This is a response to philosopher Liam Kofi Bright’s (LSE) blogpost “Empiricism is a Standpoint Epistemology”, based on actual evidence.
The conclusion Bright argues for is this:
“Every well informed empiricist should be a standpoint epistemologist”
The correct reply to this is that no sane person in the world, let alone an empiricist, should be a “standpoint epistemologist”: it is anti-scientific and anti-empircist; and it forms the basis of an illiberal authoritarian caste system, Identity Politics, that suppresses, victimizes, mistreats, abuses, imprisons and kills people, based on their caste.
2. What is “Standpoint Epistemology”?
Historically, “standpoint epistemology” has Marxist roots, claiming that the outlook of the members of the proletariat, alienated under wage slavery & class struggle, is more accurate than the outlook of their alleged capitalist/bourgeois “oppressors”. Whether this claim is true or not is a separate matter; indeed, to account for working-class people rejecting the communist view of the “vanguard” intellectuals and preferring liberal reforms to radical revolution, Engels invented the theory of “false consciousness“. But set that aside.
Contemporary “stand-point epistemology”, from roughly the 1970s onwards, is a completely different thing, and quite different from what Marx may have intended. Indeed, it is quite antagonistic to class power and status, and, in practice, it operates to promote the interests of the economically privileged socio-economic class. This is one of the most important reasons for sharply distinguishing contemporary “Social justice” race & gender activism from Marxism: the two are often poles apart.
Modern “stand-point epistemology” is now a group-based form of epistemic relativism, and is the central epistemological ingredient of contemporary Social Justice (Race & Gender) Identity Politics. It says that instead of making judgments about human events and interactions based on specific detailed facts about individuals, one should instead base judgments based on group stereotypes—typically those referring to race & gender (but almost never to class: working-class men are “deplorables”).
In other words, it relativizes evidence statements to groups. And it asserts that the credibility of an assertion depends on the group membership of the person making that assertion.
This is its description in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Feminist standpoint theorists make three principal claims: (1) Knowledge is socially situated. (2) Marginalized groups are socially situated in ways that make it more possible for them to be aware of things and ask questions than it is for the non-marginalized. (3) Research, particularly that focused on power relations, should begin with the lives of the marginalized.
3. Is Standpoint Epistemology True?
The crucial empirical assumption here is (2): that there exists “marginalized groups”. Now,
What concrete empirical evidence is provided to justify this assumption?
In its political application (i.e., Identity Politics), this revolves around the claim that “marginalized groups” are women and minorities. And so,
What concrete empirical evidence is there justify the empirical claim that women and minorities are “marginalized groups”?
I am familiar with a very large number of quantitative demographic results relevant to this question. On this basis, no evidence whatsoever exists to support this claim. The evidence, in a huge number of measurable cases, points the other way, as I detail below.
I set aside the issue of “minorities” (which is normally taken to mean racial minorities). Oppression narratives related to this tend to be either hundreds of years out of date, or based on extremely biased thinking: a working-class, unemployed, older, disabled white man is probably vastly, vastly more marginalized, on any reasonable measurement scale, than any employed, non-disabled, young black person from a middle-class background. To dispute this would require lack of connection with empirical reality and evidence. Similarly, the fact that my Irish ancestors were starved to death in the 1840s does not imply that I, now, am somehow “oppressed” by this. I am not. On the other hand, all of my ancestors for 200 years were working-class; and I grew up in working-class poverty in a council estate, and no family members even had qualifications, let alone attended a university. They were factory workers. Does it therefore bizarrely follow that I am “privileged”, because I am working-class? Identity Politics is hateful nonsense.
But focus instead on the first part, the claim that women are “marginalized”.
This is demonstrably false. It is inconsistent with all relevant empirical data, which strongly indicates that men are marginalized, to very high degrees and in a systemic manner. Men are literally marginalized in being, in far higher proportions, at the bottom of society on essentially every conceivable measure. It is logically irrelevant if the majority of, say, CEOs are men. That is the Apex Fallacy, an obvious sampling fallacy. The topic is marginalization — i.e., those at the bottom, not the top. And it is boys and men who are at the bottom, not girls and women. Denying this is flat-out false. Boys and men are, for example,
- 80-90% of the homeless (data for 2016 for England and Wales).
- Around 95% of prisoners (UK Home Office data).
- Around 75-80% of primary and secondary school exclusions (UK Dept for Education data).
- A minority of college students, both undergraduate and postgraduate (HESA data).
- Likely to work far longer hours: around 5 hrs/wk longer for full-time employees (Statistia data).
- Around 80% of suicides.
- Over 95% of workplace deaths (Office for National Statistics data).
- Have 3-5 years shorter life expectancy.
- Less able to access medical & healthcare services.
- Far more likely to be criminally assaulted or murdered (CSEW: Crime Survey for England & Wales).
- Around 100% of domestic violence victims who are ignored or even punished.
- Around 95% of victims of false accusations (see database).
- Subjected to measurable systemic anti-male bias in
- the education system;
- the policing/criminal justice system;
- the family courts system;
- disciplinary proceedings in colleges and workplaces;
- media representation and politics.
- Subjected to systemic socially approved prejudice and vilification (as “toxic”).
These are textbook indicators of “marginalization” and “social exclusion”.
The empirical evidence therefore shows that, as a demographic, it is boys and men who are marginalized and socially excluded, not women. Women are beneficiaries of systemic, widespread, measurable gynocentric preference, either in social contexts or in institutional settings. The claim it is the other way around flatly contradicts all available evidence. It is without doubt the clearest example of lying about marginalization.
4. Is Standpoint Epistemology Compatible with Empiricism?
Setting aside the empirical inversion of facts for a moment (I return to this below), is standpoint epistemology even consistent with empiricism? I say, no.
The basic idea of standpoint epistemology, is that epistemic judgements be relativized to groups. In principle, it may be compatible with the standard theory of beliefs and credences, known as Bayesianism. To apply standpoint epistemology here, presumably there would be, for any group G, an assumption of conditional credence of the form
Prob(S | S is asserted by member of group G) > r
where r is some cut-off, say 0.9 (i.e., 90%). This states, roughly, that members of group G are reliable.
However, one must be very careful, as this can easily end up with inconsistencies. For a member X1 of a group G may assert S and another member X2 may assert ~S. If so, then applying conditionalization may easily lead to an inconsistent system of credences: e.g.,
Prob(S) > 0.9 and Prob(~S) > 0.9
Whether some version of this is compatible with Bayesianism is therefore moot, as the starting assumptions are not even probabilistically coherent. A weakened version uses a group plus a specific asserter, say A,
Prob(S | S is asserted by A & A is member of group G) > r
This amounts to treating that individual A (along with their membership in G) as reliable. But these specific assumptions of reliability applied to particular individuals are almost certainly hopelessly prone to wild fluctuations depending on the statement S in question. What makes someone reliable simply is not their race & gender status, and to assume it does is literally to adopt racism and sexism. What makes a person reliable depends on completely different factors, including matters of their personal psychology, their specific expertise or perhaps professional credentials, their proneness to dishonesty, any psychological pathology, etc.
In any case, the main idea of standpoint epistemology is not compatible with empiricism.
For the main claim is that background assumptions about group/identity stereotypes should play a role in judging the credibility of a specific instance. This contradicts empiricism, which says that no background assumptions whatsoever, and certainly none about group stereotypes, should play a role in judging an assertion about a concrete instance. Standpoint epistemology implies, for example, that if one’s background stereotype of a swan is “swans are white,”, then one must judge any given concrete instance of a swan to be white, even if the swan is observed to be black. By treating background assumptions as determinants of belief, it therefore implies that concrete evidence should be discarded if it doesn’t fit those background assumptions — which may be preconceived opinion, stereotype or dogma.
This is dogmatic, anti-scientific and anti-empiricist, contrary to 400 years of scientific method since the time of Bacon and Galileo. By discarding evidence in favour of abstract assumptions about group stereotypes, it makes theories of the human world thereby immune to revision. This is anti-scientific and anti-empiricist.
5. Bright’s Argument and Sociological Assumptions
How does Bright arrive at this anti-empiricist conclusion? The argument Bright gives is this:
Let’s begin by some definitions. For my purpose here an empiricist is somebody who thinks that – “(i) people with more experience of a phenomenon will, all else equal, know more about it than those with less such experience, (ii) provided that they actually take the time to reason about it or pay attention to the evidence available to them. By “well informed empiricist” I mean somebody who believes (i) and (ii) and is aware of some of the (rather obvious) sociological facts I shall be drawing attention to in what follows.”
The crucial part is underlined. I shall grant the argument’s validity.
The argument, however, is not sound, because of its question-begging assumption about what constitutes being “well-informed”. This premise is, in fact, false. By “well-informed”, Bright means someone who believes certain “(rather obvious) sociological facts”. What are these “facts”? Apparently, they are:
“… the claim that women are generally epistemically privileged when it comes to reasoning about sexual assault in the work place, or black people about racist social norms in America”
This claim is not true. These are not “facts”.
Not only is it false, it is spectacularly false, as anyone who can read basic scientific research and quantitative data related to these matters should know. But this kind of clear falsehood somehow maintains its place in the ideology of the cultural elite. Why? The falsehood is not held in place by any evidence (for the evidence contradicts it), but by ideological, moralistic bullying and aggression from a privileged social elite, which responds to empirical challenge by using moralistic abuse and even violence to silence dissent, even when the dissent is based on the actual evidence. So dissent is first “moralized”, and thereby silenced.
This technique of silencing critics is not a coincidental feature of Identity Politics. For it is very explicitly a system of moralized claims—a kind of religion—and dissent against the “moral truths” of a religion must lead to purging, expulsion, ostracism, etc. (Cf., Spinoza.)
6. What the Actual Sociological Facts Are
The assumptions Bright refers to are not “facts”. They are the opposite: sexist falsehoods. It follows that someone who believes in this sexist bigotry is not “well-informed”. Someone who believes this sexist bigotry is ill-informed and ignorant of the facts. The evidence itself shows that women are not “epistemically privileged when it comes to reasoning about sexual assault in the workplace”; for women commit sexual assault in the workplace and also lie about sexual assault in the workplace.
[And, as an academic philosopher, Bright really should be acutely aware of this, since the only documented examples of sexual assault in relation to the “workplace” of academic philosophy are by women against men:
- Anna Stubblefield, who sexually assaulted a disabled, severely cognitively impaired, man;
- and Charlotte Coursier, who sexually assaulted me, twice.
It takes spectacular levels of ideological indoctrination and misandry to invert the status of rape. Rape is not a good thing. Contrary to feminist ideology, rape is a bad thing. Being violently sexually assaulted causes long-term health problems.]
Therefore, Bright’s crucial assumption—about what it is be “well-informed”—is false. So what are the relevant sociological facts? The relevant empirical evidence is this:
- Women sexually assault men at rates comparable to the other way around. (Evidence: large volume of research; e.g., CDC 2010 NISVS.)
- Women sometimes lie about men to get revenge (e.g., for rejection) and weaponize false sexual allegations in the justice system and the workplace to do this. (Evidence: any research article or book about false accusations; or any database relating to false accusations and their motivations.)
- Women are more domestically violent than men are. (Evidence: the research project PASK, by leading scholars in the field, and its huge database of studies (“The world’s largest domestic violence research data base, 2,657 pages, with summaries of 1700 peer-reviewed studies“); the specialized journal Partner Abuse; large population studies about bidirectional and undirectional domestic violence.)
These are the relevant sociological facts, established by scientific inquiry.
But, in an important sense, this is all irrelevant to any question about normative epistemology. The sociological facts are whatever they are; they are descriptive claims. But that is totally independent of any normative question about the structure of epistemology itself.
Empiricism is based the rather simple (also empirical) idea that basic concrete propositions (e.g., “red patch here, now”; “that thing is a cat”, etc.) are accepted without theoretical presupposition. There is some specific concrete empirical instance. Cognition somehow perceives this and accepts it. Such statements or judgements are what the Viennese logical empiricists called “observation sentences” and they form the basis from which Russell (Our Knowledge of the External World, 1914) and, later, Carnap (Der logische Aufbau der Welt, 1928) attempted to build “construction systems”, whose foundation levels consisted in immediate sense-data or observation sentences.
Whether this kind of major project (i.e., explaining how cognition arrives at complex theories & concepts in terms of primitive acquisition of basic ones, combined with “abstract construction”) is successful or not is not directly relevant. But it is what empiricism is. Bacon, Newton, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Mill, Russell and Carnap were all empiricists. None of these empiricists would have accepted standpoint epistemology.
Relevant to the secondary question of the feasibility of empiricist reconstruction from sensory primitives + logico-mathematical construction are two main facts about perceptual cognition:
- First, the fallibility of observation sentences;
- Second, the theory-dependence of observation sentences.
For the first, in some cases, an observation sentence may be accepted as true, despite being objectively false, as a result of a cognitive illusion. The Müller-Lyer illusion is probably the nicest example, though there are hundreds of others. And this also illustrates the second point: background-dependence of observation. The visual cognitive processing system (of all creatures, not just humans) makes background assumptions which are used to somehow generate the conclusion of the visual experience, through what is in effect a very sophisticated computer algorithm. This algorithm processes a kind of “pixel input” (e.g., visual, auditory, olfactory, propioption) and returns a “judgment” — normally subpersonal — as “value”. This algorithm contains built-in background assumptions; these are fallible. Consequently, this perceptual algorithm, though in general it works extremely efficiently, unconsciously and typically veridically, can sometimes generate systemic errors. Perceptual illusions are examples. So, perceptual judgments are not constructed by this algorithm from the data alone. The perceptual output is constructed from data plus innate background assumptions. In light of this, whether empiricism is even possible, because of theory-dependence and background assumptions, is a separate matter. There is no simple answer; a simple answer is, “Yes; or maybe no; or we don’t know”.
8. Identity Politics is a Quasi-Religious Caste System
Finally, one cannot base any reasonable “epistemology” on purely theoretical, contingent, strong assumptions about what the world, including the social world, is like. One can perhaps argue that rationalism is indeed based on theoretical, contingent, strong assumptions about the world: Kant’s Transcendental Idealism is an example of this: TI assumes that “Space is the form of external intuition and space is a 3-D manifold“: this is false. According to modern physics, space may be 10-dimensional; or not a manifold, but a discrete, even finite, structured. Space is also not “the form of external intuition”. It is mind-independent and has nothing to do with “external intuition”; and “external intuition” is itself a fallible approximate representation of space by cognitive observers, and certainly not space. You certainly cannot base epistemology on sociological fantasies buttressed by moralistic silencing, mobbing and abuse. For doing so will make any resulting theory unfalsifiable, and immune to empirical revision. And that approach has a name: religion.
In this case, the theoretical ideology is Identity Politics: a political, state-sponsored caste system which treats men as a subhuman caste, to be sexually abused, domestically abused, lied about, witch hunted, imprisoned and even killed. Trying to base epistemology on such an appalling sociological caste system is intellectually corrupt.