The Wits Centre for Critical Diversity Studies and Philosophy of Disability as Critical Diversity Studies

In October, I will give a keynote at the 2019 annual conference of the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies (WICDS) at the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. The theme of the conference this year is “Disabling Normativities.” The 2017 conference that WICDS held, which was entitled “Troubling Seasons of Hate” and among whose keynotes were Lewis Gordon and Jasbir Puar, was showcased in a post at the APA blog here, which also profiled WICDS itself and its Director Melissa Steyn, the South African National Research Chair in Critical Diversity Studies.

Melissa Steyn is also the editor of The International Journal of Critical Diversity Studies (IJCDS), the exciting inaugural issue of which will appear online any day now. The lead article in the issue is by Lewis R. Gordon and is entitled “Re-Imagining Liberations,” the theme of WICDS’s 2018 conference. My contribution to the issue is entitled “Philosophy of Disability as Critical Diversity Studies.” In order to build your anticipation for the imminent publication of the inaugural issue of IJCDS, I have copied the introduction to my article in the issue below. I will post more details about the exciting inaugural issue of the journal when it appears online.

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Philosophy of Disability in Critical Diversity Studies (CDS)
When academics talk about “critical diversity studies” (hereafter referred to as CDS), it is generally assumed that they are referring to the relatively recent interdisciplinary fields of inquiry that are variously based on identity, social position, group membership, shared experience, and history: women’s and gender studies, Africana studies, LGBTQI studies, and disability studies. Programs in some or all of these (and other) fields of CDS are now included in the curricula of most universities and colleges worldwide. Furthermore, many universities around the world have degree-conferring departments in at least some fields of CDS. In some institutions, one can major in fields of CDS, while in other places, one must combine one’s work in, say, disability studies or critical race studies, with a more “traditional” or established discipline such as philosophy, where the latter—philosophy—is regarded as one’s major area of specialization (for which a degree is conferred), while the former—disability studies or critical race studies—is regarded as one’s minor area of specialization (for which a diploma or certificate may be conferred).

Nevertheless, forms of CDS can increasingly be found within “traditional” disciplines themselves; that is, a growing number of university and college departments that house age-old, conventional disciplines offer courses that enable specialization in areas that are most aptly identified as varieties of CDS, areas of specialization that talk back to, or even against, the established disciplines within which they reside. Throughout the last decade especially, philosophy has, reluctantly, become one such discipline. For despite a great deal of conservative resistance and even hostility from certain corners of philosophy, a steadily growing number of philosophy departments offer courses in feminist philosophy, philosophy of race, queer theory, and other CDS areas. The subject matter of these courses is respectively designed to transform the discipline of philosophy by challenging the sexism, racism, Eurocentrism, homophobia, heterosexism, and transphobia of claims that mainstream philosophers make; critique the methods and “foundational” assumptions of Eurocentric, Western philosophy along these lines; and introduce new counter discourses and thinkers into the “canon” of philosophy. Indeed, some philosophy departments now deliberately utilize areas of CDS as institutional mechanisms and strategies to redress and eliminate the Eurocentrism, androcentrism, and whiteness of the discipline of academic philosophy, as well as to ameliorate the historical underrepresentation and exclusion of some social groups from the profession of academic philosophy.

In this article, I outline the parameters of one area of CDS in the discipline of philosophy—namely, philosophy of disability—in part by distinguishing the claims of this emerging subfield of philosophy from the claims about disability made in more established, mainstream, and dominant areas of the discipline. Mainstream philosophy, like other “traditional” disciplines of the university, continues to operate under the guise of the values of neutrality, rationality, and objectivity. Yet, the discipline of philosophy, like every one of the disciplines that constitutes the modern university, implicitly promotes certain ontologies, methodologies, and epistemologies, that is, certain political, social,
economic, cultural, and institutional mechanisms and influences condition philosophy and every other discipline of the modern university, despite the fact that conventional, established disciplines such as philosophy continue to be represented—and to variously represent themselves—as value neutral, detached, disinterested, and impartial. By contrast, philosophy of disability, like other areas of CDS, explicitly represents itself as politically motivated in character and socially engaged in content; like other areas of CDS, philosophy of disability has, more or less, grown out of and remains associated with a social and political movement. In what follows, I identify some of the central motivational assumptions of philosophy of disability, explain the extent to which these assumptions have roots in disabled people’s movements, and highlight key interventions and contested categories in this new subfield of philosophy, this new addition to the roster of CDS.

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