Friday, December 22, 2006

Feminist Epistemology/ Philosophy of Science

So far, I get the gist of the problem... female voices and perspectives have been excluded from epistemology and science in particular. This has lead to 'ways of knowing' that have placed women into inferior positoins in society and society using science to dominate women and other groups. Women, as a result, are seen as irrational etc.

Duh -- I get that and have seen that well before I started reading feminist philosophy.

There are some feminist philosophers who advocate discarding important parts of the philosophical cannon because they did not support feminist positions... I won't go that far, as it seems wrong to expect those dead-white-males to have modern sensibilities. It also seems to me that simply expelling these philosophers would entail rejecting large portions of the background material that supports my ways of thinking.... since I AM female, isn't it the case that I'd have to deny the background to my own epistemology? Thankfully, there are some feminists doing history of philosophy who have interpreted key parts of the cannon so that I can keep some of my favorite dead-white guys.

My feminist philosophy of science prof has written an inciteful, but not yet published paper asking if there are limits to the perspectives science ought to consider? Religious voices surely have things to say about science, as do wiccans and 3rd graders. Should they be included in the scientific community? Is the true advocacy of feminist philosophy of science, science by democracy? If so, we are in trouble....

So, my quandry is this -- I understand that feminist epistemology advocates expanding the basis for Knowldge. What I don't understand is how adding a wholistic perspective would change the science we do now? Accoriding to my prof, feminist philosophers of science are short on alternatives... If we don't need to declare the scientific enterprise corrupt, then what we do need to do is to work to include more trained females in science and philosophy of science/episemology.

Off the top of my head, I can see more than a few things that need to change in order to do this...

1) Increase and encourage girls to explore science and math... and keep that up in their teen and early college years. Doing this is complicated and will involve lots of money and female role-models... and it may not work.

2) Within the structure of higher education, graduate education needs to be more family-friendly. This means higher pay for graduate students, more uniform health-care coverage, reasonable productivity expectations and an overall acceptance that students (male and female) may have lives outside of their schooling.

What ought to be illegal as hell is the way my first-ever graduate advisor questioned me about my family status during our first meeting... I'll talk about that AFTER I defend... I sincerely think that his impression of me after that meeting influenced my time in the department in a negative way -- but, since he's gone and I still need them, it wouldn't be fair or prudent to get into it here.

3) The professional life of an academic also should be more family friendly. Among other things, tenure expetations should be adjusted to allow for parental leave (mothers AND fathers). I also think that major conferences ought not be scheduled over Christmas break. This is because it is often difficult for parents to leave when their school-aged children are out of school. Expecting someone to attend the APA or MLA over break assumes that there is another parent staying home to take care of the kids -- and this expectation is often far from the case for many academic families.

What scares me is feminisim's seeming reaction to the Larry Summers (former Harvard president) incident.... If the end result of feminist philosophy of science is to stop scientific inquiry of any sort, because 'those questions shouldn't be asked' -- isn't it the case that feminist philosophy of science is just as oppresive and narrow-minded as the cannon of philosophy?

Anyway, those are my thoughts now... I'm not sure how this is going to turn into an epistemology paper... but, I'll let you know.


Addy N. said...

I started a comment, but it got TOO LONG! ;)

Dolores said...

Professor, if you ask me, you look like that Jeeves dude they used to have in the web before Google became so popular.

Chaser said...

I think there is more here that you might consider in terms of your paper, and I further think you are misinterpreting what you refer to as the "feminist" reaction to Larry Summers. For one thing, it's not a very good idea to believe that there is one reaction to Larry Summers that typifies feminist epistemology. From my perspective, the issue that sits before us with Summers is that his way of framing the research findings places the problems of success in science on women (and an essentialist notion of women at that) rather than studying up--rather than entertaining the possibility that the structures of science are ill-suited to women, women's lives, and the way that women create knowledge. There's a big difference between saying women fail science rather than science, writ large, fails women. The former says that women are the problem, the latter shifts the scrutiny on the structures. The former says "women could succeed in science if they weren't X"; the latter suggests that women would succeed in science if science weren't X."

So your conclusion that feminist epistemology is somehow oppressive or silencing isn't going to hold much water with anybody who knows this literature (One topic I write on is ecofeminism and science). Feminist epistemology does not disallow questions per se; where it says "whoa! we don't go there" is in defining problems and concepts. If you start from the position that the problem here is that "women don't do it right" or "women can't do it right" or "women aren't good at"...then, yeah, feminist epistemology throws you out of the ballpark. But you can ask the same questions difference without blaming women for difference. That's a long way from oppression; it's a shift in what is consider valid theory.

(Furthermore, I seriously balk atthe use the word oppression when it is employed to describe the behavior of a group that doesn't really have the power to oppress. From your perspective, they may be wrong or judgmental, but it's not like there is an army of feminist epistemologists who have machine guns and tanks who can go about torturing dissidents, unless you consider Judy Butler's prose torture.)

In addition, feminist inquiry also suggests shifting the focus and in the priorities of scientific inquiry. This may be less pertinent for basic or bench science than applied science. But it pertains to agenda-setting: feminist science or inquiry in general stresses research that is intended to improve the lives of women, such as their health, work, or family. Again, this isn't to say that you can't ask whatever questions, but some of those questions are, to many feminist thinkers, not "soup" questions (referring the to movie Findering Forrester. Soup questions matter; they push the story forward. They help in relieving the poverty of women in the Phillipines, for example, not better enabling bomb accuracy in the US. One should take precedence over in funding and research priority.

Ack, I blithered. Sorry. I hope this helps you in going back to your thoughts here to develop the argument further.

Anonymous said...

Bullcrap, that was an extense take! Reminds me of a Lacan session I attended at the Ecole Normal in Paris. The guy stood there talking for 18 minutes without a single breath.

That can represent danger. A clear sign of not breathing enough is turning blue. But then, I guess I cannot express an opinion about your piece. I am not a militant feminist.

You should seriously consider Judith Butler for your work's bibliography. If not already there. I agree.


Christopias Spritopher said...

Many, many otherwise educated people believe that there are mental differences between men and women and holding that belief would encourage me to explore that question. Too often we see someone state a belief that for the benefit of all should be explored - if nothing else to be disproved - only to see that person hushed and the idea marginalized to the point it has credibility through oppression. The pope quoting someone saying Islam was violent comes to mind.

Ms.PhD said...

Ack, this whole discussion is a big too philosophical jargon-y for me.

But, as a female scientist, I feel compelled to comment here.

I think I agree with dr. lisa that the problem is with science, not with women. Not with science re: families, that whole excuse bugs me, but with regard to the idea that science is a Lifestyle, not a Job. If it's going to be a Lifestyle, then we should provide for all the other daily needs to be taken care of- childcare, dry cleaning, commuting, the works. Some large pharma companies do it, and it's working. Why not do that at universities? We do it for students in many places already, so why not extend it to employees and faculty?

Again in response to dr. lisa, I do think it's pertinent to basic science and benchwork as much as to applied science. Women think differently, and while I believe that's due to both nature and nurture, I think it's valuable and that smart scientists - even some old white guys- know this is the kind of diversity we need if we're going to make any progress at all.

In terms of expecting dead white guys to get it? I do expect that they should have gotten it. I still read some of their stuff, as much as I can stomach (the massively overwrought writing style you philosophers condone doesn't help).

But if they're supposed to be the philosophers of their time, so forward-thinking and all of that... well let's put it this way:

Tell me how Debussy could compose music that was an entire century-or more- ahead of its time, but these dead white philosophers never had the pleasure to talk to a smart little girl and realize she had as much potential as her brother?

We all know that even long before it was okay to be a tomboy, little girls had the questions beaten out of them. So why does everyone pretend like they never asked why thunder is loud, why the sky is blue? Why no one saw it as a good thing when they did?

If you're supposed to be so open-minded, Oh Famous Philosophers Of Olde, how come you didn't consider this a possibility?

Well you could argue that in many cases they didn't interact with their own daughters at all, but that's no excuse. Science fiction writers were largely correct in their predictions for the future, long before there was any evidence what would happen.

A little imagination would help us all.

And while I'm sure it convinces your colleagues that you're brilliant when you show off your vocabulary, and I like big words as much as any avid reader of books, do please consider that most blog readers don't want to have to have to extract your point from layers upon layers of pretentious, convoluted grammatical structures (dr. lisa, I'm talking to you too!).