Four Neglected Roads to Political Epistemology


In the talk I argue that political epistemology should include four often neglected research traditions with similar ambitions: Frankfurt School Critical Theory, Feminist Epistemology, Poststructuralism and Postcolonial Theory.

28 August 2020 12:50 — 13:25
Faculty of Social and Political Science, University of Innsbruck
Universitätstraße 15, Innsbruck, 6020

“Political Epistemology” is a young field in which epistemology, political philosophy and social sciences interrogate the intertwinement of truth and politics. In its most ambitious form, political epistemology aims at simultaneously transforming the basic concepts of political philosophy and epistemology. For neither the political presuppositions in epistemological concepts nor the epistemological presuppositions in concepts from political philosophy can be left untouched in order to reconceptualise the relationship between truth and politics. In pursuing this path, we do well to remember four research traditions with similar ambitions which are, however, underrepresented in political epistemology today: Frankfurt School critical theory, Feminist Epistemology, French Poststructuralism and Postcolonial Theory.

(1) Already in the 1930s, Adorno and Horkheimer postulated that epistemology without social theory lapses into idealism while social theory without epistemology becomes dogmatic. Yet they never fully conceptualized the resulting transformation of social theory and of epistemology. Since Jürgen Habermas abandoned his last attempt, Frankfurt School Critical Theory has rarely theorized its own epistemological commitments.

(2) Feminist epistemology came into being as a critique of androcentric scientific practices and quickly found itself tasked to explain the epistemic success of feminist sciences. Feminist standpoint theories and Donna Haraway’s concept of situated knowledge are but two of its most prominent proposals. Especially noteworthy is that feminist epistemology has come to understand itself as an intersectional research program: in addition to the impact of gender differences on scientific knowledge production, it also investigates the role of attributions of race or class.

(3) Poststructuralism partially inherits the French tradition in historical epistemologies. Especially Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault pick up the historization of scientific knowledge yet place knowledge at the center of political struggles. Whereas Althusser still tried to demarcate ideology from “pure science”, Foucault analyses the politically established conditions of existence of producing knowledge. Yet French Post-Structuralism focused primarily on the political questions and lost sight of the political epistemology it implicitly relies on.

(4) Postcolonial Theory emphasizes the need for political epistemology in its ambition to better understand and resist colonial practices of (scientific) knowledge production. Its main interest is to demonstrate the violence intertwined with “northern epistemologies” that have been forced upon colonized people and to invent ways of unlearning colonial ways of knowing in order to develop new “epistemologies of the south.” Post-Colonial Theory is therefore heavily invested in some kind of political epistemology but has not yet earned the place it deserves in political epistemology.

In each case, my argument will be that, on the one hand, these four research tradition have developed useful concepts and arguments for political epistemology. On the other hand, because their vocabularies differ markedly from those usually found in political epistemology, political epistemologists have largely ignored them – to their own detriment. For they provide valuable insights that political epistemology urgently needs if it is truly interested theorizing the intertwinement of truth and politics without unquestioningly taking up the political and epistemological presuppositions in concepts from political philosophy and epistemology.