This week’s extract is about the value of emotions as a source of knowledge, especially regarding unjust social norms and values.

From Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology, Alison M. Jaggar (1989):

Like everything else that is human, emotions in part are socially constructed; like all social constructs, they are historical products, bearing the marks of the society that constructed them. Within the very language of emotion, in our basic definitions and explanations of what it is to feel pride or embarrassment, resentment or contempt, cultural norms and expectations are embedded. Simply describing ourselves as angry, for instance, presupposes that we view ourselves as having been wronged, victimized by the violation of some social norm. Thus, we absorb the standards and values of our society in the very process of learning the language of emotion, and those standards and values are built into the foundation of our emotional constitution. Within a hierarchical society, the norms and values that predominate tend to serve the interests of the dominant groups.

The picture, however, is not complete; it ignores the fact that people do not always experience the conventionally acceptable emotions. People who experience conventionally unacceptable, or what I call ‘outlaw’ emotions often are subordinated individuals who pay a disproportionately high price for [the maintenance of] the status quo. The social situation of such people makes them unable to experience the conventionally prescribed emotions: for instance, people of color are more likely to experience anger than amusement when a racist joke is recounted, and women subjected to male sexual banter are less likely to be flattered than uncomfortable or even afraid.

When unconventional emotional responses are experienced by isolated individuals, those concerned may be confused, unable to name their experience; they may even doubt their own sanity. Women may come to believe that they are ’emotionally disturbed’ and that the embarrassment or fear aroused in them by male sexual innuendo is prudery or paranoia.

red lighted candle

When certain emotions are shared or validated by others, however, the basis exists for forming a subculture defined by perceptions, norms, and values that systematically oppose the prevailing perceptions, norms, and values. By constituting the basis for such a subculture, outlaw emotions may be politically [subversive] because [they are] epistemologically subversive [i.e. they subvert what is believed to be accurate knowledge about the world]

Outlaw emotions may […] enable us to perceive the world differently from its portrayal in conventional descriptions. They may provide the first indications that something is wrong with the way alleged facts have been constructed, with accepted understandings of how things are. Conventionally unexpected or inappropriate emotions may precede our conscious recognition that accepted descriptions and justifications often conceal as much as reveal the prevailing state of affairs. Only when we reflect on our initially puzzling irritability, revulsion, anger or fear may we bring to consciousness our ‘gut-level’ awareness that we are in a situation of coercion, cruelty, injustice or danger.

Thus, conventionally inexplicable emotions, particularly though not exclusively those experienced by women, may lead us to make subversive observations that challenge dominant conceptions of the status quo. They may help us to realize that what are taken generally to be facts have been constructed in a way that obscures the reality of subordinated people, especially women’s reality.

The perspective on reality that is available from the standpoint of the subordinated, which in part at least is the standpoint of women, is a perspective that offers a less partial and distorted and therefore more reliable view. Subordinated people have a kind of epistemological privilege [privilege as knowers] in so far as they have easier access to this standpoint and therefore a better chance of ascertaining the possible beginnings of a society in which all could thrive.


Jaggar, Alison M. “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology.” Inquiry, vol. 32, no. 2, 1989, pp. 151–176., doi:10.1080/00201748908602185.