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Is Objectivity Oppressive?

A Brief Explanation of Standpoint Theory



. . .the ideals of rationality and objectivity that have guided and inspired theorists of knowledge throughout the history of western philosophy have been constructed through processes of excluding the attributes and experiences commonly associated with femaleness and underclass social status: emotion, connection, practicality, sensitivity, and idiosyncrasy.


. . . ideal objectivity is a generalization from the subjectivity of quite a small social group, albeit a group that has the power, security, and prestige to believe that it can generalize its experiences and normative ideals across the social order . . .


[Lorraine Code, “Taking Subjectivity into Account” in Feminist Epistemologies (Routledge, 1993), 21, 22.]




Epistemology is that branch of philosophy concerned with whether we truly have knowledge and what precisely warrants our beliefs as being true. In the early modern period of philosophy (often referred to as “the Enlightenment”), philosophers pursued a universal standard for reason that would advance knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, But in what many historians view as the “postmodern turn,” other thinkers began questioning the plausibility, even the possibility, of achieving this Enlightenment quest for a universal standard of reason, knowledge, and truth. Such skepticism, in turn, has spawned numerous ideologies, epistemologies, and even revolutions in thinking, including what is known as “standpoint theory.”



A Brief Explanation of Standpoint Theory


Standpoint theory emerged from feminist thinking in the 1960s and continues to the present, and it is based on the premise that all claims to knowledge and truth are socially and historically contextual. That is to say, all beliefs are particular perspectives that arise out of diverse social contexts; thus, all beliefs embrace a specific standpoint particular to that believer. This raises an important question: Whose particular beliefs should be accepted as true and constituting knowledge? Standpoint theorists contend that it is the beliefs of a minority, namely white males, that have historically been upheld as knowledge and truth while the beliefs of women and other marginalized social classes have been ignored and dismissed, and even oppressed.


This recognition of social and historical contextualization conjoined with the role played by political power that oppresses the ideas and ideals of the oppressed, rooted in Marxist social analysis, comports well with postmodern criticisms of “the Enlightenment ideal.” What makes standpoint theory distinctive is the claim by its proponents that some beliefs are truer and more reliable for knowledge than others. Specifically, it is those who are oppressed (that is, those in marginalized social categories like women, people of color, LGBTQ, and the poor) whose beliefs are more reliable. It is precisely because these oppressed social groups lack political power that their viewpoints, standpoint theorists argue, are more broad-based, less biased, and therefore more truthful than those of the dominant oppressor groups (i.e., white, rich, cisgendered males).


According to Sandra Harding, a leading feminist thinker and proponent of standpoint theory, the traditional conception of objectivity (a key element in epistemology), as articulated by traditional philosophers and scientists (typically white males in the upper socio-economic class), is that of impartial, value-free, and dispassionate reasoning for the purposes of knowing the truth. She labels this conception of objectivity as “weak objectivity.” Harding argues that this “weak objectivity” is profoundly flawed, especially in its claims to be impartial and value-free, as it ignores social context and historical location. As an alternative, she proposes what she calls “strong objectivity,” which combines “epistemological-judgmental absolutism” with a cultural relativism that acknowledges the historical and social localizing of all standpoints, including that of the standpoint theorists.


For Harding and other standpoint theorists, acknowledging cultural relativism without epistemological absolutism would lead to an “everything goes” relativism that would relativize any and all theories, including standpoint theory. “Epistemological absolutism” plays an important role in recognizing that we must acknowledge and use standards of rationality, but we must also acknowledge how our standpoints reflect our social and historical contexts, contexts that frame how we see the world and what we take to be true.


As previously noted, the most controversial aspect of standpoint theory is the unequivocal prioritization of the “oppressed” standpoints as being not only epistemically relevant but even epistemically superior to the “oppressor” perspectives. When “oppressed voices” are included and prioritized, standpoint theorists contend, truthfulness of epistemological efforts in the sciences and other domains of knowledge and truth is strengthened. Such inclusion and prioritization, according to Harding and other standpoint theorists, maximizes objectivity—Harding’s “strong objectivity,” not the “weak objectivity” of traditional epistemological projects.



Responding to Standpoint Theory


In responding to standpoint epistemology, first, some positive points of commendation:


Like other feminist epistemologies (Note: Not all feminist thinkers embrace standpoint theory, and even those who do, disagree on various details.), standpoint theory correctly points out that the perspective and contributions of women (and others who have been marginalized) have not received the attention and appreciation that their experiences and ideas deserve.


A second strong point involves the critiques of positivism (only empirical and analytical claims are meaningful) and scientism (knowledge is restricted to the natural and physical sciences), two epistemologies that have dominated current views in the natural and physical sciences. Related to this is the growing recognition among philosophers of science that empirical science does occur in a social context and relies on non-empirical considerations (including values) for the discovery and justification of scientific theories.


Despite these commendable points, standpoint theory states that a person’s social context largely determines the truth of their claims about reality, or, more accurately, realities. Standpoint theory presumes that knowledge and truth are not about the world as it is but as it is perceived, with perceptions profoundly shaped by social location. While our perceptions are all socially situated, what makes a belief true (or, to be more consistent with standpoint thinking, more truthful) is not the social identity that informs our intellectual context but the extent to which our beliefs conform to reality. What is largely implicit in standpoint theory is a profound but questionable presumption that we lack any direct cognitive access to reality.


This brings us back to the important ideal of objectivity. As stated earlier, proponents of standpoint theory characterize the “objectivity” of what they call “weak objectivity” as having an unbiased, value-free perspective of the world. And while proponents of this understanding can be found, particularly in popularizations of science, such an understanding confuses one kind of objectivity (what I will categorize as “psychological objectivity”) for two other kinds of objectivity that are more epistemically relevant, which I will call “metaphysical objectivity” (the claim that reality exists independently of the believer) and “epistemological objectivity” (the claim that there are objective standards of reason that make a belief true). In both of these categories, objectivity is best construed as being independent of belief and believers—a point that standpoint theorists seem to concede with their “epistemological absolutism.” To put it simply, what makes a subjective belief objectively true is the degree to which that belief conforms with reality, irrespective of belief. And to know such truth draws on objective standards of reason. Standpoint theory precisely fails as a plausible account of knowledge and truth on these distinctions: that knowledge of truth is not determined by one’s social identity but rather by whether one’s beliefs conform to the reality discovered by way of reason and experience.


 

About the Author: Michael Gurney was a professor of theology and ethics at Multnomah Bible College from 1998-2022. Prior to his academic career, he served in the US Navy (‘81-‘87) in the Naval Nuclear Power program and on the USS Truxtun before attending Multnomah Bible College where he earned a BA in Theology with a minor in NT Greek. He did graduate studies at Biola University at Talbot School of Theology earning a MA in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. Michael completed his doctorate in Historical Theology at Aberdeen University/Highland Theological College in Scotland in 2012 on the topic of Charles Hodge and Scottish Common-Sense Realism. Mike’s academic interests are particularly in the history of interaction between philosophy, theology, and science. He and his wife Karen live in Happy Valley, Oregon where they are quite happy.


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