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Guest Post: Why Philosophers Should Write More Accessibly: Towards A New Kind of Epistemic (In)justice

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Written by University of Oxford student Brian Wong

Philosophy should, to some extent, be a publicly oriented activity: we hope to make sense of first-order questions concerning how we ought to live, what existence is, what we know, and also deeper questions concerning our methodologies and ways of thinking. Yet philosophical writing has long been panned by some for its inaccessibility to the public.

I’ll take ‘accessibility’ here to mean understandability to the layperson – this metric is by no means uncontroversial, but I take it that at least a healthy number of us write with the public being among the potential beneficiaries of our scholarship. In moving from the claim that the public should benefit from our scholarship to the claim that they should be able to access our scholarship, I aim to establish that academics have a pro tanto (to a certain, limited extent) duty, to make their writing more accessible.

The consequentialist argument is tempting – but I suggest that we should reject it. Instead, I’ll introduce a concept I call respondent injustice — a new variant of the concept of “epistemic injustice” that has famously been defended by Miranda Fricker.[1]

 Now, consider Bob, a philosopher who writes inaccessibly across most of his articles. Bob enjoys his writing style, and thinks it is an important hallmark of his work. His readers – including other professionally trained philosophers – struggle to make sense of his writings, and accordingly feel frustrated. Why, if at all, is this troubling?

A consequentialist may argue that, if Bob’s writing were more accessible, it could improve his reach and impact. Also his writing would be more engaging to potential readers, and so enhance reader satisfaction.

This may well be part of a good argument. But it is not the whole picture. Such an account really only addresses the ‘easy cases’, where accessibility – when improved – does not come with serious trade-offs along other dimensions that may be equally, if not more, important. For instance, it might be that an author’s inaccessible writing style gives them and their close friends or devotees enormous pleasure, enough to outweigh the deprivation of pleasure to a wider readership.

Anyway, something seems amiss in treating Bob’s writings as merely an exercise in utility. Philosophical and humanities scholarship is valuable for reasons beyond the raw pains or pleasures it may bring to individuals. There is little pleasure in a nihilistic or anti-hedonistic worldview, for example, yet we may still find scholarly articulations of such a worldview valuable. Hence at the very least, the utilitarian version of the argument just doesn’t make the cut.

I believe Bob’s wrong can be explained by invoking a kind of epistemic injustice that has not yet been articulated to my knowledge. Miranda Fricker defines epistemic injustice as a kind of injustice that features the wronging of someone “specifically in their capacity as a knower.” Epistemic injustice involves “forms of unfair treatment that relate to issues of knowledge, understanding, and participation in communicative practices.”[2]

I propose a new kind of epistemic injustice here: respondent injustice.  This injustice occurs when an agent’s capacity as a knower is undermined by their response to external communication, where this undermining is due to something about the other person’s attempted communication. The undermining takes the form of restricting the agent’s ability to know, both within and beyond the specific communicative context. Through enacting respondent injustice against his readership, Bob is behaving wrongly.

First, an individual’s capacity as a knower involves not only having their ability to know acknowledged and respected by others. It also requires that one’s testimony is listened to and taken seriously by others. The capacity claim also encompasses individuals having both the subjective confidence and the resources to know particular propositions.

Confidence matters, for knowledge requires belief. And belief in some claim is unlikely unless one possesses the minimal subjective mental states and self-assurance that one can know the claim. For example, a woman who internalizes the narrative that she always knows less about sports than men, would not have confidence in her beliefs about sports, even if she has adequate reason to.

On the other hand, a person’s epistemic standing (basically, their status as a knower relative to other peers in the shared knowledge community) is equally critical: individuals are entitled to a minimum bundle of resources that allows them to understand and make sense of the world around them. Such resources may include the hermeneutical tools Fricker talks about, but also the general reasoning capabilities and knowledge acquisition skills that are necessary for effective learning and knowing. If your ability to know, to learn, to confidently make sense of the world around you significantly pales as compared to most of those around you, you don’t have equal standing to the others as a knower. We should find unequal standing problematic, given that it disadvantages individuals arbitrarily for no good reason.

Inaccessible writing undermines both standing and confidence. Bob’s obscurantism risks weakening his readers’ confidence about their own ability to know. Inaccessible writing puts barriers in the way of their ability to make sense of, critique, and engage the scholarship. Furthermore, such writing may damage his readers’ standing relative to him: the prospects for communication and debate are null, given that the readers quite literally cannot understand Bob.

Why may we view this as an injustice? Firstly, Bob’s writing may undermine the confidence of his audience in other contexts and settings, even where his writing is not involved. Imagine this: a person reads Bob’s works, and, because of the disorientation this person feels, thinks that philosophy in general is not for them. They may even be misled to think that they are systemically incapable of understanding formal philosophical scholarship. The reader may be intimidated into under-estimating their abilities, suppressing their interests in the field.

Secondly, through his writings, Bob establishes an unequal relationship between himself and the reader, for reasons that are almost entirely arbitrary. By “arbitrary,” I don’t mean to suggest that there are no (privately) rational explanations or justifications for his behaviours. Instead, I mean that there is not sufficient public reasoning that justifies the unequal standing. The above inequality, I think, follows from publicly arbitrary factors: it cannot be rationalized through invoking public benefits, interpersonal justification, or even the standard, expertise-centered reasons used to justify inaccessible communication in other contexts. These reasons may include the fact that certain complex ideas cannot be communicated effectively if elaborated upon enough to make them understandable to an average layperson (e.g., such extensive explanations end up confusing, confounding, or, worse, misdirecting those who receive them), or that in order to render public debates more accessible at large, experts must simplify what they are saying in a way that doesn’t do full justice to the truth.

The first objection is this: surely, Bob could plead that his ‘inaccessible’ writing is necessary for capturing the precise point he wants to make. Incidentally, many theorists invoke the view that their writing is conducted in a way that is necessarily obscure, in order to convey some nuanced truth. If there exists no other way to communicate what is authentically true, apart from this particular mode of writing, then presumably inaccessible writing is the way to go.

A few responses to this objection. First, it may simply not be true: often, there are indeed ways to articulate the same concepts in far more accessible terms, but the scholar in question just can’t be bothered to make the effort. Second, theory-building is a constantly evolving process: academics should actively work to discover and adopt ways through which they can reduce the communicative gaps between their writings and their (prospective) audience.

Third, if indeed there is no other way of capturing the truth but to write inaccessibly, we can accept this fact as pluralists; fine, let’s decide on a case-by-case basis, whether the reasons for more accessible writing are outweighed by other, competing factors.

 The second objection is this: the fixation on accessibility favours particular theoretical traditions, and is thereby dangerously parochial. Parochialism is undesirable, because it steers us to unduly favour particular ways of conducting and communicating certain ideas over others.

Here’s my response: if we think the appreciation of a particular trait of a theoretical framework (namely, the accessibility with which it can be conveyed) is parochial—the same way we might favour a theory because it is truthful, feasible, or intuitive—then I suppose accessibility is indeed parochial. In other words, our valuing accessibility is parochial, because it sets it up as a value that we ought to celebrate and cherish in academic writing. But that is a bullet I am willing to bite.

In conclusion, academics should write more accessibly. In failing to do so, they perpetrate a distinct kind of epistemic injustice, what I have called respondent injustice. Needless to say, academics should avoid committing injustices; and there is no better place to start than with their own writings.


[1] See Fricker, Miranda, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. (2007); Hookway, Christopher, “Some Varieties of Epistemic Injustice: Reflections on Fricker”, Episteme 7(2) (2010): 151-163.

[2] See Kidd, Ian James; Medina, José; Pohlhaus Jr., Gaile (2017). “Introduction to The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice”. In Kidd, Ian James; Medina, José; Pohlhaus Jr., Gaile (eds.). Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice.

Many thanks to Brian Earp for his helpful feedback on the essay, and Rocci Wilkinson for her support.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. ‘Respondent injustice’ is a bit of a misnomer, because the epistemic injustice also applies to Bob. If his jargon can only be ‘understood’ (in his eyes) by those who have been ‘sufficiently’ trained (by his estimation) in his conceptual scheme, then Bob could end up effectively brainwashing himself by only attributing ‘understanding’ to those who agree with him (the classic ‘ivory tower’ scenario).

    This also shows that jargon isn’t the primary cause of the epistemic injustice, because even if Bob always writes in plain English, if his arguments are sufficiently complex, he could still withhold attribution of ‘understanding’ to people who disagree with him, on grounds that they have not grasped the full richness of his arguments.

    This kind of epistemic injustice is less prevalent in the sciences and applied disciplines such as history, law, even ‘humble’ crafts such as carpentry, plumbing, etc. Because in these cases, respondents often don’t need to understand the discipline’s jargon to know that it got something wrong. E.g. if the plumbing still leaks after the plumber’s ‘fixed it’, or if a charpenter’s chairs keep collapsing, or if a historian keeps getting well-documented facts wrong, or if a scientist’s simple predictions don’t come true (e.g. the time of an eclipse, or the temperature that water would boil at sea level).

    The practitioners in these disciplines have a harder time building an ivory tower, because they are beholden to the lay public for their professional livelihoods. A bad carpenter who thinks he’s a good one will simply, perhaps literally, fall by the wayside. But a philosopher can always build a coterie of loyal followers, and hide nonsense behind jargon or complexity. Anyway, I’ve written at length on this in ‘Why Philosophy Fails: A View From Social Psychology’ which is available on Medium. Don’t know if I can put links here, but do google it if you’re interested.

  2. I gave up on this article after the first few paragraphs. Have no idea what the writer is even trying to communicate.

    Oh well, I guess I’m just not smart enough for philosophy. Might as well give up on it altogether.

  3. The writer has used too much jargon while advocating to make philosophical more understandable to the general public. What an irony!

  4. נערות ליוווי בחיפה

    “The very next time I read a blog, Hopefully it does not fail me as much as this particular one. After all, I know it was my choice to read, nonetheless I truly believed you’d have something useful to say. All I hear is a bunch of complaining about something you could fix if you weren’t too busy looking for attention.”

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