Back when I were a lad, I got up at 6:30 every morning and went down t’university, where thanks to diligence, hard work and luck, I acquired two degrees in a science subject. I learned about the scientific method, and about how hypothesis are developed and turned into theories, gradually making our understanding of the world more accurate.
Later in life, I went on the internet. There, I observed educated people holding forth confidently on some of the organising principles of society, and on the ruinous effects that some of our societal structures can have on people’s lives.
Often these people were feminists. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a feminist. I share with feminists the strong ethical conviction that the circumstances of peoples’ birth ought not to adversely affect their ability to make their own choices in life. I will go so far as to pre-emptively apologise to feminists for singling them out. Feminist thought is probably not exceptionally worthy of criticism in this regard. It only seems, from the point of view of someone who reads the blogs I happen to read and follows the people I happen to follow on Twitter, to contain some of the most visible popular examples of the sort of thing I’m about to complain about.
Some of the popular feminist theories, as explained in some detail on sites like Derailing for Dummies1, Geek Feminism Wiki and Finally Feminism 101 (for example this explanation of the concept of “patriarchy”, not to be confused with “lizardarchy”) are presented by their apologists as though they are objective facts. On closer analysis they frequently turn out to be unusually well-developed speculations that are as likely to be connected to empirical reality as Asimov’s laws of robotics are.
The logical tradition at work here is that of antipositivism, which is to say that the philosophical grounds that support such concepts are deliberately, resolutely and unapologetically subjective.2 The possibility of being able to support them with empirical research is explicitly excluded.
Antipositivism, in the form of “interpretive” sociology or “verstehen” was introduced to the social sciences by Max Weber in 1922 as an explicit reaction to positivism (the view that the world is underpinned by rational laws that can be deduced from logical analysis or empirical observation), and subsequently to rationalist thought3. Weber and his successors have regarded the objective understanding of different social groups as futile, impossible and potentially dangerous. Instead of attempting to model the world, they restricted themselves to subjectively evaluating its qualities.
This approach informs the whole of critical, post-modernist, and post-structuralist theory, including patriarchy theory, queer theory, feminist epistemology and intersectionality. Your Michel Foucault, your Nancy Hartsock, your Bell Hooks. But when subjectivity is an intentional and fundamental component of your philosophy, there can be no right or wrong answers. Therefore, one can simply take the complete works of Bell Hooks, say, and replace every sentence with its negation, and the resulting theory will have the same truth-value.
This very technique, as applied to the writing of the postmodernist philosopher Jacques Derrida, has been developed into a parlour game among underemployed academics, as described by Mark Lieberman.
My colleague would open one of Derrida’s works to a random page, pick a random sentence, write it down, and then (above or below it) write a variant in which positive and negative were interchanged, or a word or phrase was replaced with one of opposite meaning. He would then challenge the assembled Derrida partisans to guess which was the original and which was the variant. The point was that Derrida’s admirers are generally unable to distinguish his pronouncements from their opposites at better than chance level, suggesting that the content is a sophisticated form of white noise. On this view, as Wolfgang Pauli once said of someone else, Derrida is “not even wrong.”.
It’s instructive to compare this analysis to the memorable assessment of “bullshit” given by Harry Frankfurt.
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter,however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
The use of the word “theory” a few paragraphs above could be dangerously misleading to anyone with the wrong sort of education. In science, a “theory” is an explanatory model which can be used to make specific, reliable and testable predictions. In the antipositivist humanities the term is really being used in its more demotic sense to mean a vague sort of conjecture. It’s reminiscent of the confusion that one can see in the creationist who claims that “evolution is only a theory”, except in reverse. Any equivocation with the scientific sense of the word “theory” is desirable for the antipositivist theorist, as it helps to blur the difference between fact and opinion.
As a person who is interested in truth, I consider the intentional representation of opinion as fact to be deceptive and unethical. But I am most frightened by how common it seems to be.
At least Derailing for Dummies has a degree of self-awareness, as exemplified in a line near the bottom of this page, which should be enough to scare rationalist feminists away from it for good:
The process of valuing “fact” over “opinion” is one very much rooted in preserving privilege.
It’s feminist theory’s answer to the Liar Paradox. Either the sentence above is a fact, in which case a website ostensibly designed to facilitate the promotion of the lived experience of marginalised people is instead engaged in a process rooted in preserving privilege. Or it’s an opinion, in which case the opposite opinion – “The process of valuing “fact” over “opinion” is one not at all rooted in preserving privilege” – is equally valid.
For an alternative view, see Wikipedia’s article on Strong Objectivity, which gives a sort of insight into exactly how alien the concept of “objectivity” must be to these people.
Antipositivism is only one of a number of potential alternatives to positivism. Karl Popper’s “critical rationalism” provides another avenue. I haven’t read nearly enough Popper, but essentially he rejects traditional positivism without rejecting the notion that objective truth exists. Here’s an interesting post which attempts to analyse, or perhaps completely destroy, the theory of patriarchy based on Popper’s principles of rationality.