SMC Fundamental Problems Concerning the Nature of Reality Questions


Uma Narayan’s excerpt (page 271-275) warns philosophers about the supposed “epistemically advantage” for minority groups. Do you agree with her assessment? Why or why not?

2.  Respond to the following: 

What is philosophy?
How has your perspective changed over the course of the semester?On Feminist Epistemology
BY Uma Narayan
Page (272)
A fundamental thesis of feminist epistemology is that our location in the world as women
makes it possible for us to perceive and understand di erent aspects of both the world and
human activities in ways that challenge the male bias of existing perspectives. Feminist
epistemology is a particular manifestation of the general insight that the nature of women’s
experiences as individuals and as social beings, our contributions to work, culture, knowledge,
and our history and political interests have been systematically ignored or misrepresented by
mainstream discourses in di erent areas.
Women have been often excluded from prestigious areas of human activity (for example,
politics or science) and this has often made these activities seem clearly “male.” In areas where
women were not excluded (for example, subsistence work), their contribution has been
misrepresented as secondary and inferior to that of men. Feminist epistemology sees
mainstream theories about various human enterprises, including mainstream theories about
human knowledge, as one-dimensional and deeply awed because of the exclusion and
misrepresentation of women’s contributions.
“The oppressed are seen as having an ‘epistemic advantage’ because they can operate with
two sets of practices and in two di erent contexts.”
Feminist epistemology suggests that integrating women’s contribution into the domain of
science and knowledge will not constitute a mere adding of details; it will not merely widen the
canvas but result in a shift of perspective enabling us to see a very di erent picture. The
inclusion of women’s perspective will not merely amount to women participating in greater
numbers in the existing practice of science and knowledge, but it will change the very nature of
these activities and their self-understanding.
It would be misleading to suggest that feminist epistemology is a homogenous and cohesive
enterprise. Its practitioners di er both philosophically and politically in a number of signi cant
ways (Harding 1986).
But an important theme on its agenda has been to undermine the abstract, rationalistic, and
universal image of the scienti c enterprise by using several di erent strategies. It has studied,
for instance, how contingent historical factors have colored both scienti c theories and
practices and provided the (often sexist) metaphors in which scientists have conceptualized
their activity (Bordo 1986; Keller 1985; Harding and O’Barr 1987). It has tried to reintegrate
values and emotions into our account of our cognitive activities, arguing for both the
inevitability of their presence and the importance of the contributions they are capable of
making to our knowledge. … It has also attacked various sets of dualisms characteristic of
western philosophical thinking—reason versus emotion, culture versus nature, universal versus
particular—in which the rst of each set is identi ed with science, rationality, and the masculine
and the second is relegated to the nonscienti c, the nonrational, and the feminine.
At the most general level, feminist epistemology resembles the e orts of many oppressed
groups to reclaim for themselves the value of their own experience. The writing of novels that
focused on working-class life in England or the lives of black people in the United States
shares a motivation similar to that of feminist epistemology—to depict an experience di erent
from the norm and to assert the value of this di erence.
In a similar manner, feminist epistemology also resembles attempts by third-world writers and
historians to document the wealth and complexity of local economic and social structures that
existed prior to colonialism. These attempts are useful for their ability to restore to colonized
peoples a sense of the richness of their own history and culture. These projects also mitigate
the tendency of intellectuals in former colonies who are westernized through their education to
think that anything western is necessarily better and more “progressive.” In some cases, such
studies help to preserve the knowledge of many local arts, crafts, lore, and techniques that
were part of the former way of life before they are lost not only to practice but even to memory.
These enterprises are analogous to feminist epistemology’s project of restoring to women a
sense of the richness of their history, to mitigate our tendency to see the stereotypically
“masculine” as better or more progressive, and to preserve for posterity the contents of
“feminine” areas of knowledge and expertise—medical lore, knowledge associated with the
practices of childbirth and child rearing, traditionally feminine crafts, and so on. Feminist
epistemology, like these other enterprises, must attempt to balance the assertion of the value
of a di erent culture or experience against the dangers of romanticizing it to the extent that the
limitations and oppressions it confers on its subjects are ignored.
Some feminist epistemologists have claimed that there is an “epistemic advantage” of being in
the traditionally undervalued position, in that those who have been undervalued have a more
complex awareness that combines knowledge that is valued in the dominant group and
knowledge from their own experience. The result is that those in a subordinated group are in a
better position to criticize the status quo than those who know only the perspective of the
dominant. Narayan points out, however, that being in the subordinate position also has an
epistemic disadvantage—one must gure out how to combine the knowledge coming from
both perspectives, a challenge that can take a toll and need not result in a critical perspective.
Page 274:
Narayan does not deny that having a complex perspective that results from being a member of
a subordinate group can yield insight and support liberating political aims, but she thinks that
feminists should beware of overemphasizing the advantage provided by such a perspective.
Feminist theory must be temperate in the use it makes of this doctrine of “double vision”—the
claim that oppressed groups have an epistemic advantage and access to greater critical
conceptual space. Certain types and contexts of oppression certainly may bear out the truth of
this claim. Others certainly do not seem to do so; and even if they do provide space for critical
insights, they may also rule out the possibility of actions subversive of the oppressive state of
a airs.
Certain kinds of oppressive contexts, such as the contexts in which women of my
grandmother’s background lived, rendered their subjects entirely devoid of skills required to
function as independent entities in the culture. Girls were married o barely past puberty,
trained for nothing beyond household tasks and the rearing of children, and passed from
economic dependency on their fathers to economic dependency on their husbands to
economic dependency on their sons in old age. Their criticisms of their lot were articulated, if
at all, in terms that precluded a desire for any radical change. They saw themselves sometimes
as personally unfortunate, but they did not locate the causes of their misery in larger social
I conclude by stressing that the important insight incorporated in the doctrine of “double
vision” should not be rei ed into a metaphysics that serves as a substitute for concrete social
analysis. Furthermore, the alternative to “buying” into an oppressive social system need not be
a celebration of exclusion and the mechanisms of marginalization. The thesis that oppression
may bestow an epistemic advantage should not tempt us in the direction of idealizing or
romanticizing oppression and blind us to its real material and psychic deprivations.

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