Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The “Feminist Methodology” Muddle

 The “Feminist Methodology” Muddle

Susan Haack

[I]f I should ever attack that excessively difficult question, “What is for the true interest of society?” I should feel I stood in need of a great deal of help from the science of legitimate inference.—C. S. Peirce 

Should scientists and philosophers use “feminist methodology”? No; for more reasons than I can spell out here, but first and foremost because their business is figuring things out, not promoting social justice

“Methodology” is a much overworked and underspecified word; but “feminist methodology” is especially vague, ambiguous, and ill-defined. Even a brief survey of syllabi to be found online for courses on feminist methodology confirms this: one syllabus I found said that the students are to “design a feminist methodology” for their work themselves; and another that in the course “we” (i.e., presumably, the professor and the students) will try to answer the questions, “what counts as a feminist method?” and “who gets to say?”

Presumably, “feminist methodology” means something like “methodology informed by feminist values.” But this raises a whole raft of problems. In the first place, feminism is hardly monolithic, so we can expect there to be competing understandings of what values qualify as feminist. For a humanist, individualist feminist such as myself, a recognition of every woman’s full humanity and of each woman’s unique individuality will have priority; for many academic feminists today, apparently, it is what they take to be the shared oppression of women-as-a-class that matters. In the second place: however those feminist values are construed, though they may have some bearing on some issues in the social sciences and a few in the life and medical sciences, they are essentially irrelevant to physical cosmology, the theory of magnetism, quantum chemistry, molecular biology, etc., etc., and their relevance to philosophy seems even more limited. 

In any case, the idea that we should conduct scientific and philosophical work in such a way as to advance the interests of women faces an insuperable hurdle even within the limited sphere where it’s relevant: such advice could be followed only if we already knew what women’s interests really are, and what would really advance those interests; and to know this, obviously, we’d need serious philosophical and scientific work independent of any feminist agenda. So to urge that science and philosophy use feminist methodology is, in effect, to urge the deliberate politicization of inquiry, the deliberate blurring of the line between honest investigation and disguised advocacy; which both corrupts inquiry—which, as we should know from the awful examples of “Nazi physics” and “Soviet biology” is bound to be a disaster—and leaves advocacy without the firm factual basis it needs.

We can’t overcome the problem of limited scope by appealing to supposed “women’s ways of knowing” anything and everything, such as reliance on emotion rather than reason, or on the subjective rather than the objective—which just reintroduces old, sexist stereotypes under the guise of “feminist values”; nor can we avoid it by pointing to supposedly sexist metaphors in science or philosophy of science—which is, frankly, silly. And, of course, we can’t overcome the hurdle of identifying women’s interests and understanding what advances them by appeal to “feminist philosophy” or “feminist science,” or avoid the danger of transmuting inquiry into advocacy by suggesting that we are doing no more than detecting and correcting sexist biases in philosophical or scientific work. 

Am I saying that there have never been biases of this sort? No; I daresay there have. And such bias is, of course, regrettable—damaging not only to science and to philosophy, but also to women’s interests. Still, I very much doubt that sexist bias is the commonest form, or the most seriously damaging to inquiry—confirmation bias and bias in favor of an accepted theory are probably both commoner and more serious. And in any case the best way to avoid deleterious bias is simply to seek out as much evidence as possible, and to assess as honestly as possible where it points. 

Am I saying that advocacy is a bad thing? No, of course not; it’s often needed, and it’s fine in its proper place—in law, in politics, etc. The law relies on cross-examination and advocacy on each side; but the purpose of a trial is to arrive, within a reasonable time, at a verdict—a verdict warranted to the required degree by the evidence presented. Unlike a trial, however, scientific and philosophical work isn’t constrained by the desire for a prompt decision, but takes the time it takes; and often enough, the best “verdict” we can give is “as yet, we just don’t know.” 

Am I saying that I don’t care about social justice? No; though I do think the way the phrase combines highly nebulous content with strongly favorable connotation is potentially dangerous. Still, a society where everyone is free and no one oppressed is certainly desirable—unclear as it is how such a society might look in the specific, or how we might bring such a situation about. But I have to say that the idea that, at this point in time, women in the developed Western world are an oppressed class strikes me as a grave exaggeration—and a dangerous one, for several reasons. Rather as over-broad definitions of sexual harassment trivialize the serious offenses, this idea trivializes the real oppression that some classes of people are suffering: the Rohingya of Myanmar, for example, the Uighurs in China, the ordinary people of Venezuela or Syria, not to mention the Saudi women who have only very recently been permitted some of the many freedoms we take for granted in the West. At the same time, it encourages women in the developed Western world to be preoccupied with slights—“micro-aggressions” in today’s catchphrase—at the expense of getting on with their lives and with productive work. Moreover, by conveying the false impression that the sciences and philosophy are pervasively riddled with sexist bias, it probably encourages some women who might otherwise have made a real contribution to these fields, and found satisfaction in doing so, choose other, and perhaps less rewarding, occupations instead.

The anonymous author of the Wikipedia entry on feminist method speaks of “a sense of despair and anger that knowledge, both academic and popular, [is] based on men’s lives, male ways of thinking, and directed towards the problems articulated by men.” I think it’s long past time we put such factitious anger and such factitious despair behind us, and long past time we moved beyond thinking in terms of male and female ways of thinking to a fuller appreciation of the richness, variety, and potential of human intelligence, regardless of sex or any other irrelevant consideration.