It is easy to see why the concept is attractive. Testimony to experiences of psychiatric conditions often include reports of not being listened to or not being taken seriously. Inabilities to make sense of one’s experiences, or to get others to take seriously what one has to say, are familiar. Rhetorics of ‘silencing’ and critique of the injustice of ignoring ‘voices’ are standard in scholarship, advocacy, and healthcare policy.

Generations of sociological research confirms the persistence of systematic prejudices or biases directed at those with psychiatric conditions. The Foucauldian genealogies of power dramatize the soberer analyses by researchers and activists. No-one could seriously deny the systematic obstacles faced by those with psychiatric conditions. It’s an easy step from entrenched systems of oppression to systemic epistemic injustice. Such injustices in practice are generated and sustained by social or cultural realities (even if there are open questions about the explanatory and ameliorative relevance of individual agents.

In cases of psychiatric conditions, though, we should pause before looking only to structures or cultures for the causes of epistemic injustice. The focus on structures should not occlude alternative possibilities. I want to suggest that the epistemic predicament of those with depression is far more complex. Their inabilities to communicate and to make sense of their experiences can be worsened by interpersonal, institutional or cultural failings. However, those inabilities would still obtain even in a world filled with testimonially sensitive folk living in cultures with generous stores of richly created interpretive resources. In effect, the deep source of the epistemic predicament of those with depression is not contingent epistemic injustices: it lies in the intrinsic nature of the experiences.



Phenomenological psychopathologists argue that many psychiatric conditions can be understood in terms of radical changes in the structure of one’s experience. Our experiential worlds are sustained by a variety of tacit capacities of the sort studied by Heidegger, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and those subsequently inspired by their work.

Consider, for instance, our basic capacity to experience things as significant in different ways – as enticing, odd, useful, threatening, familiar. I look around this coffee shop and experience as a system of possibilities – a coffee to drink, a book to read, a menu to peruse, bar staff to order from. Such possibilities are inflected with significance, shaped by my interest and goals (thirst, boredom) and point towards various practical options. If we call experiencing possibilities an ability, it might sound odd. For most of us, experiencing a world in these ways is automatic and tacit.

In some cases, however, the ability is lost and disrupted. The fact of the ability is revealed in the fact of the inabilities that follow. When it fails we find our first-person experience changing for the worse. Things seem different and diminished. An uncomfortable sense emerges of estrangement, a shift in the overall feel of the world. The world now feels cold, dark, empty and horribly emptied of possibilities. Possibilities fade and drain away, taking with it a sense of the world as a nourishing space – of things with uses, places with purposes, of people offering possibilities for connection. In such cases one feels the loss of something vital to one’s life but whose existence was unknown until it was lost.



Suppose these phenomenological claims are right – how does this relate to epistemic injustice? The main lesson might be that the difficulties to make sense of one’s experiences is rooted in the nature of the experience itself. The experiential world of those with depression is radically different, in all sorts of ways, from the worlds of others. There is the inability to experience things as significant in various ways. This is a radical difference: if there is a loss of one’s ability to experience meaningful possibilities, then the very idea of hermeneutical practice could become nullified. Moreover, there will be a further disruption to the very possibility of interpersonal understanding. Not because of a gap in ‘shared interpretive resources’, though this could be the case. The more fundamental sources of hermeneutical frustration will be located at the deeper level of the structure of one’s experiential world in relation to that of other people.

In effect, the epistemic predicament of people with depression is rooted in phenomenological differences, not contingent defects in interpretive resources. Of course, this is not to say they aren’t also victims of hermeneutical injustice. But those will be secondary and contingent – they intensify rather than cause the hermeneutical frustrations. The concept of an epistemic injustice can play an important role—but it does not reach down to the most fundamental level.


Ian James Kidd

University of Nottingham

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