🎧 "You Just Won't Understand!"
Rachel Fraser and Yascha Mounk discuss the promise and peril of standpoint epistemology.
Rachel Fraser is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford and an expert in feminism and the philosophy of knowledge. In her work, she thinks through how our social identities might help to shape how we see the world—and how that diverges from popular notions according to which the oppressed have special political knowledge unavailable to everyone else.
In this week’s conversation, Rachel Fraser and Yascha Mounk discuss how our identities shape our perception of the world, whether the oppressed have greater insight into the political world, and to what extent it is possible to communicate our experiences to members of other groups.
This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: You do really important work in epistemology, and I have a set of questions about “standpoint epistemology.” As I understand it, there’s a way of thinking where one says, “Look, I have a set of experiences [as a man], you have a set of experiences as a woman that is different, somebody who's black may have a set of experiences that is different from those that I have, [and so on].” [But] in particular, there are some important pieces of knowledge about oppression and injustice that members of oppressed minority groups tend to have. And because they know something about the world that I don't, and because it is very hard—perhaps impossible—for them to communicate the nature of those experiences perfectly to somebody who hasn't experienced them, this means that they have a greater insight into what should be done. And if we aim to create a just society, we should, in certain contexts at least, defer [...] to how they think about the world.
I have two questions. First of all, does that seem like a sensible description of part of the discourse today? [Second,] do you think that's a fair description of how some people are talking about politics now?
Rachel Fraser: That's really helpful. [...] On your first question, [t]hat seems absolutely right. I think something like that picture is endorsed, broadly speaking, by a lot of people on the left. And on the second question, the question of which aspects of the picture seem right and which seem wrong, I suppose I'm going to give an irritating philosopher's answer.
What you described is a kind of package or cluster of views, [...] almost all of [which] could be given an articulation where they're making a relatively weak [and] plausible claim. But they could also be processified slightly differently, so as to make a much stronger claim. I find [those claims] extremely plausible when they're processified in a relatively weak or careful way, and almost all of them I find implausible when they're given a much stronger articulation. And I think this is one of the problems in political discourse: very often there's a kind of slippage, whether in good faith or bad faith. It can [become] a sort of weaponized ambiguity between which of the various theses are being discussed.
Mounk: One of the things that makes this plausible is that you can apply this to men versus women, but also [categories such as] New York residents versus London residents; clearly, people who live in New York have access to [different] knowledge than people who live in London.
Fraser: Right. One sort of really interesting case, I think, is the difference between rural and non-rural residents. This is clearly a divide which does have political resonance, especially in the US context. But it’s a divide [that] people on the left are often inclined to overlook—the kind of distinctive experiences of poverty faced by rural populations.
[...] [But] one might try to come up with some kind of experiential core of womanhood, some kind of experience that all women share, that no men share. You're going to be in a position where you're hunting around for some kind of shared core of womanhood, [...] something like motherhood, [or] maybe certain kinds of reproductive labor or housework, [or] fear of sexual assault. I think nobody takes these kinds of claims seriously anymore. Nobody takes seriously the idea that there's some kind of experiential core that all women have and no men have—largely, actually, because of pressures internal to feminism. People take very, very seriously the idea that black women are going to have very different experiences from white women, [and that] working-class women are going to have very different experiences from middle-class women. And so if you want to do any kind of justice at all [...] then you're going to have to abandon [the] simple idea that there's some kind of experiential core that all and only women have.
Mounk: That's an interesting implication, in a way, of intersectionality. Because it basically means that you can keep dividing it further down. You might say, “Well, women don't have common experiences, but black women do.” But then within black women, you say, “Well, middle-class black women are going to have a very different experience than working-class black women and men, [and] queer, working-class, black women are going to have a different experience from straight, working-class, black women.”
Fraser: I think that's right. I think it's also worth noting [that] if you actually look at the academic feminist literature, one thing that's very interesting is that people are vexed by this kind of intersectional insight [...], that we can't find this common experiential core. On the whole, the lesson that people draw from that is not [...] to keep subdividing the category, so that we can come up with some category like “middle class, disabled black women” who have a common experiential core. Rather, the lesson they tend to draw [...] is that we were hunting for something that was never actually an important thing to search for in the first place. [...] That wasn't a sensible project; it's not a politically valuable project. We need to locate the grounds of political solidarity elsewhere.
Which I think, interestingly, is very much where you're coming from. I think you want to say [that] it's silly to think of political solidarity as requiring some common experiential core. [That’s] very interesting — that is broadly the consensus in the feminist literature that comes out of these attempts to reconcile certain kinds of standpoint epistemology with intersectional feminism. [...] But I don't think [that consensus] has really impacted [contemporary] political conversations.
Mounk: [...] I think the second step in the political claim about standpoint epistemology has been to say [that] it's not just that the experiences of women are different from [those of] men, or black people’s different from [those of] white people. It's that, in general, people who are oppressed have a greater understanding of the world, and particularly a greater understanding of political injustices, and therefore, they are epistemically privileged.
But of course, one of the hallmarks of being a member of an oppressed group is that there might be many groups [from] which you are excluded. [...] Do the oppressed have special knowledge, and in what ways are they actually excluded from relevant knowledge?
Fraser: [...] I think epistemology is often taken up by people who want to adopt a kind of wholly vindicatory attitude. They want to say [that] the fruits of oppression are a kind of virtue, a kind of admirable illness. I think that's just not there in the intellectual tradition. There's a kind of naïveté to that perspective that is very difficult to actually find in the academic work. Removed parties to the debate are extremely—almost cripplingly, at times—conscious of the real epistemic injuries wrought by various forms of disadvantage.
Mounk: That's interesting, because the academic consensus as you're presenting it is, on this point, nearly 180 degrees off from how this gets talked about. Even when you talk about the speeches of politicians so far as they touch on something like this topic, the natural assumption seems to be [that] obviously, the oppressed have deeper understanding and greater insight into the workings of injustice, whereas you're saying that the orthodoxy within the academic world [is to] say [that the] advantage, epistemologically, goes to the oppressor, not the oppressed.
But perhaps there is a silver lining where there [are] a few forms of knowledge that [only] the oppressed themselves can have. Perhaps [...] it's actually possible to communicate those experiences in a way that makes it possible for us to form joint intentions and say, “Alright, we both think that an injustice is going on—you, because you've experienced it in some kind of first-person way; I, because I've listened to your account of those experiences—and we can sort of act together. [...] [So] is it communicable?
Fraser: Philosophers draw this distinction between two different kinds of knowledge: propositional [versus] qualitative. [...] The philosopher Frank Jackson has this very famous [thought] experiment that's often called “Mary's Room.” There's this woman, Mary, who has been raised in an entirely black and white environment. She's been confined to this room in which everything is only black and white, but she's also a world expert on color. In her black and white room, she's read all the scientific literature on color. [She knows] the various wavelengths associated with different kinds of colors, how the eye functions—she knows all of these claims. But then Jackson asks us to imagine [that] one morning, Mary is freed from her room and shown a tomato for the first time. Jackson says, “Here's something that seems true: Mary learns something new about red when she leaves the room, but the idea is this new thing that she learns can't be any propositional knowledge about color, because she already knew all of that.” Rather, she acquires a new bit of experiential knowledge: she learns what it's like to see red.
One thing that's very interesting, which is implicit in Jackson's presentation, is that nobody could have allowed Mary to know what it's like to see red until she had that experience for herself. That particular qualitative experience—Jackson is assuming tacitly—is not communicable, nobody could have written a book that would have allowed Mary to grasp what it's like to see red.
Mounk: Presumably, the assumption is that propositional knowledge is the kind of knowledge [that] is communicable. Mary in her room, who's never seen color, can nevertheless acquire other propositional knowledge about color [through] scientific papers and so on. [...] I guess the implication of this to the topic at hand is, when you're thinking about something like political injustice and how to remedy it, how important is propositional knowledge versus that kind of qualitative, [experiential] knowledge?
Fraser: I'm not really vexed politically by the question of whether experiential knowledge is communicable. I think the philosophical action is in the question of “To what extent does experiential knowledge really matter, and to what extent can we do the political work we want to do with propositional knowledge?” I think we can do a lot of work with propositional knowledge, and hence this whole [...] debate about the communicability of experiential knowledge is basically a sideshow and a red herring. Here's an example that I think makes this really vivid, [concerning] the politics of sex work: in particular, judgments about the adequacy of what's often called the “Nordic model” in sex work, where sex work is handled at the policy level by criminalizing the purchase, but not the selling, of sex.
This is for many feminists, at least on the face of it, an appealing model. Lots of feminists are tempted by the idea that there's something objectionable about sex work, that it inflicts some kind of status-harm on women as a class, and thus, we should want to eradicate sex work. But on the other hand, most feminists—if they're any good as feminists at all—are committed to the idea that sex workers are an incredibly vulnerable population [and] frequently vilified and stigmatized, and that feminism should not be in the business of contributing to that stigmatization and vilification. And the Nordic model is supposed to be attractive because it suppresses sex work by suppressing demand, but it doesn't stigmatize or vilify sex workers, because the people it's criminalizing are the clients rather than the sellers.
I think the Nordic model is an extremely bad model, and I've been persuaded of that by reading [work by] sex workers. There's this fantastic book, Revolting Prostitutes, written by two sex workers, and they talk about the Nordic model and its many failings. They say [that] this policy is going to raise the costs associated with the purchase of sex for men. It's going to suppress demand, and by suppressing demand, it's going to undermine sex workers’ negotiating power. When there is high demand, there are lots of potential clients, and so you can reasonably screen [them]. You can take a look at some clients and think, “Okay, this guy looks really shady. This [other] guy looks a bit more respectable, a bit more like I'm going to be less at risk if I work with this guy.” So you have more bargaining power [and] more choice. Whereas if demand is suppressed sex workers, because most sex workers are in sex work because they need money to survive, are going to be less able to be choosy about which clients they work with, and thus, they're going to be more vulnerable to violence. You're safer as a sex worker if you're working in an area where lots of people are around. [...] But the systematic fact of the Nordic model is that clients become very, very invested in accessing remote areas, and that makes sex workers more vulnerable to violence. [...]
The reason that sex workers [Juno] Mac and [Molly] Smith, who wrote Revolting Prostitutes, are able to come up with these insights is because of their lived experience, which is very, very different from mine. They're using their lived experience to criticize a policy, but their critiques of that policy are completely graspable by someone without any of their lived experience. They're just some very general principles about supply and demand, about how bargaining power works, which underpin their excellent critiques of the Nordic model. These critiques of the Nordic model have systematically been missed by non-sex working feminists because they lack the relevant lived experience. [...] [But] the important thing is, here we have an example of a policy critique which is based on a very specific social experience, where it's very plausible that I'm never going to be able to grasp the experience of a vulnerable sex worker [...] but I didn't need to grasp that to know and understand, on the basis of sex workers’ testimony, that the Nordic model is a bad model. So, I think that's a really good example of why the role of experience in politics should not be overstated.
Mounk: [...] I think it's true that black men in the United States have an experience of mistreatment by police or fear of police, that is on average superior to that of white people, in that it gives them politically relevant knowledge. I think that a lot of that knowledge can be communicated in propositional form; that actually, one of the great benefits of a lot of traditional forms of storytelling, and what I think of as liberal humanist cultural activity, is precisely to make it possible for us to put ourselves, at least to some extent, in the shoes of another. [...] It seems to me that when I hear, for example, about what it is like to live in a neighborhood that is over-policed, in which there is relentless stop and frisk, I can see from within my own set of values [...] why we should be fighting against that.
And it seems to me that trying to build those commonalities of values [and] political intention is much more likely to succeed than the idea of “You're not gonna understand anyway. Just trust that I know more than you, and defer to me, and that's how we're somehow going to build a political coalition.” That doesn't seem nearly as realistic to me. How would you put the puzzle pieces together?
Fraser: On this question of deference, the sense I'm getting is that you're broadly sympathetic towards standpoint-flavored claims, at least up until we get to this kind of deferential model of discourse, right? And that's where you [object]. I think [it’s] really interesting, the extent to which standpoint theorists agree with you.
Patricia Hill Collins, for example, [is] one of the great standpoint theorists in the black feminist tradition. I'm just going to read [out] something she says, because I think it's very, very instructive when it comes to seeing the way in which standpoint epistemology in its vulgarized forms is [somewhat] regulative of actual political discourses, [and] how it diverges from the much more sophisticated and more attractive versions of the theory which permeate academic discourse:
One implication of some uses of standpoint theory is that the more subordinated the group, the purer the vision available to them. [...] Although it is tempting to claim that Black women are more oppressed than everyone else and therefore have the best standpoint from which to understand the mechanisms, processes, and effects of oppression, this is not the case.
Instead, those ideas that are validated as true by African-American women, African-American men, Latina lesbians, Asian-American women, Puerto Rican men, and other groups with distinctive standpoints, with each group using the epistemological approaches growing from its unique standpoint, thus become the most "objective" truths. Each group speaks from its own standpoint and shares its own partial, situated knowledge. But because each group perceives its own truth as partial, its knowledge is unfinished.
The rough idea that Patricia Hill Collins is getting at here, [is that] there's this potential way of reading standpoint epistemology where we say, “Well, what we need to know is, first of all, how oppressed someone is, and then assign them a credibility score based on that, and then organize political discourse so that someone is deferred to, the higher their oppression score is.” Patricia Hill Collins is saying this is completely the wrong way to think about things. Rather, she wants to adopt a much more pluralist discursive model of political solidarity, where what you have is people with very different experiences, who with grace and compassion, rather than a kind of hostility, test each other's claims. And then they use that process of testing claims against each other to arrive at a consensus which is acceptable to all.
One of the things that is incredibly striking about this is just how similar it is to things that John Stuart Mill says in his defense of free speech. The idea is that it is precisely by testing ideas against competing viewpoints that you will arrive at the most attractive and most epistemically respectable picture of things. Obviously, there are differences between what Patricia Hill Collins thinks and what John Stuart Mill thinks. But I do think it's a striking parallel and drawing that parallel is an extremely helpful corrective to certain ways of thinking about standpoint epistemology, where people assume we can draw a very straight line from the standpoint tradition to this kind of deferential epistemology that I think that you find, for good reason, unappealing.
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