Feminist Philosophy of Science

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Feminist philosophy of science arises at the intersection of feminist interests in science and philosophical studies of science. Feminists have taken an active interest in the sciences both as a key resource in understanding and contesting sexist institutions and systems of belief, and as an important locus of gender inequality and source of legitimation for this inequality. Feminist practitioners in many sciences, especially in the life and social sciences, typically engage two lines of critique: They document inequalities in the training, representation, and recognition of women in the sciences, and they identify myriad ways in which, far from eliminating the contextual biases of a pervasively sexist society, standard scientific methodologies frequently reproduce them in the content of even the most credible and well-established scientific theories.

The work of feminist philosophers of science is continuous with these critiques. Some feminist philosophers contribute to the analysis of androcentrism in the content and practice of particular sciences, in some cases linking these to inequities in the role played by women in science. The form these analyses take necessarily varies with the type of science in question. Critiques of disciplines concerned with an overtly gendered subject matterthe social and behavioral sciences and some branches of the life sciencesdraw attention to ways in which unexamined, often stereotypic, assumptions about gender roles, relations, and identities delimit the subject of inquiry, define categories of analysis and description, shape assessments of plausibility that define the range of hypotheses to be taken seriously (e.g., in comparative evaluation), and inform judgments about the bearing of evidence on these hypotheses. Women may be simply left out of account; behaviors, patterns of practice or development, and values and roles associated with men may be treated as normative for the population as a whole; where women diverge from male-defined norms they may be treated as deviant, immature, or anomalous; gender differences may be assumed irrelevant or, alternatively, taken as a given, a parameter for analysis rather than a variable; and the description and analysis of gendered subjects may be structured by conceptual categories that embody highly specific (enthnocentric) assumptions about the form that gender roles, identities, institutions, and values may take. In short, critiques in these domains call attention to ways in which the social and behavioral sciences (including ethology) are pervasively androcentric in content (see Bleier 1986, Haraway 1989, contributions to Harding and Hintikka 1983, Longino and Doell 1983, Tuana 1989, Wylie et al. 1990).

When the subject domain of a science is not overtly gendered, as in the case of most natural and life sciences, it may be projectively gendered, as when gendered categories are used to describe natural phenomena or when scientific categories have (gendered) social meanings (Potter 1988). And even when the subject is not characterized in gendered terms, feminist critics find that the enterprise and practice of science may be conceptualized in gendered terms, metaphorically characterized as the domain of men or as exemplifying masculine qualities of intellect and disposition (see Keller 1985). Whether or not these metaphors directly shape the content of science or, indeed, accurately characterize the practice of a majority of scientists, they do articulate and reinforce a conception of scientific inquiry that aligns it with attributes that are valorized as masculine (see Martin 1988).

The philosophical significance of these discipline-specific critiques lies in the questions they raise for our understanding of science, specifically, its objectivity, the role of values and interests in science, the status of scientific evidence and of extant methodologies for developing and evaluating scientific theory. If androcentrism is pervasive in much that is accepted as 'good," even exemplary, scienceif it is by no means limited to examples of manifestly "bad" science (from Harding 1986)then feminist critiques of science challenge us to rethink the relationship between what Longino has described as "contextual" and "constitutive" values (these correspond roughly to standard distinctions between cognitive or epistemic considerations "internal" to science and the noncognitive, sociopolitical factors that many believe are properly "external" to science).

In taking up these questions the interests of feminist philosophers of science intersect with themes central to postpositivist philosophy of science. Feminist critiques of specific sciences illustrate, and draw attention to the implications of, central antifoundationalist claims about the complexity and contingency of scientific practice. If scientific theories are routinely (indeed, perhaps, necessarily) underdetermined by all available evidence, and if hypotheses are never evaluated independently of one another and the evidence supporting (or refuting) them is always itself richly interpreted (the theses of holism and the theory-ladenness of evidence), then it seem unavoidable that nonevidential values and interests, features of the "external" context of science, must play a role not only in the formulation but also in the evaluation of hypotheses. The contribution of discipline-specific feminist critiques is the insight that these contextual factors may include gendered interest, values, and social structures.

Although feminist philosophers are sometimes charged with advocating an untenable, "cynical," and self-defeating relativism (Haack 1993) because of their insistence that social factors such as gender shape the practice and results of science, in fact neither feminist critics within the sciences nor feminist philosophers of science show much sympathy for extreme forms of social constructivism or contextualism on which epistemic considerations are reduced to social, political factors. Harding's (1986) discussions of a "postmodern" epistemic stance and some of Haraway's (1989) reflections on hybrid constructions of nature may be seen to move in this direction. But Harding was explicitly "ambivalent" about postmodern options at the time she proposed them and has since elaborated a thesis of "strong objectivity" according to which an understanding of the standpoint (the social location, interests, values) of epistemic agents serves as a resource in producing and evaluating "less partial and less distorted" knowledge claims (1991). Haraway has likewise elaborated the concept of "situated knowledges" with the aim of capturing the sense in which it is reasonable to require "a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a 'real' world" while yet acknowledging the radical historical and social contingency of all knowledge production (1991).

In a similar vein, while Keller reaffirms the value of psychodynamic analyses of the masculine orientation of science (e.g., as elaborated in Keller 1985), she distances herself from strong sociological theses and argues the need for feminist analyses of science that attend to "logical and empirical constraints" and account for the "technological prowess" that makes scientific claims so compelling for scientists and for the world at large (1992, p. 3). The central preoccupation of feminist philosophers of science who elaborate a positive account of scientific inquiry is to understand the ways in which the (gendered) standpoint of epistemic agents and epistemic communities shapes inquiry while yet making sense of constraints imposed by constitutive values such as the standard requirements of epistemic adequacy, reliability, internal coherence, and consistency.

A number of positions have been explored in this connection. Feminist standpoint theory is one such approach. Harding's (1991) formulation draws on the earlier proposals of feminists, such as Hartsock (1983), who are influenced both by Marxist-derived epistemologies and by psychoanalytic theory, and on the work of black and minority feminist theorists who draw attention to the insights afforded by subdominant status (Collins 1991, Narayan 1988). The central thesis of standpoint theory, as developed by feminist theorists, is that the empirical evidence to which epistemic agents have access, their powers of discernment and breadth of understanding, may be both enhanced and limited by their social location and associated experience, values, and interests. For example, those who must understand a dominant world of privilege from which they are excluded as well as the subdominant world(s) of which they are members may well be better situated to understand both worlds, in empirical detail and with critical precision, than those who are beneficiaries of systemic privilege. The epistemic partiality and authority of knowledge claims, and therefore the effective assessment of their epistemic adequacy, is thus contingent on understanding the conditions under which they are produced and authorized, the standpoint of epistemic agents and communities.

A number of feminist philosophers of science have argued that the social dimensions of scientific practice (including but not limited to its gendered dimensions) can be understood in terms compatible with a modified empiricism. Longino's (1990) carefully worked distinction between contextual and constitutive values provides a framework for identifying the various points at which epistemic considerations leave room for the play of social factors, institutional context, political commitment, and personal interests in the formulation of descriptive categories, the interpretation of data as evidence, and the evaluation of hypotheses against evidence. At the same time she accords constitutive (epistemic) values a central role, arguing that standards of rational acceptability can be identified that are independent of individual interests and that the social nature of science (e.g., institutional structures that encourage rigorous critical scrutiny of knowledge claims) serves as much to protect scientific knowledge from idiosyncratic bias as to render it vulnerable to such bias.

In a similar vein Nelson (1990) argues that an empiricist theory, which grounds knowledge in evidence and construes evidence in experiential terms, is compatible with a feminist reconceptualization of the agents of inquiry as communities, not abstract individuals, which are historically situated and of socially specified form. Sophisticated feminist empiricisms offer an account of epistemic virtues that transcend standpoint-specific intereststhe virtues of empirical adequacy, reliability, scope of applicability, and explanatory power, which different standpoints help or inhibit us from realizingwithout invoking an untenable (asocial) foundationalism.

Despite significant philosophical differences between proponents of these positions, feminist philosophers of science share an ambition to develop an account of science that resolves (or circumvents) the polarized debate between objectivists and rationalists on one hand and constructivists and relativists on the other. This is conceived both as a contribution to postpositivist philosophy of science, in which the terms of debate are most clearly articulated, and to feminist theory, where questions about the proper grounds for evaluating knowledge claims are a matter of immediate practical concern.

See also Feminist Epistemology; Feminist Metaphysics; Feminist Philosophy; Feminist Philosophy of Science: Contemporary Perspectives; Philosophy of Science; Sexism.


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Alison Wylie (1996)

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