Afrofeminist epistemology and dialogism: a synthesis (work in progress)

Embodied, enactive and dialogical approaches to cognitive science radically depart from traditional Western thought in the manner with which they deal with life, the mind and the person. The former can be characterised as emphasising interdependence, relationships, and connectedness with attempts to understanding organisms in their milieu. Acknowledgements of complexities and ambiguities of reality form the starting points for epistemological claims.  The latter, on the other hand, tends to strive for certainty and logical coherence in an attempt to establish stable and relatively fixed epistemological generalisations. Individuals, which often are perceived as independent discreet entities, are taken as the primary subjects of knowledge and the units of analysis.

Collins’s proposed black feminist epistemology, hereafter “Afrofeminist epistemology”, opposes the traditional Western approach to epistemology as well as the largely Positivist scientific view inherited from it.  As such, it is worth drawing attention to the similarities between Black feminist thought and dialogical approaches to the cognitive sciences. In what follows I seek to reveal a striking convergence of themes between these two schools of thought. In so doing, I intend to illustrate that the two traditions – cognitive sciences, especially the dialogical approach to epistemology, and Afrofeminist epistemology, specifically, the type proposed by Patricia Hill Collins (2002) – can inform one another through dialogue.

General characterization of classic Western approach to epistemology and the Cartesian inheritance

The classic Western approach to epistemology tends to be monological; meaning it tends to focus on individuals and their cognition and behaviour. When relationships and interactions enter the equation, individuals and their relations are often portrayed as distinct entities that can be neatly separated. Dichotomous thinking — subject versus object, emotion versus reason – persists within this tradition. Ethical and moral values and questions are often treated as clearly separable from “objective scientific work” and as something that the scientist need not contaminate her “objective” work with. In its desire for absolute rationality, Western thought wishes to cleave thought from emotion, cultural influence and ethical dimensions. Cognition, evaluation and emotions are treated as if they are entities that shouldn’t be contaminated. Abstract and intellectual thinking are regarded as the most trustworthy forms of understanding and rationality is fetishized.

In the classic Western epistemological tradition, abstract reasoning is taken to be the highest cognitive goal, and certainty as a necessary component for knowledge.  Since the ultimate goal is to arrive at timeless, universally applicable laws, establishing certainty is pivotal for laying the foundations. Although there are historical antecedents leading up to and contributing towards what is generally regarded as Western tradition – in particular, Plato in his dialogues Meno and Phaedo – Descartes represents the pinnacle of Western thought (Gardiner 1998, Toulmin 1992). The subject as autonomous and self-sustaining entity or a Cartesian cogito, which we have inherited from Cartesian thinking, remains prevalent in most current Western philosophy as well as in the background assumptions of the human sciences. The way the individual self is taken as the unquestioned origin of knowledge of the world and others is a legacy of this tradition (Linell 2009).

Black feminist criticism of dominant approach and the proposed alternative

Contrary to the classic Western epistemological tradition, in Afrofeminist epistemology ethical and moral values and questions are inseparable from our enquires into knowledge. Similarly, knowledge claims and knowledge validation processes are not independent of the interests and values of those who define what knowledge is, what is important and worthy of study, and what the criteria for epistemological justification are (Collins 2002). Such definitions and criteria are guarded fiercely by the institutions and individuals who act as the ‘gatekeepers’ of the classic Western epistemological tradition. This traditional Western epistemology, Collins points out, predominantly represents Western, elite, and white, male interests and values. In fact, a brief review of the history of Western philosophical canon reveals that knowledge production processes and the criteria for knowledge claims have predominantly been set by elite, white, Western men.

Scholars like Karen Warren (2009) have cogently argued that the history of classical Western philosophy has, for centuries, almost exclusively consisted of elite, white, Western European men giving the illusion that Western white men are the epitome of intellectual achievement. Women’s voices and perspectives were diminished, ignored, and systematically excluded from the canon. In her ‘recovery project’, Warren finds that women philosophers nonetheless have made important contributions throughout the history of philosophy and that you find them when you go looking for them. This, to a great extent, remains the case not only in philosophy, but also in much of the rest of the academic tradition. A brief look at any philosophy curricula would reveal that white European male philosophers and their views remain dominant and definitive.

Traditional approaches taken as the “normal” and “acceptable” ways to theorise and generalise about people’s lived experiences means that any other approaches to theorising about groups of people that are not aligned with canonical intellectual currents (often white European male) are dismissed as “anomalies”. For Collins, it is indisputable that different people experience reality differently and that all social thought somewhat reflects the realities and interests of its creators. Political criteria influence knowledge production and validation processes in one way or another.  Collins asserts, in studying Black women’s realities, the typical perspectives on offer have either identified black women with the oppressor, in which case Black women lack an independent interpretation of their own realities, or have characterised Black women as less human than the oppressor, in which case Black women lack the capacity to articulate their own standpoint. While in the first perspective independent Black women’s realities are seen as not their own, in the latter, it is seen as inferior. For that reason, the traditional epistemology is inadequate to capture and account for the lived experiences of black women – hence Collins’ proposal for an Afrocentric feminist epistemology which is grounded in black women’s values and lived experiences.

Black women’s lived experiences are different in important ways. The kind of relationships Black women have, and the kind of work they engage in are notable examples that demonstrate the differing realities and lived experiences. Intuitive knowledge, what Collins calls wisdom, is crucial to the everyday lives and survival of black women. While wisdom and intuitions, as opposed to abstract intellectualizing, might be excluded as irrelevant, and at best, less credible as far as the traditional epistemologies are concerned, they are highly valued within black communities:

“The distinction between knowledge and wisdom, and the use of experience as the cutting edge dividing them, has been key to Black women’s survival. … knowledge without wisdom is adequate for the powerful, but wisdom is essential to the survival of the subordinate.” (Collins 1989, p. 759)

The desire for complete objectivity and universally generalisable theories in the dominant Western tradition has led to a focus on abstract analysis of the nature of concepts like ‘knowledge’ and ‘justification’, with little to no grounding of complex lived experience. Its portrayal of reason and rationality in direct contrast with emotions – the former to arrive at pure, objective knowledge –  has led to dichotomous thinking, thus blinding us to continuities and complementarities. Consequently, “reason” has been privileged over emotions. This in turn has impeded emotional and bodily knowledge, what Foucault (1980) calls ‘subjugated knowledge’ often expressed through music, drama, etc., as less important. However, ‘subjugated knowledge’ is crucial and is part of a way of life and survival for black communities. Such knowledge, grounded in concrete experiences and recognised through connectedness, dialogues and relationships, is what is of real value for Black women.

That knowledge claims should be grounded in concrete, lived experience rather than abstract intellectualising is crucial to Collins’s Afrocentric feminist epistemology. Collins’s Afrocentric epistemology prioritizes wisdom over knowledge and has, at its core, black women’s experiences of race and gender oppression. Black women have shared experience of oppression, imperialism, colonialism, slavery, and apartheid as well as roots in the core African value system prior to colonization. The roots of Afrocentric epistemology can be traced back to African-based oral traditions. As such, dialogues occupy an important place. Dialogues, so far as the Afrocentric epistemology is concerned, are an essential method for assessing knowledge claims.

This Afrocentric epistemology, grounded in the lived experience of black women, that employs dialogues as a way of validating knowledge claims, stands in a stark contrast with that of the Eurocentric epistemology. Connectedness rather than separation is an essential component of the knowledge validation process. Individuals are not detached observers of stories or folktales, but rather active participants, listeners and speakers and part of the story. Dialogues explore and capture the fundamentally interactive connected nature of people and relationships.

Ethical claims lie at the heart of an Afrocentric feminist epistemology, in contrast to the classical Western epistemology that considers ethical issues as separate from and independent of ‘objective scientific investigations’. Afrocentric feminist epistemology is about employing emotions, wisdom, ethics and reason as interconnected and equally essential components in assessing knowledge claims with reference to a particular set of historical conditions.

Dialogical criticism to dominant approach and its alternative

The dialogical approach to cognitive science – inspired by Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin’s (1895 – 1975) thinking and further developed by dialogists such as Per Linell (2009) – objects to the dominant Western epistemological approach. Dialogical theories which have roots in the Bakhtin Circle, a 20th century school of Russian thought has had a massive influence on social theory, philosophy and psychology. At the centre of dialogical theories lies the view that linguistic production, the notion of self-hood, and knowledge are essentially dialogic. Dialogical approaches are concerned with conceptualizing and theorizing human-sense making and they do so based on a set of assumptions some of which stand in stark opposition to traditional Western philosophy and science. These assumptions include: individual selves cannot be assumed to exist as agents and thinkers before they begin to interact with others and the world; our sense-makings are not separable from our historical antecedents and current cultural and societal norms and value systems. The interrelation between self, others and the environment are there from the start in the infant’s life and the awareness of self and others co-develop over time; they are two sides of the same process. Classical Western philosophy and science has tried to reduce the world to rational individual subjects in attempt to establish stable universals. The origin of knowledge of the world and of others is the discreet individual person. So far as dialogical approaches go, most traditional Western epistemological approaches are rooted in Cartesian individualism and are monological – meaning, that they only encompass individuals and their cognition and environments. Groups and societies are nothing but ensembles of individuals:

“Individuals alone think, speak, carry responsibilities, and other individuals at most have a casual impact on their activities and stances.” (Linell 2009, p. 44)

Dialogism[1], in contrast, insists that interdependencies, co-dependencies, and relationships between the individual and the world are most fundamental components in understanding the nature of selves and furthermore, of knowledge. The term intersubjectivity captures this concept well:

“The term “intersubjectivity”—or what Hannah Arendt calls “the subjective in-between”—shifts our emphasis away from notions of the person, the self, or the subject as having a stable character and abiding essence, and invites us to explore the subtle negotiations and alterations of subjective experience as we interact with one another, intervocally or dialogically (in conversation or confrontation), intercorporeally (in dancing, moving, fighting, or competing), and introceptively (in getting what we call a sense of the other’s intentions, frame of mind, or worldview).”  (Jackson 2002, p. 5)

Cultures and societies are typically conceived as objective, stable structures so far as Western epistemologies go. Dialogism by contrast conceives cultures and societies as dynamic, living and partly open, with tensions, internal struggles and conflicts between majorities and minorities and different value systems. “Knowledge is necessarily constructed and continually negotiated (a) in situ and in sociocultural traditions, and (b) in dialogue with others; individuals are never completely autonomous1 as sense-makers.” (Linell 2009, p. 46) The individual is not a separate, discrete, fixed and stable entity that stands independent from others, but rather one that is always in dynamical interactions with and interdependent with others. Knowledge claims and knowledge validation processes need therefore to reflect these continual tensions and dynamic interactions.

Concluding remarks: drawing similarities between dialogical approaches and Afrofeminist epistemology

So, what are the implications, if any, of drawing these commonalities between Afrofeminist epistemology and dialogical approaches to epistemology, and their common refutation of traditional Western epistemology? Collins has described Afrofeminist and Western epistemological grounds as competing and at times irreconcilable:

“Those Black feminists who develop knowledge claims that both epistemologies can accommodate may have found a route to the elusive goal of generating so called objective generalizations that can stand as universal truths.”  (Collins 1989, p.773)  

The synthesis (incorporation?) of dialogism with Afrofeminist epistemology is, in a sense, not the discovery of that elusive finding into “objective generalization” or “universal truths” that satisfy both epistemologies. Rather such synthesis, I argue, is a means towards epistemological approaches that aspire to embed Afrofeminist values and dialogical epistemological underpinnings. Such epistemological approaches acknowledge that knowledge claims, knowledge validation processes and any scientific endeavours in general are value-laden and cannot be considered independent of underlying values and interests. A move towards epistemological approaches that acknowledge the role of the scientist/theorist which Barad (2007) captures concisely:

“A performative understanding of scientific practices, for example, takes account of the fact that knowing does not come from standing at a distance and representing but rather from a direct material engagement with the world.”   (Barad 2007, p. 49)

Connectedness and relationships rather than disinterested, disembodied, and detached Cartesian individuals form a central component of analysis. Great emphasis is placed on extensive dialogues and not to become a detached observer of stories. In so doing, individual expressiveness, emotions, the capacity for empathy and the fact that ideas cannot be divorced from those who create and share them need to be key factor for this epistemology. Such is an epistemological approach that aspires to embed Afrofeminist values and dialogical underpinnings.

Knowledge is specific to time and place and is not rooted in the individual person but in relationships between people. Individuals exist in a web of relations and co-dependently of one other, negotiating meanings and values through dialogues. As Bakhtin, pioneer of dialogism has emphasized, we are essentially dialogical beings, and it is only through dialogues with others that we come to realise and sustain a coherent – albeit continually changing –  sense of self. Reality is messy, ambiguous, and complex. Any epistemological approach that takes the person as fully autonomous, fixed, and a self-sufficient agent whose actions are guided by pure rationality fail to recognise the complexities and ambiguities of reality, time and context-bound nature of knowledge. At the core of this proposed Afrofeminist/dialogical approach to epistemology is an attempt to bring values as important constituent factor to the dialogical, intersubjective embodied, in a constant flux person and the epistemologies that drive from it.

[1] It is important to note that individuals do not disappear in dialogism, rather, the individual is a social being who is interdependent with others, “not an autonomous subject or a Cartesian cogito.” (Linell 2009)

Bibliography

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. duke university Press.

Collins, P. H. (1989). The social construction of black feminist thought. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society14(4), 745-773.

Collins, P. H. (2002). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1980). Language, counter-memory, practice: Selected essays and interviews. Cornell University Press.

Gardiner, M. (1998). The incomparable monster of solipsism: Bakhtin and Merleau-Ponty. Bakhtin and the human sciences. Sage, London, 128-144.

Jackson, M. (2012). Lifeworlds: Essays in existential anthropology. University of Chicago Press.

Linell, P. (2009). Rethinking language, mind, and world dialogically. IAP.

Toulmin, S. E., & Toulmin, S. (1992). Cosmopolis: The hidden agenda of modernity. University of Chicago Press.

Warren, K. (Ed.). (2009). An unconventional history of Western philosophy: conversations between men and women philosophers. Rowman & Littlefield.

 

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One comment

  1. Hmm, today I find it really hard to think clearly and/or linearly, a common theme of my Saturdays, so I fear that I won’t be able to produce a coherent response. Never mind, perhaps it’s best to produce a response, and get a dialogue(!) started.

    As you probably know, I tend to shy away from direct confrontations, and instead prefer dialogues as interactions and mutual exchanges. Thus, I find Collins’ approach fascinating and challenging in equal measure. [Note: all I know about Collins and Afrofeminist epistemology, I’ve learned from you! I’m adding this in case someone might get the mistaken impression that I’m not making it up as I go…]
    This strand of your thinking is of high interest to me, precisely because I believe you are trying to find a fruitful synthesis, and in doing so you are blurring the lines between traditions, instead of emphasising what divides them. I wish I could contribute more, but alas, some poorly organised thoughts is all I can produce.

    In our collective and somewhat chaotic Twitter exchanges, two themes seem to emerge frequently: complexity and dialogue; a third element emerged recently, that of convergence, or how similar ideas seem to emerge and solidify even when they originate from highly different backgrounds.
    My main take here is that this latter observation is perhaps a good way to find useful ways to synthesise traditions that appear to oppose one-another.

    My personal history is relevant in two ways, I think:
    First, I come from a thoroughly and uncompromising scientific/materialistic tradition, and yet, the more I explore epistemological puzzles, the more I find it impossible to settle with the limits you mention above. Secondarily, my aversion to confrontation is likely to result from the pampered life I’ve had. Save for some frequent, but almost benevolent, bullying in my childhood, I have rarely been systematically relegated on the weak side of power relations. Not having to endure oppression and discrimination in a regular way is something that, importantly, facilitates settling in a non-confrontational view of human interactions.
    I’m making this awkward observation because it highlights how far away my personal experience is from what Collins mentions as the root of Afrofeminist epistemology (I suppose I could have just said: I’m a middle-class, white, heterosexual dude, eh). Thus, if some convergence is to be found, I am inclined to consider it even more surprising and therefore informative.

    So, convergences: first of all, let’s look at the Enlightenment tradition (my way of referring to Cartesian thinking). What puzzles me of Collins’ criticism is that in my (extremely limited) readings I did not find her referencing the Euro-centric reaction against certain positivist (and for me, over-optimistic) tendencies. I find it hard to accept the over-simplification that Euro-centric epistemology can be equated with positivist epistemology, indisputable “scientific facts” and sharp ontological distinctions. These elements are certainly present, but far from uncontroversial or unquestionable. Thus, I would instead emphasise the convergence between continental philosophy (could not be more Euro-centric!) and some foundational points of (what I understand of) Afrofeminist epistemology.

    One could argue that Eurocentric epistemology is now composed of two opposing factions and that the positivist side is winning. I think this position is perhaps tenable, but also that it is the result of contingent factors: our Western society is currently organised around the (false) premise that life is competition, thus favouring ideas that can be described in terms of sharp distinctions (true/false, male/female, right/wrong, winners/losers, etc.). This however seems to me to be a sociological distortion which hides what I see as a fertile trend inside the Enlightenment tradition.
    That is: it’s becoming very obvious that the science based on binary distinctions is under considerable strain. The first very notable cracks appeared with Gödel and Russell’s paradox, but somehow, the oversimplifying drive appeared to be strong enough to let the discourse proceed as if little happened (as far as my limited understanding can reach). Add the disturbing consequences of computer science (halting problem, uncomputability), and I would have guessed that all undue faith in rationality and positivism would crumble in a dramatic way. It didn’t. Instead, it seems to me that the trajectory started to show (intermittent, but very visible) signs of an ongoing readjustment. I’ve mentioned trends within what I’d identify as analytic philosophy above, but much is to be said about other traditions (on which I can’t claim to have any in-depth knowledge), namely psychoanalysis, various traditions in psychology, not to mention the effects of chaos theory in fields such as ecology and evolutionary theory. On the epistemology front, you can then find another trend from Popper to Feyerabend, with the usual Kuhn stirring the pot: in terms of scientific epistemology, it is now impossible to sustain a credible and uncompromising positivist view. Add the mess of quantum mechanics, the Copenhagen interpretation, the reluctance of Einstein and any such amusing story in fundamental physics and one question emerges: can we really maintain the impression that science as a contemporary institution is still thoroughly positivist? Yes and no. In terms of prevalent practice, it probably still is (perhaps for good reasons!). In terms of avant-garde, it very much isn’t.

    To conclude this section: I see a convergence, or a recurrent emergence of related ideas, even when looking at exclusively Euro-centric epistemological traditions. Thus, in accord to my own personal inclinations (always a sign that I might be fooling myself), I find it very hard to accept that:

    “Afrofeminist epistemology”, opposes the traditional Western approach to epistemology as well as the largely Positivist scientific view inherited from it

    My view (or perhaps misplaced hope?) is that the traditional Western approach has been busy undermining the “largely Positivist scientific view” for a long time, and from more or less all possible directions.

    A recent attack strategy comes from neuro/cognitive-science itself, and doesn’t even need to leverage much on mavericks such as Bakhtin, but perhaps we do need to acknowledge another outcast: Gibson. By pure chance, these days I’ve been reading (as opposed to skimming), this collection. Therein, Clark nicely shows another example of convergence. Here the whole emphasis is in blurring the apparently unique boundary between self and non-self. Even before mentioning language, the attempt to reconcile the Predictive Processing (PP) approach (brain/mind matters) with the embodied, enactive, and extended tradition (EEE, traceable back to Gibson, amongst many others) requires to emphasise how our insistence on identifying boundaries serves a purely epistemological (and contingent) purpose, while in fact, our active selves (the subject of our scientific enquiry!) exploit the mutability of such boundaries without any refrain. The interest to us here is to note that Clark’s proposal starts from accepting the Free Energy Principle, which is 100% rooted in maths, and thus is fully embedded in the analytical (quasi positivist, Cartesian) tradition.

    QED. I can’t see opposing epistemologies battling against one another, nor one having the upper hand because of sociological power relations. What I see is many epistemologies that start from different backgrounds and, each in its own idiosyncratic way, tend to converge on common themes. It’s also worth mentioning that within the PP school, direct experience and constant interaction are firmly placed at the centre stage. The whole idea emphasises how they both shape the acquisition of knowledge about the world. Thus, I would propose, PP, when combined with EEE, become a direct supporter of the dialogical/relational foundation of Collins’ Afrofeminist epistemology (minus the emphasis on power relations, I guess).

    The irony in all this is that the picture I’m painting looks hopelessly and naïvely positivist, as in “converging towards better approximations of the truth“!
    Oh well, nobody is perfect ;-).

    Like

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