Sunday, June 3, 2018

Empiricism is a Standpoint Epistemology

Every well informed empiricist should be a standpoint epistemologist. Indeed, I think this should be entirely uncontroversial, so much so that after making my case for this claim most of the blog post is really going to be about why it is that people argue about this. I'm making this post because I find of myself that I keep independently arguing this to various people, so I would like to just have my thoughts written down somewhere to refer to in future.

Let's begin by some definitions. For my purpose here an empiricist is somebody who thinks that - (i) people with more experience of a phenomenon will, all else equal, know more about it than those with less such experience, (ii) provided that they actually take the time to reason about it or pay attention to the evidence available to them. By "well informed empiricist" I mean somebody who believes (i) and (ii) and is aware of some of the (rather obvious) sociological facts I shall be drawing attention to in what follows. This is a somewhat non-standard definition of empiricist, I really just mean "somebody who thinks experiencing stuff and thinking about those experiences is a very valuable way of learning about said stuff". Feel free to substitute in that inelegant expression if you are unhappy with "empiricist" in any of this post.

As to standpoint epistemology, take this definition from the IEP article on feminist standpoint theory:
Feminist standpoint theorists make three principal claims: (1) Knowledge is socially situated. (2) Marginalized groups are socially situated in ways that make it more possible for them to be aware of things and ask questions than it is for the non-marginalized. (3) Research, particularly that focused on power relations, should begin with the lives of the marginalized. 
I think that's good enough for my purposes, and essentially what I will argue is that the kind of cases which have been most controversial in both philosophy and the broader culture (say, the claim that women are generally epistemically privileged when it comes to reasoning about sexual assault in the work place, or black people about racist social norms in America) are all cases where empiricists ought agree with the standpoint epistemologists. In particular, I will briefly argue that things that recognisable versions of claims (1), (2), and (3) would all be thought true by a well informed empiricist. (I won't do it because this post is already too long, but if you went through the more extensive set of questions for a standpoint epistemology outlined at the start of section 2 here you could construct a pretty similar blog post to this one. It's not just I have picked a quirky definition of Standpoint Epistemology!)

First a silly thought experiment. Suppose we had a caste system that sent 50% of people to factory floors every day and 50% to office buildings, and never the twain shall mix or visit the other's place of work. (What do they eat in this world, you ask? Fuck you, I reply.) Call the first the blue collars and the second the white collars. An empiricist informed of this arrangement should immediately conclude that the blue collars much much more likely to know about factory floors and what they are like when compared with white collars, and vice versa for office blocks. There's thus a clear sense in which knowledge would be socially situated - who knew what would depend heavily on caste. What is more, for at least some things (let us suppose that the blue collars have a genuinely worse standard of life) the marginalised  are clearly in a better position to know what's going on and ask pertinent questions, for just the same reason as above. And if you wanted to find out about life on the factory floors (say, how people responded to the orders telegraphed in from the office blocks, which they have every reason to pay attention to lest the food rations cease) and one was not a blue collar oneself then a pretty good strategy for finding out, at least for an empiricist, would be to (breaking the thought experiment a bit) ask the blue collars what's up and record their answers -  of course doing your best to get a representative sample and etc. Even if you had other ways of finding out what's up (perhaps you could put on some jeans, Dick van Dyke your accent, and clock in for a day) it'd probably still be a good idea to check with a representative sample of actual blue collars before drawing any firm conclusions. So that's (1), (2) and (3).

Of course, I think in this scenario the degree of anti-empiricism it would take to deny that is highly indefensible. But as I take it is clear, this is just an abstract and extreme example of what is got at in standpoint epistemology. In reality things are more probabilistic and varied. We have more divisions of labour, we communicate with each other more, we travel between lifeworlds more. But in essence our social division of labour does achieve something like this. There are clearly ways in which our global division of labour allots us tasks in something like this way, provides us with different incentives and information to learn from, and for questions of great social import the perspective of the socially marginalised will often be the perspective which an empiricist would bet has more relevant knowledge.

 For a more realistic instance, take the position of black domestic staff in the mid 20th century as compared to their employers - these (usually) women had to be familiar with the actual mores and expectations of their white employers, and also had to get by in the social world of the all black quarters in town. The white folk, on the other-hand, were much less likely to ever enter the ghetto let alone seriously get to know the place,  could afford (and, humanly enough, no doubt desired) to maintain a pleasing self-image which may not always match their own mores and behaviours, and the degree to which they get to know The Help interpersonally is dependent on their idiosyncratic interests and sensibilities. If you had to guess, if you had limited time and resources to interview people and find out about race relations in some town in 1947 Alabama, which group do you think should spend more time getting to know, should you want to include in the research team (as participants or involved in the survey design or running it - whatever the case may be)? Whatever your answer, I take it that an empiricist, somebody who thinks that knowledge tracks degree of experience and incentive to really think things through, is going to want to favour the marginalised group here. And for just the same reason that a standpoint epistemologist would - because conditions (1), (2), and (3) seem to be met by the empiricists' own standards.

These examples can be multiplied and I already feel bad for belabouring it - part of my point here is just how obvious all this is. It's really quite a banal point - it's just noting that in a society with divisions of labour and social roles that track demographic categories then what experiences and incentives to learn you have will track (indeed be causally downstream of) group membership, and sometimes the differential spheres of knowledge will be of interest to important questions of social research. But! I have consistently found that when I say I am a standpoint epistemologist because I am an empiricist this is treated as me just missing the point or saying something obviously confused or etc. So however you react to it when laid out here, let me just appeal to my own lived experience and say this is not generally agreed to be as obvious as I hope it now seems. So I'll end by noting some reasons I think people have for disagreeing. From most to least charitable!
  • Situatedness Is Not Reducible To Evidence: "standpoint theorists typically note that the mere fact of being member of marginalised group is not sufficient to make you especially knowledgeable about some element of their lives, there is some other achievement necessary - I have given the empiricist friendly gloss that you must have time and incentive to think through one's experiences to be considered epistemically advantaged, but maybe there is some other factor that should be taken into account which the empiricist could not so easily accommodate." To be honest this is just about the only objection that I think is a serious worry of all those I will survey. I don't have a decisive response to it. But I will note that many of the arguments I have seen given for standpoint epistemology in its Marxist, feminist, and critical race theorist variants, have seemed to me to be appealing to the kind of intuitions I surveyed above: that people who have more experience and incentive to think honestly about what that entails will, all else equal, know more about a topic matter than those without those advantages, and that given how society is arranged it is often the marginalised who have the pertinent experience and incentive.  Where I have seen elaborations of this point that seemed less empiricist friendly, I will also note that at times, they seemed to me to risk trivialising standpoint epistemology. Folk sometimes seem suspiciously close to saying that to have really achieved the epistemically advantaged standpoint you must acknowledge to be true just those propositions the theorist holds most dear to their heart. This not only makes the standpoint a bit superfluous, it can also seem like a morally objectionable bit of ventriloquism - the theorist speaking for the subaltern even as they claim to be respecting their knowledge and letting them voice their perspectives.


  • Standpoint Theory Is Saying Something Stronger: "as you have described standpoint theory it is consistent with the marginalised not being epistemically advantaged in all respects, indeed being disadvantaged in some, and also for a member of an advantaged group to eventually learn more about the pertinent questions than the marginalised - isn't that just what standpoint epistemologists meant to rule out?" In a word, "no". I think it is telling that I much much more often see this from people who are basically hostile to standpoint theory, and should like to see it discredited. While there are no doubt some heroic souls out there arguing that immigrant black south Londoners have an epistemic advantage in theoretical chemistry, I can confirm (alas) that they do not, and do not see why in general standpoint epistemologists should be burdened with this kind of absurdity. It was already implicit in the stuff about situatedness being an achievement (what I have glossed about incentive to think things through) that the epistemic advantage may be overcome in certain cases, and the fact that this is originally a Marxist theory should give anyone who knows anything about Marx and Engels' family backgrounds reason to doubt that the claim was that one could never achieve epistemic good standing if one is from relatively well off sections of society. If there is anything here, it is just the general issue around what-it-is-like claims on behalf of qualia being private; I don't generally believe such claims, but in any case many of the claims of interest here are not about what-it-is-like claims and there is no need for standpoint epistemologists to have a party line on the epistemology of qualia.

  • Disagreements In Practice: "but what about <this or that> a case where somebody claimed <such and such> an epistemic advantage for <so and so>; that does not seem plausible on empiricist grounds." An empiricist agrees that in general having pertinent experiences and the right kind of incentives will, all else equal, generate epistemic advantage. But in any given case what are the pertinent experiences and who has them, and which incentives are the good ones, and who is actually responsive to those incentives, and is all else really equal? This kind of thing is not a disagreement at the level of high epistemic theory, this depends on concrete details of the case. I think the mental habits of academics and prestige hierarchies of academia encourage people to discuss the most general and theoretically ambitious version of a problem they can: it's not always that helpful. We over-intellectualise disagreements about whether Kofi knows what's up if we insist on producing arguments for or against the proposition that knowledge is socially situated. I think that a lot of the controversy around standpoint epistemology really comes from this kind of thing.

  • 50 Million Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong: "but all these people take there to be a disagreement! Who are you to say it's all just a misunderstanding!?" Elvis was just kinda ok.

  • The Culture War Demands Blood: "people who identify with the label "empiricism" and people who identify with the label "standpoint epistemology" nowadays mostly don't get along, and so just... like, no. No. It can't be that we all actually agree. What would we argue about on twitter?" Fortunately I can reassure people that there will still be plenty to argue about on twitter. But while I'm here I'll note that I think the manifesto of the Vienna circle hints at a Marxist standpoint epistemology-esque argument towards the end of section 4.
So there we have it. Being a well informed empiricist is sufficient for being a standpoint epistemologist. This is actually rather obvious when one thinks about it, and if you are still reading you (yes, you, dear reader) are probably now pretending this was obvious to you all along because you actually had one of the bullet pointed objections but now you're embarrassed about it. Don't @ me.