Hypatia – Miriam Solomon Interview


Miranda Pilipchuk: Tell us about yourself.


Miriam Solomon: I grew up in England, which explains my accent. I was interested in sciences; I did a degree in natural science and ended up asking questions within the philosophy of science.

I decided to come to the U.S. to do a PhD in Philosophy and I’ve been here ever since. My current academic home is Temple University and it’s a public, urban, large institution. I’m very happy there. Mostly I work in epistemology, philosophy of science, philosophy of medicine, and recently I have been completing my second book which is in philosophy of medicine.

MP: How do you define feminism? What initially drew you to feminist theory?

MS: Well I’m glad you asked me this question – it made me think. I think of feminism as all the tools, a lot of them are theoretical, but they’re also physical and interactional, but all the tools that we use to make gender visible. Not to make sex visible – sex is all too visible in society – But to make gender visible.

I also think of the making-gender-visible as a springboard for making other kinds of power relations visible such as age, gender, and disability. I would say feminism has been my route into those issues.

Helen Longino when she is critical of the gender ideology in particular scientific views often says things like “they disappear gender.” That’s what I’m thinking of when I am thinking that the tools of feminism make gender visible.

I first became aware of feminist theory as a grad student at Harvard University in the ‘80s when a group of women – graduate students and a couple of faculty – met once a month to read feminist texts. We never learned any feminism in the classroom and this was just something we did on the side. I identified as a feminist, but I didn’t know that there was any theory about it.

I would say that I’ve identified as a feminist since ten or eleven. When I was raised in a very traditional Orthodox Jewish household, and I was totally dumbfounded when my mother informed me that I would be doing the domestic chores so that my brothers could go to synagogue and study Talmud. And I just thought it was so arbitrary, because of a few bodily parts – as I thought of it – our trajectories in life would be so different. So really the roots of my feminism were in sibling rivalry.

MP: One of your areas of specialization is feminist epistemology. Can you tell us a bit about your interest in this area?

MS: My interest in feminist epistemology started when I was asked to teach it. Before then I identified as a feminist and I identified as someone who was potentially interested in feminist philosophy, but I actually had very little education in the field – and the fields were only just beginning. I taught a course called Feminist Philosophy of Science in the early ‘90s and the central text was Helen Longino’s book Science is Social Knowledge. I worked through that like working through the text of Kant: I made copious notes – and out of all my copious notes I wrote Helen a crafted three page letter. In those days, you didn’t write to people by email, even though it existed. She [Helen] very kindly wrote back to me and I still have that letter – and I’m hoping that it will be published someday in the writings of Helen Longino, but it was my entry into the field.

I would say Helen Longino’s book plus Evelyn Fox Keller’s reflections on gender and science – which contain a lot of really interesting cases in which gender appears in the content of scientific theories in ways that are surprising. She talks about cellular aggregation in slime mold and how theories about that are unconsciously gendered. So it opened up my eyes to how gender ideology could work in science.

MP: Can you explain to us the general idea behind your article “Standpoint and Creativity”?

What I try to do in the article is make use of standpoint theory, which is the earliest feminist epistemological theory to shed light on the phenomenon of creativity and to make suggestions for how we could fruitfully pursue some research into the field.

I started simply by looking at the psychological literature on creativity and finding it wanting. As I began to think about the pieces that were needed to make a full theory of creativity, I thought standpoint was perfect to fill the holes. In fact, the way the paper turned out, standpoint is, itself, and inherently, a creative stance.

MP: What is the standard philosophical view of creativity? What are the limits of this view?

MS:  So the standard philosophical view of creativity is very much like the ordinary view of creativity and scientific view of creativity. It’s a view that creativity is something that’s achieved by special individuals working alone, maybe with the help of a muse. People talk about it in almost magical fashion. And there is a lot of resistance to actually looking at how creativity happens.

Feminists sometimes call the study of resistance to knowledge part of the field called agnotology – the study of ignorance. I think of creativity as one of those areas in which people have felt that it’s better not to look too closely at what goes on. It’s also, when it’s attributed to anyone, it’s attributed to an individual and it’s left very puzzling.

MP: Standpoint theories play an important role in your article. Can you explain what standpoint theories are?

MS: When I teach stand point theory I draw an analogy between standpoint and attitude. So I can’t say attitude in the right way, but teenagers all know what attitude is. Attitude is a critical stance, a stance that wants to challenge authority, and it’s not a very nice stance.

Standpoint has nothing to do with standing or pointing – so it’s not very helpful to say the word, but standpoint is about getting a critical view on gender by discussing your experience and your knowledge with a group of people who have similar experiences and knowledge. So instead of it being an individual’s attitude against their parents, it’s women’s attitude against society. And it involves solidarity as a large piece of constructing the social attitude so you can’t have standpoint by yourself – you need your group to get it.

MP: How can standpoint theories contribute to the philosophical investigation of creativity?

MS: I gave you a little outline of what standpoint theory is – I should have filled out that what standpoint is, is an epistemic stance. If you have standpoint you’re in a position to know some things that you would not know if you didn’t have standpoint. In particular you are in a position to know more things about your political situation, than those who don’t have standpoint with respect to it. This is originally a Marxist insight that was developed by the earliest feminist standpoint theorists.

I knew that standpoint had something to do with knowing and the question was: how it told you what is said about creativity? Creativity is an ability to produce new categories. It also requires a lot of motivation, a kind of struggle that you need to refine your ideas. It needs different sources of experience to draw on to create novelty. And so creativity is typically not something that real insiders to an intellectual tradition are the best at doing. It is folk wisdom that it is people who are on the margins that contribute creatively.

Standpoint is such a marginal position.  It is a position that understands where the insiders are, where the outsiders are, and how their perspectives on a social phenomenon are different. It has a certain richness. Also standpoint involves a political attitude – that’s the part that standpoint is attitude. And I think those attitudes fuel the motivation – they are part and parcel of the motivation to produce, to create; they are a source of that motivation. It’s not just that somebody has a strong will to create, it’s that they are fueled by a political engagement.

MP: Your article notes that standpoint theories speak to the social, as opposed to purely individual, aspects of creativity. Can you expand on this point?

MS: Standpoint is a way of introducing the social into knowledge. So by saying that standpoint is helping us understand creativity, we are building in the social to the understanding of creativity up front. We are not saying that creativity is something that an individual in an ivory tower does.  We are saying that it comes out of context and it comes out of a community. That’s how the social is built into it.

MP: What kinds of future research on creativity do you see standpoint theories inspiring?

MS: I see it inspiring empirical research, not just theoretical research. I always think theories show their work in their application – I’m a pragmatist that way.

One of the ways in which I think people might pursue the research is to do further research into the personality types and emotional make ups that go into creative work. One of the things that they seem to have found out in the psychometric literature is that creative people show “more hostility.” I know that’s a stereotype of feminist. I’d like it looked at more closely—unpacked—to see what is actually going on there and what’s fueling the creative work.

Also, I’d like to see more work done on the social and material aspects of finding novelty. Novelty doesn’t come from the sky, it doesn’t come from muses, and it doesn’t come from nowhere either. Philosophers of science, like Feyerabend, are famous for saying “anything goes,” suggesting that you just make random noises and eventually you get your scientific theory. So that doesn’t work – obviously. I’m interested in seeing what are the sources of creative thought; and what is the input of the community and what is the input of the material culture as well – the engagements of the physical world that surround whatever the problem is that people are dealing with

The idea is to provide an embodied and material view of novelty. One of the ironies about novelty is that nothing is ever really new – you have to get your idea from somewhere that already exists. But we stretch and combine and that’s what we do. We get influence and bend in various ways. And after a long enough time it really looks novel.

MP: What is the most important point you hope your readers will take away from your article?

MS: Two points:

The first point is that standpoint is an inherently creative stance. That makes it very attractive – especially in this country where we – culture – where we revere creativity.

The second, and connected with the first, is that this paper was originally developed out of a session in the APA in the mid 2000s that revisited standpoint theory after 30 years. And standpoint theory often gets a bad treatment in philosophy classes. It’s the first theory you learn and you learn what’s wrong with it its apparently essentialist, and so on. Actually I think it’s an incredibly rich source of insights.

Sandra Harding was present at the session in which I gave the first paper and there were other papers on uses of standpoint theory and she was totally thrilled that people were using her theory and she also wanted to credit the people who developed it with her – like Dorothy Smith, Nancy Hartsock, Patricia Hill Collins, and so on.

I also want people to say we can still use standpoint – it’s not an old theory.

MP: Do you have any advice for the next generation of feminist scholars?

MS: One general piece of advice that I give to myself is that I should always set up things that I think about so that I’m willing to be surprised by the outcome. It bothers me when a student says I’m going to argue ‘X’ and then they go out and look for reasons for ‘X.’ because it suggests that the reasons aren’t really doing the work of telling them what they should believe. So my advice is always to let go of the conclusion while doing the research. It’s okay to have an idea of where you might go, but be willing to be surprised. And when you are surprised that shows how much evidence there is for the other position because you saw it despite your own biases. So surprise is something to look at and to cultivate.

The second thing for the new scholars in feminism is that feminism has had a lot of influence over the years and it has spawned and helped other movements having to do with social difference. Feminism has informed race studies and informed studies of social class and now the hot topic is disability studies. People have said that disability studies is the new feminism.

What we get out of these successive movements is not just the application of feminist theory; we get more ideas that can be used as theoretical tools that can be used as theoretical tools to improve our original feminist insights. It’s not a blind application of theory, it’s an application of theory that gets feedback from the empirical engagements. I suppose I would say to the new generation of feminist scholars: look out for whatever is the new feminist studies, what represents the cutting edge in the study of difference – because that’s where the action is likely to be.