Hypatia – Heidi Grasswick Interview



Interviewed by C. Shaheen Moosa (Penn State University)


Heidi Grasswick: My name is Heidi Grasswick. I’m a professor of philosophy at Middlebury College in Vermont and I also teach in the Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies program and the Environmental Studies program.


Gender and Climate Change


HG: When I think about gender on any given issue I think about taking a gendered lens to that issue and by that I mean thinking through how gender might affect things or be relevant. So actually looking for that as opposed to assuming to start with it has nothing to do with it. And taking up a gender lens is really just a way of taking up a lens of positionality where it could be any component of our social locations or positions that we will want to look at with any particular issue. In the case of climate change where it’s a really complex big issue that’s both a physical phenomenon and a social phenomenon, this is an obvious place to at least look for things to do with gender that might not immediately be obvious. And, indeed, many people, many scholars have found a lot of different ways in which gender might be relevant to understanding climate change. The first of course is looking at how are people affected and whether there are gender differentials in how people would be affected by climate change, whether certain people are more vulnerable than other with climate change. Another is in terms of thinking about climate mitigation measures and who would be affected first, how would they be affected. It also might be that one group of people isn’t necessarily more affected than another but they might be affected in a different way. And those are important things to figure out, particularly when we start to think about mitigation measures. But as an epistemologist, I also think a lot about knowledge so I’m also interested in how we can understand climate change. Taking a gendered lens towards knowledge and the issue of climate change, thinking about how do people come to understand about climate change, since it’s a very political issue, we need to understand it to then be able to figure out what we’re going to do about it.  Those knowledge issues, again, it’s important to look at whether their gender differentials or any positionality differentials which might help us come together to understand climate change in a bigger picture.



Feminist Philosophy and Climate Change:


HG:  I think one of the really important resources that feminist philosophy can offer to a question as complex as climate change comes from feminist epistemology.  It’s basically the situated approach feminist epistemologists have taken. That is, there are many, many resources within that approach for understanding an issue as complex as climate change. Feminist epistemologists have been developing a situated approach for over a quarter of a century now so there’s been lots of directions in which the situated approach has been taken and developed. Basically the situated approach takes an attitude towards understanding knowledge by which we need to think about the positionality of the knowers, since there’s more than one, and be very aware of how one’s social location or one’s social position both limits and shapes how and what one can know. Now, because of that, immediately that leads to a question of just how limited is that positionality and how much can I know? But that just turns our attention to the ways in which we know and the need to know through other positions and other people. Feminist epistemology under the situated approach is very much a social epistemology. And a social epistemology is exactly what we need for something as complex as climate change—for coming to understand the problems of climate change and thinking through the solutions for it. There are many, many aspects to the social nature of knowledge and you can think through those with a situated approach. We know that we have lots of epistemic dependencies on other people. We cannot know things alone and for certain we can’t understand things like climate change alone. So we rely on other knowers. But that means that we have to negotiate those positionalities and particularly the power relations that might be affecting those positionalities with respect to who has authority to know and also who we can trust do some of that knowing for us. So climate change is very much an issue where were turning to experts, experts are then trying to relay to the public what is going on. There’s a lot of frustration amongst climate change experts and scientist with respect to not receiving the public uptake they’re expecting to get. I think it’s really important to be looking at social position and social locations with respect to that and how we can develop good relations between experts and who the experts are, who has to be at the table in terms of figuring out some of these questions with respect to climate change, and relatedly who are scientists speaking to and what do they need to know about their audiences in order to be able to convey their message. Similarly, when it comes to solutions to climate change, we really need to be thinking about whose needs are addressed in how we are going to do this in some kind of just way. That of course requires thinking about social location throughout.


Another aspect of the situated approach is its recognition that knowledge and knowing is always motivated. We worry of course, sometimes, about knowledge efforts being inappropriately motived by, say, political interests or “I don’t want to hear that so I’m not going to look for those conclusions I’m going to look for something else.” But at the same time the whole reason why knowledge matters at all is because we need to do things in the world that we need to live our lives, we need to make things better, we need to do all these different things. So it’s important that we have motivated knowing and of course many climate change scientists are motivated to try to figure this out because they see enough evidence that they know it’s really happening, they know the consequences are going to be serious. They’ve been criticized for that. I think the situated approach can help us understand how we should not be concerned about that, we definitely should be thinking about how we need to put our knowledge into our real-world contexts and actually find good ways of knowing that are motivated.





HG: I’ve always been interested in how we know and how we can know responsibly. What I mean by that is how we can be good inquirers, not even necessarily getting to the truth because sometimes that’s going to be impossible, but how we can do as good a job as we can. How we can be responsible knowers, starting with the work of Lorraine Code that was probably one of the first inspirations for taking that kind of approach. I’m also interested, as a social epistemologist, in the relationship between individuals and their communities. Knowing is done both in and through and by communities but we also still have responsibilities as individuals, as do the communities themselves have responsibilities. I’m interested in thinking through some of those ideas of responsibility both at the individual level, as individuals who are very much embedded within communities and multiple communities, and also at the community or institutional level and what do we expect of our institutions, what ought we expect of our instititutions. I’ve become quite interested recently in trust issues, trust issues between lay persons and experts. I’m trying to develop a concept of responsible trust so we could place our trust well or we could place our trust poorly. We need of course to try to balance our trust with the trustworthiness of that knowledge source. There’s a lot that we could say about responsible trust and what will constitute responsible trusting and trust is very much a relational entity. Climate change has been a great topic to take up with respect to these trust issues because so many people have been battling about trust. It’s been an issue: Scientists have been appalled at the fact that suddenly not all of the public is trusting them. Going back to a situated approach, it’s important to look at who is more likely to trust and who is less likely to trust and what’s going on in that and of course keeping in mind what can that tell us about how we can, each of us (when I say we I mean just whoever we’re dealing with in different positions), how can we develop responsible trust because that is the only way we can know many of these things that are far beyond our local experience or local knowledge. Climate change is one in particular where we need to figure out trust because it’s global and so much bigger than what we could ever experience ourselves. In addition, it manifests itself differently in different parts of the world so people are experiencing it differently. So we do have people sick but it doesn’t match my experience because…I’m not seeing… I’m not sad…it was really cold last winter,… There is a certain sense in which we want to say “okay, we’ve got to take account of that experience,” but yet we can’t just stop at that experience because we also need to understand the complexity of it where, “yeah but there’s other stuff going on” and it’s so complex that we might not always be seeing it. The idea of responsible trust is, I think...it’s a big concept but it’s also a concept that could prove really helpful in thinking through where we go from here in trying to develop good ways of knowing in a world where we must rely on specialized knowledge, in a world where these are issues that are very much not just academic but have real-world consequences and in a world where we actually need to figure this stuff out but we need to also build relations of trust and trustworthiness, on the other side of it, between people, between communities, between like communities, and between experts so that we can actually sort things out and then start talking about what it is that needs to be done.





HG: We’ve learned a lot about climate changes thus far but we’ve got a lot more to learn and it’s also changing rapidly, the situation is going to continue to change rapidly. As we go through that and we continue to try to understand climate change at the same time as trying to figure out appropriate solutions for it or mitigation measures for it, we need to be always aware of positionality and be attentive to differences in locations of persons both who are affected by climate change and also who are trying to understand climate change. If we don’t attend that, if we don’t say we’re going to look for positionality, there may be many cases where we won’t see the differences, we won’t see the positionality, and by the time we do then we won’t be able to do anything about it. For example, in mitigation measures we might just take a completely neutral lens and think about what we need to come up with a policy to try to mitigate climate change and then after the fact realize that worked well for some people and was absolutely disastrous for others. So you need to actually put the positionality up front in your investigations with the openness to trying to find something there. Although there will be cases where there won’t be differences in positionality, that’s always a possibility, but if you’re not aware of that particular case of climate change where things are continuing to change we may not be able to remedy things that we could have anticipated if we were actually looking at social position.