Archives For epistemic injustice

Author Information: Jim Butcher, Canterbury Christ Church University, jim.butcher@canterbury.ac.uk.

Butcher, Jim. “Questioning the Epistemology of Decolonise: The Case of Geography.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 12-24.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-42E

Maori dancers about to perform at the 2017 Turangawaewae Regatta in New Zealand.
Image by Hone Tho via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This paper was prompted by the prominence of new arguments in favour of ‘decolonising geography. This was taken by the 2017 Royal Geographical Society–Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IGB) annual conference as its theme, with many preparatory papers in Area and Transactions and sessions organised around this. In both, to ‘decolonise’ was presented as an imperative for geography as a field of study, and for all geographers within it, to address urgently (Daigle and Sundberg, 2017; Jazeel, 2017).

In the USA, the annual American Association of Geographers (AAG) conference in New Orleans of 2018 also featured a number of well attended sessions that took the same perspective. The number of journal articles published advocating decolonialism has also increased sharply in the last two years.

The spirit in which this paper is written is supportive of new debates in the academy, and supportive of the equality goals of decolonise. However it takes issue with important assumptions that, it is argued, will not advance the cause of marginalised or of geography as a discipline.

The paper is in three related parts, each written in the spirit of raising debate. First it considers the principal knowledge claim of decolonise: that a distinctly Western epistemology presents itself as a universal way of knowing, and that this is complicit in colonialism of the past and coloniality of the present through its undermining of a pluriverse of ontologies and consequent diversity of epistemologies (Sundberg, 2014; Grosfoguel, 2007; Mignolo, 2007). The paper also illustrates further how this principle of decolonialism is articulated in some key geographical debates. It then highlights a number of contradictions in and questions with this epistemological claim.

Second, decolonialism’s critique of universalist epistemology is effectively, and often explicitly, a critique of the Enlightenment, as Enlightenment humanism established knowledge as a product of universal rationality rather that varied cultures or deities (Pagden, 2015; Malik, 2014). The paper argues that decolonialism marks a retreat from what was positive about the Enlightenment tradition: the capacity of (geographical) knowledge to transcend time and place, and hence act as universal knowledge.

In conclusion I briefly broach the value of decolonising geography in terms of its claim to be challenging injustice. I suggest that a truly humanist and universalist approach to knowledge has more to offer geographers seeking ways to tackle inequality and differential access to the process of producing knowledge than has the epistemic relativism of decolonize.

The Epistemological Claim of Decolonise

One of the claims made prominently at the conference and elsewhere by advocates of decolonisation is that geographical knowledge can be ‘Western’ (Radcliffe, 2017), ‘Eurocentric’ (Jazeel, 2017) ‘colonial’ (Baldwin, 2017; Noxolo, 2017) or ‘imperial’ (Tolia-Kelly, 2017; Connell, 2007 & 2017). This is not just a question of a close link between geographical knowledge and Western interests per se – it is well established that geographical understanding has developed through and been utilised for partial, often brutal, interests. For example, one of the principal figures in the history of UK geography, Halford Mackinder, regarded geography as central to Britain’s colonial mission (Livingstone, 1992).

At issue here is an epistemological one: Do the ideas, theories and techniques that today’s geographers have inherited constitute a universal geographical tradition of human knowledge to be passed on, built upon and critiqued, or; are the ideas, theories and techniques themselves ‘saturated in colonialism’ (Radcliffe, 2017: 329) and hence part of a particular system of knowledge in urgent need of decolonisation.

In his advocacy of decolonialism, Grosfoguel (2007: 212) argues that it is wrong to say that ‘there is one sole epistemic tradition from which to achieve truth and universality’. Rather, he and other decolonial theorists argue for a pluriverse – a variety of ways of knowing corresponding to different historical experience and culture (Sundberg, 2014; Mignolo, 2013).

Decolonialism holds that systems of knowledge existing in colonised societies were effectively undermined by the false universal claims of the West, claims that were in turn inextricably bound up with colonialism itself. Hence in this formulation the persistence of the ‘sole epistemic tradition’ of ‘the West’ well after formal decolonisation has taken place ensures the continuation of a discriminatory culture of ‘coloniality’ (Grosfoguel, ibid.).

As a result it is not deemed sufficient to oppose colonialism or its legacy within the parameters of contemporary (geographical) thought, as that thought is itself the product of a Western epistemology complicit in colonialism and the denial of other ways of knowing. Jazeel quotes Audre Lorde to accentuate this: ‘the masters tools will never demolish the masters house’ (2017: 335).

This leads decolonial theory to argue that there needs to be a delinking from Western colonial epistemology (Mignolo, 2007). Here they part company with many post-colonial, liberal and Left arguments against colonialism and racism and for national independence and equal rights. These latter perspectives are viewed as unable to demolish the ‘masters house’, as they are using the ‘master’s tools’.

For Grosfoguel, rights – the basis around which almost all liberation struggles have been fought for the last 250 years – are ‘ … articulated to the simultaneous production and reproduction of an international division of labour of core / periphery that overlaps with the global racial / ethnic hierarchy of Europeans / non-Europeans’ (2007: 214). Rights discourse, as with ‘Western’ knowledge, is regarded as part of a Cartesian ‘Western global design’ (ibid.).

The relationship to the Enlightenment, then, is key. Enlightenment ideas are associated with modernity: the mastery of nature by people, as well as notions of rights and the social contract that influenced the development of the modern state. But for decolonial thinkers, modernity itself is inextricably tied to colonialism (Grosfoguel, 2007; Mignolo, 2007). Hence the challenge for decolonisation is to oppose not just colonialism and inequality, but also the Enlightenment universalism that shapes academic disciplines and fields including geography (ibid.).

Decolonial theory proposes in its stead the pluriverse of ways of knowing (Sundberg, 2014). For example (Blaser, 2012: 7) writes of a ‘pluriverse with multiple and distinct ontologies or worlds’ that ‘bring themselves into being and sustain themselves even as they interact, interfere and mingle with each other’ under asymmetrical circumstances (my italics). Effectively this answers philosopher Ernest Gellner’s rhetorical question: ‘Is there but one world or are there many’ (Gellner,1987: 83) with the clear answer ‘many’.

It is important at this point to distinguish between a plurality of ideas, influences and cultures, as opposed to a pluriverse of ontologies; different worlds. The former is uncontentious – openness to ideas from other societies has to be progressive, and this is evident throughout history, if not self evident.

Cities and ports have played an important role in the mixing of cultures and ideas, and often have proved to be the drivers of scientific and social advance. Scientists have learned much from traditional practices, and have been able to systematise and apply that knowledge in other contexts. Equally, reviewing curricula to consider the case for the inclusion of different concepts, theories and techniques is a worthwhile exercise.

A pluriverse of ways of knowing has much greater implications, as it posits diverse systems of knowledge as opposed to a diversity of viewpoints per se.

The Debate in Geography

The RGS-IGB 2017 Annual Conference call for sessions set out the aim of decolonising geographical knowledges as being to ‘to query implicitly universal claims to knowledges associated with the west, and further interrogate how such knowledges continue to marginalise and discount places, people, knowledges across the world’ (RGS-IGB, 2017).

Recent papers advocating decolonise argue in similar vein. Radcliffe argues that: ‘Decolonial writers argue that the modern episteme is always and intrinsically saturated with coloniality’ (2017: 329), hence the need to be alert to ‘multiple, diverse epistemic and ethical projects’ and to ‘delink’ from ‘Euro-American frameworks’ (ibid. 330). She goes on to argue that decoloniality should cover all aspects of geographical education: ‘racism and colonial modern epistemic privileging are often found in students selection and progress; course design, curriculum content; pedagogies; staff recruitment; resource allocation; and research priorities and debates’ (ibid. 331).

This challenge to the development of knowledge as a universal human endeavour, across history and culture, is often regarded not only as an issue for geographers, but is posed as a moral and political imperative (Elliot-Cooper, 2017; Jazeel, 2017 ). For Elliott-Cooper:

Geographers sit at a historical crossroads in academia, and there is no middle, benevolent way forward. We can either attempt to ignore, and implicitly reproduce the imperial logics that have influenced the shape of British geography since its inception, or actively rethink and dismantle imperialism’s afterlife by unlearning the unjust global hierarchies of knowledge production on which much of the Empires legitimacy was based. (2017:334)

To see contemporary geography as an expression of ‘imperialism’s afterlife’ serves to dramatically reinforce a sense of geographical knowledge – knowledge itself, not its origin or application – as ‘colonial’ or ‘imperial’. This approach often involves eschewing one’s own, or ‘Western’, knowledge in favour of that of marginalised people. Two academics, reflecting on their teaching, state: ‘Our efforts do not even begin to live up to decolonial land based pedagogies being implemented across indigenous communities‘ (Daigle and Sundberg, 2017: 339).

This deference to ‘land based pedagogies’, speaks to an eschewal modern geographical knowledge and method in favour of a plurality of knowledges, but with authority granted on the basis of indigeneity. Noxolo makes a similar case, arguing that ‘[t]here are material conditions of experience out of which both postcolonial and, crucially decolonial, writings emerge’ (2017: 342). Emphasis is placed on intellectual authority of the lived experience of the marginalised.

We may well want to read something due to the experience of the writer, or to consider how a society gathers information, precisely in order to begin to understand perspectives and conditions of others who’s lives may be very different to our own. But these writings enter into a world of ideas, theories and techniques in which individual geographers can judge their usefulness, veracity and explanatory power. The extent to which they are judged favourably as knowledge may well depend upon how far they transcend the conditions in which they were produced rather than their capacity to represent varied experience.

This is not at all to denigrate accounts based more directly upon lived experience and the diverse techniques and ideas that arise out of that, but simply to recognise the importance of generalisation, systematisation and abstraction in the production of knowledge that can have a universal veracity and capacity to help people in any context to understand and act upon the world we collectively inhabit.

Contradictions: Geography’s History and Darwin

There is a strong case against the epistemic relativism of decolonialism. Geographical thought is premised upon no more and no less that the impulse to understand the world around us in order to act upon it, whether we seek to conserve, harness or transform. Geographical knowledge qua knowledge is not tied to place, person or context in the way decolonise assumes – it is better understood not as the product of a pluriverse of ways of knowing the world, but a diverse universe of experience.

From ancient Greece onwards, and indeed prior to that, human societies have developed the capacity to act upon the world in pursuit of their ends, and to reflect upon their role in doing that. Geography – ‘earth writing’ – a term first used in 3,000 BC by scholars in Alexandria, is part of that humanistic tradition. From Herodotus mapping the Nile and considering its flow in 450 BC, up to today’s sophisticated Geographical Information Systems, knowledge confers the capacity to act.

How elites act is shaped by their societies and what they considered to be their political and economic goals. But the knowledge and techniques developed provide the basis for subsequent developments in knowledge, often in quite different societies. Knowledge and technique cross boundaries – the greater the capacity to travel and trade, the greater too the exchange of ideas on map making, agriculture, navigation and much else.

The 15th century explorer Prince Henry the Navigator acted in the interests of the Portuguese crown and instigated the slave trade, but was also a midwife to modern science. He was intrigued by the myth of Prester John, yet he also helped to see off the myths of seamonsters. His discoveries fueled a questioning of the notion that knowledge came from the external authority of a god, and a growing scientific spirit began to decentre mysticism and religion, a process that was later consolidated in the Enlightenment (Livingstone, 1992). Geographical knowledge – including that you were not going to sail off the end of the world, and that sea monsters are not real – stands as knowledge useful for any society or any individual, irrespective of Portugal’s leading role in the slave trade at this time.

So whilst of course it is important to consider and study the people, the society and interests involved in the production of knowledge, is also important to see knowledge’s universal potential. This is something downplayed by the calls to decolonise – knowledge and even technique seem at times to be tainted by the times in which they were developed and by the individuals who did the developing.

Deciding what is the best of this, always a worthy pursuit, may involve re-evaluating contributions from a variety of sources. Involvement in these sources, in the production of knowledge, may be shaped by national or racial oppression, poverty and access to resources, but it has little to do with epistemic oppression (Fricker, 1999).

Take for example, Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1998, original 1859). Darwin’s research involved all of the features regarded as ‘imperial’ by Connell (2007) and by other advocates of decolonialism: an association with the military (The Beagle was a military ship) and the use of others’ societies for data gathering without their consent or involvement. The voyage was funded by the British state who were engaged in colonial domination. Geography and scientific voyages were closely linked with imperial ambition (Livingstone, 1992).

Yet Darwin’s theory marked a major breakthrough in the understanding of evolution regardless of this context. As an explorer sponsored by the British imperialist state, and having benefitted from a good education, Darwin as an individual was clearly better placed to make this breakthrough that native inhabitants of Britain’s colonies or the Galapagos Islands – he had ‘privilege’ and he was ‘white’, two terms often used by decolonial activists to qualify or deny the authority of truth claims. Yet the Origin of the Species stands regardless of context as a ground breaking step forward in human understanding.

Darwinism has another link to colonialism. Social Darwinism was to provide the pseudo- scientific justification for the racism that in turn legitimised the imperialist Scramble for Africa and attendant racial extermination (Malik, 1997). Yet the veracity of Darwin’s theory is not diminished by the horrors justified through its bastardisation as Social Darwinism. Contrary to the view key to decolonialism, geographical knowledge can be sound and an advance on previous thinking regardless of the uses and misuses to which it is put. That is in no way to legitimise those uses, but simply to recognise that ideas that have a universal veracity emerge from particular, contradictory and often (especially from the perspective of today) reactionary contexts.

Geographical knowledge can be (mis)understood and (mis)used to further particular politics. Darwin’s ideas received a cool reception amongst those in the American South who believed that God had created wholly separate races with a differential capacity for intellect and reason. In New Zealand the same ideas were welcomed as a basis for an assumed superior group of colonisers taking over from an assumed less evolved, inferior group. This was in the context of struggle between Mauri and land hungry colonialists.

For Marx, Darwinism provided a metaphor for class struggle. For economic liberals social Darwinism buttressed the notion of laisser-faire free trade. Anarchist geographer Kropotkin advocated small scale cooperative societies – survival of those who cooperate, as they are best fitted for survival (Livingstone, 1992). So as well as being produced in contexts of power and inequality, knowledge is also mobilised in such contexts.

However Darwin’s theory as the highest expression of human understanding of its time in its field stands regardless of these interpretations and mobilisations, to be accepted or criticised according to reason and scientific evidence alone. Geographical and scientific theory clearly does have the potential to constitute universal knowledge, and its capacity to do so is not limited by the context within which it emerged, or the interests of those who developed it. We cannot decolonise knowledge that is not, itself, colonial.

Decolonialism’s Critique of Enlightenment Universalism

It is clear that the epistemology of decolonialism is based, often explicitly, upon a critique of the Enlightenment and its orientation towards knowledge and truth. Emejulu states this clearly in a piece titled Another University is Possible (2017). She accepts that the Enlightenment viewed all men as endowed with rationality and logic, and with inalienable rights, that human authority was replacing the church – all the positive, humanist claims that defenders of the Enlightenment would cite.

However, she questions who is included in ‘Man’ – who counts as human in Enlightenment humanism? How universal is Enlightenment universalism? Who can be part of European modernity? She argues that the restriction of the category of those who are to be free was intrinsic to Enlightenment thought – i.e. it was a Western Enlightenment, not only geographically, but in essence. Knowledge, ideas themselves, can be ‘Eurocentric,’ ‘Western’ or even (increasingly) ‘white’ in the eyes of advocates of decoloniality.

Emejulu quotes Mills from his book The Racial Contract (1999):

The contemporary interpretation of the Enlightenment obscures its exclusion of women, ‘savages’, slaves and indigenous peoples through the prevailing racial science as inherently irrational beings. Savages – or the colonial other: the Native or Aboriginal peoples, the African, the Indian, the slave – were constructed as subhuman, incapable of logical reasoning and thus not subject to the equality or liberty enjoyed by ‘men’. It is here, in the hierarchies of modernity that we can understand the central role of racism in shaping the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is brought into being by Europe’s colonial entanglements and is wholly dependent on its particular patriarchal relations – which Europe, in turn, imposed on its colonial subjects.

So these authors argue that the Enlightenment did not establish, nor establish the potential for, universal freedoms and rights or knowledge either, but that it stemmed from particular interests and experiences, and played the role of enforcing the domination of those interests. Humanistic notions of the pursuit of knowledge are considered partial, as a false universalist flag raised in the service of Western colonialism.

Matthew Arnold’s 19th century liberal humanist vision of knowledge (in schools) referring to ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits’ (Arnold, 1869: viii) is rejected in favour of a view of knowledge itself as relative to incommensurate diverse human experience. This perspectival view of knowledge is central to the advocacy of decolonialism.

Sundberg (2014: 38), citing Blaser (2009), claims that the concept of the universal is itself ‘inherently colonial’, and can only exist through ‘performances’ that ‘tend to suppress and / or contain the enactment of other possible worlds’. This is a striking rejection of universality. Whilst logically universal claims can undermine different ways to think about the world, assuming that this in inherent in universal thinking questions geographical thought from any source that aspires to transcend diverse experience and be judged as part of a global geographical conversation across time and space.

Whilst this point is made by Sundberg to deny the wider veracity of Western thinking, logically it would apply to others too – it suggests Southern scholars, too, should not aspire to speak too far outside of their assumed ontological and epistemological identities in search of universal truths.

Saigon Opera House in Ho Chi Minh City.
Image by David McKelvey via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In Defence of the Enlightenment Legacy

The view as set out by Emejulu (2017) and implicit or explicit through much of literature is both one sided and also a misreading of the Enlightenment. Many Enlightenment thinkers articulated ideas that were new and revolutionary in that they posited two things: the centrality of humanity in making the world in which we live (through reason and through scientific understanding replacing religious and mystical views of one’s place and possibilities), and; the possibility and moral desirability of universal freedoms from subjection by others – natural, universal rights applicable to all. Both the study of the world, and the idea that people within the world were equal and free, were central to the Enlightenment (Pagden, 2015; Malik, 2014).

However, these ideas emerged within and through a world of interests, prejudices and limitations. So there is a dialectical relationship: the new ideas that point to the possibility and desirability of human equality and freedom, and the world as it was which, as Emejulu rightly says, was far from free or equal and far from becoming so.

Consider the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 – a document shaped by the new ideas of the Enlightenment, and associated with freedom and rights subsequently. Some of its signatories and drafters, including Thomas Jefferson, were slaveholders or had a stake in the slave trade. Yet the Declaration served as an emblem for opponents of slavery and inequality for the next 200 years.

The most famous clause in the Declaration states: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ (US Congress, 1776). At the time principled abolitionists played on the contradiction between the grand ideas and the practice of men like Jefferson. Some even argued that the clause relating to the ‘right of revolution’ (which was there to justify fighting for independence from the British) could apply to slaves who were not being treated equally.

Martin Luther King referenced the Declaration in his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech at the Washington for Jobs and Freedom Demonstration of August 28, 1963: ‘When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ (King, 1991: 217). King’s speech, holding society to account by its own highest, universal moral standards, was in a long and noble tradition.

In the same vein the French Revolution’s Declaration on the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1791) also states: ‘All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.’ The dialectical tension between by the ideas that informed the French Revolution and the reality of the society is well illustrated by CLR James in The Black Jacobins (2001, original 1938). James writes of the Haitian revolution, a revolution in revolutionary France’s colony, in which slaves and their leaders took the ideas of the revolutionaries at their word. They directly confronted the limits of the revolution by insisting that its demand for liberty, fraternity and equality be made truly universal and applied to themselves, the slaves in the colonies.

The force of these Enlightenment influenced universalist conceptions of humanity, central to both Declarations, feature throughout the history of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. For example, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnamese Declaration of Independence in 1945 cites both the famous ‘all men are created equal’ clause from the American Declaration, and its equivalent in the French Declaration, to accuse both of these imperialist countries of denying these ‘undeniable truths’ (Ho Chi Minh, 1945). In the Vietnamese Declaration it was assumed that the denial of Enlightenment ideals, not their assertion, characterised colonialism and imperialism. This is reversed in decolonial theory.

Equally, colonialism involved the denial of the fruits of modern geographical knowledge and technique, not an imposition of ‘colonial’ ideas. Just as geographic technique and knowledge developed in the imperialist West no doubt played a dark role in the war in Vietnam – not least cartography in charting bombing missions – so those same tools (or more advanced versions) in mapping, agriculture and much else are utilised today to enable a sovereign Vietnam look to a better future.

Enlightenment ideas, expressed in the American Declaration of Independence and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, were drafted by people complicit in slavery and formed a rational and moral basis for equality. The former does not contradict the latter. In similar vein geographical knowledge was harnessed to oppress, and provided the basis for post- colonial governments to progress. The Declarations were both of their time and transcendent of their time, as is good geographical knowledge. It is in the latter sense that we judge their worth as knowledge to help us understand and act upon the world today.

There is much else to be said about the Enlightenment of course. There were great diversity and contradictions within it. What Enlightenment scholar Jonathan Israel (2009) terms the Radical Enlightenment consisted of thinkers who pushed at the contradiction between the potential in Enlightenment thought and some of the backward beliefs prevalent amongst their contemporaries. They went well beyond the limiting assumption of humanity characteristic of their time: that some were capable of citizenship rights, and others were not.

Thomas Paine argued against slavery on the grounds that it infringed the universal (natural) right to human freedom. He did not restrict his category of ‘Man’ to western Man. He criticised colonialism too. He argued that Africans were productive, peaceful citizens in their own countries, until the English enslaved them (Paine, 1774). Diderot, Raynal, d’Holbach and others contributed to a 1770 volume titled Histoire Philosophique des Deux Indes (The Philosophical History of the Two Indies). The book asserts that ‘natural liberty is the right which nature has given to everyone to dispose of himself according to his will’. It prophesied and defended the revolutionary overthrow of slavery: ‘The negroes only want a chief, sufficiently courageous to lead them to vengeance and slaughter… Where is the new Spartacus?’ (cited in Malik, 2017).

So Emejulu’s account, and the assumption of decolonialism, are wrong. The issue is not that the Enlightenment is racist and partial, and the intellectual traditions that draw upon its legacy comprise ‘imperial’ or ‘colonial’ knowledge. Rather, the Enlightenment put reason and rationality, scientific method and the potential for liberty and equality at the centre of intellectual and political life. It provided a basis for common, human pursuit of knowledge.

The growth of scientific method associated with the Enlightenment, as an orientation towards knowledge, was not linked to any particular culture or deity, but to universal reason (Malik, 2014). The implication of this is that theories should be judged for their capacity to explain and predict, concepts for their capacity to illuminate and techniques for their efficacy. That they should be judged with consideration for (or even deference towards) the identity, political or social, of their originator, or with regard to context or contemporary use – all key to decolonialism – undermines the pursuit of truth as a universal, human project.

Knowledge, theories and techniques are better seen as having the capacity to transcend place and power. The veracity of a theory, the usefulness of a concept or the efficacy of a technique are remarkably unaffected by their origin and their context. Audre Lorde’s idiom, ‘The masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house’, invoked by Jazeel (2017: 335) to argue that the traditions of knowledge and rights associated with the West cannot be the basis for the liberation of the non-West, is simply untrue in this context. The anti-colonial and anti-racist movements of the past achieved a massive amount through struggles that explicitly drew upon iconic assertions of the ‘Western’ Enlightenment. There is clearly some way to go.

Concluding Thoughts: Decolonialism and Liberation

To decolonise has been presented as a moral imperative connected to liberation (Jazeel, 2017; Elliot-Cooper, 2017). I think it is better regarded as one approach, premised upon particular political views and assumptions such as critical race theory and the intersectional politics of identity. In its advocacy of an ontological pluriverse and of diverse systems of knowledge, there is one knowledge claim that cannot be allowed – the claim that knowledge, from any source, ultimately, can aspire to be universal. In addition, presenting decolonialism as a moral and political imperative leaves little room for alternatives which become, a priori, immoral.

By contrast, Brenda Wingfield, Vice President of the Academy of Science of South Africa, argues that: ‘What’s really important is that South African teachers, lecturers and professors must develop curricula that build on the best knowledge skills, values, beliefs and habits from around the world’ (2017) (my italics). She fears that the rhetoric of decolonialism will effectively delink South Africa from science’s cutting edge. She points out that this in turn reduces the opportunity for young black South African scholars to be involved with the most advanced knowledge whatever its source, and also the opportunity to adapt and utilise that knowledge to address local issues and conditions. In other words, decolonialism could damage the potential for material liberation from poverty, and for promoting a more equal involvement in the global production of knowledge about our shared world.

In the spirit of the Radical Enlightenment, I would argue that the best of geographical knowledge and technique be made available for the benefit of all, on the terms of the beneficiaries. In judging ’the best’, origin and context, whilst important and enlightening areas of study in themselves, are secondary.

Academics and universities could certainly more effectively challenge the marginalisation of parts of the world in academic life and the production of geographical knowledge. Suggestions would include: Truly reciprocal academic exchanges, funded by Western universities who can better afford it, where budding academics from the South can choose freely from the curriculum around their own priorities; greater joint projects to understand and find solutions to problems as they are defined by Southern governments; increased funding for twinning with under resourced universities in the South, with a “no strings attached” undertaking to share knowledge, training and resources as they are demanded from academics based in the South.

In other words, we should prioritise a relationship between knowledge and resources from the best universities in the world (wherever they are located), and the sovereignty of the South.

None of this necessitates the decolonisation of geographical knowledge. Rather, it requires us to think afresh at how the promissory note of the Enlightenment – the ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality (and I would add of the potential to understand the word in order to change it) – can be cashed.

Contact details: jim.butcher@canterbury.ac.uk

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Author Information: Manuel Padilla Cruz, Universidad de Sevilla, mpadillacruz@us.es

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “One Thing is Testimonial Injustice and Another Is Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 9-19.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Vi

Please refer to:

Image by Jon Southcoasting via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Derek E. Anderson’s (2017) identification and characterisation of conceptual competence injustice has recently met some resistance from Podosky and Tuckwell (2017). They have denied the existence of this new type of epistemic injustice on the grounds that the wronging it denotes may be subsumed by testimonial injustice: “instances of conceptual competence injustice can be accurately characterised as instances of testimonial injustices” (Podosky and Tuckwell 2017: 26). Additionally, they have questioned the reasons that led Anderson (2017) to distinguish this epistemic injustice from testimonial, hermeneutical and contributory injustices (Podosky and Tuckwell 2017: 26-30).

Criticising the methodology followed by Podosky and Tuckwell (2017) in their attempt to prove that conceptual competence injustice falls within testimonial injustice, Anderson (2018) has underlined that conceptual competence injustice is a structural injustice and a form of competence injustice –i.e. an unfair misappraisal of skills– which should be retained as a distinct type of epistemic injustice because of its theoretical significance and usefulness. Causal etiology is not a necessary condition on conceptual competence injustice, he explains, and conceptual competence injustice, as opposed to testimonial injustice, need not be perpetrated by social groups that are negatively biased against a particular identity.

The unjust judgements giving rise to it do not necessarily have to be connected with testimony, even though some of them may originate in lexical problems and mistakes in the linguistic expressions a speaker resorts to when dispensing it. Accordingly, testimonial injustice and conceptual competence injustice may be said to be different kinds of injustice and have diverse effects: “It is not necessary that a person’s testimony be disbelieved, ignored, or pre-empted in an episode of CC [conceptual competence] injustice. CC injustice involves only an unjust judgment about a person’s ability to think well using certain concepts” (Anderson 2018: 31).

Welcoming the notion of conceptual competence injustice, I suggested in a previous contribution (Padilla Cruz 2017a) that it could be borrowed by the field of linguistic pragmatics in order to conceptualise an undesired perlocutionary effect of verbal interaction: misappraisals of a speaker’s actual conceptual and lexical abilities as a result of lack or misuse of vocabulary. Relying on Sperber and Wilson’s (1986/1995) description of intentional-input processing as a relevance-driven activity and of comprehension as a process of mutual parallel adjustment, where the mind carries out a series of incredibly fast simultaneous tasks that depend on decoding, inference, mindreading and emotion-reading, I also showed that those misappraisals result from deductions. A speaker’s alleged unsatisfactory performance makes manifest assumptions regarding her[1] problems with words, which are fed as weakly implicated premises to inferential processes and related to other detrimental assumptions that are made salient by prejudice.

In so doing, I did not purport to show, as Podosky and Tuckwell wrongly think, “how epistemic injustice manifests in the field of relevance theory” (2017: 23) or that “conceptual competence injustice is particularly useful in a relevance theoretical model of linguistic pragmatics” (2017: 30). Rather, my intention was to propose introducing the notion of conceptual competence injustice into general linguistic pragmatics as a mere way of labelling a type of prejudicial implicature, as they themselves rightly put it (Podosky and Tuckwell 2017: 30). The derivation of that sort of implicature, however, can be accounted for –and this is where relevance theory comes into the picture– on the basis of the cognitive processes that Sperber and Wilson’s (1986/1995) framework describes and of its conceptual apparatus.

In another contribution (Padilla Cruz 2017b), I clarified that, as a cognitive pragmatic framework, relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995) is concerned with the processing and comprehension of the verbal and non-verbal intentional stimuli produced in human communication. It very satisfactorily explains how hearers forge interpretative hypotheses and why they select only one of them as the plausibly intended interpretation. Relevance theorists are also interested in the generation of a variety of effects –e.g. poetic (Pilkington 2000), humorous (Yus Ramos 2016), etc.– and successfully account for them.

Therefore, the notion of conceptual competence injustice can only be useful to relevance-theoretic pragmatics as a label to refer to one of the (pernicious) effects that may originate as a consequence of the constant search for optimal relevance of intentional stimuli. I will not return to these issues here, as I consider them duly addressed in my previous contribution (Padilla Cruz 2017b).

My aim in this reply is to lend support to Anderson’s (2017) differentiation of conceptual competence injustice as a distinct type of epistemic injustice. I seek to argue that, ontologically and phenomenologically, conceptual competence injustice must be retained in the field of social epistemology as a helpful category of injustice because it refers to a wronging whose origin and scope, so to say, differ from those of testimonial injustice. Testimonial injustice stems from (mis)judgements pertaining to the output of an action or epistemic practice wherein epistemic agents may participate or be engaged. The action in question is giving testimony and its output is the very testimony given. The scope of testimonial injustice, therefore, is the product, the result of that action or epistemic practice.

In other words, testimonial injustice targets the ability to generate an acceptable product as a consequence of finding it not to satisfy certain expectations or requirements, or to be defective in some dimensions. In contrast, conceptual competence injustice denotes an unfairness that is committed not because of the output of what is done with words –i.e. informing and the dispensed information– but because of the very linguistic tools wherewith an individual performs that action –i.e. the very words that she makes use of– and supposed underlying knowledge. To put it differently, the scope of conceptual competence injustice is the lexical items wherewith testimony is dispensed, which lead prejudiced individuals to doubt the conceptual and lexical capacities of unprivileged individuals.

In order to show that the scopes of testimonial and conceptual competence injustices vary, I will be drawing from the seminal and most influential work on communication by philosopher Herbert P. Grice (1957, 1975).[2] This will also encourage me to suggest that the notion of testimonial injustice (Fricker 2003, 2007) could even be refined and elaborated on. I will argue that this injustice may also be perpetrated when a disadvantaged individual is perceived not to meet requirements pertaining to testimony other than truthfulness.

Content Characteristics or Requirements of (Good) Testimony

As an epistemic practice, dispensing testimony, or information, could be characterised, along Grice’s (1959, 1975) lines, as a cooperative activity. Testimony is given because an individual may be interested in imparting it for a variety of reasons –e.g. influencing others, appearing knowledgeable, contradicting previous ideas, etc.– and/or because it may benefit (an)other individual(s), who might (have) solicit(ed) it for another variety of reasons –e.g. learning about something, strengthening ideas, changing his worldview, etc. As an activity that brings together various individuals in joint action, providing testimony is subject to certain constraints or requirements for testimony to be properly or adequately dispensed. Let us call those constraints or requirements, using philosopher John L. Austin’s (1962) terminology, felicity conditions.

Some of those felicity conditions pertain to the individuals or interlocutors engaged in the epistemic practice. The dispenser of testimony –i.e. the speaker or informer– must obviously possess certain (true) information to dispense, have the ability to impart it and pursue some goal when giving it. In turn, the receiver of testimony should, but need not, be interested in it and make this manifest by explicit mention or elicitation of the testimony.

Other felicity conditions concern the testimony to be provided. For instance, it must be well supported, reliable and trustworthy. This is the sort of testimony that benevolent and competent informers dispense (Wilson 1999; Sperber et al. 2010), and the one on which the notion of testimonial injustice focuses (Fricker 2003, 2007). Making use again of Grice’s (1957, 1975) ideas, let us say that, for testimony to be appropriately imparted, it must satisfy a requirement of truthfulness or quality. Indeed, the maxim of quality of his Cooperative Principle prompts individuals to give information that is true and to refrain from saying falsehoods or things for which they lack adequate evidence.

But not only must testimony be truthful; for it to be properly dispensed, the information must also be both sufficient and relevant. Imagine, for instance, that someone was requested to tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood. For the narration to be complete, it should not only include details about who such a character was, where she lived, the fact that she had a grandmother who lived at some distance in the countryside, her grandmother’s conditions or their relationship, but also about what had happened to Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother one day before receiving her visit and what happened to Little Red Riding Hood upon finding the wolf lying on the bed, disguised as the grandmother.

If the narrator mentioned the former details but omitted the latter, her narration, regardless of the fact that what she said about the characters’ identity and residence was undeniably true, would not be fully satisfactory, as it would not contain enough, necessary or expected information. Her testimony about Little Red Riding Hood would not be considered sufficient; something –maybe a key fragment– was missing for the whole story to be known, correctly understood and appraised.

Imagine now that all the details about the characters, their residence and relationship were present in the narration, but, upon introducing the wolf, the narrator started to ramble and talked about the animal spices wolves belong to, their most remarkable features, the fact that these animals are in danger of extinction in certain regions of Europe or that they were considered to have magical powers in a particular mythology. Although what the narrator said about the three characters is unquestioningly true and the story itself is told in its entirety, it would not have been told in the best way possible, as it includes excessive, unnecessary and unrelated information.

Again, along Gricean (1957, 1975) lines, it may be said that testimony must meet certain requirements or satisfy certain expectations about its quantity and relation. Actually, while his maxim of quantity incites individuals to give the expected amount of information depending on the purpose of a communicative exchange and prevents them from retaining or omitting expected or indispensable information, his maxim of relation causes them to supply information that is relevant or connected with the purpose of the exchange. Even if the provided information is true, failure to satisfy those requirements would render it inadequately given.

To the best of my knowledge, the notion of testimonial injustice as originally formulated by Fricker (2003, 2007) overlooks these requirements of quantity and relation, which solely pertain to the content of what is said. Accordingly, this injustice could also be argued to be amenable to be inflicted whenever an informer imparts unreliable or not well-evidenced information, and also when she fails to add necessary information or mentions irrelevant details or issues. If she did so, her ability to appropriately dispense information could be questioned and she could subsequently be downgraded as an informer.

Testimony from the 2009 trial of Cambodian war criminal Duch. Image by Khmer Rouge Tribunal (ECCC) via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Manner Characteristics or Requirements of (Good) Testimony

Testimony may be claimed to be adequately given when it is true, sufficient and relevant, but there are additional requirements that testimony should meet for it to be adequately imparted. Namely, the information must be presented in an orderly, clear and unambiguous way. How would you react if, when being told the story of Little Red Riding Hood, your interlocutor gave you all the necessary, relevant and true details –and nothing more– but she changed the order of the events, did not make it clear whom the wolf attacked firstly or what Little Red Riding Hood put in her basket, or resorted to unusual, difficult or imprecise lexical terms? Probably, you would say that the story was told, but many issues would not be crystal clear to you, so you would have difficulties in having a clear picture of how, when and why the events in the story happened.

Testimony may also be considered to be well dispensed when it is given in a good manner by correctly ordering events and avoiding both obscurity and ambiguity of expression. Order, clarity and ambiguity are parameters that do not have to do with what is said –i.e. the content– but with how what is said is said –i.e. its linguistic form. Accordingly, testimony may be asserted to be correctly imparted when it meets certain standards or expectations that only concern the manner in which it is given.[3] Some of those standards or expectations are connected with the properties of the linguistic choices that the speaker makes when wording or phrasing testimony, and others are determined by cultural factors.

For example, for a narration to count as a fairy tale, it would have to begin with the traditional and recurrent formula “Once upon a time” and then proceed by setting a background that enables identification of characters and situates the events. Similarly, for an essay to be regarded as a good, publishable research paper, it must contain, in terms of structure, an abstract, an introductory section where the state of the art of the issue to be discussed is summarised, the goals of the paper are stated, the thesis is alluded to and, maybe, the structure of the paper is explained.

Then, the essay must unfold in a clear and logically connected way, through division of the contents in various sections, each of which must deal with what is referred to in its heading, etc. In terms of expression, the paper must contain technical or specialised terminology and be sufficiently understandable. Many of these expectations are motivated by specific conventions about discourse or text genres.

Inability or failure to present information in the appropriate manner or to comply with operative conventions may also incite individuals to challenge an informer’s capacity to dispense it. Although the informer may be credited with being knowledgeable about a series of issues, she may be assessed as a bad informer because her performance is not satisfactory in terms of the linguistic means she resorts to in order to address them or her abidance by governing conventions. However, since such an assessment is motivated not by the quality, quantity or relation of the content of testimony, but by the tools with and the way in which the informer produces her product, its scope or target is obviously different.

Different Scopes, Distinct Types of Epistemic Injustice

The current notion of testimonial injustice only takes into account one of the three features of (well dispensed) testimony alluded to above: namely, quality or truthfulness. A more fine-grained conceptualisation of it should also consider two other properties: quantity and relation, as long as informers’ capacity to provide testimony may be doubted if they failed to give expected information and/or said irrelevant things or added unnecessary details. Indeed, quality, quantity and relation are dimensions that are connected with the content of the very information dispensed –i.e. what is said– or the product of the epistemic practice of informing. Testimonial injustice, therefore, should be characterised as the epistemic injustice amenable to be inflicted whenever testimony is found deficient or unsatisfactory on the grounds of these three dimensions pertaining to its content.

What happens, then, with the other requirement of good testimony, namely, manner? Again, to the best of my knowledge, Fricker’s (2003, 2007) description of testimonial injustice does not refer to its likely perpetration when an individual is judged not to impart testimony in an allegedly right manner. And, certainly, this characteristic of good testimony may affect considerations about how suitably it is given.

Dispensing information in a messy, obscure and/or ambiguous way could be enough for degrading an individual as informer. She could sufficiently talk about true and relevant things, yes, but she could say them in an inappropriate way, thus hindering or impeding understanding. Should, then, the manner in which testimony is provided be used as grounds to wrong an informer or to question a person’s capacities as such? Although the manner in which testimony is imparted may certainly influence assessments thereof, there is a substantial difference.

Failure to meet requirements of quality, quantity and relation, and failure to meet requirements of manner are certainly not the same phenomenon. The former has to do with the content of what is said, with the product or result of an activity; the latter, in contrast, as the name indicates, has to do with the way in which what is said is actually said, with the tools deployed to accomplish the activity. Testimony may be incorrectly dispensed because of its falsity, insufficiency or irrelevance, but it may also be inappropriately imparted because of how it is given –this is undeniable, I would say.

The difference between quality, quantity and relation, on the one hand, and manner, on the other hand, is a difference of product and content of that product, on the one hand, and tools to create it, on the other hand. Accordingly, testimonial injustice and conceptual competence injustice should be kept apart as two distinct types of epistemic injustice because the respective scopes of the judgements where each injustice originates differ. While in the former the issue is the content of testimony, in the latter what is at stake is the means to dispense it, which unveil or suggest conceptual deficits or lack of mastery of certain concepts.

Testimony is dispensed by means of linguistic elements that somehow capture –or metarepresent, in the specialised cognitive-pragmatic terminology (Wilson 1999; Sperber 2000)– the thoughts that a speaker entertains, or the information that she possesses, and is interested in making known to an audience. Such elements are words, which are meaningful units made of strings of recognisable sounds –i.e. allophones, or contextual realisations of phonemes, in the terminology of phonetics and phonology– which make up stems and various types of morphemesprefixes, infixes and suffixes– conveying lexical and grammatical information. More importantly, words are arranged in more complex meaningful units –namely, phrases– and these, in turn, give rise to larger, and still more meaningful, units –namely, clauses and sentences. Manner is connected with the lexical units chosen and their syntactic arrangements when communicating and, for the sake of this paper, when providing testimony.

Speakers need to constantly monitor their production and their interlocutors’ reactions, which often cause them to revise what they have just said, reformulate what they are saying or are about to say, expand or elaborate on it, etc. As complex an activity as speaking is, it is not exempt of problems. At a lexical level, the speaker may fail to use the adequate words because she misses them or has trouble to find them at a particular time for a variety of factors –e.g. tiredness, absentmindedness, etc. (Mustajoki 2012). The chosen words may also diverge from those normally used by other language users in order to refer to particular concepts. This happens when speakers have mapped those concepts onto different lexical items or when they have mapped those concepts not onto single words, but onto more complex units like phrases or even whole sentences (Sperber and Wilson 1997).

The selected terms may alternatively be too general, so the audience somehow has to inferentially adjust or fine-tune their denotation because of its broadness. Consider, for example, placeholders like “that thing”, “the stuff”, etc. used to refer to something for which there is a more specific term, or hypernyms like ‘animal’ instead of the more precise term ‘duck-billed platypus’. Or, the other way round, the selected terms may be too specific, so the audience somehow has to inferentially loosen their denotation because of its restrictiveness (Carston 2002; Wilson and Carston 2007).

Above – Doggie. Image by lscott2dog via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Think, for instance, of hyponyms like ‘doggie’ when used to refer not only to dogs, but also to other four-legged animals because of perceptual similarity –they have four legs– and conceptual contiguity –they are all animals– or ‘kitten’ when used to refer to other felines for the same reasons;[4] or imagine that terms like ‘wheel’ or ‘cookie’ were metaphorically applied to entities belonging to different, unrelated conceptual domains –e.g. the Moon– because of perceptual similarity –i.e. roundness.[5]

At a syntactic level, the linguistic structures that the speaker generates may turn out ambiguous and misleading, even though they may be perfectly clear and understandable to her. Consider, for instance, sentences like “I saw your brother with glasses”, where the ambiguity resides in the polysemy of the word ‘glasses’ (“pair of lenses” or “drinking containers”?) and the distinct readings of the fragment “your brother with glasses” (who wears/holds/carries the glasses, the hearer’s brother or the speaker?), or “Flying planes may be dangerous”, where the ambiguity stems from the competing values of the –ing form (what is dangerous, the action of piloting planes or the planes that are flying?).

At a discourse or pragmatic level, finally, speakers may be unaware of conventions governing the usage and meaning of specific structures –i.e. pragmalinguistic structures (Leech 1983)– such as “Can/Could you + verb”, whose pragmatic import is requestive and not a question about the hearer’s physical abilities, or unfamiliar with sociocultural norms and rules –i.e. sociopragmatic norms (Leech 1983)– which establish what is expectable or permitted, so to say, in certain contexts, or when, where, how and with whom certain actions may or should be accomplished or avoided.

Would we, then, say that testimony is to be doubted or discredited because of mistakes or infelicities at a lexical, syntactic or pragmatic level? Not necessarily. The information per se may be true, reliable, accurate, relevant and sufficient, but the problem resides precisely in how it is presented. Testimony would have been given, no doubt, but it would not have been imparted in the most efficient way, as the most appropriate tools are not used.

When lexical selection appears poor or inadequate; words are incorrectly and ambiguously arranged into phrases, clauses or sentences; (expected) conventionalised formulae are not conveniently deployed, or norms constraining how, when, where or whom to say things are not respected or are ignored, what is at stake is not an informer’s knowledge of the issues testimony may be about, but her knowledge of the very rudiments and conventions to satisfactorily articulate testimony and to successfully dispense it. The objects of this knowledge are the elements making up the linguistic system used to communicate –i.e. vocabulary– their possible combinations –i.e. syntax– and their usage in order to achieve specific goals –i.e. pragmatics– so such knowledge is evidently different from knowledge of the substance of testimony –i.e. its ‘aboutness’.

Real or seeming lexical problems may evidence conceptual gaps, concept-word mismatches or (highly) idiosyncratic concept-word mappings, but they may lead privileged individuals to question disadvantaged individuals’ richness of vocabulary and, ultimately, the concepts connected with it and denoted by words. If this happens, what those individuals attack is one of the sets of tools to generate an acceptable product, but not the content or essence of such a product.

Conceptual competence injustice, therefore, must be seen as targeting the tools with which testimony is created, not its content, so its scope differs from that of testimonial injustice. The scope of testimonial injustice is the truthfulness of a series of events in a narration is, as well as the amount of details that are given about those events and the relevance of those details. The scope of conceptual competence, in contrast, is knowledge and correct usage of vocabulary, and possession of the corresponding concepts.

Conceptual competence injustice focuses on a specific type of knowledge making up the broader knowledge of a language and facilitating performance in various practices, which includes informing others or dispensing testimony. Such specific knowledge is a sub-competence on which the more general, overarching competence enabling communicative performance is contingent. For this reason, conceptual competence injustice is a competence injustice, or an unfairness about a type of knowledge and specific abilities –conceptual and lexical abilities, in this case. And just as unprivileged individuals may be wronged because of their lack or misuse of words and may be attributed conceptual lacunae, occasional or constant syntactic problems and pragmatic infelicities may induce powerful individuals to misjudge those individuals as regards the respective types of knowledge enabling their performance in these areas of language.

Conclusion

Phenomenologically, testimonial injustice and conceptual competence injustice are perpetrated as a consequence of perceptions and appraisals whose respective scopes differ. In testimonial injustice, it is information that is deemed to be unsatisfactory because of its alleged veracity, quantity and relevance, so the informer is not considered a good knower of the issues pertaining to that testimony. In conceptual competence injustice, in contrast, it is the tools by means of which information is dispensed that are regarded as inappropriate, and such inappropriateness induces individuals to doubt possession and knowledge of the adequate lexical items and of their corresponding, supporting conceptual knowledge.

While testimonial injustice is inflicted as a result of what is said, conceptual competence injustice is perpetrated as a consequence of the manner whereby what is said is actually said. Consequently, at a theoretical level, testimonial injustice and conceptual competence injustice should definitely be kept apart in the field of social epistemology. The latter, moreover, should be retained as a valid and useful notion, as long as it denotes an unfairness amenable to be sustained on the grounds of the linguistic tools employed to dispense testimony and not on the grounds of the characteristics of the product generated.

Contact details: mpadillacruz@us.es

References

Anderson, Derek E. “Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology. A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 37, no. 2 (2017): 210-223.

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

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Clark, Eve V. The Lexicon in Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Escandell Vidal, M. Victoria. “Norms and Principles. Putting Social and Cognitive Pragmatics Together.” In Current Trends in the Pragmatics of Spanish, edited by Rosina Márquez-Reiter and M. Elena Placencia, 347-371. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2004.

Fricker, Miranda. “Epistemic Injustice and a Role for Virtue in the Politics of Knowing.” Metaphilosophy 34, no. 1-2 (2003): 154-173.

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

Grice, Herbert P. “Meaning.” Philosophical Review 66 (1957): 377-388.

Grice, Herbert P. “Logic and Conversation.” In Syntax and Semantics vol. 3: Speech Acts, edited by Peter Cole and Jerry Morgan, 41-59. New York: Academic Press, 1975.

Leech, Geoffrey. Principles of Pragmatics. London: Longman, 1983.

Mustajoki, Arto. “A Speaker-oriented Multidimensional Approach to Risks and Causes of Miscommunication.” Language and Dialogue 2, no. 2 (2012): 216-243.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “On the Usefulness of the Notion of ‘Conceptual Competence Injustice’ to Linguistic Pragmatics.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 4 (2017a): 12-19.

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

Pilkington, Adrian. Poetic Effects. A Relevance Theory Perspective. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2000.

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

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Wałaszeska, Ewa. “Broadening and Narrowing in Lexical Development: How Relevance Theory Can Account for Children’s Overextensions and Underextensions.” Journal of Pragmatics 43 (2011): 314-326.

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[1] Reference to the speaker will be made by means of the feminine third person singular personal pronoun.

[2] The fact that the following discussion heavily relies on Grice’s (1957, 1975) Cooperative Principle and its maxims should not imply that such ‘principle’ is an adequate formalisation of how the human cognitive systems work while processing information. It should rather be seen as some sort of overarching (cultural) norm or rule subsuming more specific norms or rules, which are internalised by some social groups whose members unconsciously obey without noticing that they comply with it (Escandell Vidal 2004: 349). For extensive criticism on Grice’s (1957/1975) ideas, see Sperber and Wilson (1986/1995).

[3] Grice’s (1957, 1975) maxim of manner is articulated into four sub-maxims, which cause individuals to be (i) orderly, (ii) brief or concise, and to avoid (iii) ambiguity of expression and (iv) obscurity of expression. In my discussion, however, I have omitted considerations about brevity or conciseness because I think that these are the byproduct of the maxim of quality, with whose effects those of the manner sub-maxim of briefness overlap.

[4] This would be a type of overextension labelled over-inclusion, categorical overextension or classic overextension (Clark 1973, 1993; Rescorla 1980), where a word “[…] is applied to instances of other categories within the same or adjacent conceptual domain” (Wałaszeska 2011: 321).

[5] This would be a case of analogical extension or analogical overextension (Rescorla 1980; Clark 1993).

Author Information: Derek Anderson, Boston University, derek.e.anderson@gmail.com

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: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3SL

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: derek.e.anderson@gmail.com

References

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.”

Author Information: Manuel Padilla Cruz, University of Seville, mpadillacruz@us.es

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.

Please refer to:

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3RS

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).

Conclusion

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: mpadillacruz@us.es

References

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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: Paul-Mikhail Catapang Podosky and William Tuckwell, University of Melbourne, ppodosky@student.unimelb.edu.au; wtuckwell@student.unimelb.edu.au

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.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3NT

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Image credit: Ben Sutherland, via flickr

1. Introduction

It’s now been 10 years since the publication of Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (2007). New and novel forms of epistemic injustice continue to be identified and theorized; some more novel than others. The most recent form of epistemic injustice to be identified is what Derek Egan Anderson has termed conceptual competence injustice; “a form of epistemic injustice that occurs when a marginalized epistemic agent makes a conceptual claim and is illegitimately regarded as having failed to grasp one or more of the concepts expressed in her testimony” (2017, 210).

In this paper, we provide reasons to doubt that conceptual competence injustice is in fact a novel form of epistemic injustice. We argue for this on three grounds.

First, we suggest that there isn’t anything more to be learned by thinking about conceptual competence injustice that isn’t captured by testimonial injustice. Of course, we might learn of a specific instance of testimonial injustice, such as injustices involving conceptual competence, however we deny that Anderson has come across anything more substantial than this.

Second, despite his attempt to convince us otherwise, we will show that the grounds on which Anderson attempts to distinguish conceptual competence injustice from hermeneutical injustice and contributory injustice are ultimately unsuccessful.

Third, we query Manuel Padilla Cruz’s (2017) suggestion that conceptual competence injustice is useful in helping us to grasp how epistemic injustice manifests in the field of relevance theory and its application to linguistic pragmatics.

2. Conceptual Competence Injustice

Anderson (2017) makes the case that there is a distinctive kind of epistemic wrongdoing that occurs in assessments about a marginalized person’s conceptual competence; where such judgements can be made either by others, or reflexively. Specifically, Anderson suggests that conceptual competence injustice is a form of epistemic injustice “in which a member of a marginalized group is unjustly regarded as lacking conceptual or linguistic competence as a consequence of structural oppression” (2017, 210). Anderson emphasises that conceptual competence injustice can only occur in societies that “facilitate the systematic oppression of certain groups and the dominance of others” (2017, 210). To get a good grip on Anderson’s suggestion, he invites us to consider the following scenario:

A philosophy graduate student, who is a woman of color, is giving a talk on natural kind terms and she makes the claim that they are “not rigid designators” given her thorough understand of Soames (2002). A white male undergraduate hears this and thinks the speaker has said something false, since he thinks that she does not have a good grip of the concept of natural kind; after all, he is familiar with Kripke’s Naming and Necessity (1980). More than this, however, is that his judgement about the speaker’s conceptual competence is a product of implicit beliefs about women of color and their ability to understand metaphysics and the philosophy of language. Because of this, the white male hearer under-ascribes credibility to the speaker, and judges that he has better conceptual competence than she does (2017, 211).

For Anderson, this is a clear case of conceptual competence injustice. It is a clear event whereby “[a] person who is marginalized on the basis of her social identity makes a conceptual claim and that claim is rejected in part because her audience illegitimately judges her to have less credibility than she in fact has” (2017, 211). We agree with Anderson that something epistemically bad has happened here; the graduate student has been undermined in her capacity as a knower. However, we will argue in the following sections that the wrong that is present in cases like these can be captured by testimonial injustice.

But first we will argue against Anderson’s claim that conceptual competence injustice needn’t involve a judgement that is causally produced by an internal bias or prejudice. This is will be important in section 4.3, when we show that Anderson’s reasons for thinking that conceptual competence injustice is distinct from contributory injustice are ultimately unsuccessful.

3. A Note on the Causal Etiology of Conceptual Competence Injustice

One surprising feature of Anderson’s account of conceptual competence injustice is that he claims that it does not have to involve a judgement that is causally produced by some internal bias or prejudice; “[t]he causal etiology is not essential to the phenomenon” (2017, 211). He re-works the case of the white male undergraduate student to make his point:

Consider a variation of the case in which the white male graduate student has no implicit bias against women of color, but only has an unduly high degree of confidence in his own intellectual authority. His judgement still conforms to the general pattern of epistemic bias against women of color. It still harms the woman in all the same ways that it would have harmed her had the man’s judgement been caused by an implicit internalization of the pervasive epistemic bias against women of color … (2017, 211).

To see why this is surprising, compare it to the following case:

Imagine a person named Taylor who decides to judge the conceptual competence of others on the basis of a coin flip; heads is belief, tails is disbelief. One day Taylor comes across Linda, a black woman who is thoroughly familiar with the ins-and-outs of contemporary Meinongianism and can defend it against alternatives. Linda says to Taylor, “It seems obvious to me that there are things that don’t exist, so in some sense they must be”. Taylor pulls out her coin and it lands tails up; Taylor does not believe that Linda has a good grasp of the concept of existence.

Given Anderson’s requirements, should we say that Taylor has perpetrated conceptual competence injustice against Linda? Intuitively, we should say no; Taylor just has a bad belief forming methodology. However, according to Anderson, given that Linda is subject to a systematic pattern of epistemic marginalization, this is just another instance where she is not believed, and hence conceptual competence injustice has occurred. Anderson’s suggestion has to be that Taylor’s actions still harms Linda in all the same ways that it would have harmed her had Taylor’s judgement been caused by an implicit internalization of the pervasive epistemic bias against women of color (2017, 211).

The reason why Anderson is committed to this conclusion is because he is primarily interested in the “general pattern of epistemic bias against women of color”, independent of any internal bias, conscious or otherwise (2017, 211). But it isn’t clear what Anderson means by ‘general pattern’. In the case that Anderson specifies, a white male undergraduate student has an unduly high degree of belief in his intellectual authority, and because of this, when he hears a conceptual claim by a woman of color, he believes that she does not have a good grasp of the concept(s) that she is deploying. However, if such a student exists—and, irritatingly, they most certainly do—then their disbelief of other’s conceptual competence will not discriminate; by and large, they will think most people are intellectually inferior. The graduate student will, more or less, think that people don’t have a good grasp of philosophical concepts; or at least have a worse grasp than he does. Given this, the pattern of epistemic marginalization that Anderson seems to be suggesting is simply the fact that women of color are, on the whole, disbelieved.

But if this is right then coin-flipping Taylor must also be perpetrating conceptual competence injustice; she disbelieves Linda who is epistemically marginalized. This is a counterintuitive conclusion. 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. Granted that Taylor isn’t perpetrating conceptual competence injustice, then it’s hard for us to see how the white male undergraduate student, no matter how annoying they are, could be committing such an injustice either. They both just have bad belief forming methods; one is due to an inflated judgement of their own intellectual capabilities, the other is due to forming beliefs on the basis of coin-flips. For each person, there will be times where they will disbelieve someone who is epistemically marginalized, but at these times it seems odd to say that they have committed any kind of epistemic injustice. What we should expect, then, is that the causal etiology of judgement does matter. Otherwise, we’ll have to admit that even in ‘coin-flipping’ cases, the person with dodgy belief-forming methods commit epistemically unjust acts.

4. Conceptual Competence Injustice and the Existing Forms of Epistemic Injustice

Anderson aims to distinguish conceptual competence injustice from existing forms of epistemic injustice, claiming that conceptual competence injustice is not captured by testimonial, hermeneutical, or contributory injustice. In this section we argue that the grounds on which Anderson tries to distinguish conceptual competence injustice from testimonial injustice ultimately fail. We also argue all instances of conceptual competence injustice can be accurately characterized as instances of testimonial injustice. Further to this, we consider each of the strategies that Anderson uses to distinguish conceptual competence injustice from hermeneutical injustice and contributory injustice, and we suggest that such strategies are unsuccessful.

4.1. Testimonial Injustice

For Anderson, conceptual competence injustice occurs in cases where a speaker (or thinker) makes a conceptual claim, the truth of which cannot be empirically settled (2017, 213). This provides grounds for Anderson’s first strategy to distinguish testimonial injustice from conceptual competence injustice (2017, 215). His suggestion is that because Fricker’s central case of testimonial injustice involves an under-ascription of credibility to a marginalized person’s testimony, where the truth of the testimony in question can be empirically settled, then Fricker’s central case is not an instance of conceptual competence injustice. It’s puzzling to us why Anderson employs this strategy. Fricker’s central case of testimonial injustice is not a defining case. Because of this, even if Anderson can show that the central case is not an instance of conceptual competence injustice, it does not entail that conceptual competence injustice is not just an instance of testimonial injustice.

Anderson’s second strategy is to attempt to demonstrate that not all instances of conceptual competence injustice are instances testimonial injustice (2017, 215). Anderson claims that this is because a person can suffer from conceptual competence injustice without speaking, and that because of this it cannot be testimonial injustice. This can occur in two ways. The first is that a marginalized person might come to doubt their own competence with a concept. Because of this, the marginalized person refrains from asserting something that she knows, or comes to doubt herself so much that she loses the belief that she is competent with a concept and hence loses knowledge of particular propositions that she previously had.

Let us think about whether it’s true to say that testimonial injustice cannot manifest itself in this way. Firstly, the harm that comes with this kind of self-doubt and lack of self-trust is present in Fricker’s original discussion of the harms of testimonial injustice. Fricker points out that the experience of persistent testimonial injustice may lead one to lose confidence in one’s beliefs and general intellectual capacities (Fricker 2007, 47). Further to this, Fricker points out that trustful dialogue with others is the mechanism through which one gains confidence in their beliefs, and, by extension, confidence to assert those beliefs (2007, 52); the absence of such means a loss in confidence in beliefs and their assertion.

Setting aside this exegetical consideration, we might make this point differently by considering the following question: can testimonial injustice be reflexive in this way? It seems so. There is no specification that the speaker and the hearer be different epistemic subjects; all that is required is that the speaker under-ascribe credibility to a hearer owing to structural identity prejudice. If one is subject to systems of epistemic marginalization and, say, internalizes a negative stereotype, then it seems possible that they could under-ascribed credibility to themselves in line with the stereotype and therefore come to doubt their knowledge of certain propositions. Hence, it seems perfectly plausible that testimonial injustice is something that can be reflexively perpetrated.

Granted that testimonial injustice can occur reflexively when it comes to one’s judgement of their knowledge or belief of certain propositions, should we say that this can also apply to one’s judgement about their own competence with a concept? It seems perfectly straightforward to make this inference.

The second way in which Anderson thinks that conceptual competence injustice can occur without speaking is that there are scenarios in which a marginalized person is discredited as a source conceptual knowledge without having said a word; the marginalized person is expected not to know, and their competence with concepts is doubted. Their testimony is never solicited.

This consideration does not distinguish conceptual competence injustice from testimonial injustice because Fricker is clear in acknowledging that this as a possible way that testimonial injustice can manifest. She claims that a significant form of testimonial injustice occurs when prejudice “leads to a tendency for some groups simply not to be asked for information in the first place.” Fricker continues,

This kind of testimonial injustice takes place in silence. It occurs when hearer prejudice does its work in advance of a potential informational exchange: it pre-empts any such exchange. Let us call it pre-emptive testimonial injustice. The credibility of such a person on a given subject matter is already sufficiently in prejudicial deficit that their potential testimony is never solicited; so the speaker is silenced by the identity prejudice that undermines her credibility in advance (2007, 130).

It is clear from this quote that Anderson has failed to distinguish conceptual competence injustice from testimonial injustice on the grounds that testimony is never solicited.

Finally, Anderson claims that conceptual competence injustice is distinct from testimonial injustice because it can exist in purely structural ways that do not involve individual perpetrators. There are two things that we might say here. First, Anderson just doesn’t say enough to convince us this is the case. He merely mentions standardised testing as an example of a structural manifestation of conceptual competence injustice. But, why should we believe this? Anderson moves on without further explanation. Second, Fricker allows for the possibility that “purely structural operations of identity power can control whose would-be contributions become public, and whose do not” (2007, 130). This is the form taken by pre-emptive testimonial injustice. Thus, even if Anderson had made this point convincingly it would not distinguish conceptual competence injustice from testimonial injustice.

We take the above considerations to demonstrate that the grounds on which Anderson attempts to distinguish conceptual competence injustice from testimonial injustice are unsuccessful. This gives us reason to believe that all instances of conceptual competence injustice are accurately characterized by testimonial injustice.

4.2. Hermeneutical Injustice

Anderson also suggests that conceptual competence injustice is not hermeneutical injustice (2017, 216). He makes the strong claim that there can never be an instance where conceptual competence injustice is an instance of hermeneutical injustice. To this claim, we agree that conceptual competence injustice cannot manifest as hermeneutical injustice; as we’ve just argued, we think that all instances of conceptual competence injustice are just instances of testimonial injustice. However, in this subsection we will argue that the grounds on which Anderson attempts to distinguish conceptual competence injustice from hermeneutical injustice are unsuccessful.

Anderson’s interpretation of hermeneutical injustice is that it always involves a lacuna in the collective hermeneutical resource such “that every instance of hermeneutical injustice entails that the relevant crucial concept or word does not yet exist” (2017, 216).  That is, marginalized people cannot render intelligible certain experiences owing to deficiencies in their interpretive assets. Whereas “[i]n every instance of competence injustice, the victim begins with some level of mastery with a concept or word and then their level of mastery is doubted. A fortiori, competence injustice involves the possession of all relevant concepts” (2017, 216). Hence, for Anderson, conceptual competence injustice cannot be hermeneutical injustice; he takes them as fully distinct.

Anderson does not provide us with the full story in his explanation of Fricker’s account of hermeneutical injustice. Anderson is right to say that Fricker’s case of Carmita Wood and the introduction of the concept of sexual harassment captures an instance of a complete lack of conceptual understanding that is then remedied. However, this is just what Fricker calls a ‘maximal’ case; again, it is not a defining case. Fricker has other examples that she calls ‘midway’ and ‘minimal’ cases (2007; 2017). This is where a marginalized person has access to a hermeneutical resource and possesses the relevant concepts that can render intelligible their experience, yet cannot communicate such experiences across social space. In other words, midway cases are those where a social group has sophisticated interpretive assets yet such practices “are not shared with at least one out-group with whom communication is needed” (Fricker 2017, 9).

We acknowledge that Fricker’s original statement of hermeneutical injustice was not as clear as it could have been (2007), and only recently has Fricker provided some clarity on how we should interpret her formulation (2017). Fricker’s rearticulation has come in light of the thoroughly important work of Rebecca Mason (2011), Gaile Pohlhaus Jr. (2012), Kristie Dotson (2012), and José Medina (2013), that has made abundantly clear that hermeneutical injustice can occur even when an agent fully possesses the relevant concepts to render intelligible their experiences. Given Fricker’s rearticulation of hermeneutical injustice, Anderson has not shown that conceptual competence injustice is not hermeneutical injustice.

4.3. Contributory Injustice

Anderson also attempts to differentiate conceptual competence injustice from contributory injustice. Contributory injustice occurs when a marginalized person possesses the hermeneutical resources that are required for her to understand and communicate her experiences, but that this attempt at communication is thwarted by the fact that her interlocutor does not possess the requisite hermeneutical resources. In cases of contributory injustice the reason that the hearer possesses inadequate hermeneutical resources is because of their own willful ignorance; they actively uphold their biased hermeneutical resources in their interpretation of the speaker, rather than accepting that the marginalized speaker has a good grasp of their own experiences or making a concerted effort to understand what the marginalized speaker is saying (Dotson 2012).

Anderson claims that conceptual competence injustice is not contributory injustice because there can be cases of conceptual competence injustice that are not cases of contributory injustice. Anderson provides the following case:

Suppose a white person hears a person of color asserts, “In the United States, racism against white people is impossible.” Suppose also that this white person believes falsely that racism is merely prejudice on the basis of race and that therefore white people can be victims of racism. Upon hearing the conceptual claim that racism against white people is impossible, the white person judges the person of colour to be conceptually incompetent—he thinks that she fails to grasp the concept of racism (Anderson 2017,  218).

Anderson claims that this is not contributory injustice because both people possess the same concept. If we take the person of color and the white person to be working with different concepts of racism, then this would mean that the white person expresses a true belief when they utter “It is possible for black people to be racist against white people in the United States”. This would be a bad result because this utterance is clearly false.

In section 3, we argued that causal etiology matters when it comes to conceptual competence injustice. Because of this, the case that Anderson uses to convince us that conceptual competence injustice is not contributory injustice needs to be re-worked; or else no injustice has been perpetrated. Instead of the white person simply believing that the person of color is not competent with the concept of racism, we must say that the white person does not believe this in virtue of identity prejudice against people of color. However, given this, the re-worked case just looks like an instance of testimonial injustice. This is because the speaker under-ascribes credibility owing to identity prejudice; and this is the essence of testimonial injustice. Hence, Anderson is right to say that the case is not an instance of contributory injustice, however this is because it is a case of testimonial injustice.

If Anderson insists that causal etiology doesn’t matter in cases of conceptual competence injustice, then he must also think that causal etiology doesn’t matter in other cases of epistemic injustice either. It would be ad hoc to insist that causal etiology is significant in some forms of epistemic injustice but not others. Hence, if in the example in which the white person takes the person of color to be incompetent in their grasp of the concept of racism, then Anderson should think that this is just an instance of testimonial injustice absent the prejudicial causal etiology that Fricker (and ourselves) take to be a necessary feature of testimonial injustice.

Either causal etiology matters for all forms of epistemic injustice, in which case this is not a case of epistemic injustice, or causal etiology matters in no forms of epistemic injustice, in which case this is just a case of testimonial injustice.

5. Conceptual Competence Injustice is Not that Useful: A Response to Cruz

Perhaps value can be found in the notion of conceptual competence injustice if there is utility to it that cannot be had from the existing categories of epistemic injustice. To this end, Manuel Padilla Cruz (2017) has suggested that conceptual competence injustice is particularly useful in a relevance theoretical model of linguistic pragmatics. Roughly, relevance theory is the idea that evolution has shaped our cognitive architecture so that we are able to collect and integrate information that enables us to make inferences and judgements relevant to us (Wilson and Sperber 2002). Understanding cognition in this way provides a means to model linguistic pragmatics; communicators presuppose that everyone aims to maximise relevance and in virtue of this speakers can convey, and hearers can infer, information not encoded in utterances. According to Cruz, Anderson’s notion of conceptual competence injustice is a useful way to characterise epistemically harmful pragmatic implicatures. These epistemic harms arise when a speaker makes a lexical mistake, such as misusing a word, and a hearer then infers from the mistake that the speaker has failed to grasp some concept, when they in fact do.

While Anderson (2017b) is receptive to Cruz’s suggestion, he claims that conceptual competence injustice “…must be tempered with the proper understanding of that phenomenon as a structural injustice” (2017b, 36).  Anderson claims that we should not think that at any time there is a lexical mistake and subsequent implicature of speaker incompetence there is an occurrence of conceptual competence injustice. This is because the relationship between relevance theory and conceptual competence injustice “cannot be accurately characterized merely as the result of a certain type of pragmatic inference without specifying facts about the social identities of the speakers and hearers involved, together with facts about the structure of their social circumstances” (2017b, 36). We think that Anderson is correct to push Cruz on this point.

In addition to Anderson’s comments on Cruz’s suggestion, we also want to comment on the lack of clarity in where Cruz is locating the epistemic injustice in his discussion.  In making his case, Cruz claims that speakers are not always fully competent in a language, perhaps because they are non-native speakers. Consequently, they may lack or misuse vocabulary. This might lead the hearer to make harmful inferences about the speaker’s competence.  Cruz claims that this constitutes an epistemic injustice since “the speaker would be degraded as a knower of a language in some respects…” (Cruz 2017, 17).

What in particular is the inference that the speaker makes that is unjust? Let’s consider two possibilities. Firstly, suppose that in conversation with a person born and raised in Germany, Holly, as a non-native German speaker, misuses some particular word from which her German interlocutor infers that she is not wholly competent in her use of that word. Whether or not this leads Holly to doubt her abilities to speak German, it seems to us that Holly’s German interlocutor has not put a foot wrong in making this inference. After all, Holly has just made a mistake.

If instead the inference that Cruz has in mind is an inference made by the hearer from a speaker’s one off lexical mistake, to the speaker having some more general intellectual incompetence, then this might reasonably be characterised as an injustice. Consider a re-working of the example above: Holly misuses a German word when in conversation with a native German speaker, who happens to be a man. From Holly’s particular mistake, the man infers that Holly lacks the intellectual capabilities required to become a competent speaker of German because he has a prejudice against the intellectual capacities of women. It is an empirical matter whether or not this kind of inference is ever made.

If it is made, then the epistemic injustice that it constitutes is not conceptual competence injustice as theorised by Anderson. Rather, it is some broader intellectual incompetence attribution. But, even then, this might very well be accounted for by Fricker (2007). The attribution of broad intellectual incompetences to particular social groups looks as though it collapses into what Fricker calls “negative-identity-prejudicial stereotypes” that are operative in the perpetration of testimonial injustice: a widely held disparaging association between a social group and one or more attribute (Fricker 2007, 35).

In his response to Cruz, Anderson discusses the ways in which relevance theory possesses resources that can usefully allow us to model the ways in which the interests of individuals and groups shape patterns of epistemic injustice (see Anderson 2017b, 36-38). This looks promising to us, though it must be said that we are no experts in relevance theory. However, while relevance theory might be useful in modelling patterns of epistemic injustice, it is far from obvious that conceptual incompetence injustice is useful in illuminating epistemic injustices that arise from harmful pragmatic implicatures of the lexical mistakes of speakers.

6. Conclusion

To recount what we have achieved in this paper: we have shown that Anderson’s reasons for thinking that conceptual competence injustice is distinct from other forms of epistemic injustice are ultimately unsuccessful. We have argued that conceptual competence injustice is accurately accounted for by testimonial injustice. Finally, we have argued that the purported usefulness of conceptual competence injustice in linguistic pragmatics is doubtful, especially because any epistemic injustice of the kind specified by Cruz can also be accounted for by testimonial injustice.

References

Anderson, Derek. 2017. “Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 2: 210-223.

Anderson, Derek. 2017b. “Relevance Theory and Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. 6, no. 7: 34-39.

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

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

Fricker, Miranda. 2017. “Epistemic Injustice and the Preservation of Ignorance.” In The Epistemic Dimensions of Ignorance edited by Rik Peels and Martijn Blaauw. Cambridge University Press.

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

Kripke, S.A. 1980. Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mason, Rebecca. 2011. “Two Kinds of Unknowing.” Hypatia. Vol. 26, No. 2: 294-307.

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

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. 2017. “On the Usefulness of the Notion of Conceptual Competence Injustice to Linguistic Pragmatics.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. 6, no. 4: 12-19.

Pohlhaus Jr., Gaile. 2011. “Relational Knowing and Epistemic Injustice: Toward a Theory of Willful Hermeneutical Ignorance.” Hypatia. Vol. 27, 4: 715-735.

Priest, Graham. Towards Non-Being: The Logic and Metaphysics of Intentionality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richard Routley. 1983. “Exploring Meinong’s Jungle and Beyond.” Journal of Philosophy. 80 (3): 173-179.

Soames, Scott. 2002. Beyond Rigidity: The Unfinished Semantic Agenda of Naming and Necessity. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, Deirdre, and Dan Sperber. 2004. “Relevance Theory.” In The Handbook of Pragmatics, edited by Larry Horn and Gregory Ward, 607-632. Oxford: Blackwell.

[1] This paper was fully collaborative; the order does not represent amount of contribution.

Author Information: Amiel Bernal, Virginia Tech, abernal@vt.edu

Bernal, Amiel. “The Epistemic Injustice Anthology: A Review of The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 1-8.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3N8

Image credit: Routledge

The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice
Edited by Ian James Kidd, José Medina, and Gaile Pohlhaus Jr.
Routledge, 2017
438 pp.

I am undertaking a review of The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice with some trepidation. In reviewing an edited volume with over forty authors, I will inevitably commit some omissions and oversights, but the utility of this book justifies even a fool-hardy attempt. The length of this review suggests the troubles associated with adequately covering such an important anthology.

The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice, edited by Ian James Kidd, José Medina and Gaile Pohlhaus Jr., is a comprehensive anthology on the current theories of epistemic injustice with important implications for future research. The diverse methods and topics of this text make it an excellent introduction for graduate seminars, as well as a common resource for researchers in the field. It includes contributions from most authors active in the field, with enough diversity in contributors to represent the substantive and methodological differences among them. The text is prospective as it provides new methods and topics for future research. It is retrospective as it clearly canvasses and articulates major concepts and theories to date. Given the breadth and length of the book, I will provide only a cursory overview of most chapters, noting general themes.

The scope of the book addresses key issues of epistemic injustice, divided among its five parts. Part 1, “Core Concepts”, provides answers to questions such as what epistemic injustice is and what its constitutive concepts are. These include testimonial injustice, hermeneutical injustice, and various methodological lenses. Fundamental issues of responsibility, ideology and trust fill-out the section.

Part 2, “Liberatory Epistemologies and Axes of Oppression Answers”, addresses the ways in which epistemic injustice can be resisted and how epistemic injustice is sustained, sometimes despite good intentions.

Part 3, “Schools of Thought and Subfields within Epistemology”, canvasses an array of theories and methodologies which have informed or could be instrumental for understanding epistemic injustice. Diverse theoretical frameworks such as feminist epistemology, queer theory, and disability theory, are promising for future work in the field.

Part 4, “Sociopolitical, Ethical and Psychological Dimensions of Knowing”, relates epistemic injustice to agency, freedom, and social institutions.

Part 5, “Case Studies”, addresses sites of epistemic injustice, suggesting direction for future applied research and a keen sense of current applied research foci.<

On Part 1

In Chapter 1, “Varieties of Epistemic Injustice”, Gaile Pohlhaus Jr. outlines four lenses with which to interpret epistemic injustices. Considering relations of epistemic dominance and oppression, Pohlhaus invokes variations of social contract thinking, agential conditioning by social circumstance, degrees of change in epistemic systems, and epistemic labor and knowledge production.

Chapter 2, “Varieties of Testimonial Injustice”, by Jeremy Wanderer clarifies and develops the concept of testimonial injustice. While testimonial injustice was first conceived of as prejudicial interpersonal credibility deficits (Fricker 2007, 28), Wanderer extends the analysis to general types of testimonial injustice which includes transactional and structural forms. Wanderer also posits testimonial betrayal, which is the violation of epistemic trust established between persons.

Chapter 3, “Varieties of Hermeneutical Injustice”, by José Medina distills hermeneutical injustice to cases in which “the intelligibility of communicators is unfairly constrained or undermined when their meaning-making capacities encounter unfair obstacles” (41). Generalizing from hermeneutical injustice as conceptual lacunas which manifests from structural deficits in hermeneutical resources, Medina notes contexts in which culpable hermeneutical injustices arise.

Chapter 4, “Evolving Concepts of Epistemic Injustice”, allows Miranda Fricker to refine her conception of the scope of epistemic injustice. Fricker emphasizes epistemic phenomenology, directing attention at the role of intention in culpability. This emphasis on normative epistemic psychology supports a unique field of inquiry in epistemic injustice.

In Chapter 5, “Epistemic Injustice as Distributive Injustice”, Coady elaborates on his concept that distributive considerations are integral to understanding epistemic injustice. For example, credibility distributions are integral to understanding testimonial justice and injustice. Without an account of how much credibility a person deserves, calls for testimonial justice are moot.

Chapter 6, “Trust, Distrust and Epistemic Injustice”, by Katherine Hawley focuses on the foundational role of trust relations for epistemic justice. Hawley considers various conceptions of trust arguing that trust relations are often the basis of epistemic injustice and justice.

In Chapter 7, “Forms of Knowing and Epistemic Resources”, Alexis Shotwell maintains that fixation on propositional knowledge is itself an epistemic injustice and that thought experiments are unable to capture the epistemic dimensions of practice. Distinguishing between knowing how and knowing that, Shotwell attends to the ways in which know-how are intimately connected with our identities.

Chapter 9, “Ideology”, by Charles Mills connects Marxist notions of ideology and false consciousness to projects on epistemic injustice by extending the analysis beyond class to race, and in doing so provides an account of the nature of ideology. Mills notes the materialist basis of ideology founded in the interest of dominant classes and the epistemologies of ignorance that may explain many intelligibility deficits and hermeneutic lacunas.

On Part 2

In Part 2, the primary achievement is the use of theories of difference to inform the theory of epistemic injustice. In some cases, authors show how theories of difference have already influenced the development of epistemic injustice as a field. In Chapter 11, “Feminist Epistemology: The Subject of Knowledge”, Nancy Tuana traces the influence of standpoint theory for understanding the how epistemic privilege and marginalization is generated from political repression (e.g., Harding 2004). Expanding to critical race theory, Tuana invokes Mills (1997) to explain the resilience of ignorance, as it is a strategic epistemic asset of privilege.

In Chapter 10, “Intersectionality and Epistemic Injustice”, Patricia Hill Collins analyses the relevance of hybrid social identities to understanding epistemic injustice. She writes that intersectional identities “operate not as unitary mutually exclusive entities, but as reciprocally constructing phenomena that in turn shape complex social inequalities” (115). If epistemic justice scholarship is concerned with realizing social justice and reducing social inequality through change, then scholars would do well to recognize the interconnected forms of oppression enacted on the intersectionally diverse.

In Chapter 12, “Epistemic Injustice and the Philosophy of Race”, Luvell Anderson analyzes contemporary public debate on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. By distinguishing between an exclusive and inclusive reading of BLM, in which an inclusive reading entails that “black lives also matter” while an exclusive reading implies “only black lives matter,” Anderson shows that the exclusive interpretation of BLM perpetuates hermeneutical injustice. The exclusive reading obscures the intention to bring proportionate attention to the lives of black Americans experiencing disproportionate state-sanctioned police violence.

Chapter 15 “Allies Behaving Badly: Gaslighting as Epistemic Injustice”, exemplifies the axes of oppression theme of part 2. Rachel McKinnon argues how ostensive allies engage in epistemic injustice via gaslighting when allies suggest that trans* people are misinterpreting perceived micro-aggressions. This amounts to more than mere testimonial injustice, as it is a betrayal of a trust relationship.

In Chapter 16, “Knowing Disability, Differently”, Shelley Tremain demonstrates the myriad ways in which literature on epistemic injustice has been insensitive to disability. This is evident in the use of ableist metaphors (e.g. epistemic blindness). Tremain illustrates this through a meta-analysis of the use of the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird in writing on epistemic injustice.

On Part 3

Part 3 offers retrospective and prospective approaches for work on epistemic injustice.

In Chapter 17, “Foucault and Epistemic Injustice”, Amy Allen argues that Foucault’s focus on the constitutive and power-laden elements of epistemic practice can be productively leveraged to study epistemic injustice, contrary to popular opinion.

Chapter 18, “Epistemic Injustice and Phenomenology” by Lisa Guenther, argues both that phenomenological methods are useful for understanding epistemic injustice and are already implicitly built into Fricker’s account of epistemic injustice.

In Chapter 19, “On the Harms of Epistemic Injustice: Pragmatism and Transactional epistemology”, Shannon Sullivan addresses the debate initiated by Hookway (2010) and Fricker (2010) regarding whether epistemic injustice includes distributive considerations. Sullivan calls for a transactional account of knowledge, rather than a representational account, suggesting a normative basis for evaluating epistemic injustice based on human flourishing (210).

On Part 4

Part 4 connects epistemic injustice with novel normative theories, prevailing social science, and various political concepts. This part demonstrates integral connections between epistemic injustice, social science research, normative theory, political theory, and political philosophy.

In Chapter 22, “Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat and Epistemic Injustice”, Jennifer Saul clarifies the logical relationships between testimonial injustice, implicit bias and stereotype. While implicit bias may lead to testimonial injustice, they are not the same. Likewise, stereotype threat and implicit bias may lead to hermeneutical marginalization and thus hermeneutical injustice.

In Chapter 23, “What’s Wrong with Epistemic Injustice: Harm, Vice, Objectification and Misrecognition”, Matthew Congdon engages in the normative foundations debate, positing recognition theory as novel normative basis for epistemic injustice. He argues that it explains epistemic injustice. Failures to recognize epistemic agents as such can be analyzed in terms of failures to demonstrate epistemic respect, epistemic love, and epistemic esteem.

In Chapter 24, “Epistemic and Political Agency”, Lorenzo C. Simpson articulates the view that second-order social interpretations are “logically prior to the first-order social agency that depends upon it for its focus” (259). As such, Lorenzo provides an impetus to focus on structural and political issues of hermeneutical space while demarcating the bounds of culpability.

In Chapter 25, “Epistemic and Political Freedom”, Susan Babbit uses the case of Cuban intellectuals such as José Martí wrote on epistemic injustice well before similar debates occurred in North America. Political repression explains this epistemic injustice, as the colonial status of Cuba led to a circulation and credibility deficits, suffered by Cuban intellectuals. Thus, Babbitt shows how political freedom is a precondition for epistemic justice while drawing attention to underappreciated scholars of epistemic injustice.

On Part 5

Part 5 applies and extends theories of epistemic injustice to the law, digital environments, science, education, health care, religion, philosophy itself, and indigenous peoples in relation to anthropology and cultural heritage. Given the breadth of coverage, I will focus on applications which have not received attention elsewhere. As such, special attention will be given to the previously unaddressed fields as represented by Chapters 28, 29, 34 and 35.

In Chapter 28 “Epistemic injustice and the Law”, Michael Sullivan argues that truth is not the sole goal of trial procedures, noting 5th amendment pleas, and non-testifying privileges retained by spouses of defendants. To promote truth and reduce epistemic injustice during trials, he offers four suggestions. First, procedures to mitigate bias and promote truth; second, judges and juries representative of local demographics; third, judges and juries should be made aware of their implicit biases and confirmation bias. Fourth, juries and judges should be made aware of their hermeneutical system and epistemic norms.

Chapter 29 “Epistemic Injustice: The Case of Digital environments” by Gloria Origgi and Serena Ciranni, canvas the unique and epistemically problematic implications of mass digitization. The authors note that predictive algorithms and online records are often considered more reliable than persons. This view poses problems for epistemic agency and self-trust. Epistemic objectification occurs as statistical doubles are generated based on our digital behaviors which are then used to predict and model our behavior. This leads to a depreciation of intentionality, as tech giants increasingly direct our attention and behavior while alienating persons from their data. As the editors suggest at the outset, this era of informational and communicative abundance makes matters of epistemic injustice especially pressing (Kidd, Medina and Pohlhaus 1). Origgi and Ciranni’s turn to digital environments is a welcome shift as big data increasingly influences our lives and epistemic activities.

In Chapter 34 “Indigenous peoples, Anthropology and the Legacy of Epistemic Injustice”, Rebecca Tsosie analyzes the influence that anthropology has had on the hermeneutics and representation of native peoples in North America. Showing that indigenous epistemic marginalization has deep legal and intellectual roots, Tsosie demonstrates the ways in which indigenous knowledge systems are viewed as epistemically deficient as they are presented as lacking the secular rationalistic values. Testimonial injustice arises as indigenous peoples are not given due credibility because of marginalization and biased epistemic norms. This marginalization and testimonial injustice leads to hermeneutical injustice as native peoples are disenfranchised from the meaning-making process about their own cultures in courts and anthropology departments.

In Chapter 35, “Epistemic Injustice and Cultural Heritage”, Andreas Pantazatos employs Hookway’s (2010) account of participant perspective epistemic injustices to argue that cultural heritage institutions have a unique duty to include members of that heritage in the process of making and conveying cultural knowledge. The cathedral of Durham City, England exemplifies the tendency to exclude relevant contemporary stakeholders, which results in a participant injustice. Epistemic injustice is interpreted as a distributional problem as some stakeholders’ perspectives are not transmitted to others.

Epistemic Injustice and Philosophical Practice

In the final analysis, a few points are especially evident. First, and appropriately for the field of epistemic injustice, this book displays great diversity in methods, styles, and sources. The analytic/continental distinction, which continues to haunt much of contemporary Anglophone philosophy, plays little role in demarcating disciplinary norms. For example, Lorraine Code freely admits that her narrative style may be irksome to some and that epistemology itself lacked the resources to address issues of epistemic responsibility until recently (Chapter 8, 92). Scholars draw from continental figures such as Marx (Mills, Chapter 9), Merleau-Ponty (Guenther, Chapter 18), Foucault (Hall, Chapter 14; Allen, Chapter 17), and Hegel (Congdon, Chapter 23). This demonstrates a break from much of contemporary philosophy as scholars eschew the “rhetoric of beginnings” in which a small group or individual is credited with providing the foundations of a field of inquiry (Pohlhaus 14; Dotson 2012). Rather than cite a specific body of literature due to recent philosophical mores, contributors to this volume draw from an array of source they deem useful.

The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice is a major step for the field of epistemic injustice. This contribution creates a space for and central pillar of epistemic injustice research. This is not merely a result of the scope and content of epistemic injustice, canvassed above. The very methods of the field challenge long-standing disciplinary norms about intellectual antecedents, appropriate methods, and blurring of classic distinctions between political philosophy, ‘proper’ epistemology, and ethics. One major methodological transition is evident in the self-reflexive assessment of philosophy, its limits, and its methods. This meta-philosophical inclination challenges inherited norms about proper philosophical practice.

Patricia Hill Collins challenges the distinction between social justice scholarship and activism, noting a characteristic aversion to activism in philosophy departments. She writes, “[y]et once inside the academy these actors discovered that political action and taking principled positions became objectionable because they seemingly opposed norms of scholarly objectivity” (Chapter 10, 118). Here Collins takes aim at practical norms within academia urging a more intimate connection between theory and praxis. Likewise, Linda Alcoff challenges Eurocentrism in the academy. She argues that the practiced belief that theory is separable from a historical context constitutes a “transcendental delusion” (Chapter 37, 297). Alcoff insists that the philosophical practice of giving nearly exclusive credit and scholarly attention to Western canons itself presupposes that geographical and cultural origin bestow special epistemic authority. Shotwell criticizes central features of philosophy, namely propositional knowledge and thought experiments (Chapter 7, 79). As such, the aversion to the “rhetoric of beginnings” mentioned above allows scholars from across disciplines to take up research in epistemic injustice—a process which has already begun in many applied social science journals. Despite these challenges to philosophical institutional norms, a final marked contrast of this book is its eschewing of combative dialectics.

Edited philosophy volumes are often arranged for the purposes of putting interlocutors in direct conflict. By contrast, the scholars in this volume freely choose among scholars to analyze the phenomena of epistemic injustice, without asserting perceived problems in the work of others. The reader gets the sense that rather than positing competing theories of epistemic injustice, the field is undertaken as a cooperative endeavor in which scholars add and refine each other’s conceptual and practical contributions towards a common end. There are no contributions which attempt to reduce epistemic injustice to some single theory or basic phenomena. Instead, authors posit additional theories and contributions and show how they are fecund for analyzing epistemic injustice. While substantive and methodological disagreements persist, the cogito conquero is notably absent (Dussel 2010).

A final note will be offered regarding one opportunity for future work on epistemic injustice. Fricker (2007) focused on collective hermeneutical space and the social imagination that informs our affective and epistemic systems. Recently, scholars have moved away from the view that there is a one collective hermeneutical space (Mason 2011; Medina 2013). Scholars increasingly acknowledge heterogenous worldviews which leads to contexts for epistemic justice and injustice. For example, in Chapter 36 “Epistemic Injustice and Religious Experience” Ian Kidd argues that deep epistemic injustice arises as incompatible worldviews may forestall “the very possibility of credibility or intelligibility” (393). While these issues are ripe for analysis, the background conditions of epistemic practice and experience are undertheorized. A latent tension throughout the anthology is competing conceptions of these collective epistemic entities and activities. This occurs both at the level of world-views and interactions within and between world-views.

This transition has led to conceptual landscape strewn with locutions regarding worldviews. Throughout the book references to life-world (Mills 103), “the imaginary” (Code, Chapter 8, 94), and discourses (Haslanger 279) are used to refer to a common domain adding to the parlance of social imagination (Fricker 2007). Relatedly, epistemologies of ignorance, ideologies, false consciousness, and adaptive preferences express ways in which epistemic systems can be immoral or maladaptive. Localized hermeneutical practices pick-out epistemic norms within discursive sets, controlling images delimit the norms of social imagination (Medina, Chapter 3, 44; Pohlhaus, Chapter 1, 21). Medina identifies the possibility of attuning oneself to different hermeneutical systems with his concept of “kaleidoscopic sensibility” (Medina 2013, 16).

Nancy Tuana cites Lugone’s “world-traveling” to express the similar idea that agents can adjust their epistemic lenses to appreciate different epistemic communities (Chapter 11, 128-31). While this text moves the dialectic forward in many ways, it also makes under-theorized areas more evident. Many readers probably have some sense of the theoretical relations between these concepts, yet little formal work has been done to connect this panoply of concepts. A reductive account risks epistemic injustice and may be logically impossible, but some analytical accounts to understand the coherence and connections between these concepts is in order. As the contemporary study of epistemic injustice matures, conceptual house-cleaning will facilitate a clear body of hermeneutical resources for further study of epistemic injustice. As such, The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice provides a great deal of content and opportunities in a single volume.

References

Anderson, Derek Egan. “Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 2 (2017): 210-223.

Carel, Havi, and Ian James Kidd. “Epistemic Injustice in Healthcare: A Philosophical Analysis.” Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 17, no. 4 (2014): 529-540.

Coady, David. “Two Concepts of Epistemic Injustice.” Episteme 7, no. 2 (2010): 101-113.

Dussel, Enrique D., Javier Krauel, and Virginia C. Tuma. “Europe, Modernity, and Eurocentrism.” Nepantla: Views from South 1, no. 3 (2000): 465-478.

Dotson, Kristie. “A Cautionary Tale: On Limiting Epistemic Oppression.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 33, no. 1 (2012): 24-47.

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

Fricker, Miranda. “Replies to Alcoff, Goldberg, and Hookway on Epistemic Injustice.” Episteme 7, no. 2 (2010): 164-178.

Grasswick, Heidi E., ed. Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science: Power in Knowledge. Springer Science & Business Media, 2011.

Hookway, Christopher. “Some Varieties of Epistemic Injustice: Reflections on Fricker.” Episteme 7, no. 2 (2010): 151-163.

Horsthemke, Kai. “Of Ants and Men: Epistemic Injustice, Commitment to Truth, and the Possibility of Outsider Critique in Education.” Ethics and Education 9, no. 1 (2014): 127-140.

Harding, Sandra G., ed. The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. Psychology Press, 2004.

Kidd, Ian James, and Havi Carel. “Epistemic Injustice and Illness.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 34, no. 2 (2017): 172-190.

Kotzee, Ben. “Educational Justice, Epistemic Justice, and Leveling Down.” Educational Theory 63, no. 4 (2013): 331-350.

Mason, Rebecca. “Two Kinds of Unknowing.” Hypatia 26, no. 2 (2011): 294-307.

Medina, José. The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and the Social Imagination. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Mills, The Racial Contract, Cornell University Press, 1997

Pohlhaus, Gaile. “Relational Knowing and Epistemic Injustice: Toward a Theory of Willful Hermeneutical Ignorance.” Hypatia 27, no. 4 (2012): 715-735.

Wardrope, Alistair. “Medicalization and Epistemic Injustice.” Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 18, no. 3 (2015): 341-352.

Author Information: Manuel Padilla Cruz, Universidad de Sevilla, mpadillacruz@us.es

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “On the Usefulness of the Notion of ‘Conceptual Competence Injustice’ to Linguistic Pragmatics.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 4 (2017): 12-19.

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Quite recently, Anderson (2017) has distinguished a new form of epistemic injustice: conceptual competence injustice. This is characterised as the injustice that people are inflicted when they are not recognised as knowers or experts in some domain because of failure to grasp one or various concepts in what is said. Conceptual competence injustice is defined as “[…] a wrong done to a person specifically in their capacity as a knower of those claims that would traditionally be regarded as conceptual and linguistic truths” (Anderson 2017, 210).

Conceptual competence injustice clearly differs from testimonial injustice, or the unfairness sustained when the testimony dispensed is thought to be unreliable or false (Fricker 2003, 2007). Here, what is at stake is credibility. Conceptual competence injustice also diverges from hermeneutical injustice, or “[…] the injustice of having some significant area of one’s social experience obscured from collective understanding” (Fricker 2006, 99). The issue here is intelligibility, as a person is not understood as deserved or expected (Fricker 2006, 105-107; 2007, 151). Hermeneutical injustices have no perpetrator (Fricker 2006, 102) and stem from a “[…] hermeneutical lacuna […] preventing [individuals] from rendering [their] experience communicatively intelligible” (Fricker 2006, 101). They arise when individuals lack the conceptual tools facilitating expression of experience or reference to specific actions or events, so they cannot “[…] make communicatively intelligible something which is particularly in [their] interest to be able to render intelligible” (Fricker 2006, 103).

Conceptual competence injustice also significantly contrasts with contributory injustice (Dotson 2012), which originates when “[…] a person has the conceptual tools to comprehend [their] experience […] and the linguistic tools to articulate it, but [their] attempts at communicating [their] ideas are thwarted by the fact that [the] audience willfully misunderstand [them]” (Dotson 2012, 32). When someone sustains a contributory injustice, what they say fails “[…] to gain appropriate uptake” (Dotson 2012, 32) inasmuch as their interlocutors intentionally, purposefully and decidedly do not “[…] capture the ideas or experiences being expressed” (Dotson 2012, 32). Consequently, contributory injustices have perpetrators: those who refrain from correctly understanding what the target of the injustice says.

In addition to helping better understand the complexity and diversity of epistemic injustice, the notion of conceptual competence injustice may be most helpful to pragmatics, a field in linguistics which may certainly benefit from it. This notion may contribute to conceptualising an undesired or unexpected perlocutionary effect (Austin 1962) of communicative behaviour arising as a consequence of the accidental relevance of a conclusion drawn in the search for the optimal relevance of verbal stimuli processed, among which lies communicative behaviour (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson 1999; Wilson and Sperber 2004). In what follows I purport to show the usefulness of this novel kind of epistemic injustice and thus argue in favour of incorporating a notion originated in the field of social epistemology into a linguistic discipline. In so doing, I will rely on some claims and postulates of relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995), a cognitive pragmatic framework delving into communication and, more precisely, comprehension, which may conveniently account for the origin of some conclusions derivable from human behaviour.

Communicative Competence

Speaking a language requires abstract knowledge of the language in question, which feeds a series of interrelated, specialised abilities indispensable for performance. Those abilities, or sub-competences, make up communicative competence and have been labelled differently in extant models (Hymes 1972; Canale 1983; Bachman 1990; Celce-Murcia et al. 1995). Among such sub-competences are:

Linguistic competence, or knowing the grammar rules and lexical repertoire of a language, which are the very rudiments of a language.

Sociocultural competence, which involves awareness of social and institutional structures; the social attributes of participants in conversations (age, gender, power, distance, etc.), and the register, style or level of politeness expected, required or allowed in certain situations. These greatly determine what people say and how they say it.

Actional competence, or mastery of a range of (conventionalised) semantico-syntactic structures to mean, but more importantly, to do specific things with words.

Linguistic competence, and more specifically, possession of and ability to use precise and adequate lexical items, are primordial in communication. Words like nouns (‘house’, ‘cat’), adjectives (‘big’, ‘empty’), verbs (‘run’, ‘bite’) and adverbs (‘fast’, ‘slowly’) encode concepts, or mental objects that become part of the mental representations entertained during comprehension (house, cat, big, red, run, bite, fast, slowly).[1] Those words are the means to name and allude to people, animals, objects, actions, events, etc. (Wilson and Sperber 1993), even if the concepts they encode may be inferentially adjusted through operations like broadening or narrowing (Wilson and Carston 2007; Carston 2012). Other words like ‘but’, ‘so’ or ‘because’, in contrast, encode procedures, or mental instructions steering the inferences the mind performs when processing linguistic input (Blakemore 1987; Wilson and Sperber 1993). While words in the former category are conceptual, those in the latter are procedural and “[…] put the user of the language into a state” in which they perform a domain-specific inference at a sub-personal level (Wilson 2016, 11). To put it differently, procedural expressions “[…] point the hearer in a [particular] direction” (Wharton 2009, 61).

Lexical (In)competence

Employing appropriate words turns out crucial for hearers to infer speakers’ actual informative intention—i.e. the set of assumptions that speakers intend to make manifest,[2] or the intended message (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004). Speakers are usually presupposed to be benevolent—i.e. they will seek to provide true and relevant information–[3] and competent—i.e. they are believed to command their native language and its rules of usage (Sperber 1994). True communicative competence involves guiding hearers to intended meaning through appropriate morphological, lexical, syntactic or pragmatic choices. This requires, among others, checking that words and communicative strategies are adequate and do not demand excessive cognitive effort, and that what is said will result in a satisfactory amount of cognitive effects (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995).

Unfortunately, speakers are not always fully competent in a language—think of non-native speakers or learners of a second language– or do not behave competently because of diverse permanent pathologies—e.g. autism, Asperger syndrome, etc.– or temporary mental or physiological states like tiredness, absentmindedness, disease, anger, euphoria, nervousness, etc. (Mustajoki 2012; Padilla Cruz 2017). Among other mistakes, these factors may cause speakers to misuse vocabulary. On some occasions, lexical mistakes do not have very serious consequences, but result in rather funny anecdotes. This was the case of a French person who sought to enquire in a broken Spanish where he could catch a taxi. A mistake when pronouncing a consonant sound in the verb ‘coger’ (‘catch/take’) turned it into ‘comer’ (‘eat’), so they asked “¿Dónde puedo comer un taxi?” (“Where can I eat a taxi?”).

Some speakers may also be less competent than others in specific linguistic areas like vocabulary, syntax or pragmatics. As regards vocabulary, individuals may have conceptual deficits or conceptualisation problems originating in mismatches between concepts and words (Dua 1990; Sperber and Wilson 1997; Bazzanella and Damiano 1999). These give rise to misstatements, which may lead hearers to utterly misunderstand speakers if no meaning negotiation ensues (Banks et al. 1991). Among misunderstandings stemming from lack or misuse of vocabulary are failure to correctly understand the meaning of the words employed—i.e. the predicative function– or failure to grasp what is talked about—i.e. the referential function (Weigand 1999).

When conceptual expressions are inadequately used or the speaker lacks them, a pragmatic failure may arise, as the hearer does not understand what the speaker actually means or the hearer has difficulties to do so (Thomas 1983). Indeed, failures in expressive acts prevent hearers from making the expected or appropriate inferences (Bosco et al. 2006).[4] For instance, if someone asked you to grab them a spoon, when what they actually meant was a stool, you would reach for the spoon and not the stool and conclude that they want to eat or cook, but not to sit down or rest for a while.

When speakers do not succeed at finding adequate vocabulary, they may resort to paraphrases, synonyms, antonyms, pointing, etc. in order to somehow explain what they mean. They may also employ vague terms or placeholders, and trust hearers to inferentially adjust them in order to arrive at what they mean. Doing so is part and parcel of speakers’ strategic competence, another component of communicative competence thanks to which communicative problems are avoided or overcome, and mutual understanding is restored (Canale 1983; Celce-Murcia et al. 1995). Nevertheless, lack or misuse of vocabulary, in addition to hindering smooth communication and hampering on correct understanding, may have negative perlocutionary effects: they may bias perceptions of speakers as knowers and users of a language. In other words, infelicitous linguistic performance may impact the impressions that hearers forge about speakers.

Consequences of Lexical Problems

As linguistic input is perceived, it is processed by the mind, which subconsciously performs a wide variety of simultaneous inferences at an incredibly fast pace. Some of those inferences are necessary to assign reference to proper names, pronouns or indexicals—i.e. words like ‘here’, ‘there’ or ‘now’—others enable restriction of the denotation of some of the concepts encoded in the words in utterances; others facilitate recovery of elided material or disambiguation of some word strings; others result in the construction of descriptions of the speaker’s attitude to the proposition expressed or the speech act performed, and others are necessary to arrive at implicit contents or implicatures (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995). These inferences depend on access to an immense variety of contextual information, which is perceptible in the physical environment or mentally stored. Virtually, there is no limit to the amount and sort of information that the mind accesses, but the mind is normally guided, as a result of evolution, by expectations of optimal relevance: it follows the path of least possible effort and maximum cognitive reward (Wilson 1999; Wilson and Sperber 2004).

Verbal actions like requesting, offering, inviting, thanking, etc., make manifest a variety of assumptions. Consider a request for a glass of water such as “May I have some water?” It may make manifest assumptions referring to the requester’s thirst and willingness to get some water, as well as to the existence of a water tap and glasses in the place where she and the hearer happen to be, and the hearer’s ability to give her some water. The speaker may have intended to make manifest to the hearer those assumptions, so they are strongly communicated (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995). The hearer will use them as implicated premises in order to reach the implicated conclusion that the requester wants some water and he can give it to her. As a result, the hearer may decide either to comply with the request, which is the expected or preferred perlocutionary effect of the request, or not to comply with it, which is its unexpected or dispreferred perlocutionary effect.

Linguistic performance may also make manifest, to a greater or lesser extent, assumptions which the mind may exploit as premises amenable to yield a wide array of conclusions. Such conclusions are weak implicatures and are drawn as a result of the constant search for optimal relevance. Many of them are not intended by communicators, but hearers derive them at their own risk. Moreover, hearers may not even be fully aware of them or their content, so they are like impressions (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004). For instance, stuttering, some tones of voice or gestures may make manifest assumptions referring to nervousness or anxiety, and lead to conclude that the stutterer is uncertain about something or afraid of someone. Asking for a glass of water through an conventionally indirect request such as “Could I have some water, please?” may make manifest assumptions about the requester’s attitude and prompt the hearer to deduce that she is seeking to be polite.

Unskilled lexical performance may likewise induce people to conclude that a speaker is less competent than expected, or than average, in terms of vocabulary. If during an Old English class a student used the nominal phrases “that symbol” or “that letter” instead of the term ‘thorn’ to refer to ‘ϸ’, the teacher could conclude that the student has missed several classes or is not very knowledgeable of the Old English alphabet. If, while watching a Holy Week procession in Seville, someone referred to one of the vases or amphoras on a float through the Spanish word ‘jarrón’ instead of using the specialised term ‘jarra’ or ‘ánfora’, a local well versed in this religious festival would very likely think that the speaker is alien to it, has no idea of the various ornaments and decorations in floats, or does not know how to properly refer to them.

Lexical Problems and Epistemic Injustice

What is at stake here is an area of an individual’s communicative competence: lexical competence. While lack of vocabulary may reveal a conceptual lacuna or lack of the conceptual tools to make experience intelligible or to correctly allude to specific items, misuse of words may unveil erroneous mappings of concepts onto words, which similarly prevent a speaker from correctly naming elements in reality according to the addressees or a community of practice’s standards (Speber and Wilson 1997). Upon lack or misuse of vocabulary, the audience, depending on benevolence and condescendence, the sort of information manifest to them and the inferences they make, may arrive at prejudicial or detrimental conclusions, which might not be in the interest of the speaker owing to their partiality or inaccuracy. Those conclusions may add to the audience’s knowledge about the speaker and become the basis of an epistemic injustice (Fricker 2003, 2006, 2007). It would be ‘epistemic’ because it has to do with knowledge about the person who lacks or misuses words; it is an ‘injustice’ because the audience, on the grounds of perception of just a part of a person’s behaviour, might not construe adequate or fair knowledge about her.

In the realm of communication and verbal interaction, epistemic injustices may arise when people perceive that speakers appear less competent than expected or than average in some domain. Epistemic injustices may be unexpected or undesired perlocutionary effects and may negatively bias the testimony subsequently dispensed about an unskilled speaker, thus affecting her reputation. The question that now arises is what type(s) of epistemic injustice lack and misuse of vocabulary may give rise to.

Definitely, none of them may result in testimonial injustices because what is at stake is not the speaker’s ability to give information or the truthfulness of the information imparted. Lack of specific vocabulary would not a bring about a contributory injustice either, since the speaker lacks the words to correctly talk about specific issues, and contributory injustices arise when, despite possession of appropriate conceptual tools, a person is not understood on purpose. Misuse of vocabulary, in turn, would not trigger a contributory injustice because words do not match the appropriate concepts and the hearer does not willfully refrain from understanding the speaker. Could lack and misuse of vocabulary then result in hermeneutical injustices?

As regards lack of vocabulary, there is a conceptual lacuna that prevents the speaker from being understood as they would have expected or desired, so it could be considered to give rise to a special type of hermeneutical injustice. However, this would be problematic for two reasons: (i) there is a perpetrator of the injustice, and proper hermeneutical injustices do not have one, and (ii) the injustice stems from negative conclusions about the speaker’s performance as a consequence of poor lexical abilities. Therefore, lack and misuse of vocabulary could be better argued to give rise to an epistemic injustice about the speaker’s competence, so this is why such injustice may be better characterised as a conceptual competence injustice.

A conceptual competence injustice not only negatively affects the speaker’s lexical competence, but also her credibility (Anderson 2017). Since information and people are judged reliable or credible if they suggest sound knowledge about a particular domain, being perceived as lacking appropriate words or misusing them may decrease a speaker’s credibility because they exhibit lack of knowledge. When someone suffers a hermeneutical injustice, that person is denied epistemic trustworthiness and degraded as a knower (Fricker 2007). When a speaker is inflicted a conceptual competence injustice, they would not be completely denied communicative competence, as they are capable of producing expressive acts, even if defectively. What is at stake is simply a component of communicative competence: lexical repertoire. Competence is a gradual and comparative property: people may be more or less competent in some domains, at particular moments or in specific circumstances, or more or less competent than other people (Medina 2011). If a speaker sustains a conceptual competence injustice, they could be degraded as a knower of only some domain corresponding to a particular semantic field, but never as a fully competent speaker of a language.

The speaker in question would only be degraded as a knower of a language in some respects and could be denied what may be labelled lexical reliability or accuracy: the ability to select and use appropriate words in order to name objects, animals, events, etc. and refer to them. This should feature as a component of communicative competence. When someone is inflicted a conceptual competence injustice, they are perceived as less competent as regards vocabulary, and a person who is incompetent in terms of vocabulary, and ultimately in conceptual terms, cannot be veridical because they lack certain words or fail to use them correctly. Accordingly, that person may receive what Dotson (2011) calls testimonial quieting, a phenomenon occurring when an audience do not recognise someone as a knower and refuse to pay attention or accept what they say about a specific domain of knowledge.

Conclusion

Production of words and utterances may have varied perlocutionary effects, some of which are unexpected or undesired. Lack or misuse of vocabulary may give rise to detrimental conclusions about speakers, which may lead an audience to wrong her. The notion of hermeneutical injustice proves problematic in order to define and characterise such wronging, and so does that of contributory injustice. Another notion alluding to competence is called for, and that is Anderson’s (2017) notion of conceptual competence injustice. It may certainly be most helpful to linguistic pragmatics as a way to conceptualise some of the manifold consequences of communicative behaviour.

References

Anderson, Derek. “Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 2 (2017): 210-223.

Austin, John L. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Bachman, Lyle F. Fundamental Considerations in Language Testing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Banks, Stephen P., Gao Ge, and Joyce Baker. “Intercultural Encounters and Miscommunication.” In “Miscommunication” and Problematic Talk, edited by Nikolas Coupland, Howard Giles, and John M. Weimann, 103-120. London: Sage, 1991.

Bazzanella, Carla, and Rossana Damiano. “The Interactional Handling of Misunderstanding in Everyday Conversations.” Journal of Pragmatics 31 (1999): 817-836.

Blakemore, Diane. Semantic Constraints on Relevance. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987.

Bosco, Francesca M., Monica Bucciarelli, and Bruno G. Bara. “Recognition and Repair of Communicative Failures: A Developmental Perspective.” Journal of Pragmatics 38 (2006): 1398-1429.

Canale, Michael. “From Communicative Competence to Communicative Language Pedagogy.” In Language and Communication, edited by Jack C. Richards and Richard W. Schmidt, 2-28. London: Longman, 1983.

Carston, Robyn. “Word Meaning and Concept Expressed.” The Linguistic Review 29, no. 4 (2012): 607-623.

Celce-Murcia, Marianne, Zoltán Dörnyei, and Sarah Thurrell. “Communicative Competence: A Pedagogically Motivated Model with Content Modifications.” Issues in Applied Linguistics 5 (1995): 5-35.

Dotson, Kristie. “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing.” Hypatia 26, no. 2 (2011): 236-257.

Dotson, Kristie. “A Cautionary Tale: On Limiting Epistemic Oppression.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 33, no. 1 (2012): 24-47.

Dua, Hans R. “The Phenomenology of Miscommunication.” In Beyond Goffman, edited by Stephen H. Riggins, 113-139. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1990.

Fricker, Miranda. “Epistemic Injustice and a Role for Virtue in the Politics of Knowing.” Metaphilosophy 34, no. 1-2 (2003): 154-173.

Fricker, Miranda. “Powerlessness and Social Interpretation.” Episteme 3, no. 1-2 (2006): 96-108.

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

Hymes, Dell H. “On Communicative Competence.” In Sociolinguistics. Selected Readings, edited by John B. Pride and Janet Holmes, 269-293. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1972.

Keysar, Boaz, and Anne S. Henly. “Speakers’ Overestimation of Their Effectiveness.” Psychological Science 13, no. 3 (2002): 207-212.

Medina, José. “The Relevance of Credibility Excess in a Proportional View of Epistemic Injustice: Differential Epistemic Authority and the Social Imaginary.” Social Epistemology 25, no. 1 (2011): 15-35.

Mustajoki, Arto. “A Speaker-oriented Multidimensional Approach to Risks and Causes of Miscommunication.” Language and Dialogue 2, no. 2 (2012): 216-243.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Interlocutors-related and Hearer-specific Causes of Misunderstanding: Processing Strategy, Confirmation Bias and Weak Vigilance.” Research in Language 15, no. 1 (2017): 11-36.

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[1] Following a relevance-theoretic convention, the mental concepts encoded by some words are notated in small caps.

[2] In relevance-theoretic pragmatics, the notion of manifestness refers to the capability of some fact or state of affairs to be mentally represented by an individual (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995).

[3] Relevance is a property of stimuli, which increases as the amount of cognitive effectsstrengthening or contradiction of previous information, or contextual implications– increases and decreases as the amount of cognitive effort invested in processing increases.

[4] Note that to speakers, what they mean may be clear enough, as they tend to be egocentric and might not take into account their interlocutors’ mental states (Keysar and Henly 2002; Shintel and Keysar 2009).

Author Information: Leonie Smith, University of St. Andrews, les23@st-andrews.ac.uk

Smith, Leonie. “Challenges and Suggestions for a Social Account of Testimonial Sensitivity.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 6 (2016): 18-26.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-30M

Editor’s Note:

    The SERRC thanks the contributors and participants—especially William Tuckwell—at the Tartu Graduate Conference in Social Epistemology, at the University of Tartu on 26-27 March 2016, for allowing us to publish selected papers. We will bring these papers, and subsequent replies, together in a special issue of the SERRC.

inveraray_courtroom

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Recent work on epistemic injustice has re-ignited the importance of sensitivity-analyses of knowledge, via the possibility of audiences being insufficiently sensitive to the testimonial credibility of prejudiced-against speakers.[1] The focus of this work has quite rightly been on demonstrating the epistemic harms to potential testifiers when sensitivity fails to apply. However there is clearly a corollary impact on audiences, and their ability to achieve knowledge from testimonial sources, when they fail to apply appropriate conditions of sensitivity with regard to the testimony of others. The notion of being appropriately-sensitive, implicitly assumes that we can make sense of what these sensitivity conditions on testimonial-knowledge formation might be.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Ben Sherman, Brandeis University, shermanb@brandeis.edu

Sherman, Ben. “Learning How to Think Better: A Response to Davidson and Kelly.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 3 (2016): 48-53.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2JP

Please refer to:

think

Image credit: wallsdontlie, via flickr

My thanks to Davidson and Kelly for their reply to my paper.[1] I am grateful on two counts in particular:  Continue Reading…