Social Philosophy as a Means for Change

Social Philosophy Means for Change

This article is based on a talk by Bruno Dabout, Director General of ATD Fourth World International. Here, he talks about a social philosophy project and conference organized by ATD Fourth World, and introduces several seminal concepts from the project’s findings. This article serves to explain and define key terms from the project, which will be explored further in a series of articles that will be published in the coming months.

What is social philosophy and why use it to overcome extreme poverty?

Social philosophy explores the relationships between individuals and groups within society. It involves examining concepts such as justice, freedom, equality, and social norms, and evaluating how these concepts relate to social structures, institutions, and practices. In essence, social philosophy is concerned with analyzing and understanding the fundamental principles and values that underlie social life and human interaction.

Political change can only happen after a cultural change. This means that before new laws, policies, and programs can be implemented, a change in mentality, language and thinking must first occur.

Using social philosophy to overcome extreme poverty is thus useful as it highlights obstacles in the fight against extreme poverty – such as discriminatory and unhelpful social ideas that separate the “good poor” from the “bad poor” – and helps to target efforts to catalyze change.

Social Philosophy and ATD Fourth World

ATD Fourth World’s “Thinking about the Social Being with Joseph Wresinski” project took place from 2019 to 2022. The project constituted a mass effort to influence attempts to eradicate poverty by having people with a lived experience of poverty be at the heart of research and policy creation. Participants of the project included ATD Fourth World activists, allies, Volunteer Corps members, as well as philosophers from France and Belgium.

When the project started in 2019, those who were not philosophers by profession – ATD Fourth World activists, allies, and Volunteer Corps members – had their doubts, wondering if they would really be able to “think together” with philosophers. The concept of “thinking together” comes from ATD Fourth World’s participatory research method of “Merging Knowledge”. This methodology was used in the social philosophy project.

Collaborating with people outside philosophy

For the philosophers involved, the idea of collaborating with people outside philosophy – including those who have experienced great injustices – was also a challenge. There was one predominant concern: would joining forces and collaborating in this way be seen as “legitimate”?

At the same time, one philosopher noted that working with those who have experienced extreme poverty was a goal of social philosophy; an understanding of what it is like to live in poverty cannot be imagined from the outside, so participative research is essential to creating improved institutional designs and catalysing change. So, after three years of learning to work together – despite occasional friction – progress was made.

The fruits of this collaboration are texts exploring different aspects of the project (rights, resistance, and epistemic injustice). They are hybrid texts because they have been co-written by people from different backgrounds: each with a different knowledge base as varied as only a group of academics, practitioners and activists with lived experience of poverty could be.

The project’s end was also marked by a conference in December 2022, hosted at the Paris Cité University in France. The conference, entitled ‘Think, Act, and Advocate with People in Poverty’, explored each text in detail, and allowed participants of the “Thinking about the Social Being with Joseph Wresinski” project to share and debate their work with over 180 people, including Latin American and African researchers.

Below, “epistemic injustice”, “colonization of thought”, and resistance are explained and discussed, as these themes will be featured in a series of articles published on ATD Fourth World’s international website in the coming months. We will also be publishing videos and other media content.

What is “epistemic injustice”?

It is often said that education is one of the keys to getting out of poverty; indeed, improving access to quality education is codified in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as one of the strategies to ending poverty and reducing inequality. However, epistemic injustice can affect both the access to and quality of education, and this is not taken into account in the UN’s SDGs, nor in the programs and projects of many other major foundations’ programs focusing on the right to education.

“Epistemic injustice” refers to the harm and unfair treatment individuals – particularly people in poverty – experience due to their perceived lack of credibility in the realm of knowledge and information. It encompasses two main forms: “testimonial” injustice and “hermeneutical” (or “interpretive”) injustice. Testimonial injustice occurs when someone’s knowledge is unjustly discredited or disregarded based on stigmas and stereotypes. Hermeneutical injustice arises when individuals are unable to fully understand or articulate their experiences due to the absence of social frameworks or shared concepts to make sense of their marginalized perspectives; in essence, when a person is denied the peace, time, resources, and space to reflect on and understand their experiences. Epistemic injustice diminishes the voices and contributions of people in poverty in shaping knowledge and discourse.

Epistemic injustice encompasses:

  • Injustice of the speaker: when what you say is not believed. Discriminatory stigmas cause the credibility of people in poverty to be unfairly doubted.
  • Injustice of misinterpretation: when your experiences are misunderstood or taken out of context. The experiences of people in poverty are often misinterpreted or dismissed out of hand by others.
  • Injustice of ownership: when you are not given due credit for your ideas, and ‘ownership’ of them is thus denied. It is often the case that things invented in the midst of poverty also serve those who do not live in poverty. However, it is crucial that they principally continue to serve people who are living in poverty.
  • Injustice of transmission: when you are prevented from effectively transmitting your knowledge or experiences to others. For example, in Western European cases of children put into care, the result of family separation causes historical court records to be the only form of familial history given to a child. Here, only the punitive history stays, and not the daily history of resistance to poverty that people living in poverty demonstrate.
  • Injustice contribution: when you face systematic barriers that hinder your ability to contribute meaningfully to intellectual discourse and the production of knowledge. As a result, over time this form of “epistemic injustice has the effect of imposing on the victimized group categories by the dominant that tell them how to think and talk about themselves.

“Colonization of thought”

But why is it not always possible for the oppressed to “speak the truth”? Or rather, why is it not always possible for them to put their truth on the table? African American philosopher W.E.B. Du Bois spoke about this very subject: he noted that Black people, even after the end of slavery, saw themselves through the eyes of others and internalized their thinking, unintentionally risking the transmission of this feeling of inferiority to their children.

But Du Bois also remarked that this internalization of inferiority was rarely total. Sometimes, a person thinks from the point of view of the dominant, and sometimes the person thinks from the point of view of their community. This second point of view is often rooted in an inherent resistance to domination.


It is important to note that often, resistance is not seen, as we only tend to notice resistance to power when it is organized in a collective action. However, before a person is involved in an organized resistance, that same person is active in their own individual resistance and perseverance; they endure on a daily basis in the face of injustice. This is resistance-endurance, and it is normalized in its regularity.

But it is crucial that the normalization of situations like these, which are absolutely abnormal, are known. Situations which are not right need to be known and understood as such by people who are not involved in the fight against poverty on a daily basis (or who do not struggle daily against poverty themselves) so that they might see the contributions and strength of those living in poverty.

A great challenge

To try and explain the findings of ATD Fourth World’s “Thinking about the Social Being with Joseph Wresinski” social philosophy project is a challenge! There were many ideas in the extraordinary texts that came out of the project and preceding conference, and this article has endeavored to ensure that those ideas, when published here on our International website, are accessible to our readers.

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