Women in Philosophy: Linda Martín Alcoff

In teaching introductory philosophy courses, I find that most of my young students want to adopt one of two pretty extreme general orientations. Either there is one universal truth or standard, or everything is completely relative. I often find myself turning to the work of feminist scholars to illustrate more nuanced alternatives to these positions.

Linda-Martin-Alcoff-800x500-c-defaultLinda Martín Alcoff is a professor of philosophy at CUNY who specializes in epistemology, feminism, and critical race theory. She was born in Panama, raised in Florida, and is an alumna of Georgia State University (BA). Her work has been very helpful for myself, as a scholar and as a teacher, in thinking through the ways that we might be able to critique the objectivity of knowledge or science, without dissolving into relativism. Her work has been a welcome addition to my courses with units on theories of knowledge, philosophy of science, or the social construction of race.

A major component of feminist philosophical projects has been to reveal gendered elements of philosophical theories that are presented as universal, or as gender-neutral. In this vein, one of Alcoff’s most basic points is that epistemology is political.* Epistemology is the study of knowledge: how do we know things, and how do we know that we know things? Traditionally, epistemology is concerned with the sources, standards, and limitations of knowledge and the justification for beliefs. Alcoff synthesizes the work of feminist critics who argue that epistemology tends to frame its inquiry in a way that prevents reflection on the political identities of knowing subjects, and the impact of these identities on the knowledge produced. Moreover, critics argue, epistemology seeks a totalizing kind of  justification that limits the scope and terms of debate. And, epistemology rarely acknowledges the production of scientific knowledge is an institutional social practice that have effects on the scope and methods of inquiry. Alcoff recognizes the power of these critiques, given that philosophy and epistemology are critical discursive sites, influential in crafting the narratives of legitimacy for other discourses that claim knowledge. She argues that the critiques indicate the need for a better understanding of the general relationship between epistemology and politics. Here “politics” is understood as “anything having to do with relationships of power and privilege between persons, and the way in which these relationships are maintained and reproduced or contested and transformed.”  

Alcoff identifies three possibilities for understanding a significant relationship between epistemology and politics. First, the conditions of production are political insofar as they reflect social hierarchies. Alcoff reminds us that epistemology itself is a social practice, “engaged in by specific kinds of participants in prescribed situations.” As such, it has been and still tends to be a conversation between relatively privileged males. The question of who has access to and is welcomed by the institutions has determining effects on the conditions under which epistemology is practiced. As we discovered with our thinking on James Watson, this is true of scientific institutions as well. Not only do social hierarchies impact who has institutional access, but they also impact the ideas that are taken up and we should be wary of presumptions in favor of views or arguments advanced by certain types of people over others.

Second, relatedly, epistemology is political insofar as specific theories of knowledge reflect the social location and/or political identity of specific theorists.  Alcoff writes: “Maleness…is a socially constructed identity with specified attributes of privilege and authority, a range of possible freedoms, and a designated hierarchical relationship to other possible identities. If we think of social location in this way, it is easier to understand that maleness brings a particular perspective, shared assumptions and values, and social meanings.” This understanding indicates the importance of philosophical projects that provide genealogies of the relationship between the political identity of theorists and the content of the theories produced. Recalling some of the problems with Kant that I wrote about before might be helpful here. It is important to note that the claim is not that all empistemologists are intentionally crafting theories in order to promote their own privilege (though certainly we can find examples of philosophers and scientists who do so). Rather, the issue is one of “theory choice,” and conceptual limitation.

Finally, certain theories of justification have political discursive effects. Epistemology has been presented as an arbiter of all claims to knowledge. As such it has a regulatory effect on the development of discourses. The political effects are determined as much by the political forces at work in the particular social contexts where epistemologies emerge as they are by the content of the theories themselves. In other words, which ideas and theories in other disciplines gain traction is determined not just by apolitical standards but by the standards created by social practices and wielded in political contexts.

In line with views that I’ve advanced before on this blog, Alcoff’s work points us to the conclusion that democratic inclusion serves science. There are epistemic, knowledge-serving, reasons that epistemologies need to have a liberatory agenda, not just justice based ones. And Alcoff’s position acknowledges powerful critiques of the objectivity of epistemology without swinging into the relativist position so many of my students find themselves occupying. She writes, “We do not have to uphold the relativist notion that everyone’s view has an equal claim to truth in order to hold that truth is more likely to be obtained through a process that includes the articulation and examination of all possible views.”

We are nearing the end of Women’s History Month, I’ll try for one more post highlighting the work of a brilliant woman in philosophy before March ends. Thanks for reading!

*All of Alcoff’s quotes here are taken from her essay, “How is Epistemology Political?”


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