Feminist philsci

Fri 29 Apr 2016 06:32 AM

Last week I sat in on a meeting of a feminist philosophy course taught by my colleague Kristen Hessler. She was doing a unit on feminist philosophy of science and invited me to say a bit about how it relates to philosophy of science generally.

It occurred to me that feminist philosophy of science was a considerable influence on me. I got started writing about underdetermination when I was in grad school by thinking about Helen Longino's work. That ended up being the topic of my dissertation and many of my early papers.

Here are two other related thoughts: one about the significance of 1980s and 90s feminist philosophy of science, and another about two strands in the literature on values and science.

1. I hypothesize that feminist philosophy of science in the 1990s was crucial for subsequent literature that takes seriously the entanglement of science and values. Philosophers often presumed a value-free conception, especially in the Science Wars waged against relativist sociologists and others. Feminist philosophy of science modelled an alternative -- a way to recognize values in science without wild relativism.

There was not really a "values and science" literature in the 1990s the way that there is now. My guess is that this has been possible in part because of the initial wedge provided by feminist philosophy of science.

2. The literature in the 21st century has gone in two directions.

Literature in feminist philosophy of science has articulated ways in which specific sciences involve thick evaluative concepts, can change our conception of what is good, and so on. As these cases have been elaborated, the entanglement with values doesn't depend on some general argument which applies to all science (like underdetermination) but instead on details about particular cases. So this literature has narrowed insofar as it only applies clearly to specific cases, mostly in human and biological sciences. It is not clear how gender is entangled with (e.g.) astronomy.

There is also an active literature on values in science which is not explicitly feminist. For example, Heather Douglas argues that values always play an indirect role in theory choice. That is, adopting a theory reflects not just the evidence but also an assessment of the costs of possible errors and the benefits of possible accurate judgments. Another example: Justin Biddle and Eric Winsberg on climate science, who argue that current science is path-dependent. It reflects not just the evidence but also which prior enquiries were conducted and in which order. So value-laden choices about what to study and when effect the outcome of enquiries now.

Note that these latter considerations are, in one sense, broader than those raised by feminists. They apply to pretty much all science -- to astronomy as much as to biology and human sciences.

In another sense, they are narrower. Feminist philosophers of science argue against any limitation on what values may influence science. For the indirect role of values, it's only assessments about costs of various errors. For path-dependence, it's only past judgements about what ought to be done.