Sex of Knowing: Towards Revitalising Epistemotology


Abstract: This paper addresses at a general level the role of feminism in revitalising epistemology. This is hoped to be achieved neither by understanding feminism as a separate and distinctive branch of philosophy, nor by arguing for the ability of feminist philosophy to replace philosophy. It is rather by vitalising from inside, by enlarging the scope of epistemology that feminism is envisaged to play a significant role in philosophy. 

Keywords: epistemology, feminism, postmodernism, social identity, postmodern feminist, feminist philosophy

Till very recently philosophers paid no attention to suggestions coming from different quarters to incorporate feminist concerns in the mainstream of philosophy. But as departments of women studies and gender studies have grown up in the last twenty years, there are more and more published works falling under the head ‘Feminist philosophy’. Pure philosophers’, who so far kept themselves aloof from such writings are rather forced to acknowledge its relevance in academic philosophy. The present paper addresses, at a general level, the question how feminism can impinge upon philosophy and particularly the role of feminism in revitalising epistemology. This is hoped to be achieved neither by understanding feminism as a separate and distinctive branch of philosophy, nor by arguing for the ability of feminist philosophy to replace philosophy. It is rather by vitalising from inside, by enlarging the scope of epistemology that feminism is envisaged to play a significant role in philosophy. 

It is a general conviction that post-positivist empiricist epistemology which dominated philosophy in the last century has a limited theoretical approach to human knowledge. Everyone agrees that knowledge is valuable, but agreement about knowledge in philosophy tends to end there. Philosophers disagree about what knowledge is about, how you get it, and even whether there is anything to be got. The empiricist’s methods of justification following Descartes’ foundationalist programme is not convincing The mainstream epistemologists have tended towards assuming that ideal knowers are disembodied, purely rational and completely objective entities. Towards the latter half of the twentieth century, more and more philosophers joined the campaign against classical epistemology, though for different reasons. The picture of epistemology as having a formal structure, a twin sister to logic, was seriously questioned by philosophers like W.V.O. Quine, who happened to initiate discussions on an alternative approach to epistemology as something that falls outside the normative tradition and lies squarely within the naturalistic tradition. The present attempt to revitalize epistemology by incorporating feminist concerns too shares with similar presuppositions though there are differences on method as well as goal. 

Postmodern Feminism : A Critique 

The contributions to epistemology from feminist quarters are often identified with the familiar anti-epistemological positions of postmodern feminism. This notion has to be contested. Despite important theoretical convergences between feminist philosophers and post structuralist thinkers, the former are beginning to question anew how far they can draw on post structuralist thought. The fundamental problem is the extent to which a philosophical form of critique that rejects any type of certainty or value judgment like post structuralism is acceptable to feminism (Goldman, 1999, 36). It must be conceded that feminist thinking whose principal aim is overcoming subordination of women necessarily rests on certain basic value judgments and truth claims. Catharine McKinnon, criticising the traditional rape law suggests that it represents the falsity of men’s beliefs about women’s practices of consent to intercourse. McKinnon argues that traditional rape law reflects a male perspective, but that men do not understand women. Men “define rape as they imagine women to be sexually violated through distinguishing that from their image of what they normally do… But men are systematically conditioned not even to notice what women want” (McKinnon 1989, 181). The best way to formulate McKinnon’s critique is to say that the traditional laws or legal procedures concerning rape have rested on falsehoods that men believe. This formulation presupposes a distinction between truth and falsity. 

Further even if truth concept has some times been used as a weapon of coercion or domination, should it be banned from use altogether? Truth claims, like knives, can sometimes be used for lethal purposes, as when one culture claims cognitive superiority over another and uses this claim to justify political or economic domination. But knives are not always or normally used for lethal purposes, and truth claims are similarly not normally so employed. As Goldman suggests, even when one society does seek to intervene in another on grounds of cognitive superiority, the principal complaint should be against the intervention per se, not against the cognitive claim (MacKinnon, 1989, 37). True, feminist post modernism is to be credited with making important intellectual currency of insight that social identity is multiple and fragmented. But post modernists typically advocate a social ontology of fragmentation not on grounds of sociological accuracy, but on the political ground that any other ontology would be exclusionary. In feminist post modernism, then to recognize difference is to meet an obligation, to political inclusiveness rather than to empirical accuracy. 

Similarly, many feminist philosophers reject the veriphobic (phobia relating to truth centred knowledge) and anti objectivist aspects of postmodern feminism. Two important alternatives to postmodern feminism are feminist empiricism and feminist stand point theories. Feminists maintain that sexism and androcentrism are identifiable biases of knower that can be eliminated by stricter application of scientific and philosophical methodologies. Feminist theorists reject the notion of an ‘unmediated truth’ and emphasize the role of social position in shaping ‘understanding’. However they argue that the social position of the oppressed can pierce through the ideological obstructions and facilitate a correct understanding of the world. 

Thus, although a good deal of feminist work is aligned with anti epistemological strains of thought, there is a growing corpus of feminist work which makes a critical contribution to epistemology, radicalising it from inside, as opposed to engaging in a critique of it as if from out side. 

Revitalising Epistemology : A Feminist Approach 

The argument so far offered brings two points to our view. First, that there are no easy solutions to the crisis in epistemology. Second, the grand narrative epistemology should be made flexible to accommodate first order epistemic pluralism. The task is to enlarge the scope of epistemology as to accommodate pluralism in it. The pluralism referred here is that sort of pluralism, which acknowledges the existence of many different perspectives on a shared world, a conception of social identity as fragmented. Postmodernism does not have a monopoly on the idea that social identity is complex. Indeed that which commends this idea to us is really something of an anathema to postmodernism – the aspiration to represent the world truly, to capture the facts. A school of thought which pursues for an accurate representation of how things are has more reason to adopt a social ontology which mentions only class. Postmodernism accepts pluralism at every level except the right one. Any way we have already seen how it is imperative for feminist philosophers to get divorced from their postmodern counterparts. Our pluralism, unlike postmodernism’s promotes a practice of reason that permits different perspectives to come to the forefront not merely to gain expression, but in order that they should contribute to an on – going critical discursive practice. 

While considering the implications of doing epistemology from alternative stand points, we first need to recognize that knowledge is not just `out there’, waiting to be revealed to us; rather we are active participants in producing what counts as knowledge. Once we concede this, we can move to recognize that there must be multiple and even contradictory perspectives, interpretations and use of knowledge. The impact of feminism on epistemology has been to move the question ‘whose knowledge are we talking about?’ to a central place in epistemological inquiry. Hence epistemology motivated by feminism produces conceptions of knowledge that are quite specifically contextualized and situated, and of socially responsible agency. Similarly knowledge is never a value free or unbiased process. Thus the general position of feminism that all knowledge necessarily results from the conditions of its production, is contextually located, and irrevocably bears the marks of its origins in the minds of those who give voice to it. 

Recently Michael Le Doeuff, in one of his papers has said that, ‘thinking philosophically’ and ‘being a feminist’ appear as one and the same: a desire to judge by and for one self. There are feminists who see that an insistence on judging for one self can be a powerful tool against prejudice, whether of the sort challenged by foundationalist philosophy or by postmodern feminism. Viewed this way, epistemology is a friend to feminism, in its ability to uproot the ‘habit of holding on to old opinions’. If relations between feminism and epistemology were entirely friendly, then feminism’s contributions to the subject would be to point this out; feminist epistemology would be epistemology aware of its own feminist implications. 

A feminist epistemological standpoint is a non-biased social location. The special abilities which women are endowed with (sensuous, concrete and relational activity) permit them to grasp aspects of nature and social life that are not accessible to enquiry grounded in men’s characteristic activities. The vision based on men’s activities is partial and perverse — perverse because it systematically reverses the proper order of things. Humanity, thus become forced to be contended with partial story of the world as told by men. The feminine version is significantly left out because women’s perspectives on the world are left out. The story of the world as told by men is, as Merilyn Frye says, like a description of a sedated elephant as given by a single individual observed from one spot for one hour and then with delighted self-satisfaction, heralded as a complete accurate and profound account of the elephant. What women know about the world fails to enter this official story about life and universe, making it incomplete and partial. 

Hilary Rose, in her two recent papers has developed the argument that it is in the thinking and practices of women scientists that we can detect the out lines of a distinctly feminist theory of knowledge. Its distinctiveness is to be found in the way in which they undertake research, where the knower, known and the process of knowledge all reflect the unifications of manual, mental and emotional activity (hand, brain and heart). It is also found that in recent scientific research by women in certain knowledge forms like biology psychology and anthropology, areas where craft forms of scientific enquiry are still possible, significant advances are detected towards a more complete materialism, a true knowledge. In all of these areas, feminist thinking has produced a new comprehension of the relationship between organisms and between organisms and environment. The organism is conceptualized not in terms of Darwinian metaphor, as the passive object of selection by an indifferent environment, but as an active participant, a subject in the determination of its own future. 

The need for much of feminist motivated epistemology becomes increasingly acute for bringing caring labour and the knowledge that stems from participation in it, if we are to avoid the deepening social misery increasingly possible otherwise. This epistemology remodeled with feminist touch would seriously look into the genuineness of factors behind crediting prepositional knowledge with primacy over other types of knowledge, like competence and acquaintance. Vrinda Dalmeyar and Linda Alcoff in their research paper titled ”An Oldwives Tale Justified” voice that this assumption about propositional character of knowledge has served to discredit the knowledge of illiterate midwives whose knowledge is more a matter of `knowing how’ than ‘knowing that’. 

The present attempt to revitalize epistemology with feminist philosophy can be in essence, viewed as reviving a sort of epistemology buried in the seventeenth century a sympathetic understanding of the object. A sympathetic understanding of the object is that which understands it through union with it, or through merging/marrying it. To merge with or marry that which is to be known means, for Hillman, ‘letting interior movement replace clarity and interior closeness replace objectivity’. It means to credit personal intuitive response appositive epistemological value even where such response is contradictory or fragmented. Sympathetic thinking, Marcure suggests, is the only mode which allows the variety of its meanings to unfold without coercion or too-focused interrogation. Many among the contemporary epistemologists argue that the deepest understanding of that which is to be known comes not from analysis of parts but from placing one self within the full being of an object, as Bergson puts it, and allowing it to speak. The knower’s passivity is presupposed in both forms of knowledge, Cartesian well as feminist. But whereas passivity for Descartes meant yielding to the authority of the object’s `own’ nature, for feminist thinking, the objective and subjective merge, participate in the creation of meaning. Advocates of the latter thinking demand for integration of such thinking into our dominant conception of rationality. What is aimed at is not a reflection, but a re-revisioning of ‘objectivity’. But the Cartesian ideals of ‘detachment’ and purification of understanding make any continuity between subject and object impossible. The spirit and the corporal as diametrically opposed to each other and mutually exclusive of the other’s characteristics should give way to a conception of Nature where the world is no more an it’ but a female entity with positive epistemic values. Almost all feminist philosophers without exception conceive Cartesian model of rationality as something, which undoes feminist enterprises. However, I feel that Cartesian foundationalist programme can be remodeled to suit our present purposes. It is something like restructuring the existing mansion to facilitate the new inhabitants. Undoing the very structure of epistemology, which of course has certain foundationalistic presuppositions, would inevitably make us homeless nomads, an unwelcomable situation indeed. Hence the present attempt to renovate or remodel the epistemological edifice by applying feminist or naturalist concerns seems the only way out in this crisis. What is required is not an anti-epistemological approach but rather a revisionary epistemology.


In Leotard’s The Postmodern Condition we find a definitive commitment to the anti epistemological stand of the postmodernist thought. Alvin 1. Goldman. (1999), Knowledge in a Social World, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

MacKinnon. (1989), Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Hawkesworth, Mary. `Knowers Knowing, Known: Feminist Theory and Claims of an Truth’ Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 14:533-57.

Braidotti, Rosi. (1991), Patterns of Dissonance: A Study of Women in Contemporary Philosophy, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Le Doeuff, Michele. (1990), Hipparchia’s Choise, trans, Trista Selous. Blackwell, Oxford.


SREEKALA M. NAIR. Teaches Philosophy at Sree Sankaracharya University, Kalady. Has numerous publications to her credit.

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Teaches Philosophy at Sree Sankaracharya University, Kalady. Has numerous publications to her credit.

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