Mortal feelings: A theory of revulsion and the intimacy of agency

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Stocker, Michael


Moral agency, Revulsion, Emotion, Disgust, Taboos

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Philosophy


Moral philosophy has been increasingly concerned with the nature of emotion and its ethical significance. Almost no attention, however, has been paid to disgust, in spite of its evident connections to taboos, exclusionary policies, and severe forms of moral, political, and aesthetic condemnation. This dissertation offers a theory of revulsion. On the basis of this account, it also gives us a way of thinking about intimate or tactile features of moral agency, which play a vital role in maintaining those various practices.

The analysis begins with a detailed portrait of the expansive and curious realm of disgust and derives from the portrait a set of desiderata by which to build a theory of revulsion. The views of the three primary theorists of disgust are evaluated: the anomaly thesis of the anthropologist Mary Douglas, the animal reminder theory of the empirical psychologist Paul Rozin, and the generative lowliness account of the social historian William Ian Miller. None of these satisfies the desiderata, and they also fail for reasons internal to their own viewpoints. The works of Julia Kristeva on abjection and Noel Carroll on art-horror are also considered.

Both the portrait and the set of desiderata direct attention upon not just objects commonly deemed to be impure, but pollution processes and the wider emotional dynamics with which they are integrated. Due consideration of these various factors reveals that disgust is generally about carnal disvalue, or somatic unwholesomeness, and paradigmatically about filthiness and its smear. Disgust is so concerned because its phenomenology functions as a foretaste of unhealthiness. And it is aided in its task by a physiognomic structure calibrated to various organic signs taken to indicate deeper somatic defilement. One of the special features of such carnal disvalue is the facility with which or aesthetically repulsive. These reflections on revulsion suggest that our mortality is as much about the organic or carnal character of living and dying, as it is cessation of life.


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