Disruptive Emotional Epistemology
The mass of men seldom move together without an emotional incentive.
Giving Moral Motivation A Face
In an episode from the second season of the sometimes philosophically provocative television show, Star Trek: The Next Generation, the power of disruptive emotional epistemology is illustrated. The crew of the starship Enterprise is made up of officers in an organization which has a strict non-interference policy known as the Prime Directive. Accordingly, in their space travels they are not to meddle with the natural and social development of alien species (the antithesis of the Monroe Doctrine in U.S. foreign policy history). In one episode, the crew is studying a geologically unstable solar system. They know that there are inhabitants on some of the planets that may be imperiled, but, in accordance with the Prime Directive, they do not make contact, nor do they intervene. However, one crewmember, Data, who ironically is an android with no feelings, unwittingly makes radio contact with an alien child. They begin conversing and she expresses fear over the geological activity on her planet. Data reassures her and starts up a brief correspondence. The captain is made aware of this violation of the Prime Directive, and after a heated debate where everyone hears a recording of the voice of the alien, he decides to further violate the prime directive by assisting the imperiled aliens. What motivated them to transgress their lofty principle of non-interference? The voice of the child over the airwaves suddenly concretized what had been an abstract understanding of the harm being done on the planet. They were no longer dealing with the abstraction of unknown aliens. A specific embodied subjectivity with a voice elicited an emotional response although the circumstances of the planet had not changed. This emotional knowledge disrupted their existence and caused them to act.
In this paper I will argue that Jane Addams’ political philosophy exemplifies aspects of modern feminist notions of moral epistemology and social epistemology while offering the beginnings of a theory of emotional epistemology as the disruptive knowledge necessary for moral action. I would like to suggest that Addams’ emotional epistemology is a means for framing social relations, social change, and a rational for valuing diversity. I will proceed by offering a few definitions then brief examinations of feminist moral and social epistemology before returning to Addams’ emotional epistemology and its implications.
A Few Definitions
Margaret Urban Walker claims that "moral competence draws on propositional knowledge–‘know that’–but also on perceptive, imaginative, and expressive capacities supported by habits of emotional response." Clearly, propositional knowledge is important. We need to know the facts, relevant statistics, and descriptions of events when adjudicating moral dilemmas. However, if propositional knowledge were all there was to morality it seems that a computer could handle ethical controversies as so many variables in an algorithm. As Walker suggests, there is the emotional knowledge that ignites empathy, draws our attention, and tugs at our heartstrings to act. This knowledge is disruptive because it is the kind of knowledge that interrupts our lives and demands a felt response
For Jane Addams there is a crucial emotional dimension to morality that is bound up with our knowledge of, and attachments to, others. This emotive knowledge is capable of disrupting our lives and refocusing our attention on individuals caught up in moral dilemmas in a manner not captured by the detached moral agents assumed by traditional Western ethics. Emotional epistemology is an approach to social philosophy that recognizes that many forms of knowledge have an emotional dimension. Knowledge of others has the potential to create emotional bonds. The more direct this knowledge is, the greater the potential for emotional attachment. Moral action is usually accompanied by an emotional connection thus linking epistemology with ethics. Addams often referred to this phenomenon as "sympathetic knowledge." For example, in A New Consciousness for an Ancient Evil, Addams declares that, "Sympathetic knowledge is the only way of approach to any human problem, and the line of least resistance into the jungle of human wretchedness must always be through that region which is most thoroughly explored, not only by the information of the statistician, but by sympathetic understanding." For Addams, emotional knowledge is a key participant in moral deliberation.
What makes emotional epistemology disruptive knowledge is that it transforms abstract understanding into a concrete understanding. This concretization takes on a particular form, which can be characterized as human or at least embodied. The embodied connection allows for a felt understanding with a greater potential to shake us from the rhythms of our ongoing lives to take moral action. For example, I could tell you that UNICEF reports that one-third of all children under the age of five in developing countries are malnourished. You may feel this is tragic but few of you would be moved emotionally. However, if I brought in a child who grew up amid such conditions and she described the experience and you saw the expressions on her face, the inflection of her voice, her hand gestures and body movements, you would be more likely to have a felt response than you would from any statistical presentation. The potential for disruption is greater because malnourishment was concretized for you in a way that made an embodied connection (much like the Star Trek example that I began with).
I have summarized definitions of emotional epistemology and disruptive knowledge. Next, I will review feminist moral epistemology and feminist social epistemology prior to exploring Addams’ notion of emotional knowledge.
Feminist Moral Epistemology
Born out of gender exclusion, feminist moral epistemology recognizes the connection between moral theories and the epistemology that informs them. This connection is significant given that the Western philosophical tradition has often operated as if moral principles or formulae have a universal quality to them detached from any knowledge base that was grounded in a particular time, place, or social location. Sandra Harding states that, "Feminists criticized the idea of universal man and his transhistorical rationality; what has been claimed to be true for man and reason is in fact characteristic (at best) only of men in the dominant groups in the West and their preferred view of themselves and the world." The epistemological worldview that Harding describes is significant because one’s epistemological stance impacts subsequent moral theorizing. Given transhistorical rationality, moral agents, in the words of Walker are, "mutually independent peers seeking to preserve autonomy or enhance self-interest in rule- (or role-) bound voluntary interactions." Feminist moral epistemology has demonstrated that one’s standpoint impacts the development of moral theory. In other words, experience matters. Addams concurs.
Writing over a half century before Harding or Walker, Addams also recognized the connection between epistemology and ethics. For Addams, "Ideals are ‘true’ in the definition of William James in that they have been ‘assimilated, validated, corroborated, and verified in experience that they are fruits for life." Addams is confident that what people know about a given situation will impact their moral disposition. For example, when addressing prostitution, Addams argues that, "the mere contemplation of it throws the more sensitive men and women among our contemporaries into a state of indignant revolt." Addams does not begin with moral platitudes or principles but with knowledge and sympathetic understanding. In fact, it is precisely the grounding of moral epistemology in time and place that makes Addams’ A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil somewhat awkward for philosophical analysis. Given the traditional abstract, detached model there is a certain expectation that philosophical texts will be largely theoretical. Addams work is grounded in experiences of a particular time and place.
Feminist Social Epistemology
Besides revealing the universalistic assumptions of traditional epistemology, feminist philosophers have also critiqued its individualistic nature. Walker describes some feminist epistemologists as maintaining, "that knowledge is necessarily an intersubjective achievement. They also claim that it is communities rather than individuals in them who are the subjects of knowledge; communities sustain the discursive and other material resources, and the social and cognitive practices, for producing and legitimating knowledge." Recognizing the social dimension of knowledge, when combined with our previous suggestion that epistemology is crucial for morality creates a further challenge for traditional ethical theory. Western ethical philosophy has been largely directed at individual morality. However, if feminist epistemologists are correct and communities maintain the practices and production of knowledge, and further if the source and location of knowledge molds moral thinking then there is an important moral dimension to community. Even today the moral dimension of socialized epistemology has not been widely recognized. Much more attention is paid to the moral weight of individual acts (i.e. stealing, acts of violence, cheating) versus social acts (i.e. corporate downsizing, homelessness, pollution).
According to Walker, feminist epistemology has emphasized the connection between knowledge and ethics in order to critique notions of universal moral principles that assume an omniscient-like position in order to justify absolute claims. "Dominant moral theories thus seem to see a moral world from typical situations and familiar positions of some men, but (even now) few women; this shows something about what theory makers have been able or likely to know about ‘our’ moral world." The epistemology that informs such traditional morality is detached, abstract, and individualistic.
Jane Addams, while not having the analytical tools available to her that modern feminist philosophers do, wrote and practiced a socialized moral epistemology. The title of Addams’ most traditionally "philosophical" text, Democracy and Social Ethics indicates her belief in the intimacy between social epistemology and social morality. In Addams words, "it is inevitable that those who desire [social morality] must be brought in contact with the moral experiences of the many in order to procure an adequate social motive." Addams argues that knowledge of others in society is a prerequisite for having an adequate morality. For example, Addams did not view prostitution as merely a character flaw of a handful of individuals but as part of a complex web of social problems and the only way to resolve the problem was to understand its social dimension. "This ancient evil is indeed social in the sense of community responsibility and can only be understood and at length remedied when we face the fact and measure the resources which may at length be massed against it."
Perhaps even more so than her writings, Addams’ activism is demonstrative of socialized epistemology. Addams could have picked any number of ways to help the poor immigrant community in Chicago, but in founding Hull House with Ellen Gates Starr in 1889, Addams chose to experience this community directly. Living in one of the most congested areas of the country where immigrants arrived by rail on a daily basis, she listened and learned from the new arrivals and, in good pragmatist fashion, used that knowledge to help the neighborhood. Addams’ book, The Long Road of Women’s Memory is in a certain way a tribute to socialized epistemology. In this work she recounts many of the stories and interpretations of memory that create powerful narratives which dictate behavior in her neighborhood. These stories give Addams a keen insight into the knowledge and values of her community. "While I may receive valuable suggestions from classic literature, when I really want to learn about life, I must depend upon my neighbors, for, as William James insists, the most instructive human documents lie along the beaten path." Addams’ activism and philosophy were dictated by a socialized epistemology.
The Emotional Connection
For Addams what connects moral epistemology and social epistemology and what connects knowledge and action is emotion. Throughout her writing, Addams recognizes the emotive dimension to morality. In Newer Ideals of Peace, Addams describes the role of experience in fostering the moral sentiments of immigrant communities. The common experience of leaving home and trying to make a new life in a foreign land gives rise to compassion "emotional pity and kindness." According to Addams, "emotion becomes the dominant force in fixing social relations." Addams goes so far as to give a "meta history" of social morality when she discusses "tribal man." She claims that today’s newer ideals of peace or humanitarianism is an outgrowth of the origins of social relations. The hostile world brought people together to combat the common enemy of their environment. Addams claims a "solidarity of emotion and action" was essential to life under siege. Immigrant communities and the poor are also under siege and have similar emotional solidarity. Addams suggests that we need to overcome differences to allow that solidarity of emotion to resurface. Addams declares that "the new social morality, which we so sadly need, will have its origins in the social affections."
Addams work in Newer Ideals of Peace coheres with feminist moral epistemology and feminist social epistemology while contributing an emotional interpretation. By grounding her appeal in immigrant experience she makes no pretense to universals. She is addressing a need in a particular place and time and in doing so is reflecting the values of feminist moral epistemology. She is also acknowledging the community’s role in the production of knowledge. She describes social affections that arise from common experience. For Addams, emotions are central part of moral development because they help bind communities together. It is through sympathetic understanding that the connected nature of humanity is manifested.
Conclusion: Society as Based on Knowing and Feeling for One Another
Three implications of Addams’ emotional epistemology are the role of emotion in creating a democratic society, the role of emotion in bringing about social change, and the role of emotion in valuing diversity.
For Addams society is strengthened through sympathetic knowledge or emotional connection between people. Knowledge and care are intertwined in what she describes as the democratic spirit. Addams definition of democracy is more that a political form it is a citizenry committed to one another and part of that commitment is emotional knowledge capable of disrupting our lives causing us to act on one another’s behalf. In the introduction to Democracy and Social Ethics, Addams writes,
We are learning that a standard of social ethics is not attained by traveling a sequestered byway, but by mixing on the thronged and common road where all must turn out for one another, and at least to see the size of one another’s burden. To follow the path of social morality results perforce in the temper if not the practice of the democratic spirit of it implies that diversified human experience and resultant sympathy which are the foundation and guarantee of Democracy.
Here Addams places emotions at the center of a democratic society but emotional connections is not a static force but a dynamic relationship that leaves open the possibility for growth and change.
Addams believed that disruptive emotional knowledge is a powerful catalyst for social change. In the opening chapter of A New Consciousness and an Ancient Evil Addams views social change as resulting from a three part process; First, a small group of reformers initiates an education program that, when effective, consists of both propositional knowledge such as facts and statistics but also disruptive knowledge that grabs at the heartstrings of the public. Second, at some point society takes responsibility for the problem by making personal connections to those impacted by it. Finally, moral indignation grows to the point where a critical mass of society is compelled to take action and address the problem.
Making people aware and educating them about an issue requires that the issue standout from all the other concerns people have in their lives. Information alone is not always effective. In the campaign against slavery, Addams describes "an army of reformers, lecturers, and writers get forth its enormity in a never ceasing flow of invective, of appeal, and of portrayal concerning the cruelty to which the system lent itself. According to Addams the information disseminated was, "not only biological and didactic, but of a popular type more closely approaching ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’" On several occasions Addams recognizes the power of literature and the arts to make a connection in people’s lives in the form of disruptive knowledge that wakes people form the slumber of their routine. The disruption is to see and feel the needs of another. The knowledge necessary to have this disruption must have an element of emotion. The public must be brought to feel for one another if there is to be any catalyst for change.
There is an inherent commitment to diversity in Addams’ emotional epistemology. If social knowledge is bound up with emotions than building community requires that we get better acquainted with one another. Addams tackles the problem of the one and the many not by flattening out everyone into a universal person but by recognizing that commonality exists among the differences: "A deeper and more thoroughgoing unity is required in a community made up of highly differentiated peoples then in a more settled and stratified one, and it may be logical that we shall find in the commingling of many peoples a certain balance and concord of opposing and contending forces . . ." An important part of the unity that can exist among diversity is the emotional connection that can be fostered among people who become acquainted with one another.
Addams’ emotional epistemology is quite demanding. The Western epistemic tradition of autonomous agents and universal principles offers the safety of emotional detachment and personal distance. The personal connection that can elicit an emotional response shortens that distance. Emotional knowledge implies risk and vulnerability that has the potential to cause us pain and disappointment. Addams asks that we channel that pain into motivation for action on behalf of others that will promote the growth and flourishing of society.