Situating Disabled Philosophers and Philosophy of Disability in Philosophy

Presented to Disabling Normativities Conference, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, Oct. 2, 2019

[Good morning. To increase the accessibility of my presentation, I’ve now posted it to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY, the philosophy blog that I co-coordinate. So, if you have a cellphone, a laptop, a tablet, or some other device with you and you’d like to read along as I present, simply type BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY into your internet browser and click on the link to the blog. My presentation, entitled “Situating Disabled Philosophers and Philosophy of Disability in Philosophy,” is posted at the top of the blog. To get to my presentation, simply click on the title of the post. Again, if you want to read along with me, type BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY into your device’s browser, follow the link to the blog, and click on the title of the post.

Before I begin, I would like to publicly convey my enormous gratitude to Melissa Steyn for generously inviting me to speak at this exciting event. I feel both honoured and humbled to be amongst such an outstanding group of people. I would also like to thank Faith Lazarus who made my travel and accommodation arrangements; Kudzai Vanyoro who addressed some of my questions and concerns; Elva Boyce, Andiswa Gebashe, and Nicoline Toit who have provided sign language interpretation throughout the conference; and William Mpofu for the kind introduction and for chairing this session. This is my first time in South Africa and I’ve been thrilled to receive such a warm welcome and to learn more about the work of South African critical disability theorists and other critical thinkers from India, Nigeria, Portugal, and elsewhere. I hope that this conference marks the beginning of many more discussions amongst us.]

Situating Disabled Philosophers and Philosophy of Disability in Philosophy

Section 1: Disability in the Context of Philosophy

I am a philosopher by training. I did my graduate degrees in philosophy and wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on disability and social justice in a philosophy department in Canada. Since graduation, I have done community organizing around disability and accessibility, conducted policy research on disability and human rights, and have continued to produce critical philosophical work on disability.

In academic contexts, I have sought to raise the disciplinary profile of critical philosophical work on disability by introducing and promoting the growth of a new subfield of philosophy, namely, philosophy of disability, and an extension of this subfield, namely, feminist philosophy of disability.

Through research, service, and professional activism, furthermore, I have sought to elevate the status of disabled philosophers, including with my publications and presentations at conferences, on social media, and on BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY, the philosophy blog that I coordinate with Melinda Hall, another disabled feminist philosopher of disability. The book that I published in late 2017, Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability (Tremain 2017a), is an outcome of my research, service, and activist endeavours in philosophy.

The impetus to write the book derived from a combination of the following: the dismal career opportunities and prospects available to disabled philosophers; the marginalization of critical philosophical work on disability; the indifference of nondisabled philosophers to the pernicious ways that disabled people are represented in philosophical discourse; and the inertia of philosophers and philosophy associations about the distinct forms of institutionalized bias, hostility, and exclusion that disabled philosophers confront in philosophy.

In my presentation today, I will provide an account of the marginalization of critical work on disability in the discipline of philosophy, indicate how disabled people are constituted in philosophical discourse as a problem to be rectified and, ideally, eliminated, and explain some of the other elements that produce the dire exclusion of disabled philosophers from the profession of philosophy. I will also indicate why I have drawn upon the work of disabled philosopher Michel Foucault to investigate these egregious states of affairs.

I want to begin by broadly contextualizing my claims for the benefit of delegates at this conference who may be unfamiliar with the systemic inequalities and injustices that structure the discipline and profession of philosophy, conditioning the philosophical arguments and positions that philosophers learn as philosophy students and subsequently reproduce as philosophy faculty.  

Philosophy is the most conservative and homogeneous discipline across the humanities and social sciences with respect to areas of inquiry and specialization. As South African philosopher Leonhard Praeg (2019) puts it, “of all the disciplines in the humanities, philosophy is often regarded as the most resistant to change, transformation, and decolonization.” Although mainstream philosophy prides itself on its appeals to the putative ideals of neutrality, universality, and objectivity, the institutionalized structure of the discipline implicitly and explicitly promotes certain situated ontologies, epistemologies, and methodologies as bona fide philosophy, while other situated ontologies, epistemologies, and methodologies are cast as off-shoots of these allegedly fundamental ways of knowing and doing philosophy and hence are regarded as more or less expendable.

The homogeneity of the topics and questions studied in philosophy is co-constitutive with and reinforces the homogeneity ofthe demographics of philosophy, that is, philosophy is also the most demographically homogeneous discipline in the humanities and social sciences. Indeed, the profession of philosophy is populated almost exclusively by nondisabled white people, the majority of whom are men.

Disabled philosophers make up about 1% of full-time philosophy faculty in Canada and only marginally better in the United States, although, by most credible estimates, disabled people constitute about 25% of the general population of North America (Tremain 2013, 2017a). Black philosophers also comprise about 1% of full-time philosophy faculty in the U.S., although African Americans comprise approximately 15% of the U.S. population. There are only 6 black philosophers employed as full-time philosophy faculty in the United Kingdom, the entire United Kingdom (Curry and Tremain 2019). At present, there is not a single disabled philosopher of disability employed full-time in a Canadian philosophy department.

I don’t know how many disabled philosophers are employed as full-time faculty in South African philosophy departments; however, I do know that philosophy students and faculty were quite involved in the #MustFall movement and continue to protest the lack of diversity and representation in South African philosophy departments and South African philosophy associations, aiming to decolonize the discipline and profession of philosophy in South Africa and internationally. In the bibliography that follows the text of my presentation online, I provide links to blogposts that I’ve written about reports of this activism and the struggles in South African philosophy more generally. Given these reports about the racial and gender homogeneity of philosophy in South Africa, I presume that the number of disabled philosophers employed on a full-time basis in philosophy departments here is quite low (Tremain2017b, 2018; Praeg 2019; Okega 2019).

In addition to our lack of access to the economic benefits, institutional resources, medical and dental coverage, and other benefits that full-time employment in philosophy provides, disabled philosophers are largely excluded from publication in the leading philosophy journals; from philosophy conferences and workshops; informal professional networks; philosophy websites, blogs, and podcasts; funded research projects; leadership positions in professional philosophy associations; prizes, grants, awards, and fellowships; endowed research chairs; advisory boards; editorial boards; and so on and so forth.

Over the past several decades, and in the last several years especially, marginalized philosophers have, as I’ve noted, steadily challenged the white heteronormative androcentrism of philosophy, persistently working to forge a new agenda for the discipline. For example, a number of feminist philosophy journals and societies have been created; summer schools and institutes have proliferated that provide mentoring and other support to black undergraduate philosophy students, LGBTQ philosophy undergraduates, and working-class undergraduate philosophy students (among others); professional philosophy associations increasingly fund projects that advance the interests of marginalized philosophy faculty; and more and more philosophy conferences prioritize the contributions of underrepresented groups in philosophy and spotlight underrepresented areas of philosophical research and teaching.

Nevertheless, disabled philosophers and philosophy of disability tend to be systematically left out of many of these initiatives or haphazardly added to them based on assumptions about diversity that take gender and race, understood in isolation from each other, to be paradigmatic categories of identity and subjection, obscuring the distinct forms of exclusion that disabled philosophers encounter (regardless of how they are gendered and racialized). I wanted to write a book that would at least document this terrible situation and its structural supports and material effects, if not produce a book that would provoke change to ameliorate the situation.

Section 2: Disability and the Architecture of Philosophy

Within the tradition of Western philosophy, the subfields of metaphysics, value theory, logic, epistemology, and philosophy of language have been regarded as foundational to philosophical inquiry, uniquely distinguishing philosophy from other disciplines of research and teaching. Philosophers who hold this traditional, conventional view of the discipline maintain that these subfields, and only these subfields, are the necessary, unchanging, and so-called core elements of philosophy. Philosophers who conceive of philosophy in this way assume, furthermore, that other, more recent, areas of philosophical inquiry—such as philosophy of race and feminist philosophy—are merely applications or contingent derivatives of these so-called foundational subfields (also, Praeg 2019; Okega 2019).

It is this conventional representation of philosophy that provides the scaffolding for PhilPapers (n.d.), the increasingly influential database of philosophical research. Philosophers go to the PhilPapers database to access journal articles and other publications, to gauge the popularity of a given publication, to demonstrate their own interest in certain publications through views and downloads, and to otherwise stay abreast of recent developments in philosophy. In other words, PhilPapers is a sort of designed specifically for philosophers and philosophical research.

Unlike, however, the content of the PhilPapers database is organized into a limited number of predetermined areas of specialization, subfields, and topics in philosophy that are hierarchically arranged according to prevailing ideas in Eurocentric Western philosophy about which areas, subfields, and topics have the most philosophical import; have the most explanatory power; and should be endowed with the most authoritative status (Tremain 2013, 2017a, xi–ix).

Within the PhilPapers database, critical philosophical work on disability is primarily relegated under Applied Ethics, a subcategory of the supreme category of Value Theory, and is largely medicalized and individualized. For example, sub-sub-subcategories related to disability can be found under Biomedical Ethics, a sub-subcategory of Applied Ethics, alongside and on par with topics such as Drugs, Death and Dying, and Neuroethics, as well as under Social Ethics, another sub-subcategory of Applied Ethics, alongside and on par with topics such as Deception and Friendship.

This almost exclusive medicalized and individualized categorization of disability under the rubric of Value Theory circumscribes critical philosophical work on disability too narrowly, obscuring the fact that the phenomena of disability variously raise questions about its metaphysical and epistemological status, questions that philosophers of language consider, questions about the history of philosophy, and so on. As I have argued in other contexts, furthermore, the way in which disability is categorized in the PhilPapers database discourages intersectional feminist analyses of its phenomena. (I won’t elaborate the previous claim in this portion of my presentation, but I’m happy to do so in our discussion.)

It would be difficult to overstate the constraining effects that the PhilPapers database generates for the development of critical philosophical work on disability. Nor could one overstate the deleterious consequences that accrue to disabled philosophers due to the structure of a spinoff of PhilPapers, namely, PhilJobs, the leading international philosophy job board whose architecture mirrors the framework of PhilPapers.

To make a long story short, the structure of PhilJobs, like the structure of PhilPapers, systematically precludes adequate reference to philosophy of disability, discouraging the creation of job postings in philosophy of disability and preventing the specification of database searches for jobs in the area. Indeed, to date, no advertisement for a full-time philosophy job anywhere in the world has designated philosophy of disability as an area of specialization, despite the fact that research and teaching in philosophy of disability has been done for decades and even though philosophy of disability’s allies—that is, critical disability theory and disability studies—are burgeoning interdisciplinary fields of inquiry elsewhere across the university.

At present, philosophy jobseekers who specialize in philosophy of disability must represent their work in medicalized terms, that is, as a form of bioethics in order to be regarded as serious candidates for positions in philosophy. In other contexts, I have argued that bioethics is first and foremost a technology of modern government whose biopolitical aim is normalization of the population. My argument in this context is, thus, that insofar as philosophers of disability must package their work as bioethics, leaving the fundamentally pernicious nature of the enterprise of bioethics intact, philosophy of disability and philosophers of disability are effectively put in the service of a form of neo-eugenics (see also Hall 2016).

Let me underscore that the invalidation of philosophy of disability is enabled by the constitutive character of the individualized and medicalized classifications of disability that both these databases reproduce. Classification of subfields in philosophy and the questions and concerns that these subfields comprise are not merely value-neutral representations of objective differences, relations, and similarities that await discovery and recognition. Rather, classification and classification systems in philosophy (as elsewhere) are performative. They contribute to the constitution of the value-laden resemblances, distinctions, and relationships between phenomena and states of affairs that they put into place.

Job postings in philosophy influence what philosophers regard as current and emerging research in the discipline and as important areas of the field to develop in their own departments. Hiring departments, insofar as they do not see other departments recruit and hire specialists in the subfield of philosophy of disability, are not motivated to recruit and hire specialists in philosophy of disability themselves. Given that many, if not most, specialists in philosophy of disability are themselves disabled, the current classificatory scheme of PhilPapers and PhilJobs ought to be recognized as a technology of power that contributes significantly to the underrepresentation of disabled philosophers in the profession of philosophy.

In short, PhilPapers and PhilJobs reproduce and sustain the status quo in philosophy with respect to disability (and, I want to point out, other marginalized areas of specialization such as Indigenous philosophies and trans philosophy). Most philosophers believe that disability is a prediscursive and politically neutral human characteristic, a natural disadvantage and personal misfortune that is appropriately addressed in the domains of medicine, science, and bioethics rather than social and political philosophy and critical theory. Indeed, two weeks ago a job posting appeared on PhilJobs with a specialization in Bioethics and (so-called) Mental Disorders.

As far as I know, no nondisabled philosopher has formally contested the naturalization of ableism and disability that conditions this job posting; nor has any nondisabled philosopher lodged a formal complaint with the PhilPapers Foundation about the way that the posting infringes the Foundation’s anti-discrimination policy and code of conduct, as well as the anti-discrimination policy and code of conduct of the American Philosophical Association, which, as the largest professional philosophy association in the world, provides substantial funding and other resources to the PhilPapers Foundation.

In my work, I have aimed to show that the prevalence in philosophy of this kind of individualized and medicalized understanding of disability, according to which disabled people are naturally flawed, is inextricably entwined with the exclusion of disabled philosophers, especially disabled philosophers of disability, from permanent employment in philosophy.

Although the formula of PhilPapers and PhilJobs promotes the idea that both philosophy and classification of subfields in philosophy are value-neutral, disinterested, and impartial enterprises, political, social, economic, cultural, and institutional force relations influence every aspect of the discipline (and profession) of philosophy. Every philosophical question and concern, as well as every philosophical subfield that these questions and concerns comprise, is a politically potent artifact of historically contingent and culturally specific discourse. As discursive artifacts, furthermore, every philosophical question and concern, as well as every subfield that these questions and concerns comprise has a history that can be traced genealogically (see Tremain 2013, 2017a, ix–xi; Praeg 2019; Okega 2019).

The underrepresentation of disabled philosophers in full-time faculty positions in philosophy is of course also due to the institutionalized biases and structural inaccessibility that disabled people in general confront in academia. Many disabled students, regardless of the discipline in which they major, feel compelled to leave school before the completion of a graduate degree due to the structural barriers, institutional discrimination, epistemic injustice, and personal prejudice that they encounter. The escalating incidence of student suicide on campuses throughout North America and perhaps here too is itself testament to the systemic inadequacy of supports for students positioned outside the norms, expectations, and demands of the neoliberal university.

Nevertheless, I maintain that certain metaphysical and epistemological assumptions, specific disciplinary approaches, and distinct professional agendas, interests, and norms render philosophy especially hostile to both disabled people and critical analyses of disability. The prevalent assumption in philosophy that disability is a disadvantageous personal characteristic or property properly studied in biomedical contexts, the life sciences, and related fields is the crux of the problem, a problem that neoliberalism has produced through what Foucault called “biopower,” which is a vast network of forms of coercion and population control that target the life of the human being qua living being, that is, the life of the human being insofar as it is a living being.

Indeed, as I’ve indicated, the assumptions that disabled people are naturally flawed and that disability should be addressed in the domains of medicine, the life sciences, and related fields has shaped philosophy, influencing course curricula, dictating authoritative areas of specialization in the discipline, reproducing conference lineups, conditioning the composition of philosophy departments and professional networks, fashioning the contents of philosophy journals, and so on and so forth (see Tremain 2017; also see Tremain 2013, 2014). That the subfield of bioethics is financially lucrative for modern philosophy departments and for the neoliberal university more broadly goes considerable distance to ensure the endurance of the medicalized and individualized understandings of disability that prevail in philosophy.

Section 3: Philosophy of Disability

Philosophers of disability critically assess assumptions about disability that philosophical claims presuppose and identify the ways in which disabled people have been either vilified within the discipline of philosophy or exiled from it altogether. Philosophers of disability also advance accounts of disability that resist and run counter to the dominant conception of disability that persists within bioethics, cognitive science, and mainstream political philosophy and ethics, according to which disability is a natural disadvantage that necessarily reduces the quality and worth of disabled people’s lives, inevitably leading to the social and economic disadvantages that accrue to disabled people.

Insofar as practitioners of the Western philosophical tradition have, with few exceptions, cast disability as a natural, negative, and inert state of affairs in this way, they have effectively precluded disability from the realm of most philosophical inquiry.

By contrast, philosophers of disability variously use and take a critical stance toward the history and contemporary practice of philosophy in order to articulate alternative ways in which to think philosophically about disability and about the current social, political, cultural, and economic position of disabled people.

It seems to me, nevertheless, that philosophers of disability, the vast majority of whom are white, too willingly accept the importance conferred upon the conceptual frameworks, theoretical questions, policy concerns, and general philosophical approaches that the philosophers whose positions they ostensibly write against have put into place and thus remain too obediently preoccupied with these conceptions, questions, concerns, and philosophical approaches, philosophical approaches that comprise what Praeg (2019) refers to as “the holy trinity” of Western philosophy, namely, deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics.

Hence, examination of the metaphysical and epistemological status of disability has been largely neglected; naturalization of disability in philosophy is expanding in new directions; the historical emergence and contingency of disability have remained obscured; the constitutive forms of power that Foucault identified have been disregarded by most philosophers of disability; and the ways that disability is intertwined with (for example) settler colonialism, the climate crisis, white supremacy, class, and the exploitation and slaughter of nonhuman animals have been almost entirely ignored.

I think that philosophy of disability should prod philosophers out of their complacency with respect to disability; in addition, I think that philosophy of disability should undermine the intransigent belief that most philosophers hold according to which disability is fundamentally natural rather than entirely artifactual; and, furthermore, I think that philosophy of disability should offer a new way in which to understand disability in political terms, an understanding that takes account of disability’s production and collusion by, through, and with racialized, gendered, and otherwise stratified and stratifying forms of social power.

Indeed, I aim to subvert the conceptions of disability that prevail in philosophy and disability studies by arguing that disability is an apparatus, in Foucault’s sense.

Foucault (1980) introduced the term apparatus to refer to a heterogeneous and interconnected ensemble of discourses, institutions, scientific statements, administrative measures, and philosophical propositions that responds to an “urgent need” in a given historical moment. As an apparatus, disability 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 to conceive of it as a historically contingent matrix of power that contributes to, is inseparable from, and reinforces other apparatuses of force relations, including settler colonialism, gender, and class. As a historically contingent matrix of power, furthermore, the apparatus of disability comprises and is constituted by and through a complex set of technologies, identities, institutions, and discursive practices that emerge from medical and scientific research, government policies and administrative decisions, academic initiatives, art and literature, popular culture, and so on.

Section 4: Denaturalizing Disability

Much of my writing, teaching, service, and activism in philosophy is designed to undermine a cluster of assumptions about the relation between nature and nurture, that is, a cluster of assumptions about the relation between biology and society, assumptions that naturalize disability, gender, race, and other apparatuses of power.

I agree with African-American feminist sociologist and legal scholar Dorothy Roberts (2016) who argues that there is no natural body; that all of life is at once biological and social; that genes do not determine anything; and that our brains are plastic, with the ability to be modified by social experience. As Roberts points out, biology is not a separate entity that interacts with the environment; rather, biology is constituted through these social interactions. In her social constructionist, anti-essentialism, Roberts argues against biosocial science that locates the origins of social inequalities in inherent traits rather than imposed social structures. She also argues against biosocial science that intervenes to fix perceived biological deficits in the bodies of oppressed people themselves rather than end the structural violence that dehumanizes them and maintains an unjust social order.

In Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, I argue that critical analyses of the naturalization of social inequalities must consider how claims about the social construction of biological phenomena are produced, in what contexts these allegedly prediscursive phenomena are mobilized, and for what political purposes (see also Pitts-Taylor 2010). Indeed, my work to articulate a feminist philosophy of disability that construes disability as an apparatus of power denaturalizes and de-biologizes the phenomena of disability in these and other ways, using Roberts, Foucault, and other thinkers in order to do so.

For example, I use Foucault’s idea of apparatus to shift philosophical discussion about disability away from restrictive conceptualizations of it as a personal characteristic or attribute, a property of given individuals, an identity, or a biological difference; that is, my assumption that disability is an apparatus of productive power moves philosophical discussion of disability toward a more flexible conceptualization of it than other conceptions of disability provide, toward a conception of disability that is historically and culturally sensitive in ways that other conceptions of disability are not.

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. In other words, to be disabled or nondisabled is to occupy a certain subject position within the productive constraints of the apparatus of disability. There are no “people with disabilities” and “able-bodied people”; rather, there are “disabled people” and “nondisabled people.”

On my antifoundational, social constructionist approach, people are variously racialized through strategies and mechanisms of the apparatus of race, but no one “has” a race or even a particular race. On my approach, furthermore, people are variously sexed through strategies and mechanisms of the apparatus of sex, but no one “has” a sex or even a certain sex. So too, people are variously disabled or not disabled through the operations of the apparatus of disability, but no one “has” a disability or even a given disability. Disability, like race and binary sex, is not a nonaccidental attribute, characteristic, or property of individuals, not a natural biological kind (see Tremain 2001, 2015, 2017).

That females and people of colour (which are by no means mutually exclusive social groups) have been perceived  as the bearers of sex and race respectively, doesn’t mean that males are not also sexed in accordance with the apparatus of sex, nor does it mean that white people are not racialized in the terms of the apparatus of race. Likewise, that one is not subjected as a disabled person doesn’t indicate that one occupies a space apart from the apparatus of disability.

The apparatus of disability is expansive and expanding, differentially subjecting an increasing number of people to relatively recent forms of power based on constructed perceptions and interpretations of (among other things) bodily structure, appearance, style and pace of motility, mode of communication, size, emotional expression, mode of food intake, and cognitive character, all of which phenomena are produced and understood within a culturally and historically contingent frame and shaped by place of birth, place of residence, racialization, gender, education, religion, years lived, and so on.

I contend, furthermore, that key classificatory schemes and distinctions currently made in philosophy of disability and disability theory are technologies of disabling relations of power, including the distinctions between visible disabilities and invisible disabilities; physical disability versus cognitive disability; physical impairments as opposed to sensory impairments; severe disabilities versus moderate or mild disabilities; and high functioning as opposed to low functioning.

Although many disabled people reify these historically contingent products of the apparatus of disability, incorporating them into their sets of beliefs, theories, values, and practices and interpreting them as the ground of purportedly natural identities, I maintain that this constitution of disabled subjectivities should also be recognized as a strategic mechanism of (neo)liberalism, that is, as the continuous capacity of a liberal regime to mold the subjectivities of individuals in particular ways, for particular purposes.

When disability is situated within the domain of force relations; that is, when disability is construed as an apparatus of power rather than as a personal characteristic or attribute, its collaboration with other apparatuses of force relations can be more readily identified and more thoroughly investigated than has been done thus far.

Section 5 (the final section of my presentation): The Fruitfulness of Foucault for Feminist Philosophy of Disability

My use of Foucault to shape a historicist and relativist feminist philosophy of disability is not without its critics in mainstream philosophy, feminist philosophy, and disability studies (and probably elsewhere). Some of these critics have raised concerns about the status and character of the subject in Foucault’s work and whether the absence from his writing of first-person narratives and perspectives limits the appropriateness and effectiveness of his analyses for feminist philosophy of disability.

To take one example, feminist philosopher Chloë Taylor (2019), who has argued that Foucault disregards the subject’s materiality and experience of it, claims that the new materialism is therefore better suited to analyses of disability than Foucault’s work. To take another example, Jesse Prinz (2019), a disabled philosopher of mind, worries that Foucault does not attend to the motives and intentions of the subject.

Does Foucault deny the subject and its agency? Does Foucault discount the epistemic value of personal experiences, including experiences of embodiment, experiences such as pain?

For years, such concerns and questions have surrounded feminist and other philosophers and theorists of disability who draw on Foucault. Numerous disability studies scholars have been either overtly hostile to Foucault’s work or very skeptical about its suitability as a discourse with which to provide an account of disabled people’s lives. Even now, some disability studies scholars remain unconvinced about the fruitfulness of Foucault for analyses of disability.

The general charges that disability studies scholars have directed at Foucault can be summed up thus: because Foucault disregards personal experiences, denies the foundational subject and its agency, as well as obscures the body, his work is inappropriate for disability theory and philosophy of disability, both of which ought to attend to the lived experiences and knowledges of disabled people, including their experiences and knowledges of their own embodiment.

As I have just now indicated, Taylor and other feminist philosophers have expressed similar concerns about Foucault’s work. For instance, some feminist philosophers have argued that insofar as Foucault ignores the material body that, historically, Eurocentric Western philosophy has associated with women and hence subordinated to an allegedly unencumbered reason associated with men, he extends the subjugation of women in his discourses on power and his history of sexuality especially.

Despite the prevalence of these sorts of criticisms of Foucault in disability theory and in feminist philosophy, the criticisms have never seemed compelling to me. Indeed, I want to emphasize that Foucault did not abandon the subject and its experiences, but rather was concerned to show that the subject and its experiences cannot be dissociated from the historically contingent practices that constitute the subject by and through its experiences.

In other words, Foucault did not eliminate the materiality of the body; rather, Foucault was concerned to show that “the body” cannot be dissociated from the historically contingent and culturally specific practices that bring it into being, that is, bring it into being as that kind of thing: as impaired, as racialized, as material, as mechanical, as colonized, as gendered, as sexed, and so on.

Foucault was also concerned to show that the subject’s intentions and motives are by-products of apparatuses of modern power which themselves are intentional and non-subjective, that is, are directed at certain aims but cannot readily be attributed to any particular actors or agents.

My argument is that if philosophers of disability were to take up Foucault’s approach to power, the constitution of subjects, and neoliberalism (among other things), their analyses of disability could address the neoliberal problematization of disability in philosophy, including the exclusion of disabled philosophers, especially disabled philosophers of disability, that this problematization of disability in philosophy requires.

Much of Foucault’s work comprises significant attempts to challenge the self-evidence of assumptions about phenomena such as disability by persuasively exposing the historical specificity and contingent character of normality and its cognates abnormality and pathological. Indeed, Foucault’s inquiries into the problematization of abnormality, perversion, and madness were ground-breaking, suggesting a host of innovative avenues of investigation along which future feminist philosophy of disability could proceed.

Given the continued reluctance, if not outright refusal, of most analytic philosophers and many feminist philosophers to seriously engage with Foucault’s ideas, I wonder however if this transformation of philosophy of disability and indeed philosophy more broadly will happen sooner or later and I worry that it may not happen at all.

[I’d like to sincerely thank you for your attention to my presentation this morning. I look forward to your comments and questions in our discussion. I’d also like to, once again, thank Melissa Steyn and the other conference organizers for inviting me to Disabling Normativities. Lastly, I want to say that you are always welcome to contact me by email or through BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY, our philosophy blog. You’ll find one of my email addresses on the Contributors page of the blog.]


Curry, Tommy, with Shelley Tremain. 2019. Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Tommy Curry. BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY (blog). June.

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Tremain, Shelley. 2017b. Racism and Philosophy in South Africa. Discrimination and Disadvantage (blog). March.

Tremain, Shelley. 2018. Philosophy and Decolonization in South Africa. Discrimination and Disadvantage (blog). September.

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