Tuesday, 28 April 2020

The Ethics of Philosophising from Experience

This post is by Abigail Gosselin (Regis University). Here she is telling us about her paper, "Philosophizing from Experience: First‐Person Accounts and Epistemic Justice", published in Social Philosophy in 2019.




Many philosophers appreciate hearing the first-person accounts that philosophers sometimes give when they disclose their personal connection to the topic about which they are philosophizing. First-person accounts are valuable for many reasons, including the fact that they establish the first-person authority of the speaker, who has privileged access to and hermeneutical command over their first-person experience. Sharing first-person accounts can also be harmful in many ways, however, such as by exposing the speaker to various vulnerabilities, and must be employed cautiously.

First-person accounts of experience that is potentially epistemically impairing—such as accounts of mental illness, intellectual disability, or brain injury—can undermine a speaker’s credibility when listeners assume that the potential impairment is global rather than specific. Knowing that a speaker has some impairment in rational capacity, self-control, and/or knowledge can lead to false or misguided assumptions about the scope and severity of impairment, potentially leading to judgments of credibility deficit and prejudicial treatment which undermine the speaker’s professional credibility.

At the same time, many philosophers are well-intentioned and want to avoid being judgmental or dismissive, so they sometimes try to avoid the danger of discrediting by over-compensating in their acceptance of a person’s testimony, accepting it at face value without critically interrogating it. Such uncritical acceptance is a form of credibility excess, however, reducing a person to being a witness of their own experience. While they are regarded as having authority to speak about their personal experience, they are not seen as a credible authority in academic inquiry.


Whether philosophers automatically discredit a speaker who discloses having a mental impairment or whether they try to overcompensate by accepting the speaker’s testimony uncritically, they commit an epistemic injustice to the speaker when they do not treat the speaker as an equal participant in philosophical discourse by not critically engagement with the speaker’s testimony. When philosophers philosophize from firsthand experience, they want their testimony to be regarded as a contribution to philosophical discourse, subject to the kinds of philosophical inquiry and scrutiny to which other contributions are subject. When firsthand accounts are offered as part of philosophical dialogue, they should be taken up by others in the spirit in which they are intended to be shared.


Responding to firsthand accounts in a philosophical context requires both listeners and speakers to adopt certain epistemic virtues that enable thoughtful appraisal. Listeners should be open-minded and respectful, and interpret the speaker’s contributions with charity, assuming best intentions. Listeners should engage with the speaker’s ideas with epistemic humility, making suggestions in a kind and helpful way.

Speakers should share their firsthand accounts with epistemic conscientiousness, desiring their stories to be engaged with critically, and with detachment, without being personally invested in how their story is taken up by others. Speakers also need to be epistemically courageous in making themselves vulnerable through their contribution. By being mindful of how we share and receive firsthand accounts in philosophical discourse, we can enable such accounts to play an important role in how we philosophize from experience.

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