Feminists have sought to challenge conventional epistemologies by developing alternative paradigms. Within the social sciences, Walby (1990:16) argues that feminist challenges to mainstream social science have invoked a variety of approaches to knowledge. She maintains that some branches of feminism have argued that orthodox accounts are empirically incorrect on their own terms, while others have claimed that the very way that men have constructed what counts as authoritative knowledge is itself patriarchally constructed.

Sandra Harding’s (1986) analysis of feminist theories of scientific knowledge identifies two models. She labels the first model ‘a feminist empiricist model’, which employs a traditional empiricist method to feminist concerns. Walby (1990), in discussing the feminist empiricist model, maintains that feminists operating within this position adopt a ‘methods’-led approach, arguing for a return to an empirically grounded scientific approach to knowledge. Feminist empiricists see what they insist is a ‘false scientificity’, of the traditional ‘scientific’ approach to knowledge, as essentially framed by ‘patriarchally’ biased knowledge.

Walby (1990:17) claims that ‘feminist standpoint epistemology’, offers a more far-reaching critique and argues that ‘the way that men have typically constructed what counts as authoritative knowledge is itself patriarchal. This second school.. .argues that the only basis of unbiased knowledge of the world is women’s own direct experience’. Feminist standpoint epistemologists assert that we need a new feminist methodology which is closer to women’s own experience. As Halberg (1992) maintains, feminist standpoint epistemology is the feminist version of ‘objectivism’. It is founded on the claim that women have ‘a cognitively privileged position’ in society so that their knowledge is superior to men’s knowledge and that this ‘privileged’ position is taken to be rooted in women’s experiences. Harding (1990:96-97) maintains that ‘In claiming that inquiry from the standpoint of women (or the feminist standpoint) can overcome the partiality and distortion of the dominant androcentric/bourgeois/western sciences, it directly undermines the point of viewlessness of objectivism while refusing the relativism of interpretationism’.

There are different branches of feminist thinking within this broad epistemological model, including radical feminists, cultural feminists and French feminist deconstructivists. Radical feminists claim that true knowledge is intuitive and female, and that ‘reason’ or rationality is simply an ideological weapon that men use against women. Cultural feminists have taken the argument further in juxtaposing the masculine and culture, to feminine and nature. Grant (1987), in summarising the key elements in this position, states that within this position ‘male logic’ is seen as one aspect of a broad-based, masculinist hegemony. A group of theorists and writers who can be loosely identified as French feminist deconstructivists, while not representing either position directly, attack traditional theorising as patriarchal and locate language as the site of political struggle within the context of a psychoanalytic theory of meaning. They include Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous and take as their starting point Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of language and subjectivity.

Moira Gatens (1994) warns against the dangers of the position taken by Irigaray and others. For these theorists, the very activity of theorising or constructing conceptual categories is an intrinsically male endeavour. Gatens argues that such writers effectively exclude women from the domain of intellectual discourse. The point made by Gatens is that feminists who attack all ‘grand categories’ fail to diagnose tensions or contradictions in the texts produced by male philosophers.

The conclusions of these different branches of feminist theory are: that the basis of ‘masculinist theory’ is partial, incomplete and assumes a knowledge base which is neutral; that direct experience is a necessary precondition for knowledge, and what counts as knowledge must be grounded in women’s experience; that women’s experience is systematically different from men’s experience; and that knowledge and theory are incorrect or biased to the extent that they exclude women’s experience.

The crucial issue for feminist standpoint epistemology in assessing its plausibility is the extent to which it is tenable to use women’s experience as the basis for a theory of knowledge. Halberg (1992) notes that recent critiques of feminist epistemology have recognised and admitted that women’s experiences are not unitary, and that epistemologically different groups of women—for example black women, working-class women, Third World women and so forth – all have different and ‘group-specific’ knowledge, which requires that we postulate different groups of interests.

In a recent further development of the ‘feminist standpoint’ position, Harding (1993) elaborates on the relationship between feminist knowledge, experience and oppression. Harding’s (1993) work goes further than previously in making problematic the concept of ‘experience’ and ‘oppression’, and her work is clearly informed by the feminist debates of the late 1980s. She argues that some feminist epistemological positions have claimed that only women and women’s experiences can generate feminist knowledge.

Harding (1993:155) maintains that having women’s experiences, and being a woman, is clearly not sufficient to generate feminist knowledge; all women have women’s experiences but only at historical moments do any of us ever produce feminist knowledge. She states that it is thinking from a contradictory position that generates feminist knowledge. The key problem with Harding’s somewhat redefined ‘standpoint’ position is that, while it attempts to address the criticisms of the ‘essentialist’ character of women’s experience, and in addition offers a more refined view of the relationship between feminist knowledge and experience, it does not explain how feminist knowledge is to be ‘grounded’ epistemologically.

So what are the implications for a feminist epistemology based on a feminist standpoint position? Grant (1987) rejects essentialism and experience as a basis for feminist epistemology on the grounds that it is too difficult to operationalise the idea of women’s experience. Halberg (1992) agrees, in maintaining that there is no feasible way of grounding a feminist epistemology within the boundaries of a ‘feminist standpoint’. Halberg argues that feminist standpoint epistemology, through its privileging of ‘multiple experiences’, leads to a highly relativist view of knowledge. From this perspective, the existence of various, sometimes contradictory, women’s standpoints means that there is no possible way of deciding between them.

The logic of ‘feminist standpoint epistemology’, as Harding (1991) argues, was to interrogate the ‘male’ subject of knowledge and to replace it with a different knowing subject. However, as has been indicated, feminist standpoint epistemology is characterised by inconsistencies which make the possibility of ‘grounding’ a feminist epistemology logically impossible. In addition, Halberg notes that the concept of ‘experience’ is a very vague term and the context of experience is never coherent or identical for all women. Halberg concludes in saying that, even if all women shared ‘determining experiences’, this would not necessarily give rise to the same kind of knowledge.