Is Science Multicultural? Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Epistemologies

Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1998. 242 pp.

Books like Paul Gross and Norman Levitt's Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science have argued that the "academic Left" -- portrayed as a hodge-podge of disaffected, atavistic, scientific illiterates -- are out to subvert the rules of rationality and undermine the foundations of modern civilization. A cardinal characteristic of Gross, Levvit, and other neo-positivists like Sokal (to whom Douglas Kellner and I affectionately refer to as "the Gang of Three") is that they cannot draw the elementary distinction between criticizing science, technology, and reason, and rejecting scientism, technocracy, and positivism.

Sandra Harding's new book, Is Science Multicultural? is an exemplary model of science and technology studies and a powerful refutation of the insipid arguments of these neo-positivists. As true of her past works such as The Science Question in Feminism, Is Science Multicultural?, ably demonstrates that the diverse group of critics baptized the "academic Left" ("postmodernists" would be a better tag if one is needed) are in fact principally concerned with strengthening the very scientific norms they allegedly seek to weaken and subvert, although Harding, Donna Haraway, and other radical critics of modern science and technology certainly have different ideas of how science ought to be practiced.

On Harding's narrative, three waves of criticism of science and technology emerged after World War II: post-Kuhnian, postcolonial, and feminist. While observing their differences, Harding emphases their similarities in a socio-historical critique of the "internalist epistemology" of science. These analyses certainly have not brought capitalism to its knees or curbed its rapacious devouring of cultures and lands, but, Harding claims, they have been influential enough to provoke a crisis an "epistemological crisis" in Western thought. Harding's project is to absorb the best elements of these critical positions, and to construct a rich multiperspectival theory that draws from postcolonial, feminist, and postmodern critiques of modern science.

Harding dismantles a number of false dualisms that force one into being either techophilic or technophobic, a mainstream positivist or a medieval irrationalist, Eurocentric or atavistic, a realist or a "social constructionist" relativist of the "anything goes" school. Harding's sharp dialectical sense steers her clear of these traps as she affirms the contributions of modern science and technology, while assessing their limitations, identifying their forfeited potential for constructing a joyful and sustainable world, and finding rich resources in a plurality of knowledges and worldviews for their rational reconstruction. The controversy for Harding and other feminists like Haraway is not whether or not objectivity is possible, but rather what kind of objectivity we can and should have.

According to the "internalist" model Harding rejects, science successfully manipulates the world and discovers its laws because it is rooted in theory-free observation, value-free knowing, and unprejudiced modes of forming and testing hypotheses. In the process of investigation, the biases and ideologies of the social world do not intrude, devices are constructed to eliminate error and bias, and science transpires as a dialogue, so to speak, between the knower and the known. Thus, scientists posit a rigid separation between science and society; there is a community of scientists, but there is no scientific society, and this "community" is conceived in Cartesian terms as a collection of isolated monads and pure consciousness. The royal road to Truth is through Objectivity and so, unlike past forms of inquiry and all other modes of human knowledge, science is value-free, positing a rigid divorce between facts (which it has in abundance) and values (which it claims to leave behind). In its concept of the "unity of science," the internalist model also claims that there is one objective world, one proper mode of apprehending its nature, and one set of laws to be known. The Truth of the world is found in the European sciences alone and all other knowledges are mere superstition or folklore.

Although dinosaurs like the Gang of Three still cling tenaciously to internalist and positivist ideals, Harding convincingly shows that the classical scientific paradigm has been thoroughly discredited and reflects the everyday practice of science about as accurately as a funhouse mirror. Harding is careful, however, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and she rightly argues that the enterprise of science is not dependent upon the legitimacy of internalist model. Indeed, Harding argues, science and its prized norms of truth and objectivity are vitiated by the illusions of positivism and the correspondence theory of truth which block a more accurate grasp of the socio-political context of all scientific understanding.

Harding begins her dismantling of scientific myths through the insights of postcolonial science and technology studies. Those familiar with the work of French postmodern theorist Michel Foucault know that in place of naive theories of objective truth and disinterested inquiry, he demonstrated in a series of brilliant concrete studies how knowledge is intimately linked to power, how power relations enable the accumulation of knowledge, and how knowledge in turn enables and reinforces regimes of power. On Harding's reading of postcolonial theorists, the dialectic of power/knowledge is dramatically evident during the early colonial period of modernity. Various modes of scientific and technological knowledge -- relating to navigation, astronomy, agriculture, and so on -- were necessary for the colonial "adventures" to be possible in the first place, and were stimulated by the need, for example, to improve the ability to travel by land and sea, to mine minerals, and to identify useful plants. Conversely, imperialist conquests provided a laboratory for the fledgling efforts of modern science and vast amounts of wealth and resources for the accumulation of knowledge. Thus, science was driven not by a pure desire for truth, but rather the pragmatics of the political and economic objectives of colonialism.

Employing the dualistic logic French theorist Jacques Derrida found to be central to Western metaphysics and ideology, the identity modern science constructed for itself was that of a civilized, rational, and enlightened present, as opposed to the barbarisms of the savage, irrational, and superstitious cultures of the past. According to the dominant narratives of Western thought, this identity ultimately is anchored in the brilliant achievements of the Greeks, the alleged foundation of European modernity. But, Harding notes, the very distinctions Western/non-Western and modern/premodern are invalid, because "Western" culture since its inception has borrowed heavily from China, India, Egypt, East-Asian and Islamic societies, as well as Africa and pre-Columbian Americas. The "universal truths" of modern science was formed through the rapacious devouring of local traditions and knowledges. This fact absolutely fractures the unity and security of Western identities, and plunges everyone into a multicultural pool of diversity and unity. Harding and others are calling for a multicultural science, but Harding observes the irony that modern "European" science has been multicultural since its inception.

No glib postmodern relativist, Harding attempts to reconstruct the veritable norm of "objectivity." She seeks to replace the "weak objectivity" of the male-dominated scientific world -- a pseudo-objectivity riddled with value-laden theories, political biases, domineering interests, commodified research, and blinkered ethical vision -- with the "strong objectivity" that comes only from a "robust reflexivity" attained through a rigorous self-scrutiny of one's socio-epistemological starting point. Harding notes that the very concept of "value-free knowledge" is oxymoronic since the goal of being disinterested is an interest in itself, and it allows science to separate fact from value and abrogate responsibility for its actions. Since "value-free" theories are impossible, Harding argues, one might as well acknowledge the values that inform one's research, be it to make money or to improve the lives of the sick, and debate their comparative validity, and struggle to have science informed by progressive interests.

This leads us to the cornerstone of Harding's postmodern epistemology -- "standpoint theory" -- which provides the means to attain her goal of a strong objectivity. The key idea of standpoint theory -- that the oppressed person has unique insights into the nature of social reality unavailable to the oppressor -- can be traced back to Hegel's master-slave theory, as developed in The Phenomenology of Spirit. Standpoint theory employs the insights of socially marginalized figures to identify the partial, limited, and flawed modes of understanding held by those "inside" the dominant culture, and to underscore problems with the social order. Standpoint theory forms an important part of a historiographical tradition that examines history from the perspective of the "losers" rather than the "winners" (as no history of the American civil war would be complete, accurate, or honest if it did not examine the experiences and insights of the black slaves), it is integral to Marxist histories that focus on the struggles of the peasants and working classes, and it motivated Foucault's genealogies which were designed to recuperate the voices of various marginalized groups buried by both mainstream and Marxist macrohistories.

Harding draws a crucial distinction between maximizing objectivity and maximizing neutrality; not only is neutrality impossible, the attempt to advance it is an obstacle to maximizing objectivity because it obscures biases and limited standpoints all the way around, and thereby legitimates the powerful interests informing conventional "objective science." While Harding seeks to rehabilitate and strengthen objectivity, she discards the modern norm of "truth" also as analytically distinct from objectivity, noting that since "truth" assumes the correctness of a single perspective, position, figure, or group, it is therefore intrinsically dogmatic and authoritarian. "The most science can hope for," Harding concludes, "is results that are consistent with `how nature is,' not ones that are uniquely coherent with it" (134).

In standpoint theory a political deficit becomes an analytical advantage. As developed in the last few decades by feminists like Nancy Hartsock and Harding herself, standpoint theory has been elaborated by feminists as a means of illuminating not simply the experiences of oppressed women, but, more generally, of power mechanisms affecting men and the entire society. In other words, the experience and knowledge of women living in patriarchal and androcentric cultures offer vital critical resources on problems with society as a whole, and therefore are valid and vital perspectives for a critical theory of society and its relation to the natural world. In her classic work The Death of Nature, for example, Carolyn Merchant emphasized how androcentric values informed the project of conquering natures. For Harding, this entails that one could not adequately understand the Western domination of nature without the light a feminist perspective throws on the alienated and violent psychology that informs the rape of nature as a dead and inert object.

Thus, Harding seeks a multiperspectival, multicultural, feminist, postmodern critique of scientific theory and practice, and society as a whole, while advancing an alternative scientific epistemology that rejects both realism and relativism as it grounds (strong) objectivity in (unavoidably) limited and partial viewpoints that are reflexively aware of their lack of God-like vision but argue the merits of their perspective. Harding seeks to broaden account of science as "any systematic attempt to produce knowledge about the natural world" (10) and to legitimate the diversity of knowledge claims around the world.

A standpoint epistemology consults and thinks from many different social locations that are foreign to dominant and privileged agents. The idea seems to be the Nietzschean claim that the more perspectives one can generate about the social and natural worlds, the richer and deeper one's theory, since bringing a diversity of cultural resources to knowledge "enable humanity to see yet more aspects of nature's order" (20). Certainly, the feminist perspective is not the only important or valid vision and Harding acknowledges that like any perspective it is partial and limited. Thus, Harding emphasizes the need for insights from multiple critical interpretations of society, and seeks to make contact between various feminisms and postcolonial critiques and race theory.

Overall, Harding's book is an excellent summary of a mountain of postcolonial and feminist scholarship, and she advances powerful critiques of realist, positivist, anthropocentric, and androcentric models of science and technology. It is a superb engagement of the theory and politics of science, and a solid description and critique of the standard "internalist model" from an "external" socio-political standpoint, openly anchored in all the insights and blindness of a first-world, female academic. Despite her desire for a pluralist theory, however, Harding leaves out crucial standpoints, as she does not mention the "standpoints" of gays and lesbians, the physically challenged, the elderly, the young, environmental justice movements, and animals (who, unlike the other groups mentioned, are dependent upon human beings to speak for them, but their standpoint reveals some of the worst problems and pathologies of contemporary capitalism).

To her credit, Harding tries to draw links between social views and the natural world, but her own ontology of nature is vague, inconsistent, and perhaps inaccurate. She makes frequent references to "nature's order" without clarifying exactly what this "order" is. The ontological status of "order," however, is a highly contested issue in contemporary debates surrounding chaos and complexity theory, which redefine natural "order" as the result of dynamic, self-organizing systems evolving in conditions "far-from-equilibrium." On this count, therefore, Harding begs an important question. Nor does her notion of "nature's order" cohere with her competing emphasis on the "disunity" of nature, which seemingly refers to its inability to be reduced to a single interpretation. In addition, she is vague on the "valuable contributions" (125) European science, its enduring "power and value," offers the world and, ironically, in light of various social and ecological crises, probably overstates these in her desire for a balanced account.

The weakest aspect of Harding's book is her lack of an adequate metatheory to handle the complex problems that arise with the shift to a standpoint and multiperspectival position. Harding offers no means to adjudicate competing interpretations and perspectives on society and nature, and an all-inclusive approach encounters the additional problem of what to do with reactionary standpoints, such as the militia movement, and whether even they might have some useful "local knowledge" to contribute to a critical theory of society. Nor does she address the problems that emerge in a multiperspectival theory once one blends numerous positions, often creating logical tensions and inconsistencies.

Harding does not go far toward establishing the "objectivity" of her own politically-oriented scientific epistemology and negotiating the strong tension between the values and facts of her claims. When the "robust reflexivity" of a feminist epistemology reflects on itself, what does it find, and how can this be defended as something other than myth, ideology, or fiction? Through traditional modes of peer-review, double-blind studies, and the like, or through new techniques altogether? Harding does not supply answers. She argues that "some knowledge claims are more powerful than others" (x), but doesn't suggest any evulating criteria of what, in Habermas' terms, is "the better argument." What exactly are the "stronger standards for objectivity" (18) she seeks once the weaker standards are overcome? If knowledge claims are socially and historically shaped, yet "must nonetheless be able to provide plausible evidence for its claims" (21), what would count as such? Or, if there "is not just one adequate standard for knowledge, but different ones for different purposes" (19), we would still want some idea as to possible criteria for some, whether or not there might be common grounds, or, whether it is in fact true that with this pragmatic pluralization, "anything goes."

Still, Harding's account of a multicultural science takes us a long way toward an multicultural, inclusive, democratic, and ecological vision of science, and toward a progressive politics of epistemology. Harding's book is a powerful challenge to the self-understanding of modern science and Western culture in general. Is Science Multicultural? shows that postmodern epistemologies are not necessarily anti-modern; rather, at their best, they are a vital continuation of the rational and critical resources of learning developed by science, the Enlightenment, and democratic norms. If neo-positivists like the Gang of Three were truly interested in their cherished norms of truth and objectivity, they would welcome books like this and engage Harding and others in fruitful debate, rather than distort and malign these illuminating new theories. As Harding ably shows, the politicization and pluralization of knowledge is not necessarily a threat to (strong) objectivity, but one of its preconditions.

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