Epistemic Privilege: What it isn’t

Lt Colonel Diane Beaver was a staff judge advocate at Guantanamo Bay. She describes discussions about what “interrogation techniques” to use, in which colleagues took ideas from the TV show 24:

The younger men would get particularly agitated, excited even: “You could almost see their dicks getting hard as they got new ideas.” A wan smile crossed Beaver’s face. “And I said to myself, you know what, I don’t have a dick to get hard. I can stay detached.”

Then she gave her approval to waterboarding.

[Standpoint theorists have argued for the claim that women or members of other marginalised groups may be able to attain superior positions for acquiring knowledge, at least of particular subject matters. But none of them would ever have endorsed the claim that female anatomy makes one automatically superior in judgments about torture techniques. The privileged standpoint(s) are not meant to be due simply to anatomy, and– most importantly, but most commonly overlooked by critics– they’re meant to be the product of a lot of hard intellectual work, rather than automatic. For more on standpoint theory, go here.]

12 thoughts on “Epistemic Privilege: What it isn’t

  1. I’ve found standpoint theorists frustratingly vague about just where exactly the epistemic privilege of women/feminists comes from. When I was writing a paper on standpoint theory last summer, I consider several different possibilities.

    I don’t feel bad not having considered this one. lol

  2. I am about to write an essay about standpoint theory/standpoint epistemology/epistemic privilege and I was wondering if you could point me towards any excellent resources? It is a topic I have just encountered in my study this year and I am trying to understand it as best I can.

  3. Thanks Noumena, I have just requested that title from my university library service. Much appreciated!

  4. Miranda Fricker has a really nice, exceptionally clear article on it in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy (I think a supplementary volume). I found it incredibly helpful.

  5. (Caveat: I mention the following without wanting in any way to legitimise or lend support to Lt Beaver and her judgment)

    It initially struck me that *some* epistemically privileged standpoints can come from (though not simply from) having certain anatomy, e.g. knowledge of what its like to breastfeed, say. But then i found it hard to think of cases of propositional knowledge that might come with anatomically based epistemic privilege: ‘that breastfeeding can be hard’ is something that those without breasts could be epistemically privileged with respect to, if they are reflective and sensitive to some women’s experiences, say.
    Do standpoint theorists focus on propositional knowledge?

  6. Do standpoint theorists focus on propositional knowledge?

    Good question. On the one hand, standpoint theory is a development of certain ideas of Marx’s, and the practical or political usefulness of a theory/model/research programme is a common starting point. So they might say practical knowledge is more important or more basic.

    On the other hand, what standpoint theorists claim to offer is an improved epistemology for science. To the extent that we can distinguish science and technology, we would usually say that the former is concerned with propositional knowledge, and the latter is concerned with practical knowledge. So perhaps standpoint theorists would say that they want an epistemology for propositional knowledge that is grounded in practical knowledge?

  7. Jender, I can’t seem to find anything by Fricker published by the CJPh or its supplement. And there’s nothing on her University of London webpage that looks to be about standpoint theory. Would you mind tracking that cite down for me/us?

  8. Sure! “Epistemic Oppression and Epistemic Privilege”, CJP Supp. Vol. 25; also known as C. Wilson (ed.) _Civilization and Oppression_ Calgar: Calgary UP 191-210.

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