What is “standpoint epistemology?”
Epistemology can be defined as follows
: the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity
From etymonline.com (the history of the word), we get
“theory of knowledge,” 1856, coined by Scottish philosopher James F. Ferrier (1808-1864) from Greek episteme “knowledge, acquaintance with (something), skill, experience,” from Ionic Greek epistasthai “know how to do, understand,” literally “overstand,” from epi “over, near” (see epi-) + histasthai “to stand,” from PIE root *sta- “to stand, make or be firm.” The scientific (as opposed to philosophical) study of the roots and paths of knowledge is epistemics (1969). Related: Epistemological; epistemologically.
I have also previously addressed this term as part of the “-ologies & Key Terms” series on this site.
It can also be referred to as “standpoint theory.”
Even so . . .
What is meant when you hear the term “standpoint epistemology?”
In the earlier referenced article on epistemology, I mention five main approaches to knowledge and one of those was relativism.
Standpoint epistemology (SE) is a relativistic approach to epistemology. Through standpoint epistemology, you view the world relative to your viewpoint, your own worldview lens and that is what decides what is true.
Another way to put this is that standpoint epistemology in its relativism claims that each person or group of persons, because of their differing standpoint (point of origin of their view), have a different sense of knowing what is true. Therefore, what is true perhaps for an Egyptian in regards to one thing or another is not necessarily true for a Haitian man or a Haitian woman or a Chinese Citizen or a given minority of a particular nation versus those considered “privileged” in that nation.
As applied to the Scriptures, you view and thereby interpret the Scriptures from where you stand in the present. There is no trying to understand it in its grammatical context. There is no understanding it in its historical context–outside of reinterpreting it on power dynamics or the like.
What’s the problem with this way of viewing things?
What proof is there that your worldview is completely correct? What proof is there that the way you see the given situation is the most true and accurate representation? These questions get at a fundamental weakness in this epistemology. Yes, we have worldviews but that does not automatically mean one person’s or another is objectively accurate. Your view may have a sense of precision but lacks accuracy because it fails to account for all of the data on one thing or another. Instead, experience and how one feels are often made king in SE and that can be dangerous. Experience is often interpreted different by each person involved and feelings make for a fickle friend and even become are worst enemies when they lead us into trouble.
Note: I am not saying feelings or experiences should be ignored either. They are part of being human. To handle them properly, we must stop shutting each other out because ‘so and so didn’t see what I saw” or “experience what I did” or “felt like I do.” People can never begin to understand your experiences or feelings if you will not open up about them. Start with someone you can trust. Your worldview will grow too as you share with each other. Do not be an island unto yourself.
Overall, SE is dangerous at best.
This becomes all the more clear as we consider the following.
Not only does SE act according to relativism, it also paints every person/group as falling into a oppressed/advantaged backdrop. This puts everyone not only on a relative knowledge grounds–and thereby truth grounds–but SE ends up pitting them against each other as everyone is labelled into one oppressed/advantaged group or another.
It also means everyone does what is right in their own eyes. That statement alone should cause us to pause. Why? Read Deuteronomy 12:8-9; Proverbs 13:7; 12:15; 26:12.
Truth becomes subjective; there is no objective truth. There is no–outside of ourselves or our group–standard of knowing what is truth.
This is chaos and deserving of God’s judgment. In the Old Testament, we consistently find God’s judgment every time after “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” We are therefore headed for such times if we turn to such as standpoint epistemology.
What’s more, such a method of dealing with the Scriptures means people twist them, leading themselves astray and others they share their thinking with.
As a result, SE does not truly help move the real differences between people to a more positive ground but results in lines drawn and thereby tribalism. As followers of Christ, there is only one perspective, one way of knowing that we are to aim for and that’s Christ’s. This cuts across every human division–whether real or imagined. We should be always becoming more like Christ and that includes viewing everything from His worldview.