On August 14 I published a blog post titled, ”Is gender studies a legitimate field of intellectual inquiry?” It has received some attention both from critics and from supporters; I am happy that it seems to have made a difference in how some people think about this particular issue. In this text, I respond to some of the criticism I have seen. This should also clarify some possible confusions and shed further light on my intentions with the project.
I argued in the first post that intellectual fields are legitimate to the extent that they are characterized by reliable institutional practices. In this context, legitimacy concerns whether a field should be part of academia, or be allowed to influence policy, be publicly funded, taught in public schools, and so on. I concluded by stating that I think that gender studies is a legitimate field of intellectual inquiry, and that if it should fail to be legitimate in this sense, it may be worthwhile to improve its institutional practices rather than to cancel it altogether.
The criticism of the text (that I have seen) is of eight main types. Critics argue that 1) falsificationism should be the main criterion of intellectual legitimacy, 2) my suggested approach does not rule out non-science and pseudoscience, 3) the content of research should matter to its legitimacy, 4) gender studies does not meet my suggested criterion, 5) gender studies should be a sub-discipline of other fields, and not an independent discipline, 6) the legitimacy of a field is connected to its usefulness, 7) gender studies is a cover for political interests, and 8) I am ”cucked,” incapable of logical reasoning, and similar. I will discuss the first seven types of criticism in that order, but leave the last one for the reader to judge.
Falsificationism should be the main criterion of intellectual legitimacy
The argument is that gender studies builds on a non-falsifiable base—its central tenets cannot be proven wrong (or right)—and that it is therefore an illegitimate field of intellectual inquiry. I find three things noteworthy about it.
First, its proponents appear very certain about the fact that gender studies builds on a non-falsifiable base. I am not convinced that they are right. Sure, individual researchers, articles, books, and so on, may very well build from non-falsifiable tenets or axioms, but the case at hand concerns a whole field. Does gender studies as a field do it? I am not an expert in gender studies per se, but I have not seen any evidence suggesting that it as a field builds on unreasonable grounds. From how this argument has been presented in connection to my text on intellectual legitimacy, it seems that critics believe that gender studies as a field is non-falsifiable, or want it to be the case because that would speak against it.
Second, it is not obvious that gender studies should build on a falsifiable base. More specifically, falsificationism commonly denotes a so-called hypothetico-deductive model of scientific methodology. In this model, the scientific method is to formulate a hypothesis and deduce some consequence of the hypothesis that can be tested. Hypotheses that fail the test are then rejected. But, not all researchers employ a hypothetico-deductive methodology, yet their fields are usually treated as intellectually legitimate. Scholars in history and literature are two examples. Perhaps gender studies belongs to this category, and should not be evaluated from a falsificationist perspective.
Third, I actually discussed this matter in the original text. After some argumentation I wrote, ”It appears that falsificationism does not settle [the] problem definitely.” Some of the proponents of the falsificationist argument may have to study what I have already said about this and consider why, more precisely, they are not convinced by my arguments.
My suggested approach does not rule out non-science and pseudoscience
This argument is very interesting. It follows from my approach that non-science and pseudoscience could meet the criterion for being intellectually legitimate. For instance, consider the the Flat Earth Society (TFES), which uses pseudoscientific evidence to promote the idea that the earth is flat. Suppose that TFES developed a set of institutional practices that in general facilitate knowledge and reliability, such as academic seminars and a peer-review system. On my suggestion, it should then be treated as a legitimate field of intellectual inquiry.
That is absurd, critics argue. They can make their case even stronger by pointing out even more strongly counterintuitive implications of my proposal. Suppose that a religious sect develops such institutional practices. They could peer-review their own ”research” after theological guidelines and organize ”academic” conferences where participants discuss how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I would have to be committed to the view that the sect’s intellectual exercises are legitimate.
And I would commit, for two reasons. First, I do not claim that my suggested approach is perfect; it does allow for non-science and pseudoscience. I think that the main merit of my approach is not that it is perfect—it isn’t—but that it is better than any other suggested criterion of intellectual legitimacy that I have seen. In my experience, and in my general outlook on how practical philosophy should be undertaken, the aim of the kind of project that my suggested approach belongs to should not be to find a definite answer but to identify the strongest reasons involved and provide a balanced judgment with regard to them. My approach solves a problem with stronger coherence than any other suggested solution that I know of. That speaks in favor of it.
Second, there are reasons to be tolerant in this context. My view is that society should tolerate a plurality of perspectives and opinions, especially in fields of intellectual inquiry. It is a matter of liberty. The demarcation between legitimate and illegitimate fields of inquiry should sway in the tolerant direction. The possible non-scientific and pseudoscientific fields that may arise in the sphere of liberty made possible by tolerance should be countered in academia and in public debate by academics, activists, politicians, and so on. My view is that the problems that may follow from allowing non-science and pseudoscience should be solved in-house through public and academic debate, and not by definition. That is one way in which my suggested approach is very liberal (in the European sense of the term).
The content of research should matter to its legitimacy
This argument is that some inquiries should not be treated as intellectually legitimate because they are those particular inquiries. Consider, for instance, the question whether God exists. Some would hold that the existence of God should not be questioned, and that this makes the question intellectually illegitimate.
That is pretty much how intellectual legitimacy is treated in some parts of the world, or in some eras in our history. I find it repulsive.
In my view, the content of research should not matter to its legitimacy. As in the above, this concerns a fundamental liberty; everyone should be free to pursue any intellectual inquiry they choose to, and only be limited by a set of rules governing how they pursue it. Academic freedom, i.e., non-submissiveness and non-arbitrariness in restriction of thought, presupposes a far-reaching content-neutrality with regard to intellectual legitimacy.
Gender studies does not meet my suggested criterion
In this argument, there is nothing wrong with my suggested approach to intellectual legitimacy. Instead, the problem is that gender studies fall short of meeting it. I have already responded to this. Should it be the case that gender studies as a field is not characterized by reliable institutional practices, it is probably worthwhile to try to improve those practices rather than cancelling the field altogether.
Gender studies should be a sub-discipline of other fields, and not an independent discipline
According to this argument, gender studies should be incorporated in other disciplines, such as sociology, history, and literature, rather than subsist as an independent academic discipline. I do not have an opinion on this matter here. If gender studies should be incorporated in other disciplines, my arguments on intellectual legitimacy still apply to it—perhaps with some minor adjustments—as a subject or research topic within the field it belongs to.
The legitimacy of a field is connected to its usefulness
Some have suggested that academic inquiry is legitimate only to the extent that its findings are useful for practical purposes. There are two aspects of this criticism; it suggests a new criterion for intellectual legitimacy, and that gender studies fails to meet it. I think that the argument is weak in both instances.
First, many things in academia are not obviously useful at the outset. In some cases, research questions render useful results first after a very long time. In other cases not at all. This should not matter to their legitimacy. The utility-perspective on intellectual inquiry is too narrow. For instance, not least for reasons of academic freedom it seems legitimate to allow also for curiosity-driven research, i.e., intellectual inquiry driven by a mere desire to learn and understand with no real practical concerns. It should not be required of academics to be able to demonstrate the practical usefulness of their endeavors. And, curiosity-driven research sometimes also lead to practically useful results, although these were not clear from the beginning.
Second, I think that the results from gender studies are useful. My impression is that some critics tend to assess these results from a normative perspective; they do not want findings from gender studies to influence policy, and so on, and therefore they think of those findings as useless. They should be careful not to let their normative beliefs blend with their assessments of the possible usefulness of gender studies. These are separate matters.
Gender studies is a cover for political interests
Here I have collected a set of interconnected arguments. One argument is that there is a lack of political plurality in gender studies. Another is that many of its researchers are also political activists. A final argument is that gender studies is, as the heading suggests, a cover for political interests.
Critics have pointed out that many researchers in gender studies lean to the (far) left politically, i.e., that there is a lack of political plurality in the field. However, I cannot see why this should matter to its intellectual legitimacy. Again, consider the value of academic freedom. Furthermore, other fields are also dominated by political consensus. In economics, for instance, most researchers share a tolerant attitude toward the market economy. Hernando de Soto, an economist, writes on the first page of his often-cited book The Mystery of Capital (Basic Books 2000):
Capitalism stands alone as the only feasible way to rationally organize a modern economy. At this moment in history, no responsible nation has a choice.
Many scholars in gender studies would protest this claim, while many economists would instead agree with it. This makes no difference to the intellectual legitimacy of de Soto’s research. If he is wrong, he should be countered through fair and impartial criticism. He should not be dismissed on the grounds that he expresses the mainstream political view of his peers in economics, or any other similar grounds pertaining to the content of his views.
The second argument I have seen in this context is that many of the researchers in gender studies are also political activists. Once again, consider the value of academic freedom. Academics should be free to hold, express, and act upon their political views. This is fundamental to any non-authoritative society, not least liberal democracies. The possible political activism of researchers is not relevant to the legitimacy of their professional fields.
Finally, I have seen critics claim that gender studies is merely a cover for political interests. By labelling their activities ”research,” they succeed in ”washing” their political views and manage to gain influence in society while avoiding the built-in resistance of ordinary democratic processes. Critics who advocate this theory refer to an explicit strategy in some 1970’s socialist movements. It is true; there have been such strategies, and they are probably still considered by activists. But, if this is true in the case of contemporary gender studies, its critics should be able to expose the flaws in their ”research.” If their intellectual activities are not real research but covered-up politics, experts in gender studies should be vulnerable to fair and impartial criticism.
Thus, if it is the case that gender studies is a cover for political interests, it should be countered within existing academic institutions. It is, in my view, wrong to ignore the propositions and theories made in gender studies and instead work to deflate the field by de-legitimizing it. Unless, perhaps, there is hard evidence of the deep and widespread conspiracy suggested by its critics.
Here, I have met the following arguments that I have seen in connection to my original blog post; 1) falsificationism should be the main criterion of intellectual legitimacy, 2) my suggested approach does not rule out non-science and pseudoscience, 3) the content of research should matter to its legitimacy, 4) gender studies does not meet my suggested criterion, 5) gender studies should be a sub-discipline of other fields, and not an independent discipline, 6) the legitimacy of a field is connected to its usefulness, and 7) gender studies is a cover for political interests.
As I see it, there is still merit to the view I have proposed and defended. It is relevant to think of the intellectual legitimacy of academic fields, disciplines, or subjects. My suggestion is that they are legitimate to the extent that they are characterized by reliable institutional practices. These practices form a content-neutral set of rules that regulate research and education. It builds from and is supportive of the value of academic freedom, and it is coherent with liberal democracy at large.
Furthermore, I think that gender studies is legitimate in this sense. And if, as some recent news may suggest, there are flaws in its institutional practices, they should be improved by, for instance, encouraging interdisciplinary exchange and evaluation. As scholars, researchers in gender studies should welcome it.