Analytic Philosophy’s Egalitarianism and Standpoint Epistemology’s Privileging

“My views about how to do metaphysics as a feminist are undergoing a radical transformation… chiefly because of the Hypatia affair.”

This past July, Ásta Kristjana Sveinsdóttir (San Francisco State) gave a talk at “Feminist Philosophy & Methodological Commitments,” a conference at Humboldt University in Berlin, about the controversy over philosophy journal Hypatia’s publication of  “In Defense of Transracialism” by Rebecca Tuvel (Rhodes). The talk has now been reproduced in the American Philosophical Association newsletter, Feminism and Philosophy.

Ásta (as she prefers to be known) was one of the associate editors of Hypatia who signed onto a public apology for the publication of the article which said, among other things, that “clearly, the article should not have been published,” and who resigned shortly thereafter.

In her talk, she offers a kind of bridge-building explanation of her thoughts about the publication of the article—a bridge connecting the “egalitarianism” of analytic philosophy with the apparent inegalitarianism of the standpoint epistemology appealed to in some critiques of the article.

She begins by describing her background in, and attachment to, analytic philosophy:

What attracted me to analytic philosophy was the focus on clarity: What precisely is the claim? What is the argument? I had been studying mathematics but was interested in different questions than those mathematicians study. I was frankly more interested in the sorts of questions many in the continental tradition focus on. But my training was, in terms of methods, very analytic. And one of the attractive and powerful aspects of the practice of analytic philosophy that I came across in my training is that no claim and no argument is too holy to touch, none too offensive. Clarity and precision is a sharp knife for cutting through the obfuscation of demagoguery, ideological manipulation, and plain confusion… 

Another thing that attracted me to analytic philosophy… is the idea that it is the claim or argument that matters, not who makes it. This was particularly attractive to me, coming from Iceland, where there is a certain tendency to accept uncritically the word of authority figures.

Judy Thomson describes insightfully in an old interview how this commitment was woven into the way philosophy was practiced in the MIT philosophy department: You may give a good paper on Friday afternoon, but when you are back in the department on Monday there is no resting on the laurels received on Friday. Your Monday morning argument doesn’t get the halo effect of your triumph on Friday: it stands or falls on its own. You and your track record cannot ease its path to acceptance. (Even if you are Judith Jarvis Thomson, I might add).

I was, and am, attracted to this radical egalitarian potential of analytic philosophy. It isn’t practiced everywhere, of course, but I was lucky enough to be at some places where that is the norm… 

I think of analytic philosophy as having huge radical potential: no question is off the table, and it is claims and arguments that are evaluated, not people. Analytic philosophy has radically anti-authoritarian aspirations.

The question just is, who gets to sit at the table?

She then discusses some of the complaints about the paper, eventually turning to two questions:

The first question is how we should theorize about other people’s lives, and the second is the question to whom we are accountable in our theorizing. This second question is the same question as who gets to sit at the table of my radically egalitarian analytic philosopher.

There is a limited number of seats at the table because of the physical limitations of the room, size of table, and so on. And there is a limit to how many communities of people one can hold oneself accountable to because of limited intellectual, emotional, linguistic, material, and temporal resources.

So who are we feminist philosophers, including feminist metaphysicians, accountable to? 

Publishing the essay in Hypatia without engaging the trans* and critical race theory literature about passing, identity, and related topics sends the message that the author is not accountable to those communities. But what is worse, it sends the message that the journal is not accountable to those communities. And therein lies the betrayal…

Doing so is to say to those members of our community: You don’t get to sit at our table. We are not accountable to you. We treat you as mere objects of reflection, not as people, living and breathing, and not as theorists to engage with. It is to enact epistemic marginalization. It is to enact epistemic harm. The journal is not the offense police. But it is the have-you-engaged-the-relevant-literature police. And given our feminist commitments, we as a journal are in the make-sure-we-are-not-enacting-marginalization-of-our-own-community police. We failed…

I think we need to think about whose lives are affected by our theorizing and take great care in engaging their own theoretical perspectives on the issues. These are the people with “skin in the game.” The idea of theorizing with respect by engaging people’s own theoretical perspectives, then, also has epistemological implications.

I’m not advocating that only people with skin in the game talk about a certain issue. I’m also not claiming that people with skin in the game have privileged epistemic access to certain issues in such a way that others cannot, in principle, understand them. That would be a strong interpretation of standpoint theory, and I do not subscribe to it. But I think that people with skin in the game often have perspectives on, and experience with, things that others don’t. This is soft standpoint theory, and it is compatible with radical analytic egalitarianism.

We need to listen and we need to engage. This means that analytic philosophers like me cannot continue to do theorizing about people as we have done until now.

Ásta’s point seems to be that complaints about epistemic injustice and attempts at inclusion motivated by standpoint theory are not, despite appearances, at odds with the core values of analytic philosophy. Rather, they are outgrowths of those very same values. If analytic philosophy is about considering each idea on its own merits, regardless of whose idea it is, then its practitioners ought to ensure that some ideas aren’t left out of consideration altogether because of whose they happen to be. This means taking steps to listen to and amplify voices that previously had been ignored, and engaging those personally affected by the matters under discussion with epistemic humility.

You can read the whole talk here.

Discussion welcome, though I do ask that commenters refrain from rehashing rants, complaints, accusations, demands, etc., from previous discussions of the “Hypatia affair.” If we drop the point-scoring we could have a constructive conversation. (Comments that, in my judgment, detract from, rather than contribute to, a constructive discussion will be deleted.)


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