Epistemic Learned Helplessness: An Extension of Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice

A fundamental axiom of feminist epistemology is that what we consider to be knowledge is subjective. This does not mean reality is itself subjective — only that there’s social influence that changes what we consider to be true. Sometimes, that social influence is harmful. When it is harmful, a framework I’ve found to be useful is Miranda Fricker’s notion of “epistemic injustice”, or things that harm someone in their capacity as a knower.

Fricker’s conceptual framework is useful, but incomplete. I’ll describe her existing framework, and propose an additional category of epistemic injustice that I call Epistemic Learned Helplessness (ELH).

Let’s start with defining terms: What is epistemic injustice, and what does it mean to harm someone as a knower?

Epistemic Injustice, Defined

Fricker proposes two categories of epistemic injustice: Testimonial and Hermeneutical. These are big words, but describe pretty simple concepts.

Testimonial injustice is when we unduly discount the worth of someone’s testimony. As a feminist philosopher, Fricker focuses primarily on sexist causes of testimonial injustice. A woman testifying against her rapist may be treated less fairly than she should be by the officer interviewing her. This harms the woman as a knower because it limits her ability to communicate what she knows.

Some other examples could be:

  • A child’s claims being ignored on account of their youth
  • A person’s opinion being devalued because they don’t have a university degree
  • A man’s word not being trusted because he’s black

These sorts of biases pervade our society, and I think Fricker is right to point these out as injustices. These biases do real harm to real people, and an injustice framework puts the onus on us to remedy the situation.

Miranda Fricker

Hermeneutical injustice occurs when people lack the language to describe their own experiences — leading to unwarranted self doubt, or ability to communicate.

The example Fricker uses is the story of a woman named Carmita, who was being sexually harassed by her boss. She knew this was bad, but “workplace sexual harassment” wasn’t really a mainstream term. Without that language to describe her experience, she wasn’t able to precisely articulate what was going wrong.

Being able to define experiences, and describe them well, can be limited by our society’s language norms. This is not the fault of any individual, but society’s for not giving people the tools they need to communicate.

Epistemic Injustice as Objectification

Fricker focuses on epistemic injustice as harming someone’s capacity as a knower. While true, there’s another lens to look at the problem: objectification.

Martha Nussbaum has a great paper on objectification and its varying forms. In particular, I want to focus on the parallels between Fricker’s injustices and Nussbaum’s objectification categories of “denial of subjectivity” and “denial of autonomy”.

Martha Nussbaum

Hermeneutic injustice — denying people the ability to articulate their experiences — limits an individual’s ability to change the world, thereby making it a denial of autonomy. Testimonial injustice is then a denial of subjectivity, as its perpetrators unduly discount the opinions of others for no reason other than personal bias.

A Third Category

While Fricker’s concepts are useful, I propose a third category: Epistemic learned helplessness (ELH). I believe ELH has better explanatory power than existing terms when we look at cults and abusive relationships, and I’ll show how it functions as an injustice by harming people as knowers, and explore its parallels in Nussbaum’s objectification framework.

What do I mean by learned helplessness? I’m basing the term on a 1972 study by Martin Seligman that describes the phenomenon.

Seligman had two groups of dogs exposed to electric shocks, with one group being shocked whenever they pushed a button, and one group being shocked at random. He and his research team then showed that when placed in a box with easy escape and random shocks, the dogs who were exposed to shocks based on their behaviour quickly escaped whereas those previously shocked at random lay down and whined. Seligman thought that the second group of dogs who didn’t attempt escape had learned that the shocks were inescapable and therefore didn’t think to try even when given an easy way out.

Martin Seligman

The phenomenon of epistemic learned helpless that I’m about to describe closely mirrors the behaviour Seligman saw. People in situations where they are made to blindly accept the claims of others can end up distrusting their own thoughts — an extreme version of gaslighting — and I believe this is best represented by a new category of epistemic injustice.

Let’s look at cults first.

Cults and Injustice

“Cults are bad” is not a particularly exciting claim. Regardless, it’s important to explain precisely how they damage the minds of their members.

Edgar Schein — a professor famous for his work on brainwashing — outlines a basic three-step process that cults tend to use:

  1. Unfreezing. Make new cult members doubt their personal beliefs, and by extension their capacity to reason.
  2. Chasing. Use behavioural modification strategies to “thought stop”, or stop victims from even having thoughts contrary to the cult’s dogma
  3. Refreezing. Lock in a victim’s cult-friendly thought patterns with further behavioural modification strategies.
Edgar Schein

These tactics have a strong mental and biological impact; Kathleen Taylor — a physiology professor at Oxford — has a book showing how neurological pathways may become more rigid after brainwashing, limiting a cult victim’s ability to reorganize their thoughts later and break through to reality.

The brainwashing process operates similarly to testimonial injustices by making victim’s testimony become diminished. Brainwashing goes one step further; victims’ testimony is not unduly discounted, they are instead literally made to believe an alternate version of events. Hermeneutical injustice strategies may also be used in the process of thought-stopping — denying language or words like “Xenu” is a tactic used by Scientologists — but instead of preventing the articulation of experience this is used to cement certain beliefs.

In other words, testimonial and hermeneutic injustice describe harming individuals in their ability to communicate, whereas epistemic learned helplessness takes away what they may want to communicate in the first place.

Abusive Households and Injustice

Again, a stance against abusive households is not a particularly controversial one. Instead, I’ll try to show how these households can operate in similar ways to cults when it comes to belief formation — thereby constituting epistemic learned helplessness.

John Darnielle, a musician and novelist, recounts his experiences to a reporter:

“My stepfather wanted me to write Marxist poetry; if it didn’t serve the revolution, it wasn’t worthwhile …. You have to understand the dynamic of the abused household. What you think doesn’t matter. Your thoughts are passing. They are positions you adopt to survive.” — NYMAG

John Darnielle

Abuse survivors like Darnielle end up deferring to their abusers as a survival tactic, and develop ELH to mitigate abuse. We can see similar behaviour in battered women, too.

Much like cults, this process can damage survivors’ ability to think for themselves. Before they can even be harmed in their ability to communicate their thoughts, they are first limited in their ability to have thoughts in the first place.

Epistemic Learned Helplessness as a New Category

There are a few common elements to the examples I’ve given.

  1. The injustice was caused by another person,
  2. ELH was cultivated intentionally, and
  3. The victims were taken advantage of — for ego, profit, or other motives

These 3 criteria are important to meet Nussbaum’s standards of objectification. In her estimation, objectification is interpersonal, makes one a tool to be used by another, and this state must then be taken advantage of. With the 3 components of ELH I’ve outlined, the concept would then meet Nussbaum’s definition of objectification.

A Third Definition of Harm

In addition to Fricker and Nussbaum’s respective definitions of harm and objectification, I’ll add a third way in which ELH victims are harmed.

Notable developmental psychologist Robert Kegan has a framework wherein he describes the ways in which an individual’s mental models of the world change over time as they progress into adulthood. These are:

  • Stage 1 — Impulsive mind
  • Stage 2 — Imperial mind (adolescence, 6% of adult population)
  • Stage 3 — Socialized mind (58% of the adult population)
  • Stage 4 — Self-Authoring mind (35% of the adult population)
  • Stage 5 — Self-Transforming mind (1% of the adult population)

(for a more detailed exploration of the topic, see here)

Kegan’s 5 Stages — Source

I’d like to focus on stages 3 and 4, as they are most relevant to ELH. Stage 3 is the category Kegan believes most adults fall under, where the most important things to an individual are the beliefs, opinions, and ideals of their external environment; Stage 4 is when individuals become capable of self-authoring, able to define who they are and not be defined by others.

Cult brainwashing as outlined by Schein makes victims submit to the whims of their isolated social circle while changing their thought-patterns indefinitely. Similarly, abusive relationships use social pressure as a tool to breed compliance, thereby forcing victims into a mindset of dominance hierarchies.

ELH would halt an individual at Stage 3 in cognitive development, wherein they are constantly forced to have their beliefs socially determined. Barring an individual from progressing to Stage 4 would then deny them the ability to take control of their own life.

What can we do?

How might we mitigate the harm of epistemic learned helplessness? Ethics professor Patrick Bondy describes an adaptation of Fricker’s work that he calls argumentative injustice where “an arguer’s social identity brings listeners to place too much or little credibility in an argument”. Bondy suggests that one should adopt a stance of “meta distrust” wherein we distrust our own biases towards trusting or not trusting others. He says that in the case of positive or negative emotional responses to arguments, we should take time to critically evaluate the arguments and identify if the emotional reaction is warranted or not. This is consistent with the findings of economist Daniel Kahneman, who showed that our decision making becomes more accurate when we let our minds shift from impulsive decisions to rational decisions.

However, this is a difficult solution; most cult members, for example, won’t take the time to be educated while still in the thrall of their cult. Bondy and Kahneman’s recommendation only makes sense in the context of harm prevention, and don’t deal with rehabilitation.


Epistemic learned helplessness should be considered a unique category under Miranda Fricker’s framework of epistemic injustice. I’ve shown how ELH as a phenomenon hurts individuals as knowers, serves to perpetuate objectification, and halts the cognitive development of its victims.

Thanks for making it to the end. Let me know what you think!



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Ethan Milne

Ethan Milne

Current PhD student at the Ivey School of Business, researching consumer behaviour. I enjoy writing long-form explanations of niche academic books.