Helen Longino

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Helen Longino (born 13 July 1944) is an American philosopher of science known for her contributions on the role of values in science, role of social interaction in scientific objectivity and social epistemology. She is an important figure in the feminist epistemology and social epistemology. Longino emphasized the “usefulness” of non-epistemic values in scientific practice. She created an influential social account of knowledge. According to Longino, scientific objectivity and knowledge is a property of the community instead of individual scientists.

Historical Context

Until 1960’s philosophy of science was dominated by normative methodology and until 1980’s individuals were in the center of philosophy of science. The standard accounts of science were value free. Normative methodologists were interested in trying to justify science by coming with a prescriptive methodology which scientists should adhere to. Philosophers of science of the time were concerned with how scientists ought to work. Until Popper, who emphasized the role of other scientists in the acquisition of scientific knowledge, no significant weight was given to the role of other people in the daily working of science. 1

The Structure of Scientific Revolution was published in 1962. In his treatment, Thomas Kuhn didn’t use the normative methodology of his predecessors and instead built a framework which reflected the science as it was actually practiced. He also stressed the role of the scientific community in the creation of scientific knowledge. According to Kuhn, the scientific community accepted paradigms which are the frameworks for interpreting the world. After accepting a paradigmatic, exemplary case, scientists can come to a consensus which consist in foundational assumptions, common taxonomy, common scientific language and common ontology. Paradigms determine the methods of theory evaluation, the sort of questions that could be asked and many other aspects of the scientific enterprise. He also claimed that paradigms were incommensurable owing to the fact that they employed different language and different evaluating standards. This raised the question why would a scientific community prefer one paradigm over the other? Instead of coming up with a rationality, Kuhn’s answer implied that paradigm change was a result of sociological factor which were not rule based. Kuhn was instrumental in bringing the historicist turn in philosophy of science which emphasized the importance of the actual practice of science in the philosophical treatments of science. The social aspects of scientific knowledge now gained prominence, a fact which influenced Helen Longino.

It did not take long after the historicist turn for philosophers of science to focus on the social aspects of the scientific knowledge. Sociologists of science treated the scientific community like any other community and employed the sociological method on the scientific community. The resulting Strong Programme had developed a social constructivist account of science where scientific practice is guided by various non-epistemic factors such as political ideologies, personal and professional incentives scientists are facing. Most philosophers of science rejected this account because Strong Programme seemed to undermine the rationality of science. If scientific change is primarily the result of contingent social values then, why would it deserve the epistemically privileged position it has in our society? An example of this would be Farley and Geison’s account of Pasteur which focused on the role of monarchist ideology in Pasteur’s views. 2 Even though their views have not been popular among philosophers of science, sociologists of science created an avenue for research.

1980’s experienced a rapid surge in research on social aspects of scientific inquiry. One reason was the emergence of radical social movements such as feminism whose members questioned previously held views on the relationship between gender and scientific inquiry, the role of the community. Feminist epistemology questioned the atomistic notion of individual knower as opposed to accounts where knowledge is social. Proponents of feminist standpoint epistemology argue that the experiences women face give them a privileged epistemological standpoint. Other feminist epistemologists argued that the content of science determines whether it is feminist or not. Longino herself was greatly influenced by feminist epistemology and describes her own position as doing epistemology as a feminist which involves bringing the traditional feminist concerns into epistemology. 3 Another reason was the emergence of big science which is the scientific research that requires large team of scientists. In many fields, the scientific research consists of practices which no individuals can know on their own. Consequently, the social aspects of science became paramount to the justification of the actual practice of science. Due to emergence of big science, social aspects of are indispensable to policing and falsifying scientific hypothesis and views. Scientific community uses processes such as peer review and replication to challenge the ideas of individual scientists and eliminate the bias of the individuals from the production of scientific knowledge.

Longino received her PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 1973. She published 2 major books: Science as Social Knowledge in 1990, The fate of knowledge in 2002. She also published influential papers such as Can There be a Feminist Science in 1987, Gender, politics, and the theoretical virtues in 1995 and Cognitive and non-cognitive values in science: Rethinking the dichotomy in 1996.

Major Contributions

Longino believes in a form of contextual empiricism which views the epistemic justification itself as context dependent. Longino starts with the problem of underdetermination. 4 For any set of observations, there are competing theories that can explain the observed state of affairs. There exists at least two hypotheses that are incompatible and supported by the data and the data itself does not rule out one of the two hypothesis. According to Longino, there exists at least some instances in our chain of justification concerning the theories such that there are no further justifications for using a certain assumption. 1 These background assumptions inform the scientists about which sort of observation can be used as evidence for a particular theory. They mediate questions such as which theory is to be accepted and which observations can be used as evidence to confirm a particular theory. 5 Longino uses the example of red spots in a girl. 6 It can be taken as evidence for measles or it can equally be used to confirm the hypothesis that the girl has a gastric ailment. What determines which hypothesis will be supported by the data is one’s background assumptions about the relationship between having measles and red spots or having gastric ailment and measles. 6 Thus, background assumptions about what red spot means will determine the hypothesis we will confirm through the empirical evidence of red spots.

Due to lacking further justification, background assumptions bring a form of relativism into science. 4 Without an objective or non-arbitrary means of determining the background assumptions, the influence of subjective and arbitrary background assumptions is inimical to the objective normative accounts of traditional philosophers of science. Non-inferentialist justification that is not based on infallible knowledge, which is practically impossible to attain, implies that there is enough room for arbitrary factors such as personal ideology to influence the choice of a particular background assumption or affect the use of a particular background assumption on confirmation. Longino criticizes this belief on the grounds that background assumptions lead to a form of relativism only if an individualist conception of scientific method and scientific knowledge is presupposed. 4 She argues that a method of inquiry is “objective to the degree that it permits transformative criticism”. 4 An epistemic community requires four conditions for having transformative criticism: 4

- Recognized Avenues for criticism: Criticizing the works of other scientists is an indispensable part of scientific institutions. Peer review is an instance of this condition. - Shared standards: The epistemic community must share the same cognitive values which are used to evaluate theories. The same scientific community cannot have divided members with different values about which scientific theories are accepted. - Community response: In the long run, criticism should be able to affect the scientific practice. This can happen through changing textbooks, defending a scientific theory against its critics… - Equality of intellectual authority: Intellectual authority should be shared among the members of the epistemic community. Otherwise, due to imbalances in social constitution of the scientific community, certain values will remain unchallenged.

Longino’s account treats knowledge as a social product. 4 Scientific objectivity is not the result of a particular normative methodology such as Popper’s falsificationism. Instead, scientific objectivity comes from the open discourse and culture of criticism within science. 4 Her contextual empiricist position implies that epistemic justification is dependent on the epistemic contexts. Background assumptions can play a role in the epistemic justification by turning a set of observations into evidence. Scientific communities have their own practices and the objectivity of scientific knowledge is coming from the community rather than the individual scientist. Social and cultural context can also affect the epistemic justification since background assumption can make a particular contextual values relevant.


According to the traditional accounts, scientific methodology is value free. This means that non-epistemic values such as moral values should not play a role within scientific methodology. Most if not all philosophers of science agree that moral values can play a role in the question of which sort of projects ought to be pursued. Value free science is concerned with the role of non-epistemic values within scientific methodology. Hempel argued against the use of such values on the grounds that these values cannot give empirical support to various theories (Hempel, 1960). For example, the political debate about the moral desirability of nuclear energy has no bearing on whether chain reaction is true. Longino criticizes the idea of value free science in distinguishes between what she calls contextual values and constitutive values. 7 Contextual values are social and practical interests 5. They can include inclusion, diffusion of power, ontological heterogeneity… 8 By contrast, constitutive values are the values that are in accordance with the goals of science. They can include fruitfulness, accuracy, precision, simplicity and novel predictions. 5 Longino purports to show that under certain conditions, contextual values can become constitutive values. 4 For instance, the contextual value of diversity can become constitutive in a case where diversity of perspectives, which tend to have diversity of beliefs and values. Diversity is in fact required to turn hypothesis into knowledge due to the fact that transformative criticism is a necessary part of theory assessment. Longino also uses the example of feminist values to bolster her account. 3 Scientists with feminist values are skeptical about various claims on gender who can help minimize the bias on the topic of gender. As mentioned in the previous section Longino’s account of knowledge is a social one. Diversity of perspectives, beliefs and values is, therefore, necessary for scientific objectivity. 4

Criticism of Holism

Longino criticizes the holistic view of Kuhn and Quine. Quine treats knowledge as a web of belief. Some of these beliefs are closer to the core which implies that they are harder to reject compared to other beliefs in the periphery. The belief in causality is much harder to falsify than belief in aether theory. According to Kuhn’s account, an exemplary instance of scientific research can be considered a paradigm. Longino rejects both of these accounts on the grounds that background assumptions can always be evaluated. She tries to resolve the problems posed by Kuhn’s and Strong Programme’s account for the objectivity of science. She believes that a scientific community, which achieved transformative criticism, can evaluate background assumptions with free discourse on it. Another important aspect of Longino’s view is that change in background assumptions can affect the epistemic context of justification and the evidential status of various observations. Thus, Longino can explain the problem of the existence of different standards of evaluation over time without any reference to incommensurability. Kuhn’s notion of radical incommensurability does not allow scientists to say there are differences between paradigms due to the fact that there are no common referents. If scientists who subscribe to different paradigms are just talking past one another, how can they be certain that they are referring to different objects? Background assumption do allow for this contrast since they can have common referents.


Crasnow believes that Longino’s account changes the definition of objectivity rather than saving it 9. While Longino can criticize a scientific community on the basis that it is close to free discourse, her views would have difficulty with a community that has poor epistemic standards and free discourse. She believes that Longino can account for “anything goes” type of relativism but not the other type of relativism where there are no truth or rationality other than the one our society uses in one or more context. 9

Intemann argued that Longino’s account implies a moral relativism with respect to background conditions, and non-epistemic values 10. She argues that Longino’s argument from underdetermination does not show that any background assumption is justified.


Here are the works of Longino included in the bibliographic records of this encyclopedia:

  • Longino (2019): Longino, Helen. (2019) The Social Dimensions of Scientific Knowledge. In Zalta (Ed.) (2017).
  • Longino (2016a): Longino, Helen. (2016) The Social Dimensions of Scientific Knowledge. In Zalta (Ed.) (2016). Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/scientific-knowledge-social/.
  • Longino (2016b): Longino, Helen. (2016) Foregrounding the Background. Philosophy of Science 83 (5), 647-661.
  • Longino (2015): Longino, Helen. (2015) The Social Dimensions of Scientific Knowledge. In Zalta (Ed.) (2016). Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/scientific-knowledge-social/.
  • Longino (2010): Longino, Helen. (2010) Feminist Epistemology at Hypatia's 25th Anniversary. Hypatia 25 (4), 733-741.
  • Longino (2008): Longino, Helen. (2008) Norms and Naturalism: Comments on Miriam Solomon's Social Empiricism. Perspectives on Science 16 (3), 241-245.
  • Longino (2002): Longino, Helen. (2002) The Fate of Knowledge. Princeton University Press.
  • Longino (1997a): Longino, Helen. (1997) Feminist Epistemology as a Local Epistemology. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 71, 19-36.
  • Longino (1997b): Longino, Helen. (1997) Interpretation Versus Explanation in the Critique of Science. Science in Context 10 (1), 113-128.
  • Longino (1996): Longino, Helen. (1996) Cognitive and Non-cognitive Values in Science: Rethinking the Dichotomy. In Nelson and Nelson (1996), 39-58.
  • Longino (1995): Longino, Helen. (1995) Gender, Politics, and the Theoretical Virtues. Synthese 104 (3), 383-397.
  • Longino (1994a): Longino, Helen. (1994) In Search Of Feminist Epistemology. The Monist 77 (4), 472-485.
  • Longino (1992b): Longino, Helen. (1992) Taking Gender Seriously in Philosophy of Science. PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 2, 333-340.
  • Longino (1992a): Longino, Helen. (1992) Knowledge, Bodies, and Values: Reproductive Technologies and Their Scientific Context. Inquiry 35 (3-4), 323-340.
  • Longino (1991): Longino, Helen. (1991) Multiplying Subjects and the Diffusion of Power. Journal of Philosophy 88 (11), 666-674.
  • Longino (1990): Longino, Helen. (1990) Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry. Princeton University Press.
  • Longino (1989): Longino, Helen. (1989) Feminist critiques of rationality: Critiques of science or philosophy of science? Women's Studies International Forum 12 (3), 261-269.
  • Longino (1987): Longino, Helen. (1987) Can There Be A Feminist Science? Hypatia 2 (3), 51-64.
  • Longino (1983a): Longino, Helen. (1983) Beyond “Bad Science”: Skeptical Reflections on the Value-Freedom of Scientific Inquiry. Science, Technology, & Human Values 8 (1), 7-17.
  • Longino (1983b): Longino, Helen. (1983) Scientific Objectivity and the Logics of Science. Inquiry 26 (1), 85-106.
  • Longino (1979): Longino, Helen. (1979) Evidence and Hypothesis: An Analysis of Evidential Relations. Philosophy of Science 46 (1), 35-56.

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  1. a b  Longino, Helen. (2015) The Social Dimensions of Scientific Knowledge. In Zalta (Ed.) (2016). Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/scientific-knowledge-social/.
  2. ^  Geison, Gerald and Farley, John. (1974) Science, politics and spontaneous generation in nineteenth-century France: the Pasteur-Pouchet debate. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 48 (2), 161-98. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/4617616/.
  3. a b  Longino, Helen. (1987) Can There Be A Feminist Science? Hypatia 2 (3), 51-64.
  4. a b c d e f g h i  Longino, Helen. (1990) Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry. Princeton University Press.
  5. a b c  Longino, Helen. (1995) Gender, Politics, and the Theoretical Virtues. Synthese 104 (3), 383-397.
  6. a b  Longino, Helen. (1979) Evidence and Hypothesis: An Analysis of Evidential Relations. Philosophy of Science 46 (1), 35-56.
  7. ^  Longino, Helen. (1983) Beyond “Bad Science”: Skeptical Reflections on the Value-Freedom of Scientific Inquiry. Science, Technology, & Human Values 8 (1), 7-17.
  8. ^  Longino, Helen. (1994) In Search Of Feminist Epistemology. The Monist 77 (4), 472-485.
  9. a b  Crasnow, Sharon. (1993) Can Science Be Objective? Longinos Science as Social Knowledge. Hypatia 8 (3), 194-201.
  10. ^  Intemann, Kristen. (2008) Increasing the number of feminist scientists: why feminist aims are not served by the Underdetermination Thesis. Science & Education 17 (10), 1065-1079.