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Hermeneutical Injustice

November 15, 2010

Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice Chapter 7 

In the seventh chapter of her book, Epistemic Injustice, Miranda Fricker discusses the topic of hermeneutical injustice as a distinct form of epistemic injustice, separate from testimonial injustice. Hermeneutical injustice has a close relationship to structural injustice. Fricker’s seventh chapter articulates a clear vision of what hermeneutical injustice is, as well its causes and effects. Fricker also identifies a form of the virtue theory of  ethics as a possible solution to the problems of hermeneutic injustice. These solutions, however fall short because of the failure to address the structural problems which cause hermeneutic injustice.

Fricker gives two definitions for hermeneutical injustice. The first definition, for structural hermeneutical injustice, is “the injustice of having some significant area of one’s social experience obscured from collective understanding owning to a structural identity prejudice in the collective hermeneutic resource.”[1] Fricker defines a structural identity prejudice to be any prejudice against someone in virtue of their being in a socially powerless group. This is the kind of hermeneutical injustice that Fricker is most concerned with. She addresses incidental or generic hermeneutical, which she defines as “the injustice of having some significant area of one’s social experience obscured from collective understanding owing to hermeneutical marginalization.”[2]

The difference between structural hermeneutical injustice and generic hermeneutical injustice is that the generic case is missing the structural element. Fricker is clear that incidental cases of hermeneutical injustice can have lasting effects and inhibit someone to fully be able to articulate what is happening to them in a way that is intelligible, it is not the case that this injustice will track them into other circumstances. Fricker says that “he suffers the injustice not because of but rather in spite of, the social type he is.”[3]

The most important difference between generic and structural hermeneutical injustice comes with the effects of being a victim of these kinds of injustices. Fricker says “hermeneutical lacunas are like holes in the ozone – it’s the people who live under them that get burned.”[4] For Fricker, hermeneutical lacunas are gaps in the collective hermeneutical resource of society. The collective hermeneutical resource can be thought as the aggregate of all hermeneutical resources, although it is effected differently by those with more power or less.  When one thinks of one of the main examples Fricker uses in her book, that of the differing social power of men and women to show how men are able to use the collective resources to best explain their experience, whereas what women like Carmita Wood experience is obscured by gaps. This begins to address the primary and secondary harm of structural hermeneutical injustice.

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The primary harm of structural hermeneutical injustice is the way in which it “concerns exclusion from the pooling of knowledge owing to structural identity prejudice in the collective hermeneutical resource.”[5] This greatly inhibits the ability of the subject to articulate in an intelligible way her experiences. Fricker also mentions the secondary harm of hermeneutical injustice which is “those harms which render the collective hermeneutical impoverishment asymmetrically disadvantageous to the wronged party.”[6] These two harms, primary and secondary, come together to seriously damage the way one constructs their own identity and how they view their ‘self’. Take Edmund White’s example from A Boy’s Own Story. White, who was homosexual while growing up in the 1950s, experienced a stereotype of what a homosexual was, which was not how White viewed himself. His attempts at articulating her experience to others is dismissed, and not given the adequate evaluation it is due.

To help address the problems stemming from hermeneutical injustice, Fricker introduces the idea of a virtue of hermeneutical justice. Fricker does not explicitly say what this virtue should be called, but describes it in a few different ways and gives example of what kind of behaviour would embody a virtue of hermeneutical justice. The first description of how a virtue of hermeneutical justice would work is that it must be in the form of an

“alertness or sensitivity to the possibility that the difficulty one’s interlocutor is having as she tries to render something communicatively intelligible is due not to its being a nonsense or her being a fool but rather to some sort of  gap in the collective hermeneutical resources.”[7]

is hermeneutical justice possible?

The virtue of hermeneutical justice concerns one’s ability to look at their place in society as well as the speaker’s and take that into account when they make credibility judgements against the speaker. Fricker says that if one doubts their feelings of trust that “it is rational for him to drop the presumption against acceptance, and also to assume some increased burden of seeking corroborating evidence.”[8] If seeking more corroborating evidence is not an option, the next best thing to due would be to reserve judgement. Fricker says that had Herbert Greenleaf reserved judgement against Marge instead of dismissing what she says as intuition, it would be justice enough.

Nearing her conclusion, Fricker says that “the collective exercise of the virtue [of hermeneutical injustice] could ultimately lead to the eradication of hermeneutical injustice.”[9] However, following is statement  Fricker says that “hermeneutical marginalization is first and foremost the product of unequal relations of social power more generally, and as such is not the sort of thing that could itself be eradicated by what we do as virtuous hearers alone.”[10] This is the crux of Fricker’s work and deserves to be further examined before just dismissing her idea of a virtue of hermeneutical injustice.

By looking at the effects of a virtue of hermeneutical injustice that is widely practised in both a synchronic and diachronic manner will show that the virtue still has merit. The synchronic view point would be that at one point in time, a virtue of hermeneutical injustice would eliminate a great deal of hermeneutical injustice and shine a light onto what hermeneutical injustices remain. From a perspective over time, it is clear that if virtue of hermeneutical injustice  could eliminate all existing hermeneutical injustices, it would be incapable of stopping new ones from arising due to a unequal relations of social power. One thing to grant, however is that a virtue of hermeneutical injustice would in the long term show the generation of hermeneutical injustice and the more specific causes then just unequal social relations, but what unequal relations produce the most injustice. An example of this could be the difference in schools for blacks versus whites, or rich versus poor and how those differences lead to different sorts of hermeneutical marginalization.

Miranda Fricker’s chapter on hermeneutical injustice offers a clear example of what hermeneutical injustice is, as while the causes and effects that kind of injustice. Fricker also presents a virtue of hermeneutical justice to address the problems caused by hermeneutical injustice, but the underlying unequal relations of social power limit the effect that said virtue could have. A look at the long term effects of a virtue of hermeneutical injustice can lead to the ability to best pin point the generators of hermeneutical lacunas, as well as educating those who suffer from hermeneutical marginalization on what happened to them so they can understand and use that information to become who they are and be able to articulate it to others.


[1] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. pp 155

[2] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. pp 158

[3] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. pp 158

[4] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. pp 161

[5] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. pp 162

[6] ibid

[7] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. pp 169

[8] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. pp 172

[9] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. pp 174

[10] ibid

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