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Epistemic injustice in utterance interpretation


There has been much recent discussion of the harmful role prejudicial stereotypes play in our communicative exchanges. For example, Fricker (Epistemic injustice: power and ethics of knowing, 2007) explores a type of injustice (testimonial injustice) which arises when the credibility judgments we make about speakers are informed by prejudicial stereotypes. This discussion has so far focused on the role stereotypes play in our epistemic assessments of communicative actions, rather than our interpretations of such actions. However, the same prejudicial stereotypes that infect credibility judgments can also infect our interpretation of the speaker, leading to uncharitable interpretation (call this ‘interpretative injustice’). This paper explores the sources of interpretative injustice, and considers some of the harms to which it gives rise. There are several harms caused by interpretative injustice. Firstly, it constitutes a form of silencing. It prevents certain groups from being able to efficiently communicate knowledge to other (perhaps more powerful) groups. Secondly it results in speakers being held epistemically responsible for propositions they never intended to communicate. And thirdly, it contributes to the illusion that prejudicial low credibility judgments are epistemically justified. I close by arguing that if Miranda Fricker’s strategy for treating testimonial injustice is implemented in absence of a treatment of interpretative injustice then we risk epistemically harming the hearer with little benefit to the speaker. Thus testimonial injustice and interpretative injustice are best treated in tandem.

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  1. This is not to say that the topic of miscommunication in general has been ignored in this literature. For example, Medina (2013) urges a focus on the dynamics and mechanisms of communication, but focuses on the larger scale dynamics of intergroup communication, as well as the differing and dynamic availability of hermeneutical resources within and between different social groups. Rather, it is the role of prejudicial stereotypes in generating miscommunication which has been ignored. My interest here lays with the smaller scale interactions, and the cognitive mechanisms underlying particular instances of communication.

  2. My focus here will be on our understanding of the content of utterances. However, our understanding of the types of act performed can also be shaped by misleading stereotypes. For example, we may mistakenly interpret an order as a request. Such cases are discussed in Kukla (2014).

  3. The processes underlying our understanding and credibility judgements are likely to be associative. However, we can think of sets of associations as embodying generalisations. For example, the association of ‘black’ with ‘crime’, ‘gun’, and ‘drugs’ would embody a generalisation about black people e.g. ‘black people are criminals’.

  4. This is not to say that audiences in cases of interpretative injustice are always completely free of responsibility for the miscommunication. An already unclear speaker who’s chances of being understood are futher undermined by the audience’s prejudices is still at an unfair communicative disadvantage as a result of the audience’s prejudices.

  5. Indeed, the ability of certain groups to use language creatively by coining new words might also be interpreted as incompetence. Here we see interpretative injustice contributing to what Fricker calls ‘hermeneutical injustice’.

  6. Maitra is not aiming to capture cases of silencing where the speaker is prevented from even attempting a communicative act.

  7. These are all forms of what Medina (2013) calls communicative forms of silencing. They prevent communication from occurring (or being reciprocated). Medina contrasts communicative and epistemic forms of silencing, where epistemic forms of silencing arise when communication occurs, but the audience fails to treat the speaker as a knower (cases of testimonial injustice in Fricker’s sense are cases of epistemic silencing). Medina argues that the two notions are complimentary, and I agree. Indeed, the final section of this paper discusses the interaction between interpretative injustice (which gives rise to a form of communicative silencing) and Fricker’s treatment of testimonial injustice (a form of epistemic silencing).

  8. It is not clear how reliably the silencing must occur for a ‘practice of silencing’, in Dotson’s sense, to arise. I do not believe that misinterpretation occurs in all, or even most cases in which marginalised speakers interact with non-marginalised speakers. Rather, my claim will be that marginalised testifiers are subjected to systematic and disproportionate misinterpretation from a common source, and that this is, in itself, harmful.

  9. It is plausible that in some such cases, where the speaker realises that there is a risk of misinterpretation by someone other than the intended audience, silencing still arises as a result self-censorship. That is, the speaker may refrain form making an utterance for fear of being misinterpreted by an eavesdropper. Dotson (2011) refers to this style of self censorship as ‘smothering’. The notion will be discussed further in Sect. 4.

  10. Perhaps all cases, depending on how the notion of silencing is developed to deal with eavesdropper cases.

  11. This is not to say that the harms discussed in Sect. 5 are never caused by other forms of silencing. Rather, interpretative injustice, by its very nature (and unlike silencing in general), seems particularly strongly (and systematically) associated with these particular harms.

  12. Fricker’s is not the only definition of hermeneutical injustice, Medina (2013) offers the following alternative definition:

    hermeneutical injustice will be treated, roughly, as the kind of injustice that appears when there are wrongful interpretative obstacles that affect people differently in how they are silenced, that is, in their inability to express themselves and to be understood. p. 91.

    Interpretative injustice does fall under Medina’s definition of hermeneutical injustice, at least in cases in which it silences.

  13. This phenomenon can be seen as analogous to that of cognitive penetration discussed by Siegel (2012, 2013).

  14. To be clear, I don’t intend this to be taken as a case of interpretative injustice, for no harm is brought about and the biases leading to the misinterpretation are not prejudicial.

  15. One can see how this would fit into the relevance theoretic story given earlier. The relevant associations of predatory animalistic sexuality will be highly salient to the audience, thus the resultant concept of vulnerability will receive a higher level of activation and thus be ranked above Robinson’s intended meaning.

  16. Thanks to an anonymous referee for pointing this out to me.

  17. The case of Emmett Till springs to mind here. Till was a 14 year old African American boy visiting Mississippi from Chicago in 1955. Till was brutally murdered, and the accounts of the events leading up to his murder are mixed. According to some he whistled at a white woman, evidentially not realising the significance of such an act in the context. According to others, he stuttered and spoke with a lisp, and thus was misheard as whistling.

  18. Of course, judgements based on institutional affiliation may not be completely unreliable, since philosophical ability has at least some role in candidate job placement. I do not wish to take a stand on the usefulness of institutional affiliation as a guide to ability here.

  19. Thanks to an anonymous referee for encouraging me to engage with the the idea of stereotype threat here.

  20. Of course, the humiliation of trying to defend oneself, and the cognitive drain associated with being herd, will be systematically associated with other forms of silencing. What is not systematically correlated with other types of silencing is the cause (being unfairly held responsible for something one never intended to communicate), or the fact that one’s only means for improving the situation (one’s words) can be twisted in such a way as to worsen the situation.

  21. It might be thought that we would not assign initially implausible interpretations if we are taking the gricean maxims to be in effect. This would be a mistake. When applying gricean norms you need to represent what would be a cooperative contribution given the speaker’s representation of the situation. For example, imagine you know that p, and believe that a speaker doesn’t know that p. If the speaker were to make an assertion which would imply q only if p was common knowledge, then you would not take them to be implying q. If you take the speaker’s representation of the communicative situation to be defective then the contribution you take the speaker to be making will not be the most cooperative given the actual facts, but rather the most cooperative given a particular set of faulty background assumptions. And this contribution may seem implausible.

  22. It is perhaps a matter of contingent empirical fact the practice of actively adjusting one’s credibility judgements will eventually change one’s overall perspective of the speaker, which will also solve the problem of interpretative injustice. However it is an empirical question (to which we don’t have an answer) whether this will be the case.

  23. See Szabó Gendler (2011) for a discussion of the cognitive and epistemic costs of adjusting for implicit bias.

  24. Developing such a sensitivity will not simply be a case of considering direct harms which may result out of particular misinterpretations, but also the ways in which particular subtle widespread misinterpretations contribute to systematic disadvantage. Doing so may not be simple, as the harms of such misinterpretations will often be hidden to those who inflict the harms. Thus, as suggested by Medina (2013), a development of such a sensitivity may involve active engagement with different perspectives.


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This paper as benefited greatly from comments and discussions with Sebastian Becker, Herman Cappelen, Josh Habgood-Coote, Elizabeth Fricker, Patrick Greenough, Elizabeth Marr, Matthew McKeever, Leonard Randall, Caroline Touborg, Brian Weatherson, and two anonymous referees for this journal. I would also like audiences at the St Andrews Friday Seminar, and the Arché work in progress seminar where this work was presented. This research was supported by the United Kingdom Arts and Humanities Research Council, and a Royal Institute of Philosophy Bursary.

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Peet, A. Epistemic injustice in utterance interpretation. Synthese 194, 3421–3443 (2017).

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  • Testimony
  • Communication
  • Epistemic injustice
  • Social cognition