Miranda Fricker explores the concept of epistemic injustice in the context of testimonial practice and argues that the virtue of reflective critical openness can serve as an antidote to the prejudice inherent in epistemic injustice. She examines the concept of “testimonial sensibility,” which she elaborates as being an ethical virtue that shapes our responses to the speech acts of the other. She further describes “epistemology of testimony” as a broader framework for organizing her arguments about the phenomenon of epistemic injustice, which she interprets as pernicious conduct in testimonial practice.
Fricker problematizes the phenomenon of epistemic injustice by examining different propositions that seek to address or engage the concept of epistemic injustice. To begin with, she unpacks two models, the inferential model and the doxastic responsibility model, to reveal their shortcomings in addressing epistemic injustice. The inferential model advocates that in testimonial practice, the hearer’s receptiveness to the speaker is influenced by perceptual reasoning grounded in what is known about the speaker. This includes the speaker’s background and stereotypes that define the speaker’s social identity. Fricker shows how this model, which arrogates the notion of unreflective exchange to show its spontaneity in the exchange between the speaker and the hearer, fails to account for “justificational laxity.” This model is not grounded in the conventional experience of testimonial practice, which as Fricker explains, tends to follow the “everyday phenomenology of unreflective transparency” (157). She delves into research presented by McDowell and Coady to reveal gaps in the inferential model. She discloses how the model fails to address epistemic injustice because it lacks a critical openness to the speaker’s speech.
Doxastic responsibility advances the claim that the hearer is anti-referentiality and argumentation. In other words, the hearer is spontaneous in the manner of everyday speech. Fricker contests these claims by showing how doxastic responsibility is unreflective. She argues for the introduction of ethics into the epistemology of testimony. Here, she points out that ethics brings the “notion of sensibility” (159), which in turn leads to interpretive and practical judgments. Sensibility is historical, cultural, and learned. A person is socialized into a specific sensibility through a process that considers both the individual and the social as a collective. Acquiring sensibility brings one closer to rational-unreflective and critical non-inferential judgments, which leads us towards a critical openness to the words of the speaker.
As Fricker demonstrates, testimonial sensibility supports the notion that the hearer’s response to the speaker is anchored in what she refers to as “epistemic socialization,” which is a “social training of the interpretive and effective attitudes in play when we are told things by other” (161). She explains how people are socialized through passive social inheritance and active learning. Testimonial sensibility is the virtue that gives us spontaneity and reflectiveness. Fricker discusses how stereotypes damage testimonial sensibilities. She combines this notion with the concept of epistemic injustice in examples found within Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and the film The Talented Mr. Ripley. Lee’s novel describes a situation where a major court decision is made because of “corrupted testimonial sensibility” in which the jurors find a Negro man guilty solely because of their “immovably prejudiced social perception” of him (Fricker, 167). In The Talented Mr. Ripley Greenleaf is not able to recognize the prejudices of race and gender inequality. The worst individual in this film is Mr. Ripley, who is not only aware of reflective critical openness but also determined to create epistemic oppression. These materials consider the thematic issues of race and gender, and how insensibility to these issues leads to epistemic injustice. Fricker determines that hearers’ social identity often acts like a cloud that shoulders the hearers from moving beyond the social constraints that limit their ability to engage in reflective critical openness.
Even though Fricker flaunts reflective critical openness as an antidote to epistemic injustice, she is cognizant of the challenges of actualizing this virtue in societies with deeply ingrained ways of thinking that prejudice specific populations. The stories of Tom Robinson and Marge underscore the powerlessness of reflexive critical openness. These are an example of a framework that is captive to the very systems that it seeks to contest. In other words, this virtue is a product of influential powers in society. Its utility becomes more visible as society strives to address inequality, racism, and gender oppression.
In conclusion, Fricker states that human beings live in social spaces with relations that shape their sensibilities. A community can be both a space for evolving prejudice and inculcating the virtue of reflective critical openness. In this kind of community, people experience life differently. The current social structures have the ability to further support the alienation of individuals within this society from the “essential attributes of personhood” (Fricker, 172). It is important to recognize the current faults and issues within the modern epistemic climate and recognize it for the oppression and prejudice that it systematically encourages.
Fricker, Miranda. “Epistemic Injustice and A Role for Virtue in the Politics of Knowing”. Metaphilosophy, vol. 34, no. 1, Jan. 2003, pp. 154-173.