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Feminist Approaches to Epistemology

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  • 0:01 Exclusion of Women
  • 0:38 Feminist Philosophy
  • 1:36 Epistemology and Gender
  • 3:19 Social Epistemology
  • 5:03 The Role of Emotions
  • 6:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, explore what it means to include women's voices in philosophical discussions. Consider the variety of viewpoints brought to the table by feminist thinkers and how they describe the way we develop beliefs.

Exclusion of Women

Julia is reading all about epistemology for her philosophy class. Epistemology is the study of how we come to acquire knowledge and what the limits are to that knowledge. Julia notices that the authors of essays and books about epistemology in the past have often been male. From Plato to Locke to Kant, there are men speaking about the experience of knowledge and knowing. This lesson looks at what Julia discovers when she starts to learn about what feminists have to say about epistemology.

Feminist Philosophy

So, what is feminism? This term has many definitions, depending on the person describing it, but we'll use the term here to mean movements to establish greater equality for people of any gender.

From Julia's perspective, even including female philosophers is an example of feminism in action in her philosophy class. Without women's voices, you still get a variety of viewpoints. However, they are still restricted to one biological sex, that of men. That said, it's important to note that men can also be feminists if they seek the goal of equality.

So, what do feminist philosophers care to discuss? Many of the same issues that have been important throughout the history of philosophy also concern contemporary feminist philosophers, from metaphysics to ethics to epistemology.

Epistemology and Gender

Yet Julia notices something as she reads what female philosophers in particular have to say. The very experience of having been excluded from philosophy in the past is important. This perspective leads some thinkers to have new insight on this topic of how knowledge is acquired. It makes them want to consider how we can improve on the ways we develop knowledge.

Consider Donna Haraway's observation that each of us has a limited perspective based on our experiences. She argues that what we think of as being objective is not very objective at all. When philosophers research and write, they try to come from a place of erasing their bias by stepping outside of their experience, but does this really work? Can a philosopher who is born into a wealthy family, for instance, act as though they don't have that experience in their life? Or can a person, like Julia, who was raised in poverty, step outside of that experience when she talks about epistemology? Haraway says that we can never really make ourselves objective outsiders like that. We can only do the next best thing, which is to acknowledge our own limited perspective.

We can even call attention to it by being honest about it. In other words, if we are female, for instance, we aim to talk about our experience of being female. We don't try to pretend we can be completely objective. In this way, our economic background, ethnic identity, and any other aspects of who we are become relevant to our discussions.

Social Epistemology

While there are exceptions, many feminist approaches focus on social epistemology. Social epistemology involves research into the social impact of knowledge. Those taking this approach would tend to focus less on finding out what is true and more on how people come to believe what they do.

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