Lorraine Code named distinguished woman philosopher for 2009

Lorraine Code, a distinguished research professor emerita in philosophy, social & political thought and women’s studies at York University and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, can now add distinguished woman philosopher to her list of accomplishments.

The US-based Society for Women in Philosophy  has named Code the 2009 distinguished woman philosopher for her work, achievements and contributions to the support of women in philosophy and to the discipline of philosophy. Each year, through the Eastern Division of the society, one woman is chosen for the honour. Code is only the second Canadian woman to receive this distinction.

Code specializes in epistemology, feminist epistemology and the politics of knowledge, epistemic responsibility, 20th-century French philosophy, ecological theory and post-colonial theory.

Left: Lorraine Code

Her current research, funded by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada, looks at vulnerability, incredulity, ignorance and trust. It addresses issues of epistemic injustice, which Code understands as unjust ways of hearing or assuming to know someone or some group, of failing to take them at their word, or of perceiving them through the filter of stereotypes and partial beliefs.

“I’m interested in how testimony plays a huge part in our knowing, contrary to the old empirical model where the only valid sources of knowledge were perception and memory,” says Code. She is also interested in how philosophical and political generalizations in the press and elsewhere, erase particularity, resulting in people, groups and issues being mis-known and often mistreated or discredited. Code cites the example of sexual assault trials where women are systematically disbelieved, the case of a black man’s testimony being taken less seriously than that of a white man, or the question of why the testimony of a person who is well-dressed creates a presumption that the truth is being expressed.

One aspect of this research comes from Code’s interest in agnotology, the willful or culturally induced sustaining of ignorance. She alludes to practices of tobacco and pharmaceutical companies presenting research that sows the seeds of reasonable doubt in the minds of the public about the ill effects of their products. The issue of climate change is also frequently represented as contentious as a way of blocking actions and remedies. Code calls the matrix of understanding and ways of seeing the world the “social imaginary”.

“Knowledge is closely interconnected with politics and ethics," says Code. "There are ethical ideals around open-mindness, in being prepared not to suppress something that doesn’t fit for fear of destroying a theory and around knowing situations well enough to act responsibly in them.”

Code became a Canada Research Fellow at York in 1987 and, 10 years later, a distinguished research professor. She held a prestigious Canada Council Killam Research Fellowship from 1999 to 2001 and was the 2007-2008 Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. In the spring of 2007, she held an Institute of Advanced Study Distinguished Research Fellowship at Durham University in the UK and come the winter of 2011, she will hold a Visiting Research Fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at Edinburgh University, also in the UK.

Her book Epistemic Responsibility (University Press of New England, 1987) won the Brown University Press First Book Prize together with a Mellon Foundation Fellowship to spend a teaching semester at Brown University. What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge (Cornell University Press, 1991) is her best-known book – a path-breaking work in feminist epistemology, which has been reprinted several times. It traces the historical and present-day implications of inquiry in standard Anglo-American theories of knowledge, which tacitly exclude all but standard, presumptively white male knowers.

In Rhetorical Spaces: Essays on Gendered Locations (Routledge, 1991), she addresses issues in the politics of knowledge such as incredulity, empathy, relativism, voice and voicelessness and the epistemological value of gossip. Ecological Thinking: The Politics of Epistemic Location (Oxford University Press, 2006) is her most recent book. A session devoted to discussing the book was held at the Canadian Philosophical Association meetings and the American Philosophical Association Pacific Division meetings. Code is the editor of the Encyclopedia of Feminist Theories (Routledge, 2000) and Feminist Interpretations of Hans-Georg Gadamer (Penn State University Press, 2003).

Code will be honoured at the 2009 annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in New York City on Monday, Dec. 28.