Why I Do Philosophy

I have loved almost every area of philosophy that I have ever studied and can imagine myself in doddering old age happily rereading the debates over the Ship of Theseus. But the issues that I felt I could perhaps make a contribution toward have not often been among the standard fare problems. I've been most concerned with the ways in which western epistemologies have contributed to the epistemic disauthorization of women and the majority of the non-European world, why sexual assaults traumatize the psyche, when progressive social activism has non-progressive effects, and how social identity yields differential access to knowledge.

I believe my class, gender, and ethnic background instigated a critical attitude and generated a different set of baseline knowledge from which my philosophical ideas grew. I've never been seduced by analytic philosophy's pretensions toward absolute clarity or essentialist definitions, and I've never believed for a moment that either the genesis or the reception of ideas is independent of social identity or embodied experience. Despite how much I have loved philosophy, I have often felt an extreme alienation from most of it, and that my lifeworld is invisible to the world of public discourse and absent from the canonical tradition. But, still naive, I have felt this to be all the more reason to stay in the field, to try and communicate and justify my perceptions, and to critique the false universalism of philosophies which are almost always based on culturally limited intuitions.

I have been interested in the ways in which philosophers come to a stalemate in their debates. Often it is said that "we simply have different intuitions," but our intuitions are the product of cognitive processes in which we are actively, not just passively, engaged. To the extent social identities such as gender and ethnicity are sometimes involved in these processes, we can bring their input to philosophical consciousness. This is part of the project of feminist epistemology.

My scholarship has centered around two areas: epistemology and subjectivity. In epistemology I have been interested in how concepts of justification and truth might be fashioned to reflect the historical and social situatedness of knowledge. Knowing is primarily a social, not an individual, process, and therefore we need a normative theory of justification which can evaluate interactive and culturally influenced knowing practices. We also need a concept of truth that can accommodate historical change.

In relation to subjectivity I have been interested in formulating concepts of the self that acknowledge it as fundamentally "gendered" and "raced." I reject the idea of a generic self that exists below a cultural or gendered overlay, and thus I believe we need new notions of the self that can accommodate its specificity, without justifying social inequality or entailing that different "selves" cannot communicate effectively with one another. I have also been interested in exploring the self-constituting effects of certain sorts of social practices and experiences, particularly sexual violence. These topics intersect with my epistemological interests insofar as the subject is a knowing subject, and here I have explored the relationship between one's epistemic credibility and one's specific subjectivity as, for example, a woman or as a survivor of sexual violence.

Feminist epistemologies and some versions of the new social epistemologies aim toward a greater reflexivity about "actually existing" justifying practices, which operate in philosophy no less than on the street. Many social scientists propound the idea of outsiders having an epistemic privilege; those outside or marginal to a community do not share its assumptions and thus can imagine hypotheses invisible to insiders as well as sometimes notice leaps of logic that insiders find too intuitively compelling to question. Feminists and many persons of color operate in this way in philosophy, which does not confer unquestioned authority but has been a source of, precisely, new questions. I am quite happy to plow my field here at the margins, and completely unsurprised that the center cannot understand what we are doing.

I do hold out hope, therefore, that we can forego our routine efforts to prove ourselves worthy of this profession, and seek instead for ways in which we can make the profession of philosophy worthy of us.