Epistemology is in general a “theory of knowledge,” the study of how one knows things about the world. Standpoint epistemology—or, more generally, standpoint theory—is concerned with the impact of one’s location in society on one’s ability to know. Because men and women, for example, are gendered differently and accordingly have different experiences, how they know and what they are capable of knowing will differ. More specifically, standpoint theory insists that those who are socially marginalized can most easily pick out biases and gaps within systems of knowledge production. From the perspective of standpoint theory, disabled people, including eugenic survivors, are best suited to understand how ableist knowledge and systems of oppression are produced and maintained. First-person testimony and oral history accordingly have a central role to play in understanding the legacy of eugenics.
Defining Standpoint theory Standpoint theory is organized around two central principles, the “situated knowledge thesis” and the “inversion thesis”. The situated knowledge thesis claims that knowledge production is conditioned by social differentiation: knowers are always embedded in a particular historical moment and socio-cultural contexts. Also called the thesis of epistemic advantage, the inversion thesis gives epistemic authority to those marginalized by systems of oppression insofar as these people are often better knowers than those who benefit from oppression. Put simply: social dispossession produces epistemic privilege. Part of the rational for this thesis comes from the fact that the beneficiaries of systemic oppression have little reason to critique background assumptions, while those who marginalized are privy to knowledge about, for example, the structure and effects of capitalism since they live with its gritty realities day-to-day.
First-wave standpoint theory While the origins of standpoint theory lie in Marx’s view of class oppression, feminist philosophy popularized and developed standpoint theory in the 1970s and 1980s. Central to the initial impulse of feminist standpoint theory was challenging forms of scientific neutrality and objectivity that presupposed a generalized knower. Early standpoint theorists sought to understand the way in which the gendered identity of knowers affected their epistemic resources and capacities (Wylie 48). Nancy Hartsock provided one of the earliest articulations of standpoint theory, combining object relations theory and a Marxist feminist perspective to interrogate gender socialization and the sexualized division of labor. For Hartsock, sexual divisions of labor could be accounted for by the internalization of gendered psychological process that produce distantly gendered cognitive and psychological orientations.
Equally influential was Evelyn Fox Keller’s intervention in the philosophy of science. Drawing again on object relations theory, Keller (1978) argued that gender produces different scientific “postures.” Stereotypically masculine and feminine traits overflow into scientific practice to produce an association between the masculine and objectivity, and the feminine and sympathetic understanding. Given their socialization, for example, women in this reading are better at engaging with and being immersed in their objects of study.
Critiques Standpoint theory in its initial articulations was controversial, for despite challenging the notion of a universal and masculinized knower, it relied on sharp and reductionistic gender distinctions. There were, in particular, two (now perennial) criticisms of standpoint theory, which map onto the situated knowledge and the inversion thesis, respectively.
First, standpoint theory has been accused of essentialism, inasmuch as situated knowers belong to pre-defined and universal social identity categories. Notably evident in Keller’s psychoanalytic depiction of gendered identity formation, standpoint theory under this charge assumes that privileged knowers such as “women” share the same essential attributes and are thus basically all the same. Moreover, essentialism produces and reinforces binaries such as women/men or abled/disabled that requires people to be clearly either one or the other.
Second, the inversion thesis has been understood to imply automatic epistemic privilege: simply belonging to a marginalized group gives one privileged epistemic resources. Thus all women—as part of an essentialist social category—would inherit a type of “women’s” knowledge of sympathetic understanding about the world. As Wylie has noted, underlying this criticism is a wariness of relativism in which members of diverse social groups occupy standpoints, or ways of apprehending the world, that are incommensurable with each other (2012, 59).
Due in large part to these criticisms, standpoint theory fell out of favor in the mid-90s. Even though Sandra Harding’s Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking From Women’s Lives (1991) was an influential text endorsing a form of standpoint theory, the view was still often elided with a crude identity politics which had little uptake within feminist postmodernism and post-structuralism.
Second-wave standpoint theory Standpoint theory has seen a renaissance in the past 15 years. While the critiques of standpoint theory are well founded, they have often failed to engage with the fundamental challenge that standpoint theory poses to conventional theories of knowledge-production, nor have offered constructive responses of their own (Wylie 61). Taking the epistemic effects of social differentiation seriously is thus a project that should not be quickly abandoned.
Part of standpoint theory’s return to favor comes from a rearticulation of its methodology, aims, and limitations that directly answer the criticisms mentioned above. Wylie has perhaps provided the most succinct articulation of second-wave standpoint theory. For her, a standpoint does not mark out a clearly defined territory such as “women” within which members have automatic privilege but is a rather a posture of epistemic engagement. Responding to the claim that the situated knowledge thesis reifies essentialism, Wylie thus argues that it is “an open (empirical) question whether such structures obtain in a given context, what form they take, and how they are internalized or embodied by individuals” (Wylie 2012, 62). Identities are complex and cannot be reduced to simple binaries. Likewise, she argues that the criticism of automatic privilege is falters insofar as a standpoint is never given, but is achieved, “characterized by a particular kind of epistemic engagement, a matter of cultivating a critical awareness, empirical and conceptual, of the social conditions under which knowledge is produced and authorized” (63). To occupy as standpoint is accordingly to cultivate a critical awareness of the effects of one’s situated place in society on the ability to know.
Primary and Secondary Standpoints Unmoored from ahistorical, biological, and essentialist categories such as “women,” second-wave standpoint theory recognizes that it is an open question of who is capable of participating in or achieving a standpoint. A distinction between primary and secondary standpoints may clarify the this issue. Primary standpoints are traditional standpoints, being self-generated from direct experiences of marginalization. Those occupying secondary standpoints, however, do not have direct access to experiences of marginalization and are accordingly grounded in primary standpoint agents. Secondary standpoints must be continually renewed in primary standpoints to maintain the epistemic privileged constitutive of a standpoint. This distinction enables us to think of the ways parents, partners, and allies participate in privileged knowledge production with marginalized peoples.
Standpoint Theory and Eugenics Although standpoint theory was not initially concerned with issues of disability or eugenics, the early 20th-century scientific research that eugenic practices in Canada and elsewhere were built upon are precisely those that standpoint theorists like Harding would decry as lacking neutrality and objectivity. Standpoint theory can accordingly interrogate the presuppositions of the epistemic agents perpetuating subhumanizing eugenic beliefs and practises.
Moreover, survivor knowledge is often discounted as being unreliable and irrational precisely because of her subject position. Standpoint theory inverts this logic and argues that because eugenics survivors have been and continue to be marginalized, they possess privileged knowledge about the systemic marginalization of disabled people. Oral history and first-person testimony thus emerge as central sites of knowledge-production for understanding the reproduction of eugenic attitudes and beliefs in our society. Along this line, the primary/secondary distinction provides a theoretical backing for the epistemic authority of parental advocates of disabled children in the context of “newgenics”. Parents are capable of participating in the standpoint of their children and thereby gain epistemic authority and privilege of how ableism is sustained and should be resisted.
-Joshua St. Pierre
Anderson, Elizabeth. 2011. “Feminist Standpoint Theory.” Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2011. Web. June 2014.
Harding, Sandra. 1991. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?: Thinking From Women’s Lives. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
Hartsock, Nancy C. M. 1983. “The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism.” In Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology and Philosophy of Science, edited by Sandra Harding and Merrill B. Hintikka, 283-310. Boston, MA: D. Reidel Publishing Company.
Hekman, Susan. “Truth and Method: Feminist Standpoint Theory Revisited.” Signs 22:2, pp. 341-365.
Intemann, Kristen. 2010. “25 Years of Feminist Empiricism and Standpoint Theory: Where Are We Now?” Hypatia 25.4: 778-796.
Keller, Evelyn Fox. “Gender and Science.” Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought. September 1978: 409-433.
Wylie, Alison. 2012. “Feminist Philosophy of Science: Standpoint Matters.” Presidential Address delivered to the Pacific Division APA, in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 86.2: 47- 76.