A question about standpoints and understanding

Standpoint theory in epistemology provides a gateway for my question: For our purposes, the theory can be something vague like, “Human beings often have perspectives that make some truths access to them, while the truths are not accessible to those without the perspectives.” For example, one might want to claim that there are truths accessible from the point of view of a gay person which are not accessible to others.

I was struck today by the fact that the vague principle above implies something we might find very troubling; namely, human beings typically lack perspectives that make some truths accessible to others. E.g., over some wide area, heterosexuals lack the perspective from which they might understand gay experience.

By way of background, let me say I have been thinking recently especially about conversations I had with Robert McClelland when we worked on the 2013 APA Central Division Meeting. He arranged a number of sessions on African American experience and thought. I learned a great deal from him in the short time we could talk, but I was also left with an abiding sense that too much experience that was a matter of course for him was nearly beyond my understanding. For example, the role of sports in the formation of young black boys’ ambitions was something of which I had only the most superficial of understandings.

I’ve been wondering how to understand and change my ignorance here. But right now I’m also wondering why I missed the fairly staggering implications of standpoint theory? Perhaps I didn’t really, and am simply seeing things mistakenly as if they were new. My sense right now is that there’s a pretty big chasm between many of the beliefs I employ in everyday life and those of people of color, of different ethnicities, etc.

I’d love to hear or see what others think about understanding others. It would be very easy to work one’s self into a quite skeptical mood here. There’s been some discussion in a number of places (e.g., new apps) of epistemic equals. We could see this point as a worry about how even to understand the implications of a fairly frequent lack of epistemic equality.

12 thoughts on “A question about standpoints and understanding

  1. Indeed, standpoint theory is based on an idealized relationship to place, orientation within space and perspective as a result of spatial proximity (or distance) — all of which are inferred physical realities that are being invoked and used as metaphoric bridges to conceptual framing. There are numerous presumptions within this transference that largely go unnoticed, and that create innumerable false starts from an adherence to essentialism to problems of using geoprimal mapping when addressing conceptual fields. I addressed much of this in my dissertation if you are interested.

    Since writing my dissertation, I have begun working on a different way of thinking about social knowledge acquisition and identification. Identity politics are fundamentally reactionary and limiting in that the grouping of persons based on ‘body’ (color, type, shape, gender, apparent able-ism or dis-ability…) is a denial of each person’s fundamental unicity. We need ID politics in order to formulate strategy and fight the violences of body both physical and symbolic but in using this framework we invariably reify what is ultimately needing to be fundamentally un-done. I am currently formulating a schema I call “ethical frequencies” which I situate at the other end of the continuum from ID politics. The idea of ethical frequencies is to extricate and uphold the infinite details of selfhood that are shared(or not) by individuals as singular composite entities.

  2. A clarificatory question: is the idea being mooted that some truths are accessible *only* to someone who occupies the relevant standpoint(s), or that some truths are *much easier to access* for someone who occupies the relevant standpoint(s)?

    That may look like hair-splitting, but I have a feeling the practical implications of the two proposals would be pretty different. But this is an area about which I freely grant my ignorance, so perhaps that feeling is misguided. Deep down, I suppose I hope the first proposal is false (motivated by the threat of a skeptical mood), but that may be misguided, too.

  3. There is in fact the problem you are identifying SImon — less so in the theoretical but regularly appearing in more localized and/or immediate application. The inference is that by virtue of type-ness there is an inherency of a said knowledge/perspective and its contrast, is that those not ‘like’ the type are thus less likely to have access to that knowledge/perspective. As an example, being cis-female is often inadvertently equated with feminism. Feminism itself suffers from a presumptive tendency to make it singular rather than a plurality of theorizings.
    I mentioned identity politics because standpoint theory and identity politics are effectively extensions of one another. While I personally believe that an identity does carry likelihood to certain experiences and exposures which in turn create certain perspectives, I refrain from absolutizing this equation by asserting the language of ‘likelihood’ and ‘tendency.’
    On the other hand, if we succumb to standpoint theory as a total and/or singular framing, we also run the risk of alienating learnedness, empathy, compassion, wisdom as states of potential expansion beyond one’s self and one’s limited experience set.

  4. First a comment to both commentators: Before I gave up and used the vague formulation I had spent a great deal of time trying to come up with a version of standpoint theory that was less vague and less trivial. That’s very hard, for reasons both of you are pointing at. For example, one does not want to say that all people of a certain group have the same insights. That’s going to be false, and probably politically potentially harmful. And then the “accessibility” and “inaccessibility” seem to be very various. So there is much to be worried about in standpoint theory, I think. Still, as dr. tae notes, we seem to need identity politics to formulate strategies, etc.

    My own concern here was actually slightly different. I’ve been recently involved in a number of issues and actions concerned with diversity. Here it is very hard to avoid using labels for groups and to refrain from making assumptions about access. Interestingly, in this area a lot of people find it easy to ‘solve problems’ for members of other groups. Even especially noted and good hearted people who have dedicated much of their lives to questions of diversity can end up advocating a ‘solution’ to, e.g., the exclusions of various ethnicities in academia, without asking members of the subordinate groups how the solutions are working for them. (Not well, as it turns out.)

    So I’ve been thinking a lot about thinking about thinking. It seems to me that it is easier to acknowledge that, e.g., black professors, are going to be much better as formulating a black studies major than to acknowledge that we whites (in my case) are pretty clueless in our understanding. Even though these amount to much the same thing.

    Now we know that human beings are quite capable of valuing equivalent things differently. E.g., 90% success rate for a form of surgery may seem much better than a 10% failure rate, even though these are the same. So it isn’t so strange to find one agrees with one of these and not the other
    – members of ethnicity E know things about themselves that others pretty much can’t know.
    – I am really irremediably ignorant of lots of important things about E’s.
    But it is not good.

    Simon Gurofsky, I think you are right. It looks different to say that we need to work hard to access facts that are easily available to members of some communities. And it may be that indeed we do need to work much harder.

  5. I think at least many versions of standpoint theory are going to not going to *quite* fit this vague description. Harding and Wylie, for example, both argue that epistemically advantaged standpoints are the result of certain kinds of intellectual activity in conjunction with social location and do not belong to any social group as such. Wylie writes that standpoints involve “a critical consciousness about the nature of our social location and the difference it makes epistemically.” Harding writes, “one’s social situation enables and sets limits on what one can know,” but, “the activities of those at the bottom of such social hierarchies can provide starting points for thought—for everyone’s research and scholarship—from which humans’ relationships with each other and the natural world can become visible.”

    That is, it might be the case that ‘human beings [on account of social location] typically lack perspectives that make some truths accessible to others,’ but it could also be the case that through taking the experiences of others as the starting point for inquiry, alongside other epistemically responsible behavior, at least many of those truths will be made accessible.

  6. I love teaching this paper by Kukla and Ruetsche.

    Click to access cjp32-3–389-418–Kukla-Ruetsche.pdf

    Anne, I think it’s just the way things are that our social locations make it *very* difficult to access a wide variety of truths. Cis men are just epistemically disadvantaged when it comes to understanding what it’s like to be a woman in our society, for example. I like K+R’s “contingent natures” way of talking about what possibly can be done about this problem.

  7. It’s been a while since I’ve read anything in standpoint epistemology, but I always had the sense that the theory was in a way less about standpoint than about the idea that understanding, or at least some important kinds of understanding, cannot be had except through struggle. Standpoint itself should perhaps then be seen as more of a result than a cause, in the way philodaria’s comment suggests.

    Yet it often doesn’t seem to be presented that way, but as mostly a strong form of situated epistemology — which it is, but that doesn’t seem to be the primary point of many of its arguments or accounts of standpoints. I’ve wondered sometimes myself if there is some important linking element here, perhaps practical, that I’ve not understood.

    I remember attending an APA session on standpoint theory in graduate school in which something like this topic actually came up, and I was struck by the diversity of positions on how one deals with recognizing that you lack the appropriate standpoint, or perhaps lack a fully appropriate standpoint. It requires some sort of epistemic deference, for lack of a better word, but I didn’t get any sense at the time (although perhaps, again, it was just something I wasn’t understanding) that there was agreement on what that would involve.

  8. For anyone interested, there’s an invited session at the Pacific APA in San Diego next month, “Standpoint Theory–New Directions”, featuring Alison Wylie, Julie Maybee, and Joshua St. Pierre, that I’ll be chairing. Part of the idea of the symposium is to both think more about under-developed applications of standpoint theory, such as ableism and disability, as well as to take up some of the fundamental issues that standpoint theory raises. The session will be at 4pm on Wednesday, 16th April.

    Anne: not sure that your specific question about understanding will come up–unless you’re there to raise it in discussion. My own 2 cents: standpoint theory likely can tell us much about what might be thought of as lack of understanding, especially of people who are subhumanized in some way, and why that lack is both wrong (in all senses, I think) and correctable.

  9. Disclaimer: I have metaphysical commitments to empiricism and reductionism (I am pursuing a PhD in Chemistry).

    I found when I was pursuing an A.B in Philosophy and studying some feminist epistemology that Donna Haraway’s interrogation of situatedness and knowledge to be more interesting and compelling. Actually that is kind of not true; I decided that Haraway > Harding in graduate school. Anyway, I think the ethical implications of standpoint theory – i.e. that we should promote heterogeneity of views in order to maximize objectivity (the “strong objectivity”) to be kind of a weak argument philosophically. I think that Harding’s argument is compelling in only certain intersection and exclusions of certain domains of human knowledge and experience – i.e. race, gender, etc. I do not find it meaningful in the domains of science or mathematics because the concepts underlying the language – even if the language is different – are largely the same.

  10. Aaron, I don’t think I understand the last part of your comment (i.e., ” I do not find it meaningful in the domains of science or mathematics because the concepts underlying the language – even if the language is different – are largely the same”). I take it that Harding’s contributions to the epistemology of science do not just argue that the social identity of the agents involved in inquiry affect the conceptual framework through which research is understood, but also, which questions we pursue in the first place, how we pursue them, and so on. Those whose perspectives are marginalized might well be working with the same concepts, but given their social and political interests, have entirely different research interests.

  11. philodaria, , I do not find the notion that we (the scientific, philosophical, whatever) community should treat a conceptual framework as compelling unless it can be shown to generate better results than the current schema. This is a more reasonable position in the sciences than in philosophy. I believe pragmatic virtues (parsimony, empirical adequacy (this is a stretch in philosophy sometimes, since we might only be dealing in thought experiments), unifying power, etc.) should be the primary criteria, where ever the source of knowledge. I think Harding needs some new virtues to justify the standpoint position, because I do not believe that it necessarily follows that privileging the perspective of the subaltern with necessarily generate different or better knowledge. I’m not sure if I made sense but I hope so.

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