Archive for the ‘Philosophical Meandering’ Category

had to read some stuff for class the other day on whether or not black judges and female judges could be impartial.

yup. that’s what I said.

and, of course, I harkened back to my summer of researching and writing my thesis. all kinds of stuff came spilling out about how the dominant class always thinks they have the market cornered on what is objective. but how of course, nobody is exempt from having a social identity, and how it’s pretty much impossible to ever escape the perspective that you have as a result of that identity. And so, those who claim they can are pretty much fooling themselves by assuming a false (because it’s not possible) and disingenuous (because they claim they can) god’s-eye view of the world.  Because the very act of claiming that false position is protecting the interests and values of the dominant class.

I think what we need to do is re-think the entire notion of objectivity. Because it’s ridiculous to claim that one group (who happens to be the dominant class, funny how that works) has a perspective that is unbiased and impartial, and all the rest can’t possibly achieve objectivity because they’re too tainted by their vaginas or their dark skin or slanty eyes or their homo/bi/trans-sexuality.

seems to me that the best way to get to a model of the world that reflects reality most closely is to include everyone in the process. you know, like EVERYONE. poor folks, white folks, women folks, gay folks, jewish folks, black folks, lesbian folks, men folks, rich folks, transfolks, hispanic folks, middleclass folks, bi folks, native folks, mixed race folks, intersexed folks, smart folks, asian folks, disabled folks… all folks. we all need representation, ya know? the more people who are excluded from a process like, oh, justice or academia or science or whatever, the more slanted that “truth” is gonna be (holla Kevin!).

class dismissed.

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and so, the other day, I met this person who in the normal course of bar-room conversation said, “I’m anti-vegetarianism. I believe everyone should eat meat.”

[stunned silence, even from the other carnivores present]

someone said, “Why would you be anti-vegetarianism?”

says she: “I grew up on a farm.”

[like that’s an excuse. and of course, further proof of my pet theory, standpoint. but I let her keep on talking.]

he: “so, you think EVERYONE should eat meat, even if they don’t believe in eating meat, or want to eat meat, or like eating meat?”

she: “well… yeah.”

[maybe she’s starting to realize that she’s backed herself into a tight and strange  corner.]

me: “I’m vegetarian.”

her: gulp.

me: “So why should my personal decision not to eat meat, according to my personal moral code be overridden by your opinion? I should really be, like, forced to eat meat against my will?”

her: “well, I’m just tired of vegetarians being all morally superior and forcing their opinions on the rest of us.”

me, twitching and nearly jumping into her mouth: “ummmm, this from the woman who just said she thinks everyone should eat meat? isn’t that a little bit inconsistent? And how does my personal decision not to eat meat have any impact on you whatsoever? I’m not the one sitting around saying that everyone should or shouldn’t do anything.”

[at least not at that particular moment in time, but that’s another discussion.]

me: “so how do you justify slaughtering animals unnecessarily for food when it’s perfectly possible and healthy to not do so?”

she: “well, we already produce all this livestock, and if we don’t kill them then the world will be overridden with animals.”

me: “that’s a pathetic excuse for a reason. if we didn’t over-produce livestock, there wouldn’t be an abundance of animals in the first place. If we reduce the demand, the supply will also reduce. in response”

she: “Well, a lot of people make their living farming animals, so I think that justifies it.”

me: “I don’t think economic reasons are any justification for unnecessary mass slaughtering of millions of animals a year, not to mention raising them under inhumane conditions a lot of the time. I think people should be more aware of where their food comes from in general, and maybe then they wouldn’t be so wasteful of agricultural and environmental resources.”

she: “well in Europe, they’re way ahead of us in terms of tagging their meat and animal products so you can find out exactly where it came from and what kind of conditions they have on their farm.”

me: “good for europe. It still means millions of animals being killed unnecessarily. I don’t believe in causing any living thing unnecessary harm or suffering when it’s possible to live in a more harm-free manner.”

she: “I do.”

me: “well why would you want to deny other people the opportunity to live more humanely and make less impact on the planet and on other living beings? Just because you have a moral code that allows for unnecessary suffering so you can line your pocketbook and your stomach doesn’t mean everyone should have to live by that code.”

[okay, now the moral superiority is starting to come through just a little bit. although all was said with relative calm.]

she: no answer.

me: nothing more to say to such an obvious idiot. 🙂

I turn away, wondering if I can really endure this person for another 3 years.

so, why is it that people are so uncomfortable with vegetarians? why is my mother always trying to get me to eat meat? why are the servers in restaurants always trying to get me to add meat to my order? why do people feel so threatened by my personal moral code? I mean, at this point I really can’t think of a justification for eating meat, raising livestock for slaughter, etc. along with many many other things like oh say having affairs with married people and having children as accessories and mistreating people who ring through your groceries and spending $3000 on a handbag. but, ya know, that’s just me. do I hold dear the hope that more people will view the world the same way that I do, and that maybe jsut maybe I could find one or two or ten more to spend my life hanging out with, and by a slim chance of a hope that our government might actually be down with some of my ideas about how the world should be managed? absolutely. Just like all those conservative right wing christian fundy nutbars wish everyone would wait for jesus and stop having gay sex and killing babies for fun and start to bomb the brownies with them.

I’ll continue to hold out hope. we’ll see what happens. give peace a chance!

fascist pigs.


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one of the ways I like to write papers is to read a lot of papers. I read voraciously every article I can find on the topic in question, and make detailed and copious notes. Then, I compile those notes, study them closely, and make connections between them until I have a little family tree of ideas on the topic in question. Then I look for gaps, and try to fill them in, or lead branches in a different or renewed direction.

That’s how I approached my thesis.

Here are some of the notes I compiled about standpoint theory. I have 24 pages of notes, so not all of them will appear here. but I may put together some more posts with more notes if y’all want more. References appear at the top of each section. Those sections in colour are the ones that I actually used or referenced in my thesis. The rest just informed my understanding of the subject.

Sorry if the formatting is wonky. Also, this might be a bit long. It’s not everything, but this seemed like a good break, post wise. If there are more posts, then the next one will include notes from a kind of dust-up between philosophers interested in standpoint theory.

Harding, Sandra. 2004. “Introduction: Standpoint Theory as a Site of Political, Philosophic, and Scientific Debate” in The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual & Political Controversies, 2004, New York and London: Routledge, 1-15.

           Standpoint theory has been a controversial topic, in part because it challenges the theory that politics obstructs and harms the production of scientific knowledge. (1)

          Standpoint theory is not just an explanatory theory, but also a methodology (1)

          Standpoint theory is normative, empowering political theory and epistemology (2)

          Standpoint theory is presented as “a philosophy of both natural and social sciences, an epistemology, a methodology… and a political strategy.” (2)

          Standpoint theory is based in Marxism (2)

          Standpoint Theory insisted that feminist concerns be acknowledged as valuable (2)

          Standpoint theory is an organic theory that can arise around any oppressed group. It’s also a folk history (3)

          Despite criticism, standpoint theory doesn’t go away (3)

          Standpoint theory “helps to produce oppositional and shared consciousness in oppressed groups – to create oppressed peoples as collective ‘subjects’ of research rather than only as objects of others’ observation, naming, and management.” (3)

          The voice of scientific discourse has been male, androcentric (4)

          The point of science has been objectivity – timeless truth free from political and cultural influences (4)

          Science could never/has never achieved this, because “the conceptual frameworks themselves promoted historically distinctive institutional and cultural interests and concerns, which ensured that the knowledge produced through them was always socially situated.” (4-5)

          Science’s commitment to ‘objectivity’ that mandated social neutrality was itself not socially neutral in its effects (5)

          Feminist research projects often produced more empirically accurate accounts (5)

          Traditional frameworks obfuscated power relations and reasons for women’s oppression, as well as who actually benefits from this state of affairs (5)

          The remedy for these inadequacies is to begin research projects from within a standpoint, even though these projects would be “outside the realm of the true” according to traditional frameworks (6)

          Women need “to understand the conceptual practices of power… through which their oppression was designed, maintained, and made to seem natural and desirable to everyone.” (6)

          There is a general and widespread need in social and scientific discourse to see past dominant discourses and see the realities of women’s lives vs. the conceptual practices of social institutions. This requires political engagement – “to gain access to the means to do such research,” “to create women’s collective, group consciousnesses,” to produce insight.

          There have been some questions about “whether it is women’s experiences, women’s social locations, or feminist discourses that are to provide the origin of knowledge projects.” (7)

          ***Knowledge is socially situated – knowledge is based on experience, and different situations result in different knowledges. But more than this is at stake. Oppressed groups “can learn to identify their distinctive opportunities to turn an oppressive feature of the group’s conditions into a source of critical insight about how the dominant society thinks and is structured. Thus, standpoint theories map how a social and political disadvantage can be turned into an epistemological, scientific, and political advantage.” (7-8)***

          standpoint is an achievement, not simply a perspective. Standpoint requires politics, and can result in empowerment (8)

          standpoint theorists have struggled to create a different kind of decentred subject of knowledge and history, which has largely been accomplished by developing theories of intersectional social locations (8)

          ***Epistemic privilege that is possessed by marginalized groups is not automatic, but the result of political struggle (9)***

          The question of relativism is one that continues to come up in relation to standpoint theory. Some points to bear in mind in response to the charge of relativism are: (11-12)

1.       Some research areas are motivated by specific values and interests that are not universally held and yet these are not considered inferior because of this – an example is medicine

2.       All knowledge claims only have meaning within particular cultural contexts

3.       Choices are made between value-laden interested claims all the time without being paralysed by these competing claims

4.       If all knowledge claims are situated and hold values and interests that are local, then it makes no sense to insist that one set of claims are not situated.

          Standpoint theory arises in several disciplinary contexts – so “standpoint theories” is more clear. These differ from dominant epistemologies but also from each other. (12)

 Smith, Dorothy E. (1974) “Women’s Perspective as a Radical Critique of Sociology” in The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual & Political Controversies, 2004, New York and London: Routledge, 21-33.

           “from the point of view of ‘women’s place’ the values assigned to different aspects of the world are changed.” (21)

          It is not enough simply to add on marginalized analyses as an addendum to dominant discourses because this ignores the relations of power between them that contribute to the suppression/privilege situation. (21-22)

          Women must think of the world through concepts and terms devised by and imposed by men (as dominant) – “women are alienated from their experience” by androcentrism and the hegemonic structure of male privilege/female oppression. (22)

          The governing of society is done via concepts and symbols. Everything in sociology is governed by a “view from the top” that shapes and decides what is important/relevant, what is “fact” (23)

          Ethic of objectivity is a research practice that requires distancing the knower from what is known, and particularly from what she already knows (24)

          All investigations of the world happen from within a particular location – an embodied location. Sociology aims to transcend this. (25)

          “Women are outside and subservient to this structure” (26)

          Men are permitted to leave their location, to alienate himself from it in order to transcend it. This alienation from bodily/material concerns is always incomplete and requires someone to help him take care of his material and bodily needs – that is most often a woman, who “provides for the logistics of his bodily existence.” (26)

          Marxist alienation doctrine – the relation between work and external oppressive order is “such that the harder she works the more she strengthens the order which oppresses her.” (26)

          Methods and theories of sociology as a discipline takes for granted the conditions of its existence. It is not capable of analyzing this relation because the sociologist as an actual person who is socially located has been erased by the very process of sociological investigation which requires him to distance himself from his knowledge. (27)

          Female sociologists cannot do this because the duties of womanhood do not allow for it (27)

          “ If sociology cannot avoid being situated, then sociology should take that as its beginning and build it into its methodological and theoretical strategies” (28)

          “The only way of knowing a socially constructed world is knowing It from within. We can never stand outside it.” (28)

          We must always “begin from where we are located bodily.” (29)

          “Our kind of society is known and experienced rather differently from different positions within it.” (30)

          Seeing the world from where we are located, seeing THAT we are located, allows us to know that what we know is conditional upon that location as part of a relation existing between locations. (30)

          “The observer is already separated from the world as it is experienced by those she observes.” (30)

          How our knowledge of the world is mediated to us is a problem because it is organized FOR US prior to our participation as knowers in that process. (31)

          “It is not possible to account for one’s directly experienced world or how it is related to the worlds which others directly experience who are differently placed by remaining within the boundaries of the former.” (31)

 Jaggar, Alison M. (1983) “Feminist Politics and Epistemology: The Standpoint of Women” in The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual & Political Controversies, 2004, New York and London: Routledge, 55-66.

           “Socialist feminist view knowledge as a social and practical construct and they believe that conceptual frameworks are shaped and limited by their social origins. They believe that, in any historical period, the prevailing world=view will reflect the interests and values of the dominant class.” (55)

          The establishment of a more just and reliable world-view requires “the overthrow of the prevailing system of social relations.”” (55-56)

          “In order to arrive at an adequate representation of reality, it is important to begin from the proper standpoint” (56). Within liberal epistemology, this standpoint is the neutral, disinterested observer – the Archimedean standpoint. Marxist epistemology says there is no such standpoint: “All systems of conceptualization reflect certain social interests and values.” (56)

          social production of knowledge is controlled by a certain class, so knowledge produced reflects the interests and values of that class. Prevailing science and knowledge interprets reality from the standpoint of the ruling class. The ruling class has vested interest in concealing the way it dominates and exploits oppressed classes, so this knowledge will be distorted – “suffering of the subordinated classes will be ignored, redescribed and enjoyment of justified as freely chosen, deserved, or inevitable.” (56)

          dominant group is insulated from suffering of the oppressed, which leads to them being convinced by their own ideology. “They experience the current organization of society as basically satisfactory and so they accept the interpretation of reality that justifies that system of organization.” (56)

          The pervasiveness and relentlessness of their suffering pushes oppressed groups to find out what is wrong with the prevailing social order and develop new and less distorted ways of seeing the world. (56)

          “The standpoint of the oppressed is not just different from that of the ruling class; it is also epistemologically advantageous.” It is “more impartial because it comes closer to representing the interests of society as a whole.” The oppressed are able to see relations of power between ruler and ruled. “Standpoint of the oppressed includes and is able to explain the standpoint of the ruling class.” (57)

          “Standpoint is discovered through a collective process of political and scientific struggle.” (57)

          Relation between feminist standpoint and radical feminism

          Standpoint does not guarantee that reality is revealed clearly – it doesn’t necessarily reveal causes of suffering or even that this is oppression (60)

          “Women face another obstacle as they seek to develop a systematic feminist alternative to the masculine modes of  conceiving the world. This obstacle is the typically feminine set of attitudes and modes of perception that have been imposed on women in a male-dominated society. […] While women’s experience of subordination puts them in a uniquely advantageous position for reinterpreting reality, it also imposes on them certain psychological difficulties.” (60-61)

          In the end, an adequate representation of the world from the standpoint of women requires the material overthrow of male domination.” (61)

          All knowledge reflects the interests and values of social groups, so objectivity can’t mean devoid of values, and impartiality can’t mean neutrality. Rather, we must make sure that the interests of women are represented in a comprehensive way. (61-62)

          “The socialist feminist conception of women’s standpoint specifies certain interpretations of verification and of usefulness. It asserts that knowledge is useful if it contributes to a practical reconstruction of the world in which women’s interests are not subordinate to those of men. Whether or not knowledge is useful in this way is verified in the process of political and scientific struggle to build such a world, a world whose maintenance does not require illusions.” (62)

          Differences among the social locations of women need not be a source of division. (63)

          “A representation of reality from the standpoint of women must draw on the variety of all women’s experience. In order to do this, a way must be found in which all groups of women can participate in building theory.” (64)

          “Only when women are free from domination will they have access to the resources necessary to construct a systematic and fully comprehensive view of the world from the standpoint of women.” Because differently located women have unequal opportunities to speak and be heard, women should theorize together as apolitical act and achievement. Women must also find ways to work with men without being dominated by them. (64)

          “Socialist feminist standpoint is not a perspective immediately and only available to women, but to a way of conceptualizing reality that reflects women’s interests and values and draws on women’s own interpretation of their own experience.” (65)

 Harding, Sandra. (1993) “Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What is ‘Strong Objectivity’?” in The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual & Political Controversies, 2004, New York and London: Routledge, 127-140.

          “Starting off research from women’s lives will generate less partial and distorted accounts not only of women’s lives but also of men’s lives and of the whole social order.” (128)

          “All thought by humans starts off from socially determined lives.” (128)

          Science eliminates social interests/values from the results of research that differ within the scientific community, but not of the values/interests that are SHARED BY the community. “Thus culturewide assumptions that have not been criticized within the scientific research process are transported into the results of research, making visible the historicity of specific scientific claims to people at other times, other places, or in other groups in the very same social order.” (128-129)

          Standpoint is not ethnocentric – theorists argue that “marginal lives that are not their own provide better grounds for certain kinds of knowledge.” (129)

          Standpoint is not relativism – “It argues against the idea that all social situations provide equally useful resources for learning about the world and against the idea that they all set equally strong limits on knowledge.” Just because standpoint rejects universalism doesn’t mean it is committed to relativism. “Standpoint theory provides arguments for the claim that some social situations are scientifically better than others as places from which to start off knowledge projects.” (131)

          The subject in empiricist epistemology is supposed to be “culturally and historically disembodied or invisible because knowledge is defined as universal.” (132)

          The subject in empiricist epistemology is supposed to be different in kind from the objects of scientific investigation. But are they really? Should we think of them this way? Is this useful? Is it possible? (132)

          Subjects in empiricist epistemology are meant to be transhistorical, and knowledge is produced by individuals and not social groups, according to science. Subjects are homogenous and unitary so that knowledge is consistent and coherent.

          In standpoint epistemology, subjects are: embodied, visible, historically and culturally located; not fundamentally different from objects of knowledge, as objects and subjects are both social; communities, and not individuals, who produce knowledge; multiple, heterogenous, contradictory, and incoherent. (134)

          “Starting off thought from a contradictory social position generates feminist knowledge.” (134)

          Heterogeneous subject recognizes intersectionality (134)

          “Subject of liberatory feminist knowledge must also be… the subject of every other liberatory knowledge project… because lesbian, poor, and racially marginalized women are all women, and therefore all feminists will have to grasp how gender, race, class, and sexuality are used to contruct each other.” (134)

          “If every other liberatory movement must generate feminist knowledge, it cannot be that women are the unique generators of feminist knowledge. Women cannot claim this ability to be uniquely theirs and men must not be permitted to claim that because they are not women, they are not obligated to produce fully feminist analyses.” (135)

          “Strong objectivity requires that the subject of knowledge be placed on the same critical, causal plane as the objects of knowledge. Thus, strong objectivity requires what we can think of as ‘strong reflexivity.’ This is because culturewide… beliefs function as evidence at every stage in scientific inquiry.” (136)

          “The subject of knowledge – the individual and the historically located social community whose unexamined beliefs its members are likely to hold ‘unknowingly,’ so to speak – must be considered as part of the object of knowledge from the perspective of scientific method.” (136)



Narayan, Uma. (1989) “The Project of a Feminist Epistemology: Perspectives from a Nonwestern Feminist” in The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual & Political Controversies, 2004, New York and London: Routledge, 213-224.

          Integrating women’ s contribution into science and knowledge will result in a shift of perspective that will change the very nature of the practices of knowledge. (213)

          Western and Nonwestern feminism have very different critiques and concerns. Western feminist concerns function within a context of a discourse that places a high value on women’s place – as wife, mother, etc. Nonwestern feminist concerns take place within a context that does not vale highly women’s contribution – “Nonwestern cultural context values woman’s place as long as she keeps to the place prescribed… The danger is that even if the Nonwestern feminist talks about the value of women’s experience in terms totally different from those of the traditional discourse, the difference is likely to be turned around by the louder and more powerful voice of the traditional discourse, which will then claim that ‘what those feminists say’ vindicates its view that the roles and experiences it assigns to women have value and that women should stick to those roles.” (215-216)

          There is a conflict between the feminist critique of culture/tradition, and the desire to affirm the value of the same culture/tradition within a postcolonial global context. (216)

          IT is not easy to compare oppressions across cultural-historical contexts. (216)

          A critique of positivism may be misplaced – non-postivist frameworks are not more tolerable. (216)

          “We must fight not frameworks that assert the separation of fact and value but frameworks that are pervaded by values to which we, as feminists, find ourselves opposed.” (217)

          Groups living under oppression are more likely to have a critical perspective on their situation, partly created by “critical emotional responses” to their situations – emotions often help rather than hinder understanding of their situations (218)

          Western feminists tend to participate in the dominance of Western culture by assuming a universality of their theories. (219)

          We should be suspicious of those expressing an interest in concerns that belong to or affect groups of which they are not a part – they may try to appropriate the concern for themselves, thereby distorting it by taking it out of the original context, or they may try to speak for those whose concern it is rather than allowing a space to be created in which those whose concern it is can speak about it for themselves and be heard with validity. (219)

          It is a mistake to assume that because knowledge is socially constructed based on position/location, then those who are differently located can never attain some understanding of or sympathy for the experiences of others. This would require a commitment to relativism that isn’t necessary or useful. (219-220)

          Non-analytic forms of discourse like fiction and poetry might be better to communicate across social locations (maybe because ‘reality’ or disbelief is already suspended) (220)

          “Sometimes one sort of suffering may simply harden individuals to other sorts or leave them without energy to take an interest in the problems of other groups. But we can at least try to foster such sensitivity by focussing on parallels, not identities, between different sorts of oppression.” (220)

          Contextual knowledge doesn’t require commitment to relativism, but we can argue that it is easier and more likely for the oppressed to hold critical insight into their own oppression (220)

          It is common to fail to understand the complexities of lived experience under another oppression; we tend to carry our knowledge gleaned from one experience into their perceptions of another. (220)

          Nothing one can do can make them one of the oppressed if they are not (221)

          We need to allow space for the oppressed to criticize the dominant group’s blindness and myopia (221)

          Dominant groups however have a need to control discourse (221)

          Epistemic advantage is a kind of double consciousness: knowledge of the oppressed includes knowledge of dominant groups because the dominant group’s ideology controls and is embedded in social institutions. Subordinate groups need to have knowledge of the dominant group in order to survive in society. There is no similar pressure on dominant groups to acquire knowledge of oppressed groups. Therefore, oppressed groups must “inhabit two mutually incompatible frameworks that provide differing perspectives on social reality,” which affords them epistemic advantage. (221)

          Nonwestern feminists are less likely to see their situation of inhabiting both frameworks as an advantage, however (221)

          Some ways to deal with this double consciousness:

1.    dichotomize one’s life, reserving a different framework for different contexts, i.e., live a public life in masculine ways but a private life in feminine ways

2.    reject practices belonging to one’s own context and try to adopt those of the dominant group as much as possible, which means losing knowledge of one’s own context

3.    reject the framework of the dominant group and assert the framework of her own context, despite the risks of further marginalization by the dominant group

4.    make the choice to inhabit both contexts critically, even if it means alienation from both, which may result in a feeling of rootlessness. “However such a person determines her locus, there may be a sense of being an outsider in both contexts and a sense of clumsiness or lack of fluency in both sets of practices.” (222) for example, learning a new language.

          Certain types and contexts of oppression seem to make double vision possible, but some seem to preclude any critical insights (223)


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Some of you know that I am partial to something called Standpoint Theory. (In fact, that’s what I’m writing my thesis about.)  It is about the most sensible piece of philosophy I have encountered in my entire undergrad. I (heart) standpoint theory.

I’d like to throw out an excerpt for you to read, from a work by Alison Jaggar, that explains how standpoint relates to epistemology (theory of knowledge). She argues for a specifically socialist feminist standpoint theory.

Like both traditional Marxists and radical feminists, socialist feminists  view knowledge as a social and practical construct and they believe that conceptual framewrks are shaped and limited by their social origins. They believe that, in any historical period, the prevailing world-view will reflect the interests and values of the dominant class. Consequently, they recognize that the establishment of a less mystified and more reliable world-view will require not only scientific struggle and intellectual argument but also the overthrow of the prevailing system of social relations.

Where social feminism differs from traditional Marxist epistemology is in its assertion that the special social or class position of women gives them a special epistemological standpoint which makes possible a view of the world that is more reliable and less distorted than that available either to capitalist or to working-class men. […]

Both liberal and Marxist epistemologists consider that, in order to arrive at an adequate representation of reality, it is important to begin from the proper standpoint. Within liberal epistemology, the proper standpoint is the standpoint of the neutral, disinterested observer, a so-called Archimedean standpoint somewhere outside the reality that is being observed [this is the usual position attempted by scientists and sociologists, a god’s-eye view or view from nowhere – TG]. Marxist epistemology, by contrast, recognizes that there is no such standpoint: that all systems of conceptualization reflect certain social interests and values. In a society where the production of knowledge is controlled by a certain class, the knowledge produced will reflect the interests and values of that class. In other words, in class societies the prevailing knowledge and science interpret reality from the standpoint of the ruling class. Because the ruling class has an interest in concealing the way in which it dominates and exploits the rest of the population, the interpretation of reality that it presents will be distorted in characteristic ways. In particular, the suffering of the subordinate classes will be ignored, redescribed as enjoyment or justified as freely chosen, deserved, or inevitable.

Because their class position insulates them from the suffering of the oppressed, many members of the ruling class are likely to be convinced by their own ideology; either they fail to perceive the suffering of the oppressed or they believe that it is freely chosen, deserved, or inevitable. They experience the current organization of society as basically satisfactory and so they accept the interpretation of reality that justifies that system of organization. They encounter little in their daily lives that conflicts with that interpretation. Oppressed groups, by contrast, suffer directly from the system that oppresses them… the pervasiveness, intensity, and relentlessness of their suffering constantly push the oppressed groups toward a realization that something is wrong with the prevailing social order. Their pain provides them with a motivation for finding out what is wrong, for criticizing accepted interpretations of reality, and for developing new and less distorted ways of understanding the world. These new systems of conceptualization will reflect the interests and values of the oppressed groups and so constitute a representation of reality from an alternaitve to the dominant standpoint.

The standpoint of the oppressed is not just different from that of the ruling class; it is also epistemologically advantageous. It provides the basis for a view of reality that is more impartial than that of the ruling class and also more comprehensive. It is more impartial because it comes closer to representing the interests of society as a whole; whereas the standpoint of the ruling class reflects the interests only of one section of the population, the standpoint of the oppressed represents the interests of the totality in that historical period. Moreover, whereas the condition of the oppressed groups is visible only dimly to the ruling class, the oppressed are able to see more clearly the rules as well as the rulers and the relation between them. Thus, the standpoint of the oppressed includes and is able to explain the standpoint of the ruling class.

(Alison Jaggar, “Feminist Politics and Epistemology: The Standpoint of Women” in The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies (ed. Sandra Harding), 2004, New York and London: Routledge, 55-57. All emphases added.)

Remember that big discussion about white folks being racist, and not being able to understand the ways in which they are racist because the system they have built and participate in conceals racism from them? how there are things that we as white people simply cannot understand, even about our own selves? And that discussion in the comment section on the PUA thread much to the same effect that there are some things men will never be able to know about how their own privilege as men works in society? THIS is what motivates me when I write about these things.

I’m sure as I continue to research and write my thesis, there will be more about standpoint theory. I have a ton of great quotes from Patricia Hill Collins to throw into a post that I have found most helpful. For now, tell me what you think about this idea!

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well, things are slowly wrapping up for me and my BA. Two weeks ago now I had my last actual classroom class of my undergrad. My last exam of my undergrad. I won’t see all those same faces anymore in all my courses. Friends are moving, getting into programs here and there, getting apartments and jobs in other cities.

I still have to finish my thesis, and a half-credit via distance ed. Then, I will be totally finished. Hooray!

Undergrad has been good for me, in many ways. Some of the classes I’ve taken have completely changed my outlook on the world. Some of the people I’ve met have become wonderful friends. Some of the profs I’ve had have been very inspiring. And since my memory is like a butterfly net, I’ve actually learned a lot about a lot of different subjects of interest. I’ve accomplished what I hoped to, and more.

When I started my undergrad this time ( I had my first year already completed from the year after high school), I was 28 years old. I was very nervous about the whole thing – would I be able to write papers? Where would I begin researching? Would I find all my classes? Would I make any friends? Would it be weird to be almost 10 years older than most of my classmates?

My first day, the instructor I had for my first class (health care ethics) was no older than me, and likely was younger. It was quite a large class, about 100 students. I was early (for once in my life) and sat at the front. I was the oldest person there, definitely. I took copious notes. My next class (logic) was much smaller, about 40, and there was a woman in the class who looked to be about 50. The professor was an asshole. Same prof for my third class, which was fantastic – existentialism. That class was huge, but I recognized some of the faces. Those people ended up in most of my classes over the next two years. Some became good friends.

I was shocked by how many students were very conservative and non-analytic in their ideas, and conversely inspired by how many students were so very lefty. As many times as I rolled my eyes internally at arguments that failed to take into account the actual way society is set up, I cheered internally for students who obviously cared about social justice. And so it began for me. Philosophy is, ultimately, all about people.

As I went along, I realized that in order to understand people better, I needed to study more, to find out more about politics and religion and sociology and history and psychology. So, I chose my classes carefully, wrote my papers on topics I cared about (as much as possible – it was hard to care too much about Descartes after a while), and did a lot of outside reading to supplement my studies. However, I realized that the outside reading I was doing simply wasn’t represented by courses available to my through either of my departments (philosophy and gender & women’s studies). Where were the political philosophy courses? Where were the critical race theory courses? Where were the courses on continental philosophy and post-structuralism? Where were the courses on poverty and social welfare? Where were the courses in queer theory? on post-colonial thought? on indigenous studies? Here were topics that were covered briefly in some classes, but not in others where they would be most useful, and some not at all. It became a point of frustration.

But, of course, academia works in a particular way. We have profs in our departments who are experts in particular areas, and that’s what they teach. They don’t often go beyond their scopes of research. And so, courses are decided at a departmental level, based on what profs are there each year and what they know and are comfortable with teaching. So that’s what we learn. What the profs know, and what the department wants us to know, what they deem is important for us to know, what is important enough that they hire profs based on what they know about what the department wants us to know. (Standpoint theory, anyone?) Anything else we need to learn somewhere else.

I feel like every course was a survey course, not at all enough to delve into topics thoroughly, and some topics of importance were not represented at all. Eventually I learned that I had to write papers on topics that interested me or I wouldn’t have any opportunity to learn about those subjects that were not included in the curriculum.But still, it’s not enough. And, I don’t really think the work that could be done in a Master’s degree would be enough for me, either, to learn about all the things that I would like to learn about. It certainly won’t happen in law school.

So, nearing the end of my undergrad, I am happy, but also a bit frustrated. Some areas of interest have been identified for me, and now it is up to me to learn about them, not for credit at university, but for life.

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I wrote recently about white racism, and the post stirred up a lot of stuff for a lot of people. One of the things that kept coming up was that I was “redefining” the words “racist” and “racism,” and people didn’t like that – they wanted me to come up with another word for either what I was talking about or for the “really bad” racism out there (like there’s two kinds?). My response was that I was not going to make up another word when the one we have is just fine. My feeling is that people who want me to make up a new word for certain kinds of racists, either the not-so-bad ones or the really-very-bad ones, just don’t want to deal with their own racism, and that they want to preserve the commonly accepted definition of “Racism” – a race-neutral definition that simply states and discrimination on the basis of race is racism – for their own purposes, to hide behind and use to maintain systems of power.

So I thought I would talk a little bit about this phenomenon of naming, of defining. There’s kind of an understanding that definitions are objective, are truth. And I wholeheartedly disagree. Why? Because there is power in defining, in naming. And who gets to name and define something usually has the power.

I’m going to continue with the example of defining “Racism/Racist.” Tim, a commenter on the other post, was concerned that my “redefinition” of these terms did not match up with “common usage” – that use of the terms carry “moral force,” assume an action, involve some great evil on part of the actor. Incidentally, while Tim didn’t say this specifically, most people who disagreed with my usage of the terms preferred a “race-neutral” definition, so that white people could also be considered victims of racism (reverse racism). This is what I said to Tim in response:

The term “racism” has been defined by white people. I’m saying, the POC I have engaged with and listened to and read don’t experience racism that way. And so, I’m gonna go with their definition of racism. Why should I take the definition of racism white folks have provided at face value, as objective, as free from their intentions, free from their power relations and oppressions? Why should I do that, when what I see and hear when I talk with and listen to POC about this is that white people’s definition of racism hurts POC more with its “colourblindness”? The problem with accepting the “common usage” definition of “Racism/Racist” is that you assume some kind of objectivity, some kind of “truth” about the word beyond the meaning that those who have the power to name have given it. Naming and defining is not free from relations of power. And I refuse to accept that those who have the power get to decide the definition, to suit their own purposes of minimizing and wriggling out of the consequences of what they have done and continue to do.

Other commenters, like Tim, disagreed with my use of the terms, and suggested that I should come up with a different word to describe what I was talking about: either for the not-so-bad racists, or the really-very-bad racists. I think this is really just an effort at not accepting responsibility for the part they play in racism, and at distancing themselves from racism and racists who are really-very-bad. Another way of insisting that  they’re really not racist, after all. One such commenter was Kyassett, who wanted another word for what I was describing, because there is a “huge difference” between the horrible acts of hatred that some racists like the KKK, the Nazis, Japanese internment camp organizers, etc., have done and “simply existing as a white person.” I responded thus:

I don’t think it’s a difference in kind between the violent acts of hatred the KKK is guilty of and the system of privilege whites benefit from. It’s a difference of degrees. So one word fits all.

Disgusted Beyond Belief was another one of these such commenters, insisting that the “only valid definition of racism is a race-neutral one,” and as such I needed to come up with a new word for what I was talking about. He couldn’t get past a lot of what was said in that thread, unfortunately. This is what I said back to DBB:

I’m not going to make up some word for “Racist” when the one we have works just fine, so that folks like you get to feel better about the degree of racism present in yourself, have someone worse to point your finger at and say “they’re the real problem”, so you get to forget and deny and feel more comfortable about the role you play in maintaining racism, so you can be let off the hook and still go about your days clinging to your ideologies. The word we already have fits just fine. The definition of racism POC have advanced, as something that is not individual, but systematic, is much truer than the wormy squirmy definition white supremacists have come up with to include themselves and be able to deflect charges of racism and accuse POC of the same thing they have been accused of, when it’s clear and obvious that there is a massive difference between any kind of prejudice that a white person experiences at the hands of a POC and what POC as a group experience at the heels of white society.

I hope the gist of this is clear. Naming and defining are acts that involve power. White folks have defined racism in such a way as to maintain our own power, to be able to say that we couldn’t possibly be racist because we experience racism too (at the hands of POC, of course), to appropriate the burden of racism from POC for our own purposes, to say that we couldn’t possibly be racist because we haven’t done anything so bad as those really-very-bad racists, to erade and deny the experiences of POC. All of this makes it clear enough to me that accepting a white-controlled definition of “Racist/Racism” is not nearly critical enough.

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Max just wrote an interesting and challenging post about identity. I responded, but my comment was becoming mammoth, so I decided to just make it into a post and link it back. So here goes.

for me, identity is a constant struggle, to find who I really am among the multiple pressures: who my friends and family think I am and want me to be, who society says I am because of my physicality, who I am as a result of social discourses and interpretive tools like language and culture, and then who I want to become. The question of who-I-am (right now, in this moment) becomes lost in the din sometimes.

To try to answer your questions:
Who are you? – I’m me. Jennifer, Jenn, Jenna (never Jenny). Thinking Girl.

What are you? – I’m a woman, feminist, philosopher, white, heterosexual, agnostic, able-bodied, middle class. I’m a student. I’m kind, generous, optimistic, laid-back, fair-minded. I’m a Cancer. I’m smart, funny, easy-going. I’m a good writer. I’m a musician. I’m an artist. I’m a socialist.

What is your primary identity? – I don’t know how to answer that question. I don’t think it’s possible or even particularly useful to pull out one strand of my identity to holdup as primary.

What ethnic, racial, nation-state do you identify with? – I’m Canadian, east coaster.

How did you learn who you are/how to categorize yourself? – I’ve been taught all my life who I am, by my parents, by the society around me, by my teachers and friends. When it doesn’t fit with how I feel inside, that causes me a good deal of stress.

How does having/maintaining an identity detract/support one being their authentic self? – What is most challenging is when people make assumptions about me that don’t match up with my authentic self. But, I’ve learned that it isn’t necessary for everyone to understand me, or to like me. I have to like me. I have to understand me. I have to be me. And that is what really matters to my personal happiness. Gotta have integrity – integrate my authentic self into my outward identity as much as possible.

When we confront people as labels or categories, how does that affect our ability to see them for who they are? – I think it makes it really difficult. Really difficult. How can we truly know anything about anyone based on socially imposed and constructed labels? In all the tidbits about “what I am” I gave above, does that really tell you much about me, who I am? I don’t know. Wouldn’t it just be better to ask people what is most important to them for us to know about them? Labels, categories, stereotypes – they don’t tell us anything about anyone, because they homogenize, make essential, characteristics and qualities and experiences that are supposed to be common to a group but never really are.

Is having a simplistic, hand-me-down identity a form of ’security,’ and a strength or an ‘escape’ from the anxiety of growing into something beyond the flowerbox you were planted in? Or both? – Interesting complex question. I think it can be a form of security for people. Don’t have to question anything if you simply accept what you’re been spoon-fed from birth about who you are. It might make things easier on you, easier to just fit in and get along, get ahead. But also, I think it can be an escape – I think about rejecting one identity, and the best way to do that (so it seems) is to try on another one that is diametrically opposed. I hope it won’t be offensive, but I think this happens a lot when people come out of the closet and declare their sexuality as non-hetero. I think a lot of people join into a pre-existing queer identity that doesn’t necessarily express who they really are. Of course, it’s entirely possible that it does express them fully.

Do you ever ask yourself who and what you are, who and what you are supposed to be and whether you are being your truest self? – Everyday. I’ve spent a good deal od my life trying to fit my square peg into a round hole, and coming out frustrated and disappointed with myself for not being able to do it. But, instead, it’s about allowing my true nature to become expressed in how I live my life, and finding the square hole to match my square peg, allowing what has always been inside of me to become perfectly expressed in the person that I am becoming everyday.

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