Speak No Evil: Hermeneutical (In)justice and Extreme Abuse

Speak No Evil: Understanding Hermeneutical Injustice in Cases of Extreme Trauma

Gaps in collective hermeneutical resources[1] stemming from prejudice may result in members of marginalized groups being unable to render harmful experiences intelligible to themselves or others. Miranda Fricker identifies such situations as instances of Hermeneutical Injustice (HI). For example, prior to the introduction of the term “sexual harassment,” there was a gap[2] in the relevant collective understanding – the intersection of hermeneutical resources among groups that just about anyone can be expected to draw upon and be understood by anyone else. This lacuna hindered attempts by, say, women harassed in the workplace, from fully understanding these harmful experiences.

Fricker’s original presentation of (HI) left open several theoretical choice points leading to criticisms[3],[4] and subsequent – needed - clarifications.[5] Yet, there remain aspects of (HI) in need of further explication the overlooking of which may lead to, among other things, verbal disputes. In what follows, I carefully extract principles governing Fricker’s characterization of (HI). I first show (HI) must be the manifestation of a background hermeneutical marginalization, and argue this feature precludes certain cases of extreme abuse from being counted as (HI). Rather than considering this a cost of Fricker’s proposal, I observe how this clarification allows Fricker to avoid otherwise substantial objections. Second, I show (HI) entails hermeneutical marginalization, hermeneutical marginalization entails hermeneutical disadvantage, and neither converse holds. Third, I argue the best way to make sense of hermeneutical marginalization is via a threshold where agents have been coerced into situations involving an imbalance of disadvantages to advantages. I then use these principles to construct a sufficient condition for (HI) that captures cases intuitively exhibiting the phenomenon, while distinguishing distinct nearby phenomena.

Hermeneutical Injustice Entails Marginalization, but Not Conversely


CASE 1a: Sue lived in a psychologically and physically abusive home from birth to age 16. Sue internalized coping mechanisms to survive. Sue never learned to reflect on these harmful experiences or on her internalized coping mechanisms.[7]

The sort of coping mechanisms intended in CASE 1a consist of habits of ignoring psychological/physical pain, a tendency to dissociate,[8] fusion with thoughts, and other avoidant cognitive behavior. Suppose, moreover, in Sue’s community there were no collective resources adequate for understanding what we would characterize as child abuse, and that this absence owes to structural prejudice concerning women and children. If granted, CASE 1a exhibits many features of (HI). Sue lives through harmful experiences which she is unable to render intelligible to herself or others and relevant collective hermeneutical resources are lacking owing to prejudice.[9] Contrast:

CASE 1b: Sue from CASE 1a, as an adult, realizes her psychological development and dispositions differ significantly from many acquaintances. Sue eventually acquires cognitive dispositions that incline her to reflect on and attempt to render experiences in her abusive past and present intelligible.

Again, we might suppose Sue’s environment lacks the relevant hermeneutical resources she needs to render her experiences intelligible. If granted, CASE 1b also exhibits many features of (HI); in fact, CASE 1b seems paradigmatic. To be fair, one potentially salient difference between CASE 1a and CASE 1b is the absence in the former of cognitive capacities present in the latter. But it is unclear why that should preclude CASE 1a from counting as an instance of (HI). Presumably, lacking capacities to render experiences intelligible is just one way of being unable to render experiences intelligible. If CASE 1b is a paradigmatic example of (HI) – and absent capacities is a difference that makes no difference – then CASE 1a should count too.

And yet CASE 1a does not count as (HI). Fricker insists (HI) arises only when an agent struggles to make sense of an experience.[10], [11] The when and where of (HI) is tethered to those affected who try and fail to render their experiences intelligible. This implies if an agent is not attempting to render their harmful experience intelligible, there is no (HI). Generally speaking, Fricker seems to accept what I will call the Manifestation Condition (MC): (MC) Case C involving agent S exhibits (HI) at time t only if S attempts to render a relevant harmful experience intelligible in C at t

If (MC) is true, CASE 1a is not (HI). This seems problematic for at least three reasons:

·         First, CASE 1a exhibits a prejudicial gap in hermeneutical resources undermining any attempt Sue might have at rendering her experience intelligible. Surely Sue lives under something like “…holes in the ozone…”[12] hermeneutically speaking. Whether or not Sue struggles to render her experience intelligible seems incidental to whether she is “…burned.” Intuitively then, CASE 1a seems an instance of (HI).[13]

·         Second, there seem good reasons to reject (MC) as too strong. Consider Sue in CASE 1b, busy at work or momentarily distracted or sleeping, and so not attempting to make sense of her harmful experiences. If (MC) is true, at these moments it seems we must say Sue is not subjected to an injustice that undermines her abilities to render her experiences intelligible. That seems false. Similarly, for CASE 1a. Hence, (MC) should be rejected.

·         Third, consider the primary harm of (HI): “…the subject’s being unfairly disadvantaged…in the construction of selfhood.”[14] Sue operates against a background hermeneutical deficit that may undermine “construction of selfhood” regardless of whether she struggles to make sense of her harmful experiences or not. But if (MC) is true then the presence of the primary harm of (HI) is not sufficient for (HI). This may not seem initially problematic since - generally speaking - the primary harm of (HI) is not sufficient for (HI). For example, agents may experience unfair epistemic disadvantaged without this being (HI), as evidenced by epistemic bad luck, e.g. patients with undiagnosed illnesses.[15] Nevertheless, granting the primary harm of (HI) need not generally be sufficient for (HI), surely we should expect the primary harm to be sufficient for (HI) in some class of cases. CASE 1a does not exhibit an incorrect assessment of otherwise reliable evidence based on bad luck,[16] and seems just the sort of scenario in which to expect the primary harm sufficient for (HI). But if (MC) is true, then CASE 1a is not (HI). Hence, (MC) should be rejected.

Altogether, CASE 1a is plausibly (HI), but is ruled out by (MC) which divorces (HI) from its primary harm. Consequently, it seems Fricker should reject (MC) and accept CASE 1a as (HI).  

            This, however, is too quick.[17] Though CASE 1a does not exhibit (HI), the scenario exhibits Hermeneutical Marginalization (HM): a state of affairs exhibiting non-accidental inequality between individuals or groups that provides the background condition against which instances of (HI) manifest.[18] An analogy makes the point clear: Salt is disposed to initiate a dissolving process, if placed in background conditions.[19] But salt being so disposed does not entail it ever will; dispositions and associated processes are only correlated.[20] Analogously, Fricker seems to hold: agents are to salt as (HM) is to water and as manifesting (HI) is to dissolving. This analogy makes sense of CASE 1b, which exhibits (HM), dispositions to manifest (HI), and manifestation of (HI). Hence, this counts as an instance of (HI). And it also makes sense of why CASE 1a does not count as an instance of (HI), as it exhibits (HM), but neither disposition to manifest (HI) nor manifestation of (HI). CASE 1a is more like iron, rather than salt, in a cup of water. And neither (HI) nor dissolving manifests in such respective setups. Importantly, CASE 1a exhibiting (HM) makes all the difference when responding to the preceding objections. Working backwards:

·         It is true the primary harm of (HI) is not sufficient for (HI) even in CASE 1a. But this is no surprise if in “…a subject’s being unfairly disadvantaged…in the construction of selfhood” we understand “unfairly disadvantaged” as denoting the background conditions against which the subject operates, and we locate the primary harm of (HI) in this background condition, i.e. (HM). Moreover, we might transpose in this manner and still speak of this being the primary harm of (HI), since Fricker seems committed to the following claim:

(HI-HM) If case C exhibits (HI) at time t, then C exhibits (HM) at t[21]

Any instance of hermeneutical injustice entails hermeneutical marginalization. Hence, the primary harm of (HM) will, in any instance of (HI), be present, but since there may be (HM) without (HI), there may be the primary harm of (HM) without (HI). That is, Fricker seems committed to, where “(PH)” denotes the primary harm of (HM):

(HI-PH) If case C exhibits (HI) at t, then C exhibits (PH) at t

Which with (HI-HM) entails:

(HI-HM&PH) If C exhibits (HI) at t, then C exhibits (HM) & (PH) at t

And that seems a general enough relationship to satisfy our objector, even if it was not in the direction anticipated. Our objector may retrench and inquire into the relationship between (HM) and (PH). But here it is plausible for Fricker to claim (PH) is necessary for (HM):

(HM-PH) If case C exhibits (HM) at t then C exhibits (PH) at t

So that in any case of (HM), a subject is unfairly disadvantaged in construction of selfhood.[22] If so, there is a connection between (HM) and (PH), even with (MC) accepted.

·         Above it was claimed if (MC) is true, it seems we must say Sue in CASE 1b is not subjected to an injustice that undermines her abilities to render her experiences intelligible when she is, say, busy doing other things. Emphasizing (HM) reveals this worry to be largely verbal. True, in CASE 1a Sue is not subjected to (HI), but there is nevertheless (HM). We might then say while Sue is not struggling to render her harmful experiences intelligible to herself or others, she still operates against this background condition which would undermine her attempts at doing so, and in that way Sue is marginalized. Our objector may be unmoved, and insist Sue be treated as subjected to an injustice. I am sympathetic, but it is not clear what is gained. This leads naturally to the next objection…

·         …namely, that CASE 1a is intuitively (HI). But whatever pull this intuition has trades on whether it is sufficient to claim Sue is subjected to mere marginalization, or if we must also claim Sue is subjected to hermeneutical injustice. To be fair, reading Fricker as treating CASE 1a as (HI) is not incoherent. Rather than Sue being to salt as (HM) is to water as (HI) is to dissolving, an alternative reading might result in Fricker holding: Sue is to salt as (HI) is to water as manifesting (HI) is to dissolving. Then (HI) would be the background condition, but distinct from manifesting (HI). CASE 1a would exhibit (HI) given the gap in the collective hermeneutical resources, and this would be independent of whether Sue manifests (HI). Note, however, this reading suggests either (HM) is (HI)[23] or is superfluous, as it is unclear what role it would play in Fricker’s theory. If this alternative reading were better motivated, it may be right to identify (HM) and (HI) or drop (HM) altogether. But coherence alone is insufficient motivation, and being able to say Sue is subjected to an injustice rather than mere marginalization is not obviously compelling. 

Altogether, CASE 1a is not overlooked in Fricker’s account, as it is an instance of (HM) though not (HI). This may initially seem problematic, but the counter-intuitiveness fades once (HM) is clearly distinguished from (HI). It is, moreover, unclear what is gained by adjusting Fricker’s theory to accommodate that initial intuition. Additionally, there seems a clear connection between (HI), on the one hand, and (HM) and (PH), on the other, reflected in Fricker’s various commitments, all of which are consistent with accepting (MC) and rejecting CASE 1a as (HI).

Hermeneutical Marginalization Entails Disadvantage, but Not Conversely

Consider next:

CASE 2: Sally became pregnant at 15, dropped out of school, married at 16, had more children with her husband Mike, and was a “house wife” who relied on Mike for support. Mike was psychologically and physically abusive. Sally eventually came to believe attempting to render her harmful experiences was a waste of effort. Sally instead focuses on avoiding Mike’s anger. Over time, Sally internalized coping mechanisms preventing her from attempting to make sense of her experiences.[24]  

Let us further suppose there is no gap in the collective hermeneutical resources, but that Sally is unable to access those resources owing to coping mechanisms. As before, Sally is not struggling to render her experience intelligible, so CASE 2 is not an instance of (HI).[25] However, since both Sue and Sally lack relevant capacities for rendering their respective harmful experiences intelligible, and since CASE 1a exhibits (HM), it is plausible CASE 2 exhibits (HM) too. Moreover, there is a positive reason for treating CASE 2 as at least exhibiting (HM). Since Sally self-imposed coping mechanisms, rejecting CASE 2 as exhibiting (HM) seems close to victim blaming,[26] i.e. claiming Sally is not hermeneutically marginalized, but perhaps inappropriately self-imposes coping mechanisms making her epistemically culpable. Of course, rejecting CASE 2 as (HM) does not entail characterization of Sally in a way that supports victim-blaming. Still, it seems plausible if there is an alternative characterization of CASE 2 that does not so easily lend itself to such a reading, then we should prefer that alternative. I will thus assume our task in what follows is to discover how to classify CASE 2 as exhibiting at least (HM) while remaining consistent with Fricker’s commitments.

Yet, there may be reasons to think CASE 2 does not exhibit (HM). Fricker claims one cannot simply “opt in”[27] to (HM), e.g. become a hermit. Sally self-imposing coping mechanisms seems rather close to opting in. Hence, it seems CASE 2 might not exhibit (HM). But this quick argument deserves a quick response: Sally is not simply opting in to (HM). Sally is coerced into developing coping mechanisms. That said, we cannot infer simply from the presence of coercion to the existence of (HM), since in general coercion is insufficient for (HM). Fricker’s recent discussion[28] of the potential overlap between (HI) and the phenomenon of White Ignorance[29] illustrates why. Fricker examines two scenarios relevant to our discussion. First:

IGNORE 1: Non-culpably[30] ignorant white people in environment where hermeneutical resources have been suppressed and knowledge, e.g. black efforts during WWII, has been forgotten or never learned.   

And second:

IGNORE 2: Non-culpably[31] ignorant white people in environment where hermeneutical resources have been suppressed and knowledge cannot be accessed as population lacks needed concepts for acquiring this knowledge.

Fricker claims both cases exhibit white ignorance, but claims only the second exhibits (HI). Specifically with respect to (HI), members of the relevant non-white population attempting to render their harmful experiences intelligible to ignorant members of the white population in IGNORE 1 are not subjected to (HI) since the inability of the white individuals to make sense of these harmful experiences stems from epistemically culpable behaviors, e.g. failing to infer from existing concepts needed conceptual resources to understand. In contrast, IGNORE 2 exhibits (HI) when members of the relevant non-white population fail to render their experiences intelligible to white individuals since the inability of the latter individuals to make sense of these experiences stems from the complete absence of needed concepts from collective resources. Put another way, whether (HI) is exhibited in these cases trades on whether communication breaks down due to needed concepts for comprehension being hidden or being absent. If the former, there is not (HI); if the latter, there is (HI). But note, if coercion alone were sufficient for (HM), then it is plausible members of the relevant white population might also be subjected to (HM), since it is not difficult to imagine, say, the suppression of relevant concepts and knowledge needed to understand the experiences of marginalized individuals is coerced, say, through education, parents, peer groups, etc.[32] Even under such conditions, however, it seems incorrect to say the ignorant white population is subject to (HM). Hence, the presence of coercion alone seems insufficient for (HM).

Exploring in more detail why ignorant white individuals in IGNORE 1 and IGNORE 2 are not subject to (HM) will, moreover, bring us closer to seeing precisely why CASE 2 exhibits (HM). Observe first: Fricker urges members of the ignorant white population in IGNORE 1 and IGNORE 2 do not exhibit (HI) - since they are not disadvantaged – though she suggests members of the ignorant white population do exhibit Epistemic Disadvantage (ED).[33] Fricker does not elaborate on (ED), but plausibly this is any disadvantage an agent experiences with respect to acquiring or sustaining knowledge. Observe second: Fricker distinguishes (HM) from Hermeneutical Disadvantage (HD), i.e. a deficit in subjects’ abilities to contribute to collective epistemic resources.[34] (HD) seems necessary for (HM), but is distinct as evidenced by cases of epistemic bad luck[35] in which individuals experience disadvantage but not necessarily marginalization,[36] i.e. Fricker maintains:

(HM-HD) If case C at t exhibits (HM), then C at t exhibits (HD)

And plausibly exhibiting (HD) is just one way to exhibit (ED), suggesting Fricker also maintains:

(HD-ED) If case C at t exhibits (HD), then C at t exhibits (ED)

Now, if members of the relevant white population with respect to IGNORE 1 and IGNORE 2 exhibited (ED) but not (HD), then by (HM-HD) they would not exhibit (HM). It seems clear Fricker believes these cases exhibit (ED). But it also seems there are good reasons to think these cases exhibit (HD) as well. Simply put, there is at least a local marshalling of forces against attempts to render intelligible harmful experiences expressed by marginalized groups, i.e. the absence of resources needed for mutual understanding is not accidental.[37] But if whites in these cases exhibit (HD), there seems no easy path to conclude they do not exhibit (HM).

            Fortunately, there are commitments we have not yet employed, namely, that ignorant white individuals in these cases also exhibit Hermeneutical Advantage (HA), i.e. a surplus in subjects’ abilities to contribute to collective epistemic resources.  Of course, simply being subject to (HA) alone is insufficient to show a case does not exhibit (HM).[38] Marginalized groups can exhibit both (HA) and (HD) and still exhibit (HM). What seems crucial to determining whether (HM) is exhibited is the ratio of quantity/quality of (HA) to (HD). We need not attempt to make this precise.[39] Let P denote a quantitative and qualitative combination of (HA); let Q denote a quantitative and qualitative combination of (HD); let T denote a sequential range of positive real numbers, e.g. (4 - 6). It suffices to say a case counts as (HM) with respect (HA) and (HD) if T < P/Q, and a case does not count as (HM) if T > P/Q. In other words, in a given context, a case counts as (HM) if the hermeneutical advantages weighed against disadvantages results in a number greater than a certain threshold which – perhaps – allows for indeterminate borderline cases. With this in mind, it is clear ignorant white individuals in IGNORE 1 and IGNORE 2 do not exhibit (HM), since the ratio of advantages to disadvantages is plausibly greater than any reasonable specification of T. On the other hand, non-white individuals in these cases are plausibly more disadvantaged than they are advantaged. Hence, there is (HM) with respect to these communities.

            These resources, moreover, illustrate why coercion alone is insufficient for (HM). For coercion must play to the disadvantage of the relevant marginalized group. Ignorant white individuals can be coerced into ignorance, but since they are nevertheless hermeneutically advantaged, they are not subjected to (HM). Additionally, Fricker’s insistence that one cannot simply opt in to (HM) suggests (HD) alone is insufficient for (HM), since one can surely opt in to (HD). This suggests coercion is needed for (HM). We can combine these observations into what seems a plausible further commitment Fricker makes concerning a sufficient condition for (HM):

(C&T-HM) If case C at time t exhibits coercion resulting in T < P/Q, then C exhibits (HM) at t

And with (C&T-HM) we can finally explain why CASE 2 exhibits (HM), since Sally is coerced resulting in a proportion of (HA) to (HD) below some reasonable specification of T.

This explication aligns with results one should expect from Fricker’s characterization of (HM) and (HI), generally.[40] And provides a precise way to distinguish (HI) and associated concepts from nearby phenomena. Consider: 

CASE 3: Sam’s childhood resembles that of Sue’s in CASE 1a. Sam acknowledges his experiences are harmful, but considers himself a martyr, and believes his experiences are for some greater purpose.

Additionally, suppose there is a gap in the relevant collective hermeneutical resources. One might expect CASE 3 to exhibit (HI), but this is not so. Sam does not struggle and fail to render his admittedly harmful experiences intelligible because Sam is not struggling to render his experiences intelligible; he thinks he has rendered them intelligible. Whereas reflecting on CASE 1a emphasizes what it means to render an experience intelligible, CASE 3 emphasizes what it means to render an experience intelligible. But whatever the answer to that admittedly difficult latter question, Fricker can maintain CASE 3 exhibits (HM) by (C&T-HM).[41]  Similarly, we can bring into dialogue cases like CASE 1a and CASE 2, to determine what sort of harms or injustices might be exhibited:

CASE 4a: 12 year old Mary – who has experienced much abuse in her home life - attempts to communicate to her mother Sally – from CASE 2 - a harmful experience she had involving her father – and Sally’s husband – Mike. Sally responds “Mike would never do such a thing,” as Sally – in the process of developing coping mechanisms – is strongly disinclined to understand Mike’s harmful behavior as such.  

Suppose there is no gap in the collective hermeneutical resources, but Sally is again unable to access them due to firmly entrenched coping mechanisms, and Mary is blocked from accessing them by Sally. In CASE 4a, both Sally and Mary plausibly satisfy the antecedent of (C&T-HM), since both seem coerced and sufficiently disadvantaged. Hence, by (C&T-HM) it follows that CASE 4a exhibits (HM). It does not, however, exhibit (HI) since the Mary’s failure to communicate her harmful experiences stems from Sally’s epistemically culpable behavior, i.e. uptake failure stems from failure at the level of beliefs. As before when examining IGNORE 1 and IGNORE 2, Fricker maintains that communicative failures stemming from such behavior are not (HI), but some other phenomenon. On the other hand, consider: 

CASE 4b: Same as CASE 4a, but Sally has developed coping mechanisms preventing her from recognizing Mike’s behavior as harmful. 

Given this slight adjustment, so that Sally plausibly lacks “requisite concepts”[42] to make sense of her daughter’s harmful experiences, we have a case of (HI). These last observations suggest we can state a sufficient condition Fricker seems committed to for (HI):

(SF-HI) If case C at t involving agents S and S’ is such that:

(1) S is coerced leading to (HM)[43] at t, and

(2) S struggles to render a harmful experience intelligible to S’ at t, and

(3) S’ fails to understand S due to S’ lacking conceptual resources and not due to epistemically culpable behaviors by S’, then

C exhibits (HI) at t

Where S and S’ may be the same individual, e.g. Carmita Woods, Sally in CASE 2.

            We have the following results with respect to cases: (HM) is a background condition for (HI). Sue in CASE 1a and Sally in CASE 2 exhibit (HM), (PH), and (HD) but not (HI), since neither struggles to render their respective experiences intelligible. Hence, neither CASE 1a nor CASE 2 satisfies (MC), and so neither satisfies clause (2) of (SF-HI). On the other hand, CASE 1b exhibits (HM), (HD), (PH), and (HI), as evidenced by each clause of (SF-HI) being satisfied in this case. With respect to IGNORE 1 and IGNORE 2, marginalized individuals in the former are not subjected to (HI), as evidenced by clause (3) of (SF-HI) not being satisfied – though they are subjected to (HM) by (C&T-HM), while marginalized individuals in the latter are subjected to (HI) by (SF-HI).[44] Ignorant white individual in neither case are subjected to (HI) or (HM), though they plausibly are subject to (ED). It is unclear whether they are subject to (HD), i.e. exhibiting epistemic bad luck. CASE 3 arguably does not exhibit (HI) as evidenced by failure to satisfy clause (2), since the individual in this case does not appear to be struggling to make sense of his experiences. CASE 4a and CASE 4b come apart on condition (3) of (SF-HI) with the latter, but not the former exhibiting (HI).

Works Cited

Anderson, E. (2012). Epistemic Justice as a Virtue of Social Institutions. Social Epistemology. 26(2): 163-73.

Beverley, J. (2016). The Ties that Undermine. Bioethics. 30(5)

Beverley J. & Beebe, J. (2017). Judgments of Moral Responsibility in Tissue Donation Cases. Bioethics. 32(2).

Dotson, K. (2011). Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing. Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy. 26(2): 237-57.

Futa, K.T. et. al. (2003). Adult Survivors of Childhood Abuse: An Analysis of Coping Mechanisms used for Stressful Childhood Memories and Current Stressors. Journal of Family Violence. 18(4). 227-39.

Fricker, M. & Jenkins, K.T. (2017). Epistemic Injustice, Ignorance, and Trans Experience. The Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy.

Fricker, M. (2016). Epistemic Injustice and the Preservation of Ignorance. In The Epistemic Dimensions of Ignorance (eds.) Peels, R. & Blaauw, M. 160-77.

Fricker, M. (2012). An Interview with Miranda Fricker. Social Epistemology. 26(2): 253-63.

Fricker, M. (2009). Can There Be Institutional Virtues?  Oxford Readings in Epistemology (Special Theme: Social Epistemology).

Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Goetze, T. (2018). Hermeneutical Dissent and the Species of Hermeneutical Injustice. Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy. 33(1).

Hanel, H. C. (2018). What is Rape? Social Theory and Conceptual Analysis. Bielfeld, Deutschland.

Jenkins, K. (2017). Rape Myths and Domestic Abuse Myths as Hermeneutical Injustices. Journal of Applied Philosophy. 34(2): 191-206.

Lowe. E.J. (2006). The Four-Category Ontology: A Metaphysical Foundation for Natural Science. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mason, R. (2011). Two Kinds of Unknowing. Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy. 26(2): 294-307.

McMahan, J. (2002). Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life. Oxford University Press.

Medina, J. (2017a). Epistemic Injustice and Epistemologies of Ignorance. The Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Race.

Medina, J. (2017b). Varieties of Hermeneutical Injustice. The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice.

Medina, J. (2013). The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistance Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mills, C. (2007). White Ignorance. In Race and Epistemologies, (ed.) Tuana, S. S. N.

Nguyen, C.I. (2019). Echo Chambers and Epistemic Bubbles. Episteme. 2-21.

Nozick, R. (1969). Coercion. In Philosophy, Science, and Method: Essays in Honor of Ernest Nagel. St. Martin’s Press. 440-472.

Polhaus, Jr. G. (2012). Relational Knowing and Epistemic Injustice: Toward a Theory of Willful Hermeneutical Ignorance. Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy. 27(4): 715-35.

Tremain, S. (2016). Knowing Disability, Differently. The Routledge Handbook on Epistemic Injustice.

Romdenh-Romluc, K. (2016). Hermeneutical Injustice: Blood-Sports and the English Defense League. Social Epistemology.

Simion, M. (2018). Hermeneutical Injustice as Basing Failure. In Well-Founded Belief: New Essays on the Epistemic Basing Relation. (eds.) Carter, J.A. & Bondy, P.

Smith, B. & Spear, A. & Ceusters, W. (2016). Functions in Basic Formal Ontology. Applied Ontology. 11. 103-128.

Van Loon, et. al. (2005). Reclaiming Myself after Child Sexual Abuse. Glenside, St. Augustine Research Unit.

Ward, C. (1988). Stress, Coping, and Adjustment in Victims of Sexual Assault: The Role of Psychological Defense Mechanisms. Couns. Psych. Q. 1:165-78.

Williams, N.E.W. (2019). The Powers Metaphysic. Oxford University Press.


[1](Fricker, 2007, pg. 1), (Fricker, 2016, pg. 166), among other places. 

[2]Not all “gaps” result in (HI). First, it is plausible collective hermeneutical resources contain a confounding surplus resulting in, say, suspension of belief. But since this “gap” operates at the level of belief it will not result in (HI) (Fricker, 2016). Second, agents who have not inferred implicit resources from explicit hermeneutical resources exhibit a “gap” but this operates at the level of belief. Corollary: generating new hermeneutical resources must sometimes arise ex nihilo. Suppose otherwise. Presumably, a conceptual definition corresponding to the phrase “sexual harassment” could have been constructed by Woods prior to introducing the term based on available conceptual resources, e.g. this or that behavior with this or that intention. But that suggests “sexual harassment” was implicit in the existing resources and Woods simply failed to identify it. Hence, this is not (HI). But this is (HI). So, the concept arose ex nihilo.

[3]E.g. (Dotson, 2012) and (Mason, 2013) independently argued (HI) precluded members of marginalized groups from developing local resources. Each appears to have interpreted the “collective hermeneutical resource” as the union of hermeneutical resources of various groups (Goetze, 2018), which implies marginalized groups lack local hermeneutical resources. (Fricker, 2016) clarified the intent was the intersection of resources, which blunts these objections.

[4]E.g. (Medina, 2013) worried Fricker was unable to accommodate marginalized groups with local resources experiencing (HI) when attempting to communicate with groups having different resources. (Fricker, 2016) extended (HI) to maximal (HI) – global gap in collective resources – and minimal (HI) – a local gap – species of (HI), with Joe from the novel Enduring Love illustrating the latter, since the hermeneutical gap is just between Joe and the police.

[5]Fricker claims “…a commitment to the existence of localized interpretive practices…is present…in the…original account of hermeneutical injustice.” (Fricker, 2016, pg. 167). I am skeptical. First, extending the original theory to maximal/minimal (HI) hardly shows they were implicit; theory extensions are cheap. One can consistently extend a minimal linear order of time to either a dense or discrete order. Similarly, Fricker’s original account could be consistently extended in ways inconsistent with maximal/minimal (HI). Second, appealing to Joe (Fricker, 2016, pg. 2016) as hermeneutically marginalized as evidence of minimal (HI) is questionable (Romdenh-Romluc, 2016).

[7]I suspect this sort of case falls under what (Medina, 2017a; 2017b) has usefully identified as epistemic death.  

[8](van Loon & Kralik, 2005) and (Ward, 1988) illustrate childhood coping strategies manifesting in adulthood, e.g. repression, emotional insulation, dissociation. These “avoidant strategies” (Futa, Nash, Hansen, & Garbin, 2003) help create a sense of control through avoiding emotions.

[9]Objection: The reason there is a gap in resources is not the same as the reason Sue lacks the capacity to render her experiences intelligible, so it is questionable whether CASE 1a exhibits (HI). The former may be due to prejudice while the latter to, say, fear. Response: These reasons dovetail, i.e. Sue’s fear of abuse stems from abuse caused by prejudice.

[10]“…hermeneutical injustice comes only when the background condition is realized in a more or less doomed attempt…to render an experience intelligible...” (Fricker, 2007, pg. 159); “…hermeneutical marginalization…leaves practitioners susceptible to hermeneutical injustice whenever they should attempt to render the experience intelligible…” (Fricker, 2016, pg. 166)

[11](Goetze, 2018)’s revised definition of hermeneutical injustice reflects (MC) as well: “…primary harm of hermeneutical injustice is that the subject has some…social experience that at some crucial moment lacks intelligibility.” As does (Hanel, 2017, pg. 2010) “As long as the subject of hermeneutical disadvantage undertakes no attempt to understand her experience…there is no hermeneutical injustice…”

[12](Fricker, 2006, pg. 161).

[13](Simion, 2018) suggests arguments to this effect.

[14]“…hermeneutical injustice can mean…someone is…constituted as…something they are not...” (Fricker 2007, pg. 168).

[15](Fricker, 2007, pg. 152). We return to this below.

[16]E.g. while rejecting Carmita Woods exhibited mere epistemic bad luck: “…it was no accident that their experience had been falling down the hermeneutical cracks…the whole engine of collective social meaning was effectively geared to keeping these obscured experiences out of sight.” (Fricker, 2007, pg. 153) This seems equally applicable to CASE 1a.

[17]But not uncharitable: “A hermeneutical injustice is done when a collective hermeneutical gap impinges so as to…disadvantage some group(s)…which…is effectively discriminatory.” (Fricker, 2007, pg. 162) “…the conceptual lacuna which handicaps her as an interpreter of her experience entails a hermeneutical injustice. (Fricker, 2012)

[18]“…the conditions of hermeneutical injustice (namely, hermeneutical marginalization)…” (Fricker, 2006, pg. 174) “The hermeneutical inequality that exists, dormant, in a situation of hermeneutical marginalization erupts in injustice only when some actual attempt at intelligibility is handicapped...” (Fricker, pg. 159) “…hermeneutical injustice and its precondition, hermeneutical marginalization.” (Jenkins & Fricker, 2017, pg. 268) “…the primary harm of hermeneutical injustice consists in situated hermeneutical inequality…” (Fricker, 2007, pg. 162). See too (Goetze, 2018, pg. 81).

[19](Williams, 2019).

[20](Smith, 2016), (Lowe, 2006).

[21]Fricker must reject the converse of (HI-HM), since it entails CASE 1a is (HI), which is a rejection of (MC).

[22]As noted above, Fricker rejects the converse, e.g. epistemic bad luck. 

[23]This reading avoids commitment to (MC). Fricker might adopt instead the weaker:

(MC*) Case C involving agent S – who has requisite cognitive dispositions - exhibits (HI) at time t only if S is disposed to render a relevant harmful experience intelligible in C at t

   (MC*) bridges (HI) and attempts to render experiences intelligible, but is silent when agents lack dispositions.

[24]CASE 2 likely involves testimonial smothering (Dotson, 2012), but more besides since Sally eventually does not reflexively silence based on assessment of her audience. We might refer to this phenomena as hermeneutical smothering, identifying testimonial smothering carried to the point of unreflective habit as one route to this injustice.

[25]Objection: Sally initially attempted to render experiences intelligible; that is sufficient for CASE 2 to later exhibit (HI). Response: (HI) is asymmetrical. Woods experienced (HI) before coining “sexual harassment” but was not subject to (HI) with respect to sexual harassment after. If exhibiting (HI) prior entails exhibiting later, then Woods did exhibit (HI) later. The objector must motivate Woods exhibiting (HI) later, or explain why Woods did not, but Sally does.

[26](Jenkins, 2016, pg. 10) makes a similar point involving rape/abuse myths as confounding hermeneutical resources.

[27](Fricker, 2006, pg. 153).

[28](Fricker, 2016).

[29](Mills, 2007).

[30](Fricker, 2016, pg. 173).

[31](Fricker, 2016, pg. 174-5).

[32]By “coercion” I mean something along the lines of (Nozick, 1969, pg. 441-5): Agent S coerces S’ just in case: (1) S aims to prevent S’ from performing action A; (2) S’ is at least implicitly aware of (1); (3) S’ is at least implicitly aware if S’ performs A then S will bring about some consequence that makes A-ing less desirable to S’ than not A-ing; (4) S’ does not perform A; (5) Part of why S’ does not perform A is to decrease chances that S will bring about consequences in (3). Adjustments include allowing S’ to be implicitly – rather than explicitly – aware of S’s intentions. There is more to say, of course, but this rough characterization suffices for our purposes. 

[33](Fricker, 2016, pgs. 173-5).

[34](Fricker, 2007, pgs. 151-2).

[35](Fricker, 2007, pg. 152).

[36]See (Tremain, 2017, pg. 177) for good reasons to doubt Fricker’s example illustrating epistemic bad luck is tenable.

[37]This conclusion stems from (Fricker, 2007, pg. 153)’s rejection of Woods as epistemic bad luck.

[38]Fricker approvingly cites (Medina, 2012, pg. 108) who argues convincingly that members of dominant groups are in some ways epistemically disadvantaged, even though they are clearly advantaged. Similarly, members of marginalized groups may have epistemic advantages, though they are clearly disadvantaged too. This strongly suggests (HA) does not undermine (HM) since otherwise marginalized groups would not exhibit the latter if they exhibit the former. 

[39]I agree with Aristotle that one should only seek precision to the extent one’s domain permits. Here we find a limit.

[40]Not all is satisfactory, however. Fricker claims a patient with a disease yet to be diagnosed – who is subject to (HD) – is not subject to (HM). We capture that by claiming T<P/Q for some reasonable specification of T. So far, so good. Trouble arises when we note Fricker maintains Joe from Enduring Love exhibits (HM). It is unclear why Joe is more disadvantaged than advantaged, while an undiagnosed patient is more advantaged than disadvantaged. It seems if one exhibits (HM) they both do, or if one does not, neither do. I suspect this is a tension in Fricker’s theory, rather than a fault in the principles defended here, but this issue deserves further reflection.

[41]A related scenario we can distinguish from (HI) might be, say, James is raised in a psychologically and physically abusive cult and does not attempt to render these harmful experiences intelligible because he does not perceive them as harmful. This scenario is distinct from CASE 3 since in that case Sam does recognize the abuse as harmful. As before, this would not count as (HI) but plausibly exhibits (HM) by (C&T-HM).

[42](Fricker, 2016, pg. 175).

[43]Because T > P/Q.

[44]For all that has been said, there may be other ways in which marginalized individuals in IGNORE 1 count as exhibiting (HI), but Fricker does not appear forced to say so given her commitments.