In traditional epistemology there have been two options: objectivism (one world and one true description of it) or relativism (many perspectives which describe many equally valid ‘worlds’). Of course there are highly developed versions of these two simplified categories, but they have traditionally remained close to these theoretical bases. Sandra Harding proposes that her notion of “strong objectivity” can provide us with a third option. She situates this “strong objectivity” within the theoretical background of feminism standpoint epistemology. (I propose to argue (in a later writeup)that such an epistemology cannot withstand philosophical scrutiny, and that her third option either devolves into ‘objectivism’ or relativism.
Feminist standpoint epistemology (as developed by Harding) is founded on the following basic assumptions:
1. There is no universally objective perspective from which we can view the world as it “really” is. This is because any purportedly ‘objective’ standpoint can be shown to have social, political and cultural influence even in its most basic assumptions (As numerous feminist, and other, inquiries into the epistemological stance of modern ‘objective’ science have illustrated).
2. Thus, any standpoint that presents itself as universally objective is actually denying its origins, and is, hence, less objective (in that it is ignoring a relevant variable). Harding believes that modern ‘objectivist’ epistemology (which is closely associated with modern science) is a good example of a standpoint that attempts to mask its social/cultural/political origins and claim universal objectivity.
3. It also follows from premise 1 that any standpoint that embraces its social/cultural/political origins is less biased, and hence, more objective. Harding sees the ‘women’s standpoint’ as such a standpoint.
Harding believes that the women’s standpoint is not only superior to current objectivist standpoints because of its acknowledgement of its own historicity, but that a whole host of other characteristics contribute to this superiority as well.
She enumerates at least seven reasons why the "women's standpoint" is more objective than 'objectivist' standpoints:
1. Science is supposed to take into account all empirically relevant variables. Since humans exist within the empirical world, and women lead different lives than men, their lives should be considered as valuable starting points for scientific research
2. Women can be considered 'strangers' (in the sociological sense) to the common social structure of science.
3. Women are oppressed. As such, they have far less of a vested interest in maintaining a scientific theory/culture that may be biased in favour of certain dominating agendas.
4. Feminist politics not only decrease unequal hiring/research practices, but also provide empirically less biased data. Only through feminist politics (the politics of the oppressed) can we see through the haze of dominating epistemological practices.
5. The women's perspective is that of everyday life, and can provide a critique of dominant schemes based also on everyday experience, which aids in the dissolution of obscurantist scientific procedures.
6. Women "mediate dualisms". Which is to say, that many women are on both sides of traditional ideological divides. For instance: woman are seen as 'natural' but they also take part in culture. That is women are both in touch with their bodies, and their minds (through sciences, etc, etc.). Thus, the women's standpoint allows us to explode traditional (and constructed) dichotomies by placing us on both sides of them at once.
7. Similar to both point 2 and point 6, women are "outsiders within". That is, they see science both from within its own traditions, and as women, who are traditionally seen as the 'other' of dispassionate science.
Harding believes that these 7 points show us that not only will feminist standpoint epistemology reduce inequality in scientific research, but it will provide empirically more accurate (that is, less biased) data.
Harding, Sandra. “Feminist Standpoint Epistemology,” pp.145-168 in The Gender and Science Reader, edited by Muriel Lederman and Ingrid Bartsch (Routledge, London, 2001).