NWSA Journal 16.1 (2004) 233-235
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As I capture Sharyn Clough's argument in Beyond Epistemology: A Pragmatist Approach to Feminist Science Studies, we, as the uninterpreted interpreter, know the world through representationalism, through filters of our political values, language, worldview, and the like, of which we are not aware. But the skeptic might say that all of our knowledge claims gained this way can be justified by evidence and still be wrong—a la Descartes, who's watching the store? Therefore we need epistemology to "specify normative criteria that would indicate truth, least partiality, or maximal objectivity" (9).
This sounds like a general problem in epistemology, but the author believes it is particularly germane to feminist science studies. Feminists [End Page 233] have moved from simply opposing the more obvious biases in the sciences to asking epistemological questions such as "What is the role of gender in adjudicating knowledge claims?" Once we step into the representationalist arena, instead of being able to answer this question, skepticism can be used to discount the epistemic relevance of women's oppression, so the project is not any further ahead in this configuration. Indeed, Clough believes that a search for a feminist epistemology is not necessary for the project of gaining equity for marginalized peoples. Instead we should embrace "an empirical project of eradicating the harmful effects of sexism, racism and other oppressive systems in all aspects of scientific research, laboratory by laboratory, research program by research program" (21).
Clough has three chapters that use the works of Evelyn Fox Keller, Helen Longino, Sandra Harding, Ruth Bleier, and Ruth Hubbard as loci for making the case that we should dispense with feminist epistemology as a liberatory strategy. One reason she does not concur with the positions of these icons of feminist scholarship is that they overstate their views without sufficient support. Another is that whatever position they take, they are endorsing either objectivism or relativism, which are unacceptable since both are subject to skepticism ". . . if one is critical of objectivism but insufficiently critical of the representationalism under which it is subsumed, then skepticism reappears, this time in its relativist guise" (102). Her suggestion, based in the position of Richard Rorty that is in turn based in Donald Davidson's linguistic philosophy, is to by-pass epistemology as well as representationalism, leaving skepticism in the dust. What Clough proposes instead of representationalism is a sort of empiricism, based in the "radical interpreter." When this interpreter learns a foreign language, she begins to speak truthful statements based on her correlation of vocalizations and occurrences. Eventually she (and we) become(s) embedded in a holistic web that uses shared language as a means to objective truth.
This strategy, in my mind, will not well serve those on the margins of science. Clough's work gives insufficient credit to those feminist science scholars who have made obvious the filters of the invisible political values, language, worldview and the like, inherent in representationalism. She seems to be out of the mainstream of feminist science studies when she says that the resulting characterization of science as androcentric is inadequately justified. I think her pragmatic approach, to get down in the trenches and attack inequities on the local level, lab by lab, is not likely to succeed. If we, as women or Blacks, say that a particular research project is unfair to women or Blacks, or that we are being excluded, why should anyone listen to us? What is it that grounds our critique? If it is the shared language of science, we must accept the current tongue, just as the radical [End Page 234] interpreter makes sense of the world through others' speech. But the current speech has been developed over many centuries and there have been many demonstrations of how it naturalizes androcentric political values, metaphors, and worldview.
Having a common language as the means to objective truth is paradoxical...