Georg Lukacs and Sandra Harding on Standpoint Epistemology
In general, standpoint epistemology (SE) aims to represent the world from a particular socially situated perspective or standpoint (Lammey, 2013). For both Lukacs and Harding, the standpoint taken is that of the marginalized: the proletariat and the women, respectively. It is believed that the lives of the marginalized can actually lay a claim to epistemic privilege and the production of knowledge precisely because of their unique sets of experiences in comparison with dominant classes or sex which fails to ‘critically and systematically interrogate their advanced social situation and the effect of such advantages on their beliefs’ (Harding, 1993) leaving their social situation a ‘scientifically and epistemologically disadvantaged one for generation knowledge’ (Harding, 1993).
In brief, the lives of the marginalized provide for two main epistemic privileges providing a thorough representation of reality in comparison with the dominant or advantaged classes: first, the marginalized are able to experience and grasp surface understanding and fundamental regularities of a phenomena in question; second, they are able to experience, understand and criticize existing social inequalities and seek to uncover the truth that is masked by the elaborate false consciousness held factual in the society. In order to elaborate this point, I shall proceed in discussing the brand of SE in each of the articles aforementioned.
Georg Lucaks on SE: Class consciousness of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat
A classical model of SE can be largely seen in the arguments of Marx and Lucaks that the standpoint of the proletariat offers an epistemic privilege over fundamental historical, societal, political and economic knowledge in contrast with the dominant bourgeoisie.
The epistemic privilege of the proletariat is brought about by several aspects of their social situation. First, the proletariats are able to have a lay understanding and concrete connection with nature and society, in general. This centrality is crucial for Lukacs (1967) because it provides them access to the fundamental relations of production through experience. They are able to understand the relations of productions in terms of its practical use of surplus-value rather than exchange-value, which are held more important by the bourgeoisie class. Having gained knowledge of their position and class situation with respect to the bourgeoisie and other classes, they come to see the ‘totality’ (Lukacs 1967) of the society. Quoting Lukacs (1967) ‘the superiority of the proletariat must lie exclusively in its ability to see society from the centre as a coherent whole.’
Second, the capitalist system ruled over by the bourgeoisie is the main source of oppression for the system’s workers. The oppression in the system experienced by the proletariat gives them a strong and objective interest to unmask the falsities that are spread by the dominant consciousness of the bourgeoisie. In contrast, the bourgeoisie ‘attempt to organize the whole of society in its own interests’ (Lukacs 1967). Conscious deeds of the proletariat will yield results rather than mere possibilities that come from merely aspiring towards the truth- hence, a call of Lukacs for a conscious proletariat revolution that will only be possible if the proletariat achieves true class consciousness.
Sandra Harding on SE: Women’s lives and the strengthening of objectivity through SE
As noted by Harding (1993) the intellectual history of feminist standpoint theory can be traced to Marx, Engels, and Lukacs. Reflecting upon the Marxist analysis, feminists began to address the question of how the structural relationship between men and women can influence the production of knowledge (Ellis and Fopp, 2001).
Feminist SE as an approach can be clearly distinguished by what Harding (1993) classifies as ‘spontaneous feminist empiricism’. This approach by feminist researches believes that it is possible to eliminate sexism and androcentricism from the results of their research if researches will abide by fundamentally empiricists methodologies more carefully and rigorously. In terms of history, spontaneous feminist empiricism argue that movements for social liberation, like women’s movements and activism, function much like the ‘little boy who is the hero of the folk tale about the Emperor and his clothes’ (Harding 1993: 53). This is because they believe that women’s liberation movements remove the sociological and political barriers that hinder the discovery and production of knowledge and observation.
In terms of scientific method, Harding argues that standpoint theorists think that while spontaneous feminist empiricists were correct in identifying that there is an insufficient rigor and care in the conduct of research, it is only part of the problem. They point out that ‘objectivity has not been operationalized in such way that scientific method can detect sexist and androcentric assumptions that are the dominant beliefs of an age- that is, that are collectively (versus only individually) held’ (Harding, 1993; italics supplied). In terms of history, standpoint theorists agrees with the assumption of spontaneous feminist theorists but argues that researchers can do more than just wait around for social movements and its eventual effects take place to reach inside the processes of producing objective and causal accounts of social relations.
Harding (1993) proposes two main standards for maximizing objectivity. First, strong objectivity requires that ‘the subject of knowledge be placed on the same critical, causal plane’ (Harding 1993) as objects of knowledge, implying that strong objectivity is actually strong reflexivity. Second, rather than abandoning all social values and interests in the research process in favor of a value-free, impartial and detached research; researches must actually push forward studies which have democracy-advancing values for it generates less partial and distorted beliefs.
The main strength of SE as a theory of knowledge lies on how it provides an alternative account to main theoretical approaches that has often mystified the notion of value-free and impartial research. Moreover, emphasizing the standpoint of the marginalized allows the theory to find new areas of research that otherwise will not be explored because of the apparent blindness that most objectivists and empiricists commit in the earliest steps of research: identification of problems and areas for studies. An example is the invisibility of women’s work, such as in taking care of bodies and childrearing, and its translation to notions on what is natural and essential (Harding 1993). Starting out from women’s lives, using SE, will allow researchers to generate questions about why caring for the bodies and childrearing is primarily a women’s work and what its consequences to relations in the society are.
If carefully used as a theory and an approach to research, I think that there is no limitation of SE. However, it is necessary to warn the supporters of this standpoint: first, universalizing the experiences and the lives of the marginalized; second, an overbalance of power where the oppressed may become an oppressor.
Ellis, Bob and Rodney Fopp (2001). The Origins of Standpoint Epistemologies: Feminism, Marx and Lukacs. The University of Sydney, Australia: The Australian Sociological Association Conference (TASA) 2001 Conference. Retrieved November 11, 2014, from http://www.tasa.org.au
Harding, Sandra (1993). Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What Is “Strong Objectivity”? In L. Alcoff & E. Potter (eds.), Feminist Epistemologies. London: Routledge.
Lammey, Melissa (2013). A Defense of Epistemological Standpoint Theory. Polygon 2013: 25-31.
Lukacs, Georg (1967). Class Consciousness. In R. Livingston (trans.), History and class consciousness. London: Merlin Press.