Philosophy and Literature


We are going, no doubt, to state straight away the thesis I hope to advocate in this paper: for every unjust act, notwithstanding its probable miniature aspect and the ghastly ripples effects it sends across our polity, in some sense the entire community within which this unfortunate act has had the occasion to emerge is, even foremost in the epistemic sense, culpable. This is because I hold another tributary premise which goes as follows: there are no purely epistemic harms but only material[1] harms for the later is the crucial qualifying factor of what a harm and injustice constitute.

Why I deny the possibility of purely epistemic harm is due to my difficulty to conceptualize an epistemic harm that does not either translate into a negative or unwarranted-positive charge in our psychological states which then proceeds further to affect our relational capacity (in the manners we comport ourselves in the world)[2]. Naturally, to anticipate our concluding remark, we as Beings[3] endowed with both epistemic and affective capabilities and a propensities for activity (urge-to- act and compulsion-to take a stand in any matter)- have a basic responsibility to not only double-check our actions and their antecedent presuppositions and motivations but also move about and when necessary out of our comfy differentiated micro-cosmological[4] spaces in pursuit of testimony that may, once confirmed true,even pose challenges to our active and quite inoperative beliefs and our little dyadic-faiths embedded in our raison d’etre of our practices.

Perhaps it is best if we all tackle the idea of agential identity and its inseparable twin concept of agential power. These two concepts borrow heavily, if not entirely, from the class readings and discussions about epistemic identity and social power[5] as espoused primarily by Miranda Fricker. First, allow me to attempt an elaboration of how Fricker understands the terminology about epistemic identity and then, hoping I will do sufficient justice to her conception, proceed to highlight the limitations of this conception. Finally I will proceed to suggest that the agential identity (which is an akin to epistemic identity or rather a synthesis of Beings’ affective and intellectual capacities and their predisposition to act/react in response to a definite/undefined life matter) serves better the purpose of this paper.

The idea of epistemic identity in Fricker’s work, if I am not mistaken, is anchored on the premises that we are Beings endowed with capacities as knowers (I guess the ability to use reason in our daily applications qua knowers). To Fricker, since we often than not use social stereotypes as heuristics tools in our diverse world, we might sometime inflict an ethical harm to our specific interlocutors when we accorded them prejudicial less or excess (prejudice in favor)credibility[6] even prior to evaluating their content (testimony) independently. Fricker then points out a prevalent phenomenon in our relational world which she calls negative identity prejudice[7] which she says amount to prejudices with negative valences accorded to an individual-agent for the sheer fact that this agent belongs to a certain group. But I disagree with her conception of the nature secondary epistemic harm (knower’s loss of confidence and conviction), especially on how it is systematically inculcated in the victim and the one who has to bear culpability.

The victim is paradoxically the host of this prejudice too and therefore also warrants the blame of the two relating subjects. She says, “the epistemic insult is also a moment in a process of social construction that constrains who the person can be.” My take rather is that this epistemic insult would not have emerged had not the victim as well accepted (whether knowingly or through channels of social conditioning) and perhaps internalized the prejudicial stratified testimony (stereotype) of the host group. Fricker herself acknowledges this but does not also give responsibility to the agent at the receiving end of this prejudiced atmosphere. One has to be either a willingly gullible or an epistemic slack(at most less doubtful/critical of any testimony they may encounter) in order that their essential attributes of Being and being (personhood as Fricker calls) to be taken away from them and hence pave way for the supposed epistemic insult to have a material harm on their being. The only exception of course of my presupposition would be young kids and teenager who are still on critical development stages (both affectively and mentally) who would not rather be regarded as very capable in some extents in their yet budding capacities as agential identities. I rather contend that significant psychological resistance is within an agent’s reach regardless of the context and circumstances. The example Fricker gives, about Simone de Beauvoir’s unpleasant intellectual interactions with Jean-Paul Sartre “undermining treatment” of her, would not have been the case (I presume) had Simone herself not bought into the existing narrative (a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy) about the biased unsymmetrical relationship between sexes.

Though I concur with Fricker that epistemic confidence is a condition of knowledge, but I would like to inquire which factor is often, if not always, the foundation of the other. My guess is that knowledge itself (the plausibility of evidence) is a better foundation of confidence and should always come before we have any confidence with our diversely informed opinions however how much we are invested in them. My argument is that if probably Simone had herself investigated the content of Sartre’s critique of her work, without regards to the nature of the source (that it was Sartre who is speaking and not some other person say a female partner) or perhaps assumed that the criticism was from a neutral/unbiased source, most likely she could not have lost an iota of confidence about her identity as an agent capable of conferring and receiving knowledgeable information. But where affective investments are involved and hope for justifications of our opinions predominates us rather than the inherent validity of these opinions we often tend to jealously guard[8], then one cannot help but feel insulted when the contrary (to their optimistic expectation) is presented to them and more so in a very sustained manner. My argument here though does not aim at absconding Sartre of any possible responsibility regarding those consequences that his acts (criticisms) bore on Simone’s character and more importantly Simone’s self-image. All I just want to point out is that we have to willingly or unintentionally subscribe to a social relational narrative/power for it to have relational charge on how we comport ourselves.

Thus is the end of my humble argument (notwithstanding its controversial potential) for the dual aspect of responsibility as agential identities who have been given the burden of testimonial inquiry. The degree of responsibility or culpability of course differs across the social spectrum (those at the receiving and giving ends of our relational world). But the dual aspect of responsibility seems to me valid if we can accept the premise that agents or personhood has, inter alia, the capacity to know qua a knower. If this is the case, then both the victim and the perpetrator of an injustice have a duty to transform this capacity into real activity through critiquing of as much testimonial evidences we can- separately without regards to the supposed nature of the source – so we can by every possible means available minimize error and hence harm.

All in all, though I do favor independent evaluation of testimonial content, I can still see practical sense in having some heuristic tools when we can’t afford the time and the effort to personally challenge testimonial evidence. In such cases, I guess, we can consign our will to fate and even so take full responsibility of our actions.

Some unlikely sources of testimony, that many people might deny, can convey in most cases quite reliable information though. I would like to point out that in my village in Turkana and other rural regions, even before the advent of these modern (more reliable) techniques of health specialists, the elders have pretty much relied on the testimony of a very unorthodox[9] method and in many cases (though unfortunately not all) have been successful in their faith on this unorthodox technique. When an animal dies in my community, the old people take a piece of meat and offer it to ants and let it sit there overnight. Then the following day, they come to investigate whether the ants ate the piece of meat or not. The elders argue that in most cases, the ants (due to their intuitive knowledge) are able to tell a healthy piece of meat from unhealthy one (the ants won’t eat meat of an animal that was infected by some diseases before its death).

What I hope to assert is that even our habitual quite-reliable sources of testimony still need our second efforts that can conclusively verify the truths of their testimonies; after all the buck still stops with us as agential identities; whether we are right or wrong, the stakes (material harms and gains) are our to loss or gain.



  1. Class discussions led by Professor Jeremy Fantl, Fall 2014
  2. Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice; Power and the Ethics of Knowing (2007) Oxford University Press
  3. Nietzsche, Friedrich; Kaufmann, Walter (1977-01-27). The Portable Nietzsche (Portable Library) (p. 632). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.



Closing (Highly Informative)Quotations that I think do somehow capture the spirit of my argument above:

  1. …Even the badness of food, whether staleness, decomposition, or any other bad quality, when confined to the actual food, is not supposed to destroy the body; although, if the badness of food communicates corruption to the body, then we should say that the body has been destroyed by a corruption of itself, which is disease, brought on by this; but that the body, being one thing, can be destroyed by the badness of food, which is another, and which does not engender any natural infection–this we shall absolutely deny?… But that the soul, or anything else if not destroyed by an internal evil, can be destroyed by an external one, is not to be affirmed by any man.” Plato (2012-03-19). The Complete Works of Plato [Annotated] (Kindle Locations 36239-36240). LatusePublishing. Kindle Edition.
  2. The only rational thing we know is what little reason man has: he must exert it a lot, and it is always ruinous for him when he abandons himself, say, to “Providence.” The only happiness lies in reason; all the rest of the world is dismal… Happiness lies in the swiftness of feeling and thinking: all the rest of the world is slow, gradual, and stupid. Whoever could feel the course of a light ray would be very happy, for it is very swift.” Nietzsche, Friedrich; Kaufmann, Walter (1977-01-27). The Portable Nietzsche (Portable Library) (p. 50). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.
  3. And here are trees and I know their gnarled surface, water and I feel its taste. These scents of grass and stars at night, certain evenings when the heart relaxes— how shall I negate this world whose power and strength I feel? Yet all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine. You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanism and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multicolored universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know. Have I the time to become indignant? You have already changed theories. So that science that was to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art… I realize that if through science I can seize phenomena and enumerate them, I cannot, for all that, apprehend the world. Were I to trace its entire relief with my finger, I should not know any more. And you give me the choice between a description that is sure but that teaches me nothing and hypotheses that claim to teach me but that are not sure. A stranger to myself and to the world, armed solely with a thought that negates itself as soon as it asserts, what is this condition in which I can have peace only by refusing to know and to live, in which the appetite for conquest bumps into walls that defy its assaults? To will is to stir up paradoxes.” Camus, Albert (2012-10-31). The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays (Vintage International) (pp. 21-22). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  4. “Exact” thinking is never the strictest thinking, if the essence of strictness lies in the strenuousness with which knowledge keeps in touch with the essential features of what-is. “Exact” thinking merely binds itself to the calculation of what-is and ministers to this alone. All calculations makes the calculable “come out” in the sum so as to use the sum for the next count…The more we turn to what-is in our dealings the less we allow it to slip away, and the more we turn aside from Nothing. But all the more certainly do we thrust ourselves into the open superficies of existence.” Heidegger. Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre by Walter Kaufmann. P (252)

[1] A broad encompassing terminology.

[2] I deny the split between our affective, intellectual, psychological and behavioral properties.

[3] Being as ontological existences contrasted to“being” (the manners we comport ourselves in the world).

[4] Please excuse my usage of cosmological space as opposed to societal space. I imagine the former is less imbued with anthropomorphism tendencies that tend to see man as the central, perhaps sole, measure of value/knowledge.

[5] Identity power as one instance of social power; social power is “a capacity we have as social agents to influence how things go in the social world” and “any operation of power is dependent upon the context of a functioning social world – shared institutions, shared meanings, shared expectations and so on.” Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice; Power and the Ethics of Knowing (2007) Oxford University Press

[6] Thanks to class Professor Jeremy Fantl again for succinctly putting the principle of credibility (Thomas Reid) as – “the disposition to confide in the veracity of others and believe their testimony;” and the principle of veracity as “the capacity to tell the truth – a disposition which is not rather a commitment to tell the truth.”

[7] “A widely held disparaging association between a social group and one or more attributes, where this association embodies a generalization that displays some (typically, epistemic culpable) resistance to counter-evidence owing to an ethically bad affective investment.” Miranda Fricker.

[8] I can’t help but recall this Nietzsche’s quote, “The proof of “pleasure” is a proof of ‟pleasure”—nothing else: how in all the world could it be established that true judgments should give greater delight than false ones and, according to a pre-established harmony, should necessarily be followed by agreeable feelings?”  Nietzsche, Friedrich; Kaufmann, Walter (1977-01-27). The Portable Nietzsche (Portable Library) (p. 632). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

[9] By unorthodox, I mean, from the point of view of modern medicine I guess. Though again we can point out that immigration officers use a similar technique – the testimony of dogs that sniff out drugs.

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