Feminist philosopher of science Sandra Harding braves the din of a London launderette to explain to Gail Vines why she thinks modern science would be much improved by incorporating other cultural standpoints. Hotel lounges, senior common rooms, wine bars, college rooms, laboratories and pubs: in such public places I have interviewed consenting academics. Never before in a launderette.
Sandra Harding, doyenne of American feminist philosophers, talks of science and epistemology as she perches good naturedly on a narrow bench in front of the washing machines. There is nowhere else open and warm at 8.15 on a Saturday morning in London's Belsize Park; reception rooms (and a second cup of coffee) were beyond the means of the seedy hotel into which conference organisers had inexplicably booked her. Yet Harding's equanimity remains intact, and her commentary never falters as we conclude the interview by the spin dryer.
For many years professor of philosophy at the University of Delaware, Harding is moving to a professorship at the University of California at Los Angeles. But there is nothing of the prima donna about her. Her conversation is "gentle and accessible in tone", as cultural theorist Maureen McNeil has described her work. You would hope for nothing less from a woman who, as a leading proponent of feminist standpoint theory, has championed the understanding of other people's points of view.
As an undergraduate, Harding studied literature and went back to graduate school at 32; with two young children in tow. At New York University, she wrote her doctoral dissertation on W. V. Quine, fascinated both by his attempt and his failure to break out of positivist epistemology.
Moving to Delaware, Harding made her mark ten years ago, with the publication of The Science Question in Feminism. It "was a turning point for the feminist analysis of science," says McNeil, reader in women's studies at the University of Lancaster. It "synthesised work that had gone before and made people take it seriously".
Harding argued that women's social experience provide a unique starting point for discovering certain biases in science. "Women, and other oppressed groups, are in the best positions to see the dominant characteristics of [scientific] systems."
Harding also entertained the idea of a successor science that would supersede conventional science. By being more inclusive, this new science would provide a better, more objective, vision of the world. She dubbed this method "strong objectivity" in Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?, published in 1991. Through social and political action, Harding argues, it is possible to move towards less partial and less distorting thought.
Her early work, as McNeil remembers, represented a "moment of feminist pride: feminists could out-philosophise the masters! I We could beat them at their own game!" But over the years there has been little sign that institutional science is faltering in the light of these critiques. One scientist at the 25th annual Nobel conference on "The End of Science?" in 1989 confidently pronounced that Harding's philosophical arguments were irrelevant to scientists like him, who willy-nilly continue to believe in "external, objective, extra-historical, socially neutral and universal truths".
In recent years even some feminists have been critical of Harding. In these postmodern times it is commonplace, as fellow philosopher Helen Longino says, to "call into question not only the very possibility of knowledge but also the possibility of the category women". How fares Harding's game plan now? Elaborating themes she developed in the early 1990s, Harding is working not only to defend standpoint theory from postmodernist criticism, but also to make her ideas appropriate for a postcolonial era. "In my earlier books you can see me struggling to come to terms with multicultural and race issues. Multicultural and global feminisms have been incredibly powerful in history and in literature. I wondered, do they have no implications for science and technology?" Harding's new book, due out next year, is provisionally titled Is Science Multicultural? Postcolonial and Feminist Standpoints. In it, she argues that modern science is best viewed as ethnoscience, as another "local knowledge system". Different cultures organise the production of knowledge in different ways, and so are resources that should be valued as "toolboxes for the growth of knowledge". Other local knowledge systems may be better equipped to discover some aspects of the natural world than modern science is, she argues.
As a rule, scientists are not fond of such talk. American physicist Steven Weinberg included a jibe at Harding in a recent diatribe against science and technology studies in the New York Review of Books. Weinberg condemns the "dangerous" view that "scientific laws are flexible enough to be affected by the social setting of their discovery".
Weinberg seems to regard Harding as a crypto-relativist, yet she makes a key distinction between historical/sociological relativism - the fact that different cultures have different knowledge systems - and the epistemological and cognitive relativism which says all knowledge systems are equally valid. "We can challenge that latter stance by asking, equally valid for what?" she says. "They're not. Different systems have different powers. The knowledge one needs to get from Spain to the New World is different from the knowledge one needs to maintain fragile environments.
"How can we tell what knowledge we will need in the future?" Harding says it would be a mistake to destroy the cognitive diversity of different knowledge systems. "What tends to happen is that modern western science plugs into what it can incorporate - local knowledge of a rain forest, say, or the practice of acupuncture - leaving out the cultural parts of a knowledge system that do not fit in, and that is a loss. Those cultural metaphors and models and narratives that are lost provide other kinds of lenses through which to see other aspects of nature."
But some feminists want to move the feminist analysis of science beyond epistemology. "The meanings of science are created not only in terms of knowledge and expertise, but much more broadly throughout contemporary culture," argues McNeil. "We need to understand these processes to create more democratic entitlements around what we call science and technology." Commentators have also seen in Harding's commitment to "strong objectivity" a hankering after the liberal Enlightenment project to discover universal truths. Harding does not entirely disagree. Her point is that it is not possible simply to jettison such ways of thinking; these deep-seated habits of thought still prevail, not least in the natural sciences.
The notion of feminist standpoints is also problematic for some feminists. "It is difficult to say, for instance, what is a feminist standpoint on new reproductive technologies," says McNeil. Longino too is sceptical of the practical implications of Harding's standpoints. "Although Harding lists the advantages of 'starting thought' from the situations of women in post-colonial societies, or of lesbians," Longino claims, "she gives few directions as to how, say, a white working-class Scottish woman might act on the recommendation to start thought from the life of a Myanmar peasant woman." So how do we choose between alternative knowledge systems? "We talk about them," says Harding. "We don't get to define what is knowledge, what is right. We need to be better at listening and understanding and give up the notion of a power relationship, with one correct and another incorrect answer."
"One can see a new epistemology emerging, where instead of science as a monolithic smart system, in which the trick is to learn it and do it, we get the very different epistemological model of many partially smart systems, with their limitations. It's users who have to be smart; they have to learn when to use one and when to use another."
Ten years on from her landmark feminist work, Sandra Harding is intent on creating another powerful synthesis. "I am trying to think about what kinds of epistemologies are appropriate for the world that is revealed by the convergencies and divergences in contemporary thinking about science and technology - from northern, postcolonial and feminist perspectives." She laughs: "It should continue to drive everybody crazy anyway."