. I have bolded the instances here:

Standpoint theories claim to represent the world from an epistemically advantaged socially situated perspective … Many limited claims to epistemic advantage on behalf of particular perspectives are uncontroversial. Auto mechanics are in a better position than auto consumers to know what is wrong with their cars. Practical experience in fulfilling the mechanic’s role grounds mechanics’ epistemic advantage, which claims superior reliability.

Compare Socrates on how everybody knows whom to go to, when sick or in need of a pair of sandals; whom then do we go to for justice?

Another key term is oppression. Here is its first instance in Anderson’s article:

Marxism offers the classic model of standpoint theory, claiming an epistemic advantage over fundamental questions of social science and history, on behalf of the standpoint of the proletariat (Marx [The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte], Lukács [“Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat”]). Workers attain this standpoint by gaining collective consciousness of their role in the capitalist system. In virtue of their oppression, they have an interest in the truth about whose interests capitalism serves.

Knowledge is “made true by being put into action”:

Through collective feminist actions … women show that representations of women as sexual objects are not natural or necessary. Their privileged knowledge is collective agent self-knowledge, made true by being put into action …

I recall Collingwood’s general emphasis on doing things, as follows.

  • The Prologue of Speculum Mentis begins,

    All thought exists for the sake of action. We try to understand ourselves and our world only in order that we may learn how to live. The end of our self-knowledge is not the contemplation by enlightened intellects of their own mysterious nature, but the freer and more effectual self-revelation of that nature in a vigorous practical life.

  • An Essay on Philosophical Method (1933) is a discourse on how to do philosophy.

  • The Principles of Art is for the sake of making art, as is said in the Preface:

    Everything written in this book has been written in the belief that it has a practical bearing, direct or indirect, upon the condition of art in England in 1937, and in the hope that artists primarily, and secondarily persons whose interest in art is lively and sympathetic, will find it of some use to them.

  • An Autobiography (pages 152–3) praises Marx as a man of action:

    I was never at all convinced either by Marx’s metaphysics or by his economics; but the man was a fighter, and a grand one; and no mere fighter, but a fighting philosopher. His philosophy might be unconvincing; but to whom was it unconvincing? … it was inevitable that Marx’s philosophy should appear nonsensical to gloves-on philosophers like the ‘realists’, with their sharp division between theory and practice, or the ‘liberals’, such as John Stuart Mill, who argued that people ought to be allowed to think whatever they liked because it didn’t really matter what they thought.

Let me note here a disagreement with the priority of action by one of my teachers, himself a student of Leo Strauss. My old teacher wrote me in 2016,

When Plato speaks in the Republic about education as a “turning around” of the soul, I think he means a turning around from our ordinary practical orientation to a different, theoretical one. And Aristotle says at the end of the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics that contemplation is not for the sake of action, but rather that it is itself the supreme form of action, and as such the aim of life. Rather than saying, with Collingwood, that all thought exists “in order that we may learn how to live,” they thought that the wisest men have already learned how to live, to the extent that such learning is possible, namely, they have learned that the best life is the theoretical life. Accordingly, their subsequent philosophic thought would not be in order to learn how to live, but it would itself be, at least as they understood it, living in the highest sense. And its aim would be, looked at in one way, to continue living that life, and looked at in another way, to learn to the extent possible the truth of things as they necessarily always are. In connection with this, to turn to your own field of mathematics, I know nothing about Andrew Wiles and Fermat’s last theorem. But I wonder whether Wiles’s thought about this theorem is best understood as “for the sake of action.” It was itself action, action for the sake of proving a theorem.

For now I would recall Collingwood’s objection to “propositional logic.” What does Collingwood mean by saying, “All thought exists for the sake of action”? We may read it as we read sentences such as,

  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”;

  • “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Collingwood himself observes presently,

The philosopher cannot justify his existence as the writer of popular novels can, by saying that he satisfies a need universally felt.

In the SEP article that we are looking at, the next instances of “oppression” are here:

Oppression. Women have an interest in representing social phenomena in ways that reveal their oppression. They also have personal experience of sexist oppression, unlike men, whose power enables them to ignore how their actions affect women. If epistemic advantage is grounded in oppression, the multiply oppressed have additional epistemic authority.

I think “oppression” in that last sentence should be understood in the passive or “objective” sense, as “being oppressed”; but not only that, since as we have seen, “privileged knowledge is … made true by being put into action.” Thus the advantage being discussed here, which comes from being oppressed, can and should itself be pressed, or enacted. This is confirmed presently:

Most standpoint theories represent the epistemically advantaged standpoint not as given, but as achieved through critical reflection on the power structures constituting group identities … The privileged standpoint is not that of women, but of feminists (MacKinnon [Toward a Feminist Theory of the State,] 1989). Men can participate in the feminist movement. But they cannot assume a dominant role in defining (hence knowing) its aims, given the feminist interest in overcoming male dominance.

It would seem that epistemic advantage is grounded in overcoming oppression, first in conceit, and then in act.

Given contemporary controversy over so-called critical race theory, let us note Anderson’s observation (the bullets are mine; the lettering, Anderson’s):

Feminist standpoint theory is a type of critical theory. Critical theories aim to empower the oppressed. To serve this aim, social theories must

  • (a) represent the world in relation to the interests of the oppressed;
  • (b) enable the oppressed to understand their problems; and
  • (c) be usable by the oppressed to improve their condition.

Claims of superiority for critical theories are thus fundamentally based on pragmatic virtues.

Criticisms include the following.

  • “Standpoint theory cannot provide a noncircular basis for deciding which standpoints have epistemic privilege.”

  • “It is implausible to hold that any group inequality is central to all the others; they intersect in complex ways.”

  • “Feminist postmodernists … question the possibility of a unified standpoint of women.”

Section 3: “Feminist Postmodernism”

We begin with an overview:

Postmodernism questions attempts to transcend situatedness by appeal to such ideas as universality … It delegitimizes ideas that dominate and exclude by undermining their claims to ultimate justification. And it opens up space for imagining alternative possibilities that were obscured by those claims.

I might suggest that my job is “to transcend situatedness by appeal to such ideas as universality”; but this formulation is misleading. I cannot tell my students, “You have to accept this theorem, because it is universally true.” Precisely because mathematical truth is universal, everybody else has as much access to it as I do, in principle. Any disagreement can be resolved dialectically. At any rate, one aspect of doing mathematics is believing that we can resolve disagreement by talking things through.

There is nonetheless a popular belief, which I question, that truth is somehow dictated to us. There is a remarkable confession of this belief in an article about peat bogs in Ireland:

“This is the way the bog was,” Kearney said without sentiment. Before Ballydermot was excavated in the 1940s, he reckoned, its surface would have been ten meters higher than it is today – the height of a two-story building. “We’re actually down to the lack.”

“Lack,” or “lac,” or “lak” – nobody I asked was sure of the correct spelling – is a regional term for the ground under the peat, far below the natural organic surface of the earth, which thousands of years ago would have been the bed of the lake from which the bog developed. Perhaps the word derives from “lake,” but it appears in neither Irish nor English dictionaries.

That’s from “Bogland: Climate change and the peat industry’s dying days,” Harper’s, July 2020, by William Atkins. Could this author give any clearer instance of a word with no “correct spelling”? Evidently the “lack” of a peat bog has not been written about enough to have developed an official or standard spelling. Nonetheless, there seems to be a belief, at least in Anglophone countries, that every word has an objectively right way of being written. I imagine this belief has been promoted by teachers. English Wikipedia currently has an article “Spelling test,” but with no translations listed.

Anderson continues:

Postmodernists claim that what we think of as reality is “discursively constructed.” According to Saussure, signs get their meaning not from their reference to external things but from their relations to all the other signs in the discourse.

Relations among all things are taken up in Collingwood’s first book, Religion and Philosophy (1916):

One of the objections brought by the Renaissance scientists against the “final causes” or teleological explanations of Aristotelian science was that they supplied only general explanations, and gave no reason why the particular fact should be what it is … Thus, the gale last night blew down a tree in the garden. But it would not have done so except for many other circumstances … The only real cause seems to be a total state of the universe.

Further, if the whole present state of the universe causes the fall of the tree, it also for the same reason causes everything else that happens at the same time. That is to say, the cause of the fall of my tree is also the cause of an earthquake in Japan and a fine day in British Columbia … the only true effect is a total state of the universe. To say that this gale causes this tree to fall is doubly inadequate.

Continuing to summarize the postmodernist view, Anderson says,

There can be no complete, unified theory of the world that captures the whole truth.

Indeed, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem is a proof of this, if one needs a proof. Even without that, how can one possibly capture the whole truth?

As the New York Times claims to have “All the news that’s fit to print,” so a courtroom may ask a witness to tell the whole truth about a particular case. The wholeness of the truth to be told is emphasized, because in ordinary interactions, politeness usually requires us not to tell the whole truth. Miss Manners writes about this sometimes, as for example in the column for October 9, 2016, “Conventional excuses are not the same as lies.” In principle, as Collingwood’s example of the tree in the garden suggests, the whole truth, in the strictest sense, is nothing less than everything going on in the entire universe; and who can claim to know this?

One can try to find a way around the problem, if having “no complete, unified theory of the world” is a problem. One can have a complete theory of part of the world: for example, a geometrical line, conceived as a number line, namely the line of so-called real numbers. This line then is a mathematical structure whose complete first-order theory is recursively axiomatizable. In particular, we can recognize its truths by an algorithm. However, the set of those truths has non-isomorphic models, as does every set of first-order statements that has some infinite model. The second-order axioms for the real numbers are categorical: all other models are isomorphic to the intended model. However, second-order logic allows the structure of the natural numbers to be interpreted in that model, so that Gödel’s theorem applies, showing again that there is no algorithm for finding the truth.

I return again to the SEP:

the elevation of the judge’s bench metaphorically signifies the judge’s superior authority over others in the courtroom … the superior authority of judges consists in the conventions of deference others manifest toward them. It is not underwritten by an underlying normatively objective authority … The meanings of actions can be subverted by other actions that, in changing the context, changes [sic] their meanings.

“Not underwritten by an underlying normatively objective authority”: I guess that means norms come from us.

If the authority of judge or teacher is by convention, I would say, we may still think the convention has a good reason, which all who are subject to it can come to understand.

Nonetheless, the possibility of subversion, just mentioned,

is why postmodernists celebrate ironic, parodic, and campy renditions of conventional behaviors as politically liberating (Butler [Bodies that Matter,] 1993).

The self is likewise constituted by signs. There is no unified self that underlies the play of a stream of signifiers … our identities are socially imposed. However, this does not foreclose agency, because we occupy multiple social identities … Tensions among these identities open up spaces for disrupting the discursive systems that construct us. (page 16)

This doesn’t make a lot of sense. Liberation is good, and therefore disruption that engenders it may be good; but license as such is not good. Responsibility needs to be discussed. Is is discussed, a bit later (again the bullets are mine):

Feminist postmodernism envisions our epistemic situation as characterized by a shifting plurality of perspectives … This position rejects both objectivism and relativism for the ways they let knowers escape responsibility … They can think from other perspectives … Negotiating the array of situated knowledges involves …

  • acceptance of responsibility: acknowledging the choices of situation involved in constructing one’s representations …
  • trying to see things from many other perspectives.

Mobile positioning can never be transparent or innocent. Imagining oneself in another’s situation is risky …

Section 4: “Feminist Empiricism”

The section begins with how “Quine revolutionized empiricism,” because for him,

observation is theory-laden. It is cast in terms of complex concepts not immediately given in experience, which are potentially subject to revision in light of further experience … Many feminist empiricists accept these views while rejecting Quine’s sharp division of facts from values, which they regard as inconsistent with naturalized empiricism.

This seems to be an allusion to the “underdetermination of theory by evidence,” named only later, when the notion of “naturalized epistemology” (perhaps the same as naturalized empiricism) is spelled out:

Feminist empiricists appeal to the pragmatist tradition to undermine the sharp dichotomy between fact and value … They argue that the underdetermination of theory by evidence leads to a view of facts and values as mutually constituting. Whether any particular feminist, or sexist, theory is true will depend on empirical investigation informed by epistemic norms – norms which may be reformed in light of the merits of the theories they generate. This is the project of naturalized epistemology, whereby the vindication of norms of inquiry is sought within empirical investigation. (page 21)

The ellipsis in the preceding passage is supplied by the following, which I briefly took up earlier:

Moreover, epistemology is just another project within science, in which we empirically investigate our practices of inquiry (Quine [“Epistemology Naturalized,”] 1969).

If epistemology itself is an empirical science, then what is not? Any scientist may have to do some thinking about how to know things in their field, precisely to be able to know them; but thinking about knowledge is not the same kind of thinking that they normally do. This is why a scientist can be as much of a jerk as anybody else. I wrote here last fall about how mathematics is pacifist, although we mathematicians are not automatically going to be pacifist.

I skip ahead. Quine’s ideas are spelled out more in:

Section 7: “Feminist Defenses of Value-Laden Inquiry”

Feminist empiricists reply to this challenge [“that good science is neutral”] by extending Quine’s argument that theory is underdetermined by evidence (Longino 1990, Nelson 1993). Any body of observations counts as evidence for particular hypotheses only in conjunction with certain background assumptions.

Anderson gives an example. Absence of stellar parallax was first taken as evidence of absence of motion of the earth; then as evidence that the stars were really far away.

What is empirical is spelled out more:

Experimental methods in social science may be good for discovering factors that can be used to control people’s behavior in similar settings. But to grasp their behavior as action – that is, as attempts by agents to govern their behavior through their understandings of what they are doing – requires different empirical methods, including participant observation and qualitative interviews (which allow subjects to delineate their own systems of meaning). (page 33)

The latter methods could still be what Collingwood questions in Religion and Philosophy as follows.

There is an air of great concreteness and reality about psychology which makes it very attractive. But this concreteness is really a delusion and on closer inspection vanishes. When a man makes a statement about the nature of God (or anything else) he is interested, not in the fact that he is making that statement, but in the belief, or hope, or fancy that it is true. If then the psychologist merely makes a note of the statement and declines to join in the question whether it is true, he is cutting himself off from any kind of real sympathy or participation in the very thing he is studying – this man’s mental life and experiences …

The mind, regarded in this external way, really ceases to be a mind at all.

In feminist epistemology, it seems that not all inquiry is empirical; for the passage in Anderson’s article continues.

Standpoint theories, as critical theories, seek to empower the subjects of study by helping them forge liberatory self-understandings. These may require different methods of inquiry – for example, consciousness-raising (MacKinnon 1989).

In An Essay on Metaphysics (1940), Collingwood is big on how what you perceive as a cause depends on what you can do something about. Anderson has the idea.

Feminists may agree with conservatives that divorce is a cause of the feminization of poverty, but deny that this means that women are better off married. They argue that marriage itself, with its gendered division of domestic and market labor, constitutes one of the major structural disadvantages women face, setting them up for worse outcomes in the event of divorce. Conservatives, viewing marriage as an indispensable condition of the good life, are no more willing to view marriage in this light than most people would be willing to blame oxygen for the occurrence of house fires. (page 34)

Having taken up the notion of objectivity in my previous post, I started my reading of Anderson’s SEP article with:

Section 8: “Feminist Critiques and Conceptions of Objectivity”

It begins with a list of “problematic” “conceptions of objectivity”:

  1. “Subject/object dichotomy.”
  2. “Aperspectivity.”
  3. “Detachment.”
  4. “Value-neutrality.”
  5. “Control: ‘objective’ knowledge of an object (the way it ‘really’ is) is attained by controlling it, especially by experimental manipulation, and observing the regularities it manifests under control.”
  6. “External guidance: ‘objective’ knowledge consists of representations whose content is dictated by the way things really are, not by the knower.”

These ideas form a “package,” which

arose in the 17th-18th centuries, as a philosophical account of why Newtonian science was superior to its predecessor. According to this account, the predecessor science, which represented objects as intrinsically possessing secondary qualities and ends, confused the way things are in themselves with the ways they are related to emotionally engaged human knowers, who erroneously projected their own mental states and value judgments onto things.

Neil deGrasse Tyson sketches such an account, in “What Science Is, and How and Why It Works,” dated January 23, 2016:

The scientific method … can be summarized in one sentence, which is all about objectivity:

Do whatever it takes to avoid fooling yourself into thinking something is true that is not, or that something is not true that is.

This approach to knowing did not take root until early in the 17th century, shortly after the inventions of both the microscope and the telescope …

More than two millenia before that, Socrates tried to get people not to fool themselves about how much they knew; but they were embarrassed, and put him to death.

Anderson further analyzes the components of the “package.” Collingwood’s words about psychology are echoed by Anderson’s remarks about the “subject/object dichotomy”:

If the object of science is to grasp things as they are, independent of knowers, then one must sharply distinguish the knower from the known. However, when the objects of inquiry are knowers themselves, this dichotomy rules out the possibility that knowers’ self-understandings help constitute the ways knowers are … This may lead people to make the projective errors objectivity is supposed to avoid: attributing to the natures of the objects of study what are products of people’s contingent beliefs and attitudes about those objects.

Assuming things are not like us is as problematic as assuming they are. I have elided the sentence, “[The dichotomy] thus rules out the possibility that some of our characteristics are socially constructed.” I don’t know whether this is supposed to be taken as the only alternative to our being in sharp distinction from those who know us.

Collingwood wrote about the knower and the known in An Autobiography (1939); the time is after the First World War, when Collingwood

came back to Oxford an opponent of the ‘realists’ … I read a paper to my colleagues, trying to convince them that Cook Wilson’s central positive doctrine, ‘knowing makes no difference to what is known’, was meaningless. I argued that any one who claimed, as Cook Wilson did, to be sure of this, was in effect claiming to know what he was simultaneously defining as unknown. For if you know that no difference is made to a thing θ by the presence or absence of a certain condition c, you know what θ is like with c, and also what θ is like without c, and on comparing the two find no difference. This involves knowing what θ is like without c; in the present case, knowing what you defined as the unknown.

Regarding “aperspectivity,” Anderson says,

Feminists question the intelligibility of a “view from nowhere” … Knowers are situated. The underdetermination of theories by evidence implies that biases are needed to get theorizing off the ground … we should empirically study which biases are fruitful and which mislead.

There ensues a complement to the idea, brought up earlier, that “knowledge is made true by being put into action”:

Some feminist critics also argue that … assuming that observed regularities reflect the intrinsic natures of things … produces the very regularities taken to vindicate that assumption.

I note some additional remarks about the problematic conceptions of objectivity.


“A ‘feeling for the [individual] organism’ may sensitize a scientist to critical data”;


“When scientists represent themselves as neutral, this blocks their recognition of the ways their values have shaped their inquiry”;


“The control ideal underrates the epistemic value of experiences gained from loving or cooperative engagement with the objects of study”;

“External guidance”:

“the underdetermination of theories by evidence entails that theories cannot be purely externally guided … The pretense that sound scientific theories are the products of purely external guidance obscures the forces shaping these choices and absolves scientists from responsibility for defending them.”

For why the “pretense” is just that, Anderson mentions how “feminists have paid particular attention to the ways metaphors and narrative genres constrain scientific explanations,” as for instance regarding “the transition from ape to hominid.” She cites

  • Donna Haraway, Primate Visions (1989) and “Situated Knowledges” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (1991);
  • Emily Martin, “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles” (1996).

I think one might cite Mary Midgley. She does not appear in the twelve pages of the Anderson’s bibliography; however, Midgley writes for example in Evolution as a Religion (1985, revised 2002, pages 2–4):

It seems often to be assumed … that Science itself is something so pure and impersonal that it ought to be thought of in complete abstraction from all the motives that might lead people to practise it. This, unfortunately, cannot work because of the importance of world-pictures. Facts are not gathered in a vacuum, but to fill gaps in a world-picture which already exists … An enquirer with no such general map would only be an obsessive … Merely to pile up information indiscriminately is an idiot’s task.

Good scientists do not approximate to that ideal at all. They tend to have a very strong guiding imaginative system.

Section 9: “Epistemic Authority, Epistemic Injustice, Epistemologies of Ignorance, and Virtue Epistemology”

We come to the source of my first quotation from the SEP article, about propositional knowledge:

What we believe is influenced by who[m] we believe … Feminist epistemologists explore how gender and other hierarchical social relations influence attributions of epistemic authority … Code ([What Can She Know?,] 1991) argues that contemporary analytic epistemology’s core model of propositional knowledge implicitly presupposes a male knower … Code argues that knowledge of other persons rather than of propositions should be taken as a primary model of knowledge … the indispensability of testimony to inquiry has led feminist epistemologists to take Code’s ideas in a different direction, by investigating the dependence of propositional knowledge on knowledge of persons. For example, anthropologists must cultivate personal relationships of trust with native informants …


  • Collingwood’s tracing (in An Essay on Metaphysics) of our notion of causation back to its original sense, in which one person may cause another person to do something;

  • remarks of English teacher and anthropologist Verne Dusenberry, quoted by Robert Pirsig in Lila (1991, page 35): “The trouble with the objective approach is that you don’t learn much that way” (I quoted this in turn in “Anthropology of Mathematics”);

  • my own pursuit of philosophy in this blog through the work of particular persons, such as Plato, Descartes, Collingwood, Midgley, and Pirsig.

I continue with Anderson:

Dominant groups tend to … promote, as markers of epistemic authority, characteristics stereotypically thought to be distinctively theirs … They hoard opportunities for gaining access to these markers – for instance, by denying subordinate groups access to higher education.

You need a degree to be respectable, but you have trouble getting a degree without already being respectable. I don’t know to what extent this continues to be true. There’s a movement in the US to abolish the GRE. Beyond the costliness of the exam to its takers, an objection is “stereotype threat”: if you think people like you are expected to do poorly, then you do do poorly. Apparently this can be demonstrated with exams like the GRE. In that case though, why should not stereotype threat affect everything you do in life, including whatever you use in seeking admission to higher learning? Your grades in high school may be affected by your teacher’s prejudices; at least standardized tests avoid this, though they could have other problems. I don’t think my questions about all of this last summer got a satisfactory response from a couple of persons in mathematics who were promoting GRE abolition.

In Turkey I have heard of a kind of hoarding of one’s students: a not wanting them to learn from anybody but oneself. A related problem is the notion one can capture and hoard knowledge the way the Ottomans did territory. Thus for example the man who has ruled this country for almost twenty years, but could not finish university, now appoints the rector of every public university: most recently, and controversially, Boğaziçi University.

Anderson mentions a notion of hermeneutical injustice, which

occurs when the interpretive resources available to a community render a person’s experiences unintelligible or misunderstood … An example … is the dismissal of women as humorless or hypersensitive for getting upset at what was seen as mere cloddish courtship or joking, before the concept of sexual harassment was available …

This seems to beg the question of whether what is understood to be unjust now, such as, in many places, capital punishment, was always unjust. The question matters, if we are going to follow the recommendation in Section 3 of

trying to see things from many other perspectives … Imagining oneself in another’s situation is risky, requiring sensitive engagement with and sympathy for occupants of those positions. Both transform situated knowing into a critical and responsible practice.

Anderson mentions “testimonial injustice,” to be corrected by

epistemic justice – a disposition, rooted in one’s testimonial sensibility or second-nature perception of others’ credibility, to neutralize the effects of prejudicial stereotypes on credibility judgments.

I have tried to note the points of Anderson’s article that are interesting to me; but again, it’s 61 pages, with 12 pages of references.

Copy-edited July 15, 2022

6 Trackbacks

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