Code, Lorraine. What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.


Code's central thesis is that the sex of a knower is epistemologically significant. In classical epistemology, the knower is assumed to be irrelevant and interchangeable, a mere conduit for receiving knowledge. Code argues that who knows is as important as what is known, and that what and who exist in a mutually dynamic relationship.

Mainstream epistemology masks relations of power which generate and shape knowledge, and holds that who is doing the knowing is not relevant. Code notes that in fact the disinterested, objective knower is a very particular, specific, interested knower who represents the concerns of privileged white males. Thus mainstream (or malestream) epistemology, under the guise of producing neutral information, subordinates the concerns of all those who are not part of the elite group of knowers, and makes invisible the conditions under which knowledge is made.

These assumptions in traditional epistemology, far from being confined to academia, have wide-reaching implications for all aspects of society, particularly the scientific/medical establishment. Code first engages in a dialogue with significant figures in Anglo-American mainstream epistemology to critically examine claims of objectivity and value-neutrality, then turns to building an alternative paradigm for politically engaged, feminist knowledge. Her critique is both internal, from within the academic institution, and external, with a view to the cognitive practices that shape social action. Moving beyond the detached model of traditional epistemology, Code not only critiques forms and methods of making knowledge, but connects these concerns to political actions and strategic implications.


Chapter One, "Is The Sex of the Knower Epistemologically Significant?"

Traditional epistemology holds that in the expression "S knows that p", the status of "S" is not significant. S is a disconnected, interchangeable knower who is a mere witness to the unfolding of knowledge. Proposing that S matters is problematic for traditional epistemologists, for if it matters who S is, then it follows that knowledge production is not neutral; a critique of endless and insurmountable relativism is often levelled at proposals for finding out who S is. Code argues that all relativisms are not created equal (i.e. that epistemological relativism does not necessitate conceptual relativism), and to acknowledge contingency does not mean sacrificing all possibilities for evaluating knowledge; it is still possible to argue that some knowledges are better or more useful than others. Moreover, relativism allows for a much more complex understanding and interpretive possibilities while retaining stringent standards of accountability; a moral-political dimension is inherent with concomitant possibilities for feminists.

Code argues that the sex of S is just one of many subjective factors constitutive of received knowledge and what it means to be a knower, and that while this acknowledgement requires placing the knowing subject at the heart of epistemological enquiry, it does not necessitate outright subjectivism.

Traditional epistemology conceives of reason as an autonomous quality, detached both physically and personally from the knower. Knowers are atomistic, self-sufficient individuals whose connections to the world and other people are not relevant to their reasoning. Their knowledge claims are simple observational claims. Arguing that who S is matters means that both autonomy and simplicity of knowledge are brought into question.

Who has S traditionally been? S, though seen as neutral, has traditionally been a white, privileged male who is able to construct himself as a value-free knowing subject while simultaneously suppressing the knowledge claims of women. Thus the sex-gender system intersects with the knowledge production system to produce a) ways of being male and female and b) ascribed gendered ways of knowing. Since women are, by virtue of being female, incapable of being objective according to traditional epistemology, then it follows that women are disqualified from being knowers.

It follows that the challenge for feminists is to engage with epistemological projects. But what should their approach be? Many feminists argue, in some form, for a reclamation of "the feminine". However, this approach tends to be equally reductive and essentialist, and moreover accords the binary male-female objective-subjective paradigm theoretical validity even as it favours the other side. As strategy, evaluative reversals of this kind tend to be limiting in the long run.


Chapter Two, "Knowledge and Subjectivity"

In this chapter Code addresses the traditional objective/subjective binary, deconstructing it as an explanatory dichotomy, and proposing that knowledge can be both objective and subjective, such that acknowledging subjectivity in knowledge does not mean a slide into subjectivism and endless relativity. Thus she adopts a "both-and" perspective instead of an "either-or."

Code begins by noting the power of dualisms in our cultural parlance, and that dichotomous thinking relates exclusionary and differentially weighted/valued pairs such as objective-subjective, male-female, culture-nature together.

Code traces the history of scientific practice to look at the problems inherent in using an ideal of objectivity, and shows that objectivity in fact relies on suppression, erasure, and detachment from context/effects of knowledge production. Code views the project of objectivity as a way of trying to control the unknown in a way that is not threatening; the presumption of objective knowledge is therefore tied inextricably with relations of power. Instead of the "knowing-things" standard paradigm of the ideal, physics, Code argues for an alternative "knowing-others" knowledge relationship, in which knowledge is constructed as a series of mutual and dynamic interactions.

Besides gender, Code notes that other factors influence the subjectivity of the knower: creativity, cultural location, and language.


Chapter Three, "Second Persons"

In this chapter Code examines a particular conception of human nature that informs mainstream ethical theories. She does this for three reasons: assumptions about subjectivity that inform standard ethical theories parallel traditional epistemology; epistemological issues are part of moral deliberation; and ethical issues are implicated in analyses of knowledge.

Code's main point of entry is the significance accorded to autonomy in traditional ethics and epistemology. The model of the autonomous subject in traditional discourse is atomistic, disconnected, and ostensibly neutral (but obviously marked by specificities of race, gender, etc.). Continuing her theme of deconstructing exclusionary dualisms, Code notes that interdependence and autonomy are not and need not be mutually exclusive; rather we must strive for an integration of the individual and the community in which both are open to moral and political critique. She takes Kant's model of the individual as her starting point, noting that his atomistic subject concerned only with rights, and finding only "otherness" in the world outside himself (sic) produces a tension between claims of impartiality and particularity. In other words, how can a singular subject, as conceived in the traditional sense, ever hope to be impartial? Furthermore, if moral agents are neutral actors, it follows that they are interchangeable and can overcome bonds of loyalty and other affinity to act in the "greater good". Code finds this a problematic moral system since it denies the personhood of the moral actors.

Hence Code proposes an alternative model for articulating autonomy: that of "second persons". In this she argues that humans are not atomistic, self-produced objects, but "second persons" who are constructed over the course of their lives by other people, beginning with the first caregivers. The moral agent, then, is always in a process of "becoming", and an atomistic person is actually a truncated, incomplete, impossible-to-achieve ideal. Moral processes, in this alternative paradigm, are more important than moral systems, and moral practices are more important than moral theory.

Some feminists have proposed the mother-child model as an alternative theory of object relations. The basis of the argument for this is that maternal relations involve particular epistemic values of care and interpersonality. Code finds this problematic for a variety of reasons: the power differential, the essentializing of certain female qualities, the stereotyping of a particular model of motherhood, the lack of critique of motherhood as an institution, the lack of acknowledgement of ambivalencies in the mother-child relation, and the fact that participation in these activities has been part of women's subjective and concrete subordination. Similar to taking issue with evaluative reversals, Code finds that valorizing of maternal thinking in fact reifies an old binarism and limits the possibilities for feminist engagement with larger issues of epistemology. Ultimately maternal ethics overly privileges complete dissolution of the subject in another, as opposed to trying to find a balance between autonomy and interpersonality.

Thus Code turns to another model of interpersonal subjectivity that she finds more fruitful and conducive to developing the kind of mutuality-autonomy balance that she proposes: that of friendship. She sees many positive features to a model of friendship: allows individuality without necessitating individualism; friendship requires knowledge of another for its sustenance; and that frienship balances both knowledge and emotion ("informed feeling"). Code draws on Aristotle's friendship model and produces a feminist reading.


Chapter Four, "The Autonomy of Reason"

In this chapter Code moves from questions of the knower to the process by which knowledge is held to be produced: that of reason. In traditional epistemological practice, the knower is held to be atomistic and autonomous, and his (sic) "reason" is held to be such as well. Code terms this "cognitive autonomy", and defines it as the idea that all cognitive processes are a) based only on abstract and detached reasoning, and b) performed irrelevant of the social and temporal context of the knower, transcending experience. Consequently, perception and memory are valued above "testimony", which is seen to be a self-interested and fallible participant in knowledge production. Code points out how this ideal of cognitive autonomy has become associated with ideals of masculinity, and with denigration of the feminine. Thus the obsession with pure reason also becomes an obsession with purging whatever is associated with the feminine, and this has implications both for epistemology and lived relations.

Some feminists, particularly early liberal feminists like Wollstonecraft, found it strategically useful to claim a place for women within the masculine sphere of pure Reason. However the problem here is both reifying the idea of cognitive authority as something which really exists, as well as the traditional male-female binary. Ultimately, this does not change the order of business (see also Eisenstein for the paradox of liberal feminism), for women are de facto excluded from the rigid A/Not-A binarism by virtue of their association with femininity. There is no authentic intervention to be made on the malestream terrain of Reason. Thus writers such as Wollstonecraft, Mill, and Eisenstein struggle with how to incorporate women as a group into the liberal ideal of traditional epistemology which simultaneously champions an atomistic, anonymous subject and rejects knowing subjects who are not part of a select group. The challenge for feminists is to develop an epistemology that will include women on their own terms, without slipping into the male/reason-female/emotion binary or reifying so-called feminine characteristics.

Code identifies some epistemological consequences of cognitive autonomy. The first is defensiveness and the model of adversarial posturing; this results in a need to be right (or win an argument) rather than creative or insightful, and in the need for there to be a singular correct position instead of a range of possible solutions to a problem. The second consequence is skepticism; the autonomous knower who operates in a state of solitary confinement is inevitably presented with the problem of how to corroborate his (sic) knowledge, and the absence of a framework for how to do this without sacrificing cognitive autonomy results in a great deal of cognitive anxiety. The third consequence is the problem of subject-object relations. The knowing subject in the traditional model exists in an asymmetrical relationship to the known, and observes (vision is important here, and this motif is picked up by feminist cultural theorists, esp. feminist film theorists like Modleski) from a point "outside" (also known as the "God-eye" or "view from nowhere"). Vision is used here as a tool of control, and to exert power over that which is seen. In this model, it is only important to see and observe, not listen to, engage with, or understand. 

However, Code notes that an alternative conception of vision is possible: that of eye contact: a "symmetrical act of mutual recognition" which does not presuppose particular forms of power relations. This concept can be expanded into the idea of the body, including all other senses, as a mediator or translator of the world, not unlike Heidegger's Dasein who operates by interacting with things in the environment and being in the world. Code draws on some feminist theorists of science, such as Rachel Carson, to propose an alternative methodology for knowing that does not require controlling that which is known, but rather letting it speak for itself and on its own terms. Instead of extrapolating from objects to people and relationships, it makes more sense to go in the other direction, from the knowledge necessary for good personal relationships applied to objects. Yet this is not to say that all experiences are unproblematic. A balance between interpersonality and autonomy requires a recognition that people mediate their own experiences, so that there is no such thing as "authentic" testimony or a uniquely privileged access to knowledge.


Chapter Five, "Women and Experts: The Power of Ideology"

In this chapter Code examines the applications of traditional epistemology to institutionalized forms of "public" knowledge, particularly the effects of epistemological paradigms in legitimating oppressive or asymmetrical frameworks of power/knowledge that result in problematic structures and practices. Here, she is interested in both "commonsense" knowledge and in the institutional paradigms of knowledge about people. She argues that asymmetrical power relations in terms of what is known deny women access to knowledge of and power over their own lives, and prevents them from being acting subjects in the world.

If we take as the starting point Simone de Beauvoir's contention that "One is not born, but rather, becomes a woman", then it follows that all circulating knowledge determines, to some degree, the formation of women's subjectivities. On the other hand, people can and do exercise agency in their own lives. Though the concept of fully autonomous agency is appealing, particularly to liberal feminists, it is not ultimately effective for resisting structures of power. Code feels that the solution to this is to develop a theory of "positionality" which recognizes that people make choices within a particular social context, and that subjectivity is a relational construct.

In traditional structures of power-knowledge, women are represented as beings who are de facto without authority. Convictions about this lack of subjective expertise structure women's relations to themselves and others. This is not to reject expertise; an integral part of self-knowing is to recognize when to use the knowledge of others. Code distinguishes between authoritative and authoritarian uses of power-knowledge.

Stereotypes, while ostensibly easily dismissable, "generate both epistemic indolence and epistemic imperialism", legitimating "structures of authority and expertise in mutually reinforcing processes of confirmation and fulfillment." Stereotyped notions of women's essential nature are among the most enduring and powerful in the popular consciousness, and this has implications for the construction of women's subjectivities.

Vulnerability and credulity is another theme which Code takes up in her examination of the history of science and medicine. She notes how conceptions of madness are bound up with structures of power, and that femininity is inherently associated with insanity, such that women, in the worst case scenario, are always at risk of being thought mad merely by being female. Madness is a powerful symbol and metaphor for women's intellectual oppression and punishment for deviance.

Since despite claims of cognitive authority, corroboration of what is known is necessary, Code notes that withholding such corroboration functions to create epistemic dependence. In other words, no matter how sure S is that she knows p, if her knowledge is not eventually acknowledged and corroborated, she will have to rely on external accounts of knowing p. Demanding epistemic authority and the "right to know" is both an epistemic and political challenge for women.


Chapter Six, "Credibility: A Double Standard"

In this chapter Code takes up the double standard of credibility inherent in the knowledge-experience (aka male-female) dichotomy. She identifies two structural patterns which intersect to constrain women's authoritative subjectivity: stereotypes about women's epistemological capacities, and the privileging of knowledge over experience. Here again we see how three asymmetrically valued and exclusionary binaries (male-female; knowledge-experience; theory-practice) converge to produce both gender and epistemic authority.

Though some feminists propose privileging experience in an evaluative reversal, Code (as she has throughout the book) argues for an integration of the two and a rejection of exclusionary binaries. Using Women's Ways of Knowing as a critical point of departure, Code argues for cognitive tools and styles as opposed to "ways" of knowing, and their contextual application. In addition, she argues for the integration of theory and practice in a way that does not necessarily reject the goal of objectivity or autonomy, but rather critically engages with the ways in which maleness is constructed through a particular epistemological style. Thus her aim is a politically engaged and informed epistemic practice which does not privilege either subjectivism or