As I indicated in a recent post here, in my forthcoming book, I point out that in the last several decades discussions about disability have become increasingly prevalent in philosophy, especially with the resurgence of work on social justice since the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice and the emergence and expansion of the subfields of bioethics and cognitive science. I noted, that is, that since the mid-twentieth century, mainstream philosophers have increasingly engaged in philosophical discussions about disability formulated around questions such as these: What (if anything) does society owe to disabled people? How should society compensate disabled people for their natural disadvantages and brute bad luck? On what grounds is it justifiable to euthanize disabled people? Is it morally permissible to conduct experimentation on cognitively disabled research subjects? What can we learn about the (normal) mind from the fact that “people with autism” lack a theory of mind? What can we learn about the operations of the (normal) brain, its emotions, perceptions, and so on, from study of people who have experienced brain injuries?
I also noted in the earlier post that although the questions that mainstream philosophers have asked about disability seem diverse with respect to methodology, research aims, etc., the cluster of motivational assumptions that underpins almost all these inquiries takes for granted the metaphysical status and epistemological character of the category of disability and the designation itself, casting them as self-evident and thus philosophically uninteresting. On the terms of this cluster of assumptions, disability is a prediscursive, transcultural, and transhistorical disadvantage, an objective human defect or characteristic that ought to be prevented, corrected, eliminated, or cured.
One of the aims of my book is to show that this conception of disability as a self-evidently natural (or biological) and hence philosophically uninteresting characteristic (deficit, defect, flaw, and so on) is intertwined with and inseparable from the underrepresentation of disabled philosophers in the profession of philosophy and the marginalization of philosophy of disability in the discipline. As I assert in the book, the assumption that disabled people are biologically or naturally disadvantaged—that is, physiologically inferior or naturally flawed—has the following (pernicious) effects, among others:
(1) contributes to the hostile environment that disabled philosophers confront within philosophy and (2) enables the exclusion of disabled philosophers from the profession that thereby (3) bolsters other subjecting apparatuses (such as race, gender, sexuality, nationality, age, and class) with which the apparatus of disability is co-constitutive and, in addition, (4) sustains and reproduces the homogeneous and monolithic character of both the discipline of philosophy and the persona of the professional philosopher, thereby (5) contributing to the conditions of possibility for the epistemology of domination and epistemic injustice that beset philosophy while (6) reinforcing and perpetuating the deeply entrenched ableism of the Euro-American, Western philosophical tradition that is part and parcel of, and contributes to, the widespread discrimination that disabled people confront elsewhere in the university and beyond it (see also Dolmage 2017).
Throughout the book, I offer various sorts of examples of how the conception of disability that prevails in philosophy is causally related to the underrepresentation of disabled philosophers in the profession, the marginalization and outright exclusion of philosophy of disability from serious consideration in the discipline, and the subordinated status of disabled people in society. One of the examples that I offer early in the book is the way that cognitive scientists, philosophers of mind, and others use the case of Phineas Gage and, more generally, people who have sustained brain injuries. In addition to offering a new interpretation of the case of Phineas Gage, I pose some questions that philosophers who use these disabled people in this way ought to consider.
My thinking about this particular use of disabled people in philosophy has benefitted greatly from generous discussion with Joshua Knobe and Kevin Tobia. I have modified the text slightly for the purposes of this blog post.
Phineas Gage, For Example
Consider the story of Phineas Gage, now institutionalized in introductory textbooks in cognitive science, philosophy of psychology, and cognate subfields. In 1848, Gage, a railroad supervisor, was impaled by a tamping iron that entered his left cheek and exited the back of his skull. Malcolm Macmillan (2002), in An Odd Kind of Fame: Stories of Phineas Gage, notes that two-thirds of introductory psychology textbooks mention Gage. Over the course of more than a century and a half, an almost mythical narrative has been elaborated within psychology and medical textbooks about the aftermath of Gage’s injury, a mythology to which philosophers and cognitive scientists have subscribed and promoted. Gage, who survived the accident, is purported to have undergone an extreme change in personality and character following the event. Hence, philosophers and cognitive scientists (among others) have used the case of Gage as a springboard to advance arguments and develop positions about, inter alia, personal identity, the true self, the moral self, and so on (see Strohminger 2014; Knobe 2016; Tobia 2016). I submit that the use to which philosophers, cognitive scientists, and psychologists (among others) routinely put the story of Gage deserves closer scrutiny.
Steve Twomey (2010) notes that “John Martyn Harlow, the doctor who treated Gage for a few months afterward, reported that Gage’s friends found him ‘no longer Gage.’” To Harlow, Twomey remarks, “the balance between Gage’s ‘intellectual faculties and animal propensities’ seemed to have [disappeared].” Gage was “unable to stick to plans, uttered ‘the grossest profanity’ and showed ‘little deference for his fellows.’” Macmillan points out that subsequent accounts of Gage’s changed character have gone far beyond Harlow’s observations, transforming Gage into an ill-tempered, shiftless drunk (2002). As Twomey asserts, and as my own research on Gage indicates, such accounts about Gage’s demeanor post-accident vilify him, seem exaggerated, and in fact seem largely fabricated.
Consider that Harlow, to whom many references in the literature appeal, treated and observed Gage for only a few months, a relatively short span of time given Gage’s injury and the changes in his life that it would have entailed. In short, Harlow’s description of the postinjury-Gage does not seem to warrant the dispositional and personality changes—cruel, mean, and so on—that have been attributed to Gage in the scientific and philosophical literature over the years. Indeed, the ways that cognitive scientists and philosophers use the story of Gage are highly contestable. They cannot be sure that the cited reports from Gage’s friends (if in fact made) were not in some way conditioned by their own misunderstandings of his behavior, their revulsion and prejudices about his changed physical appearance, or simply their own impatience as he learned new ways to comport himself in the world. Some reports of Gage’s life post-injury contradict the oft-cited reports, indicating instead that Gage had a pleasant enough demeanor post-injury, but was unable to find employment and was socially outcast.
That Gage’s situation has been exaggerated and embellished within the contexts of the literature of (inter alia) neuroscience, cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and medicine reminds us that science, philosophy, and medicine are embedded social practices rather than disinterested domains that exist apart from and are immune to ableist biases and other elements of the apparatus of disability. I suggest, therefore, that we should ask these questions (among others) about this line of inquiry in cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and related fields:
How has this (embellished) narrative about Gage contributed to the problematization of disability in philosophy? In what ways has this mythical narrative about Gage enabled the naturalization and materialization of impairment within certain subfields of the discipline and thus enabled the consolidation of the relation between philosophy and the apparatus of disability? In what ways has this mythology about certain disabled people ultimately shaped, conditioned, and determined research programs and teaching in cognitive science, neuroscience, and philosophy of mind? How has this vilification of Gage within academic contexts relied upon and reproduced pervasive social prejudices and assumptions according to which certain disabled people are dangerous and violent? How, and to what extent, have the repeated articulations of this myth about Gage confirmed what philosophers believed about (some) disabled people? Finally, to what extent does the repeated articulation of this fanciful narrative about Gage (and there are surely others) both contribute to the hostile environment that disabled philosophers confront in philosophy and reproduce the underrepresentation of disabled philosophers?
posted by Shelley