Benjamin Elzinga recently completed his PhD at Georgetown University with a dissertation on epistemic agency. His research interests include epistemology, the problems of free will, and the philosophy of mind. In this post, he presents work he recently published under the title “Hermeneutical Injustice and Liberatory Education“.
In the 50s and 60s, women joining the U.S. workforce and members of the broader society in some sense lacked the conceptual skills for making sense of sexual harassment. Through the practices of the U.S. women’s liberation movement, especially through the organization of consciousness raising groups and speak-outs in the early 70s, feminists developed these resources and encoded them into the legal system. According to Miranda Fricker this is an instance of recognizing and to some extent addressing a problem of hermeneutical injustice, which occurs when members of a certain group are unjustly prevented from developing and distributing important conceptual skills. But what does it mean to lack conceptual skill of this kind and how do we develop new skills and overcome the hermeneutical injustice?
Suppose that John and Javier witness the inappropriate behavior of a fellow colleague toward another, but only Javier has the relevant conceptual skills for making sense of sexual harassment. This means he will be reliably and resiliently able to arrive at correct judgements about what occurred and make further judgements about its significance. The latter allows him to engage in personally and politically important projects like connecting sexual harassment with workplace discrimination and gender-based oppression and so on.
In a community full of individuals like John, however, these skills will not be readily available, and that will not only prevent the problem from being addressed but also in some cases even prevent victims from fully understanding their own experience. In order to transform a world full of Johns into a world full of Javiers, marginalized individuals need to come together to develop and then distribute new conceptual skills. In the present case, women who were victims accomplished this by giving a name to their shared experience and using it as a tool for developing and then marketing the concept.
To develop a skill in general is to engage in practices of self-regulating one’s performances within a task domain, and this is to engage in intelligently guided practices of trial and error. By settling on the term “sexual harassment”, women first of all simplify this practice by creating a perceptual cue that primes categorization by activating top-down expectations about the perceptual environment.
Secondly, by encoding the experience in a public linguistic format they aid metacognition by providing a stable resource for further reflection and experimentation. In marketing the concept, however, marginalized individuals will often face resistant perspectives and an unequal distribution of epistemic power, and this is where the problem of what Gaile Pohlhaus calls willful hermeneutical ignorance shows up. Dominantly situated knowers may lack the incentive and conceptual background required to engage in the learning process that leads to reliable and resilient seeing. Moreover, by refusing to gain the relevant conceptual skills, the dominantly situated individual assures that they will continue to lack evidence of their cognitive deficiency, which they can then use to further justify their refusal to learn the skills. Further research might expand on the work of Jóse Medina to develop strategies for overcoming this specific form of meta-ignorance.