In this essay I will explore the question: are epistemological terms like ‘reason’ and ‘evidence’ simply tools used by the powerful to control the powerless?
Many contemporary philosophers and sociologist have been criticised traditional epistemology, and by denying the existence of objective truth they have tried to show that social structures and power relations have priority over knowledge. In this paper, I will attempt to show that the mere categorisation of beliefs to two groups of knowledge or not-knowledge, or in other words putting criteria on what counts as knowledge, is an act of discriminating between ‘knower’ and ‘not-knower’. I will argue that this kind of epistemological categorisation put epistemic agents in the position of powerful and powerless. I try to show that epistemologist doesn’t need to go so far and become a postmodern thinker to agree that epistemological terms could be tools in the hand of the powerful to control the powerless. I attempt to argue that epistemic categories are categories of power.
To reach such a conclusion in the first section I will start in with the ‘mainstream’ epistemologists’ reaction to the postmodern theorists. I will show that there is no need to give up on objective truth to believe that, knowledge is correlated with social power. Following that in the second section, I will use Shapin’s case of gentlemen-scientists of the seventeenth century to examine the role of rational authority along with the social power in the subject’s acceptability in epistemic relations. This will continue in the third section with the argument of ‘testimonial injustice’ by Miranda Fricker that shows non-epistemic factors influence over epistemic practices. Finally, in the last section, I will argue that even without all those cases of credible upper-class scientists, or ignored-but-well-informed powerless people, the mere act of epistemologist to categorise knowledge is an act of power making.
Background: Reductivist vs Traditionalist
There are two major ways, opposed to each other, dealing with the relation between knowledge and power: Traditionalist and reductivism. For the sake of brevity, here I present a very short account of each approach to this debate.
Traditionalist approach to epistemology holds a very strict view that knowledge has nothing to do with power or any other social relations such as gender, race, economic class, etc. For the traditionalist epistemologist a statement could be true, untrue or in the worst, its truth-value is not known by epistemic agents, but its truth-value cannot be altered depending on the social context. Traditionalist approach claims that epistemology is only a discipline working with the concepts such as knowledge, reason, evidence, justification, truth and etc.
The reductivist approach, on the other hand, criticises the entire history of epistemology by the idea that knowledge is simply reducible to power relations. These thinkers such as social constructivists, postmodernist and pragmatists argue that the epistemic categories such as reason, evidence or argument are mere labels to serve only those epistemic agents in social power. These groups regard knowledge as an ’empty stamp of approval’. (Fricker, 2000) They dispute the concept of truth as a ‘constructed’ and ‘fabricated’ phenomenon to favour the social structure. (Goldman & Blanchard, 2016) One of the most influential philosophers in this camp, Michel Foucault, regards the truth as a mere ‘instrument for domination and repression.’ (Goldman, 1999, p.33)
As a response to both camps, philosophers mainly in ‘analytic’ tradition, by introducing the discipline of social epistemology have argued that epistemology could depart from its traditional origins to leave behind the individual subject. They argue that knowledge could be socialised without abandonment of the objective truth and dismantle the entire epistemology. Criticising the postmodern approach to epistemology, Alvin Goldman argues from a ‘veritistic’ or truth-oriented approach. He thinks that those thinkers using the concept of truth as an instrument “suffer from an affliction that may be called veriphobia.” (Goldman, 1999, p.6) According to Goldman, social constructivists, postmodernists and other writers by denying the ‘truth’ part in the definition of ‘knowledge’ only left with the belief as a socially constructed epistemic institution. So, he concludes that they shouldn’t be considered as epistemologists or social epistemologist, for the simple reason that they are sceptic against the truth. (Goldman, 1999)
Inspired by such a reaction from Goldman and other advocates of ‘mainstream’ epistemology, we could think of a third approach that does not dismantle the truth part in the definition of knowledge, though at the same time believe that knowledge could be an instrument in the hands of powerful. In the next section, I attempt to argue for the third way.
Knowledge; rational authority or social credit
To find a third way other than traditionalist or reductivist approach to the relation of knowledge and power, I try to argue that epistemologist doesn’t need to fall into the postmodern camp claiming that there is no such a thing as objective truth, to accept that knowledge could be a tool of authority. In another word, one doesn’t need to be ‘veriphobic’, as Goldman calls postmodernists, to admit that epistemic terms could be used as a tool of power.
The claim that knowledge is used as a tool for powerful, doesn’t necessarily make knowledge an arbitrary belief or less truthful statement. As an easy everyday example, we can think of the abuses of knowledge in the name of science; one could state true scientific statements only to gain an authority position for herself among a social group. The same phenomenon happens in using labels such as scientist, doctor, intellectual, thinker, and etc to take advantage of the authority of knowledge. However, one might not have the intention to abuse such authority to control powerless in the society, but still, in the social structure, she is treated as a powerful.
To elaborate on this point, the case of ‘Gentlemanship’ by Steven Shapin in A Social History of Truth could be useful. (Shapin, 1994) Using the social world of gentlemen-scientists in seventeenth-century, Shapin argues that culturally and socially virtuous codes of ‘trust’ and ‘honour’ were playing a crucial role to secure credibility of the scientists, hence the reliability of their knowledge. This means that knowledge about the natural world was mainly depending on a socially accepted fact that ‘gentleman never lies.’ Shapin extends this situation to the modern society, posing the question that “have the gentlemen’s integrity and virtue been replaced by the specialist’s expertise?” (Shapin, 1994, p.xxxi) The answer to this question could be yes, if the only reason to believe the specialist, likewise the gentlemen case, was ‘experts never lie.’ This emphasises on my above-mentioned point about the modern-day titles that create a class of elite people, who has the seat of knowledge authority.
However, one might argue that there is nothing wrong with having an authority in knowledge. People need to rely on experts to acquire knowledge about the world. This is a true point on its own, but it becomes problematic when those experts or gentlemen-scientists, use their epistemic position as a tool of power. It doesn’t need to be intentional, even if other epistemic agents treat the experts as an authority, they are in a position of power because of their knowledge. Nonetheless, what is exactly this power and how does it work in the social epistemic relations?
To answer the above question, let’s look at the gentlemen example again. Those gentlemen-scientists of early modern England belonged to a privileged economic class that put them in the position of social power. And if we accept that according to their cultural codes of honour, integrity and trust, they would never lie; it was also part of their privileged education. So, their knowledge authority simply could be reduced to their material accessibility, even if they always stay loyal to their virtues by telling truth. Here I can continue with the argument I started at the beginning of this section that the content of the statements, being true or false, is not related to the social position of the subject. This means that if we say gentlemen’s knowledge play as a kind of power based on their privileged, we do not necessarily question the content of their knowledge. Another related example could make this clearer.
In the framework of gentlemen’s case, consider a person from lower economic class announces the discovery of unknown chemical element. Suppose that the claim is true, but the community of gentlemen-scientists do not accept it as a genuine discovery because they don’t attribute the virtues of trust, honour and integrity to a person from the non-privileged background. So, in their opinion knowledge of such a person cannot be reliable. Accordingly, the entire society doesn’t accept this claim, just because that person is not a member of gentlemen’s group. If we bring this example one step forward and suppose that, a member of gentlemen-scientists discovers the same chemical element. This time the entire society including gentlemen community and ordinary people, accept this claim only because of the social structures of knowledge.
Therefore, we have two persons claiming similar statements, both true, but they receive different reactions from other epistemic agents in the society. Consequently, I argue when we claim that a powerful person such as a gentleman-scientist uses knowledge as a tool to dominate a powerless person such as the non-privileged discoverer, we are not attacking the truthfulness of the statement.
So, we have reached the third way to relating knowledge to power, without getting trapped into the traditional epistemology and fall into ‘veriphobic’ approach of postmodern theories. This is the same approach that Miranda Fricker takes when she advocates ‘epistemic injustice.’ In the next section, by using Fricker’s idea I will show that epistemic practices mirror the social structure.
Testimonial injustice as imitation of social discriminations
Central case for Fricker to argue for her ‘testimonial injustice’ is the case of Tom, the black man in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird, who is accused of raping a white girl. The story happens in 1930’s so it is not surprising that the white jury does not believe Tom’s testimony in his defence for being not guilty. Although we might tend to categorise such behaviours as racist prejudice and racial stereotype, Fricker focuses on the epistemic aspect of these kinds of social interactions. She argues that there are distinctive epistemic kinds of injustice that deny one’s ‘capacity as a knower.’ (Fricker, 2007) In these cases, the usual stereotypes and prejudices facilitate a process in which testimony of a subject is not believed, just because of the colour of his/her skin. So Fricker calls it ‘testimonial injustice’ to put emphasis on the moral aspect of epistemic relations.
Fricker’s argument for epistemic injustice shows that how powerful people in the society, where ever they have got their authority, use their position in their epistemic relation with powerless. However, this kind of authority-imposing is not necessarily intentional, and the source of such injustice is not always the powerful agent herself. Epistemic injustice has the pattern like other kinds of stereotypes and clichés, which ingest false beliefs into the society about certain groups of people. When hearers judge the speakers under the influence of stereotypes, we face what Fricker calls ‘systematic testimonial injustice.’ (Fricker, 2007)
One might argue that the cases of epistemic injustice such as the courtroom of Harper Lee’s novel could be different from the case of gentlemen-scientists in the seventeenth century. In the case of upper-class scientists and an outsider discoverer, all agents state true facts of science, so they are equal in epistemic aspect. On the other hand, in cases such as Harper Lee’s courtroom, there are two agents or two groups of agents, one side is socially superior telling lie and the other side is the socially inferior telling truth. It seems that in the cases such as former one, the truth is influenced by social power. So, one could argue that Fricker’s case confirms the strong claim of postmodern camp that knowledge is merely socially constructed. However, the very same comparison shows the claim that epistemic relations are influenced by power, does not mean that power necessarily changes the content of knowledge. Both courtroom and gentlemen-scientist cases are examples of epistemic injustice, since they prioritise power over knowledge, regardless of its content.
Epistemic injustice cases and argument help Fricker to keep a distance from traditionalist epistemologists who claim that socio-political is completely irrelevant to epistemology. She also wants to avoid the reductivist position in the postmodern camp that claims the reason is just another form of social power. In this sense, Fricker shows that the rational authority and social power are not merely interchangeable concepts or different terms for the same concept. She tries to show that reason and power are ‘firmly distinguished.’ Being credible and trustworthy brings rational authority to people but it doesn’t mean that she has social power as well. However, one’s rational authority might be influenced by the social power of other agents. Consequently, Fricker argues that the norm of credibility, which plays an important role in the epistemic practices, “is likely to imitate the structures of social power” in the social contexts. (Fricker, 1998)
In the other word, Fricker’s argument shows that epistemic injustice is the reflection of discriminations of the social context in the epistemic relations. There was a time that people were unjustly denied entering specific public places just because of the colour of their skin. The same discrimination happens when people are unjustly denied credibility just because of their race, economic class, age or gender. Although this kind of injustice might be disguised under several numbers of epistemic justification, it is still a form of injustice. In genal cases of social discrimination when people are undermined, their status as a person is denied; in the same pattern during the process of epistemic injustice, subject’s status as knower is being denied. In the next section, I will look closely at the status of subjects as knower, to examine the possibility of another argument against traditionalist epistemologists for social aspects of epistemic practice without falling into the reductivist postmodern approach.
Epistemic categories as categories of power
I attempt to argue that we don’t even need to appeal to the arguments such as Fricker’s testimonial injustice, to conclude that knowledge is a tool in the hand of powerful people to dominate over powerless. I argue that the mere act of epistemologist to offer criteria for knowledge shows that epistemic categories are categories of power.
I start from the epistemologist who involves in what I call ‘epistemic policing,’ an activity to find out and tell what is knowledge and what is not considered as knowledge. Considering the traditional definition of knowledge as justified, true, belief (JTB), epistemologist’s practice would be to check existing of all three conditions to decide whether a belief is a knowledge. Even if she faces Gettier-cases, in which JTB is not sufficient condition for knowledge, she needs to play with the tripartite definition plus other conditions to find philosophically accepted criteria for knowledge. In either case, her job is to judge if a subject has the status of a knower. So, by giving the titles of knower or non-knower, epistemologist put one or a group of subjects, in a position higher than other subjects.
Let’s examine this idea in a thought experiment in which epistemologist is literally an ‘epistemic police’ among a group of epistemic agents. For the sake of argument, I assume that all agents are sincere, tell what they really think and don’t have any intention to deceive others. This premise is needed to put all agents in the same epistemic position compare to each other, and to take out the impact of trustworthiness of the statements on this experiment. I also need another assumption to make all agents equal before the ‘epistemic police’ enters the scene; the assumption is all agents only state the facts. We need this premise to make sure that epistemologist is not a mere ‘fact-checker.’
Now epistemologist of our example starts to judge and policing the knowledge of the subjects. Regardless of the type of her ‘theory of knowledge’ she starts assessing that when subject S states that she knows P, does she have ‘knowledge’? After a long time of examination, our epistemic police finally manage to categorise all subjects into two groups of ‘knower’ and ‘not-knower.’ Since we are in the epistemic realm, these statuses will grant them ‘rational credit’ or will deny their credit for being rational. Also, it is implicitly assumed that in the world of epistemic police as a traditionalist epistemologist, rationality is praised as a precious quality. So, this means that those subjects who have the ‘rational credit’ are considered being in a higher position in comparison to the others. Therefore, a group of subjects in the higher position are in the position of power. We can call this ‘rational authority’ or rational power.
Further, continuing with this thought experiment, as soon the subjects realise that epistemic police grants them a valuable credit based on their knowledge, they might try to influence her assessment. We assumed that they don’t tell lie and always talk about facts, so they cannot change the content of their knowledge. However, they might try to influence the epistemic police by non-epistemic factors, such as their appearances. They might even want to bribe the ‘epistemic police’ to get the status of ‘knower’. This means that the rational authority is so important that, subjects want to use their all other means to get access to such power. So, to create a complete equal condition, let’s assume that we have a blind epistemologist, who doesn’t have any prior knowledge about the subjects including their background, training, gender, race religion and etc. She only can receive their statements, only in the form of written texts. However, the ‘blind epistemic police’ is still an ‘epistemic police’ who categorises the subjects based on their knowledge. She prioritises a group of subjects over the others, by mere practising her job as an epistemologist.
So, by stepping back from the thought experiment, I argue that even without committing the act of policing an epistemologist who sits in her office trying to put criteria for knowledge, grants power to a group of subjects. In fact, the ultimate epistemic authority is in the hands of epistemologist who is in charge of granting rationality credit. Though the rest of the story is up to the subjects to decide what do they intend to do with their power. In addition, stepping back from the thought experiment means that we need to forget about the initial conditions that subjects are sincere and always talk about facts. So, this means that when they might even want to deceive the epistemologist to receive the status of the knower. They might use their rational authority to control and manipulate the other group who are not given the status of ‘knower’, or they might not use it as a tool to dominate the powerless. In either case, the traditional epistemologist must accept that knowledge is not irrelevant to power.
To sum, I have started from a huge debate in epistemology between traditionalist approach and reductivist view. The latter who are postmodern, structuralist and cultural theorists claim that reason is nothing but socio-political power, while the former view claiming the title of ‘mainstream’ epistemology argue that knowledge is completely irrelevant to non-epistemic socio-political structures of the society.
I have used Goldman’s reaction as an example against the postmodern approach, to argue that even if postmodern thinkers abandon the truth in the process of relating knowledge to the social power, there is no need to assume that every critic who try to find traces of power in epistemic practices of social subjects. I argued that regardless of the content of knowledge, one can correctly claim that knowledge could be used as an instrument in the hand of the powerful to control the powerless. To reach this conclusion, I have used Shapin’s case of gentlemen-scientists in the seventeenth century, to show that how their science hand in hand with their social status, gained them social power. Such authority would be more obvious when we examined the case of an outsider discoverer whose groundbreaking new discovery is being ignored just because he doesn’t belong to the upper class. We have seen that this brings in Fricker’s argument for epistemic injustice, in which subject’s status as knowers is being denied for non-epistemic reasons. So, this means that social power influences the epistemic practices.
However, I argued that even without the need to find cases of testimonial injustice, traditional epistemologist must accept there is a relation of power in epistemic practices. I have shown that the mere act of categorising knowledge by epistemologist is granting power as ‘rational authority’ to a group of subjects. So traditional epistemologist without the need to convert into the postmodern view must accept that epistemic categories are categories of power.
§ Fricker, M. (1998). Rational Authority and Social Power: Towards a Truly Social Epistemology. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 98, new series, 159-177.
§ Fricker, M. (2000). Feminism in epistemology: Pluralism without postmodernism. In Fricker, M., & Hornsby, J. The Cambridge companion to feminism in philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
§ Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
§ Goldman, A. (1999). Knowledge in a social world. Oxford: Clarendon.
§ Goldman, A., & Blanchard, T. (Winter 2016 Edition). Social Epistemology. Retrieved January 10, 2018, from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/epistemology-social/
§ Shapin, S. (1994). A social history of truth: Civility and science in seventeenth-century England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.