Feminist epistemology studies how gender influences our understanding of knowledge.
Feminist epistemology stems from feminist critique of sciences such as anthropology, psychology and biology which are often based on gendered assumptions, perpetuating stereotypes and reinforcing hierarchies and dichotomies in identity. It is more an approach than a school of thought.
The feminist approach to epistemology involves using gender as an analytic framework for understanding theories on knowledge- construction, rationality, truth, objectivity, beliefs and opinions. It ponders how dominant conceptual frameworks would change if they reflected the interests of women or if women were given any epistemic authority.
The gatekeeping that is prevalent within philosophy as a discipline has led to the invisibilisation of women-philosophers and consequently of feminist challenges to dominant scientific values and assumptions.
Much of epistemic inquiry is critiqued to be androcentric and replete with “gender symbolism”, which refers to the ascription of gendered metaphors to people, inanimate objects or theories. Donna Haraway in her 1989 publication Primate Visions pointed out that the theorizing of evolution from ape to hominid was credited to the “masculine” activity of hunting, obscuring the contribution of female activities to the evolution of behaviour, language and in terms of gathering and child rearing.
Feminist epistemology claims that knowing as an act presupposes the knower to interact with the material world around them. This is referred to as situatedness and becomes the point where feminists contest ideas such as Immaterialism and Transcendental Idealism. The question of how gender mitigates material interaction has resulted in three separate bodies of theory- feminist standpoint theory, feminist postmodernism, and feminist empiricism.
· Feminist theorists push for a critical approach to evidence evaluation and the process of justification to keep prejudices from infiltrating results of inquiry. They accept that science can never be truly empty of values, but a critical approach would prevent homophobic, sexist or racist tendencies from deforming knowledge practices.
Can we truly have objective knowledge? Objectivity as an ideal is oft sought in scientific inquiry, where it is assumed that true knowledge can be acquired through detachment and one can reach the objective truth from the “view from nowhere”. It is contingent on control, an inherently masculine symbol, and rejects subjective methods of inquiry, such as dialogue or emotionally conscious engagement, as inherently feminine and erroneous. Such a rejection of the subjective comes at a huge cost of holistic knowledge in political sciences, sociology, anthropology and even natural sciences.
However, feminist scholars argue that objective knowledge is largely unobtainable and aperspectivity or detachment are useful only to the extent of explaining how science works. The results of inquiry on the other hand are value-laden, which is inevitable. They argue that judgements in and of themselves are not bad, and can often aid the search for truth. One must know what judgements are good and conducive as opposed to those that obscure the truth, a practice that can only come about when knowledge seekers accept the reality of their situatedness.