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.

Comments

  1. Very interesting post.

    Most of what you say is completely reasonable - but on your reply to objection 2:

    So, if 100 people at a church revival witness a preacher heal the sick by the laying on of hands, we take this to be defeasible by those who weren't even there.

    Part of what happens in such cases is that people make judgments about things they don't actually observe. It is, of course, an open question as to how much this occurs in SE kinds of cases - when one's personal attachment/interests/loss may play a role in not thinking "honestly". (A point I think you agree with, but I'm inclined to think that empiricism and SE are not equally flexible regarding override-ablity.)

    It seems unfair to wave away the problem with the chemistry example. It's really as much about whether in SE cases, we should expect the reasoning to be as good. There seems to be at least some incentive to come to certain conclusions - independent of whether those track the truth.

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    1. Interesting reply! So I take it the idea here is something like: we might have very strong independent reason from some prior theory (say, a theory which explains why people report events at faith healing events that we do not think could have occurred just as they say) that we take to be even better confirmed than whatever the mass testimony of some group can do to the contrary. In such cases it looks like (at least sometimes) the empiricist will want to follow the stronger or better confirmed prior theory in a way that the SE might not want to.

      So this is not and could not b a full response to that but I think it at least worth considering. In short I think that all the times an empiricist will want to go with the prior theory are times when the SE person would too, and vice versa, so this is not a time they will come apart. I get here by thinking about some of the sort of things that would make an empiricist want to *distrust* prior theories.

      Say, for instance, that we learn that all of the evidence against faith healing comes from people who never really looked that hard, and were manifestly propagandists for Big Snake Charming (or whatever rivals to faith healers one prefers) so not that incentivised to think about the matter strongly. In this case it looks like for good empiricist reasons one's faith in the prior theory is undercut, and one will be more friendly disposed to the faith healer's testimony. One can easily think of analogous claims that the SE person will think present in the cases they are interested in.

      My current bet is just that this is what the cases will look like. In general the things that SE people think undercutting are stuff my simple empiricist would agree are undercutting. Maybe I am wrong that these will go together (I don't purport to have proven it at all!) but it's just what I would now guess. Interesting thing to think about though, cheers for commenting!

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  2. And it all falls apart with your two leading premises. An old man would not know more about sunrises than a meteorologist, or a cosmologist, just because he's seen more of them. Standpoint assumes that the second premise is true for all people in premise one. This is clearly not the case.

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    1. Premise (i) contained an "all else equal' clause - and some such clause is something which any sort of theory hoping to track epistemic advantage will need to have. We should want to say that a professional cosmologist will typically know more about sunsets than just a random person off the street - but if the cosmologist has just at that moment suffered massive memory loss then we would not want to say so. That's fine, since we don't really mean to take that sort of thing into account when making the generic claim that the cosmologist is better off; we want to make some sort of "restricting our attention to only certain normal cases" clause. And that's good and proper. And for present purposes, the relevant cases the standpoint epistemologist is considering are ones with generally equal educational levels between the parties you are comparing.

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  3. Hi Liam.

    I completely agree. With a 'but', naturally. The 'but' being twofold.

    1. Doesn't this admirably straightforward way of presenting things make the claim of standpoint epistemology a bit banal? People know more about stuff they have experienced. I see that this deflationary point is your intention, but it seems almost too successful.

    2. There's a converse and less politically appealing argument here. A standpoint epistemologist of a different bent, call her 'aristocratic standpoint epistemologist', or 'arse' for short, could surely equally argue that long and deep familiarity with money, politics and government meant some people just know more about running things (companies, countries, etc). Some examples of this argument will be flawed but the logic is the same; do you accept this point in some cases? You acknowledge technical cases, chemistry in your example, which are a bit different (presumably no social group automatically has epistemic privilege re such areas) but surely there are just areas of life that privileged people know more about? Just as they know less about oppression.

    I don't think (2), anyway, is one of your bullets..

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    1. Hi Rollo, thanks for sharing!

      On 1 I kind of just agree - as you say, I mean to deflate! But to say a bit more: I think that this is already enough to get at things which are de facto controversial even though I think that on good theoretical grounds they ought not be: e.g. you can use even this minimal argument to give a defence of "believe women" esque responses to MeToo scenarios, in which case you are already in some hot water politically. So it turns out you don't need much philosophical juice to get you that far. Second, I'd reiterate the point about over-intellectualising disagreements. I just think the academy (and some parts of the intelligentsia pop culture) gives us perverse incentives to "dignify" our ideas by presenting them as bold new theories at high levels of abstraction, or on the flip side by presenting one's objections as deep epistemic divergences rather than mundane things turning on fine detail. Well... I think that's bad, basically. I have more Wittgensteinian instincts; very often we just don't need the higher abstraction, and we'd do better off staying more firmly on the rough ground.

      On 2 I'd just say: oh I think there are all sorts of things the upper echelons know best! I think they are typically much better at navigating bureaucracies so as to secure their favoured outcome, for instance. It's why we have to keep such a close bloody eye on the bastards!

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  4. Hey Liam, this is great, and I've been saying/thinking similar things for a while now. The point can be put in a somewhat blunt way: how could any program which privileges experience and causal explanation not... privilege experience and causal explanation?

    What explains the resistance to this conclusion? Here's one possibility which is more political than philosophical: virtually no example of a well-positioned person I find in the literature is of a white hetero dude. Maybe this explains a lot of the resistance to the program, and here's how: In principle it is of course entirely possible for such people to be well-positioned in certain ways with respect to certain issues. All social groups develop, for example, certain dogmas or default responses which are invisible inside the group and which only an outsider can really see.

    So I think that the kind of SE that an empiricist has to sign up for should obviously be in-principle neutral between types of people, but of course that is not how it has played out. So far as I know, no-one has written a single paper claiming that men or white people might be well-positioned with respect to some question or another, rather, there are a set of 4 or 5 stock examples featuring other kinds of people. And this means that in our social world to signal one's adherence to SE is to signal one's adherence to much more than just the logical implications of empiricism.

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    1. This is a provocative thought and I just want to thank you for sharing!

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  5. Cool post. I think this is very plausible, at least in part because standard articulations of standpoint epistemology draw on differences in empirical/experiential evidence to explain differential achievement of knowledge across social groups. For example: Kristen Intemann ('25 years of feminist empiricism and standpoint epistemology…', p. 785) says 'individuals from different social locations have, to some extent, different experiences. … Different bodies are subjected to different material conditions and forces that can give rise to different experiences and thus different evidence and beliefs'. Charles Mills ('Alternative epistemologies', p. 245) says 'Far from it being the case, then, that the asocial Cartesian knower can move freely along all axes of [social] space, there will be certain resistances linked specifically to one’s social characteristics, one’s group membership, that will determine, at least tendentially, the kinds of experiences one is likely to have and the kinds of concepts one is accordingly likely to develop.… there will also be areas of experience that lie outside of the normal trajectory through the world of members of hegemonic groups.'

    That said, I think there is some force to the first (and perhaps the second?) objection you consider. As you note, many standpoint epistemologists think there is more to achieving a standpoint than being in a social position, and while some standpoint theorists offer a 'something more' which is respectable by empiricist standards, others do not. So consider Alison Wylie's idea that achieving a standpoint involves having 'a critical consciousness about the nature of our social location’ ('Why standpoint matters', p. 31). Intemann argues that we can achieve this sort of standpoint 'only when there is sufficient scrutiny and critical awareness of how power structures shape or limit knowledge in a particular context'. And knowledge of underlying power structures – let alone their epistemic effects – may not be exclusively a function of empirical evidence – power relations often being theoretical posits that are not themselves directly available in empirical evidence.

    This is also illustrated by standpoint theorist's explanations of why those who are not in a particular social position cannot learn by testimony from those who have achieved a standpoint. So Mills says 'members of hegemonic groups have [difficulty] in accepting alternative descriptions of their experienced reality. … background hegemonic ideologies … help to sustain a particular interpretation of what is happening' (p. 247). But this explanation arguably embodies the idea that beliefs about social structure are in part theoretical posits, subject to interpretative interference from prior beliefs, and one's rational position with respect to accounts of social reality is thus not a function of one's empirical evidence alone. (It's not that members of hegemonic groups don't have the empirical evidence, but that the disagreement between them and members of oppressed groups may not be explicable in terms of lack of shared evidence.) Some sophisticated empiricists of course embrace this kind of conclusion, but many views that go under the name 'empiricism' aren't too happy with this kind of thing, including – if I'm thinking about it rightly – the view that you label 'empiricist' above. For just experiencing oppression and thinking about it isn't a good way of finding out about it – it is doing that PLUS having the conceptual repertoire to think about it in the right way, having achieved a standpoint, that is a good way of finding out about it.

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    1. Thanks for the reply, and sorry for the late response I only just found out where all my comments awaiting moderation are!

      I think I broadly agree with everything up to the end of the second paragraph. In that I do agree that many standpoint epistemologists do want to say something stronger than I outlined, but per my first response to an objection I basically think standpoint epistemologists gain nothing they should want to gain from that sort of thing, and take on board theoretical or political weaknesses which are avoidable by the more minimalist empiricist approach I prefer. So I think up to there I am in full agreement.

      The third paragraph is more challenging for me, though! So I guess it is true that I want to say that part of any empiricism I would want to have is some acknowledgement that one's priors (or in a more qualitative setting one's background beliefs - both structure of one's prior or one's background beliefs being themselves influenced by one's conceptual schema) affect how one is able to take up or interpret new evidence. And this might indeed interact with SE points in the way that you/Mills outline! Right now my first pass response is to say: I think that this is just a matter of timing, like it suggests that given the epistemic differences created by different life experiences one cannot so immediately flatten out the differences between folk as one might like via testimony and evidence sharing. And often on the timescale at which activism wants to happen that makes it tempting to say that one simply cannot use testimony to correct bad priors/background beliefs in a way that might seem inconsistent with an empiricism that ultimately wants to make learning a matter of experience and reflection upon said experience. However, I think that this is really just a matter of the time scale (the depth of experience and degree of reflection required) to push one from a less informed to a more informed view can often be rather slow - but it will all happen by basically empiricist means, and this is all consistent with what the SE folk are saying.

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  6. Here's a possible objection to standpoint theory that I have: I think that 1 and 2 are valid (with caveats) but 3 doesn't necessarily follow because it implicitly requires that people acquire not just knowledge, but reliable knowledge due to their social situation.

    I think that this ignores the problems of bias formation.

    Human beings aren't necessarily acquiring reliable knowledge through their social status, they acquire heuristics that function in their social situation. Those heuristics just have to be reliable enough to function, not necessarily more reliable than other heuristics, and it's perfectly possible that the heuristics of marginalized groups are less reliable than those of non-marginalized groups, even if they're in a better position to be aware of things and ask questions about their marginalized conditions.

    Let's suppose than in a hypothetical society horses are a common mean of transportations, while zebras are a highly prized luxury item that the dominant social groups is proud of rearing and taming on its own, as a part of social signalling of status.

    Marginalized groups, in this hypothetical society, have little to no access to zebras, while a dominant group has better access to horses, but everyone has access to horses.

    Knowledge of zebras and horses is definitely socially situated in this case, fullfilling 1. And marginalized groups are definitely in a position to ask some pertinent questions and be aware of things in respect to their lack of power in acquiring zebras.

    But it doesn't follow that if you're doing a study on zebra rearing and taming, which is definitely part of the dynamic of the power relation of access to zebras, you should start with the marginalized groups.

    The marginalized groups, due to their lack of access to zebras, are likely to make assumptions about the heuristics of zebras rearing and taming based on their closest substitute for zebras, namely horses. The dominant groups, due to their access to both zebras and horses, likely has better heuristics of the differences in rearing and taming zebras and horses than the non-marginalzied groups.

    Supposing that a researcher knows that there are indeed differences in rearing and taming zebras and horses, I don't think that the researcher should start a studying on rearing and taming zebras by interviewing marginalized people, even though the taming and rearing of zebras is part of the dynamic of power differential.

    In general, beyond zebras and horses, marginalized groups are likely to be socially priced out of some experiences (for example higher education or access to quality items or to good healthcare) that make them epistemically disadvantaged with respect to dominant groups in those fields.

    Have I gotten something wrong about standpoint theory? Is there a flaw in my reasoning that I'm not seeing? (It's more than possible!)

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    1. Thanks for commenting, interesting thoughts! My present sense is that this is an instance of the second objection mentioned in post, expecting standpoint epistemology to say more than it does. I think that SE can't be committed to the claim that being marginalised will give you an advantage in *all* reasoning tasks. So you have got one where it does not, and I agree there it would not. But that does not really count against SE because it was never committed to such a strong claim in the first place.

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