Knowledge, Human Interests, and Objectivity in Feminist Epistemology

In this paper, Anderson aims to show that

  • The seeming competition between normative values and evidential values in science is unwarranted.
  • Simply justifying a theory based on evidential truth is not enough; we need a justice model that could bring in the “whole truth.”
  • We should integrate some specific feminist normative value—ontological heterogeneity and complexity of relationship—to all stages of science including discovery, justification, application, and critique of science.
  • Such interaction between normative and evidential value would result in a new phase of science where we apply dual justification for theory choice—significance and truth—instead of a single justification based on truth, as Haack argues. This new phase of science with dual justification, Anderson argues, offers a proper model of objectivity.

A. Longino’s argument for taking values into consideration in science:


Contextual Values:

  • “Political, moral and other values taken from the social context in which science is practiced.” (28)
  • External to science

Epistemic or Cognitive Values:

  • Values that are internal to science, and do not have explicit political or moral content. (29)
  • e.g. “accuracy, consistency, fruitfulness, breadth of scope,and simplicity” (29)


  • A situation in which “hypotheses are logically underdetermined by the data cited in their support” (28). So when two sets of hypotheses are equal in logically explaining the datas, our theory choice is underdetermined.
  • Underdetermination happens, such as the dispute between Einsteinian and Newtonian science, and between classical and marginal utility theory in economics (29).

Longino’s argument:

P1 If underdetermination happens in scientific theory choosing, then we resort to background assumptions to justify a certain hypothesis in science. (28)

P2 Underdetermination happens in scientific theory choosing. (28)

C1 We resort to background assumption to justify a certain hypothesis in science.

P3 Values are embedded in background assumptions.

P4 If we resort to background assumptions to justify a certain hypothesis in science, and values are embedded in background assumptions, then values play a role in science. (29)

C Values play a role in science.

“When the data run out, values legitimately step in to take up the “slack” between observation and theory” (29).

Some scientists are willing to accept Longino’s argument, but they only permit epistemic or cognitive values and refuse to consider contextual ones as important to science (29).

Longino’s response to that: the binary between epistemic and contextual interests break down when we focus attention on the grounds for supporting our theories, “we see that epistemic, metaphysical and practical interests” all contribute into the play (30). She especially focuses on practical interests, because she thinks that we all have practical interests in predicting and controlling phenomena (30).

My question about this: Longino goes on to distinguish the contemporary quantitative vs. the Aristotelian qualitative approach to characteristics of objects of study, and claims that the former represents a practical interest in predicting and controlling phenomena, and the latter represents a practical interest in self-understanding and successful communication. For me, Longino creates this practical interest language and puts both approaches in terms of this language, and then claims that every approach has a practical interest. I’m to some extent sympathetic to her, but language creating game still looks like cheating to me, since this argument is very similar to people’s reasons about how everything is political—once we create a political language, then everything is political, even apolitical becomes a political stance.

Now Longino can say that practical interests, which are highly connected with political and moral values, play a role in science. She then defines two specific feminist theoretical virtues that are representative of the contextual values we need to take into consideration:

  • Ontological Heterogeneity: “a preference for ‘splitting’ over ‘lumping’—for emphasizing the qualitative diversity and individuality of subjects of study and the distinctions among properties commonly classified together” (30)
  • Complexity of Relationship: “a preference for dynamic, interactive causal models that emphasize multiple causes of phenomena over single-factor linear or reductionist models” (31)

Longino further argues that if anything, taking political and moral values into consideration would only strengthen the conception of objectivity in science because our new values make inquirers accountable to others’ observations and criticisms while maintaining the empiricist adequacy standard of the theory. (32)

My question about this: as we advocate for the need to take heterogeneity and complexity into consideration, will these values become the new epistemic (constitutive) values in science over time? In that case, will they acquire a position of power that would supposedly obscure other values?

B. Haack’s Critique of Politically Value-Laden Science

Basically, Haack believes that values and evidences are competitive to each other. “Either theory choice is guided by the facts, by observation and evidence, or it is guided by moral values and social influences, construed as wishes, desires or social-political demands” (33). Therefore, she thinks that politically value-laden science is dangerous and dishonest because it lets value totalize theory choice.

Haack’s argument:

  1. Significant truth is the sole aim of theoretical inquiry.
  2. Whether a theory is justified depends only on features indicative of its truth, not its significance.
  3. One shows that a theory is (most probably) true by showing that it is (best) supported by the evidence.
  4. A theoretical proposition is supported by the evidence only if there is some valid inference from the evidence (in conjunction with background information) to it.
  5. Value judgements take the form “P ought to be the case.”
  6. There is no valid inference from “P ought to be the case” to “P is the case” (or any other factual truths).
  7. There is no valid inference fro value judgements to factual truths (5,6).
  8. Value judgements can provide no evidential support for theories (4,7).
  9. Value judgements can play no role in indicating the truth of theories (3,8).
  10. Value judgements can play no role in justifying theories (1,2,9).

C. Anderson’s Defense of a Longinoian Value-Laden Theory against Haack’s Critique

Anderson starts by recognizing that before her, critiques of Haack’s argument have been taking issues with premise (6), claiming that Haack’s argument “covertly relies on a background metaphysical assumption that the universe is not governed by teleological laws” and that “ought” might be interpreted as “can” which implies capabilities (34).

However, Anderson believes that a stronger criticism of Haack’s argument could be achieved by poking holes at premises (1) and (2). She claims that the justification of a theory depends on both its truth and significance. Moreover, she argues that not all values are totalitarian values that conflict with truth-seeking. Feminists only try to incorporate important moral and political values that would not interfere with evidential truth and would function as a second axis of theory justification. Haack’s worry about dishonesty would not happen because dishonesty is simply not an important moral value.

My question would be: so then do we get to choose what moral and political values are important? So who do “we” represent? Will these values be universal? Anderson clearly has heterogeneity and complexity in mind because they offer the most potentials (as we’ll see in a second), but I’m also wary of the tremendous authority that “we” claim to have. Thoughts?

D. Anderson on How Values Play a Role in Justification of Science

Anderson starts by noting that many scientists are willing to concede that values play a role in discovery and application of science, but refuse to admit that values influence the justification of science. Anderson then shows that values are important in justification of science for two reasons: first, a true theory might well be biased, so we need a justice model to ensure impartiality; second, contextual values in scientific inquiry guide theoretical classification, so we justify a theory by choosing a theoretical classification that corresponds with our contextual values.

I. Justice and Justification

Anderson distinguishes between telling some truth and telling the “whole” truth, and argues that a theory that tells some truth satisfies the truth criteria but can still easily be biased or distorted because it is not telling the “whole” truth. We need to incorporate the value of justice into standards of theory choice to ensure impartiality. (Example of the Jewish Slave Owner) (37-38)

Anderson further distinguishes between impartiality with value-neutrality. She claims that value-neutrality is not desired because it might present every small fact about the phenomenon in question and “bury the significant truths in a mass of irrelevant and trivial details” (39). On the other hand, impartiality makes sure that we present the evidence according to the goals and context of our theoretical inquiry. The whole truth under impartial lens “consists of a representative enough sample of such truths that the addition of the rest would not make the answer turn out differently” (40).

Question: This is sort of vague, how do we make sure that the truth in front of us is indeed the whole truth? Maybe we need to be fallibilistic?

II. Contextual Values Guide Theoretical Classification

Anderson argues that we classify our objects of scientific study differently according to our contextual values in our theoretical inquiry, in turn, we choose the theory that uses the specific theoretical classification related to our contextual values.

She gives an example about medicine: We classify organisms based on whether they cause disease in human or not. This classification is tremendously connected to our interest in human health.

She gives another example about gender test: The Terman-Miles M-F test only allows two options “masculine” and “feminine,” which reveals a gender binary value at the background. In contrast, the BSRI test does that more open choices: besides male and female, it has androgyny and gender undifferentiated as choices. The classification in BSRI test reveals a value for heterogeneity.

These examples show that the specific contextual values that we adhere to influence drastically our theoretical classification. If we subscribe to feminist virtues, every step in science will look differently.

Small question for this section: at some point she talks about pure vs. applied science, and blurs the line between them. I’m wondering if pure science is really illusory though. As a math major who hangs out with pure math, I am kind of reluctant to think that all math inquiries are interest-laden. It’s just fun!

E. What The Two Feminist Theoretical Virtues Can Do in Science?

Anderson recognizes that the two virtues: Ontological Heterogeneity and Complexity in Relationship are clearly feminist but are not exclusively feminist because other disciplines share these virtues also. These virtues would drastically change how we approach science from classification to method, and allow us to criticize science in a powerful way.

First of all, these virtues provide us concrete standards of good science, to name a few:

1. “[H]eterogeneity and complexity represent a desirability of human flexibility, autonomy, and creativity…[B]ecause these are valuable potentialities, it is important that our conceptual schemes be able to represent us as having them, if indeed we do” (50). In other words, it is important that we leave room for potentialities in our conceptual scheme (for example, classification) in case that empirical facts fill the gap.

2. The virtues of heterogeneity and complexity require a more qualitative research method that values open-ended, face-to-face interviews rather than a restrictive and distanced one. (51)

Secondly, the above-mentioned standards of good science allow us to criticize science in a more powerful way. If a certain scientific theory does not match the above standards, we can push for a more significant revision.

F. Conclusion

In short, Anderson argues for taking value into consideration in science, and specifically provides two feminist virtues as candidates of important moral and political value that science needs to incorporate. She envisions a revision of scientific justification which requires dual standards—significance and truth.

11 thoughts on “Knowledge, Human Interests, and Objectivity in Feminist Epistemology

  1. Mohamed Houtti

    “These claims are all true. Yet, put together, these and the many other true claims in The Secret Relationship do not add up to an acceptable account of the role of Jews in the Atlantic slave system. As the historian David Brion Davis argues, even if every purported fact in the book were true, it would still offer a biased and distorted picture of the role of Jews in Atlantic slavery.”

    I wonder whether the burden of offering an account of truth that is not subject to biased interpretation is one that we can realistically put on any sort of inquiry. Maybe, to some extent, it should be up to the reader to collect the necessary background information from other sources and evaluate the presented information in a thoughtful and careful way so as to fully understand the implications of scientific, historical, political, or philosophical truths that are being presented. If a reader misunderstands the implications of certain information because of his lack of background knowledge, we can hardly blame this on the presenter of the information.

    If, for example, I read an article that discusses the problems that men encounter in today’s society, I might infer from it that women hold a privileged place in society and that men are generally oppressed because of all these problems—even if this is not the article’s goal at all. It seems to me that this would be indicative of me not having obtained the proper background knowledge from other sources in order to fully understand the implications of the article I am reading. I am making assumptions that are not supported by the facts presented in the article, and it seems that the burden of drawing intelligent and well-informed conclusions should be on me—not the writers of the article.

  2. Jeremy Read


    I’d like to follow up on your question in response to Anderson’s defense of the Longinoian argument for moral/political values in science. If I understood correctly, you were concerned about whether the political and moral values of “we” were universalizable and whether there might be a pernicious exclusion of some groups from “we”. I agree that there is reason for concern whenever moral and political values are claimed as “simply” important i.e. regardless of agent or context. Similarly, an epistemic community whose individuals are unrepresentative of the larger community seems unlikely to accurately capture the political and moral values of that broader community.

    Given these concerns, it seems that the only acceptable direction in which a feminist scientific community could move would be to become more inclusive/representative in its individual constituents, hopefully sparking a mirroring shift in its representation of “shared” values. However, I wonder two things:
    1. Do the individual constituents of an epistemic community have the power to change the normative discourse or, in becoming a part of the community, do they adopt the values of that community?
    2. Relatedly, is it possible for non-representative communities of science (i.e. mostly white scientists in a minority white world) to engage constructively with the political and moral values of the larger community?

    Also, I read a bit of Kieran Healy’s article “Fuck Nuance”. He argues fairly powerfully against over-complicated explanations in the social science, in the large number of cases in which complexity is explanatorily superfluous i.e. where the added variables are not shown to be related to explanatory variables and/or are not demonstrated to be causally linked.
    I think that Anderson would counter Healy by saying that value laden science is still held to explanatory values first, with the political stuff filling in in cases of underdetermination. However, it seems that feminist interests in granting wide range to agents, “filling in explanatory gaps” and leaving plenty of room for creativity and potentiality may run afoul of Healy’s disdain. Do you think that Anderson is advocating an approach to theory which could be accused of valuing nuance even in cases where the added variables are explanatorily superfluous?

  3. Kyle Kysela

    I believe Anderson paints the wrong picture of Haack’s argument when she states that “Haack’s alarm seems based on the nihilistic view that there is no such thing as moral inquiry at all, only arbitrary moral commitment.” Anderson’s reasoning for this statement is that, considering Haack’s fear that value-laden inquiry would tend to reach foregone conclusions based on the values held, Haack must not believe that a scientist holding the contextual value of “honesty” could avoid such foregone conclusions by fealty to that value—and therefore moral inquiry is not possible, only unshakeable forgone moral commitments to a certain conclusion.

    To the contrary, it seems to me that Haack does not need to make such a strong claim as “moral inquiry is impossible.” It seems more likely that she would deny Anderson’s rebuttal to her concerns—that, considering honesty is “itself an important moral value that should guide inquiry,” we have nothing to be afraid of because the value of honesty will overrule other contextual values that point toward a foregone (dishonest) conclusion. Perhaps it is not so easy to steer clear of ideological, foregone conclusions once we accept the place of value-laden inquiry in science. Even if, as Anderson argues, we can never be entirely free from subjective values in choosing what is or is not significant evidence, there is a difference between accepting such values as a boon to the scientific community and, like Haack, arguing for “rigorously exposing and expunging these judgements from inquiry” (36).

  4. Timothy Patricia

    “Here Haack expresses a remarkable, unexamined cynicism about the
    nature of value judgment…Haack’s assumption that value-laden inquiry
    leads to dogmatism makes sense only if value judgments are essentially matters
    of blind, overbearing assertion, not subject to critical scrutiny or revision
    in light of arguments and evidence” (35).

    I take issue with Haack’s apparently “remarkable, unexamined cynicism” regarding the notion of value judgement. When looking at occupations in which tough decisions are made on a regular basis — I’m thinking of surgeons, doctors, scientists, coaches, military generals, etc. — isn’t there something to be said for simply “going with your gut”? Of course, “going with your gut” is a value-laden judgement. The cynical Haack would surely say that if everyone just went with their gut we’d have a bunch of people running around trying to impose their wills on the world. In this way I think Haack makes an unfair “assumption” about the nature of going with one’s gut. Gut feelings, in my opinion, arise after a careful, albeit internal examination of all of the evidence. A gut feeling is essentially the inclination you are left with at your very core after all of the evidence and dust has settled. Therefore, I think Haack is unfair in refusing to assign any value to value-laden judgements such as these.

  5. Jack George

    I would like to talk about Anderson’s dealing with Haack who fear that openly value-laden inquiry will hinder the sciences and lead to a dogmatic totalitarian academy where politics supersede truth.

    In addressing Haack’s argument, Anderson rightly points out that “the real contests are over premises (1) and (2): the goals of theory and the relation of justification (criteria of theory choice) to those goals.” (p.34) with “1 . Significant truth is the sole aim of theoretical inquiry.” and 2. “Whether a theory is justified depends only on features indicative of its truth, not its significance.”

    In her dealing with these Anderson brings up the set of truths offered to present Jews as having a special role in the trans-atlantic save trade. The facts are all ‘true’, but when considered in a wider context, going beyond purely ethno-religious lines (for example, taking into account geography) the special role seems diminished or non-existence. Anderson means this to show that truth is not sufficient. But I couldn’t help feeling that she was only adding more truth, which is science’s general project, ever-improving, ever-rejecting that which is flawed. Though the human effects of such ‘bad’ science are clear, the only convincing remedy is better science.

    I can’t help but feel that the alterations to the scientific method suggested by feminists really aren’t that radical. The goal seems not to change the standard of truth but rather improve the bad science that appears not out of impartiality but out of the very opposite.

    Her distinction: “One does justice not by adopting a stance of value-neutrality but by being impartial” (p.42) is an important one because value-neutrality and impartiality were probably seen as pretty analogous. But by showing that past research was flawed because it lack impartiality, Anderson is in some ways improving impartiality in science rather than bringing values into bed with science, which Haack’s quasi-alarmism suggests.

    tl;dr: Good (feminist) epistemology seems to me that which furthers our understanding of ‘truth’ by highlighting biases and values rather than distancing us from the truth by incorporating new values into science.

    questions: If fem. ep. does little more than improve earlier flawed science, then why does it need the label ‘feminist’ when in fact it seems to do more to highlight other research as being ‘androcentric’ or prejudiced in some other fashion? Are there examples of feminist epistemology that wouldn’t meet the standards of ‘traditional’ science, or is it never a move away from truth?

  6. Gioia Pappalardo

    In pages 37-38, Anderson discusses the difference between truth and whole truth. Haack holds that justification applies to truth, not significance, which Anderson argues against. If justification also applies to significance, then it is much easier for outside values to have importance. She argues that justification cannot just apply to truth, because true facts alone do not necessarily give a fair account of a phenomena, and thus “not every set of true statements about a given phenomena constituted an acceptable theory of that phenomenon” (37). She then gives an example of The Secret Relationship, which gave some truths about the relationship of Jews and the slave trade, but left out other true facts, and so was incredibly distorted and thus not an acceptable theory of that relationship. Yet, is this a fair analogy to give? The author of that book presumably purposefully left out those truths (to create a theory that was ‘significant’ to their purposes). So this is not just truth, but already ‘curated’ truth for some type of significance, which is already not what Haack wants to apply justification to (I think). Wouldn’t a more accurate counterargument target a scientist who lists every truth available (and does not knowingly leave things out), though much of those facts might be trivial? Wouldn’t such a ‘theory’ still be able to have higher order facts, which aren’t just dealing with individual observations? Anderson mentions this later, and I agree that such a theory would not be a good or practically useful theory. But does that mean it isn’t justified or that the concept of justification wouldn’t apply to it? On Anderson’s view, I’m not sure how justification and significance would differ.

    Also, in general I’m a bit hesitant to accept an argument like this as applying to the entirety of science, especially without giving an account of how the influences of values would differ among different levels of scope/explanation (ie theoretical physics vs biochemistry vs psychology vs sociology). I think this relates to Jingyi’s question about pure vs. applied science and math. Anderson mentions the importance of studying nuclear fission for weapons and algorithms for encryption, but I think she somewhat overestimates how prevalent this kind of outside interest is in many scientific areas. Furthermore, does the relevance (or non-relevance) of these theories to practical issues affect the justification of theory-choice or classification of those phenomena? Wouldn’t true theories concerning nuclear fission be justified whether or not they were related to weapons? And what about super-theoretical physics? What normative values would be relevant when deciding between alternative accounts of string theory or determining the classification of charm quarks vs strange quarks?

    1. Gioia Pappalardo

      One more thought about the nuclear bombs example: if it were underdetermined which of two equally plausible nuclear theories was more justified, why would one’s better relevance to bomb-making justify it as more true, specifically on account of it being better able to serve our interests? However, on the other hand, are the theories really equally plausible and underdetermined if one gives a better account of how nuclear explosions occur (which just happens to be relevant to bomb-making)? Either way, I’m not convinced that it’s usefulness to our own interests affects its justification.

  7. Leo DesBois

    On page 32, Anderson presents Longino’s account of how science maintains objectivity in the face of the “moral and political interests shaping methodology and standards of theory choice.” On this account, “The entire research community must be open to criticism by others, provide opportunities for such criticism, and respond to it by appropriately modifying its methods, claims, and background assumptions when they fall short of commonly recognized standards…These social aspects of scientific practice – the ways in which it makes each inquirer accountable to others’ observations and criticism – are what secure the objectivity of science.”

    While I agree that peer review and accountability contribute to the sound practice of science, I don’t think that this idea can do all the work Anderson wants it to do. Is there any guarantee that the commonly recognized standards of a scientific community will lead to the truth? What if everyone is following the wrong standards? A glance at the history of science seems to show that common standards often serve to perpetuate false beliefs, and that progress towards truth occurs when individuals break with these standards to follow the evidence in a new direction. Anderson is eager to protect science from “a free play of idiosyncratic preference and subjective bias,” but I think she underestimates the threat of groupthink and group bias.

    Finally, Anderson does not consider a more basic question: Where do the common standards of science come from? It seems to me that if they are to guide us to the truth, they must rest on universal principles of reason and logic. Therefore, the objectivity of science is secured by reason and logic, not by social accountability. Peer review is useful only to the extent that it helps science conform to these more fundamental principles.

  8. Daniel Ramirez

    “[H]eterogeneity and complexity represent a desirability of human flexibility, autonomy, and creativity…[B]ecause these are valuable potentialities, it is important that our conceptual schemes be able to represent us as having them, if indeed we do”.
    Through her example of The Secret Relationship, Anderson argues that assumptions based on more truth are better than assumptions based on less truth. This is pretty unremarkable but it does open up the question: Does an increase in the mutual understanding amongst a particular set of individuals correlate with an increase in social justice? It seems to me that the more you learn about something, the more you realize you don’t know about it. The increased awareness of our ignorance is supposed to open up the possibility for some kind of mutual respect, but at what price? It seems like the increased awareness of our ignorance might produce a number of subtle negative effects that Anderson’s background assumptions fail to recognize. I see the need for feminism to spill into seemingly value neutral disciplines like science but I don’t think that Anderson has the right idea. I think it is necessary to consider the way ignorance and understanding affect the character of our multiculturalism and social justice.

  9. Max Riddle

    Why does Anderson use the The Secret Relationship example given that she ultimately claims it does not even count as inquiry? Couldn’t she have used a better example?

    How exactly does impartiality work in theory selection? To be impartial one must be attentive to “all the facts and arguments that support or undermine each side’s value judgements,” but then what? Do you then need to assign certain weights to the value judgements under consideration?

    When faced with under determination, Anderson seems to say that contextual values provide grounds for choosing the most “inclusive” theory. Im not sure if this is correct, but those inclusive theories seem to generally be weaker claims which say “less.” Given this, I’m wondering if any claim can be made about the rate of epistemic growth that follows from Anderson’s suggestions.

    1. Robert LaCroix

      I was also perplexed by The Secret Relationship, for many of the same reasons (i.e., what good is it as an example if it’s not an inquiry?). It also seemed to me that it faces the same difficulty as any example; that is, is it a representative case? It is clear that the authors of The Secret Relationship make moral claims about Jews, or, in Anderson’s language, it was an “inquiry” motivated by contextual values. It seems like a pretty weak claim to say, “When the questions driving inquiry are motivated by contextual values, judgments of significance and bias can only be made in relation to these values” (40). Of course a rebuttal is only effective if it deals with these values, otherwise it isn’t addressing the argument. Is Anderson making anything more than a plea for good argumentation?

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