A Cautionary Tale: On Limiting Epistemic Oppression
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A Cautionary Tale:
On Limiting Epistemic Oppression

I cannot recall the words of my first poembut I remember a promiseI made my pennever to leave itlyingin somebody else's blood.

Audre Lorde, "To the Poet Who Happens to Be Black and the Black Poet Who Happens to Be a Woman"1


In this paper, first and foremost, I aim to issue a caution. Specifically, I caution that when addressing and identifying forms of epistemic oppression one needs to endeavor not to perpetuate epistemic oppression. Epistemic oppression, here, refers to epistemic exclusions afforded positions and communities that produce deficiencies in social knowledge. An epistemic exclusion, in this analysis, is an infringement on the epistemic agency of knowers that reduces her or his ability to participate in a given epistemic community.2 Epistemic agency will concern the ability to utilize persuasively shared epistemic resources within a given epistemic community in order to participate in knowledge production and, if required, the revision of those same resources.3 A compromise to epistemic agency, when unwarranted, damages not only individual knowers but also the state of social knowledge and shared epistemic resources.

Unfortunately, avoiding unwarranted epistemic exclusions is an exceedingly difficult task. It may well be impossible. For example, we simply do not have the capacity to track all the implications of our positions on any given [End Page 24] issue, which would, arguably, be necessary to avoid epistemic oppression entirely. This realization relegates efforts to be conscious of and minimize epistemic oppression to a kind of naïveté characteristic of utopian dreamers who advocate pie-in-the-sky goals achievable only in theory. Like many forms of pessimism, pessimism about epistemic fairness assumes an all-or-nothing stance. Either we can eliminate epistemic oppression entirely, or we can do nothing about epistemic oppression at all. This position is an obvious over-simplification of the many options available. One can advocate for better, more responsible epistemic conduct capable of reducing epistemic oppression, without also harboring unrealistic expectations for superior epistemic conduct and abilities necessary for eliminating epistemic oppression entirely. In this vein here I issue a caution and a proposal for minimizing epistemic oppression.

To issue this caution, I take Miranda Fricker's book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing as a paradigmatic case of the challenges that arise when attempting to avoid epistemic oppression, even while drawing attention to epistemic forms of oppression.4 By bringing attention to specifically epistemic forms of injustice, Fricker's work offers a strong and valuable contribution to a tradition of feminist thought that aims to highlight the observation that "when it comes to knowledge, women get hurt."5 However, her framing of epistemic bad luck as an antithesis to epistemic injustice conceptually forecloses the possibility of other forms of epistemic injustice and hence can be used to demonstrate the pervasiveness of epistemic oppression. Fricker, I claim, inadvertently perpetrates epistemic oppression by utilizing a closed conceptual structure to identify epistemic injustice. This limitation of Fricker's view illustrates the difficulty of avoiding epistemic oppression and demonstrates an avenue for reducing it in one's own analyses.

This paper will proceed in two parts. First, I introduce Fricker's two forms of epistemic injustice, testimonial injustice and hermeneutical injustice, and a third form of epistemic injustice, contributory injustice. I will also briefly gesture to the pervasive nature of epistemic oppression. Second, I use Fricker's concept of epistemic bad luck as a contemporary example of how easy it is to perpetrate epistemic oppression, even while working to address epistemic oppression. Specifically, I show how Fricker's account deploys a closed conceptual structure that prematurely forecloses the possibility of alternative forms of epistemic injustice, like contributory injustice, and thereby perpetuates epistemic oppression. Ultimately, the strengths and limitations of Fricker's efforts to outline epistemic injustice highlight a need to move toward open conceptual structures that signify without absolute foreclosure so as to reduce the continued propagation of epistemic oppression. [End Page 25]

Three Forms of Epistemic Injustice

In this section I introduce three forms of epistemic injustice. They are: (1) testimonial injustice, (2) hermeneutical injustice, and (3) contributory injustice. For...