Epistemic Injustice and Why It's So Important

Justice in knowing

By Robin Truax

July 28, 2022


Epistemology refers to the study of knowledge: what qualifies as “knowledge”, what types of knowledge exist, and ways that knowledge can be gained. A popular conception of epistemology casts it as theoretical, even philosophically reclusive. After all, the most famous argument for what we can “know” is solipsism: the idea that input to our senses can be fabricates, and the only thing which we cannot doubt is our own existence, for the very act of doubting proves that cognition (and therefore our consciousness) exists. This is the essence of Descartes’ statement “I think, therefore I am”. As the Good Place articulates in Season 4, Episode 2, solipsism is unfalsifiable, but it is also pointless. It tells us nothing about how to live, how to find meaning, and how to treat others well.

However, while Descartes’ search of perfect certainly by rational argumentation is admittedly emblematic of Englightment-era epistemology, in the following centuries, philosophers – particularly feminist philosophers – have developed epistemology into a deeply applied field, one with profound questions about and implications for how we live. Feminist philosophers, most prominently Miranda Fricker, have developed a conception of knowledge as political, shaping and beng shaped by existing power structures. From systemic discrimination via disproportionate funding in public education to witness testimony being discredited on racial or gendered bases, knowledge – its acquisition, content, and dissemination – is shaped by societal forces.

Epistemic Injustice

Epistemic injustice is a term introduced by Miranda Fricker in her book of the same name. At a core level, epistemic injustice means that someone is being wronged as a knower, that they have been discriminated against in their means of receiving or sharing knowledge. There are many types of epistemic injustice. For example, testimonial injustice is when people are not believed because they are a woman, black, or another minority. Fricker specifically refers to Duwayne Brooks, who saw his friend murdered but could not convince the police who arrived at his call to trust him and go after the assailants (on account of his race). However, in my opinion, the following type of epistemic injustice should be particularly interesting to academics.

Hermeneutical Injustice

Hermeneutical injustice is when someone’s experiences aren’t taken seriously or understood because those experiences don’t fit the norm (i.e. there is no language to describe their experiences). This can be external, but it can also prevent people from understanding their own situation simply because nobody has ever studied or reported on their experience. This is only counteracted when people study concepts of their own creation, such as misogynoir for female black writers, feminists’ study of gender as a social construct, or trans activists documentation of their experiences (consider, for example, the term gender euphoria). Most strikingly, the term “sexual harassment” was only created 50 years ago, and from that linguistic definition has flowed a modern legal definition. Achieving hermeneutical justice genuinely changes the material conditions for oppressed people.

Pursuing Epistemic Justice in Academia

Academia, in its purest form, consists of two complementary pursuits: knowledge-gathering, and knowledge-disseminating. The philosophy of epistemic justice can offer guiding insights for both processes, helping us be more conscious, equitable, and accurate in our pursuit and sharing of truth, whether mathematical, scientific, artistic, or philosophical. Directly, our work has the potential to achieve hermeneutical justice – or at least make progress towards it. However, much of our work is theoretical – I study combinatorics, algebra, fields that are ostensibly disconnected from the “real world”. It may seem as if epistemic justice is not a relevant concern here. However, though the connections are more subtle, such considerations are still important. The lack of diversity among authorities in higher education, particularly in mathematics, demonstrates that access to opportunities to learn and discover are not fairly distributed. The dismissal of contributions by women, people of color, and queer people is a form of testimonial injustice. Epistemic injustice is pervasive in academia, but if our goal is to better our institutions, recognizing and addressing it is necessary.

Addendum: Though this is not literally epistemic injustice in the technical sense described by Fricker, there are conversations to be had about the way much of our academic understanding is built on injustice and exploitation. For example, the father of modern gynecology (for those unaware, gynecology is the medical study of the female reproductive system) experimented on non-consenting slaves (without anesthesia, because he believed Black people didn’t feel pain) for his research (source). In a very literal sense, thousands or even millions of people have profited from his torture.

Posted on:
July 28, 2022
4 minute read, 754 words
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