A Problem With Studying One’s Own Oppression (updated)


Joseph Heath (Toronto) describes an obstacle to inquiry:

The problem is that, when you’re studying your own oppression, and you’re obviously a member of the oppressed group in question, people who are basically sympathetic to your situation, but who disagree with your specific claims, are going to be extremely hesitant to challenge you, because they don’t want to appear unsympathetic. Even a lot of people who are actually unsympathetic will say nothing, because they still don’t want to appear unsympathetic. So you are only going to hear from two types of people – those who are sympathetic but want to take a more radical stance, and those who we might label, for convenience, “jerks,” which is to say, people who are both unsympathetic and who are, for one reason or another, immune to any consideration of what others think of them.

He thinks this is a fairly common problem with “‘me’ studies,” and leads to a distorted view of the intellectual landscape, in which disagreement with one’s view is associated with a moral failing.

I don’t know how many talks I’ve been to where the question period goes this way. Someone presents a view that a solid majority of people in the room think is totally wrong-headed. But no one is willing to say things like: “I don’t think that what you are saying makes any sense” or “you have no evidence to support this contention” or “the policies you are promoting are excessively self-serving.” The questions that will be asked come in only two flavours: “I’m concerned that your analysis is unable to sustain a truly emancipatory social praxis” (i.e. “I don’t think you’re left-wing enough”), or else “you people are always whingeing about your problems” (i.e. “I’m a huge, insensitive jerk”).

Then of course, out in the hallway after the talk, people say what they really thought of the presentation – at this point, a whole bunch of entirely reasonable criticisms will get made, points that probably would have been really helpful to the presenter had they been communicated… So basically, practitioners of “me” studies suffer from a huge handicap, when it comes to improving the quality of their work, which is that only people who are extremists of one sort or another are willing to give them honest feedback.

…Since the only people willing to speak up on the right-hand side, so to speak, of the presenter are people who have views that are morally offensive to the presenter, it can easily lead to the perception that anyone who disagrees with you is, for that very reason, morally suspect. In other words, over time the “me” studies practitioner notices a strong correlation between “people who disagree with me” and “people who have moral views that I find reprehensible.” As a result, it is easy to lose sight of the possibility of reasonable disagreement – in particular, the possibility that people might broadly speaking share your moral convictions, and yet disagree with you about what should be done about them, or what justice requires in terms of redress, or even just about some entirely empirical or pragmatic question.

You can read the whole thing at In Due Course.

UPDATE (6/4/15): Audrey Yap (Victoria) responds to Heath here.

UPDATE (6/5/15): Part two of Yap’s reply to Heath has been posted. She writes:

My suggestion is to treat issues of oppression like we treat many other cases of specialized knowledge in philosophy, like philosophy of science or mathematics. My training is in philosophy of mathematics, and not every issue raised in that field requires specialized mathematical knowledge. But there are many debates about mathematical practice that require, if not a math background, at least some familiarity with the practice itself. This means that not every philosopher is well-positioned to have an important contribution to, for instance, the question period at a philosophy of math talk. And this does exclude many people from participation in these discussions, even people who would likely be able to make valuable contributions. But because they do not have the background knowledge, they will frequently refrain from participating so as not to appear uninformed or unintelligent. The situation in many fields that study oppression can be seen as parallel.

And, on disagreement:

It is important for those who study oppression to consider dissenting views. But those who study oppression know that there are already dissenting views in their field. There are substantive disagreements in philosophy of gender, philosophy of race, philosophy of disability (etc) just as there are in any philosophical field. So to say that the only form of disagreement entertained is either the entirely unsympathetic kind, or the kind that would like the views to be even more extreme, seems to neglect what actually goes on in those parts of philosophy. Of course, views that question the very possibility of the field don’t generally get included as part of its canon, but faulting that would be like blaming metaphysicians for not embracing the logical empiricists.

UPDATE (6/5/15): Professor Heath replies here.

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Elizabeth Barnes
Elizabeth Barnes
6 years ago

“People who are basically sympathetic to your situation, but who disagree with your specific claims, are going to be extremely hesitant to challenge you, because they don’t want to appear unsympathetic.”

What’s the evidence for this supposed to be? Are we just supposed to take his word for it based on his impression?

This is just personal anecdote, obviously, but this has absolutely not been my experience as a disabled person writing on disability. Right now I’m typing this comment instead of replying to emails wondering whether my view of disability can distinguish ableism from certain forms of racism, whether I end up committed to a weird form of hedonism (which I don’t want to be committed to), whether I end up committed to the view that cancer isn’t bad, and whether I have a coherent notion of valuing disability rather than just valuing individual experiences casually correlated with disability. And that’s just what’s in my inbox right now. (Also, my old friend Anonymous Referee has never been shy about expressing their thoughts.)

My friends – both women and men – who work on gender report similar experiences. So do my friends who work on race. (Right now I’m watching a cool discussion on my facebook feed about whether ‘colorblind’ policies are ever justified. A variety of nuanced views are being taken and there’s a lot of disagreement at various levels.) So I’m more than a little skeptical about Heath’s claim. I’m also skeptical about how he takes himself to be in a position to know what sorts of criticism people working in these areas receive.Report

sin nombre
sin nombre
6 years ago

Ugh…calling it “me studies” is so ridiculous. Somehow, he forgot that most philosophers (including himself!) are white males who study white males. Somehow that escapes the identity politics because of ubiquity in the discipline so I guess it doesn’t count as me studies. Also, this just sounds like the problem is with people not knowing how to talk about this stuff without being tone def, probably because if they don’t live in a major city they might have very limited contact with other mes. So the problem is with the white philosophers who don’t know how to be respectful when asking questions to the Other (which has to be the implication of calling it “me studies,” right?).Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

I echo Elizabeth’s comment. But to add to it: I think it’s correct for those who don’t occupy the relevant social location to be hesitant to disagree. I think they should be hesitant for *epistemic* reasons. I think standpoint epistemology has things right: unless one occupies the relevant social location, one is seriously epistemically disadvantaged with respect to understanding the oppressions suffered by those with the relevant social location. I suspect that that disadvantage is nearly insurmountable. This means that the person without the identity who wants to disagree with the views of someone with the relevant identity needs to have particularly strong (epistemic) reasons. I dare say that they rarely meet that standard. Too often, they approach the debate as an epistemic equal, when they’re not.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

Has standpoint epistemology ever been tested empirically? because it sounds suspiciously like, ‘we’re automatically right about everything because we’re oppressed’. There’s a reason why science requires controlled experiments rather than experimenters simply judging for themselves what is correct. Its called controlling for bias. As far as I can tell standpoint epistemology has no control for bias whatsoever.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
6 years ago

Perhaps we ought to learn what the Stoics knew: that sensitivity is a choice. It is sometimes (pace the Stoics) a good choice, but it is a choice. I have often had conversations with people who choose not to be sensitive to comments that *could* be misinterpreted as an attack. These conversations are tremendously fruitful. And I can totally understand if these people sometimes go home and feel hurt by something that has been said — I often go home and feel hurt as a response to what others have said to me. But if they were pursuing the truth, and showing respect to my viewpoint about the truth, they have done nothing to harm me.Report

Jon Swift
Jon Swift
6 years ago

I would like to second Rachel’s comment. Too often, when I am making an argument about justice for certain groups, someone objects to my claims, assuming they are my epistemic equal. They fail to recognize their epistemically impoverished standpoint. As a white, cisgendered, able bodied, heterosexual male, I am particularly well informed on issues of privilege and so forth. We would be able to make real progress on these issues if people who do not occupy my enlightened perspective would rather listen and believe my claims, rather than challenge them.Report

sin nombre
sin nombre
6 years ago

I went and read the whole post. It’s awful. Here are my takeaways/problems with it. I tried posting it in the comment section there but don’t think it took:
1. Heath dismisses claims of ableism with an eye roll, but then criticizes others for not being very good at self-criticism. Could it be that Heath does not understand the stigma of mental disease and that using a term like “crazy” stigmatizes people and normalizes our dismissal of others as not being sane?
2. Somehow a white male philosopher study white male philosophy is not “me” studies (I suppose because white male is universal as in the traditional liberal philosophies of Kant, Mill, Rawls) whereas studying underrepresented groups is “me” studies.
3. The reason underrepresented groups study underrepresented groups might just be because no one else studies them (all their white professors are busy not studying “me” groups but rather studying white philosophers instead).
4. I’m unsure how Heath has understood the motives to all his colleagues doing “me” studies. Is he also able to derive the motives of someone working on aesthetics, epistemology, Plato, etc. as well or just “me” studies?
5. I think it is easy to dismiss political correctness when you see it as language policing rather than as treating others who are traditionally oppressed with respect. Criticizing political correctness for language policing sounds a lot like someone enjoying their white male privilege to the point of being oblivious to the struggles of those without said privilege.
6. To John Forrest, a trigger warning is to prevent people from having to relive a traumatic experience such as a violent attack or a sexual assault. If you have never been the victim of either (and I have of the former), than it might be difficult to understand why such traumas are serious. Why is it so bad to be sensitive to the plights of others?
7. Lastly, isn’t the problem with Heath and others like him? If you don’t feel comfortable asking questions that means (a) you don’t feel you can respectfully ask a question, (b) you think that person will be offended by your question, or (c) you don’t know enough about the work to ask an informed question. Maybe there are other possibilities I’m leaving out, but if it is (b) then you are basically saying that underrepresented groups (let’s be clear who Heath means by “me” studies scholars) are somehow more sensitive than white people about their work and will therefore more quickly take offense. Think about that for a moment. I won’t call it racist since I can’t see Heath’s eye roll, but it is disrespectful and it means you don’t consider such people to be as mature and professional as other scholars.Report

UNC Groundskeeper
6 years ago

Heath expresses some charming thoughts on ableism in parts of the piece not quoted. Here is Heath:

“For example, one academic reviewer took exception to a line on the dust-jacket of my recent book: “Over the last twenty years, the political systems of the Western world have become increasingly divided—not between right and left, but between crazy and non-crazy,” condemning my use of the term “crazy.” Apparently it is “ableist.”
So yeah, this sort of thing still exists. What’s important is that it is no longer taken very seriously. This sort of verbal policing is the academic equivalent of a stupid pet trick – one that everyone knows how to do, and most people get over by end of undergraduate. In mixed company, using a term like “ableist” provokes a lot of eyeball-rolling, and is generally recognized as a good way of ensuring that no one outside your own very small circle will take you seriously.”

Of course, Heath is correct that only a “small circle” of people take the avoidance of ableist rhetoric seriously. And that’s “what’s important” to him…Report

Tim O'Keefe
6 years ago

Rachel, I think that “disagree[ing] with the views of someone with the relevant identity” is ambiguous. We can distinguish between at least 3 different sorts of views:
1. “My experiences [as somebody is the relevant identity X] have been as follows: p.”
2. “The experiences of people with relevant identity X are as follows: q.” (Based on 1 and interactions with other people who have relevant identity X.)
3. Various ethical, political, etc. conclusions pertaining to people with the identity X based on 1 and 2.

For example: my daughter has Down Syndrome. And so I have views about what my experiences raising somebody with Down Syndrome have been like. I don’t think my views of my own experiences are infallible: I’m human, and so I can be subject to wishful thinking, self-deception, etc. etc. Still, I think I’m in a pretty good epistemic position to talk about them, and people should be hesitant to tell me that I’m mistaken. (“Really, it’s been a living hell for you, even though you don’t recognize it.”)

I also have views about raising a person with Down Syndrome more generally, and while I think my experiences (I hope) give me some insight on the topic, it’s a lot less than in 1. (I’m in a much different position than many other people who have been raising a child with Down Syndrome.)

I also have views about the education, medical care, inclusion, etc., of people with Down Syndrome in our society. I don’t think that I have a nearly insurmountable epistemic advantage over others (without the relevant identity) in these sorts of questions. To the extent that these disagreements are based on issues of type 2 (e.g., thinking that the lives of people with Down Syndrome and their caretakers are full of horrific suffering), people ought to listen respectfully to the views of somebody with the relevant identity. But that seems to be weaker than asserting that people without the relevant identity are almost always at an epistemically insurmountable disadvantage tout court, including views of type 3. (In part, that’s because you could accept the views of types 1 and 2 that a person holds on the basis of her experience but disagree with the conclusions drawn from them.)Report

Facts
Facts
6 years ago

Well said, Anonymous. And sad that it’s prudent to be anonymous to make that sort of comment here.Report

Anon7
Anon7
6 years ago

A good recent example is this essay by a philosopher defending Saida Grundy in the controversy over her tweets. It touches on academic freedom (which I think is more than enough basis to defend Grundy), but then goes on to suggest that no white person, whether a scholar or not, has any business questioning a black scholar who studies race. The result is that anyone who wants to question the historical evidence for her statements is automatically lumped in with racist internet jerks. That’s a position that basically precludes any scholarly engagement.
http://academeblog.org/2015/05/20/epistemic-injustice-in-the-academy-an-analysis-of-the-saida-grundy-witch-hunt/Report

UmMaybeHello
UmMaybeHello
6 years ago

Look #4, feelings might not always lead to facts, but it’s a fact that people have feelings. Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean: perhaps you have no intention of causing me any harm, but you end up doing so accidentally. Let’s say you cause me an emotional harm. Well, in that case, it’s a fact that I was harmed because of the way I feel. If we think that emotional harm is at least part of oppression or marginalization, then the testimony of members of oppressed or marginalized group serves as evidence for their oppression or marginalization.Report

AnonymousGradStudent23
AnonymousGradStudent23
6 years ago

Though Jon Swift (#6) beat me to it, there’s a question that your post raises and that I’d like to reemphasize. Suppose that a man and a woman disagree about whether there’s sexism against men. The man thinks that there is, the woman that there’s not. Since the man, and not the woman, occupies the relevant social location (i.e., men), does that mean that the woman is “seriously epistemically disadvantaged” here, and that her epistemic disadvantage is “nearly insurmountable”?

I may be off about this, but it is difficult for me to imagine that most of those who embrace standpoint epistemology (regardless of their sex) would be happy with this consequence. Yet it is also not clear to me whether the consequence can be avoided without adopting a problematic double standard.Report

AnonymousGradStudent23
AnonymousGradStudent23
6 years ago

For some reason, my above comment didn’t nest properly. It was meant to be a response to Rachel McKinnon (#3).Report

UmMaybeHello
UmMaybeHello
6 years ago

#13, I get that. Here’s what helps me. Let’s do some Venn Diagrams: A and B are disjoint, A is the privileged group and B the oppressed relative to one way of socially classifying people. C and D are also disjoint, C is the privileged group and D the oppressed relative to a second way of socially classifying people. Suppose D and A intersect, maybe that intersection is the set of white ladies, or maybe it’s the set of gay men. Well, those people have experiences of being marginalized and privileged, which they can compare to get a sense of the difference between the feelings caused by systematic oppression against then and those caused by isolated harms.Report

Jon Swift
Jon Swift
6 years ago

What happens when the discussion between two parties concerns the very existence of systematic oppression towards a group? If we equate a privileged epistemic position with being systematically oppressed, how will we be able to discern who occupies the special epistemic position without question begging?

E.g.,

Member of X: Xs are systematically oppressed!
Non-Member of X: No they’re not!
Member of X: Yes they are! As a member of X, because I am systematically oppressed, I am uniquely positioned to make claims about the oppression of Xs and about the kind of remedial justice such oppression demands.
Non-Member of X: But you’re begging the question! I just denied that Xs are oppressed.
Member of X: No YOU’RE begging the question. You can’t justifiably deny my claim to oppression without denying my special epistemic position. No such justifiable denial is possible from your epistemically impoverished position.

And on and on…Report

Blather
Blather
6 years ago

The white male analogue of what Heath calls “me studies” is not a white person who studies a field where most scholars are white. It’s a white person who studies what it is to be white.Report

sin nombre
sin nombre
6 years ago

I don’t think so, blather. There are two problems with your comment. (1) you assume too narrow a focus. Heath specifically talks about oppression and what he calls “me” studies just means that one identifies with the group being studied. So someone who may never have experienced oppression but belongs to group A and group A is generally oppressed in society B would be doing “me” studies by writing about that oppression, which is not really the same thing as a white person writing about what it’s like to be white.

(2) I think a pretty good argument can be made that much of philosophy is the study of white experiences, written by white people for white people under the cover of universal. So even if you want to say that you would be writing about group A’s experience and therefore what it’s like to be in group A, you are forgetting the very obvious white male perspective that has shaped the history of philosophy.Report

Jack Samuel
Jack Samuel
6 years ago

I don’t think standpoint theory presumes a neutral standpoint from which to address whether or not a group is oppressed, nor does it presume that we should accept any identity-based testimony. It presumes that some groups are (women, people of color, etc.), and then identifies members thereof as epistemically privileged with respect to that kind of oppression. It’s a kind of critical social theory, if you like: it begins by taking sides on a social issue. If you reject the premise, you’re not really in the conversation. But that’s always true. Every debate has presuppositions.

I have my worries about it (I’m becoming sympathetic with Haraway’s line, though I’m far from an expert on the debate), but they are certainly right that if a man and woman disagree about whether patriarchy exists in the first place, neither is really in a position to appeal to standpoint theory to support their arguments. That’s not what it’s supposed to do.Report

UmMaybeHello
UmMaybeHello
6 years ago

I think everyone has an experience with being unfairly evaluated or treated based on irrelevant facts about themselves. And so, in some sense, everyone knows at least a little bit about what it’s like to be marginalized. The hard part is convincing members of a privileged group that they’re privileged. But that’s because privilege is often just the absence of being prejudged or prematurely written-off. And we don’t really notice the absence of being poorly treated. So all we have left are the experiences we notice- the experiences of being poorly treated. And if we haven’t experienced ourselves, all we have left is the testimony from those who have.

Do people exploit this? Sure. Do people falsely accuse each other of exploiting it? Yeah. It’s not an easy problem.Report

UmMaybeHello
UmMaybeHello
6 years ago

In any case, convincing the privileged does seem really difficult — intellectually and emotionally. So it seems inappropriate to trivialize it by calling it “me studies”.Report

Komal
Komal
6 years ago

I second this, and would like to add that allowing philosophical discussion to become too governed by norms of ‘inclusion’ and social justice always ends up making the discussion less valuable philosophically, and often makes the discussion worse even from a social justice point of view.

There are some people who are more than happy to take on the role of the Social Justice Warrior, even if it is at the expense of the voices of those more marginalized than themselves. I know of people of colour who have been accused of racism by white people because the position they take challenges some dogma the white person was taught to accept by a textbook or a workshop or something. And I have been shouted down by a straight white male for taking a position on the matter of gender that he evaluated (wrongly) as being bad for a marginalized group whose protection he had taken upon himself. I don’t believe that my voice should have more authority on the matter of gender because of features of my body, history or social position, but those who are concerned with being ‘inclusive’ and who believe in things like standpoint epistemology should ask themselves if they are being consistent and unhypocritical when they use their purported concern to silence those more marginalized than themselves (or indeed anyone). Allowing philosophical contexts to become too influenced by social justice concerns creates fertile ground for this kind of social justice bandwagon-jumping and speech-policing.

If we value the truth and give it a kind of supreme authority in philosophical discussion — which we should, in my view — then we have to ignore to a great extent the bodies and social positions of people expressing positions and focus on the positions themselves. Having first-personal experience of marginalization might give you a slight epistemic advantage in some matters, but people are great at gaining knowledge and overcoming epistemic disadvantages, and can appreciate the testimonial evidence in favour of positions without having all the experiences of the testifier.Report

Ben A
Ben A
6 years ago

In response to Jon Swift @ comment 16: I think that the scenario you describe is one worth taking seriously, and can be epistemologically interesting. But what message am I as a reader supposed to take when, after describing the scenario, you end your comment “And on and on…”? Is it that, having described this sort of scenario, you take the mere description of it as constituting some kind of reductio? For what it’s worth, I take this as a jumping-off place for thought and discussion, not a place to stop.

Similarly, I think there are versions of what AnonGraduateStudent23 is gesturing at that are genuinely philosophically interesting, and for those of us who take standpoint epistemology seriously, relevant to consider. But just raising the issue doesn’t thereby undermine the theory. Rather, it is an opportunity to investigate further, to learn more about the theory in question as an object of inquiry, and not something to be tossed aside when things get complicated.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
6 years ago

It is possible for someone to be oppressed and also to be at an epistemological disadvantage on some issues relating to their oppression. For example, the question of the degree to which people who have disagreements with them are not speaking up because they don’t wish to offend or to seem unsympathetic is an issue on which they may have such an epistemological disadvantage. The oppressed person is, for instance, not going to be privy to corridor conversations in which people say things they didn’t want to say because they didn’t want to offend or seem unsympathetic.Report

Nonymous
Nonymous
6 years ago

I never know quite what to think about standpoint epistmology, in part because my thoughts pull me in different directions and in part because it’s appealed to in such different ways. But it strikes me that if we make a few substitutions to Rachel McKinnon’s claims, we get what seems to be an eminently questionable view. Consider what happens when we cast the idea in terms of religious experience rather than social oppression:

“I think standpoint epistemology has things right: unless one occupies the relevant religious location, one is seriously epistemically disadvantaged with respect to understanding the enlightenment experienced by those with the relevant religious location. I suspect that that disadvantage is nearly insurmountable. This means that the person without the religious experience who wants to disagree with the views of someone with the religious experience needs to have particularly strong (epistemic) reasons. I dare say that they rarely meet that standard. Too often, they approach the debate as an epistemic equal, when they’re not.”

This is not just a strawman argument; some people actually do make arguments like this in defense of their religious claims. But as a claim about the epistemic value of religious experience, it seems pretty weak. Minimally, my claim to know on the basis of religious experience that the world is created and sustained in every moment by a perfectly loving God, or that the self is an illusion, etc., are not insulated from criticism by people who have not had the experiences that lead me to make those claims. The justification of my claims can be challenged by others who lack those experiences, who can appeal to countervailing considerations that are epistemically accessible to all parties to the disagreement; my experience does nothing to weaken arguments against the existence of God from the existence of evil, say, or arguments in favor of the reality of the self based on empirical psychological theories about selfhood; if I want to respond to such objections, I have to appeal to something other than my religious experience. That seems pretty clear.

Now, I certainly don’t want to suggest that the experiences of marginalized and oppressed people are epistemically akin to mystical experiences or that the claims they make on the basis of those experiences are as dubious as the claims that many people make on the basis of religious experience. But it seems to me that I can tell the difference in key part because, unlike many claims based on religious experience, they tend not to fall afoul of countervailing considerations of an empirical or broadly philosophical sort. But that’s just to say that these claims meet epistemic standards that are accessible to people without the relevant experience, whereas many claims based on religious experience don’t. Once we appreciate that, though, it’s hard to see why we should think standpoint epistemology really makes such strong claims after all. If the privileged epistemic position does not provide any strong public justification independently of its connection to epistemic standards accessible to people who don’t occupy that position, then experience from within the epistemically privileged position seems not to be so privileged after all. If, on the contrary, the epistemically privileged position is supposed to ground claims that are immune to criticism from people who have not occupied that position, then it becomes difficult to distinguish it from claims to know the nature of the universe or the will of God on the basis of one’s experience.

On the whole, I’m skeptical of the claim that privileged, non-marginalized people like me really have no epistemic access at all to the experiences that marginalized and oppressed people have. I can’t of course have that experience myself, and that matters; but I can listen sympathetically to people who do have that experience, and thereby come to know something about it — not the sorts of things that can only be known by having it, of course, but surely important things, and surely much of what matters for political thought and action. I’m inclined to say that much of what gets described in terms of socially privileged people lacking epistemic access to the experience of others is much more a failure of sympathy and imagination on the part of people who refuse to listen to others and think about what it would be like to be someone else. I’m inclined to agree that there is a genuine epistemic inequality here, since I can only gain whatever knowledge I can have about these experiences from people who have had them. But is this epistemic inequality really one that prevents the less epistemically privileged from engaging critically with the epistemically privileged? Does the opposition so often fail because it comes from people without epistemic access to relevant experiences, or because it comes from people who fail to reason adequately with resources that are in fact accessible to them?Report

Ben A
Ben A
6 years ago

Standpoint epistemology need not entail the strong “no access at all” and “immune to criticism” claims that Nonymous identifies in comment 25. Look at the formulation Rachel McKinnon offers here in comment 3, for example, which assumes neither of these claims. Or read Alison Wylie’s “Why Standpoint Matters,” which for those of us who are more analytically inclined, offers a clear formulation of standpoint that avoids the stronger / too strong claims that interlocutors sometimes assume the theory must be committed to.

Given this, someone like Nonymous might be inclined to say that “experience from within the epistemically privileged seems not to be so privileged after all.” But here everything will turn on what’s meant by “so”. Again, revisit Rachel’s #3 above, which sets a high epistemic bar without going all the way to no-access and completely-immunity. By analogy, think of the epistemic deference which might be owed expert testimony, but which is nevertheless not without limits and not without possibility for revision in light of further evidence.Report

Matt Strohl
Matt Strohl
6 years ago

This is a very interesting discussion. I have some concern about unacceptable implications of a couple claims made above when taken together. If (1) studying the history of (almost entirely white) philosophy is analogous to black people doing black studies (for example), and (2) people who have a given social location have an epistemic advantage when it comes to theorizing about that social location, then it would seem to follow that non-white people are at an epistemic disadvantage when it comes to studying the history of (almost entirely white) philosophy. Or is the view more narrowly that one has an epistemic advantage about a form of oppression if the social position one occupies is subject to that form of oppression? I could see defending that more narrow view, but how might this go? I’m genuinely interested, these are not a rhetorical questions.Report

Ben A
Ben A
6 years ago

Hi Matt,

While there are a variety of different forms of standpoint theory, I’d say a common theme across them is a commitment to some kind of asymmetry thesis. If you are interested in diving in, the Standpoint Theory Reader edited by Sandra Harding is a great place to start (thought admittedly a little old at this point). Or start with WEB Du Bois on double consciousness.Report

Matt Strohl
Matt Strohl
6 years ago

Do these views predict that I will be at an epistemic disadvantage for understanding Du Bois?Report

Nonymous
Nonymous
6 years ago

Ben: the analogy to expert testimony is very much the sort of thing I have in mind, allowing of course that being a member of a marginalized or oppressed group is not exactly the sort of thing that amounts to expertise. But notice that it is only in unusual cases that someone can justifiably appeal to her own expertise in, say, geometry or medicine in order to meet an objection to one of her claims; she appeals, instead, to claims about geometry or medicine, and none of these claims depends on her expertise for its justification. So too, I didn’t mean to suggest that the standpoint epistemologist typically takes the strong no-access/immune-to-outside-criticism view (though I don’t think it’s much of a mystery why many people suppose that this is what it involves; how much distance is there really supposed to be between no access/immunity and “nearly insurmountable” disadvantages that require outsiders to meet “particularly strong” standards that we “rarely” do? Either way, that sounds like an outsiders-should-keep-their-mouths-shut sort of claim). But once we reject the notion that standpoint epistemology involves that kind of claim, it isn’t clear what this epistemic privilege amounts to, and why it’s anything more than the usual run-of-the-mill case of a bunch of people having relevant experience that other people don’t. So far as I know, there’s been nothing like a standpoint epistemology developed for medical or geometrical expertise, or for the views that animal trainers have about animal minds, or that teachers have about teaching. These are all cases in which most of us recognize that people with the relevant experience know something that people without it don’t, and that their experience puts them in a better position than someone without the relevant experience to understand the phenomena they’re dealing with. But in none of these cases, so far as I’m aware, do people find it plausible to suppose that outsiders face a “nearly insurmountable” epistemic burden when it comes to questioning the claims of people with the relevant experience or that the experience supplies people with access to reasons that others can hardly grasp. To be clear, I don’t take these points to count against standpoint epistemology as such; rather, I take them to count against a conception of it on which it claims strong and unusual epistemic privileges for certain classes of people rather than the kind of epistemic privilege that we can easily see that dog trainers have about dogs, that physicians have about medicine, etc.; i.e., when such people speak, I should listen carefully and presume that they know what they’re talking about, but I have no reason to suppose that I am incompetent to challenge their philosophical reflections on the subjects of their experience. If I do so ignorantly and disrespectfully, that’s not because I can’t occupy their standpoint, it’s because I’m being stupid and ignorant.

Hopefully I’m not being either in this case.Report

Anonymuse
Anonymuse
6 years ago

I’m no expert of standpoint epistemology, but the analogy with expert testimony strikes me as inappropriate for at least two reasons. First, because one’s experience as gendered, or as racialized as non-White, or as disabled etc. is far more complex and affecting so many more levels of experience than being a teacher or a dog trainer. Second, and relatedly, while anybody can become a teacher, it is much more difficult for someone to change gender, race and so forth. That is why the experience of transgender people who have transitioned is so significant and illuminating, to them and to others: transwomen have talked about the experience of suddenly losing male privilege and vice versa transmen have talked about the experience of gaining it. Similarly I suppose people who become disabled can experience similar radical changes of perspective.Report

Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Yet Another Anon Grad Student
6 years ago

So if people who are studying oppression intend to make claims about the causes and possible remedies of opression, then they are obviously making causal claims. In that case, epistemic standpoints are nothing more than anecdotal evidence, and are thus exceedingly poor replacements for sociological data. In this case, whatever epistemic benefit member of an oppressed group might have over a non-member is negligible. Both are attempting to engage in a posteriori sociology a priori. This is the sort of thing philosophers get mocked for, and rightly so. Can I see some decent empirical evidence that use of the term “crazy” *causes* people with psychological disorders to be treated poorly? (Note that this will require much more than a single correlation.)

If the people who study oppression are not concerned with the causes and possible remedies for oppression, then standpoint epistemology might provide a valid method for… whatever it is they’re doing. If identity politicians do not claim that their policies will alleviate oppression, then so be it. But then I hardly see any reason to bother implementing those policies. I have never seen any hard evidence that any implentation of these policies has alleviated oppression. Indeed, as far as I am aware, no one has even disconformed the hypothesis that increased sensitivity causes increased emotional suffering and thus increased levels of oppression. The first step toward finding the appropriate evidence is to come up with a definition of ‘oppression’ that is clear enough to make oppression measurable. If identity politicians want their policies to be enacted, that should be their starting point.Report

AnonGradToo
AnonGradToo
6 years ago

Whenever a topic like this one is posted on DN, I find myself disheartened by the majority of comments (and the popularity of comments!) that seem to reject or trivialize concerns about the serious inequities of the profession of philosophy and to undermine the efforts of some to address those inequities. The message I receive from the clever and biting challenges brought above to standpoint epistemology, “me” philosophy, and “social justice warriors” is quite simply this: Look, nothing is going to change, the status quo will hold, you don’t belong here, and if you keep talking about the problems of marginalization you never will. Who wants to tell me I am wrong?Report

Cindy Stark
Cindy Stark
6 years ago

Justin, you did not quote what I took to be a problematic feature of Joe’s editorial, namely his dismissal of the idea that those who claim that “crazy” is an ableist term have any ground to stand on. The tone of his remarks suggests quite strongly that he sees such individuals as silly, overly sensitive, etc. This is very frustrating, as it represents the typical defensive stance of the privileged when those who are socially/culturally disadvantaged try to convey the nature of their experience. He may disagree about whether the term is in fact ableist, or about whether “language-policing” is an important or good strategy for social change, etc. etc. But the dismissive tone is really annoying and inappropriate.Report

Ben A
Ben A
6 years ago

To clarify, my analogy to expert testimony was offered specifically to illustrate the sort of significant yet non-absolute epistemic deference that one might extend.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

I think there’s something to Heath’s claims, but I’m wondering if calling his target “me studies” is misleading.

I think part of the problem is that his opponents aren’t sufficiently or consistently doing what would be true “me-studies.” Some proponents of “me-studies” think that this entitles them to speak on behalf or over groups to which they don’t belong.

Someone in the thread gave an example I’ve seen before: a white person lecturing a person of color on race. In such cases, it seems the person thinks their membership in an oppressed group (say of gender or sexual orientation or identity) gives them the right to speak on behalf of all oppressed persons. And there is a real danger of making oneself above criticism, since your own advantages and biases are off the table once you speak for all of the oppressed, rather than for your own identity.

I think this is an extreme case, and surely many engaged in “me studies” avoid that danger. But I think it is, if not a problem with these disciplines themselves, a broader cultural danger that Heath is right to point out. In a capitalist culture that is hyper-individualistic and egoistic, one of the dangers of encouraging us to focus only on our interests and identities is that we lose the critical perspective to see how our interests and identities impinge on those of others. In issues of discrimination and oppression, that’s a serious concern, when many of us are members of both the privileged and the oppressed in different aspects of our identity.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

AnonGradToo @33:

I won’t tell you your wrong, but ask: are you sure you’re right?

You have the impression that those who disagree with you on this thread are defenders of the status quo who don’t care about marginalization and just want you to go away.

Maybe that’s true of some commenters, but I have a very different overall impression. My impression is that most of those who disagree with you on this thread are sincere philosophers who have honest concerns about the arguments for and logical consequences of the view in question. I would suspect that most of them are, like you, ethically and politically critical of the status quo, truly concerned about marginalization, and are trying to engage posters on your side in reasoned debate, not trying to shut you out of it.

Which of our impressions is correct? I don’t know. But you might further consider the possibility that there are some decent, sincere people here who are trying to reasonably disagree.Report

sin nombre
sin nombre
6 years ago

Anon 36,
This is one of the things I really hate about Heath’s piece: it creates boogeymen. It’s really easy to come up with a hypothetical PoC scholar who thinks he has the right to talk about oppression but doesn’t really understand it and isn’t self-critical. Maybe there are such scholars, but who would defend such a person? No one here is saying don’t criticize PoC or women or the disabled or tans people who are presenting on their own group’s oppression. If you read Heath’s comments carefully, his problem is that no one wants to criticize those scholars. They remain quiet. But why do they remain quiet? Because of course those scholars are more sensitive and less self-critical than a regular scholar (i.e. a white male scholar). Think about that for a moment. It’s part of an old discourse about the emotional Other whether that Other be women or minorities or what have you. What’s the basis for this assumption? Where’s the data? Do black scholars have more kleenex boxes in their office from all the crying or being angry than white scholars do who are better composed because they know how to take criticism better?

As to the individualist and egoistic claim, I don’t understand this one bit. Everyone works on what they’re interested in, why else would you enter this profession? Just because the experiences of white males has been assumed to be universal by those same white males doesn’t mean those experiences are indeed universal. If you haven’t already, you should read Yap’s response to Heath’s piece. Heath is right that there should be a diversity of scholars working on all these issues. The problem is that it hasn’t shaken out that way. Work on PoC or women (I’m unfamiliar with the history of work on trans, homosexuals, disabled and other underrepresented groups) has come in two largely broad strokes: white men writing about them and then members of those groups writing about their own groups. White men writing about people of those groups usually has turned out badly. That’s where we get those sorts of assumptions like women and PoC are more emotional, etc. White men writing about PoC created race hierarchies (think Kant’s anthropology) and we can look at other terribly racist/sexist texts that passed for philosophy or science. When people from those groups started writing about their own groups, what we saw was a challenge to the “universal” white male perspective often breaking new ground like Dubois work. For whatever reason (and I honestly don’t even have a clue), most the scholars working on underrepresented groups are members of that underrepresented group. If we ask them to stop then we basically make invisible those underrepresented groups once more. I should also note, that most of those scholars do not only deal with criticism of their views from the scholarly community, but also (and especially when they become well-known) have to deal with racism, sexism, etc. in very obvious ways.

So the problem, once again, is really with white scholars who just think that scholars of underrepresented groups who work on underrepresented groups can’t take criticism. There is no basis for this assumption except in anecdotes and boogeymen that perpetuate negative stereotypes.Report

OG feminist epistemologist
OG feminist epistemologist
6 years ago

I want to amplify Ben A’s points above about standpoint theory, and advance two important characteristics from the canonical literature on standpoint theory that are absent from McKinnon’s interpretation above. I think these characteristics are very important for understanding the concept itself as it was developed, and prevent many of the above objections and pseudo-objections to it.

1. Standpoints are not automatic. One does not acquire a standpoint just in virtue of one’s social location. While all members of an oppressed group might have experiences of that oppression, not all members go on to develop a standpoint (this is why Hartsock calls it a “feminist standpoint” rather than a “women’s standpoint,” for instance). Standpoints are epistemic achievements that occur once one recognizes the structural features behind one’s experiences — why one’s lifeworld, life-chances, and so on are the way they are — and takes an emancipatory attitude toward them.

This is important precisely because part of the way that oppression works is to obscure the conditions of one’s oppression TO ONESELF — to naturalize such conditions, to socialize one to act against one’s own interests, to produce false consciousness. “I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves,” etc.

2. Harding in particular highlights that the experiences and standpoints of the oppressed are where critical inquiry STARTS, not where it ENDS. We typically have to ALSO conduct sustained critical social science in order to get clearer on the scope, history, political economy, useful policy interventions on, etc a particular social structure. The idea is that such work ought to start from the experiences, perspectives, and standpoints of the oppressed and then theorize up from there because doing so is the best way for us to get a grip on the phenomena “on the ground” and to conduct inquiry that actually serves the interests it purports to serve. On this interpretation, standpoint theory is an opening move, not a trump card.

It is also worth noting many of these conversations have been going on internally within feminist epistemology for 10, 20, 30 years. For a nice summary and defense, see: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~eandersn/hownotreview.htmlReport

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

sin nombre, I think you’re misinterpreting his piece–and doing so in a way that creates a bogeyman out of him. (I’ve already read and replied to the Yap piece, which I think does the same thing, but my reply hasn’t yet appeared there.)

You’re suggesting that Heath 1) believes women and people of color can’t take criticism and are more emotional and 2) believes that members of underrepresented groups should stop doing work on their own groups.

I think both claims are not only false, but offensively so, since it implies that Heath holds pretty morally offensive beliefs that I suspect he would strongly reject. And I think it’s a pretty philosophically suspect way to argue: to group his view with a much more obviously false and egregious view, so that readers conflate or confuse the two and direct their moral ire at him for ugly views only you’ve introduced.

I’d suggest that a more accurate reading would be that Heath 1) believes (as has been increasingly been shown in good empirical research) that all human beings are pretty poor at taking criticism, and so anyone at all working on topics deeply connected to their identity will be biased and fallible and 2) more than just members of underrepresented groups show work on those topics, which is *very* different from saying underrepresented groups should stop.

You might also notice that the example you picked as exemplary of his target, “a hypothetical PoC scholar who…isn’t self-critical” is far from the first example that came to his mind: “Negotiations of difference in Quebecois-Jewish couples on the Montreal Plateau.” In other words: persons who are relatively privileged, but who are focused on those aspects of their identity that are less privileged.

On the point about egoism. Yes, “everyone works on what they’re interested in.” But part of the worry here is that working on one’s identity is not working on what one’s interested in, but what one *is*. Interest is always other-directed. To be interested is to be looking outside of oneself. “Me studies” is–as a *cultural* trend, not as a discipline–a refusal to have interests. A denial of the other, not a defense of it.Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

I wouldn’t say that those features are absent–at all–in my interpretation. They’re absent in expression in my admittedly very short blog post comment above. However, I explicitly avow the achievement thesis in a forthcoming article, “Trans*formative Experience” in the April 2015 issue of Res Philosophica. (People can email me for a pre-print.) I also more clearly state and defend my view of standpoint epistemology in that article.Report

sin nombre
sin nombre
6 years ago

Anon 40,
I sincerely appreciate your points, but I think I have to disagree with them. I think there is a subtext to what he is saying. Sure, there are people who work on Quebecois-Jewish couples on the Montreal Plateau and I’ll take your word for it that they are people “who are relatively privileged” since I don’t know. Notice, though, that he calls this example “harmless,” which implies that other forms of “me” studies are harmful. And what are those other forms? This harmless example, however, is not what most people might think of as an example of people who do “me” studies and I think it is a bit disingenuous to pretend that “me” studies isn’t really about people of underrepresented groups who work on underrepresented groups. Notice how everyone else here has gravitated towards those sorts of examples as well.

I don’t hold the second position quite so strongly. I think Heath wants to see more diversity there and I agree, but he also pretty clearly thinks there shouldn’t be so many people working on their own groups and I disagree. I don’t think he is saying that everyone who is, say black, should stop working on AA studies all together.

I do think Heath holds morally offensive beliefs but may well be unaware that these are morally offensive since he dismisses some things like ableism as merely being politically correct. So we at least have some evidence that he is either ignorant or uncaring of the plight of certain groups. Now, were he aware of the racist/sexist/etc. implications of his views I think he might reconsider them. I don’t know the man or what is in his heart, but his words do certainly give me reason to think he holds the views I say he does. I am not trying any form of trickery and it is rather unfair of you to assume that of me.

As to what you think Heath really means, I think perhaps there’s something to them but not as strongly as you suggest. To the first claim, he does not cite the empirical research on self-criticism and specifically calls the people who work on “me” studies (presumably the more harmful kind) “among the worst critical thinkers I’ve met. It’s because they lack the most important skill in critical thinking, which is self-criticism.” So no, I don’t think your first position holds up very well.

To the second claim, he does specifically state that there should be more diversity in those sorts of studies and there I agree with him completely. In fact, I am doing that as someone who is Latino but work on race in general (most people consider Latin origins an ethnicity and not a race). There is, however, something Heath must either not be aware of or not care much about and that’s that if fewer people work on “me” studies (and I can’t possibly see how that’s not part of his argument, but maybe you can explain it to me) then those studies will virtually go away as there just isn’t much diversity of scholars. So while I think this is one of Heath’s claims, I don’t think it’s really a core claim in this piece since there is no urging of people from other groups to go into these sorts of studies. Hell, I think from reading this piece about the silence of the privileged white male philosopher the idea here is that there isn’t any point to going into these studies because you’ll have to either be more radical than they are or be a “jerk” since no one else wants to speak up. So I don’t really think that’s Heath’s point either.

The word interest comes from the Latin meaning to “be among” (inter est) so I think your claim is a bit suspicious. Research makes one a part of something and becomes a part of one’s identity. I won’t get into the metaphysics of it too much, but I think it’s fair to say that studying black experiences to understand what it means to be black is not so different from studying white experiences to understand what it means to be white. The big difference has been that white has been taken as the universal perspective for so long that we forget that this may well be just a study of white experiences and therefore whiteness.Report

UmMaybeHello
UmMaybeHello
6 years ago

YAAGS @32, the anecdotes serve as counterexamples to claims that there are no instances of oppression. I’m sorry, but it’s very frustrating when philosophers seem to forget how counterexamples work.Report

JPM
JPM
6 years ago

“unless one occupies the relevant social location, one is seriously epistemically disadvantaged with respect to understanding the oppressions suffered by those with the relevant social location” PLUS “I suspect that that disadvantage is nearly insurmountable. This means that the person without the identity who wants to disagree with the views of someone with the relevant identity needs to have particularly strong (epistemic) reasons. I dare say that they rarely meet that standard. Too often, they approach the debate as an epistemic equal, when they’re not.”

I find this remarkable, since it cuts both ways, and ways you presumably don’t want it to cut. If there is epistemic isolation with regards to these matters, then you are apparently barred from discussing this with other people who don’t share your “relevant social location.” Why bother even talking about any of this if those who are not in your “relevant social location” are able to even come close at all to understanding what you’re talking about?

What counts as being epistemically available in such a way that those not in the “relevant social location” could even start to have the conversation? By your lights, this is *next to impossible* If so, so much for advancing the rights, cares, worries, and other issues of disabled people, women, the gay community, and many Others. The whole point of political progress is that you have to engage with people who disagree with you, sometimes violently. Don’t you realize that by advocating such severe epistemic closure you’re actually doing a massive disservice to that very thing you apparently want? Total absurdity.Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

As someone has noted upthread: these are substantial questions. They are not, in and of themselves, devastating objections. There are answers to be given. For example, I argue that one consequence of the “nearly impossible” view is that it foregrounds the need to trust the testimony of those with different intersectional identities as our own. We can gain propositional knowledge through testimony, but what I doubt is likely to happen is for us to gain *understanding* through testimony. There’s no “total absurdity” here. But I invite you to read more of the views expressed here, and to substantially engage with them somewhere else than in the comments section of a blog.Report

JPM
JPM
6 years ago

“I argue that one consequence of the “nearly impossible” view is that it foregrounds the need to trust the testimony of those with different intersectional identities as our own.”

But you’ve totally closed off the space where such trust is supposed to occur! You need to make clear what “understanding” is supposed to amount to, since clearly no such thing can occur by what you’ve said so far. What if I say, “you know what, I actually get where Rachel McKinnon is coming from,” and I’m just another white guy. What possible testimonial evidence would there be, such that you would be able to point to *that* testimonial evidence and say, “yes, that white guy gets me”? If it’s propositional testimonial evidence, then surely you would be able to point to it….and even, perhaps, articulate such evidence here. It seems that testimonial propositional evidence is precisely the place where one would be able to encounter the “Other.” But you’ve closed off even that.Report

Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Yet Another Anon Grad Student
6 years ago

UmMaybeHello, I’m well aware of how counterexanples work. I just wasn’t aware that there were people out there who actually deny that there is such a thing as oppression. Can you give me an example of someone who says that oppression simply does not exist? At any rate, in order for these anecdotes to serve as the necessary sort of evidence we still need to know what oppression is. You can’t just say “his words made me feel bad, therefore I was being oppressed” without making not-so-tacit assumptions about what oppression consists in.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

Sin nombre @42

I appreciate your reply. While it’s possible there’s a subtext to what he’s saying, I think it’s best not to base criticism on it, since there’s so much room for disagreement about the interpretation of implied claims.

Are you familiar with Heath’s work? I kind of wish he would respond on his own behalf. His work seems to focus on ethics, social justice, and critical theory, so I find it hard to believe he’d hold anything remotely like the views some of his critics seem to attribute to him.

I should clarify that I didn’t intend to suggest you’re intentionally using argumentative trickery. I just meant that, even if unintentional, that kind of argument has a very misleading effect, since the comparison to non-controversial “bad” beliefs leads readers to uncritically associate the two, when they may be distinct or even incompatible.

I also think that since you admit that your interpretation is of the subtext, that may not be a sufficient reason to claim his views have racist or sexist implications. In general, I find it disheartening how willing many are to infer such intentions and beliefs in others on the basis of limited evidence, especially when it’s a case of an excellent philosopher with an impressive record of intellectual commitment to social justice. I think the overwhelming majority of us are all on the same moral and political side here, and that we can deeply disagree without imputing moral evil to each other, giving others the benefit of the doubt where their words leave ambiguity.

Your post does help me better understand how you’ve interpreted him, and I can see some reason to it, but it just doesn’t seem like the only way to interpret it, and I’d like to err on the side of charitable caution.

The point about the etymology of “interest” is, appropriately, quite interesting! But I think it suits my claim that an overinterest in one’s own identity is a kind of negative or non-interest. To be interested is to be among, to find oneself in one’s relations to others. So, yes, that does mean that interest in my identity is interest in my being among the groups of which I am a member, but I’m only truly “among” when I’m among others, namely, those whose identities I don’t share. Take your example of studying black and white experiences. How do I understand either without an understanding of both? Of course there’s no need for a “study” of white experience since, as you say, it’s been taken as the universal. But we understand black experience in part by understanding how it has been denied, devalued, and forgotten by culture, politics, and knowledge under racism. So the study of one is inseparable from its relation to others. I think this is true of all features of identity, we fruitfully take an interest in them, understand them, relationally, as forms of difference, in relation to and “among” other identities.Report

Darren X
Darren X
6 years ago

Jack Samuel: “It’s a kind of critical social theory, if you like: it begins by taking sides on a social issue. If you reject the premise, you’re not really in the conversation. But that’s always true. Every debate has presuppositions.”

I think the difference here is that even if I *accept* the premise, I’m *still* not in the conversation, because the premise is that my epistemic shortcomings are such that I can never really engage or communicate in a meaningful way.Report

JPM
JPM
6 years ago

One more thing. The whole notion of “intersectionality” in terms of identity is totally contradictory to your desire for epistemic isolation. You’re, on the one hand, demanding that it’s not possible, for all intents and purposes, for group A to “understand” what group B feels, etc. How does that work when groups A and B intersect? I mean, what is the principle by which you determine the epistemic allowance? You need to be able, first of all, to know which individual *really* belongs to which group. How are you going to determine that? And then you’re also going to need to be able to determine–presumably by the same individuation scheme–which groups are outside of those to which you or X belong. You need to do this so that you can know whom you can chastise for being outsiders, and welcome for being insiders.Report

Jack Samuel
Jack Samuel
6 years ago

If you accept Rachel’s interpretation that is at least a worry, though as she indicates there are moves to be made on both sides. That you cannot overcome an epistemic disadvantage need not mean that you’re our of the conversation, just perhaps that your testimony is worth little if anything, or you can’t expect to ever fully understand certain experiences.

This is not my area and I do not have a settled view either on the question of how best to construe standpoint theory (maybe along Rachel’s lines, maybe not) nor whether or not it’s correct (as I said, I have some sympathy and some reservations). But note that if you accept the gloss I gave without committing to Rachel’s line (call this “mild standpoint theory”, though there’s probably already a technical term for it) your worry doesn’t even come up in the first place. You can of course be part of the conversation. You’ll just enter at an epistemic disadvantage. We have conversations that don’t presuppose radical epistemic egalitarianism all of the time.Report

sin nombre
sin nombre
6 years ago

Anon48,
Thanks for the great comment! I haven’t read Heath’s work and I don’t mean to impute him with moral evil, but it turns out that a lot of our implicit biases are hidden from us. I am always deeply suspicious of anyone who starts off by criticizing political correctness (not that it should be above criticism, but that usually it’s done because they are uncaring of the plight of others and problems of privilege. I’m not saying that’s true of Heath, though he does dismiss ableism).

I think subtext is important and sure we should be generous readers, but boy there’s a lot of indications that he has some pretty insensitive or tone deaf views of people who work on underrepresented groups. I mean, he’s a westerner working on western philosophy why isn’t that “me” studies but say an Egyptian working on Egyptian politics would be “me” studies? Does he even consider questions of access, language, etc. when people work on this stuff? Can we agree that it’s tone deaf to some extent?

Your last paragraph has given me a lot to think about. Thanks.Report

Anon, thanks
Anon, thanks
6 years ago

You criticize Heath for his dismissal of ableism, with the implication that it’s at least plausible evidence that he’s “uncaring of the plight of others and problems of privilege”. And then, *in the very next sentence*, you call him “tone deaf,” which is of course arguably ableist.

I don’t point this out to suggest that you’re actually an ableist oppressor. I think pretty much everyone commenting here is broadly sympathetic, even though they disagree about particular details. I just point it out because, if you think that your use of ‘tone deaf’ shouldn’t be interpreted to suggest that you’re engaged in uncaring oppression, then maybe the same interpretive charity should be extended to Heath. A call for interpretive charity is, after all, at the heart of his post.Report

Darren X
Darren X
6 years ago

@Jack Samuel 51: ” That you cannot overcome an epistemic disadvantage need not mean that you’re our of the conversation, just perhaps that your testimony is worth little if anything, or you can’t expect to ever fully understand certain experiences.”

That sounds more like a ‘lecture’ than a conversation. I grant that nobody can ever “really” understand what it’s like to be anyone else, but as a non-philosopher confronted with this “standpoint epistemology” business, I’m feeling a bit like the child who cried “the Emperor (Empress?) has no clothes!”. It seems to me that some kind of shared epistemology, some kind of assumption of empathy, some assumption of the possibility of mutual comprehension, is a prerequisite for communication. AFAICT “standpoint epistemology” leaves me with only two choices: (1) absolute, obsequious, uncritical acceptance (since any possible objection I might voice can be trumped with “you’ll just never understand”) or (2) disengagement. If I can’t (*by definition*) disagree, can it really be said that I “understand”? To understand something and integrate it into my worldview implies some evaluation of it, but under standpoint epistemology no evaluation is possible or permitted.

I think that Rachel’s comments have thrown the focus away from Elizabeth’s (1) comment, which was very much on point. Heath’s post claimed that the scholarly conversation in many disciplines has degenerated into little more than sickly and uncritical group therapy, punctuated by invasions of angry jerks, with a crowd of helpful moderates cowed into silence. Elizabeth asserts that the conversation in her field is healthy and well ,thank you very much. So how do we resolve this? SinNombre(38) asks an interesting question: “where’s the data? Do black scholars have more kleenex in their office”? SN is right, so far it’s just duelling anecdotes. I wonder what sort of data Sin Nombre would accept? (Can we count and categorize the number of complaints to Human Rights Tribunals?) (that wasn’t meant as snark, data analysis is my specialty and I’m genuinely interested in how we might do this).Report

OG feminist epistemologist
OG feminist epistemologist
6 years ago

(1) and (2) are not our only options. There is a wide literature on this.

please see the paper I link to above:
http://www-personal.umich.edu/~eandersn/hownotreview.html

As well as the Feminist Epistemology SEP article’s section on Standpoint Theory:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-epistemology/#standpointReport

sin nombre
sin nombre
6 years ago

Anon 53,
It honestly never occurred to me that tone deafness can be a disability. I’m tone deaf and it means that I’m not very good at music. Perhaps it means something else that I’m utterly unaware of, however, it is not likely that Heath is unaware of the very real problems of mental illness and that crazy is a derogatory term for the mentally ill. So I hope my very plausible ignorance will excuse me on this. I do think we should be charitable in our interpretations, but there’s so much here that’s implicitly biased that it is really hard for me to ignore and ignoring it, I think, just lends uncritical voice to oppressive behaviors. By the way, his response is worse: http://induecourse.ca/postscript-to-me-studies/ as he then becomes the language police he didn’t want the politically correct to be.Report

AnonGradThree
AnonGradThree
6 years ago

Anon @37:

“I won’t tell you your wrong, but ask: are you sure you’re right?”

This phrasing completely misses AnonGradToo’s point, which was merely an observation of how the tone and content of the conversation affects them personally. There is no right or wrong in that for you to question, and no claims about intentions or even validity of the arguments being offered. This is one aspect of standpoint epistemology that is not really debatable- individuals are the ultimate authority on their own subjective phenomenal experience. Insofar as we think such information is relevant to constructing knowledge of how the world is and informing how we act, we should take such claims seriously, though of course not as the only influencing factor for belief and behavior.

I personally share AnonGradToo’s feelings on this thread. While I don’t think most comments are malicious or even express invalid concerns, there is still frequently a sense of antagonism towards the idea that the perspectives of minorities on their own oppression are epistemically valid, and it can feel disempowering. I’m not saying that claims about their epistemic value should not be debated, just that if you want to avoid making minorities feel excluded in this discussion, you should acknowledge that critical comments in this vein carry a lot of emotional weight for people and try to use more cooperative, compassionate rhetoric and avoid concern trolling.Report

Nonymous
Nonymous
6 years ago

Post 57: “While I don’t think most comments are malicious or even express invalid concerns, there is still frequently a sense of antagonism towards the idea that the perspectives of minorities on their own oppression are epistemically valid, and it can feel disempowering.”

I won’t go through every comment to see whether it gives me that impression, but many of them don’t, and I certainly didn’t intend mine to convey the idea that the perspectives of minorities on their own oppression aren’t epistemically valid. The strongest resistance on this thread is to the idea that non-minorities are so epistemically disadvantaged that we can never, or at least hardly ever, acquire the level of understanding of oppression required to engage critically in theoretical discussions about it. My own lame attempt to contribute to the conversation was intended to point toward a way of acknowledging the epistemic importance of the experience of oppression without yielding anything like that troubling implication, and to encourage responses from people who know a whole lot more about standpoint epistemology than I do as to whether or to what extent that sort of view captures what they think important to the theory. I was (and am) even quite willing, even eager, to acknowledge genuine epistemic inequality in these cases. But notice that even if someone were to resist that point and insist instead that on a general level there is no epistemic inequality between oppressed and non-oppressed people, that wouldn’t amount to denying that the perspectives of minorities on their own oppression are epistemically valid. In general, when people who are skeptical or critical of standpoint epistemology raise arguments against it, they’re inviting its proponents to debate, not trying to shut them down or exclude them from the conversation.

That said, I see why some of the ways that people here and elsewhere express their opposition to standpoint epistemology might seem, to put it charitably, unnecessarily dismissive. Insofar as you’re just calling for people to be more courteous to each other, I don’t have any objection at all. But there’s a flip side to this coin: where you see opponents of standpoint epistemology working implicitly to exclude its proponents from discussion and to deny the significance of their experience, what its opponents and skeptics often see from its proponents is a very explicit attempt to exclude people from the discussion, to deny the significance of their experience, and to meet objections not with reasoned argument, but with complaints of incivility. I don’t mean to imply that the complaints of incivility are unfounded or that people are right to be nasty in the way they communicate their arguments. But I don’t think it’s very hard to see that one reason why people respond harshly to certain kinds of standpoint epistemology is that it serves precisely to exclude them and to rule their objections out of court on principle. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that standpoint epistemology needn’t do that even when it posits a very strong kind of epistemic inequality. But we should keep in mind that it isn’t its opponents who are explicitly arguing for epistemic inequality and seeking strong deference from, if not the de facto exclusion of, certain parties to the debate.

One final substantive note. You write that “This is one aspect of standpoint epistemology that is not really debatable- individuals are the ultimate authority on their own subjective phenomenal experience.” But of course that point is in fact eminently debatable; if anything, it’s more likely to be assumed false than true among many philosophers. And to the extent that it’s obviously true (“Well, I know that I seemed to myself to be experiencing X”) it’s hard to see how it could bear the weight of standpoint epistemology or much else. Even when we’re just talking about the emotional responses that people have, we can assess those emotions for whether they’re justified or not, and the person experiencing the emotion is not necessarily in any better position to make that assessment. I, for my part, take it that one of the problems in the background to this thread is that many minorities have good or at least quite sensible reasons to feel as though the profession and the nature of discourse within it works to exclude them or marginalize them. To say simply that’s how a lot of people feel and that they are the final authority on how they feel doesn’t get us very far; at worst, it might play into the hands of people who think that all of this discussion is just about people being “sensitive” and having “bad feelings” when someone criticizes them.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

AnonGradThree,

I’ve reread the post at issue, and I find your claim that it was “merely an observation of how the tone and content of the conversation affects them personally” incredible. If you do believe that, I guess we’re at a communicative impasse.

For example, I think the statement that commenters “seem to reject or trivialize concerns about the serious inequities of the profession of philosophy” is a claim about content, an not just about how that content affected someone.

Do you really think the poster think the commenters *only* seem to do so, and is not strongly inclined to believe that they do, in fact, do so?

Here’s the problem with experience-solipsism when applied to acts of communication: my experiences are of a world that exists outside me (that notorious “the Other!”).

They are intentional; they have an “about”-ness; and they are always precisely about something *other than experience.* So even if I can’t be wrong that I’m having a feeling, I can indeed be wrong about what the feeling is about.

But that I have to argue for this on a philosophy blog makes me want to join a monastery and never speak again.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

Sin nombre, I think we’re probably much closer to the same page in your last post. I think there’s good grounds for criticism of Heath’s article of the sort you give there. Thanks!Report

Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Yet Another Anon Grad Student
6 years ago

Anon @59, it is an open matter of contention that emotions are intentional in the same way that perceptual experiences are. First of all, they lack the complex phenomenal structure that gives perceptual experiences a sort of mereological (albeit not physical) isomorphism with the world (e.g. the brown part of my visual field correspinds to the tree, etc.) They are also far less directly causally related to inputs from the environment. Moreover, they can persist without any apparent reasons. One can get angry because of something and turn out to be mistaken, but still remain angry. If you’re a Jamesian you think that emotions only represent bodily states.

Of course, all of this really just reinforces the fact that emotions aren’t a good form of evidence for a claim about the world. People who want to study oppression are far better off basing their theories on empirical data from psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology, etc. This is what is so odd about standpoint epistemology. Of course people who experience something are generally in a better position to know about it than those who have not, certeris paribus. But note the importance of those last two words. What’s odd is the claim that the people who are oppressed somehow have good epistemic access to the ultimate social and economic causes of their oppression. One can really only have epistemic access to those ultimate causes through rigorous observations of how society functions as a whole. So, to be blunt, yes, a privileged white person can be in a much better position to know about oppression than someone who is oppressed *IF* they have better access to the sociological and economic data. What is objectionable is when priviledged people weigh their own personal experience against the personal evidence of less privileged people when arguing about oppression.

Well, unless one wishes to claim that oppression is simply in the eye of the beholder. But I suspect that no one pushing standpoint epistemology really wishes to make this claim.Report