Doing Ontology and Doing Justice: What Feminist Philosophy Can Teach Us About Meta-Metaphysics


Feminist philosophers challenge structures and systems that support oppression, especially on the basis of gender, both in wider social and political spheres and also within philosophy itself. However, metaphysics has not been so open to feminist insights, because metaphysicians view themselves as being “in the business of elucidating the fundamental structure of reality that grounds everything else” (Mikkola 2). Accordingly, metaphysics should be a value-neutral business, with no room for feminist concerns about oppression and injustice. While some practical values (ie simplicity, accuracy) are necessary, social values and morals “displace attention to evidence and valid reasoning and hence interfere with the discovery of truth” (4). Thus, they can play no role in metaphysical justification or theory choice.

Against this view, Mikkola argues that feminist philosophy “not only makes a difference to the details and content of our ontological theories; doing so makes a difference to our ontological theory choice… [and] provides methodological tools with which we can regiment ontological theories in helpful ways” (2-3).   Metaphysics does not merely list truths, but organizes them based on their significance. Yet, significance is influenced by our interests and goals, and therefore opens the door for the interaction of social, normative values and evidential concerns in metaphysical theory justification (cooperative model of justification).

  • How exactly should we understand significance? Someone might push back by arguing that meeting supposedly value-neutral criteria, like simplicity, is enough to satisfy significance, and can be met without social/moral values. Do even these criteria include implicit social values?
  • How might significance change in relation to deductive/inductive/a priori/a posteriori reasoning?
  • If we include morals in metaphysical reasoning, but then some of those morals rely on metaphysical conclusions, wouldn’t this be circular reasoning? Would that circularity be problematic or not? Does it still reveal significant things about the world?


Feminist Philosophy in Metaphysics: Grounding

Mikkola uses grounding as an example of how feminist philosophy can legitimately and substantially affect a supposedly value-neutral area of metaphysics.

Grounding in metaphysics is:

  • “a non-causal (or a metaphysical) explanatory dependence relation that is asymmetric, irreflexive, and transitive” (6)
  • layered structure of reality – “a relation between (more) fundamental entities and derivative entities” without reduction or supervenience (6)
  • central to metaphysics, asking “what grounds what, ‘thereby limning the structure of reality” (6)
  • is important for social ontology – the motivations for grounding in pure & applied case seems analogous (7) (is this valid move?)
examples: because, in virtue of, explained by, derives from
  • from Haslanger: “S is a woman in virtue of being systematically socially subordinated, where observed or imaged evidence of a female’s biological role in reproduction ‘marks’ one as a target for this kind of treatment” (8) (Interestingly, Mikkola is rephrasing Haslanger’s original formation, which included no grounding relation. Does this change the meaning?)

However, in order for grounding to be valuable in the explanation of social facts, it must have certain restrictions on how it can be used in line with the cooperative model theory.


Potential Problems with Grounding: Fundamentality

  • Relative Fundamentality: one fact is more fundamental than another iff the one explains the other, but not vice versa (9)
  • Absolute Fundamentality: a fact is fundamental iff it is not explained by any other fact (9)
  • Socially ontology does not deal with fundamental facts (is this true?) & it is hard to compare the degrees of fundamentality on each side of the grounding relation. Which direction is the grounding going? How do feedback loops make this hard to determine?


Rejecting Fundamentality: FUND and BECAUSE

FUND: grounding facts are fundamental

  • This leads to the collapse problem, because facts that ground a fundamental fact must themselves be fundamental. We lose the layered structure of reality.
BECAUSE: If F because Y, then (the fact that F because Y) because Y
  • Grounding facts can themselves be grounded in fundamentalia
  • Upward but not downward necessitation: given ‘F because Y’, then necessarily (Y –> F) but not necessarily (F –> Y)
  • Example: paper counts as money (explanandum) because Y (explanans), where Y is some fundamental fact (ie appropriate acceptance-dependence obtains) (13)
  • This works in social ontology if we accept it as being contextual, ie. given of social frameworks & conventions, the explanans necessitates the explanandum (12)
    • Does this contextualization radically change the meaning of the grounding? In relation to non-social metaphysics?
    • Is the upward-necessitation mind independent or dependent? Is this problematic?
  • Is explanatoriness missing from BECAUSE? Should explanatoriness be important or necessary? BECAUSE only tells us that Y necessitates F, what else is needed? DeRosset argues that explanation is exhausted by BECAUSE (a deflationist strategy), but Mikkola maintains that such an explanation may still not be good enough, while also rejecting EXPLANATORINESS.
    • What explanations count as adequate and illuminating? This depends on significance, our background interests, and is where feminist philosophy comes in. Are adequate and illuminating still too vague, though?
  • Methodology of Grounding: what counts for evidence of C as opposed to its converse? According to Mikkola, none of these options give satisfactory explanations.
    • Intuitive Evidence
    • Methodological Evidence
    • Explanatory Science

The takeaway: “applying the justice model of theory choice to deRosset’s regimentation of grounding shows that it fails to do justice to social phenomena… we must modify BECAUSE so that this justificatory burden is satisfied” (18) But does this mean BECAUSE must be modified for other uses, when not talking about obviously social phenomena?


Rejecting Fundamentality: Grounding as Superinternal

Grounding both is and is not fundamental, which brings danger of infinite regress. Through superinternality, Bennett argues fundamentality does not have to be part of grounding. Grounding is superinternal, in that it is “a relation where ‘the intrinsic nature of only one relata – or, better, one side of the relation – guarantees not only that the relation holds, but also that the other relatum(a) exists and has the intrinsic nature it does” (18). In other words, “all grounding facts are grounded in their first relatum(a)” (19). As a result, the regress is not vicious, because each step is based on the same grounds, and the ontology of the grounding doesn’t expand. Furthermore, superinternality is thin, so there is no need to posit a regress of relationships between facts.

Why is this not helpful for social ontological cases? It relies on intrinsic natures, which is not acceptable grounds for social facts. For example, if you want to ground the term woman, relying on intrinsic features only reinforces gender roles and stereotypes (think ch1 of Haslanger). If, as many believe, metaphysics requires a uniform conception of grounding, then this account is unacceptable given its problems with social ontology. The problem of working out a conception of grounding that satisfies social ontology has been seen to support skepticism that there is a single grounding, instead of various distinct relations. However, if there are different groundings for different domains in ontology, will the arguments from social ontology hold in other domains? If not, why should metaphysicians in other domains care about the feminist arguments? Should they even consider grounding in social ontology grounding, if there are admittedly different relations in different domains? Does, as Mikkola argues, grounding in social ontology still explain something new about the world? If so, then it is just one example how feminist philosophy can be relevant, even is such supposedly ‘value-neutral’ matters as theory selection in metaphysics.

13 thoughts on “Doing Ontology and Doing Justice: What Feminist Philosophy Can Teach Us About Meta-Metaphysics

  1. Daniel Ramirez

    “When we do ontology we should aim to do both evidential and normative justice to our
    subject matter.”
    The notion of feminist theorizing leaves a lot of philosophy’s most interesting black boxes closed. I think that the kinds of contributions that Mikkola attributes to feminist perspective would be possible from a number of different perspectives. Is there any utility in calling these contributions to method in metaphysics “feminist”?
    Mikkola’s argument for the possibility of metaphysical import from a feminist perspective rests on a certain kind of social justice. What we would think of as a country’s degree of social justice seems to correlate pretty highly with the country’s scientific development and global economic position. In other words, there are probably less problematic and simpler ways to inform metaphysical methodology than feminist perspectives.

  2. Leo DesBois

    On page 24, Mikkola claims that her analysis of grounding “demonstrates that contextual values are not obviously illegitimate when making ontological theory choices.” In choosing which theory of grounding to accept, she has followed a “cooperative model of dual justificatory burden” which incorporates both value-free and value-laden standards. Specifically, Mikkola has drawn on feminist methodological insights to arrive at a non-unified theory of grounding that is skeptical of grounding’s central place in metaphysics.

    My question: Are contextual values really necessary in order to justify Mikkola’s view of grounding? It seems that a unified account of grounding fails simply because it cannot provide an adequate and illuminating explanation of social phenomenon. Any metaphysical theory that cannot explain social entities may be rejected on purely value-free grounds – it is not a coherent, unified, total theory. Why do we need to bring in contextual values when we can already see that the theory fails according the standard criteria of good science?

    1. Jeremy Read

      I think the point is that BECAUSE and Superinternality can explain social phenomena, they just do so in an unsatisfying way (i.e. a way that does not “elucidate significant truths”, but rather flat uninteresting relations). This dissatisfaction is where contextual values enter the picture, because we (for political/social reasons) want a theory of social phenomena which is not explanatorily “flat”. What counts as a SIGNIFICANT TRUTH is a subset of what counts as TRUE. And this subset is delimited by contextual norms.
      As Mikkola say on 17:
      “If we go with deRosset, we must ignore some complications in the (social) objects under study. But if we wish to avoid doing so and we aim to do our subject matter justice, we must modify BECAUSE so that this justificatory burden is satisfied.”
      I think what Mikkola means is that, though deRosset’s take on social grounding would be “TRUE”, it would not be a SIGNIFICANT TRUTH.

  3. Mohamed Houtti

    “Value-neutral models falsely presuppose that political or moral considerations compete with evidence and facts. And so, these models presume that ‘[t]o the extent that moral values and social influences shape theory choice, they displace attention to evidence and valid reasoning and hence interfere with the discovery of truth’.”

    While I agree that our choice of scientific inquiry is inevitably shaped by societal norms, there are often times when we see the very results of the inquiry also being shaped by the values of those exploring it. One example of this is a recent study, published in medical journals, which concluded that the lack of exercise, as opposed to diet, is the main contributor to America’s obesity problems. The study was conducted by scientists who were funded by Coca-Cola, so it’s pretty easy to see why it might be biased. Thus, I disagree that “value-neutral models falsely presuppose that political or moral considerations compete with evidence and facts.” While they do not necessarily compete, they often do. Scientific inquiry may often be completed with a particular end result already in mind, and that can often heavily influence the way scientific studies are conducted. We might say that this is more so true for philosophical/metaphysical inquiry.

  4. Griffin Jones

    Mikkola notes Bennett’s approach of superinternality as potential escape of the fundamentality of grounding and unwanted regress that comes along with it. Mikkola describes the dilemma as that of the world being flat – “either everything is fundamental or nothing is” (18). A metaphysical theory of this sort is by Bennett’s account “crazy pants”. Do we think it is really that crazy? Could we imagine a metaphysics within which nothing is fundamental? The argument of superinternality is not entirely clear to me, so some discussion would be useful. It seems to me like a useful escape from the dilemma that Mikkola describes, but I’m not sure if I understand the approach well enough to be convinced.

  5. Timothy Patricia

    Within the same vein as Robbie’s concerns above, I’m not sold on the ultimate significance of introducing the influence of social justice and feminist concerns into a discussion of metaphysics, a value-neutral field. Explaining the role of social justice and feminism in metaphysical theorizing, Mikkola concludes, “This would not make feminist metaphysics more properly metaphysical and less feminist; rather, it would make metaphysics more sensitive to feminist concerns” (25).

    This all sounds well and good, but what does it really mean for metaphysics to be “more sensitive to feminist concerns?” What is the concrete offshoot of this sensitivity in terms of our values and social entities? Although I can understand why a sensitivity to feminist concerns in metaphysics is a nice undertaking, it’s hard for me to see the significant effects of doing so.

  6. Jingyi Wu

    Hi all,
    When I was reading the middle part of this article, I kept asking myself why the task of finding a “unified version of (asymmetric, irreflexive, transitive, fundamental) grounding” (VI. Lessons) has to do with feminism. After all, isn’t feminism a constant drive of denying or finding an alternative of what is unified, complete, and whole (i.e. what is quasi-scientific)? In light of this, is the whole project of finding a unified version of grounding doom to failure simply because it is again, quasi-scientific? By diverging our attention to the search of a unified version of grounding, I think Mikkola avoids a central question, that is, in what ways does a feminist metaphysics (which denies a quasi-scientific ways to approach metaphysics) render significance.
    Also, it strikes me how similar BECAUSE and Grounding as Superinternal are. They are both avoiding the fundamentality (collapse) problem by grounding a grounding fact in the ground to reduce the layer of the structure. That is, BECAUSE works if we say “A because of B” because of B, and Superinternal: B grounds “B grounds A.” Mikkola mentions that “because” is one way of grounding, so, BECAUSE and Grounding as Superinternal is basically saying very similar things. Am I right in this? Or is there some other interesting things going on that makes BECAUSE and Superinternal different?

  7. Max Riddle

    While I agree with Mikkora’s endorsement of Anderson’s dual (justice) model of justification, it seems that the brunt of the justificatory burden must be borne by the truth value of a theory. A false theory with plenty of “contextual significance” seems to have no worth where as a true but contextually insignificant theory has at least the value of its truth. Mikkora says that given the aim of scientific inquiry, there are “multiple grounds for criticizing, justifying and choosing theories besides truth,” implying that contextual values are equal in weight to constitutive values.

    Additionally, the FUND, BECAUSE example seems to be designed to highlight the need for contextual values in theory selection but I wonder if it’s possible to explain why the BECAUSE explanation is a “bad” one without reference to contextual significance.

    Finally, if we select our metaphysical theories with a strong regard for contextual values, our metaphysical theories will change as our values change, is this problematic for fundamental metaphysics, or is Mikkora not concerned with fundamental metaphysics? She seems to say we should go beyond the fundamental, but not that we should dismiss it.

    1. Robert LaCroix

      I agree that “brunt of the justificatory burden must be borne by the truth value of a theory,” but I would go further and question how widely applicable the justice model is. It seems clear that it is useful in some contexts–for instance, the example given in footnote 18 of the sexual behavior of primates. But how similar to that example are most scientific inquiries? Does all “good science” embody the “virtue of justice per se?” (5).

      It would seem to me that, at least in the pure research stage (i.e., before any thought is given to applications), most of the theories of physics, chemistry, and geology can be evaluated pretty much exclusively in virtue of their truth value, with only the most trivial attention given to how societal priorities and context shaped which studies got done. I’m not even sure that all of biology needs much in the way of justice-based evaluation; a description of chemosynthesis in deep-sea protists is at most extremely tangentially related to our societal values. The social sciences are obviously ripe for a justice evaluation. It seems to me, however, that the contexts in which a justice model of justification are warranted are, if not exceptions, then at least far from the entirety of the contexts of scientific inquiry.

      1. Robert LaCroix

        And since, as Mikkola says, the parallels between science and metaphysics are non-controversial, one could easily extend the above analysis, by analogy, to a significant portion of metaphysics.

      2. Jack George

        “By contrast, Anderson holds that contextual values are also admissible as criteria for scientific theory choice. Value-neutral models falsely presuppose that political or moral considerations compete with evidence and facts.”

        I agree with what’s been said so far on how odd it would seem to apply such a procedure to many instances of scientific inquiry. However, what Robbie mentions as “pure research stage” is exactly what I believe Anderson to be getting at: that there ever is a point in an inquiry when one’s intentions are ‘pure’ and not shaped by societal norms. The very choice of studying deep-sea protists instead of the effects of trauma is a value-laden choice. That said, such a fact does not change in any significant way its truth-value and would presumably still be considered ‘good’ science.

        My worry with Anderson’s / Mikkola’s claims are that ‘social justice’ per se is not defined clearly. I would suggest an amendment to their dual-justificatory model whereby truth value + theory choice that is not negative impact for social justice = good science. I can’t see how a positive demand that all science be socially just be met. But therein we run into another problem, can you make a value-neutral judgment, is a theory choice unrelated to social relations just or unjust? Is there a halfway or are all those who do nothing in times of injustice collaborators in that harm?

      3. Kyle Kysela

        Following along the same line of questioning as Robbie and Jack, I have to wonder just what exactly Mikkola means by her endorsement of “some form of pragmatism”. She writes that pragmatism, in general, is not necessarily feminist; however, the specific form she wishes to endorse derives from “feminist methodological insights” (24). This leaves me wondering whether Mikkola simply wishes to acknowledge,in the study of metaphysics, the inherent limitations of our embodied, politically and socially situated points of view or if, to the contrary, she advocates a positive project that accepts or even celebrates the parts that identity and value play in grounding and metaphysics.

        This reminds me of a comment that Haslanger made in the previous reading that was somewhat dismissive of the latter strategy. She wrote that attempts at theorizing from a gynocentric perspective—politically and socially situated—have been “more effective in revealing the limitations of mainstream views than in defending gynocentric ontologies” (Haslanger 144). Do you think Mikkola advocates the latter strategy? And, if she does, do you think it can be effective?

      4. Jeremy Read

        I would like to push the question in the other direction. I wonder how safe the distinction is between a-political normative values and political normative values in science and metaphysics. In other words, how could ANY normative criteria of theory choice be a-political, or in Mikkola’s words “non-contextual”? It seems that our epistemic interests structure our theoretic justifications. Further, our epistemic interests seem necessarily rooted in our sociopolitical context.
        To take the extreme example, why is”truth tracking” a context free theoretic value? Surely on our conception of science, it seems fundamental and relatively unwavering across human experience. Perhaps one could argue that “truth tracking” is valuable because of the necessary material or neurological conditions under which humans exist. But where is the evidence for this claim? For what reasons would a community that ignored truth values be worse off? There certainly seem to be concrete disadvantages (i.e. poor fit between theory and experience, resulting in unnecessary bodily injury), but in what way are these disadvantages non-social?
        Perhaps metaphysics and science are simply defined as efforts at “truth tracking” (among other things) and that which does not adequately meet this description cannot be deemed “good” metaphysics or science.
        However, where is the context-free basis for this definition?
        Metaphysics is a social enterprise. It’s values are negotiated socially, they didn’t fall from the void into our heads. We find the normative values we have selected valuable, because they advantage our epistemic project in certain ways. How can this possibly be done in the absence of political and moral values?
        This seems the easier, if more radical alternative to what Mikkola does. She shows that we use contextual values in metaphysics in addition to a-contextual values. How can she hold the distinction between the two?

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