Knowledge, Human Interests, and Objectivity in Feminist Epistemology

Anderson, Elizabeth. “Knowledge, Human Interests, and Objectivity in Feminist Epistemology.” Philosophical Topics, vol. 23, no. 2, 1995, pp. 27–58. JSTOR,

Value-Laden Inquiry

This paper is focused on defusing concerns over "value-laden" inquiry which are based on misunderstandings of the goals and methods of science. She discusses how feminist modes of inquiry have promoted women's interests through developing technologies to empower women and removing discriminatory barriers that prevent them from participating in academic research. Howevere, she writes that those against value-laden inquiry accept are willing to accept such influences on the conduct of inquiry so long as the "core scientific integrity" remains intact. That is, the methods and standards of justifying claims. However, feminist scholars that values properly influence this integrity, challenging those against value-laden inquiry.

She cites Helen Longino's logics for supporting value-laden inquiry. Longino points out that a given hypothesis is already built on background assumptions, and that two inquirers who accept two different background assumptions may take the same fact as evidence for two conflicting hypotheses. Empirical supports for background assumptions are also built on background assumptions, and so it's assumptions all the way down. She argues that when data runs out, values step in to guide observations and theories.

So is there a sharp line between moral and political values and epistemology? "Longino argues that this division breaks down once we look beyond the con- tent of the standards for theory choice and focus attention on the grounds for supporting them ... The interest in self- understanding and successful communication puts a premium on theories that accurately account for subjects' behavior in terms that the subjects themselves can recognize, affirm, and act on" (pg. 29-30).

Longino proposes two value-centered virtues for guiding feminist epistemology: (1) Ontological heterogeneity that emphasizes the qualitative diversity and indivuality of subjects of study; and (2) Complexity of relationships which emphasizes dynamic, interactive, and multiplicitous causal models over single-factor, linear, or reductionist models. Anderson questions whether, against the arguments from both feminists and sociologists that moral and political interests shape science, is there any room for the notion of objectivity? Longino argues there is, because while evidence may be shaped by moral and political influences, empirical theory is still accountable to bodies of evidence and scientists are still accountable to other scientists. Methodological standards must still be justified and accepted.

Critiques of Value-Laden Science

Focusing on Susan Haack, who is critical of Longino's work, Anderson highlights concerns from proponents of value-neutral science such as the danger of permitting moral and political values to shape choices of inquiry. They believe that wishful thinking, the desire for something to be true even when it is not, would taint results. People would attack works that did not align with their political views. People would focus only on "politically correct" conclusions, which would be dishonest. Haack's concerns stem from the belief in competing models of inquiry: either theory choice is guided by facts or it is guided by morals, never both at once. Value judgments can neither provide evidential support for a theory, indicate its truth, or justify it.

Anderson posits this argument is not as valid or logical as it seems, and that it is actually difficult for it to remain valid when analyzed. She writes that evidence only exists in conjuction with background theories, or assumptions. While it's true that value judgments /alone/ are not grounds as evidence for theories, they inform selections about evidence and theories. "Scientific theory-building extend[s] beyond the simple accumulation of bare truths and are themselves properly subject to moral and political evaluation" (pg. 34). Anderson argues that Haack's criticisms assume value-laden inquiry rests only on wishful thinking and not empirics or evidence, not subject to scrutiny, critique, or peer review.

However, Anderson believes that Longino's arguments need further clarification and bolstering around issues of "choosing" theories. Haack criticizes the idea that a theory be chosen on morals when there is no evidence that theory is truth, and instead adopting a theory should be suspended until there is further evidence. So how does one account for value judgments which doesn't come down to Haack's fear of simply choosing a politically preferable theory? Anderson argues the argument between Haack and Longino on this particular issue comes down to the aims of theoretical inquiry, as theoretical inquiry extends beyond a pure accumulation of truths, thus opening the possibility for values. She writes: " Theoretical inquiry aims at some organized body of truths that can lay claim to significance ... Thus, it is possible for contextual values to figure in determining what counts as significant, even if they don't figure in determining what is true ... theoretical justification cannot avoid questions of significance" (pg. 37).

Why Being True May Be No Defense of Theory

Anderson discusses how truth does not necessarily lead to accuracy; partial truths, though not false, can be highly misleading. The larger context of partial truths, when revealed, showcases a distortion or a bias. So even though an account may contain only truth, if is found to be biased or distorted, it should be rejected. Anderson argues Haack's premise is therefore false, because to justify a theory one must defend its significance, not just its truth.

Anderson writes: " I have argued that significance, bias, and partiality are features of theo- ries, relevant to their justification, that need to be judged in relation to the "whole" truth and that cannot be judged simply by testing the truth-value of each claim a given theory upholds" (pg. 39). Theories aren't simple statements of facts but organizations of facts into patterns meant to be representative of some phenomena and satisfy explanatory demands. Anderson argues no theory could present literally every fact as truth, nor can it rule out in advance which facts are relevant to the theory. She states that she sees no way to characterize a "whole truth" in a way that is both contextual and value-neutral.

Further, theoretical inquiry doesn't just seek random truth, but answers to specific questions, and what counts as a significant truth depends on the question being explored. Many of the questions being asked in science are motivated by morals, interests, and values drawn from the context science if practiced in. When questions are motivated by contextual values, judgments of their findings' truth should also be predicated on relevant values. And then, since significance and bias are legitimate criteria for which to assess validity, it means that values play a large role in justifying theories. "Theories of phenomena can be criticized on the ground that the background value judgments that organize the theory ... are themselves unjustified" (pg. 40). When presenting a theory, as the most significant aspects of a phenomenon, how does one decide what is significant without judgment? She writes: " To adopt a stance of value-neutrality is to disregard contextual values in assessing the merits of theories" (pg. 42). Science is driven by contextual value-laden questions and value-neutrality "leaves one incapable of coherently directed inquiry at all" because it renders them incapable of distinguishing a biased account from an accurate one (pg. 42).

For Anderson, impartiality is different from value-neutral and impartiality allows a researcher to assess scientific inquiry through the values of honesty and fairness.