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Philosophical Issues, 17, The Metaphysics of Epistemology, 2007



Sally Haslanger

MIT, Department of Linguistics and Philosophy

A study of the science of man is inseparable from an examination of the options

between which men must choose. This means that we can speak here not only of

error, but of illusion. We speak of ‘illusion’ when we are dealing with something of greater substance than error, [it is] error which in a sense builds a counterfeit reality of its own... [Such illusions] are more than errors in this sense: they are sustained by certain practices of which they are constitutive.

(Taylor 1985/1971, 54) Certainly a good deal of men’s tyranny over women can be observed through data, experiments, and research... Many things can be known in this way.... [But it does not] show that it is unnecessary or changeable, except speculatively, because what is not there is not considered real. Women’s situation cannot be truly known for what it is, in the feminist sense, without knowing that it can be other than it is. By operating as legitimating ideology, the scientific standard for verifying reality can reinforce a growing indignation, but it cannot create feminism that was not already there. Knowing objective facts does not do what consciousness does.

(MacKinnon 1989, 100-101) I. Introduction1 In the social realm, knowledge, or what purports to be knowledge, is entangled with the reality it represents. Social institutions are constituted, at least in part, by sets of shared beliefs and conventions; even false beliefs about social phenomena can cause changes in the social world that result in the belief’s becoming true (Langton 2007). As a result, it is sometimes suggested that an epistemology of the social realm must not simply be “But Mom, Crop-Tops Are Cute!” 71 concerned with whether a belief is justified and true. When social knowledge goes wrong, it may be because it has constituted a reality—and perhaps accurately represents that reality—that nevertheless falls short in some way.

Following Taylor (see epigraph), the suggestion might be that the social reality created by the belief is an illusion. But if it is, in what sense is it an illusion? Is it an illusion about what’s possible? About what’s good? And is an evaluation of the product of knowledge a legitimate part of social epistemology?

Catharine MacKinnon’s work repeatedly and forcefully raises the question how an epistemology of the social should proceed in oppressive social contexts. On MacKinnon’sview (1989, see also epigraph), Consciousness raising, by contrast [to scientific inquiry] inquires into an intrinsically social situation, in the mixture of thought and materiality which comprises gender in its broadest sense. (MacKinnon 1989, 83) She continues, “The process is transformative as well as perceptive, since thought and thing are inextricably and reciprocally constitutive of women’s oppression...” (MacKinnon 1989, 84) Given the interdependence of social thought and reality, a change of meaning can transform the social world.2

This calls, however, for a new branch of epistemology:

This epistemology does not at all deny that a relation exists between thought and some reality other than thought, or between human activity (mental or otherwise) and the products of that activity. Rather, it redefines the epistemological issue from being a scientific one, the relation between knowledge and objective reality, to a problem of the relation of consciousness to social being. (MacKinnon 1989, 99) Setting aside the challenge of interpreting her positive view, she is raising an epistemological problem about what “should” be thought in those domains where what is thought (at least partly) both determines and is determined by its object. This problem is especially pressing when this occurs at a site of injustice. My goal in this essay is to provide some resources for developing a response.

II. Are Crop-Tops Cute?

To make this more concrete, consider the role of fashion in schools. The belief that certain girls are wearing crop-tops that expose their midriff partly constitutes the fact that it is fashionable to wear such tops and causes many other girls to do the same. Plausibly, in such situations it becomes “common knowledge” that, say, seventh grade girls are wearing crop-tops this spring.3 But, one might argue, it would be better if seventh grade (roughly age 12) girls 72 Sally Haslanger were wearing ordinary—midriff covering—tops instead (because the croptops sexualize the girls who wear them, further marginalize the chubby girls, etc.). So parents who are uncomfortable with the crop-top fashion, and yet find themselves faced with a daughter who is eager to join the crowd, might suggest to her that, e.g., she shouldn’t care about being fashionable, that she shouldn’t let what the other girls are doing determine her choices, that she is beautiful in her track suit.

However, even if the daughter is individually able to retain her selfrespect without bowing to the fashion trend, it may still be true that she will be marginalized if she doesn’t conform and that the fashionable girls are sexualized (Warner 2007). Bucking conventions may be a partial solution that works for some individuals. But the problem is not individual. The situation would be better if “seventh grade girls are wearing crop-tops this spring” wasn’t part of a set of beliefs that constitute common knowledge in the school (or the broader society).

With this in mind, consider the following familiar dialogue:

Daughter: “Can I have some money to buy a crop-top like Ashley’s to wear to school?” Parents: “You can have a new top, but not a crop-top. Crop-tops are too revealing.” Daughter: “But Mom[Dad], you’re just wrong. Everyone knows that crop-tops are cute; and I don’t want to be a dork.” Parents: “I’m sorry, sweetie, crop-tops are not cute, and you won’t be a dork if you wear your track suit.” Under the circumstances it seems that there is something right about Daughter’s reply to Parents, and their reply is not enough. And yet, aren’t the parents right?

One might initially assume that in this conversation there is a disagreement over the truth-value of the following claims:

(1) Seventh grade girls who wear crop-tops to school are cute.

(2) Seventh grade girls who wear track suits to school are dorks.

One way to unpack the truth-value reading of the disagreement is to suggest that “cute” and “dork” are evaluative predicates and those who believe (1) and (2) are wrong about the objective (social/aesthetic/sartorial) value of crop-tops and track suits. But this is implausible. The patterns of social interaction at the school are what determine the extensions of ‘cute’ and ‘dork’: if a girl walks like a dork, sounds like a dork, dresses like a dork, she is a dork.

Where objectivist readings of statements such as (1) seem misguided, the alternative is often taken to be a subjectivist reading which renders the “But Mom, Crop-Tops Are Cute!” 73 disagreement a matter of taste. On this reading the parents and daughter simply have different sartorial tastes, just as they might have different tastes in food or humor. In effect, the daughter is claiming that crop-tops are cute to her (or to her classmates), and the parents are claiming that they are not cute to them (or to their peers). But this fails to capture the sense in which the parents are disagreeing with the daughter and are in a position to offer a critique of the fashion trends. On a broader scale, although social norms and such are at least partly constituted by the attitudes of the social group they govern, an acceptable approach must make room for meaningful critique across groups.

Yet another reading of the disagreement would be to see the parent as

rejecting, and urging the daughter to reject, the “cute/dork” dichotomy:

these ways of classifying yourself and others based on a willingness to wear sexy clothing are misguided and should be avoided. Parents undertake to disrupt such classifications, as do teachers and school administrators who institute dress codes and such. Let’s call this the framework reading.4 On the framework reading (1) is true and one may be justified in believing it. But at the same time it captures and reinforces (and uttered by the right person at the right moment, might even create) a misguided distinction.

Without taking a stand yet on precisely what’s at issue between parents and daughter, there are, nonetheless, the makings of a puzzle. If the social reality is organized around the cute/dork dichotomy, then there are cute girls and dorky girls, and it would be a mistake not to recognize this. This is important social knowledge. But at the same time it is tempting to say that the cute/dork dichotomy is an illusion. It is socially and morally problematic and because it is reified through a pattern of belief and expectation, it could be undermined by a refusing to have beliefs in its terms. More generally, in cases such as this we seem to be able to generate a contradiction: it is true that p so you should believe p; but believing p makes it true, and it would be better if p weren’t true; so you shouldn’t believe p.

III. “Should Believe”

So it appears that the daughter should believe that, say, seventh grade girls who wear track suits to school are dorks, and yet, if her parent is right, she should also not believe it. A first stab at avoiding the puzzle would be to suggest that there are two senses of ‘should’ involved in this line of thought. The girl should believe what is true; this is an epistemic ‘should’.

Yet for moral/political reasons, she should also not believe the statements in question If she believes that track-suited girls are dorks, this will contribute to the patterns of beliefs and expectations that constitute the social fact that such girls are dorks, which would be bad. This second ‘should,’ it might be 74 Sally Haslanger argued, is a pragmatic or moral ‘should’. Thus, there is an equivocation in the argument and the puzzle dissolves.

Although there seems to be something right about this response, it isn’t sufficient. First, it is controversial to suggest that pragmatic or moral norms apply to believing, for it isn’t clear that believing is, in the relevant sense, a matter of choice (Williams 1973). The daughter experiences her friends as cute in crop-tops and the track suited others as dorky, and this may not be something she can change at will. For example, if the parent threatens, “If you continue to believe that crop-tops are suitable for seventh grade girls to wear to school, I’ll cut your allowance in half,” it seems there is little the daughter can do other than look for reasons that will change her mind (or lie about what she believes).

Second, the “framework” reading of the disagreement—the reading on which the cute/dork dichotomy is misguided—suggests that the tweenage categories are ill-conceived. A reason for rejecting (1) and (2) seems to involve a charge of inaccuracy or misrepresentation. Although there is something true about the claim that girls who wear track suits to school are dorks, there is also something false about it. For example, contrast the case with one in which the (non-athletic) daughter replies to her parents, “But Mom/Dad, the girls who wear track suits to school are all on the track team.” The parent might try to resist the identification of athletes with what they wear.

But it would be odd to reject the framework that distinguishes those on the track team, from those who aren’t, in the same way that they rejected the cute/dorky framework: “But sweetie, you won’t be on the track team if you wear a track suit.” (Cf. “But sweetie, you won’t be a dork if you wear a track suit.”) Although the cute/dorky distinction and the track team/not-track team distinction both capture social categories, there is something illusory about the former in contrast to the latter.

So although some considerations that count against accepting (1) and (2) may not be epistemic, it is worth considering further the idea that there is some epistemic failing in the daughter’s commitment to (1) and (2). In other words, there seems to be a sense in which the daughter both should and should not, epistemically speaking, believe that seventh grade girls who wear track suits are dorks. (Henceforth, I’ll focus on (1) since there seems to be no significant difference between (1) and (2) for our purposes.)

IV. Social Reality

The example of the seventh grade girl and her parents is a small instance of what’s involved in navigating and negotiating the social world. The girl and her parents are members of different social groups (age-wise), have different experiences, beliefs, and frameworks for understanding what actions and events mean. Both seem to have important social knowledge, but they are also deeply at odds. In the background, I believe, are important issues “But Mom, Crop-Tops Are Cute!” 75 concerning ideology and social structure. So in the next several sub-sections I will explore some aspects of the interdependence of thought and reality in the social world so we can better understand how thought can fail us without being false. My goal is not to define “the social” or to give a full-blown theory of social structure, but to illuminate the example we’ve been considering, and others like it, by exploring the idea that there are multiple social worlds or milieus. I will then return to the puzzle set out in the first two sections.

a. Ideology

In order to develop an account of social knowledge, it will be useful to think about the relationship between agents, their ideas, and social structures generally: what are social structures, and how do agents create, maintain, and change them? Let’s begin with the concept of ideology.

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