Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the sixteenth 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 Dialogues on Disability 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 Audrey Yap. Audrey is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Coast and Straits Salish people. Her research interests are in the history and philosophy of math and logic, as well as in feminist epistemology, though she mostly teaches logic courses. In addition to philosophy, Audrey teaches (and practices) martial arts and, when not doing any of those things, she likes to be outside with her dogs.
Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Audrey! There is a common assumption that feminist philosophers specialize in ethics, applied ethics, or some other area of value theory. However, your research and teaching are concentrated in the areas of history and philosophy of mathematics, logic, and feminist epistemology. Please describe your research and teaching in these diverse areas.
Thank you so much for the invitation to be interviewed, Shelley! I’ve found this series so interesting and informative, and I’m honoured to be part of it.
When I started graduate school, I wanted to study logic and philosophy of mathematics and didn’t have a very good idea of what academic feminism was all about. Ultimately, I think my experiences as a woman in such a male-dominated field were a driving force that pushed me towards feminist philosophy, which I didn’t start to work on seriously until I had already been employed for a few years. In retrospect, I suspect that I would have benefited if I had known earlier about some of the issues that feminist philosophers working on climate in the profession discuss, for example, stereotype threat and impostor syndrome.
In history and philosophy of mathematics, I’ve mostly worked on the history of mathematical structuralism, primarily through Richard Dedekind’s work in the 19th century, but also the work of Emmy Noether in the early 20th century. Noether is a relatively neglected figure in the philosophy of mathematics, in part because she did very little philosophical writing. Independent of her undeniable mathematical contributions, I wanted to focus some of my work on Noether because there are so few “star” women mathematicians who get attention.
In many ways, my research interests in feminist philosophy have developed independently of my research interests in the philosophy of mathematics. While the latter stem from the fact that I love to read mathematical proofs and talk about why they might be philosophically interesting, my interests in feminism come from much more ordinary life-concerns. I honestly don’t like to compare the value of studying different areas of philosophy, but I’m writing my responses to your questions during a week in which there have been two high-profile killings of black men—Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—as well as the shooting of several police officers at a demonstration in Dallas.
The more time that I spend thinking about the world in which I live, the harder it is for me to justify spending my time writing on the history of mathematics, rather than on social issues. Just to be clear: this isn’t a claim that others ought to feel the same way. But, in general, I firmly believe that philosophy and philosophers do need to confront issues of systemic oppression and violence, not only in our academic writing, but also in our teaching—and as public intellectuals, for those of us who have that kind of platform. I’m grateful to those who are already doing so.
Some of my interests in feminist philosophy are related to my teaching experiences. Almost every year, I teach an introductory critical thinking class, in which we cover informal logic and fallacies. In feminist epistemology, a lot of the things that I’ve worked on are related to the subject of epistemic injustice, that is, the extent to which people can be wronged in their capacity as knowers.
I have written a couple of articles in which I argue that ad hominem fallacies can create conditions of epistemic injustice. Ad hominem fallacies that target a particular aspect of a person’s identity can make certain stereotypes about that identity salient. For instance, an ad hominem fallacy that uses a racial slur to dismiss someone’s argument can also bring to the forefront stereotypes about the intellectual abilities of people who are racialized in that way. Many non-white folks are stereotyped as intellectually lacking in some way, which sets up conditions under which they are less likely to be regarded as competent sources of testimony.
Teaching critical thinking, I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about barriers to social change, one of which has to do with the ways that we often talk past each other in arguments. I joke sometimes that I was raised as a good Carnapian and that this upbringing informs a lot of my philosophical views. One thing that I’ve been trying to argue for lately is that the Carnapian/Kuhnian model of paradigms is a good way to understand deep ideological differences.
Many feminist epistemologists take a more holistic Quinean stance. But, what I like about the Carnapian framework is that it makes distinctions in kind between different types of belief: while any beliefs are revisable in principle, some are fundamental, in the sense that someone’s changing them would require a basic shift in how they engage with the world and take in new information. It isn’t just that these beliefs are more difficult to change, or even that people are more reluctant to change them. Instead, the structural role that these beliefs play in one’s overall belief system insulates them against change, because they help to shape the ways in which new evidence is interpreted.
So I think that a lot of the work that I do is informed by my background in logic and in analytic philosophy generally and, furthermore, that these tools have a lot to contribute to feminist and anti-oppressive thinking generally. I know a few people who have a good background in both logic and feminism. But there really aren’t a lot of us who have research interests in both areas, probably because of a perceived opposition between the two areas, an opposition which is sustained by some thinkers in each area. I don’t think there’s any fundamental conflict between the two; in fact, informal logic and argumentation theory is home to some excellent feminist work.
In formal logic, feminist contributions are scarcer, and I think there could be room for more of them. For example, I’ve done some work in a branch of formal logic called Dynamic Epistemic Logic, which models the doxastic and epistemic states of abstract agents. It might sound as though that work could add very little to discussions about anti-oppressive practices; however, I think that it has potential to be a venue in which to both explore ways to de-idealize agents and critically examine the idealizing assumptions that epistemology often makes. I think that the exploration of various systems of non-classical logics and a pluralistic attitude towards logic, generally, is compatible with a lot of things that feminist philosophers want to say about logic.
On an interpersonal level, I often think that my background in analytic philosophy and logic allows me to be taken somewhat more seriously by many philosophers who don’t work in areas concerned with social justice. Sometimes this advantage is a matter of having the right credentials—if you’re working in an area that the boundary police consider “real philosophy,” then perhaps it’s easier for them to think that your work on oppression might also have information relevant to “real philosophers.” But it’s not always a matter of credentialing—sometimes it’s a matter of speaking the same language. It’s helpful when you’re able to talk to a Bayesian about, say, implicit bias as a matter of problematic prior probabilities.
In any case, I don’t think it hurts to have multiple ways to describe the same phenomenon in order to match the expertise of others. I’ve often been pleasantly surprised in cases where I have tried to talk about my work in feminist philosophy to non-feminist-philosophers along these lines. I’ve gotten a lot more sympathetic reactions than I expected to get. More than once, I’ve been told that these purportedly controversial feminist claims seemed unremarkable upon closer reflection. Thank goodness, though, for a lot of analytic feminist philosophers who came before me.
You are a co-chair of the Minority and Indigenous Women Instructor’s Network at your university. Tell our readers and listeners about this group and how your experience as a feminist philosopher of colour both informs and is informed by your work with this group.
MIWIN is a network for self-identified minority and indigenous women who teach at the University of Victoria. We don’t meet very often, maybe once a semester, but we do what we can to support each other throughout the year. What often strikes me about this group is the commonality of experiences shared by women of colour who work in academia. For example, we often do the emotional labour of mentoring and supporting students, particularly students from marginalized groups, and this labour usually receives little of the traditional sort of academic “credit” that other work, such as publishing, receives. We also find ourselves doing a lot of academic service work, such as serving on committees, in part due to attempts on the part of our institution to ensure some kind of demographic diversity on committees. In other words, these attempts to diversify tend to disproportionately burden those of us who are, well, demographically diverse.
It’s very nice to have a place where I can talk about issues that arise because I occupy multiple identities, without worrying that I’m going to confirm others’ cultural stereotypes. For instance, Asian-American women have a statistically higher rate of suicide-attempts than the general population, at least in the U.S. I recognize that the social group to which the term Asian refers is incredibly diverse; but I think that some relatively broad claims can be made about members of the group. Many Asian-Americans (and Asian-Canadians) come from a cultural background that is very achievement-oriented, which can be stress-inducing. In addition, there can be a lot of cultural stigma for us around mental illness and disability generally, which is often seen as weakness or failure. While I’m reluctant to claim that these beliefs are part of my cultural background—since I don’t want to reinforce stereotypes about overbearing Asian parents, tiger mothers, and such—it also just is a part of the overall fabric of my life. On top of this cultural backdrop, of course, there are issues of gender.
The intersectional issues are complicated, to say the least, and spaces like this network are incredibly important for acknowledging them. Even though I know that the issues I face are quite distinct from, say, the issues that my indigenous women colleagues face, this group at least gives all of us a place where we can talk with each other about ways in which colonialism and systemic racism impact us in the academy. Conversations in which you’re unsure whether you’ll be called on to justify your claims that institutionalized discrimination exists—these can be exhausting. Sometimes it’s nice not to be exhausted.
I know that the concept of a safe space is sometimes satirized or exaggerated in order to attack “political correctness gone wild,” or whatever derogatory phrase is used now to discount concerted attempts to respect the social identity of others and not contribute to their oppression. It seems that many of the people who worry about safe spaces—or, “coddling”—are people for whom most spaces are in fact safe, that is, people in very little danger that they will be told that they do not understand their own life experiences. By contrast, women of colour and other people who occupy marginalized social locations are told, on a regular basis, that they exaggerate reports of their experiences of oppression or are told that such things “happen to everybody” and have “nothing to do” with race, gender, disability, sexuality, and other features of social location. Not to mention that we often have to confront (sometimes well-meaning) people who think that it’s useful to play devil’s advocate for us on these matters.
Issues surrounding identification and self-identification have repeatedly arisen throughout the Dialogues of Disability interview series. Some of my interviewees have readily self-identified as disabled, some of them are ambivalent about this identity, and others have never self-identified as disabled. How do you feel about this identity and self-identification as disabled?
Although I am well aware that depression is a very common invisible disability, I’ve never really identified as disabled, despite the fact that I’ve had depression and anxiety for my entire adult life, probably since I was about thirteen years old. Perhaps part of the reason why I tend not to identify as disabled is because of how “high-functioning” I generally am. A lot of people who find out that I experience depression are surprised because I tend to come across as a fairly happy person. Perhaps this misapprehension is due to a common misunderstanding according to which depression and sadness are more or less equivalent. Sadness is, obviously, a common symptom of depression, but certainly one can be sad without having depression and many depressed people, myself included, are often quite happy.
Regardless, I’ve struggled for a while with the issue of depression, disability, and self-identification, since it’s forced me to confront some of my uncertainty about the very purpose of self-identification in the first place. Given that my gender presentation and skin colour are such that I’m almost always read as a woman of colour, I rarely think carefully about this identity. It’s easy not to think about things that you take for granted. But since, in part through my own conscious decisions, my depressed mental states are often non-obvious, I’m not often read as depressed or emotionally atypical.
I’m sure, though, that much of my reluctance to identify as disabled has to do with internalized ableism and the too-common association of disability with weakness, dependence, and incapacity. I recently read a study about self-identification and disability that includes interviews with people who are reluctant to identify as disabled because they feel “normal,” or feel that their disability does not define them. For me, this refusal to identify as disabled reflects the long way that we have yet to go to in order to counter stigmas surrounding disability, especially the stigma according to which it is impossible to be both a “normal” person and a “disabled” person.
A lot of what seemed to drive the reluctance of people in the study to self-identify as disabled was the sense that they could achieve just as much as nondisabled people. One wheelchair user, for instance, said that his sense of himself as just a “normal person” was in part due to the fact that he could compete with any able-bodied person at work, socially, etc. In many of the interviews, there was the sense that if the interviewees were to identify as disabled, then they would be admitting that their disability was both limiting and defining for them; and, it does seem that in our culture as a whole, limitation is just part of what it means to be disabled. So, if one doesn’t fit a stereotype of an incapacitated disabled person—that is, a person who is always defined by their limitations—maybe they’re not really disabled after all.
This is my starting point for rethinking self-identification as disabled. I know that there’s a lot of philosophy of disability and disability studies literature on this, but disability as an academic subject is really quite new for me. Anyway, if disability is no more than limitation, I doubt that many people would be willing to self-identify as such: who really wants to be defined by their limitations? Addiction, for instance, has been ruled a disability in Canada, in Ontario at least, but some people to whom I’ve been close who struggle with addiction have told me that they wouldn’t identify as disabled because they don’t want to make excuses. I think their idea is that if they were to identify as disabled, they would signal that they consider themselves helpless in the face of their addiction and, moreover, that disability would excuse any relapses that they might have. But of course, disability shouldn’t be equated with limitation, though it is a marker of difference.
My experience with depression hasn’t been one that’s exclusively defined by limitation. While depression has undoubtedly made a lot of things more difficult for me, it’s extremely rare that it will cause me to miss work or other kinds of obligations. I almost never have days where it’s virtually impossible to get out of bed; but I do have many days on which I have to do a lot of planning to get out of the house, as well as use a lot of emotional regulation strategies. These are skills that I’ve developed over the course of most of my life. So, in the end, I don’t think there are things that my non-depressed colleagues can do that I can’t because of my disability. In many ways, I find myself like the wheelchair users in the study whose reluctance to identify as disabled is rooted in a basic misconception about the nature of disability as limitation.
Audrey, you would like depression and issues related to distress and other pathologized mental phenomena to be “normalized” in the profession and society more generally. What would such a normalization of depression, distress, and other pathologized mental phenomena require and what would it entail?
At this point in my life, I have stable professional employment, including tenure, at a university that I like, which puts me in a much safer position to talk about depression and anxiety than a lot of junior folks that I know. I think it’s unfortunate that this topic is an issue that requires that one be in a “safe” position to address. For me, normalization would mean getting to a place where depression wouldn’t be something that one would have to admit, “disclose,” or “come out” about. Instead, it would be treated as a relatively common phenomenon that many people experience and certainly not something about which one should be ashamed.
I know quite a few people, particularly graduate students, who have struggled with a lot of depression and anxiety and have been reluctant to tell their supervisors because they were afraid to admit that they were struggling. I don’t know that I admitted to anyone besides my partner at the time just how difficult it was for me to make it through school. It certainly wasn’t something that I discussed with any of my academic supervisors. No slight on my supervisors; I’ve had some great academic mentors. The reasons why I never talked to them about my mental health had more to do with disciplinary norms and a fear of showing weakness, than with an expectation of any concrete repercussions.
Interestingly, having studied a lot of logic in graduate school, I observed that the culture of logic is more accepting of mental illness, though not for most people. Given the stereotype of the “crazy genius logician”—exemplified, for instance, by Kurt Gӧdel—neuro-typicality does not seem to be a precondition for success. Given many other aspects of the culture in logic, however, atypicality only seems acceptable if you are already a genius. It’s O.K., after all, for a genius to be awkward and difficult to work with; but it’s not O.K. for the rest of us.
What I mean by “normalization” of depression is acceptance of depression as a relatively ordinary thing that might affect anybody’s life. I suppose that it really is just a shift away from a culture in which disabilities in general are stigmatized and associated with dependency and a lack of fruitful contribution. Of course, this kind of shift requires more than just admissions by senior and mid-career people that depression and other kinds of pathologized mental phenomena are things with which many of us live—Peter Railton’s Dewey Lecture and some of the resulting follow-up was a lovely example, but much more is needed. While such admissions can help, the culture of academic philosophy and what it values must be significantly changed in order to normalize depression.
I think that depression and similar phenomena that are generally classified as mental illnesses will continue to be stigmatized so long as we participate in a culture that aims to cultivate genius and maximize productivity. The self-doubt and isolation that often accompany depression are hard to reconcile with the confident attitude and bold claims that are often rewarded as signs of a serious-minded and deep-thinking philosopher.
Until collaborative and exploratory work is valued as highly as decisive criticism of a particular philosophical stance, I suspect that things will be more difficult for those of us whose mental lives are more compatible with the former approach than with the latter approach. Given that significant depressive episodes can easily interfere with one’s productivity, chronic depression makes it harder to navigate a tenure system that requires a certain number of articles for promotion. What I would like, I suppose, is a culture in which we did not disproportionately reward those who are neuro-typical. I just don’t know exactly how we would get there.
In graduate school, you competed in taekwondo and wushu. To this day, you still train and coach taekwondo. What is the relation between these activities and the depression that you experience?
Taekwondo and wushu are both martial arts—the former is a fighting sport and the latter is a performance-based art. I’ve done taekwondo since I was seven years old, competing on and off when I was a child and teenager, and then again in graduate school. I was also a competitive wrestler in high school, which, like taekwondo, has weight classes. It seems plausible that depression left me fairly susceptible to disordered eating and some unhealthy relationships to food and exercise. I absolutely love athletics and martial arts still, or I wouldn’t be involved in teaching them, but the relationship between athletics and depression is complicated.
For instance, even though I do happily encourage people to exercise as a way of mitigating emotional difficulty, I try to be very careful with claims that exercise can “cure” depression. I don’t deny that a good workout can elevate one’s mood, but some of the times in my life when I was getting the most exercise were also extremely mentally unhealthy for me. While I loved my teammates and coaches, I was also weighing myself compulsively many times a day and had some very bad depressive episodes triggered by what I saw as failures in my training or competing. Despite the fact that my current medications keep my moods more stable than they were during that time, these experiences are the main reason why I chose to stop competing. I think what this illustrates is that a person’s depression is not easily separable from who they are as a whole, in the sense that it can shape any of their encounters in the world. For me, at least, exercise and healthy food only helps to mitigate depressive symptoms if I don’t measure the extent to which I consume either of them.
More generally, I think that part of the problem with these kinds of messages about depression and exercise or depression and food intake is that they encourage people to think of depression and other related conditions as things that can be “fixed,” and that are separable from our “true selves,” which I don’t think is always the case. I realize that there are many people out there who experience depression or other related conditions as temporary, but there are also many of us who can justifiably expect them to be a part of our lives for the long term. I worry that the simplicity of these messages stigmatizes the latter group of people: if we just exercised more or ate more mood-boosting foods, we too would be cured. Under that view, not only are we disadvantaged for having depression in the first place, but we’re also failing to work hard enough, or persevere enough, to overcome it.
I think there are similar effects when we use militaristic metaphors to describe illness in general. I have misgivings when we talk about our “battle” or “fight” with an illness, because I think that these expressions make it seem as if the outcome is more in our control than it really is. Or, maybe I’ve just been in too many fair fights. But, I think that with many conditions, the reality is somewhere in the middle. Good strategies can help with an illness, or at least its symptoms, but I don’t know that willpower can significantly alter our biology. I find talk therapy helpful, and there are many other environmental factors that make it much easier for me to meet social expectations as someone with depression. But I think that, in the end, it’s quite likely that my depression is largely a matter of my default brain chemistry, which I can’t necessarily talk, meditate, or weight-train my way to drastically change.
On another track, I think that teaching and training with depression have given me better insight into the importance of accessibility over accommodation. The way that I see it, accommodation doesn’t really challenge or destabilize assumptions about normal human functioning, needs, or behaviour. It simply offers exceptions for those who are non-normal. Design around accessibility tries to minimize the number of such assumptions, instead, offering a variety of means to attain the desired outcome. While I’m not an expert on universal design and accessibility, it’s something that I’ve been trying to incorporate as much as I can into my teaching of all kinds. Maybe more of a disciplinary shift in that direction for pedagogical culture will help usher along that kind of a shift in research culture as well.
What resources—blogs, websites, articles, books, videos, etc.—do you want to highlight on the topics that you’ve discussed in our interview?
I’ve published a couple of articles in which I discuss ad hominem fallacies: “Ad Hominem Fallacies, Bias, and Testimony,” Argumentation 27 (2013): 97-109; and “Ad Hominem Fallacies and Epistemic Credibility,” in Argument Types and Fallacies in Legal Argumentation (2015), edited by Christian Dahlman and Thomas Bustamante. In a couple of articles, I’ve argued for a Carnapian model of belief change: “Feminism and Carnap's Principle of Tolerance,” Hypatia 25 (2) (Spring 2010): 437-454; and “Feminist Radical Empiricism, Values, and Evidence,” Hypatia 31(1) (Winter 2016): 58-73.
The article about disability and self-identification that I mentioned is Nick Watson’s “Well I Know This Is Going to Sound Very Strange to You, But I Don’t See Myself as a Disabled Person: Identity and Disability,” which appeared in Disability & Society, 17(5): 509-527. Peter Railton’s Dewey Lecture was posted and discussed at Daily Nous. For a graphic novel about mathematical logic that shows off the “crazy genius logician” stereotype perfectly, check out Logicomix.
Finally, on the issue of accessibility versus accommodation, there are a lot of resources available on universal design. There was also a great post earlier on this blog that provides a model of conference accessibility for conference organizers.
Thanks very much for these recommendations, Audrey, and for your thought-provoking and nuanced responses to my questions. You’ve raised a number of important issues throughout this interview, which is a very welcome addition to the Dialogues on Disability series.
Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Audrey Yap’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, August 17th at 8 a.m. EST for the seventeenth 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 email@example.com. 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.