DRMacIver's Notebook

Knowledge and justice

Knowledge and justice

This was an abandoned attempt to introduce the ideas of Epistemic Injustice in an accessible manner.

You should need approximately zero philosophy to understand this, though I'll occasionally refer back to the relevant philosophical terminology to connect it up.


The idea of Epistemic Injustice comes from the philosopher Miranda Fricker, who wrote a book of the same name about it. My understanding of the subject has been heavily informed by Kristie Dotson's "A Cautionary Tale: On Limiting Epistemic Oppression". I'll also be drawing a little bit on Elizabeth Anderson's Epistemic Justice as a Virtue of Social Institutions and Rittberg et. al's Epistemic Injustice in Mathematics.

Beyond that, I'll be synthesising a little bit with some broader themes. I'll be drawing on some of the work of James C. Scott in Seeing Like a State and Domination and the Arts of Resistance, and Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. I'll also be drawing on some of CN Lester's book Trans Like Me for an example of epistemic injustice that I've not seen discussed in the literature.

Because of this synthesis I won't necessarily be explaining any of this in the terms that the authors would use, but I'll do my best to highlight all the places we differ explicitly.

Knowledge is Social

How do you know what you know?

This isn't a trick question. I'm not going to probe deep into the nature of knowledge here. I mean it much more literally: You, presumably, know things. How? Where did you learn them?

Well, mostly, you learned them from other people.

Some of it of course you will have learned through direct experience, or figuring out on your own, but even that tends to blur in with the bits you learned from other people - I know that I am typing this newsletter on a laptop, and that is knowledge I have from direct experience, but the fact that I know what "typing" is, or even "a laptop" is is knowledge that, ultimately, came from someone else. Although the experience is mine, the knowledge that allows me to interpret and understand it is part of a shared canon that I have learned from and with the people around me.

Don't get me wrong, a lot of my knowledge is of my own making: I'm clever, I've figured things out. I'm sure you have too. But even for people a lot cleverer than me it's a lot easier to figure things out with others' help.

This help both with the knowledge that we have learned from them, and with their direct help when we have a problem to solve that we need to figure out. Knowledge isn't just collective in the sense that we learn things from other people - we go to other people with our problems, talk them out, explain them and solve them together. At the end of the discussion changes are that everyone involved has learned something about it, and you have a little more shared and common knowledge.

What is Epistemic Injustice?

As with anything involving more than one person, this process of constructing knowledge together can be done in ways that are unjust. This is what Fricker calls Epistemic Injustice (Epistemic just means "Concerning knowledge"): An injustice done to or by you in your capacity as someone participating in the process of constructing knowledge together.

Examples of epistemic injustices include:

What makes it injustice?

I tend to differ from a lot of the canon on some of the details of epistemic injustice, and you're reading my newsletter so you're going to get my view on the subject (sorry). Here I'll spell out some of those differences.

For Fricker, Epistemic Injustice is tied to a very specific conception of justice, and in order to count it has to be an injustice that is specifically identity prejudicial: That is, it's done to you based on some stable aspect of your identity (e.g. race, gender).

I tend not to insist on that for two reasons:

The first is that it ties you concepts of justice to whatever way you happen to bucket people into categories. Unless you are really confident that you understand the myriad ways in which humans can vary, tying your notion of justice to your particular favoured labelling scheme is itself prejudicial (I wrote about this a bit before in Legibility Privileges).

Fricker herself makes significant errors in the book as a result of this - e.g. she has the example of treating someone as dishonest (and thus discounting them as a source of knowledge) because they don't want to make eye contact as not an example of an injustice because it's based on an individual trait of e.g. shyness rather than their identity, completely ignoring that it might be because they're autistic.

The second reason I tend to discount this view is that it's just weird and obviously wrong. Although many injustices are identity prejudicial in nature, by no means all are (e.g. you can do someone an injustice just by behaving like an asshole to them when they've done nothing to deserve it, just because you don't like them). It puts us in the situation where something might be obviously epistemic in nature, obviously an injustice, and yet not an epistemic injustice.

So if not identity prejudice, what makes something an epistemic injustice.

Pass, sorry.

In all of my examples of epistemic injustice I just said "This thing happens, and also it's unjust" and that's about the level of specificity I'm willing to get into. I think trying to pin down when exactly something is an epistemic injustice is a very hard problem and will depend on your theory of and feelings about justice more broadly.

This is somewhere where Fricker's focus on identity prejudice based injustices does a lot of work, because it allows her to focus on cases where you can just say "Yeah obviously this is bad". e.g. Dismissing someone's mathematical work because they're black is obviously an injustice (unless you're really extremely racist), and you don't have to do much work to justify this. Dismissing the same person's mathematical work because they are telling you they have a one page proof of Fermat's last theorem on the other hand is entirely justified because you'd do exactly the same if they were white.

I assume you have your own conceptions of justice, and I do not plan to solve the problem of justice in this newsletter issue (maybe a later one...). Instead I think understanding epistemic injustice will come down to understanding how things play out in the field of collective knowledge, and then carrying over your normal beliefs about justice to that field. What is distinct about epistemic injustice is not that it requires its own notion of justice, but that it requires paying attention to and understanding how we relate to knowledge.

Different Types of Epistemic Injustice

Another way I differ from the canon is that I find this attempt to pigeonhole epistemic injustices into different categories (testimonial, hermeneutical, contributory...) really uninteresting. There are always going to be more ways to do an injustice than we can conveniently label, and having all these labels feels like an instance of the Fallacy Fallacy - labelling something doesn't necessarily help you explain why it's bad, and explaining why it's bad removes the need to label it.


I also had the following two section titles, completely empty:

I'm not very surprised I abandoned this piece. I hate this type of summarisation work, not so much because it's unimportant as because I never know where to stop.