Articles

Epistemology Has Consequences

When ‘knowledge’ is determined by identity markers only and not by verifiable truth, we all suffer.

01/23/24

John Stonestreet

Glenn Sunshine

Ideas tend to sprout up in academia, but the ones that matter do not stay there. Even when birthed in seemingly abstract fields like epistemology (the study of knowledge), ideas can have a major impact on culture. This is especially evident in the modern to postmodern shift from an objective and verifiable understanding of truth to a subjective and socially constructed understanding of truth. 

This shift has landed us in what can be called “standpoint epistemology.” Standpoint epistemology is the view that everything we think and know, and even what we consider knowledge to be, is determined solely by our race, “gender,” sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and other identity categories. Objectivity, in this view, is impossible, and no perspective can claim superiority over any other since there is no external standard by which to measure. 

Standpoint epistemology is essential to Critical Theory, especially its priority of championing “marginal voices;” specifically those groups seen as victims, oppressed, or invisible in Western societies. These groups not only have a particularly important but overlooked perspective, they have one that is more valid and more valuable than those from privileged groups. The privileged, in fact, should be ignored or treated with contempt, according to this view. Or, to paraphrase George Orwell, all perspectives are equal, but some are more equal than others. 

Standpoint epistemology has had a keenly negative influence on the humanities. Classics, from Homer to Shakespeare, are often replaced not with classics from non-Western cultures but with works that reflect the contemporary fads of academics. In the study of history, the truth of standpoint epistemology is treated as universal and absolute (which, of course, contradicts it). Western history is reduced to a simplistic morality play where everything is seen as power dynamics, with evil oppressors and the virtuous oppressed. It is assumed that since “history is written by the winners,” the narrative priority is to subvert traditional history and highlight marginal voices to show that the “winners” were actually oppressors.  

Western history, therefore, is mostly seen through the lens of colonial studies, the story of villainous colonizers and innocent indigenous peoples. Though true up to a point, telling the story only in this way ignores verifiable historical facts and force fits history into a framework dictated by contemporary sensibilities. What this means in practice is that Spanish brutality in Mexico is condemned as intolerable while the slavery, oppression, and human sacrifice of Aztec society is nuanced, overlooked, or even celebrated. The United States is an imperial power unjustly driving indigenous tribes off their lands, but tribes that did the same to their equally indigenous neighbors are excused. 

If standpoint epistemology is true, then it is impossible to understand the past or learn from it. People are stripped of a true understanding of their history and culture, and thus of a critical part of their identity. Non-Westerners are dehumanized and stripped of agency, reduced to pawns of the more powerful. 

Long embedded in the humanities, these same ideas are now making inroads into the STEM fields. In some school districts, the idea that there are right and wrong answers in math is presented as an example of white supremacy and oppression. A problem cannot, in this view, have a single correct answer, since that implies there is objective truth in math. Of course, the same mathematics used to build a bridge in the United States is also used in Africa, but that doesn’t matter to the ideologues promoting these ideas. This misguided embrace of standpoint epistemology will, in the end, make it far more difficult for students to pursue careers in business, finance, engineering, or the sciences. 

As we often say, ideas have consequences and bad ideas have victims. Standpoint epistemology is a bad idea, and we’ve only now begun to see the victims that will be left in its wake. 

This Breakpoint was co-authored by Dr. Glenn Sunshine. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org. 

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