Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Johnathan Flowers

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the sixty-fifth installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and post to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY on the third Wednesday of each month. The series is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional exclusion and personal and structural gaslighting in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism, racism, sexism, and other apparatuses of power; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.

The land on which I sit to conduct these interviews is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg, covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldiman Treaty territory. I offer these interviews with respect and the aim of decolonization.

My guest today is Johnathan Flowers. Johnathan is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Worcester State University, specializing in the American pragmatism of John Dewey, East-Asian philosophy, and Africana philosophy as they intersect with and are applied to disability, race, gender, sexuality, technology, and popular culture. Johnathan’s current work aims to develop an affective theory of identity and experience through pragmatism and East-Asian philosophy. He enjoys motorcycling and martial arts, having an affinity for science fiction and fantasy.

Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Johnathan! Your initial university education was in journalism and English, with an emphasis on literature produced outside of Western cultural and political contexts. Please describe your transition to philosophy and how your earlier academic focus has contributed to the shape of your current specializations in philosophy.

My undergraduate degree in English concluded with a capstone project which was a twenty-page study into the difficulty of using western literary concepts to describe or translate Japanese aesthetic terminology. Specifically, the piece focused on the inappropriate description of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi and mono no aware as lacrimae rerum, or the “tears of things,” which implied that the central moving force of the affect is sorrow.

In contrast, my reading pointed out that the moving context of the work is located more in impermanence and the ways that awareness of impermanence help to heighten our appreciation for things. So, while the initial affect might align with the western concept, to reduce it to the “tears of things” is to miss the fullness of wabi sabi.

Since I intended to use the capstone as part of my application to Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s  graduate program in English, I asked my colleague Kevin Taylor to have a look at the project. After reviewing the work, Kevin noted that it seemed more like a piece of philosophy than a piece suited to English; so, he suggested I meet with Doug Berger, the Philosophy Department’s newly arrived specialist in Asian philosophy, to discuss applying to the Department of Philosophy instead. Up to this point, I hadn’t considered philosophy an option, nor had I considered the philosophical content of the work that I had done up to that point. This is particularly ironic as the piece would come to form the ground for my M.A. thesis and would later be expanded into my dissertation work, both in philosophy.

At our first meeting, after discussing my work and how I intended to expand on it through Asian philosophy, Doug said to me “you belong here.” Now, I point this out because without those three words, and the support that came along with them, I would not be in philosophy nor be doing the kinds of philosophy that I’m doing today. And, if we’re going to be honest, this conversation marked the first time in my academic career that someone told me that I belonged in academia, in philosophy, and took steps to ensure that I did belong here. Essentially, I would say that my transition to philosophy was largely due to the ways that senior members of my department and my cohort were willing to take a chance on me, to see what I would become.

But to your second question, “How has my previous training shaped my academic focus and specializations?,” I’d say that it provided me with a different point of departure than my colleagues. Much of my training in western literary theory was done through study of Wordsworth and Coleridge, specifically a close reading of the third edition of their co-authored work Lyrical Ballads wherein Wordsworth presents the poetry in the collection as the use of “ordinary language,” or the language that common people use to communicate their thoughts and feelings, describing poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” This description parallels the understanding that Motoori Norinaga, Ki no Tsurayuki, and the compilers of the Chinese Book of Songs developed. So, you could say that my orientation through literary theory shaped my engagement with philosophy as an articulation of experience, specifically felt experience.

Beyond that, my non-philosophy training has shifted the ways that I view philosophical texts, that is, which texts “count” as philosophy. In earning my English degree, I had the opportunity to take courses that expanded my understanding of what “counts” as literature, an understanding of the plurality of literature that I’ve integrated into my understanding of what “counts” as philosophy. Hence, I view popular culture as a vastly overlooked source of philosophical inquiry, in that it tells us something important about the world.

How would you articulate why you do philosophy?

I do philosophy for several reasons, most of which can be summed up in Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” And Marx is right here, much of what we’ve done with philosophy has been to interpret the world through various and problematic lenses: the point of philosophy should be, as Dewey argues, to provide us with the tools to make meaningful change in the world such that we can all flourish. That said, these tools must not be drawn solely from the “western canon” nor should they be solely focused on one mode of experiencing the world: a truly robust philosophy should help us make sense of the world as experienced in multiple ways.

My aim to use philosophy to change the world for the better includes changing the image of who can and does participate in philosophy. To this end, I do philosophy to demonstrate to minoritized students and scholars that one can do philosophy not firmly grounded in the western canon, that even if you do not see yourself represented in this canon, there is still a place for you in philosophy.

I think this aim stems, in part, from my early experiences in philosophy, going back to Kevin and Doug and other members of my department who chose to take a chance on someone with no formal philosophical training but with some radical notions on what philosophy could be. One of my ultimate aims is to get to a position where I have the authority and institutional power to take chances on all of my students. After all, as Toni Morrison said: “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”

You have told me that you do not see yourself, a disabled Black man, represented in the work done to date in philosophy of race nor in the work done thus far in Africana philosophy. Johnathan, please explain to our readers and listeners why you feel unrepresented in these bodies of work.

This is true. Saying it will probably get me “cancelled.”

I think this is partly because Africana philosophy and, to some extent, philosophy of race doesn’t necessarily see me as Black and disabled: my blackness and my disability are often treated as loosely entangled or entangled in a way that treats race as primary. For me, this is kind of jarring: I cannot separate my disability from the ways that I am in the world as a Black man with a disability, nor can I solely conceive of my existence as a Black man in philosophy solely through the mode of race, even race as primary. My race and my disability mutually inform all aspects of my ongoing experience in the world, including the ways that the structures of ableism and racism operate on me.

So, when I say that I don’t see myself in Africana philosophy or philosophy of race, I mean to say that, despite intersectional analysis, I do not generally see that work in these areas recognizes the both/and nature of being Black and disabled. This claim is somewhat more tenuous to make about philosophy of race, as there’s some good work that intersects with philosophy of disability; furthermore, many philosophers of disability draw upon analysis developed in Africana philosophy and philosophy of race. Yet the ways that we organize Africana philosophy as the collection of intellectual traditions of the African diaspora does not seem to treat scholars with disability and the ways that disability affects their scholarship as an important part of the broad tradition.

Philosophy tends to “weed out” potential philosophers with disabilities through the rampant culture of ableism within the discipline and within the North American educational system in general. That is, given the systemic barriers to being Black in academia—we need only read the stories under the hashtag #blackintheivory or look at the statistics for the numbers of tenured Black philosophers—and the systemic barriers to being disabled in academia and philosophy in particular, it stands to reason that there are some very talented Black philosophers with disabilities who are simply not given an opportunity to contribute to the field due to the ways that the field is organized against them.

Now, I want to be clear here that I do not mean to suggest that there are no Black philosophers with disabilities, nor to suggest that there are no philosophers of race who do work on disability, nor that there is no scholarship at the intersection of race and disability. To do so, would be to ignore the totality of Black disability studies and DisCrit, fields whose organization is intended to engage broadly with the entangled nature of race and disability. But that’s the thing: in my experience with Africana philosophy and philosophy of race, disability is epiphenomenal, or something that one studies in the space of DisCrit and Black disability studies, fields whose work is not generally included in our canonical understandings of Africana philosophy and philosophy of race.

Although there are canonical figures with disabilities within both philosophy of race and Africana philosophy, we typically don’t engage with the ways that their disabilities inform their scholarship, which is a tragedy. In my view, their disabilities should matter when we consider their scholarship and their contributions to the field. As an example, when we study a figure like Audre Lorde, we shouldn’t just study her critical work; rather, we should also study the work that she did in The Cancer Journals and A Burst of Light as works in Africana philosophy that also include disability, that provide us a way to integrate understandings of disability into our analysis. After all, how else can we understand the following statement in The Cancer Journals except as the integration of Lorde’s work on race, gender, and sexuality with her experience of cancer?

Prosthesis offers the empty comfort of “Nobody will know the difference.” But it is that very difference which I wish to affirm, because I have lived it, and survived it, and wish to share that strength with other women. If we are to translate the silence surrounding breast cancer into language and action against this scourge, then the first step is that women with mastectomies must become visible to each other.

It’s on this point that I want to say that Africana philosophy could learn much from the way that other fields engage with intersectional issues, especially could learn from DisCrit and Black disability studies.

[Description of image below: Johnathan, who is seated at a table, speaks to someone from behind a microphone. His hands are in motion to aid the explanation that he offers and his facial expression seems both challenging and questioning. A piece of paper attached to the front of the table has Johnathan’s name on it in large letters. There is a bottle of water on the table]

Johnathan, you wish to emphasize (and I agree with you) that philosophy’s problems with respect to inaccessibility are not limited to conferences without ASL or podcasts without captioning, but rather go to the heart of philosophy itself and the structures that define and circumscribe it. Please provide our readers and listeners with a sketch of what you regard philosophy’s central problems of inaccessibility and ableism to be.

I view philosophy’s central problem with inaccessibility and ableism to be grounded in the fact that philosophy, as currently practiced, is not “designed” for people with disabilities. That is, how we are trained to do philosophy within the academy is not organized to accommodate multiple ways of experiencing the world, multiple ways that bodyminds engage with the materials of philosophy, nor does philosophy have the resources to cultivate individuals whose embodiment resists the disciplinary conventions of training in philosophy. As a result, these individuals are often pushed out or forced out of philosophy, not because they cannot do philosophy, but rather because philosophy actively prevents them from doing philosophy in ways that proceed from their unique ways of engaging with the world. And, to be clear, overcoming these enforced limits has been one of my chief struggles as a philosopher with ADHD, which is the perspective from which I write.

For example, philosophical training at the graduate level is often structured in a self-study/seminar discussion format. Students are charged with studying, on their own, dense texts and then coming to the seminar prepared to discuss these texts in-depth, to generate novel questions for discussion. This model is predicated on the notion of the solitary, isolated thinker whose very seclusion enables his (and it is always a he) genius contributions to the field. The isolated genius, therefore, dedicates himself to ongoing and dedicated study of a singular text until he has gained mastery over the text through struggle and thus can generate novel interpretations. Baked into this assumption of how we learn philosophy is an assumption about how we learn: it assumes that we all process materials in the same way, at the same rate, at the same time. It also assumes we read the materials at the same rate, in the same way, at the same time.

Hilary Agro has an excellent blog post on this point, where she indicates her struggle with academic texts and the comparative ease that she engages with podcasts and Wikipedia articles and other non-standard articulations of work. The same is true of philosophy. As Agro points out, we people with ADHD often lack the time to engage thoroughly with the work while marshalling our focus to absorb the work that our colleagues seem to take in. This disparity has little to do with the individual ability of the philosopher; yet, everything to do with the ways that the structure of philosophy, the kinds of materials that philosophers are expected to master, are not designed for people with ADHD. Now, the off-hand response to this sort of criticism is that “everyone struggles with thinker x,” which is cold comfort when the entire field is “thinker x” and we’re supposed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of “thinker x” to be taken seriously within the field. How can one be expected to have an encyclopedic understanding of “thinker x,” if we can barely make it through thinker x without feeling fully exhausted?

This struggle extends to the broader networking, conferencing, and dialogic structure privileged by philosophy. I think that we can all acknowledge that philosophy is what we might call an “adversarial” discipline: we are trained to attack and defend; we’re trained that true philosophical rigor is demonstrated when we have thoroughly cut down an opponent’s argument with our own. This kind of engagement requires a very specific set of cognitive and processing capacities, both on the recall side and on the organization side, capacities which function differently in people with ADHD.

As someone with ADHD, this “style” was incredibly difficult for me to master, specifically because my recall functioned differently. My diagnosis indicates a difficulty with my working memory that, absent accommodation, makes this form of dialogue difficult. If we take philosophy to be a mode of intellectual combat, in many circumstances, I would be engaging interlocutors unarmed, as I could not deploy my working memory to recall specific thinkers or specific texts in the moment. To conference with ADHD is to live in constant fear that, at a critical moment, your recall will fail you and the lie that is your success in philosophy will be revealed for what it is.

To this end, navigating conferences is a constant struggle of determining how many talks or panels I can attend, how many people I can engage with, and still have enough “spoons” left over for broader post-conference social engagements which, themselves, are often just extensions of the academic engagements of the conference itself. So, I often have to decline invitations which, given the nature of philosophical networking, could lead to broader opportunities within philosophy, opportunities which themselves are limited by other structures of institutional oppression within philosophy.

Now, there are arguments according to which the above can be addressed by providing students (and, sometimes, faculty) with accommodations for their disabilities; to do so, however, requires engaging with the culture of philosophy where disability and mental illness are concerned, that is, a culture of philosophy that treats mental illness and disability as signs of a lack of ability to do philosophy itself. As a philosopher with ADHD, no amount of accommodations will allow a structure that is inimical to my way of being in the world to enable my success. No amount of accommodations will enable me to avoid the mental and physical exhaustion that comes from wrangling my thoughts into the order approved by philosophy and subsequently translating them into the structures approved by philosophy, such that my insights are read as philosophical.

To the extent that the mental tax of philosophizing with ADHD goes unacknowledged in the ways that our institutions and our field chooses to accommodate us, philosophers with ADHD and other executive functioning differences find no relief from the more disabling aspects of our embodiment, which has specific effects on our persistence in philosophy. We come to view our own inability to conform to the structures of philosophy as confirmation of what everyone has said about us; we come to view our inability to keep pace with our colleagues, to understand the basic points that everyone else seems to grasp, as proof that we’re not suited for philosophy after all, which is something that no amount of “accommodations” can address.

All of the above circumstances concern structural issues with philosophy. However, there’s one more thing that I’d like to address: doing philosophy with ADHD. By way of example, Dani Donovan has an image that describes a flowchart of the process of telling a story with ADHD as compared to telling a story without ADHD: in telling a story without ADHD, the image depicts a straight line from the start of the story to the end of the story. In telling a story with ADHD, the flow chart proceeds through numerous boxes, including “too many details” and “semi-related side-story,” before wrapping up with “end of story” and “apologize.” I mention this because the structure of philosophical writing, philosophical thinking, is analogous to telling a story without ADHD, whereas the structure of telling a story with ADHD is analogous to doing philosophy with ADHD.

Philosophy, insofar as it privileges rationality and rational thought, demands that our processes of thought conform to a kind of linear structure, a structure which ADHD resists. Recall the mental and physical exhaustion mentioned above: while we typically think of ADHD as difficulty focusing, which is a large part of it, ADHD is also often experienced as difficulty organizing our thoughts into linear trains, a difficulty embodied in the writing that we produce. To this end, significant mental and physical effort is required to organize our thoughts into the linear structure privileged by philosophical texts and additional effort is required for us to organize our thoughts when we writephilosophy, effort which can be exhausting. Put another way, inasmuch as reading philosophy is made difficult by its structure, that is, by the focus required, writing philosophy is made more difficult by its structure, and thinking philosophically is made more difficult by its structure.

This point is worth emphasizing as recent studies have indicated that people with ADHD may enjoy specific advantages in “divergent, unconstrained creative cognition” and innovative thinking, both of which rely upon the unique ways in which people with ADHD process the information and materials with which they are presented. To be clear, these studies indicate that people with ADHD are less likely to be constrained by existing knowledge schemas in their innovative processes which, for philosophy, is problematic, insofar as the structures of philosophical training and writing attempt to discipline our minds into thinking through problems in one privileged mode, into tracing a straight line from “the canon” or existing examples, to the innovation they have developed. To be clear, the structure of philosophy limits the creative capacity of philosophers with ADHD insofar as philosophy relies upon compressing ourselves and our thoughts into “boxes,” boxes against which we chafe.

In early June, a heated discussion took place on Twitter in response to remarks that Kwame Anthony Appiah made in their “The Ethicist” column of The New York Times. That Twitter discussion was motivated in large part by an extended series of tweets that you wrote in which you drew connections between Appiah’s remarks in the column and the ableism embedded in philosophy and bioethics. How would you summarize your tweets, the ensuing discussion on Twitter, and the way that a number of scholars, including some disabled philosophers, resisted your intervention?

To be fair to Appiah, he did clarify his remarks in an addendum to the piece. Nevertheless, this addendum was made only after outcry from people with disabilities about the way that the piece framed us. It should not have taken sustained criticism of the sort that I and other people with disabilities leveled at Appiah to get him to recognize the problems with the way that he structured relationships with us (and all that they entail) as burdensome.

Essentially, my tweets connected Appiah’s conversation in “The Ethicist” to the ways that philosophy has enabled a culture where philosophers can treat the lived experiences of minoritized persons as fodder for thought experiments. To be specific, Appiah’s article was connected with a long history of ethics and bioethics treating the lives of people with disabilities as a kind of moral playground, with the ultimate implication that one would be better off dead than disabled. In so doing, philosophy actively contributes to the dehumanization and marginalization of people with disabilities and provides cover for the ableist decision making in our relationships with other persons, institutions, and society at large.

Now, Appiah didn’t argue for the termination of a pregnancy that would result in a child with a disability. He argued that a potential partner had no responsibility to accept the “burden” of becoming a caregiver for a person with a disability. This framing, which reconstructs the disabled person as a kind of anchor dragged behind their partner in life, is a situation that many people with disabilities face in their own, real life, relationships. So, Appiah’s advice doubles down on the idea that people with disabilities are burdens and provides cover for anyone unwilling to take up that burden.

There is a continuity here with Peter Singer’s argument that a prospective parent might be better off aborting a potential child with a disability due to the quality of that child’s life. Singer has come under fire for this claim repeatedly; but it is important to recognize that Singer’s ethical position on disability is continuous with the position articulated by Appiah, that is, the position that people with disabilities are “burdens” in relationships. This continuity has real life consequences for the ways that we engage with disability. For example, when we frame accessibility in higher education and society as a matter of “compliance,” the requests of people with disabilities become “burdens” that need to be grudgingly “accommodated.”

Appiah’s column and Singer’s work before it, as well as many other entries in the field of bioethics, do not take seriously the continuity between what they say and the authors publish, on the one side, and the world in which they are saying and publishing these claims, on the other. For an ethicist, that is, a philosopher who specializes in ethics, to articulate caregiving as a “burden,” enables non-specialists to take up this position as valid. In so doing, non-specialists or any individuals who seek support for their ableism can weaponize what is “merely” a thought experiment or a “reasonable” response against the disability community.

Thought experiments about terminating a potential child with a disability before birth are still taught in our introduction to ethics classes. In recognition of the problematic nature of these thought experiments, some scholars have shifted the subject or identity category: I have seen variations on Singer’s initial argument that were homophobic, transphobic, or racist, as well as ableist in other ways; but they all hinge on the argument that the potential child would suffer due to their identity and not due to the ways that society is organized. Insofar as this sort of thought experiment is treated as an “intuition pump” or a means of getting students to grasp a concept rather than as something that affects actual lives, this pedagogical practice normalizes the disconnect between philosophy and lived experience.

I want to highlight the responses to that part of my Twitter thread: dozens of people commented and retweeted that tweet, acknowledging that this practice continues in philosophy classes and articulating the very real pain caused by this ongoing practice. Responses in the thread came from people who quit philosophy due to this infliction of harm and other experiences of ableism, people who were compelled to leave the class during such discussion, and people who experienced lasting traumatic effects because their lived experiences had been treated as fodder for discussion, discussion during which they recognized that many of their classmates (and professors) would rather see them dead. All of these reactions arise from a common practice in intro philosophy courses.

The defense of Appiah by other scholars, including some disabled scholars, was kind of interesting insofar as it seemed to center around the concept of burden as entangled with the “labor” that one does in a caregiving relationship and the idea that we need to recognize that some of the things that we consider good in our lives and in the world, we might also consider burdensome; thus, we should not take Appiah to task for his response.

Perhaps in an ideal world where the construction of people with disabilities as burdens was not an organizing principle of our society, where we are not things for medicine and science to fix, are not unsightly bodies to be avoided, we might get some work out of the arguments that these scholars seemed to make. But we don’t live in such a society; and work like Appiah’s and Singer’s, and the kinds of conversations ongoing in our intro classes and our field more generally almost ensure that we never will have such a world. The very context in which such an argument is deployed, in my view, actively prevents the argument from taking hold in a meaningful way because it reinforces the structures of oppression that construct people with disabilities as personally burdensome.

Many of these responses recognized the concept of “labor” in relationships and positioned the labor of a relationship with a person with a disability as not unique, but rather as a variation of a kind of “baggage” that one brings to any relationship. This, I think, flattens out the ways that disabilities, of all stripes, affect the organization of relationships inasmuch as they affect all other aspects of a life. To say that a disability is but one more type of “baggage” fails to recognize that some kinds of “baggage”—and I resent this framing wholeheartedly—affect the totality of the ways that we move through the world and how we are in the world and in relationships as persons with disabilities. So, disability is not just one more kind of “baggage” that a person brings to the relationship: disability is a way that a person is in the world and is in the relationship through their body; thus, disability affects all aspects of the relationship.

Some of the defenses of Appiah’s claims suggested that people should not be obligated to date people with disabilities, that they should not be forced into a relationship with a person with a disability, if they don’t want to be. My problem with this framing is that it seems to elide the ways that ableism as an organizing force in society structures who we view as desirable, who we view as the suitable direction for our affection, and in what ways are they suitable. Which, again, gets me back to the notion of “burdens:” if we organize society in such a way as to allow for the recognition of people with disabilities as burdens, then our desires will be oriented towards persons that are less “burdensome” as partners in relationships.

This defense is also problematic because it assumes that the counterargument is an obligation to date people with disabilities: that’s not it. The counterargument is that we need to recognize that our reluctance to be in relationships with people with disabilities is grounded in the ways that we have been taught to view people with disabilities as “inferior” or “burdens” rather than as persons who are desirable and who are worthy of love. We reinforce this perception through the ways that society congratulates the able-bodied person for being romantically (or otherwise) involved with the person with a disability: “You’re so brave for your relationship;” or, “I couldn’t imagine doing what you’re doing; it must be so difficult,” and so on.

Some of the critics of my response to Appiah pointed out that relationships of all kinds require “work” or “labor” in order to maintain; however, it becomes difficult to talk about the “work” of a relationship when one of the participants is themselves organized as a burden. If your being in the world is organized as laborious, then any relationship society has with you is one of imposing labor upon a partner, an institution, a world, which serves to orient how partners, institutions, worlds form relationships with us. When your very being is organized as an imposition, as a burden, the question becomes: who wants to subject themselves voluntarily to that imposition or burden? Which, again, gets us back to the flattening out of “work,” “labor,” and “baggage” discussed above.

To be honest, I haven’t quite worked out an antidote to this problem. There’s an expectation placed on people who do scholarship on disability and social relations: we’re expected to provide answers to these thought experiments and the tensions that ensue from them, answers that are easy and digestible. Yet, answering them isn’t valuable because we’re not even in a place where the problematics of them can be interrogated in a thoroughgoing way. Even if we were in such a place, there is no easy solution to the ways that our desires and who we find desirable are organized around assumptions of ableism, nor to the ways that these assumptions structure our orientations towards other people. What is needed is a wholesale shift in the way that society is oriented towards people with disabilities, which is to say that society itself needs to rethink all its practices where people with disabilities are concerned.

Johnathan, would you like to say anything else about something that we’ve discussed in this interview or recommend some books, or articles, videos, or music that pertain (or not) to something that you mentioned over the course of the interview?

If you’re a philosopher and you’re reading or listening to this, I strongly recommend that you read of listen to something outside of your primary area, outside of the “canon” and indeed outside of philosophy itself. Read or listen to something in one of our adjacent disciplines that is close to your primary topic, or read something within our discipline from a non-western tradition that is close to your primary topic, and do so in a way that attempts to understand what is being said in the text on its own ground, rather than importing it into your own framework.

If you’re a philosopher and you’re resistant to the idea that non-western philosophy has something valuable to say, Bryan Van Norden’s Taking Back Philosophy, which I’ve used as an intro text in my philosophy classes, is an excellent corrective to this.

Many people also ask me for places to start with Asian Philosophy. In Japanese philosophy, I recommend Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook edited by James Heisig, Thomas Kasulis, and John Maraldo, as well as its companion volume Engaging Japanese Philosophy: A Short History by Thomas Kasulis. Both of these texts provide excellent introductions to Japanese philosophy and the unique methodologies of its thinkers in ways that are accessible to both specialists and non-specialists alike, which is valuable insofar as much of the resistance to reading and teaching non-western philosophy is grounded in its “difference.”

Where Chinese philosophy is concerned, Bryan Van Norden’s Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy, when paired with Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, the volume he co-edited with Phillip J. Ivanhoe, makes for an excellent engagement with classical texts in Chinese Philosophy that can help as an entry point into a wider study of Chinese philosophy broadly understood.

Since I haven’t actually talked about philosophy of technology, I strongly recommend Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology because it offers a needed intervention in our discourse about technology that is often missing in philosophy. This is another one of my axes to grind with philosophy of race and philosophy of technology: much of the really pathbreaking work on philosophy and technology is not done in philosophy. Benjamin’s book is a standout example of both, offering a deep insight into the ways that technology can and does replicate our existing hierarchies of oppression and serves to condition in modernity the very structures with which Africana philosophy and philosophy of race often engage. Another book in this vein is Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression which indicates how the continuity of the structures of racism and racist perceptions of Black people serve to structure the very algorithms that we rely upon in our day-to-day lives.

I also recommend Sami Schalk’s Bodyminds Reimagined, which is a novel engagement between Black feminist theory, disability studies, and literary criticism that takes speculative fiction as its site of inquiry. In doing so, Schalk’s text weaves one of the best engagements with the intersections of race, gender, disability, and sexuality that I’ve read. This book has been a constant source of inspiration for my own engagements at these intersections. One of the principle features of Schalk’s work, for me, is the way that she treats the popular texts with which she’s engages as if they have something valuable to say about our lived experience and how we engage with the world, a methodology that is often absent from philosophy to its detriment.  Again, this book is a pathbreaking work at the intersections of philosophy of disability, feminism, and philosophy of race that comes from outside of philosophy. Philosophers would do well to pay attention to it.

Another book that is deeply philosophical, but not written by a philosopher is André Brock, Jr.’s Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures, which was published in February. Brock does some incredible work on teasing out the unique features of Black digital life in ways that have reshaped some of the ways that I’ve engaged with my own work on identity in digital space. This book should be required reading for any philosopher interested in the ways that identities emerge in social domains. The book provides a needed corrective to tendencies at the intersections of philosophy of race and online embodiment to restrict Black life online to very narrow conceptions of what it means to be Black in a techno-social context.

Beyond philosophy and technology, I strongly recommend Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, On Being Included, and The Cultural Politics of Emotions. These books have been touchstones for me as I work on my own projects on the affective organization of experience, including identity. Ahmed’s work brings to the fore the ways that the circulation of affect serves to organize spaces and identities as felt realities, helping to characterize how affects can “stick” to persons, places, and things. On Being Included, in particular, should be mandatory reading for anyone who is looking to “diversify” their departments or institutions, as it makes plain exactly what happens during the execution of such initiatives. Still further, I strongly recommend her articles “A Phenomenology of Whiteness” and “Feminist Killjoys and Other Willful Subjects,” the latter of which is oft cited and receives incredible expansion in her recent book Willful Subjects.

Jonathan, thank you for this very engaging contribution to the Dialogues on Disability series. Your remarks and recommendations throughout this interview are enormously instructive. I look forward to meeting you at the “Philosophy, Disability, and Social Change” online conference in December!

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Johnathan Flowers’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted.


Please join me here again on Wednesday, September 16th at 8 a.m. E.S.T., for the sixty-sixth installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at s.tremain@yahoo.ca. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.

7 Responses

  1. Thank you, Shelley and Johnathan, for this post. It’s wonderful to read such candid remarks on what it’s like to have ADHD and do academic philosophy.

    I myself have always struggled with ADHD. My symptoms softened as I grew older. But even in grad school, I had trouble engaging in urgent tasks and, paradoxically, even more trouble *disengaging* from non-urgent ones. Such is life with weak executive functioning. I can definitely relate to some of Johnathan’s struggles, especially with the “self-study” format.

    That said, I’ve never felt like philosophy is “inimical” to the ADHD brain. If you have creative or original ideas, it is much easier to publish — fewer people to cite! — and philosophy is, for me at least, so intrinsically interesting that I rarely feel the need to “struggle” with any thinker x. (Unless x = Rawls, in which case the prose is so dull I’d rather count blades of grass.) I chose to do philosophy because it lets me be my nerdy ADHD self; every day, I spend hours thinking about my favorite topics and reading or teaching my favorite writers. It is unfathomably less tedious, given my interests, than basically anything else I could do with my life.

    Maybe Johnathan’s experience is not so much to do with being an ADHD philosopher, per se, but more about being an ADHD academic in a field where one finds the “canon” boring. That would require a brutal slog.

    Anyway, I don’t mean to be critical or dismissive. I just wanted to share my own experience lest students who struggle with ADHD, as I did, feel too discouraged about philosophy. It *might* not be a good fit. But if they find the questions almost universally fascinating, as I do, it can be a godsend.

    I’m not sure that ADHD folks in general struggle with “rational” or “linear” thinking. We do have trouble selecting what to focus on. But when I am in the zone, I quite enjoy cranking out lines of (hopefully!) rational argument. Perhaps, as before, the degree of struggle depends on how intrinsically interesting the topic is to the one doing the struggling.


    1. Johnathan Flowers


      I appreciate your response, however, I think we might want to reconsider some of the claims you’re making.

      I do not think that it is prima facie the case that “if you have creative or original ideas, it is much easier to publish,” as this ignores the ways in which the citational and institutional politics of philosophy structure what can and cannot be published as philosophy. To be clear, this is an issue that Kristie Dotson takes up in her pieces “How is this Paper Philosophy,” and “Concrete Flowers,” wherein she argues that the disciplinary norms of philosophy are what enable one’s contributions to the field to be seen as valuable and publishable. That is, work needs to align with what the field typically understands to be “philosophy” for the “creative or original ideas” that you point to as a product of ADHD to receive uptake within the discipline.

      To be clear, much of your counter-argument hinges on what your favorite topics are and what your interests are, and how those interests align with the politics of the field. This, I think, is different from finding the canon “boring,” though finding the canon “boring” might be something that ADHD philosophers struggle with when their interests lie beyond the canon or canonical approaches to their subject matter. Put another way, it may not be the case that the ADHD philosopher finds the canon “boring” per-se, but that their creativity, which you take to be a value to publication in philosophy, might be hemmed in by the disciplinary norms of philosophy, or what “counts” as philosophy. This, then, leads us to the examples I presented in my interview: the need to present our arguments in a linear way, rather than follow our digressions where they may lead.

      Allow me to clarify: “rationality” and “linearity” might be better understood as styles of writing, or styles of argument. Here, again, we return to the issue of the canon: what a thinker like Dewey, Zhuangzhi, Dogen, or Ahmed might take to be a linear or “rational” argument might not be what the field takes to be the case. Ahmed, in particular, advocates for a practice of “not-philosophy,” or citing philosophers out of place, out of line with the received position of the thinker within the canon. Ahmed’s metaphor of citing “slantwise” resonates with me for exactly the reasons you appeal to: the creative nature of the ADHD mind. To cite an example, it was unclear how Dewey could come together with Motoori Norinaga and Dogen in my dissertation (and later book) until I demonstrated to my committee the value of engaging “slantwise” to use Ahmed’s terminology. That said, if we take linearity to be a hallmark of philosophical thinking, Hallowell and Ratey provide some important counterarguments:

      “The tension of constructing an explanation, from A to B to C to D, apparently so simple a task, irritates many people with ADD. While they can hold the information in mind, they do not have the patience to sequentially put it out. That is too tedious. They would like to dump the information in a heap on the floor all at once and have it be comprehended instantly.”

      To this end, the ADHD mind, as indicated by Hallowell, Ratey, and others struggles with moving through procedural structures: in many senses, we would prefer to have our arguments comprehended instantly. Here, I might propose a deviation: there are ways of doing philosophy that may or may not align with the ADHD brain. For example, depending on the type of ADHD, the sequential nature of logical arguments, or the argumentation style preferred in Analytic Philosophy might fall into a priority structure that “irritates” people with ADHD, whereas other ways of doing philosophy, other styles of philosophy might better appeal to the ADHD philosopher. This would return us to the question of the disciplinary norms of philosophy, and what “counts” as “good” philosophy. If the creative nature of the ADHD brain does not align with the preferred styles that dominate professional philosophy, the ADHD person may struggle with finding success in the discpline.

      Elsewhere Ratey describes this phenomena as “race car brain,” and Brown (2017) provides the following: “Often, individuals with ADHD say that if they have many tasks to do, all those tasks seem equally important; they find it very difficult to assign priorities, to determine which task needs to be done first, second, third, and so on.” Elaborated to the practice of philosophy, where linearity is important, the inability to prioritize can render one’s arguments “our of order,” which is to say that even if we are “in the zone” the resulting work can appear disorganized until an external structure is imposed upon it. In contrast, Ahmed’s “slantwise” methodology, where citations are engaged our of their “proper” order, where arguments are formulated differently, might appeal better to an ADHD brain.

      However, not all ADHD persons are alike: predominantly inattentive ADHD persons will engage with the field of philosophy differently than predominantly hyperactive or combined inattentive and hyperactive ADHD persons, all of which will affect the ways that the person engages with philosophy. Keeping this in mind, we might say that the structure privileged by philosophy, specifically western philosophy, might be a structure that presents greater obstacles to some ADHD persons and not others and, still further, we might consider the ways that intersectional identities are also attenuated by ADHD. All of this is to say that the privileging of a certain kind of “rationality,” a certain kind of “linear thought” within philosophy can create what Ahmed calls “brick walls” in the pursuit of philosophy by ADHD persons.

      Thus, in response to your assertion about my finding the canon “boring,” I would say that my experience in philosophy might not be due to finding the canon “boring:” in full disclosure, I do find the canon restrictive, unwelcoming, and outright hostile to some kinds of philosophy, some ways of philosophizing. Rather, my experience in philosophy might be due to the ways in which the field does not necessarily allow for the extension of my self, to borrow from Garland-Thompson, in the mode of support. Part of this might be due to my interest in marginalized areas, or my marginalized identity, but I would hazard that my ADHD compounds these existing issues because the field does not provide the necessary support for my ADHD mind. Again, Hallowell is valuable here:

      “Another example is the change that comes from stepping onto the next
      rung of school—whether in grade school or college or graduate school. Take
      medical school, which we know all too well. Suddenly the student, who has
      done so well in school that he or she got into medical school in the first place,
      must cope with demands upon his or her brain like never before. The new
      pace of learning—like trying to sip water from a firehose, it’s often said—
      takes over everything, making it hard for the student to maintain his or her
      previously healthy and helpful practices, sleep, nutrition, and regular exercise
      among them.”

      Put another way, ADHD can be intensified by the environment that the ADHD person is in. Sudden changes in environments, as indicated by Hallowell, do not provide the necessary structures to support the extension of the ADHD person. Insofar as this is the case, how the environment of philosophy supports what kind of philosophies and philosophers may also be at issue here. We might be able to fold your assertion that some ADHD persons find the canon “boring” into a broader claim that the canon, and the field itself, may not provide the support structures to enable the extension and flourishing of all ADHD philosophers. Here, the problem is less with the philosopher who is “bored” by the canon, and more with a discipline that does not take as valid ways of doing philosophy beyond that which is privileged by dominant structures in the academy.

      Finally, I would take issue with your concern that I am “discouraging” people with ADHD from entering philosophy: this is not the case. I would argue that philosophy itself discourages diverse ways of answering the “universal questions” that you appeal to. Put another way, philosophy can be a godsend for ADHD persons, but they need to be aware of the ways in which the discipline itself resists ways of engaging with these “universal questions” that do not align with the disciplinary norms, or the privileged ways of answering these questions. Put another way, people with ADHD should be made aware that the very creativity that you present as a strength within the field can be weaponized against them, or can lead them to chafe against the structures of the field if they choose an interest, a subject, a way of doing philosophy that deviates from the norm.


  2. Steven

    More of a question, but, is there anything left to debate other than inexperience and the lack of abstract thinking, we are just looking for a place to fit in a society of diversity with not much room left, i am curious as to how the body and mind has developed a process unlike those of the past, some are just a narrow and no more forward than the past. If there is another life characteristic that beleave, such as outer being than this day and age would be the perfect time for the realization of such.


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