I thought readers and listeners of this blog might be interested in the plenary presentation that I gave at the philoSOPHIA conference held last weekend at Florida Atlantic University. Devonya Havis and Ladelle McWhorter were the other presenters in the plenary. Lauren Guilmette, who co-organized the conference, was the moderator. Much of the presentation was adapted from my forthcoming book.
[Before I begin, I would like to congratulate Lauren Guilmette and Rob Leib for putting together such a fantastic conference. I’d also like to express my sincere gratitude to Lauren for her generous invitation to come down from Canada and participate in this plenary. It’s a tremendous honour.]
In this presentation, I want to broadly outline aspects of the more comprehensive argument that I lay out in my forthcoming book, Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability. Then, I associate this work with Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I’m conducting with disabled philosophers.
Throughout the last decades of the twentieth century, discussions about disability became increasingly prevalent in mainstream philosophy, especially with the resurgence of work on social justice from the 1970s forward and the emergence and expansion of the subfields of cognitive science and bioethics. Since the mid-twentieth century, that is, mainstream philosophers have engaged in philosophical discussions about disability formulated around questions such as these: What (if anything) does society owe to disabled people? How should society compensate disabled people for their natural disadvantages and brute bad luck? On what grounds is it justifiable to euthanize disabled people? What can we learn about the (normal) mind from the fact that “people with autism” lack a theory of mind? and What can we learn about the operations of the (normal) brain, its emotions, perceptions, and so on from study of people who have experienced brain injuries?
Despite the apparent variety of the questions that philosophers have asked about disability, the cluster of motivational assumptions that underpins almost all these inquiries takes for granted the metaphysical status and epistemological character of the category of disability and the designation itself, casting them as self-evident and thus philosophically uninteresting. On the terms of these assumptions, disability is a prediscursive, transcultural, and transhistorical disadvantage, an objective human defect or characteristic that ought to be prevented, corrected, eliminated, or cured.
That these assumptions are contestable, that it might be the case that disability is an historically and culturally specific and contingent social phenomenon, a complex apparatus of power, rather than a natural attribute or property that certain people possess, is not considered, let alone seriously entertained. Indeed, many feminist philosophers uncritically accept these assumptions about the ontological and epistemological status of disability. Even many philosophers of disability do not rigorously question the ontology and epistemology of disability, but rather advance ethical and political positions that largely assume the self-evidence of their status.
The seemingly intransigent bias in philosophy, according to which the inequalities that accrue to disabled people are self-evidently natural and inevitable, has yielded the belief that these disadvantages are most appropriately addressed in the domains of medicine, the life sciences, and related fields, rather than in philosophy departments.
Thus, the assumption that critical analysis of the status of disability is not appropriate subject matter for philosophical inquiry has shaped philosophy departments, influencing hiring practices and decisions, as well as course curricula, conference line-ups, the composition of professional networks and editorial boards, the contents of edited collections, and so on. In other words, the assumption that disability is a philosophically uninteresting human characteristic and the underrepresentation of disabled philosophers within the profession are inseparably embedded in the institutional infrastructure of the discipline, mutually constitutive and mutually reinforcing.
In the context of philosophy, the assumption that disabled people are biologically or naturally disadvantaged—that is, physiologically inferior or naturally flawed—has the following effects, among others: first, contributes to the hostile environment that disabled philosophers confront within philosophy; and, second, enables the exclusion of disabled philosophers from the profession; that thereby, third, bolsters other subjecting apparatuses (such as race, gender, sexuality, nationality, age, and class) with which the apparatus of disability is co-productive; and, in addition, fourth, sustains and reproduces the homogeneous and monolithic character of both the discipline of philosophy and the persona of the professional philosopher; thereby, fifth, providing additional resources for the epistemology of domination and epistemic injustice that beset philosophy; while, sixth, reinforcing and perpetuating the deeply entrenched ableism of the Euro-American, Western philosophical tradition that is part and parcel of, and contributes to, the widespread discrimination that disabled people confront elsewhere in the university and beyond it.
One of the central aims that I had when I wrote my book was to identify and defy practices that contribute to the prevailing cluster of assumptions that produce these pernicious effects. The book responds to this question (among others): What concrete institutional, professional, and disciplinary effects does the conception of disability that predominates in philosophy produce?
To accomplish this aim, I interrogated the very self-evidence, inevitability, and transparency of disability and its conceptual objects that, with few exceptions, philosophers currently take for granted. I also identified accepted institutional practices and entrenched professional habits that contribute to these effects and enable their reproduction. Thus, the book is a call for a “conceptual revolution” (to use Rae Langton’s term), a critical ontology of what philosophers think disability is; of what they think about how disability is produced; and of what their current thinking about disability does.
Insofar as philosophers have conceived the social inequalities that accrue to disabled people as the inevitable consequences of a self-evident physiological, or natural, human characteristic, they have presupposed certain assumptions about the relation between biology and society that I aim to undermine.
Dorothy Roberts (2016) has distinguished heuristically between two approaches to the question of the relation between biology and society. She refers to these approaches as “the old biosocial science” and “the new biosocial science.” As Roberts explains it, the old biosocial science posits that biological differences produce social inequality, whereas the new biosocial science posits that social inequality produces biological differences. The biological determinism of the old biosocial science, she notes, is achieved in several ways.
First, the old biosocial science approach separates nature from nurture in order to locate the origins of social inequalities in inherent traits, rather than imposed societal structures; second, the old biosocial science postulates that social inequalities are reproduced in the bodies, especially the wombs, of socially disadvantaged people, rather than reinvented through unjust ideologies and institutions; third, the old bioscience identifies problems that stem from social inequality as derived from the threats that oppressed people’s biology itself poses to society, rather than from structural barriers and state violence imposed upon oppressed people; and fourth, the old bioscience endeavors to intervene and fix perceived biological deficits in the bodies of oppressed people, rather than end the structural violence that dehumanizes them and maintains an unjust social order.
By contrast, the new biosocial science, Roberts points out, posits that every single biological element, every single biological process in the human body, every human cell, and everything that happens to a human cell is affected by society. All of life, Roberts remarks, is at once biological and social. There is, in short, no natural body. Genes do not determine anything. Moreover, our brains are plastic, with the ability to be modified by social experience (Roberts 2016; see also Roberts 1998, 2012; Prinz 2012).
I want to de-naturalize and de-biologize the ways that philosophers understand disability. In my view, Michel Foucault’s insights provide the most sophisticated and most philosophically and politically astute tools with which to proceed with this intellectual, political, and, practical enterprise. Many of Foucault’s insights upon which I draw for this purpose were introduced and refined in his own discussions of (for instance) abnormality, madness, deviance, and other discursive objects that intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike commonly associate with disability. In many respects, my argument extends these discussions and is most aptly characterized as a feminist philosophical inquiry into what Foucault referred to as the “problematization” of phenomena in the present.
I follow Foucault’s suggestion that inquiry into the problematization of a given state of affairs attempts to uncover how the different solutions to a problem have been constructed, as well as how these different solutions resulted from the problematization of that given state of affairs in the first place (Foucault 2003, 20-24).
Thus, another aim of my inquiry in the book is to show how a certain regime of power has produced impairment as both the prediscursive—that is, natural, and universal—antecedent of culturally variant forms of disability and a problem for this regime of power to which the regime offers solutions. In other words, one of my aims is to indicate how a certain apparatus of power has brought impairment into being as that kind of thing, that is, as the naturally disadvantageous foundation of socially constructed disability.
I implicitly and explicitly address questions such as these: How have impairment and disability been constituted within philosophy, including within its professional and institutional practices and its theoretical discourses? How has philosophy construed disability—and its naturalized antecedent, impairment—as a certain kind of problem for the present and, in doing so, propped up the apparatus of disability? What is the relation between this conceptualization of disability as a problem that ought to be rectified, what is taught about disability in philosophy, and the underrepresentation of disabled philosophers in the profession?
Foucault (1980, 194) defined an apparatus as a thoroughly heterogeneous and interconnected ensemble of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, scientific statements, administrative measures, and philosophical, moral, and philanthropic propositions that responds to an “urgent need” in a certain historical moment. In other words, an apparatus is an historically specific and dispersed system of power that produces and configures practices towards certain strategic political ends.
My use of Foucault’s innovative idea of apparatus enables me to move philosophical discussion about disability away from restrictive conceptualizations of it as (for instance) a personal characteristic or attribute, a property of given individuals, an identity, a difference, or a form of social oppression. In addition, my assumption that disability is an apparatus, in Foucault’s sense, moves philosophical discussion of disability toward a more comprehensive conceptualization of it than other philosophies of disability provide, a conceptualization of disability that is (among other things) historicist and relativist and, hence, culturally sensitive in ways that other philosophies of disability are not.
As an apparatus, disability is an historically specific aggregate that is constituted of, constitutes, and is constituted by and through, a complex and complicated set of discourses, technologies, identities, and practices that emerge from medical and scientific research, government policies and administrative decisions, academic discourses, activism, art and literature, mainstream popular culture, and so on. Although some of the diverse elements of the apparatus of disability seem to have different and even conflicting aims, design strategies, and techniques of application, the elements of the apparatus are nevertheless co-constitutive and mutually supportive.
Foucault’s technique of genealogy, his analyses of biopower, his innovative conception of the subject, and his prescient claims about (for instance) liberalism and neoliberalism can be used to investigate the ways that the tradition, discipline, and profession of philosophy have contributed to the problematization and apparatus of disability, as well as to the naturalization of the allegedly objective antecedent of disability—namely, impairment.
To examine disability in this way, especially as it is produced within philosophy, I advance claims in my book that derive from and extend two separate, but interrelated, spheres in which I have conducted research: a reconstructive-conceptual sphere and a metaphilosophical sphere. In the reconstructive-conceptual sphere, I have used Foucault’s insights to critique the conception of disability that prevails in mainstream philosophy and develop a conception of disability that does not rely upon a natural, transhistorical, and transcultural foundation (impairment). This antifoundationalist conception of disability has provided philosophers of disability and disability theorists with a theoretically sophisticated alternative to the conceptions of disability that have prevailed in the literature of mainstream philosophy and disability studies. In the metaphilosophical sphere, I have drawn on empirical data and conceptual analysis to show how the conception of disability that prevails in philosophy is linked to the underrepresentation of disabled philosophers.
Over the course of the book, I weave together arguments drawn from the two spheres of my research to articulate an analytically robust and empirically grounded feminist philosophy of disability.
Feminist philosophy of disability is the term that I have coined to instigate the emergence of a field of inquiry that simultaneously employs, contributes to, and widens the scope of feminist philosophy, philosophy of disability, and the interdisciplinary field of (feminist) disability studies, all of them theoretical domains with which feminist philosophy of disability shares many theoretical assumptions, social values, and political goals, but all of them domains from which feminist philosophy of disability is distinct: it remains beholden to none of these other domains.
Given the non-foundationalist conception of impairment and disability that I have elaborated and continue to hold, it will likely be no surprise that the feminist philosophy of disability that I advance is both relativist and historicist. I define relativism as the philosophical doctrine according to which different societies and cultures create different beliefs and values under different historical conditions. I define historicism as the philosophical doctrine according to which beliefs and values emerge as a consequence of historical events and circumstances (see Prinz 2007, 215, 234-35).
An interlocutor might point out that my definition of relativism refers to a form of it—namely, descriptive relativism—that is uncontroversial amongst philosophers: most philosophers grant that different cultures have different beliefs and practices. Such an interlocutor might in turn argue that I need an additional argument if I wish to advance a stronger relativism whereby different cultures have different beliefs and practices that nevertheless have equal claims epistemologically and ethically.
Let me point out, therefore, that although philosophers generally agree that descriptive relativism is true with respect to science, religion, and values—that is, every culture has its own beliefs about these things—most philosophers implicitly presuppose a kind of universalism about certain ontological categories, especially categories that they believe are based in biology, categories such as: life and death; health and disability; and pleasure and pain.
Thus, not even descriptive relativism is an obvious thesis. Nevertheless, the relativism of my position does not require the sort of epistemological or ethical appeal upon which the interlocutor insists. For the relativism of the feminist philosophy of disability that I articulate is established and substantiated by and through its historicism; that is, the historicism of my feminist philosophy of disability should be conceived as theoretically and ontologically prior to its relativism, which is, therefore, a derivative of the historicism.
Insofar as I argue for the historicist and artefactual character of disability, I establish its relativist character. Claims about the historical transformation of concepts and practices need not necessarily imply their improvement and progress. By both definition and design, the relativist and historicist feminist philosophy of disability that I elaborate offers a new approach to the questions and concerns about disability that philosophers of disability (including feminist philosophers) and disability theorists raise, an approach that is dynamic and historically and contextuallysensitive to an extent that other (feminist) philosophies of disability are not.
The work to improve the professional situation of disabled philosophers and garner support in the discipline for philosophy of disability extends beyond the pages of my book or any other. Disabled philosophers constitute one of the most underrepresented groups in the profession. In concrete, experiential, and material terms, many disabled philosophers—like disabled people in general—remain isolated, are underemployed or unemployed, and are marginalized and oppressed.
The data available, to date, indicates that disabled philosophers account for roughly 1-2% of faculty employed in North American philosophy departments, although disabled people make up an estimated 20% of the general North American population. Many disabled philosophers in academic positions have no job security, no health or dental insurance, and are forced to endure inaccessible and even dangerous working conditions because of the precarious nature of their employment.
Hence, there has been an urgent need for disabled philosophers to publicize the discrimination and disadvantages that they encounter throughout the profession. Some disabled philosophers have experienced significant professional repercussions due to their attempts to resist and subvert the marginalization and discrimination that they have confronted in philosophy.
Since April 2015, I have conducted interviews with disabled philosophers and posted them to the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog on the third Wednesday of each month. The interview series, called Dialogues on Disability, represents a collective effort to counter the isolation and exclusion that accrue to disabled philosophers, providing role models and mentorship to disabled students and faculty.
The interviews in the series have, each in its own way, enabled disabled philosophers to draw attention to issues pertinent to them that are not adequately or appropriately addressed in venues such as philosophy journal articles or philosophy conferences—conferences that are financially, discursively, and structurally inaccessible to many of them.
The interview series provides a forum through which disabled philosophers can articulate their circumstances and experiences of oppression and exclusion without fear that they will be shut down, disparaged, or attacked, all strategies that have been employed against disabled philosophers to maintain ableist power asymmetries in philosophy.
The Dialogues on Disability series is important, furthermore, because it shines a spotlight on critical philosophical approaches to disability that have been dismissed or obscured in recognized areas of philosophy. My book aims to show that the claims that philosophers make about disability in the areas of mainstream bioethics, political philosophy and ethics, cognitive science, and even feminist philosophy have been conditioned by and circumscribed within the terms of medicalized, pathologizing, and paternalistic ideas and assumptions about disability. My interviewees in the Dialogues on Disability series repeatedly demonstrate how uncritical acceptance of these medicalizing assumptions and condescending beliefs about disability reproduces biases within philosophy, across the university, and beyond academia.
Thus, Dialogues on Disability is shifting relations of knowledge-power in philosophy with respect to disability. Indeed, the Dialogues on Disability series is a hub for production of new forms of knowledge about disability and should therefore be recognized as a critical and vital contribution to social epistemology. The series enables disabled philosophers to demonstrate—in very specific and concrete ways—that the disadvantages that they confront are not medical in nature, are not natural, nor are they idiosyncratic occurrences to be rectified through individualized means; on the contrary, as my interviewees continue to show, these disadvantages are political and socially constituted products of the apparatus of disability the elimination of which requires that the wider philosophical community develop broad structural and institutional strategies and solutions for that distinct purpose. The Dialogues on Disability series is a guide to that end.
Foucault, Michel. 1980. The Confession of the Flesh. In Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977, edited by Colin Gordon, 194-228. New York: Pantheon Books.
Foucault, Michel. 2003. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–1976. Edited by Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana. Translated by David Macey. New York: Picador.
Prinz, Jesse J. 2007. The Emotional Construction of Morals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Prinz, Jesse J. 2012. Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape the Human Mind. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Roberts, Dorothy. 1998. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Vintage Books.
Roberts, Dorothy E. 2012. Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century. New York: The New Press.
Roberts, Dorothy E. 2016. The Ethics of the Biosocial: The Old Biosocial and the Legacy of Unethical Science. The Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Mahindra Humanities Center, Harvard University, November 2, 2016.
posted by Shelley