Standpoint Epistemology

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"Positionality is the notion that personal values, views, and location in time and space influence how one understands the world. In this context, gender, race, class, and other aspects of identities are indicators of social and spatial positions and are not fixed, given qualities. Positions act on the knowledge a person has about things, both material and abstract. Consequently, knowledge is the product of a specific position that reflects particular places and spaces.

Issues of positionality challenge the notions of value-free research that have dismissed human subjectivity from the processes that generate knowledge and identities. Consequently, it is essential to take into account personal positions before engaging in research, especially qualitative research." (


Michael Rectenwald:

"In History and Class Consciousness (1923), György Lukács introduced a form of epistemology that has had an outsized impact ever since its introduction. Lukács notion, which he may have shared with Vladmir Lenin, has served as a source for the postmodern theoretical and social justice notion that each person has their own truth based on their particular type of subordination. Lukács argued that the unique position of the working class within the social order and the relations of production provide the proletariat with a privileged vantage-point for discerning objective truth. He called the theory “proletarian standpoint epistemology.” Lukács argued that reality under capitalism is a single objective reality. (For the two of you left, who may be feeling asphyxiated by their mention, don’t worry: objectivity and reality will later be shorn from standpoint epistemology.)

For Lukács, the proletarian occupies a position that affords him a peculiar relationship to objective reality. The objective world strikes the proletarian differently than it does the capitalist. Like the capitalist, the proletarian is a self-conscious subject. However, unlike the capitalist, the proletarian is also a commodity, an object for sale on the market. The proletarian’s “self-consciousness of the commodity” (that is himself) contradicts his experience as a subject, a self-determining agent in history. This double vision, or double consciousness if you will, allows the working class an all-sided sense of the social order, which the bourgeoisie lacks.

While designating a position of subordination, Lukács simultaneously granted the working class a superior epistemological vantage-point for access to objective reality. He thus effected the hierarchical inversion that Nietzsche notoriously lambasted as characteristic of Christianity and socialism. As he wrote in the Genealogy of Morals, under such inversion ideologies as Christianity, socialism, and, I would add, social justice ideology:

Only those who suffer are good, only the poor, the powerless, the lowly are good; the suffering, the deprived, the sick, the ugly, are the only pious people, the only ones saved, salvation is for them alone, whereas you rich, the noble and powerful, you are eternally wicked, cruel, lustful, insatiate, godless, you will also be eternally wretched, cursed and damned!’

Lest quoting Nietzsche should confirm my “alt-right” identity at Case Western, which would come as a great surprise to my former classmates here, as it does to me, I should say that I regard reading Nietzsche merely as a necessary inoculation against the contemporary social justice contagion. But I would never adopt the lunacy of Nietzsche’s philosophy in its entirety. I can say the same about the loathsome neoreaction, which amounts to the fantasies of roughly five people, who, unlike the epigones of Marx, haven’t killed anyone, let alone 94 million people.

Meanwhile, in The Science Question in Feminism (1986), Sandra Harding adopted Lukács’s proletarian standpoint epistemology and adapted it to feminism. The particular standpoint of women accords them an enhanced cognitive and perceptual grasp of objectivity.

The New Left then appropriated standpoint epistemology and siphoned it through various postmodern identity filters. Standpoint epistemology is the root of the contemporary social justice belief in the identity-knowledge nexus. Social justice holds that membership in a subordinated identity group accords members exclusive access to particular knowledge, their own knowledge, their own reality. Members of dominant identity groups cannot access or understand the knowledge or reality of subordinated others. Further, individual members of subordinated identity groups have their own individual knowledge. For social justice believers, knowledge is finally personal, individual, and impenetrable to others. Under the social justice worldview, everyone is locked in an impenetrable identity chrysalis with access to a personal knowledge that no one else can access. I call this social-justice-inflected belief prong, “epistemological solipsism.”

In a recent New York Times op-ed entitled, “How Ta-Nehisi Coates Gives Whiteness Power,” Thomas Chatterton Williams discusses what I am calling epistemological solipsism, which he calls “knowing-through-being” and “identity epistemology.” Williams laments identity epistemology or knowing-through-being because it limits knowledge to members of particular identity categories and it slides seamlessly into “identity ethics” or “morality-through-being.” Morality-through-being is believed to follow from knowing-through-being as the subordinated assumes the moral high ground on the basis of a superior knowledge standpoint deriving from subordinated status. Morality-through-being or identity-ethics results in a moral ranking in which the lowest on the totem pole is deemed a moral superior by virtue of her (previous) subordination. Through the kind of hierarchical inversion that Friedrich Nietzsche saw in Christianity and socialism, low status becomes high status.

How did Lukács’s proletariat standpoint epistemology become an epistemological solipsism resulting in an inverted moral hierarchy of the contemporary social justice movement? While Lukács argued that the proletariat’s material standpoint yielded the class unique access to objective truth, by the time it reached contemporary social justice, standpoint epistemology had already been stripped of any pretense to objective truth by postmodern theory. According to postmodern theory, the very idea of “objective truth” is a master narrative. Under social justice ideology, objective truth is a legacy of patriarchal white supremacy.

In addition to its theoretical importance, standpoint epistemology has produced pedagogical offspring as well. A hallmark of social justice pedagogy is “progressive stacking,” a method for ordering student class participation based the inverted social justice hierarchy. This form of academic priori-tarianism, or putting the worst-off first, became a topic of national controversy when a graduate student made a public declaration of the technique. It never seems to occur to the advocates of progressive stacking that such preferential treatment or prioritizing of supposed social subordinates might reify the very hierarchy that it is supposed to reverse, patronizing some while handicapping others based on a presupposed social superiority, however it may have been produced or reproduced." (