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  • Naturalizing Objectivity
  • Rebecca Kukla (bio)
Books reviewed in this essay:Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity (Cambridge: Zone Books, 2007).
Karen Barad , Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).

We can understand objectivity, in the broadest sense of the term, as epistemic accountability to the real. Since at least the 1986 publication of Sandra Harding's The Science Question in Feminism, so-called standpoint epistemologists have sought to build an understanding of such objectivity that does not essentially anchor it to a dislocated, 'view from nowhere' stance on the part of the judging subject. Instead, these theorists have argued that a proper understanding of objectivity must recognize that different agential standpoints offer different access to objective truths, with some standpoints holding better epistemic potential than others. As Harding puts it, standpoint epistemology calls for "a critical evaluation of which social situations tend to generate the most objective knowledge claims" so as to identify those standpoints that "produce empirically more accurate descriptions and theoretically richer explanations" (1991, 142, 149). Which standpoints enable the most objectivity with respect to a particular inquiry is, for the standpoint theorists, always an empirical at least as much as a conceptual question; it requires attention to the actual, material relationship between knowers, knowledge practices, and objects known.

Standpoint epistemology was developed primarily by self-identified feminist epistemologists. Virtually all developments of standpoint epistemology [End Page 285] have incorporated (a) a discussion of distinctive ways in which gender constitutes what and how we know and see, and (b) a claim that at least when it comes to some kinds of judgment, women, or some women, or feminists, are in a better position to be objective than others.1 Moreover, 'mainstream' epistemology has viewed the material and social positions of different subjects and their epistemic consequences as a marginal, distinctively feminist concern.

Now it seems that any sensible feminist standpoint theory of this sort would in some sense strive for its own obsolescence. Standpoint theorists who believe in the truth their own theory should hope that it ceases to be marginalized in this way. And gender ought to remain a privileged category for theorizing different standpoints only for as long as sexist society positions men and women in systematically segregated subject positions, in a way that makes gender a particularly salient influence upon people's epistemic positions. There is no reason to hope or expect that people's subject positions will cease to be relevant to their capacity for objective judgment, nor even that gender will cease to shape epistemic practice. But as political life progresses, we ought to hope that gender will cease to create a systematic fracture between subject positions—and in fact, feminist standpoint theorists have increasingly moved away from the idea of a distinctive feminine or woman's standpoint, and towards attention to the wide variety of ways in which empirical facts about our social and material position can inflect our capacities for objective judgment.2 In short, feminist standpoint theorists should hope for the arrival of post-feminist standpoint epistemology—that is, epistemology that, without needing to be qualified as 'feminist', does not associate objectivity with a transcendental 'view from nowhere', but rather asks empirical questions about the conditions for objective judgment that cannot be separated from the material and social contexts in which epistemic practices occur.

Two recent books arguably herald the beginning of such post-feminist standpoint theorizing: One is a 500-page tome simply entitled Objectivity, by historians of science and long-time collaborators Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, and the other is physicist-philosopher Karen Barad's Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (henceforth MUH).3 While neither book thematizes the gender of [End Page 286] the knowing subject in any substantial way,4 both have clearly absorbed lessons from feminist standpoint theory. Both books take it as fundamental that objectivity is a feature of certain kinds of empirical practices that are, by their nature, engaged in by particular kinds of concrete subjects, caught up in complex and often unequal power relations, in the course of trying to disclose particular kinds...


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