Some Notes on Dembroff on Hacking, Disability, and Kinds of People

This morning I quickly looked at Robin Dembroff’s “Real Talk on the Metaphysics of Gender,” which is forthcoming in a special issue of Philosophical Topics edited by Takaoka and Manne. In this post, I want to mention a few problems that I noticed on my first quick read of Dembroff’s article. I hope that if Dembroff reads this post, they will consider these concerns and, ideally, make adjustments to their forthcoming article if it is not too far along in production.

I generally feel inclined to avoid analytic feminist metaphysics. One reason that I do so is sheer annoyance: I find that although a number of analytic feminist metaphysicians draw upon my work and the insights of other feminist philosophers who are more “Continental” than they are, expand on our work in some way, learn from us, and so on, most of these analytic feminist philosophers routinely do not cite us, exacerbating the artifactual supremacy of a certain style of doing philosophy from which they unquestionably benefit. Indeed, if one were to take the citation practices of some analytic feminist and other social metaphysicians seriously, one would get the distinct impression that only a handful of feminist (and other) philosophers focus on the questions and concerns that they do; there is, it seems, only a small group of “authorities” on feminist and other social metaphysics.

I try (sometimes I must force myself) to be generous in my citation practices, even citing relevant work by philosophers whom I don’t like, philosophers who have been hostile to me, and philosophers who have been uncharitable about my work in feminist philosophy of disability, on disability and Foucault, and so on.

Nevertheless, I also recognize that what counts as appropriate citation practices is a fraught and contested terrain: Who can be sure that their work hasn’t been cited because an author wishes to attribute views to their own circle of friends and influences? Who can know for sure that an author has been cavalier, vengeful, or vindictive by claiming the ideas of another as their own? Furthermore, who can know with certainty that an author didn’t simply overlook a body of work?

My previous remark brings me to the first concern that I have about Dembroff’s article. I want to suggest that Dembroff has not adequately accounted for an important series of inquiries in social metaphysics.

In a section of the aforementioned article that appears under the subtitle “Ontological Oppression,” Dembroff states:

Assuming that social kinds can have unjust membership conditions, or that the structures and practices in a context can unjustly fail to recognize or construct certain kinds, constraining classifications to track operative social kinds would be ill advised. It would perpetuate unjust kinds, or the unjust exclusion of certain kinds, rather than adapt social practices to newly construct, revise, or eliminate operative social kinds. In short, the assumption is a mechanism for maintaining the ontological status quo. It fails to account for what Ian Hacking, Ron Mallon and others call the “looping effect” between classification practices and social kinds. This looping effect, in brief, is the mutual causal feedback between classification practices and what social kinds exist: by developing classification practices, we create social kinds, which in turn impact classification practices, and on so [sic]. The looping effect, as Mallon describes it, means that “human [kinds] themselves are…in some way a product of a community’s practices of labeling and differentially treating [kind] members.” Mallon’s insight concisely reveals why classification practices should stray from the operative social kinds under conditions of ontological oppression. Unless they do so, they will reinforce that oppression. (Dembroff 7, forthcoming)

In a footnote to this passage, Dembroff cites Mallon’s The Construction of Human Kinds (2016) and Hacking’s The Social Construction of What? (1999), elaborating the latter citation with this remark: “Hacking is primarily focused on scientific classifications, but the framework can be applied more broadly.”

But the elaboration, I want to point out, is not correct, underestimates the fundamentally generative role that Hacking’s work on social kinds, human kinds, and interactive kinds (he’s used all these descriptions to identify the phenomena) has had for a whole field of inquiry and research agenda, and overlooks a large body of work on “human kinds” that Hacking himself has produced on child abuse, on multiple personality, autism, madness and mad people, perversion and perverts, alcoholism and alcoholics, teenage pregnancy, etc.

Indeed, Hacking’s 1986 paper, “Making Up People,” is seminal to work in analytic social metaphysics and its importance to this entire discussion in analytic social ontology and philosophy more widely is indisputable. The idea of a “looping effect” has Hacking’s signature all over it. In fact, I think Dembroff (and Mallon?) would benefit from closer consideration of Hacking’s claims about looping effects which seem to be somewhat misrepresented here. The crucial aspect of the phenomenon of looping effects, as I explain in the first chapter of my book, is that people come to understand how they have been classified which leads to changes in the ways that they think of themselves, that is, to their self-constitution, and often to demands from them for changes in the classifications and how they are classified. That’s Hacking’s idea of looping effects in a nutshell. I might add that it seems a shame to attribute the idea largely to Mallon.

Although Hacking is a philosopher and historian of science, these studies on human kinds (social kinds, interactive kinds, etc.) are no more (and no less) confined to the study of scientific classifications than Dembroff’s own analyses of gender. Nor, I would add, should one downplay the influence of Foucault’s claims about the constitution of the subject on Hacking’s own thinking about kinds of people. It turns out that analytic social metaphysicians owe a great deal to a French disabled gay male philosopher that most of them ignore, dismiss, or ridicule.

Another problem in Dembroff’s forthcoming article that I recognized in my admittedly brief visit to it is the conflation of two very different conceptions of disability in the course of one argument. This conflation, which is even commonly made by philosophers of disability, may seem “merely pedantic” to philosophers not concerned with social metaphysics nor with philosophy of disability in particular. I, of course, disagree with such a stance, however, regarding the conflation of these distinct conceptions as an error that feminist (and other) social metaphysicians should take care to avoid. I explain the philosophical implications of this conflation and its consequences for policy, theory, and practice in Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, especially in chapters 1 and 2.

In brief, the term people with disabilities construes disability as a property, characteristic, attribute, or difference of an individual. In other words, the term people with disabilities is intended to pick out a natural kind, presupposing that disability is natural rather than artifactual, transhistorical and transcultural rather than historically contingent and culturally specific. In the terms of the British social model of disability (a dominant conception of disability), by contrast, the term disabled in the phrase “I am disabled” signifies a way in which certain people, namely “people with impairments” (a natural kind) are socially disadvantaged, that is, produced as “disabled people” (a social kind).

As my argument in Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability and elsewhere demonstrates, I maintain that disability is a historically specific apparatus of (neoliberal) force relations all the way down. I take the notion of an “apparatus” from Foucault who defined it 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 a historically specific and dispersed system of power that produces and configures practices toward certain strategic and political ends.

To understand disability as an apparatus is thus to conceive of it as a far-reaching and systemic matrix of power that contributes to, is inseparable from, and reinforces other apparatuses of historical force relations. On this understanding, disability is not a metaphysical substrate, a natural, biological category, or a characteristic that only certain individuals embody or possess, but rather is a historically contingent network of force relations in which everyone is implicated and entangled and in relation to which everyone occupies a position.

My account of disabled people as a kind (produced by the apparatus of disability) takes its motivation from Foucault’s arguments about historical contingency and the constitution of subjectivity. Like Hacking, I am not reluctant to repay Foucault for the debt that he is owed for work in this area.

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