CHHS Research Seminar

On the 8th December the CHHS was joined by Dan Degerman who spoke to members about ‘Naturalism, Mental Disorder and Epistemic Injustice’.


Degerman explained that naturalistic understandings of human experiences and differences are at the root of much epistemic injustice, according to a growing body of critical scholarship. Naturalistic understandings frame matters like mental disorder, disease, and disability in terms of individual, biological dysfunction. In the process, they marginalise alternative interpretive resources that could permit people to perceive and articulate social origins and solutions to their own or other people’s distress. Critics argue that the consequent obscuring of social factors is epistemically harmful. More specifically, it constitutes a hermeneutical injustice because it deprives individuals of sense-making resources. To redress this injustice, these critics say we must undermine dominant naturalistic understandings and create more pluralistic interpretive resources.

Degerman argued that naturalistic understandings can be epistemically beneficial not just despite but because they obscure social factors. He did this by considering how some individuals with bipolar disorder regard and deploy the neurobiological understanding of their disorder, highlighting three functions it fills for them: explanation, declamation, and decontestation. Through performing these functions, the neurobiological understanding does marginalise alternative, social perspectives on bipolar disorder. However, this can be understood as a feature rather than a bug. By marginalising alternative explanations, the neurobiological understanding can help individuals with bipolar disorder resist epistemic injustice, for example, in the form of attempts to trivialise their experiences. Given this, those seeking to undermine naturalistic understandings of mental disorder – and indeed illnesses, disability, and other experiences – in the pursuit of epistemic justice are themselves at risk of contributing to epistemic injustice