Can Standpoint Epistemology Avoid Inconsistency, Circularity, and Unnecessariness? A Comment on Ashton’s Remarks about Epistemic Privilege, Part I, Claudio Javier Cormick

In two provocative and interesting articles (Ashton 2019, 2020),[1] Natalie Ashton argues that standpoint epistemologies, though are not presented by their own authors as cases of epistemic relativism, are in fact relativistic, in a sense she reconstructs on the basis of a proposal advanced by Martin Kusch. As is known, standpoint epistemologies declare that knowledge (or justified belief) is somehow dependent on a given “standpoint” but that these standpoints can themselves be ranked, which dispels the threat of relativism: not all standpoints have the same epistemic value, and therefore not “anything goes”. However, Ashton retorts, this very ranking of standpoints must itself be dependent on a standpoint. In her own words: … [please read below the rest of the article].

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Article Citation:

Cormick, Claudio Javier. 2022. “Can Standpoint Epistemology Avoid Inconsistency, Circularity, and Unnecessariness? A Comment on Ashton’s Remarks about Epistemic Privilege.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (2): 29-41.×4.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Editor’s Note: Claudio Javier Cormick’s “Can Standpoint Epistemology Avoid Inconsistency, Circularity, and Unnecessariness? A Comment on Ashton’s Remarks about Epistemic Privilege” will be presented in two parts. Please find below Part I. Please refer to Part II. The PDF of the entire article is linked above in the Article Citation.

This article replies to:

❧ Ashton, Natalie A. 2020. “Scientific Perspectives, Feminist Standpoints, and Non-Silly Relativism.” In Knowledge from a Human Point of View edited by Ana-Maria Crețu and Michela Massimi, 71–85. Springer, Cham.

❧ Ashton, Natalie A. 2019. “Relativising Epistemic Advantage.” In The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Relativism edited by Martin Kusch, 329–338. Routledge.

Articles in this dialogue:

❦ Sankey, Howard. 2015. “Scepticism, Relativism and a Naturalistic Particularism.” Social Epistemology 29 (4): 395–412.

The central and defining component of standpoint theory […] says that justification is dependent on socially-situated perspectives. This means that the justification of a ranking of different systems will be dependent on socially situated perspectives too, and so standpoint theorists are committed to understanding the epistemic advantage thesis (which is effectively a ranking of different systems) as system-dependent. The epistemic advantage has to be understood as system-dependent if standpoint theorists are going to maintain a consistent view, and so standpoint theory is best understood as a form of epistemic relativism (Ashton 2020, 78).

In this text, I will try to discuss whether this assimilation of standpoint theory to relativism (as the sole alternative to inconsistency) is inevitable. I will proceed as follows:

• In Section 2, I will briefly summarize Ashton’s reconstruction of epistemic relativism, on the one hand, and standpoint epistemology, on the other, to show why she concludes that the latter should either be accepted as a variety of the former, or radically reformulated.

• In Section 3, I will try to show why the dilemma presented by Ashton cannot be resolved by simply weakening the standpoint thesis—that is, by limiting its scope only to first-order beliefs about the world, and exempting precisely the kind of second-order epistemological assessments such as the one that attributes an epistemic advantage to a certain standpoint. As I will argue from of the example of Michael Löwy’s standpoint theory, the obvious difficulty for such a weakening of the thesis is that it appears to be ad hoc: it is far from clear why only first-order beliefs would be affected by the impossibility of neutral evaluation, whereas second-order beliefs would be exempt from this rule.

• In Section 4, I will argue, however, that the result of simply accepting (as Ashton recommends) that a standpoint cannot be declared superior on neutral grounds might not be very encouraging after all: as Bhikhu Parekh, Martyn Hammersley and Catharine Saint-Croix had already pointed out, this would mean that the thesis of epistemic privilege can be justified only in a circular manner—and that, as a consequence, this justification could not provide us with a reason to adopt a standpoint. Worse still: the criticisms by these authors reveal, in the form of a dilemma, that the justification of the attribution of epistemic privilege not only risks being circular, on the one hand, but also (if it is made on the grounds of a neutral knowledge of reality) of making the whole recourse to standpoints simply unnecessary, on the other. A satisfactory solution to the problem of epistemic privilege will then need to avoid both risks at the same time.

• In Section 5, I will try to briefly sketch such a solution. I will elaborate on texts by José Medina and Kristin Intemann to suggest that the attribution of epistemic privilege can proceed in a “reliabilistic” manner, which involves assessing whether a standpoint is “sensitive” to certain aspects which we assume that reality has—and then employing this reliable standpoint for the acquisition of new beliefs in future research. Like all reliabilistic approaches, this one necessarily assumes that we do know things about the world independently of the standpoint, process, etc., which we declare reliable, but this, I will argue, is the only way to escape the dilemma presented by Parekh and Hammersley.

Section 2: Relativism, Standpoint Epistemology, and Epistemic Privilege

Partially following Kusch, who lists five essential and four non-essential features(Kusch, 2016, p. 36) of epistemic relativism, Ashton identifies three tenets which she takes as “components” of the position:

(DEPENDENCE) A belief has an epistemic status (as epistemically justified or unjustified) only relative to an epistemic system or practice.

(PLURALITY) There are, have been, or could be, more than one such epistemic system or practice.

(SYMMETRY) Epistemic systems and practices must not be ranked (Kusch 2016, 34–35).

Though this last claim, taken by itself, would prohibit any ranking of epistemic systems and practices, Kusch points out that it “can take a number of different forms that are worth distinguishing”. One of these forms is “Non-Neutrality”, which claims that there is “no neutral way of evaluating” different systems of practices (Kusch 2016, 35).[2] This is the reason why, when Ashton moves from the consideration of relativism to that of standpoint theory (a move which requires, grosso modo, substituting “standpoint” for “epistemic system or practice” in the tenets above) she may find the “epistemic-advantage thesis” as compatible with relativism: what relativism, well understood, prohibits is not the claim that we can rank different standpoints as better or worse, but only that we can rank them on neutral grounds (Ashton 2019, 332, 334). But to understand this point, let us first turn to Ashton’s reconstruction of standpoint epistemology. According to the author, it would consist of the following:

(SITUATED-KNOWLEDGE THESIS) Differences in social factors create epistemic differences (e.g. in the kinds of things that inquirers are justified in believing).

(STANDPOINT THESIS) Justification depends on “socially situated” perspectives.

(EPISTEMIC-ADVANTAGE THESIS) The social oppression that socially disadvantaged groups experience can bring them epistemic benefits (Ashton 2019, 330–331).

What will turn out to be decisive for Ashton’s conclusion that standpoint epistemology is relativistic is the standpoint thesis. “If justification depends on socially situated perspectives”, writes Ashton, “then so does justification about standpoints and how they are ranked” (Ashton 2019, 335). And if, on the contrary—as we may continue the reasoning—justification about standpoints and how they are ranked did not depend on socially situated perspectives, then it could not be the case that justification in general depends on socially situated perspectives. In other words, if the possibility existed to determine, on neutral grounds (and not on the grounds of the previous adoption of a “standpoint”) that a certain belief p is justified or not-justified, what would then the “standpoint thesis” amount to? If standpoint theories end up saying that, after all, we were able to neutrally assess beliefs all along, what would be the point of an entire theory that seems to affirm precisely the opposite? “This means”, writes Ashton, “that standpoint theorists have a decision to make: either they accept relativism”—that is, they keep the standpoint thesis in place, but adopt “non-neutrality” as well—“or they must radically rethink, or even abandon, their view” (Ashton,2019, 332).

Section 3: Weakening the “Standpoint Thesis”?

Now, perhaps a non-relativistic partisan of standpoint epistemologies might say that this conclusion is too hasty. Why could these epistemologies not weaken the standpoint thesis somewhat, and then claim that first-order beliefs, beliefs directly about the world, can only be assessed as justified or not-justified by presupposing the value of a standpoint, whereas second-order beliefs, by contrast on the contrary, can in fact be subjected to a neutral evaluation?

In this reading, for example, one could not do sociology or historiography without adopting a certain standpoint (proletarian or bourgeois, according to the historicist Marxist; androcentric or feminist, according to the feminist standpoint theorist), but the problem would allegedly not reappear at the level of a meta-theory which helps us determine what the best standpoint for elaborating and assessing first-order theories is.

In this case, then, we could neutrally evaluate second-order beliefs (for example, the belief “oppressed subjects have no interest in promoting conservative illusions and as such tend to pursue the truth about society”), and it would be thanks to this evaluation that we could, then, return to practicing first-order theory, now with the invaluable guide of knowing what the epistemically privileged standpoint for such a task is. We must therefore answer: why isn’t that an acceptable solution?

First of all, let us state explicitly what the position would consist of. Unlike the standpoint thesis as Ashton reconstructs it, this alternative version would have the following form:

(STANDPOINT THESIS-FIRST ORDER) Justification of first-order beliefs depends on “socially situated” perspectives, while justification of second-order beliefs does not.

In fact, this kind of solution seems at least suggested by some works in standpoint epistemology.

Take the case of the “historicist Marxist” Michael Löwy[3]. Even though he does not explicitly state that second-order theories can be assessed on neutral grounds, his proposal includes:

(i) The tenet that theoretical disagreements in the level of first-order theories in social science cannot be resolved on neutral grounds, because we cannot depart from our “class point of view” (Löwy 1973, 201, 214, 217, 224; 1985, 122, 124, 148–149, 191, 210);

(ii) The fear that, without some criterion, this would lead to a kind of relativism in which “anything goes” (Löwy 1973, 229; 1985, 146, 149, 210),[4] but finally;

(iii) A tie-breaker, provided by a meta-theory that assures us that the standpoint of the proletariat is more reliable than that of the bourgeoisie, because the proletariat “needs the truth” whereas the power of the bourgeoisie is benefited by a variety of illusions and forms of (sometimes self-) deception (Löwy 1973, 233, 234, 236; 1985, 129, 134, 140, 215, 224–225).

It will be interesting, for our purposes here, to try to determine why this is not an acceptable solution, and to what extent this unacceptability can be generalized to other proposals.

The problem for which an epistemology such as Löwy’s cannot provide a satisfactory solution is, predictably, the following: how, if not by means of an unacceptably ad hoc exception, would the evaluation of meta-theoretical arguments appear as more “neutral”, less socially conditioned, than the evaluation of first-order evidence? It is not clear at all why an argument such as “the oppressed are in need of the truth, therefore their perspective is more reliable”[5] would be more amenable to a neutral evaluation than first-order sociological or historical evidence. If the case of first-order theoretical positions motivates a relativistic doubt because our formulation of the problems, evaluation of the evidence, etcetera, will be tainted by values and interests distinctive to the researcher’s class standpoint, then it must be shown why the case of second-order tenets, concerning the reliability of a standpoint, is exempt from such conditioning. Here it is the standpoint theorist that bears the burden of proof—and, in the case of Löwy, no specific argument is offered to reply to this predictable objection.

Worse still, some beliefs that are key to the second-order argument Löwy makes are the same first-order beliefs about which different “standpoints” would yield different theoretical verdicts—and therefore cannot be said to face a better chance for neutral evaluation as those first-order beliefs. The tenet that oppressed groups such as the proletariat need an accurate representation of reality in order to overcome such a situation presupposes, to begin with, the belief that they are, in fact, oppressed—as opposed to beliefs such as the one that the proletariat, although dispossessed of the means of production, benefits itself from private property because the latter “increases the social product” (Nozick 2013, 177). Of course, this latter conservative belief could in principle be contested by appealing to evidence from economy and sociology, but it is precisely Löwy who cannot do this. If Löwy insists that all first-order scientific evidence is in principle only acceptable relative to a class standpoint, and can only be made good when complemented by a meta-theory that supports the epistemic superiority of one of the standpoints in question, then his meta-theory cannot appeal precisely to the kind of first-order beliefs (such as “the proletariat is an oppressed class”) whose very value has been put in question.

Author Information:

Claudio Javier Cormick,, Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET), Argentina.

Part II of the article.


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[1] In the first of these texts, Ashton takes a proposal by José Medina (2013) as a starting point; however, she points out that her conclusions are not restricted to this case but apply to standpoint epistemologies in general.

[2] Though Kusch does not use this example, Rorty’s “ethnocentrism” seems to illustrate this point quite well: whereas Rorty reserves the term “relativism” for a doctrine according to which a variety of belief-systems would stand on a par and could not be ranked as better or worse, his own ethnocentrism does not hesitate to condemn the views of Nazis, religious fundamentalists, tribesmen, etcetera, as inferior, but he immediately adds that such a condemnation is, of course, made on the basis of his own “liberal bourgeois postmodern” beliefs and desires. (For a brief reconstruction of Rorty’s “ethnocentrism”, cf. Cormick 2011; Rorty’s main texts on ethnocentrism are probably Rorty 1984, 1986, 1991, 2000.)

[3] I prefer to speak of “historicist Marxists” rather than just plain Marxists, because—as Löwy himself shows—there are clear examples of Marxist authors who are not committed to the thesis of epistemic privilege—e.g., the “second” or “intermediate” Althusser, between his alleged adhesion to the “great festival of proletarian science of the decade of 1950” (Löwy 1973,  223) and his later acceptance of a role of “class struggle” in “theoretical practice”. Other Marxist authors which do not adhere to a standpoint epistemology are those who Löwy views as “positivistically inclined”, especially in the Second International. Parekh, in turn (and against Löwy’s reading) thinks that a commitment to the idea of a pure, disinterested non-partisan science can also be found in Marx himself (cf. his conclusions in Parekh 1982, 184–185). Finally, though it is Lukács who is frequently identified as the Marxist author thanks to whose influence standpoint epistemology came to be (Fricker 1999; Jameson 1988; Toole 2019), I find it doubtful that Lukács himself was a standpoint theorist in the sense which is relevant here—that is, an author who denies the possibility of a proposition’s being justified save relative to a certain “standpoint”. I leave this question for a later work on the subject.

[4] Mutatis mutandis, the idea that the thesis of epistemic privilege functions as a solution for a relativistic problem can also be found in Mills and in Tanesini’s global reconstruction (Mills 1988, 241–242; Tanesini 2019, 336)

[5] The alleged link between a practical motivation to know the truth and a higher reliability appears in a variety of “historicist Marxist” authors, such as Gramsci. For a similar remark—in the context of feminist theory—on the motivations of the oppressed, cf. Jaggar (Jaggar 1983, 370). I will not dwell here on the consequences that Jaggar extracts from this remark.

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