Obligations of Intellectual Empowerment, Shannon Brick

Epistemic neglect is a kind of epistemic injustice that occurs when educators fail to extend, to their students, “hopeful epistemic trust” (Brick 2020). Hopeful epistemic trust (henceforth, simply ‘hopeful trust’), is trust that is extended not on the basis of the other person’s existing competence, but on the basis of their potential competence. It communicates to the trusted person that they have reasons to trust their own potential. In “Epistemic Neglect” (Brick 2020), I argued that educators (and the education system, as a whole) have an obligation to extend this trust to students, insofar as it is their responsibility to enable students to become competent epistemic agents and this requires, first, enabling students to have self-directed hopeful trust. I am very grateful to Carla Carmona’s (2021) thoughtful and challenging response to that argument. Here, I want to take the opportunity to comment on some of the things she says … [please read below the rest of the article].

Image credit: Wild Center via Flickr / Creative Commons

Article Citation:

Brick, Shannon. 2021. “Obligations of Intellectual Empowerment.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 10 (9): 7-13. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-67g.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

This article replies to:

❧ Carmona, Carla. 2021. “Extending the Limits of Epistemic Neglect.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 10 (6): 51-57.

Articles in this dialogue:

❦ Carmona, Carla. 2021. “Silencing by not Telling: Testimonial Void as a New Kind of Testimonial Injustice.” Social Epistemology 1-16. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2021.1887395.

❦ Brick, Shannon. 2021. “Giving, Receiving, and the Virtue of Testimonial Justice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 10 (6): 46-50.

❦ Brick, Shannon. 2020. “Epistemic Neglect.” Social Epistemology 34 (5): 490-500.

❦ Jones. Karen. 2012. “The Politics of Intellectual Self-Trust.” Social Epistemology 26 (2): 237-251.

Carmona raises two main challenges to my articulation of epistemic neglect (henceforth, EN). The first challenge is directed at my “restriction of EN to children in educational contexts.” The second is my discussion of testimonial injustice (Fricker 2007) as a prejudicial denial of “evidence-based trust” (Brick 2020, 493). Insofar as I am largely in agreement with this second challenge, I’m going to focus primarily on the first. (Although, as will become clear, I agree with much that Carmona has to say here too.)

Restricting Focus

The first thing I should say is purely clarificatory: although my discussion focuses on education and children, I actually do not think that EN can only occur in educational contexts, or that children are its only victims. In hindsight, my original discussion should certainly have explicitly included college students, in addition to students that are children. In certain domains, both kinds of students can have little reason to trust their own intellectual capacities but will need to be able to do so if they are to succeed—when a domain is entirely new to you, you cannot use the consideration that you’ve succeeded in that domain (or similar ones) before, as a reason to trust yourself. Accordingly, children and college students depend on other people for reasons to trust themselves in the requisite way. It’s also possible to say that educators and the education system as a whole, shoulders the responsibility of giving students those reasons. However, I take it that adults outside of educational contexts can be self-distrusting in a way that makes them dependent on other people in this same way, and that they may be owed hopeful trust too. I am glad to have the opportunity to make this clear, as the focus of my discussion may obviously suggest otherwise.

Indeed, I completely agree with Carmona’s point that members of certain marginalized groups are more likely to have an unjustly produced deficit in intellectual self-trust, to the extent that they have been victims of testimonial injustice and, perhaps too, testimonial smothering (Dotson 2011). As Karen Jones (2012) makes clear and Carmona reiterates, if one is subjected to testimonial injustice consistently, one’s capacity for intellectual self-trust can be radically undermined. This is one of the consequences that makes testimonial injustice—which impacts members of social groups that are prejudicially stereotyped—so destructive. In light of this, I’d like to explain some of my reasons for restricting my analysis to children, and to children in educational contexts, specifically.

Epistemic Injustice in Institutional Education

The first reason is straightforward. When I began thinking about the phenomenon of EN, I was interested in epistemic injustice in institutional education, in particular. It struck me that features of the school setting make it a suitable ground for potentially distinctive (albeit not necessarily unique) kinds of epistemic injustice. (While the same seems true of schools as sites of resistance to epistemic injustice, there are reasons for thinking that a good understanding of this resistance must be preceded by a vivid grasp of the sorts of wrongs that need ameliorating). After all, teachers and students are not only liable to harbor the same prejudicial stereotypes as do the rest of us, but teachers’ behavior is shaped by their need to navigate certain institutional and professional pressures—pressures that are liable to challenge their capacity to attend to the individualized epistemic needs of students.

For example, if standardizing testing incentives “teaching to the test” (or even “learning to the test”) it is reasonable to imagine that students may learn how to perform and regurgitate knowledge, rather than actually understand a domain and produce new knowledge themselves. If this is true, and if it is also true that students are owed, by their society, the capacity to become competent epistemic agents—agents capable of contributing epistemically to their communities—then standardized testing may well contribute to a distinct kind of epistemic injustice. EN is intended to provide both a name, and a framework, for understanding that kind of injustice.

What’s more, the fact children are developing, as opposed to already competent epistemic agents, presents a challenge to any attempt to use existing concepts, like testimonial injustice, to capture the kind of injustice that can be done to children in the context of testimonial transactions. Again, as developing epistemic agents, there are many domains in which children are not yet fully competent (not to say that they cannot be fully competent in some domains (see Burroughs and Tollefsen 2016)). As such, there are a great many domains in which an adult’s dismissal of a child’s testimony, on the basis of their assumption that the child is not a credible source, cannot be an instance of testimonial injustice. And yet, when a teacher fails to call on a certain student or student group of students, or if they consistently treated children as epistemically incompetent in the domains in which they are, in fact, epistemically incompetent, there would be something plainly wrong with their behavior.

Teachers must treat children as evolving or emerging knowers—that is, they must extend their trust towards them not on the basis of students’ existing epistemic competence, but on the basis of their potential competence. Doing this is necessary if that potential is to be actualized. A failure to extend this sort of trust (AKA “hopeful trust”) can amount to an injustice similar to, but also significantly different from, testimonial injustice. Hence the need for the concept of EN.

A crucial premise of my argument concerning epistemic neglect was, then, that there can be obligations of intellectual empowerment. That is, that some people (namely, educators) can be responsible for intellectually empowering other people (namely, their students). This obligation exists because, I argue, intellectual self-confidence and, consequently, intellectual competence, is developed relationally. Institutional education is not only a particularly obvious setting in which such obligations exist, but it strikes me that EN is the kind of epistemic injustice that might be distinctive of education. It would be distinctive in the sense that it occurs more in educational settings than elsewhere, and also in the sense that it occurs more in educational settings than other kinds of epistemic injustice do.

It’s important to emphasize that although I think all children are vulnerable to epistemic neglect in schools, students from marginalized social groups—groups that are prejudicially stereotyped in ways that associate them with ‘incompetence’ or ‘anti-intellectualism’—are especially vulnerable. So too are students from underserved and poorer communities that attend public school (at least in the U.S.). My reasons for saying this have nothing to do with the attitudes and intentions of teachers in those schools, but everything to do with the fact that less resourced schools will tend to have, among other things, bigger class sizes. They are also less able to provide students with exposure to the sorts of diverse fields of study that students from privileged social groups, or at well-resourced and elite schools, enjoy. At schools that offer, for instance, photography, philosophy or multiple languages, students who struggle with math or science, for instance, have the opportunity to gain intellectual competence and therefore reasons for self-trust, in other kinds of areas. But what happens to the intellectual self-trust of students who struggle with conventional subjects, but don’t have the chance to try new areas?

All this is to say that EN also takes distributive, structural forms, and that when it does the results are particularly egregious. My hope is that the concept of EN gives a framework for making sense of the less material, but more psychological wrong that these distributive and structural inequalities in education produce.

Implications of Extending, Beyond Education, Obligations of Intellectual Empowerment

My second reason for restricting my focus to educational contexts is more strategic, and connected to the immense importance, in my view, of accurately identifying who it is that shoulders the obligation to extend hopeful trust. The latter point (the need to accurately identify who is responsible) can be cashed out in terms of two different, but closely related concerns.

1. If the failure to extend hopeful trust is a bona fide injustice, as I think it is, then it must be because some agent or group has a positive responsibility to extend hopeful trust. In other words, the extension of hopeful trust cannot just be supererogatory action—it cannot be construed as akin to, say, going out of your way to be especially friendly to the person who serves your coffee, in the instance when a simple smile and “thank-you” would clearly do.

2. If epistemic neglect is to be successfully avoided, a particular kind of relationship must exist between the person who extends the hopeful trust, on the one hand, and the recipient, on the other. This is because an extension of hopeful trust is a fundamentally communicative act, one by which a person conveys to another that they have reasons to trust themselves. If I don’t trust the person who is trying to tell me that I ought to trust myself, and I don’t believe that they know me very well either, then although I might understand what they are trying to tell me, I’m not going to believe them.

The relationship between teacher and student is one that enables the extension of hopeful trust to successfully instill hopeful self-trust. That is a good thing, of course, insofar as teachers are also tasked, by the communities that they serve, with ensuring that students are enabled to become epistemically competent agents. Accordingly, it follows that teachers have a positive responsibility to extend hopeful trust to students (doing so is not, in other words, merely supererogatory). Accordingly, by focusing on epistemic neglect in educational settings, it was easier for me to make a case for the claim that this is a bona fide injustice, as well as to respect the importance, when it comes to extending hopeful trust, of the prior existence of the appropriate sort of relationship between would-be truster and would-be trusted.

To bring home the importance of what I’m calling “the appropriate sort of relationship between would-be truster and would-be trusted,” an example might help. When I was young, I played netball and was a fairly good player until, at about twelve years of age, I lost my confidence for some reason. I started to fumble when the ball was passed to me, and I’d get so anxious when I happened to catch the ball that I’d pass it on unthinkingly, to the first team member I saw. I was aware that something had changed in me and that my mistakes were letting my team down, and it wasn’t a nice feeling. One day, a teammate’s father, who I didn’t know well, pulled me aside during half-time to give me a pep talk. He told me that I could do it—that I could catch the next pass, because I was a good player. In reality, I hadn’t been a good player since the previous season. The man was extending me hopeful trust (albeit hopeful practical, as opposed to epistemic, trust) and, although he was being genuinely kind and encouraging, I cried when play resumed and felt even more anxious than I had before. Coming from him, the pep talk sounded like trite advice, all very good in theory but it wasn’t enough to get me to believe that I was, in fact, capable of being the player I’d been before. I therefore felt like he’d given me yet another task I couldn’t perform; now, in addition to catching the ball, I had to somehow manage to believe in myself too! What’s more, the fact that he was pulling me aside to give me a pep talk meant I’d really lost my ability to play—it meant that everyone could see, from the sidelines, how much I was struggling. I felt a bit patronized, but mainly just even more terrible about myself.

Looking back, I can see that my friend’s dad could tell that I’d lost trust in myself and that, although he knew an extension of hopeful trust could help, he’d failed to see that he wasn’t the person to extend it. He wasn’t the team coach, after all, but a parent I didn’t know, who was watching the game on the sideline.

Of course, I was a teenager struggling with normal problems of self-confidence and not, as far as I can tell, a victim of any kind of injustice. But what the example shows, I hope, is the importance that the right person takes on the work of empowerment. Specifically, the prospective truster should know the prospective trusted well enough that she can know how, exactly, to extend hopeful trust in a way that doesn’t risk offending, upsetting, patronizing or otherwise jeopardizing the other person’s wellbeing. In addition, the prospective trusted must know that the truster knows them, and also knows enough about the skill in question that they can be taken as reliable. If this isn’t the case, extending trust may not only fail to instill hopeful self-trust, it may actually do real damage.

Now, although all this may seem almost trivially true, it strikes me as particularly important to make explicit when thinking about adults, and especially adults that are members of marginalized groups, as potential victims of EN. In discussing marginalized identities, Carmona (2021b) says the following:

Their constant exposure to identity prejudice might have a negative influence on their psychological well-being and perception of their own epistemic agency. Not to mention that marginalization is likely to undermine their epistemic agency and deteriorate it. In fact, in the case of marginalized identities, past experience might lead to self-distrust (52).

Here, I take it that Carmona is making a claim about the probability of marginalized individuals experiencing a deficit of self-trust. She is not, then, saying that all members of marginalized groups are self-distrusting. Nor is she saying that all people ought to extend hopeful trust to members of marginalized groups. The former is clearly not true, and the latter fails to recognize that not all people are equally well positioned to instill hopeful self-trust in others. Whether an adult is self-distrusting and, in virtue of their prior experiences of epistemic marginalization, owed hopeful trust, cannot be read off of their group membership—it must be determined only after getting to know them and their history much closer. To assume otherwise would, of course, make one liable to act in ways that are patronizing, offensive, and may actually undermine a person’s self-trust.

Whether I am the person to extend another hopeful trust, moreover, depends on the nature of my particular relationship to them. A failure to recognize this fact makes one liable to not only offend and patronize, but to also cause the sorts of negative, unforeseen impacts in the way the netball dad’s pep talk only further damaged my self-trust. Something Carmona doesn’t say, and which is therefore worth making explicit, is that when it comes to adults that are members of marginalized groups, there should be no presumption that individuals are self-distrusting, or that one is the right person to extend hopeful trust to them. Things seem different with children. That is, although we ought to always be careful not to patronize children, it is also potentially safer and less morally risky to assume that children are owed hopeful trust. Moreover, although in the case of children, it is clear that both educators and institutions of education shoulder the obligations to extend hopeful trust, there is clearly no ‘one size fits all’ answer about who, exactly, is obligated to extend hopeful trust to individuals experiencing unjust deficits in self-trust.

None of this is meant as a criticism of Carmona’s claim that members of marginalized groups are vulnerable to epistemic neglect and, as such, can be owed hopeful trust. My comments here are meant as an elaboration of the implications of extending the account of EN beyond the context of children in educational contexts. I think this extension is warranted, and probably needed. But I hope that, from the fact that there are such implications and that they make the case of adults outside of educational contexts more complicated, my decision to focus on initial analysis of EN on education appears reasonable.

Generalizing the Obligation?

My sense is that, if there is a disagreement between Carmona and I, it comes down to the following: Carmona thinks that for someone to have a positive responsibility to extend hopeful trust to another person, it is sufficient that they are able to do so effectively. In other words, she thinks that 2), from above, is sufficient for 1). This is a point that Carmona arrives at the end of her discussion, when she suggests that, perhaps, “human beings generally owe one another hopeful trust.” On this point though, I’m not so sure.

What’s potentially nice about the idea is that it gives us an answer to the question, “who owes hopeful trust to those in our midst, other than children, who experience unjust deficits in intellectual self-trust.” That answer is, “everyone.” (Although, as Carmona also says, we should be “particularly generous” when it comes to extending hopeful trust to marginalized identities). Certainly, I think public institutions, like those associated with the education and criminal justice system, have an obligation to communicate to the people they serve that their potential (whether epistemic, moral and practical) outstrips their extant capacity. I also think people should not communicate to others that their potential does not outstrip performance.

However, I’m wary of going so far as to say that we are all owed, and obligated to extend, hopeful trust to all others. For one thing, I’m not entirely sure what it would mean to affirm such a widespread obligation. Is the hopeful trust we’d be obligated to extend hopeful epistemic trust, of the kind I argue teachers must extend, or is it hopeful practical trust (trusting that another person will eventually start to be punctual, for example), or both? And would these obligations extend to all the people I know, or just those I am already sufficiently close with?

Would it mean, for instance, that I ought to work to build a rapport with the neighbor I say ‘hi’ to every morning, so that I can then communicate to him my belief that he will pass the exam he mentioned the other day that he is studying for, or that he can master the skateboarding move I’ve been seeing him practice outside on the weekends? That seems like too much to me. Moreover, it seems reasonable to me to withhold hopeful trust from some people or, at the very least, extend it to them much more sparingly. For instance, the friend who has been saying for years that she will stop being late, or that she’ll start learning Mandarin, but has failed to do either, is probably owed less hopeful trust than others.

On the other hand, if extending hopeful trust ‘to humans in general’ just means 1) adopting, as a default, the view that people can (in general) change and grow, and 2) being willing to assist them, when appropriate, in doing so, then I agree with Carmona. Nonetheless, I’d still want to insist that the obligation in question is especially strict in the case of educators.

Final Note

By way of finishing, I want to briefly acknowledge and thank Carmona (2021, 10) for the second concern she raises—namely, my discussion of testimonial injustice as a prejudicial deficit in “evidence-based trust.” This was a poor choice of words on my part. The “evidence” we have, as I had meant to use that word, is given by the reliable heuristics that are available to us—generalizations like, for instance, “children under four can’t do algebra.” That was a poor way of putting it; the heuristics are supposed to be responsive to the evidence, and so (when not distorted by prejudice) provide evidence themselves in only an indirect way. Carmona’s own term, “merited-trust” does a better job at bringing out the distinction I was making between the kind of trust we owe to another, based on their extant capacities, and the kind that we owe someone in virtue of our having an obligation of empowerment.

Author Information:

Shannon Brick, shannon.michelle.brick@gmail.com, Graduate Center, The City University of New York.


Brick, Shannon. 2020. “Epistemic Neglect.” Social Epistemology 34 (5): 490-500.

Burroughs Michael D. and Deborah Tollefsen. 2016. “Learning to Listen: Epistemic Injustice and the Child.” Episteme 13 (3): 359-377.

Carmona, Carla. 2021. “Extending the Limits of Epistemic Neglect.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 10 (6): 51-57.

Carmona, Carla. 2021. “Silencing by not Telling: Testimonial Void as a New Kind of Testimonial Injustice.” Social Epistemology 1-16. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2021.1887395.

Dotson, Kristie. 2011. “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Practices of Silencing.” Hypatia 26 (2): 236–257.

Fricker, Miranda. 2007. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jones. Karen, 2012. “The Politics of Intellectual Self-Trust.” Social Epistemology 26 (2): 237-251.

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