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"Philosophy, the Philosophical Institution, and Epistemic Paralysis"

Kelly Agra | 11 February 2022



In a space where you are consistently reminded of your position of in-betweenness: of belonging and not belonging, of being invited to listen but not to speak, or of being invited to speak but not properly heard, of being encouraged to think but not against established systems and figures of thought, or to think about truth but not to be ‘improperly / unconventionally’ truthful; one learns skills, but also inhibitions, that help one navigate such space. One of these inhibitions, I theorize, is epistemic paralysis.

In one occasion during my masters, I was sharing with one of my mentors my sense of achievement for finally being able to speak my mind with courage in my philosophy classes, for finally feeling that I can actually stand equal to my conversation partners, for finally finding my voice and so is my place in the philosophical community; and that, while the struggle to understand philosophy remains, I now engage with it with a greater degree of confidence… I trust that my mentor meant well, but I was stunned by his response, for he said: “That’s because you’re a woman.”

On another occasion, this time in the US, I was having a conversation about plans for my PhD, with one of the organizers of the Žižek studies conference in 2016 where I delivered a junior scholar keynote lecture. Again, I believe that this colleague meant well, but for some reason, I was confused about the meaning behind what he views to be my best cards for getting a scholarship: “You’re Asian, you’re a woman, and you’re young/ single/ childless.”

These responses during the time I heard them, struck me as both surprising and ambiguous. I was surprised because back then, I could not understand how my ‘identity’ had anything to do with my eventual success in philosophy. My bafflement was at a time when I was still enamored by the dominant philosophies of the West AND unexposed to the works of feminist, disability, critical race, post- and decolonial thinkers that underscore the salience of identities and the effects of power differentials in the (de)legitimation and (mis)recognition of knowledges and knowers (W.E.B. Du Bois, 1903; Frantz Fanon, 1952; Renato Constantino, 1966; Patricia Hill Collins, 1990; Zeus Salazar, 1991; Charles Mills, 1997; Linda Martín Alcoff, 1998; María Lugones, 2003; Miranda Fricker, 2007; José Medina, 2013; Kristie Dotson, 2011; Elizabeth Barnes, 2016), works that I wish I read right at the beginning of my initiation to philosophy.

Other than surprising, I also found the responses to be ambiguous. On the one hand, they seem to acknowledge the reality that Asians, women in general, and women with domestic commitments in particular, are underrepresented or marginally positioned in philosophy and these create barriers to their full participation and flourishing in the field. But on the other hand, they also seem to point to an implicit ontological claim about the intellectual abilities of scholars with the intersectional identity of being a single, childless, woman in her early 20s, from the Global South. In this latter and unsympathetic interpretation, my struggle and success were not dependent on the structural conditions of philosophizing, instead, they were dependent on my identity. According to it, there is something in me that prevents me from fully harnessing and wielding philosophical prowess, or conversely, there is something in me that is specifically sought after by funding institutions—both to which we can raise the question, why or how come?

Today, armed with the critical-analytic tools of the thought traditions I have earlier mentioned, I now have a good understanding of how identities, rather than being insignificant to knowledge making, do position knowers in very different conditions and contexts that enable different degrees of lucidity and sensitivity, as well as create different degrees of ignorance and insensitivity, to different experiences and aspects of the world. Identities have a specific salience to the way knowledge is shaped, produced, distributed, legitimated, or institutionalized. In critical distance to the tendency to read identity discourse in philosophy as ideologically misled (an argument observable in some works on Filipino Philosophy today), I defend the view that understanding how epistemic agents are empowered and disempowered by virtue of their belonging to intersectional group identities, can help us unpack the epistemology, ethics, and politics behind the institutionalization of knowledges, including the series of questions that Christine Tan’s lecture earlier points to: What counts as philosophy? Who counts as philosophers? Who does the counting? And where are they counted from? In this conversation, I offer to you some of my thoughts on the phenomenon I call epistemic paralysis in institutionalized philosophy.

I conceptualize epistemic paralysis as that which happens in the first instance when (1) the epistemic agencies of individuals, groups, communities, or even institutions, become inhibited (in different ways and degrees), andin the second instance when (2) the intersubjective and institutional generation, distribution, and uptake of knowledges get blocked, in certain contexts, oppressively or strategically, as power differentials condition social-epistemic interaction. Epistemic paralysis in the first instance, or the epistemic paralysis of epistemic agents, would include a range of practical inhibitions, that take the form of wishing but being unable to…think or understand, express one’s thoughts and feelings, air an opinion, make a statement, write or publish a paper, deliver a talk or speech, give a testimony in court or to the police, fight for one’s rights, protest a harassment, contest policies, or propose structural reforms. This tension between not being able to perform certain knowledge generating practices but wanting or hoping to perform them is what induces the paralyzing feeling. I conceptualize epistemic paralysis as a phenomenon that refers not only to everyday moments of brain fog or mental block, but to more serious moments of being overtaken by shyness, anxiety, fear, feelings of isolation, worthlessness, unbelongingness, terror, distrust, disbelief, doubt, and of feelings of entrapment or stunted growth in an institution or environment. It is epistemic paralysis if these occur when the minimal requirements of communicative and affective recognition in social-epistemic interaction are absent, such that the said cognitive-affective reactions lead to the temporary or persistent frustration of an individual’s or collective’s abilities to know and express knowledge within certain contexts. Meanwhile, epistemic paralysis in the second instance, or the epistemic paralysis of knowledges, takes place when knowledges get unjustly ignored, dismissed, or erased due to prejudicial biases against the sources and generators of these knowledges, or due to the fear of the consequences or transformations that these knowledges will produce or demand once their legitimacies are acknowledged, particularly when they challenge dominant or existing knowledges including the current rules of knowing, intelligibility, or even critique.

On both instances of epistemic paralysis, it merits to note that marginalized knowers are not the only ones harmed. Through their epistemology ignorance, as Charles Mills puts it, or through their transcendental delusion as Linda Martín Alcoff calls it, dominantly situated philosophers are at the same time prevented from accessing and benefiting from other and potentially better knowledges of relevant parts of the world and aspects of life. A recent example of this, is how for years, the Australian government has failed to benefit from its indigenous peoples’ expertise in dealing with wildfires. Recent reports show that Australia’s IPs who predate European colonization by some 40,000 years have managed bushfires more effectively in the past through their knowledge of local ecosystems and carefully controlled burnings. (Aarti Betigeri, 2020) However, because of the colonial relegation of IP knowledges as inferior to Western science, Australian government first had to pay the high price of their Black Summer 2019-2020, in order to learn this.

Another example is how the active ignorance about the works on resistance of marginally situated knowers can make dominantly situated knowers ignorant of identity-sensitive and intersectional ways of overcoming the effects of oppression or injustice. For instance, in Tracy Llanera’s upcoming publication on “Misogyny, Feminism, and the Alt-Right”, one learns about the phenomenon of white women willingly joining a misogynistic group that would clearly disempower them as women for the sake of white supremacy. This reminded me of what Patricia Hill Collins highlighted in her work on Black Feminist Thought, i.e. how black women, on account of racial solidarity, would choose to remain publicly silent about their experiences of rape so as not to perpetuate the sexual stigmatizations against black men by white people. (Collins, 1990) The race over gender dynamics in these two instances are very similar, but the difference is that the former aims at strategic domination, while the latter aims at strategic liberation. It is not difficult to see how the white women in this instance may end up being forcefully silenced as women, while black women are able to use silence as a form of strategic resistance.

What I would like to stress through these examples is that the recognition or misrecognition of knowledges and knowers can have direct effects to social-political interaction. Epistemic justice or injustice can directly challenge or sustain social justice or injustice. In my work, I underscore the likelihood of the internalization of epistemic misrecognition by knowers when they are consistently and perniciously epistemically marginalized and gaslighted by their epistemic interaction partners. Being subjected to this form of epistemic oppression can knock off their faith in their intimated sense of a given experience (Fricker, 2007), damage their ability to speak and be heard (Dotson, 2011), or lead them to distrust (if not weaken their trust in) their own epistemic agency, as well as of those whom they share the identity that is prejudiced against, which then prevents collective agency (Agra, 2020). It is in these senses that I consider epistemic misrecognition, exclusion, or oppression to be capable of inducing epistemic paralysis. As Patricia Hill Collins once remarked:

Silencing and self-censorship go hand in hand—people who are repeatedly ignored quickly learn the protections of seeming acquiescence. Yet because ideas are not shared freely, these practices harm the quality of knowledge itself and foster ignorance among dominant group members concerning what subordinate group members actually think. Such communities “quiet” dissident voices and by doing so “smother” good ideas of their members. (Collins, 2019)

Because we use knowledge to navigate the world and engage in a wide range of human practices, e.g. develop moral judgments, participate in political deliberations, and generally build self-confidence and personal integrity—recognitive and communicative dysfunctions may arise when knowers are persistently marginalized. By this, I am suggesting that epistemic wrongs and harms against knowers or knowledges, not only affect the quality of knowledge itself but that they also affect interpersonal and socio-political relationships and modes of communication. On the question of resistance for instance, epistemic paralysis as a phenomenon can undermine the very possibility of critique and protest. Since it is a radical weakening of the fundamental disposition-and-belief regarding the reliability of our judgements, it can directly corrode our sensitivity to track forms of subjugation and diminish our alertness to struggles against oppression. Epistemic paralysis can thus make individuals complicit to the marginalization of others, as well as of their own.

Artwork by Kili Piluden

The Four Conditions of Epistemic Paralysis

At the time of writing this piece, I generally identify four epistemic paralysis inducing conditions: (1) internalized distrust and disrespect, (2) epistemic isolation, (3) epistemic shock, and (4) institutional deadlock. In the following, I discuss them in the context of philosophical institutions.

  1. At an individual level, epistemic paralysis through internalized distrust or even disrespect, is easy to imagine. Impostor syndrome, being perniciously deferential to your partner or supervisor, are some examples of this. I will skip the discussion of these instances for the interest of time. What interests me more is when it moves to the collective level, i.e. of communities and institutions, where epistemic agents who share an identity begin to disrespect or discriminate against one another, consciously or unconsciously. This can be observed for instance in non-Western academic institutions that reproduce in their curriculum and institutional practices undue epistemic privileging of Western knowledge sources and practices that systematically reinforces discrimination. Philosophical institutions in the Philippines are guilty of this. This is only one of the lasting effects of colonialism in the Philippines that still gets deployed in its educational system—a grim reality that Renato Constantino has poignantly identified to have begun with the use of English as medium of instruction. Constantino’s account of the Philippine ‘colonial miseducation’ highlights the institutional habituation of a people to subordination, the normalization of ignorance of the ills of the country, and the reproduction of apathy towards the national welfare. (Constantino, 1966) This also generated internalized and horizontal discrimination among the Filipinos not only towards one another, their cultural and knowledge products, but also towards their institutions. I argue that this not only curtailed the individual agencies of the Filipino people, but, also, their collective agency.

  2. Apart from internalized distrust and disrespect, epistemic paralysis, in my view, can also result from epistemic isolation emanating from one’s quantitatively marginal position within an epistemic community, which can then result to representation burnout and later on quieting. When you are a minority in an epistemic community, the demands of representation can be overwhelming and the resistance to domination can be unsustainable if one does not receive communal and institutional support. When academic institutions only have one or two females in the faculty roster or only one or two of them are working in non-Western or non-dominant areas of study, this can make it more difficult for these marginally situated knowers to create counter spaces and develop counter hermeneutical resources if they do not receive wide support and engagement. This latter situation of being paradoxically hypervisible and invisible is what is usually referred to in academia as tokenism, wherein members of minority groups are included in the pool of experts only in order to make it seem as though the academic institution does indeed uphold the principles of EDI: equality, diversity, and inclusion.

  3. Another modality of the source of epistemic paralysis as I conceive it is epistemic shock which I take to affect dominantly situated knowers more specifically, but it can also be experienced by all knowers generally. Epistemic shock is what can take place when a knower realizes that what they originally practiced and reproduced owing to the belief that it is true, right, or just, is radically false, wrong, or unjust based on the counter epistemologies developed by differently situated knowers who have competence in both the dominant and marginal epistemologies available. This is most especially pronounced when the identity in question is portrayed, rightly or wrongly, as being complicit to forms of subjugation. While such shock may not necessarily or always induce a feeling of entrapment or paralysis, and can even only be temporary, the radical questioning of the validity of one’s dearly held knowledge that goes hand-in-hand with one’s identity, can generate such feelings. Alexei Yurchak, for instance, documents the “stunning shock” that Soviets experienced after the collapse of Soviet socialism, for this went side by side with the proliferation of criticisms against it as “bad” and “immoral” and its citizens as “having no agency” in being coerced to subscribe to or unreflective about ‘communist values’. (Yurchak, 2006) Yurchak notes that this created a shocking dissonance between the perception others have of the Soviets’ and the Soviets’ understanding of their nation and themselves as a people. In the philosophical context, epistemic shock may explain why white / male / abled scholars may feel defensive when engaged by feminists, scholars of colour, and disabled scholars.

  4. The last one is institutional epistemic paralysis. This happens when institutions are made aware of their prejudicial institutional biases and yet do not have the corrective institutional mechanisms to change their epistemic norms, practices, and policies, because of how deeply ingrained these biases are into the very structure of the institution itself such that the introduction of transformation can be so radical that it can lead to the collapse of the institution. An example of this is when a philosophy department, established as part of the Catholic Church institution, is unable to seriously consider and integrate secular, radical, post- and decolonial, as well as gender and sexuality orientated ideas and debates that question hetero-patriarchal, colonial, and authoritarian theologies, into its operation and curriculum because of its ecclesiastical institutional commitments. Other instances may be when the school of philosophy is unable to diversify its faculty roster, hire female faculty or philosophers of colour due to limitations in institutional rules for hiring; or when philosophical institutions are unable to condemn or make a stance against unethical practices within its institution without risking the tarnishing of its reputation.

What these four epistemic paralysis-inducing situations share is the feature of disjunction between on the one hand, one’s knowledge, and on the other hand, the actual exercise of epistemic mechanisms that allow one to express or defend, and acquire or confirm, this knowledge in bodily or linguistic means, or even in the form of new norms, practices, and policies. This disjunction can range from having knowledge but not having the public means of expressing or defending this knowledge, to actually not having or losing knowledge as a consequence of not having the means to acquire or confirm that knowledge. Furthermore, I again stress the point that knowers are not only vulnerable to being assaulted from without, but also to being inhibited from within, and this internal inhibition and entrapment, that can be a real effect of our epistemic relations and interactions as conditioned by power differentials, unfortunately help re-produce the very same relations and structures of domination from which they emerge. More sadly so, as I have tried to present, the philosophical institution is in itself a site for epistemic paralysis.

Epistemic Misrecognition in Philosophy and the Possibility of Resistance

In Christine’s lecture about the other-ing of non-Anglo-European philosophies, we see how marginalization is institutionalized in philosophy. Institutionally, non-Anglo-European philosophies are categorized in philosophical curricula as, ‘alternative’ or identity-orientated philosophies: e.g. Eastern, Chinese, Asian, Indian, Japanese, Filipino, African, etc., as opposed to Ethics, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Logic, Ancient, Medieval, Modern Philosophy. Unsurprisingly, similar marginalizing trope is used to (not) integrate gender-orientated philosophies such as Feminist or Queer Philosophy. Through institutionalized other-ing, the pressure of the critical and transformative force other-ed knowers and knowledges exert unto dominantly situated knowers and knowledges get diffused if not undermined. By actively ignoring other-ed philosophies, Anglo-European philosophers and their philosophies maintain their dominance and privileges. This provides explanation to why philosophers would rather not acknowledge the salience of identities in knowledge formation. However, I argue that ignorance of identity struggle in philosophy is symptomatic of the ignorance of identity-based forms of oppression.

Building on Christine’s critique of liberal calls for inclusivity, I further argue that their failure arises from how they place epistemic agents and their knowledges into a position of in-betweenness with regard to their epistemic recognition. Such social-epistemic location of in-betweenness makes resistance ambiguous for these marginalized knowers and questionable for the dominant knowers, because the latter can argue that the former are already ‘included’. However, despite this so-called inclusion, agency and participation remain ambiguous and inhibited because the proper uptake for the ‘included’ knowledges and knowers is absent. They are not properly heard or seriously engaged with, their presence is not considered necessary, the institutions to which they are included can continue to run as if or even if marginal knowledges do not exist. Jacklyn Cleofas’ essay “Can Brown Women be First Rate Philosophers?” and Dotson’s “How is this paper philosophy?” powerfully capture this phenomenon. As you might have already surmised, this is also the reason why individuals, groups, or peoples who are continually ambiguously recognized in such subjugating structures and relations would actually resist being ‘included’ and ‘integrated’. Through their politics of subtraction, they deplete the opportunities for the unjust system to reproduce itself. (Andrew Schaap, 2020)

In my work, I defend Collins’ and José Medina’s position that “understandings of epistemology that situate it outside of and above power relations mask how epistemology itself contributes to reproducing or challenging social inequality” (Collins, 2019); and that “a narrow conception of epistemology restricted to issues of justification of knowledge impotent, ineffectual, and always arrives too late” (Medina, 2013). Epistemic recognition of knowers, as well as knowledges, is a precondition to the generation, uptake, and distribution of knowledges, but it is also at the same time a form of social recognition. This means that epistemic misrecognition will not only lead to the impoverishment if not systematic distortion of knowledges in its exclusion and silencing of alternative and counter knowledges; it also epistemically, morally, and politically assaults, disrespects, and dehumanizes epistemic agents insofar as it denies from them their status as knowers, harms their subjective and intersubjective formation, and inhibits their epistemic, moral, and political agencies, which can then lead to the systematic distortion of subjectivities and societies.

Epistemic paralysis, as one of its consequences, to my view urges us to think of the ways of and conditions for reactivating and reenabling the epistemic agencies of knowers when they get paralyzed. At the same time, it requires us to think of whether epistemic paralysis is an epistemic dead-end or whether the experience is capable of being transformed into a source of resistance rather than oppression. I think of epistemic paralysis as having this torsional character. On the one hand, it is something that happens to epistemic agents under contexts of oppression. But on the other hand, it can also be something that epistemic agents can tap as a resource for identifying identity-specific vulnerabilities and dependencies that must be responded to, developing identity-sensitive individual and collective resistances and resilience against oppressions, and fostering non-subjugating conditions for social-epistemic interaction, (WDP is a sterling example). Since after all, even within locations of in-betweenness and ambiguity, knowers can harness the benefits of having what W.E.B du Bois calls double consciousness (du Bois, 1903)—an access to both mainstream and substream knowledges. In saying this, I take inspiration from María Lugones’ reminder: by being situated in spaces of ‘liminality’, we have the opportunity to become ‘pilgrims’, to become ‘playful’ ‘world travellers’. (Lugones, 2003)

When I write, I think of Nietzsche’s reminder to “write with blood”… But writing, I find, is paradoxically a practice done in isolation but always-already in relation… ‘Writing with blood’ aims to capture a deep sense of our spirit, its goal is to identify and express with sincerity. But ‘writing in relation’, I surmise, dwells less on identification and expression (even though it is also these) and aims more towards interrogation in the form of a conversation…

And so, I write, not simply to say something. I write to ‘you’, in your concreteness and singularity, to connect myself to you and you to me… Today, I write, to interrogate and continue the conversation with you about the perils of philosophizing. I write, to break my silence, over the ways in which philosophy has both enabled and inhibited my agency. I write to both the dominantly and marginally situated philosophers of this institution, with the hope that you may see as I did that identity discourse in philosophy is not an incitement of ceaseless conflict or a threat to democracy (Alcoff 2003), it is an insistence on the struggle to democratize philosophy, lest philosophy and philosophers end up reproducing subjugating and subjugated subjectivities and societies.

I write and speak to you as I hold on to the wish that you will take our words with the same sincerity as we have written them. I am not without thoughts, as you have witnessed, but I fear that your perception of my identity will prevent you from hearing them.

The text above is the lecture I delivered at the 7th Thomasian Philosophers' Reunion Convention at the University of Santo Tomas. This was the second run of our "Tremulous Speech" lecture, where Christine and I brought home our musings about our experience of doing philosophy. You can find the recording here:



Hi, thanks for stopping by!

My research falls at the intersection of Critical Social Theory and Social Epistemology, but with specific attention to Decolonial and Feminist Critique. In my work, I develop the concepts of "(Mis)education" and "Epistemic Paralysis".

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