Flaws and Forgiveness: An Interview with Miranda Fricker

If it had been Christine Blasey Ford who alternately snivelled and screamed during her testimony before the US Senate, she would have been disparaged as hysterical. But it wasn’t Ford, it was Brett Kavanaugh. And his performance was found heroic – seen by many to reflect the honourable anger of a man wrongly accused. Indeed, Kavanaugh’s belligerence in testifying was compelling enough to effectively render moot the question of Ford’s credibility. It didn’t matter, in light of Kavanaugh’s staunch denial of the charges against him, how credible Ford had seemed earlier that day; her calm and collected testimony was trumped by the perceived merits of Kavanaugh’s own. Ford herself faded into the background, and Republican senators, no longer at risk of incurring a significant electoral backlash, quickly confirmed Kavanaugh to a lifetime appointment on the US Supreme Court.

In other words, September’s courtroom melodrama unfolded predictably. That Ford was considerably more limited than Kavanaugh in how she could behave, that she was not believed despite meeting the more stringent standard imposed on her, that even sympathetic observers were ready to disregard her testimony as soon as Kavanaugh had finished his… one is left with no choice but to deduct marks from the proceedings for desperate lack of originality.

But if familiarity breeds contempt, it also often makes for wonderful philosophy. Our patterns of bias and prejudice in assessing speakers’ credibility, the subject of philosopher Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice, are no exception. Epistemic Injustice is a sharp, compelling, and hugely influential account of the various ways that individuals and groups can be wronged in the connections of belief, knowledge, and testimony. According to Fricker, epistemic injustice comes in two varieties. First, there is testimonial injustice – the wrong plausibly on display during the Ford–Kavanaugh hearings. To take a less controversial example, the jury in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is guilty of testimonial injustice against Tom Robinson. The jury’s members refuse to believe Tom, even though he deserves to be believed; this refusal, as Lee’s book amply demonstrates, is a way of treating Tom as less than human.

Second, there is hermeneutical injustice, which arises when structurally disadvantaged groups lack the conceptual resources to adequately communicate certain of their experiences. Take, for instance, a woman who has been raped by her husband, but whose concept of rape does not apply to marital rape. Not only might she be unable to explain to others – let alone get justice for – what she endured, she might be unable to make sense of the experience herself. If testimonial injustice prevents the speaker from being appropriately heard when she expresses herself, hermeneutical injustice precludes the speaker’s ability to express herself at all.

It is worth noticing that Epistemic Injustice does not introduce concepts that require significant analytical dexterity to apply. Rather, the book promises to help us identify epistemic injustice more reliably when it occurs; to get a firmer handle on its structure; and to situate it within broader ethical, epistemological and political frameworks. More basically, its philosophical contribution is to make explicit what was already there in human thought and practice, yet which we only fuzzily, inchoately, ineffably recognised. It gives sharper expression to a familiar truth, with the aim of helping us to make better sense of our social and ethical world. This is a general theme, Fricker tells me, of her engagement with philosophy. ‘My experience of doing philosophy’, she says, ‘doesn’t feel like moving from confusion to clarity, or confusion to understanding. It feels like piecing things together and gradually making explicit the structure of things which we know intuitively from lived experience. I think the subject matter of ethics is our ethical life, the lived ethical life, our relation to value – and so my experience is one of moving from not being able to see, to being able to see; or not being able to hear, to being able to hear; or not being able to grasp the shape of something, to being able to feel its shape.’

I have met Fricker in her office at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, where she is Presidential Professor of Philosophy, one afternoon in mid-September. While her room is buried in a distant corner of the building’s labyrinthine seventh floor – home as well, incidentally, to the Saul Kripke Center – Fricker herself is very warm in greeting me. She remains friendly as we talk, occasionally laughing delightedly at one or another of the absurdities of philosophy; and eventually wishing me a pleasant return to ‘dear old Oxford’, where Fricker studied as both undergraduate and doctoral student. Rather fittingly, the enthusiasm of Fricker’s manner is reflected in her approach to the discipline. She experiences philosophy, she says, as a wrestling process: one which involves trying to wrangle human practices into some coherent, illuminating shape without distorting them. ‘I like the struggle’, she tells me, ‘of trying to find the philosophical structure that best honours the otherwise rather amorphous nature of natural or social practices – the to-and-fro between trying to honour real life and real practices, on the one hand, and trying to properly sculpt a piece of philosophy, on the other.’

What is more (and perhaps slightly more unusual), Fricker also professes to being optimistic about the potential for philosophy to theorise practice without falsifying it. Joan Didion famously wrote at the beginning of The White Album that, in living, we impose a narrative line upon ‘the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience’; but Fricker tells me, when I ask if she identifies with Didion’s sentiment, that this does not quite capture her conception of philosophy’s relation to practice. ‘I don’t like the idea’, she says, ‘that we’ve got this messy life, and then philosophy comes in and imposes order. I don’t believe in that. I think that philosophy needs to be formed by the contours of the practice one is trying to understand. If the model does not fit, real life is going to rebel. The difficulty lies in finding a suitable compromise between the two, so that you can do justice to the complexity of lived experience, and at the same time end up with something that’s theoretically structured and interesting.’

Interestingly, Fricker’s belief that theory need not misrepresent the reality of human ethical life marks a moderate disagreement with her old teacher, Bernard Williams. Williams, one of the great moral philosophers of the 20th century, was famously sceptical about the prospects of ethical theory. He was also one of the philosophers, Fricker tells me – along with her other DPhil supervisor, Sabina Lovibond – who most markedly influenced the development of her thought and interests. From Lovibond, Fricker says, ‘what stays with me and what I continue to feel inspired by is a feminist grasp of the power relations that structure human practices, and an ability to discuss huge soaring themes of power, and cruelty, and normativity, with enormous precision. And from Bernard, there are so many different things, because he was such an extraordinary philosopher. But perhaps above all, an interest in where broadly a priori enquiry – let’s call it philosophy – meets the contingent – let’s call it history.’

Williams’ highly distinctive style as a writer also left a lasting impression. ‘One of the things I really love about his philosophy’, Fricker says, ‘is that although Williams writes in a highly argued way, it is super implicit and often elliptical. Because it’s enormously conversational. There’s this way of writing philosophy as a whole person, bringing a whole person’s sensibility to the philosophical enterprise. And I enjoy that enormously about his work, even though I think it means that he is often misread.’ In a late essay, Williams deftly ridiculed philosophers who try, as he put it, ‘to remove in advance every conceivable misunderstanding or misinterpretation or objection, including those that would occur only to the malicious or the clinically literal-minded’. But besides this negative defence of his style, Williams also hinted once, in a reply to Simon Blackburn, at a more positive rationale – or critics might say, rationalisation – that ‘compression can … acknowledge a necessary incompleteness, an acceptance that the reader’s thought cannot simply be dominated, and that his work in making something of this writing is also that of making something for himself’.

The compressed, even elusive, quality of his prose is perhaps one reason that Williams is at once so deeply admired by some and disliked by others. He is certainly not, at any rate, a philosopher whose insights can quickly be assimilated. ‘Normally’, Fricker says, ‘one thinks it’s only novels and poetry that reward repeated rereading, but with Williams’ work – and other philosophers too, but Williams comes particularly to mind as a philosopher I have engaged with a great deal – I think I know some paper, and then I will read it again, and it’s always like “Oh!”. There’s a different emphasis somehow.’ She describes coming to regard a comment of Williams’ in his ‘The Truth of Relativism’ which she had long considered marginal – that the point of moral appraisal has to do with deciding how to live – as the engine driving Williams’ relativist position.

‘Others might differ’, Fricker says, ‘and I might reread it again and change my mind. But it gives that kind of reward to read Williams, whereas philosophy, as we’re taught it, is not meant to be rewarding in quite that way. We are supposed to make everything so explicit from the start that you couldn’t possibly have a similar moment of discovery with contemporary texts. But I prefer philosophy that enables that sort of experience.’ Not, she adds, that she would ‘dare try to do that in my writing. My writing is the ordinary thing of “be as absolutely clear as possible”. But I think, at least, that I don’t try to maximise explicitness about every presumption.’

Returning to her hopes for ethical theorising, as against Williams’ pessimism about it, Fricker says that she regards Williams’ scepticism about moral theory ‘as a very immanent critique of a particular phase of ethical theory’. Williams felt, she claims, that ‘as a matter of fact the theory of his time was very excessively abstract, and that it did violence to the real ethical practices we were trying to understand. It abstracted away from the contingencies of historical specificity and cultural specificity, and usually had a falsely objectivising conception of human values and where our moral outlook comes from.’ But what if we could move away from that objectivising conception, the historically contingent idea that moral authority is in some profound sense external? ‘What we need for ethics to be everything it seems’, Fricker says, ‘is a set of metaphysical assumptions that have no objectivist pretensions. If our conception of objectivity and of moral authority is just that there is a canon of sound ethical judgement which we take for granted because this is our life and this is who we are, then it should be possible for us to make that explicit to ourselves without destabilising our moral conviction.’

Fricker develops this idea in an excellent essay, ‘Confidence and Irony’, which she agrees reflects ‘a kind of optimism’. It expresses the hope, she says, that ‘if we can get our metaphysics to not engage in objectivising fantasy, then there’s no reason for us to think that, as soon as we see the authority of our convictions for what it is, the convictions will all come crashing down around us. Actually, I think that this more optimistic vision is what Williams was trying to achieve in Truth and Truthfulness, that the project of that book is to see whether you can make visible to yourself the essentially instrumental origins of morality, in particular focussing on the value of truthfulness – see the cultural-historical contingencies of that particular value – and still be able to retain truthfulness as something you regard as intrinsically valuable.’ Truth and Truthfulness, the last book Williams published during his lifetime, is notable for employing a method of genealogy – of tracing the imagined and actual history of a value – in an effort to vindicate what Williams considered the twin virtues of truthfulness, sincerity and accuracy. Genealogy has been a recurring feature of Fricker’s own writing as well. She has sketched, for instance, a genealogy of postmodernism, and built in several place – including in Epistemic Injustice – on Williams’ genealogy of truthfulness and Edward Craig’s genealogy of knowledge.

And she is employing genealogy again – or a remodelled version, which she calls ‘paradigm-based explanation’ – in her latest project, a book on blaming and forgiving. But how does genealogy work? And what makes it apt for understanding our practices of blame and forgiveness? The first point here, Fricker says, is that ‘our moral practices are a melange of so many different things. For instance, Christianity has such a strong tradition of forgiveness that, even if you’re not a Christian yourself, insofar as Christianity is in the air where you live, as it were, forgiveness will probably have those overtones.’ According to Fricker, it is this fact – that different historically conditioned meanings attach to our practices of blame and forgiveness – which makes the genealogical approach appropriate. In employing a genealogy, she says, ‘one is looking from the armchair for a core, basic, or, in my term, paradigmatic, version of the thing, which at any given moment of history and culture will take on very different forms, and accrue different sorts of meanings.’ For instance, she argues, the core of forgiveness is roughly a commitment to no longer letting one’s behaviour and sentiment towards another be structured by feelings of blame. This aspect of forgiveness is fundamental, Fricker claims, in the sense that any human society will come to incorporate some such practice; and one can, however schematically, trace from an imagined state of nature how this basic practice of forgiveness might develop.

‘What genealogy aims to do’, Fricker continues, ‘is to both identify the core practice and make room for the culturally contingent over-layers of meaning. That is what Williams hoped for from the method of genealogy in Truth and Truthfulness, which he’d taken from Edward Craig’s treatment of the concept of knowledge. Williams’ interest, however, was far more explicitly historical than Craig’s, and one of the things I especially like about that book is how much attention Williams paid to particular contingent expressions of, or, as it were, constructions of, what sincerity consisted in. It might be connected with a deep value of authenticity, or the idea of a robust self, to which you were authentic, or it might go with a far thinner idea of selfhood.’ Similarly, the paradigm case of forgiveness will, ‘depending on your situation and history and culture, come to be overlaid with many other – entirely culturally contingent – meanings and significances’. Of course, Fricker hastens to add, when ‘looking for explanations of why we’ve got the concepts or the practices that we currently operate with, you should be open-minded as to whether you’re going to find something pleasing or something really morally troubling at the starting point, or at the point in history at which you choose to stop’. If, at the end of one’s investigation into the history a concept, one has reached a morally disturbing conclusion, then one has not vindicated that concept, but instead – as in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals – debunked it.

Fricker says that she regarded this as a possibility in the case of blame: if it had turned out, for instance, that blame is paradigmatically or intrinsically retributive, she would have seen this discovery as highly discrediting to the practice. ‘But I’m not going to write that book’, she says, ‘because I think that there are really useful, indeed essentially morally constructive, progressive, and transformative, modes of blaming each other. That is what I call communicative blame, blame that is directed at bringing another to see the moral significance of what she’s done.’ I blame my friend, for example, in order to communicate the hurt that she has caused me – not in order to make her suffer, but to make her grasp the significance of her action. Blame functions, Fricker suggests, in part as ‘mutually educative dialogue, shot through with appropriate emotion of outrage, hurt, whatever it might be. Honestly, part of the project of the book – or part of the by-product of the book – is that I don’t really think any other kind of blaming is justifiable. Unless it has that purpose of reaffirming or creating new shared moral understandings, I don’t see what the point of blame could be. It could only be some undue negative thing.’

Not, however, that Fricker believes there is nothing to be said for the pathologies of blame, or for those of forgiveness. In fact, she tells me, ‘I find myself, yes, interested in what I think of as certain functional versions of both blaming and forgiving – but I assume one only really gets to those by ruling out all the really interesting, dysfunctional ways, the rather tragic ways, that as human beings we’re bound to blame each other a lot of the time. Similarly, we might very often lapse into forgiving in bad ways, because we’re coming from a place of moral wounding – and that I just find fascinating.’ I mention that, in one article, she lists six different pathologies of blame, and Fricker laughs, saying ‘And I’m sure there are many, many more! The whole perspective on it is one not so much of “Let’s look at vices because then we can all be better and pull our socks up and do a much better job”, though of course that’s part of it.  But I take vices, things going wrong, human failings, to be an integral part of life.’

Essential to her view, Fricker explains, is that ‘human fallibility should invite a perspective of pathos, rather than of endless self-improvement. Of course we should try to do better, but that’s a footnote in a way. I think that the picture of humanity as inevitably engaging in practices which are sometimes doomed to failure is part of what makes human beings beautiful.’ I try to connect her point to an essay by the late Marxist philosopher GA Cohen in defence of small-c conservativism – Cohen believed that existing things had value over and above their intrinsic value – and Fricker nods, before hesitating. ‘Honestly I think I come from another, less theoretical place’, she says. ‘My interest in pathos springs much more from novels and theatre. Without flaws, there is no drama. An awful lot of philosophy seems to me unduly interested in ideals. But I find ideals only interesting insofar as real, flawed, non-ideal characters and practices allude to them by implication. I suppose I enjoy philosophy that has a taste for the drama of human practices, what makes them go horribly wrong, for reasons we can understand. That’s the sort of interest that any writer about human beings will need if they’re to write any remotely interesting drama, and I quite like the idea that philosophy could be a bit more informed by that sensibility than it tends to be.’

Indeed, Fricker says that she often finds novels, plays and films to be enormously philosophically animating – that, for example, a playwright’s vision can crystallise for her an idea or illuminate a topic that she is working on. She gives two examples of novels that she thinks shed light on the nature of forgiveness. The first, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, Fricker describes as ‘perhaps most centrally about how we live our life, how we make sense of our own life, in a narrative way, through highlighting and backgrounding different events’. Reading the Barnes novel again, she tells me, made her realise the extent to which forgiveness can often be a necessary mechanism for preserving one’s grip on reality. ‘If we indulge in too many fictions about our own lives’, Fricker says, ‘perhaps through self-interest or other sorts of fantasy, we become unable to live in the present. We risk hiding from the reality of the present, hiding in the fantasies or fictions about our own past that we’ve constructed to help it become liveable. And so we become alienated from the time we’re really in.’ Put philosophically, notions about the past encroaching on the present can seem perhaps a touch melodramatic, or peculiarly metaphysical. ‘But they were right there in the Barnes novel’, Fricker says, ‘and I think the message the book conveys is philosophically true’.

Forgiveness is not the only way of consigning traumas to the past, however. Fricker takes a second series of autobiographical novels by Edward St Aubyn – which depict St Aubyn’s process of coming to terms with having been sexually abused by his cruel and aristocratic father – to illustrate this point. The St Aubyn surrogate in the novels, Patrick Melrose, never considers forgiving his father for raping him. ‘But Patrick does’, Fricker says, ‘want to find a way of no longer being trapped in that boyhood position, which is preventing him from living his present, preventing him from connecting to his family in the present and living as an adult. He is trapped in the past so long as he cannot put the trauma behind him; so he looks for what he calls an “ambiguity”, an attitude that falls short of compassion for his father, but is very like compassion, and which might allow him to grasp something of why his father became the monster he did. Patrick is looking to make peace with his past. But St Aubyn is decidedly not peddling forgiveness as the only way to find peace.’ The point, ultimately, is that there are modes of engaging with past traumas other than moral engagement; and that, here as in so many other areas of life, the moral point of view cannot be allowed to crowd out alternative perspectives on the world.

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