standpoint epistemology

Schools For Misrule,  PP. 162-163

“The movements that bid to replace CLS at law school centerstage—Critical Race Theory (CRT), FemCrit, and their many identity-based analogues—promised to be different. To begin with, they rejoiced in diversity, and would never be confused with a gathering of middle-aged straight Anglo white males. While equally or more radical than the CLS crowd, they intended to spend more time listening to the stories of those affected by law at street level and less time on arid doctrine-chopping. Above all, they would aspire to act and not just develop critiques.

One of CRT’s key manifestos appeared in 1987 in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, a flagship of Left scholarship. Its author was a star of the emerging school of thought, Mari Matsuda, then of Stanford (later Georgetown). Matsuda was to win fame as one of the authors of Words that Wound, the book that made the case for legal suppression of racist and otherwise hurtful speech, and thus helped prepare the way for university speech codes—CRT’s first and still most notable real-world accomplishment. In her Harvard article, Matsuda laid out a version of one of the theories for which CRT and Critical Studies would soon become best known—sometimes called standpoint epistemology—and then proposed a new practical objective toward which like-minded colleagues could work.

While many hundreds of thousands of words would eventually be spilled on the topic, the idea behind standpoint epistemology was simple. Law, like other scholarly and professional subjects, had up to now been carried on in a “voice” that was white, male, Anglo, and so forth. While female or minority scholars might be allowed into the club, it was at the cost of having to adopt this expected tone and surrender  their own distinctive voices. This was to be deplored: outsider voices in fact supply insights others cannot duplicate. More broadly, scholars should listen more carefully for ideas and observations generated “from the bottom,” from the downtrodden themselves. The direct personal experience of oppression is uniquely valuable: “those who have experienced discrimination speak with a special voice to which we should listen.”

The objections to this line of thinking were also obvious from the start. If a middle-aged white male can never achieve certain sorts of insight on his own, whatever his cleverness, diligence, or empathy, how is one to fend off the symmetrical claim that there are insights young, female, or nonwhite scholars simply cannot come up with? And it is odd to speak of “the” voice or standpoint of women generally, or Latinos, or gays, or other aggregations of persons who hold highly disparate views on every topic under the sun. What to do about minority persons who speak in other than the expected minority voice? Write them off as inauthentic or suffering from false consciousness?

Standpoint epistemology, however, was a huge hit, not so much in the outside world as in academia itself (which provided the main audience and constituency for Critical Race Theory…”

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