An Analysis of Sandra Harding's "Feminist Standpoint Epistemology"

My argument in this writeup will be delivered over three steps. The first is a summary of Sandra Harding’s argument in her article “Feminist Standpoint Epistemology”. The second comprises a pair of arguments which oppose Harding based on i) her definition of terms and ii) epistemic accessibility. The final step will be a pragmatic rejection (on Harding’s behalf) of the ‘philosophical quibbling’ discussed in the second step, which will accompany my conclusion that while Harding’s project fails philosophically, it is as viable (and possibly an improvement upon) traditional epistemological practices in the sciences. This conclusion, however, should be considered only in the pragmatic sense, and not able to withstand the close philosophical scrutiny of my earlier arguments.

Harding’s standpoint epistemology is based on a new notion of objectivity that she calls ‘strong’ objectivity in contrast to traditional (weak) objectivity. She thinks that weak objectivity (which she also calls objectivism), “…conceptualizes the desired value-neutrality of objectivity too broadly. Objectivists claim that objectivity requires the elimination of all social values and interests from the research process and the results of research” (Harding 157). Immediately after she adds that, “It is clear, however, that not all social values and interests have the same bad effects upon the results of research. Some have systematically generated less partial and distorted beliefs than others—or than purportedly value-free research…(Harding 157). So, Harding sees traditional objectivity as denying the fact (which I won’t dispute) that “a culture’s best beliefs—what it calls knowledge—are socially situated” (Harding 145). Her proposal (strong objectivity) is a new form of objectivity that acknowledges and embraces its own contingent historical/political origins. Harding states that “the standpoint theorists offer an explanation… of how research directed by social values and political agendas can nevertheless produce empirically preferable results” (145).

Two questions seem to arise when we encounter this notion of contingent objectivity:

  • 1. Why (or how) is a particular historical viewpoint ‘better’ than others?
  • 2. How is it different than relativism (the objectivists worst nightmare)?

The answer to both of these for Harding is essentially, “The women’s standpoint”.

Harding’s answer to the first question takes the form of eight different facets of the women’s standpoint. I will collapse these into one simplified point (though I think a justified one). The point is that a generalization based upon the lives of women is a valuable starting point for empirically more accurate science because women (as an oppressed group) are more likely to approach problems in new (less dogmatic) ways, and to evaluate theories or results that might not fit into the ‘dominant’ (traditional) system(s) of thought. More directly about this generalization, Harding states that:

Some thinkers have assumed that standpoint theories and other kinds of justifications of feminist knowledge claims must be grounded in women’s experiences. The terms “women’s standpoint” and “women’s perspective” are often used interchangeably, and “women’s perspective” suggests the actual perspectives of actual women—what they can in fact see. But it cannot be that women’s experiences in themselves or the things women say provide reliable grounds for knowledge claims about nature and social relations. After all, experience itself is shaped by social relations… (Harding 147).

So the reason why it is (or why it can be) privileged as a standpoint is because it both realizes that it has its origins in the contingent, but that it can extrapolate from these origins to a more objective standpoint. Harding answers the second question in much the same manner. The standpoint begins in the empirically concrete experiences of women. Though these cannot provide a firm basis for knowledge claims, they are a starting point upon which we can (in some sort of community process of generalization) begin to build a more objective position. Thus, the women’s standpoint is neither completely relative nor is it ‘weakly’ objective. Rather, it is a sort of hybrid between relativism and objectivity that both recognizes its own contingent origins, and transcends those origins by a process of generalization/extrapolation.

I think this project of hybridization is bound to fail in one of two ways. Either it will relapse into relativism because it cannot provide adequate criteria for the process of generalization from the subjectivity of individual lives. Or, it will fail to distinguish itself from so-called ‘weak objectivity’ because it cannot justify its privileging of the women’s standpoint without recourse to some sort of meta-standpoint, or Archimedean point. I will discuss these possible objections in order to see if they are tenable or not, beginning with the objection that Harding does not provide us with sufficient criteria for the move from individual women’s lives to the “women’s standpoint”.

The question of just how Harding makes the move from the lives of individual women to the ‘women’s standpoint’ is, I think, quite muddled in the text. It seems that Harding contradicts herself in her attempt to explain just how she accomplishes this move. She states that

…it is not the experiences or the speech (of individual women) that provide the grounds for feminist claims; it is rather the subsequently articulated observations of and theory about the rest of nature and social relations—observations and theory that start out from, that look at the world from the perspective of, women’s lives (Harding 147).

But she also states that:
For a position to count as a standpoint, rather than as a claim—equally valuable but for different reasons—for the importance of listening to women tell us about their lives and experiences, we must insist on an objective location—women’s lives—as the place from which feminist research should begin (Harding 147).

So just what role is it that the lives of women play here? It is clear that in the first quote, the lives of women do not ‘provide the grounds for feminist claims’. In the second quote, however, it seems that the lives of women play a vastly different role. Here the lives of women are seen as an ‘objective location’ that provides a foundation for research to begin upon. Are these two things mutually exclusive? I think that it is very unclear. Just what Harding means by ‘feminist claims’ and ‘feminist research’ needs to be clarified before these two quotations can become fully intelligible. I think this unintelligibility is a serious problem for Harding’s claim to strong objectivity and that before we can understand her position fully we need to understand what she means by ‘women’s lives’ and ‘objective location’.

I will now move on to the second question raised above, which pertains to how standpoint theory is different from (or escapes from) relativism. Traditionally, the epic battle between objectivism and relativism has centered on the problem of epistemic access. The objectivists argue that there is one absolute ahistorical truth that describes the world better than all others. The relativists object and state that because we are all finite historically contingent beings, there is no way to access this sort of truth, and that to do so posits an immobile point, a ‘God’s eye view’. The hardcore relativists then go on to say that all viewpoints are equally valid, and there is no way to privilege any one of them because we cannot legitimately access the ‘God’s eye view’. The traditional rebuttal is to state that the statement “All truths are relative” must be a relative truth, to which there is (seemingly) no coherent objection. What I want to ask is this: does Harding succeed in escaping this epistemic battle (as she says she does) or is her ‘escape’ merely an attempt to grasp a mysterious immobile point, to which she cannot legitimately claim access?

I do not think that she can do so. Rather than a poor definition in terms this time, however, I think the problem here is a deeper and more worrisome one for Harding. It lies in the very notion of a coherent women’s standpoint. Harding instructs us to, “…note that none of the foregoing claims (i.e. the statement of her position) suggests that the biological differences between women and men provide resources for feminist analyses. Nor do these accounts appeal to women’s intuition” (Harding 153). So, if the women’s standpoint (which has its basis somewhere in women’s lives) cannot have recourse to biological differences or to women’s intuition, what unifies it? What is continuous between all women, across the world that allows Harding to agglomerate their lives into one standpoint? Well, she argues (in eight points, as discussed above) that the status of women as ‘oppressed’ (and all that comes with this oppression) is what allows her to privilege the women’s standpoint above others. I do not believe that this is an adequate justification for two reasons:

  • 1. It assumes that ‘women’ are some sort of privileged group that can represent ‘the oppressed’ better than other groups
  • 2. It assumes that women are a homogenous enough group that we can generalize between lower class white North American Anglican women and upper class Arabic Muslim Yemeni women.

I think the first assumption requires some further justification, which Harding does not provide in the article. For the sake of brevity I will move on to the second assumption that Harding makes; one that it is crucial to my critique of her position. She states that:
…women (feminists included) say all kinds of things… that are scientifically inadequate. (Women, and feminists, are not worse in this respect than anyone else; we too are humans.) Furthermore, there are many feminisms, and these can be understood to have started their analyses from the lives of different historical groups of women… Moreover, we all change our minds about all kinds of issues. So while both “women’s experiences” and “what women say” certainly are good places to begin generating research projects…they would not seem to be reliable grounds for deciding which claims to knowledge are preferable…For a position to count as a standpoint, …we must insist on an objective location—women’s lives—as the place from which feminist research should begin (Harding 147).

Thus, we see that while women are vastly different, they can still be generalized through some mysterious process, as discussed above. I think my previous objections apply here and will not be reiterated. What I will stress here is the fact that beyond their ‘oppression’ (a status which is not unique to women, or at least it is not convincingly justified as such by Harding) we are not allowed recourse to biology or women’s intuition to define what unifies the women’s standpoint. Given these objections, I think that as an epistemological system, Harding’s version of feminist standpoint epistemology fails spectacularly.

After presenting what I have described as philosophical quibbling above (it is quibbling from the pragmatists view) I will conclude with a more sympathetic view of Harding’s position. I think from the pragmatic point of view, Harding’s critique of current scientific practice holds a lot of water. Her project is to take into account one more variable (that of sexist bias) in science’s quest for a more objective truth. If we simply take this as a suggestion about practice (as I suggest we should) I think it is an obviously valuable criticism. If science’s project is to eliminate all bias in its search for the truth (however philosophically implausible that project may be) then eliminating one more bias can do nothing but good. If we take Harding’s suggestion as any more than a practical suggestion about scientific practice, however, I think we encounter insurmountable difficulties (as I hope I have illustrated above).

Work Cited

Harding, Sandra, “Feminist Standpoint Epistemology” pp145-168 in The Gender and Science Reader, edited by Muriel Lederman and Ingrid Bartsch (Routledge, New York, 2001).

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