Philosophy’s Disability Problem

That disability is naturalized and depoliticized in philosophy and beyond is one of the central reasons why philosophy of disability remains marginalized in the discipline and why disabled philosophers, especially disabled philosophers of disability, continue to be excluded from philosophy departments in Canada and elsewhere. For more than fifteen years, my research and writing have been designed to resist the naturalization and depoliticization of disability in philosophy. My article, “Field Notes on the Naturalization and Denaturalization of Disability in (Feminist) Philosophy: What They Do and How They Do It,” reaffirms my conviction that much of feminist bioethics naturalizes disability and further extends my arguments against the naturalization of disability into new areas of social epistemology. The article is scheduled to appear in the September issue of Feminist Philosophy Quarterly. An excerpt from the opening section of the article is copied below.


Social Inequality Naturalized

. . . Across the various subfields of philosophy, disability is naturalized as a nonaccidental and disadvantageous biological human characteristic, attribute, difference, or property that ought to be corrected or eliminated, as the ongoing production of discussions about selective abortion, genetic technologies, and euthanasia in bioethics; arguments in ethics and political philosophy about ways to compensate disabled people for their natural disadvantages; and claims about autism and theory of mind in cognitive science vividly demonstrate (Tremain 1996, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2018; Hall 2016; Yergeau and Huebner 2017). Hence the most vital philosophy of disability generated at present engages in a form of conceptual engineering, that is, aims to articulate an alternative conception of disability, a conception of disability that denaturalizes it, construing it as a historically contingent apparatus of power, one strategy of which is the exclusion of disabled people from the profession of philosophy and other positions of epistemic authority. As Foucault explained it, “the coupling of a set of practices and a regime of truth form an apparatus [of knowledge-power that] marks out in reality that which does not exist and legitimately submits it to the division between true and false” (2008, 19). An apparatus is an ensemble of discourses, institutions, scientific statements, laws, administrative measures, and philosophical propositions that responds to an urgent need in a given historical moment (Foucault, 1980, 194). Normalization is the urgent requirement to which the apparatus of disability responds, including how this apparatus operates in philosophy. Consider, for instance, the way in which feminist philosophers have implicitly and explicitly endorsed and elaborated notions of normality and abnormality in the context of their argumentative claims about Michel Foucault’s supposed masculinist biases and sexism in his treatment of the 19th-century legal case and confinement of Charles Jouy (Tremain 2013, 2017).

The subordinated status of disabled philosophers has not been widely acknowledged as a contingent effect of productive  power relations, but rather has been taken for granted as an outcome of allegedly natural human differences and subjective preferences, or in any case, attributed to factors external to the operations of power that circulate within and around the discipline and profession of philosophy. Other inequalities in philosophy are likewise naturalized and materialized. For example, gender disparities in the profession are often justified with appeals to explanations about allegedly natural differences between the brains of two binary sex-genders, where, coincidentally, these alleged differences render the topics and questions traditionally studied in philosophy more suitable to so-called male modes of thinking and thus more aptly appreciated by (cisgender) men. Against the tendency of philosophers to naturalize the inequalities of the profession in such a fashion, I aim to identify the ways in which the underrepresentation of disabled philosophers and the marginalization of philosophy of disability are integral to the current structure and practice of philosophy, drawing upon Foucault’s insight that power is immanent to and constitutive of objects, relations, and differences rather than external to these phenomena, somehow acting upon them.

The resistance that I have encountered within philosophy to my research on the social constitution of disability and its naturalized foundation, impairment;  to my conceptual engineering with respect to the apparatus of disability; to my critique of (feminist) bioethics; and to my activism in the service of disabled philosophers—that is, the resistance and indeed outright hostility from within philosophy to my research and writing on the constitution of the apparatus of disability and how it operates in philosophy, as well as to the activism that has often motivated the research and, at times, followed from it—has actually enabled me to identify and understand ways in which the phenomena of these seemingly distinct spheres are inextricably entwined, mutually constitutive and mutually reinforcing (Tremain 2017; on the “costs” of such interventions, see also Dotson 2011, 2019).

Due to the predominance in philosophy of an individualized and medicalized understanding of disability, philosophers generally do not regard disability as pertinent to social theory and political philosophy, but rather believe that disability is appropriately and adequately addressed in the domains of medicine, science, and bioethics. I want to point out, nevertheless, that the naturalizing and individualizing assumptions upon which this belief relies condition both the conceptual-analytical work in which philosophers engage and the judgements that they make about faculty searches and hiring practices, journal submissions, course content, curricula, graduate school applications, conference line-ups, the shape of edited collections, tenure and promotion, and so on and so forth. In other words, the prevalence in philosophy of the assumption that the recognizably social disadvantages that disabled people confront are the inevitable consequences of allegedly natural disadvantages has feedback effects for the careers of disabled philosophers; for the composition of the profession; and for the very content of the discipline, as well as colludes with other forms of inequality in philosophy, including prestige bias and purportedly neutral determinations of merit. Thus, my philosophical research has been designed, in part, to show that the conception of disability that predominates in philosophy—a conception according to which disabled people are naturally flawed and thus defective—is causally related to the underrepresentation of disabled philosophers in the profession. My argument is that insofar as disabled people are constituted in philosophical discourses as naturally flawed and defective, it is no surprise that disabled philosophers are not regarded as viable colleagues.

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