Author Archives: Gioia Pappalardo

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.