What Standpoint Theory/Epistemology Is and Is Not
Contrary to much current demagoguery, Standpoint Theory (or, similar, “Standpoint Epistemology”) is in fact rooted in empiricist, evidentialist, epistemology. The epistemic relevance of Standpoint Theory has to do with evidence and justification, not the nature of truth, its objective character, nor its public accessibility. Rather,
The claim is that members of marginalized groups are more likely to have had experiences that are particularly epistemically salient for identifying and evaluating assumptions that have been systematically obscured or made less visible as the result of power dynamics. (Kristen Intemann, p. 791)
Or, in Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo’s words,
Minoritized groups often have the widest view of society, in that they must understand both their own and the dominant group’s perspective—develop a double-consciousness—to succeed.” (Is Everyone Really Equal?, p. 70)
This has nothing to do with access to truth, the existence of truth, or the existence of objective reality, and everything to do with human subjectivity, evidence, and warrant. Truth is accessible to all and equally, but socialization limits human and individual objectivity:
“I’m looking out the window and there’s a rock there, what do you mean there’s no human objectivity? A rock is a rock. I see it with my eyes.” Yes, you see a rock, but the meaning, placement, and function of the rock is dependent upon human subjectivity—what you believe about what a rock is and where it should be; what you have been taught about rocks. For example, when is a rock an expensive gem and when is it something you toss aside to clear a path? When does a rock add beauty to your home and when does it make your home dirty? (p. 27)
The problem, according to Robin DiAngelo, is simple:
If group membership is relevant, then we don’t see the world from the universal human perspective but from the perspective of a particular kind of human. (White Fragility, pp. 11)
In short, “humans cannot be 100 percent objective” (p. 81). I, for one, agree whole heartedly.
Even the more controversial claims, such as the idea of white, black, male, or female “ways of knowing,” are easily demystified with the above ideas in place and a corresponding recognition that epistemic power is, as a matter of fact, wielded by dominant social groups, determining intellectual values, “useful” research programs, standards of evidence, and acceptable participants, on behalf of subordinated groups. Just as we say history is written by the winners, so the present is largely written by the “winning.”
In the words of Patricia Hill Collins,
Standpoint epistemology posits that experiences and creative social action provide distinctive angles of vision on racism, heteropatriarchy, and capitalist class relations for people who are differentially privileged and penalized within such systems. … [T]he purpose of standpoint epistemology was never to become a theory of truth. Rather, standpoint epistemology is a dimension of theorizing that recognizes the significance of power relations in producing knowledge. (Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory, Locations 2863, 2939)
A Source of the Misuse and Confusion?
I suspect that one major problem, especially affecting laymen who believe themselves to be experts in critical theory, is the attempt to integrate and unite Marx, Gramsci, Critical Theory, Critical Legal Studies, Critical Race Theory, intersectionality, postmodernism, poststructuralism, anti-essentialism, dominance theory, etc., etc., into one large, tight, intellectual project, though this has never been considered the case—at least not among actual theorists working within each camp.
For example, Critical Race Theorists (CRTs) have consistently noted the tension between their own set of ideas and that of postmodernism (PM) and poststructuralism (PS), from the very outset of the movement. Angela Harris described the CRT project, some thirty years ago, as indeed drawing on PM and PS methods of critique and deconstruction, but likewise argued that they are ineffective and counterproductive when real life liberation is the goal. That is, CRT includes the techniques of unmasking provided by, e.g., Foucault, but necessarily remains committed to a “Modernist” understandings reality, due to the subject at hand (race) and the end sought (liberation). She writes,
CRT’s commitment to the liberation of people of color—and the project of critical social science (generally) and normative legal scholarship (in particular) as a way to further that liberation—suggest a faith in certain concepts and institutions that postmodernists lack. When race-crits tell modernist stories, they assume that “people of color” describes a coherent category with at least some shared values and interests. They assume that the idea of “liberation” is meaningful-that racism is something that can one day somehow cease to exist, or cease to exert any power over us. Modernist narratives assume a “real” reality out there, and that reason can bring us face to face with it. And modernist narratives have faith that once enough people see the truth, right action will follow: that enlightenment leads to empowerment, and that empowerment leads to emancipation. (“The Jurisprudence of Reconstruction”)
Derrick Bell concurred:
Critical race theory scholarship is characterized by frequent use of the first person, storytelling, narrative, allegory, interdisciplinary treatment of law, and the unapologetic use of creativity. The work is often disruptive because its commitment to anti-racism goes well beyond civil rights, integration, affirmative action, and other liberal measures. This is not to say that critical race theory adherents automatically or uniformly “trash” liberal ideology and method. Rather, they are highly suspicious of the liberal agenda, distrust its method, and want to retain what they see as a valuable strain of egalitarianism which may exist despite, and not because of, liberalism.
As this description suggests, critical race theory scholarship exhibits a good deal of tension between its commitment to radical critique of the law (which is normatively deconstructionist) and its commitment to radical emancipation by the law (which is normatively reconstructionist). Angela Harris views this tension—between “modernist” and “postmodernist” narrative—as a source of strength because of critical race theorists’ ability to use it in ways that are creative rather than paralyzing. (“Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory?,” p. 78)
And we see the same tension in current CRT scholarship. For example, Patricia Hill Collins assesses “Francophone Social Theory” in her 2019 book, Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory. Like Harris and Bell, she lauds postmodernist and postructuralist critiques of power relations and their deconstructive methods, but questions their title to “critical theory” for lack of commitment to an ethical core, to social justice, and to liberation theory, as well as overall lack of “reflective accountability.”
Marxist social theory, the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt school, existentialism, liberation theory, and British cultural studies all have a critical impetus at their core. Other projects may carry the mantle of critical social theory, as in the case of postmodernism and poststructuralism, yet they might be more wedded to criticizing society than to reforming or transforming it. (Location 3039)
In one last modern example (2019), Devon Carbado and Cheryl Harris explain much the same while assessing intersectionality thirty years following Kimberle Crenshaw’s formative work. They, like Bell and Collins, agree with Angela Harris’—and CRT theorists’ in general—critique of postmodernism; in particular, its radical anti-essentialism contrasted with CRT’s continued commitment to “Modernism”:
CRT’s early repudiation of a certain kind of anti-essentialist critique cleared the ground for the articulation of a range of important ideas, among them these: There is something irreducible that we might call race (though the meaning of race shifts over time and place, is historically contingent, and intersects with and is shaped by other axes of social differentiation. There are people we might call “Black” (though the content and experiences of blackness are not static but a function of particular social, legal, cultural, and ideological processes). There is a social force we might call “racism” (though its content and effects, and the technologies through which it is expressed, are neither transhistorical nor predetermined). And there is a phenomenon that we might call whiteness (though its boundaries are never fixed or fully articulated but are constituted and reconstituted in the service of racial power. (“Intersectionality at 30: Mapping the Margins of Anti-Essentialism, Intersectionality, and Dominance Theory”)
Standpoint Theory and God’s Word
In the end, of course, all of this is much less important than what we find in God’s own word.
To begin with, it is quite interesting to note that the critical legal tradition has always emphasized the use of “legal storytelling,” in part to address differing standpoints. Legal storytelling, in theory, allows the listener to rethink legal and social relations through imagining differing circumstances, alternate histories, imagining oneself as someone else, as a member of a different group, etc. The connection to the parabolic storytelling of the Scripture is hard to miss, and I’d argue both serve a similar function and both obviate a fundamental reality of human depravity—that human knowledge is inextricable from subjective standpoint.
Take, for example, 2 Samuel 12, when the prophet Nathan confronted King David for taking a subordinate’s wife and then murdering him:
And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”
What happened here? David already knew what he had done; this parable did not teach him the facts of his crime. What it did do was extract him from his own circumstance and put him in the shoes of another, viz., caused him to view the same facts from a different standpoint; in this case, the standpoint of the abused and oppressed rather than the standpoint of the sovereign oppressor. And what was the result of this Biblical legal storytelling? David condemned himself, judging rightly, having considered the data through another’s eyes.
We can easily make much the same case with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and many others for that matter.
Second, we should see that this same idea is at the root of much inter-personal Christian ethics. Those of differing ethnicity, diverging group membership, with different backgrounds, different social relationships, and differing social status will certainly view the world differently, even sharing divergent norms and values due to differing perspectives and standpoints—like, e.g., growing up in a Jewish culture vs. a gentile culture, a religious culture vs. non-religious culture, etc., as was the case for many Christians in the first century.
One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables.
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. (Rom. 14:2,6)
Yet these differing standpoints ought not drive wedges among God’s people.
[L]et us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. (Rom. 14:13)
In this vein are the many relational instructions that the Apostle Paul gives in his letters to the Romans and the Corinthians, summarized, in many ways, by the following:
To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. (1 Cor. 9:19-22)
It would seem that “standpoint” has not only to do with grasping the truth of matters, but also has a lot to do with how believers of varying group identities are to relate peacefully and in unity while nevertheless often quite diverse.
But, of course, the ultimate display of this human reality is embedded in the very Gospel itself, in He who infinitely changed His social location in order to assure all mankind that He intimately knows and tangibly understands our circumstances and perspectives:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.
So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him,
“You are my Son,
today I have begotten you”;
as he says also in another place,
“You are a priest forever,
after the order of Melchizedek.”
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him…. (Heb. 4:14-5:9)
To conclude, I don’t think we need to be demagoguing this issue, as many have been. Sure, there are wild, fringe, wing-nut interpretations of every idea, including Christianity itself; but we ought not judge ideas, nor the people who hold to them, by the outer limits of their supposed adherents, nor by poor explanations found in popular culture or a couple of noisy college campuses. On the contrary, I pray we can study these concepts, consider them in the light of Scripture, learn to make godly applications when truth is found, and begin to ignore all the Chicken Little-ing.