Archives For testimonial injustice

Author Information: Manuel Padilla Cruz, Universidad de Sevilla,

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.

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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.


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.

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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,

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

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

Please refer to:

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


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

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

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

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

Causal Etiology and Structural Oppression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image from Paull Antero via Flickr / Creative Commons


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

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

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

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

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

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

Competence Injustice, Not Testimonial Injustice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Existence and Explanatory Value

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contact details:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Black Feminist Thought, pp. 284.

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

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

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

Author Information: Paul-Mikhail Catapang Podosky and William Tuckwell, University of Melbourne,;

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:

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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.


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

Author Information: Natalia Washington, Washington University in Saint Louis,

Washington, Natalia. “I Don’t Want to Change Your Mind: A Reply to Sherman.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 3 (2016): 10-14.

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Gob Bluth from Arrested Development, arguably, exemplifies the trope known as Jerk with a Heart of Gold (the less couth among us might call him a ‘lovable asshole’). Gob’s blithe exterior is a thin cover for a man who cares deeply about his family and friends, and who usually tries, if misguidedly, to do the right thing. At the same time, he is the downright insensitive perpetrator of all kinds of injustices and unkindnesses towards women, minorities, and other members of disadvantaged groups. Gob, like many of us, has epistemic shortcomings, which leave him unable to act according to his own values.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Lacey J. Davidson, Purdue University,; Daniel R. Kelly, Purdue University,

Davidson, Lacey J. and Daniel R. Kelly. “Intuition, Judgment, and the Space Between: A Reply to Sherman.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 11 (2015): 15-20.

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“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” —John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Sherman (2015) agrees with Fricker (2007) that there is a problem, but disagrees about what to do about it. The problem is epistemic injustice, failing to take others as seriously as they deserve to be taken in matters epistemic, a form of miscalculation whose effects can not only stabilize and strengthen types of injustice that already exist, including types of inequality, prejudice, discrimination, but that can potentially produce new forms of injustice as well. Fricker sketches an account of testimonial justice, a virtue that, when properly nourished, she claims can serve as a corrective to epistemic injustice. Sherman is skeptical on many counts: that attempts to achieve testimonial justice would help —indeed, he worries that they would actually backfire and hinder the fight against epistemic injustice; that testimonial justice as depicted by Fricker is in fact a virtue; and that the virtue-theoretic framework via which Fricker expresses her notion of testimonial justice is generally viable anyway. Our reply to Sherman is broadly Frickerian in spirit, though the position we take departs Fricker’s own. Continue Reading…

Stealthy Vices, Quassim Cassam

SERRC —  October 16, 2015 — 1 Comment

Author Information: Quassim Cassam, University of Warwick,

Cassam, Quassim. “Stealthy Vices.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 10 (2015): 19-25.

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7677755766_733ae3bfb6_zImage credit: Shawn Clover, via flickr

Imagine debating the merits of immigration with someone who insists that immigration is bad for the economy. Why does he think that? He claims that his view is based on the economic evidence of the ill effects of immigration. As far as he is concerned, he has good reason to believe immigration is bad for the economy and that is why he believes it. Knowing him as you do you offer a different and less flattering explanation: you claim, rightly or wrongly, that his outlook is sustained by prejudice and closed-mindedness.[1]  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Ben Sherman, Brandeis University,

Sherman, Ben. “(Less Un-) Attainable Virtues: A Response to Alfano.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 10 (2015): 14-18.

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I am honored that Mark Alfano has replied to my paper, “There’s No (Testimonial) Justice: Why Pursuit of a Virtue is Not the Solution to Epistemic Injustice” (2015)—I have been impressed with the work he (2012, 2013, 2014) and other situationists (e.g. Doris 2002, Olin and Doris 2014) have done in challenging virtue theories in both ethics and epistemology. His suggestions about how to effectively fight epistemic injustice are promising and very welcome. And, as far as I can tell, we disagree about very little. This overall agreement is not very surprising; as my paper reveals, I do not find virtue theories in general especially promising, and my attitude in informed in part by Alfano’s work.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Mark Alfano, University of Oregon,

Alfano, Mark. “Becoming Less Unreasonable: A Reply to Sherman.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 7 (2015): 59-62.

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“I’m the most reasonable, responsible person here in Washington.”

That’s what John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, said in an interview with ABC News on November 9th, 2012. Whether you agree with Boehner or not, you might worry about anyone who endorses such a claim about themselves. No one is perfect, after all, and it’s likely that thinking of yourself as reasonable and fair in your opinions makes it harder to recognize and correct your own mistakes. In “There’s No (Testimonial) Justice” (2015), Benjamin R. Sherman raises a related concern about the pursuit of epistemic justiceContinue Reading…