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94th Joint Session of the Mind Association and Aristotelian Society

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Postgraduate Sessions: The Nature and Erasure of Epistemic Labour

Emilia Wilson (St Andrews/Stirling)


The term ‘epistemic labour’ is used in various fields yet there has, to date, been no attempt to offer a definition. This raises two concerns. Firstly, the current uses of the term vary significantly. With such diverse uses of the term, it is an open question whether a single concept can do all of the work required. Secondly, terms like ‘work’ and ‘labour’ often carry implicit appraisals and consequently the work performed by marginalised groups has historically been erased. In the absence of  a unified theory of epistemic labour, we are likely failing to recognise much of the labour performed by these groups.

In this presentation I address these issues in turn. Firstly, I provide a conceptual analysis of the term ‘epistemic labour’. I use this to develop a procedural theory of epistemic labour as a subset of cognitive labour. Secondly, I examine the erasure of women’s epistemic labour. Both theoretical and empirical research indicate that the broader erasure of women’s labour extends to epistemic labour.

I argue that the epistemic aspect of women’s labour, and correspondingly female-coded work, is specifically erased by the construction of women as emotional. Female-coded work is thus alienated from the epistemic competence it demands.


Emilia Wilson is a PhD Candidate on the St Andrews/Stirling Graduate Programme (SASP), working primarily in Social Epistemology and the Philosophy of Language. Her thesis is supervised by Derek Ball and Sanford Goldberg. Emilia previously completed an MLitt in philosophy and a BSc in philosophy and mathematics also from the University of St Andrews. Her other research interests include Social Construction, Network Epistemology and Conceptual Ethics.


  • Rachel Cooper

    10th July 2020 at 9:58 pm

    Great talk, thanks. My question’s maybe a bit tangential. At one point you said that epistemic labour was a type of cognitive labour. I wondered whether epistemic labour can be automated on this account? If a computer does calculations that a researcher would previously have had to do by hand, would you say that the computer performs the epistemic labour?

    I also wondered what you’d say about types of labour that look to be essential for furthering scientific knowledge but that don’t look to be very ‘cognitive’ (at least no more so than any type of skilled manual labour). For example, suppose that someone is staining microscope samples to make them visible. This is essential for knowledge-production, so maybe it counts as ‘epistemic labour’? but it doesn’t look very cognitive?


    1. Emilia Wilson

      11th July 2020 at 8:23 pm

      Great Question, thanks. I’m inclined to say epistemic labour couldn’t be automated (simply because I take labour to be performed by agents – though this isn’t something I’ve thought about in depth, I suspect it turns on similar questions to the can-machines-give-testimony debate).

      On your second point, I think more is needed that just furthering the production of knowledge for something to be epistemic labour. I think an activity might have an epistemic upshot without being a properly epistemic activity in the sense we want to pick out here. I think this point generalises to other forms of labour we individuate by their output or function (e.g. domestic labour, emotional labour). We tend to individuate these forms of labour by their purpose, but we don’t think that this means that anything which achieves those ends is therefore that form of labour. Emotional labour (in its original sense) is emotion management and so it includes a waitress who forces herself to seem or feel unnaturally cheerful – but it doesn’t include the same waitress who self-medicates anti-depressants in order to seem more cheerful at work. Likewise, I think knowledge production is what lets us pick out this category of labour, but that shouldn’t lead us to conclude that any activity which furthers knowledge production is thereby epistemic labour.

      1. Rachel Cooper

        12th July 2020 at 2:03 pm


  • Matthew Cull

    11th July 2020 at 11:43 am

    Thanks Emilia, loved the talk, and am curious as to the ways in which we might (a la the Italian Marxist Feminists) call for wages for marginalised epistemic labour!
    Just one puzzle – I wonder if the account is too permissive in another sense, perhaps encompassing all forms of labour? Take the case of working in a clothing factory using a sewing machine. Working this machine over the years, I get better at using the machine – one might think that it’s a pretty reliable method of gaining knowledge-how about how best to use the machine. Moreover, it’s not as if there’s no cognitive processes going on here – in working the sewing machine I have to use my brain in a number of ways. You might think the same goes for a bunch of different types of labour, if not all labour!
    Maybe this is fine, and we just say that a bunch of different labour has an epistemic aspect to it? Here the methodological stuff you mentioned at the start comes up again and I’d be tempted to say, well let’s not do conceptual analysis, but instead ask ‘what do we want from a conception of epistemic labour?’

    1. Emilia Wilson

      11th July 2020 at 8:21 pm

      Thanks – I think lots of fascinating parallels with broader feminist work on labour start to raise their heads (for instance I’m interested in the analogy between education producing knowers and takes on reproductive labour).

      Yes, this is an interesting problem. Almost all, if not all, labour certainly *uses* know-how and as you say it might as a consequence produce knowledge by honing that know-how. What I want to say here (and this comes into to some of my other answers here) is that some of this arises from familiar problems about how we should think of labour. I don’t think the right route is to say that the factory worker’s labour doesn’t really have this epistemic dimension, we ought to recognise that it does. So yes: a bunch of different labour has an epistemic aspect. But I think there are two things to say. The first is that, as you have described it, the worker sort of accrues know-how over time but is not engaged in any kind of deliberate learning as such? So I think we might be hard-pressed to identify something like an epistemic method here. But suppose we can: I think it can be the case that most/all labour has some epistemic dimension to it without deciding we should classify it as epistemic labour. Most jobs are multifaceted and if we really ‘zoom in’ we see they have all sorts of dimensions like this but we’re still fairly happy to say that, for instance, much factory-floor work is manual labour even if the factory is a social workplace and so to keep their job a worker has to engage in an emotional dimension of getting along with everyone. I’m not sure how satisfactory this is for your question?

      In terms of methodology: yes, conceptual analysis is probably a bit of a misnomer given there is not a particular established concept to either analyse or revise. What I am wary of methodologically is thinking about the “what do we want” question in terms of “what do we want to include”, because I want to use this concept to try and work out what we’re missing if that makes sense?

  • Olof Leffler

    11th July 2020 at 12:39 pm

    Really exciting talk! I think you’re really on to something with the social analysis towards the end.

    However, I have (yet another) permissiveness worry. I suspect you might be ruling in very much when you take making use of one’s perceptual faculties to acquire information as ‘epistemic labour’ without many further qualifications. If I just quickly look out through the window to see how windy it is – like I did a few seconds ago – is that really labour? Or if I am engaged in some trivial and leisurely epistemic project, such as watching a football match, is that really a kind of labour? I’d be curious to know what you make of these types of cases.

    1. Emilia Wilson

      11th July 2020 at 8:17 pm

      Thanks – and yes, on reflection I think perception while certainly an epistemic method on my view might have been a misleading example of epistemic labour! What I make of these cases is really just that they are trivially laborious. My aim in this talk/paper is to explore how we should pick out an epistemic category of labour, given comparable concepts for other forms of labour. I think what your question points to is that for us to regard something as labour of any kind we typically require it take effort (i.e. to be laborious). I realise this may not be a satisfying answer but my view is that this genre of cases push towards a conceptual analysis of what it is for something to be ‘labour’ at all, while I take my project here to be asking what makes some labour epistemic.

      1. Olof Leffler

        12th July 2020 at 3:36 pm

        Fair! To be clear, I don’t think the cases I mentioned here are defeaters of what you have been arguing or anything like that, but you may have a choice point to take into consideration here: you could decide to work with a very thin notion of ‘labour’, or you could add further restrictions on what counts as epistemic labour. (Or, maybe, you could do a bit of both, or something else I’ve overlooked…) Some elaboration on where you want to go would probably be helpful.

        1. Emilia Wilson

          13th July 2020 at 11:37 am

          Yes, these are helpful points – thank you!

  • Bill Wringe

    11th July 2020 at 2:24 pm

    Also really enjoyed the talk – seems like an excellent project.

    Like Matthew, I was wondering about the status of know-how, and the general worry that practicing any skill would count as creating know-how, and this as a form of epistemic labour (even when the skill being practiced is trivial or socially detrimental). Perhaps that’s best dealt with by saying that we might have very low value epistemic labour here. Or would it be better to go a different way, and say that the processes we go through must be such that when engaged in competently they can produce *socially-valued* knowledge? (Or does it not make too much difference which we say?). In any case I wonder whether either of these two strategies will be helpful in thinking about other kinds of overgeneration.

    1. Emilia Wilson

      11th July 2020 at 8:16 pm

      Thanks for the question. I’ve attempted to answer Matthew’s question above if that goes to your worry at all. While I would want to exclude merely utilising some know-how and honing one’s skills in the process I do think it might make sense to include practising or learning skills in at least some contexts. Suppose a housewife is expected to cook all the food but doesn’t know how and as such is expected to *learn* how to cook the meals. A portion of this labour is indeed epistemic. So, I think learning a skill can require epistemic labour. Does this get at your concern at all?

      On the point about overgeneration and social value, I’m wary of attaching any normative constraint of that kind. I think the upshots of much epistemic labour will themselves be of negligible “value”. What’s in question is the sort of activity engaged in to obtain (or disseminate) some knowledge, not the content of the knowledge itself. Plausibly, much scientific research might be socially, and even epistemically, detrimental (it might be whimsical, useless or somehow misleading). But the efforts of the researchers are, I think, still epistemic labour because it’s the activity not the specific output that I’m interested in.

  • Liam Kofi Bright

    11th July 2020 at 3:01 pm

    Thank you ever so much for a fascinating talk!

    So one of the main theoretical uses of epistemic labour as a concept is, as you mention, in social epistemology of science. There the concern is often to think about how reward systems provide incentive to engage in various kinds of epistemic labour. We might also, here especially with an eye to the feminist philosophy your talk addresses, think about who is rewarded for this labour and to what degree. Could you say more about how your account will relate to these questions about social incentive systems?

    I have in mind especially the following: do you think there are activities which your account will identify as epistemic labour which aren’t presently rewarded as such? Or things which we do reward as epistemic labour which aren’t? And if so should we change our incentive system to align rewards with your definition?

    1. Emilia Wilson

      11th July 2020 at 8:15 pm

      This is a really interesting question, though I’m not sure I have a very comprehensive answer as I’ve not been thinking about this from the perspective of social incentives.

      I don’t think this account will give us much to say about divisions of epistemic labour in scientific research (the things being divided there are all, and are all recognised as, epistemic labour). I think a recognition of the epistemic status of teaching ought to shift our incentive systems: I talk more about attitudes to teaching in the paper version, and Johnson’s paper also talks about this. There are familiar problems about both who is expected to take on more teaching roles in HE and how that labour is valued compared to research output. I think it’s also interesting to note the respective status of lecturers (in their capacity as teachers) versus school-teachers: there’s an emphasis on the idea of learning from the best in HE contexts, with univ. prospectuses advertising that you’ll be taught by researchers. This seems to place the epistemic value of education on the epistemic status of the teacher qua researcher, as though one learns by osmosis, in ways that overlook the importance of pedagogical technique (surely the central epistemic labour: the teaching part of teaching so to speak). But I also think this a complicated question; activities we recognise as epistemic labour do tend to be rewarded more highly than, for instance, care work. Emphasising the epistemic demands of some care work without interrogating those underlying assumptions isn’t a solution.

      This might not get at the thrust of your question, but I think the clearest place where we reap benefits from an understanding of epistemic labour is in the domestic context. I think it’s interesting that even in households where housework and childcare are split evenly women still do much more of this epistemic management-style work. And, given the nature of this work, it’s not so much the case that this work isn’t valued as that it isn’t recognised as occurring at all, often even by the person performing it. (Daminger’s study talks about this and also gives an overview of the ways that even feminist sociologists have overlooked the ‘cognitive’ dimension of housework and just looked at physical tasks). So, I think there’s a real hermeneutic (in)justice element here because in order to try and rectify gendered inequalities in domestic labour, we need to first be able to recognise that the labour is taking place at all.

      1. Liam Kofi Bright

        12th July 2020 at 2:59 pm

        Ah thank you very much, a very comprehensive answer with much for me to consider. Thank you again!