Feminist Philosophy and Some Sort of Realism

I’ve  always thought of myself as a closet realist, maybe of a hard core metaphysical kind.  But after reading Searle on Boghossian in the latest New York Review of Books, I’m not so sure.  (I don’t know if the link will work without a subscription to the electronic edition.)

Just to clarify:  Many of us are social constructivists about gender; we think it is put in place by society, with its conventions, beliefs and systems of approval and disapproval, to put it roughly.  We might want to contrast gender with sex, and say that sex is more independent of social attitudes.  That’s a bit tricky, since there are supposed to be two sexes, while in fact there is much more continuity between the XY male and the YY female.  Still, we might well want to say that at least genes are really existing in the world.  If so, then we end up realists about genes.  We’ll count as social constructivists about some concepts, but we’re still believers in some objective reality.

John Searle reviews Paul Boghossian’s Fear of Knowledge, and  it looks as though both are so convinced of the insanity of the thorough-going social constructivist views that they don’t think they have to explain what the other view says. 

Amazon.com has a ‘search inside’ function for the book; there seem to be no entries for ‘metaphysical realism’ and very few for ‘realism’.  It appears the book is contrasting social  constructivism with what is called “naive realism,” which doesn’t seem to be in need of explanation or defense.

This sort of attitude makes it all the more surprising that the spread of constructivism puzzles Searle and Boghossian.

So where does feminist philosophy come in?  They seem to think we’re social constructivists all the way down; we’d be inclined to say things  like, “Genes didn’t exist before  Watson and Crick.”  And that is because of remarks by feminists like this, a passage from Kathleen Lennon’s PAS, sv, 1997, p. 37:

Feminist epistemologists, in common with many other strands of contemporary epistemology, no longer regard knowledge as a neutral transparent reflection of an independently existing reality, with truth and falsity established by transcendent procedures of rational assessment. Rather, most accept that all knowledge is situated knowledge, reflecting the position of the knowledge producer at a certain historical moment in a given material and cultural context.

About this passage, Searle remarks:

But the point of the passage is to claim that most feminists reject the idea that knowledge reflects an independently existing reality; and the rhetorical flourishes in the passage, such as “transcendent procedures of rational assessment” and “neutral transparent reflection,” are designed to reinforce that point….It is a vision according to which all of our knowledge claims are radically contingent because of their historical and social circumstances. According to this vision, all of us think within particular sets of assumptions, and we always represent the world from a point of view, and this makes objective truth impossible. For someone who accepts this argument, the idea that there are scientific claims that are objective, universal, and established beyond a reasonable doubt seems not only inaccurate but positively oppressive. And for such people the very idea of an objectively existing, independent reality must be discredited.

It is, to say the least, interesting that Searle thinks certain phrases are used to discredit the realist, but at the same time we are given no account of what the realist is saying instead.  Well, except that there is a knowable objective reality, which actually looked pretty difficult to explain, last time I looked.**

In the meantime, anyone who knows what most feminist philosophers believe is VERY welcome to comments.  As are others, of course.


**This abstract from the Philosophers Index might give you an idea of the problems, if you haven’t looked at the literature:

The realism debate concerns the relationship of our beliefs, thoughts and language to the world or universe and, hence, involves a number of fundamental questions ranging from metaphysics through epistemology to semantics and philosophy of language. While a few philosophers take it as an inevitable feature of the debate and try to advance it by coping simultaneously with all those questions, a number of others insist that the approach of this kind leads merely to confusions and misunderstandings. They usually suggest that the metaphysical or ontological aspects of it should be kept separate from such epistemological and semantic issues as the possibility of absolute knowledge, the correspondence theory of truth, or the truth-conditional theory of meaning. In other words, there is such a thing as pure or simple metaphysical realism that may be endorsed and defended, or undermined and rejected. The aim of the paper is to raise some doubts about that metaphilosophical strategy, and to argue that the comprehensive approach to the realism debate, in which the metaphysical issues are combined with — at least — some epistemological matters, is not so much caused by confusions and misunderstandings, but forced, as it were, by its subject matter and the philosophical nature of the debate.

From: Szubka, Tadeusz,  in Malinowski, Jacek.(2006). Essays in Logic and Ontology (Poznan Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, Volume 91). (pp. 301-316). New York: Rodopi NY.

36 thoughts on “Feminist Philosophy and Some Sort of Realism

  1. I seem to have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about the feminist philosophical stance with regard to metaphysics, most typically (1) the reasons why feminists often steer clear of it (most often its associations with essentialism and all the invidious beliefs and practices that have been linked with this) and, more importantly, (2) arguing that feminist philosophers might have given up on the discipline too quickly, rather than attempting to think metaphysics otherwise.

    It is rather odd that this debate has also arisen in the last few days with regard to the absence of female philosophers within the new philosophical movement of speculative realism. I direct you to my own blog and comments on this and recommend that you check out some of the debates and resources that relate to speculative realism. There is, I very strongly feel, a need for feminist philosophers to get involved in thinking about the nature of reality, rather than letting the old patriachal terrain remain un re-constructed.


    P.S. I don’t wish to suggest that no feminist philosophers are engaging with metaphysics, some clearly are (Christine Battersby, Elizabeth Grosz, Donna Haraway and even Irigaray can be read as metaphysicians or ontologists.

  2. Hope my previous post doesn’t seem to pretentious, my main points are that I think it is immensely important that feminist philosophers get involved in debates about metaphyics and that there are some new philosophical approaches to realism currently emerging (even continental philosophy is beginning to re-think its relationship to realism).

    Metaphysics has in the past embodied much of what many feminists have despised about masculinist theorising (e.g. an arrogant and totalising mindest), but that is no reason for them to give up on the displine per se; it needs reworking by feminists rather than simply rejecting.

  3. Where is the data that suggests feminists steer clear of metaphysics, Paul? I am both a feminist and a metaphysician, and I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a significant number of metaphysicians who identified as feminists. Or is the claim really not that feminists steer clear of metaphysics but rather that not many people publish both on feminist theory and on metaphysics, or even that not many publish on feminist issues in metaphysics?

    JJ, I suspect there’s nothing on this area such that most feminists believe it. For my part, I’m a metaphysical realist and an essentialist, and I’ve never understood feminist resistance to either doctrine. I also am no fan of social constructionism for any domain of facts, the alleged motivations for social constructivism being better served, in my opinion, by simply denying that the domain in question concerns particularly natural or fundamental facts about the world.

    The term ‘realism’ can be misleading, I think, as there are just so many doctrines associated with being a realist. But I at least hold that there’s an objective reality: that is, that there’s a mind-independent world, and truths about this world whose truth-value does not depend on what we think about the world or on our attitudes towards the world. Certainly I think there’s room for scepticism about whether the notion is intelligible (such as will be had by, e.g., a quasi-realist), but I’ve never myself found such scepticism convincing: I might think anti-realists like Berkeley are *wrong*, but I’m pretty sure I understand him.

  4. In reply to Ross, my data would be primarily based on the absence of feminist philosophers writing on metaphysics, plus a number of critiques of metaphysics, essentialism and cognate concepts by feminist philosophers generally. During my doctoral research it quickly became clear to me that there was very little work that could be readily identified – or more importantly self-identified – as feminist metaphysics. Despite the fact that feminists such as Haraway and Irigaray could be read as providing a new ontology or metaphysical view of the world, there was a also a general unwillinness amongst feminists (and others) to read them this way. There were also a number of writings and articles by feminists who signed up to the various “postmodern” cries of the ‘death of the subject’, the death of God’ and also the ‘death of metaphysics’ without their attempting to re-think these things through a feminist lens. As you undoubtedly know, there is an awful lot of feminist work in epistemology, ethics, political and social philosophy, and even aesthetics, but the metaphysical writings have always seemed remarkably sparse. I would be very pleased, though, to know that there are a lot of feminist metaphysicians out there; and I’m heartened to know that you self-identify as one too. My question would be, though, why aren’t more feminist philosophers writing under this banner?

  5. RC, thanks. I took the statement that most feminists are social constructionists as more an expression of hostility, perhaps facilitated by ignorance.

    I don’t in fact have an overall view about social constructivism, but I find some of very useful. Might one take a social constructivist account of the mind-body relationship? Would it be social constructivist if one thought that though there is some fact of the matter, but it might not involve anything like what we think of when we think of the mind-body problem? I’m trying here to think about your idea of the better alternative to social constructivism.

    One thing that bothers me about my own strong inclination to realism about something like fundamental physical features is the following: I’m not at all sure that a substantive notion of truth is around to give much bite to the idea of truths about a mind-independent reality.

  6. P R-B, somehow an earlier comment on your comments got lost. Thanks for the link to your very interesting blog. I don’t think you should worry about sounding pretentious!

  7. The link does not work without a subscription.

    I’m not qualified to say what feminist philosophers in general think, but nearly all the ones I know are far too sophisticated to think in terms of realism about absolutely everything vs. constructivism about absolutely everything. (From the sound of it, they’re ahead of Searle in this respect.) Sally Haslanger and Rae Langton have good work addressing the meaning of the realism/constructivism distinction (Haslanger in the context of explaining what it means to say that race and gender are socially constructed, Langton in the context of explaining what Kant’s noumena are).

    It’s compatible with the Lennon paragraph that some feminist epistemologists believe in an independently existing reality, but don’t think knowledge is a neutral transparent reflection of it. This looks like an appealing position to me: sexism makes knowers less neutral than they should be, and renders their understanding of mind-independent reality less transparent than it would be in an ideal world.

    JJ: if you want a thin kind of truth and a thick kind of realism, perhaps you should cash realism out in non-truth-y terms?

  8. RB, also: I agree with your comment on Lennon. In their defense, Searle – Boghossian, I think – do see that there are three one can be a social constructionist about.

    You probably can get the review through your library e-resources, if you want.

  9. JJ, I don’t think one needs a heavy-weight conception of truth to be a heavy-weight realist. I’m thinking here largely of Devitt’s work, where he’s been intent on pulling the two debates apart: I think he’s largely right – one can be a deflationist about truth, and eschew any kind of correspondence theory, and still say things like: what’s true depends on how things are, rather than vice-versa, there are at least some domains of facts such that the truths of those domains are true independently of our beliefs, attitudes, etc. That’s very Devitty, non-Dummetty, realism, and it’s just neutral on questions about what truth is.

    On social constructionism: perhaps I’m reading more into the doctrine than some of its proponents intend, but my conception of the doctrine is where the facts in question are meant to be *determined* by our social attitudes, etc. That doesn’t sound like what you’re after RE the mind/body issue which, unless I’m misunderstanding you, sounded more like metaphysical realism coupled with an epistemic humility – which is a good combination to have for many areas, I think!

    The other alternative to social constructivism I was thinking of was roughly this. There is a fact of the matter about what gender people are; but gender predicates are like ‘grue’ and ‘bleen’ are not very natural predicates (and perhaps much less so than sex predicates) – they don’t come close to dividing ontology into natural kinds. There are no deep metaphysical facts we’d be missing if we eliminated them from our language. Nonetheless, with them we can express mind-independent truths about the world – they’re just not particularly metaphysically interesting truths. In my opinion, this view satisfies all the motivations that seem to lead some towards social constructivism without committing to any metaphysics not accepted by many a mainstream metaphysician.

    Paul, if that’s the data then I think the result should be described as that there are not many people working in feminist metaphysics (which is true) rather than that feminists tend to steer clear of metaphysics (which I suspect is false).

  10. Here are some possible ways of cashing out the realism/anti-realism divide (not necessarily exclusive):
    * Realist domains are those that can/should/must be appealed to in causal explanations for why we talk about those domains the way we do.
    * Realist domains are best represented using classical logic; anti-realist ones aren’t. (Hmm, this might get you weird results about quantum computing, though.)
    * Realist domains are those for which truth coincides with something like verifiability, superasseribility, or assertibility at the end of inquiry. (I guess that’s where Dummett comes in.)
    * Realist domains are ones about which it is possible for everybody to be badly mistaken.

    I now see most of those do mention truth or closely related concepts, but they don’t require the assumption that truth-aptness makes the difference between realist and anti-realist domains.

    And yeah, I guess my one remark toward Searle was probably a bit uncharitable (although I think most of the criticisms in this thread still stand).

  11. One of the things that is so upsetting to me about Searle’s comments is that I myself gave a talk at a social ontology conference in Berkeley last summer (08) organized by and around Searle’s work in which I talked about social construction, debunking myths that suggested social constructionists couldn’t be realists. I was both explicitly feminist, explicitly realist, and Searle knows I’m a metaphysician (because I got my PhD at Berkeley and took courses from him). So he should know better. I can’t help but think that there is willful misrepresentation of feminism on these issues (not just by Searle, but many others).

  12. What an absolutely beautifully clear case of how things go wrong in discussions of feminism. We should do something with it.

  13. It seems to me that the Searle review, and the comments here exemplify or discuss three distinct points. First, there is the discouraging tendency for philosophers to generalize and to simplify “what most feminists think” about a given topic. (Often the philosopher in question has not read much feminist theory.) Second, there is a thread concerning whether or not there is work in feminist theory that addresses metaphysical questions (which is, of course, not the same as the question of whether or not some metaphysicians consider themselves to be feminists). I am currently editing a volume titled “Feminist Metaphysics” with papers by Frye, Haslanger, Alcoff, and nine other feminist metaphysicians and I’m happy to say that this is a growing field in feminist theory. (Please excuse the advertisement for the volume, but I did think it was relevant to the discussion) The third thread is a substantive discussion of realism/anti-realism in relation to sex and gender, and I found it very interesting indeed, and an instance of the kind of metaphysical reflection that is relevant to feminist theory. I have an essentialist theory of gender, but I understand gender as a social position (with an associated social role or set of norms). I have argued that social constructionism is compatible with essentialism. Oh, and I’m a realist about gender as well. So, not only is there work in feminist metaphysics out there, but it contains lots of different views. As one might expect!

  14. When I originally wrote this post, I had put in something about writing the NYRB, but thought it seemed obvious or trite or something. I am now wondering whether a group letter would be appropriate.

    Sally, I wish I had known of your work, and I’ll be an early reader of Charlotte’s book. If you work, as I do, in part on psychological traits and want to resist (idiotic?) claims such as that there are no emotions then you are in a field where the conjunction of realism, essentialism and social constructionism is at home. I’m most familiar with Hacking in this area, and that of some Wittgensteinians, and would love to see your discussions.

    RC and RB, thanks so much for your comments. It looks as though you are both describing the division that the long quote at the end of the article mentions, with the exception of the Dummettian views. (I’m so glad he’s changed on the reality of the past.) I think there are strategies that can underwrite a lot of one’s realist discourse, but I’m not sure they get to what is core metaphysical realism, but I am probably going to have to think for a while before I can say much more.


  15. As someone who works on feminism, metaphysics and feminist metaphysics I can understand very well why feminists might not be working much on metaphysics, let alone on specifically *feminist metaphysics*. First, it is really very very difficult to get such papers published in mainstream refereed philosophy journals. If one is an early career philosopher who needs publications, it’s just not strategic or feasible to work on feminist metaphysics. This is a fringe topic and one that, I’m sad to say, not many mainstream journal editors think is worth even sending for review. In fact, most papers published on feminist metaphysics to date, have been published in invited edited volumes/ journal issues. (A notable exception: Charlotte Witt’s exciting forthcoming volume on feminist metaphysics had a call for papers.)

    Second, there is a huge amount resistance towards feminist metaphysics as an area of philosophy. Just one personal anecdote: I was once asked by a mainstream philosopher what my AOS was; I answered ‘feminist philosophy’; he replied: ‘Oh, you don’t work on that crazy feminist metaphysics stuff, do you?’. I said: ‘Yes, that’s precisely what I work on’. A further discussion with the person showed that he had no idea what feminist metaphysicians work on; and yet he had the belief that it was all crazy. Now, given the resistance to fem met as an area in philosophy, again, it’s just not strategic to work on it until one has secured a more permanent post. The most common career advice from senior colleagues, who are non-feminist philosophers, I have received over the past five years is to drop working on feminist metaphysics and “do something mainstream”. That’s how one gets a job in this business. (And yes, I am tired and frustrated with the profession.)

  16. This is a fascinating discussion. I’d like to follow up on Rachael B’s line above: “the Lennon paragraph that some feminist epistemologists believe in an independently existing reality, but don’t think knowledge is a neutral transparent reflection of it”.

    Please excuse my ignorance, as I am a psychologist interested by philosophy rather than a philosopher, but thought this idea had been pretty well established by Kant, and would therefore be mainstream?

  17. A couple of quick replies: first, Ross, I take your point that my assertion that feminists tend to steer clear of metaphysics is perhaps false; my research was basically working with the texts of those feminists who self-identify as working with metaphysics, and specifically doing feminist metaphysics. I admittedly wasn’t gathering empirical data on feminists working on metaphysics without publishing. Second, Charlotte (if I may), I was certainly aware of your work and that of Sally Haslanger when writing on feminist metaphysics in my thesis – happily citing some of your material – and I’m simply very pleased and excited to hear about the forthcoming volume; more information please. It seems that things are changing, indeed there seems to be a revival of metaphysics in many quarters; I’m just not sure that a volume on feminist metaphysics could have been possible a decade ago.

  18. lga: I think Kant’s particular view, on which we directly perceive noumena which bear some shady relation to imperceptible phenomena, is less popular now than it was up to the first half of the 20th century. I attribute its current unpopularity to the criticisms of Wilfrid Sellars and J.L. Austin, who thought that sort of picture rested on mistaken assumptions about the nature of perception. (I found Sellars and Austin persuasive when I read them, but I probably know much, much less about perception than you do.) The more general point, that there is are at least parts of reality that we don’t have direct and unbiased access to, seems like it should be uncontroversial, though.

    I looked up the Lennon article, which is the second half of a symposium with Helen Longino.

    The way Lennon develops her point is compatible with my initial reading: she says that feminist epistemologists criticize “apparently neutral procedures of rational assessment” in various academic areas. She gives three examples: critiques of the empirical inadequacy of theories that focus on data about men while ignoring data about women, critiques of gendered metaphors, and “archaeological work, in the broadly Foucauldian sense”, which addresses the effects of contingent cultural circumstances on the development of scientific theories. This hardly sounds like a defense of the view that “if we are to be truly free, free to create a multicultural democracy, we must above all liberate ourselves from “objectivity,” “rationality,” and “science.””

    Lennon goes on to discuss the problem of how to develop public standards of justification in the face of diverging perspectives and values. Her conclusion (paraphrasing a lot) is that public standards of justification are possible because different perspectives are nonetheless mutually intelligible, in a way that cannot always be captured by explicit prior constraints. There are lots of places where you could criticize the view (hey, this is philosophy), but it’s clearly not any kind of facile, anything-goes relativism.

    The opening sentence from Longino’s half of the symposium seems relevant here: The very idea of feminist epistemology throws some philosophers into near apoplexy. And from Longino’s second paragraph: Feminist epistemology is not the study or defence of feminine intuition, of ‘women’s ways of knowing’, of subjectivism; it is not an embrace of irrationality or of Protagorean relativism; although its critics often attack a straw woman.

  19. Thank you, Rachael. I’m trying to understand what is generally accepted and what is still actively under debate.

    Can we say that
    (1) every human being experiences the world through a veil of personal, cultural, and biological biases
    (2) there are aspects of the world that would exist even if we weren’t here, and many aspects of the world that exist only because we are interacting with it
    (3) we in Western culture have a schema of “objectivity” by which we mean a one-to-one correspondence between one’s own perceptions and beliefs and the world as it exists outside our heads
    (4) if objectivity is possible, its claims may be strongest for the perception of aspects of the world that would exist even if we weren’t here, and much weaker for those that exist because of our interactions since the veil of biases is more likely to influence the thoroughness of our awareness of them, and
    (5) not only do we hold up “objectivity” as a culturally desired standard in some contexts, but the construct is so valued that many people and institutions find it desirable to base their authority on the assertion that they have attained it?

    Then, because of the relationship between power and objectivity, and between power and white human male privilege, we can get into a whole mess of suspicions about motives, and beliefs about others’ biases, and a destructive lack of good will towards each other. That is, when people (say, women epistemologists or metaphysicians) find themselves excluded from the mainstream of the philosophical Conversation, they will want to understand why, and this process will probably include speculations about the nature of the biases against them (personal? institutional? cultural? carelessness?) and the beliefs and values of those who are doing the excluding. And then, to the extent that those with more power in the situation become aware of the reactions to the exclusions, they will react (or fail to react) in turn, leading to another round of speculations and assumptions and assertions, which may or may not polarize the two groups against each other, but at the very least takes up a lot of mental and emotional energy that could be better spent elsewhere.

    That is, it’s very easy for me to assume that privileged white males associated with certain institutions, like science and the judiciary, must believe in their own objectivity and be ignorant of their own biases, and if these people were excluding me from participation in something important to me, I would be thinking hard about the relationship between power and objectivity in our culture and suspecting a causal link there. But then, if I were to accuse these people of these biases, and of ignorance of these biases, they would be justified in turn to be annoyed with me for my own stereotypical thinking about them. Even if I were right, it would be natural for them to be annoyed with me, ironically because they are human and not purely objective.

    (I’ve encountered this problem myself – an assumption that because I work in the sciences I must necessarily be making claims to neutrality and objectivity, or worse, that I’m a positivist arrogantly and ignorantly trying to make universalizing, deterministic truth claims. Drives me batty.)

    So then, if I understand correctly, a role for feminist thinking in these fields might include both a debunking of the cultural association between certain groups and certain culturally endorsed schemas (e.g., men and rationality, scientists and objectivity, women and intuition) but also a more complex understanding of the “feedback loops” between speculations about motives and biases and truth claims and exclusions and power?

  20. I’m not sure what a realist could be. To me, the notion of realism seems silly. I don’t mean to be insulting. Does realism ground you and what you may argue for in reality in some abstract way?
    I do know what a materialist in a Marxist sense is about.
    Beyond the 22 responses. there are many feminist positions on the subject. The subject appears to be Searle arguing between a subjective versus objective position, or better yet, a materialist position on social constructivism, depending on how one constructs their formula of the social can be either metaphysical or materialist. The more the metaphysical the more the reliance on objectivity. The more materialist the more subjective the interpretation.
    I am a Materialist, Lacanian. Searle is mistaken and should know better, or maybe it is just naive. I should also state that here are two short paragraphs. The first is somewhat incomprehensible because the context is not adequately provided. The second paragraph seems a little more discernible.
    I can agree (within limits) that “there are scientific claims that are (appear to be) objective, universal, and established beyond a reasonable (sic) doubt”. For example as well as we can measure time, we’ll proceed on the 24/7/365+/- model until we perhaps discover that maybe there is no such thing as time.
    Objectivity is a notion we agree on until physics or whatever science seems to prove a better way of understanding of our perceptions.
    The problem with reasonable doubt is that, (we do still use the scientific method? I sometimes wonder if I’m out of the loop.) there is always going to come about some new way of seeing. We are not once and for all time who we imagine we are.
    There appears to be some “objective”, accepted notion within our contemporary culture that we have arrived at the end. That this is it. That we can definitively state without doubt that this is the definitive reality. That once and for all time… I can’t go there.
    I want to suggest to those who’ve already made comments that there is a whole world out there. That there is actually a large history to that world. Study it!!!
    Ya’ll were not born yesterday. Realism as a position is a waste of your time. You cannot stay there, you cannot support it, it won’t support you. You sound like undergraduates.
    I advocate Marxism. Not as an economic system, necessarily, but as a notion of grounding oneself, Materialism. How do you survive all the endless circular arguments? You ground yourself in something real. I have no money, I don’t eat. I hit my head, it hurts. There really are people suffering and being condemned to death because they had a pre-existing condition and the insurance co. won’t support it.
    In Lacanian terms, the real, the imaginary, and the big Other. You can stop listening to the big Other telling you about Socialism and other nonsense and stop imagining you understand the problem.
    You know that what you imagined all this time is just fantasy. You know that the big Other (Media, Government, etc.) is there lying, trying to feed your fantasy. How do you understand the Real? Materialism. How else.
    I sound like I’m trying to recruit people. It may be the Vodka.

  21. lga: (1)-(3) and (5) sound right to me. I’m not sure about (4). It sounds right too if you mean that it makes more sense to think that truth is one-to-one correspondence between X and our perceptions of X where X is independent of us, and less sense where X depends on us. (4) sounds questionable if you mean that it’s harder to be mistaken about the stuff that’s independent of us. If claims about X are true provided enough people think they are, then it might be harder to be radically mistaken about X. (It would certainly be impossible for everybody to be radically mistaken about X.) And there’s another complication I’m unsure how to deal with: if people’s talk about X is really bad at tracking things outside their heads, maybe this affects the meaning of talk about X in a way that prevents truth from being one-to-one correspondence.

    I think (1)-(3), and the first reading of (4), are widely accepted in the areas of philosophy where I work (analytic metaphysics and epistemology). I don’t think (5) gets very much airtime at all. A lot of my colleagues agree with Searle’s assumption that there is a single, completely determinate standard of rationality, and you can know a priori what it is.

    What you say about feedback loops makes a lot of sense. I’m not always sure how to distinguish between things that people in power possess because those people have better access to objective truth, and things that look objective only because people in power have them. I can see how this would drive some people from marginalized groups to be extremely skeptical about things like scientific methods and institutions. (I almost wrote “the scientific method there”. Then I got worried about whether that was even cogent.)

    Is this making sense?

  22. Thank you, Rachael, yes, it does. I did mean the first interpretation of #4. I’d like to think further about the “feedback loop” idea, which seems to be in the background of many of the discussions in this community to some degree. I probably don’t have the qualifications to think about it productively, but I do think it’s important.

  23. lga, I think I’ve said everything I’ve got to say on this topic for the moment, but I really appreciate the discussion. Intelligent conversation with people who aren’t professional philosophers is usually helpful to me, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing that your qualifications lie a bit afield of this exact topic!

  24. Thanks, Rachael, I enjoyed the conversation too! This is one of the most thought-provoking communities I’ve found on the internet.

    For anyone here who is interested in the idea on how perception of other people’s biases affects our own beliefs about each other, it may be worthwhile to take into account a phenomenon studied by Jacquie Vorauer at the Univ. of Manitoba. In her research, she’s proposed that people have meta-stereotypes of how their ingroup is perceived by various outgroups. She gives an example: “A White Canadian heterosexual may expect his or her group to be seen as submissive and polite by Americans, as uptight and conservative by homosexual individuals, and as arrogant, selfish, and materialistic by Aboriginal persons.” The very interesting thing is the empirical finding that when a Canadian who’s scored high on some rating of prejudice interacts with an Aboriginal Canadian, the former expects the latter to think that he or she is a prime example of this meta-stereotype, but when a low-prejudice-scoring White Canadian interacts with an Aboriginal Canadian, the former expects the latter to see him or her as an exception to the rule – and actually, the Aboriginal Canadians weren’t able to tell whether the White person they were interacting with had scored low or high on the prejudice rating.

    Translating: Suppose that feminist philosophers believe mainstream white male (MWM) philosophers have a negative stereotype about them as a group. Feminist philosophers who themselves have strong stereotypical beliefs about MWMs may be more likely to expect the MWMs to apply the negative feminist stereotype to them. Feminist philosophers who don’t hold strong stereotypical beliefs about MWMs, however, may tend to expect them to return the favor and see them as exceptions to whatever they or others may think about feminist philosophers. However, regardless of what MWMs think about feminist philosophers, they may not be distinguishing the ones who hold stereotypical beliefs about them from those who don’t, and this may or may not have any relation at all to their ability to see the merits of individual feminist philosophers.

  25. lga, that is so interesting. I have to say that for some time I expected to be seen as an exception, and it may have been when I still acted on the assumption that there really were men who weren’t very, very sexist. I cannot count the number of times my expectations were not born out, but I do vividly remember when I realized I was making a systematic mistake. Which is not to say I decided all men were horribly sexist, but I did get that it was probably a safer hypothesis in contexts that had to do with power.

  26. jj, my personal approach seems to be to create my own niche that I hope won’t threaten anyone else but will allow me to express myself and thrive. I am so grateful not to be attempting a career in academia, because although I think this ought to be the norm, I suspect it very rarely happens in practice, because there are these gatekeepers who have their own agendas and territories to promote. There is probably a lot that could be said about the relationship between creativity and the power-saturated processes of legitimation.

  27. Let me just pick up on Kant, Sellars, Austin and some recent things.

    I still remember Peter Strawson’s lectures on Kant in Oxford in the later sixties; they turned into The Bounds of Sense. One major claim he made was that transcendental idealism (there is a mind-independent reality that is indescribable) was “Kant’s big mistake.” This illustrates the carelessness toward their history that analytic philosophers have often manifested; it’s now frowned upon, but at the same time the history of philosophy is getting put in a specialist class.

    I think Austin’s approach was a bit different; it was more an attack on the idea that there was a permanent possibility of error, rather than on the indescribability bit, though I suppose he also didn’t like the picture of perception as involving inferences from a given.

    Strawson and Austin’s approach illustrate what I think at the time was a strong siding with a kind of common sense realism. A sort of “Of course there are tables and chairs, as any sensible chap can tell.” Though feminist theory wasn’t yet under such development, I could imagine a group in senior common being amused over claret by the idea that “it seems some of the ladies are now convinced they are really in our mind.”

    Sellars argued against the idea that there could be an indescribable given, as I understand him. That, I think, is a bit differet. What’s interesting, I think, is that Jerry Fodor is now arguing that there is an unconceptualized given. It’s in his new book, LOT 2, but it’s also probably still on the web in an earlier form.

    Even more interesting, I think, is that we can now see that there are empirical questions involved and they may come close to delivering an answer on whether we do have any totally unconceptualized visual experience that’s at all accessible to consciousness. A friend of mine is working on the fascinating case of anorthopic vision, and an implication of his work is that we can get a good idea of where conceptualization starts in the visual process. It looks as though it is very early, with the implication that any experience accessible to consciousness is conceptualized to some extent.

    For what it’s worth, my own view is that we need a layered view of the use of concepts, and that the uses showing up in early vision are something like thin, as opposed to later, think ones.

  28. I have just come across this debate and seen the review. I have yet to get the book. There is an important distinction between relativism and perspectivalism which seems to have been overlooked here . Since Carr wrote What is History many people accepted that facts came cooked, and how they were cooked was historically and socially variable. But this does not equate to saying that truth is relative or that all versions of reality are equally good. That would be a difficult thing for feminists to say given they think sexism is mistaken. What is made problematic by the work of many feminists and many other philosophers is the ideal that there is One Single True Story of the World.

    A connected but distinct issue interwoven in the discussion is what is to count as social constructionism. There is no single answer to this and I have nothing quick to say but will return to it. There are certainly versions of it which do not require relativism.

    There is something old fashioned about the sudden return to this debate. it raged in the 1980s and 90’s with the baddies of post structuralists , feminists , critical race theorists, and various others placed against the defenders of objectivity, truth and rationality. But so much work was done by Longino, Harding, Haraway to mention just a few, to show how these defenders misunderstood the territory. its interesting that it should suddenly have raised its head again.

    Am breaking off now to write to Guardian about the South African athlete, a story not at all unconnected to these debates.

  29. Thanks so much for stopping by, Kathleen! Do let us know if you write in to the NYRB, and also if your Guardian letter comes out. We’d love to link to them!

  30. And if the Guardian letter does not come out, Kathleen, perhaps you could reconfigure it as a note and let us put it up?

    And also the NYRB letter, if it does not get printed?

  31. There is a real problem with Lennon’s use of the phrase

    “the position of the knowledge producer at a certain historical moment in a given material and cultural context.”

    It is hard to see how the passage can be taken to imply an anti-realism if it leans so heavily on concrete, actual facts about history, society and about individuals within it. I think the issue here is, as you correctly point out, how much constructivism we’re going to allow. For Lennon, it cannot be “all the way down”, but that doesn’t mean that certain basic, true facts about the world (that there are people, that there is history, that people are shaped by their genetic and cultural influences) can lead us to critique more speculative systems of alleged “facts” offered by antifeminist crazies (in evolutionary psychology, for example).

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