Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the eleventh installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and post here on the third Wednesday of each month. The series is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional discrimination and personal prejudice in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.
My guest today is Jesse Prinz. Jesse teaches at the City University of New York, Graduate Center, where he is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Committee on Interdisciplinary Science Studies. His research interests include emotions, moral psychology, social identity, classification, and aesthetics and emphasize the historical, social, and cultural factors that influence how we act and think. Jesse’s favorite recreational activities revolve around art, including watching films, going to galleries, writing an art blog, and studying art history.
Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Jesse! Let’s begin this interview with your remarkably interesting background and personal history. Your paternal grandfather had a Ph.D. in philosophy and he and other members of your family have played a significant role in the achievement of civil rights for black people in the U.S. Please describe your family’s history and activities, as well as how this history and involvement have shaped your philosophical and political interests.
Thanks, Shelley, and thanks for this outstanding series. I’ve learned so much from your past interviews and feel honored and lucky to join the conversation.
Both of my parents’ families were refugees. My mother’s parents grew up in villages in Poland near the Russian border, but fled from poverty and pogroms. My mother’s grandparents, their siblings, and all of her other relatives who stayed behind in Poland were killed by Hitler’s executioners. My father’s parents lived in Berlin. My paternal grandfather—a leading rabbi in Germany—was repeatedly arrested because he issued warnings to Jewish Germans about the dangers that Hitler and the Nazis posed.
Eventually, my grandfather Prinz was expelled from Germany because of this activism. He and my grandmother immigrated to the U.S., where he later joined the American Civil Rights Movement. He worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and was one of the organizers of and speakers at the historic March on Washington. My father, too, became involved in civil rights work, including the Community Action Movement in Newark, New York, which sought to empower ghettoized Americans by returning ownership and control of local businesses to members of the community. My mother was involved in the New York art scene, which, at the time, was working for broader inclusiveness in the art world. Women, for example, were still largely invisible in fine art. Both of my parents were, and remain, feminists.
Because I grew up in the midst of this family environment, and in New York, I took certain things for granted. For instance, I was not familiar with anyone who was on the right politically—or, at least, not to my knowledge; so, I internalized both the message that social justice requires constant vigilance and effort and the awareness that we are far from achieving it. When I finally left New York, spending some twenty years living elsewhere, I came to realize that my political orientation was not shared, which deepened my understanding of the way that values can be shaped by one’s environment. This kind of destabilization is important, I think. Moral confidence is dangerous. It is important to see that one’s own values—like the values of one’s political opponents—are constructed.
I also came to appreciate more deeply the way that ostensibly progressive cities like New York perpetuate various forms of injustice and oppression. One of the most obvious forms of structural inequality is the urban ghetto, referred to in the popular press with the damaging euphemism “inner city.” Major American cities, such as New York, remain segregated to an alarming degree. Segregation has profoundly negative effects: unequal housing, inequalities in schooling, in safety, and in cultural resources, unequal job opportunities, inequalities in health care, and an unequal distribution of social services, as well as isolation from social networks that allow for upward mobility. Ghettos exacerbate an “us-and-them” mentality, allowing abuses against certain sectors of the population to take place in a way that is invisible to the people who live in enclaves of privilege.
New York, like many other American cities, is undergoing rapid gentrification. The New York City in which I grew up—a city where artists and immigrants could afford to live and where many neighborhoods had a broad spectrum of residents, spanning wide income gaps, and reflecting multiple backgrounds—is gone. The city officials have “cleaned up” multiple neighborhoods, selling to developers, and permitting unchecked rent increases. Every month, more residents with lower incomes get forced out of neighborhoods. Homelessness is rising dramatically.
When I left New York, I lived in various other cities: Chicago, Washington D.C., St. Louis, Los Angeles, with brief stints in London and Paris. Many of these cities have the same problems. Urban centers remain divided. Prejudice is not just a state of mind; it is a state of place. Prejudice is built into the very physical structure of cities, with the inequalities therein inscribed into bodies: life expectancy, infant mortality rates, and general health are affected. Philosophers have started to think a great deal about implicit biases, that is, the forms of bigotry that persist in the beliefs of people who explicitly embrace equality; however, we must also think about structures. Cities are a microcosm of global issues. Differential outcomes vary far more dramatically as a function of place when we consider regional and national differences.
After city-hopping for some years, I ended up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Living in Chapel Hill was a rewarding experience in every way. One especially valuable outcome of my time in Chapel Hill is that I felt like an alien when I arrived there. I’d never lived in the American South or in a college town. Chapel Hill itself is very cosmopolitan; but, I still felt like the proverbial Other there—a displaced New Yorker, encountering people whose backgrounds differed dramatically from the lives of people whom I’d met elsewhere. These differences included some of the obvious things, such as different attitudes towards guns and God. However, there were also different attitudes towards community: many collective efforts, people dropped by just to say “hello,” and so on. Furthermore, there were different principles of social division: gaps in income, for example, were not as pronounced as they are elsewhere. Feeling like an Other helped me to realize that my political outlook must include self-critique. Many left-leaning urbanites have been isolated from political diversity, so they come to see their own values as manifestly true. Because I have lived in many different places, it has become clear to me that I, like everyone else, am a product of place.
These life lessons inform my philosophical work. My work is less overtly political than the work of some of the other philosophers who have contributed to this forum. I am a political philosopher only in the sense that everything is political. I am political between the lines, so to speak. I think that in this relatively limited way my political views are a guiding force for me. Almost everything that I do involves the idea that experience can transform human minds. We are, by nature, unnatural. I am wary of biophilia—that is, of uncritical efforts to explain human universals and differences by appeal to fixed biological traits.
Experience shapes all of our beliefs, values, thinking styles, behavioral dispositions, ways of seeing, and ways of feeling. We share much as a species; however, our extraordinary malleability distinguishes us from each other and from other animals. No aspect of human activity remains untouched by enculturation and experience. The way that we sit, stand, walk, breath, the volume at which we speak, speech itself, the way that we dress and live, the foods that we crave, the arts that we love, and the structure of our relationships are learned scripts to some degree. It boggles the mind to think about that. Philosophers who emphasize biological contributors are neglecting our most important trait. Although finding biological universals is valuable, it is like studying bedrock instead of buildings.
You specialize in aesthetics and philosophy of art. You are also art trained. How do your art education and your family history influence your writing and teaching in aesthetics and philosophy of art?
In the oldest extant photo of me, I’m an infant strapped to my father’s back in an art museum. With a father who loves art and an artist mother, it was nearly inevitable that art would be important to me. By grammar school, I wanted to be an artist. I went to a public high school for the arts and, for the longest time, hoped to find a career in the arts. My older brother, who is immensely talented, had followed a similar path, pursuing music. He also produced a lot of visual art. He continues to work with video, robotics, and other media. Art seemed like my destiny.
But, of course, there is no such thing as destiny. For a variety of reasons, I left fine art behind as a professional vocation. I did some work in design and illustration after high school; but, I didn’t find the work rewarding, nor did I have the stomach and talent for a career as a gallery artist. By then, I had discovered the next best thing: philosophy.
I was reading a lot of Nietzsche in high school, and, by good fortune, my mother had a philosopher as a neighbor, Sandy Kwinter, who had studied with Foucault. Sandy was one of the core forces behind Zone Books, the publisher that introduced many French authors to English-speaking audiences. Sandy turned me on to Deleuze, for example, which was a mind-blowing experience for a teenager. I’ve largely left Deleuze behind, despite his enduring popularity; however, Foucault remains a central figure for me.
Having passion for both art and philosophy made it inevitable that I would ultimately turn to aesthetics. Although aesthetics has been a serious interest from the start of my career, I’ve only recently transitioned from dabbling in the area to making it a major focus of research. My interest in aesthetics is clearly a consequence of my background. To this day, many of the people closest to me in life are artists.
I have tremendous respect for people who take time to make art and who, in a world that is hostile to artists, choose making art as a professional path. I think art attracts people who have difficulty fitting in to conventional life, which means that many of these people are interesting and inspiring.
Art training and marginalization also makes artists good observers. Many artists are economically challenged. They struggle and hustle to survive; yet, they manage to find energy to do their work. Since most artists do not have permanent employment and the cost of personal health insurance in the U.S. is prohibitive, I’m sure that very few artists in the U.S. have adequate health insurance. Some artists come from affluent backgrounds. Other artists find people who will help support them. Nevertheless, many artists really struggle. Even many artists who become well-known names to art-world insiders are living lives with great economic insecurity. Financial success comes to only a tiny handful. Many of the artists who choose this hard path do so because they can’t imagine doing anything else or can’t tolerate or manage more practical career paths. Such characteristics place these artists outside of prevailing standards of what it is to lead a useful, responsible, and valuable life. Unlike many people who fall outside of mainstream expectations, however, these artists are not silent. They make things; and, often what they make reflects what they have seen around them. Even art that is abstract or escapist reflects time and place. I think philosophers have a lot to learn from art and artists.
In your work, you give pride of place to the role that culture and social construction play in our cognition. This emphasis on plasticity and historicity in cognition sets you apart from most other philosophers who work in philosophy of mind and cognitive science. How would you describe your work in this area, Jesse?
Thank you for this question. One of the things that I admire about your work is its emphasis on historicity and construction in conceptions of disability. I think that this orientation, which was so central to Foucault, gets far too little air-time in philosophy, especially in the analytic tradition. Almost all of my work concerns plasticity. My first book challenged the innateness of concepts. My second book argues that all emotions are culturally informed. My third book defends the Nietzschean view that morality is a product of history. My fourth book, Beyond Human Nature, was devoted to challenging biological explanations of behavior, including biological theories of racial differences in I.Q.; gender differences in aptitude for science; and medical models of mental illness. I am currently writing what I regard as a trilogy on social construction: a book about art, in which I argue that it is a cultural invention; a book about the construction of identity; and a book in which I argue that everything is socially constructed. So, yes, I think it’s fair to say that I’m obsessed with this topic.
Within philosophy of mind and cognitive science, there is a great deal of attention on, and emphasis paid to, the basic mechanisms of mentality. This orientation tends to promote a biological view, at least implicitly. I am guilty of this emphasis in my own early work on consciousness—the one place in my work where I have given little attention to plasticity. Of course, we can find exceptions. For example, there is wonderful work in cultural psychology and excellent work done from within science that challenges biological fixity.
History gets less attention. Nietzsche and Foucault helped promote a genealogical approach; however, there have been few contemporary practitioners of it. Your work stands out in this regard. I was also excited to see Anthony Appiah’s book, The Honor Code, which approaches moral values through historical change. Appiah’s narrative is a bit more vindicating than I tend to like—I am wary of progress narratives—nevertheless, it is a terrific read. I think that we need more work like this.
My forthcoming book on social identity includes a chapter in which I look genealogically and critically at three core concepts in Western morals: democracy, freedom, and human rights. The thesis of the book is that values are extremely important to personal identity and I approach values historically. In the spirit of self-critique, I suggest that some of the most deeply held convictions in contemporary Western society are problematic when viewed through the lens of history. I look, for example, at: the role of capitalism in the rise of constitutional democracy; the relationship between prevailing models of freedom and mass incarceration; and the use of human rights rhetoric in the reign of terror and the Napoleonic wars.
This kind of work is hard for philosophers because it requires a great deal of research into historical events, which training in philosophy usually does not include. Philosophers need more dialogue with historians. The structure of the modern university and its departmental divisions can be barriers to good work. I am, and will always be, a novice when it comes to history; but I think it’s important to make the effort. I’ve spent my career trying to bring psychology into philosophy, and, if we can do that, there is no reason why we can’t also use history as a source in our work.
You are both personally and professionally interested in emotions and mental illness. What are the connections between your interest in emotions and mental illness and your work on social construction?
Depression is a central part of my life. I am, and most of the people close to me are, depressive. I am lucky to be a functional depressive, though I do feel the weight of that trait on a regular basis, along with other psychological maladies, such as stress, insomnia, and so on. Many of the people in my life have been diagnosed with some sort of mental illness. Most of them have been in some sort of treatment. Psychiatry is somewhat of a fixture in my life.
Some of the most familiar psychiatric categories involve the emotions: depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, mania, panic, phobias, paranoia, paraphilias, and psychopathy, among many others. On many accounts, emotions are also associated with well-being: a good life is equated with a happy life. Emotions get classified as normal and pathological; desirable and damaging; acceptable and inappropriate. People whose emotions do not align with social expectations face many obstacles. They have a difficult time living up to social expectations; they experience a great deal of stigmatization. We live in a world where most people can’t simply put their responsibilities on hold. People who do not regulate their emotions in the prescribed ways are regarded as unpleasant, as unreliable, and so forth. If your emotions don’t behave, you will be treated as both blameworthy and infantile.
I’m on the mild end of the depression spectrum and have been extraordinarily fortunate in my life; however, I do expend a great deal of energy wrestling with the challenges of emotional deviation. These challenges have fuelled my scholarly interest in the emotions. They have in addition led me to think about how emotions are experienced and are embodied, as well as to wonder where the norms that govern our emotions originate. When considering so-called “healthy” emotions, it’s easy to think of them as biologically based, as ahistorical, and as universal. It’s often supposed that we share our emotions with other creatures; that is, our emotions are said to be part of our animal nature, or even part of our reptilian brain.
With pathology, this perspective is harder to motivate. Diagnostic categories change over time and vary cross-culturally. Even when the same category is identified in two cultural settings, there can be dramatic differences in symptoms, incidence, prevalence, coping strategies, and recovery rates. These discrepancies suggest that social forces influence emotional disorders. Social factors also play an important role in decisions about which emotional profiles get classified as pathological and what should be done about them.
It is important to meditate on this variation and the role that social factors play in the case of pathological emotions because we live in a time when the medical model dominates. Pseudo-scientific terms, such as “chemical imbalance,” have entered into ordinary vocabulary. One in ten people in the U.S. is prescribed a psychotropic drug. Nearly a quarter of all middle-aged women take anti-depressants. These drugs have had very positive effects for many of these women. For others, the experience has been disappointing, with serious side effects. Clinical trials are often unimpressive and funded by pharmaceutical companies, leaving individuals—a.k.a. “patients”—without the knowledge that they need to make informed decisions. There is no doubt that drugs can impact mental states—mind is matter—but the medical model, which attributes symptoms to poorly understood brain mechanisms, deprives “patients” of agency by preventing the exploration of external causes for the symptoms.
The ascendancy and dominance of the medical model has resulted in huge research expenditures on genetic causes with comparatively little investigation of sociogenic factors. The absurdity of this emphasis is manifest when you consider the fact that incidences of emotional and psychological deviance are so demographically variable. For example, the fact that women are much more prone to depression than men are suggests that the impact of life experience is far greater than genes. Studies of genetic predispositions give extremely inflated figures, since they tend to keep social factors relatively uniform and stable. When one looks across cultures or demographic groups, one finds enormous variance.
The hegemony of biological explanation is even greater when it comes to so-called healthy emotions. I think that the case of disordered emotions has much to teach us, because once we recognize the impact of social forces with respect to disordered emotions, it becomes possible for us to think that all emotions are influenced in this way. I think fear, anger, disgust—even hunger, thirst, and sexual desires—are socially conditioned. We may have brain circuits that have homologues in other creatures, but we are also far more susceptible to social learning than other creatures are. As a result, our biological machinery is co-opted from the start.
In short, the causes, effects, and embodiment of every one of our emotions and drives are culturally conditioned. Thus, we find different anxieties across cultures and different elicitors of moral repugnance. We also find different triggers of rage and rage gets embodied in different ways. At the individual level, such conditioning can mark the difference between someone who silently broods when provoked and someone who lashes out violently. Emotional training of this kind also reflects power relations. One strategy of oppression is to condition the oppressed to experience emotions that are not conducive to liberation. For example, many women are conditioned to be meek and fragile, to sulk when angry, and to turn their anger inward on themselves, rather than to use outrage as an instrument of change. Often moments of liberation occur when members of an oppressed group take the reins of their emotions.
Jesse, you recently began to write about art and mental illness. Please describe this writing and the motivation for it.
I’ve had a long-standing interest in mental illness and art and their intersection. Anyone tuned into the art world will have noticed that there is a widespread view that mental illness is somehow related to creativity. The trope of the mad genius is deeply entrenched in Western cultural history, with major movements in Western art—such as romanticism, expressionism and surrealism, to name only a few—taking inspiration from madness. One manifestation of this cultural fascination is the idea of the “outsider artist.” This term, coined forty-five years ago, refers to artists who operate outside of the influence of the mainstream art world. However, not just any outsider will do. A painter living in a distant land or an isolated town won’t qualify for the designation of “outsider artist.” Outsiders are also supposed to be psychologically abnormal in some way. So, the concept is the ultimate expression of the idea that creativity is related to mental disorder.
I have been fascinated by the construct of the outsider artist for some time now. Some of my favorite artists from recent decades are classified as “outsiders;” so, I have periodically discussed outsider artists in my work. However, my first systematic attempt to think about this phenomenon was motivated by your gracious invitation to contribute an article to the special issue of Journal of Social Philosophy that you’re guest editing.
The outsider construct has bothered me for a long time. I think that this construct serves to isolate and exploit people already marginalized by virtue of their disabilities. The construct also imposes an implausible dichotomy: it ignores the fact that many “insider” artists have psychological difficulties and conceals the fact that most “outsider” artists have extensive exposure to mainstream art through cultural osmosis or training. Furthermore, I’ve been struck by the historicity of the construct. Conceptions of madness have changed over time—the term madness is itself a conceptual relic—and views about the relationship between madness and art have changed over time. These historical shifts are inextricable from evolving cultural beliefs about the nature of creativity and changing aesthetic standards. The histories of art and of madness are, in this way, inextricably intertwined. Outsider art is a place where the margins of society and the pinnacle of high culture—the invisible and the visible—come into contact. By studying this relationship, we can learn a great deal about contemporary Western culture and prevailing regimes of knowledge.
Currently, there is a trend for affluent people to placate guilt about their privilege by expressing support for disadvantaged groups. The growing adoration for outsider art may be a symptom of this. The market is skyrocketing, in part, because museum-goers and art-buyers—who tend to be wealthy, educated, and liberal—find the work of people who are poor and mentally ill both charming and uplifting. Buying this work allows these affluent people to feel as if they have paid tribute to people who are less fortunate. With insider artists, commercial success brings economic benefits and an entry ticket into a world of high-status power-brokers. Insider artists who sell their work become part of the cultural elite. With outsider artists, this sort of inclusion rarely happens. Market values require that outsiders remain isolated from high culture. These artists can be observed; but, they can’t observe. This state of affairs brings to mind Foucault’s idea that power can manifest through surveillance.
Which authors do you recommend on the various topics that you have discussed in this interview? Whose artworks should be considered on these topics?
The most comprehensive historical survey of the relationship between art and mental illness is John MacGregor’s The Discovery of the Art of the Insane. A concise, older discussion of this relationship appears in Sander Gilman’s fascinating Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness. Judith Scott, a magnificent sculptor, and Henry Darger, who made hundreds of gender-bending drawings to illustrate his voluminous epic novel, are among my favorite artists who are classified as “outsiders.” I also love Charles Dellschau, who drew air ships, and Josef Hofer, who paints nudes. Dellschau and Hofer, too, get classified as outsider artists. There have been many others. Some extraordinary artists who experienced mental illness failed to obtain outsider status because they had extensive contact with the art world. One of my current favorite artists who never obtained outsider status is Unica Zürn, who was also a gifted writer.
On the philosophy of mental illness more broadly, many authors have informed my thinking. I’d like to mention Jennifer Radden who was writing about psychiatry before it was fashionable in analytic circles. I also follow the work of Hanna Pickard. Some recent work by Kathryn Tabb has caught my attention too.
Biophilia has been challenged from many directions. I’m especially inspired by authors who attack biological determinism in scientifically savvy ways. A great example is Rebecca Jordan-Young’s critique of the science of gender differences in Brain Storm. Victoria Pitts-Taylor is also doing magnificent work. Victoria has a book called The Brain’s Body forthcoming, which I can’t wait to read.
I spend quite a lot of time reading on historical themes: Robin Blackburn on slavery; Francis Haskell on canons in art; and Jack Goody on marriage, to name a few. A list of this kind could go on indefinitely; however, that would take time away from reading.
Jesse, thank you for offering these recommendations and for taking the time to do this fascinating interview. Your comments about the plasticity and historicity of our concepts and classifications are very exciting and your insights into outsider art are both provocative and illuminating.
Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Jesse Prinz’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are encouraged and preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted.
Please join me here again on Wednesday, March 16th at 8 a.m. EST for the twelfth installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.