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Hermeneutical injustice

Last updated June 29, 2022

The powerful tend to have appropriate understandings of their experiences ready to draw on as they make sense of their social experiences, whereas the powerless are more likely to find themselves having some social experiences through a glass darkly, with a best ill-fitting meanings to draw on in the effort to render them intelligible

Hermeneutical injustice is a subcategory of epistemic injustice wherein one has no labels/common terminology to describe or explain experiences to others. Historically has been applied in the context of exclusion of marginalized groups from activities which shape the language we use.

Identity affects experience, and experience makes a difference in our judgment.

Hermeneutics is the theory and methodology of interpretation.

It is the injustice of having some significant area of one’s social experience obscured from collective understanding owing to a structural identity prejudice in the collective hermeneutical resource

It is always a form of powerlessness, whether structural or one-off. If one can simply opt-out, then it should not be considered hermeneutical injustice.

“the dominated live in a world structured by others for their purposes” (emphasis added)

This quotes from Nancy Hartsock has at least 3 different readings of the meaning of the word structured

  1. Materially: social institutions and practices favour the powerful
  2. Ontologically: the powerful constitute the social world
  3. Epistemologically: the powerful have an unfair advantage in structuring collective social understandings

# Willful Hermeneutical Ignorance

In Relational Knowing and Epistemic Injustice: Toward a Theory of Willful Hermeneutical Ignorance by GAILE POHLHAUS, JR.

Positing that the sociality of the knower is epistemically significant

  1. Situatedness: the knower’s social position draw their attention to particular aspects of the world.
    1. Note, not as simple as the claim that different experiences lead to different knowledge. Not as strong as the claim that social position leads to automatic knowledge
    2. Situations resulting from one’s social positioning create common challenges that constitute part of the knower’s lived experience and contribute to the context from which they approach the world
  2. Interdependence: epistemic resources are by nature collective
    1. Lynn Nelson: “there are no ‘immediate’ experiences” Instead, within any given situation, our experience “is shaped and made possible by communal ways of organizing things, and systems of connected theories, methodologies, and practices”
    2. Related: language and terminology. Wittgenstein: “a language that in principle could be understood by only one person would not be a language at all”

It is important to note that being marginally situated leads not to “different” knowledge, but, as Harding has argued, to more objective knowledge (Harding 1991, 138-163)

The dominantly situated knower cannot step outside of her situatedness in order to experience the world as others do; however, she can learn to use epistemic resources developed from the experiences of marginalized knowers

Willful hermeneutical ignorance: dominantly situated knower’s continued engagement in the world while refusing to learn to use epistemic resources developed from marginalized situatedness

The marginalized knower possesses a sort of double-consciousness.

# PHIL240A Essay

Compare and contrast Fricker’s concept of hermeneutical injustice with Polhaus’ concept of wilful hermeneutical ignorance. Illustrate with an example.

Hermeneutical injustice, as defined by Fricker, is the injustice of having a significant portion of one’s social experience be ineffable to the collective understanding due to a lack of reliable hermeneutical resources through which to communicate the experience. This is always a form of powerlessness, whether structural or one-off – it is not something that one can opt-out of being (otherwise, it should not be considered hermeneutical injustice). Fricker describes this as a thwarted epistemic agent who is not believed or cannot make sense of her world (Pohlhaus, 716), specifically due to hermeneutical marginalization: “an unequal participation in meaning-generating practices pertaining to some areas of the social world that is the result of subordination in or exclusion from those practices” (Fricker 2007, 153-54)

Wilful hermeneutical ignorance, on the other hand is a situation where dominantly situated knower continue engaging in the world while refusing to learn to use epistemic resources developed from knowers who are marginally situated. Specifically, wilful hermeneutical ignorance posits that the sociality of the marginally situated knower is epistemically significant through two forms 1) situatedness (the knower’s social position draws their attention to particular aspects of the world) and 2) interdependence (epistemic resources are, by nature, collective). In the example given by Polhaus where she references the jurors in To Kill a Mockingbird, she declares that the “jurors are culpable as since there is nothing forcing them to use faulty epistemic resources.” Polhaus notes here that being marginally situated does not lead to “different” knowledge, but rather as Harding argued, actually more objective knowledge (Harding 1991, 138-163). The inferences that the juror should have drawn are unavailable to them because they use epistemic resources that distort how they experience the world and prevent them from rationally understanding how Robinson could have acted the way he did. The wilful part comes from the fact that while the dominantly situated knower cannot step outside of their situatedness, they can learn to use epistemic resources developed from the experiences of marginalized knowers (much like Atticus Finch does).

We examine the example the Fricker provides us in Epistemic Injustice as an example of hermeneutical injustice but not wilful hermeneutical ignorance. In this case study, the woman in question is Wendy Sanford who is dealing with post-partum depression around the loss of her son. Clearly, in the case provided, she was not aware of the term post-partum depression and had no way to describe this integral part of her social experience. However, upon learning this, it was a hermeneutical breakthrough for her – as if a “hermeneutical darkness that suddenly lifted from Wendy Sandford’s mind” which had prevented her from properly understanding her experience. Then, according to Fricker, before realizing the term for her depression, she was “a thwarted epistemic agent who could not make sense of this aspect of her social experience” which falls under hermeneutical injustice.

However, it is not wilful hermeneutical injustice as there is no other that is being wilfully ignorant here. Wilful ignorance requires one party or the system to actively forgo good epistemic resources for faulty epistemic resources, which is not the case here. Clearly, Wendy tries to grasp for epistemic resources to explain her social experience through workshops on women’s medical and sexual issues.

In that one forty-five-minute period, I realized that what I’d been blaming myself for, and what my husband had blamed me for, wasn’t my personal deficiency. It was a combination of physiological things and a real societal thing, isolation.

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