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Leonie Smith

PhD thesis

What is the relationship between individual epistemic harm and impoverished social knowledge, and how should this affect approaches to resolving the problem of epistemic injustice?


Research interests

Social Metaphysics, Social Epistemology, Testimonial Knowledge, Political Theory, Global Justice

Current research

I'm interested in philosophical questions at the crossroads of traditional and social epistemology, social ontology, and epistemic and material injustice. In my PhD, I introduce an account of the mechanisms of epistemic harms, as a problem of reciprocal access to sets of social knowledge; the sets of things that individuals within different social spheres 'just know'. This knowledge is primarily derived from social testimony, whether this turns out to be reductive, or in some way emergent, additive, or distinct from the explicit testimony of individuals. In our day-to-day lives we continuously interact with the dominant set of social knowledge (what 'everyone knows'), both as and when an epistemic verdict is required, and subconsciously, in developing our individual background beliefs and opinions. For good or bad, it saturates our environment and epistemic processes.

As epistemic agents, we rely on being able to both contribute to, and depend upon, the dominant set of social knowledge. When the set is in some way impoverished, or damaged, then we are all potentially epistemically impacted. My work centres on how this mechanism operates in the case of members of social groups who tend to be overlooked by analyses of epistemic injustice, and whose testimony is rarely, if ever, heard at all by dominant knowers: Materially impoverished social out-groups, such as refugees, homeless populations, and those living in extreme poverty in the UK.

Here the material conditions that define group membership, present a very real barrier to entering into an exchange with the dominant set of social knowledge at all. The proximate harm is one of exclusion from the dominant set of social knowledge as potential contributors. But additionally, when the testimony of prejudiced against social group members is missing, then alternative information about, rather than from, those individuals, enters the set instead. We find political myths and propaganda, new terms of abuse, and not-at-issue content entering into the meaning of ordinary words and language.

Given that continued epistemic exclusion leads to prejudice and negative bias, which leads to continued material harms being perpetuated against populations who are already at severe risk of physical impoverishment, human rights abuses, and so on, this is a worrying outlook. From this rather bleak prognosis, I investigate alternative ways to alleviate the problem of epistemic exclusion, focusing on the dominant set of social knowledge itself.


Suggestions and Challenges for a Social Account of Sensitivity. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, vol. 5, no. 6 (2016), pp. 18-26.

Peer-reviewed conference presentations

"How might compensation form a part of the negative duty not to harm, in the case of global poverty?" The 20th Oxford Annual Graduate Philosophy Conference. University of Oxford. November 2016.

"Performative personhood and shared group agency". I, You, and We Phi: First Cork Annual Workshop on Social Agency. University College Cork. October 2016.

"An ontological account of group-agent/individual-agent differences in responsibilities and rights". MANCEPT Workshops 2016: Expanding the Horizon - Collective Moral Agency and Global Justice. University of Manchester. September 2016.

"An ontological account of group-agent/individual-agent differences in responsibilities and rights". Collective Intentionality X (ISOS). The World Forum, The Hague. August 2016.

"Suggestions and Challenges for a Social Account of Sensitivity". Graduate conference in Social Epistemology. University of Tartu. March 2016.

Other information

My research is generously funded by a doctoral studentship award from The University of Manchester.

Prior to my PhD, I read PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) at the University of Oxford, graduating in 2015, and studied the MLitt in Philosophy at the University of St Andrews, awarded with Distinction in 2016.

Even more prior, I had a career as a programme director and strategy consultant, primarily working in banking and retail, which has left me with a lingering side-interest in corporate ethics and ontology. 


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