Time Heals All Wounds.. And Then Kills the Patient
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Wed May 14 05:25:26 2008
Translation Layers and Feminism

A long time ago, as an undergrad, I took a variety of courses that exposed me to ideas that I've rejected-as-presented, some more-or-less entirely, some having acquired nuance enough that they no longer closely resemble what was taught. Highlight today: A set of ideas that I had the most careful exposure to in Philosophy of Art and one of the Women's Studies classes I took (both of which I quite enjoyed) but also heard a fair bit about during discussions with various groups on campus. The set of ideas: Feminist Science (and related topics).

The most bare intuition is that modern science, maths, and history are based on a perspective that is tied to male gender roles and certain ways of thinking that are traditionally tied to that. These means emphasise power, a singular notion of being right, certain ideas of progress, and a means of finding truth suitable towards singular study. The idea posed by the particular branch of feminism that explored this framework was that we needed to restart the building/sorting of knowledge to purge from it these western, masculinist ideas, from reworking our standards of epistemology to emphasise consensus and mutual respect to changing how academia works as a whole to be less competitive and more communal, with more of an outreach towards traditional, disadvantaged cultures (note that there are some branches of feminism that branch heavily enough into being anti-modern that they're as alien to enlightenment liberalism as they are to most forms of conservativism).

At the time, I found the idea really interesting, but wanted to see some substance to know both whether it was internally consistent and viable as a way to understand the world (nevermind that consistency is one of the values they said was overvalued). I had ideas of my own back then of purging science of the insufficiently logical/mathematical (relativism had not yet struck me, and I was within the Platonist spectrum - funny how that fell from me at the same time as philosophical Libertarianism), and seeing a radically different perspective calling for a similarly targeted purge piqued my interest. One of the examples they brought up as an example was Encyclopædia - looking through old encyclopædia, particularly those written before modern ideas of objectivity (any encyclopedia written before the 1920s should do - the 1911 Encyclopædia Brittanica, being now public domain, is a fine example), is typically racist, condemning of "sexual deviance", friendly towards colonisation, and visibly a product of an upper-class British sensibilities), shows a very heavy perspective embodied in the work. This is extended into modern times both by teaching how to deconstruct language in modern works to understand what perspectives hide beneath "objectivity" and by suggesting that objectivity itself is a problematic notion. The first, I thought then and still believe, is an invaluable skill, as language often unavoidably embeds a perspective. On the second, I am sympathetic to the idea they raised that objectivity in modern journalism and writing is "just a style", but I am not certain I can entirely agree - it seems that accompanying that style is a certain "gravity towards some perspectives" that, depending on the specific "objective writing", one is more likely to adopt, and that someone who is particularly skilled (I am not saying this skill is necessarily a good thing in this case) would thus be funnelled away from positions they might otherwise adopt. Beyond this, the application of these ideas is tricky when applied to some concepts. Math is its own field (and the meaning of maths has been debated for many years - Platonists have not yet been wiped out partly because some people arrive at positions in that spectrum with little or no urging from an organised intellectual current or works and partly because what maths "is" is not a simple matter) which would be challenging to re-base in the way they describe without destroying its function (although I believe radically different mathematical foundations that would be functional are possible). We might wonder what the harm is in having a system of maths that suggests a right answer, or methods that don't involve consensus-gathering every time we would use math. Applied to more directly empirical fields, this might take two directions - either we seek new consensus every time we are to use a framework of understanding or we are to seek a dialogue with all large civilisations to find a mutually acceptable framework that recognises the way different cultures have done things in the past. The first is not entirely out of line with the way academia works now - occasionally parts of academia spend some time existing the foundations of knowledge that current accepted theories operate "on top of". - presumably doing this more often is what they're calling for (I am being charitable here). Again being charitable, the latter suggests reconciling different approaches to knowledge among cultures that presumably have tackled the field/areas in question, and trying to learn from each. The problem with both of these is the nuance - my interpretations are too charitable in that the former would go against the idea of building systematic knowledge and make academia too cumbersome to be workable as a societal institution, while the latter suggests more than interdisciplinary, inter-framework inspiration - it suggests that other cultures are to be respected as an equal partner, regardless of the qualities of their approaches by any measures. From the perspective of someone interested in pursuit of knowledge, placing cultural respect ahead of evaluation by functional aspects is problematic.

Moving a bit further, I think some fields are more ripe than others for what this branch of feminism suggests. Fields like Economics deserve very close scrutiny for the values they suggest/have embedded in them (Marxists and Feminists are not the only group that have suggested this), and History is practically an empty field without some kind of perspective to organise the array of facts. Are the harder sciences the same? To a certain extent, yes, although the degree to which this framework is correct suggests more to me a disclaimer and philosophical awareness about the foundations of science than an alternate approach - presumably it would be enough to have educated people understand that science as a disipline makes certain choices in both its operational methods and goals, and that it makes many of these methods because they have chosen to work to bring about results, and that in theory it may lose out on understanding some things because of some foundational attitudes (like those laid out in Occam's Razor, or the bias against supernaturalism). Many of these foundations resemble the axioms in a system of maths for good reason, with the justifications for those axiomlike entities being arbitrary, more pragmatic than provable, or at least one among many possible ways to lay out a system. A position I'd like to put forth (but would have a tough time arguing for without trumpeting my value system and realising that others could argue from theirs just as effectively if they're careful and clever) is that intercultural respect is not a good foundation for epistemology, at least partly because it bridges two very different intellectual realms and also at least partly because it makes a system of epistemology much weaker at one of its primary goals - being able to support statements and frameworks that effectively cleave possibility so that they either are predictive or not predictive (there are other goals for a metatheory of epistemology, of course - more on that in a moment).

The claim that they make knowledge difficult or impossible is probably the best pragmatic argument against this branch of feminism, interpreted non-charitably - they have not produced anything noteworthy because their notion of what it means to gather knowledge is unworkable (or at least very cumbersome). Some of their ideas and tools (e.g. deconstruction, although it's a borrowed term) may bear examination for inspiration, but even beyond the value questions tied to mutual respect, they fail (so far, at least) the pragmatic test of being able to build something new if they should manage to tear down the old order.

While gathering my thoughts on this topic, I stumbled across someone else having bumped into those talking about feminist math. This reminded me of the importance of "translation layers" between different philosophies. I believe that while we may define for ourselves what ideas such as justice mean, we should still be able to talk sensibly with others who use the terms in radically different ways, attaching to the word as we use/hear it a reminder to reshape its meaning according to the nuances causing such terms to differ from our own notion of it. For some things there might not even be a native concept - in my Weltanschauung, for example, there is no notion of "sin", with the nearest concepts (maybe "harmful to the general public", "something one happens to feel shame for having done", and "betraying a trust) all being distant enough from each other and from what it means in many conceptions of Christianity that it doesn't directly translate, even though I may be able to act as a "translator"/facilitator between two people who have notions of sin that are suitably close to be made comprehensible with translation. In a sense, the more we get used to this concept, the more we realise that we're living in different intellectual worlds that are like Britain and America, "separated by a common language". We might likewise hear someone say "it is best to do X", and while we might cringe to hear an unqualified statement of the sort with its implications towards value absolutism (that is, neglecting to say "if we want to optimise values Y and Z, it is best to do X"), we could translate it by adding that qualifier. Is it proper to do so? It aids in understanding what others "would mean" if they really "got relativism" and had a proper understanding of how value frameworks (sometimes relativists would use this phrasing too though, either out of sloppiness or because it's assumed). It also avoids detouring a conversation into epistemology whenever something like this comes up. I wonder though if it's better to mention how one translates what they say into one's own phrasing with people one would become close with, both because it reveals more about one's own patterns of thought and because it may clear up some misunderstandings (which it might as easily cause though...). Returning to that blog, perhaps one can suggest to those suggesting feminism that they adopt a "translation routine" whereby they can understand answers to be impressions and that they are being asked for impressions that are build through a particular process taught in class and not their personal ones.

Note that this idea of translations has a troublesome relationship with an idea stressed by many branches of feminism that I like - not letting others solely controlling the framing/language of the discussion. Studying foreign languages helps loosen the tie between concept and phrasing, and restating arguments a few times often makes rhetoric fall apart if it lacks a strong inner consistency. If one is very good at this, is fairly skeptical, and is also good at translation of concepts, one doesn't need to worry too much about being pushed around in a discussion through use of terms (and one should, I think, get good at all of these as part of becoming well-educated). For public discourse/debate, at least given that most people do not carefully dissect incoming arguments, one needs to do better than understand how a concept translates into one's own mental environment - one must be able to take charge of the use of terms and framing of issues to create arguments and suggest ways of looking at issues that suggest one's conclusions (and this may even meet most standards of journalistic/writing neutrality, as would opposing well-written works). When to shift the terms and when to accept another person's terms for discussion is not always a simple choice.

My apologies for any spelling mistakes/poor grammar/poor style - this happened to pop into my head while I was going to bed.