This paper argues that the current discourse on epistemic injustice in social epistemology itself perpetuates epistemic injustice, namely hermeneutic injustice with regards to class and classism. The main reason is that debates on epistemic injustice have foremost focussed on issues related to gender, race, and disability while mostly ignoring class issues. I suggest that this is due to (largely unwarranted) fears about looming class reductionism. More importantly, this is omission is not innocuous, but problematic insofar as it has an unlikely ally in neoliberal propaganda which features as one main goal stifling class consciousness. While this “allyship” is unwitting, this presents grounds for the discourse of epistemic injustice to consider re-centring class issues and classism … [please read below the rest of the article].
Spiegel, Thomas J. 2022. “The Epistemic Injustice of Epistemic Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (9): 75-90. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-7dv.
🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
Editor’s Note: Thomas Spiegell’s “The Epistemic Injustice of Epistemic Injustice”, will be presented in two parts. Please find below Part I. Please refer to Part II. The PDF of the entire article is linked above in the Article Citation.
❦ Hähnel, Hilkje. 2021. “Who’s to Blame? Hermeneutical Misfire, Forward-Looking Responsibility, and Collective Accountability.” Social Epistemology 35 (2): 173-184.
❦ El Kassar, Nadja. 2018. “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance.” Social Epistemology 32 (5): 300-310.
❦ Dotson, Kristie. 2014. “Conceptualizing Epistemic Oppression.” Social Epistemology 28 (2): 115-138.
Miranda Fricker’s work on Epistemic Injustice and the multitude of research projects it subsequently spawned have greatly improved our understanding of certain mechanisms of marginalization along epistemic axes. However, the discourse on epistemic injustice has had, since its inception, one central oversight: class and the many epistemic injustices associated with classism. There have been a few papers that do aim to bring the tradition of thought on class struggle into debate with epistemic injustice like Mills (2017), Celikates (2017) or Elling (2021). However, given the large umbrella of topics in social philosophy that epistemic injustice has been juxtaposed with, it remains curious that class and classism have been so neglected despite being traditionally one of the central concepts of debates on social injustice.
In this paper, I argue that the omission of class from debates on epistemic injustice is not only merely curious, but that it might constitute itself an instance of epistemic injustice. In particular, I aim to demonstrate the omission of class in the discourse on epistemic injustice is itself an instance of hermeneutical injustice, or that it serves to uphold existing structures of hermeneutic injustice. This kind of hermeneutic injustice is a specific kind of ideology that aims to stifle and suppress class consciousness. The current discourse on epistemic injustice is complicit in upholding obfuscation of the fundamental role of class for social (in)justice when they could to the opposite. While the conceptual toolbox of epistemic injustice and social epistemology more generally can be applied to class and classism, it is currently relatively rarely done, relative to how issues of gender and race tend to take centre-stage. Philosophers of epistemic injustice could be the kind of allies who contribute to class consciousness in addition to teasing out epistemic injustices associated with race, gender, or disability. The discourse on epistemic injustice is, in principle, equipped to deal with these issues. It would be misplaced to suppose that this omission has simply been due to the inability on the side of scholars of epistemic injustice since the debate boasts a number of the finest minds contemporary philosophy has to offer.
The first section works out the way in which epistemic injustice intersects with classism. On the one hand, classism is connected to testimonial injustice in the sense that socio-economically subordinated people suffer from epistemic oppression in Kristie Dotson’s sense. On the other hand, and more importantly, I suggest that there is a kind of hermeneutic injustice associated with classism. This hermeneutic injustice consists in neoliberal ideology which expresses itself in strategies to undermine class consciousness by reframing systemic issues of economic injustice and wealth distribution as results of ‘personal or individual preferences’.
The second part demonstrates that the discourse on epistemic injustice, since its inception, has been neglecting class issues. I further suggest that this is caused by two factors: First, an unfortunate overshooting of wariness about class reductionism, and second, insights from standpoint theory suggest that—given that academic philosophy is still largely dominated by people with middle- and upper-class backgrounds—classism is an issue which is overlooked by proponents of epistemic injustice possibly due to their own social standpoint. This results in an instance of active ignorance (Alcoff 2007, Dotson 2011, Tuana 2004, El Kassar 2018) about classism permeating the discourse on epistemic injustice. The third part argues that the discourse on epistemic injustice shares the proliferation of active ignorance about classism with neoliberal propaganda—the main difference being that philosophers of epistemic injustice do so unwittingly (rather than wilfully). The last part consists in a plea to actively remember class issues in debates on epistemic injustice.
Before beginning, a few remarks are in order. In talking about the discourse on epistemic injustice, I aim to refer not only strictly to Fricker’s work and the work of her followers, but also to the wider net of work on issues at the intersection of epistemology and social justice, e.g. issues of ignorance and epistemic oppression. Also, it will be important to stress again that by offering this diagnosis, I do not intend to fault or judge philosophers of epistemic injustice. While neoliberal pundits and ideologues usually pursue pernicious political goals, I do not think that the omission of class and class issues in the discourse on epistemic injustice is intentional or wilfully malevolent on their part.
Moreover, some may claim that class is not excluded, but simply ‘implied’ in some way. And it is certainly true that class is not entirely absent in the discourse. But such a rebuttal seems misplaced. Even if class issues are not entirely absent from the discourse they have quite literally been marginalized, i.e. confined to the margins in favour of centring race and gender. Providing one or a few counterexamples is not sufficient to address this problem.
Some may also object that a focus on class will turn back time, as it were, back to the Marxist roots of the topics at hand. As Fricker herself stated, she rejects a “monolithic social ontology of class” (Fricker 2017, 56) in favour of an intersectional approach. Re-focussing on class, however, does not “obscure” intersectional issues, but is rather a necessary condition to begin to lift the veil of ideology which fuels fundamental forms of oppression. Instead of assigning blame, the argument I develop here is merely meant to be stringent in applying standpoint epistemology in a manner that does not forget class.
Lastly, it is difficult, as philosophers are generally aware, to demonstrate that something does not exist or that they do not know about something. However, those familiar with the literature on epistemic injustice and related issues will become aware, in reviewing that literature, that class issues often do not take a prominent role. Especially since scholars on epistemic injustice are particularly cognizant of many modes of oppression and are careful to account for that in their work, it might be difficult for many to accept that there has been the collective omission of class that I point out here. But thinkers of epistemic injustice are acutely aware of this in other contexts:
What we attend to and what we ignore are often complexly interwoven with values and politics. […] [I]f you discover new knowledge about something others do not take seriously, do not expect your knowledge projects to have much effect. The veil of ignorance is not so easily lifted (Tuana 2004, 219).
Convincing people that they are missing something integral when, in fact, they cannot detect such deficiencies is no easy task. (Dotson 2014, 128).
If such scholars are aware of the nature of epistemic blind spots in comparable contexts, it should behove us to apply the same care to the discourse on epistemic injustice. The argument in this paper is simply meant as an invitation to apply the attitude expressed in these quotes to the discourse of epistemic injustice itself and to re-position class from the margins in the discourse on epistemic justice right into the centre with categories like race and class.
1. The Class Problem: Omission, Ignorance, and Hermeneutic Injustice
This section starts out by first arguing that the discourse on epistemic injustice tends to focus on race and gender as categories of (epistemic) oppression rather than class. I offer three possible reasons as to why this is the case. Secondly, this section argues that this omission constitutes a case of epistemic injustice in the tradition of Tuana and others.
Discussions of class are often absent in analytic social philosophy, or they rarely take centre-stage while race, gender or disability currently tend to be prioritized over class. This seems particularly true in the relatively recent field of epistemic injustice. In the original Epistemic Injustice, Fricker makes only cursory, not systematic remarks, on class and classism (Fricker 2007, 15ff., 32, 171). In a later paper, Fricker aims to justify omitting certain traditions from reflections on epistemic injustice, particularly Foucault and Marx, which also includes a focus shift away from class:
Against this backdrop, what I hoped for from the concept of epistemic injustice and its cognates was to mark out a delimited space in which to observe some key intersections of knowledge and power at one remove from the long shadows of both Marx and Foucault, by forging an on- the- ground tool of critical understanding that was called for in everyday lived experiences of injustice […]. As regards Marxism, for my purposes the monolithic social ontology of class—or its gender or race counterparts—remained at that time riskily insensitive to other dimensions of difference, even if it was recognised to be an abstraction rather than an empirical generalisation (Fricker 2017, 56).
And although feminist standpoint theory at the time remained too beholden to the sweeping abstractions of Marxism to be viable, it contained a lasting methodological insight that was usefully sloganised by Sandra Harding (1991): ‘start thought from marginalized lives’. Start with the experience of powerlessness and show that it raises philosophical questions (Fricker 2017, 56).
It is certainly not only Fricker who marginalizes reflections on Marx and Marxism. Certain key publications (monographs, edited volumes, survey articles) on issues regarding epistemic injustice and wilful ignorance tend to marginalize class issues as well. In all fairness, Fricker (2018) has recently welcomed, so to speak, Honneth’s (1996) recognition theory, which is rooted in Marxist and Critical Theory, as an ally to the concept of epistemic injustice. Yet even then, Fricker has not afforded class and classism a more privileged position in the debate.
This omission of Marxist thought is, at the very least, curious. It is curious in the sense that the Marxist tradition of ideology critique seems to be incredibly congenial to the debate on epistemic injustice, yet is rarely focussed on. To mention two examples that do mention it, Charles Mills suggests the concept of ideology ought to be brought “back to the centre of our theoretical attention” to understand the connection between social injustice and epistemic injustice (Mills 2017, 110). But even Mills mainly focuses on racism as an ideology and disavows a focus on class as one of Marxism’s “many weaknesses” (ibid). One example fully dedicated to teasing out Marxist ideas in relation to epistemic injustice is Elling (2021, 6) who argues that the concept of ideology ought to supplement the concept of epistemic injustice, or rather, that the concept of ideology “goes deeper”, as it were, in certain respects.
While I do share large parts of Mills’ and Elling’s thoughtful assessments, I shall argue that there is substance for more controversy here than their different irenic proposals. The omission of class from debates on epistemic injustice is not only, as mentioned, curious, but that it is an instance of epistemic ignorance.
To start off: What could be the reason for the omission of class from debates on epistemic injustice? While it might be impossible to give a definite answer, I am suggesting what I take to be two possible reasons: a rejection of class reductionism and a lesson from standpoint theory. The following suggestions are both tentative in that they are not meant to single out particular scholars of epistemic injustice or feminist philosophy more generally. The omission of class is in different discourses on social and political justice is not due to single well-meaning or malignant individuals. It is rather supra-personal phenomenon in the same sense that ideologies can be thought to be supra-personal.
Firstly, it is important to note that epistemic injustice is steadfastly rooted in the tradition of feminist philosophy. While I cannot give a detailed account of the history of feminist philosophy here, it is relatively safe to say that during the second half of the 20th century it was more heavily involved with Marxism than large strands of it are today. One central development in the history of feminist philosophy was its decade long separation from the Marxist tradition. Although there certainly still are self-identified Marxist or materialist feminists, the spectrum of feminist philosophy has by now been more stratified. One of the key motivations of abandoning the Marxist tradition was the accusation of class reductionism, i.e. the accusation that Marxist theory with its focus on class-struggle is too coarse-grained to adequately account for issues of justice by being dismissive of gender and race aspects. As Mills (2017, 101) bemoans, “Marxism’s concept of oppression is centred one-dimensionally on class”. Whether or not this accusation is warranted, the divorce from Marxist theory has certainly been very thorough. It might just be the case that the fact that class issues are marginalized in the discourse on epistemic injustice is simply a by-product of this emancipation from Marxist thought.
A second reason for the omission of class issues can be found by applying certain insights from standpoint theory. Fricker herself acknowledges early in her Epistemic Justice a commitment to standpoint theory, already cited above (Fricker 2017 56). Currently, standpoint epistemology is defined by two theses: the situated knowledge thesis and the epistemic privilege thesis (Rolin 2006). For our purposes the latter is relevant. According to the epistemic privilege thesis unprivileged social positions are likely to generate perspectives are “less partial and distorted” than perspectives generated by other social position (Rolin 2006, 125). More broadly speaking, standpoint theory suggests that “unequal power relations might structure inquiry or influence the production of knowledge” (Toole 2020, 1) (cf. also Ashton and McKenna 2020, 30). Or as Alcoff (2007, 44) puts it, “members of oppressed groups have fewer reasons to fool themselves about this being the best of all possible worlds […]”. Expressed through the lens of class: the working class has a less distorted view onto socio-economic injustices whereas the middle and upper class have a personal stake in not knowing or caring about certain parts of social reality.
How could standpoint theory give us a clue as to why the discourse on epistemic injustice has, so far, been largely devoid of class issues? To see this, it is first important to note that academic philosophy, as a whole, has a class problem in the sense that individuals from the middle and upper-middle-class tend to be overrepresented, especially in very desirable tenured positions (Towers 2019). Stochastically speaking, there will be a large quantity of scholars on epistemic injustice (if this sub-group is at least somewhat representative of the group of academic philosophers as a whole) who themselves might be marginalized in virtue of gender, race, or disability, but not class.
And if even moderate forms of standpoint theory are correct, this membership to the middle-to-upper-class will play a part in pre-determining whether one is “blind” to the role of classism and class in the same manner that, say, white people have to luxury of not having to think about race or racism very much. Furthermore, since epistemic injustice is part of feminist philosophy, the majority of actors in the discourse on epistemic injustice will be—stochastically speaking again—women because feminist philosophy is, obviously, dominated by women.
If it is true that the debate on feminist implications of epistemology in particular features a disproportionate amount of middle-to-upper class women, it is likely that their epistemic interest centers on gender insofar as they themselves experience oppression in virtue of being women, but is less likely to include discrimination based on class membership. If we are to take standpoint epistemology seriously, then we have to be open to the possibility that the discourse on epistemic injustice as rooted in feminist philosophy is (not exclusively, but disproportionally) shaped by the views and standpoints of middle to upper-class women.
Having argued that a rejection of class reductionism and, stochastically speaking, the class identity of academic philosophers are perhaps reasons for the omission of class from large swathes of the debate on epistemic injustice, I am now going to suggest that we can apply some insights from the recent debate on ignorance to this phenomenon. In close relation to the idea of epistemic injustice, the last few decades have seen a rise of an epistemology of ignorance (cf. Smithson 2015, 385ff. for an overview). Ignorance in that tradition denotes more than simple cognitive oversight. In an article on female anatomy, Tuana (2004) focuses on ” … practices that account for not knowing, that is, our lack of knowledge about a phenomena [sic] or, in some cases, an account of the practices that resulted in a group unlearning what was once a realm of knowledge (195).
She furthermore notes that ignorance in this sense is “an active production”, it is “frequently constructed and actively preserved” (195). This active character is related to the point that practices of ignorance make us lose knowledge because it is seen no longer as “valuable, important, or functional” (196). This conception of ignorance can be usefully expanded upon with Medina’s notion of meta-blindness. According to Medina, those who are epistemically privileged tend not to run:
[I]nto cultural limitations that render their experiences, problems, and even their lives unintelligible, as a result of not ever feeling severely constrained as speakers and subjects of knowledge, privileged subjects tend to be particularly reluctant to acknowledge the limitations of the horizon of understanding that they inhabit; that is, they tend to be blind to their own blindness […] (Medina 2013, 75).
One prime case of meta-blindness is what has been called “white privilege”. In many Western countries, white people are privileged in a way that allows them to not think about their whiteness, or race more generally, because they are not disadvantaged or somehow constrained in terms of their race. The kind of active ignorance described by others neatly lines up with Medina’s meta-blindness: it ‘pays’ to remain blind about one’s own blindness or ignorant about one’s own ignorance.
The relative silence on class issues in the discourse on epistemic injustice can be qualified as an instance of such ignorance. In the discourse on epistemic injustice, it is not the case that we simply do not know yet, as it were about the epistemic injustice associated with class and classism. It rather seems to be the case that we might be in the process of losing certain insights about classism that may have been present, i.e. specifically those insights about class that some feminist scholars absconded in the second half of the 20th century. As Tuana herself stated, “ignorance production emerge[s] from values and prior assumptions concerning proper ends” (Tuana 2004, 220). Given Tuana’s conception of active ignorance, we ought to be wary to claim that the omission of class from the discourse on epistemic injustice were simply an innocuous oversight or an entirely blameless process. While no particular scholar can be blamed for not sufficiently including class issues in this discourse (just like Tuana did not blame any particular gynecologist for ignorance on female anatomy), the oversight of class still supervenes on the collective epistemic structure, i.e. the discourse, itself. The exclusion of class as a production of ignorance on class issues in the context of epistemic justice might not be a deliberate action, but it is still a doing by the epistemic peers in this discourse.
Furthermore, and this is the central point, this ignorance (in the terminological sense) presents us with a form of epistemic injustice. Recall that someone experiencing hermeneutic injustice is epistemically disadvantaged insofar as they do not have the conceptual resources to make full sense of their own social position. The omission of class as constituting active ignorance in the discourse on epistemic injustice contributes to the inability of oppressed classes to sufficiently make sense of their social position as determined by their class membership. While he focusses on the concept of ideology, Elling (2021, 5) correctly stresses that hermeneutic injustice also includes the inability “to even experience something as an injustice” (following Celikates 2017, 58). The discourse on epistemic justice could be a means to shine a light on epistemic injustice connected to classism, i.e. could help make us be better at experiencing class-based epistemic injustice, but the omission of class issues serves to further obscure and thus exacerbate epistemic oppression of the lower classes.
Taking stock of what has been stated in this section one can say that in practicing active ignorance about class and classism, the discourse on epistemic justice itself is structurally fraught with epistemic injustice. More specifically, the omission of class issues from the discourse on epistemic injustice constitutes a form of hermeneutic injustice. Now a defender of the (current state of) the work on epistemic injustice might simply insist that the omission of class is blameless and that that gender, race or disability have justifiably superseded class as key analytical categories, simply a result of the critique of class reductionism. In the next section however, I detail why those interested in (epistemic) justice ought to care about the omission of class.
◈ Part II: “The Epistemic Injustice of Epistemic Injustice.”
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 A second point is that such an appeal to class being implied is analogous to how some reactionaries reject certain linguistic innovations, for example, giving up the generic masculine noun flexion in German. Being tacitly considered “implied”, means not being present and visible at all in a similar manner in which women and other marginalized groups are often kept invisible.
 For example Kidd (2017), Medina (2013), McKinnon (2016), Sherman and Goguen (2019), Giladi and McMillan (2018).
 As Elling reminds us, “the privileged do not know that there is a side to social reality that they do not know about. And this ignorance about their ignorance precludes them from developing the sensitivity required for hermeneutical justice” (Elling 2021, 3).