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Feminist Epistemology: An Impossible Project?

Feminist Epistemology:

An Impossible Project?

Margareta Halberg
This paper takes up the recent epistemological turn in feminist theory and some of the problems thereby raised. The
fundamental aim of feminist theories in general is to analyze
(and change) gender relations. It may be argued that the term
‘epistemology’ in feminist discourse should not be defined
too narrowly. For the most part it is a comprehensive concept
that refers to various aspects of both know ledge claims and
grounds for knowledge in not only scientific, but also ethical,
moral, and political contexts. The discussion in this paper,
however, will concentrate mainly on epistemological questions as they relate to science.

When feminist epistemologies are proposed, they not only
set out to legitimize a new field of inquiry; often they also
question the entire ‘scientific project’ and its underlying metaphysics. While feminist critical theory has a lot in common
with other radical oppositions to traditional philosophy of
science, it differs in its strong emphasis on epistemological
concerns. The term ‘feminist epistemology’ calls upon us to
replace a male-centred epistemology with a female/feministcentred one. The point is that tradi tional science and philosophies of science are considered to be male-biased, while a
science grounded in a feminist epistemology is regarded as
potentially non-biased.

Feminist epistemologies have been usefully examined by
proponents like Sandra Harding (Harding & Hintikka (eds.)
1983; Harding 1986, 1987). They have been presented as a
basis for both a radical critique of traditional philosophy of
science and as a logical and coherent alternative. I shall argue
that both of these claims are beset with immense difficulties;
they somehow create more problems than they solve. My
point of departure in discussing these issues is the theory of
science, especially that branch of it that focuses on the relationships and interaction between social and cognitive aspects (or factors) in science and research.

First of all I want to emphasize that, in my view, the recent
epistemological turn in feminist theory tends to over-estimate
metatheoretical aspects; it tends to do so both when criticizing
existing science and in its proclamation of a science grounded
in a feminist epistemology. On both counts there is a tendency
to misconstrue science as an activity dominated by philosophical conflicts and obligations. Such one-sided epistemology-centred philosophy of science has been questioned by,
among others, Richard Rorty (1980) and Rom Harre (1986).

This development, though an unintended effect of feminist
critiques of science, is nevertheless a possible outcome.

Although there are, of course, many important differences
between traditional epistemological orientations and the
feminist discussion, the exaggerated focus on epistemology
may lead to untenable conclusions, particularly when it comes
to the significance of metatheoretical aspects in science. One
consequence is that important distinctions between cognitive
and social factors tend to collapse.

Radical Philosophy 53, Autumn 1989

My main concern in this paper is with feminist epistemologies. I have found that many female, and of course
feminist, scientists and theorists discuss issues related to the
theory of science. Many feminists have naturally been working as scientists or philosophers without reflecting on or
criticizing the basic assumptions of their disciplines, and
certainly there has always been theoretical discussion within
feminism, sometimes leading to contradictions in the
women’s movement. The recent philosophical turn, however,
has to a certain extent introduced a new kind of interest in
feminist philosophy, which is sometimes only rather distantly
connected to political feminism.

Feminist epistemologies are constructed to justify feminist scientific and philosophical activity and to provide a new
basis for the new kind of feminism; a process that is fraught
with its own special difficulties. Some of the more obvious
differences between women, regarding interests, positions,
and tasks in society, which were the source of political contradictions within the women’s movement, now tend to collapse
in women’s academic studies, under the notion of one overarching common knowledge-base, founded on gender.

In this paper I shall be concerned with some of the problems confronting the feminist epistemological project. They
may be formulated in many different ways, but there are at
least three main tensions and oppositions that appear to be
most influential and relevant to the present discussion. These
are:

1. The tension between objectivism and relativism.

2. The problem with the social dimension in men’s and
women’s thinking.

3. The opposition between different interpretations of the
concept of ‘difference’ .

These three related issues are difficult to settle in feminist
discourse, and each of them tends to create new problems. In
what follows I shall deal with each of the issues under a
separate heading.

Objectivism and relativism
There are many more or less sophisticated definitions of these
two terms, but I find that Richard Bernstein has given a
valuable one in his book Beyond Objectivism and Relativism
(1984). He writes:

By’ objectivism’, I mean the basic conviction that
there is or must be some permanent, ahistorical matrix
or framework to which we can ultimately appeal in
determining the nature of rationality, know ledge, truth,
reality, goodness or rightness …

In its strongest form, relativism is the basic conviction
3

that when we turn to the examination of those concepts
that philosophers have taken to be the most fundamental … we are forced to recognize that in the final
analysis all such concepts must be understood as relative to a specific conceptual scheme, theoretical framework, paradigm, form of life, society, or culture … (op.

cit., pp. 4-5).

Under objectivists Bernstein means to include not only the
rationalists and empiricists, but also foundationalists and
essentialists. Relativism, on the other hand, is defined as the
dialectical antithesis of objectivism. It may be argued that this
definition is too inclusive as far as objectivism is concerned,
and that it misses some of the central aspects of relativism.

Also, it might be argued that the complete counterposition of
objectivism and relativism belongs to a traditional, Enlightenment discourse, and has no validity outside this discourse.

Most oppositions have a common logic underlying their polarity, which makes it possible for them to define each other
negatively. For my purposes, however, this counterposition
of two opposing trends has the advantage that it alerts us to
some of the incompatible tendencies in feminist epistemologies.

The problem may briefly be described in the following
way: If existing, ‘traditional’ knowledge is considered false,
and not only inadequate because of its one-sidedness, there
must be possibilities for a true(r) knowledge. Also, there
should be plausible and tenable ways of explaining why
traditional knowledge is male-biased, while feminist knowledge is not. If both kinds of knowledge, the ‘male’ and the
‘female’ (or feminist), are considered biased, we are faced
with a kind of relativism entailing that different views are
equally (either) true (or false). Some feminist theorists tend to
subscribe to this view, but I would not call it representative, at
least not among feminist philosophers. 1
Unless one supposes that male-biased theories somehow
misdescribe reality and misrepresent how things are, it is
difficult to make sense of much of feminist science criticism.

This assumption, however, tends to lead to some kind of
objectivism: but objectivism is at the same time associated
with a masculine epistemology, which feminism sets out to
oppose. Thus we land in the difficult situation of having to
defend a kind of ‘feminist objectivism’, while rejecting all
other forms of objectivist claims. Consequently, feminist
epistemologists need very strong and convincing arguments.

They will have to answer some complicated questions about
why women and/or feminists have correct versions of how
things really are, and why they are the only ones who enjoy
this privileged position.

These problems place feminists in the same boat as some
Marxist standpoint theories, for example the one outlined by
George Lukacs in which the proletarian class-standpoint is
designated as cognitively privileged. Another variant is found
in Karl Mannheim’s theses concerning so-called ‘free-floating intellectuals’. The common point of departure in privileged-position views is that social position in society is the
ultimate guarantee in truth-finding procedures or practices.2
Now, such a theory of knowledge is no doubt a nonrelativist one, in as far as it does not support the view that
there are many equally true conceptions of reality. Using
Bernstein’s definition, we can call it an objectivist view – one
which holds on to a conviction concerning some kind of
foundations for knowledge. The feminist version of objectivism is referred to as ‘feminist standpoint epistemology’.3 It is
founded on the claim that women have a cognitively privileged position in society, so that their knowledge is superior

4

to men’s knowledge. This privileged position is taken to be
rooted in or generated by women’s experiences, defined in a
broad sense.

The contours of feminist epistemologies had hardly ac-

quired a distinct identity, when they were challenged by
postmodernistlanti-foundationalist thinking. Even though
this postmodern trend is far from unitary and is wide-ranging
in its opposition to modernity, some of its critical assumptions and insights are particularly significant when viewed
from a feminist perspective. In brief, its critical position is
really a radical one, because it challenges what lies at the root
of the entire Enlightenment project, viz. the very idea of a
foundation for knowledge.

Anti-foundationalism rejects all of the dichotomies on
which Enlightenment epistemology rests, including subject!

object, rational/irrational, reason/emotion, and language/reality. It also rejects the presuppositions involved in these dichotomies – the ideas of a coherent, unified self, a rationalist
and individualist model of knowing and the possibilities of a
metalanguage. The knowing ‘subject’ is taken to be always
heterogeneous and socially constructed, so all kinds of essentialism are opposed.

What follows from these objections to the Enlightenment
ideas is, among other things, that ‘truth’ is always plural and
situated and that epistemology itself has to be questioned. All
thought is biased and there exists no position from which a
correct view, in an absolute sense, may be grounded. The term
‘feminist epistemology’ is itself misleading from an antifoundationalist point of view. Postmodernist challenges,
when taken seriously, undermine the feminist epistemological project, unless the idea of a new cognitively privileged
position can be defended. In my reading of the feminist
standpoint epistemology, the crucial issue in determining its
plausibility is to what extent it is tenable to uphold women’s
experience as a legitimation of a grounding for knowledge.

To examine that issue, I will now turn to the second of the
above-mentioned tensions in feminist epistemology.

The problem with the social dimension in men’s and
women’s thinking
Much of the feminist critique of traditional science and its
philosophy presupposes that modern epistemology results
from a male way of knowing, which of course in its turn asRadical Philosophy 53, Autumn 1989

sumes that there is a specific male form of thinking. The
scientific revolution, for example, has been analyzed with
respect to its so-called ‘gender metaphors’, where it is argued
that the specific language used by the new scientists and the
philosophers expresses a masculine way of thinking and reacting upon the world (Merchant 1980, Keller 1985). Some
feminists, such as Mary Daly (1979) or Dale Spender (1980),
together with most of the French feminist deconstructivists,
have asserted that theory as well as language is male-biased
and completely permeated with masculinity. They are identifying Enlightenment rationalism as a distinctly male/masculine mode of thought. Closely related to this view is a concept
of the essential female. Daly is but one example of feminists
arguing for a return to a focus on femaleness. Most feminists
involved in the epistemological turn seem to support this view
in one way or another, and thus they believe that the fundamental dichotomies of Enlightenment thought are rooted in
the male/female dichotomy. In my opinion, there are several
problems with this view. First of all, it is far too inclusive – it
gives no room to distinguish masculine aspects in thinking or
in the products of thought, from aspects not genderized at all.

It tends to see every idea (in, for example, philosophy or
meta-theory) about everything as male-biased, as if the hegemony of dominant conceptions were complete. Patriarchy
appears free of conflicts and contradictions, totally dominated
by a unified masculinity. According to Toril Moi (1985) this
view expresses a central paradox in feminism: ‘given that
there is no space outside patriarchy from which women can
speak, how do we explain the existence of a feminist, anti-patriarchal discourse at all?’ (p. 81). Closely related to this is the
fact that rationalism may be (and has been) questioned and
criticized without any references to gender. It seems to be of
the utmost importance then to define what masculinity entails
and also what it excludes. Why is it masculine at all to reason
in a rational way? And how do women reason, or don’t they?

Secondly, the assumptions cited rely too heavily on popular views of typical male and female behaviour; stereotyped
versions of how we are supposed to act and think are reflected
in these stances. Such views easily fall into mystifications
about male rationality and female intuition, masculine clear
thinking as opposed to feminine emotional thinking, without
paying attention to the possibility of a dialectical interaction
within the two sexes between the two principles – the masculine and the feminine.

I agree with Judith Grant (1987), who suggests that feminists, in their eagerness to oppose and criticize male-biased
reasoning, seem to have been too hasty in proposing the idea
of a special women’s knowing from experience. For my part,
I consider the basic idea as acceptable, if it were extended to
all kinds of experience and knowing, not onl y women’s. If we
recognize all thinking as social, the assumption would cease
to be problematic. In that case it should be evident that, as
concepts, male/femaleness are socially and historically constructed categories and hence variable; also it becomes clear
how it is hard to settle, once and for all, exactly what is
covered by each concept.

It is only when the gender categories are used to distinguish between male and female reasoning that I find the claim
suspect and doubtful. The failure to realize that both men and
women ‘use’, so to speak, their experiences when thinking
about reality and constructing theories carries with it a tendency to lean too heavily on a traditional and individualistic
epistemology. At least it seems to be with such underpinnings
that male reason is opposed to female experience, male ‘culture’ to female ‘nature’, and women’s knowing considered to
be different from men’s.

Radical Philosophy 53, Autumn 1989

The premise on which the argument rests, then, if a tenable
one, postulates radically different experiences between men
and women, and very similar and gender-specific experiences
within the two sexes. The difficulty is, first of all, that it is
problematic to define the communality in all women’s and
men’s experiences. As far as women are concerned, feminists
have put forward various proposals; among then genderidentity based on psychological development (Chodorow
1978), mothering (Ruddick 1980), women’s caring work
(Rose 1983), and women’s subordinate social position
(Hartsock 1983). The problem with all of these proposals is
that the experiences referred to are not shared by all women;
even if they did, they are always inserted in different social
relations and not all women would necessarily live through
the touchstone experiences in the same ways. Furthermore,
experiences are always interpreted differently in different
social contexts; historical epochs, class positions, and so on.

Ontologically it seems to be plausible to argue that there
exists a shared material world which is part of experience. But
if so, the material world is not itself experienced, nor directly
given. Rather, it is mediated, verbalized and interpreted in
socially constituted forms.

A second remark I find important to make concerns female/feminist-interpreted experience, and its incorporation in
science as a social institution. In actual practice, women and
the way they interpret their experiences is not contextually
independent. Interpretation is influenced, confronted and
questioned by other – often rival or competing – ideologies
and interpretations, so that the theorized experience loses
something of its ‘originality’. Postmodernism provides a good
example of how influential and challenging ideas may clash
with a female self-image; other trends naturally provide similar challenges. Not only ideas, but also experiences get
changed within a new context, which is one of the reasons
why there tends to be a gap between academic and political
feminist discourse. Lynne Segal (1987) discussestheincreasing distance between those feminists engaged in various
campaigning activities and those engaged in intellectual
work, in Great Britain in the 1970s. Academic feminism, in

her view, turned out to be too abstract, while on the other hand
activist strands of feminism supported an extreme anti-theoreticism; the result was antagonisms and conflicts (pp. 5155).

The many difficulties of conceptualizing the meaning of
the term ‘experience’, and the problems with defining both
the categories male and female, have been recognized in
recent feminist epistemological discussions. It has been admitted for instance that there are many women’s experiences
and that therefore it is possible to maintain that, epistemologically, lesbian women, black women, working-class women,
Third World women and so forth, all have different and
5

group-specific knowledge. A problem for a feminist epistemology based on experience, then, is that the recognition of
differences seems to require that we postulate different groups
of interests. ‘Pluralism’ may appear to solve problems within
feminism, but this does not necessarily mean that the position
of feminism is epistemologically strengthened vis-a-vis other
theories. My main concern in this respect is where to draw the
limit? Why not add even further categories, such as young
women, old women, married or unmarried women, women
with or without children, well-educated, professional women,
and so on … ? This multiplication of groups and specific interests I think shows that one somehow ends up in extreme subjectivism. On the other hand, if women are not thought of as
having some epistemological communality, what is the point
of trying to distinguish women’s thinking from men’s, since it
does not add anything that is epistemologically interesting?

Given all this, how do we then ground a feminist epistemology? I do not think there is any feasible way of doing this.

Taken to its extreme, the privileging of multiple experiences
leads to a highly relativist view of knowledge and thus turns
out to be a counter-argument that mitigates against the standpoint position. This is even more apparent in the third tension
in feminist theory, to which I now turn.

‘unified subject’, i.e. Enlightenment-man, present to him/
herself, and capable of understanding other persons. According to Young (1986) this is what Derrida calls a metaphysics
of presence and Adorno the logic of identity; a metaphysics
that represses or denies difference (p. 1).

Now, when feminists make use of the poststructuralist
conception of ‘difference’, they are in fact not just integrating
the concept itself. What emerges is a new way of doing
philosophy, which has as one of its basic tenets the rejection
of a logic of identity. Many feminists seem to refer to multiple
subjects that would be interpreted identically in an ideal
situation. We find a gap, then, between the understanding of
‘difference’ as a term denoting many different realities, and
looking at it as the mainstay for the anti-thesis to unified,
present and limited entities. Only in the former case it is
useful and valuable for defending the standpoint epistemology, taking the multiplicity of feminist experiences and ‘realities’ as a possible domain for grounding. ‘Difference’ in a
poststructuralist sense, however, dissolves the unified subject
wherever it is constructed; thus it radically undermines the
possibility of defining any bases at all for the epistemological
turn in feminist theory.

The problem concerning feminist uses of postmodern influences is further aggravated by the fact that, while there is
no unique way in which one might conceptualize gender differences, at least not in any stable and interesting sense, at the
same time women’s oppression is not purely ideological or
discursive. The postmodern turn to language itself as the
determining factor, not only expressing but constructing consciousness, does not provide an adequate and sufficient account of power relations and dominating forces. There certainly are some important links between poststructuralism
and feminism that need further elaboration, but they are not in
favour of epistemology.

Conclusions

The opposition between ditTerent interpretations of the
concept of ‘difference’

As already suggested, the conceptualizing of differences has
recently become more complicated in feminist discourse. Not
long ago ‘difference’ was mainly related to differences between the two basic categories – men and women; these
categories themselves were seen as relatively unproblematic.4
The new politics, however, taking into account the differences within these categories, is now challenging conventional feminist claims. It is clear that various qualifications
have to be made if the concept of ‘difference’ is to be used in
a meaningful way in the present context. I am certainly aware
also of the difficulties of just transforming it to feminist
thinking.

The term ‘difference’ stems from the ‘poststructuralist’

philosopher J acques Derrida, and it is central to the discussion of many theorists today. In the contexts of feminist
theory the term has emerged together with the oppositional
trends that I have already outlined, flowing from the postmodernists and anti-foundationalists (Flax 1987, Moi 1985, Rose
1986, Sawicki 1986, Scott 1988, Young 1986).

Most influential as far as feminist discourse is concerned
is that the apprehension of difference within women is a
project that cuts across the idea of a common feminist experience. One of the major achievements of the poststructuralist
analysis of difference has been to criticize and deconstruct the
6

I have given a critical account of the attempts to construct a
feminist epistemology, identifying three main tensions in
feminist theorizing. It has been argued that none of the problems may be solved at the theoretical level. The tension
between objectivism and relativism is inherent in the feminist
standpoint epistemology and cannot be overcome. Either
there is a feminist objectivist standpoint, grounded in a
women’s position in society, or there is no such standpoint. If
it is recognized that there are many various, and sometimes
necessarily contradictory, ‘women’s standpoints’, there is no
possible way of deciding which one is the objective one.

Furthermore, I have tried to demonstrate that ‘experience’

when used as a basis for knowledge is an extremely vague
term. Experiences are always influenced by the contexts surrounding them, and therefore never coherent or identical for
all women. Even if all women shared certain ‘determining’

experiences, it is by no means obvious that this would give
rise to the same kind of knowledge.

I reject experience as a grounding for feminist epistemologies, and I oppose the proposals that men and women do have
different ways to knowledge. I also reject the idea that philosophical and scientific concepts are totally genderized. Feminist challenges to science are in my view very important and
valuable, in so far as they identify and contribute to a recognition of formerly ignored groups and problems; in the process
feminists thus highlight new and important areas where research is needed. This, however, has less to do with epistemology than is suggested by the recent epistemological turn
in feminist theory.

Radical Philosophy 53, Autumn 1989

Notes
1

2
3
4

Stanley and wise (1983) are arguing for a concept of many
realities, both related to the idea of masculine and feminine
realities and to the idea of many feminine realities. Since
they are denying objectivity and ‘truth-seeking’ in general,
and the only notion of theory they want to allow is one based
on ethnomethodology, I don’t regard their approach as neither epistemological nor relevant for my discussion. See also
Grimshaw (1987) for an interesting discussion of the position of Stanley and Wise.

See Johansson, footnote 1 above.

See Harding (1986) for an overview of these stances.

See for instance Barrett’s article ‘The Concept of Difference’ in Feminist Review, no. 26, 1987, for an interesting
discussion of these matters.

References
Barrett, Michel, ‘The Concept of Difference’, Feminist Review, no.

26, 1987.

Bernstein, Richard J., Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, Basil
Blackwell, Oxford, 1983.

Bhaskar, Roy, The Possibility of Naturalism, The Harvester Press
Ltd, Brighton, 1979.

Chodorow, Nancy, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis
and the Sociology of Gender, University of California Press,
Berkeley, 1978.

Daly, Mary, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism,
The Women’s Press, London, 1979.

Flax, Jane, ‘Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist
Theory’, Signs, vol. 12, no. 4, 1987.

Grant, Judith, ‘I feel therefore I am: A critique of female experience
as the basis for a feminist epistemology’, Women and Politics, vol. 7,
no. 3, 1987.

Harding, Sandra and Hintikka, Merill B., Discovering Reality, Feminis! Perspectives on Epistemology. Metaphysics. Methodology, and
Phllosophy of Science, D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht,
1983.

Harding, Sandra, The Science Question in Feminism, Cornell University Press, New York, 1986.

Harding, Sandra, Feminism and Methodology, Indiana University
Press, Bloomington, 1987.

Harre, Rom, Varieties of Realism, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1986.

Hartsock, N ancy, ‘The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground
for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism’, in Harding, S.

and Hintikka, M. B., Discovering Reality, 1983.

Johansson, Ingvar, ‘Beyond Objectivism and Relativism’, Radical
Philosophy, no. 47, 1987.

Keller, Evelyn Fox, Reflections on Gender and Science Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1985.

Merchant, Carolyn, The Death ofNature: Women. Ecology, and the
Scientific Revolution, Harper & Row Publishers, San Francisco
1980.

Moi, Toril, Sexual/Textual Politics, Methuen, London, 1985.

Rorty, Richard, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1980.

Rose, Hilary, ‘Hand, brain and heart: A feminist epistemology for
the natural sciences’, Signs, vol. 9, no. I, 1983.

Rose, Jacqueline, Sexuality in the Field of Vision, Verso Books,
London, 1986.

Ruddick, Sara, ‘Maternal Thinking’, Feminist Studies, vol. 6, no. 2.

Sawicki, Jana, ‘Foucault and Feminism: Towards a Politics of
Difference;, Hypatia, vol. I, no. 2, 1986.

Scott, Joan W. ‘Deconstructing Equality-Versus-Difference: Or the
Uses of Poststructuralist Theory for Feminism’, Feminist Studies,
vol. 14, no. I, 1988.

Segal, Lynne,ls the Future Female?, Virago Press, London, 1987.

Spender, Dale, Man-made Language, Routledge and Kegan Paul,
London, 1980.

Stanley, Liz and Wise, Sue, Breaking Out: Feminist Consciousness
and Feminist Research, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1983.

Young, Iris Marion, ‘The Ideal of Community and the Politics of
Difference’, Social Theory and Practice, vol. 12, no. I, 1986.

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