Is postmodern feminism, which questions all universal statements in science and ethics, a form of cognitive relativism?

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Claims of universality and objective truth in science, ethics, mathematics, and philosophy are contested as a matter of principle by the overlapping, though sometimes divergent, movements of feminism and postmodernism. These theorists point to the impossibility of any system to achieve pure knowledge that transcends the body and surpasses subjectivity. Moreover, feminist theory strives to bring an awareness to the sciences so that they may be improved, not disavowed.

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The status of universality has long been the subject of probing criticism. The notion of universality has been claimed since at least the Enlightenment by science, mathematics, and philosophy (including ethics). Criticisms against it have come most recently from the postmodern tradition, but arguably criticisms have been lodged since science’s initial formalization. In fact, the advent and progression of what is now called feminism is only one source of critique of universality and objectivity, though it is perhaps especially devastating for the way it calls attention to the inherent impossibility of any fundamental truth.

It should first be noted that “feminism” is a term that is itself highly plural, with many feminists, such as Camille Paglia, criticizing notable postmodern theorists such as Michel Foucault (a frequent target of feminist critique), Jacques Derrida, and other notable postmodern thinkers. Furthermore, postmodernists, especially Marxist thinkers including Slavoj Žižek, have, in turn, long been critical of the modern feminist movement and its reliance on identity politics.

In general, though, the common epithet of “relativism” is not only shrugged off by postmodernists, it is usually self-proclaimed as a grounding tenet of the movement. The crucial error perpetuated by the sciences, as attested to by Michel Foucault in his texts The History of Madness and The Birth of the Clinic and by feminist postmodernists such as Judith Butler and Luce Irigaray, is that it is impossible to verify external truth. In championing the body, for instance, as a valid and felt source of meaning that is purely imminent, feminist theory persuasively contests the ability to attain the pure, disembodied truth that science claims for itself. Instead, truth and the subsequent validity of science, mathematics, and philosophy must be thought of in subjective terms. Those fields' concepts are constantly being constructed and influenced by largely unconscious and unwilled structures that always emanate from the human subject.

This criticism has long been interpreted by the sciences as a categorical disavowal of the entire discipline. However, most postmodernists and feminists in such conversations would chiefly aim to acknowledge and bring into awareness science’s arbitrary foundations so that these systems may be more open to emendation. Indeed, science has often been an able vehicle for racism and sexism, whether in the form of phrenology, eugenics, or the theory that certain races and genders were biologically inferior. Crucially, these assertions were not always deemed to be pseudo-science, so it is warranted to wonder whether certain biases about race and gender (as well as class, nationality, and other markers of difference) still structure certain aspects of contemporary science.

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