Maria Cristina Amoretti & Nicla Vassallo | The independence of the social and situated dimension of scientific knowledge

from the notion of standpoint

Abstract

Feminist standpoint epistemologies of the sciences have some merits which is hard to disregard. More precisely, we believe that they correctly place their emphasis on the fact that scientific knowledge is situated: our understanding of the natural and social world partially depends on our specific perspective on the world. Moreover, they rightly hold that there is no one single epistemic subject able to produce scientific knowledge independently of other epistemic subjects. Finally, the standpoint of women can be a useful resource for the sciences for at least three reasons.
Firstly, if we assume the standpoint of women, we may be able to identify new scientific problems as well as new research agendas. Secondly, the standpoint of women can contribute to ensuring strong objectivity of the sciences, since women have the kind of dual vision that yields a better epistemic position on the world. On the one hand, they are “outsiders” and can understand their own situation in a way inaccessible to the dominant group (male scientists). On the other, they are also “outsiders within”: they live and work within the dominant framework without having any interest in perpetrating it; they are not engaged in self-deception and thus can critically analyze that framework and unmask scientists’ sexist and androcentric biases. Lastly, the standpoint of women can play a pivotal role in the context of justification. Since women have no interest in defending a distorted (sexist and androcentric) description of the world, it would be easier for them to find new ways and experiments to test scientific theories.
Although these general qualities of feminist standpoint epistemologies of the sciences, one who wishes to uphold the very notion of standpoint is also faced with an unavoidable dilemma. If standpoint epistemologists want to defend the epistemic privilege or advantage of the women’s standpoint, they need to ground it in some biological or social facts (e.g. cognitive style, common experiences, work conditions), ignoring the evidence that each woman has her own particular identity, assuming the existence of a feminine “nature”, and thus embracing essentialism (or at least its consequences). On the contrary, if they prefer to reject the notions of epistemic privilege and advantage, they have to consider all standpoints at the very same level. We believe that neither option is positive for sciences or the philosophy of sciences, and thus that no feminist standpoint epistemology of the sciences can actually be endorsed.
The aim of this paper is to demonstrate that there is no reason to appeal to any feminist standpoint epistemology of the sciences in order to argue for the situatedness of scientific knowledge, to recognize the presence of perspectival biases, to stress the importance of pluralism, and to defend the necessity for more democratic and less sexist practices in sciences. We shall demonstrate that there is no need to suppose that some perspectives are more reliable or advantaged than others (as feminist standpoint epistemology of the sciences actually do), because it is the very presence of various, and even conflicting perspectives on the world that democratizes the natural and social sciences and may eventually yield to their strong objectivity. Moreover, we shall point out that by abandoning the notion of standpoint, it would be much easier to reconsider and revaluate all the differences among women, and hence revise, deconstruct – and perhaps even obliterate – the very concept of “woman”.