“The New Feminism emphasises the importance of the ‘woman’s point of view’, the Old Feminism believes in the primary importance of the human being….Personally I am an Old Feminist…” (Winifred Holtby)
“I have been a feminist since the age of twelve, when I got the highest grade in my first chemistry exam, and the boy who got the next highest grade protested indignantly that it wasn’t fair – “everyone knows girls can’t do chemistry.” And, since I have been working in epistemology for more than a decade now, I think I qualify as an epistemologist. So I must be a feminist epistemologist, right? Wrong. On the contrary, I don’t believe there is any such connection between feminism and epistemology as the rubric “feminist epistemology” requires” (Susan Haack).
So the philosopher Susan Haack begins her critique of so-called feminist epistemology. But what is so pernicious about (supposedly) adopting the perspective of women in order to better understand the disadvantages from which they suffer? Nothing at all. Of course, what typically goes by the name of feminist epistemology is rarely so innocuous. Haack notes the recent shift from the feminism that stresses the common humanity and dignity of both sexes in order to make the playing field fair, to what Haack describes as an “ambitious, imperialist feminism which stresses the “woman’s point of view,” and claims revolutionary significance for all areas of philosophy, epistemology included.”
Of course, the claims of this new feminism are far from monolithic or consistent. As Haack notes:
“Among the self-styled feminist epistemologists one finds quasi-foundationalists, coherentists, and contextualists, proponents of epistemological naturalism, and unabashed relativists; some who stress connectedness, community, the social aspects of knowledge, and some who stress emotion, presumably subjective and personal; some who stress concepts of epistemic virtue…” etc. But it is hard to see what is distinctively “feminist” about such emphases. Presupposed seems to be a caricatured and absurd picture of men as inherently predisposed towards a kind of vague, arid foundationalism or uncritical realism or correspondence theory of some sort. This is clear incorrect.
The French have always emphasized the socio-historical role of scientific knowledge ever since the rise of thinkers like Bachelard and Canguilheim; among the Germans, in the 18th century, Johann Gottfried von Herder and his teacher Johann Georg Hamann. who criticized Kant’s spurious privileging of a universal, transcendental ground of knowledge over and against one which took into account the individual’s social and historical context. Likewise, Haack notes C.S. Peirce’s complaint of the solipsistically individualist epistemology of Descartes, as opposed to one which gave appropriate attention to a community of inquirers. (and, as Haack notes, Peirce was anything but a feminist). As far as emphasis on the personal, subjective element of knowledge, it goes without saying that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, hardly feminists, were aware of the importance of attending to this aspect of the human person.
To be sure, there has been, and continues to be, sexism in intellectual disciplines. But how exposure of such assumptions constitutes a distinctly “feminine” mode of epistemology, as opposed to the sort of critical attitude towards one’s own presuppositions which ought to characterize the attitudes of philosophers, social scientists and philosophers, is anyone’s guess. To be sure, one might expect women to be unusually sensitive to such discrimination, being subject to it themselves. Likewise, someone with an autoimmune disease that affects their intestines will be more aware of the inconveniences posed by it than those without it, but “ableist” prejudices can be remedied by spreading awareness of the disease. Indeed, it is hard to see why such an inconvenience deserves an entire epistemology devoted to it, as opposed to merely spreading awareness of the disease, its dangers and inconveniences, in order that appropriate accommodations be made.
Haack even notes that inordinate sensitivity to issues of sexism could be an impediment to accurate criticism and research, rather than one that affords privileged knowledge. Perhaps the archetypal example of this is Luce Irigaray’s asinine suggestion that E=MC^2 is “sexed equation.” Katherine Hayles explains:
“The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids… From this perspective it is no wonder that science has not been able to arrive at a successful model for turbulence. The problem of turbulent flow cannot be solved because the conceptions of fluids (and of women) have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated remainders.”
As Sokal and Brincmont point out, the reason Navier–Stokes equations are simply difficult to solve. In fact, due to their non-linearity, some are virtually impossible to solve. This is true of non-linear equations in general, regardless of the problems or fields to which they are applied; and the relevance of these equations extends far beyond questions having to do with fluids. Variables in such equations are so ubiquitously subject to fluctuation that it would take an omnipotent God to determine the outcome of the relevant situation with any certainty. It is in this sense that such phenomena are considered “non-deterministic” (referring to their epistemological unpredictability, not a lack of metaphysical antecedent determination or a denial of the principle of sufficient reason). Indeed, this is where we get the notorious example of the butterfly, the flap of whose wings becomes the difference that makes the difference in pushing the relevant variables through the threshold of the chaotic initial conditions needed to produce a tremendous storm. This is why, while weather can be successfully predicted over the long-term, the generation of specific storms becomes very unpredictable. Indeed, the “unarticulated remainders” to which Katherine Hayles refers are inevitable in such non-linear differential equations, except for the omnipotent God cognizant of all relevant factors. Those genuinely interested in the philosophical and scientific issues involved in these issues are encouraged to peruse pretty much anything written by John H. Holland, the “father of the genetic algorithm,” whose work is arguably the most important popularization of issues surrounding emergent and non-linear phenomena extant.
One wonders whether Irigaray attends to the earth-shattering effect Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason reportedly had on the 16 year old Einstein when he first read the work, especially in light of the presence Leibniz’s relativistic doctrine of space and time in the work, the triumph of Leibniz over Newton on such matters which Einstein would discover, Einstein’s admiration of Hume’s empiricism shortly prior to his discovery of relativity, various debates in which Einstein had been embroiled with other neo-Kantians and logical positivists, etc. Instead, Irigaray would have us believe that the discovery of the equivalence of mass and energy could have only been the result of a physicist’s preoccupation with penises. And somehow we are to believe that philosophers such as this have privileged insight into such matters.