Feminist Epistemology

While on its face there seems to be something paradoxical about feminist criticisms of reason, given that the forms of argumentation on which these criticisms depend are themselves a part of what is under attack, the burgeoning literature on this topic may be understood, not as a repudiation of reason tout court, but as a dissatisfaction with a particular picture of reason. This picture, which underlies much of contemporary nonfeminist ethics as well as other areas of mainstream philosophy, is that of a pure, universal reason, abstracted from historical and social contexts, operating dispassionately and objectively to produce true propositions. Feminists fault this picture as much for what it excludes as for what it portrays.

For one thing, the picture excludes the emotions, rather than acknowledging that feelings such as empathy, resentment, or anger play a useful role in reasoning—especially moral reasoning. The picture in particular excludes what people care about, rather than acknowledging that what they care about can itself be a reason for thinking or acting the way they do. It excludes trust, rather than acknowledging that trust is what keeps one's reasoning from becoming paranoid. And it excludes narrative or figurative modes of reasoning, rather than acknowledging that people often use stories and images to make sense of the world.

One important strategy for feminist epistemologists, then, has been to identify the tension between the explicit content of philosophical arguments, which appears gender-neutral, and the models, metaphors, and imagery underlying these arguments, which covertly favor the experiences and preoccupations of privileged men. A second important strategy has been to question the tradition that divorces reason from other human attributes. Many feminists have emphasized the role of the emotions in rational reflection, while others have emphasized the point that human reasoners are embodied, and that the social constructions surrounding differences in embodiment count among the conditions that make knowledge possible. Still others have emphasized the essentially social nature of human existence, arguing that knowledge is not "in the head" of solitary reasoners, but rather is produced and imparted in communities of knowers, and that abusive power systems operate in these communities to discredit unjustifiably certain kinds of reasoning while authorizing others.

Borrowing from Marxist analysis, in the 1980s feminist standpoint theorists such as Nancy Hartsock and Patricia Hill Collins drew an analogy between women in gendered societies and workers in capitalist societies. They contended that just as the false presuppositions that sustain the ideology of capitalism are most visible from the hard—won perspective of the worker who has participated in consciousness—raising and political engagement, so too the false presuppositions that sustain the ideology of gender are best seen from the standpoint of those who have had to acquire detailed, self-reflective knowledge of the gender system simply in order to be able to function within it. Feminist standpoint theorists are less interested in claiming a single, unified standpoint that is representative of all women, however, than in taking seriously the knowledge that informs women's practices— whether domestic, emotional, intellectual, or professional.

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