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Women, Culture, and DevelopmentA Study of Human Capabilities$

Martha C. Nussbaum and Jonathan Glover

Print publication date: 1995

Print ISBN-13: 9780198289647

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0198289642.001.0001

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Democracy and Rationality: A Dialogue With Hilary Putnam

Democracy and Rationality: A Dialogue With Hilary Putnam

(p.225) Democracy and Rationality: A Dialogue With Hilary Putnam
Women, Culture, and Development

Linda Alcoff

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Alcoff, accepting Hilary Putnam's conclusion that rationality and democratic values are intrinsically connected, investigates the implications of his claim. Alcoff urges Putnam to devote more thought to the criticisms advanced against traditional conceptions of inquiry and to follow Foucault in recognizing the various ways in which power and desire may affect even the most apparently neutral and democratic procedure.

Keywords:   desire, Michel Foucault, philosophical inquiry, power, Hilary Putnam

Hilary Putnam's main project is to show that there can be a rational basis for adopting ethical positions and even ultimate values. His defence of this claim is based on an ingenious argument, via American pragmatism, to the conclusion that rationality and democratic values are intrinsically connected. The case he makes for the objectivity of morality is not airtight, as he himself recognizes; at certain junctures he merely demolishes one possible objection and on that basis moves forward. And there are places where one might wish to hear more, for example when he suggests that a concept of ‘reflection’ can serve as an alternative to an instrumental justification for the norms of rationality. These small problems, however, do not seem worth pursuing here. What I think will be more fruitful is to accept his argument in its broad outlines and to explore the implications of his claim that democratic processes are necessary for social rationality.

One of the most important conclusions to be drawn from the stories of Saleha Begum and Metha Bai, as reported in Martha Chen's paper, is that projects of emancipation can never be successful unless democracy is built into the process of reasoning that identifies goals and the means of their accomplishment. Only in this way can we negotiate between the problems of cultural imperialism and cultural relativism that must beset any transcultural project that seeks human freedom. I will return to these issues after exploring Putnam's argument.

1 Politics and Inquiry1

Hilary Putnam shows that there is a necessary connection between both the processes and the products of inquiry, on the one hand, and political relations on the other. Once we acknowledge that hierarchies of power and privilege, as well as institutions of exploitation and discrimination, have a significant effect on the participants in inquiry and their interrelationships (and therefore on the form that inquiry takes), it follows that these political phenomena have an effect on knowledge. It is therefore simply implausible to maintain that science or any area of study can be neutral with respect to politics, or can understand itself as above the fray of political struggle.

(p.226) Putnam describes one connection between politics and inquiry, but there are other connections as well, some of which follow directly from his argument. He describes the connection of politics to inquiry in terms of the conditions of the production of knowledge. Knowledge does not occur through an individual's passive observation of reality—a picture Adorno described as ‘peephole metaphysics’. As Putnam says, it is the product of co‐operative human interaction with an environment. The nature of that interaction—its inclusiveness, the degree and nature of its democracy and reciprocity, the quality of its co‐operation—will have an impact on the knowledge produced. And as Putnam points out, political relations of hierarchy and privilege in any society will affect its possibilities for democratic interaction in inquiry.

In Western countries the group of people who have effective access to participation in inquiry is delimited through the distribution of access to higher education. But higher education is not distributed solely in accordance with merit (or aptitude) and interest: wealth, social class, gender, and race all play a role. Furthermore, even within the élite who participate in inquiry, political and economic hierarchies affect the dynamics of interrelationships—a fact to which Putnam alludes when he refers to the necessity of a ‘discourse ethics’. Who is listened to, who is given credibility, and whose views are taken seriously: all this is determined in no small part by general processes of socialization connected to existing hierarchies of power, as well as by inequalities of power and privilege that obtain between the individual participants. To maintain this we do not need to allege conscious discriminatory intent.2 It often happens quite unconsciously that there is a presumption in favour of the views and arguments advanced by certain kinds of people over those of others. And often these groups are demarcated by class, wealth, gender, race, and nationality.

It is true that the nature of the subject matter can also affect the distribution of authority in an inquiry. But in practice this legitimate consideration is frequently eclipsed by others that seem more suspect. Take the authority to make general and universal claims about human experience. One might suppose that anyone at all could in principle advance such claims. But in fact the authority to make universal claims is often restricted along lines of race, gender, class, and sexuality. Within US society, African–Americans may be generally acknowledged experts on the needs of their own communities, but rarely will an African–American political candidate be seen by whites as capable of understanding the situation of the whole community; whites more often assume that white candidates can achieve this universal point of view. Where literary descriptions of experience are (p.227) concerned, bell hooks has argued persuasively that black writers are too often read by whites as writing about ‘Blackness’, whereas white writers are assumed to write about ‘life’.3

There are many more such instances, many quite irrational. Midwives with extensive experience of attending to women in labour, as well as personal experience of childbirth, are less likely to be believed than male obstetricians fresh out of medical school. Assembly line workers with decades of experience are routinely ignored in decisions about how to increase efficiency on the line, deference being given instead to college trained ‘efficiency experts’. Impoverished women in developing countries are rarely given the chance to contribute their experience to the formation of development policy. Because such cases so sharply violate intuitive ideas about evidence, favouring less experience over more, indirect knowledge over direct, they reveal the distorting role that political forces can play in the formation of knowledge.

Feminist philosophers have argued, furthermore, that some traditional debates in the history of Western philosophy show the effects of these distortions, and that ideals of reason developed in the course of these debates may be closely connected to ideals of masculinity.4 (They are talking here not about biological masculinity, but about socially constructed norms of maleness—for example, about the idea that a ‘real man’ should be detached, self‐sufficient, and always in control.) Such ideals, when accepted as criterial in inquiry, may put both women and the truth at a disadvantage.

Hilary Putnam has long claimed that metaphysical and normative background assumptions are operative in (and indispensable to) all forms of inquiry. The feminist work I have just cited expands on this to say that the collection of assumptions and values with which any given individual works, can be connected in interesting ways to that person's social, cultural, and political identity. This is the meaning of the often misunderstood feminist claim that there exists a relationship of partial determination between theories and the social identity of theorists. And it is important to note that in its general form this claim places no necessary primacy on (p.228) gender over culture or race as the principal component of identity.5 The influence of these assumptions and values cannot be restricted to the so‐called ‘context of discovery’ because they have an important impact on the formulation of hypotheses, on which hypotheses are taken to be plausible, on the kinds of analogies and models that get seriously entertained, and on the determination of the kinds of evidence considered necessary or sufficient to justify theories. When cultural and social facts affect inquiry in such pervasive and central ways, they become epistemically relevant.

But this argument in and of itself does not establish that we ought to increase the role of democracy in inquiry. Putnam seems to have two arguments for this conclusion. First, because science has an effect on social relations as well as being affected by them, there are ethical and political reasons why we should want a democratization of inquiry. In other words, if we want more democracy in the society at large, the increase of democracy within science can help us toward achieving that goal. But—and this is Putnam's second argument—there are also epistemic reasons for maximizing democracy within science. Putnam suggests that the full development of science and its full application to social problems will be advanced in proportion to the degree of democratic inclusiveness in the enterprise. This claim is not based on a relativist position that everyone's view has an equal claim to truth. It is based on the more plausible view that truth is more likely to be obtained through a process that includes the articulation and examination of all possible views. And this means that the artificial exclusion of views, or their exclusion from the realm of debate for epistemically irrelevant reasons such as sexism or racism, is a matter of epistemic concern. Such practices have a deleterious effect on the strength and comprehensiveness of the views that emerge from inquiry. A striking implication of this argument is that it is not the influence of politics per se that we need to eliminate from rational inquiry: it is the influence of oppressive politics.

To such an argument for inclusiveness, one might object that no good will come of including participants from so‐called ‘traditional’ cultures on a question such as the question of women's liberation. Since they are opposed to this goal, their inclusion in the decision‐making will impede us from reaching it. But this, as Seyla Benhabib has argued, is to assume that these cultures are monolithic, without a history of internal critique and the contestation of their dominant ideas. If we reject this simplistic notion, and instead recognize the variety of positions that exist within any culture, we can continue to insist on the merits of the participatory approach to inquiry. The question that we must always ask is: whose views are included? Whose opinion is asked? Only those in positions of privilege, or also those who are (p.229) suffering most acutely? I am not suggesting that we should consult only the current preferences of the most oppressed, since, as Amartya Sen argues in this volume, their awareness of their oppression may be as yet incomplete. Nor do I suppose that achieving meaningful inclusion will be easy, or that it will always be clear how to achieve this goal. But in any culture there is a tradition of internal critique that should inform any project for improvement.6 Our case studies by Martha Chen and Nkiru Nzegwv show two very different examples of such internal plurality and contestation.

Putnam argues, as I have said, that the limits of democracy in a society will also impose limits on its social rationality. Since we believe that social processes ought to be rational, it follows that we ought to promote democracy. But if all this is so, then we must face a further challenge: we must examine our philosophical theories themselves with this end in view. Philosophical theories may consolidate or buttress views about the possibilities of social equality, or they may affect the authority of certain participants in inquiry. Biological theories have had well‐known effects on social views about women and the division of labour. Many theories in the social sciences have influenced the definition of supposed racial categories. Similarly, philosophical theories of knowledge are likely to have an effect on the possibilities for democratic inquiry.7

There is a wealth of work on such political effects. Marx, for example, argued that ahistorical positivist conceptions of knowledge—which he believed to be causally linked to capitalism—have the political effect of producing fatalism about the status quo. Adorno and Horkheimer argued that philosophy's conception of nature as an inert object, and its insistence that prediction and control are the goals of scientific inquiry, are more than coincidentally related to capitalism's wish to maximize the exploitation of resources and to pursue the domination of nature without constraint. Moreover, when the object of inquiry is not nature but other human beings, a conception of this type can support the wish to dominate and oppress large sectors of humanity. And, as I have already said, feminist philosophers have recently argued that dominant epistemological theories have (unjustifiably) excluded women's voices and undermined their claims to know.8 (p.230) In these ways and still others,9 our philosophical methods and theories themselves may be impeding the democratization of inquiry, and thus, according to Putnam's argument, impeding our progress toward fully adequate theories and toward full social rationality.

Given that we have—if we follow Putnam's two arguments—both political and epistemic reasons to maximize the democratization of inquiry, such an analysis of the effects of our theories should become standard in philosophy. I cannot develop here an account of the way in which such an analysis ought to proceed. But one might argue, following the pragmatist tradition, that where there are two theories with similar evidential support but divergent political effects, those effects might be used as a criterion of adjudication.

Thus the connection Putnam makes between politics and inquiry is a deep one, with radical implications. His argument does not show that the sociology of knowledge should replace normative epistemology, or that epistemic considerations must be replaced as a whole by political ones, or that inquiry is determined by the forces of unreason and power. Pragmatic reasoning, as he envisages it, is still a form of reasoning. And it seems likely that an exploration of the connections between politics and inquiry, rather than undermining knowledge, will increase the accuracy of its self‐understanding and enhance its ability for self‐critique. But for this to occur, I have argued, the methods of analysis and debate internal to philosophy need to be re‐examined.

2 Power and Desire

Embedded in this issue is a further one, at which I have so far only hinted. Perhaps the sharpest difference between the analytical and the contemporary continental philosophical traditions lies in the preoccupation of the latter with questions of motivation and desire. Traditions of philosophy tracing their origins to Descartes have tended to deny or to set aside concerns about the ways in which desire is operative in every rational deliberation. Neo‐Hegelian traditions have been more likely to place these (p.231) issues at the heart of their analyses of knowledge; and post‐structuralist theories have on some views effected a total replacement of the intellect by desire.

A wide variety of non‐intellectual elements are held, by thinkers in the continental tradition, to have an influence on belief formation and theory choice. These include the unconscious effects of a culture‐bound, gender‐bound, or class‐bound world view, the unexamined meanings given in a language or practice, libidinal desire, and the will to power. And these elements are in turn said to manifest their influence in a wide variety of ways. First, as I have already mentioned, knowledge and communication always require a background layer of unquestioned and unjustified beliefs. Secondly, a rhetorical examination of any argument will reveal the use of metaphor, imagery, and analogy; these can borrow their persuasiveness from associations, desires, and fears that exist at a semi‐conscious or unconscious level. Thirdly, it has been argued that deliberation cannot completely transcend its embodiedness and its embeddedness in a specific cultural, racial, and gender context.

In his insistence that background assumptions and values are always entangled in the process of rational inquiry, Putnam links himself to this continental tradition of argument. And Putnam has been very forthright about this for a long time. But the point of his defence of moral objectivity is to insist that, despite the untenability of the fact/value distinction and the incursion of ethics into the domain of science, we need not succumb to the dictates of irrational forces. Ethical beliefs are always involved, but these are susceptible to deliberation and even to the constraints of objectivity.

I see a tension between these two tendencies in Putnam's work: the tendency to expand and complicate our understanding of what is involved in inquiry (to insist on what he calls its ‘messiness’) and the tendency to contain the forces of power and desire and to segregate these outside the domain of rational deliberation. The tension arises because the former tendency makes it exceedingly difficult to pursue the latter tendency with complete success. I want to suggest an alternative position that can offer a resolution to this tension.

Foucault has argued, borrowing from Nietzsche, that the development of the social or human sciences cannot be adequately understood as separate from the consolidations and contestations of institutional power in the social organizations that have been historically allied with these sciences, in particular in medicine, psychiatry, and the prison system. For example, the development of psychiatry, he argues, depended on a confessional model borrowed from Catholicism, in which the priest extracted and passed judgement on confessions by his practitioners, mainly concerning sexual practices. This suggests that an analysis of psychiatry should scrutinize the relationship between its methodology and grounding theory on the one hand and the power relations between confessor and confessee on the (p.232) other. These latter relations, Foucault argues, are affected by the pleasure produced in and for the priest/therapist by the confession as well as by the expanded institutional role psychiatry has come to play in criminal determinations and social control. The point is that we cannot understand the development of psychiatric theory without taking into account this expansion and distribution of powers and desires. This does not mean that all of psychiatry is mere manipulation. Foucault rejects the view that power is simply a distorting influence on knowledge. Power, he holds, is necessary to the development and circulation of knowledge, in the same way that a stable layer of background assumptions or a reigning paradigm is necessary for ‘normal’ science. And conversely, power is manifested and extended through claims of knowledge; a claim to know is simultaneously an authorization of power.10

Foucault uses this model to explore other systems of knowledge as well, formulating the more general concept of what he calls power/knowledge. In this dyadic concept, neither power nor knowledge can be reduced to or subordinated to the other. The purpose of the dyadic structure is precisely to deny that knowledge is simply the play of power struggles, and rather to insist that power and knowledge cannot be separated. To analyze knowledge in its relationships to the strategies and effects of power and to insist that a fully adequate account of existing knowledge systems can never simply leave aside these relationships is not to reduce knowledge to the conspiratorial machinations of power: it is simply to complicate the analysis of knowledge (or to make it messy) and, in my view, to make it more plausible.

An analysis of this sort is in fact a natural continuation of the pragmatist tradition. For if we are truly determined to theorize knowledge as a practice, as an active process, in its actual rather than idealized context, we must be willing to explore the complications of its seemingly ever present connections to power and desire. Such a project does not entail that we dispense with the normative dimension of epistemological analysis, or surrender to the forces of irrationalism. It is a project fundamentally motivated by Enlightenment goals of liberation and of progress (both epistemic and ethical) through expanded self‐awareness. A greater awareness of the roles of power and desire in our inquiries should increase our ability to maximize their democratic character and thus, on Putnam's argument, to improve social rationality itself.

Let me conclude by relating this issue to the problems of cultural imperialism and cultural relativism that many of the other papers in this volume have discussed. Cultural relativism often arises as a reaction to cultural imperialism, or the oppressive imposition of one culture's presuppositions (p.233) on another culture through economic, military, or political pressures. But universalist theories of justice need not be imperialist or oppressive. They may in fact be motivated by the desire to extend compassion beyond one's national borders. We need to avoid a cultural imperialism that would reinforce the global hierarchy of nations, but to avoid also a relativism that would justify inaction in the face of oppression and suffering. Martha Nussbaum has argued that this relativist collapse can be avoided by understanding our universal theories as historically rooted and fallible. But in order to pursue this project further than she does, we need to develop Hilary Putnam's concept of pragmatist reasoning.

Putnam, following Dewey and Habermas, gives what might be called a procedural account of rationality. He holds, that is, that rationality consists in a practice that involves democratic, non‐hierarchical inclusiveness and symmetrical relations of co‐operation. The dilemma between cultural relativism and universalism, I believe, requires a similar procedural solution. It is unreasonable to assume that the élite, even the well‐meaning portion of the élite, can accurately determine the needs of the oppressed in a process that is not characterized by democratic inclusiveness and symmetrical relations of co‐operation. Moreover, the very structure of a political deliberation in which the privileged determine and then represent the needs, situation, or capabilities of the non‐privileged, reinforces systems of hierarchy between nations, and groups within nations, about who is more likely to have the truth. This is both patronizing and disempowering.

In order to realize Putnam's aim of democratizing the process of inquiry, we must explore all the ways in which cultural imperialism can manifest itself in a deliberative process. How are the elements of power and desire operative in such a project? The motivation of the élite to participate in such projects may involve many ingredients, but will probably include a desire for mastery, a desire to attain the status of hero or saviour, a desire to be in control. (We can see the likelihood of this all the more clearly when we think of the ways in which desire is shaped in the social construction of our gender norms, especially our norms of maleness.) When élites are represented as having the best plan, they are automatically positioned as superior to the oppressed in epistemic, political, and even moral terms. The false consciousness of tradition is often seen to weigh down the oppressed, but not the well‐intentioned élite. Once we acknowledge the accuracy of this description, it becomes easy to see how desire may play a strong, and sometimes a distorting, role in the pursuit of deliberative projects.

The solution to this problem will indeed be, as Putnam argues, a democratic, practice‐oriented, process of inquiry. Only this will establish the mechanisms for real improvement in conditions of oppression. But those of us who are in the position of élites must become more aware of the ways in which our own practices and self‐understandings may work against democracy. For this awareness to occur, an analysis of the operations of power (p.234) and desire in our own reflection must become a standard feature of rational inquiry. Liberatory programmes work within a global context structured by past and present forms of imperialism, and these programmes cannot free themselves from the effects of this context any more than they can pretend that power and desire are not intrinsic to their own practices. They can, however, acknowledge their own social positioning and democratize their practices of rational deliberation.


(1) Some of the arguments in this section are based on my essay, ‘How is Epistemology Political?’ in R. Gottlieb (ed.), Radical Philosophy: Tradition, Counter‐Tradition, Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993).

(2) Sometimes, however, such discrimination is both conscious and defended as justifiable. See M. Levin's apologia for the predominance of whites in philosophy in his letter to the Proceedings and Addresses of the APA (1990), 63, 62–3.

(3) bell hooks, Yearning: race, gender, and cultural politics (Boston: South End Press, 1990).

(4) See, for example, Naomi Scheman, ‘Othello's Doubt/Desdemona's Death: The Engendering of Skepticism’, in J. Genova (ed.), Power, Gender, Values (Edmonton: Academic Printing and Publishing, 1987), 113–33; Susan Bordo, The Flight to Objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism and Culture (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1987); Elizabeth Potter, ‘Making Gender/Making Science: Gender Ideology and Boyle's Experimental Philosophy’, in Gender Politics in Seventeenth Century Science (forthcoming); Andrea Nye, Words of Power: A Feminist Reading of the History of Logic (New York: Routledge, 1990); Genevieve Lloyd, The Man of Reason: ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ in Western Philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984); Lorraine Code, What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), 8, 302, 310; see also Code's ‘Taking Subjectivity Into Account’, in Alcoff and Potter (eds.), Feminist Epistemologies (New York: Routledge, 1993).

(5) For a feminist argument closely related to Putnam's, see Helen Longino, Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990).

(6) In addition to Sen's paper in this volume, see M. Nussbaum and A. Sen, ‘Internal Criticism and Indian Rationalist Traditions’, in M. Krausz (ed.), Relativism (Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame University Press, 1989).

(7) The special importance of philosophy derives from the fact that it sets out the criteria of legitimation for all other types of discourse. Like Marx, I would reject the view that philosophy, as a body of texts and ideas, actually provides the causal mechanism that makes possible the emergence of other modes of discourse. Like Hegel, I would hold, instead, that philosophy usually originates in the midst of other modes of discourse and provides the arguments and theories which then ‘justify’ them. Even without absolute causal power, however, philosophy and epistemology are crucial because of their influence in the crafting of criteria of justification for other knowledge claims.

(8) For example, Elizabeth Potter has argued that Locke's development of an empiricist epistemology had the political effect of silencing the emerging voices of lower‐class sectarian women: see ‘Locke's Epistemology and Women's Struggles’, in Bat‐Ami Bar On (ed.), Modern Engenderings: Critical Feminist Readings in Modern Western Philosophy (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994). Together with Vrinda Dalmiya, I have argued that the privileging of ‘knowing that’ over ‘knowing how’ in the history of Western epistemology since Descartes has had the political effect of demoting much of women's traditional knowledge, such as the knowledge of midwifery—as well as the traditional knowledge of men involved in manual work. See Alcoff and Dalmiya, ‘Are Old Wives' Tales Justified?’, in Alcoff and Potter (eds.), Feminist Epistemologies (New York: Routledge, 1993).

(9) One might also consider the tyranny of a subjectless, emotionless conception of objectivity, which marginalizes personalized voices that argue with emotion and open commitment. For a discussion of the role of emotions in rationality, see Martha Nussbaum's second paper in this volume.

(10) For an excellent account of Foucault's analysis and an explanation of why it does not undermine the whole of the human sciences, see Gary Gutting, Michel Foucault's Archaeology of Reason (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).