Feminist Epistemology

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The Potential of Emotions in Feminist Epistemology:
Developing Jaggar’s Account

By
Tina Strasbourg
University of Calgary

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...
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