On “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” (1988), “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” (1985), “A Game of Cat’s Cradle: Science Studies, Feminist Theory, Cultural Studies” (1994), and “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin” (2015). Featuring Mark, Set, Dylan, and returning guest Lynda Olman.
What is scientific objectivity? We previously looked at Francis Bacon’s “four idols,” which are sources of bias that Bacon thought might block the natural light of truth from reaching us: things like prior philosophical commitments, thinking that “man is the measure of all things,” that what’s in nature will reflect the words we already use, and idiosyncrasies of individuals. Previous Marxist and feminist philosophers (Nietzsche too!) had turned this critique back on Baconian scientists, denying that there is any natural light of truth, any real objectivity that can shine through when biases are removed, because biases are inherent to the human condition: What we recognize to be true, what we count as evidence or as reasonable, will always be influenced by individual and cultural factors. Philosophers of science like Kuhn and Lakatos got specific about how a particular scientific effort is bound by its methodological assumptions, though unlike Marxists or feminists they didn’t identify these as the self-serving assumptions of the demographic group engaged in the research.
Haraway, in “Situated Knowledges,” is evaluating previous feminist attempts to undermine scientific pretensions to “a view from nowhere.” While she denies that Baconian objectivity (the “light of nature” reaching us without bias) is possible, she also resists post-modern skepticism about the possibility of knowledge. Surely we don’t want all claims to knowledge to be equal, so that there’s no distinction between the claims of physics and those of doomsday religious cults. Instead, Haraway is looking for a new sense of objectivity that acknowledges and in fact benefits from the situatedness of scientists.
So what does this “situatedness” entail? Haraway, like Latour (Lynda’s last episode with us), thinks that we can’t really separate science from politics. This builds on the Marxist idea that a thinker’s social position will influence their thinking, but rejects the idea that this only has to do with class. And despite this being a feminist text, she doesn’t really talk specifically about “feminine” science in particular either, which is something that previous feminist philosophers of science like Sandra Harding and Evelyn Fox Keller focused on. Yes, there is something reminiscent of “toxic masculinity” in how the methodology of science talks about predicting and controlling nature, about the pragmatism that leads science too often to try to then control people or weaponize its discoveries. But Haraway’s critique is more general: Knowledge is never disinterested in the way that Bacon would like. We always have to consider the likely consequences, particularly in how human lives may be degraded or controlled, of any line of research. Though there is always a theoretical tendency in science to unify disparate phenomena, to look for a unified theory of everything, we can more effectively perceive truth by communicating our necessarily partial perspectives that each see different webs of connections.
Haraway’s text is frustratingly free of examples. She insists that her way of looking at science yields surprising, innovative scientific insights, but I have no idea what any of these might be. The latter part of our discussion, then, consists largely of our resident physicist Dylan engaging with Lynda in how Haraway’s viewpoint (I hesitate to call it an epistemic theory) relates to the history and practice of this hardest of sciences. Sure, we should keep practical consequences in mind (a hard-won lesson by those theoretical physicists whose work was used to make the atomic bomb, as discussed in our Oppenheimer episode with Lynda), and it’s great to have people from a variety of backgrounds (nationalities, genders, classes) involved in both research itself and moreso policy decision-making allegedly based on science, but none of this seems to help clarify the debate in the philosophy of science that we explored by considering Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend. How exactly does situatedness change one’s analysis of a theory (including the evaluation of potential counter-evidence against that theory)?
One clue that Lynda brings up is Haraway’s Heisenberg-like claim that when in science you mark an object (pick it out) it also “marks you,” meaning that one insuperable barrier to objectivity as traditionally conceived is that the observer becomes part of what is to be observed. This means essentially that no two observations will be exactly the same, because they involve different observers in different conditions. But has any science ever demanded such identity of different observations? Can’t they just be similar in the relevant respect to establish a theory?
But again, if we can’t on Haraway’s account separate theory from practice, then there are bound to be miscommunications in what “theory” two observers are trying to collaboratively establish through their two different runs of the same experiment, given that the two will likely have different purposes in engaging in the science. This is likely where the traditionalist should just reject Haraway’s program: The whole point of a controlled experiment is that it doesn’t matter who’s running it or what their purpose might be. Except insofar as someone might violate the experiment by fudging the data obtained, two scientists really are engaging in an activity discrete from whatever the practical application of the research may eventually be, and thus their motives regarding this practical application do not matter. And except insofar as there are provable distortions in how data will be read based on one’s gender or race or whatnot, then these characteristics of the scientist do not matter either.
Haraway has a Ph.D. in biology and surely knows how laboratories work. Her articles to do not actually go into this, though. She seems more concerned with the overall scientific enterprise, including funding decisions, whose opinions are considered “authoritative,” and how scientific discoveries get interpreted and applied to public policy. She’s particularly concerned with how we define sex and gender, which as discussed in our Judith Butler episode are much more obviously subject to definition according to social norms than particles in physics. Haraway is also concerned with the overall way which we define ourselves in relation to technology, and thus her “Cyborg Manifesto” tries to adopt a perspective which both acknowledges the potential (inevitable?) dystopian horrors of modern technology but which also embraces the changes in perspectives that technology enables. Even (especially) in particle physics, the instruments we use to detect and describe quarks and such become part of our perceptual apparatus, i.e. they are tools, “ready to hand” in Heidegger’s sense rather than something we (while engaging in the scientific observation) make into its own object. Rather than (as Heidegger did) thus reject such technology as dehumanizing, Haraway (like Butler) thinks that we should embrace it as a means to clarify and overcome what we might otherwise consider “natural” humanity. (Interested listeners might want to check out our episode #91 on transhumanism. Lynda also mentions Sylvia Winter’s black feminist skepticism about this, if you’d like to look into that.) When we use tools, she says, they use us, and it’s not really an option to just throw away the tools. Cyborgs are Haraway’s version of what Latour called “hybrids”; they are the complexes created by any scientific or technological interaction.
The “surprising insights” Haraway thinks her viewpoint unlocks may have less to do with innovative scientific theories than new ways to see humanity in light of the cyborgs we create and the interlocking efforts of science and philosophy (i.e. cultural “science studies”), which in studying cyborgs create more of them. She refers to the interdisciplinary method for furthering such studies as a “cat’s cradle” in the third article we read. This metaphor ditches the image of “competing theories,” as seeing scientist (or politics) as a winner-take-all contest is another one of those masculinist points of view she wants to overcome. The cat’s cradle involves all these interwoven insights and is made to be passed back and forth between different theorists in a cooperative manner.
The 2015 article that we looked at was something that anticipated her latest book, 2016’s Staying with the Trouble, which you watch and hear her talking about if you’d like. For our purposes, the point is to use our current technological situation to look for a best course given what we can see, and not thinking in a utopian manner that she thinks will inevitably exclude and probably harm historically oppressed populations. Political solutions need to come from dialogues among actually effected people and not imposed top-down by philosopher-kings who disregard difference in calculating what they think is best for everyone.
Given that Lynda is a rhetorician, and her interest on all of the episodes she has helped us with has been how scientific ideas are discussed politically, this matter of a choice of metaphors in how we (as scientists, as citizens) see what we’re doing is crucial. Whether talking about cyborgs, or cat’s cradle, or what she in this last book calls the Chthuluscene era, she’s engaged in a very different project than traditional philosophers of science, pursuing critique as a form of activism, and these metaphors are rhetorical tools she uses in that effort. She’s also fighting against metaphors: the “god’s eye view” that expresses the traditional concept of objectivity, the “divine light of truth,” and of course the idea of scientific progress as a road taking us inevitable upward and forward. In keeping with her being against Heidegger, Rousseau, and other anti-tech thinkers, she’s also arguing against some kind of fall from Eden metaphor whereby our embrace of “unnatural” tech has dehumanized us. The situation is much more complex.
Read the articles online here, here, here, and here. An author that Lynda had originally mentioned as potentially being part of this episode is Karan Barad, who wrote specifically about quantum physics from a feminist point of view. Some of us also looked at the Stanford Encyclopedia article on feminist philosophy of science by our previous guest Elizabeth Anderson.
Image by Genevieve Arnold. Audio editing by Tyler Hislop.
Next Episode: We’re reading Quine’s “Epistemology Naturalized.” (1969).