Draft Introduction to “Denaturalizing Impairment and Disability in Feminist Philosophy of Science”

Below I have copied the draft introduction of my contribution to the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Feminist Philosophy of Science, edited by Sharon Crasnow and Kristen Intemann.

Feminist philosophy of science emerged in large part as a critical response to the essentialist assumptions about sex and gender that have conditioned Euro-American thinking in general and Euro-American science and philosophy of science in particular, that is, a critical response to the essentialist assumptions about sex and gender that continue to both limit the kinds of questions that mainstream scientists and philosophers of science regard as worthy of investigation and circumscribe the kind of  responses to the questions that they will seriously consider. Feminist scientists and philosophers of science have, among other things, thrown into relief the biased nature of once-accepted wisdom about reproductive processes (Martin 1991), undermined the gendering of the brain (Fine 2011), and subverted the very idea of two natural binary sexes (Fausto-Sterling 2000). Even some of the earliest work that feminist philosophers of science designed to denaturalize and debiologize gender made associations between essentialist arguments about sex-gender and, among other things, degradation of the environment, subjugation of nonhuman animals, and colonial projects worldwide (see Harding 1986, 1991). In other words, feminist philosophy of science has never really confined itself solely to critique of the philosophical assumptions that underpin traditional philosophical and scientific claims about sex and gender, although critical questions and concerns about race, indigeneity, sexuality, and disability nevertheless remain marginalized in feminist philosophy of science. Indeed, feminist philosophers of science (like feminist philosophers more generally) have done relatively little to challenge the alleged self-evidence of accepted philosophical and scientific assumptions about the putatively natural character of disability, nor have feminist philosophers of science made a discernible effort to incorporate critical philosophical work on disability into the field of feminist philosophy of science itself.

Many (nondisabled) feminist philosophers, including many feminist philosophers of science, continue to implicitly construe gender as prior to, more fundamental than, and indeed separable from disability and other apparatuses of subjecting power, even though they explicitly claim to endorse and uphold the political, theoretical, and discursive value of intersectionality. In other words, many feminist philosophers continue to presume that insofar as “women” share so many experiences in virtue of their (conventional) gender—and are, therefore, similarly situated in the most significant ways with respect to privilege and oppression—an analytic focus on gender in isolation from, say, disability, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, age, and nationality constitutes a legitimate project. For these feminist philosophers, women are first and foremost oppressed as women and are oppressed as different groups of women—that is, as disabled lesbians of color, as disabled bisexual white women, as nondisabled heterosexual women of color, and so on—only secondarily and less significantly. The analytical purity of this conception of the category of gender is achieved, however, only by obscuring other apparatuses of power with which gender is complicit and mutually constitutive, usually through the implicit institution of a nondisabled white norm.

The omission of critical philosophical work on disability from feminist philosophy of science (and from feminist philosophical analyses more generally) is nevertheless also due to the persistence in philosophy of an individualized and medicalized conception of disability according to which disability is a natural, transhistorical, and transcultural disadvantage, that is, a deleterious and non-accidental biological human characteristic or property that some individuals possess or embody rather than a contingent apparatus of power in which everyone is implicated and positioned. Given the prevalence in philosophy of this naturalized understanding of disability, few philosophers regard disability as pertinent to a form of social and political philosophy—namely, feminist philosophy—that is fundamentally about asymmetrical relations of social power and domination. Most philosophers assume that disability is, rather, both appropriately and adequately addressed in the domains of medicine, science, and bioethics. Hence, the prevailing conception of disability that conditions conceptual and analytical work in the discipline also conditions the judgements made in (for instance) faculty searches and hiring practices, peer-review, graduate school applications, and fellowship applications. In other words, the prevalence in philosophy of the seemingly self-evident assumption that disability is a natural disadvantage, that is, the idea that disabled people are “naturally” disadvantaged, has feedback effects for the careers of disabled philosophers (and disabled philosophers of disability in particular), as well as for the composition of the profession and the content of the discipline. In short, the prevalence in philosophy of an individualized and medicalized understanding of disability is inextricably entwined with the exclusion of disabled philosophers, especially disabled philosophers of disability, from adequate employment in the profession and contributes to the marginalization of philosophy of disability in the discipline.

The discussion of this chapter goes some distance to correct the omission of (feminist) philosophy of disability from feminist philosophy of science by offering a sophisticated, philosophically and politically astute understanding of disability that denaturalizes it, that is, a historicist and relativist understanding of disability that feminist philosophers of science (and feminist philosophers more generally) can incorporate into their research and teaching, thereby increasing the likelihood that philosophy of disability will play a more formative role in shaping the future of feminist philosophy of science than it does at present.

To motivate the discussion, I draw upon insights of Michel Foucault, some of which insights he introduced in his critical ontologies (genealogies) of abnormality, perversion, madness, and other discursive objects that intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike generally associate with disability. My discussion suggests ways in which feminist philosophers of science can extend the inquiries that Foucault made in these critical ontologies and could, therefore, be aptly characterized as a feminist philosophical treatise on what he referred to as the “problematization” of phenomena in the present, that is, as a critical feminist ontology of the problematization of disability. Foucault did not advance normative proposals about abnormality, racism against the abnormal, perversion, or madness in his critical ontologies of these phenomena; rather, his critical ontologies were designed to uncover how these phenomena became thinkable in the first place, that is, how they emerged as problems to which solutions were produced (see Tremain 2017).

Following Foucault, my discussion in this chapter is designed to (1) persuade feminist philosophers of science that a historically contingent and culturally specific regime of power—namely, biopower—has constituted certain acts, practices, subjectivities, bodies, relations, and so on as a problem for the present; (2) convince feminist philosophers of science that philosophy has played and continues to play a considerable role in the elaboration of this problem; and (3) point out to feminist philosophers of science that in all likelihood their own philosophical, discursive, and professional practices contribute to the persistence of the mutually constitutive and simultaneous problematization and exclusion of disability in philosophy of science.


Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 2000. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.

Fine, Cordelia. 2011. Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Harding, Sandra. 1986. The Science Question in Feminism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Harding, Sandra. 1991. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Martin, Emily. 1991. “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Created a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 16 (3): 485-501.

Tremain. Shelley L. 2017. Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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