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Fr. 730

October 14, 2016

In other writings, Leiter makes clear his party: the Marxist. In truth, he provides convincing argumentation for it, ranging from the breakdown of discourse on contemporary college campuses to the way in which “epistemic privilege” precludes questioning the person’s cognitive context and conceptual economy to critiques of identity politics as neoliberalist social reality. In a word, there is much right in Leiter’s position.

That said, this epistemic tale comes down rather heavily in favor of its first, Marxist half and thereby risks missing one important lesson from 20th century historicist philosophy, as well shown by Jeffrey Stout: there is no way completely to escape standpoint. Certainly, the Marxist’s claim to an epistemic description untainted by standpoint may well achieve such, at least in a narrow sense, where “standpoint” glosses “distorted standpoint”. But it is less clear that Marxist epistemic description partakes in no standpoint, more broadly understood, i.e. a cognitive context and conceptual economy rooted in a contingent moment of human history and social evolution. One may allow that the Marxist description comes with no distortions without at the same time declaring it free of any standpoint whatsoever. For the latter amounts to a transcendent attempt to rise above and cast out history, fitting of Marx’s idealist origins.

One may then wonder what lesson, if any, should be retained from Leiter’s tale. If, when interrogating a person’s beliefs, one must account for the influence of social background on those beliefs and prepare to challenge the person’s background to get at the soundness of those beliefs, this does not, however, mean that challenging the person’s background and beliefs on the basis of that background will end in the person’s being “freed” from that background, but only its most pernicious elements. Indeed, the person so freed from background would be unlikely to have reasons to hold the new beliefs which the superior, undistorted description would provide. More simply, one must challenge distortions while allowing the person to work out both challenge and subsequent changes in terms which her background affords her. At its root, challenging comprises an important part of listening and adapting to that background, without which the challenge is constitutively liable to fail. The foregoing suggests that the Marxist description is no less bound up with a standpoint, albeit of a more innocuous sort, and that the Marxist is in danger of forgetting just this fact in dealing with “epistemic privilege”.

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