Stanley, The Stone, and Epistemic Humility

Jason Stanley is a nice guy. He is also an extremely influential philosopher, both within the discipline and profession of philosophy and beyond. I only wish that Jason would use that influence and, yes, power, to be a better ally to disabled philosophers.

In particular, I wish that Jason would use the influence that he evidently has at The New York Times to instigate changes to the way in which disabled people are represented in The Stone, the publication’s philosophy column to which he and other progressive philosophers continue to contribute, despite the fact that I (and others) have repeatedly drawn attention to how disabled philosophers and critical philosophical analyses of disability are systematically excluded from the column, where (in our absence) the apparatus of disability continues to be misrepresented, misconceived, and (mis)characterized as a self-evidently deleterious individual characteristic, natural disadvantage, and personal misfortune rather than a matrix of force relations.

Readers and listeners of this post may recall (for instance) the truly awful contribution to The Stone that Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan made in which they argued that the sexual abuse and rape of a disabled black man was, well, not all that bad and maybe even not bad at all.

The most recent example of the misconstrual and misrepresentation of disability in The Stone can be found in Megan Craig’s contribution to the column in which Craig offers a narrative of their experiences with a “mild traumatic brain injury.” Over the course of the article, readers and listeners are given details about (among other things) how the concussion was sustained and how it altered Craig’s thinking, as well as philosophical assertions about how these events can be tied to themes and positions produced in the history of philosophy, in cognitive science, and so on.

At no point in the article does Craig suggest that the experiences and philosophical observations might be understood quite differently if they were informed by the insights of philosophy of disability and disabled philosophers or if the experiences themselves were less transient. Nevertheless, as a disabled philosopher of disability, I want to argue that biases about disabled people and misunderstandings about what disability is and how it has operated in philosophy condition Craig’s contribution to The Stone.

To take one example: although many of Craig’s putative insights about how the concussion can be connected to the history of philosophy are designed to underscore how dualism is no longer a seriously considered doctrine (David Chalmers notwithstanding), the article inadvertently serves to implicitly reinstate the very dualism between mind and body that it eschews, doing so in a way that denigrates some disabled people as tragic objects of pity, as hopeless and empty bags of skin. For while the central premise of the article seems to be that a head injury has unique implications for a philosopher whose business is reflection and reason, the overall naturalizing message of the article (especially, and grievously, its final paragraph) is that, wow, people with “brain disorders” are really bad off and way worse  off than other disabled people. The motivational assumption of this depoliticized message seems to be that someone with no apparent knowledge of critical philosophical work on (the apparatus of) disability and quite limited personal experience of disability is legitimately entitled to form such conclusions.

Of course, my previous claim itself relies upon the assumption that an increasing number of nondisabled philosophers recognize that they need to exercise epistemic humility with respect to their arguments about the subjective experiences of so-called physically disabled people (if not disabled people in general). Now that I think of it, however, that assumption might not be warranted. Indeed, as Foucault taught us, the operations of power are often concealed and usually disguise themselves.

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