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Feminist Epistemology Essay

Abstract In this paper I analyze the potential of Allison Jaggar’s suggestion that emotions in general, and outlaw emotions in particular, be incorporated into feminist epistemology. Jaggar advocates a standpoint theory of emotions, and suggests that the emotions of the oppressed in particular are helpful rather than inimical to acquiring knowledge. I argue that although there are some potential problems with Jaggar’s approach, these problems are common to standpoint theories and can be addressed by applying the solutions offered by other feminist theorists.

One common criticism made by feminist epistemologists[i] is the critique of traditional epistemology’s notions of objectivity and neutrality. As Naomi Scheman puts it, in traditional epistemology “[t]hose who are taken to be in the best position to know are those who are believed to be objective, distanced, dispassionate, independent, and nonemotionally rational” (3-4).

[ii] According to Allison Jaggar, the result of this conception of the knower in modern epistemology is a sharp distinction between reason and emotion where reason is privileged because emotions are viewed as involuntary responses that distort our rational observations of the world, which in turn distort the knowledge we can gain from these observations (1992). She further argues that this distinction contributes to the denial of women’s epistemic authority since women are associated with emotions and men with reason, and so men became the standard by which epistemic authority is judged.

This is just one of many concerns feminist epistemologists share. However, there are many dissimilarities between feminists as to how to deal with the problems in traditional epistemology. [iii] One approach that I will focus on in this paper is feminist standpoint theory, particularly the standpoint theory offered by Jaggar in “Love and Knowledge: Emotions in Feminist Epistemology.

” What Jaggar aims to accomplish in her paper is to “begin bridging the gap [between emotion and knowledge] through the suggestion that emotions may be helpful and even necessary rather than inimical to the construction of knowledge” (1992, 146). The bridge she wants to build includes a methodology for identifying biases of the dominant group that leads to false appraisals of the world. This methodology relies on the notion that perspective can be altered by the way one is situated in the world, particularly how one’s situatedness can affect one’s emotional perspective and response.

I will explain the concept of emotional perspective and response in a moment, but I want to first note that the type of emotions she thinks are important to feminist epistemologists are outlaw emotions—which are emotional responses that do not follow or support the values and norms we have been taught to accept. Because outlaw emotions are usually a negative response to norms and values, they can help us identify which biases are causing errors in our methods of seeking knowledge.

The point that Jaggar wants to make clear is that impartiality in our epistemic methods is impossible, therefore, we should give up on the notion of impartiality and work towards identifying biases that will better guide our epistemic endeavors. There is much debate between feminists over the potential of feminist standpoint epistemologies, yet, I think that Jaggar’s methodology warrants some consideration. [iv] However, because she offers just a sketch of how emotions might be incorporated into epistemology, there are some aspects of her theory that are problematic.

The first problem is that standpoint theories seem to neglect the differing experiences of particular individuals within groups by trying to speak about the experiences of these groups in general. The second problem is that Jaggar needs to address how to distinguish which outlaw emotions could potentially further feminist interests from the other emotions, outlaw or otherwise. The general aim of this paper, then, is to initiate an investigation into whether Jaggar’s proposal will be a fruitful endeavor for feminist epistemologists.

The more specific aim of this paper is to point out some of the potential problems that arise from her theory, as a feminist theory, and to offer some potential solutions for these problems, some of which are solutions that feminists have previously used to answer similar problems in other feminist theories. 1. Jaggar’s View Jaggar argues that theories that make the distinction between reason and emotion as it pertains to knowledge are mistaken in that they falsely assume emotions are involuntary responses that can be separated from reason.

Jaggar contends that most emotions are socially constructed, intentional, and can influence our perceptions of the world. For example, when someone feels anger at a slight from a friend, this anger arises not as an involuntary response, but rather there is a judgment being made about the way friends ought to behave and the response of anger is the appropriate emotion that corresponds with one’s expectations being disappointed.

We form beliefs about what constitutes a slight by a friend at the same time as we learn what our society values as appropriate friendship behavior and appropriate responses to different experiences—say affection as a response to respect from one’s friends and anger to disrespect. The idea that emotions are constructed suggests that socialization influences our appraisals of the world and the judgments we make are often emotional responses to observations that reflect the norms and values of our society.

For example, when someone tells a joke the expected response is for a person to be amused. However, my being amused by a joke presupposes a number of social conditions. For instance, when we hear something like ‘a priest, a rabbi, and a duck walk into a bar’ we immediately feel an anticipatory amusement, since we recognize this as a joke formula. [v] If I do not recognize this formula then my lack of understanding could cause me to not share the same social experience as the other people who are hearing the same joke.

Second, in order to find the joke amusing I must not only understand the language in which the joke is told, but also the content of the joke. I must share the same appraisal of the world in order to actually be amused by the punch line. Third, emotional responses are neither automatic nor passive in the sense that we have no control over them. I may be amused and laugh at a joke of this type. However, I may not laugh if I find the joke to be in bad taste even though not laughing when amusement is anticipated often creates moments of social tension and discomfort.

The important thing to note here is that in both cases whether or not I am amused can be a deliberate conscious decision. From this example, we can see why Jaggar suggests that, “every emotion presupposes an evaluation of some aspect of the environment while, and conversely, every evaluation or appraisal of the situation implies that those who share the evaluation will share, ceteris paribus, a predictable emotional response to the situation” (1992, 153).

Just as I would have to share a similar appraisal of the world in order to understand the punch line of a joke, I am also influenced by those preconceived notions to think the joke is funny. At the very least, I am conditioned to some extent to recognize a joke when I hear one and laugh when I think laughter is the expected response.

Jaggar thinks it is important to recognize that emotions play a role in how we seek knowledge, given that if we maintain the distinction between emotion and reason in epistemology, then this distinction will influence whom we think are good epistemic agents: namely, dispassionate investigators who can keep their emotions from interfering with their observations. Ironically, because the notion of a dispassionate investigator is considered the ideal, we are biased in our assessment of who is a good investigator and who is not.

Note that Jaggar is not saying we are not being impartial enough in our assessment of investigators; rather she is saying our bias in favour of the dispassionate is inhibiting because emotion is an essential part of knowledge. Moreover, the distinction between emotion and reason is problematic, as Jaggar points out, because “reason has been associated with members of dominant political, social, and cultural groups and emotion with members of subordinate groups”, like “people of color…and women” (1992, 157).

The result of the false distinction between emotion and reason is that it produces a myth about investigators that functions in a circular pattern where the myth reinforces the oppression of those who are perceived as emotional, while the oppression reinforces the myth that it is bad to be emotional. In order to give a full account of what it means to be a good investigator, then, we should acknowledge how emotions function to produce passionate investigators who are reliable observers.

The first point Jaggar thinks a full account should include is that in many ways emotions are socially constructed in a way that reflects the norms and values of our society, and that this emotional construction influences our evaluations and observations of the world. The second aspect of the social construction of our emotional constitution she wants to point out is that our emotional construction is not complete in the sense that there are people who do not always respond to or evaluate particular situations in a manner that reflects social norms and values.

Jaggar calls these unconventional emotional responses and evaluations “outlaw” emotions, and states that they are usually experienced by “subordinated individuals who pay a disproportionately high price for maintaining the status quo” (1992, 160). However, when the distinction between emotion and reason is maintained biases against emotional responses in general and unconventional emotional responses in particular, are disregarded.

For example, a woman may feel anger or fear when a sexist joke is made, but when she tries to voice her opinion she is told either that she did not understand the joke or that she has no sense of humour. Thus, when the distinction is maintained it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to realize that the joke is not funny because it is based on a negative stereotype. That is to say, it is not acknowledge that the stereotype and the expected emotional response is dictated by the current norms and values.

Furthermore, because a woman, who may already be identified as a bad observer, is pointing out that there may be a mistake in our way of thinking, her response is disregarded as emotional and unreliable, and the oppressive norms and values go unquestioned. 2. Jaggar’s Methodology and Potential Problems The benefit of ridding ourselves of epistemologies that do not acknowledge the role of emotions, both conventional and unconventional, is that we can begin to recognize which norms and values are causing harmful biases and negative stereotypes.

Furthermore, Jaggar claims that feminist outlaw emotions—which are outlaw emotions that “incorporate feminist perceptions and values”—are particularly useful in feminist epistemology because they “can help in developing alternatives to prevailing reality by motivating new investigations…Feminist emotions provide a political motivation for investigation and so help determine the selection of problems as well as the method by which they are investigated” (1992, 161).

Although Jaggar meant to offer a rough sketch of some of the changes that need to be made to our epistemic theories and practices, I think there are some potential problems that need to be addressed. For one, I think she needs to say more about how we should determine which emotions will lead to fruitful norms and values, and which emotions we should reject. To her credit, it seems that Jaggar recognizes this is a question that needs to be addressed given that she tries to give reasons for why “certain alternative perceptions of the world, perceptions informed by outlaw emotions, are to be preferred to perceptions informed by conventional norms” (1992, 161).

She claims the reason women’s outlaw emotions should be given consideration is because women are not members of the group that conventional beliefs about emotions privilege. Given that women experience the consequences of not being privileged, they are not as likely to adhere to these norms without question. Hence, they are better able to articulate the negative aspects of their experiences because they do not fear that this questioning of norms will threaten their privileged status.

The problem with this response is that it does not seem to fully answer the question, because some outlaw emotions will not provide reliable guides to identifying biases, and so the difficulty will be distinguishing which emotions are reliable from those that are not. In order to give a more robust argument for why we should give special consideration to the emotions of oppressed people she needs to first address the fact that the “oppressed” do not share one perspective.

As pointed out by Marilyn Frye, one problem with making claims about the standpoint of women’s emotional perspectives is that such claims seem to presuppose there are universal types of emotions—outlaw or otherwise—that are consistent throughout the emotions experienced by women. Frye notes that this is a mistake often made by feminists given that it is common for epistemological theories to espouse that “all knowers are essentially alike, that is, are essentially like oneself: one thinks that one speaks not just as oneself, but as a human being” (35).

What happens in feminist theorizing as a response to this attitude is feminists become convinced they need to speak as “Women” in order to be taken seriously. As Frye points out, feminists often face the difficult task of trying to articulate “the circumstances, experience and perception of those who are historically, materially, culturally constructed by or through the concept women. But the differences among women across cultures, locales and generations make it clear that although all female humans may live lives shaped by the concepts of Woman, they are not all shaped by the same concept of Woman” (36).

[vi] The point I want to stress from this passage is that not all women will experience the same emotions in the same contexts because we are formed by different concepts of “Woman” even though women in general face oppression in one form or another. In response to the problem of women’s differing experiences, Frye suggests feminists approach epistemology with a different methodology. That is, a methodology that will allow women to give meaning to their own experiences even though they are not experiences that are shared by all women.

Part of this project entails that feminists give up the notion of a universal women’s experience. Another part is that they listen to many different women’s experiences and look for patterns of similarity. Frye suggests this methodology will result in the following: The experiences of each woman and of the women collectively generate a new web of meaning. Our process has been one of discovering, recognizing, and creating patterns—patterns within which experience made a new kind of sense, or in instances, for the first time made any sense at all.

Instead of bringing a phase of enquiry to closure by summing up what is known, as other ways of generalizing do, pattern recognition/constructions opens fields of meaning and generates new interpretive possibilities. Instead of drawing conclusions from observations, it generates observations. (39) I think this methodology will be helpful in pointing out the outlaw emotions that can offer guidance as to which of our norms and values are questionable, and opens a dialogue over potential ways to change them.

The methodology Frye advocates can be further developed if we consider potential ways in which women can express their experiences such that patterns can be recognized. One approach that I find particularly convincing is offered by Morwenna Griffiths. Griffiths suggests that feminist epistemologists can employ autobiographical accounts of women’s experiences as a means of articulating the differences between women’s experiences. Like Frye, Griffiths also notes that there is no one experience common to all women.

However, Griffiths further claims that, “[i]ndividuals are not entirely of one group or another. On the contrary, individuals are fragments of an uncertain number of groups” (62). The conclusion she draws from this point is that it is an oversimplification to limit the types of knowledge humans can acquire into categories like women’s knowledge. One person can experience oppression from the perspective of more than one position. To name a few, one may experience oppressions from the perspectives of a particular race, class, gender, or sexual orientation, and intersections of these.

For example, the oppression experienced by a native woman is not the same as that experienced by a native man or that experienced by a white woman. Hence, Griffiths suggests that one’s positions in the world at different times can contribute to her understanding of the world, which in turn will influence the knowledge she can acquire about the world. Noting the different positions from which an individual can have experiences and acquire knowledge is important because it suggests that there can be similarities between the positions we occupy and the individual experiences we have.

This potential to have similar experiences of the world further suggests that similarities in experience make it the case that we are not completely denied access to other people’s understanding of the world. The reason Griffiths thinks autobiographical accounts are a crucial feature of feminist epistemology is because the way in which individuals come to find similarities in experiences is through language. To further clarify her point, she argues that, language has a considerable power to determine what we see and do, but this power is not absolute. We also create new language, by working on the languages in which we live.

Individual experience can be used in creation knowledge in combinations with the experiences of others. Groups can develop languages of their own if they share particular psychosocial, social and linguistic experiences. Thus women in society, for instance, who share particular positions within it can develop a way of talking about this. (66) In short, Griffiths suggests that language is key to feminist epistemology because it points out how women with different experiences can nonetheless come to some consensuses on the oppressions they experience and the knowledge developed from these experiences. 3. Conclusion

I think that if we incorporate Griffiths’ and Frye’s approach on Jaggar’s theory what we will find is a more tenable response to questions about which outlaw emotions can be regarded as being particular to women: namely, patterns of outlaw emotions that feminists have recognized through the expression of different women’s autobiographical accounts. And once we can start pointing out the commonalities between the different perspectives that arise from the standpoint of different women, we can begin show that there is something about women’s reality that makes it the case that they are experiencing the world differently than men.

I have not even scratched the surface with respect to giving a detailed explanation of exactly how Jaggar thinks a fully functional theory of outlaw emotions might look. However, I am assuming that once theorists start admitting that emotion is an integral part of epistemology the intricate details of how to identify fruitful outlaw emotions will be worked out. For instance, we might be able to start identifying patterns of emotions that could be considered outlaw emotions and which norms and values that they are a response to.

And this recognition will further our abilities to start questioning the norms and values that guide our epistemic practices. I think this is the sort of thing Jaggar had in mind when she states that the benefit of bridging the gap between emotion and knowledge is that our emotions, when properly accessed, “may contribute to the development of knowledge, so the growth of knowledge may contribute to the development of appropriate emotions” (1992,163).

The development of this project may be slow and arduous, but given the problems that exist in traditional epistemology I think Jaggar’s project seems worthy of consideration as a potential contributor to a solution. NOTES ———————– [i] For the purposes of this paper I will equate feminist epistemologists with feminists philosophers of science given that there are many overlapping interests between the two. [ii] For similar arguments, particularly with respect to how positivism had contributed to the notion of the ideal objective knower, see Jaggar (1992) and (1983), especially pp.

355-358; Code (1993). [iii] As noted by Louise Antony, “For discussions of epistemological frameworks available to feminists, see Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism, (Ithaca, N. Y. : Cornell University Press, 1986), especially pp. 24-29; Mary Hawkesworth, “Feminist Epistemology: A Survey of the Field,” Women and Politics 7 (1987): 112-124; and Hilary Rose, “Hand, Brain, and Heart: A feminist Epistemology for the Natural Sciences,” Signs 9, 11 (1983): 73-90. ” (Antony 2002, Note 3).

[iv] For discussion of Feminist Standpoint Theory, see Bar On (1993); Harding (1993); Longino (1993). For a more general analysis of essentialism in feminist theorizing, see Spelman (1988). [v] Thanks to Elizabeth Brake for clarifying the distinction between the emotion of amusement and the behavior of laughter, as well as supplying me with an example of amusement anticipation. [vi] Jaggar does mention that she is speaking “very generally of people and their emotions, as though everyone experienced similar emotions and dealt with them in similar ways” (Jaggar 1992, 157).

And she further notes that “it is an axiom of feminist theory…that all generalizations about ‘people’ are suspect” (Jaggar 1992, 157). So she does, at the very least, seem to recognize that she may fall prey to Frye’s criticism. However, she goes on to argue that making generalizations about the emotionality of women is part of how the epistemic authority of men is perpetuated, and she does not address the issue of how she should deal with the problem as it applies to standpoint theory.

I find this particularly odd given that in another work she claims that part of the project of feminist ethics entails that feminists be sensitive to the fact that all women are not similarly situated in such a way that universal claims can be made about them even though there are commonalities between women’s situatedness at times. (Jaggar 1991). So, although I am uncertain as to why she does not deal with problems that might arise from this issue as it applies to standpoint theory, I gather that she would welcome rather than reject feminist theories that could aid her in avoiding this problem as it would apply to feminist epistemology.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Alcoff, Linda, and Elizabeth Potter. 1993. Feminist epistemologies. New York: Routledge. Antony, Louise. 2002. Quine as a feminist: the radical import of naturalized epistemology. In A mind of one’s own 2nd edition, ed. Louise M. Antony and Charlotte E. Witt. Colorado: Westview Press. Bar On, Bat-Ami. 1993. Marginality and epistemic privilege. In Feminist epistemologies. See Alcoff and Potter 1993. Code, Lorraine. 1993. Taking subjectivity into account. In Feminist epistemologies. See Alcoff and Potter 1993. Frye, Marilyn. 1996. The possibility of feminist theory.

In Women, knowledge and reality 2nd edition. ed. Ann Garry and Marilyn Pearsall. New York: Routledge. Griffiths, Morwenna. 1995. Feminisms and the self. New York: Routledge. Harding, Sandra. 1993. Rethinking standpoint epistemology: “what is strong objectivity”?. In Feminist epistemologies. See Alcoff and Potter 1993. Jaggar, Alison M. 1992. Love and knowledge: emotions in feminist epistemology. In Gender/body/knowledge. ed. Alison M. Jaggar and Susan R. Bordo. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. ——. 1991. Feminist ethics: projects, problems, prospects.

In Feminist ethics. ed. Claudia Card. Kansas: University Press of Kansas. ——. 1983. Feminist politics and human nature. New Jersey: Rowman & Allanheld Publishers. Longino, Helen E. 1993. Subjects, power and knowledge: description and prescription in feminist philosophies of science. In Feminist epistemologies. See Alcoff and Potter 1993. Scheman, Naomi. 1993. Engenderings: constructions of knowledge, authority, and privilege. New York: Routledge. Spelman, Elizabeth V. 1988. Inessential women: problems of exclusion in feminist thought Boston: Beacon Press.


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