Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the second-anniversary 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.
During the past year, for the second year in a row, I conducted landmark interviews with disabled philosophers who are variously situated with respect to disability, race, gender, institutional status, age, culture, nationality, and sexuality, and whose philosophical work covers a wide range of areas of specialization and research interests. This second-anniversary installment of the series highlights insights and lessons that these philosophers offered the philosophical community and reflects upon the implications of these contributions to philosophy. Jesse Prinz (interviewed in February 2016), Tommy Curry (interviewed in June 2015), and Audrey Yap (interviewed in July 2016), have returned to Dialogues on Disability to assist me with this celebratory anniversary installment by commenting on interviews of the past year that both reflect their own research interests and remind us of their own interviews in the series.
Welcome back to Dialogues on Disability, Jesse, Tommy, and Audrey!
Jesse, you did a fascinating interview that Bryce Huebner and I highlighted in last year’s anniversary installment, have been an avid follower of the second year of the series, and have contributed to discussions on several of the interviews in the second year. So, I’m very happy that you have joined me for this second anniversary of the series.
[Description of image below: A coloured photo of Jesse, who has light skin, pink hair, and is staring directly at us. He is sitting with his elbows on a surface in front of him. His left hand is touching his forehead and his right hand appears open and expressive near his face. He is wearing a grey button-down shirt with the cuffs turned up, rings on all his fingers, and is positioned in front of a grey background.]
As you may recall, Jesse, Bryony Pierce was my first interviewee of the second year. In her interview, Bryony talked about a variety of subjects, such as the work that she has done to make philosophy conferences more accessible to a variety of philosophers, offering practical advice to other conference organizers about how to do so. One of the areas in which Bryony conducts research is experimental philosophy, an area in which you too do a great deal of work. I asked Bryony for her views on criticisms that some philosophers have advanced about experimental philosophy. Among other things, she said:
The methodology for which x-phi is renowned is that of applying the methods of experimental psychology to philosophical questions, especially the use of surveys testing intuitions in response to thought experiments. In a broader sense, it includes any empirical work aiming to address philosophical questions. Feminist philosophers have argued, I’ve now discovered, that the methods of experimental philosophers fail to allow for critical analyses of the social structures that underpin the concepts and attitudes under investigation, perpetuating sexism and racism. But the methods used in x-phi don’t automatically exclude other types of analysis. Experimental studies are done within a wider context, often complementing other methodological approaches, and shouldn’t be viewed in isolation. X-phi isn’t restricted to operating independently of theoretical work—the theoretical work is an essential part of the process, as is further work to replicate, clarify, or challenge initial findings, before any firm conclusions can be drawn.
Since you work in experimental philosophy yourself, Jesse, I’d be interested to know your views on this controversy.
I really enjoyed Byrony’s conversation with you, Shelley. I completely agree with her that experimental philosophy can and should be integrated with other methods. Methodological pluralism is a way to address biases and limitations that one might run into if one relied on a single mode of inquiry. Experiments allow us to probe things that may not be obvious from mere reflection and to discover factors that influence our judgments unwittingly. That is why experimental methods have been so important in the discovery of implicit biases.
That said, Shelley, we need to recognize that every method may itself introduce forms of bias. here is an outstanding student at my university, Amanda Huminski, who is writing a feminist critique of experimental philosophy. She argues, for example, that the focus on quantitative as opposed to qualitative methods relates to a gendered tendency to neglect contextual and experiential factors that may be important for understanding social phenomena. Huminski is actually using experimental philosophy as a tool in her critique of experimental philosophy. So, the method can contribute, while also exposing its own limitations.
With respect to feminism, Shelley, I think it is important to bear in mind that experimental philosophy is, in some ways, an outgrowth of empiricist traditions in philosophy, such as Quine’s call to naturalize epistemology. Many feminists—such as Lynn Hankinson Nelson—have built on Quinean philosophy. Experimental philosophers have much to learn from that work. These feminist empiricists recognize that doing good science also requires doing good science criticism, that is, those philosophers who have been drawn to empirical methods must also cultivate a critical perspective on their own practices. Debates about methodology have focused on armchair vs. experiment, but we should also be thinking about experiment vs. thick description or how experimental methods reflect critical insights from the sociology of science.
The next excellent interview that you conducted was also on the theme of experimental philosophy, Shelley: your conversation with Joshua Knobe. In trying to illustrate the value of experimental methods, he described some of his recent work on the “true self.” Many philosophers think that the part of our selves that is most important to identity is the rational or deliberative part. Joshua’s studies suggest an alternative. He said,
[P]eople's true selves call them to do what is good. Sometimes the part of the self that draws us to the good is the more reflective part, sometimes it is the more visceral part, but, this whole reflective/visceral distinction has nothing to do with our ordinary notion of the true self. The ordinary notion is, rather, that the true self is that part of us—whichever it might be—that draws us toward the good.
This resonates with work that I have been doing with my collaborators, Javier Gomez-Lavin, Shaun Nichols, and Nina Strohminger. We find persistent links between moral values and people’s views about what matters most for personal identity. At the same time, I wonder how universal this phenomenon is, and why it seems so prevalent now. It seems people might also identify with, say, their musical taste, their cultural heritage, or even disability. Shelley, what do you think of this idea of the good self, given that you specialize in philosophy of disability and are a close reader of Foucault, who, himself, wrote much about the historicity of the self. Is morality all that there is to our conception of the true self? Is this universal? How might Joshua’s research look if informed by the kind of work that you do?
Jesse, Joshua’s work in experimental philosophy—including his work on the true self—has been very influential, instrumental in the development of empirical methods in philosophy, and is provocative for a variety of reasons. His work certainly raises a number of questions for me, including the questions that you have now posed. I wonder how much attention these sorts of questions receive amongst experimental philosophers trained primarily in analytic philosophy.
I think that when we talk about the true self, or the idea of the true self, Jesse, we must do so in historicized and relativized terms. The self is a historically and culturally specific phenomenon. Identity, including disabled identity, is a historically and culturally specific phenomenon. Morality itself is a historically and culturally specific set of practices that are learned through social enculturation. I think that Joshua, who has himself been very influenced by Foucault, leaves open the question of the historicity of the true self.
A certain formulation of ideas about the true self and true self-identification was foregrounded in my interview with Audrey Yap. Audrey’s remarks revolved around her ambivalence about identity and her reluctance to identify as disabled. Consider these remarks from Audrey’s interview, Jesse:
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.
Given that you expressed ambivalence about identifying as a disabled person in your own interview for the series, Jesse, I’m interested in your reactions to Audrey’s remarks.
I have to confess, Shelley, that in a consistently illuminating year of interviews, this moment in your exchange with Audrey was really a highlight for me, and I’m very glad to have this opportunity to reflect on it with you. I think a lot about this issue of identification with depression.
On the one hand, depression is extremely stigmatizing. Because of the medical model, Shelley, depression is treated as a form of illness, and that classification takes away agency and immediately marks it as bad. Professional competence can be called into question, and, at a social level, there are the twin dangers of pity and avoidance.
On the other hand, Shelley, for those who wrestle with depression, it really can feel like a core part of one’s identity, and, though it takes a toll in many ways, depression can contribute to one’s way of seeing the world: sardonic humor; distrust of utopianism; intolerance of superficiality; a capacity to see forms of well-being that transcend happiness; realism about one’s own capacities and others’; a desire to find refuge in art; a respect for solitude; and solidarity with the down-trodden; among many other things. For many of us, Shelley, these are traits that we value and that we are pleased to find in others. Stigmatization of disability is a loss to everyone, since important perspectives are suppressed and silenced.
The theme of depression also figured prominently in your interview with Karl Viertel. Karl is using a pseudonym, because of the stigma associated with depression, and that allows him to really open up. I hope the interview is widely read. Karl talked about the fact that depressive episodes really can interfere with work; someone who is otherwise successful may have periods of serious impairment. Karl also talked about social anxiety, conveying some serious concerns with these remarks:
Many people with social anxiety find things like networking, creating small talk, or speaking in groups to be incredibly stressful or even painful. It is entirely common for me to perseverate about the details of my interactions after I attend a talk in which I ask a question, or after I go to dinner or the bar with other attendees of the talk, or go for a night out with other faculty members in my department… This feeling creates, as a result, a general disincentive to spend time socializing and networking. Judging a philosopher’s qualifications according to the people that she knows may work against a candidate who experiences social anxiety. …I’ve always found it worrisome that alcohol features so prominently in the hiring and process. A well-known faculty member in my department once claimed that the real test of a candidate comes at dinner-time during the campus visit. As he put it, “I don’t want to end up hiring a candidate who can’t handle his(!) alcohol.” This assertion raises particular problems for me: for one, my antidepressants are processed in the liver, and so I need to avoid heavy drinking; for another, alcohol is, of course, itself a depressant.
These are really important observations, Shelley. Karl talked about his battle to manage professional duties, such as teaching and interviews, but he also drew attention to the fact that academics are often measured by their ability to socialize and drink. Do you think sociability and personality are given too much weight in academic philosophy? Is there a way to address these concerns without preventing those who like to socialize from doing so?
Thanks for posing these questions, Jesse. I do think that there are prescriptions in the profession—some explicitly prescribed and actively maintained; others implicitly prescribed, yet actively enforced—about socializing, sociability, and personality that disadvantage many disabled people, among others. These prescriptions rely upon a restrictive conception of normality with respect to, for instance, interpersonal behavior, tone and speech patterns, and general comportment, as well as normative assumptions about time, effort, likeability, approachability, responsiveness, and so on. These expectations and requirements effectively limit the extent to which many disabled people (among others) will be perceived as viable and valued colleagues—potential and actual.
The issues that Karl has raised should in fact be incorporated into critical discussions that circulate within philosophy with respect to “inclusion” and “diversity.” Jesse, notions of accessibility need to be expanded to cover a range of modes of interaction and sensibilities, especially given that, historically, disabled philosophers have been excluded from the profession and thus must necessarily direct unaddressed claims to entitlement at their colleagues if they are to join the profession and thrive in it.
At some disability studies conferences, Jesse, coloured stickers are applied to nametags as a way to signal whether a given person should be approached and engaged with on a given day or at a certain time. So, a red sticker on someone’s nametag means that the person doesn’t, for one reason or another, wish to be approached, engage, or interact; a yellow sticker means that the person is somewhat reluctant to engage, or cannot engage for an extended amount of time, and so on; and a green sticker means that the person is having a good day and encourages others to interact with them.
Jesse, the use of this technique at philosophy conferences and meetings would be one way that these contexts could be made more accessible to a wider range of philosophers, while simultaneously working to undermine expectations and assumptions about appropriate levels of engagement and means of interaction. There are many ways to be part of a group activity. Like many mechanisms to increase conference accessibility, this technique requires little effort or expense on the part of conference organizers, but can make a huge difference to some disabled people.
Tommy, you also did a terrific interview that Bryce and I highlighted in last year’s anniversary installment, raising the profile of issues that disabled black men confront, Africana philosophy, and community. So, I am very happy that you have returned for this anniversary installment.
[Description of image below: A sepia photo of Tommy, a black man, who is wearing a dark shirt and dark suit jacket and is standing in the frame of an open door. He has short black hair, a beard and mustache, and is looking directly at us. Leaves and branches of a tree and a patch of sky can be seen in the background of the shot.]
In his interview with me in September, Tommy, Elvis Imafidon discussed issues of togetherness, community, individuality, and solidarity in the context of African philosophies, as well as addressed the question of who is in and who is left out of philosophical ideas about community, including global community. In response to the concern that I raised with respect to the way that Euro-American philosophers tend to leave disability out of their ideas about what the subfield of global ethics encompasses, Elvis said:
Well, Shelley, claiming that disability is outside the scope of discourse on global ethics and justice will be a very difficult position for any committed global ethicist to sustain. It’s like creating an excuse to run from one’s own job. You see, disability studies covers a very broad spectrum. From the philosophical angle alone, we talk about the ontology of, the epistemology of, and the ethics of disability. We talk about disability and feminism, the aesthetics of disability, and so on. … In researching albinism in Africa, I have not only been concerned with critically exploring the ontological basis and moral issues surrounding the beliefs about, and attitude toward, PWAs [people with albinism] on the African continent, but also about questions of human rights and justice for PWAs in general. Shelley, PWAs go through hell in many African communities. We are hunted and killed, discriminated against, refused jobs, denied a normal life, treated as non-human and, in some cases, abandoned by family members and care-givers. Now, if scholars, including global ethicists, do not rise up against these actions by doing what they know how to do best—changing the world with novel ideas— the status quo will be maintained.
As someone who works in bioethics, ethics, and Africana philosophy, what are your thoughts on Elvis’s observations, Tommy?
Shelley, let me begin by saying that Elvis’s interview was striking and extremely educational. It reminds Black philosophers in the West of the increasingly needed contextualization of our claims concerning racism and white supremacy throughout the world. In the United States, dark skin is criminalized especially amongst racialized men— Black, Brown, Indigenous. Amongst Black Americans, lighter skin is often indicative of beauty, is associated with class mobility, intellect, and of course “good hair.” Elvis’s work was a stark reminder of how, in a different cultural and geopolitical context, a white phenotype on a Black body could be—and this is the important part—socially stigmatized as a disability.
Elvis’s interview with you is in fact an important contribution to the literature of philosophy of disability and Africana philosophy, the latter of which too often concerns itself with primarily middle class concerns of discrimination, rather than various socioeconomic and geographic realities of Black Americans. I would not have thought of albinism as this kind of disability in Africa. That albinism in Africa is disabling in the ways that Elvis described shows the need for comparative work in Africana philosophy between African-descended peoples and their traditions, rather than an exclusive focus on the negligent lacunae of white canonical figures.
In particular, Shelley, I was struck by Elvis’s following depiction of people with albinism within various African communities. He said:
Traditional African ontology consists of a conception of what it means to be a person but, unfortunately, according to this conception of being, PWAs do not satisfy these requirements. So, PWAs are non-human beings. A PWA is, according to the African traditional conception of being, a different being, an Other. African traditions go further to solidify this difference through ideologies of otherness, ideas, and beliefs about the other that have been driven down into the consciousness of Africans, even though they constitute false consciousness. For example, the four-year-old kid in Tanzania or Zimbabwe can confidently, with great fear, point to a PWA and scream: “A ghost is coming”. That is what has become part of the child’s consciousness: the false belief that PWAs are ghosts, passed down from generation to generation. Other common ideologies of otherness about PWAs include the following: we are witches; our body parts can cure diseases and can be used for money rituals; and having sex with a virgin female with albinism can cure HIV/AIDS. …I was stunned recently when, while I was researching online for some materials on albinism in Africa, I discovered that one of the most frequently asked questions about PWAs in Africa is this: Do albinos die?
In this passage of his interview, Shelley, Elvis argued that people with albinism are subject to a mysticism which makes their bodies victim to any number of atrocities: dismemberment, rape, and HIV infection. They are dehumanized and treated as disposable flesh, in Imafidon’s account. Inquiry into this social stigmatization and dehumanization through specterism should be regarded as an urgent and compelling area of philosophical research and social activism. I learned so much from his contribution.
Shelley, your work to point out the marginalization and outright exclusion of disabled philosophers from areas of philosophy that are believed to represent diversity—race theory, feminism, queer theory—has been substantial. When I read Cecilia Mun’s interview, I couldn’t help but hear these concerns echoed by Cecilia. I was particularly moved by her directness and concrete proposals in describing the silencing and marginalizations of disabled people throughout philosophy. One can see this push by various disabled philosophers who are truly challenging the structural obstacles and very real stigmatizations that continue to circulate throughout professional philosophy. I think Cecilia’s perspective on these obstacles is spot on. For example, she said:
I think it’s important to acknowledge that regardless of our discipline’s and academia’s goal of diversification, professional academics constitute an exclusive community. Not everyone can do what professional academics do, and not everyone wants to or should want to. This is one reason why professional academics belong to “disciplines” (to be contrasted with the “institutions” with which we are affiliated). It takes years of study and practice to succeed in any academic discipline. Like all other work, it is mentally and physically exhausting to do our work well. Not everyone will be able to perform in such a way that will allow them to flourish as professional academics in their chosen discipline. This does not lessen one’s value as a person nor afford anyone the right to treat someone with less respect. It is simply a reason that one ought to take into consideration when deciding whether or not a professional life as an academic is one that would make them happy.
Given the widespread inaccessibility of higher education and the homogeneity of philosophy, it seems especially important for disabled philosophers not to make the illusions of merit and the recognition of high performance the standards with which they evaluate their own worth. Shelley, what is your reaction to Cecilia’s interview given its closeness to many of the arguments your raise in your own work?
Tommy, I was grateful that Cecilea broached these issues in her interview with me. Cecilea managed to address both the urgent need for diversification within the discipline and profession and the need for recognition, on the part of philosophers, that the job of professional philosopher is not a badge of superiority. Cecilea’s point, I take it, was that these two elements of diversity are mutually constitutive and mutually reinforcing. I think this assertion is a crucial reminder to philosophers that they must engage with nonphilosophers and nonacademics in order to genuinely put many of their claims about diversity and inclusion into practice, especially with respect to disabled people, nondisabled Black people, nondisabled people of colour, and nondisabled trans people.
Last November, I interviewed Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò who, like Cecilea and other interviewees of the past two years, talked about the frustrations of feeling as if one is an outsider within a profession that continues to generate ways in which to preserve itself and guard its own borders. Near the end of his interview, Femi said:
Folks express interest in philosophy of race—an example I choose for obvious reasons—who have never and, as far as I can tell, would never, step into a Latinx, Black, Gender Studies, or Asian-American Studies department and ask a single question, despite the fact that the folks in these departments have, for decades, discussed the very topics now being Columbused by departments of philosophy. …Perhaps you find the work of these departments and the authors taught there hard to read. …Okay, maybe it’s that you’ve internalized the wider analytic discipline’s view on the rigor of their work. …Or: maybe you just find the coloreds frightening, and harbor a secret fear that some disgruntled one of them will eventually call you out in public or blog about something you’ve said and you’ll feel bad about it. …A final possibility is that you really are convinced, at the end of the day, that the aforementioned groups of people have nothing to teach you. While philosophers of language and mind can often be convinced to talk to linguists and cognitive scientists, respectively, here the crucial component of basic intellectual respect is absent. Hence, it falls to mostly white analytic philosophers to gentrify the study of oppression and save these disciplines from their ignorance about the Third Realm and Platonic forms.
What are your thoughts on Femi’s remarks in this context of his interview and the interview in general, Tommy?
I was taken by the honesty of Femi’s interview, Shelley. I think it’s particularly important for Black people to have conversations about the specific strategies that we use to navigate the white world. Black people often have to code-switch or speak in their nine-to-five to put whites at ease. Femi’s remarks about his brother resonate with many of the research interests that I have in general concerning Black male vulnerability and disability and how those differences are perceived by the larger white society. Code-switching is often a matter of life or death for Black males. The ability to recognize potentially dangerous circumstances and to avoid insulting white people are important lessons that Black boys and men must learn so that they don’t meet with lethal force or get accused of sexual offence. Femi’s description of his brother stresses this point. As he explained:
My brother’s speech isn’t easy to understand for most people and tends to revolve around a small number of subjects; so, he’s “low functioning,” I’ll concede, when it comes to basic communication and entertaining and dinner parties. On the other hand, he has an eidetic memory and will regularly relate to each of us our distinct favorite foods and flavors, and correctly advise us to call abroad and wish “Happy Birthday” to someone that he met decades ago for less than an hour. ...[M]y brother is a tall, heavy-set Black man who is difficult to communicate with. It has been very difficult to reflect on the fact that so many of the Black people who have been killed by police in recent years are disabled without recalling many of the negative interactions that my brother has had with people in the past, including police officers. I realized at some point that, for him, the stakes of being understood were very high and the effects of not being understood set the basic conditions of his life. It took longer to come to the view that the same was true of the rest of us, though the scale and granularity of understanding involved might be different; but that is the view I have now.
Femi points out that because of his brother’s appearance—tall, heavy set, Black, and male—it is crucial to his survival that he be understood. As with the story that Femi relayed about his mother’s intonation when talking on the phone with white people, Shelley, Femi wants to underscore that the ability of his brother to put whites at ease is necessary for his safety and well being. As Femi argues, furthermore, this need to communicate-demonstrate compliance with police officers is a necessary act even for nondisabled Black men. As he put it:
Being misunderstood, by itself, isn’t so bad. But some misunderstandings are worse than others. I am particularly interested in how distributions of social power, broadly construed, interact with problems in mutual understanding. Take, for example, if a police officer misunderstands what I mean to do when I put my hand in my pocket. The danger of this misunderstanding isn’t in the idea in the police officer’s head about what it is that I’m up to, but rather in what the officer is socially sanctioned to do to me on the basis of an interpretation of my action that is itself socially sanctioned. My feeling of anxiety in that situation, similarly, is tied to and exacerbated by the power asymmetry that characterizes the interaction.
I really appreciated the existential problems conveyed by Femi’s autobiographical interview with you, Shelley. The interview demonstrates why epistemology has to be engaged from the perspective of the subject trying to know and be known to others. Femi’s interview was honest and forthright, showing how the problems of his life are the fuel for his philosophical project. Fear, anxiety, worry, and care for his brother really make his interview real. It’s earnest philosophy, in my view.
Audrey, the engaging and thought-provoking interview that I did with you last summer has been highlighted in this anniversary installment and I’m very happy that you joined us to reflect on other interviews of the past year. In the interview, you talked about your campus activism with women of colour and indigenous women. In my interview with Joe Stramondo in December, he talked about his activism with ADAPT and Not Dead Yet. At one point in the interview, Joe said:
A half a dozen of us—mostly using wheelchairs—showed up at the Lansing field office of this senator and handed a demand letter to the person who, I believe, was her chief-of-staff, asking for co-sponsorship of the bill or at least a meeting and stating that we were not leaving until we got one of these demands met.…Then, we “escalated” by using our wheelchairs and bodies to physically block all the exits of the office and settled into our chanting. …I think there is a lot that is philosophically interesting about non-violent direct action in general. …Yet, this story is particularly illustrative of how the stigmas and stereotypes around disability can actually be harnessed as a political tool by direct action. I believe that it was the staffer’s unwillingness to publicly display disabled people as something other than objects of pity that got us the signed letter of co-sponsorship. Elsewhere, I have written about how an ideology of pity functions politically to maintain the status quo of disabled people’s oppression.
What are your thoughts on direct action as a political tool, Audrey? And what philosophical insights do you, as a philosopher-activist, think can be derived from direct action?
That’s a great question, Shelley. I think that direct action and political protest have often been viewed as non-philosophical activity by many philosophers, but I’m glad they’re gaining increased visibility. I know you’ve noted in some of your work that the discourse around epistemic injustice often takes place on ableist terms, but at least one useful idea that it’s brought to the forefront in social philosophy is the concept of hermeneutical injustice and hermeneutical gaps. Protest as philosophical activity can sometimes be an indicator that the standard dominant frameworks for reasoned argumentation are not readily available for participation, sometimes because of a lack of mainstream hermeneutical resources.
I thought that Joe’s point about the staffer’s unwillingness to engage with disabled bodies as something other than objects of pity was particularly insightful. It was an amazing way to point out that we tend to lack social scripts for conceptualizing disabled bodies as agential—inspiration porn notwithstanding. Sometimes protest can be effective in ways that analytic argumentation won’t be.
[Description of image below: A coloured selfie of Audrey who is wearing a dark blue hoodie and holding her beloved dog Eddie close to her. Eddie has a coat of long black and white hair. They are sitting on a mountaintop. The breeze sweeps strands of Audrey’s long dark hair across her forehead. Trees and other mountains can be seen under a clear blue sky in the background of the shot.]
Also on the point of social scripts and hermeneutical gaps, I thought that this point from Jake Jackson’s interview was very interesting, Shelley:
Due to a general lack of awareness and conflicting information, people with mental illnesses are often left by the wayside about their own condition and have a difficult time confirming that there is actually something atypical about themselves. I describe this social experience of mental illness and the lack of public knowledge about it as leaving mentally-ill individuals “epistemically adrift”. …Becoming epistemically adrift is in part a result of hermeneutical injustice as outlined by Miranda Fricker and others, involving the sorts of systemic stopgaps that prevent people from knowing and better understanding issues in ways that would enable them to flourish. Becoming epistemically adrift is about more than just missing knowledge; it also results because there are too many knowledges. Not only do mentally-ill individuals have to navigate their life-world despite hermeneutical gaps; they must also navigate through different and often contradictory disciplines and ideologies.
The idea of too many knowledges as a kind of hermeneutical injustice is interesting, and I wonder what you think about it, Shelley. It seems on the surface to contradict what some people who work on epistemic injustice, like José Medina, point to as a solution to injustice, namely pluralism about knowledge.
Audrey, the remarks that you cite are among the many provocative associations that Jake made between (what he calls) mental illness and philosophical work—both what philosophical work has been done and what needs to be done. Jake seems to have pointed to a gap in Fricker’s work on epistemic injustice, that is, noted that Fricker’s insights about epistemic injustice do not account for cognitive diversity.
You referred to my forthcoming discussion of Fricker’s work. In that chapter, Audrey, I argue that the situated knowledges produced by people who variously identify as (among other things) psychiatric survivors, mad, or mentally ill are excluded from Fricker’s account of epistemic injustice; in particular, their subjugated knowledges are excluded from her notion of epistemic injustice by her use of the injustice/bad luck distinction on which she grounds her distinction between hermeneutical injustice, on the one side, and hermeneutical disadvantage that does not involve injustice, on the other.
I suspect, Audrey, that Jake’s remarks about the navigation that he and other people who identify as, say, mentally ill, mad, or psychiatric survivors must do refer to both their own subjugated knowledges and the authoritative, medicalized knowledges about their social situations and lived experiences.
To exclude the former, that is, the subjugated knowledges from understandings of hermeneutical injustice seems itself to be a case of testimonial injustice. The situation to navigate is not only one in which there is a plurality of knowledges, but rather that some knowledges are delegitimized and dismissed. One must come to know which knowledges are dismissed and delegitimized, which knowledges work to engage this form of epistemic injustice, and how they do so.
Audrey, Jake talked about how depression and anxiety have conditioned his university experience, including his experience as a student in philosophy. Whitney Munch, in her interview in February of this year, also drew attention to the ways that depression conditioned her experience as a philosophy student. Consider these remarks that Whitney made in the interview:
Throughout all the internal struggle to just exist, I threw myself into my studies. I translated. I read and translated different ancient Greek and Roman philosophical treatises on my own. It was routine, methodical. …I read about the worst of humanity, while translating Plato's Symposium. I was semi-withdrawn, but content with my books, with volunteer tutoring of refugee children from Sudan, and with activism that I did with groups like Amnesty International and protests at the School of the Americas every November. By the end of my penultimate semester, I had applied to graduate school in philosophy. I was slowly feeling more...like me. …In 2008, I was left a single mother of a very young child. A psychologist that I saw said gently, “Don't you understand why you studied Stoicism?” I think that I answered, “because it's interesting to me.” She paused, and smiled. “You've been self-treating your depression all these years with philosophy—and especially with Stoicism.
Audrey, what are your thoughts in reaction to Whitney’s remarks about philosophy as a form of therapy?
Thanks for the chance to talk about this, Shelley! I loved this part of Whitney’s interview; I related to it quite a lot, probably because I went a lot of years, while a philosophy student, without medication—which these days helps me a great deal—or counseling. Ever since I’ve had philosophical vocabulary and tools, I’ve been using them to try and understand my own mental phenomena. I don’t know that it does anything besides make me feel less helpless in the face of my own unpredictable mental states, but I suppose that’s helpful in itself. Sometimes the project of trying to understand a thing, at least for me, makes it easier to cope with.
In those days, Shelley, I was more interested in formal logic, computer science, and philosophy of mathematics, and sometimes I wonder if I was drawn to those areas because it was maybe the only area in my life in which the answers were clear-cut and not messy, like what was happening in my head. I still find it comforting when puzzles have a clear solution. Maybe this is something like the way in which Whitney threw herself into translation projects: when your life seems like an intractable problem, the solvable ones are a relief.
Whitney also described some of the alienation and discrimination that she faced during her graduate school experience. In the interview that you did just last month, Shelley, Anne D’Arcy, also discussed the discrimination that she’s faced, but it’s discrimination of a somewhat different kind. Anne said:
On the first day of teaching a critical thinking course, for example, I noticed one young man, fifth row center, with a silly grin on his face during my entire introductory lecture. When I finished, I addressed him, asking if he had any questions because he looked as if he did. He readily responded that I was the same age as his grandmother, and all she did was sit in her rocking chair all day. … I asked if he thought that’s what I should be doing. He shrugged, still with the silly grin. He didn’t have to answer: I got it. …Old age is not decline, but it is regarded as such by most people that I’ve encountered. Perhaps the most grievous, albeit unwitting, attack on my age was made by a professor who said, “I sure hope that I have as many marbles as you do when I’m your age.” He actually thought that he had paid me a compliment. And the class laughed. Yup, ageism is alive and well in academia.
Shelley, the link many people draw between cognitive ability and age seems apparent in Anne’s experiences. Given that many people become disabled as they get older, what do you think about the relationship between ableism and ageism?
Audrey, I really appreciated Anne’s remarks about the ageism she has encountered in philosophy. Ageism is in fact endemic in philosophy and the university more generally. In her interview, Anne testified to some of the ways that both ageism and ableism continue to be naturalized in these contexts, rather than recognized as mechanisms of power relations.
Evidence of the ways that ageism is naturalized in philosophy abounds, Audrey: virtually all of the diversity initiatives developed in philosophy are forward looking and directed at "young" philosophers; search committees target their job postings and other aspects of their searches at “recent Ph.Ds” which is surely a dog whistle for ageism; Deans and other administrators promote ageism in the hiring procedures of their faculties; prejudices and biases about number of years on the job market persist; and so on. Such recruitment and hiring practices are strategies of the neoliberal university that philosophers ought to contest and subvert, rather than perpetuate.
These sorts of ageist practices in the profession especially disadvantage disabled philosophers and philosophers of colour who have attempted to secure jobs from a time—not so long ago—when attention to diversity was, at best, limited to the development of practices designed to increase binary gender equality in the profession. In other words, Audrey, “older” disabled philosophers and philosophers of colour who are the casualties of philosophy’s crimes of the past are re-victimized by ageist hiring practices in the present.
Jesse, Tommy, Audrey, I want to thank you for taking the time to co-produce this anniversary installment with me! Your comments on the interviews of the past year have reminded us how unique and insightful each of them is. I'd also like to thank you for your ongoing enthusiasm about the series. Because of your support, and the support of many others, the Dialogues on Disability series has established itself as a hub for the production of new kinds of knowledge about disability and, in this way, is shifting relations of power-knowledge about disability in philosophy and the university more widely.
I know that all three of you would agree that a great deal of work remains to be done to make the profession of philosophy a more equitable and welcoming domain for disabled philosophers, among others. I think this second-anniversary installment of Dialogues on Disability has shown that the series can be a guide to that end. Disabled philosophers have a tremendous amount to contribute to discussions in the discipline and profession, including discussions about diversity. I continue to believe that we have much to learn from each other and that the wider philosophical community has much to learn from us.
Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to our 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, May 17th at 8 a.m. ET for the twenty-sixth 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.