In most contemporary societies, loneliness has come to occupy a more subtly poignant form than an abrasively shocking one—a betrayal smoothened over time and transformed into a living condition. Epistemology must thus reconcile this change with the context in which knowledge is curated today and understand how loneliness precludes some people from participating in the political processes of knowledge formation.
By keeping people oblivious to the scope and extent of what they are missing, loneliness contributes to a cognitive disadvantage in terms of un-intelligibility of socially valuable practices. By removing certain subjects from these shared and valuable social experiences despite their desire to participate, it not only affects their present ability to generate socially valuable meanings, but it also robs them of the opportunity to acquire skills and tastes that would help them to comment upon whether these experiences are valuable at all. For example, students from marginalized communities entering university spaces must conform to cultural norms and pedagogic practices representatives of students from hegemonic communities. Therefore, loneliness not only removes certain subjects from current practices, it creates boundaries of intelligibility of the practices in question and strips the subjects of their position to alter them.
Since we are engaging in a structural analysis, this means that certain communities whose members struggle with loneliness more than others may never be able to make their particular practices known to non-members or add their specific knowledge to the knowledge set of the society. This impacts not just their hermeneutical resources but could also lead to situations where their knowledge is misvalued. It may be labeled as naïve, new, or untested because it has not been socially exchanged before with the wider society. Loneliness, therefore, affects political participation in a much deeper sense than we may currently be able to comprehend and articulate.
Loneliness and epistemic injustice
One could argue that we already have a well-positioned concept of ‘epistemic injustice’ which could considerably explain the harms imposed by loneliness. Philosopher Miranda Fricker argues that there is a distinctive kind of epistemic injustice, which she theorizes as consisting most fundamentally in a wrong done to someone specifically in their capacity as a knower.¹ She elaborates that it is essentially of two kinds: testimonial injustice and hermeneutical injustice. Testimonial injustice occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word; hermeneutical injustice occurs at a prior stage, when a gap in collective interpretive resources puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences.²³
However, while Fricker’s analysis of epistemic injustice has been hugely influential in the Western academy, there are two main reasons why her concepts of testimonial and hermeneutical injustice do not fully capture how loneliness could impact how knowledge is formed and shared.
First, because of the distinct hermeneutical concerns that loneliness generates, Fricker’s model presents a methodological concern. She posits that hermeneutical injustice renders members of marginalized communities with insufficient resources to grasp their social realities and thus makes them incapable of articulating the need for resistance or of negotiating for their rights.⁴ For example, Fricker suggests that for a long time women did not have the conceptual tools and resources to articulate the sexual harassment they faced regularly in the workplace.⁵ This lack of awareness constitutes a hermeneutical injustice.⁶ However, consider this essential definition of loneliness by Dutch sociologist Jenny Geirveld:
“Loneliness is a situation experienced by the individual as one where there is an unpleasant or inadmissible lack of (quality of) certain relationships. This includes situations in which the number of existing relationships is smaller than is considered desirable or admissible, as well as situations where the intimacy one wishes for has not been realized. Thus loneliness is seen to involve the person perceives, experiences, and evaluates his or her isolation and lack of communication with other people.”⁷
Loneliness here includes the awareness that one is ‘missing something’ or being ‘alienated.’ It is an expansive affect that includes the awareness that as a result of one’s unequal participation in the social and political sphere, one is missing opportunities to generate social capital or to capitalize on already collected social resources. Thus, one is hermeneutically disadvantaged.
So not only would a framework of epistemic injustice be incorrect in explaining this hermeneutical gap, it runs the risk of making marginalized individuals blame themselves for this gap as it presumes this precondition. We thus require an alternate model that suggests an aware starting point and limits this self-criticality.
Second—and this I call the sufficiency concern—Fricker’s analysis is insufficient in elaborating the extent to which loneliness affects one’s position as a contributor of knowledge. Loneliness is a very affective experience, which can be both deeply hurtful and generate a language of social demand. The epistemic flux that loneliness generates—in the sense of feeling so scared of abandonment that one is confused about their own worldview or may just abandon it—is thus helpful in initiating the question of responsibility. Hurt is deeply probing in nature and often as an inherent reflex, hurt frantically displaces the body’s epistemic stability, at least in trying to make sense of what is happening. It is this probing nature that enables feelings of hurt (caused by loneliness) to enable one to articulate their experience and prompts a curiosity for this vocabulary. It is also hurt that seeks an immediate resolution. Hurt embeds the body in a position of displacement. Its fleeting nature has an interesting epistemic value because hurt includes an affective curiosity to initiate stability and congruence by immediately contrasting the experiences prior to and after being hurt. It thus includes a consciousness of time and is helpful in evaluating our loss of epistemic hold.
What could epistemic loneliness mean?
I believe that epistemic loneliness could be best defined as a complex phenomenon experienced by members of marginalized communities which makes them feel that their epistemic premises are systemically isolated as a result of their ‘inferior’ social position. This impedes in their merit as a contributor of knowledge. As a result of repeated encounters with hegemonic epistemic practices that systemically undermine and exclude knowledge processes of marginalized communities, members from marginalized communities face the risk of this constant devaluation. By focusing exclusively on the experiences and conditions of the dominant majority and refusing to illuminate local knowledge or subjugated knowledge, a resulting epistemic loneliness could also lead to some epistemically abandoned concepts. When repeated encounters with hegemonic epistemic practices put one in a disadvantage in terms of sharing of their epistemic values and content, it can make one feel that their thought process is extremely isolated or that nobody else shares the epistemic premises one believes in even when one should. This awareness that one’s conceptual agreements are not only different from but inferior to one’s peers or colleagues could discourage one to embrace one’s own ideas and could quash one’s sense of confidence and self-worth.
For example, resonances of epistemic loneliness can also be found in Frantz Fanon’s concept of ‘cultural imposition.’ Fanon remarks that cultural imposition forces black people to identify themselves with whiteness—not only physical whiteness but also the white ways of viewing themselves and the world.⁸ This gap created in the ways in which one intuitively understands the world and the ways in which one struggles to identify with the dominant majority’s perceptions could lead to one abandoning the former or visualizing it through its difference from the latter.
Furthermore, this consciousness of the lack of intellectual companionship, especially in an environment when one is already marginalized, constitutes a deprivation of epistemic trust resulting in stunted social development.
Epistemic loneliness is not cognitive relativism
It is also helpful to differentiate between epistemic loneliness and simple cognitive relativism. One does not simply feel one is epistemically lonely because one thinks differently from others. Cognitive relativism is the view that a factual analysis is position dependent. Facts viewed about a certain condition can depend on the perspective of the observer.⁹ However, because cognitive relativism does not include any comments on the hierarchies between subject positions, it is not able to explain how one subject position is considered inferior at all points. It also does not explain how due to the socially inferior position of one subject, their perspective may appear as unworthy or illegitimate so much so that the subject may themselves face acute difficulties in articulating their perspective and may abandon it. In making the description of a condition observer dependent, cognitive relativism could consider both the observers valid in their description. The difference in their description of a phenomena therefore does not arise simply from their position. Cognitive relativism would posit that each of these extremely different descriptions could be correct simultaneously. Epistemic loneliness, on the other hand, necessarily stems from the internalization that one’s position as a contributor of knowledge is inferior and solitary, and thus may discourage one to wholeheartedly embrace the pre-existing concepts they possess or to utilize the epistemic premises to further create a congruous worldview.
On epistemically lonely concepts
What happens when certain epistemic premises are never shared? They fall out of use. They stand to be abandoned and erased. Ryuko Kubota analyzes the nature of epistemic racism where racial inequalities influence our knowledge production and consumption in academia Kubota says it marginalizes and erases the knowledge produced by scholars in the Global South, women scholars of color, and minoritised groups.¹⁰ I consider this extremely helpful to illustrate two essential points on epistemic loneliness. First, by expecting and institutionally enforcing a strict conformity of premises of scholarly writing from non-white academics, epistemic loneliness not only reproduces the hegemonic discourses, but it also impedes the creation of a new discourse, which could potentially counter the racialised practices that continue to oppress minorities. Second, by focusing exclusively on the experiences and conditions of the dominant majority and refusing to illuminate local knowledge or subjugated knowledge, it could also lead to some epistemically abandoned concepts to become abandoned precisely because they are confronted with a hegemonic discourse which impedes their acceptance under fair principles of scholarly research. It is not as if there are some out-of-this-world concepts lying around which are epistemically lonely inherently. Rather, it is that many usual concepts when embedded in the white hegemonic discourse can become epistemically lonely
Often the naturalisation or normalisation of white hegemonic practices or systems of knowledge in the academy bestows a ‘homeliness’ upon them—a familiarization that endows them with a sense of belonging hardly bestowed upon non-Eurocentric or indigenous knowledge. On the contrary indigenous knowledge is met with a suspicion and unsettledness which presents its place as already unstable and lonely, too weird for those who already inhabit it and too new for those who wish to try. An understanding of epistemic loneliness could shed light on these inhibitions.