ArgLab • Permanent Seminar

Hermeneutical Injustice Revised

Federico Cella (IFILNOVA)

In Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (2007), Fricker defines systematic hermeneutical injustice as “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” (p. 155). Such hermeneutical shortcomings are collective cognitive disadvantages; nonetheless, they are especially harmful to the people whose areas of social experience are obscured.

Fricker frames this injustice as the lack of suitable concepts to describe certain areas of one’s social experience; in her view, hermeneutical injustice can be overcome by introducing such suitable concepts in the collective hermeneutical resources.

In this talk, I want to discuss my work-in-progress idea that we need to revise this simple distinction between the lack and presence of concepts in the collective hermeneutical resources to account for the full range of cases of systematic hermeneutical injustice. Following Medina (2012), I will argue that the simple introduction of a new suitable concept in the collective hermeneutical resources is not sufficient for people to benefit from that concept. For example, when the discussion of these concepts is confined to privileged hermeneutical groups that are often isolated (such as academia/academic research groups), people who are hermeneutically marginalized continue to be cognitively disadvantaged. Furthermore, innovative concepts favoring hermeneutical justice can be in competition with default conceptualizations of social categories that promote hermeneutical injustice. To illustrate this point, I will consider the role of generics and essentialist reasoning in shaping our causal inferences about social categories.

Generics are sentences that express general claims regarding categories or their members and lack explicit quantifiers, such as “Women are less inclined to abstract disciplines”. Extensive empirical research indicates that generic language promotes essentialist reasoning about categories (Foster-Hanson, Leslie, & Rhodes, 2016, 2019; Gelman, Ware, & Kleinberg, 2010; Leshin et al., 2020; Rhodes, Leslie, & Tworek, 2012, 2018a, 2018b). Essentialism is a cognitive bias that leads to believe that the members of certain categories, or Ks, share properties and dispositions due to an underlying nature, or essence (e.g., Gelman 2003; Medin and Ortony 1989). By leading to believe that distinct social categories mark distinct kinds of people (e.g., Rhodes et al., 2012; Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017), this bias provides a solid cognitive basis for stereotyped beliefs and discrimination (e.g., Allport, 1954). Essentialized social categories tend to be the targets of prejudice and negative social attitudes (e.g., Haslam, Rothschild, & Ernst, 2000; Rhodes et al., 2012). Social essentialism also leads to support policies enhancing the boundaries between groups (Roberts, Ho, Rhodes, & Gelman, 2017) and to promote the endorsement of social hierarchies as well as prejudice toward “lower-status” groups (Mandalaywala, Amodio, & Rhodes, 2018).

Essentialist reasoning is opposed to structural reasoning (Haslanger, 2000). On a structural construal, the association between being K and having a property F is seen as the result of stable external constraints acting on the relevant Ks in virtue of their position within the larger hierarchy of a social structure. For this reason, structural reasoning does not have the same negative consequences as essentialist reasoning. Consider again the generic “Women are less inclined to abstract disciplines”. A person holding a structural construal might see this association as the result of distinctive social barriers that women face. A person holding an essentialist construal, instead, might trace back the same association to inherent and deep presumed features of women, like being less capable or not being interested in abstract disciplines. Vasilyeva and Lombrozo (2020) found that on a structural construal, generics might be used without conveying an essentialist view of the relevant Ks. However, their results also indicate that generics promote essentialist reasoning by default. For this reason, when generics are not used under a structuralist construal, they might obscure some significant areas ofone’s social experience.

This case is different from the ones discussed by Fricker (2007), as it is not the case that structural reasoning does not belong to the collective hermeneutical resources. While belonging to the collective hermeneutical resources, this way of reasoning is overridden by the default interpretation of generics. Such interpretation can have detrimental consequences for the understanding of Ks’ social experience. For this reason, I suggest considering the causal inferences elicited by the default interpretation of generics as a case of hermeneutical injustice. If this suggestion is sound, the notion of hermeneutical injustice should be revised to account for those cases in which the concept belongs to the collective hermeneutical resources but is overridden by default conceptualizations.

Everybody is welcome to join!

For online participation, please use the following link.

This event is organized by E. Rast. The purpose of this seminar series is to give researchers a platform to discuss ongoing work and problems in the philosophy of language, epistemology, argumentation, metaethics, and related areas. For administrative inquiries, please contact Erich Rast at