top of page

Volume III

A Foucauldian Analysis of Culpability in Fricker's Epistemic Injustice

by Hanna Jones-Eriksson

I.  Testimony as an Epistemological and Ethical Problem


In epistemology there is a debate about whether or not information received through testimony can count as knowledge, assuming knowledge to be justified true belief.  Testimony holds a unique epistemic situation because it allows for belief sets to pass from one individual to another and across generations.  It enables us to access the world beyond the direct observation of an independent and self-reliant knower.  Testimony underpins beliefs about outer space or family history, and gives us the capacity to solve problems beyond a single individual’s understanding or capabilities.


Using testimony as a source of knowledge becomes problematic when we consider that witnesses and informants can be unreliable, mistaken, or dishonest.  As a result, we cannot blindly count their testimony as knowledge.  But, what about the case when we cannot detect therein a lie; are we to take someone at his or her word?  The unreliability of testimony is an epistemological issue because being thereby misinformed can result in ignorance and error.  It is also an ethical problem because we must know to what degree we can trust other people.


Typically, the solution is to ascertain the testimony’s reliability by asking others about the speaker, comparing his or her testimony to already known information, or (as exemplified by academics) submitting his or her account to peer review.  The problem is that each of these moves to gain certainty involves the use of resources that must, themselves, be demonstrated as reliable—hence, creating a backward fact-checking process that repeats ad infinitum.


Miranda Fricker, in her book Epistemic Injustice, explores how testimony can itself be a source of knowledge, as long as the hearer (the interlocutor) gives the speaker the amount of credibility due to him or her.  Hence, unlike a narrow epistemological account of testimony’s relation to knowledge, Fricker believes the relation to contain a broad ethical dimension.  In essence, her idea is that speakers can be given too much or too little credibility due to the interlocutor’s social inculcation or assumptions.  For example, may it not solely be because of systemic racism that an African-American man in the southern United States in the 1930’s would be convicted for a crime for which he was entirely innocent?  Usually, the interlocutor is deemed culpable (ethically or morally responsible and deserving of blame) for his or her beliefs.  However, Fricker varies her stance on when interlocutors can be held morally and epistemically culpable.  We will see this in my elaboration of Fricker’s account of testimony.


I believe that Fricker’s variation is a problem for her otherwise innovative approach.  I will solve this dilemma through the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault, whose distinctive ideas of sovereign and disciplinary power integrate smoothly into Fricker’s ethical epistemology.  I will propose that while Fricker operates on a sovereign model of power, it would be better to approach her theory via a disciplinary perspective.  This will shift her concept of accountability, opening up the application of responsibility and allocating blame more appropriately.

II.  Explicating Fricker’s Testimonial Injustice


In testimonial exchange there is a speaker, an interlocutor, and an assessment of credibility.  According to Fricker’s view of testimony, the degree of credibility given to the speaker by the interlocutor is determined by the speaker’s identity—who one is, one’s testimony, and distinct role in society—as indicated by a myriad of social cues.  This determination is not an entirely subjective process productive of inaccurate assumptions without connection to the speaker.  There is, Fricker explains, a linkage between the external and internal.


Fricker defines an individual’s self-concept as one’s “identity.”  A large part of one’s identity stems from social identities or social types.  Social types are generally understood qualities expressed by individuals categorized under basic labels.  A component of who one is and how one coordinates one’s behaviour to comply with these “types.”  For example, one exudes different behaviour depending on whether one sees oneself as ‘man’ or ‘woman,’ ‘young’ or ‘old.’  These identities are closely related to Fricker’s understanding of stereotypes, which she defines as “widely held associations between a given social group and one or more attributes.”  Thus, it is acceptable for the interlocutor to use stereotypes (these external perceptions) in order to attribute believability to the speaker, since stereotypes and identity are markedly similar.  In fact, Fricker calls stereotypes a “rational resource” that should be used, since they help interlocutors make “spontaneous assessments” by oiling “the wheels of testimonial exchange.”  This is important because Fricker wants her theory to imitate the quick judgments of our “everyday epistemic practices.”  The degree to which an interlocutor believes a speaker, or the level of credibility one attributes to the other qua stereotype, should correspond with the evidence one has that the speaker is telling the truth.


Testimonial injustice arises when the degrees of credibility attributed to the speaker is lower than the level owed.  This is a culpable mistake when it comes from an “ethical poison in the judgment of the hearer.”  For Fricker, this “ethical poison” stems from prejudice.  Prejudices are pre-judgments about identity that are resistant to counter evidence.  Prejudices are different from stereotypes or identity types.  They are automatic “images” and “pictures” that come to mind instantly, but also have a “residual internalization.”  This is because “they persist in patterns of judgment” even when in conflict with the hearer’s belief—and stick around long after they are welcome.  This is problematic because prejudices are always epistemically harmful since they prevent the transfer of knowledge.  Through prejudices, the speaker is degraded qua knower and hence wronged in the speaker’s refusal to honor their capacity for reason.  Using this groundwork, Fricker defines testimonial injustice through four components: identity-prejudiced-credibility-deficit.  In other words, there is a lack of believability attributed to a speaker based on a pre-judgment relating to the identity of the speaker that pushes aside evidence to the contrary.


In general, one can be deemed culpable for enacting testimonial injustice—there is a responsibility borne by the fact of being a knower to not behave this way.  Fricker, though, allows for one exception: historically contingent situations.  This exception is best illustrated through her literary examples of Tom Robinson and Herbert Greenleaf.


In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson is an African-American man living in Alabama in 1935 who is wrongfully accused of raping young, white Mayella Ewell.  In actuality, Mayella attempted to kiss Robinson, and her father caught them, beat them, and turned in Robinson as Mayella’s assaulter.  Fricker highlights the “obvious” evidence presented to the jury by Atticus Finch as the case comes to trial: Mayella was beaten by someone’s left fist; Robinson’s left arm is disabled following an accident as a boy; thus, Robinson could not have inflicted that damage.  Unfortunately:


As it turns out, the members of the jury stick with their prejudiced perception of the defendant, formed principally by the racial stereotypes of the day.  Atticus Finch challenges them to dispense with these prejudicial stereotypes to dispense, as he puts it, with the “assumption—the evil assumption—that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women.”  But when it comes to the verdict, the jurors go along with the automatic distrust delivered by the prejudices. …


Fricker claims that the jurors are culpable for having remained prejudiced and thus they enact testimonial injustice against Robinson.  They are provided with compelling evidence to the contrary of their verdict: Finch’s defense and Robinson’s lack of a left fist.  In addition, Finch represents the possibility of a ‘white’ man believing in a ‘black’ man’s innocence (as his daughter Scout represents such by the ‘young,’ ‘white,’ ‘women’).  And, if the Finches could do it, then the jury could have, too.  Since they did not, Fricker condemns the jury culpable for their testimonial injustice.


Fricker outlines another case of testimonial injustice in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.  The play is set in 1950’s Venice where the wealthy American Herbert Greenleaf has travelled to search for his missing son, Dickie Greenleaf.  Dickie’s recent fiancée Marge Sherwood believes that Dickie is not simply missing and she suspects his newfound friend, Tom Ripley, of foul play.  She has a number of reasons for her conviction.  Marge has been with Dickie for a long time and believes it is unlike him to suddenly take off or to commit suicide (which Ripley wants everyone think).  She also found Dickie’s ring—her gift that he swore he would never remove—on a table at Ripley’s house.  However, Marge’s testimony is “gently, kindly, sidelined by Greenleaf senior,” who calls her beliefs nothing more than “female intuition.” Greenleaf, with Ripley’s help, pathologizes her conviction as the blabbering of a hysterical woman.  Hysteria was a medical condition in the 19th Century, mainly diagnosed in women. Symptoms include nervous, eccentric or erratic behaviour, which fit with the “social model of women” at the time—or, as Fricker would call it, the “female social type.”  There are further stereotypes surrounding women, such as “women must be protected by the truth of men,” and “feminine intuitiveness is an obstacle to rational judgment,” which Fricker sees Greenleaf applying to Marge.  Fricker’s position is that:


Marge’s suspicions should have been listened to; she of all people should have been given some credibility.  But Ripley cynically exploits the gender attitudes of the day so that the kindly and well-meaning men around her effectively collude with him to make her appear epistemically untrustworthy.


In employing female stereotypes, Greenleaf undermines Marge as a possessor of knowledge through a wrongful credibility judgment based on a prejudiced perception of the hearer.


Yet, unlike the case of the jury and Robinson, Fricker does not hold Greenleaf accountable—and, I believe this to be an error.  As Fricker explains, even though the “spontaneous operation of Greenleaf’s testimonial sensibility is flawed, for it is trained in part by the prejudices of the day,” he “is ultimately non-culpable because of the historical context;” she does not deny that Greenleaf is at fault for committing testimonial injustice, but that he is not culpably at fault.  The epistemic and ethical consequences of this judgment are that we can neither claim that Greenleaf is a bad person, nor can we despise him for his actions.


Unlike the jury, Greenleaf is not culpable because he was not in a position to know better.  Whereas the jury was presented with ample evidence and the immediately present example of a ‘white’ man believing in a ‘black’ man’s innocence, Greenleaf did not have similarly relevant knowledge.  Fricker argues that, had the critical concepts been available to him, Greenleaf would have used them in forming his judgment.  But, because of his historically contingent situation, they were not accessible to him.  Greenleaf’s culpability-escape-hatch is here forged from Fricker’s aligning with the epistemic position that “ought does not imply can:” just because Greenleaf ought to have given Marge her deserved credibility, this does not necessarily mean that he could have granted her her due.  Supposedly, there was no evidence Greenleaf could have used pointing to Marge’s rationality or her knowledge of Dickie.  Only if Greenleaf retained his outdated views in the wake of a “relative advance in collective consciousness,” would he have become culpable, according to Fricker.


Throughout her ethical approach and concept of testimonial injustice, Fricker sidesteps the problem of trust and reliability in testimonial knowledge, in favor of fashioning a sort of Testimonial Swiss Army Knife that can be applied unscrupulously to all situations.  Her knife handily carves out the credibility of the speaker, imitating the speed and ease of commonplace testimonial interactions.  This is, in fact, one of Fricker’s very goals in writing Epistemic Injustice—and I believe that she achieves it.  However, I remain troubled by Fricker’s consequent variability of blame.  I believe that she ought to hold the jury and Greenleaf culpable, and that the reason why Greenleaf isn’t blamed is because her theory has an overly narrow view of responsibility and of the epistemically salient situational features.  But, how do we broaden our moral horizons while maintaining an ordinary use rule for testimony—that is, how do we allow judgmental refinement and specificity to broaden our moral dispositions without placing an unbearable amount of responsibility on the hearer or require an infinite chain of fact-checking?  We do not want to hold people responsible for not “knowing better” when it is beyond their capabilities, but neither do we want a loophole through which people can wholly escape responsibility.  Thus, I do not believe that this problem can be solved while working entirely within Fricker’s framework; instead, we need to open up her narrow account in order to be capable of better determining questions of culpability for the cases like that of Greenleaf.  For this theoretical disclosing, I believe that we should turn to the work of Michel Foucault, who tends to run along another axis completely.

III.  Foucault’s Theory of Power


Throughout his writings, Foucault develops two key concepts of power: the disciplinary and sovereign powers.  They are not opposing forces of power that vie for control over an individual; rather, they are akin to two story lines that run through any situation.  Depending on how one reads the story, one line can become more apparent than the other, but both are always present.  The epistemic advantage to discerning these differing lines of power is that some situations are better read as disciplinary and other as sovereign, and, thus, by their duality, one is capable of more fully understanding certain events and responding to them better.


Foucault’s idea of sovereign power is similar to the usual concept of power wherein one person holds it and uses it to oppress or control others.  Foucault calls it ‘sovereign power’ after the sovereign model of the king and the effects of his ownership and usage of power.  In this classical, juridical theory of power, ‘power’ is “taken to be a right, which one is able to possess like a commodity.”  For instance, the king has the divine right to rule and thereby ‘has’ more power than his subjects.  His ‘ownership’ marks a difference between those who exclusively possess power, and retain it, and those who do not have it and submit to it.  Foucault highlights the key to sovereign power as its basis in an asymmetrical relationship that links two people.  There is always a deduction on one side, and an expenditure on the other—a “general system of domination exerted by one group over the other.”  As a result, it becomes almost automatic to think and speak of power as an “organ of repression,” or a “mode of subjugation.”


Sovereign power is also characterized by a number of rituals.   First, there are the ceremonies of sovereignty and the rituals of service that impose sovereign power.  These correspond to our image of the king: acts of coronation, signs of submission and allegiance, giving of rules and punishment.  Simultaneously, there are the ongoing juridical procedures: “proclaiming the law, watching out for infractions, obtaining a confession, establishing a fault, making a judgment, imposing a penalty.”  These acts may seem insignificant, but are definite gestures indicating the operation of sovereign power.  They also indicate its binary nature, particularly, its opposition between the permitted and the forbidden.  As indicated, the juridical procedures have only two sides or two kinds of subjects.  In proclaiming the law, the king determines what is permitted (in accordance with the law), and what is forbidden (discordant to the law).  Likewise, the king establishes fault.  He sets himself (and, thereby, the law) up as ‘right,’ and the out of line criminal as ‘wrong.’  This has epistemic entailments.  The king’s account is listened to, taken as true, and as providing knowledge of the event; the criminal’s account is sidelined, his or her testimony ignored, silenced, and deemed ‘false.’

IV.  How Foucault’s Ideas of Power Resolve Fricker’s Inconsistency


The parallels between Foucault’s first image of power and Fricker’s concept of testimonial injustice are numerous, but I will focus on three similarities.


First, as previously discussed, Fricker defines testimonial injustice as when the interlocutor fails to give the speaker the level of credibility he or she is owed due to a pre-judgment that is resistant to counter-evidence.  Fricker is thus working with a juridical model of credibility where credibility is held (or withheld) and exchanged.  It is possessed by the hearer, and distributed to the speaker as they see fit—much like the king and his power.  This leads to an asymmetric relation between the speaker and the hearer.  The speaker is dependent on the interlocutor for his or her testimony to be heard and the knowledge passed on, and also for his or her sense of self and self-worth.  Omitted from our previous discussion, Fricker believes that stereotypes can have a “terrible justificatory loop” where people start to embody the stereotype by which they are judged.  This happens either because they are held up against a stereotype so many times that it is how they come to see themselves as well, or because they are prevented from appearing in another manner.  Consequently, we can see sovereign power working in Fricker’s theory through her model of credibility.

Secondly, as a whole, testimonial injustice centres on the sovereign process of “making a judgment.”  The hearer is supposed to judge whether or not the speaker fits a reliable stereotype—and what stereotype he or she judges that to be.  Likewise, one is supposed to judge whether the speaker is correct.  One is “watching for infractions,” or committals of testimonial injustice.  At which point, there is the ritual of “establishing a fault.”  Credibility is seized from the interlocutor, one establishes him or her as culpable, at fault, blameworthy, and, hopefully, then rectify the situation.  Each becomes a mini-sovereign ruling over one’s epistemic world and performing juridical procedures.


Third, mirroring the consequences of sovereign power, Fricker’s theory sets up a series of binary pairs.  There are structural oppositions such as the speaker and the hearer, but also conceptual oppositions.  There is the permitted method of testimonial transactions, credibility, accuracy, knowledge, being right, and justice.  On the other hand, there is the forbidden mode of testimonial injustice, non-credibility, inaccuracy, fallacy, being wrong, and injustice.  Her theory, like sovereign power, is set up such that it is better to be on the side of the permitted.  But, there is also the small-scale opposition of what is permitted and forbidden by different stereotypes.  For example, it is permitted for Ripley to know more about Dickie’s disappearance than Marge.


Through these connections, I would like to suggest that Fricker’s version of testimony and testimonial injustice adheres to a sovereign model of power.  The way testimony is structured, how testimonial justice is determined, and who places blame are full of juridical procedures that follow binary practices.  This is useful for us because looking for sovereign power lets us see a narrow sense in which Greenleaf is culpable, or not; whether or not we can blame him; and if he is in one historical context or another.  This is the framework with which Fricker generally works.


Foucault has another lens.  His other mode of power, disciplinary power, deviates from its conventional conception.  Instead of an economic picture, disciplinary power is neither given, nor exchanged.  It is a power that “is never localized here or there, never in anybody’s hands, never appropriated as a commodity or piece of wealth.”  Disciplinary power is distinctly not an object.  Foucault defines it as “the moving substrate of force relations.”  Power is, above all, a relation of force.  For Foucault, how it shifts and flows determines the social relations of power, such as who is more powerful in a given situation.  Instead of possessing power, one exercises it—and it is exercised from innumerable points.  This is because “power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere.”  In its omnipresence, it is difficult to think of individuals as the point of application of power.  Foucault prefers to call them “vehicles of power” who transport and move power around—but never own it.


It is important to focus on what Foucault means when he says “relations” of power.  This indicates the interaction between vehicles of power, what happens in the network of forces.  He is concerned with the “micro-physics” of power.  Foucault further emphasizes this through his terms for exercising power: the “strategies,” “dispositions,” “maneuvers,” “tactics” and “techniques.”  Such is key for Foucault because it is the tension between force relations that engender states of power.  The network of relations is always in tension: “they are not univocal, they define innumerable points of confrontation, focuses of instability, each of which has its own risks of conflict, of struggles.”  Similar to sovereign power, the inequality of power between two people determines what can happen; however, unlike sovereign power, the forces are always shifting and changing the states of power.

Since there is no strict dualism in disciplinary power, like between the sovereign and his subject, it is understandable that this operation does not give rise to the same binary opposition found in sovereign power.  Rather, because power is everywhere, it “tends to [have] an exhaustive capture of the individual’s actions, time, and behavior.”  That is, it has a total hold on the individual—but, it also indicates that there is not the same “forbidden/permitted” opposition within disciplinary power: all sides are encompassed.  

V.  Reading Foucauldian Lines in Greenleaf’s Case


Foucault’s concept of disciplinary power offers Fricker an opportunity to open up her analysis of testimonial exchange.  In the above analysis of sovereign power, credibility was looked at as power.  Taking up the template of sovereign power, I imposed it over Fricker’s testimonial injustice, and replaced power with credibility.  I am going to use the same approach now with disciplinary power and credibility.  Foucault’s disciplinary power focuses on the force relations between individuals that engender states of power.  In the sovereign story line, it is possible to see a few force relations.  There is a relation of force between Greenleaf and Marge—he withholds credibility and she is rendered hysterical.  He has the power in the situation, and she does not—not even enough to express herself coherently.  This is certainly one side of their relationship—and the one Fricker focuses on.  In the movement towards a disciplinary view of the situation, it is not that this relationship disappears, but, there is certainly more to see: a richer picture emerges if we follow the lines of disciplinary power and focus, as Foucault does, on the tension and struggle between all force relations in an epistemic field.


From a disciplinary power approach we can see how Greenleaf’s belief of Marge does not simply rely on her position as a woman in the 1950’s; a close reading of Fricker’s version of The Talented Mr. Ripley reveals a number of other factors in play.  First, Greenleaf (falsely) believes that Marge is “innocent of the tawdry facts of Dickie’s life” because she doesn’t know about his previous infidelity.  Fricker notes that this comes from Greenleaf’s preconception about what one does and does not say to one’s sweetheart.  She hints that this stems from Greenleaf’s belief about what women can handle about men’s lives.  Yet, it is possible Greenleaf considered how Dickie might be nervous to tell Marge about his infidelity for fear of their own continued relationship, and that is the reason men do not tell their sweethearts about infidelity.


Additionally, it comes to light that Greenleaf does not know his son.  During the investigation “Greenleaf is only too aware of how little he himself knows is son” and hopes the detective will make up for that ignorance.  This is an interesting development that could lead to very different motivations for Greenleaf’s behaviour.  It may lead Greenleaf to either be easily convinced about his son’s behaviour (as he doesn’t know what his son would actually do), or be less open to the evidence (particularly evidence that does not correspond with his outdated knowledge of his son).  Thus, the force relations between Greenleaf, Ripley and the detective are made more prominent.  We can see how Greenleaf enacts testimonial injustice because he feels pressured to follow Ripley and the detective’s hypothesis, dismissing Marge’s testimony because it doesn’t match how his son used to be.  Greenleaf is making an effort to appear like he knows his son, and ignoring Marge—not because she is a woman, but because her testimony does not further his purposes.


Fricker also mentions that if there had been a Mrs. Greenleaf, she would have accepted Marge’s testimony.  Similar to her treatment of the beliefs of Finch and Scout, Fricker thinks that evidence of external support would have swayed Greenleaf to consider Marge’s testimony.  Although it is hard to predict Mrs. Greenleaf’s influence, assuming she believes Marge, it is possible that even just having one more person on Marge’s side (woman or not) would have given Greenleaf pause for thought.  And, reconsidering Marge’s testimony, he may have accepted it, rather than briskly dismissing it.  The cause of Mrs. Greenleaf’s absence could be influencing Greenleaf as well.  If she had died, perhaps Mr. Greenleaf would be unwilling to accept that his son is dead, too, and this would then motivate him to not listen to Marge.  There are almost too many subtleties and variations to be accounted for.

VI.  Conclusion

Examining the wider range of force relations present in Greenleaf’s case is an interesting procedure, illustrating how the situation is much less ‘cut and dry’ than originally supposed.  Each of the possibilities for Greenleaf’s dismissal of Marge’s testimony is as possible as the belief that he is simply a sexist man of the 1950’s ignorant to feminist ideas.  Yet, it leads to a different conclusion about responsibility.  We know that Greenleaf, who ignores his son, tries to compensate with money and has various credibility relations bearing down on him from all sides.  There is the pressure from society (about the role of a parent), from Dickie (what he expects his father to do), past connections (with his wife), and the current situation between Ripley, himself, and Marge—and each of these relations exerts a different force on Marge’s credibility, pushing it up or down.  From this broadened perspective, we can see how Greenleaf succumbed to some pressures, rather than others.  He tries to save face as a father, run away from the possibility that his son is dead, solve the case quickly (a murder investigation would take time), and appear as a rational intellectual compared to others (it would appear poorly if Greenleaf’s accusation was wrong, and, at least this way, he appears more intelligent than Marge).  While I have neither considered all other possible force relations, nor have I explored each one fully, it is evident, nevertheless, that Greenleaf is responsible for testimonial injustice towards Marge for reasons that are not historically contingent.  Historical contingency, then, cannot excuse him: Greenleaf is as culpable as the jury for his testimonial injustice.


Dyke, Natalie, Lois Fenton, Heather George, Kalyna Klymkiw, et al..  “Restoring Perspective: Life and Treatment at

the London Asylum.”  2008-09.


Foucault, Michel.  The Birth of the Clinic.  Translated by Sheridan Smith.   New York: Vintage Books, 1994.


Discipline and Punish.  Translated by Alan Sheridan.  New York: Vintage Books, 1995.


The History of Sexuality an Introduction: Volume One.  Translated by Robert Hurley.  New York: Vintage

Books, 1990.


Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977.   Edited by Colin Gordon.  New York:

Pantheon, 1980.


Psychiatric Power: Lectures at the College de France 1973-1974.  Translated by Graham Burchell.  Edited by

Arnold I. Davidson.  New York: Picador, 2008.


Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France 1997-1978.   Translated by Graham

Burchell.  Edited by Arnold I. Davidson.   New York: Picador, 2004.


Fricker, Miranda.  Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing.   Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.


Hardwig, John.  “The Role of Trust in Knowledge.”  The Journal of Philosophy 88, 12 (1991): 693-708.


Highsmith, Patricia.  The Talented Mr. Ripley.  New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1955.

Lee, Harper.  To Kill a Mockingbird.  New York: HarperCollins, 1960.


Lovibond, Sabina.  “Review.”  Philosophy 84, 327 (2009): 147-151.   


Neta, Ram.  “How do you know whom to trust?”  April 30, 2013.

Pohlhaus, Jr., Gaile.  “Relational Knowing and Epistemic Injustice: Toward a Theory of Willful Hermeneutical

Ignorance.”  Hypatia 27, 4 (2012): 715-735.

bottom of page