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Miranda Fricker – Social Power and the Ethics of Knowing

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Sanjana Govindarajan

What kind of people are taken seriously in a community when they share their knowledge? Whom do we implicitly trust and conversely, whose words do we view with suspicion or skepticism? How does social power shape these day-to-day judgements? These are some of the questions that Miranda Fricker (*1966) seeks to answer in her influential book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (2007) and across her other projects in moral philosophy and social epistemology.

Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Fricker first became interested in philosophy after encountering and engaging with the work of feminist philosophers during her MA in Women’s Studies. She earned her doctorate from the University of Oxford under the supervision of Sabina Lovibond and Bernard Williams and went on to hold positions in Birkbeck College and the University of Sheffield. Since 2016, she holds the title of Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York. Her early research was situated in the intersection of ethics and epistemology, building upon a rich history of Black feminist thought on the subject of how social power influences our knowledge structures and practices.

Indeed, discussions on the epistemic dimensions of social discrimination far predate contemporary philosophical engagement with the concept of epistemic injustice. Sojourner Truth in 1867 spoke of the disproportionately low epistemic authority granted to Black women by virtue of their social identities. In 1892, Anna Julia Cooper wrote about the silencing and subjugation of Black women’s ideas through acts of epistemic violence. Audre Lorde criticized white feminists for failing to satisfactorily engage with the voices of Black women and women of color while discussing the fate of women at large. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wrote of the epistemic violence implicit in claims to know the interest of subalterns that simultaneously prevent the subaltern from representing their own interests. More recently, Fricker’s work on epistemic injustice (1998; 2003; 2007; 2017) has received considerable attention, with academics and practitioners using her account to analyze the ethical and political dimensions of our knowledge practices and institutions in a variety of contexts.

Fricker uses the term epistemic injustice to describe a class of injustices that harm individuals specifically in their capacity as knowers. Victims of epistemic injustice are regarded as incompetent or insincere sources of knowledge due to their social identities. As an outcome, their voices are disregarded or marginalized when they attempt to communicate with others. Fricker groups the two most common manifestations of epistemic injustice in the categories of testimonial and hermeneutical injustices.

A typical testimonial exchange involves a transfer of knowledge between a hearer and a speaker. The speaker presents a piece of information in the form of testimony to the hearer. The hearer must then determine how much trust to accord to the speaker and whether or not to accept their word as the truth. A testimonial injustice occurs when a hearer assigns a speaker’s testimony an unduly low level of credibility due to a prejudice against the speaker’s social type. An example of a testimonial injustice is when a judge in an immigration court automatically distrusts the word of a claimant because they work with the implicit assumption that refugees are opportunistic liars or fraudsters.

Fricker explains that the prejudices underlying testimonial injustice operate stealthily, often in spite of our best intentions to be non-discriminatory in our judgements. In other words, individuals who commit acts of testimonial injustice do not accord deflated levels of trust to their interlocutors while simultaneously being aware of their competence and/or sincerity. Rather, the subconscious impact of prejudice on their judgment causes them to genuinely perceive some speakers as unreliable sources of knowledge due to their social identities. The unconscious and implicit nature of these biases highlights the difficulty of identifying and alleviating these injustices.

Hermeneutical injustices take on a slightly different form. They occur when speakers from marginalized groups are unable to make sense of their social experiences or of communicating it to others due to a paucity of relevant conceptual resources at a community-level. For an instance of credibility deflation to qualify as a hermeneutical injustice, a speaker must necessarily belong to a social group that has experienced a history of hermeneutical marginalization. This means that members of the speaker’s social type have been systematically blocked from participating in professions like law, media, and politics, which act as incubators for new meaning-making concepts in a society. An example of hermeneutical injustice is women being unable to persuasively identify and talk about rape culture before the term became widely accepted and used.

Victims of epistemic injustice are harmed both epistemically and ethically. By being blocked in their attempts to communicate their knowledge to others, they are prevented from partaking in one of the most basic activities that we associate with the lives of social agents. Silencing of this sort also constitutes a grave ethical harm, in that victims are undermined in one of the most fundamental capacities that grounds their humanity; the capacity for rational thinking. This is not to mention the various other kinds of social, economic, legal, and political harms that may befall a person who is tagged as an untrustworthy source of truth.

In the years since the publication of Epistemic Injustice, the concept has been applied and reimagined in a wide variety of contexts. From healthcare to educational and legal systems, academics and practitioners continue to investigate the unique forms that epistemic injustices can take in different social domains. Research along these lines is crucial to both identify the epistemic vulnerabilities of marginalized social groups as well as to devise creative and feasible ways to mitigate their ensuing harms going forward.

Meanwhile, Fricker has further developed her work on the power of social identities and their impact on knowledge practices, including a project on the operations of moral power in the context of blaming and forgiving. She has also written on the work of Bernard Williams as a philosopher of ethical freedom and will continue to be a crucial interlocutor on the importance of social power.




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