Brian Leiter’s recent post, “On an irony about the evolution of ‘standpoint epistemology'”, proposes a cautionary tale of sorts for those unfamiliar with philosophical history and conceptual evolution. The tale’s first half is not unfamiliar from Leiter’s other writings as it brings ideology and knowledge distortion to the fore:
It was Marx and Marxists who were the inventers [sic] of “standpoint epistemology,” the idea that one’s “social” position–for Marxists, “class,” for later writers, race, gender, and so on–exercises an important, sometimes decisive, influence on a person’s beliefs. For Marxists, the key thought was that the “standpoint” resulted in distortion of one’s knowledge, because it was tainted by the interests associated with one’s social position. In the Marxist version of standpoint epistemology, the working classes did not have any special epistemic access to the actual facts about their situation–to the contrary, their understanding of the actual state of affairs was distorted by the ideology propagated by a different, dominant class, which systematically distorted social reality in its own interests. Marxists, like Marx, assumed (correctly) that there is an epistemically superior description of social reality that is not tainted by standpoint, and which can serve as a check on the ideological delusions promoted by dominant groups.
So far, so good, one might think. Social class, race, gender, religion, nationality, etc. can impact the particular make-up of a person’s beliefs insofar as these external factors affect the notions available via cognitive context which are then exercised in the person’s conceptual economy. In other words, the person’s beliefs hang together a certain way in virtue of a certain social background, and understanding their reasons for holding those beliefs must take account of that background (in a vaguely coherentist sense). Yet the Marxist takes account thereof only in order, first, to disentangle that person from the distortions which that background induces in her and, second, to provide “an epistemically superior description of social reality” capable of correcting for those distortions. It is not so much a question of proposing a counter-narrative as of rising above the need for narrative, tainted as they are by standpoint.
So does the first half neatly prepare the way for the inversion of the tale’s second half. For contemporary philosophy and advocates of “identity politics”, in the broadest sense, have unlearned Marxism’s lesson:
By contrast, in recent bourgeois academic philosophy–that is, philosophizing by well-to-do professors who never challenge the prerogatives of the capitalist class, which is basically almost all of current philosophy in the Anglophone world–standpoint epistemology has, ironically, been turned on its head. Now the social position of the purported “knower”–usually “race” or “gender” or “sexual orientation”–is not taken to be a distorting influence on cognition, but rather an epistemic advantage, one which even demands epistemic deference by others. We have travelled rather far from Marx.
Indeed, the movement unfolds in precisely the same manner up to a point. Again, one notes that social class, race, gender, religion, nationality, etc. can impact the particular make-up of a person’s beliefs insofar as these external factors affect the notions available via cognitive context which are then exercised in the person’s conceptual economy. Similarly, the person’s beliefs hang together a certain way in virtue of a certain social background, and understanding their reasons for holding those beliefs must take account of that background (in a vaguely coherentist sense).
In contrast, at the moment where the Marxist, having taking stock of the person’s cognitive context and conceptual economy, isolates the distorting elements and offers a superior epistemic description, the contemporary philosopher instead leaves the person’s cognitive context and conceptual economy intact as privileged elements securing access to her distinct background and beliefs. In short, the contemporary philosopher holds up as insightful that which the Marxist casts out as distorted.
All the same, one cannot help but wonder whether there is not a third side to the tale.