What’s Ahead: Against Natural(izing) Disability

Much of my writing, teaching, service, and activism in philosophy has been 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 remain embedded in philosophical discourses, variously naturalizing disability, gender, race, and other apparatuses of power. In short, I think that there is no natural human body nor set of natural physiological or cognitive circumstances that exist apart from social construction and interpretation; thus, I refuse the claim that disability is a natural aspect of human existence, a non-accidental, biological difference or characteristic that ought to be venerated, celebrated, and redeemed.

In a variety of ways, the previous claim and my conviction that disability is artifactual, a contingent product of power relations all the way down, separate my philosophical analyses of disability from the work of many other philosophers and theorists of disability. For disability, I maintain, is an apparatus of force relations from which a “diagnostic style of reasoning” has emerged that produces impairments, disabilities, syndromes, deficits, and so on as natural in order to manage and control populations through strategies and mechanisms of normalization, ultimately in the service of neoliberalism.

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 claims are mobilized and advanced, and for what social and political purposes. Although my arguments with respect to the naturalization of disability in philosophy have been largely directed at feminist philosophers and philosophers of disability, I contend that the ways in which disability is naturalized in philosophy and what can be done to denaturalize disability in philosophy (and indeed elsewhere) should be of interest and concern to every philosopher.

In order to offer contextually specific analyses of the constitution of disability and impairment, I have in recent years examined the ways in which these discursive objects are elaborated within and by (for example) feminist philosophical discussions of Foucault’s supposed masculinist biases and sexism; bioethical discourses on prenatal testing, genetic counseling, and stem cell research; the criticisms that bioethicists make about disabled people’s arguments against these technologies; and the British social  model of disability, an early model of disability whose distinction between impairment (construed as a prediscursive biological reality) and disability (construed as a form of social disadvantage imposed upon this ostensibly natural biological reality) has, more or less, dominated the words and deeds of Euro-American disabled people’s movements for several decades.

In all cases, I presented a nonjuridical account of how force relations configure and construct impairment and disability; that is, I offered an account of power relations as productive rather than merely repressive; as incrementally intentional and nonsubjective rather than ideological; and as diffuse rather than centralized. Examining the operations of power in this nonjuridical way leads the philosopher of disability to scrutinize how power circulates within and between practices and policies produced outside of domains in which power is typically believed to be exacted, including contexts and sites that seem transgressive, oppositional, liberatory, and “empowering.” As I have argued, such contexts and sites may in fact operate according to a disciplinary logic that is simultaneously enabling and constraining.  

To continue this line of inquiry, expanding its scope and refining its claims, I will, over the course of the coming year, aim to identify and analyze the ways in which disability is constructed and invoked as a natural and disadvantageous biological human property (attribute, difference, characteristic)—i.e., is naturalized, materialized, and individualized—in the context of the Fit is a Feminist Issue blog. These analyses will include consideration of how the construction and naturalization of disability by and through the content of this feminist fitness blog (1) have extended and propped up the way that an individualized and medicalized conception of disability conditions knowledge production about disability in philosophy, especially in Canadian philosophy and bioethics; (2) exemplify the limits of the knowledge about disabled people, ableism, and accessibility that feminist philosophers assume and reproduce; (3) have complemented and reinforced the particular version of prestige bias that conditions Canadian philosophy; and (4) contribute to the exclusion of disabled philosophers of disability from professional philosophy in Canada.

In short, this prospective work will thus encompass both the metaphilosophical and reconstructive-conceptual spheres of my research in philosophy of disability, as I have previously described them. To be sure, the project may be a contested endeavour; nevertheless, I expect it to be a fruitful one, adding new layers to my analyses of both the ways in which the apparatus of disability is deployed in philosophy, especially Canadian philosophy, and the ways in which the discursive object called “impairment” is constituted in philosophy and the discourses that surround it. I predict that BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY will become a venue for the documentation of these analyses as I attempt to unravel them. What better venue could there be?

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