HXA articles

Standpoint epistemology is circular

The info sought from a standpoint is the info that is needed to find it. There is no other informational structure. Standpoint epistemology has a purely rhetorical function: it adds nothing but an illusion of confirmation for some pre-decided commitment.

803 words (4 minutes)

Look at examples where it is discussed, look at your own examples! They are not about neutral positions assessed on a level field, they are about the oppressed/marginalised confirming their own oppression.

SE is not about uniformly distinguishing various parts of a scene. SE is about selecting one of them as having priority, and it is about granting priority to information on the basis of that selection. And that creates a circularity. It requires an inequality of standing to determine whom to select, but the info sought from that standpoint is about that very same inequality of standing. In one direction: whatever information those people have, its interpretation has already been circumscribed by the reasons they in particular were chosen. And in the other direction: the info sought from the standpoint is the info that was needed to find it.

Think about the info you seek in using SE. Are you asking whether those people like tea, or what their surface texture preferences are? No, those seem irrelevant – you ask about their oppression. But what does ‘about’ mean there? What if in their info they say that their oppression involves them frequently preferring tea to coffee? This still seems irrelevant. On the other hand, if they describe their oppression as having this suffering or that constraint, you would accept that this is the kind of info you were seeking. It is a relevant and appropriate answer because suffering and constraint are things we think oppression is made of. But those kinds of things that tell you someone is oppressed must have also been what you used to decide who was oppressed, and hence who to ask, in the first place.

It could be that SE might elicit new and different such elements of oppression, not the exact same ones used to find who was oppressed. But then they might also be possessed by others, the non-oppressed whom you did not ask, in the scene. And so they cannot imply any relative positional evaluation – if everyone is oppressed in that way, it cancels out for an argument ascertaining who is and who is not.

In using SE, one asks the oppressed about features that show their oppression; that is the way it divides up the scene, and the informational purpose it has. There is nothing else in the conception of SE in general. And this self-confirmational form is the problem. SE's structure means it can contain only one piece of info, but that is replicated in two places: creating a simple circularity of dependence.

Imagine if the rule was: to find who is oppressed, ask the green people. One immediately wonders why, how can it can make sense – why green people? But that gap in reasoning is exactly what would allow it to be a useful rule. If correct, it captures some pattern out in the world (the empirical link between green and oppression) that was not obvious, not foreclosed by the question itself, and can be disproven. But compare that with: to find who is oppressed, ask the oppressed people. It is completely the opposite, and dismayingly: it immediately, intuitively, seems correct because its suggestion is obviously appropriate. But that, in mirror image to the first example, is exactly why it is tautological and vacuous.

Or ask: is SE ever disconfirming? Could you ever ask the oppressed people, integrate all their info, and then realise that it clearly shows they are not oppressed? But now what? If they are not oppressed, you should not have asked them and given weight to what they say. But then you should not think they are not oppressed, and so maybe you should follow their info, but didn't that show …

Distilled to its essentials, SE proposes this: to solve some moral question of who is right, you ask the person in the right, and they will confirm to you that they are right. Or otherwise, when you ask the person in the right, they will give you no info on who is right. The role that SE plays in a moral argument is either circular or redundant.

One can observe the commonness of how people start with some conclusion, then backfill with pseudo-reasoning and pseudo-evidence as if to demonstrate it. But with SE, philosophy has elevated this prejudice to an abstract principle. Standpoint epistemology is made to advance pre-decided moral/political commitments in a neatly self-confirming way, equally appealing as fallacious. This is not to pass judgement on those political positions; probably most are justifiable. But then justify them properly!


DC: {
   title: "Standpoint epistemology is circular",
   creator: "Harrison Ainsworth",

   date: "2020-06-15",

   type: "article",
   format: "text/html",

   language: "en-GB",
   subject: "philosophy, morality",
   description: "The info sought from a standpoint is the info that is needed to find it. There is no other informational structure. Standpoint epistemology has a purely rhetorical function: it adds nothing but an illusion of confirmation for some pre-decided commitment.",

   identifier: "urn:uuid:FBEE68A0-1231-46F1-BDF0-80125486472E",
   relation: "http://www.hxa.name/articles/content/Standpoint-epistemology-is-circular_hxa7241_2020.html",

   rights: "Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 License"