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Author Information: Kristie Dotson, Michigan State University,

Dotson, Kristie. “Abolishing Jane Crow.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 1-8.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

See also:

Image by Adley Haywood via Flickr / Creative Commons


It took me 8 years to publish “Theorizing Jane Crow.” I wrote it at the same time as I wrote my 2011 paper, “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing.” The many reviews that advocated for rejecting “Theorizing Jane Crow” over the years made me refine it…and alter it….and refine it some more. This is not necessarily a gripe. But it will seem that way. Because there are two consistent critiques of this paper that have stuck with me for how utterly problematic they were and are. In this reply to Ayesha Hardison’s commentary, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Literary Fragments,” I display and analyze those critiques because they link up in interesting ways to Ayesha Hardison’s commentary.

The two most common critiques of this paper include:  1) the judgement that my paper is not good intellectual history or not good literary criticism and 2) the conclusion that Black women’s literary production is so advanced that there is no way to make a claim of unknowability with respect to US Black women today (or yesterday).  In what follows, I will articulate and explore these critiques. The first critique brings attention to just how wonderful Hardison’s commentary actually is for how it sets up the rules of engagement between us. The second critique can be used to tease out convergences and a potential divergence between Hardison’s position and my own.

The First Critique: Does E’rybody Have to be Historians or Literary Studies Scholars?

Since I neither claim to be a literary scholar nor a historian, I found no reason to deny the first (and by far most consistent) critique of this paper. This paper is not good intellectual history. And, plainly speaking, it is terrible literary criticism. Let me say this, for the record, I am neither an intellectual historian, nor a literary critic. And, with all due respect to those people who do these things well, I have no desire to be.

Hardison detected that she and I are coming to the same sets of problems with different trainings, different habits of attention, and, quite frankly, different projects. Because, no, I am not a literary critic. Hardison acknowledges our different orientations when she writes:

Whereas Dotson theorizes Jane Crow by outlining social features facilitating black women’s ‘unknowability,’ in literary studies, we might say black women’s ‘unknowability’ is actually a matter of audience, and more importantly, a problem of reception. (2018, 57)

Another place where differences in our respective approaches is foreshadowed is in the very first line of Hardison’s reply when she writes, “To acknowledge Jane Crow…is not the same as understanding how black women’s subjugation works – or why it persists,” (2018, 56). From the very first line, I was put at ease with Hardison’s commentary. Because however much we might disagree or agree, at least, she recognized my actual project. I treat Murray like a philosopher. In accordance with philosopher stone rules, e.g. like an element from which composite understandings can be derived. It was clear to me that even among Black feminist academics, potential audiences for this paper were simply unused to the kinds of flights of fancy that taking Black women as philosophers requires.[1]

Hardison didn’t have this problem at all. In other words, Hardison was, for me, a “brown girl’s heart” to receive what I was trying to articulate. For that I am so very grateful to her. I believe that Hardison understood what I was trying to do. I was treating Pauli Murray the way I would be allowed to treat any theoretical white dude. Like her work should be able to inspire more work with family resemblances. I treated Murray like there could and should be Murray-ians. And it was this move that I utterly refused to compromise on. It was also the move that inspired, in my estimation, the most resistance from anonymous reviewers. But Hardison got it. But, then, of course, she would get it. She does the same thing in her book, Writing Through Jane Crow (Hardison 2014). We treat Murray like a philosopher.

The performance of Hardison’s commentary accords very much with the existence of (and necessity of) “an empathetic black female audience” (Hardison 2018, 59). And what is uncovered between us is a great deal of agreement between her positions and my own and a potential disagreement. At this point, Hardison and I can talk to each other. But I want to draw attention to the fact it is Hardison’s commentary that sets the stage for this exchange in a way where our convergences and divergences can be fruitfully explored. And that is no easy feat. Hats off to Hardison. I am deeply grateful for her work here.

The Second Critique: Black Women’s Literary Production vs. Jane Crow Dynamics

The second most common critique of “Theorizing Jane Crow” concerned skepticism about whether US Black women could be understood as unknowable in the face of US Black women’s literary production. It was only in reading Hardison’s commentary that I realized, I may have misunderstood part of the critiques being leveled at me from (again) anonymous reviewers that were most likely Black feminist academics themselves. One might have misread my essay to say that Black women never afford each other the kind of empathetic audiences that are needed to render them, broadly speaking, knowable in hegemonic and counterhegemonic spaces. That the Black community at large never extends such empathy.

Or, in Hardison’s words, some may have taken me as advocating for “the conceit that black women’s narratives about their multivalent oppression registers similarly in hegemonic and counterhegemonic spaces” (2018, 56). Now, I am not sure if Hardison is accusing me of this. There is reason to believe that she isn’t but is rather choosing this point as a way of empathetically extending my remarks. For example, Hardison writes:

An analysis of African American women writers’ engagement with Jane Crow is outside the scope of Dotson’s epistemological story in “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” but their texts illuminate the philosophical conundrum she identifies. (2018, 57)

This suggests, to me, that Hardison detects the problem of Jane Crow unknowability in Black women writer’s work, even as they work to navigate and counter such unknowability with some degree of success.

Now, to be clear, unknowability, on the terms I outline, can be relative. One might argue that the difficulty of receiving a fair peer-review for this paper in a particular domain rife with either Black feminists with literary, historical, and/or sociological training means that hegemonic and counterhegemonic communities alike pose epistemological problems, even if they are not exactly the conditions of Jane Crow (and they aren’t). But those epistemological problems may have the same structure of the epistemological engine I afford to Jane Crow dynamics, e.g. disregard, disbelief, and disavowal. This is primarily because, epistemologies in colonial landscapes are very difficult to render liberatory (see, for example, Dotson 2015).[2]

Limits of Unknowability, Limits of a Single Paper

Still, for me, the most egregious misreading of “Theorizing Jane Crow” is to interpret me as saying that Black women are equally as unknowable to other Black women as they are in “hegemonic spaces” (56) and according “hierarchical epistemologies” (58). Yeah, that’s absurd. Hardison’s commentary extends my article in exactly the ways it needs to be extended to cordon off this kind of ludicrous uptake, i.e. that Black womenkind are equally unknowable to ourselves as we might be in the face of hegemonic epistemological orientations.[3]

But, as Hardison notes, an extensive development of the point that Black womenkind offer empathetic audiences to Black womenkind that render them knowable, at least “to themselves and each other” (Hardison 2018, 57), both for the sake of their own lives and for the sake of the lives of other Black womenkind, is outside the scope of my paper. Rather, I am concerned with, as Hardison rightly notes, “understanding how black women’s [Jane Crow] subjugation works – or why it persists” (2018, 56). And though I don’t think my essay indicates that Black womenkind are equally “unknowable” to each other in all instances, if that is a possible reading of my essay, thank goodness for Ayesha Hardison’s generous extension of this project to make clear that the performance of this text belies that reading.

Perhaps Hardison says it best, my “grappling with and suture of Murray’s philosophical fragments challenges the hierarchical epistemologies that have characterized black women as unknowable and unknowing,” (2018, 58). This is why I love Black feminist literary studies folks. Because, yes! The performance of this piece belies the message that there is no way for us to be known, especially by ourselves. And, what’s more, such an inexhaustible unknowing has to be false for the successful performance of this text. But then I am aware of that. So what else might I be attempting to articulate in this paper?

It strikes me that a charitable reading of the second main criticism leveled at this paper might proceed as follows:

From where does the charge of unknowability come in the face of the existence and quantity of US Black women’s literary and cultural production? This is an especially important question when you need Black women’s production to write about their ‘unknowability,” how can you claim that Black women are unknowable when the condition for the possibility of this account is that you take yourself to know something about them from their own production? This seems to be a contradiction.

Yes. It does seem like a contradiction or, if folks need a white male theorist to say something to make it real, it is a kind of differend- (Lyotard 1988).[4] Radically disappeared peoples, circumstances, and populations are often subject to problems with respect to frames, evidence and modes of articulation. Being disappeared is different than being invisible simpliciter, but then I make this claim in “Theorizing Jane Crow.”

Problems of large scale disappearing that affect entire populations, events, and historical formations render unknowable unknowability. This problematic seems to be what this second critique falls prey too, i.e. the disappearing of unknowability behind sense making devices (Dotson 2017). As the critique goes, if Black women are unknowable at the scale I seem to propose, then how do I know about this unknowability?[5] How, indeed.

I still reject this rendition of the second criticism, i.e. the one that says with all the literary production of Black womenkind we are no longer unknowable or else I wouldn’t know about a condition of unknowability. Jane Crow unknowability, in my estimation, is not subject to brute impossibilities, i.e. either we are knowable or unknowable. This is because Jane Crow is domain specific in the same ways Jim Crow was (and is). Also, Jane Crow is made of epistemological and material compromises. Hardison gets this. She is very clear that “Black women continue to be ‘unknowable’ in dominant culture due to its investment in white supremacy and patriarchy,” (Hardison 2018, 57).

But, let’s get something clear, an “investment” is not only a set of attitudes. It is composed of sets of institutional norms (and institutions through which to enact those norms). Sets of norms of attention. Sets of historically derived “common sense” and “obvious truths” that routinely subject Black womenkind to Jane Crow dynamics. It is composed of social and material relations that make sense because of the investments that invest them with sense.

Jane Crow as a Dynamic of Complex Social Epistemology

Jane Crow dynamics, when they appear, are built into the functioning of institutions and communal, social relations. They are embedded in the “common sense” of many US publics- including counterhegemonic ones- because I am presuming we are assuming that some Black communities indulge in patriarchy, which is what lead Murray to her observations (See, Hardison 2018). And though Black women can disrupt this in pockets it does not change the epistemological and material conditions that are reinforcing and recreating Jane Crow dynamics for every generation. And it doesn’t change the reality that there is a limit to our capacity to change this from within Jane Crow dynamics. So, we write ourselves into existence again and again and again.

Hardison acknowledges this, as she astutely notes, “Although I engage Pauli Murray as a writer here to offer a complementary approach to Dotson’s theorizing of Jane Crow, I do not claim that black women’s writings irons out Jane Crow’s material paradoxes,” (2018, 62). And this is the heart of my disagreement with the second major critique of this essay. Are those critics claiming that epistemological possibilities brought by Black women’s literary production iron out material paradoxes that, in part, cause Jane Crow dynamics? Because, that would be absurd.

But here is where I appear to disagree with Hardison. Is Hardison claiming that epistemological possibilities have ironed out Jane Crow’s epistemological paradoxes? Because I sincerely doubt that. Schedules of disbelief, disregard, and disavowal are happening constantly and we don’t have great mechanisms for tracking who they harm, whether they harm, and why (on this point, see Dotson and Gilbert 2014).

This leads to a potential substantive disagreement between Hardison and I. And it can be found in the passage I cited earlier. She writes:

Whereas Dotson theorizes Jane Crow by outlining social features facilitating black women’s ‘unknowability,’ in literary studies, we might say black women’s ‘unknowability’ is actually a matter of audience, and more importantly, a problem of reception. (2018, 57)

There is a potential misreading of my text here that seems to center on different understandings of “epistemological” that may come from our different disciplinary foci. Specifically, I don’t necessarily focus on social features. I focus on epistemic features facilitating black women’s unknowability, when we encounter it. That is to say, disregard, disbelief, and disavowal are epistemic relations. They are also social ways of relating, but, importantly, in my analysis they are socio-epistemic. What that means is that they are social features that figure prominently in epistemological orientations and conduct. And these features are embedded in what makes audiences and uptake relevant for this discussion. That is to say, the reasons why audiences matter, and problems of reception are central, is because varying audiences indulge in disregard, disbelief, and disavowal differently.

So, the juxtaposition that might be assumed in Hardison’s statement of the focus in literary studies, which is indicated by the phrase “actually a matter of,” is not a difference in kind, but rather a difference in emphasis. I am tracking the kinds of things that makes audience and problems of reception important for rendering anything knowable in social worlds, e.g. disregard, disbelief, and disavowal. Because it is there, as a philosophy-trained academic, that I can mount an explanation of “how black women’s [Jane Crow] subjugation works -or why it persists” (Hardison 2018, 56).

The Great Obstacles of Abolishing Jane Crow

In the end, this may not be a disagreement at all. I tend to think of it as a change in focus. My story is one story that can be told. Hardison’s story is another. They need not be taken as incompatible. In fact, I would claim they are not incompatible but, as Hardison notes, complementary (2018, 62). They uncover different aspects of a complicated dynamic. One can focus on the problems of audience and reception. And I think that this is fruitful and important. But, and this is where Hardison and I might part company, focusing on these issues can lead one to believe that Jane Crow dynamics are easier to abolish than they are.

One might suspect, as some of the anonymous reviewers of this essay have, that all the literary production of US Black womenkind means that US Black womenkind don’t actually face Jane Crow dynamics. Because, and this seems to be the take-home point of the second critique, and as Hardison explains, “Structural realities (and inequities) demand black women’s invisibility, but black women’s philosophical and literary efforts make them visible – first and foremost – to themselves” (2018, 57). And this is the crux of our potential disagreement.

What do we mean by “make them visible” and, more importantly, where? In the domains where they are experiencing Jane Crow dynamics, i.e. epistemological and material compromises, or in the domains where they, arguably, are not? Because the empathetic audiences of “brown girls” outside of institutions that operate to our detriment are not major catalysts for the problem of Jane Crow unknowability, on my account. This is where domain specificity becomes important and one must reject the conclusion (as I do in “Theorizing Jane Crow”) that Jane Crow unknowability is invisibility simpliciter.

As Hardison explains, Pauli Murray’s experiences with racial and gender subordination motivated her towards identifying and signifying Jane Crow oppression (along with constructing epistemological orientations with which to do so) (2018, 61). What the anonymous reviewers and Hardison insist on is that “These fragments of knowing identify black women’s autobiography as a vehicle for positive self-concept and social epistemology.”

Moreover, Hardison claims, and rightly so, that though “Black women writers do not ‘resolve our dilemmas,’…they do ‘name them.’ In a destructive culture of invisibility, for black women to call out Jane Crow and counter with their self-representation has substantive weight” (2018, 62). I agree with all of these conclusions about the importance of Black women countering Jane Crow dynamics, even as I wonder what it means to say it has “substantive weight.”

I question this not because I disagree that such countering has substantive weight. It does. But part of what has to be interrogated in the 21st century, as we continue to grow weary of living with centuries old problematics, what does the abolition of Jane Crow look like? Are there other forms of “substantive weight” to pursue in tandem to our historical efforts?

In asking this I am not attempting to belittle the efforts that have gotten us to this point- with resources and tools to “call out and counter” Jane Crow dynamics. My work in this paper is impossible without the efforts of previous and current generations of Black womenkind to “name” this problem. Their work has been (and is) important. And for many of us it is lifesaving.  But- and yes, this is a ‘but,’ what next? I want a world other than this. And even if that world is impossible, which I half believe, I still want to work towards a world other than this today as part of what it means to live well right now. So, though this may be blasphemous in today’s Black feminist academy, I don’t think that Black women’s literary production is quite the panacea for Jane Crow dynamics that it is often assumed to be.[6] But then, from Hardison’s remarks, she doesn’t assume this either. How we come to this conclusion (and how we would extend it) may be quite different, however.

The Limits and Potential of Literary Production

And, yes, I think a focus on the socio-epistemic and material conditions of Jane Crow can help us detect the limits of relying on black women’s literary production for the abolition of Jane Crow dynamics, even if such production has an integral role to play in its abolition, e.g. producing knowledge that we use to form understandings about potential conditions of unknowability. And though I would argue that black women’s cultural production is key to worlds other than (and better than this). Because, as Hardison explains, such work helps us “confront the epistemic affront intrinsic to black women’s Jane Crow subjection,” (2018, 60).

I will still never argue that such production, by itself, can fix the problems we face. It cannot. But then, Hardison would not argue this either. As Hardison concludes, disruption of Jane Crow dynamics means a “a complete end to its material and epistemological abuses,” (2018, 62). Indeed- this is my position as well. In making this claim, we are not attempting to overshadow what has been (and continues to be) accomplished in US Black women’s literary production, but to continue to push our imaginations towards the abolition of Jane Crow.

Contact details:


Dotson, Kristie. 2012. “A Cautionary Tale: On Limititng Epistemic Oppression.”  Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 33 (1):24-47.

Dotson, Kristie. 2013. “Radical Love: Black Philosophy as Deliberate Acts of Inheritance.”  The Black Scholar 43 (4):38-45.

Dotson, Kristie. 2014. “Conceptualizing Epistemic Oppression.”  Social Epistemology 28 (2).

Dotson, Kristie. 2015. “Inheriting Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Epistemology.”  Ethnic and Racial Studies 38 (13):2322-2328.

Dotson, Kristie. 2016. “Between Rocks and Hard Places.”  The Black Scholar 46 (2):46-56.

Dotson, Kristie. 2017. “Theorizing Jane Crow, Thoerizing Unknowability.”  Social Epistemology 31 (5):417-430.

Dotson, Kristie, and Marita Gilbert. 2014. “Curious Disappearances: Affectability Imbalances and Process-Based Invisibility.”  Hypatia 29 (4):873-888.

Hardison, Ayesha. 2018. “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Literary Fragments.”  Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7 (2):53-63.

Hardison, Ayesha K. 2014. Writing Through Jane Crow: Racec and Gender Politics in African American Literarure. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1988. The Differend: Phases in Dispute. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[1] Nothing I am saying here is meant to indicate that literary critics are not (and can never be) philosophers. That is not a position I hold (Dotson 2016). Rather, the claim I am making is that treating people like philosophers can come with certain orientations. It takes extreme amounts of trust and belief that the person(s) whose thought one is exploring can act like a transformative element for the construction of composite understandings (Dotson 2013). It takes trust and belief to utilize someone else’s ideas to extend one’s own imagination, especially where those extensions are not written word for word. One way to treat a person’s work as philosophical work is to assume a form of authorship that allows one to use that work as a “home base” from which to explore and reconstruct the world that is implied in their abstractions. I call this activity, “theoretical archeology” (Dotson 2017, 418). And all I really meant to describe with that term was one way to take a writer as a philosopher. I had to become very detailed about my approach in this paper because of the propensity of anonymous reviewers to attempt to discipline me into literary studies or intellectual history.

[2] This is what I attempt to draw attention to in my work. The epistemological problems in Jane Crow, for example, are epistemological problems that might be able to exist without their corresponding material problems. The material problems in Jane Crow are material problems that might be able to exist without the epistemological problems. But in Jane Crow they are so linked up with each other that they reinforce and reproduce one another.  So, one can address the epistemological problems and leave the material ones (that eventually reintroduce those epistemological problems again). One can address the material problems and still leave the epistemological ones (that will eventually reintroduce those material problems again). Epistemic relations impact material relation and material relations impact epistemic relations, on my account. But they are not the same and they are not subject to domino-effect solutions. Fixing one does not mean one has fixed the other. And it is unclear one can make a claim to have fixed one without having fix both.

[3] If the reader needs more evidence that I have “figured this out,” see (Dotson 2012, 2016).

[4] There is a great deal about Lyotard’s account I would disagree with. But we are undoubtedly grappling with similar dynamics- though our subject population and approach differs significantly. Pauli Murray’s work pre-dates this formulation, however.

[5] I consider the appearance of this kind of seeming paradox to be a symptom of second order epistemic oppression. See (Dotson 2014).

[6] It may be my lower-socio-economic class background that makes it hard to accept the position that writing is going to save us all. I acknowledge that Black womenkind in the places where I am from needed literature and other cultural products for our survival (especially music, social and film medias. The kind of emphasis on writing in this exchange has a tinge of classism. But we can’t do everything here, can we? There is much more dialogue to be had on these issues.) Though, some might say, as Murray did that we need a “brown girl’s heart to hear” our songs of hope. I will agree with this and still maintain that I needed far more than that. When child protective services were coming to attempt to take me from my very good, but not flawless mother, I needed not only brown girl’s hearts. I also needed hierarchical epistemological orientations and oppressive, material conditions to lose hold.

Author Information: Ayesha Hardison, University of Kansas,

Hardison, Ayesha. “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Literary Fragments.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 56-63.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image by Trojan_Llama via Flickr / Creative Commons


To acknowledge Jane Crow, the term Pauli Murray contrived to unmask black women’s intersecting race and gender oppression, is not the same as understanding how black women’s subjection works—or why it persists. In “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” Kristie Dotson defines Jane Crow as a system of practices subjugating black women materially and epistemologically. That is, Jane Crow restricts black women’s inalienable rights to citizenship and limits their equitable access to resources.

Moreover, Jane Crow forecloses comprehension of the disenfranchisement it engenders. Dotson explains, “The complex bind of Jane Crow subordination is constituted by occupying simultaneous hyper-visibility, i.e. membership in social categories policed and suppressed for the maintenance of some form of supremacy, and invisibility, i.e. the limited nature of using those social categories to understand the specific nature of the subordination in question.”[1] Jane Crow, Dotson argues, singles out black women and girls for repression and control and summarily casts them as ciphers, nonentities “hidden in plain sight” despite statistics documenting their plight.[2] As a result of their concurrent hypervisibility and invisibility, black women are perceived as “unknowable” to the social, political, and cultural brokers upholding white supremacy and patriarchy. They are systematically targeted, branded as pathological, pared down to stereotype, regarded as disreputable, and ultimately deemed untenable.

I agree with Dotson: Jane Crow is a material and epistemological problematic manifest in black women’s longstanding repudiation in US hegemonic culture, a phenomenon theorized in black feminist thought since its beginnings. Black women have been relegated historically to the margins of black freedom struggles and women’s movements, and they continue to struggle for legibility in our post-civil rights moment particularly, as Dotson highlights, in the context of familiar narratives about the “endangered black male.”[3]

Yet, constitutive to black women’s epistemological quandary under Jane Crow, i.e. the way racism and sexism impacts their ability to produce knowledge, is the conceit that black women’s narratives about their multivalent oppression register similarly in hegemonic and counterhegemonic spaces. For example, a 2017 New York Times article uses the term Jane Crow to describe the practices of Children’s Services to punish poverty-stricken black and Hispanic women’s parenting by removing their children from their homes. The piece quotes a lawyer at length to indict the epistemic nature of the system’s biases:

There’s this judgment that these mothers don’t have the ability to make decisions about their kids, and in that, society both infantilizes them and holds them to superhuman standards. In another community, your kid’s found outside looking for you because you’re in the bathtub, it’s ‘Oh, my God’—a story to tell later. … In a poor community, it’s called endangering the welfare of your child.[4]

The state’s criminalizing narrative, based on discriminatory racial, gender, and economic geographies, exemplifies the distorted perspectives on black women’s structural disadvantages. Black women continue to be “unknowable” in dominant culture due to its investment in white supremacy and patriarchy. However, black women are not unknowable to themselves, especially if we consider their writing as epistemological endeavors instructive for their readers as well as their conceptualization of self.

An analysis of African American women writers’ engagement with Jane Crow is outside the scope of Dotson’s epistemological story in “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” but their texts illuminate the philosophical conundrum she identifies. From its conception, the African American women’s literary tradition has explored the realities of black women’s social condition under Jane Crow as well as considered, in its various fiction and nonfiction forms, the ways Jane Crow has shaped black women’s production of knowledge.

Pauli Murray’s own memoir Song in a Weary Throat (1987), which narrates the legal scholar’s civil rights activism throughout the twentieth century, makes concrete the material and epistemological injustices black women endure. Whereas Dotson theorizes Jane Crow by outlining the social factors facilitating black women’s “unknowability,” in literary studies, we might say black women’s “unknowability” is actually a matter of audience and, more importantly, a problem of reception. Structural realities (and inequities) demand black women’s invisibility, but black women’s philosophical and literary efforts make them visible—first and foremost—to themselves and each other.

“Theorizing Unknowability”

Dotson describes the conditions fostering black women’s invisibility as “a trifold structure of disappearing” that relies on “disregard, disbelief, and disavowal.”[5] First, black women occupy negative socio-epistemic space in hegemonic culture, which fixes them as unknowable. Public opinion largely classifies black women as irrelevant, and their social vulnerability permits rigid stereotypes that further their invisibility rather than inspire challenges to it. Dotson explains, “a catalyst for invisibility can be seen as, in part, epistemic failings with respect to what we use to make sense of our worlds that serves to obscure certain populations.”[6]

Second, black women experience reduced epistemic confidence, which means they are not afforded plausibility, seen as credible, or viewed as worthy subjects to be “believed in.”[7] In conjunction with the epistemic failings that encourage a disregard of black women, a common-held disbelief in black women delimits their capacity to contribute to the social production of knowledge.

Finally, black women are susceptible to heightened epistemic backgrounding, by which they are demoted to bit players in their own stories or employed as material for juxtaposition instead of subjects of inquiry. Such disavowal, Dotson expounds, displaces black women “as the backdrop of some other subject(s) of contemplation.”[8] Together these three negating environs underwrite black women’s invisibility, which effectively mystifies their Jane Crow oppression by the state and delegitimizes their discernment of their social status.

Dotson’s methodology invites a literary approach to her philosophical interrogation of Jane Crow’s epistemological assault. For example, she cites Toni Blackman’s poetry to exemplify black women’s negotiation of their presence so often mistaken for absence. However, when engaging Pauli Murray’s conceptualization of Jane Crow, Dotson focuses on Murray’s academic and public scholarship. She is careful to note that her work is not an intellectual history of Murray but a “theoretical archeology” of Jane Crow. “It is a story sketched between conceptual fragments in Black women’s social theory,” she writes.[9]

To compose an epistemological story, Dotson stitches together theoretical fragments from Murray’s 1947 article “Why Negro Girls Stay Single” and 1965 essay “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII.” She also mines a quote from Murray’s 1970 essay “The Liberation of Black Women,” in which Murray clarifies, “Jane Crow refers to the entire range of assumptions, attitudes, stereotypes, customs, and arrangements that have robbed women of a positive self-concept and prevented them from participating fully in society as equals with men.”[10]

Dotson highlights this fragment’s epistemological relevance by concentrating on the causes of Jane Crow oppression. She contends black women’s “unfavorable placement with respect to prevailing” assumptions, stereotypes, and customs sanctions the material effects and epistemic circumscriptions of Jane Crow.[11] In effect, her grappling with and suture of Murray’s philosophical fragments challenges the hierarchal epistemologies that have characterized black women as unknowable and unknowing.

I appreciate Dotson’s attentive epistemological reading, and I am struck also by the fragment’s reference to Jane Crow’s influence on black women’s “positive self-concept.” This, too, is epistemologically relevant, and I would go further to suggest that it is within fragments of Murray’s creative and nonfiction writing that an inchoate discourse about black women’s positive self-concept, which is often overlooked and undervalued, emerges.

Image by AntonSLarsson via Flickr / Creative Commons


“Creatively Theorizing The Black Female Autobiographical Self”

Murray was an accomplished writer as well as a distinguished legal scholar. In addition to academic articles and law compendiums, she produced a collection of poetry, a biography of her grandparents, and her posthumously-published memoir Song in a Weary Throat. The latter takes its title from Murray’s published poem “Dark Testament” (1943), which sketches African American history from African society, captivity, and slavery to impending freedom over the poem’s twelve sections. Its speaker relays, “Hope is a song in a weary throat.”[12] Noticeably, “hope” is not included in the title of Murray’s autobiography, but its affect resonates in her extraordinary life story as a black activist, feminist, lawyer, priest, and poet.[13]

The speaker of “Dark Testament” goes on to entreat, “Give me a song of hope and love/And a brown girl’s heart to hear it” (italics original). This fragment, just a few lines later, suggests that a song of hope does not achieve its full transformative power without a brown girl’s heart and ear—or to put it another way, without an empathetic black female audience. In the introduction to Murray’s poetry collection, Morris Milgram reveals the activist/poet thought of “Dark Testament,” a prodigious narrative, as “only a fragment and forerunner of the epic of black America yet to be written.”[14]

Nonetheless, the fragment frames Murray’s memoir as a song of hope. It also signals the importance of a black female reader to whom and for whom her production of knowledge would be regarded, believed, and avowed despite the presumptions of “unknowability” black women’s Jane Crow oppression provokes.[15]

In her essay “Being the Subject and the Object,” Barbara Christian recalls her experience reading African American women’s fiction, namely Paule Marshall’s novel Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), for the first time. She writes that the “woman-voice” of the black female protagonist’s mother “constantly interrupted my mind-voice. Her anguish-rage warned me of trials I might have to face.”[16] Marshall’s coming of age tale resonated with Christian, as the latter internalized the lessons she gleaned from the protagonist’s racial and gender struggles.

The novel allowed Christian to confront the epistemic offense intrinsic to black women’s Jane Crow subjection. “In it,” she writes, “I as subject encountered myself as object.”[17] By reading black women’s writing, Christian distinguishes herself as a reader, a subject, from that which is read, an object. Her confrontation with herself as an object codified her abiding invisibility in American literature and culture even as it marked her obvious presence. Christian surmises Brown Girl, Brownstones “was crucial to a deeper understanding of my own life,” and she later learns from a conversation with Marshall that it was written “to unravel [the black female writer’s] own knots.” Central to the acts of reading and writing, then, is black women’s knowing.[18]

Christian’s reflection minds African American women’s fiction, but its premise is helpful for thinking about black women’s epistemic endeavors in nonfiction.[19] A cursory review of black women’s literary criticism in autobiographical studies reveals fragments theorizing their unknowability as well as their efforts to counteract it. In Black Women Writing Autobiography, Joanne Braxton expresses, “We have been knowers, but we have not been known.”[20] She elucidates that autobiography is a way for African American women to “meet,” or know, their mothers “on the conscious plane,” as exemplified by her study of the works of Harriet Jacobs, Ida B. Wells, Nina Simone, and Maya Angelou among others. “Defying every attempt to enslave or diminish them or their self-expression in any way,” Braxton writes, “black women autobiographers liberate themselves from stereotyped views of black womanhood, and define their own experiences.”[21]

Similarly, Margo Perkins contends that the autobiographies of Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and Elaine Brown construct “an alternative history that challenges hegemonic ways of knowing.”[22] Finally in Words of Witness, Angela Ards asserts that personal narrative and political discourse intersect within an autobiography to create a “deliberative space where readers” can “imagine the new vocabularies and strategies that the moment demands.”[23] These fragments of knowing identify black women’s autobiography as a vehicle for positive self-concept and social epistemology.

In Song in a Weary Throat, Murray relays the moment she decided to write her memoir late in the narrative. While contemplating a faculty appointment at Brandeis in 1968, she explains, “Suddenly I realized that what I really wanted to do was to write an autobiographical book on Jim Crow and Jane Crow—racism and sexism as they had impinged upon my life.”[24] Murray elected to do both, to teach and write during the summer. Her purpose for penning the book, to write about sexism during the height of twentieth-century black freedom struggles, echoes her resolve to confront systemic oppression depicted throughout her memoir.

Earlier in the text Murray discloses her decision to attend Howard Law School “with the single-minded intention of destroying Jim Crow.”[25] However, it is during her time there that she began to theorize Jane Crow, “the twin evil of discriminatory sex bias,” as she was the only female student in her class at the all-black institution which had no women faculty and only one female staff member.[26] “[T]he racial factor was removed in the intimate environment of a Negro law school dominated by men,” she writes, “and the factor of gender was fully exposed.”

Murray describes experiencing the material affects of Jane Crow as well as its epistemological repercussions in this period of her life. She is excluded from the legal fraternity and its extended networks due to her gender. Although she characterizes her male classmates as “friendly,” she qualifies that they “seemed to take it for granted that I had nothing to contribute. For much of that first year I was condemned to silence unless the male students exhausted their arguments or were completely stumped by a professor’s question.”[27] Murray is barred customarily from adding to the class’s production of knowledge. Consequently, she writes that her realization “women were often the objects of ridicule disguised as a joke” by her classmates and professors “aroused an incipient feminism in me long before I knew the meaning of the term ‘feminism.’”[28]

Song in a Weary Throat details Murray’s experiences with racial and gender subordination, but it also outlines the processes of knowledge production that motivated her to identify and signify her Jane Crow oppression.[29] She theorizes the practice in law school, and she applies the term in her 1947 essay “Why Negro Girls Stay Single.” Yet, it is in the fragments of her autobiography that Murray demythologizes black female epistemologies. Song in a Weary Throat is an enlightening testament to black women’s production of knowledge.


In the conclusion of her essay, Dotson asks, “How does one disrupt epistemic resources that hide their inadequacy behind the shape of its own sense making features? … Would one aim an intervention at the nature of imagination as a means of disrupting knowledge economies?”[30] In response to these questions, she states many black feminists, such as Pauli Murray and Kimberlé Crenshaw, and many black women writers, such as June Jordan, Toni Morrison, and Audre Lorde, “have tried.”  Yet such a feat could only be accomplished with the demise of Jane Crow—a complete end to its material and epistemological abuses.

Although I engage Pauli Murray as a writer here to offer a complementary approach to Dotson’s theorizing of Jane Crow, I do not claim that black women’s writing irons out Jane Crow’s material paradoxes. I do want to suggest black women’s self-articulation provides them a way to mitigate the intellectual confines of Jane Crow. Black women writers do not “resolve our dilemmas,” to return to Christian’s insights about the literary tradition, but they do “name them.”[31]  In a destructive culture of invisibility, for black women to call out Jane Crow and counter with their self-representation has substantive weight.

Contact details:


Ards, Angela A. Words of Witness: Black Women’s Autobiography in the Post-Brown Era. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015.

Bobo, Jacqueline.  Black Women as Cultural Readers. New York: Columbia, 1995.

Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

___. “Autobiography and African American Women’s Literature.” African American Women’s Literature. Eds. Angelyn Mitchell and Danille K. Taylor.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 128-147.

Christian, Barbara. “Being the Subject and the Object: Reading African-American Women’s Novels.” New Black Feminist Criticism, 1985-2000. Eds. Gloria Bowles, M. Giulia Fabi, and Arlene R. Keizer. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007. 120-126.

Clifford, Stephanie and Jessica Silver-Greenberg. “Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow.’” New York Times July 21, 2017. Accessed January 31, 2018

Cooper, Brittney C. Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017.

Dotson, Kristie. “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability.” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 31:5 (2017) 417-430.

Graham, Maryemma. “Introduction.” The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 1-16

Hardison, Ayesha K. Writing through Jane Crow: Race and Gender Politics in African American Literature. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014.

Perkins, Margo V. Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

Petry, Ann. The Street. 1946. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

Milgram, Morris. “Introduction.” Dark Testament and Other Poems. Norwalk, CT: Silvermine, 1970.

Murray, Pauli. “Dark Testament.” 1943. Dark Testament and Other Poems. Norwalk, CT: Silvermine, 1970. 12-27.

___. Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1987.

___. “The Liberation of Black Women.” 1970. Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought. Ed. Beverly Guy Sheftall. New York: The New Press, 1995. 186-197.

[1] Kristie Dotson, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 31:5 (2017): 417.

[2] Ibid., 420, 425.

[3] Ibid. The degree of black women’s visibility in the current #metoo campaign is also debatable, given the limited discussion of their experiences in Hollywood despite the hashtag’s origin in black female activist Tarana Burke’s grassroots organizing around sexual abuse.

[4] Maisha Joefield, the mother penalized under these circumstances, shares in the article that the temporary removal of her child still makes her nervous: “You’re afraid to parent the way you would normally parent.” The ritualized castigation of poor black mothers with scarce options for childcare speak to the circuitous material and epistemological aspects of their Jane Crow oppression. Stephanie Clifford and Jessica Silver-Greenberg, “Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow,’” New York Times July 21, 2017, Accessed January 31, 2018,

[5] Dotson, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” 426.

[6] Ibid., 423.

[7] Ibid., 424.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 418.

[10] Pauli Murray, “The Liberation of Black Women,” 1970, Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall (New York: The New Press, 1995), 186.

[11] Dotson, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” 421.

[12] Pauli Murray, “Dark Testament,” Dark Testament and Other Poems (Norwalk, CT: Silvermine, 1970), 22.

[13] Murray’s public identities are the subtitle to the eponymously titled 1989 edition of her autobiography.

[14] Morris Milgram, “Introduction,” Dark Testament and Other Poems (Norwalk, CT: Silvermine, 1970), n pag.

[15] Jacqueline Bobo differentiates the interpretive community black women create from audiences that passively consume representations perpetuating black women’s ideological domination. Within an interpretive community, “women utilize representations of black women that they deem valuable, in productive and politically useful ways” to challenge their cultural subordination. Jacqueline Bobo, Black Women as Cultural Readers (New York: Columbia, 1995), 22.

[16] Barbara Christian, “Being the Subject and the Object: Reading African-American Women’s Novels,” New Black Feminist Criticism, 1985-2000, edited by Gloria Bowles, M. Giulia Fabi, and Arlene R. Keizer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 121.

[17] Ibid., 122.

[18] African American women’s fiction also theorizes black women’s Jane Crow oppression. For example, Ann Petry’s novel The Street, published in 1946 one year before Murray’s essay “Why Negro Girls Stay Single,” examines Lutie Johnson’s interlocking racial, gender, class, and sexual oppressions as a single mother and domestic worker in Harlem during WWII. Lutie is aware of her invisibility among her white employers, who assume she is promiscuous, and she questions the purpose of being taught how to write, as her voice is undermined throughout the novel. Of course, the existence of Petry’s novel attests to the importance of black women writing and sharing their stories.

[19] The social aims of black women’s fiction and life writing are not mutually exclusive. Maryemma Graham points out “the autobiographical impulse in the African American novel. The continuous need to explain and ‘inscribe the self’ in a world which has historically denied the existence of that self gives both focus and intensity to the act of writing a story about black life.” Maryemma Graham, “Introduction,” The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 5.

[20] Joanne M. Braxton, Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 1.

[21] Joanne M. Braxton, “Autobiography and African American Women’s Literature,” African American Women’s Literature, edited by Angelyn Mitchell and Danille K. Taylor (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 128.

[22] Margo V. Perkins, Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000), xii.

[23] Angela A. Ards, Words of Witness: Black Women’s Autobiography in the Post-Brown Era (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015), 16.

[24] Pauli Murray, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1987), 388.

[25] Ibid., 182.

[26] Ibid., 183.

[27] Ibid., 183-184.

[28] Ibid., 183, 184.

[29] Murray’s autobiography foregrounds her battles with racism and sexism in her public life to the exclusion of her efforts to understand her queer and nonnormative sexual and gender identities in her private life. Brittney Cooper’s intellectual history of Murray highlights the ways Jane Crow and the politics of respectability inform black women’s praxis as “knowledge producers” (102). She reveals, “at exactly the same moment that [Murray] named Jane Crow as a form of sexist discrimination that she experienced as a woman, she was frequently being hospitalized for depression related to her struggle with her gender identity” (100). In my own work on Murray, I argue Song in a Weary Throat “resounds with silence” about her struggle with her gender identity due to Jane Crow’s “literary inscriptions” for black women’s self-representation (17, 15). Brittney C. Cooper, Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017); Ayesha K. Hardison, Writing through Jane Crow: Race and Gender Politics in African American Literature (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014).

[30] Dotson, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” 426.

[31] Christian, “Being the Subject and the Object,” 122.

Author Information: Derek Anderson, Boston University,

Anderson, Derek. “Yes, There Is Such a Thing as Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 26-35.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image from D. W. E. Carlier via Flickr / Creative Commons


Conceptual competence injustice (Anderson 2017) is a form of epistemic injustice that occurs when a dominant agent or structure impugns (implicitly or explicitly) a marginalized epistemic agent’s ability to use a concept. The most explicit occurrences involve testimony that asserts or implies what is traditionally regarded as a linguistic or conceptual truth. Dominant agents regard a marginalized agent’s testimony as revealing or implying a deficiency in conceptual competence, where this attribution of deficiency is unwarranted and contributes to a pattern of epistemic oppression.

This essay emphasizes two aspects of conceptual competence injustice: (1) the sense in which it is a structural injustice, and (2) the sense in which it is centrally a form of competence injustice (as opposed to testimonial injustice).

Podosky & Tuckwell (2017) argue that every instance of conceptual competence injustice (hereafter: CC injustice) is an instance of testimonial injustice (Fricker 2007), and that therefore CC injustice is not a substantive or helpful concept in its own right. Further, they present arguments that CC injustice has not been adequately distinguished from either hermeneutical injustice or contributory injustice. My focus here will be on the main arguments that CC injustice is a kind of testimonial injustice and has no independent theoretical value. These arguments provide an excellent springboard for an elaboration of aspects (1) and (2) mentioned above.

Podosky & Tuckwell’s main argument proceeds in two stages. First, they argue that causal etiology is a necessary condition on CC injustice, so it cannot be distinguished from testimonial injustice on these grounds. Then they argue that every instance of CC injustice is identical to some instance of testimonial injustice. Section 2 argues that causal etiology is not a necessary condition on CC injustice. Section 3 highlights the ways in which CC injustice, as a form of competence (simpliciter) injustice, is distinct from various kinds of testimonial injustice. In section 4, I grant for the sake of argument that all CC injustice is testimonial injustice and argue that, even if that were true, there would still be such a thing as CC injustice and recognizing its existence would still be theoretically important.

Causal Etiology and Structural Oppression

It is not necessary that CC injustice be caused by any particular type of psychological state (Anderson 2017). This is because CC injustice exists as an aspect of structural epistemic oppression. Episodes are to be identified by the role they play in a broad pattern of epistemic marginalization and domination, not by the immediate psychological forces that produce them.

This contrasts sharply with Fricker’s account of testimonial injustice, episodes of which are necessarily caused by ‘negative identity prejudice,’ a psychological disposition to regard and/or treat members of some marginalized group in negative ways across a wide spectrum of social circumstances. Because CC injustice and testimonial injustice differ in this way with respect to causal etiology, it is easy to demonstrate they are distinct phenomena.

Against this, Podosky & Tuckwell argue that CC injustice intuitively requires the same causal etiology that Fricker attaches to testimonial injustice, so the two forms of injustice can’t be distinguished along these lines. Their argument involves an intuition pump intended to show that CC injustice cannot occur as the result of merely bad epistemic practices in the absence of prejudice.

Their intuition pump introduces a character: Taylor the coin-flipper. Taylor has no negative identity prejudices, but she has a bad epistemic practice. She regularly flips a coin to decide what to believe. Taylor meets Linda, a Black woman, who competently defends Meinongianism about non-existent objects. Taylor flips her coin and decides on that basis to regard Linda as incompetent with the concept of existence. Podosky & Tuckwell maintain that, intuitively, Taylor has not perpetrated CC injustice.

The defense of this claim is a pure intellectual seeming or intuition shared by the authors. They write, “Taylor does not seem to be committing anything other than shoddy epistemic behaviour; there doesn’t appear to be anything unjust about what she’s doing.”

They argue from this intuition that instances of CC injustice cannot arise from (merely) bad epistemic practices. They maintain that, for example, a white male graduate student who routinely dismisses the conceptual competence of women in his cohort, but who also dismisses everyone else for the same reason: because he has inaccurately high intellectual self-trust, so perpetrates no epistemic injustice against these women.[1]

He is guilty of bad epistemic practices because he gives himself unduly high credibility, but he is not guilty of any kind of epistemic injustice. The thought is (I suppose): this guy doesn’t discriminate against women; he treats men and women the same way; so he cannot be treating only these women unjustly as the account of CC injustice in Anderson (2017) entails.

Both the methodology and the conclusion of this argument are flawed. First, an appeal to brute intuition about whether Taylor has done something unjust is contentious in an unhelpful way. Those who agree that CC injustice can be perpetrated without identity prejudice will not have the same intuition as Podosky & Tuckwell. Let me start by making explicit the rationale behind this intuition.

Taylor’s choice to use the coin-flip, while epistemically blameworthy in general, intuitively acquires a special blameworthiness when she chooses to employ it in circumstances that could perpetuate the epistemic marginalization of women of color. Taylor is not exculpated by the possibility that she fails to recognize how coin flipping in her encounter with Linda might contribute to a pattern of epistemic oppression. A common feature of structural oppression is that those who participate in it do not typically know they are participating in it.

Further, the fact that Taylor behaves uniformly with marginalized and dominant agents does not mean her behavior toward marginalized groups is exculpated. Imagine a person who uses racial slurs in referring to white people and people of color uniformly; the uniformity of treatment does nothing to mitigate the wrongness of using racial slurs against people of color. Epistemic irresponsibility harms members of epistemically marginalized groups in different and more egregious ways than it harms members of epistemically dominant groups. Seen in this light, it is intuitively compelling that Taylor is doing something epistemically unjust in her treatment of Linda.

In addition to being unhelpfully contentious, we have good reason to think intuitions in this domain are ideologically loaded. Critical race theorists and Black feminists have taught us that individualistic intuitions about wrongness and blameworthiness in the context of structural oppression are not to be trusted because they are predictably and demonstrably conditioned by dominant power structures. Thus, Collins (2002) writes, “To maintain their power, dominant groups create and maintain a popular system of ‘commonsense’ ideas that support their right to rule.”[2]

Hence, members of dominant groups who benefit from structural oppression tend to see innocent individual motives as exculpatory, while members of subordinated groups tend to see participations in structural oppression as prime examples of injustice even when motives are innocent. For example, Matsuda (1987) argues that intuitions about individual blameworthiness with regard to reparations debts differ between groups that benefit from past oppressions and groups that still suffer from them.

Intuitions about what is necessary for blameworthiness are socially situated and tend to reflect group interests. Given the likelihood that dominant ideology influences intuitions about whether good-willed participation in structural oppression counts as injustice or not, a flat-footed appeal to intuition does little to rule out the possibility that CC injustice can occur without negative identity prejudice.

Finally, Podosky & Tuckwell’s conclusion, viz. that white male graduate students with merely over-inflated intellectual self-trust do not produce epistemic injustices, is false. In fact, this is a reductio of the position that bad epistemic practices by themselves are never sufficient to produce epistemic injustice. The prevalence of over-confident, socially dominant epistemic agents within philosophy is a cornerstone of epistemic marginalization of women of color and other marginalized identities. Demonstrating this requires only reflecting on ways that excessively self-confidence among dominant agents contributes to a general pattern of epistemic oppression within academic philosophy.[3]

Image from Paull Antero via Flickr / Creative Commons


Let us assume for the sake of argument that some over-inflated dominant agents really harbor no negative identity prejudices. Still, many dominant philosophers do harbor negative identity prejudices, which is a cornerstone of systemic epistemic marginalization. These negative identity prejudices produce testimonial injustices and CC injustices, as well as other aspects of epistemic oppression. Another cornerstone of epistemic oppression is the prevalence of situated ignorance (Dotson 2011) about marginalized lives that marginalized agents must face within the overwhelmingly white and male population of academic philosophers.

A third cornerstone is the force of willful hermeneutical injustice (Pohlhaus 2012) among dominant philosophers. Philosophers are trained to argue against opposing worldviews; thus, dominant philosophers are adroit at willfully resisting uptake of marginalized epistemic resources and thus adroit at preserving situated ignorance. A fourth cornerstone is the prevalence of epistemic exploitation (Berenstain 2016): marginalized agents are constantly called on to explain and defend the existence of their oppression by dominant agents, especially within a tradition that promotes a skeptical, questioning attitude toward everything. Epistemic exploitation erodes intellectual self-trust, elicits what Dotson (2011) calls unsafe testimony, and forces marginalized agents to engage in unwanted cognitive and emotional labor.

Now, in the midst of this climate, consider the role that over-confident but prejudice-free socially dominant epistemic agents play. While these agents tend to make life more difficult for everyone, their existence is much more potent and harmful for marginalized epistemic agents. The woman of color who is trying to make it in philosophy must deal with wave after wave of over-confidant white men who are judging that she does not adequately grasp the concepts she is working on. It doesn’t really matter if some of these men truly have no negative identity prejudices. Moreover, these dominant agents enjoy a relative advantage in conceptual competence credibility over marginalized agents.

As Medina (2012) observes, credibility is relative. Over-inflated intellectual self-trust in the context of academic philosophy often functions to unjustly increase dominant agents’ credibility. This constitutes a relative decrease in the credibility of marginalized agents who face myriad pressures to undermine their confidence. Being regarded as relatively less credible than over-inflated dominant agents contributes to the significant and unjust disadvantages faced by marginalized agents, compounding other issues, and does so regardless of whether these dominant agents harbor negative identity prejudices. Further, the over-inflated dominant agents then go about further diminishing the credibility of marginalized agents by disparaging their conceptual competence, using their over-inflated self-confidence to lend more credibility to their disparagements.

Conceptual competence injustice is an injustice because it is part of pernicious patterns of epistemic marginalization. The considerations raised here show that CC injustice is not necessarily caused by any particular psychological state. As such, we can sharply distinguish CC injustice from testimonial injustice as Fricker conceives it.

However, analogous arguments plausibly show that testimonial injustice itself should be reconceived as an aspect of structural oppression. Indeed, I think a better account of testimonial injustice would jettison Fricker’s causal etiology criterion. In that case, more work must be done to individuate the concept of CC injustice from the concept of testimonial injustice. The considerations in the next section aim to satisfy that further desiderata.

Competence Injustice, Not Testimonial Injustice

Podosky & Tuckwell argue that every instance of CC injustice is an instance of testimonial injustice. Let us assume that causal etiology is not necessary for either testimonial injustice or CC injustice. Then their arguments may still be workable. Here I reply that, even setting causal etiology aside, CC injustices are not always identical with instances of testimonial injustice.

My argument is straightforward. A judgment that constitutes CC injustice need not be connected with testimony in any central way. It is not necessary that a person’s testimony be disbelieved, ignored, or pre-empted in an episode of CC injustice. CC injustice involves only an unjust judgment about a person’s ability to think well using certain concepts. It is most convenient to characterize CC injustice by reference to testimony (as in Anderson 2017) because conceptual content is most directly characterized by reference to linguistic expressions, but CC injustice is not essentially concerned with what people say or might say.

CC injustice is primarily a form of competence injustice, a broader notion that encompasses all unjust judgments of ability. The abilities that are unjustly impugned in episodes of competence injustice might be cognitive or they might not be. Competence injustices are abundant; they include, for example, the sexist attitudes that a woman cannot be a soldier, a mechanic, or a computer programmer.

Whether an instance of competence injustice counts as a form of epistemic injustice depends on the connection between knowledge and the ability in question. A woman could be the victim of competence injustice regarding her ability to be a soldier purely on the basis of sexist views about physical strength and endurance. Her ability to be a mechanic might be unjustly doubted on the basis of sexist views about her ability to perform mechanical tasks, but it might also be a matter of conceptual competence injustice: consider the sexist attitude that a woman wouldn’t know the difference between a carburetor and a fuel pump. A woman might be passed over for a job as a mechanic as a result of such conceptual competence injustice. This example of CC injustice has nothing essential to do with testimony.

Podosky & Tuckwell recognize that sometimes CC injustice occurs in the absence of testimony. Nevertheless, they argue that such cases are best characterized as special kinds of testimonial injustice: either pre-emptive testimonial injustice or reflexive testimonial injustice.

According to Fricker, pre-emptive testimonial injustice occurs when a potential hearer’s prejudice operates in advance, before a speaker has a chance to speak, such that the victim’s testimony is never solicited. But clearly the example of the aspiring mechanic is not centrally about having one’s testimony pre-emptively dismissed. It’s not that the other mechanics don’t ask for her opinion or don’t believe her when she speaks. They don’t give her a job. They might have only seen her resume, seen that she was a woman, and passed her over due to conceptual competence injustice.

This is not an example of pre-emptive testimonial injustice.[4] Relatedly, conceptual competence injustice can operate in structural ways that don’t turn on pre-emptive testimonial injustice. There are many historical examples of people being excluded from professions on the grounds that members of their social group lack the requisite conceptual abilities, including law, medicine, politics, education, and business. These exclusions involve epistemic injustice that is not testimonial injustice.

Podosky & Tuckwell introduce the idea of reflexive testimonial injustice to address cases in which CC injustice happens in a private way. In the relevant cases the victim privately doubts her own conceptual competence, maybe loses it altogether if her doubt is extreme, but her testimony is never discredited because she refrains from speaking. The authors maintain that such episodes are best understood as a form of testimonial injustice.

Their first argument is that testimonial injustice can “manifest itself in this way . . . Fricker points out that the experience of persistent testimonial injustice may lead one to lose confidence in one’s beliefs and general intellectual capacities.” I agree that testimonial injustice can cause private CC injustice, but it does not follow that such instances of CC injustice are testimonial injustices.

That argument would have the form A causes B, therefore B is an instance of A, which is obviously invalid. Fricker does not explicitly theorize that testimonial injustice causes CC injustice, although this is a natural connection to make. But this causal connection does not entail that private CC injustices occurring as a result of testimonial injustices are themselves testimonial injustices.

The authors then argue that private CC injustice can be accurately characterized as reflexively perpetrated testimonial injustice, the phenomenon in which a marginalized person internalizes a negative identity prejudice against their own social identity and on this ground discredits their own testimony. However, there are clearly two different phenomena here. One is the person’s damaged confidence in her conceptual competence; the other is the fact that they ascribe their own testimony unduly low credibility. These are not obviously identical and Podowsky & Tuckwell give no reason why we should believe they are the same thing.

We can say more. The victim’s doubts about her credibility are often caused by damaged confidence in her conceptual abilities resulting from CC injustice inflicted by others. This causal story conflicts with the account Podowsky & Tuckwell offer, given their insistence on Fricker’s causal etiology for testimonial injustice. They maintain that reflexive testimonial injustice is necessarily caused by negative identity prejudice. So according to their reduction, the victim of private CC injustice always doubts their own conceptual competence because they have a negative identity prejudice against people like themselves which causes them to discredit such people’s testimony, including their own testimony when expressing the concepts in question.

This is byzantine and unconvincing. Moreover, this account would only cover cases in which a person’s damaged confidence in her conceptual abilities is the result of an internalized negative identity prejudice against her own social group. Hence, the reduction fails to account for cases in which a marginalized agent who harbors no negative identity prejudice is afflicted by private CC injustice.

The attempt to reduce all private CC injustice to reflexive testimonial injustice is unsuccessful. The distinction can be clarified further if we think about other effects that don’t concern testimony. A person suffering from private CC injustice might choose not to attend certain classes, read certain books, develop certain talents, or apply for certain jobs. These cases are not explained by the victim’s doubts about the credibility of her own testimony. They are explained by the fact that her confidence in her ability to think clearly using certain concepts has been damaged.

Existence and Explanatory Value

Even if it were proved that the class of conceptual competence injustices is necessarily a subset of testimonial injustices, this would not show that there is no such thing as CC injustice, nor would it show that CC injustice is not interesting or useful.

First, an argument from equivalence to non-existence is clearly invalid. One cannot argue that triangles do not exist by showing that the concept of a triangle is necessarily co-extensive with the concept of a polygon with three edges and three vertices. Even if Podosky & Tuckwell showed that the concept of CC injustice is necessarily co-extensive with the concept of testimonial injustice, this would not show that there is no such thing as CC injustice.

At most it would show that every instance of CC injustice is necessarily an instance of testimonial injustice and vice versa. But in fact the authors argue from a weaker starting point than intensional equivalence. They argue that CC injustices are a subset of testimonial injustices; therefore there is no such thing as CC injustice. This has the same form as the following argument. All cats are mammals; therefore there is no such thing as a cat. Clearly neither of these arguments is valid.

To show that there is no such thing as conceptual competence injustice, one would have to show that nothing is a conceptual competence injustice, which has not even been attempted. So the title of their paper, “There’s no such thing as conceptual competence injustice,” is strikingly inapt. A more apt title, perhaps, would have been: “Conceptual competence injustice has no explanatory value.” It seems this is the only thesis the authors might reasonably be pursuing. Indeed, perhaps the authors present this as their main thesis when they write, “we suggest that there isn’t anything more to be learned by thinking about conceptual competence injustice that isn’t captured by testimonial injustice.”

In that case their argument must have the form: A is a subset of B, therefore the concept of A has no explanatory value. But again this argument is obviously invalid. Electrons are a subset of fermions, but the concept of electron has explanatory value. Even if every instance of CC injustice were shown to be an instance of testimonial injustice, that would not suffice to undercut the explanatory value of the concept of CC injustice.

Even if CC injustice is a subset of testimonial injustice (which I’ve argued it’s not), it has important explanatory roles that aren’t addressed by a general account of testimonial injustice that does not theorize about CC injustice. One of these explanatory projects is presented in Anderson (2017) section 4, where I argue that conceptual competence injustice plays a distinctive role in shaping the adverse climate of academic philosophy for marginalized groups. Even if every instance of CC injustice were an instance of testimonial injustice, it would still be important to think about how this distinctive form of testimonial injustice operates within academic philosophy.

Another explanatory project—in fact, the one I was working on when I found a need to develop an account of conceptual competence injustice—involves the way in which unjustly low ascriptions of conceptual competence can shape the evolution of linguistic meaning within a dynamic metasemantic model. The idea, following Burge (1979, 1986), is that the semantic properties of expressions as used by a community are determined in part by patterns of deference. These patterns of deference are in turn shaped by distributed judgments of conceptual competence.

In the model I develop,[5] a preponderance of conceptual competence injustice within a system leads naturally to enfranchised semantic drift: over time, linguistic expressions in a community come to mean what dominant epistemic agents use them to mean because marginalized agents are perceived as conceptually incompetent. Even if every instance of CC injustice is an instance of testimonial injustice, the concept of CC injustice and not the concept of testimonial injustice is most explanatorily relevant when explaining enfranchised semantic drift.

In general, it is exceedingly difficult to prove a priori that a concept has no theoretical importance. No argument approaching such a proof has been offered against the theoretical significance of conceptual competence injustice.

Contact details:


Anderson, D. E. (2017). Conceptual competence injustice. Social Epistemology31(2), 210-223.

Berenstain, N. (2016). Epistemic exploitation. Ergo, an Open Access Journal of Philosophy3.

Burge, Tyler (1979). Individualism and the mental. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 4 (1):73-122.

Burge, Tyler (1986). Individualism and psychology. Philosophical Review 95 (January):3-45.

Collins, P. H. (2002). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge.

Dotson, K. (2011). Tracking epistemic violence, tracking practices of silencing. Hypatia26(2), 236-257

Jones, K. (2012). The politics of intellectual self-trust. Social Epistemology26(2), 237-251.

Matsuda, M. J. (1987). Looking to the bottom: Critical legal studies and reparations. Harv. Cr-cll rev.22, 323.

Medina, J. 2012. The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and the Social Imagination. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Podosky, Paul-Mikhail Catapang and William Tuckwell.[1] “There’s No Such Thing as Conceptual Competence Injustice: A Response to Anderson and Cruz.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 23-32.

Pohlhaus, G. (2012). Relational knowing and epistemic injustice: Toward a theory of willful hermeneutical ignorance. Hypatia27(4), 715-735.

[1] For an extensive discussion of how to understand intellectual self-trust, see Jones (2012). Relevantly, Jones argues that excessive self-trust among dominant agents is itself a proper cause of epistemic injustice.

[2] Black Feminist Thought, pp. 284.

[3] Podosky & Tuckwell say they find it unclear what a “general pattern of epistemic bias against women of color” could refer to. The following is partly intended to address that lack of clarity.

[4] CC injustice in this case also produces an indefinite number of pre-emptive testimonial injustices, since there are many things the woman could have told the other mechanics had she worked there. By not giving her a job, they pre-empt all of her testimony. But the injustice in this case can’t be reduced to this collection of pre-emptive testimonial injustices.

[5] See Anderson (ms.) “Linguistic Hijacking.”

Here is the full video of Albert Doja’s lecture at Harvard University, “Social Morphodynamics: Mapping Identity Transformations, Cultural Encounters, and the Evolution of Core Values.” A written version of the lecture appeared earlier this week on our site. Some of the content in the video is a little bit different from the written version, and includes a question-and-answer session with the live audience.

Please refer to:


Author information: Albert Doja, University of Lille & University of Harvard,

Doja, Albert. “Social Morphodynamics: Mapping Identity Transformations, Cultural Encounters, and the Evolution of Core Values.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 14-25.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

In this paper given to Harvard CES community in the framework of my appointment as a Visiting Research Scholar, I outline a personal account of a theoretical path toward a specific research project and scientific method, which I believe may figure out what anthropology is or may be heading today. European societies are facing new challenges stemming from cultural encounters and identity transformations. These have revealed the vulnerability of the EU project and cosmopolitan European identity.

To address these challenges I propose a new theoretical and methodological approach. My research in progress on European identity transformations draws on structural socio-anthropology and aims to develop some of Lévi-Strauss’s and Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptual and theoretical tools. I outline a complex research strategy including the use of Bayesian inference and computer formalism, while comparison of the findings with policy choices and practices will make it possible to assess the effects of European integration policies.

A colour-adjusted photo of buildings bombed during the Kosovo War.
Image by MagneG via Flickr / Creative Commons



This September 2017, I took up an appointment at Harvard University where I am offered a visiting position at the Center for European Studies. Today September 20, 2017, I have the honor to be the first to open the Visiting Scholars Lecture Series with this talk to Harvard community, which makes me feel very much honored and be very grateful to be part of Harvard intellectual community. Two weeks earlier, at the end of the induction day of Harvard CES Visiting Scholars, we went to look, among other things, what it means to a freshman to touch John Harvard’s feet.

Before that, however, I came at Harvard through the Massachusetts Avenue and I first stopped at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where so many things are being done on quantum theory, on artificial intelligence, and on “anthropological futures”, to mention but the title of a book by Michael Fischer, a MIT professor of anthropology. Moving from one quarter to another, the mind is constantly up a storm that could push the limits of human performance and understanding. As a French educated and French minded anthropologist, a memorable question came immediately to my mind from Marvin Minsky and his Society of Mind: “What magical trick makes us intelligent?”

Quite naturally, I found myself asking – What is a magical trick that makes the research I am doing? What magical trick makes identity politics so powerful? Paraphrasing Marvin Minsky, the trick is that there is no trick. The research I am doing as the power of identity politics or the importance of populism that is taking much of our debates nowadays, as we have seen last week at CES, stem from the vast diversity of people’s minds, not from any single, perfect principle, value, idea, or motivation. People’s actions and decisions, like the research any of us is doing, “emerge from conflicts and negotiations among societies of processes that constantly challenge one another” (Minsky 1986, 308).

Among many things, the cognitive revolution is now a contemporary interdisciplinary effort to provide scientific answers to long-standing epistemological questions. It was born here, in this intellectually stimulating environment, as an important intellectual movement among some celebrated forefathers, the computer scientists Herbert Simon and Marvin Minsky, the psychologists George Miller and Jerome Bruner, the linguist Noam Chomsky and the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

The Influence of Lévi-Strauss

For Lévi-Strauss, since human brains are themselves natural objects and since they are substantially the same throughout the species Homo sapiens, we must suppose that when cultural products are generated the process must impart to them certain universal (natural) characteristics of the brain itself. Thus, in investigating the elementary structures of cultural phenomena, we are also making discoveries about the nature of humankind.

Verbal categories provide the mechanism through which universal structural characteristics of human brains are transformed into universal structural characteristics of human culture. In this way, category formation in human beings follow universal natural paths. It is not that it must always happen the same way everywhere but that the human brain is so constructed that it is predisposed to develop categories of a particular kind in a particular way.

The epistemological issues of anthropological knowledge and the ethical conception of the anthropologist’s work are consistently present throughout Lévi-Strauss’s work, in its ontological, aetiological and salvational dimensions, as he dealt with both the nature and the denaturation of humankind and society, trying to return to the means, or showing the absence of means, to alleviate the evils. Clearly, it is his own adroitness and talent to have been able to establish the theoretical foundations of a revolutionary contribution, both scientific and humanistic, to general anthropology.

Contrary to the received ideas of his critics, little of recent topical, ethical, methodological or epistemological interest escaped Lévi-Strauss’s notice, understanding and engagement. His corpus of work is far-reaching and comprehensive in scope, encompassing methodology, philosophy, history, humanism, mythology, linguistics, aesthetics, cognition and reasoning. Indeed, Claude Lévi-Strauss anticipated and called for the advent of what I believe must be the future of a theoretical anthropology. He is hailed as a “Hero of our time”, by Susan Sontag and many others since the early 1960s (Sontag 1963), and his vision and ambition was to provide a new epistemology and a new ethics, a new approach to methodology and a new global awareness (Doja 2008, 2010a).

While revisiting the old debate between Derrida and Lévi-Strauss on the place of writing (Doja 2006a, 2006b, 2007), I came to the conclusion as many others (cf. Wiseman 2009) that we must legitimately ask to what extent, at least in popular imagination, a version of structuralism invented retrospectively by “poststructuralists” has become substituted for the real thing.

Anthropology today concerns itself with questions of identity politics, migration, diseases, famine, poverty, feminism, reflexivity, corruption, illiberalism, globalism, ethnic conflicts, civil wars, human rights, cultural activism, fundamentalism, terrorism, and many other related themes. An attempt to restore Lévi-Strauss to a central position can hardly prove immediately relevant to all of these social and political issues. Yet it is possible to show that structural anthropology may innovatively account for much more than the dynamics of social systems and the praxis of competitive and strategic practices.

Some of Lévi-Strauss’s achievements could lay strong claim to having mapped, within anthropology, the philosophical parameters of an increasing preoccupation with issues of contextualization and reflexivity in the face of the declining coherence of meta-narrative and grand theory, as well as with issues of political concern and engagement in the post-colonial era. We may be correct in asserting that Lévi-Strauss used structural arguments coherently and correctly to analyze the cultural order, its transient character by means of entropy and irreversibility, and not surprisingly, deconstruction, or rather “dissolution”, to use its own term, and self-reflexivity.

I have been fortunate enough to meet Lévi-Strauss in person. As I also said on occasion elsewhere (Doja 2013, 42), when I met him for the first time during a party in the impressive Library of the Social Anthropology Laboratory where I was doing my Ph.D., I presented him some Albanian ethnographic data in a typical way, that is, thinking I had something to tell that could interest him. I remember there was something about the motives of Albanian medieval ballads, warrior songs, customary laws, social organizations and the like. Surely, he paid particular attention to my matter, seemingly out of courtesy, but I remain grateful for his critical encouragement of my rather untypical theorizing attitude, which I will have to develop later.

I was talking about the possibility of linking my stuff to incest prohibition theory and structural analysis of myths with the aim of revealing the hidden ideological dimension and instrumental character of social values like honor morality. My purpose was to point at the silencing of human agency, in particular women’s agency, under the appearance of structural coherence. Was he still listening just out of courtesy, especially to my critical, yet insufficiently developed ideas of the interactive relationship between structure and agency? No doubt! Yet, guess what? When I met him again ten years after, not only he had nothing forgotten of what I told him ten years earlier, but he also infallibly remembered my own theoretical position almost with the same terms, a discussion that we followed in the years to come through a number of letters exchanged.

Nevertheless, I remained an “inconstant” disciple. There was a time in my anthropological training when, educated in France in the early 1990s, I found Lévi-Strauss simultaneously inspiring and terrifying, which ultimately convinced me of the superiority of what I had learned. In the next phase, after moving to Britain in 2000 to take up a Lectureship at the University of Hull and then a Senior Fellowship at the University of Limerick in Ireland, all my anthropological knowledge gained in the French tradition of anthropology was so challenged by various British-American postmodern approaches of the time as I reached to the point that I had everything to learn from the beginning.

But with maturity, I came to see that with Lévi-Strauss there is perhaps more truth in the next than in the previous side of my anthropological education. Arguably, some aspects of Lévi-Strauss’s theory may be advanced as a workable methodology helping us to build innovative anthropological approaches to agency and politics in history, culture and society.

Image by ShinyPhotoScotland via Flickr / Creative Commons


The Morphodynamic Approach

One of the more powerful of Lévi-Strauss’s ideas is his description of the generative engine of myths on the basis of the set of their own transformations. In mythical thinking, the basic transformations that Lévi-Strauss distinguished between a number of characters or terms of myths and their large number of possible roles or functions are controlled by means of a special relationship that he formulated in a canonical way, which demonstrates how the transformations of the myths can be captured. Lévi-Strauss’s concept of canonical formulation that articulates the transformational dynamics of mythical networks transcends a simple analogical relation to a quadratic equation, Fx(a):Fy(b)::Fx(b):Fa‑1(y), which articulates a dynamic homology between meaningful elements and their propositional functions. This formulation made it possible for Lévi-Strauss to detect a sort of genuine logical machine generative of open-ended meaning within specified mythical networks.

In a quadratic equation of this kind, the generative virtues of the so-called “double twist” of the canonical transformation in the structural study of myth imply two conditions internal to canonical formalization. According to Lévi-Strauss, a formulation of this type reflects a group of transformations in which it is assumed that a relation of equivalence exists between two situations defined respectively by an inversion of terms and relations, provided that one of the terms is replaced by its opposite and that a correlative inversion is made between the function value and the term value of two elements (Lévi-Strauss 1955, 252–253 [Eng. 228]).

After the method for the structural study of myth was introduced (Lévi-Strauss 1955), the generative virtues of the so-called “double twist” of canonical transformation have remained for a long time not understood, until the knowledge progress in qualitative mathematics became sufficiently advanced to understand them, especially after they were made comprehensible as an anticipated formalization of catastrophe models in new mathematics and morphodynamics (Petitot 1988; Scubla 1998; Maranda 2001; Desveaux 2001).

What is more important, for a catastrophist operation of this kind to take place, the very idea of canonical relation requires a third operating condition, which is external to canonical formalization. In all cases, it is expressed as the necessity of the crossing of a spatiotemporal boundary, defined in territorial, ecological, linguistic, cultural, social, or other terms, but which is always a boundary condition in mathematical sense, required to be satisfied at the boundary of a topological domain in which a set of differential equations is to be solved.

The catastrophist operation that requires a boundary condition of this kind is claimed by Lévi-Strauss to be important in determining the mathematical solutions to various mythical problems. Namely, a series of variations inherent in the myths of a given people cannot be fully understood without going through myths belonging to another people, which are in a relation of inverse transformation with the formers.

The great discovery of Lévi-Strauss made it possible for structural anthropology to overcome the logic of binary oppositions – to which it is too often and obstinately reduced – in order to become a morphogenetic dynamics. In a broad sense, while the key categories that Lévi-Strauss developed are embodied in the anthropological objects he studied (myths and mythical networks), they have the potential to be usefully and critically applied to other domains if radically tweaked.

Many studies show that the structural analysis initiated by Lévi-Strauss may innovatively account for the ways in which social relations are ever more mediated by and implicated in broader political processes (Asch 2005; Marchart 2008; Constable 2009). In this wake, my original idea is to argue that the requirement of a boundary condition in canonical formalization can anticipate the discursive activation of a particular cultural ideology acting as a hidden agency of instrumental politics. Let me illustrate briefly with some cases of sometimes accomplished and sometimes still ongoing research projects.

Cultural Activism

A common topical issue of Balkan ethnography, especially Albanian ethnography, is the view that associates patriarchal cultural traits with high fertility rates, extended family structures, marriage patterns, and the cultural myths and ideologies of honor and blood. Without disputing the notion of the Albanian family system being patriarchal, it seems that the cultural myths and ideologies associated with patrilineality are conflated with the actual practices of patriarchy. Many commentators have too easily assumed that the patriarchal language and discourses that symbolically support patrilineality result uniformly in outcomes and practices that they simply reify as patriarchal (e.g. Kaser 2008).

Almost ten years ago, I took up a more careful reading and systematic critical analysis of demographic data, historical sources and ethnographic evidence to show that the Albanian family is confronted since a long time with particularly low fertility rates and with a relatively high average age at marriage for women, which cannot support the assumption of a patriarchal extended family (Doja 2010b). Arguably, a more analytical approach to the alleged segmentary organizational pattern of parallel agnatic groups of men in Southeast European societies, including Albania, would also reveal that the segmentary structure of social organization appeared inadequate.

A morphodynamic approach and transformational analysis can show that the ideological construction of these myths can be invalidated if we take what is put forward as empirical evidence is nothing more than a strong cultural activism, acting as a kind of what I call a cultural Viagra for social survival. In this situation, cultural pressure subjugates both women and men to the reproduction of social norms and values, aiming at limiting Albanian women to their childbearing function and Albanian men to their protecting function. In this way, the cultural activism commonly obscures an important fact of a purely ideological dimension, which could be only uncovered after mapping the overall data within a canonical formalization of morphodynamic approach and transformational analysis.

This photo was originally taken in 2000, in a field in Pristina, Kosovo.
Image by Andreas Adelmann via Flickr / Creative Commons


War Politics of Mass Rapes

Last year, at a conference on war and sexual violence held in CUNY Graduate Center in New York, resulting in a forthcoming edited volume, I presented another highly topical case that is even more explicit (Doja 2016). Feminist and other accounts of war rapes during the ethnic conflicts in former Yugoslavia and elsewhere have exposed extensively the importance of misogynistic masculinity, preparing the ground for an ahistorical approach, which has also reified a conceptualization of so-called backward Balkan social structures, norms, and values.

A common way of approaching the dimensions of mass rape and sexual violence during the sinisterly notorious ethnic conflicts in former Yugoslavia has been to explain them specifically against a cultural background supported by the existence of a tribal society, complex joint family structures known as zadruga in South Slavic areas, customary laws known as Kanun in North Albanian area, patriarchal practices, and other savage customs. This is not only obscure but also unscrupulous.

If we look closely to social and family structures, both marriage and vengeance rest on the symbol of blood and both are institutions that give shape to alliances. If marriage created a network of alliances and divided society in exogamous groups, vengeance also created a continuously moving scenario in which memberships and strategic alliances constantly coagulated the consistency of agnatic groups. In general, a relation of matrimonial affinity and hospitality was experienced as a relationship of friendship and solidarity just as a relation of feud vengeance was lived as a relationship of hostility. Yet, if matrimonial affinity and feud vengeance were opposed to one another as much as many other structural modalities of association or dissociation between different agnatic groups, friendship and hostility were part of the same opposition.

Matrimonial affinity and feud vengeance, friendship and hostility were only different expressions of a single and unique structural relationship. Definitely, the whole of social relations and values remained placed under the sign of ambivalence. In this sense, at a more empirical level, emotional sentiments as well as social relations and values of affinity, friendship, and hospitality, must have something in common with the relationship of love and solidarity to hatred and disintegration. Precisely this kind of structural ambivalence may allow a new theoretical and methodological approach to explain the effectiveness of mass rapes as a military strategy of ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia.

Marriage is a transaction of women exchanged between agnatic groups of men, a customary transaction intended to seal political alliances and conceal debts of blood, honor or money. In this sense, marriage is not only a social institution of sexual relations, but also a sexual regulation of social violence and a sexual institution of social stability. Also rape as a forced sexual intercourse is not a simple aggressive expression of sexuality, but rather a sexual expression of social violence. From the position of structural logic, marriage becomes possible by the means of matrimonial alliance that is supposed to bring love, friendship, and solidarity. In the same way, rape can be defined as a confrontational misalliance that becomes possible by the means of war, and which would necessarily induce hatred, hostility, and disintegration.

This is not, however, to understand women’s experiences of rape and marriage in a binary and rigid structuralist relation, because there is necessarily a problem with this argument that is inspired from Aristotle’s logic of analogy, which cannot be valid. The permutational relation between indexical terms and function values of both rape and marriage may be productively mapped onto a catastrophist model following Lévi-Strauss’s morphodynamic theory. Indeed, not only war is a catastrophe, but also rape in war is a catastrophe on its own. Accordingly, we may offer a catastrophist model to conceptualize rape by means of a canonical formalization in which the solidarity role of marriage will stand to the hostility of rape as the ambivalence of marriage stands to the rape politics of an unspeakable and unthinkable solidarity‑1, which is a solidarity upside down or anti-solidarity:

marriage (solidarity) : rape (hostility) :: marriage (hostility) : solidarity1(rape)

Here rape is replaced forcibly by marriage, its opposite, and a correlative inversion is made between the functional ambivalence of marriage and the unknown, unspeakable ontology of an enforced rape function. Yet, for a catastrophic operation of this kind to take place, the logical operation of a boundary condition is required. In a context in which mass rape was deliberately used as a possible instrument of ethnic cleansing, everything happened as if the activation of a specific political and instrumental agency was necessary for the notorious effectiveness of mass rape to take place.

This kind of ideological agency, which is mathematically identified by the requirement of a boundary condition in canonical formalization, can be shown to promote and put forward the cultural assumptions specific to a given group. During the Bosnian war and the Kosovo war in former Yugoslavia this specific agency was provided by the increasing role of traditionalist and nationalist discourses, which burst moral order and social morphology in the first place, precisely by bringing to the fore the destructive workings of family honor and blood ideology. Indeed, the mass rapes of women were intended to forcefully instill a kind of shame and disgrace as a social pollution that should bring necessarily the disorder and break-up of the social system of any group in its totality. Typically, at war, such a social pollution and catastrophic disorder is termed in Albanian with a generic term for “total killing”, shfarosje, which means literally “kinship uprooting”.

Returning to a paraphrased Lévi-Strauss’s terminology from The Raw and The Cooked (Lévi-Strauss 1964), the unspeakable political effectiveness of mass rapes is forwarded to account not just for a “raw” madness of cultural norms and values. It is mainly the twist of a “cooked” evil of ideological agency acting as an instrumental politics of ethnic cleansing during ethnic conflicts in former Yugoslavia. The cultural activism of family honor and blood ideology makes it possible afterwards for family norms and values to be converted into ethnic-religious ideology, for ethnicity to be converted into nationalist consciousness, for this consciousness to become organized into conflict, and for organized nationalism to become militarist, masculinist, misogynist, racist, and violent.

Identity Politics

The requirement of an operating condition that in the study of myth is expressed as a boundary condition in mathematical sense may be of particular interest for the study of identity transformations, in the comparative analysis of transformations resulting from intercultural dynamics, especially in processes of identity construction and identity politics. This brings to my last case, that is, my research proposal on the morphodynamics of European identity transformations that I intend to develop during my stay at Harvard as a CES visiting scholar, and which aims at reinvigorating neo-structural constructivism to turn the focus towards profoundly political implications.

Social relations are often weird and counterintuitive. Especially in the identity field, discursive practices do not always have definite ontological properties. They often appear to be entangled in strange combinations of seemingly incompatible states of either societal, ethnic-religious and national-populist, or civic and normative characteristics. In this sense, identity ontologies can be compared to the seemingly mysterious state of particles that in quantum mechanics is called superposition.

Both M.I.T. and French physicists are conducting real-life tests of whether quantum particles truly exist in superposition states. I assume that a comparable quantum connection to be tested may also exist in the identity field between seemingly opposed and incompatible identity ideas, values and motivations. The main assumption is that identity transformations are affected by seemingly opposite cultural ideologies that are in inverse relationship to one another and act as political instruments of power and hegemony.

On empirical level, I assume that European integration is never complete and unstable relations subsist between civic ideas and societal motivations. In term of research design, logical processes and political tensions must be explored in relation to identity shifting at societal, ethnic-religious, regional-national and supranational levels. In many situations, discursive practices are not necessarily positioned to provide a particular identity meaning, as the observer in social research, just as in quantum mechanics, influence what they observe. This only becomes clear once we look what they mean. Incompatible identities may become deeply connected as their properties match in opposition to one another when they are observed and mapped.

Here it is important that the distinction between indexical terms and functional values of the identity field is conceptualized topologically as relational, not substantial. This means that relative positions of identity indexes, kinds, agents, units, and ontologies are determined by a structured set of power relations and group identities that achieve their own transformations through identity politics. Actually, whatever its properties, any identity is only applicable in reference to an otherness and can only be realized on the boundary of one in contact or confrontation with, or in contrast to the other.

In this sense, civic ideas and ethnic motivations appear to exist in a quantum superposition state and possess multiple conflicting meanings at once. If they are entangled in this way, like in quantum mechanics, I predict that when the cultural position of ethnic motivations is revealed, both civic and ethnic identities will fall into exact opposed positions of instrumental ideologies. Here I assume that the identity field is again comparable with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics, given that the more exactly the cultural position of identity values and aims is determined, the less exactly the identity momentum of policy outcomes can be known. Indeed, the wave-particle duality in quantum physics might be thought as the multiplex interaction in the identity field between civic ideas and ethnic motivations.

On conceptual level, I assume that this instability reveals an apparent risk of discursive activation of hidden instrumental politics and ideological agency that could promote Ethnicization of European values and unsuspected outcomes of public policies. A neo-structural model of the identity field is expected to capture it, based on the evolution rules of canonical transformations defined by Lévi-Strauss and the concept of political field borrowed from Pierre Bourdieu. In Bourdieu’s field theory, power relations are reframed as lines of forces in an electromagnetic field and social space as a multiplicity of relatively autonomous fields. In the European identity field, the dynamics of interactions shows that discursive practices support or reject modalities of belonging that conform to public logics, which are instrumentally used to affect identity building and transformation.

While potential political tensions in the reproduction of identity field restrict or encourage boundary crossing, I assume that any transgression generates a hysteresis effect, which is mathematically calculable in electromagnetic and other fields, and which can explain identity politics as a system of identities depending on the history of their own transformations. Further logical-mathematical reformulations of Lévi-Strauss’s methodology can provide logical formalization of transformational regularities in concrete situations of identity field, which may allow taking hold of a “generative engine” of identities based on their own transformations.

This would mean, for example, that the double sequence of doing good to your natives and doing harm to foreigners is complemented by another double sequence of doing harm to natives as if you were doing good to strangers already ignored and inexistent [F(g)n:F(h)e::F(h)n:F(g)e‑1]. This may seem to be weird but it’s what happens more often than not, especially with public policies twisted by populist arguments.

Mapping the interaction between identity terms and functions onto permutational relations between identity indexes, functions, kinds, agents, units, ontologies and ideologies also reflect their positions in the identity field, while reformulating their topological relationship in canonical way will demonstrate how identity transformations can be captured and instrumental agency behind identity politics can be revealed. For example, computer simulations of the normative function [F(n)] of civic identity (Ci) will be confronted to the societal, ethnic-religious, nationalist/populist/fundamentalist function [F(e)] of cultural identities (Cu).

Ideally, this confrontation is supposed to bring the transformation of cultural identity into normative functional identity [F(n)Cu]. Yet, canonical formulation F(n)Ci:F(e)Cu::F(n)Cu:F(Ci)e‑1 also demonstrates whether normative function of civic identity [F(Ci)] is transformed into ambivalent agency, as political factions or societal groups could characterize a hidden unsuspected European identity (e‑1), or the “ethnicity” of an upside down Europe. Remember that in the structural study of myth an additional operating condition is required as a boundary condition in both empirical and mathematical sense. In the identity field, this validation requirement must lead us to search for hidden instrumental agencies of identity politics and ideology that could constrain identity transformation in one or another direction.

Finally, narrative references of indexical terms and functional values in coded categories of identity discursive practices and modelling validations of their sub-literal meanings provide precise indications to hidden realities that characterize empirical situations of either Ethnicization of sociocultural relations or Europeanization of societal, ethnic-religious, regional-national values. The target is to deliver a computational model to conceptualize and recursively map the determinants of civic solidarity and intercultural attitudes, which allow developing a policy instrument to assess how core values and identity transformations evolve as boundary conditions of European integration, social cohesion and intercultural dynamics.

On methodological level, which remains still the most underdeveloped part and beside collaboration with colleagues from Europe, I hope to develop this research project in collaboration with potentially interested Harvard faculty, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, computer scientists, and mathematicians. We need a heavy infrastructure design of computational models and protocols based on Bayesian inference, DEVS formalism, and construction of systemic numeric references to identity discursive practices. In practical terms, we explore the role of metaphoric and dichotomous aspects of discursive practices and the functional relationships they suggest in identity categorization. Functional shifts are assumed depending on whether the same metaphors of gender/kinship and building/construction are used as indexical terms of identity expression or as instrumental functions of identity politics.

The differential discontinuity between indexical terms and functional values in the identity field is a logic of dichotomization and permutation in metaphorical and metonymic series. Open series of antithetical pairs of identity indexes, kinds, agents, units, and ontologies, and the permutation of their indexical and functional values, are available to any agent across identity field to be pinned conspicuously on identity kinds of various reference units, be they individuals, societal groups, nation states, institutions, organizations. We identify non-exhaustive series of ontological assumptions of identity objectified in terms of indexical evidence referring to supposed origin, common cultural heritage, collective memory, language, religion, social/legal norms, institutional/political system, media, citizenship, sovereignty, or federation of the identity unit under consideration.

They allow configuring metaphorical/metonymic permutations of discursive practices that force instrumental functions of identity building to compel identity transformations. We assume that such functional values as recognition, socialization, distribution, diffusion, participation, persuasion, emulation, manipulation, imposition, discrimination, claim or contestation relate to actors’ ontological assumptions and motivations, thus identifying the subjective agency of underlying identity politics.

Computer-assisted textual analysis and agentive algorithms of discursive surveys will disaggregate literal meanings of narrative texts into multiple descriptors that make up and objectify indexical terms of identity expression and their functional values in identity politics. Their coding in sub-literal numeric references to indexical terms of characteristics, performances and affiliations, will create multiple datasets to map: 1) the distribution of identity situations and relations into constructed categories according to their function values of either common refuges of close belonging or separate clusters of open inclusiveness; 2) the presence or absence of indexical terms of behavioral components, convictions and attitudes related to corresponding function values of identity politics; 3) the permutation of indexical terms into functional values and vice-versa; 4) the identification of factors affecting such distributions and permutations with respect to sociocultural and political order.

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Asch, Michael (2005) “Lévi-Strauss and the Political: the Elementary Structures of Kinship and the resolution of relations between indigenous peoples and settler states.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 11, no. 3, pp. 425–444. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9655.2005.00244.x.

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Doja, Albert (2010a) “Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009): The apotheosis of heroic anthropology.” Anthropology Today, vol. 26, no. 5, pp. 18–23. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8322.2010.00758.x.

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Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, UK,

Fuller, Steve. “Against Virtue and For Modernity: Rebooting the Modern Left.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 51-53.

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Toby Ziegler’s “The Liberals: 3rd Version.” Photo by Matt via Flickr / Creative Commons


My holiday message for the coming year is a call to re-boot the modern left. When I was completing my doctoral studies, just as the Cold War was beginning to wind down, the main threat to the modern left was seen as coming largely from within. ‘Postmodernism’ was the name normally given to that threat, and it fuelled various culture, canon and science wars in the 1980s and 1990s.

Indeed, even I was – and, in some circles, continue to be – seen as just such an ‘enemy of reason’, to recall the name of Richard Dawkins’ television show in which I figured as one of the accused. However, in retrospect, postmodernism was at most a harbinger for a more serious threat, which today comes from both the ‘populist’ supporters of Trump, Brexit et al. and their equally self-righteous academic critics.

Academic commentators on Trump, Brexit and the other populist turns around the world seem unable to avoid passing moral judgement on the voters who brought about these uniformly unexpected outcomes, the vast majority of which the commentators have found unwelcomed. In this context, an unholy alliance of virtue theorists and evolutionary psychologists have thrived as diagnosticians of our predicament. I say ‘unholy’ because Aristotle and Darwin suddenly find themselves on the same side of an argument, now pitched against the minds of ‘ordinary’ people. This anti-democratic place is not one in which any self-respecting modern leftist wishes to be.

To be sure, virtue theorists and evolutionary psychologists come to the matter from rather different premises – the one metaphysical if not religious and the other naturalistic if not atheistic. Nevertheless, they both regard humanity’s prospects as fundamentally constrained by our mental makeup. This makeup reflects our collective past and may even be rooted in our animal nature. Under the circumstances, so they believe, the best we can hope is to become self-conscious of our biases and limitations in processing information so that we don’t fall prey to the base political appeals that have resulted in the current wave of populism.

These diagnosticians conspicuously offer little of the positive vision or ambition that characterised ‘progressive’ politics of both liberal and socialist persuasions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But truth be told, these learned pessimists already have form. They are best seen as the culmination of a current of thought that has been percolating since the end of the Cold War effectively brought to a halt Marxism as a world-historic project of human emancipation.

In this context, the relatively upbeat message advanced by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man that captivated much of the 1990s was premature. Fukuyama was cautiously celebrating the triumph of liberalism over socialism in the progressivist sweepstakes. But others were plotting a different course, one in which the very terms on which the Cold War had been fought would be superseded altogether. Gone would be the days when liberals and socialists vied over who could design a political economy that would benefit the most people worldwide. In its place would be a much more precarious sense of the world order, in which overweening ambition itself turned out to be humanity’s Achilles Heel, if not Original Sin.

Here the trail of books published by Alasdair MacIntyre and his philosophical and theological admirers in the wake of After Virtue ploughed a parallel field to such avowedly secular and scientifically minded works as Peter Singer’s A Darwinian Left and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. These two intellectual streams, both pointing to our species’ inveterate shortcomings, gained increasing plausibility in light of 9/11’s blindsiding on the post-Cold War neo-liberal consensus.

9/11 tore up the Cold War playbook once and for all, side-lining both the liberals and the socialists who had depended on it. Gone was the state-based politics, the strategy of mutual containment, the agreed fields of play epitomized in such phrases as ‘arms race’ and ‘space race’. In short, gone was the game-theoretic rationality of managed global conflict. Thus began the ongoing war on ‘Islamic terror’. Against this backdrop, the Iraq War proved to be colossally ill-judged, though no surprise given that its mastermind was one of the Cold War’s keenest understudies, Donald Rumsfeld.

For the virtue theorists and evolutionary psychologists, the Cold War represented as far as human rationality could go in pushing back and channelling our default irrationality, albeit in the hope of lifting humanity to a ‘higher’ level of being. Indeed, once the USSR lost the Cold War to the US on largely financial grounds, the victorious Americans had to contend with the ‘blowback’ from third parties who suffered ‘collateral damage’ at many different levels during the Cold War. After all, the Cold War, for all its success in averting nuclear confrontation, nevertheless turned the world into a playing field for elite powers. ‘First world’, ‘second world’ and ‘third world’ were basically the names of the various teams in contention on the Cold War’s global playing field.

So today we see an ideological struggle whose main players are those resentful (i.e. the ‘populists’) and those regretful (i.e. the ‘anti-populists’) of the entire Cold War dynamic. The only thing that these antagonists appear to agree on is the folly of ‘progressivist’ politics, the calling card of both modern liberalism and socialism. Indeed, both the populists and their critics are fairly characterised as somehow wanting to turn back the clock to a time when we were in closer contact with the proverbial ‘ground of being’, which of course the two sides define in rather different terms. But make no mistake of the underlying metaphysical premise: We are ultimately where we came from.

Notwithstanding the errors of thought and deed committed in their names, liberalism and socialism rightly denied this premise, which placed both of them in the vanguard – and eventually made them world-historic rivals – in modernist politics. Modernity raised humanity’s self-regard and expectations to levels that motivated people to build a literal Heaven on Earth, in which technology would replace theology as the master science of our being. David Noble cast a characteristically informed but jaundiced eye at this proposition in his 1997 book, The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. Interestingly, John Passmore had covered much the same terrain just as eruditely but with greater equanimity in his 1970 book, The Perfectibility of Man. That the one was written after and the other during the Cold War is probably no accident.

I am mainly interested in resurrecting the modernist project in its spirit, not its letter. Many of modernity’s original terms of engagement are clearly no longer tenable. But I do believe that Silicon Valley is comparable to Manchester two centuries ago, namely, a crucible of a radical liberal sensibility – call it ‘Liberalism 2.0’ or simply ‘Alt-Liberalism’ – that tries to use the ascendant technological wave to leverage a new conception of the human being.

However one judges Marx’s critique of liberalism’s scientific expression (aka classical political economy), the bottom line is that his arguments for socialism would never have got off the ground had liberalism not laid the groundwork for him. As we enter 2018 and seek guidance for launching a new progressivism, we would do well to keep this historical precedent in mind.

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Author Information: Manuel Padilla Cruz, University of Seville,

Cruz, Manuel Padilla. “Conceptual Competence Injustice and Relevance Theory, A Reply to Derek Anderson.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 39-50.

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Contestants from the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Image from Scripps National Spelling Bee, via Flickr / Creative Commons


Derek Anderson (2017a) has recently differentiated conceptual competence injustice and characterised it as the wrong done when, on the grounds of the vocabulary used in interaction, a person is believed not to have a sophisticated or rich conceptual repertoire. His most interesting, insightful and illuminating work induced me to propose incorporating this notion to the field of linguistic pragmatics as a way of conceptualising an undesired and unexpected perlocutionary effect: attribution of lower level of communicative or linguistic competence. These may be drawn from a perception of seemingly poor performance stemming from lack of the words necessary to refer to specific elements of reality or misuse of the adequate ones (Padilla Cruz 2017a).

Relying on the cognitive pragmatic framework of relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004), I also argued that such perlocutionary effect would be an unfortunate by-product of the constant tendency to search for the optimal relevance of intentional stimuli like single utterances or longer stretches of discourse. More specifically, while aiming for maximum cognitive gain in exchange for a reasonable amount of cognitive effort, the human mind may activate or access assumptions about a language user’s linguistic or communicative performance, and feed them as implicated premises into inferential computations.

Although those assumptions might not really have been intended by the language user, they are made manifest by her[1] behaviour and may be exploited in inference, even if at the hearer’s sole responsibility and risk. Those assumptions are weak implicated premises and their interaction with other mentally stored information yields weakly implicated conclusions (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004). Since their content pertains to the speaker’s behaviour, they are behavioural implicatures (Jary 2013); since they negatively impact on an individual’s reputation as a language user, they turn out to be detrimental implicatures (Jary 1998).

My proposal about the benefits of the notion of conceptual competence injustice to linguistic pragmatics was immediately replied by Anderson (2017b). He considers that the intention underlying my comment on his work was “[…] to model conceptual competence injustice within relevance theory” and points out that my proposal “[…] must be tempered with the proper understanding of that phenomenon as a structural injustice” (Anderson 2017b: 36; emphasis in the original). Furthermore, he also claims that relevance theory “[…] does not intrinsically have the resources to identify instances of conceptual competence injustice” (Anderson 2017b: 36).

In what follows, I purport to clarify two issues. Firstly, my suggestion to incorporate conceptual competence injustice into linguistic pragmatics necessarily relies on a much broader, more general and loosened understanding of this notion. Even if such an understanding deprives it of some of its essential, defining conditions –namely, existence of different social identities and of matrices of domination– it may somehow capture the ontology of the unexpected effects that communicative performance may result in: an unfair appraisal of capacities.

Secondly, my intention when commenting on Anderson’s (2017a) work was not actually to model conceptual competence injustice within relevance theory, but to show that this pragmatic framework is well equipped and most appropriate in order to account for the cognitive processes and the reasons underlying the unfortunate negative effects that may be alluded to with the notion I am advocating for. Therefore, I will argue that relevance theory does in fact have the resources to explain why some injustices stemming from communicative performance may originate. To conclude, I will elaborate on the factors why wrong ascriptions of conceptual and lexical competence may be made.

What Is Conceptual Competence Injustice

As a sub-type of epistemic injustice (Fricker 2007), conceptual competence injustice arises in scenarios where there are privileged epistemic agents who (i) are prejudiced against members of specific social groups, identities or minorities, and (ii) exert power as a way of oppression. Such agents make “[…] false judgments of incompetence [which] function as part of a broader, reliable pattern of marginalization that systematically undermines the epistemic agency of members of an oppressed social identity” (Anderson 2017b: 36). Therefore, conceptual competence injustice is a way of denigrating individuals as knowers of specific domains of reality and ultimately disempowering, discriminating and excluding them, so it “[…] is a form of epistemic oppression […]” (Anderson 2017b: 36).

Lack or misuse of vocabulary may result in wronging if hearers conclude that certain concepts denoting specific elements of reality –objects, animals, actions, events, etc.– are not available to particular speakers or that they have erroneously mapped those concepts onto lexical items. When this happens, speakers’ conceptualising and lexical capacities could be deemed to be below alleged or actual standards. Since lexical competence is one of the pillars of communicative competence (Hymes 1972; Canale 1983; Bachman 1991; Celce-Murcia et al. 1995), that judgement could contribute to downgrading speakers in an alleged scale of communicative competence and, consequently, to regarding them as partially or fully incompetent.

According to Medina (2011), competence is a comparative and contrastive property. On the one hand, skilfulness in some domain may be compared to that in (an)other domain(s), so a person may be very skilled in areas like languages, drawing, football, etc., but not in others like mathematics, oil painting, basketball, etc. On the other hand, knowledge of and abilities in some matters may be greater or lesser than those of other individuals. Competence, moreover, may be characterised as gradual and context-dependent. Degree of competence –i.e. its depth and width, so to say– normally increases because of age, maturity, personal circumstances and experience, or factors such as instruction and subsequent learning, needs, interests, motivation, etc. In turn, the way in which competence surfaces may be affected by a variety of intertwined factors, which include (Mustajoki 2012; Padilla Cruz 2017b).

Factors Affecting Competence in Communication

Internal factors –i.e. person-related– among which feature:

Relatively stable factors, such as (i) other knowledge and abilities, regardless of their actual relatedness to a particular competence, and (ii) cognitive styles –i.e. patterns of accessing and using knowledge items, among which are concepts and words used to name them.

Relatively unstable factors, such as (i) psychological states like nervousness, concentration, absent-mindedness, emotional override, or simply experiencing feelings like happiness, sadness, depression, etc.; (ii) physiological conditions like tiredness, drowsiness, drunkenness, etc., or (iii) performance of actions necessary for physiological functions like swallowing, sipping, sneezing, etc. These may facilitate or hinder access to and usage of knowledge items including concepts and words.

External –i.e. situation-related– factors, which encompass (i) the spatio-temporal circumstances where encounters take place, and (ii) the social relations with other participants in an encounter. For instance, haste, urgency or (un)familiarity with a setting may ease or impede access to and usage of knowledge items, as may experiencing social distance and/or more or less power with respect to another individual (Brown and Levinson 1987).

While ‘social distance’ refers to (un)acquaintance with other people and (dis)similarity with them as a result of perceptions of membership to a social group, ‘power’ does not simply allude to the possibility of imposing upon others and conditioning their behaviour as a consequence of differing positions in a particular hierarchy within a specific social institution. ‘Power’ also refers to the likelihood to impose upon other people owing to perceived or supposed expertise in a field –i.e. expert power, like that exerted by, for instance, a professor over students– or to admiration of diverse personal attributes –i.e. referent power, like that exerted by, for example, a pop idol over fans (Spencer-Oatey 1996).

There Must Be Some Misunderstanding

Conceptualising capacities, conceptual inventories and lexical competence also partake of the four features listed above: gradualness, comparativeness, contrastiveness and context-dependence. Needless to say, all three of them obviously increase as a consequence of growth and exposure to or participation in a plethora of situations and events, among which education or training are fundamental. Conceptualising capacities and lexical competence may be more or less developed or accurate than other abilities, among which are the other sub-competences upon which communicative competence depends –i.e. phonetics, morphology, syntax and pragmatics (Hymes 1972; Canale 1983; Bachman 1991; Celce-Murcia et al. 1995).

Additionally, conceptual inventories enabling lexical performance may be rather complex in some domains but not in others –e.g. a person may store many concepts and possess a rich vocabulary pertaining to, for instance, linguistics, but lack or have rudimentary ones about sports. Finally, lexical competence may appear to be higher or lower than that of other individuals under specific spatio-temporal and social circumstances, or because of the influence of the aforesaid psychological and physiological factors, or actions performed while speaking.

Apparent knowledge and usage of general or domain-specific vocabulary may be assessed and compared to those of other people, but performance may be hindered or fail to meet expectations because of the aforementioned factors. If it was considered deficient, inferior or lower than that of other individuals, such consideration should only concern knowledge and usage of vocabulary concerning a specific domain, and be only relative to a particular moment, maybe under specific circumstances.

Unfortunately, people often extrapolate and (over)generalise, so they may take (seeming) lexical gaps at a particular time in a speaker’s life or one-off, occasional or momentary lexical infelicities to suggest or unveil more global and overarching conceptualising handicaps or lexical deficits. This does not only lead people to doubt the richness and broadness of that speaker’s conceptual inventory and lexical repertoire, but also to question her conceptualising abilities and what may be labelled her conceptual accuracy –i.e. the capacity to create concepts that adequately capture nuances in elements of reality and facilitate correct reference to those elements– as well as her lexical efficiency or lexical reliability –i.e. the ability to use vocabulary appropriately.

As long as doubts are cast about the amount and accuracy of the concepts available to a speaker and her ability to verbalise them, there arises an unwarranted and unfair wronging which would count as an injustice about that speaker’s conceptualising skills, amount of concepts and expressive abilities. The loosened notion of conceptual competence injustice whose incorporation into the field of linguistic pragmatics I advocated does not necessarily presuppose a previous discrimination or prejudice negatively biasing hegemonic, privileged or empowered individuals against minorities or identities.

Wrong is done, and an epistemic injustice is therefore inflicted, because another person’s conceptual inventory, lexical repertoire and expressive skills are underestimated or negatively evaluated because of (i) perception of a communicative behaviour that is felt not to meet expectations or to be below alleged standards, (ii) tenacious adherence to those expectations or standards, and (iii) unawareness of the likely influence of various factors on performance. This wronging may nonetheless lead to subsequently downgrading that person as regards her communicative competence, discrediting her conceptual accuracy and lexical efficiency/reliability, and denigrating her as a speaker of a language, and, therefore, as an epistemic agent. Relying on all this, further discrimination on other grounds may ensue or an already existing one may be strengthened and perpetuated.

Relevance Theory and Conceptual Competence Injustice

Initially put forth in 1986, and slightly refined almost ten years later, relevance theory is a pragmatic framework that aims to explain (i) why hearers select particular interpretations out of the various possible ones that utterances may have –all of which are compatible with the linguistically encoded and communicated information– (ii) how hearers process utterances, and (iii) how and why utterances and discourse give rise to a plethora of effects (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995). Accordingly, it concentrates on the cognitive side of communication: comprehension and the mental processes intervening in it.

Relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995) reacted against the so-called code model of communication, which was deeply entrenched in western linguistics. According to this model, communication merely consists of encoding thoughts or messages into utterances, and decoding these in order to arrive at speaker meaning. Since speakers cannot encode everything they intend to communicate and absolute explicitness is practically unattainable, relevance theory portrays communication as an ostensive-inferential process where speakers draw the audience’s attention by means of intentional stimuli. On some occasions these amount to direct evidence –i.e. showing– of what speakers mean, so their processing requires inference; on other occasions, intentional stimuli amount to indirect –i.e. encoded– evidence of speaker meaning, so their processing relies on decoding.

However, in most cases the stimuli produced in communication combine direct with indirect evidence, so their processing depends on both inference and decoding (Sperber and Wilson 2015). Intentional stimuli make manifest speakers’ informative intention –i.e. the intention that the audience create a mental representation of the intended message, or, in other words, a plausible interpretative hypothesis– and their communicative intention –i.e. the intention that the audience recognise that speakers do have a particular informative intention. The role of hearers, then, is to arrive at speaker meaning by means of both decoding and inference (but see below).

Relevance theory also reacted against philosopher Herbert P. Grice’s (1975) view of communication as a joint endeavour where interlocutors identify a common purpose and may abide by, disobey or flout a series of maxims pertaining to communicative behaviour –those of quantity, quality, relation and manner– which articulate the so-called cooperative principle. Although Sperber and Wilson (1986/1995) seriously question the existence of such principle, they nevertheless rest squarely on a notion already present in Grice’s work, but which he unfortunately left undefined: relevance. This becomes the corner stone in their framework. Relevance is claimed to be a property of intentional stimuli and characterised on the basis of two factors:

Cognitive effects, or the gains resulting from the processing of utterances: (i) strengthening of old information, (ii) contradiction and rejection of old information, and (iii) derivation of new information.

Cognitive or processing effort, which is the effort of memory to select or construct a suitable mental context for processing utterances and to carry out a series of simultaneous tasks that involve the operation of a number of mental mechanisms or modules: (i) the language module, which decodes and parses utterances; (ii) the inferential module, which relates information encoded and made manifest by utterances to already stored information; (iii) the emotion-reading module, which identifies emotional states; (iv) the mindreading module, which attributes mental states, and (v) vigilance mechanisms, which assess the reliability of informers and the believability of information (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004; Sperber et al. 2010).

Relevance is a scalar property that is directly proportionate to the amount of cognitive effects that an interpretation gives rise to, but inversely proportionate to the expenditure of cognitive effort required. Interpretations are relevant if they yield cognitive effects in return for the cognitive effort invested. Optimal relevance emerges when the effect-effort balance is satisfactory. If an interpretation is found to be optimally relevant, it is chosen by the hearer and thought to be the intended interpretation. Hence, optimal relevance is the property determining the selection of interpretations.

The Power of Relevance Theory

Sperber and Wilson’s (1986/1995) ideas and claims originated a whole branch in cognitive pragmatics that is now known as relevance-theoretic pragmatics. After years of intense, illuminating and fruitful work, relevance theorists have offered a plausible model for comprehension. In it, interpretative hypotheses –i.e. likely interpretations– are said to be formulated during a process of mutual parallel adjustment of the explicit and implicit content of utterances, where the said modules and mechanisms perform a series of simultaneous, incredibly fast tasks at a subconscious level (Carston 2002; Wilson and Sperber 2004).

Decoding only yields a minimally parsed chunk of concepts that is not yet fully propositional, so it cannot be truth-evaluable: the logical form. This form needs pragmatic or contextual enrichment by means of additional tasks wherein the inferential module relies on contextual information and is sometimes constrained by the procedural meaning –i.e. processing instructions– encoded by some linguistic elements.

Those tasks include (i) disambiguation of syntactic constituents; (ii) assignment of reference to words like personal pronouns, proper names, deictics, etc.; (iii) adjustment of the conceptual content encoded by words like nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs, and (iv) recovery of unarticulated constituents. Completion of these tasks results in the lower-level explicature of an utterance, which is a truth-evaluable propositional form amounting to the explicit content of an utterance. Construction of lower-level explicatures depends on decoding and inference, so that the more decoding involved, the more explicit or strong these explicatures are and, conversely, the more inference needed, the less explicit and weaker these explicatures are (Wilson and Sperber 2004).

A lower-level explicature may further be embedded into a conceptual schema that captures the speaker’s attitude(s) towards the proposition expressed, her emotion(s) or feeling(s) when saying what she says, or the action that she intends or expects the hearer to perform by saying what she says. This schema is the higher-level explicature and is also part of the explicit content of an utterance.

It is sometimes built through decoding some of the elements in an utterance –e.g. attitudinal adverbs like ‘happily’ or ‘unfortunately’ (Ifantidou 1992) or performative verbs like ‘order’, ‘apologise’ or ‘thank’ (Austin 1962)– and other times through inference, emotion-reading and mindreading –as in the case of, for instance, interjections, intonation or paralanguage (Wilson and Wharton 2006; Wharton 2009, 2016) or indirect speech acts (Searle 1969; Grice 1975). As in the case of lower-level explicatures, higher-level ones may also be strong or weak depending on the amount of decoding, emotion-reading and mindreading involved in their construction.

The explicit content of utterances may additionally be related to information stored in the mind or perceptible from the environment. Those information items act as implicated premises in inferential processes. If the hearer has enough evidence that the speaker intended or expected him to resort to and use those premises in inference, they are strong, but, if he does so at his own risk and responsibility, they are weak. Interaction of the explicit content with implicated premises yields implicated conclusions. Altogether, implicated premises and implicated conclusions make up the implicit content of an utterance. Arriving at the implicit content completes mutual parallel adjustment, which is a process constantly driven by expectations of relevance, in which the more plausible, less effort-demanding and more effect-yielding possibilities are normally chosen.

The Limits of Relevance Theory

As a model centred on comprehension and interpretation of ostensive stimuli, relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995) does not need to be able to identify instances of conceptual competence injustice, as Anderson (2017b) remarks, nor even instances of the negative consequences of communicative behaviour that may be alluded to by means of the broader, loosened notion of conceptual competence injustice I argued for. Rather, as a cognitive framework, its role is to explain why and how these originate. And, certainly, its notional apparatus and the cognitive machinery intervening in comprehension which it describes can satisfactorily account for (i) the ontology of unwarranted judgements of lexical and conceptual (in)competence, (ii) their origin and (iii) some of the reasons why they are made.

Accordingly, those judgements (i) are implicated conclusions which (ii) are derived during mutual parallel adjustment as a result of (iii) accessing some manifest assumptions and using these as implicated premises in inference. Obviously, the implicated premises that yield the negative conclusions about (in)competence might not have been intended by the speaker, who would not be interested in the hearer accessing and using them. However, her communicative performance makes manifest assumptions alluding to her lexical lacunae and mistakes and these lead the hearer to draw undesired conclusions.

Relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995) is powerful enough to offer a cognitive explanation of the said three issues. And this alone was what I aimed to show in my comment to Anderson’s (2017a) work. Two different issues, nevertheless, are (i) the reasons why certain prejudicial assumptions become manifest to an audience and (ii) why those assumptions end up being distributed across the members of certain wide social groups.

As Anderson (2017b) underlines, conceptual competence injustices must necessarily be contextualised in situations where privileged and empowered social groups are negatively-biased or prejudiced against other identities and create patterns of marginalisation. Prejudice may be argued to bring to the fore a variety of negative assumptions about the members of the identities against whom it is held. Using Giora’s (1997) terminology, prejudice makes certain detrimental assumptions very salient or increases the saliency of those assumptions.

Consequently, they are amenable to being promptly accessed and effortlessly used as implicated premises in deductions, from which negative conclusions are straightforwardly and effortlessly derived. Those premises and conclusions spread throughout the members of the prejudiced and hegemonic group because, according to Sperber’s (1996) epidemiological model of culture, they are repeatedly transmitted or made public. This is possible thanks to two types of factors (Sperber 1996: 84):

Psychological factors, such as their relative easiness of storage, the existence of other knowledge with which they can interact in order to generate cognitive effects –e.g. additional negative conclusions pertaining to the members of the marginalised identity– or existence of compelling reasons to make the individuals in the group willing to transmit them –e.g. desire to disempower and/or marginalise the members of an unprivileged group, to exclude them from certain domains of human activity, to secure a privileged position, etc.

Ecological factors, such as the repetition of the circumstances under which those premises and conclusions result in certain actions –e.g. denigration, disempowerment, maginalisation, exclusion, etc.– availability of storage mechanisms other than the mind –e.g. written documents– or the existence of institutions that transmit and perpetuate those premises and conclusions, thus ensuring their continuity and availability.

Since the members of the dominating biased group find those premises and conclusions useful to their purposes and interests, they constantly reproduce them and, so to say, pass them on to the other members of the group or even on to individuals who do not belong to it. Using Sperber’s (1996) metaphor, repeated production and internalisation of those representations resembles the contagion of illnesses. As a result, those representations end up being part of the pool of cultural representations shared by the members of the group in question or other individuals.

The Imperative to Get Competence Correct

In social groups with an interest in denigrating and marginalising an identity, certain assumptions regarding the lexical inventories and conceptualising abilities of the epistemic agents with that identity may be very salient, or purposefully made very salient, with a view to ensuring that they are inferentially exploited as implicated premises that easily yield negative conclusions. In the case of average speakers’ lexical gaps and mistakes, assumptions concerning their performance and infelicities may also become very salient, be fed into inferential processes and result in prejudicial conclusions about their lexical and conceptual (in)competence.

Although utterance comprehension and information processing end upon completion of mutual parallel adjustment, for the informational load of utterances and the conclusions derivable from them to be added to an individual’s universe of beliefs, information must pass the filters of a series of mental mechanisms that target both informers and information itself, and check their believability and reliability. These mechanisms scrutinise various sources determining trust allocation, such as signs indicating certainty and trustworthiness –e.g. gestures, hesitation, nervousness, rephrasing, stuttering, eye contact, gaze direction, etc.– the appropriateness, coherence and relevance of the dispensed information; (previous) assumptions about speakers’ expertise or authoritativeness in some domain; the socially distributed reputation of informers, and emotions, prejudices and biases (Origgi 2013: 227-233).

As a result, these mechanisms trigger a cautious and sceptic attitude known as epistemic vigilance, which in some cases enables individuals to avoid blind gullibility and deception (Sperber et al. 2010). In addition, these mechanisms monitor the correctness and adequateness of the interpretative steps taken and the inferential routes followed while processing utterances and information, and check for possible flaws at any of the tasks in mutual parallel adjustment –e.g. wrong assignment of reference, supply of erroneous implicated premises, etc.– which would prevent individuals from arriving at actually intended interpretations. Consequently, another cautious and sceptical attitude is triggered towards interpretations, which may be labelled hermeneutical vigilance (Padilla Cruz 2016).

If individuals do not perceive risks of malevolence or deception, or do not sense that they might have made interpretative mistakes, vigilance mechanisms are weakly or moderately activated (Michaelian 2013: 46; Sperber 2013: 64). However, their level of activation may be raised so that individuals exercise external and/or internal vigilance. While the former facilitates higher awareness of external factors determining trust allocation –e.g. cultural norms, contextual information, biases, prejudices, etc.– the latter facilitates distancing from conclusions drawn at a particular moment, backtracking with a view to tracing their origin –i.e. the interpretative steps taken, the assumptions fed into inference and assessment of their potential consequences (Origgi 2013: 224-227).

Exercising weak or moderate vigilance of the conclusions drawn upon perception of lexical lacunae or mistakes may account for their unfairness and the subsequent wronging of individuals as regards their actual conceptual and lexical competence. Unawareness of the internal and external factors that may momentarily have hindered competence and ensuing performance, may cause perceivers of lexical gaps and errors to unquestioningly trust assumptions that their interlocutors’ allegedly poor performance makes manifest, rely on them, supply them as implicated premises, derive conclusions that do not do any justice to their actual level of conceptual and lexical competence, and eventually trust their appropriateness, adequacy or accuracy.

A higher alertness to the potential influence of those factors on performance would block access to the detrimental assumptions made manifest by their interlocutors’ performance or make perceivers of lexical infelicities reconsider the convenience of using those assumptions in deductions. If this was actually the case, perceivers would be deploying the processing strategy labelled cautious optimism, which enables them to question the suitability of certain deductions and to make alternative ones (Sperber 1994).


Relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004) does not need to be able to identify cases of conceptual competence injustice, but its notional apparatus and the machinery that it describes can satisfactorily account for the cognitive processes whereby conceptual competence injustices originate. In essence, prejudice and interests in denigrating members of specific identities or minorities favour the saliency of certain assumptions about their incompetence, which, for a variety of psychological and ecological reasons, may already be part of the cultural knowledge of the members of prejudiced empowered groups. Those assumptions are subsequently supplied as implicated premises to deductions, which yield conclusions that undermine the reputation of the members of the identities or minorities in question. Ultimately, such conclusions may in turn be added to the cultural knowledge of the members of the biased hegemonic group.

The same process would apply to those cases wherein hearers unfairly wrong their interlocutors on the grounds of performance below alleged or expected standards, and are not vigilant enough of the factors that could have impeded it. That wronging may be alluded to by means of a somewhat loosened, broadened notion of ‘conceptual competence injustice’ which deprives it of one of its quintessential conditions: the existence of prejudice and interests in marginalising other individuals. Inasmuch as apparently poor performance may give rise to unfortunate unfair judgements of speakers’ overall level of competence, those judgements could count as injustices. In a nutshell, this was the reason why I advocated for the incorporation of a ‘decaffeinated’ version of Anderson’s (2017a) notion into the field of linguistic pragmatics.

Contact details:


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[1] Following a relevance-theoretic convention, reference to the speaker will be made through the feminine third person singular personal pronoun, while reference to the hearer will be made through its masculine counterpart.

Author Information: Carl Martin Allwood, University of Gothenburg,

Allwood, Carl Martin. “Culture, Language, Identity and the Properties of a Useful Culture Concept for the Indigenous Psychologies.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 10 (2014): 30-33.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:


Cultures are expressed in language and the mapping relation between language and culture is argued to be one-to-many. Accordingly, a language such as Spanish can be used to express many different cultures, including contents that are in explicit contradiction. By attending to the diversity in understanding in a society social interventions can be better tailored to specific groups of people in that society. Thus, a culture concept that emphasizes the diversity in the understanding of people in the indigenous psychology (IP) researcher’s society is likely to be helpful for social interventions in different groups of that society. This, in contrast to a culture concept that focuses mostly on whatever understanding is shared and inherited from previous generations in the society. I also argue that it should be recognized that members of a culture have different conceptions of their culture’s identity and that these conceptions are changing as they are constructed over time.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Kwang-Kuo Hwang, National Taiwan University,

Hwang, Kwang-Kuo. “Preserving Cultural Identity and Subjectivity for a Psychology of Multiculturalism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 9 (2014): 7-14.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:


Language is the most important carrier of cultural heritage, but it is a common sense of social science that language doesn’t equal to culture. All cultural traditions that can be transmitted from generation to generation must serve some function of helping people in a certain situation of lifeworld. The construction of scientific microworld for culture-inclusive theories enables indigenous social scientists to recognize the cultural traditions in an objective way that may preserve cultural identity and subjectivity of non-Western countries in the context of multiculturalism.

I was preparing this rejoinder to Prof. Allwood’s article entitled “What type of culture will help indigenous psychologies and why?” when guest lecturing at a training seminar in Harbin, China, between July 20-27, 2014. This extraordinary experience helped me to answer and to clarify many questions raised in his article, which cited some of my sayings as the following:

Thus, he, to a large extent, seems to equate culture with the language spoken by the people in the cultural community, and thus to a large extent, for example, to equate Chinese culture with the Chinese language (Allwood 2014, 46).  Continue Reading…