Epistemic injustice, naturalism, and mental disorder: on the epistemic benefits of obscuring social factors

Synthese 201 (6):1-22 (2023)
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Abstract

Naturalistic understandings that frame human experiences and differences as biological dysfunctions have been identified as a key source of epistemic injustice. Critics argue that those understandings are epistemically harmful because they obscure social factors that might be involved in people’s suffering; therefore, naturalistic understandings should be undermined. But those critics have overlooked the epistemic benefits such understandings can offer marginalised individuals. In this paper, I argue that the capacity of naturalistic understandings to obscure social factors does not necessarily cause epistemic injustice and can even help people to avoid some epistemic injustice. I do this by considering how some individuals with bipolar disorder deploy the neurobiological understanding of their disorder, highlighting three functions it fills for them: explanation, disclamation, and decontestation. In performing these functions, the neurobiological understanding does marginalise alternative, social perspectives on bipolar disorder. However, this can be understood as a feature rather than a bug. By marginalising alternative explanations, the neurobiological understanding can help individuals with bipolar disorder resist epistemic injustice, including, for example, the trivialisation of their experiences. Given this, critics seeking to undermine naturalistic understandings of mental disorder and other experiences in the pursuit of epistemic justice themselves risk exacerbating epistemic injustice.

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Dan Degerman
University of Bristol

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References found in this work

Health as a theoretical concept.Christopher Boorse - 1977 - Philosophy of Science 44 (4):542-573.
Conceptualizing Epistemic Oppression.Kristie Dotson - 2014 - Social Epistemology 28 (2):115-138.
The Epistemology of Resistance.José Medina - 2012 - Oxford University Press.

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