hermeneutical injustice

Work on testimonial and hermeneutical injustice strikes me as an example of philosophy at its most socially relevant, and it’s a topic I’m beginning to work into my Intro to Philosophy course. In this post I just want to share a couple of podcasts I recently listened to that really deepened my understanding of these issues.

The first is an episode of the podcast “Examining Ethics” that looks at the Me Too movement through the lense of testimonial and hermeneutical injustice. The episode contains a nice overview and discussion of both testimonial and hermeneutical injustice. Check out that link to the website

The second podcast is an episode of Radiolab that tells Dana Zzyym’s story. Their story really makes powerfully clear how restricting hermeneutical injustice can be with respect to self understanding. Dana is hermeneutically liberated by the discovery of the concept “intersex” and by uncovering undisclosed facts about their medical history, at the age of 50. They describe the euphoria of “breaking the binary.” The podcast does not use the terminology of “hermeneutical justice” but I think Dana’s story is a very clear case of its liberating power.

Some of the scholarly discussion of hermeneutical injustice has centered around whether the examples given by Miranda Fricker, who pioneered work on the idea, were well chosen and described. Fricker’s discussion centered on the concept of “sexual harassment”, and some commenters criticized her characterization of victims of sexual harassment who lack this vocabulary as not understanding that they have been harmed, or incompletely understanding, or otherwise bewildered. The suggestion that such individuals are restricted in understanding their experience, because dominant conceptual frameworks are descriptively impoverished, fails to recognize the individual and collective agency of oppressed persons and subordinate groups, according to critics. I have read a little in this area (I was asked to comment on a terrific paper by Margaret Owens, a Georgia State grad student, at the Midsouth Philosophy Conference last spring), but not everything, so I hold only tentative views on this criticism; while the criticism does strike me as importantly highlighting various means of hermeneutical resistance, my tentative view is that it depends on an uncharitable reading of Fricker. On a more charitable reading the discussion seems more like a friendly amendment than a criticism.

In any event, what struck me about Dana’s case is how clear an instance it is, in their own description, of the bewildering effect of hermeneutical injustice, as discussed by Fricker. One of the things that’s so terrific about podcasts like Radiolab is their potential to help a cis white guy like myself better understand issues like these. I’m just so grateful for anything that opens my mind and increases my ever-imperfect understanding.

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