The Privileged Access of the Underprivileged

How Social marginalization produces Epistemic Privilege

Teed Rockwell
19 min readApr 20


Privileged Access is a technical term coined by Analytic philosophers of mind in the mid-20th century. It refers to the special relationship that we have with our own mental states. We can both know about my pain, but only I can feel my pain. We can both know about my thoughts, but only I can think my thoughts. Philosopher William Alston put it this way:

“The kind of knowledge a person has of his {sic)} own mental (psychological) states, thoughts and feelings, is in principal not only fundamentally different from but also superior to the knowledge of his thoughts and feelings that is available to anybody else”
(“Alston 1971 p. 223)

This is sometimes called epistemic privilege. We allegedly each possess this because of what is called our privileged access to our own mental states. To some degree, defenders of privileged access acknowledge that Descartes got something right when he said that the mental cannot be reduced to the physical. However, you don’t have to be a Cartesian dualist to recognize the reality of privileged access. Some people claim that the mind is nothing but a piece of meat between the ears called the brain. However, even this view requires us to accept that we have privileged access to what is happening inside our respective skulls. I have a direct awareness of what is going on inside my skull, but I can only infer what is going on in other peoples skulls.

The word “privilege” takes on a very different meaning when it is paired with the concept of marginalization. In our society, affluent straight white cis males are privileged, and everyone else (women, people of color, gay and trans people etc.) is to some degree marginalized i.e. Considered as a deviation from the normal prototypical person. I will refer to this kind of privilege as socioeconomic privilege. There is, however, a kind of argument that frequently occurs when discussing privilege and marginalization, which presupposes that those who lack socioeconomic privilege possess a kind of epistemic privilege.

  1. marginalized person says an action is racist, sexist, ablest, transphobic etc.
  2. (Socially) Privileged person gives a reason why it isn’t.
  3. Marginalized person says the privileged person is in principle incapable of understanding why the action is offensive.
    “You Xs just



Teed Rockwell

I am White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Male Heterosexual cisgendered over-educated able-bodied affluent and thin. Hope to learn from those living on the margins.