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Standpoint Matters: Keeping the Play in Play

According to feminist standpoint theory, each of us views the world from a particular,
place that is both socially constructed and partial in the knowledge it allows us. We can all benefit from "having a standpoint" on our own standpoint.



Standpoint Matters:

Keeping the Play in Play

Anne Dalke

July 4, 2007

Quark: a character in the Star Trek universe  

I've finally reached that breathing point in the summer when I can begin to catch up on the stacks of material I acquired, hoping to read, in the course of the school year. I have this afternoon arrived @ your essay on "Why Standpoint Matters" and your panel presentation on feminist epistemology. Thank you for taking the time to send both of them on to me. I'm hoping it's not too late for my responses to be useful to you; I know that I have found them useful to spell out for myself--and I've archived them publicly, on the chance that others might find them useful themselves.

These two pieces, taken together, satisfy the concern I raised, when you gave your talk on "standpoint matters" @ Bryn Mawr in March, about the "static-ness of standpoint"; they are quite convincing in demonstrating how-and-why we can understand standpoints not only as historical and contingent, but as critically conscious of the conditions of their production.

I've just participated in a series of conversations at Bryn Mawr about racial diversity and divisions on campus, a series that ended with some hard questions about why anyone who is privileged might want to give up their privilege--or how they might be motivated to do so. Your essay on "Standpoint Matters" is the most convincing answer I've read to that question: i.e., one might well do so in order to gain knowledge, to understand the world more fully, and to negotiate it more adroitly. For those reasons, I'm passing on your piece to the campus organizers of these discussions and the interventions that are to follow from them.

Your essays don't go as far in addressing the questions about "causal agency" that you and I also discussed after your talk, or the possible links between how such causality might operate in the political and quantum worlds. Recently reading Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable has gotten me re-thinking the tendency of our storytelling brains to over-value presumptions about cause and effect, our misjudging our ability to predict the future based on the past--so that's an area I'd like to explore further.

Although Taleb has reminded me about the dangers of the storytelling impulse (our insistence on reducing the dimensions of complexity, imposing order on chaos, identifying causes for effects), I was delighted both by your use of fiction and by your attention to the use-value and limits of particular words. In the first essay, you use a fictional text as your primary demonstration of the possible epistemic advantages accrued in the sort of inside-outside position occupied by black domestic workers. And you end the second piece with a "semantic concern," a suggestion that a new term, less weighted with baggage, less inflammatory and more "capacious," might be needed to describe the "cluster of epistemic leads" you've been exploring.

(Something similar happened to me after your visit to Bryn Mawr. I talked in the interim with a lawyer who explained to me that, in legal discourse, an agent is always, and only, something-or-one who acts on behalf of another; the image he drew was so vivid that now, in my own work, I'm eschewing the word "agent" for that of "player"--i.e., one with the capacity to act and have an effect--as in "I could have been a contender.") I also like the image of "playing" because it keeps me from taking this activity--or any of the claims I might generate in the process of engaging in it-- too seriously; it keeps the game flexible and open.

My further questions for you come from my own standpoint as a professional interpreter of texts and words, a position sodden with awareness that there are always multiple interpretations of both texts and words. The key logic in my business is that there is never only one way to represent what happens, or one way to interpret that representation. This "standpoint" is not really that of the Marxist underpinings of the sorts of theories you examine; it's not a political awareness of the epistemic injustice of excluding particular points of view, or of the epistemic advantage of including them. The standpoint might rather be said to be biological, or brain-based (having to do with what a colleague of mine here, not a literary critic, a neurobiologist) calls the variability of brain function); or, or a larger scale, it might be said to be evolutionary, in accord with contemporary emergence theory about the unpredictability/non-determinism of what's coming next.

The real epistemic advantage is keeping that play in play.

Thanks again for the opportunity to think alongside you--


Wylie, A. (2003). "Why Standpoint Matters." In R. Figueroa and S. Harding (eds.), Philosophical Explorations of Science, Technology, and Diversity, pp. 26–48. New York: Routledge.


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