Miranda Fricker's "Epistemic Injustice"

Mercurial

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Originally published in 2007, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing by Miranda Fricker has been very influential in contemporary epistemology, and moral and political philosophy. The core thesis of the book is that there are certain forms of injustice that are distinctly epistemic in nature - that is to say there are ways that a person can be wronged in her capacity as a knower. The two main ways this can happen involve "testimonial injustice" where a person's account of their own experiences or knowledge is taken less seriously on the basis of her morally arbitrary features, and "hermeneutical injustice" where a person finds it difficult to make sense of her experiences because of some unjust features of the world (the classic example of this is a woman who suffers from sexual harrassment in the workplace but does not have access to that concept and so finds it more difficult to articulate what is happening to her).

Or, in Fricker's own words: " Testimonial injustice occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word; hermeneutical injustice occurs at a prior stage, when a gap in collective interpretive resources puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences." (p1)

PDFs of the book can be accessed for free online with a bit of Googling. Since I find myself having to read the book for a piece of research I'm working on, I thought it would be helpful to use this thread as a kind of informal reading group to discuss the book as I work through it myself.
 
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Mercurial

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The first significant point Fricker makes in the Introduction is to explain her approach as one that focuses not on justice but injustice, not on abstract categories but on social experiences. Thus:

"A socially situated account of a human practice is an account such that the participants are conceived not in abstraction from relations of social power (as they are in traditional epistemology, including most social epistemology) but as operating as social types who stand in relations of power to one another. This socially situated conception makes questions of power and its sometimes rational, sometimes counter-rational rhythms arise naturally as we try to account for the epistemic practice itself." (p3)

This is not a postmodernist approach, at least not as Fricker understands postmodernism, which she explicitly rejects:

"Suspicion of the category of reason per se and the tendency to reduce it to an operation of power actually pre-empt the very questions one needs to ask about how power is affecting our functioning as rational subjects; for it eradicates, or at least obscures, the distinction between what we have a reason to think and what mere relations of power are doing to our thinking. If one has an interest in how questions of justice might present themselves in relation to our epistemic practices, then the reductionist tendency obscures essential distinctions between, say, rejecting someone’s word for good reason and rejecting it out of mere prejudice. Far from opening up theoretical space in which to explore questions of justice and power in epistemic practices, then, postmodernism effectively pre-empted such questions, and so what it had to say of an epistemological bearing did not ultimately lead in a progressive direction at all, but was if anything orientated towards conservatism." (p3)

Nevertheless, "Starting from the socially situated conception, by contrast, allows us to trace some of the interdependencies
of power, reason, and epistemic authority in order to reveal the ethical features of our epistemic practices that are integral to those practices. Ultimately, the point is to see how our epistemic conduct might become at once more rational and more just."
 

Mercurial

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The remainder of the introduction is given over to summarizing the structure of the rest of the book, but we can focus on a number of key concepts that will be introduced in chapter 1 here. Specifically:

"Social power" refers to "a socially situated capacity to control others’ actions".

"Identity power" refers to a subspecies of social power "which is directly dependent upon shared social-imaginative conceptions of the social identities of those implicated in the particular operation of power".

"Testimonial injustice" is where "prejudice on the hearer’s part causes him to give the speaker less credibility than he would otherwise have given".

"Identity prejudice" is prejudice against people qua social type and the kind of prejudice involved in cases of testimonial injustice, which give rise to an "identity-prejudicial credibility deficit".
 

Mercurial

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Chapter 1

1.1 Power


"Social capacity is a capacity we have as social agents to influence how things go in the social world."

This power can operate actively or passively. (E.g. a traffic warden's power is exerciwed actively when she imposes a fine, but passively if her ability to impose a fine influences a driver's behaviour). Passive power tends to depend on active power - if people tend not to get fined then people will tend not to modify their behaviour over fear of getting fined.

Social power can be agential, when it is exercised by an agent (like the traffic warden), or structural, when it is not (e.g. when an entire group of people is disenfranchised, there is no particular individual who is exercising this power). In these cases, people can serve as "vehicles" of power rather than its paired subject and objects.

While social power is not always a bad thing, it always involves control over some person or group of people. So, whenever we identify social power at work, we should ask ourselves - who or what is controlling whom, and why?

1.2 Identity Power

Some forms of social power require only practical co-ordination with others' actions, but some forms also require "imaginative" social coordination. These sometimes involve shared conceptions of what it means to be, for example, a man or a woman, gay or straight, old or young, etc.

"Whenever there is an operation of power that depends in some significant degree upon such shared imaginative conceptions of social identity, then identity power is at work."

Fricker then gives an example of how this can work in the context of gender:

An exercise of gender identity power is active when, for instance, a man makes (possibly unintended) use of
his identity as a man to influence a woman’s actions—for example, to make her defer to his word. He might, for instance, patronize her and get away with it in virtue of the fact that he is a man and she is a woman: ‘Marge, there’s female intuition, and then there are facts’—as Greenleaf says to Marge in The Talented Mr Ripley. He silences her suspicions of the murderous Ripley by exercising identity power, the identity power he inevitably has as a man over her as a woman.

Note that this example does not imply that Greenleaf's intentions are anything but good - an exercise of identity power may be unwitting and well-motivated, but it is an exercise of identity power nonetheless.

This example involves the active exercise of power, but it need not be - imagine a case where a woman does not say anything at all because of prevailing ideas around gender.

This can happen even if all parties involved reject the truth of the stereotypes. Thus social power can control our actions despite our beliefs.

Social power that works in this way often does not operate in isolation but is reinforced with other forms of power (here Fricker uses the example of an upper-class gentleman accusing a working class man of impudence for speaking to him in a familiar manner). "Identity power is only one facet of social identity categories pertaining to, say, class or gender, since
such categories will have material implications as well as imaginative aspects."

Identity power is an integral part of the mechanism of testimonial exchange "because of the need for hearers to use social stereotypes as heuristics in their spontaneous assessments of their interlocutor’s credibility."

This leads us to the concept of testimonial justice, described in the next section.
 

McTell

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For us maybe the most blatant and glaring example was the priesthood, where they would talk down to you a lot, seemingly because they represented no less than a "god" who had built the whole universe in 7 days.

Total codology, but for some a form of therapy.

Is fricker not rehashing and rebranding for american youth?
 

Prester Jim

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Interesting but fairly understandable and common sense concepts. Not sure that its helpful to give such ideas overly complicated academic names. They should be more easily accesible and indeed are probably things that have been talked about many times before without being given multisyllabic names.
That kind of overcomplicated language is exclusionary sometimes used to be obfuscatory or as in management consultancy; to make easily accessible ideas seem out of reach to give the consultant an air of expertise many of them don't have. Maybe thats just my job getting in the way.
 

Mercurial

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For us maybe the most blatant and glaring example was the priesthood, where they would talk down to you a lot, seemingly because they represented no less than a "god" who had built the whole universe in 7 days.

Total codology, but for some a form of therapy.

Is fricker not rehashing and rebranding for american youth?
The main example she uses for testimonial injustice concern racial injustices - To Kill A Mockingbird presents a paradigmatic example of such a case, where a person's testimony is discounted because he is black - but it seems to me that the priest example works just as well. It's an extreme case of the kind of social power Fricker is describing, whereby being a priest massively enhanced a person's credibility, which was further exacerbated whenever it was their word against a socially undesirable person like an unwed mother, or a delinquent child.

Where her contribution is original, I would suggest, is in that she identifies epistemic injustice as a distinct kind of injustice.

Thus the child is not only treated unjustly because the priest fails to be punished but *also* because they are wronged in their capacity as a knower.
 

Mercurial

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Interesting but fairly understandable and common sense concepts. Not sure that its helpful to give such ideas overly complicated academic names. They should be more easily accesible and indeed are probably things that have been talked about many times before without being given multisyllabic names.
That kind of overcomplicated language is exclusionary sometimes used to be obfuscatory or as in management consultancy; to make easily accessible ideas seem out of reach to give the consultant an air of expertise many of them don't have. Maybe thats just my job getting in the way.
If this kind of approach is going to be useful, it will be because these concepts (I've not finished chapter 1 yet) will get much more complicated as the story develops, in which case it's useful to have as precise definitions as we can from the get go.
 

Mercurial

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1.3 The Central Case of Testimonial Injustice

Prejudice can lead to people being taken more seriously than they should, or less seriously than they should - a credibility excess or a credibility deficit.

An example is a person's accent - an accent can contain a whole bunch of socially charged implications, and can subtly influence how we perceive someone, for better or worse.

In rare cases, being given enhanced credibility can ultimately be disadvantageous (Fricker gives the example of a doctor whose expertise is over-estimated by his patients and a professor who asks for feedback from a junior colleague but where the feedback is overly deferential and not particularly useful as a result).

On the other hand, Fricker gives the example of Claudius, who ascended to the heights he did in no small part due to the fact that everyone thought him an idiot and thus didn't feel particularly threatened by the prospect of him as Emperor, and Columbo, whose bumbling nature causes his opponents to underestimate him to their peril.

What kind of injustice are we aiming to track in the case of a credibility excess or deficit? It's not like a resource that can be divided up like slices of a pie, so that's the wrong way to think about it. So it's not about being wronged in that you lack your fair share of something, but rather that you are wronged in your capacity as a knower.

It seems clear that experiencing a credibility deficit can be unjust, but what about a credibility excess? Could that ever really be unjust. Technically, probably, yes. But the examples we would need to construct for such cases are highly unusual and elaborate, so we might as well just focus on deficits.

The first point here is that not all credibility defecits are necessarily cases of testimonial injustice, since a deficit can be caused by something other than a prejudice, like an innocent error. E.g. maybe I didn't hear the chair who introduced you as having a PhD in astrophysics so I don't take you as seriously when you make claims about astrophysics in the Q&A. Prejudice is the key ingredient here - in the absence of prejudice, there is no epistemic injustice.

(There follows an extended example of the trial scene from To Kill a Mockingbird.)

‘Why were you so anxious to do that woman’s chores?’
Tom Robinson hesitated, searching for an answer. ‘Looked like she didn’t
have nobody to help her, like I says—’
…Mr Gilmer smiled grimly at the jury. ‘You’re a mighty good fellow, it
seems—did all this for not one penny?’
‘Yes suh. I felt right sorry for her, she seemed to try more’n the rest of ‘em—’
‘You felt sorry for her, you felt sorry for her?’ Mr Gilmer seemed ready to rise
to the ceiling.
The witness realized his mistake and shifted uncomfortably in the chair. But
the damage was done. Below us, nobody liked Tom Robinson’s answer. Mr
Gilmer paused a long time to let it sink in

"Here the ‘damage’ in question is done to any epistemic trust that the white jury has so far been human enough to feel towards the black testifier. For feeling sorry for someone is a taboo sentiment if you are black and the object of your sympathy is a white person. In the context of a racist ideology structured around dogmas of white superiority, the fundamental ethical sentiment of plain human sympathy becomes disfigured in the eyes of whites so that it appears as little more than an indicator of self-perceived advantage on the part of the black subject. A black man is not allowed to have feelings that imply a position of any sort of advantage relative to any white person, no matter how difficult and lonely her life might be. The fact that Tom Robinson makes the sentiment public raises the stakes in a way that is disastrous for legal justice and for the epistemic justice on which it depends. The trial is a zero-sum contest between the word of a black man against that of a white girl (or perhaps that of her father who has brought the case to court), and there are those on the jury for whom the idea that the black man is to be epistemically trusted and the white girl distrusted is virtually a psychological impossibility—Robinson’s expressed sympathy in feeling sorry for a white girl only reinforces that impossibility."

A distinction is then made between incidental testimonial injustice, which is localized and does not track its victim across other areas of their social life, and systematic testimonial injustice, which does.

"Systematic testimonial injustices, then, are produced not by prejudice simpliciter, but specifically by those prejudices that ‘track’ the subject through different dimensions of social activity—economic, educational, professional, sexual, legal, political, religious, and so on. Being subject to a tracker prejudice renders one susceptible not only to testimonial injustice but to a gamut of different injustices, and so when such a prejudice generates a testimonial injustice, that injustice is systematically connected with other kinds of actual or potential injustice. Clearly the testimonial injustice suffered by Tom Robinson is systematic, for racial prejudice renders him susceptible to a panoply of injustices besides the testimonial kind."
 

IvoShandor

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Interesting but fairly understandable and common sense concepts. Not sure that its helpful to give such ideas overly complicated academic names. They should be more easily accesible and indeed are probably things that have been talked about many times before without being given multisyllabic names.
That kind of overcomplicated language is exclusionary sometimes used to be obfuscatory or as in management consultancy; to make easily accessible ideas seem out of reach to give the consultant an air of expertise many of them don't have. Maybe thats just my job getting in the way.
Agreed. I'd say-say-George Orwell could have summed it up in half the space and twice the lucidity.
 

Watcher2

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Interesting but fairly understandable and common sense concepts. Not sure that its helpful to give such ideas overly complicated academic names. They should be more easily accesible and indeed are probably things that have been talked about many times before without being given multisyllabic names.
That kind of overcomplicated language is exclusionary sometimes used to be obfuscatory or as in management consultancy; to make easily accessible ideas seem out of reach to give the consultant an air of expertise many of them don't have. Maybe thats just my job getting in the way.
Its found a lot in academics. Try to read a few academic research papers. The language is quite unique.
 

A Voice

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Its found a lot in academics. Try to read a few academic research papers. The language is quite unique.
In the humanities it's largely unnecessary, except to disguise obvious and banal talking points.

They're looking over their shoulder at science and engineering, where really complex, novel and difficult phenomena actually do require abstruse terminology.

And they want a bit of that action. :cool:
 

Mercurial

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In the humanities it's largely unnecessary, except to disguise obvious and banal talking points.

They're looking over their shoulder at science and engineering, where really complex, novel and difficult phenomena actually do require abstruse terminology.

And they want a bit of that action. :cool:
This is an ironic assessment given that Fricker is writing within the analytic tradition in philosophy, which prizes precision and clarity of language (some would say to a fault).

It's also a little bit strange to imagine that the subjects of philosophy are not complex, novel, and difficult phenomena.
 

Old Mr Grouser

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... science and engineering, where really complex, novel and difficult phenomena actually do require abstruse terminology ...
It isn't that simple. A lot of it simply because scientists and engineers often lack the language skills that they'd need for them to them to express their ideas in clear and simple language,
 

Old Mr Grouser

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Originally published in 2007, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing by Miranda Fricker has been very influential in contemporary epistemology, and moral and political philosophy ...
I totally agree with her about the importance of Epistomology and Hermeneutics.

But, at least as I see it, she's looking at things from a very 'Islington Intellectual' aspect; and she has tailored her Epistemology the way that the various Marxist factions used to tailor and weaponize their Dialectics.
 

Mercurial

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I totally agree with her about the importance of Epistomology and Hermeneutics.

But, at least as I see it, she's looking at things from a very 'Islington Intellectual' aspect; and she has tailored her Epistemology the way that the various Marxist factions used to tailor and weaponize their Dialectics.
How so?
 

A Voice

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It isn't that simple. A lot of it simply because scientists and engineers often lack the language skills that they'd need for them to them to express their ideas in clear and simple language,
When somebody expounds a theory of "Efficient Nonlinear Hydrodynamic Models for Wave Energy Converter Design" there isn't a single term that is inflated or obfuscatory. Each of the terms in that title are as spare as they can be.

Which of them would you replace with jargon-free alternatives?
 

Mercurial

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When somebody expounds a theory of "Efficient Nonlinear Hydrodynamic Models for Wave Energy Converter Design" there isn't a single term that is inflated or obfuscatory. Each of the terms in that title are as spare as they can be.

Which of them would you replace with jargon-free alternatives?
Can you give an example of a way in which you think Fricker's arguments could be simplified without loss of nuance?
 

Old Mr Grouser

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(Old Mr Grouser said: I totally agree with her about the importance of Epistomology and Hermeneutics. But, at least as I see it, she's looking at things from a very 'Islington Intellectual' aspect ... ) How so?
I'll have to keep this short and simple, My laptop is has gone wonky.

From looking at the video of her that I posted I'd say that she's New Left.


Consider the examples she quotes of injustices -- the police response to the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the hypothetical situation that she'd be in without the UK's laws which protect workers from arbitrary dismissal.

Taking the second one first the law would certainly protect her, a university-lecturer, from Unfair Dismissal; but only because she's articulate and literate and her professional association would fund first-rate lawyers to fight her case.

None of that would apply to the people in most need of such protection: the unskilled hoi-polloi, If they're in a Trade Union they might have help from a local branch-official in filling in the forms so as to take the matter to an Industrial Tribunal. But nowadays the bulk of low-paid workers aren't unionised.

The other example she quoted was the police response to the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

The police response to this crime was certainly appalling but it was probably just the usual way that the police in that part of South London dealt with the fatal stabbings of young men, black or white,

I'd be more impressed if she'd spoken about the bias of the entire legal and justice industry -- lawyers, courts, the Legal Aid Board, the Citizen Advice Bureaux - against the poor and poorly-educated of all races.
 


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