Section 4: Back to a Relativistic Understanding of Standpoint Theory? The Problem of Circularity and, yet another one, Unnecessariness
Now, if the standpoint thesis cannot plausibly be weakened so that it leaves room for a neutral ranking of standpoints (that is, a ranking not dependent on standpoints themselves), does this entail that the relativistic understanding of standpoint epistemology is the only available option? Before considering a potentially more promising alternative, it is worth noting that Ashton’s conclusion that standpoints can only be ranked in a way that is itself dependent on a standpoint had already been considered—though as a more worrying result—by Parekh, Hammersley, and Saint-Croix. According to these authors, if, in fact, every belief can only be assessed from a certain standpoint, and this applies to the very meta-theoretical considerations concerning the superiority of a standpoint, then a possible outcome is that a standpoint is used to assess its own reliability (i.e., we know “from” the proletarian standpoint that the proletarian standpoint is epistemically privileged) and, consequently, that standpoints can only receive an epistemically circular justification. … [please read below the rest of the article].
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. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-6×4.
🔹 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 II. Please refer to Part I. The PDF of the entire article is linked above in the Article Citation.
❧ 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.
❦ Sankey, Howard. 2015. “Scepticism, Relativism and a Naturalistic Particularism.” Social Epistemology 29 (4): 395–412.
Though the problem of epistemic circularity is more complex than would appear at first blush, and therefore such a charge might be seen by a relativist as a less definitive objection than Parekh and Hammersley think, it should be clear, in any case, why the prospect of justifying a standpoint’s superiority only on the grounds provided by that very standpoint might raise some suspicions: at least, it means that, if standpoints can somehow be chosen, as a theoretical tool (and this is an idea some standpoint theorists are committed to), then epistemic privilege cannot appear to us, in advance, as a reason to adopt the “privileged” standpoint: its “privilege” will only appear to us as such once we have already adopted the standpoint in question, not before. As Saint-Croix writes, “If we are to convince those in power to change their ways”—that is, to adopt the privileged standpoint—“it will be of little help to present circular justifications” (Saint-Croix, 2020).
Up to this point, then, what we have is that the version of the standpoint thesis reconstructed by Ashton leads to a situation in which the alleged superiority of a standpoint can only be justified in a circular way, and that the alternative, “STANDPOINT THESIS-FIRST ORDER”, escapes from this result in a suspiciously ad hoc manner. Can the standpoint thesis be reformulated in yet another way? We must bear in mind, of course, that the thesis should not be weakened to such a degree that it ceases to count as a “standpoint thesis” in any interesting sense. That is to say, if we grant that we can assess, in a neutral way, the attribution to privilege to a given standpoint, but that this is a consequence of the fact that we can evaluate, independently of a standpoint, first-order beliefs themselves, then the problem is no longer circularity but, instead, that the recourse to a “privileged standpoint” has become unnecessary for the knowledge of reality. As Parekh writes about this alternative:
Since Marx must already know what capitalism is like in order to conclude that it can only be known from the proletarian point of view, he did not need to adopt the proletarian point of view to know the truth about capitalism! To say that only the proletarian point of view enables one to grasp the truth about capitalism or makes the social reality visible is to imply that one already knows the truth about capitalism independently of the proletarian point of view (Parekh 1982, 171–172).
We need, then, not only to avoid the possible inconsistency pointed out by Ashton. We also need to move between the Scylla of epistemic circularity and the Charybdis of unnecessariness. Let us explore, in the following section, a possible alternative.
Section 5: A More Promising Alternative? Restricting the “Standpoint Thesis” in a Heuristic Sense
Now, on the basis of more recent work by Intemann and Medina, perhaps a charitable reading of standpoint epistemology could attribute to it the following thesis:
(STANDPOINT THESIS-HEURISTIC) Heuristic decisions concerning how to perform scientific research are only justified on the grounds of a previous commitment to the epistemic superiority of a standpoint, but the relative value of standpoints themselves can in turn be assessed on a neutral basis—namely, our knowledge of results of previous research.
Before appealing to the texts, let us try to analyze what this proposal should amount to. We need to carefully distinguish three aims:
1. To avoid the risk of an inconsistency such as the one identified by Ashton, the thesis does not say both that every belief is justified only relative to a standpoint and that the very ranking of standpoints can be made on neutral grounds. Instead, it distinguishes between some theoretical decisions that are made on the grounds of a standpoint—and which concern how to organize future research—on the one hand, and the ranking of standpoints, on the other hand.
2. To avoid the risk of circularity, the ranking of standpoints is made on neutral grounds, i.e., this ranking does not presuppose the kind of theoretical commitments that are only possible on the basis of having adopted a standpoint, but only justifies those commitments.
3. To avoid the risk of unnecessariness, the thesis does not say that the beliefs which we can acquire on neutral grounds—that is, the beliefs whose acquisition does not need the detour via the adoption of a standpoint—are, as Parekh would criticize, the same beliefs which we can acquire once we have adopted a standpoint. What the thesis asserts is that we can know on neutral grounds that certain standpoints showed, in the past, to be sensitive to certain aspects of reality, and that, on that basis, we can prefer adopting those standpoints so that the future beliefs we may form are also sensitive to those aspects of reality.
Another preliminary observation that we need to make is that (for example, in a recent proposal by Intemann) what standpoint theory recommends is a way to constitute better research communities—that is, the locus of epistemic privilege cannot be an isolated individual (Intemann 2010; 786). The theory, in this reading, is committed to “the claim that epistemic communities that include members of marginalized groups will have epistemic advantages, or more rigorous critical consciousness, than communities that do not (at least in some contexts)” (Intemann 2010, 787). This involves a heuristic recommendation for future research: “include members of marginalized groups; avoid a homogeneous community composed only by white, heterosexual cisgender males”. This recommendation is founded, predictably, on the previous assumption that the standpoint achieved by a diverse community is epistemically more beneficial than the standpoint which is characteristic of a community composed only by socially privileged members. But here comes the crucial step: how can the existence of this alleged epistemic benefit be itself tested—in a way, of course, that does not circularly hinge on the same standpoint being assessed, or make it unnecessary to appeal to standpoints at all?
Recent comments by José Medina about empirical evidence obtained in a series of experiments including “mock juries” and performed by Samuel Sommers suggest an answer: the test would be supported, in a reliabilistic manner, on considerations about previous performances of diverse communities, on the one hand, and homogeneous communities, on the other. About these experiments, Medina writes:
Half the juries were all-white; the other half included both white and black members. Concerns about racism playing a role in the case were raised more frequently in the racially diverse juries than in the all-white juries. What is […] interesting is that critical sensitivity to racism was expressed not only by black jurors but also by white jurors in the racially diverse juries. In fact, white jurors in racially diverse juries were more likely than black jurors to raise the issue of racism […]. Not only does the evidence strongly suggests that the presence of non-white subjects triggers white jurors’ critical sensitivity with respect to racism, but it also strongly suggests that the presence of a white homogeneous composition—that is, the exclusive presence of racially privileged subjects—in the jury inhibits expressions of such critical sensitivity (Medina 2021, 337).
In the light of his appeal to this kind of evidence, Medina’s line of reasoning seems to be the following: firstly, he starts from the assumption that racism is in fact a component of social life. Secondly, using that assumption, he attempts to determine what (collective) standpoints have proven to be more sensitive to that component—and concludes, hinging on evidence about the past, that racially diverse epistemic communities have. Thirdly, he can recommend that, in the future, epistemic communities be racially diverse, because this will guarantee their sensitivity to racism as an aspect of social reality.
Making, in the first step, the assumption that we already know something about reality (i.e., that racism exists) does not involve a lack of critical awareness; it is, instead, the only possible starting point for an assessment of reliability (the kind of assessment that, as Philip Kitcher suggested, standpoint theory should be inclined to make). We can check whether a clock is reliable by assuming that we may know at diverse moments, independently of that clock, what time it is—and only then will we confidently employ the clock in question. We can determine that a person is reliable in forming certain kinds of beliefs only if we can have a direct access to the same reality that, we declare, she knows well—and this is why we will trust her in the future. Of course, if Medina declared that we cannot justifiedly believe, unless by adopting “the standpoint of a diverse community”, that racism is in fact a component of reality, then it is clear that it would be circular to say that the standpoint of a diverse community is “privileged” because it is sensitive to that component. A standpoint cannot be declared to be “reliable” simply because it is sensitive to reality as it is perceived from that standpoint. However, the point is: why would Medina need to say such a thing? Returning to a comparison with the case of Löwy will, in this sense, be fruitful.
Löwy cannot, in principle, justify the thesis of an epistemic superiority of a certain standpoint (that of the oppressed in general and of the proletariat in particular) in a “reliabilistic” direction, which takes for granted a certain feature of social reality and then moves to the task of detecting which standpoint is more sensitive to it, because, in Löwy’s analysis, as we have seen, we have no neutral way of justifying first-order beliefs, beliefs directly about social reality; the only way to arrive at justified beliefs on those subjects is via the endorsement of a standpoint. In Löwy’s approach, the equipollence between incompatible descriptions of reality makes a theory of epistemic privilege indispensable, and conversely the possibility of a neutral knowledge of reality would render that theory unnecessary. But Medina’s proposal does not need to deny the possibility of that neutral knowledge, because, in his case, the use for a theory about the epistemic advantages of certain standpoint is not provided (as in Löwy’s case) by the need to have a “tie-breaker” between competing accounts of reality, but by the need to guide future research on the basis of the lessons learned about epistemic communities in the past.
A new objection, however, could take the following form: perhaps a proposal that sets off to determine reliability based on some knowledge which is taken for granted is not circular, but it is, on the contrary, less critical than an approach such as Löwy’s. Maybe, after all, Medina should not use, as a starting point, the assumption “Racism is a component of social life” as a neutral datum, but insist instead, in a perhaps more cautious manner, that only from a certain standpoint can we justifiedly believe that racism has such a role. Even though more should be said, in order to tackle this objection, about what exactly constitutes different standpoints, one consequence of the “cautious” approach can be immediately identified: under that approach, the aim of providing a non-circular justification for the attribution of epistemic privilege to a standpoint does, now, become unfeasible. To put this in the form of a dilemma: either we accept that the value of standpoints can be assessed on the basis of some knowledge which we take to be unproblematic (perhaps, in the limit, we could appeal to the kind of universally recognized cases of knowledge that are used by the “particularistic” solution to epistemic relativism (this strategy has been carried out, following in Chisholm’s and Laudan’s steps, by Howard Sankey; cf. Sankey 2010; 2012; 2013; 2014; 2015), or we stay “critical” and “cautious” at the cost of not being able to provide any reason to adopt a given standpoint.
One last remark: there is, of course, a big step between, on the one hand, a series of specific studies comparing epistemic communities in artificial conditions and, on the other hand, a global claim about the alleged advantages of the “standpoint” available to socially diverse research communities; surely more evidence needs to be mobilized (Cf. Pinnick, 1994, 2005 for some criticisms in terms of historical evidence supporting the thesis that diversity in research communities confers an advantage). My purpose here, however, is not to evaluate the available empirical evidence that supports the tenet that some (community) standpoints are better than others, but simply to point at a possible form that would have a standpoint theory that avoided a series of obstacles of principle.
Let us recapitulate the results at which we have arrived.
1. The problem identified by Ashton in standpoint epistemologies—if all justification is relative to a standpoint, so is the justification of our ranking of different standpoints—cannot be resolved in an easy manner by just exempting second-order beliefs from the scope of the thesis. This solution, in fact, seems unacceptably ad hoc, as I have tried to show by analyzing the example of Michael Löwy.
2. Though this result seems to entail that we should accept Ashton’s conclusion that every ranking of standpoints must itself be based on a standpoint, the epistemic circularity that stems from it is, however, rather discouraging: if the positive assessment of a standpoint is necessarily circular, then it cannot provide us with a reason to adopt the standpoint in question.
3. A more promising alternative appears to be, instead, one in which the value of a standpoint is justified in a “reliabilistic” manner, as a standpoint that has proven “sensitive” to some aspects of reality—a strategy which, of course, requires that we do know things about reality independently of the standpoint in question.
4. In order to avoid not only circularity but also unnecessariness (the second horn of Parekh’s dilemma), we need to show that a standpoint thus justified is capable of offering us a heuristic rule that guides future research.
Claudio Javier Cormick, email@example.com, Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET), Argentina.
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 If we “insist that only those whom a particular standpoint theory treats as epistemically privileged can judge its validity”, Hammersley writes, the problem is that “this is circular, and therefore can provide no support” (Hammersley 2011, 35). Decades before, Parekh had written that “we need to know from what point of view Marx worked out a general theory concerning the best way to obtain the truth about human societies. Since a social theorist allegedly cannot rise above a class point of view, Marx must have worked out such a theory from the standpoint of a particular class, and such a class can only be the proletariat. This means that the proletarian point of view is its own judge and that it alone can offer the truth about capitalism because it says so!” (Parekh 1982, 171–172). A very similar concern, though not explicitly framed in terms of circularity, is expressed by Helen Longino: “If genuine or better knowledge depends on the correct or a more correct standpoint, social theory is needed to ascertain which of these locations is the epistemologically privileged one. But in a standpoint epistemology, a standpoint is needed to justify such a theory. What is that standpoint and how do we identify it?” (Longino 1993, 107; italics in the original text). Saint-Croix, in any case, reads Longino’s remarks as making indeed a charge of circularity against standpoint epistemologies: “if the claim is that epistemic success in general depends on the correctness of the standpoint from which one engages with the world, then this must be true of our judgments about standpoints, too. On this view, however, such judgments are the product of a particular social theory. Since knowledge of such theories also requires that one approach the question from a correct standpoint, we need a way to identify that correct standpoint, which will also need to be identified by a correct social theory, and so on. […] Moreover, if we assume that the justifying theory is the same one that justified our initial judgment, we’re in a worryingly circular situation” (Saint-Croix 2018, 12).
 One of the most explicit applications of the theory of epistemic privilege in this sense, though certainly not the only one, is Schaff’s recommendation: “We say to the students of social phenomena: ‘If you wish to attain objective truth in your studies, then consciously adopt class and party positions which are in accord with the interests of the proletariat’” (Schaff 1976, 245–246).
 This appeal to past experience as a source of lessons as to how to organize inquiry is, of course, not distinctive of recent versions of standpoint theory; rather, it is shared by a naturalized form of feminist epistemology such as Anderson’s—who is usually classed as a “feminist empiricist” (cf. Anderson 1995 for an analysis of this naturalized recourse to the history of science; Harding 1991, for the canonical distinction between “feminist standpoint”, “empiricist” and “postmodern” feminist epistemologies) Whether or not it is still useful to distinguish between feminist empiricism and feminist standpoint epistemology is a question that exceeds the purposes of this article. (Cf., however, Intemann 2010, 791–792 for an alleged disadvantageous consequence of the specifically empiricist approach to the question of diversity; and Lorenzo 2020, 89–90 for a reply to Intemann on this issue.)
 In his words, it would be advisable “to probe systematically the ways in which different standpoints make available more or less epistemically apt dispositions, more or less reliable ways of generating true beliefs” (Kitcher 1994, 124). This, as any reliabilistic assessment, would of course be impossible unless we already assumed that we have some way to determine that something is in fact a true belief. A general reflection that takes up Kitcher’s proposal of linking standpoint epistemologies and reliabilism can be found in Michaelian (Michaelian 2008).
 I will not address here whether Pinnick’s criticisms are well-founded.