January 21, 2006

Comments on feminist epistemology

I was going to respond to some of the things commenters Mr Bad and alexander say in this thread, but I stumbled across a paper that says most everything I was going to say anyways. Long, definitely a piece by and for philosophers, but hopefully still interesting and fairly accessible to the non-specialist. I want to add just a few points.

Mr Bad makes the same intellectually dishonest move Larry Summers did -- ignoring feminist critiques of the science they use to denounce feminist concerns and projects. I fail to see how these conclusions can be supported without falling into severe question-begging: "feminists are wrong about discrimination in the academy because this science says they are; we don't need to pay attention to feminist critiques of this science because the critiques are wrongly motivated to combat (nonexistent) discrimination". This is a longstanding backlash trend: some of the thoroughly ignored criticisms (eg, Fausto Sterling's criticisms of brain difference studies) go back more than two decades!

Beating a dead horse shows up in the Anderson paper several times, too, and this was one of my major criticisms of the O'Beirne interview in Salon: O'Beirne was proud to admit she was refusing to engage contemporary feminism, in favour of resuscitating controversies that -- if they were ever actual controversies -- feminism dealt with internally thirty years ago.

Taken together, these two points indicate a peculiar form of intellectual dishonesty. Anti-feminists refuse to engage the ideas of their contemporaries, preferring instead to attack (caricatures of) feminists of three decades ago. They regard their opponents not as dynamic people and movements, but instead as static words, dehumanized bundles of talking points. This might be appropriate if one is working on a historical figure -- we have to engage Kant's corpus, not Kant himself, or even Andrea Dworkin's corpus rather than Dworkin herself -- but downright intellectually dishonest (not to mention immoral) when it comes to living intellectuals.

Full disclosure: I'm acquainted with, and have taken courses from, Janet Kourany and Lynn Hankinson-Nelson, two feminist philosophers of science given favourable mention in this piece.

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