Oxford philosopher Peter King has some things to say about epistemic injustice

The Independent recently ran a story about some fairly horrifying misogyny at Oxford. According to the story:

A rugby club at Oxford University has caused outrage after an email was circulated to members earlier this week, suggesting that they spike freshers’ drinks.

Pembroke College Rugby Football Club’s then-social secretary Woo Kim sent [an] email – which was entitled “FREE PUSSY” – on Monday, instructing members of the club about to “pick” a female fresher of their choice, and proposing a “challenge” for their annual social later in the week.

Mr Kim warned members to be “as clandestine as possible in your deed”, while instructing them to “please bring TWO bottles of wine – one for yourself and one for your guest”.

In the comments, Pembroke philosophy lecturer Peter J. King shows up to offer some opinions. Some choice excerpts include:

I consider the notion of epistemic injustice a pseudo-philosophical concept designed to enable people to publish more empty articles and organise more empty conferences for the purposes of career advancement.

It takes no courage to write a piece like this, which newspapers love to print and people love to read.

I was primarily commenting on journalistic sensationalism — something that was hardly needed when reporting this bit of unpleasant undergraduate stupidity [my emphasis]. Also, many things are real and important (car crashes, robbery with violence, etc.), but I’d still deprecate giving them pompous labels and creating fake philosophical categories out of them.


33 thoughts on “Oxford philosopher Peter King has some things to say about epistemic injustice

  1. I’ve just removed a comment that violates our comments policy. I know that many people will find King’s comments very upsetting – and rightly so. It’s fine to express that outrage here, but let’s try to keep this thread civil.

  2. Let me assure you that Dr. Peter King does not speak for the Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford in this matter. The faculty as a whole is very concerned with gender equality issues, and along with the Philosophy Department at Cambridge University we are currently taking part in the pilot for the Equality Challenge Unit’s Gender Equality Charter Mark. I want to note that Dr King is not an employee of Oxford University, but of Pembroke College alone.

    Karen M Nielsen (Women’s Officer, Faculty of Philosophy, Oxford).

  3. Yes, Karen, thanks so much for your comment.

    Needless to say, it doesn’t look great when King is commenting as someone employed by Pembroke on a story about Pembroke (and last I checked the only such person in the comments thread) saying this kind of thing. But it’s really good to know that positive measures are being taken at Oxford to address gender equality!

  4. [Edited by moderator to comply with comments policy] Also, to #5 talking about Pembroke, why would one person’s stupid comments somehow diminish the efforts of all the others that are working reform the education offered by the college?

  5. Why does this not surprise me?–I had King as a tutor for a course on Phil. Religion; let’s just say it left much to be desired. King, then, was the sort of person who would, in the midst of conversation, cut you off to launch into a 5-min screed about the correct usage of ‘plethora’. [Comment edited by moderator to comply with comments policy] An ad hominem aside, but one particularly salient for me.

    Like King, I worry about the sociology of publishing (so do the sciences, as a recent article on Peer Review in the Economist points out), but ‘epistemic injustice’ is not one of those concepts. Furthermore, we here have a blatant case of it (this is based solely on the above), and one which is clearly connected to normative issues. Sexism and misogyny being what they are–pervasive and deeply ingrained into the fabric of many cultures and societies–philosophy cannot hope to eradicate or much displace them from their current foothold. But damn!–with all that’s gone on recently, you’d think that philosophers wouldn’t go out of their way to defend (more generously to King, ‘mitigate and appease’) that status quo.

    You start to think that some of us, no matter how intelligent and ethically attuned to other domains, are ‘cognitively closed’ (my feeble American attempt at irony) to the very many issues confronting women and minorities in Western society. And for those that are, a clear provocation of date rape passed of as “unpleasant undergraduate stupidity” might seem reasonable. Funny that King wasn’t self-reflexively talking about his comments–I’d certainly be more inclined to agree!

  6. I think that King’s remarks should not be taken out of context. He originally merely pointed out that the Independent article’s reference to famous former students of the college is not relevant. Not a major point, but hardly evidence of sexism. Someone responded to his comment, and in the course of their exchange (1) accused him, on the grounds that he thought it a virtue to post under his full name, of failing to understand the import of epistemic injustice, and (2) accused him of failing to give due support to the author of the article by making his original point. His comment about epistemic injustice was a reply to (1); his comment about courage was a reply to (2). The final comment, calling the email a bit of unpleasant undergraduate stupidity, does not include any suggestion that he thinks that it is merely that. You might reasonably think that he doesn’t think about sexism as carefully in general as he should, but it would be unfair, I think, to encourage the impression that he exemplifies the kind of sexism that the article draws attention to. And that impression is easily encouraged by highlighting his comments in a post that also highlights the rugby club social secretary’s email.

  7. Apologies for the acerbic nature of my last bit–though I stand by the opinions expressed therein, I hadn’t thought to check about any standards of decorum or how I might be flouting them. Apologies again.

    Speaking of flouting and related matters, in response to the ‘final comment’ above, King’s statement(s) does carry such a suggestion (similar to more typical scalar implicature cases).[This is just what Ross Cameron implies (I believe) by referencing the SEP article on implicatures]–That is, unless he said offered a continuation to the effect that the larger issue was egregious nature of such blatant misogyny. If that’s the case, then it’s just poor, and perhaps unethical journalism; but here we have no evidence that this is the case.

    Perhaps King is not sexist in the same way as those members of tha’ Broke rugby club certainly acted; he hopefully would not send an email like that himself, even if we wave the fact that he objects primarily to its stupidity and not the more important issue. He probably wouldn’t do it himself on other, more salient grounds as well. Still, the sort of sexism he does display in playing down such behavior as a bit of ‘youthful tomfoolery’ [hand-waving] shows a sort of complacency that is far more widespread and, in a way, more devious. It’s sooooo upsetting when the response to a clear violation of ethical and social norms is to sweep it under the rug. Luckily here, this is just King and not Pembroke or Oxford Uni. at large.

    Does anyone know what has happened with the case?–I don’t know anyone who’s still at Pembroke.

  8. Anonymous at 9 – I’m inclined to agree with King’s point that it would have better not to name alumni of Pembroke in the article. But,
    1) For that to be one’s only remark on an article about a really egregious piece of behaviour sends a certain message.

    2) King’s rubbishing of epistemic injustice as a pseudo-philosophical concept designed to enable people to publish empty articles and hold empty conferences for the purposes of career advancement follows in a long tradition of white male philosophers in positions of privilege denigrating work in feminist philosophy as ‘not proper philosophy’. This view matters, since it makes it more difficult to publish work in feminist philosophy, particularly in what are widely regarded as the ‘top’ journals, which in turn makes it more difficult to find a job/get promoted/etc. if you happen to be working in this field. People are angry that King holds this view. It doesn’t really matter whether he expressed it in response to the original article or in response to another person commenting. It is particularly laughable/galling since – as you may know – the idea of epistemic injustice concerns the way that structural privileges (such as being white, male, employed as an academic by an institution such as Pembroke College, cis, etc.) mean that one’s words carry greater weight than those of someone in a less privileged position. King’s rubbishing of the notion in a public forum is a nice example to illustrate the concept.

  9. I am also a former student of Peter’s. I second the comments of a former student above regarding his teaching style. He was easily the worst tutor I had at Oxford. That said, I think some here are overestimating the position of privilege from which he is commenting.

    As a stipendiary lecturer at Oxford Peter is probably earning something between 8,000 and 16,000 pounds a year. It’s not much to earn for teaching full time. For US readers, his status is something like an “adjunct” lecturer. Lecturers like him are constantly reminded that they are not actually faculty members (comments like Karen’s above, while well-intentioned, are a good example of this).

    This makes Peter’s bitterness towards those who have reached beyond him in terms of professional success understandable, even if his comments are not excusable.

    Finally, having known him personally, I can say that Peter is a kind and supportive man, and that he has provided support to many young men and women at Pembroke. By all means expose his comments to the ridicule they deserve–how can anyone who takes philosophy seriously claim to be uninterested in epistemic authority? Just don’t be mistaken about his character or intentions.

  10. Peter King writes “I consider the notion of epistemic injustice a pseudo-philosophical concept designed to enable people to publish more empty articles and organise more empty conferences for the purposes of career advancement.” So are we to take it then that Miranda Fricker must have written her very good book (which is by Peter King’s standards pseudo philosophy) Epistemic Injustice with just the rubbish intentions Peter attributes to anyone propagating the ‘notion of epistemic injustice?’ Nonsense.

  11. Can I ask why people are commenting on Peter King’s abilities as a tutor? (And why this is allowed?)
    If someone commented, just in passing, that a feminist woman philosopher was the worst teacher they’d ever had, when the OP had nothing to do with her teaching ability, I certainly hope that would be considered way out of bounds. The fact that a male stipendiary lecturer says something perceived to be anti-feminist doesn’t mean he’s fair game for all manner of derogation.

  12. 16, the reason I’ve allowed such comments (though edited them in some cases), is that they haven’t merely said that King was a bad teacher – the first such comment makes a claim about the way he carried on dialogue, and the second comment agrees. These comments seemed to me to be relevant, if perhaps tangentially, to the post. The post is about a case in which a story is published about rape and misogyny at Pembroke college, and a faculty member from Pembroke (King) then turns up to first complain about a minor stylistic element of the piece and then lambast a central area of contemporary work in feminist philosophy, while calling the horrifying behavior at his college ‘a bit of undergraduate unpleasantness’. So if people have found King overbearing and difficult in personal interactions – and teaching is one such interaction – that does seem (again, perhaps tangentially) relevant.

    But I agree it’s a fine line – as moderating decisions often are – and I’m not sure whether I’ve made the right call.

  13. To now I understand why commenters prefer anonymity:

    (1) magicalersatz hit it on the head. I’d also add that there was a portion–edited out–which would have made the relevance clearer. I understood this to be an ad hominem attack, no doubt, but there is some question of why any tutor would publicly comment in such a fashion even if they privately held such views. My aside may have helped explain it in King’s case, and that’s why I felt it was germane to this discussion… I should add that I completely agree with the edit.

    (2) I think that you’re making a false analogy here. First, it wasn’t as if I impetuously launched into personal attacks on King “out of the blue”, as it were. Secondly, the way you describe the supposed analogy precisely makes as if to suggest that such an aside on the hypothetical feminist, woman philosopher would always be out of bounds. But the hypothetical comment is described in a vacuum–there are situations where such a philosopher would be fair game for personalized opprobrium (e.g., if she made ridiculous comments about race), (again) if such bore on the topic at hand. Treating such a hypothetical philosopher as sacred tout court is (I think) in itself potentially sexist.–Treating woman with dignity and respect means also taking them seriously enough to be held accountable for their words and actions (just as we would for someone like King). I’m not sure the commenter intended to suggest otherwise, but it certainly felt like it carried this suggestion (to me).


    (3) I feel for you. Had I had the ability to go back, I certainly would have changed the tone and emphasis of my first comment. Moderator choices is a difficult line to tip-toe, and I wish I would have made it a little less so.

    Anonymous former student:

    (4) You might well be correct. My reactions to King are purely through the subjective lens that I brought to tutorials, and those of others who took courses with him. I had very little interaction with him outside of the classroom. Still, from those interactions I didn’t get a sense that he was “kind and supportive”, but if he was then that’s great. All the same, it obviously doesn’t change the assessment of his remarks on the scandal.

  14. Well, maybe I could say that Dr King taught me Philosophy of Religion, and I recall his being one of my better tutors, who gave me a lot of extra help, though I was far from a stellar student and can’t have been very rewarding to teach. I didn’t know him at all well, but “kind and supportive” seems plausible enough to me.

    Perhaps he is bitter at his lack of professional success, and perhaps he really does think the incident is just “a bit of of unpleasant undergraduate stupidity”, but I don’t see how anything he’s written implies this at all strongly.

    I don’t know anything about epistemic injustice, but surely it’s as open for lambasting as anything else in philosophy.

  15. Err…why would ‘lack of professional success’ bear on the position he takes with regard to the Rugby team incident? Or maybe your saying that it was implied above that he IS, in fact, bitter–that certainly is not implied by his comments.

    That, as far as I can tell, is a bit of irrelevant speculative conjecture. I think that the supposed bitterness cited above was something of an abductive explanation King’s meta-stance towards the discipline as a whole, where papers are published about allegedly pseudo-philosophical concepts (e.g., ‘epistemic injustice’) for the expressed purposes of ‘career advancement’. Being so embittered might help explain why King thought it time to take his reservations about the politics of the discipline out on this particular case where the most important matter is the bona fide sexism. But, then again, this is little more than conjecture since we’ve so scant evidence that he is embittered at his lot. I never got this sense, myself. –Certainly, many lecturers ‘across the pond’ and adjuncts here in the States have a right to such embitterment, albeit for different reasons.

    About King’s assessment:

    (1) The problem isn’t endemic to philosophy; many other disciplines both within the humanities and in the sciences suffer from it. I hope he is not unaware of this fact.

    (2) The sociological and political problems concerning the discipline in this regard also involves publishing on concepts King himself would consider of very real and deep philosophical value.

    Bottom line: in whatever academic discipline you look at, there’s a lot of pure shit out there. I, myself, don’t necessarily knock it though. As long as people are not just publishing material they know is ridiculous, fallacious, etc., I can understand the glut of articles of questionable value. After all, people need to eat and live.

  16. It isn’t implied above that he IS, in fact, bitter, it is, as far as I can see, stated, in comment 14. (Admittedly he is said to be bitter “at those who have reached beyond him in terms of professional success” rather than at his “lack of professional success”, as I carelessly glossed it, which was just a mistake; I have no idea what’s constitutive of “professional success”, in philosophy or any other field, so should just keep quiet about that.)

    I only wanted to say that, in my case at least, he was a conscientious, supportive tutor, not overbearing or difficult at all.

  17. That this kind of story should prompt furore is unsurprising, particularly given King’s salvo at feminist philosophy off the back of the story. But in the real world, isn’t it really quite easy to understand King’s point about the students? Sorry Rachel, but context does matter. This kind of e-mail has circulated several times in recent years, and in each instance has been instantly rebuked with very serious consequences for the authors. It’s lazy, stupid posturing on the part of the students who should be punished for yoking their boorishness to the very serious issue of rape. But let’s not afford the act any greater import. This isn’t sexism as much as it is hyper-sexualisation: these are students who most likely don’t hold the purported acts to be acceptable, but for the sheer thrill of transgression and theatre evinced in the email. It’s really got nothing to do with Oxford’s “position on gender equality”. And thanks for your reassurance Karen Nielsen, but most students could care less what the faculty position on X or Y is, or the Student Union’s position on Z. It’s entirely irrelevant to the vast majority of the student body.

  18. In response to the previous post:

    It may be easy to understand King’s comments “in the real world” but that is because the real world is shot through with misogyny. The real world is a place where these acts are brushed aside as ‘banter’, and attempts to call them out are people ‘being uptight’ or ‘unable to take a joke’.

    These kinds of email arise from, and perpetuate, certain kinds of culture amongst young individuals, this particular instance was discovered, but many instances go undocumented or unread. The act itself was unacceptable, and everyone involved knows the right words to say, and the correct form their public apology and censure must take.

    But *that very fact* is a problem, because it re-affirms that this behavior is merely ‘silly’ that it is not serious, that it is not linked into a wider culture in which women are belittled and marginalized. We need to call time on the whole cycle of offense and apology because it implicitly suggests that these acts and their institutional contexts are not very serious, that they are acts that can be apologized for, that they are isolated instances of stupidity and not acts that are related to a prevailing ethos which should be directly challenged.

    Finally, this remark strikes me as quite wrong:

    “This isn’t sexism as much as it is hyper-sexualisation: these are students who most likely don’t hold the purported acts to be acceptable, but for the sheer thrill of transgression and theatre evinced in the email.”
    A few points:

    The main issue with the email and the surrounding culture was misogyny, not sexism (as discussed in the subsequent comment piece in the Independent).

    Students can and frequently are misogynistic whilst not holding misogyny to be right or acceptable. It is not a condition of being a misogynist (or sexist or racist) that you think those views are acceptable.

    Even if the intention of the email was to be transgressive, the email is transgressive *because* it is misogynistic and that is wrong. There are different ways to be transgressive, only a few of which are morally abhorrent in themselves. Thus even if someone intends to be trangressive, the way they do so is not thereby immune from scrutiny or comment.

    Finally, I’m not sure what you mean by ‘hyper-sexualisation’ but encouraging a group of people to corral and sexually pursue first year woman, aided and abetted by the intentional provision of tampered alcohol, does not strike me as an instance of this, and I think it is perverse to try and describe it as such.

  19. No. The idea that ‘most students couldn’t care less what the faculty position on X or Y is’ is simply not true. It is NOT entirely irrelevant to the vast majority of the student body AT ALL. Because what the faculty does and does not sanction, either implicitly through non-action or explicitly through posts like Karen’s DIRECTLY effects the experience of what it is to be a student in Philosophy here at Oxford.

    Let me assure you all. WE CARE.

    And even if ‘the vast majority’ did not, why should that make any difference to how the faculty behaves? Right, ethical action must be taken irrespective as to whether the majority of students would ‘care or not’.

    Sadly, the philosophy faculty at Oxford has a long history of NOT acting in the right when it has come to dealing with institutionalised misogyny and everyday sexism. Non action is endemic.

    And as for the idea that ‘In the real world’ it is easy to understand King’s point about the students, well, I find this scary. Surely we need to change ‘the real world’ if an incitement to rape is considered ‘hyper-sexualisation’. I think you have shockingly missed the seriousness of this and what it is indicative of, namely, institutionalised misogyny and rape-culture.

  20. Fascinating. Apparently I fired a “salvo” at feminism (despite not mentioning feminism nor making any comment about it), and I’m sexist and misogynistic (despite my comments about the behaviour reported in the article being wholly negative). Given that level of reasoning, I don’t think that it’s worth my defending myself; nothing I say will do any good against entrenched prejudice. That I found the behaviour of the undergraduate concerned infantile and disgusting won’t be believed by those who dismiss my comments on the basis that I’m a white male and attached to Oxford. Fortunately, those who know me (whose views are the only ones I really care about) won’t be affected by the posturing here.

  21. Catherine:

    Having spent 7 years in Oxford as an undergraduate and graduate student in the Philosophy department, let me assure you, most students don’t care in the way you claim they do. The thought that the personal beliefs and behaviours of Faculty members “DIRECTLY effects the experience of what it is to be a student in Philosophy here at Oxford” is so sensationalist as to be scarcely believable. People don’t care about the faculty position on X, or Professor Y’s position on Z, because Oxford isn’t a community where it matters what the faculty position on X or Professor Y’s position on Z is. The vast majority of people are perfectly happy to trot along to lectures and seminars with people they wildly disagree with on all manner of substantive issues.

    There’s also something faintly sinister about your comment on ethical action and faculty behaviour. Do you work in value theory? I’m not too comfortable with your view that Faculty members have a duty to embody some ethical ideal, leaving aside the contestation over such a notion.

  22. I should probably modify the above. People would certainly take note if there was a Faculty position on X which was controversial. But not for something quite so uncontroversial as “inciting rape is a bad thing”, or even “we are committed to gender status equality”.

  23. Let me say gently and respectfully that after 11 years at Oxford s a grad student, research fellow and lecturer, that I think students and others in Oxford are as influenced as anyone else by the behavior of others. After all, how others behave carries all sorts of lessons of what is tolerated, admired. And then there are those mirror neurons which I suppose accont for all sorts of similar traits, such as gait.

    Mind you, I arrived from Berkeley, with its student protests. Many of us from the US found ourselves in an environment of great conformity. I was discussing this last year in a senior common room. People were maintaining that they were now much nicer to students than they were years ago. I remarked that in days past there seemed to be some upheaval over the fact that American students simply ignored the rules. “Yes,” someone said, “we still have that problem.” Then we moved on to my shock at the consequences of leaving Xmas dinner before the toast to the queen. No sympathy here. “Anne, you must have know that it was wrong.”

    So i think perhaps there can be very significant influences in a group without one being aware of them.

  24. Some people at Peter King’s college may care about his opinions about epistemic injustice as a research topic. However, consider this: I did my PhD (DPhil, as they call it) at Oxford and I had literally never heard of Peter King until a friend on Facebook posted a link to this very blog post. I’d never met the man, I’d never heard anything said about him, never even heard the name. So let’s maintain a sense of perspective. We wouldn’t get all excited about the fact that an adjunct instructor at some little American college poo-poohs the epistemic injustice literature (I’m sure you can find many who do); similarly we shouldn’t get excited when an adjunct instructor (that’s what he is) at some little UK college does the same. Apparently he has some tenuous connection to the Oxford Faculty of Philosophy (primarily, that he teaches that subject in the town where the Faculty is located–I’m not sure what other connection there is), but that’s not a reason to pay any more attention to his opinions than we would to the opinions of an an American counterpart.

  25. I’m not sure that there’s much more that can constructively be said on this thread, so I’m going to go ahead and close comments.

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