by Daniel A. Kaufman
My remarks here are anticipatory of a more thorough treatment of the question of Standpoint Epistemology – or “Theory” – in conversation with Crispin Sartwell, who finds the notion amenable. I do not, and a brief back-and-forth on the topic on Twitter convinced me that our differences were worth exploring in a more serious way. Consider what follows, then, as a preview of the sorts of points I am going to raise with Crispin, when we talk.
Let me make a few things clear before I start.
First, my interest is in the way that Standpoint Theory (ST hereafter) is actually deployed in contemporary public discourse, not in some hypothetical, abstract, idealized version of the concept. The effort to develop an idealized form of ST strikes me as a largely harmless activity, but ST as it is deployed in contemporary discourse has contributed to making the public conversation on matters of social welfare and justice polarized and hostile, at a time when we are already polarized and hostile enough.
Second, we require a working account of ST, and I think the following from Rebecca Kukla is both widely accepted among theorists and accurate with respect to how ST is commonly used in public social justice discourse.
Most standpoint theorists have insisted upon two … claims: (1) that some contingent features of knowers can give them not only different but better, more objective knowledge than others have, and (2) that social positions of marginalization and structural disadvantage, such as those inhabited by women, African-Americans, or the working class, yield epistemological advantages, giving those who occupy them the potential to see truths that are inaccessible from the point of view of the dominant center. 
Third, much of the academic standpoint literature has been concerned with philosophical questions surrounding subjectivity and objectivity and how we should understand ST with regard to them. This is not my concern here or in my forthcoming discussion with Crispin. Rather, my interest is in whether the various “Standpoints” typically identified grant epistemic advantage to members of the relevant “marginalized” groups over those who belong to the relevant “dominant” groups, such that the former should be privileged over the latter in social justice conversations. The question of how precisely this epistemic advantage should be characterized, philosophically speaking, is not something I am interested in.
So, on to the points I am going to raise with Crispin in our upcoming discussion. I expect to elaborate on them points over the course of our exchange.
(A) As the quote from Kukla indicates, ST alleges that “social positions of marginalization and structural disadvantage … yield epistemological advantages,” which are then used as grounds for privileging members of these groups and discrediting members of the dominant groups in social justice discourse; the idea being that the oppressed are in a better position to understand their oppression and its implications than are those belonging to the relevant dominant group.
Notice that this is not an empirical question that could be settled by social scientific investigation, as matters of justice – whether a practice or a state of affairs is right or wrong, fair or unfair, etc. – are not empirical matters. And from an intuitive or logical standpoint, the claim and corresponding discursive promotions/demotions are dubious at best. After all, why should we think a member of an oppressed group is more qualified to speak on relevant questions of justice than a member of the corresponding non-oppressed, dominant group? That the latter benefits from the situation is alleged to compromise or otherwise distort his perception of it, but it strikes me as equally plausible to suggest that the fact that the former suffers from it compromises/distorts his perception to the same extent. I see no reason to think resentment less compromising than appreciation, and I could easily imagine an argument to the effect that it is more so. In the end, it is going to come down to individual cases.
(B) Imagine some question of social justice, and imagine that there is a clearly identifiable group on the “oppressed side of it” and a clearly identifiable group on the “privileged” side of it. In light of (A), would it not be reasonable to suggest that the person with the clearest view of it will be someone who belongs to neither group? If we are concerned with the distorting impact affected by resenting or appreciating certain states of affairs, then won’t the most accurate judge be the person who does neither?
(C) With respect to questions of fact as opposed to value, I see no reason to think that whatever expertise is supposed to accrue from one’s Standpoint would ever trump or even measure up to that which is acquired in the more ordinary manner of education and scholarship. That is, I see no reason to think that a Jewish person, by virtue of his Standpoint, need have any better – or even equally good — understanding of anti-Semitism than a credentialed sociologist or anthropologist, whose education and research is on anti-Semitism, regardless of the latter’s religious or ethnic identity.
(D) I am inclined to think that Standpoints, as conceived by ST, have no determinate valence. The relevant groups are too large and too heterogeneous, when it comes to the experiences, attitudes, and values of their members for it to be credible that membership alone will insure or even suggest common judgments on matters of social justice, factual or axiological. Some may want to suggest going with the averages, but the question then arises as to why, with regard to matters of fact or value, having a majority on one’s side should confer epistemic advantage.
(E) I don’t think that those who employ ST for the purpose of gaming disputes over questions of social justice are actually inclined to grant epistemic and discursive privilege to people merely by virtue of their occupying a certain Standpoint. What are the chances, for example, that an ST enthusiast, upon saying “black people’s voices should be centered in discussions of racism,” is going to center the voices of Thomas Sowell, Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Shelby Steele, and other black, conservative race-skeptics, rather than the politically progressive voices of Ibrahim Kendi, Ta Nehisi Coates, or Nikole Hannah-Jones? It’s not occupying a certain Standpoint that ST enthusiasts really believe should determine whose voices are centered and whose are subordinated but rather, whether the voices in question concur with what the ST enthusiast already thinks regarding the social justice question at hand.
Epistemology – the study of knowledge and in particular, warrant – is an important subject, regardless of the times, as the question of what are good and bad reasons for believing and doing things has significance for virtually everything we think and do. But it is especially important in today’s environment, which is characterized by: (i) polarization; (ii) loss of faith in institutions and particularly, those that confer or otherwise involve expertise and/or authority; (iii) a widespread, social-media driven retreat into informational and editorial echo chambers; and (iv) a constant drumbeat encouraging us to seek solidarity within our own racial, ethnic, religious, and other such groups, while viewing those outside of them with suspicion and antagonism. (I would add that one finds a version of this within virtually every political orientation.)
If ever there was a time, then, when the ideas common to every rudimentary critical thinking course was needed, it is today. If you want to find the good reasons for believing and acting in a certain way and avoid the bad reasons, beware the distorting influence of your own perspective, whatever “social position” it involves. Eschew motivated reasoning. When engaged in inquiry, to the extent that you can, effect an appropriate degree of disinterest. Seek out contrary views, especially when the question at hand is one in which you have a significant investment. Steelman, rather than strawman your opponents. Follow the arguments and the evidence wherever they may lead.
The last thing we need is to be told that our viewpoint is privileged or beyond criticism or that we enjoy special insight or that our opponents suffer some sort of endemic ignorance and that it is all in virtue of whatever “Standpoints” we and they allegedly occupy.