Metaphysical isms and theorising gender

I had tried to avoid engaging in grand metaphysical “ism” talk, but it seems that resistance is futile! So here are brief thoughts, in the context of theorising gender.

I reckon we can assume that there is a reality to people’s gender-relevant experiences and biochemistry which exists independently of our understandings. Taking this (to me obvious) stance is known as ontological realism. Theorising, about gender or otherwise, is done by people who have imperfect and indirect access to reality and theories evolve over time. Our vantage point—beliefs, biases, values, experience, privilege and oppression—has an impact on our theories, so two gender theorists doing the best they can with the available evidence can produce very different explanations (epistemic relativism). This is true of any science where multiple theories are consistent with evidence; in other words, the theories are underdetermined by evidence. It is also true when we theorise about ourselves.

Even with this relativist mess, manifesting as bickering in scientific journals and conferences, consensus can arise and one theory can be declared better than another (judgemental rationality). However, there are often many different ways to classify biological, social, and other phenomena, even with impossibly perfect access to reality (this has a great name: promiscuous realism).

The underdetermination of theories means that something beyond evidence is needed to decide how and what to theorise. Scholars in the critical theory tradition are required to pick a side in a social movement, for instance communism, feminism, anti-racism, trans rights, or an intersectional composition thereof. It’s not enough for a critical theory to be empirically adequate; it also has to help chosen social struggles make progress towards achieving their aims. Two theories may be empirically indistinguishable but one transphobic; from a trans rights perspective, the transphobic theory should be discarded.

Critical theory – a clear explanation by Nancy Fraser

‘To my mind, no one has yet improved on Marx’s 1843 definition of Critical Theory as “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age.” What is so appealing about this definition is its straightforwardly political character. It makes no claim to any special epistemological status but, rather, supposes that with respect to justification there is no philosophically interesting difference between a critical theory of society and an uncritical one. But there is, according to this definition, an important political difference. A critical social theory frames its research program and its conceptual framework with an eye to the aims and activities of those oppositional social movements with which it has a partisan though not uncritical identification. The questions it asks and the models it designs are informed by that identification and interest. Thus, for example, if struggles contesting the subordination of women figured among the most significant of a given age, then a critical social theory for that time would aim, among other things, to shed light on the character and bases of such subordination. It would employ categories and explanatory models which revealed rather than occluded relations of male dominance and female subordination. And it would demystify as ideological rival approaches which obfuscated or rationalized those relations. In this situation, then, one of the standards for assessing a critical theory, once it had been subjected to all the usual tests of empirical adequacy, would be: How well does it theorize the situation and prospects of the feminist movement? To what extent does it serve the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of contemporary women?’

Nancy Fraser (1985, p. 97). What’s critical about critical theory? The case of Habermas and gender. New German Critique, 35, 97-131.