Capitalism Is A Standpoint Epistemology

“Standpoint theory poses a challenge to any assumption that the neutrality of epistemic agents … is either a necessary or a sufficient condition for the knowledge claims they produce. Under some conditions, for some purposes, observer neutrality … may be an advantage in learning crucial facts or grasping the causal dynamics necessary for understanding a subject. But at the same time considerable epistemic advantage may accrue to those who approach inquiry from an interested standpoint, even a standpoint of overtly political engagement.” Alison Wylie, ‘Why Standpoint Matters’ (2004), available here.

“[R]adical constructivists tend to believe science and reason must be dismantled to let “other ways of knowing” have equal validation as knowledge-producing enterprises. These, depending on the branch of “theory” being invoked, are allegedly owned by women and racial, cultural, religious, and sexual minorities. Not only that, they are deemed inaccessible to more privileged castes of people, like white heterosexual men. They justify this regressive thinking by appealing to their alternative epistemology, called “standpoint theory.” This results in an epistemological and moral relativism which, for political reasons, promotes ways of knowing that are antithetical to science and ethics which are antithetical to universal liberalism.”

Lindsay, Boghossian, and Pluckrose, ‘Academic Grievance Studies And The Corruption Of Scholarship’ (2018), available here.

“Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place … practically every individual has some advantage over all others in that he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made”

FA Hayek, ‘The Use Of Knowledge In Society’ (1945), available here.

In the first quote, we have a noted feminist philosophy set out a central tenet of feminist epistemology, a view according to which occupying a marginalized position in society can be epistemically beneficial: it can help you know things that someone not so marginalized might fail to know. Women know more, for example and typically, about where is safe to walk at night than many men, because many men have never had to be worried about being attacked when walking at night.

In the second quote, from the paper that gave the world the notorious Soxal squared hoax, we get a rendition of this view as well as some dark reflections on the undermining effect it will have on science and ethics. And such quotations could be multiplied: a central thought of many of today’s classical liberal types is that as a society we are dismissing the values of objectivity and truth in favour of subjectivity, courting relativism and undermining science and progress.

And in the third quote, FA Hayek, one of the key theorists of capitalism … seems to make exactly the sort of claim about the importance of knowledge gained from one’s particular standpoint as against scientific knowledge that our standpoint theorist makes.

I think this is kind of funny: that at the heart of the theory of capitalism, what many see as the defining and differentiating feature of Western civilisation, we see something like the standpoint epistemology much derided by those who claim postmodernism and feminism are destroying that very civilisation. My aim in this post is just to explain this similarity in a bit more depth, by providing explanations of the Hayekian theory and of standpoint epistemology. I’ll end by suggesting (somewhat trollingly, I admit) a moral: if you like capitalism, you should also like standpoint theory.

FA Hayek is recognized as one of the key theorists of capitalism, and his essay ‘The Use Of Knowledge In Society’ is an influential statement of some of his views. In it, he defends the importance of the knowledge that people can have that depends on ‘particular circumstances of time and place’, and argues that its existence poses a problem for economies that work according to centralized planning (the viability of which, when he was writing in the early 1940s, was an open question), and that prices form a mechanism for conveying and organizing the disorganized knowledge dispersed throughout society.

Regardless of one’s political/economic stance, the essay is very interesting and, as a piece of theory, at least to this observer, deserving of serious attention. It begins with the question: how should we run our economy? It was important for defenders of the free market to give reasons for preferring their decentralized view to one involving centralized planning. And Hayek’s central claim, as I read him (I should say I’m not an economist, a historian of economics, a Hayekian, or anything else that would suggest I have particular expertise; but the essay is clear, and if you doubt my exegesis you can just read it yourself), is that there are two different sorts of knowledge, scientific knowledge and particular knowledge (my term), and though indeed, were economies only to rely on scientific knowledge, centralization might be the way to go, because they also rely on the latter, centralization is no good.

Scientific knowledge is shareable and can easily be widely known. Physics, chemistry, biology, geography, etc. are all good examples. But there’s another type of knowledge the important feature of which is that it can’t be so easily shared, and is more local: possessed among a person or a small group of people, and owing to the particular time and place they find themselves in.

This more local knowledge is extremely important for the economy: indeed, it’s one of its main driving forces. And the glory of the free market is that via prices this knowledge can be compressed and conveyed across society. Prices reflect, in one single figure, a whole agglomeration of particular pieces of particular knowledge that it would be very difficult for any central planner to capture and synthesize.

The theory is really very nice. He illustrates it an example. Say — to embellish slightly — the biggest tin mine in the world is in Cornwall and say it collapses so that suddenly there’s a shortfall of tin. Some people, by virtue of their place in space and time, will come to realize this before others — for example, the people who live down the road from the mine will realize it before someone in China. If they are in the tin market — let’s assume as sellers — then they’ll adjust their prices up to reflect the fact that tin is now in short supply. A company they do business with — let’s say at the other end of the island in Aberdeen — will see this price rise, and because they know their Cornwall friends aren’t foolish, will assume that they too can raise the price of tin, and so they will.

And this can continue: the people on the continent whom the Aberdeen people deal with will accordingly change their behaviour, raising their prices or buying less, and so on and so on, until the new prices arrive in China. There are two important things to note: first, what drives this whole process is the particular piece of knowledge about the tin mine collapsing. One could say that the price is a reflection or translation of this particular piece of knowledge. Moreover, this piece of knowledge is both hard to share, and doesn’t need to be shared. While the Chinese, if they want to work on tin, will have to know some of its chemical and physical properties, there is no need for them to know about the collapse of the mine, which would involve conveying the information up to Scotland, then translating to European languages, and so on. All they need to know is that tin is now more valuable. The point is, the knowledge that drives the whole thing is particular knowledge that isn’t easily sharable, but thanks to the price mechanism that knowledge can nevertheless in a sense be shared.

Hayek’s thought is that a centrally planned system will have no way to incorporate such pieces of knowledge, and so the prices that it sets for things and more generally its economic decisions can only be based on the generally available ‘scientific knowledge’. And that’s bad.

Hayek’s model is beautiful and even if you think — as I think you probably ought to— that is bears little relation to capitalism as actually practiced, it does seem to pose an interesting challenge to planning economies. But the more important point for us is the importance of particular pieces of perspectival knowledge which function as the foundational element. It is not, as one might think, science that lies at the heart of collective economic knowledge, but (what I’ve been calling) particular knowledge. Next, I will show that something roughly similar is the case in the epistemology associated with identity politics.

Hayek: The Original Snowflake?

Let’s introduce this again with a story, one taken from my recent experience. I was walking at night with my girlfriend through a part of town unknown to us, along the quickest way to where we were going. At one point, looking ahead to what seemed to me to be a street like all the rest, she hesitated, and turned and suggested/said that we go instead another, more roundabout way. I asked why, and she said that something about the way we were heading seemed off.

We later learned that the street we were going to walk down was one on which a lot of crime happened. Now, you could say this was a fluke, but here is an explanation I and many others would instead go for: I have had never cause to be scared while walking at night (I am youngish, male, biggish, relatively inconspicuous, fit, etc.); she, however, had very frequently had reason to be careful about where she walked at night (most women do). Those experiences taught her some things about what makes situations worrying that I never had to bother to learn. She knew instinctively which streets to avoid, whether a given person on the street is likely to cause problems, and so on. That is to say, she knows more about nighttime danger than me, and she knows more precisely because she has had to face such danger before, and so has had to learn about it, where, because I haven’t, I haven’t.

I think this is a reasonably good encapsulation of a couple of central themes of standpoint theory. According to it, societal disadvantage (being a women who has cause to be concerned about where she walks at night, for example) yields epistemic advantage (knowing more about danger than someone not so concerned). She can know more things more easily than I can. Moreover, the knowledge she possesses has one of the key features of the particular knowledge of the Hayekian theory: it is not so easily shareable. While I can read about the psychology and sociology of violence and consult crime statistics to get a sense of danger, there are many things that marginalized groups know in a visceral and direct way that elude me (obviously it’s not completely unshareable: I should listen to women (again, for example) when they talk about the danger they face)

In standpoint theory, then, objective (perspective-neutral and easily shareable) knowledge can be, in certain respects, less valuable than situated knowledge that arises from oppression. And this is the interesting similarity with capitalism, as I see it.

What should we conclude from this kind of interesting commonality? I think we ought to be cautious about concluding too much. In particular, it’s reasonable to respond to what I’ve said that the similarity is superficial, almost a pun. Hayekian particular knowledge doesn’t involve societal disadvantage or opppression in any way. Even I, a societally advantaged person, have plenty of valuable particular economic knowledge owing to my particular circumstances.

Nevertheless it does seem like both capitalism and standpoint theory are what we could call bottom-up epistemologies, placing emphasis on the particulars of people’s experience as opposed to the generalities of scientific knowledge, in the one case for determining prices, in the other for designing socially just institutions and giving voices attention in proportion to what they know. At the very least, if you’re a capitalist you should be careful about dismissing perspectival knowledge given that it seems to be an important part of your ideological framework. So you should at least think twice before agreeing with the LBP quote we began with.