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Flaws and Forgiveness

By Daniel Kodsi

The names for a woman who alternately sobbed, snivelled and screamed as Brett Kavanaugh did during his testimony before the US Senate would have been rather less kind. Not ‘heroic’, but ‘hysterical’. A woman who loses her cool when testifying is out of her mind; a man who loses his temper while on trial stands to win respect. We trust him – trust his anger to be that of an innocent man wrongly accused. We find him credible because of his pain. We would have found Christine Blasey Ford less credible had she displayed hers. Because of Kavanaugh’s ‘fighting’ performance, Ford was ultimately – if not exactly disbelieved – not believed. She was taken by many to be, at best, mistaken as to the identity of the man who held her down and tried to strip her 36 years ago.

September’s courtroom melodrama can be read as the scene of what philosopher Miranda Fricker, in her 2007 book of the same name, calls ‘epistemic injustice.’ In particular, it was a manifestation of testimonial injustice – the kind of wrong that is committed when, influenced by prejudice, a hearer fails to assign some speaker the credibility he or she deserves. Take Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. What injustice is suffered upon Tom when the jury refuses to take seriously his testimony? The injustice, Fricker claims, is that the jury fails to give him his due as an epistemic agent. One wrong enables others: because Tom is not believed, he is condemned and then killed. But the first wrong – Tom’s exclusion from the community of knowers, of people to be listened to and believed – is not reducible to the further wrongs it made possible. It is an injustice in its own right. In disregarding his testimony and marginalising his potential to tell the truth, the jury treats Tom as less than human.

In a sense, of course, we all know this; it is the subject of To Kill a Mockingbird. But Fricker succeeds in giving the phenomenon a name, one which, with any luck, can help us recognise other instances; get a better handle on its structure; and situate it within broader ethical, epistemological and political frameworks. Epistemic Injustice does not define a concept we were previously unable to grasp. Instead its philosophical contribution is to make explicit what was already there in human practice, yet only fuzzily or ineffably so. It gives sharper expression to a familiar truth, with the aim of helping us to make sense of our social and moral world – and possibly to improve it.

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 friendly in greeting me and remains so as we talk. She has a warm English accent – although teaching in New York, Fricker is British and attended Oxford for her undergraduate and doctoral studies – and a light laugh, which primarily comes out in delight at one or another of the absurdities of philosophy.

The liveliness of Fricker’s manner is reflected in her approach to doing philosophy. She considers philosophy, she says, a wrestling process. It involves trying to fit human practices into a philosophical structure without distorting the practices or sacrificing the structure. ‘I love 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. I love the to-and-fro between trying to honour real life, real practices, and trying to properly sculpt a piece of philosophy.’

I am reminded, when Fricker says this, of a line from the beginning of Joan Didion’s The White Album, that ‘[w]e live entirely… by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience’. I ask Fricker if she identifies with this. To an extent, she says, but clarifies a certain optimism in her outlook, namely that philosophy need not – and must not – involve an imposition. ‘I don’t like the idea’, Fricker tells me, ‘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.’

Fricker’s belief in the possibility for theory not to involve displacement at the level of practice perhaps signals a 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, Fricker tells me, when I ask who contributed the most to shaping her philosophical outlook, a significant influence on the development of her thought, along with her other DPhil supervisor, Sabina Lovibond. 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 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.’

Fricker was also influenced, she says, by Williams’ highly distinctive style as a writer. ‘One of the things I really love about his philosophy’, she tells me, ‘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 philosophy. And I enjoy that enormously about his philosophy, even though I think it means that he is often misread.’ Williams deftly ridiculed in a late essay philosophers who tried, 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, 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’.

This attitude ends up having a certain kind of effect on the reader. For one thing, it means that Williams’ writing rewards rereading. Normally’, Fricker says, ‘one thinks it’s 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.’ Fricker explains how she came to see Williams’ essay ‘The Truth in Relativism’ in a very different light after repeated engagement with it. A comment in the piece she previously considered marginal – that the point of moral appraisal had to do with deciding how to live – she came to regard as the engine driving Williams’ relativism. ‘Others might differ’, Fricker says, ‘and I might reread it and change my mind. But that was a kind of aha moment. 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 that sort of aha rereading moment with such a text. 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 and maximise explicitness about every presumption.’

Returning to her hopes for ethical theorising, as against Williams’ pessimism about it, Fricker explains that she thinks of Williams’ scepticism about moral theory ‘as a very immanent critique of a particular phase of ethical theory’. Williams felt, she explains, 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 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.’

This idea is explored in greater detail in an excellent essay, ‘Confidence and Irony’, which Fricker agrees expresses ‘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 order to vindicate truthfulness. 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 places – 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 blame and forgiveness. 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.’

It is in part the fact that different historically conditioned meanings attach to our practices of blame and forgiveness that makes, Fricker says, the genealogical approach appropriate. In employing a genealogy, she tells me, ‘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 says, the core of forgiveness is roughly a commitment to no longer letting one’s behaviour and sentiment towards another be structured by blame. This aspect of forgiveness is fundamental 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 the practice, at its most basic, might develop.

‘What philosophy 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 love 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 not.’ 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 one, at the end of one’s investigation, finds something morally troubling, one has not vindicated the concept in question, but – 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, then she would have seen that discovery as highly damaging to the practice. ‘But I’m not going to write that book’, Fricker 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 byproduct 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 anew 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, and of forgiveness. In fact, she says, ‘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 much of the time, because we’re coming from a place of moral wounding – and that I just find fascinating.’

As Fricker has put it in some of her writing, her methodology is ‘Failure First’. (Notice that her book is Epistemic Injustice, not Epistemic Justice.) I mention that in an 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, as an integral part of life – and, for some of them at least, an integral part of what makes human beings beautiful. Our fallibility, the reasons we find things difficult when we’re morally wounded.’

‘This is all something’, she elaborates, ‘that should invite a perspective of pathos, rather than 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 its 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 have shed light on her current project. The first, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, Fricker says, ‘is 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. We interpret events in a way that allows them to make sense to us, and of course in a way that is bound to be biased by certain interests and fears that we have.’

She references an essay by another philosopher, David Velleman, discussing our sense of narrative structure – the ‘emotional sense of the tick and the tock, the shape of things. Reading the Barnes novel again suddenly made me realise something I wanted to say about forgiveness, which is how, if we indulge in too many fictions about our own life – perhaps through self-interest or other sorts of fantasy – we become unable to live in the present, because we’re 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 present; we’re not really able to live in our own present.’ Put philosophically, notions about the past crowding out the present can seem perhaps a touch melodramatic, or peculiarly metaphysical. ‘But they were right there in the Barnes novel’, Fricker says, ‘and I actually think the message conveyed is philosophically true.’

Fricker is keen to insist, however, that forgiveness is not the only way of consigning traumas to the past. Edward St Aubyn’s autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels – which describe coming to terms with being sexually abused by his father – bear considerably on this point, by way of illustrating that moral engagement is not the only, or necessarily best, kind of engagement there is. ‘The Patrick Melrose character’, Fricker says, ‘is not for one moment having any truck with the idea that he’d want to forgive his abusive father. But he does 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 too is trapped in the past so long as he cannot put it behind him; so he looks for what he calls an ambiguity, something that falls short of compassion for his father – but is very like compassion, which might allow him to grasp something of why his father became the monster he did. Patrick is looking to make peace with it; “to let it go” is another relevant cliché. But St Aubyn is certainly not peddling forgiveness as the only way to find peace.’ And neither, Fricker emphasises, should we.

DANIEL KODSI is a graduate student in philosophy. He finds this fact, implying as it does that philosophers have not yet gone extinct, as disconcerting as you do.

Artwork by Zoe Harris-Wallis


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