Debating Standpoint Theory

Crispin Sartwell (Dickinson College) and I discussed/debated the relative merits (or lack thereof) of Standpoint Theory, in light of my recent essay on the subject. This dialogue first appeared on MeaningofLife.TV, as part of the Sophia program.

Social Justice Discourse and the Question of “Standpoints”



32 responses to “Debating Standpoint Theory”

  1. Bunsen Burner

    I have to admit I was very disappointed with the dialog. Not because of Dan who I thought made important and pertinent arguments, but with Sartwell. I got the impression he has never really thought about the details of what he professes. He was so incoherent, with simplistic anecdotes and constant rambling. It’s as if the whole point of accepting ST is becasue it represents some ill-specified ‘goodness’ rather than due to any empirical basis. This seems to be in character with a lot of beliefs I come across these days, veganism and gender identity are two we’ve had on this forum before. People seem to think it’s important to believe these things not because they are true but because if you don’t then you must be some sort of bad person. It’s quite depressing that it’s so prevalent among academics.

  2. s. wallerstein

    I’d say that Dan and Crispen simply talked past each other. Dan stressed the practical effects of standpoint theory, while Crispen talked about the theoretical basis.

    I haven’t read the authors whom Crispen cites, but I’ve read enough Marxism and Feminism to be sympathetic to the idea that most of us unconsciously reflect our social status, be it that of class or of gender, when we speak about social issues. That does not imply that we cannot in some sense transcend our class or gender basis: if we couldn’t, Marx could not studied capitalism from the standpoint of the working class nor Mill written his great work on the subjection of women. However, most people can’t or don’t transcend their class or gender basis.

    However, I’m also sympathetic to Dan’s arguments in favor of procedural liberalism. I don’t see why we can’t talk about and analyze our biases with screaming at or cancelling one another. By the way, Dan’s argument that the U.S. is heading towards Yugoslavia seems a bit exaggerated to me: in Yugoslavia they weren’t screaming at each other, they were shouting at each other.

  3. Very good discussion. Like Dan, I have to say that I found Crispin’s invocation of the 1619 project as any sort of example or defense of standpoint epitemology an unfortunate one.

    First, most of the scholars within the 1619 project are NOT black scholars, but white ones. That’s a fact. Look at the list.

    Second, what that tells me is that the 1619 thesis has less to do with something uniquely present in any sort of ‘black epistemology’ as, well, just a different interpretation of the historical facts that white people could reach as easy as black people could. Black people may be more (on average) friendly to such an interpretation, but that the 1619 project in any way illustrates any sort of ‘black way of knowing’ is an odd claim.

    Third – related to point 2 – no matter what one’s stance is on historical objectivity, it seems plain that the factual and even the interpretive claims made by the 1619 project authors are ones that ANY historian can check on. So, take the King Cotton thesis that is central to the 1619 project. I just don’t see any plausible argument that suggestions about what percentage of the American economy tied to cotton production is the kind of factual claim that somehow black people – because of their blackness – have any uniquely special access to compared to white or other people.

  4. Here’s another thing that is bugging me when thinking about this discussion around standpoint theory. It may seem irrelevant, but don’t we need to explore what we mean when we say that x group has better access to TRUTH? How are we finding that out?

    The reason that bugs me is that to say that my claim is truer than your claim, we need some standard of what the truth, or the reality of the situation, actually is to measure our claims against, right? If so, then standpoint theory will end up begging the question in the following way: a white person and a black person make a claim about how racist an aspect of the criminal justice system is. We want to see whether the white or black person’s claim has more truth to it to see if the standpoint theory is correct that the black person has more epistemic access to the truth. How? Check the claims against sociological and criminalogical statistics, right? Okay, but standpoint theory has already told us that black people already have more epistemic access to the truth than white people, so if the scholars happen to be white, what standard do we NOW use to check whose claims are more accurate? (And the situation is worse if it is black and white scholars coming to disagreement over whether the CJ system is racist, because now, we have NO set of statistics we can appeal to in a way that doesn’t beg the question by privileging ITS claim over others…. ad infinitum.

    I hope that makes sense. To put it simply, it seems like standpoint epistemology – in privileging some voices over others from the start -almost rules out the ability to check its claims by testing them against “reality” or “the facts” to begin with. At that point, as Dan sort of says, disagreement will be resolved by, well, some sort of power play.

  5. s. wallerstein

    I meant to say “In Yugoslavia they weren’t screaming at each other, they were SHOOTING at each other”.

  6. Yeah, I figured it out. Lol.

  7. s. wallerstein

    It seems that I won our bet. As I said, I’ll donate the money to the Electric Agora with the proviso that the money is used to help recruit a woke contributor. I have an idea about how to find a woke or at least semi-woke contributor and I’ll write you in a little while about that to your university email.

  8. Yes sir. How much did we bet? Also, EA is entirely self-financed. Is there a charity you’d like me to donate to?

  9. Email me privately at my Missouri State Address.

  10. s. wallerstein

    50 dollars. I’ll mail you the link to our bet when I write you. Use the money to take the new woke contributor out for a drink then.

  11. No need. I trust you implicitly.

  12. The key insight for me comes from the practical use of the theory. If we personally attempt to adhere an asymmetry that we first :1) attempt recognize our own standpoints ( how they might be biased, how they might motivated) and 2) earnestly try to empathize with the shoes our interlocutor stands in….Rather telling others why their experience invalidates their views.

    Receptivity to standpoints should be used to possibly expand the scope of our own understanding, but not to silence others.

    Expertise needs to be valued, and so should be the experience of those who have suffered specific harms. Neither should be above question, although if we are to question an expert speaking to questions of fact in their field of expertise we better know the issues pretty darn well and be ready to be shown we are wrong.

  13. Daniel Plate

    The central question in all of this has to do with neutrality. Two procedures for achieving neutrality could be put forward. The first is a stripping away of various identities or commitments that cause bias: the purest form of this is the blind audition in which only the music — the thing under consideration — is heard by the judge and the various signaling identities of the performer are entirely removed. The second procedure, which Sartwell discusses at some point, is the opposite of the first. Instead of stripping identities away, one piles them up, brings more of them into play, holds them in tension with each other. The perfected form of this would *seem* to be the hiring committee with a woman, a man, a person of color, a person of whatever gender formulation most counters the hetero slant of the others, etc.

    The stripping away neutrality procedure is possible, maybe, at the individual level if one develops habits of discounting one’s own biases, learns forms of objectivity, etc. The piling on procedure is also possible at the individual level — witness the pretty mundane recommendation that one watch and listen to conservative news as well as vox, fox, cnn, msnbc, nytimes, wall street journal, etc.

    The problem with the “piling up perspectives” procedure is that one must assume an idealized person representing each perspective. In a way, what you would want would be an “anti-neutrality” mechanism for each individual on the committee, something guaranteeing that all identity thought processes would be removed other than the one selected for (the “woman” perspective for the woman; the black perspective for the poc, etc.). So you need something like a two-part procedure for the piling-on neutrality system. You need a chart of all the identities most likely to counter and balance each other on the committee, filling the committee out with a perfectly tuned set of perspectives. And *then* you need a stabilizing mechanism for ensuring that each member of the committee doesn’t suddenly shift and start reading the application materials as a male instead of a black guy or a black guy instead of a trans person.

    It seems like a fascinating irony develops here in that the process for achieving the desired result (is it fairness?) requires a very carefully managed and enforced anti-neutrality, maximizing of single-perspective thinking, at the level of each individual in order to emerge as a system with balance.

    And anything carefully managed will require a (pretty well-paid?) careful manager…

  14. Bharath Vallabha

    Thanks for an interesting conversation on a complicated topic. Seemed to me there are three issues running together: 1) Standpoint theory in a minimal sense as anti-cartesianism (re this Dan, Sartwell and Kukla seem aligned or could be); 2) Standpoint theory as idea that one’s identity gives one a kind of privilege which could, in certain circumstances, trump recognized experts (re this Sartwell and Kukla aligned against Dan); and 3) Standpoint theory as a marker for political and social moves of who can talk more and who has to talk less on certain topics (re this Dan and Sartwell aligned against Kukla perhaps). I align mainly with Sartwell, but interesting to see the broader conceptual space in the dialogue.

    Found especially interesting Dan’s discussion of his family as holocaust survivors, and also that the Jewish community gets a lot wrong about antisemitism. This made me wonder if maybe perhaps the issue is better not seen as which view is right, but how to foster more conversation. Sartwell said he has a similar background to Dan’s; perhaps then progress is aided not by discussion of epistemology as such, but about the family differences. Kukla and others like Jason Stanley, who are more “woke” than Sartwell, have spoken in interviews about how their families are holocaust survivors. That suggests that perhaps Dan and Stanley’s parents had very reactions to their horrific experiences. Then whose parents’ reaction is right? The question seems bizarre, both because it is a crummy thing to ask of trauma, but also, as Dan notes in the dialogue, people of a “group” differ in all sorts of ways, emotional, intellectual, tempermental, etc. If Dan and Sartwell continue this conversation, would be interested to hear about the similarities and differences in their backgrounds, and how that has shaped them on this topic. As Rorty suggested, truth might not be the best ideal to immediately latch to in these conversations, but something else like ways to continue the dialogue.

    At one point Dan says that dialogue is best seen as person to person, rather than through group identities. I agree in spirit, but not entirely. I was really annoyed/hurt (avoiding buzz word “triggered”) many months back by something Dan said in a dialogue (he said something like, “I never felt any guilt about how the philosophy profession was, and I still don’t.”) This bugged me for several reasons, but one reason – which I was wrong about – was that I heard Dan as “a white guy”, and so heard it as an unapologetic power move, which I ran up against many times in the profession. It took me time to see I was wrong to assume Dan’s identity, and thinking of him as Jewish really helps me to get out of my limited perspective. Ironically, given Dan and Stanley’s disagreements, I made in the past a similar mistake with Stanley when he was my professor, and assumed he was just another white guy. Not to say it’s ok to be angry at white people, Christians, etc. But to say that thinking of people’s identities and their background can be illuminating.

    Another reason it is helpful is to see just how much of an influence philosophers of Jewish background had in 20th century philosophy (analytic and continental). It is just enormous, with no remotely similar analogue to African-Americans or Asian-Americans, etc. Dan, Stanley, Kukla, for all their differences, have Jewish backgrounds. Even Leiter and Weinberg, with their big differences on the profession, both are of Jewish backgrounds. Many of the greats post WWII were of Jewish background: Putnam, Cavell, Nozick, Chomsky, etc, Not to even get to Wittgenstein, Benjamin and so on. So if we want to say that now a Jewish freshman and a Hindu freshman should just focus on the argument and not their background, that seems off, since the Jewish freshman has at least a century of philosophers who are of his background in the curriculum, whereas the Hindu freshman doesn’t. These facts are relevant when thinking about how to create spaces where we can talk just as people. The identities are important not as a bludgeon to use, but as a way to understand each other as the individuals we are.

  15. Nice to see you Bharath, thanks for the comment.

    “So if we want to say that now a Jewish freshman and a Hindu freshman should just focus on the argument and not their background, that seems off, since the Jewish freshman has at least a century of philosophers who are of his background in the curriculum, whereas the Hindu freshman doesn’t.”

    = = = = =

    I know you think this, but I do not. Indeed, my entire critique tells against it.

    Neither of my parents finished high school. My father never went past the 6th grade. My mother’s schooling was interrupted when the Nazis dragged her and her family out of their home in Hungary and put them on a train to Bergen-Belsen. My father’s schooling had to cease, so that he could work full time in order to help support his family, who had fled Germany to then-Palestine.

    So, not only am I the first generation to become a professor or go to college, I am the first generation to even finish high school.

    That a whole bunch of philosophers of whom I had never heard and about whom I had no idea whatsoever were Jewish had no impact on my entry into or study of or eventual success in philosophy. Zero. Zilch. Nada. It consequently afforded me no advantage of any kind over my Hindu classmates or any other of my classmates, for that matter. Indeed, I can remember several non-Jewish, non-white classmates of mine who went on to far greater success in the profession than I did.

    As I said to Crispin, claims of “privilege,” the lack thereof, or anything in between or related, are entirely empty and useless, other than at the level of the individual. Not only do I not think the sort of talk you want us to engage in “creates spaces where we can talk just as people.” It effects exactly the opposite and renders public discourse a disaster area, as I argued at length and in depth in the dialogue. Far from helping us understand one another as individuals, it undermines any such effort.

  16. s. wallerstein

    I’m Jewish too and a Jewish background is an advantage in any intellectual endeavor because Jewish culture values learning. I’ve never met a Jew who was anti-intellectual in the way some non-Jews are. I recall a Jew who was a bit of a conman, a semi-gangster, but he wasn’t anti-intellectual. He didn’t mock book learning in a way that some non-Jews do.

  17. Well, you can say the same of Asian and South Asian culture.

  18. s. wallerstein

    Probably, although I’m much less familiar with those cultures.

  19. East and South Asian immigrants have been extraordinarily successful in the Western countries to which they have emigrated.

  20. s. wallerstein

    That I know. However, Jews not only tend to be professionally successful, but also they value book learning per se. My father, who was not an intellectual and who did not have a university education, would brag that the three most important minds who shaped the modern world were Jewish: Marx, Freud and Einstein. You can differ about his 1960’s version of the history of ideas, but the point is that he didn’t only value professional success, he valued intellectual achievement. The cliche-filled history of famous Jews that I learned in Hebrew school were almost entirely famous for their intellectual or cultural achievement: no famous generals, no famous movie stars, no famous singers, no famous billionaires, etc.

  21. Same with East and South Asian. Hence their over representation in science and medicine.

  22. s. wallerstein


  23. Bharath Vallabha

    Dan, are you saying that when you were a graduate student at CUNY and reading Putnam or Nozick, etc. you didn’t know they were Jewish, or that Wittgenstein was of a Jewish background? Or are you saying that you knew, but didn’t care, it didn’t matter at all?

  24. I no longer see the relevance to the discussion.

  25. I’m saying there is no credible way in which being a co-religionist advantaged me with regard to my Hindu peers.

  26. Bharath Vallabha

    Seeing other philosophers of Jewish background would give one a sense of the different possible ways in which one can go from a Jewish background into the forms of life and cultural practices in academic phil in America. A person from a Hindu background just didn’t see much of that in the 90s and 00s anyway. Since Asian Americans are well poised in American society now economically and now more politically and in entertainment, etc., I am sure they are going to be have a very prominent role in academic phil in the future. So whatever was my experience or yours I suppose, it isn’t meant suggest what would be the case with a person of Jewish or Hindu background now, let alone in 10 or 20 years.

  27. My Jewish background had nothing to do with it whatsoever. And neither did theirs. None.

  28. I also should add that I have no idea when I discovered these people were Jewish. Certainly not as an undergraduate, which is when my love for philosophy started. If anything it was more a product of my pretty strong at the time Anglophilia.

  29. Bharath Vallabha

    Last comment from me. There are two issues: 1) whether it played a role in your motivations and consciousness; and 2) ways in which your love of philosophy and also anglophilia were aided by the structural social reality where other philosophy professors were of Jewish background. Your claim of zilch and nada speak to (1), not to (2). Also, I accept your statement of how it was for you. But it might not have been so for other people of Jewish backgrounds. They might have felt it helped them to know that there were already a couple of generations of professors from Jewish backgrounds. In my experience, many people are like this, while others might be like you. In any case, thanks for the interesting dialogue with Sartwell.

  30. I can only speak for myself not others. And as you know, I don’t buy into the “structural social reality” stuff. So I would reject 2 categorically.

  31. s. wallerstein

    When you say that you don’t buy into the “structural social reality” stuff, do you mean that it had no influence on your decision to study philosophy or that there is no such thing as structural social reality and/or that it never plays a role in anyone’s decisions to do or not do anything?

  32. I think more often than not it is part of a rhetorical strategy, not a description of reality. Of course that doesn’t mean it never is.

    If you recall the entry from Wokespeak of “structural X-ism” in my Larousse Concise Woke-English Dictionary:

    WTE: ‘Structural X-ism’

    SE: A take on X-ism that justifies going after people who haven’t done anything.